by Alli Kirkham
Flat on his back, Joe stared up at the sky. He watched the grass waving in his peripheral vision, ignored the trees just beyond his line of sight, and tried to force his mind to relax. He breathed slowly and quietly. He frowned slightly. He let his face go slack. Then it happened.
He curled his hands down so that his palms felt dirt and threaded his fingers around the grass into fists. Now he wasn't a little boy lying on the ground, he was a Space Captain Joe clinging to the surface of a hostile planet, trying to keep himself from being flung out into the wide blue void below him. He was dizzy with the depth of the sky; for so long, so many months he had defended this planet against the deadly threat of the invading Morphoids and now its people had abandoned him to die. If only he could summon his ship, maybe he could -
A baseball smacked hard into his thigh, dissolving the illusion. He yelped and sat up.
"Throw it back, dumbass!" Mikey Allen and some of the guys had started a pickup game at the park's single backstop. "Yeah, dumbass," was echoed back at Joe a couple of times as he stood, shaking out his stinging leg. He picked up the ball and heaved it toward the other boys. It hit the ground and rolled to a miserable stop only thirty feet away from him. He scurried toward it and threw it again, getting similar results. "Nevermind, pansy" Mikey called; the bigger boy ran and got the ball himself, scooping it up and neatly throwing it to the wheat sack serving as home plate in a single economical motion. "Get off the fracking field," he called over his shoulder as he loped away, "or the next one's gonna land on your head."
Joe dragged a toe through the grass. He thought about asking if he could play, or maybe sitting on the sidelines and watching to see if he could learn how to throw a little better. Instead he just walked out of the cool shade of the park and onto the long, corn-lined road home.
Away from the trees the day was hot. The asphalt road shimmered away into the horizon and sunlight spilled into everything, wiping away shadows and making Joe squint and lean forward as though he was bracing against a strong wind. He held a hand up over his eyes as he paced, searching for water in the Sahara. The last of his camels plodded along, tired and thirsty, behind him; its reins dragged on the dust but it followed him knowing instinctively that it would die without its wise master, Shiek Joe al Bedouin, to lead it to water. He scanned the wide horizon for any sign of palms against the empty sky, feeling the hot sand shifting beneath his feet and leading him to stumble, yet again, but surge valiantly upright, refusing to give in to an ignominious death in the desert. He was the last of his tribe, he who had survived lions and attacks from warring bands of traders would not be killed by the sun and his thirst. As he breached the top of the dune he nearly wept in relief at the oasis that was spread before him, and behind him he heard the rising noise of -
A rattling, turquoise International Harvester juddered to a stop right next to him, practically shedding rust on his shoes. "Kid, ferchristsake, hey kid!" The driver had been calling to him for some time, Joe suddenly realized. He looked into the cab of the old truck and smiled. An exasperated farmer rolled his eyes at Joe from behind the wheel. "Kid, get out of the road. Some asshole is gonna hit you if you keep walking the line." Joe looked down and saw a stripe of yellow under his feet, and raised his wide eyes back to the driver. "Sorry, mister. I didn't realize. Thanks. Sorry," he trotted over to the dusty shoulder; the farmer watched him from the geriatric truck until he was sure that Joe wouldn't leap back onto the road and cocked a quick wave through the window as the wheezing vehicle laboriously built speed.
For a couple hundred feet Joe kept to the shoulder and counted the rows of corn that faded away at his right. They rustled at him, he whistled back tunelessly. The tall green stalks were over his head by at least a foot, foaming yellow silk around the fat green ears, heavy and almost ready for harvest. He could smell the sweetness of the fields, hear the whisper of wind on the leaves, and feel the shadows cast by the stalks crossing his face with every other step he took. He picked up a broken broomstick that someone had tossed aside into the dirt and held it crosswise against his body, ready to use his trusty machete to slash at any of the deadly venomous snakes that surely infested this jungle. Intrepid Joe the noble explorer swatted away hanging vines and jewel-bright insects, keeping the mighty Amazon at his left to guide him to the treasure concealed in the hidden city Amazonia. He shifted his grip on the broomstick and his machete became a spear to defend himself against hostile natives or the noxious Baron Michael von Allen who sought to steal Joe's prize and his lovely Indian bride. Joe darted forward in spurts, jumping over crocodiles with great snapping mouths and avoiding pools full of ravenous piranhas. From the trees there suddenly came an unearthly moaning and he came to a wary halt, holding his spear ready to face whatever came his way.
The noise of the leaves increased and the moaning built to a basso crescendo and from the jungle before him there emerged a terrible monster - black and white and taller than the trees. Joe cried out - and backed away. The huge bird opened its mouth and hissed, its hideous pink neck billowing in rage, and charged right at Joe. He turned tail and thundered back down the shoulder, dashing through puddles and over tire treads but still the hissing perused him as cornrows flashed by on his left, their shadows turning his vision into a stuttering strobe. He started to look back when he felt an enormous, burning pressure just above his waist. He fell and the ostrich pounded through him, overtaking him by fifteen feet before turning around and running at him again. Joe barely managed to roll away from the onslaught and felt the huge talons rip through his jeans and into the flesh of his calf. Again the bird was preparing to charge - Joe tightened his fists and found that he was still holding the broomstick, his trusty spear. Intrepid Joe wasn't about to get killed in some manky jungle by any overgrown chicken. The ostrich mounted its charge and Joe forced himself to sit up and grasp his spear in both hands, thrusting it up into the body of his attacker as it came at him. The bird squawked, dragging its following foot over his shoulder as its fearsome run dissolved into an awkward shamble and fall. Joe wrenched weakly at his spear but it was too firmly lodged within his foe to come away. "Take that, you turkey," he mumbled before sagging onto the ground.
His eyes did their trick again and he was once more holding onto the earth, trying not to be swept into the fathomless sky.
Joe woke up somewhere cool, white, and beeping. Had he been captured by aliens? Kidnapped by the government for medical experimentation seemed more likely. He was thirsty and everything was too bright. He heard shouting that was getting louder as his mind worked itself around to the fact that he was in a hospital room and that was a good place to be if his body planned to continue hurting the way that it was at the moment. The door on the far side of the room slammed open and words resolved themselves from the hallway.
"- two thousand dollars worth of bird that your boy killt and I want to know who's paying for it!"
"Donny, if you're too stupid to latch the gate of your damned pens and your ostriches are too stupid not to get stuck when they're trying to kill a ten-year-old boy, maybe it's time to go back to ranching chickens. Nobody's paying you a damned penny and you should get right out of here before I decide to sue you for the hospital bill," a pretty woman with red hair and red cheeks was yelling at someone on the other side of the wall. That's my mother, Joe thought and he smiled at her angry profile, closing his eyes.
Lower now, he heard the other voice again. "Wull, I just am glad to hear that your boy will be okay. Hope he's right as rain as soon as can be, missus Martin. There's no need to talk like that - "
"Good. Now go away," the pretty, angry, mother-lady at the door said. She stepped into the room and he heard the latch click behind her. He heard her steps on the clean white tile, then felt her weight settling on the bed by his knee, and finally her warm hand picked up his cold one and squeezed.
"How you feeling, honey?"
"Ma, I killed a dinosaur," that warm hand tightened on his again. She made a sound that might have been a laugh and might have been a sob.
"That's great, Joey. Tell me all about it."