by Stephen Paden
Joey picked up the blue rock from the ground. It was cool to the touch—an odd sensation for any object sitting in the sun all morning. The pleasant surface of the object allowed Joey to run his thumb over the top—what he could only imagine was the top—with ease, sending a tingling sensation from his hand to the rest of his arm. Joey smiled. He had no idea just how long it had been there, only that it looked out of place. He searched the area for more pieces but found none. The sun was now directly overhead, and the small patch of desert behind his house was a furnace. He went home to see if lunch was ready.
Joey walked in the door and saw a plate set on the table—peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a handful of white grapes, and a glass of lemonade. His mother was in the kitchen washing dishes. He sat at the table and took a bite of the sandwich.
“Can I have milk instead?” asked Joey.
“You’ll get dehydrated,” replied his mother. “Gonna be a hot one.”
“Don’t grunt. Your fa—,” She caught herself. It had been three years since Joey’s dad had died in a crane accident in Danville. Joey had shown remarkable courage and composure for a twelve-year-old in dealing with his father’s death. The timing was what still upset her. They agreed, shortly before his death, to separate. Joey was old enough to know that when parents sometimes did this, they did it for good. She’d lived with the guilt of this, and while she could stomach all of his faults and mutter them safely under her breath when Joey reminded her of him, she could not take away the living memory of Joey’s dad. Whatever differences her and Bruce had, died under that crane.
“What about daddy?” he asked, his mouth full of grapes.
“Well, your father wouldn’t want you to grunt.” She walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. She smiled at him. “He’d be so proud of you right now.” Joey smiled.
With the plate of food gone, Joey pushed his chair from the table and went back outside. The canopy that hung over the porch provided enough shade from the sun for Joey to play for the rest of the day comfortably. In fact, Joey had shivered a few times that afternoon, despite the extreme heat.
Joan Moss was alone. It had been three years since her estranged husband passed away, but the years did nothing to resolve her loneliness. He didn’t leave her much in the way of money, just a $15,000 life insurance policy that, after the expenses of burying Bruce, left her with a little over $2,000, which she used as a down-payment on the trailer. He also left behind the guilt she felt for missing a husband she was soon to divorce. What did these feelings mean? Often enough, she could focus on raising Joey and force the feelings back, but there were always the times at night that she dreaded. You can’t hide from yourself at night, she thought. So she did the best she could: during the day she poured herself into being a mother, and at night she poured the wine down her throat. Was she an alcoholic? Who knew, she wondered. She was coping. And she was still in control.
Her nighttime routine was basically the same. Put Joey to bed at eight o’ clock, change into her pj’s, grab a Danielle Steele book (it never mattered which one because she read five at a time, a habit she had formed when Joey was in his terrible two’s and time was not her friend), slip under the sheets and sip on a bottle of White Zin until the words on the pages lost their meaning. Not that there was much meaning in pulsing crotches or heaving breasts. Still, anything to keep her sanity.
She sipped her wine, read a few pages and went to bed.
Morning seeped into Joey’s bedroom window and his eyes reluctantly opened. Once Joey was up, he was up. Other kids could wake up and then fall asleep again, maybe, but not Joey. He turned away from the bright sun coming in the window and look at the blue metal oval he pulled from the desert the day before. He remembered the deep blue color of the thing and how yesterday, though the sun was directly overhead and shining down into it, it seemed to absorb the rays. His mother would probably ask many questions about it, so he decided not to show it to her.
Joey went to the kitchen, still in his PJs, and fixed himself a bowl of cereal. The summer was shrinking and in a month or so he would start school again, so he took his time doing even the most mundane rituals. At eleven o’ clock he might consider putting on his clothes to go out and play in, but that was dependent on his mood. He might sit in his pj’s all day and watch cartoons. His mother couldn’t afford cable TV, but shortly after his father had died, she bought him a DVD player and a small 19” television for his room, along with the first season of Sponge Bob, Fairly Odd Parents, and a compilation of some old Warner Bros. cartoons from when his mom was his age.
Joey scarfed his cereal down and went to his room. He eyed the TV and quickly decided to put on his play clothes. The blue oval object sitting on his nightstand shone brilliantly in the sunlight, but gave off no flare or reflection. He grabbed it, put it in his pocket, and went to the back yard.
