Hal Hamburger is gone! I can't believe it. Putty, she's gone too--Hal Hamburger's girlfriend--my cousin, you know. It's through her that I met Hal Hamburger (what a guy!). Of course, I knew of Hal Hamburger way before I met him. Everyone in town knows about Hal Hamburger. We're like brothers, Hal and me!
So where did he go?
I had wanted to go to France, but I got sent to the moon instead. It was that kind of crappy student exchange program. I bet they sent everyone to the moon.
But Hal Hamburger was big on France.
"You gotta go to France," Hal Hamburger said. "Everything's different in France. I've been a lot of places. France is best."
I could listen to Hal Hamburger talk about France all day.
"One day, as soon as I get some money," said Hal Hamburger, "I'm gonna fly away to France."
"You and me both, right?" laughed Putty, too loudly.
And yet, they still sent me to the moon.
"But I wanted to go to France," I said.
"Look, kid, it's the moon or nothing," said the student exchange man. "France is full this year. Anyway, don't they speak French on the moon?"
"It's probably like French," said the student exchange man. "I'll bet it's almost the same thing. I'll bet you won't even be able to tell the difference half the time."
Ooooh! If Hal Hamburger had been there, he would've straightened that guy out quick!
"Look at those marvelous babies," said Putty.
"Mnm," grunted Hal Hamburger.
Putty should know better than to talk to Hal Hamburger while he's busy. And she should know better than to turn up the TV so loud. Couldn't she see that Hal and I are having a meeting?
I had written a list of last night's take, for his convenience:
1 silver necklace
"It was a good night," mumbled Hal. "You did good."
I felt good all over. It's not easy to please Hal Hamburger. Hal Hamburger expects excellence. We stuck our necks out for each other every night. We were a team, Hal and me; we were like brothers.
"Aw, Hal, these babies are just too cute," said Putty.
Hal Hamburger tensed up.
"When we gonna have us a baby, huh, Hal?"
I'll say this for Hal Hamburger: he is a patient man.
So they sent me to Moon City.
When I lived in Moon City, I went to the park a lot. It was only a block away from my apartment. (I had my own apartment on the moon--and me only 12 years old! There was something to be said for this student exchange program, after all.)
At the park there were slithery trees with vines that hissed and glowed at night, small deep pools with boxy fish that burped sad little air bubbles, and drifting gas-bag creatures that floated around lazily in the air. Every once in a while they all went PHOOOT and they all shot across the purple fields, spurting hydrogen.
It was at the park that I met Jooka. Jooka wasn't from the moon either. She was an exchange student from Jupiter. She had silvery mystery eyes and long shiny hair and a long soft weird warm body she would wrap around me.
I wiggled and struggled but she would just coil around me tighter and laugh. And then she would whisper strange things in my ear, very odd things.
Hal Hamburger had his own house. Not bad for a guy who's only 19! But would you expect any less from Hal Hamburger? It was a small cinder block place in a big empty field with an orange doorbell. A secret road went there, and the grass was high. Hal Hamburger never mowed the lawn.
Let me tell you, a guy like Hal Hamburger has better things to do with his time!
Hal Hamburger had his own car. It was a cool car--almost as cool as Hal Hamburger. Hal and Putty and I drove around town.
I sat in back. Sometimes I leaned forward and listened to what Hal Hamburger had to say. But mostly I lay back and listen to the wind rush in my ears, feeling like part of the team.
We were riding like that the night before I left for the moon.
We were all there: Hal Hamburger, Putty, and me. It was dark. Hal Hamburger had the windows open. The air was crisp and smelled like burning leaves. The trees had red and purple and yellow leaves but you couldn't see them in the dark, and the air felt cold and exciting and I felt free, riding in Hal Hamburger's car.
"What are you gonna wear for Halloween, Hal?"
"Nothing," said Hal Hamburger.
"You better think of something before the party," said Putty.
"I'm not going to a stupid costume party," snorted Hal Hamburger.
"You promised me," said Putty.
"Shut up," said Hal Hamburger.
A man of many moods, Hal Hamburger. Only the day before he had been excited about the big costume party. He had Putty and me laughing with his big ideas--he was going to be a cowboy, then a robot, then a lion, then a lion dressed as a robot, or a robot dressed as a cowboy, or a lion dressed as a robot dressed as a cowboy, or a cowboy dressed as a robot dressed as a lion dressed as a robot.
Hal had acted out all his ideas with crazy voices, and let me tell you, when Hal Hamburger's putting on a show, it's the funniest show in town. We couldn't stop laughing. That night, Hal and Putty and I all slept in the same room and told ghost stories and acted like monsters and made up great jokes.
But now Hal Hamburger didn't talk.
Nobody talked. The wind was loud and the road flew away beneath us.
"It's the kid's last night on earth," said Hal Hamburger. Putty looked out the window. "We gotta do something special," said Hal Hamburger suddenly. "Don't we, kid?"
My heart leaped. Yes, sir! Hal Hamburger had something special planned for me? It could be anything. Hal Hamburger always had an ace up his sleeve. A man of unconventional ideas, Hal Hamburger.
It was silent in the car. Outside, lights and trees and houses whipped past like pictures in a slot machine.
"What do you want to do, then?" said Putty.
"The kid won't be here for Halloween," said Hal Hamburger. "It'd be a shame if he missed carving a pumpkin this year."
"Then let's go to the supermarket and buy a pumpkin," said Putty.
"Hell no," snarled Hal Hamburger. "Since when do we pay for what we can steal?"
"No!" said Putty. "Not with me in the car."
"You want pumpkins tonight, kid?" shouted Hal Hamburger over the wind.
"Yeah!" I shouted back.
"Hal, you can do what you want when I'm not around," said Putty. "But I don't want to go robbing with you."
"We're going," said Hal.
"Not with me," said Putty.
"It's for the kid," said Hal.
"I don't care," said Putty.
"Listen, Putty," snapped Hal Hamburger, and I knew she was in for it. "You think you're innocent? Like you're better than us? Well how'd you get your fancy clothes? Huh? How about that TV? Huh? How is it we got enough money so you can sit on your butt all day and watch TV? Huh?"
Putty didn't say anything.
"It's about time you took some chances with us," said Hal Hamburger. "If it weren't for the kid and me, you'd still be living with your daddy. Is that what you want? You want me to take you back to your daddy?"
"No," said Putty.
"Then shut up," said Hal Hamburger. "You don't appreciate the kid at all. You should be kissing this kid's butt. You should kiss the kid's butt every night. And every morning when you get up. And you should kiss his butt at lunch.
"Butt-lunch!" Hal roared. "That's what you deserve. Lunch of butt! Instead of the way you've been treating him!"
That shut her up.
God, Hal Hamburger, how cool you are!
It was easy to get lost on the moon. Roads are different there. They twist and curl like snakes and you can get turned around easily. On earth, cities are flat, but moon cities tunnel deep underground and climb into the sky and the streets circle around and shoot diagonally and zoom underground and zip way into the stars on rickety stilts. I could never remember the names or the routes or the numbers. So I spent a lot of time wandering around, just looking at things, hoping I would eventually find my way home.
Jooka saw me on the street one night.
"Hey, earth boy," she said, gliding up to me. "You look lost."
"I can't understand this town," I said.
"It's a strange town," said Jooka.
"Do you live here?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
Sometimes we saw each other at the park in the morning. I would be studying the moon alphabet and she would be practicing a traditional Jupiter dance with some Jupiter friends. They slinked and leaped and twisted together like ballet worms. Sometimes I forgot about the moon alphabet and just watched them.
"You want to have dinner?" she said.
Did you know that the center of the moon is filled with water? Maybe you did, but I bet you didn't know you could take little submarine rides in it. We rented a submarine for two and drove around in the big dark sphere of water for hours. It was a very small submarine, and a little cold, so we huddled close together in the little capsule and took turns piloting it, and we turned on the heater until we were snug and warm. After a while we turned off the lights and the motor and floated, waiting for the strange moon fish to glide past. They would poke their noses at our window and look at us with sad eyes. Later we hid our sub in a forest of red and gold seaweed. We sat there and bobbed in the murky water and there were glowing veins burning silently in the darkness, and we talked and laughed for a while and watched the vines wave and curl and rise and fall. I was in love.
