In previous years, the drones were puffy and blimp-like and floated dumbly across the sky, all like shoot me down, I’m begging you. Puz’s dad would invite their neighbor Ramrod up to the roof so together they could watch Puz pick off drones with dumbfounding acuity for a boy of only 11, straddling the wooden stock so as not to be blown over by the recoil. At the end of days, they’d drive around in the rusted-out Datsun and unclip loot from the flightless polyurethane ghosts of drones, to salvage anything that might be returned for cash or store credit.
Today, though, first warm day of the year. Puz is another year older and out of practice and bordering on being over the whole drone thing. What’s more, as he stares through the scope of the old hunting rifle that’d belonged to a grandpa he’s never met, he spots something unexpected. Gone are the days of lethargic, whirring delivery balloons; these drones are spidery and propeller-powered, moving elliptically through the air in ways that a Winchester 88 and pre-teen marksmanship are unlikely to contest.
“Are those—” he starts to say, and his dad nods lazily, eyes plump from sleep. New model. Puz follows one with the crosshairs of the rifle and cracks a few rounds after it. He imagines the bullets gobbled up by the infinite sky, disappearing into outer space, wherein the things Puz doesn’t know outweigh the things he does and so he sits there a moment cross-legged, face inanimate, and lets his mind reel.
The adults, more irritable than usual and growing impatient, devise a new plan. Puz jumps the last few rungs on the ladder down to the driveway and throws his backpack over one shoulder. Walkie-talkie fastened to the handlebars of his bike, Puz sails through the familiar streets, bat in his backpack jiggling as he pumps his legs. As he ventures farther out, the ramshackle squats are replaced by healthy and impressive homes, like a time-lapse video of decay played in reverse. These houses with their hard, bright exteriors, glinting windows, and verdant lawns are for Puz the harbinger of being far from home, of the freshly-painted netherworld he knows only as the ’burbs.
He’s been told to stay moving, to circumnavigate the neighbourhood until he gets a transmission. He pinches the walkie for the static hiccup that affirms it’s on and working. That’s when spots his friend Lyle, another homeschooled kid in the area who’s a year older and who Puz sees for his Government-mandated socialization hours, and sometimes outside of those hours because he’s a decent guy.
As Puz rides up, Lyle’s searching the ground in a coffee shop parking lot and collecting cigarette butts into a translucent pencil case. It has always confused Puz why a kid who at home is given unlimited access to soft drinks and chocolate chip granola bars would walk around scavenging things that made your mouth taste like tree bark, that other people had already sucked on. Alas, Lyle is a year older, and so his mystery is instructive.
Lyle sparks two of the butts at once and hands Puz the shorter one.
“Thanks.” Puz mimes Lyle’s stance, leaning coolly against a shop window and trying not to cough.
“Have you finished your end-of-term project yet?” Lyle asks, pulling expertly on his cigarette. Puz’s dad had made vague mention of this project a few weeks ago, while they were washing socks and underwear in the bathtub, but it had since slipped his mind. “I finished like two months ago. My mom used to teach my grade, so it was basically paint by numbers and I’ve been fucking around until my review.” Lyle hacks on burning filter and flicks his smoke.
“I’m going to start tomorrow I think.”
“You shouldn’t leave it this late, dude. Didn’t your dad get a warning last year?” Lyle takes another butt from his pencil case and lights it. “Sorry, maybe I’m not supposed to know that.”
Puz isn’t surprised to hear it. He’d heard his dad reference last year’s assessment in its aftermath as a “shit show.” Puz had constructed, using scraps from tabletops and beneath the couch, a diorama of a human cell. Floating in hair-gel cytoplasm was a tangerine nucleus and a bevy of supporting organelles fashioned from cardboard, cat toys that had belonged to a stray named Danzig, and a dirty little balloon knotted at the end. While the female examiner asked him questions about his project, she lifted the damp balloon with the tip of her pencil and traded glances with her partner. From that point until Puz was dismissed soon after, neither was able to look Puz in the eyes.
“Point is, I don’t want to see you end up some mouth breather in normie school,” Lyle says.
That’s when the walkie-talkie crackles to life.
“Can you repeat that?”
“We got one. Looks like it came down by the community center.”
“Copy,” he says.
Puz finds the drone four blocks over, sputtering and sidewinding like a wounded fly. From the other direction, the chrome grill of an SUV swells into view, stopping a few driveways down. Puz rests his bike on the curb and approaches the drone as it flops uselessly across the road. A man exits the truck—a cluster of muscle and fat wearing suspenders and thick glasses and his hair styled in what he’d heard described as a “man bun.”
