“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t play in Mrs. Peterson’s yard!” Andy watched his mother’s familiar scowl through the bangs on his bowed head. She was busy patching up his little brother’s skinned knee. His fourth this summer. They’d only been out of school for seven days—if you included the weekend.
“You boys can’t keep…” She stopped. Andy lifted his head. His mother bit her lip. Andy’s heart skidded into its next beat. Her eyes moistened with a reflective coating. She stood. She pressed the bloodied cloth she’d been applying to clean Jake’s knee into Andy’s hand. Then she walked away.
“What’s wrong?” Jake’s higher-pitched, young voice asked. Andy returned a rueful gaze to his brother. “Andy?”
He couldn’t answer. He was stuck there, feeling the tear, that had dripped from his mother’s eye, heavy on his wrist. The bloody rag was still in his palm. He’d made his mother cry. Again.
“We have to stop playing in Mrs. Peterson’s yard.” Andy said softly.
“Is it because I got hurt? I promise Andy, I won’t fall next time! I’ll be a good explorer! I’ll—“
“It’s not because you got hurt Jakey. It’s because,” he looked into his little brother’s hopeful eyes. How could he take that away from him? Mrs. Peterson’s yard was the only thing left. The last normal thing Since…
“It’s because you aren’t trained yet for that type of mission. You can’t keep going on expeditions you aren’t fully prepared for. No one in their right mind would.” He smiled as brightly as he could muster and ruffled his brother’s dark brown hair.
“Who will train me?” Jake looked suddenly worried. “Dad’s—“
“I will! Of course.” Andy didn’t want to hear that his father was gone. He didn’t need to hear it. He remembered every day. Every painful moment of every day.
It didn’t mean Jake had to suffer for it though. What happened had nothing to do with Mrs. Peterson or her yard.
Father knew how to be careful! It was all an accident! Mother not letting them play archaeologist in Mrs. Peterson’s yard was just silly! If you fall off the horse, get right back up. Try again. Face your fears. Isn’t that what father had always said? In fact Andy was certain that’s what his father was doing right now!
He wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be! Andy didn’t care what those men said. He didn’t care about any of it. If there was no body, there was no proof. His father was missing. Missing! Not. Dead.
“Thank you Andy! And I’ll be just like Dad?” Jake’s comment had not come at the right time. Andy could see his white-faced mother stop in her tracks. She’d composed herself quickly and was returning, that comment had her composure melting.
“You will not be just like your father!” She said it so quietly. Andy closed his eyes.
“But Dad was the best! The best archaeologist in the whole world!” Jake thought highly of their father. Andy wouldn’t dash those thoughts. Dad was the best to him too.
“Jacob Timothy, hear me right now,” Andy’s mother started. He knew her heart hurt, because his did too. Jake was too young to understand that this time their father wouldn’t be returning.
Yes he would! Andy reminded himself.
“Mom,” Andy’s voice was soft.
“I’m sorry.” She tried to stop the tears and she reached to hug them both. “Now, what would you like for supper?” She asked.
After dinner, Jake fell asleep quickly. Andy moped through the house, but straightened when he saw his mother. She tried hard not cry in front of them. He gave her the same courtesy.
“You’ve grown up so much.” Her eyes harbored regret.
“I’m practically an adult.” Andy thought a smile might lighten the mood, but he couldn’t muster one.
“You’re fourteen.” His mother managed a grin, but it was fake. It didn’t matter. She was being strong for him, the way he was for Jake.
“What were you doing when you were fourteen? Saving the world or something I bet.” Andy joined his mother at the meticulously scrubbed dining room table. “One lasagna at a time.” Andy felt the unfamiliar sensation of a smile warm his face. His mother smiled too, but then her face froze. She was seeing a memory. And something about it had her worried.
“Andy, how would you like to go to Israel?”
Andy’s heart thrummed wildly. To his father’s—well were his father was missing? “Jake?”
“Jake better come too.” She looked serious.
“I’ll help you pack.”
They boarded Uncle Kenny’s private plane the very next morning.
“Kris, if this doesn’t go well,”
“I know Kenny.” Andy heard his mother speaking to her brother in whispers. “I’ll handle it.”
“Good morning Andy. Early huh?” Uncle Kenny put out his hand and Andy smacked it. Jake did too, then he let out a huge yawn. “It’s going to be a long flight boys, so get comfortable.”
