Escaping the Future
One Last Adventure
Saturday, July 9, 2022
They say that moving is like cleaning up the past in order to prepare for the future, but twelve-year-old Nic Walker never liked cleaning, and he knew that his future was better off where he was. It wasn’t his choice, though, so he folded in the flaps of his last cardboard box, ran packing tape over the top, and sealed away the memories of his childhood.
Finally done packing, Nic flopped down on the carpeted floor of his room and agonized over how unfair it was that he and his family had to move. Nic lay there silently waiting for his mom to return with the U-Haul. Once she did, he could go meet up with his two best friends, Tate and Sophia. Nic was spending the night at Tate’s house, playing Dungeons and Dragons with them for the last time, but it wasn’t enough. It would be the last time he got to see his friends, at least whenever he wanted. If he was lucky, their families might meet up again in a year, but it didn’t seem likely.
Tomorrow, he would move to San Jose, up in Northern California. His new house may be bigger, but there was enough wrong with it that his dad joked about making a carpenter out of him. Nic didn’t know anyone up there, and the thought of moving away from the friends he knew since he was a baby made his stomach churn. Despite his parents’ assurances that he would make new friends, Nic knew he could never make friends like the ones he had here, who were like family.
Ten minutes later, the front door slammed shut, announcing Nic’s brother Ethan had returned home. If Nic was caught lying down, he would somehow end up with Ethan’s chores before he could leave the house. Nic rolled over and slowly dragged himself to his feet as Ethan’s footsteps approached. Nic lifted the box when Ethan kicked open Nic’s door and said, “Oh good, your room is finished.
Dad said he wanted to talk to you, and that you need to help him take down the pictures in the hall.”
“That’s not my job, it’s yours,” Nic replied.
“Not anymore. And talking goes both ways, so grow up and start talking to Dad again. It’s not his fault we’re moving.”
Before Nic could argue, Ethan was gone.
Nic stood in the middle of his desolate room and then staggered forward, weighed down by the box filled with his childhood memories. He passed through the doorway, leaving behind only his desk, bed, and an empty dresser. It didn’t matter, though, because he would never come back.
Once downstairs, Nic set his box down by the front door and wrote his name on it. He found his dad in the middle of the hall, with most of the pictures already packed up. Nic joined his father as he stared at a photo of his own childhood friends, who were around twelve at the time, the same age as Nic, Tate, and Sophia.
Just like his dad, Nic was light skinned, blue eyed, and had curly brown hair that was impossible to control. In the photo his dad held, his dad had knobby, grass-stained knees, which no doubt came from him leading his friends on dirty adventures, something that Nic was guilty of as well.
This particular photo was taken the afternoon that Sophia’s dad, Mr. Day, had emigrated from Seoul to the United States. Just like Sophia, Mr. Day was tall for his age, with a round face and wide eyes that helped express his highly curious nature.
The scrawny boy in the middle of the photo, Tate’s dad, had dark skin and chubby cheeks. Despite having both Nic’s dad and Sophia’s dad in a headlock, everyone was grinning widely.
This photo was the one that marked the day his dad’s lifelong friendship began. The three boys had been such good friends that they managed to move to the same neighborhood as adults so they could hang out.
Just like their fathers, Nic thought that he would be inseparable with their kids, Sophia and Tate, through adulthood. Now their friendship would be cut short, all because Nic was moving away.
Nic’s dad placed the picture in a box and started to take down some more. “I think it’s good that you get to see Sophia and Tate one last time before we go.”
Nic shook his head and said, “Yeah,” which broke his weeklong silence without portraying his frustration. To make sure his point was heard, Nic added, grumbling, “We could always find a house here in town.” This was a touchy subject with them, but Nic didn’t care.
They had to move; that was not an option. The whole neighborhood was being bought out by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. They had to move, but they didn’t have to leave Sunland; that was his dad’s choice, and that was why Nic had stopped talking to him in the first place.
His dad stopped and stared at Nic. His face flushed in anger, but instead of losing his cool, he calmly replied, “You know, Nic, sometimes you have to choose a new path in life and make the best of it. This is an opportunity for us, and in the long run, we’ll be better off.”
Nic shook his head, and asked, “Do you really think your life would’ve been better off if your parents moved you away from Mr. Kerr and Mr. Day when you were a kid?”
“It’s already done. We’re moving.”
Nic began to protest, but his response was cut off before it started when a loud revving engine indicated a truck had pulled up outside. Nic looked away and then pulled the last picture from the wall, avoiding his dad’s eye contact.
Nic handed the picture to his dad as his mom came in through the garage. With her home, Nic could finally leave. “I finished my room, Mom. Can I go?”