A thermometer that hung on one of the posts supporting the canopy said it was ninety-one degrees outside. Joey looked at his Harry Potter watch and noted the time was only 9:00 am. If it was this hot at 9:00 am, he thought, it would only get worse. His mother did not like him to play outside in this extreme heat. He thought for a moment, then went back inside and grabbed his Pacers ball cap, and rummaged through the bathroom for sun block that his mom would insist he wear on a day like this. If he covered his bases, then mom may not be too upset when learning he’d gone out in this muck. He closed screen door quietly and headed out to the patch of desert where he found the blue oval.
Joan woke up the next morning, head pounding, and soaked in her sheets. I’ve gone and peed myself, she thought. She felt between her legs and to her delight, she was dry. Well, dry there at least. Her forehead dripped with sweat and the armpits in her nightgown were dark and smelled of failing deodorant. She hated the heat where she lived, but the double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Brother, Arizona was all she could afford. Her husband’s insurance policy didn’t go far, and there was no lawsuit for accidental death after the investigators ruled the accident was his fault. Drinking on the job. She’d never even known that he drank. Closed casket. None of that compared to what she felt, or what she tried to feel at the funeral.
Joey scanned the ground again for any more metal pieces. He figured it wouldn’t hurt to look again even though he didn’t see anything yesterday. The ground was clear. He pulled the oval shape out of his pocket and examined it in the bright sun.
“What do I call you?” he asked the oval. He looked around and saw the heat rising from the landscape. About a mile to the north he saw the Amoco station shimmering behind the heat waves. To the west the sky was clear, blue, and less washed out than the eastern sky. When the sun reached its apex, the two sides of the sky would match. Joey ran his thumb back and forth across the object. He stared into it. “I’ll call you Blue,” he said.
He put Blue back in his pocket and walked back to the house. He heat was almost unbearable now with the sun overhead, and he figured lunch would be ready soon if not now.
He slid open the screen door and instead of seeing lunch on the table, he saw his mother sitting in one of the chairs, staring at him, smoking a cigarette. She quit, he thought.
“Where’ve you been Joey?” she asked.
“Out back. Down the hill in the sand,” he replied.
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his. She ashed her cigarette. “I don’t like you out in this heat. It’s dangerous.”
“I wore my cap and put on lotion,” he insisted.
“I know honey, it’s still too hot out there. What’s so fascinating about sand, anyway?” She grabbed the ashtray and walked it to the trash can and dumped it.
“There’s a lot of it?” he said.
Joan walked back to the table and put her hand on his head, ruffling his hair. “I know this isn’t the life either of us had in mind, but I’m trying, ya know. What about the DVDs I bought you, don’t you like them?”
“Yeah, it’s just…I like the outside better.” She nodded in agreement and thought to herself how it had been damned hard for her parents to keep her indoors as a kid.
“Okay then, tell me about these trips to the sand then. We’ll make it like a mission, okay? You can go out there every day this summer has left, but when you get home, you have to provide a full report on what you did, and what sort of things are happening out there, okay?”
“Like what” he asked.
“Well, if our home is going to be invaded by aliens or the government is sending a long line of black cars to our house, you should have a nice view to give us a head start.” Joey smiled at his her.
“Like I’m a secret agent or something?”
“Exactly!.” She stared at him for a moment and then was hit by revelation. “I’ve got just the thing.” She rose from the seat and disappeared into the living room. She came back out fully dressed and went out back to the rusting metal storage shed that accompanied most trailers. Joey followed. She pulled the sliding door to the storage shed open with a creaking sound that made Joey cringe. The heat from inside hit them both like a tidal wave and they stepped back. After it dissipated, she entered the hole in the middle which was surrounded by stacked boxes on each side. It only went in about five feet or so, but she had done a neat job of keeping it orderly and that meant plenty of room for maneuvering. She aimed her flashlight down to the left hand corner of the stack of boxes on her left, and fixed the light on a box that said “Baby stuff”.