“Stand back, son,” he bellows, arm aimed stiffly at Puz. “You must be very confused right now.” The passenger door opens and a kid hops down onto the pavement. “Tucker, get back in the car sweetheart.”
While the man is distracted, Puz unsheathes the bat from his backpack and starts wailing on the drone with high-arcing axe chops. The man stumbles back and holds his son at a safe distance and together they watch Puz—greasy haired and leather-clad and not yet past the threshold of boyhood—smash the drone into a hard, twisty mess, slip a piece of the wreckage into his backpack, and ride giddily into the distance.
“Slow down. What do you mean when you say they saw you?”
“They were stopped and the drone wasn’t dead yet so I went up and smashed it a little. I guess they were watching while I did it.”
Ramrod is laughing like a maniac, slapping the shingles of the roof.
“Puz, you have to be more careful. Do-gooder assholes like him love calling the cops over shit like this. He’ll probably phone 9-1-1 and go tug it afterwards in the name of civil obedience. Do you realize that?”
This sends Ramrod into a fit. He howls like a dog kicked in the belly.
“Sorry, Dad. I fucked up.”
His dad burbles his lips and runs a hand through his closely chopped, uneven hair. He takes in this image of his son, a bat in one hand and a battered mechanical arm in the other. Pride crests within him. “Ahhh, it’s okay, little buddy. You didn’t know. What did you get anyhow?” He wrestles the hard plastic carrying case from the mangled arm of the drone and unclips it. Empty. “Must’ve got it on its way back.”
Daylight waning, Puz’s dad and Ramrod go inside and put all the food on the peeling vinyl kitchen countertop and debate what mad creation they might prepare for that night’s seasonal community potluck, argument giving way to shirtless slap-fight to excited yowling. Puz takes the opportunity to pour over his textbooks, a worn stack of mostly grade-appropriate volumes, pierced and debased by the ballpoint pens of past owners. They’ve been passed down from Ramrod and his ex-wife Astrea. Their daughter, Raiden, was schooled on them before she enrolled in a public high school and bid the community tearfully goodbye three summers ago, moving on to what she assured Puz were sweeter digs.
While Puz loves the thrum of new knowledge coursing through his brain, his real fascination with these books owes less to their contents as it does to their past owner. The reminders are everywhere in the form of highlighted passages, illegible notes in the margins, boners jutting out from beneath scientist lab coats, expert raunchiness exclaimed by anything with a mouth. The books are his closest tie to Raiden, a dormant portal into her world—a world of car rides and phone calls, foreign slang, fashions both confusing and electric—threatening to break open and swallow him irretrievably inside.
As he thumbs through a chapter on outer space, a section Puz can all but recite from memory, he notices something that seems new. Bracketed in fat blue highlighter is a section on black holes, and beneath it: Turn to Index page xix for information on wormholes and other outer space fun! Puz flips to the corresponding page only to find it’s been ripped out.
At the communal meeting grounds, they’ve already put up the hut: a patched and filthy circus tent whose structural integrity is encouraged by duct tape and 2x4s and bicycle parts.
“They made it smaller this year,” says Puz, sneaking through a narrow part in the tent’s flaps. His eyes trace the inner scaffolding of what had once seemed like the biggest thing in the universe, a candy-striped mausoleum wherein the very best of his memories were staged: the annual Shakespeare performances—notably Queer King Lear and The Dirt Merchant of Venice—with colourful language and plot twists abound; the talent show where Puz learned the total elation of making a whole crowd of people laugh, with a routine cribbed from his dad’s Big Book of Raunchy Jokes; the night Raiden, home for a visit, showed Puz all her favourite songs and taught him how to dance.
“Same size, buddy. You’ve just gotten bigger.”
Puz wanders the length of the two aisles of folding tables, where neighbourhood folk-pile their plates. Tattoos and piercings, spiked clothing, gnarled and matted hair, teeth abandoned inside their fleshy cages. Puz’s dad and Ramrod chat with a teenage couple at the tent’s opening, and when Ramrod notices Puz watching he cups a hand over the girl’s ear. A moment later she flares her arms out and explodes back, “I don’t know what else to say, man. I don’t have none. Try Bucky. Other than him, I don’t know.”
Where the tables end, there’s a case of plastic water bottles and a similar one of juice, unopened. Puz finger-punches the plastic covering and wiggles one free. The word Zang! doubles as a logo and an explosive force, propelling a cartoon astronaut into the outer reaches of the label. Puz uses his shirt to open it with a satisfying crack, a citrusy aroma escaping out.
