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The sky was black from smoke that puffed endlessly from the factories in the east. There was always a sharp, raspy smell in that part of the city, weaving and rolling through the endless corridors where the horizon seemed cut off by colossal concrete monoliths that spewed their gassy deposits from spouts. And there was always the sound of clinking, squeaking gears and machinery over there as well that never ceased and always kept people awake and dreary as long assembly lines coughed out cars and appliances few could now buy.
Skyscrapers and office buildings stood high and magnificent above the pathetic tin and wooden shacks at their feet and yet were dark and empty, holding up floors that were never used anymore. They helped no one and they hadn’t for a long time. Debauchery and delinquents ruled the streets below. There was crime and almost complete poverty in the poorer sections of the once sprawling metropolis that was now nothing more than a dark forest of metal and wood and old, aging buildings held up by decomposing frames in need of repair.
Babies cried, children laughed, sirens and whistles blared and sputtered and all the while the factories looming over the dirty city and its citizens continued to belch out black smoke and pump out things men still made money with, peering down at the chaos from a high, safe tower, laughing and sneering from their little sanctuaries on stilts at those who had so much less.
Rupert stared silently with a small head propped up with a dirty palm out the glassless window of his uncle’s shack. He was small and had been given torn, baggy clothes to live in that had once belonged to a store clerk; he’d found them in a dusty old edifice a while ago. They smelled like wet dog then and they did now. They’d never been washed.
He had a large brown checkered hat on his head that drooped well over his red ears and was held up by no more than his thick brown hair that poked through holes on the top. His shoes (also very large) looked almost clownish on him for they were also his uncle’s old pair of size ten loafers. He had to tie them extra tight to keep them from slipping and they still flopped like popped tires.
There was a family across the street from him. He watched them now. They were also under the roof of a shack all their own. Rupert guessed they must’ve set it up the night before because they were the first thing he saw when he awoke this musty morning. There was a father, a mother, and a small baby wrapped tightly in bright white blankets in a cradle behind them. The father wore a nice brown suit and a matching hat and briefcase sat beside him. He looked very tired and had large black bags underneath his soft eyes.
A cigarette hung loosely from his thin, pale lips, sending dancing puffs of smoke into the air while he sat thinking on a wooden box he’d dragged somewhere It staining the back of his khaki colored pants due to the moistness of the warped wood which had once held some sort of meat and was crusty with holes and the fungus that filled them up. The mother who sat behind him, deeper into the shack near the baby, had on a nice yellow dress with flowers on it and Rupert guessed they were tulips, although he wasn’t very sure. Her high-heels had been tossed to the side. She must’ve done a lot of walking the night before, Rupert inferred, because her feet were square and red on the sides under her thin stockings.
The father sighed and reached behind him, snatching up a brown, crumpled paper bag and placed it lightly under a blue mattress he’d scrounged from somewhere. The bag had cans in it, Rupert could hear them clack en route to the springs and fluff. To Rupert, the thought of the cans and the wonderful fatty food sloshing inside them made his stomach bubble and ache and grumble.
The boy put a hand in a deep pocket, suddenly hungry, and tore off a piece of bread that sat down in it, placed it in his mouth and savored the stale, hard, and yet still buttery taste. He bobbled his legs and made his shoes wobble over his small feet while he chewed. The crusty webs of grain made him want more and he silently debated on whether he should ask the family across the street for a can or two for his uncle and himself. But then he looked at the baby and he threw the thought away.
A group of boys who had real homes ran past him with a golden bat etched proudly with the name of some company shaking in between them. They were looking for a ball; Rupert had heard the crack of their bat from down the street. The boys were clean and had neat, combed hair and bright clothes that fit them just right. They were loud and yelped to each other like excited little animals in the concrete jungle as they dodged around cars that honked their horns back in frustration. The boys didn’t even seem to notice the sad, depressed faces that sat on the sidewalks watching them and that bothered Rupert, although he didn’t understand why. Up the street they flew, past Rupert and the others in the shacks as they ran ahead, on their way to bright futures while those under the tin and wood would have to wait out the rest of their lives in poverty and hopelessness.