His mom glanced at his dad. She crossed her arms, her lips pursed to the side, indicating that she was considering how to reply. She could probably tell that Nic was being difficult, but instead of questioning what happened, she thankfully let it go. “What about dinner?”
“I’m not hungry. I had a sandwich about an hour ago.”
“Okay,” she said, holding the door to the garage open. “Be back here tomorrow morning by nine. We’ll need to be on the road by eleven.”
“You know,” his dad said, “you could stay and help finish packing.”
“I would rather just live at Tate’s house for now on.” Nic was still angry and added before he could stop himself, “If you actually cared about how I felt, then you wouldn’t be so happy to ruin my life by leaving.”
Nic turned, flung his backpack over his shoulder, and fled into the garage. Half expecting his parents would stop him for his outburst, Nic didn’t look back. He ran to his bike on the driveway and sped away.
Nic’s street was one of a few scheduled for demolition in order to make room for the high-speed rail. Most of the neighbors had already moved away, leaving only a handful of homes with people in them. People in the news were okay with the eviction, reporting that a couple of houses can’t stand in the way of humanity’s next big achievement. Nic didn’t care if humanity was better off in the long run; he just wanted to stay in his home.
As Nic passed by his living room window, he could see his mom rubbing his dad’s back, comforting him. Telling them that they didn’t care about him came out more hurtful than Nic had expected, and he would probably be in trouble later. If he was lucky, they would cut him some slack because the move was, as they say, hard on him. He shook his head and then pedaled down his empty street toward Tate’s house.
Nic hadn’t even ridden his bike a block from his home when explosions thundered across the neighborhood. He caught a glow from above, tilted his head to the sky, and then hit his brakes hard, sending his bike to a skidding stop.
High above the city, a black saucer-shaped aircraft fell through the air. It spiraled down toward the center of town, but at the last second, it pulled out of its fall and flew in Nic’s direction.
A gigantic crystal burst through the clouds behind it, with a dozen violet spikes pointed at the saucer. The crystal had no business flying through the air. Yet it flew.
Electric-blue flashes lit up the sky as missiles fired from the crystal and then slammed into the saucer. In return, the saucer fired an emerald-green beam that bathed the atmosphere in an eerie glow. The beam went wide but hooked around to track the crystal’s every move. An invisible field stalled the beam, but in a flash, it pierced the crystal’s defenses and hit it with enough force to burn a hole clear through the other side.
Nic stood slack-jawed as both aircraft approached. The saucer shimmered, and then disappeared as it passed overhead. Despite it turning invisible, thick exhaust billowed in its wake, showing a clear path to the hills behind McGroarty Park. The saucer flickered back into view as it skipped off a distant hilltop and then vanished once more before crashing out of sight.
Explosions erupted from the crystal ship, and it plummeted to the ground not far from where the saucer came down. The crystal crashed with a blast that sent plumes of fire and smoke high into the air.
As the rumbling in the sky faded, the howls of the neighborhood dogs took over.
Nic spun around to look at his house, but nobody had come outside. He stared back at the hills, attempting to judge the distance to where the aircraft crashed. If he hurried, he could make it before sundown. He was not far from Tate’s house, and it was only a couple of blocks farther to McGroarty Park. If Nic was lucky, Sophia would already be there, and they could all leave as soon as he arrived.
Ignoring the handful of neighbors who came out to investigate the sound, Nic raced his bike uphill toward Tate’s house. Hours until sundown, the sun’s summer heat sapped away Nic’s energy. But with the promise of one last adventure with his friends, he pushed through his growing exhaustion.
With a block to go, Nic passed under thick trees that lined the street and hid the unique smoke patterns that still hung in the sky. He rounded the street corner and spotted Tate’s house. Sophia’s bike lay on the sidewalk in front of it, at the bottom of the steps leading up to the front door.
Sophia had just reached Tate’s door when Nic’s bike crashed on top of hers, causing her to spin around in alarm. Nic raced up the steps two at a time, gasping for air as he went.
Sophia eyed him suspiciously as he approached. Her honey-brown hair was kept tucked under a tan baseball cap, hiding her face, which Nic knew all too well. Her face was round and a bit plain, but her large, curious eyes radiated intelligence. She smiled, but waited for Nic to reach her before asking, “You okay?”
Opening his mouth to respond, Nic instead took in a couple more breaths. He ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair in a vain attempt to keep his hair out of his eyes. No matter what he tried, he always appeared as if he just got out of bed.
Sophia stared back at Nic, eyebrows raised, and waited.
“I saw something … two aircraft … blew each other out of the sky. They were …” He took a deep breath and put his hand on Sophia’s shoulder. “I don’t know what they were, but we should go find out. I know where they landed.”