Andy watched his mother gaze out the window silently. She’d been very quiet since last night. Andy still didn’t understand her, but as Jake’s head nestled into her lap and his breathing pegged him as asleep, Andy’s mother turned her eyes to Andy.
“I met your father when I was fourteen.” She said solemnly.
Andy was stunned. His mother looked younger. A new fire hit her eyes. Andy was suddenly more interested in what his mother had to say than anything else. Her crooked smile reminded him of Chelsea Day for a moment—just a moment though.
“I was walking home from school with Josh Gr—well, the most popular boy in school if you can believe that—“ She blushed. His mother actually blushed. As she continued her story, Andy found himself so absorbed in her words, he forgot about the pain of his missing father.
“I first noticed your father when he appeared from behind the dilapidated house on Red Street. No one ever went there. It was a house abandoned when Old Man Johnson left. But much of his stuff was left there to rot. Your father was covered in dust from head to foot. I couldn’t even tell what color his hair was.
He froze when he saw us approaching, no idea we were there. He stopped and dust fell onto the sidewalk. I stifled a giggle, but I couldn’t help but stare into those green eyes.
“Whatcha doin’, Punk?” Josh had a way of making others feel intimidated, and stupid.
“None of your business.” The dirty boy pushed his glasses up with a filthy finger and clutched his books closer. “Hi Kris.” His smile at me somehow lured my heart. I don’t know if it was the pure courage that let him flirt with me in front of Josh, or if it was the fact that he still looked cute under all that dust. But I smiled back.
I barely recognized him at school the next day. But he sure recognized me. “Hi Kris.” I closed my locker door. He held out his hand to me, “Ben, Ben Thomas.” He cleaned up well.
“The Dust boy?”
The way he pursed his lips was even cute. “Oh. Yeah. About that,”
“Walk me to class?” His eyes lit up, and pulled his serious face into a slight smile. He walked me to all my classes that day. And that whole week. When we were in school we were inseparable. But as soon as he dropped me off at my front door, I knew I wouldn’t see him again until the morning. I pried often in the beginning, but I couldn’t bear the wounded look in his eyes when I asked him about his family or his home. So I stopped. Well, not completely. One late spring evening, I thought I’d ask him something again.
“So Ben, what were you doing in Old man Johnson’s yard?” I asked him. His green eyes changed, they darted away from mine. I caught his arm before he could leave. “Ben?”
He sighed. “If you really want to know, meet me there tonight.” There was a hint of fear in his eyes that had me intrigued. There was nothing about Ben Thomas that I didn’t want to know.
As soon as the sun set I was walking down the dirt path to Old Man Johnson’s home. The light was on. A light rather. One of those lamps you use to fix cars. I followed the beam around the back of the rickety house. Ben was there. He was wearing a tool belt, complete with a flashlight, a pick-axe and a rusted knife. His filthy hiking boots had returned. He looked at me through those spectacles.
“Of course I came.” I don’t know why, but my heart fluttered.
“Well, you might be sorry you did.” He grabbed a sweater and motioned for me to follow him and we headed farther across the property. With the sun gone, the cool desert air began to set in, I didn’t think I was shivering until Ben draped his sweater on my shoulders.
“Why?” I asked, not remembering how much time had passed between his warning and our long walk across the dark, traveled path in Old Man Johnson’s yard. Ben stopped mid-stride and looked at me.
“I like you Kris. You’re different from other girls. You…stick around.”
“Stick. Around?” I wasn’t sure whether a comment like that should offend me.
“Yeah. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t keep many friends, and it’s not for my lack of attracting attention, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant, but I was pretty sure he didn’t. The reason girls gravitated toward him initially was, well, he was cute.
He led me into a small rickety room, like a treehouse without the tree. It was stationed behind an overgrown patch of sagebrush, out in the middle of nothing. I didn’t expect what I saw inside. He lit an oil lamp and oil raced across clay trenches in the room lighting the whole place in moments.
“No more hiding.” He whispered, but I caught his shy stare looking at me out from under his bangs.
Hiding? What was he talking about? I let my gaze wander around the room. Maps I was unfamiliar with, coins, pottery, other old items littered the table in what seemed to be a cluster of loose organization. A hollow stump with a collection of old bowls, a small desk littered with ancient-looking animals. Strange things.