Rupert listened to their cackles fade away in his ears and, when they died out completely, he found he envied them. He envied their nice clothes and their rich parents and the opportunities they had for them, all laid out on a nice platter so they could pick and choose, pick, choose, then throw away and restart again. And this envy filled him to the brim with sadness.
The bread was halfway down his throat by now and he clicked his lips as it grinded past the muscles in his dry esophagus. It left a bad taste in his mouth so he shut his eyes and spit a small drip of saliva down onto the sidewalk only to look back up and find a nice long salami stick trembling in front of his nose. It was his uncle.
His droopy, bearded face cast a shadow across the cut of meat held firmly by a bony, gnarled hand. His long ears, pointed on their tops and curved like bat wings, twitched in the bright light that flowed through the opening of the shack as rays of pasty blue curved over his head and through the very grey hairs that poked loosely from his scalp. He was a very thin, old man who grew thinner by the day and was covered from shoulders to knees in a black coat and jeans topped off by a long blue cloth. Rupert reached over with a quivering hand to touch the food as the old figure in front of him slid off the top of the paper wrapping and net and handed him a chunk with graceful ease. In his hands, Rupert stared down at the salted piece handed to him, almost unbelievingly, and bit into it, allowing the hearty flavor to soak into the holes of his tongue and roll down his throat. Little dust particles floated by him, reflected in the light, and his entire body rejoiced. He doubted he’d ever tasted anything so delicious as that little piece of salami. His stomach grumbled, asking for more and getting more.
“Ah,” Rupert said, licking his lips and picking the spices from his teeth. “Where did you find it?”
His uncle sat down on the top of a stool and squinted out the window at the family across the street. The father was still smoking away, puffing hard on the butt of the thing. He had been gone since the early morning and hadn’t seen the new neighbors.
“They showed up last night I’m guessing?” he whispered to Rupert in a low, coarse voice that seemed to tear his voice box to tiny shreds.
“Yes,” Rupert replied very quietly, leaning back against a pile of cardboard as if he’d finished a feast. “They showed up last night I think. I saw them sitting there first thing this morning.”
His uncle uttered nothing more and slowly chewed his piece of salami as he looked out the window, eyeing the family. The smoke from the father’s cigarette floated into the air, whirling in a cold breeze down the street. His pupils followed the warm fumes until they dwindled away and the man dropped the cigarette to the hard concrete and allowed the orange tip to die away. Rupert could tell the old man was just itching for a smoke.
Rupert leaned over so his uncle could see him as he licked the grease from the tips of his fingers.
“Where’d you get the salami, Uncle?” he asked again.
“Unimportant. As long as we have something to eat, it’s unimportant.”
Rupert dropped the conversation and looked down at the ground, then back at his uncle and the stick of salami clenched in his hand. He couldn’t wait to taste it cooked tonight… that is, if they could get a fire going. Their only matches were soggy and broken and they only had the fumes of lighter fluid to work with.
Far away, a car honked in the distance and skidded to a halt before a crack of a bat was heard that echoed down the street: the boys.
The old man looked up at Rupert and handed him the rest of the salami stick but the boy, although exulted to the point of falling back, hesitated at first.
“Don’t you want to save it?” he asked.
The bony skull of the man shook from side to side and he said, “Nah, you have it, boy. I’m not hungry and I can find some more tomorrow if we’re lucky.”
Rupert began to salivate and his entire body suddenly felt so much stronger as he nearly tore the stick from his uncle’s hand. Then he drew back and apologized with the meat in his tiny hands. His uncle just looked back at him and smiled with a toothless grin.
“Eat the whole thing if you want to,” he said and sat back against the hard wall of a condemned bank they had set up camp in front of, breathing deeply through his nose.
Rupert looked at the hunk of salami that appeared so big in his hands which were pressed tightly against the net and paper. A white spice in the center of the torn piece seemed to peer up at Rupert, staring like an eye.
He bit into it, listening to his jaw click happily and his uncle’s lips spread wide.
“Good. Now you enjoy that.”
The boy looked up at his uncle lovingly and sat down on his thin lap. It felt as if it would snap if he wasn’t too careful on it. Softly, he got comfortable, chewing away at the salami while his uncle wrapped his thin arms about him.