The closer we got to the center of the moon, the less gravity we felt, and then she touched me. I touched her, and we held each other and the strange yellow creatures paddled around outside, and she kissed me with weird soft lips. "I wanted to know what you tasted like," she said. "What do I taste like?" I said, and my heart didn't know what to do. "It's like a candy I had forgotten about," she said. "I want to taste it again."
At the center of the moon sea there is a small underwater restaurant where you can dock your submarine. We sat at the window and I ordered two Pluto soups. It was expensive but I didn't care. It turned out she wasn't hungry, but I ate mine, and it was just as good as if you had gotten it on Pluto.
"I'll only be here for a year, you know," I said.
"We can do a lot in a year," she said.
There was a special bubble in the restaurant that was at the exact gravitational center of the moon. It was soft and warm, with a window looking out into the sea. We went in and floated there, and my insides did flips, and it was dim and I was nervous and then she coiled her weird warm brown body around me and held me, and we looked out into the dark cold moon waters with the sad fish and drifting red and gold masses of spindly weeds and blobs of goo, and she bit me.
She bit me hard. I tried to shout but I could hardly whisper and she kept on biting, her teeth sank deep inside me, and I tried to squirm away but she coiled tighter around me, whispering sweet, sweet and biting.
I said, "What are you doing?"
"I am eating you," she whispered.
I don't think it's exaggerating to say I am Hal Hamburger's "right-hand man." In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't know how Hal Hamburger could get along without me. Not to say that he couldn't--Hal Hamburger is a smart guy--I'm just saying that I make myself useful to Hal Hamburger in a lot of ways.
I am quiet and small. I can creep through little windows, down old chimneys, in between metal bars. Soon I'll grow and I won't be able to do it anymore. But now I can still steal, and Hal Hamburger has shown me how.
Hal Hamburger left the car, with Putty in it, hidden in a bunch of trees. Hal and I were running across Mr. Mims's fields, breathing hard, feeling the wind, running fast.
It felt good to run. It felt good to run with Hal Hamburger, and stretch my legs and feel my heart and know that Hal and I were going to do something together. Something dangerous. I felt like I could burst into fireballs. My chest was jumping in a hundred directions. I wanted to die for Hal Hamburger, so he could see what a good friend he had in me.
We were close now. We hit the ground and crawled up the bluff and looked out over the big pumpkin patch, whispering to each other, pointing out the pumpkins we wanted and the pumpkins we thought Putty would want, plotting escape routes and emergency plans, and I had that upside-down stomach feeling that in just a few minutes we were going to commit a brilliant crime together.
"Putty's mad," I said.
"What do I see in her?" asked Hal Hamburger.
"She's ungrateful," I said.
"We should run off together," said Hal Hamburger. "We could leave Putty here. Find a new town. New places to rob. New house. New everything."
That would be a dream come true. Hal and me, on the lam together, forever. We'd have this world by the tail, make no mistake about it! We'd steal everything and be the richest thieves of all time. Everyone would be hunting us: the police, the FBI, the air force--but we would always outsmart them, Hal and me, against the world!
"They might even be suspecting us in this town," said Hal Hamburger.
"But we're the best, Hal," I said. "They could never catch us!"
"Yeah," said Hal Hamburger. "We're the best."
Mr. Mims's pumpkin patch stood out in the dark, a green square with bright orange dots. We could see Mr. Mims's tidy white house and the harsh floodlight that lit up most of the patch. Mr. Mims was proud of his prizewinning pumpkins, and extra careful around Halloween time, because all kinds of people tried to steal them.
But not as many as you would think. Because Mr. Mims was a policeman. And you've got to have nerves of steel to rob a policeman.
Needless to say, Hal Hamburger wasn't afraid to rob him.
The pumpkin patch had little knots and bunches of trees. Our plan was to dash and creep from tree to tree, find the largest and best pumpkins, grab them, and then clear out of there before Mr. Mims came out with his wasp gun. He kept a cage of scary robot bugs on the back porch to show robbers he meant business. He would stuff them in his wasp gun and fire them across the fields. He was a good shot.
We could hear the faint buzz of the mechanical wasps from across the pumpkin patch. The stars were cold blue dots. I was shivering.
"OK--when I say ready, go, we go," whispered Hal Hamburger. "Me to the right. You to the left. Keep low. We want big ones. No baby pumpkins for us, not tonight. The biggest! The best!"
We shot across the field. We had done this last year, and the year before. This was one of the first crimes I ever committed with Hal Hamburger. It felt like old times.
"This one!" hissed Hal Hamburger, kicking at a big pumpkin.
"No, this one!" I whispered back.
"Too oval," he said. "I like them round and fat."
"Over here," I whispered.
Hal Hamburger says any fool can just run into a pumpkin patch and grab any old pumpkin. But it takes real nerve to hang around, to compare and argue, and to pick one when we're damn good and ready, the very best and fattest and heaviest of them all.
And then we found it.
It was enormous. I didn't know pumpkins could get so big. It was the best. It was the king. It was a majestic monster pumpkin.
"That's the one," I whispered. "We could fill half the kitchen with that."
"Yeah," said Hal Hamburger. "That's the one."
We looked around. Still no Mr. Mims. Soft opera music floated out the open window; an Italian lady bellowed and hollered, mixing with the humming and hissing of the mechanical wasps.
The wasps had seen us. They were buzzing and bouncing off the walls of their cage, dying to get at us. Mr. Mims must not have heard them yet. But he would. We didn't have much time.
Hal Hamburger hacked the pumpkin off its stem with his knife and rolled it over.
"All right," he said. "It's gonna take both of us. Let's go."
If we just rolled the pumpkin out of range of those lights--a few yards--and then hoisted it up and ran, then we were home free.
"One, two, three," I whispered.
"Heave!" grunted Hal Hamburger.
We had it! We were running! The largest pumpkin in the world was ours. We ran like crazy, trying not to laugh and tripping and stumbling but always holding onto the pumpkin, the glorious monstrous pumpkin, which shone orange and evil in the moonlight.
"What the hey!" someone yelled.
"Drop it!" shouted Hal Hamburger. "Get out of here!"
"Get back here, you thieves!"
I never ran so fast. We had dropped the pumpkin long ago. We were halfway across the field breaking all kinds of records.
THRUM THRUM THRUM and three tiny flares spat out of Mr. Mims's wasp gun, sizzling across the pumpkin patch.
"Go! Go! Go!" yelled Hal Hamburger.
The first wasp hit me and latched onto the back of my neck, and then down plunged the needle. Then another hit my arm and stabbed me sharp and fierce, and then another slammed into the small of my back. A third needle shot out and buried deep down, and the wasp pain exploded inside me.
I fell. The cold metal insects clutched my skin hard, screeching, pumping poison in. Hal Hamburger stopped and looked back.
"Hal! Help me!" I gasped.
Hal Hamburger took a few steps toward me and looked around nervously. I could feel the wasps' freezing juice work in my veins. "Hal, please!" I tried to say, but my mouth had already frozen up. The last thing I saw was Hal Hamburger running away, and then darkness.
I was surprised that being eaten alive did not hurt. In fact, it was marvelous.
"Be still," murmured Jooka. "Don't move."
A sleepy goldenness opened up inside me as she chewed my arm and swallowed it and then tore a hole in my chest and licked my heart and squeezed it and sucked it and ate that too. She had sent a thousand small tentacles into every part of my body, squeezing and sucking and slurping and chewing, until I was gone, every little bit of me.
I couldn't see or hear or smell. I trembled in her veins, flowing and churning and pulsing inside her.
"How do you feel?" asked Jooka.
I couldn't speak. I was goo, swirling and boiling. I got lost inside her. I flooded her blood vessels and bubbled up through her brain.