“Really!” Sophia said. “Can we actually get there? Let’s get Tate.” She rang the doorbell and then slowly turned back, frowning.
“Wait. Did that actually happen, or are you trying to trick me again?”
“No, it really happened. I can prove it.” Nic pointed to the sky behind him.
Sophia squinted toward the sky, but when Nic spun around to point her in the right direction, his view was blocked. If there were any remnants of the aircraft battle, they were now hidden behind the tall trees that lined Tate’s street.
Sophia cocked her head to the side. “You expected me to believe that you saw flying aircraft that you can’t identify?” Her cheeks flushed before she added, “I’m embarrassed to say that you had me fooled for a second.”
“No, I’m serious. It happened.” Nic waited for Sophia’s usual optimism to return, but sighed when she turned back to the front door as someone approached.
The door swung open with Tate’s mom, Mrs. Booker, standing in the doorway. She was a short Black woman with braided dark-brown hair, and she always wore a bright smile. “Oh, hey Nic. Are you all ready for the big move tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Nic replied. In the excitement, he had somehow forgotten about his move. The question snapped him back to reality, and he added in a tone meant for his dad, “The house is almost ready to be knocked down.”
Mrs. Booker frowned. “Well, I hope our families can still get together in the future. I’ll have to plan something with your parents.”
Nic knew she was just being nice. He would see their family again but accepted that once he moved out of Sunland, things would change forever. “Thank you. I’ll look forward to seeing you again too.”
Mrs. Booker stepped aside, allowing them to come in. “Well, have fun tonight. Tate’s up in his room. And hello to you too, Sophia.”
Sophia responded with a pleasant smile and an awkward wave as both Nic and Sophia dashed inside.
Without bothering to knock, Nic flung open Tate’s door and as always was bombarded with aviation memorabilia. Posters of various aircraft hung on the walls, and model planes lined his countertops like planes on an aircraft carrier.
Tate’s obsession with flying started with his dad, who was a pilot. Even before Tate’s dad died of cancer, his only desire was to become a pilot like his father. As a way to help cope with his death, Nic and Sophia helped build the frame for the flight simulator rig that Tate sat in.
The rig itself was made out of plywood, which was painted to match the design of an F-22 from the outside. It even had a dome that covered the top half, though it rarely left its place on the floor, which Tate used as a laundry hamper. The rig started with just a frame and his desk. Over time, though, Tate managed to add a second screen, flight joystick, and various additional gauges that had no other purpose but to look cool.
Tate wasn’t very tall and was easily hidden behind his gaming chair. He didn’t turn back and probably didn’t notice their arrival, being too enraptured by his flight path.
Nic approached, cautious of disturbing Tate as he began to land. Sophia leaned forward to point out something on the screen and startled Tate. He flinched, jerking the controls to the side, sending the plane toward the ground. It wasn’t much, but enough that if Tate hadn’t logged so many hours in the game, he would have crashed. He tugged the joystick back to the other side and typed some commands on his keyboard, managing to avert the crash.
With the plane safely on the ground, Tate slowly spun in their direction. “Another successful landing.” His face was plastered with an ever-present smirk. His curly black hair was cut short on top and faded around the sides. Despite his slouching, Tate was always well-dressed, now with a black-and-white-striped shirt tucked into his jeans. “It’s about time you two got here.”
“I had to work on my summer camp project,” Sophia said.
“Do you realize that the purpose of summer is not to have to do any of that stuff?”
“I get to build things,” Sophia said. “Like robots. Next week, I get to put my robot in an arena and fight it against others.”
“That actually sounds all right,” Tate said. “Anyway, you’re here. I finished making the Dungeons and Dragons campaign an hour ago, and it will be epic.”
Nic cleared his throat, anticipating Tate’s reluctance. “Tate, we’re leaving.”
Tate’s left eyebrow arched as he said, “What about our game? We won’t have enough time to finish the campaign if we go anywhere first.”
“We have to check out something I saw in the hills, just beyond McGroarty Park.”
Rather than standing, Tate sank deeper into his seat and asked Sophia, “What’s this about?”
Sophia only shrugged.
Tate side-eyed Nic, smirk fading.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” Nic said, “but we should go.”
“Is this really what you want to do for your last night?” Tate said, shaking his head. “Remember the last time you dragged us into the hills on a treasure hunt?”
“It’s called geocaching, and lots of people do it. Don’t forget, we found the cache filled with treasure.”
“Nic, the treasure was a bunch of erasers shaped like animals. The people that left it there did it because they didn’t want them.”
“I still have mine,” Sophia said as she picked up a model jet and began playing with the moveable parts, one of which came off.