The boys in the nice clothes rushed past the shacks again and tossed back and forth a newly bought ball. Two of them were arguing with the boy with the bat, squabbling in small, adolescent squeals. Their ball was nice and white and still bore a price tag looped under a stitch which the boys hadn’t bothered to tear off. They tossed it some more then smacked it hard with the bat and sent it sailing down the street, smashing on top of a pile of boxes full of fish. A man with a white stained apron flapping in the wind yelled harshly from out of a shop and, wide-eyed and perky, the boys fled back the way they had come.
When noon came and the sun hidden behind the mist and smoke seemed to temporarily pause its lumber over the city allowing only the strongest rays to seep through, a loud, long siren went off at every factory, signaling the end of a shift for those who worked in them. For some, the factories served as their only real homes, housing them from the elements and disorder that remained on the streets and giving them a reason to stay alive in a world that no longer had any purpose to live in unless there was the slightest bit of hope that remained safe in the back of one’s mind, the hope that change might come around for the better. But those who lived in the stony spires always returned to their homes, wishing, always wishing for something better than what they had. Rupert saw the sad pattern unravel every day from beneath the shack, each one after the next only more drearier.
Rupert watched from the safety of his uncle’s wiry arms around his belly like a miniature fortress, protecting him from the poor men who trudged past, down the street from the factories or toward it, covered in filth or dressed prepared for the smoky conditions. Workers, those who came from the factories hunched and tired, had puffy hands that were bruised and shaken from the constant hammering and pulling of machinery and the levers that brought them to life. Their hair was black like ink and their miserable faces, lips pulled to form a frown, were smeared with sweat and dirt that made every pore on their skin swell up to the size of ball bearings. Their eyes stood out from
the rest of their bodies that were weak and unstable, the only color on them that wasn’t dark and hoary. The whites of their eyes and the colors of their inner eye all probed the street with a hint of sadness and doubt that made them all appear like lost dogs in a very dark room with the sun shining from their eyes, all searching for the thing that would make them more human.
Those who lived in apartments walked slowly up the steps to their door which they opened and allowed Rupert, still sitting, watching intently, to catch a glimpse of the inside which was just overflowing with swarms of humans sitting upon the staircases, slumped down on the wood floors and walking blindly about the building, trading, cursing, and crying. And after every encounter, every slam of the wood, Rupert would huddle up closer to his uncle who never hesitated to hold him tighter.
Then, those in the next shift would open their doors and walk the opposite way the lost dogs had waddled from and begin their part of the work that kept the city alive in a never-ending process of hard labor and cheap pay. It was the unstoppable train of industry that its inhabitants struggled just to keep upright along with themselves because, if the train went down, they all went down with it.
Rupert chewed away at his food and he watched the series of events unfold from under the small shack. A worker tripped by them on the part of the sidewalk that was still visible under the mounds of makeshift homes and lightly kicked the frame of their shack, whether accidental or on purpose, Rupert didn’t know, and sent a pile of opened cans clattering to the floor. The worker said nothing and the uncle didn’t twitch. Instead, the worker, whose face was hardly visible beneath a mask of soot across his face, just continued on down the street infested by blaring cars and those like him and turned into an alley between two crumbling grocery markets.
Looking down at the last piece of salami, Rupert took it and rolled it in his hand, between his fingers and over their tips, touching it. He threw it in his mouth, chewing lightly and savoring the juices that seeped out from it until it was nothing more than a dry corpse of a thing that he swallowed and felt plop down and shatter in his belly. Shutting his eyes, he leaned back against the chest of his guardian who patted him on the head.
“Was it good?” he asked. Rupert could feel the hot breath of the old man against his neck. It smelled of spices.
“It was… the most wonderful thing I’ve ever tasted,” Rupert sputtered and reached up to touch his dry lips. His mouth was rough and burning now but he didn’t care. He felt his stomach and it seemed to bulge until he looked down and he found that it wasn’t any larger than before. The salami made it feel as large and wide as the outside of a barrel.
His hat began to droop over his eyes and he started to shut them until his uncle placed his hands beneath his armpits and lifted him up. Rupert lifted the hat from his eyes and spread his arms wide, feeling the trembling palms of his uncle lifting him through the air and placing him on the top of another crate next to him. It was also wooden and shook and for a moment the boy thought he was going to slip off before he fell back and gently tapped the concrete wall behind him.