"Please stay in me for a small while," she said. I sloshed through her awkwardly, and she mumbled and purred and said nonsense, and I burned and swirled, and cooled, resting, dripping slowly, gathering into little pools in odd corners of her body. I felt sleepier than I'd ever felt in my life, and we entered a big warm blackness together.
A few hours later, I was pooped out in a flurry of stars.
You love in strange ways, Jooka.
Blackness: then pain. You can't move. Blackness.
Then more pain.
You never get used to being stung. It wasn't my first time--I don't think there's a kid in town who hasn't been on the business end of a wasp gun--but that doesn't make it any easier. I couldn't move a muscle. My eyes were half open. I strained to move my eyelids, but they wouldn't budge. I was sitting on a hard wooden chair. As far as I could tell, I was in Mr. Mims's kitchen. Yeah, there was that opera music again, and now I could open my eyes a little. There was Mr. Mims.
He had wrenched the wasp-bullets out of my back and was standing there, silent and frowning. He looked at me for a minute and shook his head. Then he looked back at his handful of ruined robot wasps, poking and mumbling, breathing loudly.
Mechanical wasps are only good for one shot. I could hear them click and rattle in his hand and then die.
One of the side effects of being stung is that even though you can't move, everything you hear seems ten times louder. A snapped finger is like a gunshot. A car squealed off in the distance.
"Out for a bit a fun before you go to your moon, eh?" mumbled Mr. Mims.
I couldn't reply. My mouth was frozen.
Mr. Mims sat down in front of me. He was a fat, careful man with thick pink hands and a babyish face. He was almost bald. His head looked like a big pink ham.
"What I can't understand," said Mr. Mims, poking me with a pudgy finger, "is why you did it. You're leaving off for the moon tomorrow ain't you? So why did you risk the trouble--eh?"
Spit had trickled down my chin. I couldn't do anything about it. But my tongue was starting to loosen.
"It's a shame. Got to report you, you know," sighed Mr. Mims. "Who knows? You might not get to go to your moon after all. The police could keep you in jail, while your rocket goes to your moon. That would be a shame all right. Shame for your school too. Don't know what your parents will say. But you're our representative up there, you know. Representing the earth. Hmph. A pumpkin thief! Representing us on the moon!"
I said something like "aghhh."
"Now there, you're drooling all over," sighed Mr. Mims. He took a napkin and dabbed my chin.
We sat in silence for a long time. The clock ticked steady and loud.
"It was the Hamburger boy," he said finally.
I kept quiet.
"The Hamburger boy, he put you up to this, dinnee?" he said.
"Hal Hamburger is not a boy," I slurred. "He is a man."
"What kinda man runs away when his friend's in trouble?" said Mr. Mims. "What kinda man is that?"
The clock kept on ticking. Outside, the wasps continued to buzz. Although I could talk now, I found that I had nothing to say.
Ten months later, I came home from the moon.
The rocket came down just outside town at the picnic lake. I had already spent two weeks on the quarantine satellite and that was so stupid and boring that I forgot all about how sad I was to leave Jooka and the moon, and I just wanted to get home as soon as I could, to my own bed and my own town, so I could tell Hal Hamburger about everything I had seen and he would nod and say, "I wish I could've been there with you, kid."
You should've seen it! Everybody came to the picnic lake and watched my capsule drop out of space and into the lake and the capsule was so hot that the water boiled and there was steam everywhere. The capsule bobbed up to the surface, and then the hatch popped open and I came out and everyone cheered. I was home. I was breathing earth air. I could eat a real hot dog whenever I wanted!
They had a parade for me! It was waiting to start up as soon as I got to shore. I got to ride in a big papier-mache moon float, and all the fire engines were there blaring their sirens, and there were clowns and funny dogs and the marching band blasted all the way down to town and swung up onto Main Street, playing a song Mr. Tubbins had written just for the occasion, Theme for a Moon.
But as great as it was to sit in a big papier-mache moon, and get the key to the city and a speech from the mayor and a big parade just for me, I couldn't really enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
Because where was Hal Hamburger!
And where was Putty? I mean, I knew that Hal Hamburger was a busy man--a man of talents and responsibilities, Hal Hamburger, a man of commitments and obligations--but he never even wrote to me. And when I looked out into the crowd, I didn't see him.
If I had seen him, though, I would've invited him up onto the stage with me. No matter what anybody said.
Hal and me!
Q: Hear, hear. The Society of Moon Enthusiasts, Crater #1447, please now come to order. Mr. Weatherbee, please come to order. Thank you. Would the secretary please read the minutes of the last meeting?
B: Thank you, Ms. Chairman. Last month we had a collection and raised $577 for moon orphans. Mrs. Blippens shared her recipe for moon cake, and brought some delicious samples. Mr. Plam gave a very informative lecture on moon botany, with a fascinating account of the Bloo-Ploop Shrub. We ended, as usual, with a rousing sing-along of "Moon, Moon, How You Loom."
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Now, to today's business. Our special speaker needs no introduction. He's just come back from a ten-month trip to the moon, and I'm sure he has a lot to tell us. So, without further ado...
M: Thank you, Ms. Chairman. And thank you, everybody in the Society of Moon Enthusiasts. If it weren't for your generous grant, I would never have had the opportunity to go to the moon. Thank you.
(Applause, cheers, hoots.)
Q: Are there any questions for our young moon scholar? The chair recognizes Mr. Tubbins.
T: What was your favorite thing about the moon?
M: I made some very good friends. Not only moon men, but friends from all over the solar system. People on the moon are very polite. Also it's beautiful in the winter. Mr. Weatherbee?
W: I want to know the daily routine of your average moon man!
M: You'd be surprised at how similar they are to you and me, Mr. Weatherb-b-(sneezes).
Q: Bless you.
M: Thank you. Yes, Ms. Feepness?
F: Did you ever visit the Goo Caves?
M: I was living in Moon Town. The Goo Caves are all the way by Tycho Lake. I didn't get a chance to-ah-ah-(sneezes).
F: Is it true that--
M: Excuse me (sneezes). I did, actually, see a - (sneezes) - just a sec - (sneezes).
Q: Are you OK, dear?
M: Just a sniffle. I'm OK.
W: You don't have the moon flu, do you?
P: Don't be an ass, Weatherbee. Moon flu was eradicated by Bonaxo the Greater. Besides, his sneeze doesn't make the telltale 'foop' sound that characterizes the moon flu. Caught a chill in the lake, son?
M: I think so.
P: There you go. Now I have a question. Did you see the Great White Worm?
M: If I had, Mr. Plam, I doubt I'd be standing here and answering questions for you tonight!
(General laughter. Applause. Cheers. Spontaneous singing: "Moon, Moon, how you loom / How gloriously ye zoom...")
I couldn't sleep. It had been an exciting day. But there were some things I couldn't understand. Such as:
Where was Hal Hamburger?
Mr. Mims was a member of the Society of Moon Enthusiasts. I couldn't look at him when I gave my presentation to thank them for their generous scholarship. He was wearing his policeman uniform, and his eyes were so sharp and hard that I was afraid if I looked at him the wrong way, he might whip out his wasp gun and shoot me again right there, just for good measure.
He didn't. But after the meeting, after we had all sung the moon song and everybody was folding up the chairs and getting ready to leave, Mr. Mims stayed at his table. He was the only one left. He beckoned to me with a fat finger.
What else could I do? I had to go over.
"Pumpkin stealer, eh?" he said.
"I'm--I'm sorry, Mr. Mims," I said. "And I'll--you know I don't--"
Mr. Mims laughed.
"What's so funny, Mr. Mims?"
"You're a good lad," said Mr. Mims. "I see I made the right choice for you. I'd've been a mean man indeed to turn you in last year. I'm glad you went to the moon, son."
"Thanks, Mr. Mims."
"Straightened y'out, the moon did," said Mr. Mims. "Moon made a man outta you."
"But, sir," I said. "Where's Hal Hamburger? What happened to Hal Hamburger?"