“What you got there, buddy?” His dad holds his hand out for the bottle. Puz has an urge to bolt, to suck back the rest of the juice while sprinting away like he’s seen dogs do with human food. His dad examines a fresh bottle from the pack. “Biff, who brought this bullshit, man?”
“Oh, those.” Biff, the community’s unappointed but unquestioned mayoral figure, moves to stand from his sunken lawn chair but is ultimately reclaimed by gravity. “Relief truck came by this morning. Gave us propane and a couple first aid kits and a case of water, too. Asked if anybody required immediate medical treatment. I was like ‘You tell me, Doc. I haven’t had a physical in about 20 years,’ and I start undoing my pants, right?” he says, cackling. “Guy hauled ass, you better believe.”
“You should have told him to take these, too. I don’t need my kid drinking this shit.” Biff’s face slackens and the big top goes quiet as they watch Puz’s dad become the irate clown, scratching his ropy arm spastically and mashing a palm into his temple. “It’s fine. It’s chill. Whatever,” he says finally. “I thought we still stood for something. That’s all.”
After the food is packed away, Puz’s dad and the other younger members of the community sit around the fire pit, passing around a bong and an acoustic guitar. Someone Puz doesn’t recognize is holding a bright, pocket-sized screen, while a handful of others crowd around to look. “Get up here little devil,” says Bucky, and plops Puz on the log beside the person with the screen. Puz blinks his eyes to adjust as the stranger scrolls between pictures of people Puz doesn’t recognize. “Stop on that one,” says Bucky. “Do you know who those people are, Puzzy? This is two years back.”
Puz is handed the screen while it’s frozen on an image of him draped over his dad’s shoulders while they’re laughing about something probably neither of them could remember, though right now Puz wishes he could. His dad’s face looks fat and boyish, his torso fuller. There’s a softness in him that’s been hollowed away. “Thank you,” Puz says as he hands the device back to the stranger. He sidles out of the small crowd.
“I just remembered I need to go see Lyle real quick,” Puz tells his dad, who’s singing too loudly to hear. Puz taps him on the shoulder and repeats.
“You can see your friend tomorrow,” his dad says, accepting the bong from the person to his left and resting it on his knee.
“I just need to borrow a book. It’s for my end of term project. It’s important.”
“Lyle’s parents aren’t like us, bud. You can’t just go knocking on their door at whatever the hell o’clock it is right now.”
“You gonna hit that or you too busy babysitting?” yells someone from a few spots down on the circle.
“Okay, okay, okay.” Puz’s dad holds a flame over the glass contraption and inside a fog builds and builds until he swallows it up. “Just don’t get into any more trouble,” he says, sucking in air.
The streets at night are pitch-dark but for the few streetlights not burnt out or popped in bouts of anarchic fervor. It’s the moon’s glow that guides Puz out to Highway 7, a strip of road luminescent by contrast. He glides to a halt at the red yield sign with a sticker slapped on it and scans for approaching cars before he drops his bike on the gravel shoulder. In the roadside ditch he displaces a number of wide, flat stones and feels a lick of relief when he finds the package he’d hidden there earlier that day.
What it is, exactly, is hard to say. The front of the box is stark white—small but curiously dense. As he turns it over to examine the back, not a single thing seems to shift or move. He turns it back over and runs a thumb over the sole word written on top, its letters smoother than the rest of the box. Wormhole, it says.
Puz is reminded of a day this time last year, when his dad and Ramrod took him to Fundy’s Department Store to return an amassing pile of drone loot. After arguing with a cashier and then her manager for a cash return, changing his story over and over, mood sliding from desperate to angry and then threatening to roundhouse kick a sunglasses display, Puz’s dad accepted store credit and decided to treat Puz to some art supplies. Although the long, harsh overhead lights stung Puz’s eyes, and he was being gawked at by everyone from children to the unfathomably old, he enjoyed this activity that he’d come to understand was called shopping.
He paused in front of the action figures aisle and lifted one from its hook: an astronaut, one with messy black hair not unlike his own, an assortment of weapons at the forefront of the package that looked like they’d fit right in its little hands. Puz felt inclined to take it out of the box, to be the first one to touch it. He wanted to make it jump into the tub and have it slide down the kicked-in banister on its ass.
“The art stuff is over here, buddy.” Puz looked up, still holding the figure. “You don’t want that. Come on.”
Tonight, though, it’s just Puz and the box and the feeling that this product could be exactly the thing he needs at exactly the right time. Inside is a series of accessories: headphones, a wall charger, a square of cloth. One cardboard layer below them lies a television-like screen, except it’s perfectly circular, and thinner than even his smallest finger. He lifts it out carefully—it seems to demand to be handled carefully—and stares at his face in it.