He smiled as he lifted the cap on his head with a finger and his uncle smiled back. He planted his hands on his knees and then gave Rupert a very strange expression, one that held both a secret and a look of hesitation. Then, as his old, weary eyes peered deeply into Rupert’s and Rupert stared back, that expression died away and his uncle’s face was left with a hollow look of uncertainty. But his mouth opened anyway, although Rupert expected it not to, and he began to speak.
“Rupert,” he said, “on my walk this morning I passed by many, many sad people on this street and others as well. We live in a harsh time, Rupert. There is just so much poverty in this city and many others across the world and I never expected this world to come to this… period, such a miserable period in its history ever again. I thought times such as these were done and gone forever. I guess I was wrong.”
He paused and looked Rupert straight in the eyes after struggling to cross a leg. The roof shook as a blow of wind whistled across it.
“But,” he continued,” I can remember when the world used to be a beautiful place. It used to be filled with happiness and joy. It was a place where everything was plentiful because everyone knew how to work together and get things done in a fair and reasonable way.”
Rupert stared up at his uncle, a strange expression carved on his little face.
“And there was cleanliness, and lots of it too,” he said, pointing up at the smoke stacks in the distance that were beginning to start up again.
“Yes, I can remember when the sun was out twelve hours a day nonstop and everyone would always be warm. People could go outside in the streets and dance and everyone would have such a good time because no one had to worry about anything.” A hand was lifted and curved the fingers into a circle. “Everything was just right. Everything was how it should be.”
“How long ago was that, Uncle?”
“Oh, it was so long ago. Today started to bloom years before you were born.”
“Oh,” Rupert said and stared at the floor.
There was a period of silence as Rupert processed the information received in his grey brain. Never before had he wondered what life had been like long ago. He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to have everything, anything you wanted. His mind wandered far as he considered every possibility and thought hard about the life his uncle said had been so much better until, before long, without warning, a door was opened somewhere inside, deep down and was overcome by new ideas and thoughts that swept across him. No cooking food beside a condemned bank, no sipping water from puddles just to get something to drink, no any of that had existed in the world his uncle spoke of. But, he thought, was such a world possible? It didn’t seem so to him, he had lived in these conditions his entire life and found it difficult to imagine life any other way.
“I remember when people had money. When everyone used to buy things and sell things, making the world go round. Yes, I do remember that well. But now,” the old man said pointing to the shacks that dotted the sidewalks, “nobody has anything.”
“What did the money look like, Uncle?” Rupert asked, tapping on his uncle’s knee, interested.
“Well, here, anyway, it was all green and silver, and had engravings of leaders on their sides. And they used to come in different amounts, ones, fives, tens, so on.”
“Yes, yes. They were very valuable, those pieces of paper and bits of metal. It’s not like they’re extinct now but we sure don’t use them anymore. But they do.” He shot a glance at a hole in the roof and at a tower. “They do. The ones who own all this. The ones who control us and don’t help us in our time of need.”
He reached down and touched Rupert’s head, his face transfixed in thought from his uncle’s claims. His cap hung loosely from his head and he adjusted it so it wouldn’t fall off.
“And that, Rupert, is why I’ve decided to leave and take you with me.”
Rupert’s eyes widened, dilating, and he stood nearly upright in his seat.
“We’re leaving, Uncle? Well, where else is there to go?”
His uncle smiled.
“Very far away, Rupert. As far as possible from this city and the doomed, forgotten souls that live here.”
He took Rupert’s shoulder and shook it, pointing into the sky.
“We’re going far, far away.”
Soon after their decision to leave, it was about two o’ clock when Rupert and his uncle gathered up the few supplies the old man said they would need, placing them in knapsacks thrown against their backs, and departed from their small shack and set out into the countryside. It was much lighter here than in the city although the smoke still blocked out most of the sun and Rupert couldn’t help but stare in fascination at the very few farms that dotted the landscape and the long, bustling highways above them filled with speeding cars screaming along the bridges. To Rupert, the entire experience felt very strange and halfway across a rolling field of wheat, he took off his cap and let it drop to the ground, allowing it to sink down deep into the brown abyss of grass and disappear as the sun that made its way through a tear in a cloud shown down on him and his waving hair.
