The chronicles of harris.., p.11
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       The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, p.11

           Chris Van Allsburg
 
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  His mother dropped him off at home. She was off to pick up Doug. "Oh," she said, "can you run down to Ferguson's farm stand and buy us a pumpkin for your pie?" She gave him ten dollars. "It doesn't need to be huge. I'm mostly using canned. Thanks, hon. Be good. Remember: not past Lunt."

  She drove off.

  He looked both ways, up and down the street.

  Then he went into the garage and got his bicycle.

  He was going over to Blair and Vain before he stopped at Ferguson's. He had to see what was there.

  He took his backpack. He soared down the road.

  The trees flashed past. The clouds were gathering overhead. It was cold. One more day and it would be Halloween.

  He came to Lunt Street and shot right past. He followed the wide, golden avenue. He tried to remember where he'd turned.

  He was in the neighborhood now where everything looked dead. It was all neat and clean, but there were no people. There were no cars on the road. Just a few in driveways. And the lawns looked so empty... Why? he wondered. Why?

  Then it hit him: They looked empty because no leaves had fallen on them. They were immaculate. The trees had turned—some were red, some were brown—but in the storms of mid-October, nothing had blown down. Not a leaf. The roads were clean. They were not cracked.

  Now that he'd noticed, he was afraid.

  The empty houses rolled on past, and there were no cars anymore, and each mailbox had exactly the same set of junk ads sticking out at exactly the same angle.

  He came to a cross street and looked to see where he was.

  He swiveled to look down the right hand turn—and there was the blast of light again. The flat line.

  He skidded to a stop and stared.

  This time, it did not evaporate. It held. There was a bright, blank plain in front of him and dazzling light. It was like everything had been destroyed. The only feature left was the line where the empty sky met empty ground. Alex looked behind him and saw houses and trees. He turned back to the glowing horizon. He walked toward it.

  And then there was a furious honking, and he realized he was in the middle of the street and was almost mowed down by a truck.

  It was the UPS truck. It screeched to a halt.

  Alex tried to understand everything that was happening. The UPS guy—the same one, somehow—was yelling at him out the window. The guy climbed down from the cab of the truck and kept yelling at Alex, saying, " You again? Would you stop standing in the middle of streets? You heard of the verge?" Behind the truck, the dazzle continued—and Alex ran to see the empty vista.

  "Hey!" said the UPS driver, grabbing Alex's hand. "What's going on with you?"

  "Don't you see it?" Alex insisted. "Look! There's nothing! Just a flat line!"

  The UPS driver turned. He walked around his truck.

  He stood with his hands on his hips. "Right here?" he said. "Just a flat line?"

  Alex went to the man's side.

  There was a normal street. It had a gas station on it, and a mini-mart, and place that sold concrete lawn ornaments. There was a vacant lot where someone had set up a vegetable stand. They were just writing down some prices on a chalkboard.

  Alex couldn't speak. He didn't know what to say. He knew he'd seen nothing here but light—like a vision of his town's destruction.

  "Is this real?" he asked.

  The UPS guy studied him, confused. "Yeah, it's real," the man said. He walked out a few feet and jumped up and down. His work boots clomped on the pavement. "Real," he concluded. "What are you talking about, kid?"

  Alex walked out into the road gingerly, as if he expected it to disappear. "Is it...?" He didn't even know what to say.

  "Hey! Hey, kid!" the UPS man called. "I said keep out of the road! What is it with you?"

  Alex crossed to the fruit and vegetable stand. Cars whizzed around him, honking.

  He stood there, staring at the apples. The fruit and vegetable stand was laid out under a green tarp.

  The UPS man pulled the truck into the lot. "I'm taking you to your house and talking to your parents," the guy said, climbing down. "You're going to get flattened one of these days."

  "Is this real?" Alex whispered again. The woman who ran the stand—a large woman with a slight mustache—looked at him suspiciously.

  "Come on," said the UPS guy. "Let's go. I'm talking to your parents."