The light went out of Mr. Mims' eyes.
"Agh, I should've known," he said. "Go now, and forget about your Hal Hamburger!"
He left and never told me.
I snuck out of the house. It was almost midnight. My parents were asleep and it was easy to sneak out. Dad always went to bed early and mom always fell asleep on the couch watching late-night comedy shows.
I closed the screen door softly and ran across the backyard, past the chikk-chikk-chikk sprinklers watering the dark grass and the blue glow of the television mom was watching. I ran down the street, past all the houses to the forest, past the dry pond and down the hill and out to the highway, where the cars were whizzing past fast and dangerous. I ran through the tall grass and cattails in the gully all the way to Hal Hamburger's house, just off the highway.
Hal! I'm home!
But Hal Hamburger's house was dark. And there was a broken window.
That wasn't like Hal Hamburger. Hal Hamburger might be a free spirit--a man of unconventional ideas, of daring tastes and controversial notions--but he always kept his house up. And Hal Hamburger always stayed up late. A man of odd hours, Hal Hamburger, a man who burned his fair share of the midnight oil--the lights were always on at Hal Hamburger's.
But Hal Hamburger's house was dark tonight. Only the orange doorbell was lit.
Maybe Hal and Putty went out to see a late show.
I knocked on the door.
I opened it. (A man like Hal Hamburger doesn't need to lock his doors, you know.)
I went inside. I couldn't see anything. The curtains were closed. I flipped the light switch. Nothing!
I crept through the front room. There was trash all over the floor. There was a bad smell.
"Stop!" said a scared voice.
"Putty!" I shouted. "It's me!"
There was a long silence. Then Putty started making noises. They sounded so strange coming from her that it was a minute before I realized she was crying.
They had turned off the electricity in Hal Hamburger's house.
They had cut off the water too.
Putty had jugs of water she had stolen from people's hoses. The whole house was hot and stuffy and dirty. The refrigerator was empty except for some old packets of ketchup.
Putty stopped crying. Putty had always been so tough. Now I had to hug her, even though she smelled bad. When it came down to it, she was my cousin. Between her crying and my sneezing, we were a mess. But then she just cried some more.
We sat on the mattress in Hal and Putty's room. It was a dirty mattress now. She wanted me to hug her some more, but she made me feel dirty, she smelled so bad.
"Where's Hal?" I said. "Why didn't Hal write me back?"
"Hal's in jail," sniffed Putty.
"They put him in jail," wailed Putty.
It was impossible. How could a stupid policeman ever catch Hal Hamburger? C'mon now--this is Hal Hamburger we're talking about here!
I couldn't picture Hal Hamburger in jail. All I could think of was the empty refrigerator, with those stupid old packets of ketchup.
Listen, bub--in the golden age of Hal Hamburger, that refrigerator was loaded with steaks, ice cream sandwiches, and more orange pop than you could drink!
"You did it," I said. "It's your fault, Putty."
"No, no," cried Putty. "Don't say that."
"You screwed up and now Hal Hamburger's in jail!"
I couldn't speak. I made fists. I wanted to knock down the world.
"I've been lonely," said Putty.
"I don't care," I said. "Why don't you go home to daddy?"
"I can't," said Putty.
We were both silent. Putty snuggled up to me.
"Get away!" I snarled.
Putty didn't say anything for a long time.
"When is he getting out?" I said.
"Next month," said Putty.
"It's just one more month!" I said. "Then he'll be home! And everything will be like before."
Putty didn't say anything for a long time. Then:
"I'm scared of him."
"Where's your loyalty! Hal Hamburger deserves better than this!"
"I got a strange letter from him," said Putty.
"Am I the only one who will stand up for Hal Hamburger?" I said. "Huh? Am I the only one who still believes in Hal Hamburger?"
Putty didn't say anything.
She didn't want me to leave. But I did.
I was ashamed of her.
On the way home, I sneezed six times in a row, enough to make me dizzy.
There was no parade when Hal Hamburger came home.
Hal Hamburger didn't give a speech. Nobody gave Hal Hamburger a key to the city.
Putty and I picked Hal up outside the police station. He was still wearing his gray jail clothes. Hal Hamburger didn't say anything all the way home, except this:
"If you sneeze one more time, kid, I'm gonna kill you."
Hal Hamburger had changed. He wasn't sad. He wasn't mad either. He wasn't anything. He didn't care that the house was a mess, or that Putty was ugly now, or that she smelled bad, or that there was nothing to eat but old ketchup and it was dark in the house all the time.
There was still no electricity, but we had a small black-and-white TV that ran on batteries. We just sat around and watched TV every night. Then the batteries died, and there was no TV. So we did nothing.
They made Hal get a job at Bonko Burger. He had to work every day, either really early or really late. But Putty and I would wait up for him.
He brought home stale hamburgers that nobody else at work would eat. That was our dinner. But we didn't complain. Putty tried to say they tasted great, but Hal Hamburger put a stop to that real quick.
The very first day Hal had to work at Bonko Burger, he put on his uniform at home. It was a smelly, ugly uniform. Probably a hundred people had worn it before.
Can you even imagine it? Hal Hamburger--no stranger to the finer things in life, mind you, a man who had once worn shirts that cost a hundred dollars--now wore a short-sleeved orange shirt with a Bonko Boo-Boo on the front.
He also wore an orange plastic visor, green pants, and a stained apron.
"Quit that sneezing," said Hal.
"I can't help it."
"I bet you could. I bet you could, if I made you."
"I'll try not to sneeze."
"You think I look stupid, don't you?" said Hal Hamburger.
"You think it's funny I have to work at Bonko Burger."
"Then why are you looking at me like that?"
"It didn't mean anything!"
"What is it?" he yelled.
"It looks sad," I said.
Putty screamed--I didn't know why, at first--but then something crunched and I was on the floor and Hal was punching me in the face and then I couldn't see. I couldn't get up. He was on top of me. I was crying but he didn't let up. I tried to turn onto my stomach, so he wouldn't hit my face so much, but when I did, that just made Hal Hamburger madder, and he hit me a million million times.
Millions of blimps were circling around the Big Spike, disappearing inside or popping out, going up and down, a storm of glowing dots floating and swirling around the tower.
The moon had only one spaceport, because a long time ago they wanted to check everyone who left the moon for moon flu. But even after Bonaxo the Greater, they never got around to building another spaceport, so it was always crowded.
The Big Spike spaceport was a giant tower that was one hundred miles tall and three miles across and there were millions of holes in the sides for moon-blimps and space-zeppelins to dock and blast off. From far away it looked strange, like a dead white tree swarming with electric bees.
I had said good-bye to all my friends, and Jooka drove me to the spaceport (I didn't have my pod license).
My launch was delayed because of a White Worm alert.
Everybody had the same idea and tried to go to a restaurant to wait out the alert, so Jooka and I couldn't get in anywhere. We wound up at a dirty little cafe in the 14th sublevel.
She was holding my hand under the table, but I already felt a million miles away from her.
A dirty plastic cube rolled up to us.
"What-do-you-want," said the servbot, and then it turned to Jooka and said the same thing in Jovian.
"I'll have a floog boolg," I said.
The servbot turned and beeped at Jooka. But she just shook her head.
"It can't see you," I said. "You have to tell it."
"I don't want anything," said Jooka.
"She doesn't want anything."
"You-must-eat-something-or-you-must-leave-the-restaurant," clattered the servbot.
"Go away," I said.
The servbot beeped again.
"You-must-eat-something-or-you-must-leave-the-restaurant," said the servbot.
Usually Jooka and I would've laughed at such a stupid robot and such a stupid cheap restaurant, but my launch had been delayed and we had cried so much already and now I was tired and angry.
"Just order anything," I said.
"I don't want anything," said Jooka.
"You-must-eat-something-or-you-must-leave-the-restaurant," said the servbot, and then it beeped again.
"Order something!" I said.
"I can't," said Jooka. She looked like she was about to cry.
"Get her a gloog fleeb," I barked at the servbot, "and get the heck out of here!"