“Yes, Tate,” Nic said. “This is what I want to do for my last day. So, let’s go.”
Tate frowned, but he dragged himself to his feet. He took the model jet from Sophia and put it back in its spot. “This is a decoration.
I just finished putting this one together yesterday. You know, you really don’t have to touch everything.”
“Sorry, but it’s new. That’s why I was looking at it,” Sophia replied.
Tate rolled his eyes and then turned to Nic. “Before we go, you have to tell me what we’re actually doing.”
Nic cleared his throat, bracing for Tate’s disbelief. “Two aircraft crashed in the hills, and we’re going to go find them!”
“Not just any aircraft, UFOs,” Sophia said, staring at Tate, probably to see if he was in on what she now thought was a joke.
Tate’s smirk faded into a grimace, but he remained silent.
Sophia asked, “Did you really not know about this?”
Tate didn’t move.
Nic sighed but added defensively, “I didn’t say UFO. I said I didn’t know what they were.”
“You said they were flying objects you couldn’t identify. You know that’s the definition of UFOs, right?”
“Okay, they were UFOs. And they crashed in our neighborhood. Don’t you want to go check them out?”
“You know,” Tate said, “I want to be a pilot. But I don’t think I want to see a plane wreck.”
“I’m telling you, they weren’t planes,” Nic said. “Besides, it’s one last adventure before I leave. Come on, we have to go.”
Tate stared blankly in front of him with his mouth parted. He blinked and then glanced up at Nic, frowning again. “Fine. But let’s hurry. If we’re quick, we might have time to play some of the D&D campaign when we get back.”
Tate left his room without bothering to shut off his flight simulator.
They passed Tate’s mom at the bottom of the stairs. “Oh, are you leaving?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Tate replied. “Nic wanted to check something out at the park.”
“All right, I’ll be gone when you return. I’m picking up your sisters from camp in about an hour.”
“Ugh,” Tate groaned. “My summer of peace and quiet has come to an end.”
“Now, don’t start before they’re even home.”
“All right, sorry.” Tate hugged his mom and asked, “Do you think I could have Dad’s old bomber jacket?”
“Uh, sure. It’s hot outside. Do you even need it?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“All right, help yourself. It’s in the garage.”
“Yeah, on the top shelf,” Tate said, leaving for the garage. “Bye, Mom.”
Nic followed Tate and simultaneously with Sophia said, “Bye, Mrs. Booker.”
When they stepped into the garage, Tate had stopped to stare up at a storage bin on an upper shelf. Grabbing a toolbox, he dragged it under the bin he wanted, scraping the floor as he went and causing everyone to cringe. Tate stood on the toolbox, but was still a couple of inches too short. He was the oldest of the three of them by almost six months, but was the shortest by half a foot. “Sophia, grab that for me, would you?”
Sophia reached up and pulled down the bin, setting it in front of Tate.
Tate popped off the lid to the bin and dug through it, pulling out an old sage-green jacket. Tate put on the oversized jacket and attempted to straighten out the creases caused by it being in the bin for so long. He fixed the collar and then patted the lone aviator patch that Nic guessed came from Tate’s dad’s time in the air force.
“Why are you going to take that with you now?” Sophia asked. “It’s one of the hottest days of the year.”
“My mom said I could wear it, so I’m wearing it.” Tate turned to Nic and stared at him with arched eyebrows. “If we go searching for whatever you think you saw, this is just going to turn into a boring hike.”
“What I think I saw was two spaceships shoot each other down. And if we hurry, we can be the first ones to find them. It will be worth it.”
“How do you know they were spaceships?” Tate asked.
“Because, they looked like spaceships,” Nic answered. “One was a giant flying crystal, and the other was a flying saucer with a cloaking device. It disappeared in the middle of the sky.”
Tate turned to Sophia, who returned Tate’s skeptical look. “You know, Camp Pendleton is a little south of here. I bet they are testing some new drone designs.”
“They were not drones.”
Tate shook his head but pushed his bike out of the garage. It rolled down the driveway, wobbling before crashing. He picked up a flashlight and stuffed it in his backpack, which he threw across his back as Nic and Sophia grabbed their bikes from the sidewalk.
Tate hopped onto his bike and stopped next to them. “Cloaking device? You probably just lost track of it.”
“You’ll see, Tate.”
Sophia took off first, pedaling up the street, followed by Nic and Tate. The whirring echoes of helicopter blades pulsed through the air. Two military helicopters flew overhead and began circling the hills in front of them.
“See? Let’s hurry!” Nic yelled. “They’re searching, but they don’t know where to look. I do. We can still get there first.”