Set up: A small coastal town is struck by a meteorite. Nobody but nine year old Ben McIntyre, who finds the meteorite, seems to recognize the devastation.
Chapter One: The Meteroite
Ben heard a rushing sound outside. He looked up from his Sketch-A-Roo and saw a bright light through the window.
His grandparents’ house shook. Drawers of utensils fell to the floor. Ben crawled under the dining room table for cover.
A minute passed. The shaking stopped.
Ben’s father came inside through the kitchen door. “Ben, I need your help out here.” He said it as if it were an ordinary day. “Round up the pigs. They’re loose.”
Ben came out from under the table. He stood and brushed himself off, leaving his Sketch-A-Roo, now blank, on the floor.
“The pigs? But—” Ben’s gaze traveled through the haze of plaster dust into the kitchen, automatically seeking out his mother. She looked lost. Her eyes were foggy. “Mom, are you okay?”
“Go ahead, Ben,” she said, pointing to the door.
Ben’s Grandma Verbena was busy retrieving a bucket and mop from the hall closet.
His father barked, “Outside. Let’s go!”
Ben crossed the kitchen and pushed past his father. He stepped outside and blinked at the blazing sun. He checked his watch, a hand-me-down for his ninth birthday. The watch showed ten A.M. but the hands were frozen. Ben tapped on the glass and wound the stem. Nothing. His watch had stopped. “Great.”
A gust of wind blew past. Ben smelled something, but couldn’t place it. He pushed his glasses up his nose and walked toward the side of the barn where the pigpen was. The gate was open, but the pigs were inside, huddled together, sniffing at each other. “I thought you got out,” Ben said. They ignored him. He closed the gate and felt a prickling sensation at the back of his neck. “Ehh.”
The Walker farm spread up from a valley to a rise overlooking the town of Ada. Ben decided to walk up the hill and have a look from the edge of his grandparents’ property. He glanced back at the house. If I hurry, they won’t know I’m gone.
Ben navigated between two rows of tobacco. His small frame, dark hair, and white on blue clothes, allowed him to blend into the shadows. The ground felt strange, spongy beneath his feet. He looked back to the house again. The terrain appeared wavy. "That’s weird.”
Ben reached the top of the hill. “Holy moly!” A long and deep gash had been torn into the earth. It started at the bay, ran through Ada, and ended at the Mud River. Downtown Ada was gone. Trees obscured Ben’s view of the nearest street. He couldn’t see if there were people. He couldn’t see if anyone had survived.
He ran down the hill toward town.
Breaking through the brush at the edge of First Street, Ben could see that the gash had swallowed the two square blocks that comprised Ada’s downtown. The remnants of buildings and trees looked as though they had been cut on a plane, as if a table saw had run through them. Ben walked over to what remained of the florist shop and looked through the window. It was exposed on the other side like the back of a dollhouse. He could see the interior of a store across the gash. Ben was confused.
If something sliced through here, wouldn’t there be debris inside these buildings?
But there was almost no rubble beside the gash, and none inside the buildings. It was as if that part of town had been erased.
Ben continued down First Street toward the bay. To his right he saw a sidewalk, the park, and the library, all intact. To his left he saw the interiors of the buildings on the other side of the void left by the gash, all that remained of downtown.
Ben looked back at the street and saw a person, a man, staring at the ground.
“Hey! Sir? Are you all right? What happened?” Ben asked.
“What?” The man looked dazed.
“What happened to the town?”
“What?” The man didn’t seem to understand.
A woman emerged from the front half of the post office, startling Ben. She seemed lost.
“Ma’am? Can I help you?”
“Have you seen my broom? I need to get things ready.”
“No, Ma’am,” Ben said. “Ready for what?”
The man turned to Ben. “Yes, I need my sledgehammer.” His eyes seemed to snap into focus.
“I, ah, I don’t see any brooms or, or hammers,” said Ben, stepping away from the people. As he began to turn, Ben noticed more people coming out into the street. They too seemed dazed. Ben heard one ask another for a broom.