“Here it is,” she said. She grabbed box from the ground and felt lucky that there was no other box on top of it. Her armpits were soaked. She grabbed the box and walked out of the hole. Joey was standing there with a confused look on his face. She set the box on the ground and dropped the flashlight. She opened the box and Joey saw that on top were old onesies, socks, bibs, and other things that he had, no doubt, spit up on or crapped in when he was a kid, but as she pulled these items out and flung them carelessly to the ground, he saw what she was going after.
Joan pulled the walkie-talkie-like device from the box, held it up to her son and smiled saying, “Baby monitor.”
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“What do you think it was for?” she quipped and then poked him in the stomach. He giggled. She examined the hand-held transmitter and besides the worn label that once said Gerry Baby on it, she figured that new batteries and a quick wipe down were all it needed.
“Like a walkie-talkie?” he asked.
“Kinda. But it only works one way so if you take it on a mission, I will be able to hear you through this.” She reached into the box and pulled out the receiver—a small, white box with an off-white mesh screen. Joey hadn’t ever played with his mother like this, so he was excited with the idea. And so was Joan.
Over the next few weeks, Joan sent Joey on mission after mission into the boiling desert climate (of course, making sure that Joey was protected from the sun with cap and lotion), retrieving secret files left by rogue agents who had been on the run from the government, alien artifacts from ships that had crashed or made emergency landings on this particular spot of land, and to set up perimeters of defense from evil creatures that crawled out from the sand at night when little boys lay sleeping in their beds. They had never had so much fun. Joey all but forgot about Blue, but had always remembered to take it with him in his jeans pocket. He took it everywhere.
As the days grew shorter, Joey also knew this meant school was approaching. He liked school and had never minded it coming soon before, but this summer—the summer where he had his mother had learned to play together for the first time—would be missed.
“Don’t worry Joey,” she consoled him. “Aliens, monsters, and rogue agents don’t make their schedules around school. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of work ahead of us in the Patch.”
Joey had taken his mother out to where he played and performed his missions one day, and by the end of the day, Joan had a name for this dry waste her son seemed drawn to. Mostly because this square mile or so of land that included sand, twigs, and clay, was surrounded by greener—although not much—land on each side of it. “I bet,” she had said, “that if we were in a plane looking down on this spot, it would look really out of place, like a patch on the knees of worn out pants.” It worked for Joey.
Fall had come and that meant school buses, text books, and new clothes for Joey. She took him shopping at the K-Mart in Danville, and bought him school supplies, clothes, and anything else he needed that her modest salary as a second shift manager at the Denny’s would afford them. They drove home and put the stuff away. Joey sat at the table and looked out the sliding glass doors. The sky had darkened some which made Joey feel even worse about the coming school year. Like an ominous sheet of depression coming closer and closer, leaving him nowhere to hide, and soon school would do the same thing. But he liked school. Maybe not so much, now.
He thought of the patch, and how much fun he’d had this summer, but he slowly understood that it wasn’t so much the patch that brought him pleasure, it was sharing it with his mom. Since his dad died, he’d pretty much kept to himself. At school, his friends consisted of a brother and sister, both of whom moved to another state last year, leaving him friendless. His older cousin Tommy Madden didn’t dislike him, but never made an effort to incorporate Joey into this little group of friends. Joey didn’t mind. He held Tommy in the same regard, much like his mother held her sister, Tommy’s mother, in that same regard—blood, but not that thick. Joey was doing alright. He knew it, and his newly discovered ‘fun mom’ was just what he needed. It was all he needed.
Joey’s first day of school ended the way most school days ended: not soon enough. He hopped down from the twenty-something year old school bus and ran up to the trailer. He reached into his pocket to grab his house key and his fingers touched the metal oval he had almost forgotten about. Every morning he would grab the thing from the nightstand next to his bed and put it in his pants. Every night, he would reverse the ritual. And every day, he wouldn’t remember doing either. Now he remembered something.
He pulled Blue from his pocket and was startled when he saw it: it was now black. “When did that happen?” he muttered to himself. He decided, before he forgot, that he would tell his mom about Blue. After all, they were now comrades in the fight against evil.