“Where did you get all this stuff?” I touched a clay animal of sorts, a dog. His eyes practically glowed.
“Do you like it?” He asked. “You can have it. If you want.” His smile faltered.
“Did you find all this, here? On Old Man Johnson’s farm?”
“Do you believe in magic?”
I laughed. What was I supposed to say? He was serious though.
“My father did.” He continued.
“Oh, did he now?” I was beginning to understand why others didn’t exactly ‘stick around’.
“Yes. That’s why he built this place. But, I never knew. I’d always thought he abandoned me. But I know now, he didn’t.”
“Ben, I don’t understand.” He watched me take a step back from him and made no move to follow. Embarrassed at my automatic withdrawal, I deliberately stepped closer again. His crooked smile and tilted head were enough to make me want to keep walking closer, but I stopped, and laughed nervously.
He held out his hand and looked at me. I took it and followed his lead to the hollow stump. A board across the top of it gave support to the odd collection of dishes.
“My mother changed my name after my father disappeared.” He went on. “It used to be Johnson.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t say more. “You, you’re…”
He nodded. “My father is missing.”
“Have you told the police?”
Ben laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh, it was more a condescending chuckle. “The only reason I’m showing this to you is because I like you. And you deserve to know the truth. People you care about always deserve to know the truth. Always. So, if I don’t come back. You’ll know I haven’t abandoned you.”
I stared at him. I didn’t run. I didn’t scream. Ben wasn’t crazy. He didn’t seem crazy. He seemed, hurt.
He reached out and moved a glass bowl. It was upside down on the desk. Under it was a strange disk. It looked almost iridescent in the oil light. He hovered his hand over it and faced me.
“I know a lot about how it works,” he chuckled again, “but not even close to everything. I found my father’s notes. He was on the verge of cracking something big. But his gateway must have been crushed. He’s out there, and I’m going to find him. As long as mine remains intact I’ll be able to come back. If not.” He handed me the clay dog I’d admired earlier. “You’ll know why.”
He held his hand over the disk. I waited. He touched it. The wind didn’t ruffle my clothes, or the oil fires. But I watched it sweep around him. I clutched the clay dog to my chest and tried not to scream. It died down as quickly as it lit. Ben was gone. I was alone.
I sank to the floor with my back against the dried wooden walls of his shed and shook. It wasn’t real! It couldn’t be real! I waited for him. It was the most terrifying hour of my life. But the air started to stir again. The wind struck up. I watched in wonder and horror as Ben returned. He was a bit worse for wear, his tussled hair was full of burs, and his clothes a dark, dusty mess. But his smirk was warming, and he held an old bowl.
“How…” My voice trailed, but the only thing I remember clearly is how I felt at that moment. I raced over to his filthy hide and wrapped my arms so tightly around him. Tears collected on my cheeks.
“Kris,” He started.
“No! Don’t you ever do that to me again!” I hugged him tighter. Then I leaned back to look into his eyes. “Where were you?”
“I—I,” His shoulders sagged. “My father is an archaeologist. This disk will take you to ancient ruins.”
“Ancient? What? Why?”
“There is some strange link between them and,” he paused.
“I’m in too deep now.”
“Ancient ruins have stories. All archaeologists believe so. But some of them aren’t ruins at all. Some of them are disguised portals, like these. They take you to other civilizations. Like I said, the map,” he raced excitedly over to the table and picked up one of the older maps. It was hand drawn by two sets of hands. One more experienced, the other crude. I guessed it was Ben’s continuation of his father’s work.
“You intend to find him, don’t you.” I asked sadly.
He turned to me. “Yes. And to finish his work as I try.”
“Is there a way to make it less dangerous?” I asked him, my eyes tingling.
“Um, I th-think so.” He must have been trembling too. I stepped closer to him. Worry enveloping my heart for a moment. He was closer to me too. I leaned in.
Andy watched his mom bow her head and close her eyes with a sweet smile on her face. He wanted to say, ‘what?’ he wanted to know what happened next. She opened her eyes, that smooth coating of contained tears covering them, but this time it was a happier cry. Andy cocked his head.
“Well, there’s no reason to share our first kiss now, is there?”
Andy swallowed, embarrassed. Then realization of what his mother was saying hit him.
“You think Dad found another one of those portals?” Andy asked, his voice nearly cracking.
His mother turned that grave, adventurous stare of hers on him again. “I know he did.”