Ben had a feeling of dread. What’s wrong with them? Have they seen other people? Dead people? Sawed off body parts?
Ben spoke to another nearby man. “Is everyone…okay? Does anyone need help?”
The man ignored Ben and placed a coiled piece of rope in the middle of the street.
Ben backed away from the man and inspected the rest of the storefronts on First Street. He was relieved not to find any gruesome scenes. But when he turned around, he was surprised to see more people out in the street. They were setting out ropes and ladders and brooms and hammers.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked a woman carrying a stepladder out of a store.
She did not respond.
Why aren’t they looking for missing people? Why aren’t they talking?
Goose bumps formed on Ben’s arms. He refocused on the void in front of him. He gulped as he peered over the edge. It went down and down. Standing out in the August sun, the gash seemed like the darkest place Ben could imagine. He continued looking in, cupping his hands over his eyes to help them adjust to the absence of light, but he couldn’t see anything at the bottom. He wasn’t sure there was one. He felt dizzy and noticed a sulphurous smell in his nose. He stood.
When Ben turned back to the street, there were more people and tools. The people were quiet and calm. They seemed organized.
They’re giving me the creeps. But at least no one seems to be hurt.
Ben suddenly wanted to leave town and flee the silent workers. He turned around and started walking, following the gash in the earth toward the river.
I can find what caused this. The flash in the sky…I think it was a meteorite.
As Ben walked, he imagined a pitted, metallic rock at the end of the gash. It won’t look like anything else here. He wondered how big the meteorite would be. From what he remembered from reading about meteorites at school, it might be no bigger than a kernel of wheat. It’s got to be bigger than that. It split open the earth. Wait, don’t they usually make craters?
Ben followed the gash into marshland. He noticed that here, too, the area to his left looked relatively unaffected, but to the right the marsh grasses and clumps of peat looked as though they had been sawed off right at the edge of the gash. Ben stopped and ran his hand along a row of remaining cattails. The brown seed heads were warm from the sun. Ben looked beyond them into the void.
“Hey, there’s the bottom. I can see it!” Ben thought it must be a hundred yards down.
Ben continued tracing the gash from the marsh through a wooded area toward the river. As Ben came out of the woods, he saw that the gash became narrow and shallow, and eventually petered out along a wide, slow moving stretch of the Mud River.
Ben took off his shoes, placing them on a flat rock next to the gash. He rolled his pants, waded into the river, and began his search for the meteorite. Crossing back and forth, Ben used landmarks on the riverbank to keep track of where he had been. He searched for two hours, but didn’t find the meteorite.
He sat on a log in the middle of the river. “What was I thinking? It probably wasn’t even a meteorite, leaving a trail like this…” Ben said to himself. Looking back to his left, he could see the path the gash had cut through the trees.
Does the gash seem narrower? I don’t know…
Ben splashed some water on his face and neck. Turning his head to the side he saw something upstream beneath the water’s surface, a furrow in the sand. He looked both ways. The furrow was aligned with the opening through the woods. He rose and, careful not to cloud the water, walked alongside the furrow until it narrowed to the width of his finger. Ben stopped. There, within the last bit of disturbed river bottom, Ben saw something glow. He stepped closer. It looked like a peapod. And inside there was a little speck, the tiniest of specks, of gold winking at him.
“This is it!” Ben’s voice trembled.
He took another step. Sand swirled, obscuring the glowing peapod. When Ben could see the riverbed again, the furrow was gone and the peapod partially buried. He bent down, dug his fingers into the bottom of the river, and made a fist around the peapod. Ben stood and watched the sandy riverbed trickle out from the space between his fingers. He opened his hand and stared at the peapod in his palm. Its glow began to dim.
“Wow.” Ben scratched at the peapod with his fingernail, trying to loosen the gold speck. It wouldn’t budge. Ben’s hand tingled. A shiver ran up his spine. He put the peapod in his pocket and hurried back to the riverbank.
