"C’mon, Eldon, we’ve only been here an hour. Quit nagging. Patience is a virtue. He says it on stakeouts," Tom Breduck said to me. "You'll see. This event is so unusual and bizarre it...could possibly change your life."
"An event. Don't see any circus or stage on this barren farm field," I muttered, and ran a hand through my raven-black hair in frustration.
Tom pressed binoculars against his eyes and focused on the distant ranch-style home wrapped in cream-colored stucco. His spyglasses looked like the eyestalks of a giant snail. Towering spruce trees created a neat barrier between us and the large acreage homes of the Vista Estates. The gaps in between were wide enough for a good view.
"C'mon, c'mon," he muttered through clenched teeth and lowered the binoculars.
Behind his wire-framed glasses his thick eyebrows bunched together like two caterpillars facing off. He glanced at his sports watch and mumbled about where Mr. Howell could be and how he wished the guy would get his butt in gear--blah, blah, blah.
As if he'd uttered the magic words, the French doors beside the swimming pool flew open.
"Hey! Hey! Look, Eldon! Here he comes!" Tom swung over the binoculars to me, hitting my arm. "Hope he can’t see us."
If anyone did see us, our concocted story was we were teenage bird-watchers. Almost as rare as Windows 3.1. A copse of gray trees beside us wasn’t much for camouflage.
"He's been doin' this every Saturday morning at around eleven o’clock since the snow went," said Tom.
"About time he came out," I grumbled, taking the binoculars from him. "It ain't summer, you know." A shiver rippled along my bare arms and legs.
The April sun provided only shallow warmth as we stood on the ragged field of wheat stubble.
Tom wasn't just my best friend, he was my only friend. Even if his wild tale held a grain of truth, I had to check it out. I doubted his sales pitch would live up to reality. I focused on Mr. Howell as he strolled around to the far side of the outdoor pool, clad from head to foot in a tight diver's wetsuit looking lumpy and uncomfortable, a formless oddity. He stopped beside a white patio table and unwrapped a long red beach towel from under his arm revealing a white shoebox.
"The box. Keep your eyes on the box," advised Tom, squinting into the sun, adjusting his glasses. He zipped his jacket higher and rubbed his arms.
My eyes locked on it. "Anyhow, Tom, what's the deal here? How's this guy gonna help us?"
"Trust me here, buddy. Once you see you will know. Maybe it seems stupid being way out here, but I can't really describe this to you. No one would believe me."
"I figure this is a prank or something, Tom." Just another one of his practical jokes; like maybe a bunch of people would pop up and chase me through the field or something.
Tom had a reputation as a joker and it wouldn't be the first time he'd pulled one on me. This time seemed different. It was an unusual spot, and there didn’t appear to be a soul around for any embarrassment or humiliation.
I rested the binoculars against my chest and turned to him. The corner of Tom's brown eyes crinkled. His wide mouth parted, flashing a perfect set of white teeth. He put his hands on his hips and looked up to examine my face.
"Well, it's not a prank. Okay, Eldon, you want to be the school champ, right?"
"That’s why we’re here."
"I still don't understand what school champ, a farmer’s field, and a tubby guy in a seal suit have in common."
Tom let out a blast of air and pointed over the field. "A few more minutes. Just watch him."
Mr. Howell set the carton on the patio table in a slow, purposeful manner as if handling nitroglycerine. An occasional gust flopped his unruly mop of blond hair from side to side. The portly form wasn't at all what I thought a scientist should look like. Howell dropped into a patio chair, took off his white running shoes, and tinkered inside them for a time before finally lacing them up. Stepping to the pool's edge, he sucked in a few deep breaths. Then, he squatted a few times while swinging his arms back and forth at his sides as if preparing to perform a standing broad jump.
"This is it! Watch!" said Tom.
"Oh, yeah, I’m excited. We’ll see a big splash, right?"
Tom slapped my shoulder. "Shut up and watch, already."
Howell launched his considerable carcass off the pool's edge with flailing limbs in a panicky flapping to gain control. Like an ungainly, black blimp he shot up into the air.
I mean...he really went up.
In a blink, he rose well above the roofline to hover in momentary suspension at the top of his trajectory.
"Pick up your jaw," said Tom, chuckling.
I tried to fathom what I saw, and blubbered something. Clearly, he didn’t like altitude. Then, his figure dropped like a black boulder into the center of the pool. A geyser of water erupted, drenching the pool apron and splashing a streak against the stucco house.
"Wow!" I shouted, lowering the binoculars. "Did you see that?"
"That?" he stated. "Oh yeah, plenty of times. Now you believe me, Eldo?" He looked down at me and folded his arms.