Joan pulled into the driveway around 9:00 am, and cut the lights. She noticed that the lights in the house were on and, while he was supposed to go to bed at 8:30 pm, she had told him he could stay up until she got home. When she went back to her normal shift on mornings, it was back to the old routine, however. She walked inside and saw him sitting on the couch, reading his school books. He didn’t immediately notice her, which gave her a moment to reflect—a moment to understand that whatever she had faced in life, she was better for it because of Joey. And recently, maybe due to their excursions in the desert, or the passing of his father three years ago, they had become as close as ever. She could not ask for more.
“Hi baby.” She said and set her purse down on the chair sitting closest to the door. Joey looked up. “How was school?”
“Long,” he said with a smirk. He put his school books down and walked over to his mother. His arms circled around her waist and he squeezed. “I have something to show you.”
“You didn’t get into trouble already, did you?” she asked.
“No mom, nothing like that. I found something out in the patch.”
“Oh yeah? Well, let me get out of these clothes and into my nightgown.” She went into her bedroom, still talking to Joey. “So how is school? Tell me good things.”
Joey went back to the couch and sat down. “It’s school, I guess. Oh, I got Mrs. Hartshorn for social studies.” Joan walked back into the living, fresh in her nightgown. “She’s pretty,” he continued.
Joan looked at him and rolled her eyes, the corners of her mouth slightly tweaked.
“I guess we need to have a talk soon.” She said and laughed to herself. She walked into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of wine from the cupboard. Merlot tonight.
“What about?” he asked. She looked back at him and saw his curious face. “Nothing…later.” She laughed again and changed the subject. “So tell me about Mrs. Hartshorn, other than ‘she’s pretty’, what is she like? Will she be a good teacher, ya think?” She disappeared behind the wall that separated the living room from the kitchen and came back out with a corkscrew and an empty wine glass in one hand, and a half finished bottle of Camelot Merlot in the other. Joan circled the room once, turned on the lamp next to her chair and then plopped down in it. She poured herself a glass and sipped at it.
“I dunno.” He replied after watching his mother perform this ritual he was not used to experiencing.
Joan smiled at him and thought that perhaps another time, further into the school year, she’d ask him how school was going. “Did you want to show me something?”
“Oh yeah.” he said. Joey reached into his jeans and pulled out Blue from the left pocket. He set it down on the coffee table. Joan took a big drink from the glass while her eyes fixed on the black oval.
“A rock?” she asked.
“I dunno. It’s weird though cause when I found it, it was blue.”
“Blue? Looks black to me, babe. Where’d you get this thing anyway?”
“The patch,” he replied. She poured herself another glass.
“Honey, I don’t want you going out there when I’m not here ok, we talked about this.”
“Yes, ma’am. I didn’t go out there today, though. I found this over the summer. I guess I just forgot about it.”
“Where’ve you been keeping it. I’ve cleaned your room a few times since then and I haven’t seen it. Honey, are you lying to me? Cause lying over a rock is kinda silly, don’t you think?” She already knew the answer before she asked it, and felt somewhat ashamed by even suggesting it. Her son was no liar. Not Joey.
“No ma’am. That’s the other weird thing. I put this in my pocket everyday, but I never remember doing it.” He looked down at Blue and grabbed it. He studied it closely. “Do you think it’s magic or something?”
“No baby. When you do something enough times, you start to forget you’re actually doing it. When you start driving, you’ll understand how that can happen.” She laughed to herself again. “Lord, so many times I’ve pulled into work or home, and then it would dawn on me that I had no idea how I’d got there. Just a routine we all follow, honey. Only sometimes we can completely forget them.”
Joey was relieved. Underneath the curiosity, he had an uneasy feeling that something was indeed magical about Blue. But upon hearing that even grown-ups forget things they do sometimes, he was able to push that thought to the back of his mind. But not all the way back. His mother broke the silence.
“It’s a black rock that sometimes can be found in desert climates. That’s what it is baby. Nothing magical or harmful about Onyx.” She sipped at her wine. “Matter of fact, maybe we can go to a jeweler in Danville and they can tell you. Might be worth something.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows at him. “Ya know, you’re bike’s looking like shit.“
“Mom!” Joey shouted and laughed.
Joan giggled and then pointed at the glass. “Well, that bike is kinda…rusty. Could use a good cleaning. Or maybe we can replace it.” Joan was careful not to make promises that she couldn’t keep to Joey. She wasn’t all that sure that the rock could bring enough for a bike, but she had secretly saved enough money for a new bike for quite some time now, working some overtime here and there over the summer. If the rock didn’t pay up, her secret account would.