“What the—” Ben’s shoes and the rock that he had put them on were gone. “They were right here. Right next to the...” Ben then realized that the gash was gone too. He tried digging in the ground. It was unyielding, like cement. “Come on!” Ben went back into the woods. The gash was still there, a few yards in. “It’s getting…shorter? It took my shoes. Man!” Ben ran back to where his shoes had been and tried digging again, this time with a stick. He could not make a dent in the hard earth.
“I need to tell someone.”
* * * *
Ben returned to town with scraped, muddy feet and a meteorite in his pocket. He noticed that the gash had gotten smaller here too, but it was still at least as wide as a street. The town was full of people now and they were silently, robotically dismantling the remains of downtown on either side of the void.
Ben watched the butcher throw a weighted rope to someone on the other side of the gash. That man looped the rope over the remains of a small tree. The butcher and a few other men pulled until the tree and the rope fell into the void. Someone handed the butcher another rope and they started the process over again.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked.
The butcher looked at Ben but didn’t answer.
Well at least he heard me.
A woman said in a robotic voice, “Why aren’t you at story hour?”
Ben didn’t know what she meant. They’re all bonkers. I want to go home.
* * * *
“Mom!” shouted Ben as he ran up the driveway. “Mom! I’m sorry I’m late. People in town are acting like robots…and…” Ben held his side. He had a cramp and was out of breath from running. “…I…I found the meteorite…I have it,” he said. Ben opened the back door to his grandparent’s house. The sun was setting behind him.
“Whoa, young thing. Hose off those feet this instant!” said Grandma Verbena.
Ben blinked. The house looked immaculate, cleaner and…sturdier than Ben had thought possible.
“Sorry, Grandma.” Ben hesitated. “Is Grandpa home yet?”
“From where?” Ben’s grandmother looked bewildered. “Ben, sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Grandpa probably got back right after I left. Or else how could they have fixed everything so fast? Ben shook off his confusion and held up the peapod. “See what I found?”
His grandmother smiled at him, but didn’t look. “I said get those dirty feet out of this kitchen.”
Ben’s mother entered from the dining room. “Ben! Your shirt’s filthy and you’re dripping sweat. Where have you been? Where are your shoes? Oh, never mind. Wash your face and change clothes before your father sees you.”
Ben went back outside and, gritting his teeth, hosed off his feet. He saw clean clothes hanging on the line. After wiping his hands and feet with the shirt he had been wearing, Ben grabbed a clean one. He headed into the house to the bathroom to finish washing. While scrubbing his hands over the sink, Ben heard his father come inside.
“I’ve thought it over Eleanor…there is plenty for me to do here. And the land is in better shape than our place…I think we should stay. I’ll work the farm and you help your mother around the house.”
What? But we have our own farm. This is Grandma and Grandpa’s place.
“Oh, wonderful. Momma, did you hear that?”
“I did,” said Grandma Verbena. “I don’t know how much help you’ll be Eleanor, but I’d like the company.”
Ben walked into the dining room.
His father said, “We can talk more after dinner.”
Dinner was different that night. Ben felt like he was waiting, perhaps for the continuation of the conversation that had started before dinner. He wasn’t sure. He ate his chicken and boiled potatoes. He watched his parents and grandmother for some sign of what was to come. He got none. They ate silently and mechanically.
Why aren’t they talking about the meteorite or what’s happening in town? Maybe they don’t know. But where’s Grandpa and my uncles? Grandpa never misses dinner.
Grandma Verbena went into the kitchen and Ben asked his parents, “Where are Grandpa and Uncle Joe and Uncle Mike?”
“They’re not here,” replied his mother.
“But where are they? Did something—”
“They’re gone,” his mother clarified.
“What?! Gone where?”
“Gone,” repeated his father. His face was blank.
Ben seemed to be the only one distressed by this news.
“Did they get swallowed by the gash in the earth?” Ben asked. “That’s what happened to my shoes today.” He trembled.
“What are you talking about? You lost your shoes?” said Ben’s father.
