Escape Pod 305: Midnight Blue
By Will McIntosh
He’d never seen a burgundy before. Kim held it in her lap, tapped it with her finger. She was probably tapping it to bring attention to it, and Jeff didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of asking to see it, but he really wanted to see it. Burgundy (Kim had insisted on calling it burgundy red when she showed it at show and tell) was a rare one. Not as rare as a hot pink Flyer or a viridian Better Looking, but still rare.
A bus roared up, spitting black smoke. It was the seven bus–the Linden Court bus, not his. Kids rushed to line up in front of the big yellow doors as the bus hissed to a stop. A second-grader squealed, shoved a bigger kid with her Partridge Family lunch box because he’d stepped on her foot. All the younger kids seemed to have Partridge Family lunch boxes this year.
“What did you say it did when you’ve got all three pieces of the charm together?” Jeff asked Kim. He said it casually, like he was just making conversation until his bus came.
“It relaxes time,” Kim said. “When you’re bored you can make time pass quickly, and when you’re having fun you can make time stretch out.”
Jeff nodded, tried to look just interested enough to be polite, but no more. What must that be like, to make the hour at church fly by? Or make the school day (except for lunch and recess) pass in an eyeblink? Jeff wondered how fast or slow you could move things along. Could you make it seem like you were eating an ice cream sandwich for six hours? That would be sparkling fine.
“Want to see it?” Kim asked.
“Okay,” Jeff said, holding out his hands too eagerly before he remembered himself. Kim handed it to him, looking pleased with herself, the dimples on her round face getting a little deeper.
It was smooth as marble, perfectly round, big as a grapefruit and heavy as a bowling ball. It made Jeff’s heart hammer to hold it. The rich red, which hinted at purple while still being certainly red, was so beautiful it seemed impossible, so vivid it made his blue shirt seem like a Polaroid photo left in the sun too long.
“Imagine finding this in the wild? Pushing over a dead tree and seeing it sitting there under the root?” Jeff said.
“Yeah, right,” Kim said. “Not likely.” She shook her long brown hair back over her shoulder. She did that all day long in class. She thought she was so gorgeous.
A few of the other kids circled around to take a look. Jeff spun it around until he found the hole where it would be fitted to one side of the staff, when someone got the whole charm together.
“Will your father try to get the other two pieces, do you think?” Ricky Adamo asked, reaching to pet it once, probably just so he could say he’d touched one.
“He’s only keeping this as an investment,” Kim said, holding out her hands to take it back from Jeff, who passed it over, his fingers suddenly feeling much too light. “My father’s going to buy me a whole chartreuse to absorb when I’m 18. I’m going to be a doctor.”
“He is not,” Jeff said. “Most of the chartreuse ones that’ve been found have already been absorbed. The ones that haven’t, your father would have to give your whole house and everything in it just to get one sphere.”
“What would you know about it?” Kim said, glaring. “You don’t even know what it feels like to absorb one! You’ve probably never even owned a sphere, let alone absorbed a whole charm.”
Cindy Schneider and Donna Ruiz laughed. Ricky laughed too, even though he’d never owned one either.
“I have too owned a sphere,” Jeff said. “I’ve owned dozens.”
“Right,” Cindy said. “You must keep them under your bed at the Garden Apartments.” Everybody laughed, except Ricky, who lived at the Garden Apartments too and couldn’t pretend he didn’t.
Kim took a pack of Double Bubble out of her bag. She shoved a piece into her mouth dramatically, and chewed. “Mmmm! It’s so delicious!” she said. She showed Jeff her teeth and chewed some more. “I’d offer you some, but it would just be wasting it. You couldn’t appreciate it the way I do, because you haven’t absorbed a sky blue charm.”
“Watch this!” Cindy said. She ran onto the lawn in front of the school and spread her arms. Birds landed on them–wrens, bluebirds, blackbirds, finches. “Now just the yellow ones,” she said. All but the yellow finches flew off. Four or five more finches landed. One landed on top of her head. “The pretty yellow birds love me.” She spun in a circle, her long blonde hair spraying outward. The birds held on, twilling brightly.
“Big whoop,” Jeff said, turning back toward the parking lot. Of all the charms that kids at school had, he most wished he had a maroon animal charm. He loved animals, way more than Cindy did. Just the other night he’d had a dream about it. He dreamt he found all three pieces of an animal charm, in the walls of the old car wash on Samsondale Road. He assembled it, grabbed hold of it, felt the charm go into him, and then he’d gone into the woods and called out, and a bobcat had come to him. The bobcat became his pet and went with him wherever he went. He took it to school, and it slept on the floor next to his desk, and all the other kids watched as he leaned over and rubbed its ears.
When he woke up and realized it was just a dream, an awful wave of disappointment had washed over him. Jeff laid in bed for two hours wishing it hadn’t been a dream, until the sun came up and he had to get up for school.