“Wow, a new bike would be awesome. But what about some real walkie-talkies?” he asked.
“You don’t want a new bike, baby?”
“Yeah, but I had so much fun when we were doing our missions. But with the baby monitor, you can only talk one way. This way we’d be able to talk to each other at the same time! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
She leaned forward in her chair, balancing her elbows on the tops of her knees, in complete adoration of her son. She smiled and then burst out, “Time for bed young man.”
“Ugh.” Joey replied.
“Don’t grunt, you’re fa—,” she caught herself like she had so many times. Joey rose from the couch and went over to her. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Daddy wouldn’t like that,” he said. He paused and then said, “I miss him.”
Joan felt herself slipping down into the wine-induced luxury of internal warmth, but the guilt she had suppressed too well over the past three years had come up a little cold in her throat. “Me too,” she managed to get out. Her face was sullen with confusion. Joey went to bed while Joan sat in the chair, staring at the couch—staring at nothing, holding her half-empty glass of Merlot.
Joan finished the drink and tucked Joey in. Then she did the same to herself. She fell asleep reading one of her ‘love books’ as Joey frequently called them. Joey lay in bed for a while, unconsciously stroking the black stone in his hand, staring out the window at the stars in the night sky.
Joey woke up the next morning, still clutching the stone. The sky was overcast. He pushed himself out of bed and got dressed. He put the stone in his pocket and went to wake up his mother. He was still undecided on what he would purchase with the money for the rock, and even more unsure whether or not to sell it at all. He would ask his mother’s advice.
He crept into her room, and saw her sleeping face down with her legs sprawled across the bed. Her left arm hung over the side of the bed and just below it rested one of her ‘love books.’
“Mom?” he whispered.
“Mmm, what time is it?” she muttered through the bed sheets.
“Eight-thirty,” Joey said after looking at the clock next to her bed.
“This shift is workin’ me good.” She said. She looked at Joey through squinting eyes. “And just why am I getting up so early?”
“You said we could go into town and talk to the jewel maker.” He said.
“Oh did I?” She smiled. “Ok, let mommy get dressed and we’ll get going.”
Joey went to the living room and sat on the couch. Truthfully, he admitted to himself, he had no intention of selling the stone. He was more interested in having an adult—especially one who knew about stones—tell him exactly what this was, why it was changing colors, and possibly what it was worth.
Joan got dressed, ate some toast and jelly, and loaded Joey into the car. They drove north to Danville, which took the usual twenty minutes on I-49. The landscape between their small outcropping of a town called Blythe was pretty much the same depressing desolation as the one they saw everyday out the windows of their trailer. But moving north felt like progress—to both of them. As soon as they hit the city limits of Danville, technology began to spring up all around them, and it reminded Joey of what a time-traveler must feel like when he goes into the future. At least what they show on television.
Joan pulled her Jeep Cherokee into a small parking lot across from the Amoco station on Mulberry St. which held a small strip mall consisting of four businesses: a salon, an H&R Block that was closed until tax season began, a video rental store, and a small mom and pop jeweler. Branson Jewelers was painted on the large glass window pane out front but, where it had once shown brilliantly with its gold and red theme, it was now faded by the unforgiving Arizonian sun into a pale yellowish-white contrast against the tinted windowpane. Joan and Joey went inside.
The air-conditioning from inside welcomed them with surprise. It took a minute for Joey’s eyes to adapt to the light inside of the store, but when they did, he saw the room was configured like a horseshoe—two long glass display cases opened their arms and greeted customers into the small alcove where eventually they would end up at the back display case where, behind it, a small man with a bald head stood speaking to a customer on the other side of the case. He spoke with authority on the subject of the particular ring he was showing the customer, and described the ring as much with his hands as he did his words. But still, the customer was unconvinced, and thanked the bald man for his time before passing Joan and Joey on his way out. The salesman disappeared behind the counter a doorway behind the counter and yelled out that he would be right with them. Joan asked Joey if he had the rock with him—something she should have done before leaving Blythe—and Joey said he did. They walked up to the counter and the bald man walked through the doorway and greeted them.