Just tell them what happened. “A meteorite hit town. That’s where I was today. I read about meteorites in school. I…I found this one in the river. See?” Ben took the green object out of his pocket and held it up. His parents did not look. Ben put it on the table. “It didn’t just hit town, it split open the earth from the bay to the river. It went through downtown Ada, but where it touched the buildings and everything…it’s like they were zapped out of existence.” His pace quickened. “And…and, I found it, the meteorite, in the river…and now somehow the earth is closing back up. It closed up over my shoes before I could get them…and people seem to want to get rid of what’s left… What if Grandpa is down there? Shouldn’t we look for him? Don’t you think we could still get him out?”
“That’s not where he is,” said Ben’s mother. Her eyes looked foggy.
Ben waited for her to say more. His father spoke instead.
“Nothing like that happened to your grandfather or uncles. What nonsense.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m not paying for a new pair of shoes,” he grumbled.
“Then what did happen?” Ben picked up the peapod. “You’re not—”
“Put that leaf or whatever it is away!”
“But it’s not a leaf. I told y—”
“Ben!” Ben’s father took one breath and then another. “We’ve had a long day. Let’s just cut out the nonsense tonight.”
“But what if—”
“I said, that’s enough!” Ben’s father slammed the table with his hand.
Ben scowled. What is wrong with everyone!? They’re not listening.
Grandma Verbena came back in from the kitchen and sat down. She nodded to her daughter.
“Ben, we have something more important to discuss,” said Ben’s mother.
More important than what happened to Grandpa?
Ben kept his eyes down.
“Ben, how would you like to live here?” she asked.
“What? But what about Grandpa and Uncle Joe and Uncle Mike—there isn’t room. And what about our house?”
“No, no, we’ll sell our house, honey.”
“So we won’t—I mean, but there isn’t enough room for all of us here…”
“There’s plenty of room for the four of us!” Ben’s mother laughed.
Why isn’t anyone talking about Grandpa and my uncles?
His father said, “It’s settled then.”
Ben’s grandmother nodded and went back to the kitchen.
“I’ll show you your new room,” said Ben’s mother. She stood and waited for him.
“Okay, Mom.” Ben walked upstairs with his mother.
Ben’s mother took him up to the room that had belonged to his uncle Joe, but it was empty. There was no sign that Eleanor’s brother had slept and grown and lived in that room.
Ben asked, “Whose room is this?”
His mother looked puzzled. “It’s your room, dear.”
“But, didn’t Uncle Joe sleep here and live here and everything…just yesterday? Where are all his things? Where will he go?”
“I…I don’t know what you mean. We cleaned the house today. I hope you like it. It’s bigger than your old room.” Ben’s mother patted his back and left him in the doorway.
The room was spare. There was a bed, dresser, desk, and chair. Ben looked under the bed, in the closet, and in the desk and dresser drawers. The only thing he found was under a loose floorboard at the bottom of the closet—an old notepad that had the word “Joe” written on the front. That was all that remained of his uncle.
Ben took the green meteorite out of his pocket and put it with his uncle’s notepad under the floorboard. It was hot and stuffy in the room. Ben opened the window next to the bed. He decided to lie down. Thinking about the meteorite and its path, he fell asleep.
West of Ada, the Mud River meanders north before making its way east and spilling into the bay. A brackish swamp fills the gap between Ada and the two bodies of water to the north and east. In the early morning, Ben dreamt of this swamp. In his dream, water from the swamp filled the gash left by the meteorite. Grasses, vines and trees from the swamp began growing over the path that remained. Ben twisted in bed, still half in sleep, imagining his grandfather and uncles fleeing town through the swamp. Ben watched helplessly as they sank into the gash and…disappeared. The grasses grew over them. Ben’s eyes opened. His heart was racing and he was covered in sweat. He sat up and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings.
Uncle Joe’s room. No—it was just a dream. Just a dream. But where did they go?
Ben was lying on top of the bed covers. He was still dressed in the clothes he wore the day before. He realized his mother hadn’t checked on him during the night.
She always tucks me in.