“Do you understand everything I told you?”
It was late morning. Under a sky of scattered clouds and a mild sun, two boys stood next to each other, one tall and white with blonde hair and one short with dark hair and brown skin. Behind them, a quarter mile down a grassy slope, stood a massive tree with a trunk the size of a large house. High up in that tree was a clubhouse roughly the size of a small mansion, fixed firmly within the tree’s thick branches. Thick transparent tubes extended in loops from various points of this structure, most of it extending down into the ground; one length of tubing stretched out behind the clubhouse along the grass like an exposed and oversized pipeline for about half a mile and disappeared into the surface. The structure was partly obscured by dark foliage, two large windows seeming to peer out at the boys like observing eyes.
“So I just have to go for a walk, Tim,” the little boy said, his black hair blowing slightly in the breeze. He looked up at the older boy almost as if the older boy was his father. “Is that what I have do?”
Tim nodded and his eyes narrowed, looking out as far as he could and still trying to see farther. He put a hand over his eyes to shield them from the pressing sun, hoping to spot something to help the little boy.
“How long am I gonna be walking,” the little boy asked.
Tim folded his arms and put his head down to think about this. He didn’t answer for some time, his eyes down on the grass around his feet.
“Probably all day if you’re lucky, Carlos. Could be two days if you’re not.”
“Oh.” Carlos nodded, his face showing that he was making a concerted effort—an adult effort—to wrap his mind around what it meant. Then the expression cracked, turned to one of dismay, and tears swelled in Carlos’s eyes like water in a clogged drain. He began sobbing.
“I don’t want to go,” Carlos said, grabbing a fistful of his red shirt, and using it to wipe tears from his eyes. “You’re not even giving me food. All of you just want to get rid of me.”
He went on sobbing, while Tim—his arms folded—kept his eyes out ahead.
“You’re looking for a clubhouse that looks just like the one we live in. The—”
“I want to go home! I don’t want to do this! It’s not fair! Everybody else is in their having fun and I have to go! I want to watch Superdog!”
“—look out for landmines, like we’ve already been over. You step on one of those it could take your life instantly, or leave you wounded and bleeding like a stuck pig. And who knows what could come along in that time, what messed up stuff might happen to you?”
“I’m being sakificed.”
“Sacrificed. What if I was younger? I might not understand what the heck you’re saying to me. And no Carlos, you’re not being sacrificed. This isn’t like Vietnam.”
“I don’t even know what Vietnam is.”
“Well don’t worry about it. It ended hundreds of years before you were even born. Heck, hundreds of years before I was even born. I was just trying to make a point. This is what we have to do. You’re part of The Modern Saints clubhouse and to not do your job is to wander alone in an endless field.” Tim seemed to think this over. “No pun intended friend.”
“Why don’t you do it?” Carlos had his shirt over his face, dark spots growing from the tears and snot that leaked onto it. His small body trembled.
“My place is here right now, Carlos. But you…” Tim knelt down, one knee pressed firmly into the ground, and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He used his other hand to pull the shirt from over the boy’s face, and saw a string of snot stretch a good seven inches before breaking apart. He looked into the boy’s brown eyes. “You have to do this.” He punched him gently on his small shoulder. “Come on, be a champ, champ.”
“Breathe Carlos. Just breathe. Come on man, you’ve got to grow up.”
“When do I-when do I get to come back?”
Tim smiled wide enough to bare his teeth, and held back an urge to chuckle. “When you see the clubhouse buddy, I told you that. You see the clubhouse, even if it’s far off in the distance, and you can come right on back. And you can watch Superdog. As much Superdog as you want. We’ll load the shows right onto your favorite TV.”
“The people from the other clubhouse, they—are they mean?”
Tim took a moment to answer, taking his hand off Carlos’s small, trembling shoulder. “If they weren’t mean Carlos, we wouldn’t be doing this.” He raised his eyebrows at the boy. “Now would we?”
Carlos said nothing, and looked down, his gaze slightly off to the side. His lip puckered out, making him look half his age, Tim thought. The boy folded his arms.
“What’s the longest time you think I could be out there?”
“Man, I don’t know buddy. Ah, heck.” He scratched at the back of his neck, then brightened. “Well it couldn’t be much more than three days, because you’d die of thirst now, wouldn’t you?”
“Can’t I get water now?”
“You’re not even thirsty now,” Tim said. “We let you have a whole two bottles earlier, you silly hog. And until we get the filtration system working we can’t give any more out. We do that and everyone might die of thirst. Take one for the team. Try to be more like Superdog.”
Carlos said nothing. Tim got back to his feet.
“Now go,” Tim said, clapping Carlos on the back. “Walk fast and you could be back in a day or a day and a half. There will be plenty of Superdog cartoons and water and food waiting for you too.”
Carlos hesitated. Then he started forward, took two steps, tripped, and fell flat on his stomach. He lay there for a moment or so, groaning under the nose of an expressionless Tim, and when Carlos saw no reaction, scrambled hastily back to his feet.
He brushed himself off, then looked over his shoulder at the blonde-haired boy, with a desperate, pleading expression.
Tim’s face was sullen though, his eyes unblinking. “Carlos, if you come back before you’re supposed to we’ll have to kill you.”
Carlos sucked in snot and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked back in front of him, and proceeded forward into what looked like an endless green field, nothing but the horizon in sight.
Tim didn’t watch him go. He only shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans, turned slowly away, and walked back to the Modern Saints clubhouse, his head down.
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