The Dellwood bus came. Kim climbed on holding her sphere, with Cindy and Donna right behind, all of them laughing and jabbering. Jeff sat on the bench next to Ricky.
“I hate those snobs,” Ricky said
“Yeah, me too,” Jeff said. Their bus pulled into the parking lot. “They think they’re so great.”
On the way home the bus driver drove right past their stop. Jeff and a half dozen other kids shouted for her to stop. Brakes squealed; the bus stopped in front of the Shop Rite supermarket, a few hundred yards passed the Garden Apartments.
“Sorry,” said the bus driver.
“Do we have to walk from here?” David Zimet whined.
“Let the poor bastards walk,” Mike Sass yelled from the back of the bus. Jeff could see a couple of the Garden Apartment kids turn and stare at Mike. If Mike was smaller, someone would go back there and beat the hell out of him, but he was big and fat. He threw the shot put on the track team.
Jeff’s mom came home at five, clutching a brown bag of groceries in one arm. Jeff clicked off the TV; Fred Flinstone shrank to a dot and disappeared. While mom put the groceries away (looked like they were having cheeseburgers for dinner) he told her about the burgundy sphere Kim had brought to school.
“Your grandmother absorbed a burgundy sphere. She used to say that was one of her favorite powers.”
“What does it feel like, when you absorb one?” Jeff asked.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” mom said. “There’s definitely something there that wasn’t before–you feel that right away.”
“Can you feel something alive going into you? Is it scary?”
“I guess it should be, because you know something living is going into you when you absorb the charm, and it’s going to stay there for the rest of your life. And you can sort of feel them.”
“I always picture butterflies flying around inside you, and they’re the same color as the charm.”
“It’s more subtle, though. When I close my eyes,” she closed them, scrunched her eyelids in concentration, “I can sense that there are little blips there, watching. But they’re so quiet, and so harmless. They’re just hitching a ride because they don’t have their own bodies. They just want to live.”
“Symbiotes,” Jeff said, feeling a little proud that he knew the complex word. Mrs. Peters had taught it to them in science.
“That’s right Jeff, very good.”
He went and sat at the old piano while mom looked at the mail. He plunked a few keys. He liked the black keys–they sounded like the music from The Mummy and Dracula.
“How old were you when you got the Musical charm?” he called to mom.
“Fifteen,” she said. “I found one of the spheres, wedged between two big branches of a tree, in the woods behind grandma and grandpa’s cottage in Rhinebeck. Grandpa had to chop it free with an ax. I was hopping up and down, calling up to him to be careful.” She sat down next to Jeff; he scooted over to give her room. She played Moon River softly. “I went to a swap meet the next day and traded just about every piece I had for the staff and other sphere to complete the charm. I knew tea green was the musical charm, and the moment I saw that sphere up there in that tree, I knew I’d do anything to finish it. That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”
“What others did you find when you were a kid?”
Mom frowned, thinking. “An orange Pretty Handwriting. A purple More Outgoing. I found two blue-grey See in the Dark spheres, so I traded for the staff–that’s the only reason it’s one of the powers I have.” She shrugged. “Nothing that rare. The Musical was my best find.”
“I wish you could still find spheres and staffs in the wild now.” Freddy King had found a rust brown Good With Machines staff last summer, under the floor at his grandfather’s hardware store. That had been something.
“I know. Remember the story I told you that your grandfather told me, about the day they first appeared? Can you imagine, waking up one morning and they’re everywhere? Hidden in drain pipes and under porch steps, like Easter eggs.”
“That would be great,” Jeff said. “It’s not fair that people used so many of them up. How many did grandpa absorb?”
“Oh, boy. I don’t know, maybe a dozen? He had Better Looking, Sense of Smell, Taste, Singing, Sensing Patterns. He didn’t have any of the rare ones, but he had a lot. Everyone did back then.” Mom finished the song with a flourish down the keys. “I wish I could afford to buy you a charm. Your twelfth birthday is in a couple of months–I wish I could get you one, but I just can’t. They’re so expensive.”
Jeff just nodded. He wished it too, but it wasn’t mom’s fault.
“What time do you want to eat?” she asked.
“Six thirty?” He said, standing. “I’m gonna go outside for a while, see if David’s home.”
“See you around six thirty,” mom said.
Jeff ran over to David’s, wishing he could absorb a mustard Fast Runner. David opened the door munching a hot dog. Jeff had no idea how he stayed so skinny. Skinnybones Jones was always eating.
“Want to go skin-fishing?” Jeff said.
David shrugged. “Okay.” He pushed the end of the hot dog into his mouth, wiped a streak of mustard from his mouth, held up a finger and ran to get his old sneakers. He put them on outside, on the stoop.
“My mother called the school and complained about the bus driver leaving us off in front of Shop Rite,” David said.
“What did they say?”
“They said they’d make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Jeff bet they would, too. David’s mom had a screechy voice that made it sound like she was yelling even when she was just asking if you wanted milk with your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When she was really mad, she could rip your eardrums.