A cold wind that blew through the fields had no effect on him then and he trailed closely behind the trail of his uncle in wheat feeling somewhat enlightened, uplifted. As he looked up in the sky filled with misty haze, he noticed four rays of light sliver their way through the smoke and he kept his eye on them and watched them grow larger, thicker the further they got from the city. They headed toward the west, through abandoned country roads, over hillsides, and past real forests of wood and leaf, the whole way the rays shining the way ahead. As if someone was lighting their way to some place better.
“Uncle,” Rupert asked while traveling through a quiet grove, “will we see any of the things you told me about in the city when we reach… well, wherever we’re headed?”
“Perhaps. You never know. We could get lucky and stumble onto some place very nice on our way.”
“It certainly is a possibility.”
Across the ground, Rupert watched the twigs and leaves fly past his feet tripping beneath him and he concentrated on them for awhile, juggling the knapsack behind him against his back, listening to the cans with capped rubber from old boots jangle.
The rest of the way, the both of them remained quiet and content. But, as time passed, Rupert began to lose hope in the chances of falling into some hole in the ground and stumbling upon some magical utopia as he had expected may occur during their trek through a gulley or across a log and over some running river. However, as the day wore on and the two of them exited a wood and entered a small apple orchard, something caught the eye of the young boy Rupert for, just before he was about to pluck a very nice, plump fruit from a sagging branch, his uncle stopped walking in front of him. A wind blew once, an insect somewhere hummed, then all was silent. It was as if a giant switch had been pulled that made everything very quiet. The hair of his uncle flattened and he began walking forward before looking back and signaling to Rupert that all was safe. Rupert looked at his uncle then at the red apple hanging just a few inches from his hand and decided to let it go, taking one last look at its shining surface before doing so.
Rupert looked at his uncle and then his eyes wandered ahead to the row of trees in perfect alignment where he saw a man he at first thought to be no more than a common farmer. When he looked back up at his uncle, he found him to be staring into the boy’s face, searching for something.
“What is it, Uncle?” he asked. His uncle’s hand curved and he pointed at the man who stood so curiously in front of them, unmoving and quiet. Rupert looked at the man again, expecting nothing to strike him odd about him, but soon realized he couldn’t take his eyes off him after noticing just a few oddities, abnormalities, very quaint but still present.
The man was dressed in a brown leather jacket and jeans that hung loosely and curled over black shoes that stood straight on uneven ground. But his hands were tucked in the pockets of his pants, bulging as if holding things very large as he stared at Rupert now hiding behind his uncle with eyes, ink-black, more so than the face of the worker he had seen earlier in the day. His skin was the shade of spotted ivory and his hair was white even though his body seemed no older than that of a forty year-old man and was swept behind his ears which were surprisingly pointed like his uncle’s. A small nose existed above a thin, lipless mouth that was neither a hook nor a beak, nor was it shaped like any human’s. It was almost not even there.
Rupert drew back a bit and gasped as he flew behind the back of his uncle, behind the blue cloth on his back. His uncle smiled but the man in the orchard did nothing but watch the boy quiver in fright.
“Ah, no need to fear, Rupert!” the old man assured the child. “This is our friend, our means of transportation. A contact that will take us to a better place, away from this world and onto another,” he said, twisting around and bending down to the small boy’s height, again, with grace.
Rupert at first didn’t comprehend what his uncle had told him and stared at him, not knowing what to say, thinking, but not of what he meant to reply with.
“What…. What did you say?” he asked.
The old man’s shaking legs cracked violently when he stood and winced. His thin arms crossed over themselves and he looked down at the boy at his feet.
“Rupert,” he said, “there has always been something different about you. From you and the rest of the world and those children that play in the streets and the workers who come home from the factories sad and, for that matter, the rest of the people huddled in their shacks in the city we left and it’s not just the fact that you and I seem to be so much more aware of the present situation here on Earth. It’s the fact that both you and I… are not of this Earth.”
Rupert gulped and gave his uncle an expression that lacked all forms of certitude. His uncle sensed this and immediately smiled.
“I thought you wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true, Rupert. And this man in front of me…. This is who we truly are beneath this fleshy costume.”
With that said, he pulled at his skin and pinched Rupert’s, smiling. But, even still, the boy remained silent and unaffected by the old man’s words.
