Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shores of Dreamland: Plans, Robots, and Regrets

“Hey, Champ. Chairs are for sitting, not sleeping.”

Jack rubbed at his eyes, stretching. The leather burped, and Jack blinked, looking around. His dad was sitting on the sofa, putting on his work boots.
“Is it time for school?” Jack asked.
“No school today. Unless you really want to go on a Saturday. You might be the only one there, though. Why are you sleeping down here when there’s a perfectly good bed of yours upstairs?”
Jack glanced around the living room again. No glass on the floor, no boards over the doors or windows.
“Dad, what do we do if there’s a fire?”
“A fire? It’s a little late in the season for that, don’t you think?”
Jack shook his head. “Not in there.” He pointed to the hearth, which usually only got used during extended power outages in the wintertime. “I mean, like if the house is burning.”
Jack’s father sat back. “Well, I guess we need a plan, don’t we?” He stood up. “I have to get to work, but how would you like to put my mind at ease?”
Jack cocked his head sideways. “Your mind isn’t easy?”
“No, now that you got me thinking about what we should do if the house catches on fire.”
“What can I do about it?”
“Make me a plan, Jack. And then we can share it with your mom and sisters so we’ll all be safe. Can you do that for me?”
Jack sat up, started struggling out of the comforter. “I’ll get to work on it right now!”

* * * * *
Jack’s mother came downstairs later that morning to find the dining room table half covered in drawings of the house from all different angles; there were plans of the first and second floors, as well as Jack’s attic room, all lined with arrows and symbols.  There was a lot or orange and red and yellow. Jack had also drawn a map of the property, which included the house next door and the woods. The woods, Jack’s mother noticed, were not green, but had been colored darker, in browns and blacks and grays, even though the leaves had come back a month ago.
The other half of the table was covered in milk and cereal. Jack stood in the kitchen doorway with what looked like half the roll of paper towels in his hands.
“Do I even want to know?”
“I’m making plans.”
“And what sorts of plans are you hatching?”
“I’m not making chicken plans! These are fire plans. Dad said I could come up with them.”
“You’re planning to burn down the house? I think I need to have another talk with your father….”
Jack stomped his foot. “No! I don’t want the house to burn down so I have to come up with a plan to keep everybody safe!”
Jack’s mother glanced over the drawings again. There had to be dozens of them. “I see. And was the table on fire? Is that why you’ve doused it in milk?”
Jack blushed. 

Jack’s mother helped him clean up his breakfast, and then they made pancakes. This brought Charlotte and Hannah downstairs, following their noses to the kitchen.
“Something smells good,” Charlotte said.
“I’m helping make pancakes!”
“Aren’t pancakes supposed to be round?” Hannah asked. There were two plates, the pancakes on one of them fluffy and round, the other’s oddly misshapen. One almost looked like an elephant, and another looked sort of like a bird.
“Dibs on the round ones,” Charlotte said.
“Jack, why don’t you go clear the table? Charlotte, you have to work for your breakfast. You can set the table.”
Hannah pouted. “She always sets the table! That means I have to do the dishes!” 
Charlotte followed Jack, her hands full of silverware.
“What’s all that?” she asked, pointing with a knife at the stack of pages Jack was gathering.
“It’s a secret,” Jack said, and he turned the stack over.
“Let me see.”
“No! You’ll get to see later.”
“So let me see now.”
“Charlotte,” Jack’s mother called from the kitchen, “don’t antagonize your brother. We’ll be talking about that tonight.”
“Yeah, don’t agonize me.” Jack stuck out his tongue.
Charlotte made a fake jab at his tongue with one of the knives.