They stood on the edge of the brook that ran alongside the Garden Apartments. On the other side of the brook cars whizzed by on Route 304. Jeff counted seven carp swimming languidly among the rocks. There were probably more in the tunnel, where the brook ran under Stephens Road before it continued along beside the Shop Rite parking lot. That’s where the big ones usually were–in the tunnel.
Jeff pulled off his shoes and socks and waded into the cold water, stepping carefully, watching for broken glass. He loved to feel the power of the water pushing against his calves. The carp whizzed away, toward the tunnel. David waded in after him in his old sneakers. He didn’t like the slippery feel of the algae that grew on the rocks.
They moved slowly, like David’s cat moved on the lawn when it was after a bird, careful to avoid letting their shadows pass over the carp. Jeff got behind a pretty big one, eased his hands into the water so they didn’t cause even a ripple, then stayed frozen like that, bent over, letting his hands drift toward the carp. When his hands were on either side of it, he closed in slowly, slowly…then grabbed it.
The carp thrashed, surging forward, but Jeff held tight, pulling it out of the water and holding it up triumphantly. He felt the muscles in its sides flex powerfully as it struggled.
“Let me see!” David said, wading over. He held the tail straight, looked it over. “I’d say a six.”
“Okay,” Jeff said. He thought it was more like a seven. He spread his legs, tossed the carp underhanded, up and away. It hit the water with a splash and swam away, flashing silver in the sunlight.
“Let’s try the tunnel,” Jeff said, leading the way. “Maybe the ten is in there.” He’d almost caught the ten a couple weeks ago; he’d had it by the tail, but it yanked free.
Jeff ducked his head, went under the bridge, feeling the little thrill of fear he always got as he shifted from sunlight into the tunnel’s semi-darkness. It was cooler in there, and damp. The concrete overhead rumbled each time a car passed. His eyes adjusted to the shadows, and now he could see three carp drifting among a cluster of rocks near the tunnel wall. Jeff crept over, with David right beside him. The ten wasn’t there, but there was a big one–a definite eight even by David’s standards. As they closed in on the eight, it waggled its tail, drifted closer to the wall, then closer. It disappeared behind a big rock pressed close to the wall.
“Damn!” David said. “That was a big one.”
Jeff tried to flush it out, but the crack between the wall and the rock was too small. “Come on, let’s see if we can move it.” He reached along the side of the rock, found a good handhold. David grasped it on the other side. They counted three, and pulled. The tunnel echoed with their grunts. Even in the semi-darkness, Jeff could see David’s face grow beet-red. Jeff planted one foot on the side of the tunnel, and pulled harder. The huge rock shifted, kicking up mud into the water.
“Pull!” Jeff groaned. David grunted louder, a long, guttural howl, his eyes squeezed shut.
All at once the rock tumbled over with a splash. Jeff and David whooped, exchanged a high five. They bent, hands on knees, straining to spot the eight. The water was cloudy, but the mud settled quickly with the help of the current, exposing a black fissure at the base of the wall.
“The eight must have gone in there,” David said.
“I bet that’s where the ten hides, too!” Jeff said. He bent on one knee; the water soaked the end of his shorts, but he didn’t care. He tried to peer into the crack. It was too dark.
“We could bring a flashlight,” David suggested.
Jeff looked at David. “Or one of us could stick a hand in there and feel around.” David broke into a grin, shaking his head no.
Jeff burst out laughing. “I know. It would be creepy to stick your hand in that hole, not knowing what’s inside.” Jeff said. He took another look in the hole, looked back at David.
“What?” David said.
“You dare me?” Jeff said.
David let loose with one of his wicked laughs, the laugh he laughed when they were thinking of doing something that might get them in trouble. “No way. You wouldn’t.”
“You dare me?” Jeff said again.
David looked at the hole. “Yeah, I dare you.”
Jeff rubbed his hands together. “Okay. I’m gonna do it.” He got himself positioned close to the opening, reached forward, stopped with his fingers just inside the dark opening. He laughed. “That’s creepy! Man.”
He took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m really gonna do it.” He stuck his hand into the hole. “It’s deep,” he said, reaching his arm in further and further, to the elbow, then to the bicep, his heart pounding. He felt a jagged stone, and mud, reached in until his shoulder was pressed against the concrete wall. He felt around, bracing himself, not wanting to be startled if his hand hit one of the carp. His fingers brushed something smooth. He went back, waggled his fingers until they hit the smooth thing again. It wasn’t a rock.
“What is this?” Jeff said. He pushed his shoulder deeper into the opening, pedaling his fingers, looking for purchase.
“Be careful, you’ll get your arm stuck!” David said, hovering over him.
“There’s something…Oh!” He knew what it was. Or he thought he knew. He hoped. “Please, oh please, oh please,” he said as he dug the smooth ball out of the mud.
“What? What is it?” David said.