"It-has-been-a-pleasure-to-serve-you-and-please-come-again," said the servbot, and it whirred for a second and the flimsy plastic lid popped open and steam came out and there was our floog boolg and gloog fleeb.
I ate silently. Jooka didn't touch her food.
"Why don't you eat your gloog fleeb?" I said.
"I don't want any," said Jooka.
"I've never seen you eat," I said.
Jooka didn't say anything.
"You never eat anything," I said. "Why don't you eat?"
"I'm not hungry," said Jooka.
"You're never hungry," I said.
"I'm hungry sometimes," she said.
"Like when you ate me?" I said.
I knew I shouldn't have said that. As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn't. I wished I had never said a word in my life, the way Jooka looked then.
She didn't even cry. She just looked sadly at her food and didn't say anything.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"I didn't really eat you," said Jooka.
"I know you didn't," I said.
"I let you go," said Jooka.
"I know," I said.
"On Jupiter, eating is different," she said. "The first time is for food...after that it's just...nice..."
I didn't say anything.
"On Jupiter, we only really eat once, and never again."
"We only eat once--and never again."
The klaxon suddenly announced that the White Worm had been scared away. My blimp was leaving in 15 minutes. We had to run all the way up to the elevator and then we couldn't talk because we were pressed up tight in a crowd of sweaty businessmen from Saturn. Then we found out they had changed my departure gate. Once I finally got my ticket and boarding pass straightened out I only had enough time to run onto the blimp. I tried to say a real good-bye with my eyes, but I think I failed, and then I was swept away.
They say a real friend never gives up. A true friend always stays at his best friend's side--no matter what. Even if his best friend changes a little. Maybe sometimes people change for a little while, and then later they change back.
So it was only a matter of time before the old Hal Hamburger was back. Maybe the old Hal Hamburger was locked up inside the new Hal Hamburger. Maybe only I had the key.
Putty sure didn't have it. She used to be so tough and pretty. Now she was fat. She ate tons of French fries, with mayonnaise. She always wore the same yellow nightie around the house, and it had stains. Heck, she barely ever left the house. But her eyes were always asking for something now. I couldn't figure out what.
Whatever it was, Hal didn't want to give it. He ignored her. So she got crazy and sad. She touched him all the time, for no reason. He pushed her away, and then she would start to cry and leave the room, and Hal and I would be alone, but we wouldn't even say anything, and Hal would drink more beer.
But I was there for Hal Hamburger. Nobody can say I didn't stand by Hal Hamburger in his darkest hour. For I knew that great and noble souls, such as Hal Hamburger's, travel difficult roads.
But when a great man struggles with his destiny, the way Hal Hamburger struggled with his, the lesser souls around him kind of have to struggle too.
"Why're you sneezing all the time? It's like you're some kinda stupid sneeze freak," said Hal Hamburger.
Ask anyone--it's not easy being on the business end of Hal Hamburger's wit. Even if I had wanted to come back at that, what could I have said?
"Your nose looks like a big stupid clown nose," said Hal--and once again his words cut me to the quick. I winced, and hoped that he had finished with me.
But Hal Hamburger was giving no quarter tonight.
"Dumb crappy sneeze guy--that's you," said Hal Hamburger. "Like a big sneeze factory, sneezing like it's Sneeze Day all the time. Little poopy dumb sneeze baby, do you poop when you sneeze, stupid sneeze baby?"
"No," I said.
"I bet you do," sneered Hal Hamburger, and once again his words stung. Having a comedian for a best friend is definitely a double-edged sword.
We were all eating dinner, another night of cold hamburgers and water from the jugs. It was my job to fill up the jugs now. I did it with the garden hose at my house.
I had hoped that Hal would pay the bills so I wouldn't have to drag those heavy jugs of water. Or steal candles from Plam's Hardware. But no. I felt especially bad stealing from Mr. Plam--he had always been so kind to me, especially when I had to give that talk at the Moon Society. He was smart and he had read more books than anyone and not only did he speak moon language, but also Jovian and Plutoese.
I think Mr. Plam even knew that I was stealing candles, because the last time I did it, he gave me a sharp look. I felt horrible.
"Ha!" said Hal Hamburger. "Sneeze Man's back in business."
"I have a cold," I said. "I caught a chill in the lake. Mr. Plam said so."
"Mr. Plam's so stupid he's probably...he's dumb," snarled Hal Hamburger.
I sneezed again.
"Go on," said Hal. "Sneeze, stupid sneeze baby."
"Please, Hal, stop," said Putty. "He doesn't look good."
"Ha!" roared Hal Hamburger. "It's a regular sneeze-a-thon! The mayor of Sneezeopolis! Enter the Sneezeatorium!"
I sneeze - sneeze - sneezed.
"All right--that's enough," growled Hal.
"Stop sneezing!" said Hal.
"He can't help it," said Putty.
"Shut up, Putt!" said Hal. "He can stop sneezing any time he wants. He's just faking it!"
"I'm not faking it!"
I felt terrible. It had come over me all at once. My nose was leaking all over, my eyes were watering, and I couldn't see.
My nose was huge and red.
My cold had been getting worse all week, but suddenly it was worse than it had ever been.
Sneeze sneeze sneeze--
"Stop it!" Hal pounded the table.
--sneeze sneeze sneeze!
"That's it!" shouted Hal Hamburger. He had stopped laughing; the joke was over.
"I know you're faking it," he said. "Nobody sneezes that much."
I tried to explain--I sneezed.
"Are you making fun of me?" said Hal.
"No!" I cried. "I can't help it! I'm just sneezing!"
"You're making fun of me!"
Hal stood up.
"One more time!" shouted Hal Hamburger. Now his face was almost as red as my nose. He had made fists. I shrank away. I looked at the door. But who could outrun Hal Hamburger?
"One more time!" said Hal Hamburger. "Sneeze one more time, in my house, and I'll punch your nose so hard you'll need a machine to sneeze!"
Oh man, did I have to sneeze. I could feel it all over my body. My nose was tingling with sneeze. I tried to hold it in. My eyes were watering. There was Hal Hamburger standing over me, and Putty across the room, pleading with him. But they got blurrier and blurrier, and my ears filled with a rushing sound, and Hal's shouts and Putty's crying got farther and farther away, and the sneeze was gathering more and more, from the bottom of my feet, from the tips of my fingers, and I wanted more than anything to stop it, but I knew that no matter what I did--
"I DARE you!" yelled Hal Hamburger. "I WANT you to do it! Sneeze!--SNEEZE!"
My nose exploded.
I had never felt anything like it in my life. It was as though my nose ripped wide open with dynamite and half my body flew out onto the table, onto the hamburgers, onto Hal, onto Putty. My nose blew up and exploded out, with a loud POW, and my ears burst like two bombs, and I didn't know which was worse, my exploded nose, or the beating I was about to take.
But the beating didn't come.
I kept my eyes closed, I flinched, I waited for it.
But the beating never came.
Everyone was silent. Then Hal said: "Oh my god. Oh my god."
I opened my eyes.
Sitting on the dinner table was a little baby.
I had sneezed out a baby.
What would I tell my parents? What if they found out I had gotten pregnant on the moon? I didn't even know that girls from Jupiter could get Earth boys pregnant. Why doesn't anyone teach us these things?
It was a scaly purple thing like a smooshed ball, with tubes coming in and out all over it, hissing and sucking and beeping. Two eyes looked up. It waddled in circles on two flat feet, and cried and cried.
Putty took to it right away. She scooped it up and held it close to her even though it was covered with my snot and blood.
"Oh look at it," she almost sang. "Just look at it!"
We decided that the baby could live at Hal Hamburger's house for now. We had to do it that way. My parents would have a fit if they knew I had a baby.
I had started eighth grade at a new school, so it was good that Hal and Putty could take care of the baby while I was in class. Even Hal didn't seem to mind it. Maybe it was because Putty was happy again. Maybe he really liked it. Either way, it was good to come home and see them both happy.