  Alex turned and confronted the man. "Who are you?" he said. "Who are you, really?"

  The man squinted. "I'm the delivery guy," he answered.

  Alex picked up a pear and put it down again. He went for the apples.

  The woman said, "Not the apples. The apples aren't ready yet."

  She bustled over to his side.

  "Try the cherries," she said. "They're flavorful."

  Alex looked down and saw a stack of pumpkins. And it hit him: He'd buy one here. As proof. He knew it wasn't a dream. He knew he'd seen what he'd seen.

  He reached down and picked one up. He hefted it. It seemed light.

  The woman made a face.

  He handed her money.

  And then he looked past her at the gas station.

  The gas station was empty. Completely empty. Behind it there were a few feet of tall grasses, and then a featureless, white nothing marked only with a flat line. The glow was brilliant. It lit the windows of the empty gas station so Alex could see the whorls where they'd been scrubbed.

  Alex was astonished. Wildly, he looked the other direction.

  Past the convenience store, it was the same: nothing but light.

  He reeled in astonishment. He grabbed the pumpkin and ran for the truck.

  "Okay," he called to the UPS guy. "Take me home. Please. Take me back. Take me back."

  "All right. What's the problem?"

  "Take me home! My bike..."

  "We can put it in the back."

  "Take me! I'm on Maple Street. Down Wistlake. Past Lunt."

  "I know. Past Lunt."

  Alex ran to get into the passenger's seat. He clamped on his seat belt. Over the tops of the trees, he could see a great emptiness. He shut his eyes. He put his hands over them. He hunched down, doubled over, tried to block out that terrible, empty light.

  He felt the UPS guy get into the truck. He heard the guy start the engine up.

  They pulled out.

  He felt them driving.

  And suddenly, Alex was afraid. He did not think the UPS man was really a UPS man.

  "Where are you taking me?" Alex asked.

  "To your house," the UPS guy said, irritated. "You really have got to stop eating so much sugar cereal, kid."

  In ten minutes, they were there. The UPS guy got out and rang the doorbell. No one was home. He said he was going to drop Alex's parents a note and tell them what had happened. Alex didn't care. He wanted to get away, to be alone. He took his bike out of the back of the brown van and he unlocked the front door with his key and he said goodbye and a sloppy thank you and he went inside.

  He slammed the door shut.

  The house was quiet and still.

  He had the pumpkin in his arms.

  He carried it into the kitchen and put it on the counter.

  Then he fled upstairs. He sat on his bed and stared at the carpet.

  All evening, he avoided the pumpkin. It sat downstairs on the counter.

  His mother called up to him, "Hey, honey! Thanks for getting the pumpkin. You're the best. Did you talk to Mrs. Ferguson?"

  Alex didn't know what to answer. "Yeah," he said, and then realized that was a mistake.

  "What did she have to say?"

  Alex just answered, "Nothing."

  He could feel the pumpkin accusing him of lying. He didn't want to go in the kitchen when his mom and dad made dinner. When his dad called him, he went reluctantly down the steps. Doug sat in the living room, yelling stuff at the TV Alex walked silently by the pumpkin and kept on going. The pumpkin sat as if glaring at him.

  The family ate dinner togeth
er with the pumpkin on the counter beside them.

  Alex felt terrible for going where he wasn't supposed to and for lying to his mom. He didn't know what to do, because now that he'd lied, he couldn't tell them the story about the brilliant light at Blair and Vain, or his vision of emptiness and destruction behind the gas station.

  He had to keep silent.

  After dinner, his mother asked him to clear the table and wash the dishes while she made his birthday pie.

  He didn't want to see her stab the pumpkin. It was like the pumpkin was his sidekick in crime.

  He wanted to throw the pumpkin out. He didn't want a birthday pie. He wasn't sure he deserved one.

  He picked up all the plates and took them to the sink. His mother got out flour and butter and canned pumpkin to mix with the real.

  Alex pulled out all the utensils from the stack of plates and ran them under water. His mother was chatting with him about his costume, but he couldn't even listen.