He felt it break free, made sure he had it firmly in his hand, afraid it would drift away, afraid it would be gone like the bobcat in his dream. He paused a moment, wondering if this was a dream, felt the cool water soaking his thighs, his ribs, the seat of his pants, confirming it wasn’t. He pulled the sphere out of the hole.
“Oh my god!” David said.
Jeff held it close to his face. It was…navy blue? It was hard to tell in the tunnel. Navy blue was Athletic. Or was it Good Whistler? Good Whistler. Not rare, but still, it was a sphere. He’d found a sphere in the wild. Jeff sloshed out of the tunnel, into daylight. He rinsed the sphere in the stream, spinning it around, rubbing the caked mud off the bottom half.
“What color is it?” David said, leaning in. “Navy blue? That’s Good Whistler, isn’t it? I can’t believe you found one. I can’t believe it.”
Jeff looked close. “Is it navy blue? It’s almost. But isn’t it a little darker than navy? And a little purpler?” He’d seen many navy blues on display at the charm store.
“Let me see,” David said. Jeff handed it to him. David held it up to the light, turned his head from side to side. “It’s got to be navy. What other color would it be? It’s not plum. It’s got to be navy.” David handed it back to him, let out a squeal of ragged excitement.
They charged up the bank and ran home, with Jeff holding the sphere high, shouting “look what I found!” to everyone they passed. He charged up the staircase to his apartment, shouting for his mom at the top of his lungs.
She burst through the door, looking alarmed, then relaxed when she saw he was okay. “I thought you were hurt!” she said.
“Look! Look what I found!” He held out the sphere. Mom’s eyes got big.
“Oh my god!” She took it, held it cradled in both hands. “Where did you find it?”
“In the brook tunnel,” David said.
Mrs. Massey, the old lady from the apartment across the hall, came out, brushing aside a fallen pizza parlor flyer with her foot. “Oh, dear,” she said. “What have you got there?”
“Is it navy blue?” mom asked, her eyebrows knotting.
“I don’t know,” Jeff said. “I don’t think it is.”
“But what is it then?” mom said.
“I don’t know,” Jeff said.
“It’s got to be navy blue,” David said.
Mrs. Massey squinted at it. “I don’t think that’s navy.”
“Hold on,” Mom said. She disappeared into the house, came out carrying her keys. “The charm store is open until seven. They’ll know.”
“Can I come with you?” David asked.
“Go tell your mother where you’re going first,” Mom said. David took off down the stairs, his bony knees bobbing.
He was standing by their car, breathing hard, by the time Jeff and his mom got down the stairs and out the door. David was fast.
The bell jingled on the charm store door as Jeff pushed it open. He approached the counter with David at his elbow. His mom hung back by the door. The charm guy was at the far end, unpacking staffs from a long box, a cigarette in his mouth.
“Excuse me,” Jeff said.
The charm guy pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and exhaled smoke. “What can I do for you, sport?”
“Could you tell me what color this sphere is?” He held it up.
The charm guy opened his mouth to answer, closed it. He squinted at the sphere, looking puzzled. “Let me see it.”
The guy looked at it closely, scratched at it with a fingernail, then put it down.
“You found this in the wild?” he asked.
“Yup. Under water, in a tunnel,” Jeff said.
The guy squatted behind the counter, brought out a big spiral-bound notebook and opened it on the counter. The laminated pages had rows and rows of colors. With practiced ease he rolled Jeff’s sphere across the rows on a page of blues, testing it against the different shades and hues. He stopped on one that matched perfectly, and read the text below it.
“Is it a good one?” David asked.
The guy nodded. “Yeah, it’s a good one.” He looked up at Jeff. “Tell you what. Give you four hundred for it.”
His mom and David both screamed with excitement. Jeff couldn’t speak. His heart was hammering, the words echoing over and over in his head. Give you four hundred for it.
Mom grabbed his shoulders and shook them. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”
“What does it do?” Jeff asked the charm guy.
He retrieved his cigarette, took a puff. His hand was shaking. “I don’t know,” he said. Smoke drifted out of his nose.
Jeff looked at his mom. He didn’t know? That’s how he made his living.
“What do you mean? What does it say in the book?” Jeff asked.
“It doesn’t say. Look, I’ll give you five hundred,” he said. “That’s a very fair price.”
“Can we look at the book?” his mom asked.
The guy swept the book off the counter. “This is dealer only information. I can’t share it with anyone. But I can tell you it’s rare, and I’m offering you a fair price for it.”
Jeff took the sphere off the counter. “I’m not ready to sell it yet. I just wanted to know what color it was.” He turned toward the door.
“Hold on,” the charm guy said. “Look, I’m not supposed to share dealer information with you, but I’m going to do you a favor.” He raised his finger. “I hope you’ll remember that when you decide to sell it.”
“What you have here is a midnight blue. I don’t know what it does because nobody knows what it does, because until now there was only one known sphere in existence, to go along with one staff. You found the rarest sphere on Earth.”