“Hello,” says the thing. A woman’s voice. It’s face becomes a blue, wavy light. “What is your name?”
“I shouldn’t say,” says Puz.
“Your name is O’Shaughnessy, is that correct?”
“I’m sorry, let me try again. What is your name?”
“Your name is Russ, is that correct?”
Seeing headlights coming from down the road, Puz hides the device in his bag and rides off. Its voice muffled from inside his backpack, the Wormhole continues to speak to him.
“Where the fuck did you get one of these?” says Lyle, still tired from being woken up via stones to the window and probably regretting having invited Puz down to the basement and giving him a pop.
“I found it,” says Puz. “My dad doesn’t know. I don’t know how to make it go quiet.”
Lyle takes it from him and holds it with one hand in a way that makes Puz wince, though he must admit, the Wormhole makes instantly more sense within the context of Lyle’s basement, a veritable treasure trove of stimuli.
“Hello, Russ,” says the Wormhole. “Please select your region.”
“Who the fuck is Russ?” says Lyle, laughing. “Here, I’ll set it up for you. What’s your WIP number?” Puz stares blankly. “Oh, my bad. I forgot your dad is a hobo. I’ll put mine in.”
Puz savors his pop and watches over Lyle’s shoulder as he navigates the Wormhole. Within minutes he makes a video of himself burping and somehow edits it so that his mouth produces flames when he plays it back. Then he shows Puz a video on the internet of a man cannonballing onto a frozen pool, and then a video of a woman squatting over another woman’s face and farting while the other woman sniffs deeply between her back pockets. He holds it out to Puz, which gives him a jolt of panic. He grips it uncomfortably, mimicking Lyle’s swift finger strokes to embarrassing results.
“Hey, this just occurred to me. I’m not trying to be a dick, but do you know how to use the Internet?”
Puz chuckles weakly. The word Internet is one that he understands in an abstract sense, like “heaven” or “fuck”; it’s a word that belongs outside of his own world, for a tool that exists for people unlike his people. It means endlessness, sophistication, danger.
“Totally,” he says.
The next day Puz gets tired of trying to shake his dad awake and goes decides to leaf through the pile of mail and magazines they keep in the milk crate by the door. Stuck to a glossy flyer, colours melted by the rain, he finds and opens the notice from the Homeschooling Board.
Could it be? Yes, it is! The end of another productive, fruitful term of homeschooling. But before you blow up the kiddie pool and drag the sun chairs onto the lawn, there’s just the small matter of, well, seeing that you’ve been holding up your end of the bargain. I trust you, but my boss is a real P. in the A.! You understand!
For this year’s Independent Study Unit, we ask that you bring your little hell-raiser into your scheduled appointment time (see attached sheet) prepared with a 15-20 minute presentation on, let’s be honest, pretty much whatever they want. Let their creativity soar! May his or her project be as unique as your decision to educate them at home, you trailblazer, you.
Oh, and that boss I was telling you about before? She insisted I put this bit in here: failure to put forth a coherent, captivating presentation demonstrative of municipal grade-level standard could have consequences including but not limited to formal written warning and forced reintegration. Yuck, right?
Coddington Hill Homeschooling Board
The attached page has his annual assessment scheduled for Monday, June 13th, information that might have been entirely arbitrary in a community where dates and times are little more than annoyances. However, resting dream-like on some plane in Puz’s memory is the Wormhole’s stark white typeface displaying the date and time, which had rolled over to Friday, June 10th at midnight.
“Three days,” Puz says to nobody, and one realization gives way to the next: the human cell, the teachers’ concerned mien, the “warning.” Then: normie school. Then: the mouth breathers.
Puz spends the afternoon in his treehouse, picking a subject for his project, and stays there until his dad calls for him, which doesn’t happen, save for faint mutterings of his name through the kitchen window around dinnertime. Frustrated by the ripped out section on wormholes, he combs through last year’s science book for any mention of them, then the one before, finding nothing but babyish concepts. Even Raiden’s graffiti is less advanced.
Once the lights in the house go out, he takes the Wormhole out of his backpack. It offers him a list of things he might be interested in seeing, based on Lyle’s activity the night before, including an article titled “What to Do if Your Girlfriend Won’t Stop Farting” and a game called Fart Ninja. Puz opens the search bar as he’d seen Lyle do, and a virtual keyboard rises up as if by magic. He searches “wormhole,” which brings up a bunch of pages selling the device he’s already holding. He tries to close them but the windows multiply.