  She picked up a knife and headed toward the pumpkin.

  Alex watched miserably as she went to cut the top off.

  Then a strange, awful thing happened: As she touched the pumpkin, holding it steady with one hand, it began to glow softly.

  She lifted her hand away, looking at the pumpkin with concern. The glow lit her apron orange. She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter.

  She looked, mystified, at the pumpkin.

  She said to Alex, "You didn't get this at Ferguson's, did you?"

  Alex didn't answer.

  "Look at this," said his mother. She touched it and the radiance grew brighter. She knocked the pumpkin with the palm of her hand. It rocked and spun on its side.

  "It weighs almost nothing," she said.

  She put down the knife and called for Alex's father. "Ken! Ken, come down and see this!"

  Alex's father tromped down the steps while Doug ran in from the living room, saying, "What's up? Is Alex in trouble?"

  Both Alex's father and his brother stopped, gobsmacked, and stared at the glowing pumpkin.

  While they stared at it, Alex's mother reached out and grabbed at the plump side of the gourd.

  Her hand smashed through it. It was nothing but a skin, an image, as thin as foil, and inside it there was nothing but emptiness and light. The light flashed and was gone.

  Then the pumpkin skin lay like a burst balloon on the counter, fading to black.

  Alex's mother put down the knife and put her hands on her head. She turned to Alex's dad. "What are we going to do?" she asked.

  Doug let out a long breath, as if something was really, really wrong.

  Alex and his family stood in the kitchen. Alex had no idea what had happened. He had no idea what to do. He knew he was going to have to tell the truth now, but he didn't know how anyone would react. They had all seen it—he was sure of that. They had seen the same light, the same emptiness, that he had seen. He looked from one face to another.

  They just looked shocked.

  "I didn't..." he said, but didn't get any further.

  "You went past Lunt Street, didn't you?" his father accused, raising his voice. "You didn't listen to us, and you went past Lunt!"

  "Ken," Alex's mom said, soothingly. "Ken, he's confused."

  "We were trying to protect you," said his father. "Nothing is done over there. Nothing's finished. We don't need that side of town. And you went over there, and they didn't have time to throw anything together! What have you done? Huh? What have you done, Alex? Now everything's ruined!"

  Alex backed away from his father. He didn't know what his dad was talking about. He was scared. He felt like he had felt on the edge of all that blank, brilliant space, none of it known.

  He turned to his mother. He said, "Mom? What's ... what's going on?"

  She laid her hand on his father's arm and stepped forward. "Honey," she said, "there's not really any way to apologize for this, but things aren't really like they seem. We haven't been entirely, um, honest with you."

  "Oh, man," said Doug. "Here it comes."

  "Alex, I want you to listen to me. You probably saw something today. I don't know what. Let's just keep it between the four of us that you know. No one else needs to hear about this. They'd be mad."

  Alex whispered, "Who? Who are you talking about, Mom?"

  "That's not important," she said gently. "What's important is that you're okay."

  Alex said, "Who'd be mad?"

  His mother sighed. "You've got to understand, Alex. They're working very hard all the time to make all this stuff for you. Everywhere you go, everything you see, they have to build. I mean, they're real quick about it, but it's a lot of effort. And they'd be really, really angry if they knew you saw through it. It would be like ... like finding your birthday presents early, when they're hidden in the closet. Not a good idea."

  Alex was agape. "What ... what are you ... saying?" he asked his mother.

  And she explained softly, "You're the only person there is. I mean, the only real human being. All of this is set up just to ... well ... How would you put it, Ken?"

  "I wouldn't put it at all," his dad said in irritation. "We shouldn't be talking about this."

  "Everything," said Alex's mom. "This town, the next town over, New York City, Montreal—it's set up only for you. There's nothing, otherwise. There's nothing on the other side of the world. No Australia. No France. There's no globe. Nothing but light and a flat plain. Just desert."

  Alex reeled. He thought of the emptiness he had seen behind the mini-mart.

  Doug asked, "If he knows anyway that there's no France, do I have to keep taking French?"