Jeff looked at his mom. Her mouth was open wide, her face frozen. David looked like he just stuck his finger in a light socket.
They all started to jump up and down and scream at the same time.
They thanked the charm guy and ran to the car. Jeff couldn’t wait to tell every single person he knew.
Jeff raised his hand as soon as Mrs. Pardo settled the class down. He begged her to let him do a Show and Tell, even though they weren’t supposed to have Show and Tell today. After a few heartfelt ‘pleases,’ she relented. Jeff sprung from his desk and went to the front of the class. He leaned against the blackboard, hands behind his back and began to tell them about the sphere he found.
“Where is it?” Kim asked from her seat in the front row.
“My mom brought it to the bank this morning and put it in a safe deposit box. She said it was too valuable for me to bring to school.”
“Yeah, right,” Cindy said. “You’re such a liar.”
“I am not!” Jeff said. “I found a Midnight Blue, the rarest sphere on Earth! It’s mine, and it’s in the bank.”
“Jeff, are you sure?” Mrs. Pardo said. “I’m sure you’re not lying,” she shot Cindy a look, “but maybe you’re mistaken about the color?”
There was a knock on the classroom door. Mr. Mannino, the principle, stepped into the classroom in his white shoes. He always wore white shoes. “Mrs. Pardo, can I see Jeff Green for a minute, please?”
Jeff headed for the door.
“I understand you found something pretty exciting yesterday,” Mr. Mannino said.
“That’s right,” Jeff said. “A midnight blue.” He glanced at Cindy and Kim. He wanted to drink in this moment. Both of them were staring at their desks, trying not to look jealous.
“That’s marvelous.” Mr. Mannino said.” Jeff followed Mr. Mannino down the hall, not sure what to say. He’d never talked to the principal before; he was surprised Mannino knew what he looked like.
“Your mom is here to get you,” Mr. Mannino said. “Some people want to talk to you.” Mannino looked at Jeff, smiled. “Do you realize what you’ve got?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.” They passed a water fountain. Jeff was dying to get a drink, but felt funny about making the principal wait.
He spotted his mom through the glass wall of the office. She waved, met him at the door. She gave him a big hug.
“The phone’s been ringing off the hook since eight-thirty,” she said. “A man from the New York Times wants to interview you, and a girl from The Journal News. And a collector called. He wants to buy the sphere, he said he’ll make you a very good offer.” She squeezed Jeff’s hand. “This is so exciting. Oh–” she pulled a piece of yellow paper out of her purse, “and you got a telegram.”
“A telegram,” Mr. Mannino said. “Wow!”
Jeff looked at the slip of paper.
Very interested in making offer on your sphere. DO NOT SELL before talking to me! Carl Branson. 011-221-343-9988. Call me collect.
There was a TV news van waiting outside their apartment. Jeff answered questions into a microphone with a camera pointed at him, then went upstairs to do interviews with the newspaper reporters. He had pictured the New York Times guy wearing a suit with a fedora, but the guy had long red hair and a beard. The girl from the local Journal News was in her twenties and pretty, with short brown hair and big round eyes. Jeff felt a little tongue-tied during that interview. The phone rang the whole time. Mom took messages. After the girl from the Journal News left, Jeff told his mom he wanted to go to his room for a while before he started calling people back. His head was spinning; he needed time to think.
He settled into the stuffed chair by the window–his favorite spot. He put the sphere in his lap, set aside the book he’d checked out of the school library before coming home. His baseball cards–all of his best Mets–were propped along the paint-chipped window sill, next to a stack of Marvel comics and an old-fashioned photo of his grandfather singing in a bar, his arms spread and his face pointed toward the ceiling. Everyone got to have powers of some sort back then. Now only rich people did.
He opened the book, Charm Champs, and leafed through, reading the picture captions. Only twenty-seven complete hot pink Flyers had ever been found, and all but two had now been absorbed. Eighteen of the people who had absorbed them were dead. There was a picture of one of the guys who was still alive–a billionaire who owned an oil company, who also had Skin That’s Hard to Puncture, Dulled Pain, Enhanced Sight, Taste, and Smell, and See in the Dark. The guy had quit his oil business and flew around rescuing people all day, like a superhero.
Jeff picked up his sphere, ran his thumb along the smooth curve. What did it do, he wondered? Usually the rarer the charm, the cooler the power, so what power would you get from the rarest charm of all? Would you live forever, or at least a very long time? Or cure sick people just by touching them?
Why did rich people always get to absorb them? The Cindys and Kims and their parents, who spent their lives rubbing it in that they had powers and you didn’t. It wasn’t fair. Maybe he should leave his sphere in the safe deposit box, and once he was out of school he would work hard and save as much as he could, until he had enough money to buy the other two parts of the charm. Why shouldn’t he get to have a power?
If he sold the sphere, he’d have enough money to buy a few powers. But not the midnight blue power. Not the best power in the world.