“Can you guess how old I am, Rupert? Have you ever tried to guess?”
“Old, I think,” he replied quietly. “Yes, old, I’m not sure how old.”
“What would you say if I told you I was actually two hundred and fifty five years on this planet? What would you?”
“Two hundred and….” Rupert trailed off, overcome with disbelief. “But if you’re…. How old am I, then?”
“You, my dear boy are only twenty years of age, a little behind schedule for it but only because of gravity here on Earth. It’s just a bit stronger than where you belong.”
“And… the stories you told me about happy people and a better place, that all must’ve happened nearly-”
“Around a hundred years ago, a little rounded. Long before you were born.”
Rupert shifted to the side so he could peer over the side of his uncle’s robe and stared back at the creature who he still regarded as even peculiar as before. He appeared threatening among the rows of apple trees, even though he was only an old man, a very old man for what Rupert considered standard. Man… no that wasn’t the word, Rupert knew. Thing was more like it. But then Rupert looked down at his hand, clenched it, then bit his lip.
“Well, what is he?” he asked.
“He’s a Lymbardian and so we. He has come from a planet very far away to come rescue us. With his help, we’ll be able to travel to a new home.”
“But, we don’t look anything like him… except for your ears, that is, they’re shaped like yours. Why is that?”
“Lymbardians have very advanced machines, Rupert, that allow them to change into any form they desire. So who we are now is not who we really are on the inside.”
With a finger, the old man shook a lobe of an ear. “These were just missed, I suppose. When we return to our ship, you may turn back as will I if you like. You may be resentful at first, but that is natural. I’ve actually begun to find a human body attractive but it isn’t mine or yours. They belong to humans.”
There was the sound of grass crunching beneath feet and, before Rupert could react, the large creature towered over the boy and peered down at him with those beady eyes. Rupert squirmed back to his uncle while the creature took a hand from a pocket and held it out to him. The boy squirmed even more when he realized he had only three fingers and he shivered.
“No, Rupert, don’t be afraid. Please don’t pass judgment on him too quickly. He’s not here to hurt any of us, I assure you of that. He’s actually quite kind and, although you may find it difficult to understand his sense of behavior, you‘ll soon see how kind.”
The boy’s body loosened a bit but he still shook and eyed the man in fear.
“Rupert,” his uncle said. “Remember what I told you earlier? About a past that used to be so much better? Well, that past is gone now and we’ll never see it again. Earth’s golden age is through, long gone. But, if we go with this man now, we can create one for ourselves, a new one on another planet better than this one.”
“Will we be together, as before?”
“Yes. But in a place so much more wonderful than this one where there is always light in even the darkest of places that will fill one’s soul with hope and happiness for all time, even in a city like the one we used to live in where sadness existed around every corner.”
A wind blew through the orchard and Rupert raised a hand while staring his uncle in the face. But he halted and drew back, wiggling his fingers in the air, cautiously.
“Forever?” he asked.
“Yes. Forever until the universe dies away or we have to move yet again as we did from our home world and as we’re doing now… as pioneers.”
Then the wind rushed in and out of the trees, shaking the apples that hung from them and the clicking leaves that curled around them as Rupert’s hand was clasped into the man’s that hung in front of him, willingly.
A hand patted Rupert on his shoulder and he looked back to find his uncle smiling. The soil beneath his feet trembled and, before he knew it, he sensed some machine, a flying machine, overhead, hovering above them, shaking the ground beneath him. He wanted to look up but felt too afraid to so he instead held onto his uncle’s pant leg and held on.
“I’ll go wherever you go, Uncle. To the stars if I have to.”
“Very good,” the uncle said back, rubbing his hand against the boy’s brown hair no longer concealed beneath the hat, he noticed, before the three of them, the pioneers, were engulfed in the brightest of lights that shone from above which was from the machine, Rupert knew. They were pulled up and soared into a gaping portal in the sky that pierced a hole through the grey and smoke and sailed away into the stars behind that vast curtain, into space and into the stars to another galaxy where happiness and hope could be found elsewhere. And Rupert, for the first time flying up through the unknown, felt a magical sensation called joy seep its way into his consciousness then that he loved as much as he loved his uncle who had taken him away from the dead earth and into the sky where anything possible existed in the vast and colorful universe he called home.