Desolation

There is probably no other town within 500 miles as unremarkable as Calvington, Minnesota. Todd Birch could attest to that; he had lived here his entire life, all 13 years. Farmland was his view in any direction, and the flatness made the sky a dominant feature—all that blue making the town even more insignificant if that was even possible.

A two-lane highway split the town in half, running for a five-block stretch comprising Calvingtons Main Street before fading into a mirage in the distance. There are only three buildings on Main Street that might one time have qualified as businesses; today, they are empty placeholders from another time. Todd’s home, standing at the end of a two-block street, butts up to farmland. The field, covered in large leafy plants, march in neat rows up a slight incline to a small ridge in the distance.

When Todd steps out the front door each day, he immediately feels depressed about his monotonous surroundings. At some point, after standing on the home stoop for several minutes, he invariably makes his way the two blocks to the highway in hopes of discovering something – anything, of interest. Each time though, desolation greets him, and the cycle of feeling sorry for himself begins anew. What possible trick of fate has stranded him in such a place?

A few other shabby kids significantly younger than Todd face the same danger as him, living in Calvington, and dying of boredom. All the kids of school age ride on a dilapidated bus that is hard to imagine ever new. The bus brings the kids 15 miles south to a larger town with middle and high schools. Todd looks forward to the start of school each year and dreads the endless days of summer.

Standing on the edge of the highway, he sees the heat rising off the asphalt in the distance. Gently he cups his right hand to protect the Chesterfield he took from his mother’s open pack. Putting it between his lips, he flips open his Zippo lighter and lights the end. The lighter, one of his prized possessions, has a solid feel; he loves the smell of the lighter fluid and the satisfying clicking noise it makes when opening and closing.

He takes a long drag and inhales deeply before exhaling through his nose. He always gets a bit of a head rush whenever he has not smoked in a few days. He has limited access to cigarettes, and the ones he steals need to be from packs with enough remaining not to draw attention.

Usually, he would find an out-of-the-way place to shield himself from view when smoking, but the emptiness of the town today is so complete, he doesn’t see the point. Walking across the two lanes, he peers through a filthy window into a hall with a for rent sign taped to the door. He can not imagine anyone wanting to hold an event in this town, and as far as he can remember, no one had.

Sitting on the window ledge, he smokes the cigarette down to the filter before flicking onto the sand and dirt of the parking area. He doesn’t own a watch but figures it can’t be much past 10:00 AM, and he has no clue how to fill the rest of the day.

Todd, hearing an eighteen-wheeler in the distance upshifting gears, thinks it an odd sound since the 15-mile approach into Calvington is a wide-open highway, and trucks’ only gear change is when approaching the town to downshift before rumbling through at 20 or so mph over the speed limit.

Todd, standing in the middle of the highway, looks south where he heard the sound; not detecting any movement, he continues across, making his way toward home. He senses or maybe feels a low rumble, and reaching the end of the first block, turns back toward the highway just in time to see a massive truck rolling slowly through the intersection. All in shiny black, the monstrosity has cowlings so low he could not even be sure it was moving on wheels. Shortly after passing from sight, the rumbling subsided slightly, and he did not hear any of the usual upshifting that would be needed to regain highway speed.

There was no way the vehicle could have exited the town that quickly; the highway to the north was flat, and anything moving you could see for miles. Todd jogged back to Main Street and didn’t see anything moving in either direction. Walking the five blocks to the north side of town, he started to question whether he had seen the vehicle at all.

Reaching the end of town, he turned right and made his way toward his home; he would take the back street bordering the farmland. As he approached the end of the two-block stretch, he noticed something different about the field; coming closer, he could see what had not looked right. Two large tracks with deep impressions had crushed the leafy plants across the area and up the incline before disappearing on the other side of the ridge. The colossal vehicle had not left town; for some reason, it was out on the land.