Even if he never got the other two parts of the Midnight Blue charm, if he kept it, there would always be something special in his life. He would be the guy who owned the Midnight Blue. Maybe he could be on the Johnny Carson show, and tell the story of how he found it while Johnny held.
He put the book on his bed and went back into the living room.
“Mom? What if I decided not to sell it? What if I held on to it for a while?”
She was making egg salad for dinner. She stopped, put down the fork. “It’s up to you, Jeff. You found it, and no one can tell you what to do with it.”
He thought about that. “But if you wanted me to sell it, I would.”
“I want you to do whatever makes you happy. If you decide to keep it, you can always sell it later.” She spooned a dollop of mayonnaise into the egg salad. “But I think you should at least hear what these people are offering, so you know what your options are.”
“True.” Jeff glanced at the kitchen clock. School would be out in twenty minutes. “I’ll call them back tonight after dinner.”
He went outside and sat on the stoop until the bus pulled up.
“Hey, there’s Jeff!” Ricky shouted. “Hey, Jeff!” Everyone headed toward him.
They asked him how much he was going to get for the sphere, and if he was going to be on TV, and where he found it, and if he would give them some money. Jeff felt like a movie star.
“Show us where you found it. Do you think there might be more in there?” Craig Alemi said. Craig was in fifth grade.
“I felt around pretty good in there–I don’t think there are any more. But I’ll show you the spot.” Jeff stood, brushed off the seat of his pants.
“Look!” David said, pointing in the air.
A man flew by, skimming the treetops.
Jeff had never seen a person flying before, except on TV. What was weird about it was that he made no sound at all; he just drifted by, passing over the parking lot until he disappeared over the rooftops.
“Wow. Cool,” David said.
“He must be looking for you, Jeff,” Ricky said.
“Me?” Jeff said. “Why?” Then it fell into place. If the guy could fly, he was rich. He was here to buy the sphere. Of course. Jeff’s heart began to thud.
A moment later, the guy appeared again, slowed, landed in the grass right beside them. Jeff recognized him–the billionaire in Charm Champs who had absorbed all those great charms. He was tall, with blonde hair (neatly parted despite the flying), an overly square jaw and big white teeth. It wasn’t listed in the book, but Jeff would bet that he’d absorbed a viridian Better Looking.
“Would one of you boys be Jeff Green?” he said.
Three or four kids pointed at Jeff. They stared at the flying man like he was Mickey Mantle.
“Hello, Jeff. I’m Carl Branson. I sent you a telegram this morning?” He was wearing a shiny tan jumpsuit with a ‘V’ shaped collar. It wasn’t a superhero costume, but it wasn’t what men around Jeff’s town wore, either.
“Oh, yeah.” Jeff pulled the crumpled telegram out of his pocket and held it up. It would never have occurred to him in a million years that it was from the guy in the book. He was uneasy about this. He didn’t want to be intimidated into selling the sphere, and this man seemed like the kind who could be pushy.
“Do you have any other powers?” Ricky asked.
“I sure do,” Branson said. He looked around, picked up a bottle lying near the stoop, shattered it against the apartment building’s brick wall and retrieved a jagged shard of glass. “Careful now,” he said, handing it to Ricky.
Branson held out his arm, palm up. “Go ahead and try to cut me with it.”
Ricky didn’t hesitate–he dragged the nasty-looking piece of broken glass across Branson’s forearm.
It left a little pink mark, nothing more. The kids oooh’d and aaah’d.
“Can I have a ride?” David asked.
Branson cocked his head and considered. “Maybe I have time for one. Then I’ve got business to discuss with my friend Jeff here.” He lifted David under the arms and flew straight up, then around the band of pine trees out near Stephens Road. David was laughing his ‘this is fun but scary’ laugh, usually reserved for when the carnival hit town and for sledding on the steep part of Lucille Hill.
Branson put David down, ruffled his hair, and turned to the kids congregated on the sidewalk. There were about twenty of them now, kindergarteners to high schoolers. “That’s all for now, kids.” A series of disappointed groans lit the air. Branson raised his hands. “I may have time for a few more rides after I’ve spoken with Jeff.” He turned to Jeff. “Can we talk inside?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. He led him into the hallway.
“I just flew in from Ireland,” Branson said as they climbed the stairs. “When you didn’t respond to my telegram, I thought it best that we talk face to face.”
“I don’t mind talking, but I don’t think I want to sell the sphere,” Jeff said. “No offense, but I think I should let you know that now.”
Jeff led Branson into their apartment, introduced him to his mother. Branson didn’t want coffee. The three of them sat in the living room, Jeff and his mom on the couch and Branson in the rocker across from them.
Branson and his mom talked for a few minutes about raising kids, then Branson remarked that Jeff seemed like a terrific boy, and Jeff’s mom agreed that he was. Then Branson turned to Jeff.
“So Jeff, you were saying outside that you weren’t sure you wanted to sell the sphere. Can you tell me why?”