I named my baby Pooba, because sometimes she would climb up onto the highest place in the room and look down proudly on everyone, like she was the grand Poohbah. It also sounded a little like Jooka. I thought it was a fine name.
"You can't name her Pooba," said Putty. "That's no name for a little girl. Think of how she'll be teased."
"She's a purple ball that beeps," I said. "Her name is the least of her problems."
"Let's call her Debbie."
"Let's not," I said.
"Debbie is a beautiful name," said Putty.
"That may be," I said, "but she's my baby."
Putty stood there for a moment, like she was going to say something, but then she didn't and sat down to play with the baby.
"Which name do you want?" said Putty. "Debbie...or Pooba?"
"Fooo!" cried Pooba happily.
"Give me my baby," I said. "I don't like this. I'm going home."
"No, no," said Putty suddenly. "Don't do that."
"What's my baby's name?"
Putty winced but said it: "Pooba."
Hal Hamburger's house was almost on the way to school. I just had to take a quick detour on my morning bike ride, and I could drop in easily. It was perfect. I left early in the morning, when the skies were still gray and wet, and rode along the gravel shoulder as cars whooshed out of the mist with their tired pale headlights, on the way to work or on the way home from working all night.
Sometimes the road would be deserted and I'd turn and see all the cars bunched up at the last stoplight. Then it would turn green, and all the glowing headlights would flow and tumble forward, like a slow avalanche of white dots.
I felt a secret kinship with these cars. I would peek in the windows and see the people who drove them as they rushed past my side.
We were all in this together. We were the responsible ones. We were the ones who were up before the rest of the world, the fathers and the workers and the good citizens who kept the city running right.
I used to be a thief. Now I was a father!
I visited Hal Hamburger's house every day before school and I went straight to Hal Hamburger's after school and stayed at Hal Hamburger's until I had to go home to bed. All I wanted to do was be with Pooba and see my friends be happy.
Hal Hamburger's house had changed. They had cleaned it up really nice, and Hal had even set aside a whole room for Pooba.
A versatile man, Hal Hamburger--a man who can turn his life on a dime. He had changed along with the house.
In the old days, at this time of day, Hal Hamburger and Putty would still be sleeping in from last night's party--or still awake, playing cards and drinking from the night before.
Now Hal Hamburger was putting on his Bonko Burger uniform. It was clean and ironed and it smelled good. Putty would wash and iron it for him every day after work, and Hal Hamburger wore it with pride. Hal Hamburger said that he might even have a shot at being manager of Bonko Burger.
That was pure Hal Hamburger--never met a challenge he couldn't face--the cream naturally rises to the top.
Putty and Hal were eating pancakes when I came in. Putty had Pooba on her lap and was trying to feed her. They didn't see me at first, so I stood there for a while and looked at them.
They were so happy. Putty was fussing over the baby, and Hal Hamburger was reading the newspaper. They were almost like a normal family (even though it was my baby).
"Good morning!" I said.
Hal Hamburger smiled.
"Come here, kid!"
Putty waved a spoonful of mushed-up pancakes near Pooba's mouth, but Pooba turned to me and beeped.
"Foo foo foo," said Pooba, and hobbled across the breakfast table to me.
"Hello, Pooba! How are you?" I said, kissing my Jupiter baby. Every time I saw her, I felt happy.
"She's walking faster," said Putty. "She says more and more words."
"I wish I could be here more," I said.
"Kid," said Hal Hamburger, "That's one amazing baby you've got there. One amazing baby."
Hal Hamburger was all smiles. Let me tell you, he made that Bonko Burger outfit look good--like it was a military dress uniform. You want to know how a man should carry himself? Observe Hal Hamburger, my friend.
"We're going to take her to the zoo today," said Putty.
"That's great," I said.
"But she still won't eat," said Putty.
"She won't eat. Not a thing."
"Nothing?" I said.
"Nothing," said Putty.
This worried me. Because, as far as any of us knew, Pooba had not yet eaten a single thing in her life.
Not that we hadn't tried everything! When we offered her food Pooba would just look at us with a satisfied air, make her mouth into a tight little line, and politely refuse.
What did a Jupiter baby eat? Nobody knew. I had asked around town. I went to the library, but they didn't have any books on feeding babies from Jupiter. And they called themselves a library.
But every day Pooba grew bigger. And she seemed to be healthy. How did she do it?
Something tapped at the window.
"What's that?" said Hal Hamburger. He was just about to go out; he was jingling his car keys.
Tap, tap, tap...there was something floating outside the window.
Putty looked nervous.
Hal stepped away from the door.
I opened the window, and a very small blimp flew in. We all looked at each other. The blimp puttered around the kitchen for a while, and then parked in midair over the kitchen table. We all gathered around. It was so tiny you could reach out and crush it with your hand. It made a faint whirring noise--so faint you almost couldn't hear it.
The door of the blimp opened. A very small man popped his head out.
"Moon mail!" he announced crisply. "Who will sign?"
"I'll sign," I said.
The man's head popped back into the blimp. About a minute passed. Then he came out of the blimp with bunch of forms and a tube.
"Sign here...and here...and here."
"Thanks, fella," said the small man, and the blimp flew out the window.
I looked at the little window on the tube. Luckily, I could still read moon language.
"It's from Jooka!" I said.
"What does it say, kid?" said Hal.
I couldn't believe it. "She's coming to Earth!" I said. Nobody said anything. I looked up. "Jooka's coming to Earth! You guys will get to meet her. Hal, you'll love her. Putty, you two can be best friends!"
Putty picked up Pooba. She jiggled Pooba up and down. Pooba gurgled and glurped contentedly.
"There, there. There, there," said Putty.
"That's great," said Hal. "I can't wait to meet her."
But he didn't sound excited. And Putty--it was like I hadn't said anything--she didn't respond at all.
"Good girl," said Putty, and tried to smile at Pooba, but Pooba just turned to me and beeped.
Jooka was coming in a week. That didn't give us much time to prepare.
We decided she would stay at Hal Hamburger's house. I went crazy cleaning and dusting and straightening up everything so it was perfect. Even though the house was much cleaner than it used to be, I wanted the room that Jooka would sleep in to be the most beautiful room in the world.
I decided not to tell Jooka about Pooba until she arrived.
But that night I couldn't sleep. I paced back and forth in my room. I stared in the mirror in the bathroom for a long time. Finally, I got on the phone and ordered a moon mail blimp.
A few minutes later a tiny blimp tapped softly against my window screen. The little man in the blimp opened his window and looked out at me.
"What's your message, mac?" he said.
"Tell Jooka I love her," I said. "Tell her I have great news."
"Will do," said the little man, and his window snapped shut.
The mail blimp chugged and rose, and I watched the tiny light rise into the sky until I couldn't see it any more. I knew it was expensive, but I didn't care.
It was Friday. Jooka was coming in two days.
I have to say that Hal Hamburger and Putty were acting strangely.
They were nervous all the time. Hal was awkward, his jokes were forced, and he laughed too loudly at them even though nobody else did (honestly, they weren't funny).
Putty didn't talk to me at all. Hal kept saying it was because Putty was tired because she had been up all night with a cranky Pooba, but I found that hard to believe, because Pooba barely cried and always slept a solid ten hours a night.
On Friday morning I went over to Hal Hamburger's house before school as usual. I was excited to spend the weekend with Hal and Putty, fixing up Jooka's room and sewing a pretty outfit for Pooba. (It's difficult to find baby clothes for Jupiter babies.)
Hal wasn't wearing his Bonko Burger uniform.
"I thought your days off were Monday and Thursday," I said. "Aren't you going to be late for work?"
"They gave me the day off," said Hal.
"But I thought it was really busy on Fridays," I said. "Isn't that when they need you the most?"
"They told me to take it easy for a day."
Putty was at the kitchen table with Pooba. This time she was trying to get Pooba to eat corn flakes.
"Come on, Debbie," said Putty sweetly.
Pooba saw me, and bounced up and down in Putty's arms.