* * * * *
“Jack, what did I tell you about fingers on the glass?”
Jack swept his hands away from the jeweler’s case, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat.
The jewelry lady (as Jack thought of her) gave a soft laugh. “It’s all right. Sometimes I forget, too. Here,” she said, and spread out another soft cloth closer to the edge of the case. “You can lean on this, but be careful, it can be slippery.”
Jack put his fingers back atop the case — over the cloth this time— and hoisted himself up to peer at the ring. From this angle, it looked big, and the bright lights of the shop looked like golden stars arrayed along the outside surface.
The jewelry lady peered at the ring, turning it this way and that with a couple pairs of tweezers. She wore a funny thing over one eye, and squinted with the other. Jack thought she looked like something from a science fiction movie. She even hummed, like a robot.
“Judging from the markings — or rather, the lack of markings-- we’re looking at something at least eighty-five-odd years old,” she said. “By its weight, I’d guess it’s solid, not plated. But we can always do the nitric acid test to be sure.”
Jack’s eyes widened at the mention of acid. An acid-spitting robot for a friend? How cool was that?
“Jack, to do this test, I need to scratch your ring a little bit. We can fix it later, but…”
“Are you going to dip it in acid?”
“Well, maybe not dip, but—“
“Okay! I want to see the acid!”
The jewelry lady smiled. She used another tool to scratch at the inside of the ring — well away from the engraving — and then put the ring in a plastic dish. She produced a small bottle with a dropper, and dribbled a clear liquid over the inside of the ring.
Nothing happened, but the lady and Jack’s mother both seemed to think that was a good thing. No smoke. No bubbling. No explosions. Jack sighed.
The robot jewelry lady chuckled, and then took out another ring from behind the counter. She repeated the test, and this time, the area around the scratch bubbled, like the hydrogen peroxide his mom always used when he got a cut or scrape.
“Why didn’t my ring do that?”
“That means your ring is gold all the way through, Jack,” his mother said, shaking her head.
“Gold doesn’t dissolve in nitric acid,” the jewelry robot lady said. “If the acid was a stronger concentration, it could completely dissolve the other metal in this band.”
Jack stood on tiptoes, trying to peer behind the counter. “Do you have any stronger stuff back there?”
“What about the engraving,” Jack’s mother asked, trying to hide her smile. “Can you tell when it was done?”
The jeweler shook her head. “I couldn’t give you any kind of date, but… my best guess? Judging from the wear around the edges, I’d be willing to bet it was done shortly after the ring was made.”
Jack’s mother thanked her friend, and Jack did too. Before they left, she handed him a certificate and a little velvet-covered box — black, not red or pink.
Jack spent most of the ride home opening and closing the box, when he wasn’t holding the ring up by its chain to study it.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” his mother said.
Jack didn’t think that was a word, but recognized it from Alice in Wonderland, and found it described his feelings about the ring, as well.

* * * * *
“I like the one with the swimming pool on the roof,” Charlotte said.
Jack beamed. It was his favorite, as well.
“I’m still trying to figure out why there are… spring-loaded saws… in the door and window frames,” Hannah said, turning another of the pictures this way and that.
“Those are to chop away the boards,” Jack explained. “And cheaper than just making the whole house out of metal.”
“Back up there, Jack,” his father said. “I think you skipped the part where you told us about why we need to worry about boards across the doors and windows.”
“Not all the windows,” Jack said. He pointed to the ones with gridding across them. “See, these have spring nets, so things can’t get thrown through. They just bounce back at the bad people who threw it.”
Jack’s mother and father traded looks.
He knew that tone of voice. That meant the kitchen.

“You aren’t in trouble,” his mother said, after he’d settled on the stool. “Some of these ideas were very good, and we will be using them.” She held up the map of the property. “This was a very good idea, making the mailboxes the meeting point.”
Jack’s father pulled out another drawing. “I think we have a project for when it gets a little warmer here, making these ladders.”
“And grabbling hooks,” Jack said.
“Yes, and the grappling hooks, too. The slide, I think, might be too expensive right now.”
Jack sighed. “What if I get the slide and Hannah and Charlotte get a ladder?”
“Ladders for all of you,” Jack’s mother said. “Your father and I get the slide.”
Jack stuck his tongue out.
“Now, suppose you tell us about these.” His mother flipped to the picture of the door-saws and window-nets.
Jack recounted the dream. Unlike his normal dreams, he still remembered every detail. He blinked, remembering how the heat had seared his eyes, and the memory had him tearing up.
“I’m not… scared,” he said, wiping at his eyes. “Its from the smoke.” Even with blurry vision, he saw his parents exchange another look.
“That sounded like a very scary dream,” his father said. “But I’m glad you talked to us about it. We have some very good plans now, in case something like this happens.”
“Maybe we need a tall fence, to keep the bad people away,” Jack said.
Another look.
“Jack, we won’t tell you there aren’t any bad people out there, but we’re pretty sure none of them live in town. Do you think bad people would come here to hurt us?”
Jack shook his head. “No, not us. Her.”
His parents exchanged another long look. Then they dismissed Jack, and shut the kitchen door behind him.

* * * * *
“You’re not wearing the ring.”
Jack sat on the beach, watching the stars wink on one by one overhead. He craned his head back further, and stared up at the girl’s chin.
She looked down and their eyes met. The motes shone like golden stars in emerald depths.
“It gave me bad dreams.”
The girl bit her lip, blinked. Tears caught in her lashes, gleaming silver in the starlight. “I’m sorry.”
“My house was burning down,” Jack said.
The girl swallowed, but didn’t say anything.
“I never dreamed of fire before,” he said. “I’ve never been that scared.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice catching.
“There was hammering, and they were boarding up—“
“I know,” she said.
“And then they—“
“I know what they do— did.” Her voice shook. “I shouldn’t have given it to you. Not yet. But I can’t take it back now.”
“It’s not nice to—“
“I have to go,” she said.
She didn’t turn, or walk away. She just… disappeared.

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