Jeff looked at his hands. It was unpleasant to look Branson in the eye–his eyes drilled right into you. “I don’t know, I just want to hold on to it.” He shrugged. “Maybe one day I’ll have enough to buy the whole charm.”
“How old are you, Jeff?”
“I’ll be twelve in June.”
“The thing is, Jeff, I own the other two pieces of that charm. I can’t foresee a situation where I would ever sell them.” Branson looked at his mom. “Mrs. Green, would you mind if I talked to your son alone?”
Jeff’s mom looked at Jeff. He shrugged. He didn’t want her to leave, but he felt uneasy saying so.
“I’ll be in the kitchen. Jeff, you call me if you want me.” Jeff nodded, and his mom went the ten steps into the kitchen area where she could probably still hear what they were saying.
“Jeff, I’m forty-four. That’s only about thirty years older than you, and I plan to live a long time.”
Jeff wondered if Branson somehow already knew what the charm did. It probably did make you live longer.
“So if you don’t sell me the sphere, it’s not going to do you much good. And I guarantee you, nobody is going to offer you more for that charm than me. Do you believe that, Jeff?”
“Yes, I do,” Jeff said.
“Let me make you an offer. It’s the best offer I’m ever going to make to you. Do you believe me when I say that?”
“Good. If you turn it down and I fly away, I won’t be as generous next time. And there will be a next time, I promise you that. That sphere isn’t doing you and your mom any good sitting in a safe deposit box.” Branson leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Jeff, have you thought about your mom? Wouldn’t it be nice if she didn’t have to work as a secretary any more? Wouldn’t you like to buy her a little store or something?
“A store?” Jeff said.
“Mmm hmm. That’s right Jeff, a little store on Main Street. And a house. You could get out of these apartments. You could have a little pond in the back yard. Buy yourself a few nice charms. Athletic. Enhanced Vision. Maybe an animal charm?”
Jeff’s head was spinning. How much would all of that cost? He had no idea, but it had to be tens of thousands of dollars.
“How much money are you talking about?” Jeff asked.
Branson smiled. “Now you’re talking my language, Jeff.” He kept his voice low. In the kitchen, mom was sort of stacking dishes, but mostly just standing there with a dish towel. “Here’s my offer, and keep in mind, it’s non-negotiable: Seven hundred thousand dollars.”
The world disappeared for a moment. Everything broke into a million little grey dots and went black, like they did on a TV screen. Then they pulled back together and Jeff was still sitting in is living room, across from Mr. Branson. His hands were tingling, his fingertips curling involuntarily.
“A million,” Jeff said through numb lips.
Branson let out a warm, easy laugh. “You’re something else, you know that? I offer you a fortune, tell you it’s my best offer, and you counter. You’re a smart kid, Jeff.” He clapped Jeff on the knee. “Very good. No one’s first offer is ever their best. Tell you what, I’ll meet you half way: eight fifty.”
That was probably more money than Kim and Cindy’s parents had combined. He was rich, he and his mom.
“You’ve got a deal,” Jeff said.
Branson held out his hand. Jeff shook it.
“I can arrange to have a cashier’s check by the end of the day,” Branson said. “Can you get your mom to take you to the bank to withdraw the sphere?”
“Sure,” Jeff said.
Branson stood. “Your son drives a hard bargain, Mrs. Green, but I think we’ve finally made a deal,” he said. “I’ll be back at six to take care of the details, if that’s all right with you?”
Jeff’s mom said it was. They walked him to the door.
“Can I ask you for one more thing?” Jeff said at the door.
“As long as it doesn’t cost me any more money,” Branson said, laughing.
“No, I’d just like to be there when you absorb the charm. I want to see what it does.”
Branson nodded. “Fair enough.”
“How much?” His mom asked as soon as she shut the door.
Jeff grinned. “You’re not going to believe it.”
“More than ten thousand?”
He nodded. His mom gasped.
“Twenty?” she said.
“A little higher,” he said.
He pointed his thumb in the air.
“Higher? Tell me!”
He paused. Mom waggled her fists impatiently. “Eight. Hundred. And Fifty. Thousand. Dollars.”
Jeff watched his mom’s eyes get bigger and bigger. She screamed, and grabbed him, and spun him in a circle.
“We’re rich!” Jeff said.
Jeff pressed the sphere against his cheek, then kissed it. It was hard to believe he’d found it only yesterday. It hurt to give it up, even for a fortune. He’d be rich, but not special. You don’t get on the Johnny Carson show for being rich. Branson was the one who’d get to be on Carson now.
He heard footsteps on the stairs, went and opened the door. Branson was carrying a long case. He was with another man who was carrying a folder.
The man was a lawyer. He had Jeff and his mom and Mr. Branson sign some papers, then he handed Jeff a check, and Jeff gave Branson the midnight blue sphere. Branson accepted it with two hands and a little bow, like Jeff was giving him communion or something.