“Wow,” Todd said under his breath, “this is weird.” The houses behind him had their shades drawn down so that no one might have seen the truck. Todd looking at the crushed vegetation, figured the landowner would be pissed when he saw it. His impulse was to follow the tracks but thought it might be wiser under cover of darkness. He had no idea who these people might be.

Back at home, Todd looked for anything besides his chores to pass the time until nightfall. What was incredibly annoying was the length of the summer days, like adding insult to injury.

Finally, as sunset approached and the day’s light faded, Todd watched from his second-story bedroom window as the fields became covered in darkness. He grabbed the six-cell flashlight from his desk and turned it on and off several times, ensuring the batteries were still good. Feeling the Zippo lighter in his pocket, he hoped he could swipe a couple more smokes on his way out for the adventure.

Todd had become accustomed to going it alone, but he would have loved to have a partner tonight. Cupping his hand over the flashlight lens, he kept the light low, illuminating the ground where the vehicle entered the field. It reminded him of the Sherlock Holmes story where Sherlock and Watson used a dark lantern to get into position before slipping a screen over the glass to darken the light as they waited for their prey.

Todd pressed into the field and stayed within one of the depressions created by the vehicle. It was easy-going walking over the crushed plants. Flicking the flashlight on for a second or two at intervals allowed him to check his progress. As he reached the top of the slight ridge, he could see lights near the bottom of the depression in the land. The area during heavy snow melts or torrential rains formed a small lake. Five or more shielded lights shone on the ground, around the mysterious vehicle.

Unsure of what to expect at the site, Todd slowed his pace and moved as quietly as possible. He decided to cover the remaining distance within the cover of the crop. Hunching down low and creeping closer, the vehicle, mainly in the shadows, reminded him of a transformer toy. When passing the intersection earlier in town, the unusual domed rear was now standing erect, with its narrow end pointing toward the night sky. The body had a tubular rocket shape and was attached to a rail that looked like a section from a modern roller coaster. Support legs extending out from the truck’s bed looked like a giant metal spider.

There was wispy smoke, the consistency of steam vapor coming out one side of the vertical object that quickly dissipated into the night air.

Todd still did not see any sign of people around the site, nor any structure where they might be. A heavy wind suddenly rushed across the field, causing a creaking noise from the vicinity of the rocket-shaped object.

Todd lowering himself into a crawling position, moved cautiously toward the clearing; he could smell the earth where the massive wheels had crushed the plants into the soil. Poking his head into the clearing, he watched and listened. It seemed as if whoever drove the truck into position had abandoned the site.

It occurred to him that what he saw in front of him was by far the most exciting thing that he had ever witnessed since living in the mundane town of  Calvington, and with that thought came a premonition about how tonight would change his life.

Summoning his courage, Todd moved into a squatting position and, while keeping his head low, moved across the clearing, covering the distance to the truck and ducking into the shadows between pools of light. Looking up at the standing object, he estimated it to be at least twenty feet in height to the top of its dome. Several rows of LEDs intermittently blinked on panels shielded behind dark tinted glass doors on the truck’s bed.

Todd could appreciate the site they had chosen as he crouched in the shadows near the rear of the vehicle. Nothing could be seen here from either side of the field unless you stood near the ridgeline.

Moving toward the standing object, Todd ran his hand along its shiny black metal surface as he walked its circumference. A swift sliding noise from above froze him in his tracks. Another lower sound of whirring motors pushed out an object from the opening that unfolded in several elaborate steps to become a ladder along its side. Todd pressing hard against the bottom of the vertical shape, feared the commotion would alert someone to his presence.

The bottom of the ladder, only a few feet from where Todd crouched in the shadows, seemed to wait patiently for a passenger to climb its rungs. Todd stayed put, listening to the intermittent wind, crickets, and a creaking noise from the apparatus supporting the vertical object. He desperately wanted to have a peek inside the capsule but was afraid of being exposed.