"Foo foo foo! Foo foo foo!" gabbled Pooba, and she broke free of Putty and rolled onto the ground, waddled quickly across the floor to me, and ran in circles around my feet.
"Foo foo foo! Foo!" said Pooba.
I picked Pooba up, and all of Pooba's tubes wiggled and squirmed excitedly.
"Sorry, I can't play today," I said. "I'm late for school."
"Foo! Foo!" Pooba said and licked my face.
"I'll be home in a couple hours, and then we can play all day, OK?"
I put Pooba down and she went skittering away after a blue balloon.
"Pooba's excited today!" I said.
Nobody said anything.
"Well, I'll see you guys after school," I said.
"Uh huh," said Hal Hamburger.
I don't think any day in school was longer than that one. First there was Mrs. Breen's social studies class, which is usually boring but all right, and then gym with Mr. Manderbander, which would be OK if Mr. Manderbander ever let us play real games and not those stupid games he makes up and is always trying to sell to the Games Commission.
Some parents complained to the school board that it's not fair that Mr. Manderbander can test out his games on students because other game inventors don't have that advantage, but Mr. Manderbander said he can do whatever he likes with his class, and anyway that's an issue for the Games Commission to resolve and not the school board.
I can't say I blame Mr. Manderbander--the guy who invented tag is a billionaire, and even the guy who invented kick-the-can is still getting royalties--but if I have to play Mr. Manderbander's "patented" fizzbottom, smack-the-smiler, or bimble snatch one more time, I'll barf.
Anyway, then there's math with Ms. Thald, but after running and jumping for 45 minutes the last thing you want to do is fractions. Then there's language arts with Mrs. Hetzel, then lunch, then geology with Mr. Hootler, then music with Mr. Tubbins, and then, finally, I can go home.
Hello! I'm home!"
I took off my shoes and went into Hal Hamburger's house. That was funny--usually they made a point of being home at 3:30 because that's when I got home from school.
"Hey! What is this, a surprise party?" I said.
Maybe they had taken Pooba out for a walk. I went into the kitchen to make some chocolate milk.
The milk was gone. All of the food was gone. The refrigerator was empty and the cupboards were empty.
I went into the TV room.
The TV was gone.
I went into Hal and Putty's room.
Their clothes were gone.
Their sheets were gone. There was nothing there but the old dirty mattress.
I ran into Pooba's room.
Pooba was gone.
It was the first time I had eaten dinner with my parents in months.
"Mrs. Boofman is carrying on with Mr. Hamhouse again," said my mom. "I saw it all. It was right after Mr. Boofman left for work. Mr. Hamhouse has some nerve--I'll give him that. Just 15 minutes, and he's in there like a shot. Like the dog he is. No shame. Just walked right up to the Boofmans' door like it was nothing at all and rang that doorbell. Strolled out of the Boofmans' four hours later, whistling. Whistling! Can you believe that? Whistling! What do you think about that?"
"Please stop talking to me," said my dad, trying to watch TV. "I don't care."
"But that's not the least of it," said my mom, piling more carrots onto my plate.
"I don't want any more carrots," I said.
"They're the kind you like," said my mom. "Anyway, that's not the least of it. I was talking with Mrs. Hock-Bix at the grocery, and she says that Mrs. Yam--do you remember her? She was drunk at the Christmas dance--she says that Mrs. Yam has been going to Dr. Pample twice a week for the past month. What's wrong with her? Nobody knows. But Mrs. Hock-Bix plays bridge with Ms. Bozzle, and Mrs. Hock-Bix is going to try to get the juice on Mrs. Yam from Ms. Bozzle. That is, if Mrs. Crumple doesn't ruin it. She's so direct--if I know Mrs. Crumple, she'll just come out and ask Ms. Bozzle about Mrs. Yam and Dr. Pample and ruin Mrs. Hock-Bix's chance, like she did when I was asking Mrs. Feepness about Mrs. Boofman and Mr. Hamhouse. Well, honey, you don't find out anything that way. I tried to tell Mrs. Crumple once, but she's so touchy. Remember Mrs. Crumple?"
"All I ask is to be left in peace," said my dad. "Peace, sweet peace."
"Turn up the TV," I shouted.
"What?" said my mom.
I lunged across the table and turned up the volume on the TV.
"A hold-up turned fatal," said the anchorman. "Horace Plam of Plam's Hardware has been shot dead."
"Oh my god," said my mom. "Mr. Plam..."
"Shh," I said.
"There were two assailants," said the anchorman. "A man and a woman. They took all the money from Plam's Hardware, then they fled by car. Eyewitnesses say the car was..."
It was Hal Hamburger's car.
I didn't know where to go, so I went back to Hal Hamburger's house.
Maybe I thought they would come back. But I knew they wouldn't. They were never coming back.
And they had taken Pooba.
I couldn't make myself go inside. If I went inside I would cry. So I climbed up the drainpipe and sat on the roof instead, and watched the tired orange sun sink and sink until it was eight o'clock and the police cars started coming, their lights flashing blue and white and their alarms whooping, just like you would have thought.
It had been my house before it was our house.
I had always kind of known about it. It had been abandoned for years. And I probably never would have set foot in it in the first place, if it hadn't had a haunted doorbell.
I know there's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for that tiny orange glowing dot, but I always had the creepy feeling that doorbell was possessed. I would see the house from far away when I was riding my bike in the woods, dark mornings on the way to school or in the dim evening. I would see the smashed abandoned white house in the distance, all dark and ruined--except for its little doorbell, which burned a fierce and evil orange.
The power company would have stopped services to that house long ago.
So how could that doorbell be lit? I was terrified of it. I felt it was lit with the devil's electricity.
I couldn't stay away. The house was scary and dangerous, but the little orange button called me. It called me from across the field of long grass and trees and leaves, called me from my boring lonely life in which nothing ever happened.
It called me to listen in on a secret.
And then, one day, I went in.
None of the lights worked. The house was scary enough, but without lights it scared the crap out of me. In fact, that's all I can remember now--wanting to take a crap as I crept from room to room, thinking that any second someone might jump out of nowhere and kill me. All I could think was, man, do I have to take a dump.
I did it in the backyard, and ever since then, I felt like the house was mine.
After that, I went there all the time. I never did figure out how the doorbell worked, but the house was mine now, and nobody else knew about it. I could come and go as I pleased, and keep cool stuff there, and float on a raft in the flooded basement where fish swam in the dark deep water, and it was all mine.
I even rang the doorbell, and it buzzed in a way I liked.
The house was mine.
Until that Thanksgiving.
My family almost always had Thanksgiving--all my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins would come over, and mom would be everywhere making sure the meat was being cut right and the punch bowl was full and the cousins weren't fighting and breaking something and everything was going smoothly, and my dad would sit in the corner with a beer and barely say anything at all.
I didn't even know Putty then. She was much older than me and everyone would whisper about her when she or her parents weren't around. Not many of the relatives would talk much to her because they knew if they got Putty mad she might break their windows or kick their cat or smash their car with a pipe. But I could hear aunts talk about her: she had run away and then come back and refused to say where she went, and how she spit at a policeman, and how she got arrested for shoplifting.
"She was just born bad," they would say.
I would see Putty sulking by the turkey stuffing. She heard everything they said. She knew what they thought of her and she didn't care.
To me, she was the most glamorous girl I had ever seen. She always frowned and I knew she had a knife.
After dinner I had been sent to get Uncle Borland's coat because he had to leave early.
When I walked into the den to get it, I saw Putty on the phone, and she looked at me like she wanted to kill me. She scowled and said something quick into the phone and hung up.
"What're you doing here?" she said.
"I've got to get Uncle Borland's coat," I said.
"Then get it," she snapped, and I got it and ran out of there as quick as I could, even though it was my house.
Putty didn't like anyone, but she really hated me. That was mostly because when I was small I couldn't say the name "Patty" and so I called her Putty instead. Everyone thought this was hilarious, and the name stuck, even though Putty hated it. So she hated me.
But to me, she was like a movie star.