“Hey! I’ve got the best price on Wormhole, Super Wormhole, Baby Wormhole, Wormbox Four, and all the latest—” says a man in a suit, standing before a brilliant white nothingness.
“Stop, you’ll wake up my dad,” Puz whispers, and starts to tap at the top corner of the window.
“Wait! No, kid!”
Puz taps until everything goes away and he’s back at the home screen. He searches in the video window Lyle left open and has better results. One of them is a virtual tour through a wormhole. An advertisement plays first, one for a show called The Nerd Theorem, a show about three nerds who live in an apartment beside a girl they’re all in love with. Puz recognizes the name of the show from a poster in Lyle’s basement that he’s been too afraid to ask about.
Watch Free Online says a button at the bottom of the screen. The house lights have been off for half an hour; everyone is surely sleeping. Puz reaches out and pushes it.
“You look tired, little guy.”
Puz has his head propped up on the breakfast table by two fists, eyes burning and a dull ache in his chest. “Yeah, I hardly slept at all last night.”
Dad serves Puz and Ramrod each a bowl of oats and a bowl of mixed fruit. He eats his own from the counter.
“You know, when your pal Ramrod used to spend summers picking cherries, he’d drop ice cubes down his drawers to give himself a little extra pep.” He grabs Puz by the shoulders. “Come on, Pop! I’ll hold him, you go get the ice.” He laughs loudly in Puz’s ear while Puz shrugs himself free.
“How come we never have pancakes?” Puz says absently, stirring his oats. He looks up to find his dad and Ramrod eyeing him like a piece of space debris that had just crashed through the ceiling.
“How do you even know what pancakes are?”
Of course, despite his best efforts, Puz’s dad hadn’t been able to completely safeguard him from light, fluffy breakfast foods. At a sleepover last summer, Lyle’s mom watched Puz with delight and then growing concern as this young boy of questionable upbringing, small even for his age, carved through tall stacks of pancakes, ultimately disregarding his strong instincts of politeness and accepting her offer to cook up some more.
The thing that brought pancakes to the front of his mind, however was The Nerd Theorem, the first season of which Puz had blitzed in the treehouse, specifically the character Keppler who was always pulling oversized stacks from the most unlikely of places, eliciting sudden, chugging laughter from an unseen audience.
“I was talking to some kids at Russell Park, the elementary school,” he says, finally.
“When were you over there?”
“I stopped by while you two were on the roof,” he says. “They sound good. Fluffy.”
“They’re not. It’s all sugar and fat, Puz. Why were you talking to these kids?” Puz is reminded of that day in the department store, the thing that was kept from him.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.”
“It’s not that you’re—you’re not ‘not supposed to’ anything. Just be careful.”
“I was being careful.”
“Okay that’s fine. Just—it’s your turn for the dishes. Come join us on the futon when you’re ready for school.”
The afternoon ticks slowly by as Puz endures scattered ramblings his dad and Ramrod produce when they try to educate him. Puz thinks only of his assessment, the Wormhole, and The Nerd Theorem, for which he’s taken to inventing new episodes in his head.
By early evening, Ramrod succumbs to a spontaneous nap and Puz’s dad goes to heat up leftovers. Puz retrieves the freshly-charged Wormhole from its place beneath a pile of dirty clothes and takes his dinner up to the treehouse.
His plan was to kill time flipping through textbooks again until dad was asleep, but there’s a part of Puz that wants to push a little more than he’s used to. He slides the Wormhole out of his bag and pulls up the window he was using to watch The Nerd Theorem, but there’s an error message. He prods uselessly at the screen, a reminder of his technological helplessness. No connection, it says.
“I gotta go to Lyle’s. It’s important,” Puz says, peeking his head in the back door. His dad is sitting with Bucky and a few strangers.
“Were you invited over?” His dad says. “It’s past dark.”
“Then I think you know the answer.”
Wordlessly, Puz shoulders past his dad and goes to his room, where he lies in bed listening to the raucous noise downstairs. He thinks of the most recent episode of The Nerd Theroem he’d watched: Jad, having had a mishap in the bathroom of a restaurant on his first date with Elana and desperate to find an escape, carabiners out of the second story window with an impossibly long tablecloth. Puz stares out his own window and sees something covering the left pane. The ladder is still up from a few days ago, and it passes right over his window.
In Lyle’s backyard, Puz whips little stones at Lyle’s window, picking up slightly bigger ones as the sounds fail to wake him. Then the back door opens.
“Again? What are you doing here, dude?” Lyle hisses.