“Hot today, huh?” he said with a salesman’s grin.
“Isn’t it always?” Joan replied.
“So,” the salesman started, “we’ve got so many specials, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s narrow it down then. Getting married?” Joan shook her head. “Ah, engagement ring shopping then?” Joan shook her head again. “Wait!” he interjected. The man closed his eyes and pointed both index fingers upwards. “Earrings. I knew it! Well, we’ve got such a sel—“
“No, not those either, I’m afraid,” she said, trying not to laugh. Joan looked down at Joey(with a small realization that pretty soon she would be looking straight on at him, and then maybe a year later, up to him if he had his father’s genes in him). My son Joey found something he’d like to…well…he doesn’t know what it is. I thought…we thought maybe you could help us.” Joan felt more embarrassed now than curious. Kids found rocks all the time and she bet that very few of their mothers would indulge in this kind of behavior. But Joey was no regular kid. He was hers—and he was all she had left.
“Joey honey, show him.”
Joey reached into his pocket and pulled out the stone. He held the thing up for the salesman to look at, and then looked at the man.
“My, that’s a strange rock you have indeed. Never seen a red one like that before.” Joan swung her head around and gazed at the thing in Joey’s hand, then looked at Joey. “I suppose it could be—“
“Joey—“ she said but could say no more. Joey pulled the rock down to eye level and stared at it. He felt vindicated in his mother’s eyes, but at the same time he felt uneasy. The rock had been a deep blue when he found it in the sand, black when he showed it to his mom, and now red in front of the old man. Joey continued to stare at the stone. The old man looked back and forth between the woman and the boy, then finally cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” said Joan.
“Not a problem,” he replied. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“My son was wondering if you could just tell us what it is…or if it’s worth anything. He’s got himself set on a pair of walkie-talkies or a bike.” The old man motioned to Joey that he’d like to take another look. Joey gave him the stone. The old man took out his ocular from the wooden case it rested in on the counter and put it in his left eye. He stared at it for a long time before speaking again.
“No grain to it. No vein, either. Where’d you say you found this?” he asked Joey.
“Out back in the pa—,” he started to say, but he doubted if the man would know what he was talking about and besides, the Patch was Top Secret: for their eyes only. “Behind our trailer.” Joey was content with that answer. The desert was a big place, and part of being a spy was being as vague as possible. The old man, as if taking queue from the word trailer, immediately changed his tone.
“Well,” he said dryly, “just looks like a rock to me. I wouldn’t be able to stay in business if I just bought rocks from kids, would I? Just a common rock.”
Common, Joey thought.
He bet that shiny rocks that changed color at what seemed their own discretion and, oh yeah, don’t reflect the world around them were as common as old men spontaneously gaining all of his hair back.
Joan turned to Joey. “Honey can you go sit in the car while I talk some business?”
Joey turned around, put the rock in his pocket, and went to the car. Joan watched him leave and as soon as he closed the door to the store, she turned back to the old man. “You didn’t have to be mean to my son.”
“Now ma’am, I wasn’t being mean…just honest.” He retorted.
“Honest? So you’re telling me that the rock is nothing? Just a quick look like that and…nothing?”
“Ma’am, like I told the boy, they’re common enough.” He said.
“Yeah? Do you usually offer five dollars for common rocks?” she quipped.
The old man studied Joan with a renewed interest. Perhaps she wasn’t a trailer-skank after all? “I was being very generous. That’s all.”
Joan couldn’t tell if he was ribbing her or trying to get rid of her. That being said, she always did like to have the last word. “Would you say that you are an observant man? Detail oriented even?” she asked.
“It’s my business to be.” He smiled and nodded.
“A smooth rock like that should cast a reflection. I’m no scientist, Mr. Branson. It’s like reflections get lost in that rock. Did you see your reflection?”
The old man thought for a minute. There was something strange about the rock he couldn’t quite place besides the lack of grain or vein. “No, I didn’t, I suppose.”
“We’ll be back when you’ve had time to think about it,” she said.
Joan smiled at him, put on her sunglasses, and left the store. The two drove back to Blythe after stopping at the Dairy Queen for a small coke and an Oreo Blizzard.