Later, we were all outside saying good-bye to Uncle Borland when I noticed Putty wasn't with us anymore. And then I saw her, way down the street, puffing little clouds, kicking the leaves.
I waited until everyone else had gone inside, and then I followed her.
She walked a long way from my house. The Thanksgiving party was still going on, and they were probably eating pumpkin pie and drinking hot cider and smoking cigars and I loved the way it all smelled and tasted, but Putty was like a magnet, and I had to follow her. Nobody would miss us anyway.
Putty would look around every once in a while, but I always hid in time.
But the faster she walked, and the farther we got, the more nervous I became.
Because she was walking toward the house.
The white house with the haunted doorbell.
There was a stranger's car parked outside the house. It was a big old car with a big dent in the side and the left headlight was held in with duct tape.
Putty went in the house.
My house! How dare she?
And whose car was that?
I waited a long time outside the house. It was a cold November, and little bits of snow were swirling around. I looked across the field, at the ruined white house, and the car, and the burning orange doorbell, and the dead yellow gray grass and the mud dried in hard ruts, and the sky was gray and cold and I decided that I had to go in. I walked across that field and the haunted doorbell got bigger and bigger and I was on the front porch and I could hear voices inside.
I was inside. The voices were upstairs. I couldn't tell what they were saying because the voices were soft and low but I could hear Putty and I could hear a man. And they were laughing.
I was scared. Any man of Putty's was bound to be one tough guy. And dangerous. The voice sounded old--much older than Putty--maybe even 16.
But even though I was scared, I went anyway. This was my house, after all. I had tamed the doorbell myself and pooped in the backyard myself, and I didn't like the idea of people having their own private parties here, no matter who they were.
The voices had stopped. Sometimes the floorboards would creak a little and sometimes they said little things, but so soft that I could hardly hear.
I was at the top of the stairs. They were in the room at the end of the hall. The door was half open. It was getting late and everything was so dark I could hardly see, and it was just as cold in the house as outside.
All I could see was a mattress and Putty looking strange and cold in her underwear.
Putty screamed and grabbed a sheet and pointed at me and before I knew it some guy was clanging down the hall at me, yelling and I tried to run but he caught me by the back of my shirt and whipped me around and yelled in my face, "Who are you, punk? Who are you?" then threw me against the wall and shouted it in my face, and I thought I was going to die right there.
"Oh, god," said Putty. "It's just my stupid cousin."
The guy put out his hand.
"Any family of Putty's is a friend of mine," said the guy. "I'm Hal Hamburger."
I shook his big, big hand.
Hal Hamburger in a nutshell: a fighter and a gentleman--a class act, just don't mess with him.
Let me tell you something:
I wanted to mess with Hal Hamburger.
I wanted to knock him down. I wanted to break his face.
I wished I had never met Hal Hamburger.
Mr. Mims stood in front of the house, with six flashing police cars behind him, pulsing white and blue light through the forest, making it look like an alien place.
I was still on the roof.
"Come on down from there," said Mr. Mims.
"No," I said. "This is my house."
"I am the law," said Mr. Mims. "And I say come off that house."
"This is my house."
"That's nobody's house," said Mr. Mims. "Not even Hal Hamburger's. This house belongs to no one."
"This is my house."
"Well, we're just gonna go through your house and we're gonna search it; and when we're done, we're gonna take you home."
The police cars opened, and policemen came out and swarmed through the house like blue beetles. Mr. Mims stayed outside and looked up at me.
"Where did he go, lad?" said Mr. Mims.
"I don't know."
I could hear the policemen tearing up the house under me.
"He shot Mr. Plam," said Mr. Mims angrily. "Do you want to help a man who killed Mr. Plam?"
"I don't know where he is."
"We all know Hal Hamburger's your friend."
"Hal Hamburger is not my friend. I wish he were dead. So you can ask me all night where Hal Hamburger went, but I wouldn't tell you because I don't know."
The policemen came out of the house.
"He's not here, sir."
Mr. Mims looked up at me and said, "Take him down from there. We're taking him home."
They took me down.
As we drove away, I turned around and looked out the back window of Mr. Mims's car, and looked back at the house, and saw that the doorbell wasn't haunted anymore.
The orange fire had gone out.
When Mr. Mims asked me what I was crying about, I didn't know what to say, and he turned a corner and the forest swallowed up the house and the house was gone, the dark house with a dead doorbell, and Mr. Mims's police car rolled forward into a dark nothing, into a gigantic blank.
I had never been in a police car before. It smelled like leather and Mr. Mims let me sit in the front seat. He didn't say anything and the car rolled on and on in the darkness, and I closed my eyes and tried to be warm and tried to think about Pooba, but the radio kept crackling and spitting static and there were messages flying back and forth.
"We've got a situation."
"Chief, you've gotta see this."
"What's your position?"
"Sir, we're on the interstate at exit 61."
"I'm taking the lad home."
"You've gotta see this."
"What is it?"
"Chief...you've just gotta see this."
Mr. Mims cursed, turned the wheel, and turned on his siren with a whoop.
A bunch of policemen were running toward Mr. Mims's car when we pulled up.
There were police cars scattered around the roadside shouting blue and white light and there were barricades and red and yellow burning flares everywhere, and in the middle there was Hal Hamburger's car, jackknifed in a ditch.
Then I realized the policemen weren't running toward Mr. Mims's car.
They were running away from Hal Hamburger's car.
I looked out at Hal's car, twisted and smoking in the ditch, and felt a feeling so black that it didn't have a name.
The policemen were talking to Mr. Mims.
"I don't want to look at it again, sir."
"Get somebody else to go back."
"I'm not going back to that car, sir."
"What did you find?" said Mr. Mims.
"I didn't dare go too close."
"We found these, though, sir."
"It's two tickets to Paris, sir."
"Where's Hal Hamburger?" said Mr. Mims. "Where's the girl?"
"Spit it out, man."
"In that car..."
I had already slipped out of Mr. Mims's car and was running across the empty, flashing field toward the smoking car.
"No! Don't go near it!" shouted a policeman.
I stood on the edge of the ditch, looking at Hal's car. I couldn't see inside it. But every nightmare I ever had was coiled up tight and packed in that car. If I looked inside that car, I might never ever smile or laugh again.
The policemen were running at me.
I climbed down. I looked in the car, and I saw what was in there.
Jooka arrived the next day, and when she saw Pooba she cried and said Pooba was the most beautiful little girl she'd ever seen. I asked Jooka to marry me, and she said yes.
We decided to live on earth for now.
I quit high school and moved out of my parents' house. Jooka got a job dancing in the Jupiter style. I got work translating moon language.
We bought the white house with the unhaunted doorbell. We fixed it up. We repainted it, put up new wallpaper, laid new carpet. We drained the water out of the basement and took the fish that lived there and set them free in the lake. When Pooba and Jooka and I watched the fish swim away, Jooka touched me and looked at me with her silvery mystery eyes, and a thrill ran through me. But I felt sad too, because I suddenly knew that my childhood was over.
And not a minute too soon.
That spring, I mowed the lawn. When all that was left was a nice short green lawn, I knew that Hal Hamburger was gone for good.
A couple months later, Pooba learned to fly. At first she would just fizz around the house like a spluttering balloon, but soon she was floating around very nicely, swooping and twirling and doing tricks. Summer nights, Jooka and I would let Pooba outside. We would go out onto the back porch and watch Pooba fly around in the clouds. Pooba would do somersaults and bob above the trees and frighten the geese, a laughing purple dot way up in the sky. Jooka and I would talk and drink lemonade and talk some more, and sometimes I would tell her about the old days with Hal Hamburger.
I still find myself, from time to time, thinking about Hal Hamburger. When all was said and done, a remarkable man.
A man of many hats, Hal Hamburger, a man of broad tastes and varied capacities: thief, mentor, lover, hero, wit, athlete, outlaw, squatter, dreamer, killer, friend, gentleman, fighter, thinker, liar, philosopher, citizen, baby food.