“There’s a problem with the Wormhole.”
Lyle waves him in, flicks the light to the basement staircase. Puz takes a seat on the couch once they get down there and Lyle, more reluctantly, hands him a pop. “It says there’s no connection. I don’t know what that means.”
“My parents had to change the password because somebody was streaming a bunch of shit,” he says.
“It’s okay, dude. Not everyone knows how this stuff works,” Lyle says, his right hand fluttering across the screen as he fixes the problem. “What were you watching anyways?”
“Do you know that show, The Nerd Theorem?” he says. He glances up at the poster, the characters’ smiles now betraying jokes they all share.
“That’s like my favourite show. I’ve seen every episode 20 times,” says Lyle. “That girl Elana? I spank to her pretty much every third time I spank.” Puz glances at Elana, bird-like in her energy and high voice and—for reasons Puz is just now beginning to understand—difficult to look away from.
“You want to watch an episode? Now that I’m up?”
“I shouldn’t watch any more until I finish my assignment. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I only have one more day.”
“What subject did you pick? I can probably help.”
“I don’t know what to do. It’s hard.”
“Listen, I could get in deep shit for doing this, but my mom is always telling me to help the less advantaged. So, fuck her if she gets mad,” Lyle leads Puz over to his computer, its screen blasting to life as Lyle moves the mouse, finds the folder he’s looking for. “There are some of the better projects my mom got when she taught for the board. I modeled mine off of one of them. I’ll just upload all of them and you can take your pick.”
“Thanks. But what if someone finds out?”
“Why do you look so worried? I’ve never seen you like this. Is something going on?” Puz thinks about Lyle’s question and the dozens of relevant answers he could give. Isn’t everything going on all the time? Puz has to admit, though, it feels good to have someone ask. “Anyways, there’s pretty much no way that will happen. My mom taught for a different school board.”
There’s a new icon on the Wormhole that causes the assignments to open— an array of beautiful slideshow presentations: What Were Radios? and Starving Children and Why You Should Care and The Wild World of Gorillas. Lyle swipes left and right between slides to demonstrate. “Besides, what’s the worst that could happen if you get caught? They kick you out of school?”
The sun is starting to come up as Puz walks his bike through the last block of the neighbourhood before his house. His eyes burn again with exhaustion, having not slept more than a few hours at a time since—he can’t even remember.
A voice breezes out from a car window. “Puz,” it goes again. “Over here.”
Puz approaches carefully. The window is only open a crack but the person has their fingers out, waggling hello. The person moves their hand and Puz can see it’s Raiden.
“How’s it going little dude? Look how big you are.” Raiden jerks her head toward the passenger seat, inviting Puz in. “Are you in school? I forget?”
“I’m homeschooled,” says Puz, fastening his seat belt.
“Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.” Puz unclips it, embarrassed. “Right, I think I knew that. I was homeschooled for a long time, too.”
“I know, I have your books,” Puz says. Then, a question he’s asked Raiden in his head many times, which Puz has always had to answer himself, “Why did you stop?”
Raiden pulls on her cigarette, lets the smoke hurdle over her bottom row of teeth. “Honestly, I just kind of did what I had to do. For me, you know?” Puz nods slowly. “I mean, this thing they’ve made here for themselves, this community, it’s cool. There’s a lot of bullshit out there,” Raiden says, gesturing vaguely at the horizon. Puz extends himself to see where she’s pointing. “Not there, specifically. I mean out there in the world. But the bullshit doesn’t go away when you try to shut it out. It sneaks in through the cracks.” She pulls on her cigarette again, pausing to seemingly consider the weight of what she’s just said.
“What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
Puz points in the same direction as Raiden pointed a moment ago.
She smiles. “Tell you what, dude. Come by my dad’s whenever you’re up tomorrow. There’s a place I want to show you.”
Puz thinks about tomorrow, the last day before his assessment, his final chance to put a presentation together. “Okay,” he says, and opens the door to go.
“Oh, and try not to sleep in too late. I’ve been back a couple hours and this place is already depressing the hell out of me.”
The next morning, Puz sneaks down the staircase while downstairs people asleep on the couches and on the floor.
“Look who decided to crawl out of bed,” says his dad from the kitchen.
“You never wake up before me,” he mutters, avoiding his dad’s steely eyes.
“I said,” Puz says, channeling the effortless sass of many a character from his favourite show, “you stay in bed past noon most days. Not that you even know how to tell time.” He puts an extra “oomph” on the punch line for the benefit of a nonexistent studio audience. The ensuing silence is a reminder that theirs is a separate world entirely; there are different rules here.