Grabbing the bottom rung from the back of the ladder and using it for support, he swung himself around to the front. Taking a last look around the site, he scrambled up the ladder and stuck his head into the opening. He heard the muted chiming of electronic circuitry that almost sounded musical. There was a cozy, inviting feel about the interior, and the circulating air was cool and dry. The space consisted of a circular recessed area with a two-foot-wide walkway around its perimeter. Lights embedded in the floor at the edge of the recessed area precisely lined up with lights on a mirror image of the space suspended overhead.

The walkway provided access to panels running in a narrow band encircling the capsule about four feet above the floor. The controls, like on the bed of the vehicle, were behind tinted glass.

Hearing a sound from behind, Todd quickly scrambled the rest of the way into the opening and laid flat on the interior walkway. With his face pressed to the floor, he listens as whirring motors reseat the ladder underneath the surface of the walkway. A fast sliding sound follows with the closing of the door that seals him into the capsule.

Standing, he finds the capsule only provides a few extra inches of clearance from its sides as the walls slant inward toward the dome. Panicked, he looks up to see a small red lever near the sliding door mechanism. Pushing the lever up, he expects the door to open, but instead, a wall of screens encircling the interior comes to life. Todd, violently trembling, stares at the screens and realizes they are of the small pools of light illuminating the ground around the site.

He feels a vibration on the floor, and everything he touches, like something in the bowels, is lightly shaking the structure. There are too many complicated controls even to start to figure out how he might escape. He tries to think of what he will say when discovered inside.

Feeling safer down low, Todd sits on the walkway and swings his legs over the edge of the recessed area; sliding forward, he lowers himself onto the cushioned surface. Once clearing the threshold, the embedded lights in the floor and the ones suspended start increasing in intensity until the shafts of light look like bars surrounding the circle. Staring at the extreme brightness, he fails to notice the suspended object descending toward the floor. When finally realizing what is happening, the gap is too small to escape. The suspended object meeting the floor emits several mechanical locking sounds and a sharp hiss of air like a soda bottle slowly opening.

Todd has a 360-degree view of the capsule screens and control panels. The enclosure’s cover is entirely translucent except for a small metal band housing the mechanics that coupled it to the recessed circle. Looking up, Todd can see a  sequence of numbers somehow suspended in the air like a hologram. The numbers are in four sets of two digits separated by spaces and appear to be counting down. The numbers displayed are  00 00 59 45. The last set is changing every second.

Todd resigns himself to the fact of not getting out until someone discovers his breech. Having never been in trouble before, he has no idea of what to expect. The panels outside the circular enclosure are alive with activity. The capsule is incrementally moving and adjusting its angle like trying to find the perfect trajectory. He sees no controls within his space and imagines a remote operation or a scarier thought about an automatic pilot sequence.

Helplessly and with no other options, Todd watches the numbers continue counting down above him. His memory suddenly flooded with images from his past, like when the town put up an enormous Christmas tree on a vacant lot, and everyone participated in decorating. He remembers how the night sky lights up with enough stars to rival the best fireworks show and how the land transforms after the first snowfall. He remembers small patches of woods coming alive with fireflies on summer nights and lying in bed, watching lightning in the distance and counting the seconds until he hears the thunder. And he remembers the winds, heavy and determined in the fall and winter, and light and gentle in the spring.

And as the clock reaches 60 seconds, Todd understands no one is coming to find him inside the capsule. The low rumbling vibration he felt upon entry has turned to a full-fledged trembling of the structure, and whatever ties are holding it in place are about to be shredded from the power of its launch. Lying still on his back, he sees oxygen flowing into the enclosed space from several small vents. When the counter finally reaches zero, his body gets pressed into the cushion with such force that it embeds him into the material like a large cookie cutter, and he cannot move. He watches the monitors and sees his town move away from the rocket until it disappears into the larger landscape of the earth. The view is breathtaking, and the possible adventure in front of him is full of excitements and unknowns, but all that pales in comparison to a desire to resume his old boring life in his extraordinary hometown of Calvington.

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