Enclosed within a bubble, Rupert lifted off the back porch; his bare feet at first dangling only inches above the gray-painted deck. Then, as the breeze caressed the transparent cocoon, he was carried up ever so gently—over the railing and out across the backyard. The porch stood a half-story off the ground, so he had a head start on putting distance between himself and the earth.
He could see into the neighbors’ yards on both sides of his house, and into the woods behind. The wind shifted east and he began to drift along the fence line that marked the end of the newly created subdivision and the remains of the forest that once covered all of this county, now only a small wooded space of a few dozen acres.
Two yards down, Jimmy Doric was playing with his beagle, Horatio. He had the dog seated at a table, with a party hat tied to its head — a sad reenactment of the birthday party that few had attended, only a handful of kids whose parents made them. Jimmy was known for his tantrums when things didn’t go his way, which was rarer than one might imagine, as he was an only child and his parents lavished a good portion of their income on buying him the latest and greatest. All the toys gave him no advantage. The other children were either jealous of his latest acquisition or frustrated because Jimmy never shared anything.
Soon the street bent to the right, but Rupert continued straight, out across the now thinning trees. A stream wound through the wood and disappeared beneath a street that dead ended at the edge of the wood. A huge iron storm gate rusted partway open and mostly blocked by all sorts of debris, from fallen branches and tree trunks, to grocery baskets and broken glass. It hadn’t been very long ago at all that this wood was as thick as the rest. Rupert and his brother had played here scores of times, catching crawdads, skipping stones, sailing out over the water on a thick grape vine hanging off the branches of an ancient oak.
It was the broken glass that caused his parents to forbid them to enter the wood and play along the creek. Just last summer, Eric, Rupert’s older brother, had cut his foot badly when he’d jumped into the water and landed on a broken jar, half buried in the sand. It had required tetanus shot and 13 stitches and had left an ugly scar across the instep of his left foot.
Now, where they had once played, there was a mountain of dirt dumped truckload after truckload by some construction company. A dozer had come through, pushing down the trees and piling the dirt up ever higher and higher. At first, the thrill of heavy machinery was too exciting to even think about the loss of the wood, but that wore off quickly enough when the dozer left, followed by absolutely nothing at all—nothing happened afterward, no construction, no more loads of dirt, no more heavy equipment—nothing. It had been almost six months since Rupert had ventured anywhere near the new wasteland and even longer since he’d seen the creek.
A sudden rush of wind caught him and twirled him around as it pulled him higher and higher above the ground. He could take in the entire neighborhood now, the six blocks of houses, the twisting street that turned this way and that through the subdivision, then passed through a stretch of country properties, where old farmers had not yet sold out to the developers, and finally it terminated at a wide boulevard to the south. Way to the west was his school, and beyond that, even further west and a bit north was his sister’s junior high.
The creek glinted below him still and he could barely see the shiny spot where the sun reflected off of the windshield of an abandoned car, some rusting heap from a time before even his father had learned to drive. He remember this little junk yard, probably not a sanctioned junk yard and certainly no longer fed or even though of by anyone. Here he and Eric had spent many a long summer afternoon climbing in and out of old panel vans, and over stack of freezers and washing machines that looked like the one his grandmother still had, a funny device that featured a round tub with an electric ringer mounted on top that you fed the clothes through, over and over until you were satisfied that they were clean. Rupert had got his finger caught in that a couple of years back. It hurt just thinking about it.
His eyes wandered eastward and southward, where more houses, older ones, stood, not part of the crazy, frantic subdivision frenzy that had swallowed up so much once fertile farmland. Some of these homes had been there at least a hundred years. Right in the center of them all was a collection of rectangular and square multistoried buildings with a wide green expanse in the middle. At the very heart of it all, a great church building, with its spire gleaming in the sun. Even it was beginning to look a bit dwarfish from this height.
That thought made Rupert wonder what would become of him. For the first time he questioned what was happening to him, this flight across his city. What was this bubble? How did he come to be in it? Would it pop? If it did, would he plummet to the earth below and land pinioned by some pointy pine in the wood or crash through a neighbor’s roof and land in a heap upon their living room floor. Either way, it didn’t bode well for him.
He was suddenly filled with dread. He didn’t want to die. He was way, way too young for death. His great-grandparents had died only last year. He remembered them as two oddly dressed but kind strangers who had come to visit in a car not unlike the ones in the junkyard, only theirs ran. He knew nothing else about them, except that his mother cried and went away for a week after a phone call late one night. His father had said that her grandparents had passed away and she’d gone to bury them. It meant late nights in front of the television, and lots of boxed meals and restaurant take-outs.
Other than them, Rupert had never known anyone who’d actually died. He’d heard of plenty of deaths, since his father was glued to the news each weeknight, and it was all about someone shooting someone else, or about how many soldiers had been killed in the war. Death was for grownups. Of that, Rupert was sure. But he was in no doubt of what would happen to him if this bubble popped.
A bird flew by and made a sharp turn to come back around for another look at Rupert. Wisps of clouds began to drift across his view and he could now see the river way to the west, a large winding river that he knew ended up in the bay. He knew this, because he and his father had poured over maps last summer when they were planning their vacation, a trip to the beach. For all the excitement he’d felt, all he could readily recall of the trip was the jellyfish sting he’d gotten within minutes of entering the water. After that, he’d contented himself to watch everyone else take their chances.
The memory of that warm sun on his skin suddenly made him aware that he was cold, very cold. His teeth began to rattle together and he tried to rub his arms. For some reason, he couldn’t pick his hands up to take hold of his biceps. Try as he might, they were stuck beside him.
Would he float all the way into space? That terrified him. He knew from school that no air would fill his lungs once he left the atmosphere, and even now, it seemed too thin to take a decent breath. He cried out, or tried to, but nothing escaped his lips, there wasn’t enough breath to make the smallest peep. In an absolute panic, Rupert began to thrash about within the bubble, his only thought was to escape, to break free!
As he stretched out his legs and straightened his body, the bubble burst with a loud pop and all at once he shot downward, like a bottle rocket after it had achieved its apex. The city rushed toward him, the cold wind biting into his face. His own house appeared to be his target and he hadn’t even the time to imagine what a mess he would make when they met. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and braced himself for impact.
With a crash, he cracked his head on something hard and found himself sprawled on his bedroom floor, his sheets and blanket all entangled with his limbs, his breath completely knocked from him. First he felt stunned—he was alive! Then came the pain—an unbelievable pounding at the back of his head. He brought a hand to his head and felt a sticky wetness. Next there came a lungful of air, rushing all at once into his lungs, and immediately erupting in an unearthly howl of pain.
His brother sat up groggily, rubbing his eyes. A light turned on in the hallway. Soon his father gathered Rupert in his arms. “You must have fallen from the bunk,” he said softly. “It’s going to be alright.”