“You’ve been spending too much time with that little shit Lyle. That’s what I think. If you were planning on going over to his place again today, you can forget it.”
“Fine by me. I’m spending the day with Raiden.” Had Puz’s intention been to hurt his dad, he’d have chosen the right words. He regrets them immediately as he watches his dad rock bemusedly in his chair, perhaps using mind powers to make Puz’s plans disappear.
“Raiden. The deserter,” he says, rising to turn on the stove and then search the sink for a pan clean enough to use. “Should’ve seen that one coming.”
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” Raiden says in her dirty white car, smelling of sun-warmed vinyl seating and stale ashtray, rocketing out of Puz’s small radius of familiarity. “You have a right to be questioning things. That’s exactly what you should be doing.”
“I think I really hurt his feelings, though.”
“Sometimes that’s what it takes,” she says. “I mean, to be fair, it’s not like we weren’t raised under pretty fucked-up conditions. When I started high school, it took me months to find someone I had anything in common with. That’s probably pretty normal, the more I think about it, but you get what I mean.”
Puz pretends he does, and Raiden turns up the music, announcing the names of the bands as they play—The Temptations, Steely Dan, The Cramps, The Cure, The Black Eyed Peas—like secret codes Puz tries to decipher while the music pours over him. Their car funnels alongside dozens of others from the big highway onto a smaller one, where bright fast food restaurants and car dealerships and grocery stores smile out from both sides. He doesn’t think to ask where they’re going until they’ve already arrived.
“This is, like, my favourite place in the world.” They park by a long sign that reads “Astro Annie’s Planetarium.” “Astro Annie was in this really great punk band in the ’90s,” Raiden explains as they walk into the glow-in-the-dark lobby. “She started this place when she got tired of touring.”
As they approach a ticket booth, Puz scans a sign listing the admission prices. “Raiden, I don’t have any money,” he whispers nervously.
“Oh, don’t worry, dude. They know me here.” The people working the concession stand, all Raiden’s age, are dressed in silvery and bright-colored costumes, like people from an imagined future. They greet Raiden and hand over as many snacks as she and Puz can carry.
The theatre itself is a dark, cool room with a white dome for a ceiling and beanbag chairs on the floor. There are hand-rendered planets done in glow paint that remind Puz of his neighbourhood’s crude street signs. Raiden sinks into one of the chairs and Puz follows suit. They lie there a minute, eating popcorn and gummies and chocolate things that get stuck in your teeth. Then the lights go out and a gently rotating planet appears on the screen. As he watches it turn, the landmasses begin to crackle with familiarity in Puz’s brain. Raiden smiles to him and together they watch their home planet spin as though they aren’t even on it, but merely somewhere nearby.
On the car ride home, Raiden talks about how she wants to be an astronomer some day, elaborating on the minute details that the booming voice from the presentation didn’t have time for. She starts to talk about far away galaxies, the possibility of other life forms, black holes.
“What about wormholes?” says Puz. Raiden looks at him blankly, then tightens her eyes. “In my textbook—your textbook, that part was ripped out.”
“That was me,” she says. “It’s just so trippy. I can remember doing that. I was completely obsessed with wormholes. I did my final assignment on them a few years ago. How much do you know?”
“Not a lot.”
Raiden stares through her windshield at the barely moving cars clogging the narrow laneways. “Well, we’ll be here for a while. How much do you want to know?”
That night, Puz is unable to stomach his dinner. “Not hungry, little guy?” says Ramrod.
Puz’s dad hasn’t said anything since Puz got in. Eyeing Ramrod, he puts down his fork and exhales through his nose, jaw clenching rhythmically. “Ram, your daughter is home. Why in the hell aren’t you eating dinner with her?”
“You think she hangs around at home? I haven’t seen her since she got here.”
“Well, I’m going to have to ask you to go,” Puz’s dad says. Ramrod, palm upturned, looks to Puz’s dad, then to his full plate, and back. “You can take your food with you. My boy’s sick. He needs me.”
As Ramrod walks out with his plate, Puz’s dad warms up a can of minestrone and places it in front of Puz before going upstairs and starting the tub. When Puz is finished, he washes his dish and goes upstairs to find his dad. In the bathroom, his dad is on his knees, smoke dangling from his mouth, stirring the tub with one arm. “Just about done,” he says. He opens up a large robe. “This is for you when you get out. It’ll be big but it’s warm. And clean.”
When he’s finished in the bath, Puz pulls the plug and wraps himself in the large robe. His bed has been made up for him. His dad comes in once he’s under the covers and perches himself on a small stool by Puz’s bed. “You feeling any better?”