“Money means nothing to me any more,” he said, gazing at the sphere. “I live for these, for the powers they give. Did you know I have more rare powers than anyone on Earth?” No one answered, but Branson didn’t seem to be looking for an answer. He reached for his case. “It’s time to see what we have.”
“Do you know what it does?” Jeff asked.
“I’ve no idea,” Branson said. He took out the other two pieces of the charm. He fit Jeff’s sphere onto one end of the staff, then the other sphere onto the other end. “Why don’t we find out.”
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and grasped the staff with both hands.
Nobody moved. Nobody even breathed. Outside, a couple of kids were shouting. A dog barked in the distance.
Branson frowned, opened his eyes. “Strange. I don’t feel what I usually feel.”
“It feels different?” Jeff said.
“I don’t feel anything. I don’t sense the new charm inside me.”
A dud. Jeff wasn’t going to say it out loud. Was it possible? Duds were always commons; none of the rare ones were duds.
They waited. There was some sort of commotion outside–people shouting back and forth.
“Maybe you just don’t feel it with this one,” mom said.
“Maybe,” Branson said.
Jeff couldn’t help but hope that it was a dud. He folded the check in half and slid it into his back pocket. As they used to say when he was little, no backsies. A deal was a deal.
Jeff’s mom looked toward the window. “What’s going on out there?”
It was getting loud. People were shouting and screaming, like there was a fire or something, only they didn’t sound scared exactly. Jeff heard a woman shout “On the roof!” A kid was shouting something Jeff couldn’t understand–it sounded like Ricky.
Jeff went to the window and lifted the blind.
There were twenty or thirty people outside in the fading light. Some were running, some were on their knees peering underneath cars in the parking lot. Jeff recognized Ricky’s black-sneakered feet poking out of the hedges. Sherry Underwood was cradling something, running toward the door of her building. She shifted her load to the other hand to open the door, and Jeff caught a glimpse of what it was: two spheres. It was too dark to tell what colors they were.
“I found one!” Ricky shouted. He clutched a sphere, maybe a burnt orange Laugh Easier, over his head.
“Oh my god,” Jeff’s mom said, peering over his shoulder. “What’s going on? Where did those come from?”
Branson edged in, shifting to see. He gasped. Jeff put his hand in his back pocket, over the check.
“I guess we know what the midnight blue does,” Jeff said. He stepped away from the window. He was dying to get outside, but he didn’t want to be rude.
“I guess we do,” Branson’s lawyer said, staring out the window. “I guess we do.”
“Reproduction,” Branson said. He sounded like someone had just died.
The rarer ones would be better hidden. Jeff shifted from foot to foot, impatient, running through likely hiding places that other people wouldn’t think of. It would be pitch dark in half an hour–he needed to bring a flashlight.
“I’m gonna go outside and take a look,” Jeff said. He held out his hand. “Mr. Branson, it was good doing business with you.”
Branson shook his hand. His forehead was sweating. “I wish I could say the same.”
Jeff grabbed the flashlight in the kitchen drawer, bolted out the door while mom said goodbye to Branson and his lawyer. “I’ll be home late, mom,” he called as he closed the door behind him and hit the stairs running.
Things were fair again. Jeff threw open the hall door and drank in the waning light, the chirp of crickets. He leaped off the stoop. One day, he was sure, he would fly off it.
About the Author
Will McIntosh is a Hugo award winner and finalist for the Nebula and eleven other awards. His most recent novel is Burning Midnight (Penguin Random House). His previous book Defenders (Orbit Books) was optioned by Warner Brothers for a feature film, while Love Minus Eighty was named the best science fiction book of 2013 by the American Library Association. Along with six novels, Will has published around fifty short stories in Asimov’s (where he won Reader’s Awards in 2010 and 2013), Lightspeed, Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year, and elsewhere. Up next is Faller, a wild SF adventure novel to be published by Tor Books. Will lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife, Alison, and twins Hannah and Miles. He left his position as a psychology professor in Southeast Georgia to write full time, and still teaches as an adjunct at the College of William and Mary.
About the Narrator
A fan of Science Fiction from an early age P.C. Haring has always been one of those who looked up at the night sky and wondered “what if…”
P.C. Haring made his debut as a writer and podcast novelist on 01/01/10 with Cybrosis. This production met with a strongly favorable response that propelled it to number four on the Podiobooks.com Top Ten list when it was re-launched there that October. His audio fiction can also be heard in Scott Sigler’s The Crypt: Book 1 — The Crew and in Philippa Ballantine’s Chronicles of the Order anthology. His contribution for Tales from the Archives, co-produced by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, won him the 2012 Parsec Award for Best Short Story. This momentum propelled P.C. Haring into publishing Cybrosis as well as his latest project, Slipspace: Harbinger independently.
When he isn’t developing new projects for podcast and publication, P.C. Haring works as a corporate accountant in the Chicagoland area and as a husband to his beautiful wife.