  "Yes, Doug," said Alex's father.

  "Alex, honey," said his mother. "How do you feel? How are you feeling?"

  Doug kept complaining. "There are like ten thousand ways just to say the word 'it'in French. It's the dumbest language!"

  "Doug!" said their father in a warning growl.

  "In reality," Doug explained to Alex, "the French people you've met all talk with a kind of Texas accent when you're not around. Then when they see you coming, they just go, 'Flaw flaw flaw fwaah fwaah.' "

  "Douglas," said their father, "I am only asking you once more."

  Alex didn't know where to run. He didn't know who to talk to. He couldn't talk to any of his friends. He didn't even know who they really were. He couldn't talk to any of his friends' parents. He couldn't go to the police. And if he ran too far—to his grandparents, say—he didn't even know if the world would exist. It might just be a flat line and burning light.

  His mom said, "Wherever you went today, you must have forced them to come up with a landscape really quick. They couldn't think things through. They didn't have time to give anything an inside. The pumpkin wasn't really a pumpkin yet." She picked up the dead skin with a finger and put it down again. "The more we concentrated on it, the flimsier it got. Until, poof!" She leaned down and pulled Alex to her. "Hey, honey. Honey. I know this is surprising."

  He finally asked the question he was most afraid of. "What ... what are you?" he asked his mother, the person, he thought, who loved him most on earth.

  His mother and father looked at each other. He saw that there were tears in his father's eyes. His mother answered gently, "What we are doesn't matter. It wouldn't make sense to you. All that you need to know is that we love you. We really do. We love you so much. As much as you've always thought."

  "Even more," said his father. "Alex, we've built the world for you."

  Doug muttered, "Even some countries that don't need to exist."

  "We are not deleting France, Doug," Mrs. Lee said. "That's final." She pulled Alex close. She put her arms around him. He could smell her shampoo. It smelled like it always did, but he didn't even know what she was. He didn't even know what species. He didn't know what her hair was. He didn't know what she knew. He didn't know when she was watching him, or why, or for what. She said, "I know this is confusing, but one thing shouldn't be confusing at all: We rea
lly do love you. That's why you're here."

  "We may have to..." Alex's father coughed and continued. "We may have to wipe out a day or so of your memory. We'll see how stuff goes. But don't worry. They'll just arrange for you to have a concussion. You know. You'll fall off something."

  "It happened before," said Doug. "When you thought you were having a hernia operation. Really, you found out what was going on and you saw one of us like we really are, so we had to make you forget stuff."

  "Let's not talk about that," said Alex's mother, and she kept stroking her son's brow, whispering, "We love you, Alex. We love you. We love you more than you can imagine."

  So he lay in bed that night, the night before his tenth birthday, staring at the ceiling. He heard his parents downstairs, playing at being parents in case he should hear. In the next room, his brother studied a language that was not spoken anyway in a country that didn't exist.

  The next day, Alex would have a party. His friends would all be there. They'd be dressed up in their costumes. Behind their masks would be their faces. But he didn't know what eyes would be hidden behind their faces. He would have to play along. They would be watching.

  There was nowhere he could run. They had made every place for him.

  He lay in bed, and the minutes clicked toward the moment he would finally turn ten.

  You are done with this story now. You can shut the book and make the nightmare go away. That will feel good and secure. You know it is not a real story, of course—because you know that you are not part of a plot to make a whole world for Alex P. Lee of Maple Street, the one human being who exists. You know you have your own thoughts. You know you are real.

  So after all, if there were only one actual person in the world, one person for whom the whole illusion is carried on by unknown beings, it would have to be you. And it might be, that if someone wanted to break that news to you gently—someone who thought you should know—they might, of course, slip a story into a book, a kind of message to say, "Watch out." They might contact you this way because no one else will let them speak to you. They might hope you'll read one of the books that are made to ensure that bookshelves and library windows look full to you. A book, for example, of stories by a man who may never have existed, an illustrator who may never have set pencil to paper.

 
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