“The bath was nice. And the soup helped, I think.”
“Good. That’s good,” he says, peering out Puz’s window at a view Puz knows well, the rows of houses that roll on and on.
“Puz, I found your toy,” he says. The Wormhole, Puz realizes. After devoting so much headspace to keeping it a secret, there’s a note of relief in being found out. “Under your clothes, by the plug. I’m not mad, I don’t even want to know where you got something like that,” he says, palms twisting on his exposed knees. “It just made me realize—I know things have been bad between us. Being your age is tough, I—,” he says, breath shuddering. “My parents didn’t always do their best by me. They weren’t always nice people. I always told myself I’d do better than that if I ever ended up with a kid.”
A streetlight scintillates briefly, lighting his dad’s uneven hair and thin, patchy beard, before falling dead. “The point is, Puz, I’ve been trying. Believe me, okay? And have I made a ton of shitty choices? Hell yeah I have. But I think I’d be making an even bigger mistake if I didn’t let you make some choices for yourself.” Puz begins to blink away a wetness caused not by tears but perhaps head congestion or his still damp bangs. He’s so tired, and he can tell his dad is tired too.
The next morning, Puz comes down the stairs to find his dad making pancakes. Sure, they’re dense and fibrous, heavy with oats, fist-sized, and served with honey instead of syrup, but none of the particulars seems to matter.
“If you’re still not feeling well and you’d rather do your review another day, I can walk over to Biff’s and give them a call,” he says. But Puz is refreshed from a good nights sleep and a proper meal. He has a clear head about things.
“We’d better go, then. I’ll go put some gas in the car.”
“No it’s okay, Dad,” says Puz, “I’ll just bike. I know where it is.”
When Puz gets to the office at Russell Park, he’s early, but a nice woman named Miss Kurzner invites him to take a seat.
“Is it Puz? Is that how you say that?” Puz nods. “What a wonderful name. Is that short for anything?”
“My mom wanted to call me Perseus, but she split, so my dad calls me Puz,” he says, smiling to show a charmingly misaligned row of teeth.
“Well, I happen to think the name Puz is perfectly splendid,” she says, leading him into an office were a man with tidy hair and colourful socks is seated with his feet on the desk.
“Is this Puz? So nice to meet you. I’m Mr. Callon,” he says as he stands to extends his hand. Puz slaps it and then clenches his hand for a fist bump. “Oh—okay. I know this one,” he says, and meets Puz’s tiny fist with an awkward tap. Miss Kurzner giggles in surprise.
“How’s everything going with your schooling?”
“Good, I guess,” he says. His heart is beating hard inside his striped blue shirt. His favorite one.
“Well, that’s good. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, or do you want to get started?”
Puz feels for the Wormhole in his backpack, freshly charged. His choice of flawless presentations is a finger dab away. Still, he has the urge—totally separate from the spectrum of consequences, forking realities in front of him—to tell these strangers what he’s learned. He’s brought back, for a moment, to yesterday’s car ride home from the planetarium.
“And that’s something a lot of people don’t realize, time travel isn’t some concept they made up for movies, it’s actually real,” Raiden explained in her idle car, walled in by traffic. “When you’re going really, really fast, time moves slower for you. It doesn’t just seem like it does, it actually does. Some scientists proved it by putting special clocks in a spaceship as it was throttling into Space.”
“I know. Which means, like, if you were able to pedal your bike or get your Datsun to go as fast as the speed of light—which is impossible right now but still—you could travel in circles around Earth and move hundreds of years into the future. The thing is, you can only go forward. You couldn’t just go see what it was like and then pedal back to where you came from. You’d have to leave it all behind.”
“Forever. Well, that isn’t completely true. There might be a way back—it’s just that scientists don’t know if it actually exists. They’re called wormholes, and they could work as a bridge through something called space-time—a portal back to the time and place you came from, or to the future, or anywhere. You go in through one end, and when you pop out the other you could be anywhere in the galaxy.”
Still clutching his backpack, the two teachers seated across from him are smiling amusedly. Puz becomes aware of his surroundings. He’s given an easy feeling.
“Earth to Puz. Come in Puz.”
“Can you hear us Major Puz?” Mr. Callon sings in a playful baritone.
“I’d like a one-way ticket to wherever you just went in your head.”
“Are you ready to begin?”
“Yeah,” he says, putting his backpack down on the carpeted floor. “I think so.”
Josh Edgar is a writer living in Toronto. His stories have appeared in The Malahat Review and The Humber Literary Review. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.