"Well yeah...sure," I replied, my eyes glued against the lenses. "No diving board or springboard...or anything?"
"It’s the real deal. I checked out his yard a couple times. Just the shoes--or what's in 'em. Watch, he'll put more stuff in or take some out. Some fine tuning."
Mr. Howell struggled to pull himself up the ladder of the pool, grabbed the waiting red towel and brushed it through his wet hair. In the bright sunlight, the dripping wetsuit glistened, giving him the appearance of a fat seal. He tossed the towel over the chair's back and began to work meticulously inside the box with quick, practiced hands. Now and then, he'd turn his attention to his shoes, inserting or removing something from the box, while making notations on a clipboard.
"What is that stuff?" I asked, shifting my gaze from the binoculars to Tom for a moment.
Tom gripped the brim of his NHL All Star ball cap and flipped it on and off a few times, mussing his brown hair. He scratched his head. It wasn't often he didn't know something about everything in the universe. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a stiff finger.
"I'm…not exactly sure," he replied, not wanting to admit he hadn't a clue--especially concerning the sciences. "What you see is what you get. I suspect it's some kind'a...uh, anti-gravity…compound."
For a science nerd, he didn't sound at ease with his explanation. Science was a magnet that drew Tom like flies to a garbage truck.
"How do you figure?"
"First of all, I know Howell works in a lab at the Research Council in Edmonton."
"So, is he a real scientist or just some flunky technician?"
Tom frowned, wrinkling his caterpillar eyebrows together. "Just about everyone there is a scientist or an engineer or a technologist. And I know his kid, Randy, a grade-niner--real pain in the butt. He's tryin' to pry himself into the Science Club, says his dad's a synthetic chemical engineer." He rubbed his arms for warmth as a milky cloud blocked the sun, turning the landscape into an early spring gray.
I nodded and returned to my spying.
"I hope he really launches himself," said Tom, excitement evident in his voice, wanting the sight to leave an indelible impression on me.
As if hearing his wishes, Mr. Howell again stepped to the edge of the pool, crouched, swung his arms, and effortlessly flew into the heavens.
"That is just...it's incredible!" I cried, watching the man splash down with a clumsy belly-flop. "But I don't think he went quite as high this time."
"Yeah, well, it seems to be adjustable. Everything in the universe has a mathematic equation. I figure he’s trying to come up with a weight/height formula."
"How high have you seen him go?"
"Last week I saw daylight between him and the treetops."
I whistled softly, and shifted my gaze to the tall firs guarding the property's boundary. "That's like...awesome."
"Nope, it's far more than awesome. And you know what the best part is?"
I muttered a reply, keeping my eyes glued on the dripping figure emerging from the pool.
"Mr. Science there tosses the stuff out with the trash."
I pulled the binoculars away from my eyes. "Like it’s garbage?"
Tom grinned, flashing his perfect, white teeth. "Yup. My guess is he probably makes it on the sly at work, you know, like a pet project. He may have a ton of it stashed, or maybe brews up a quick batch in the lab."
"So, it may be like secret...top secret...or something?"
Tom raised a brow, as if a new door opened. "A distinct possibility. Maybe it's why he's testing at home, eh? I mean, they got labs and facilities where he works. I went through the place on a school tour last year." He studied the air for a moment. "Hm-m-m...but I don't think it's ready yet or we'd have heard something about it."
"It looks good enough to me already." I handed him the binoculars.
Tom pushed them back. "No, no. You watch for a bit. We got to make sure he tosses it into the dumpster."
"Where?" I asked, scanning the property.
"Two houses over, to the right. The big blue box at the end of the crescent. If the weather stays warm he might even jump all weekend."
"Warm? You call this warm?"
Tom shrugged. He glanced at the thin blue sky. "Could be worse. Could be a spring snowstorm happening."
Howell jumped three more times, each time referring to a clipboard.
"How long is this going to take?" I asked.
"What, till he perfects it, or until we get some?"
I blew out some air. "Actually, I mean until we can go home. I got to hit the track after lunch. Outdoor workouts start this week for the track club and I volunteered to help out the juniors...and hey!"
"What?" Tom furrowed his eyebrows.
"Did I hear you say we'll get some?"
"What's with the look, man?" snapped Tom.
I was basically an honest guy. Tom’s face wore the look, that he knew something I didn’t, and he’d be on my case to get me onside.
I cupped an ear with my long fingers and asked, "Is my ear in gear or what?"
"Must be, 'cause that's exactly what I said."
"Meaning what, exactly?"
Tom flipped off his NHL cap and stroked back his wispy hair a few times before meeting my hard stare. He pointed at me. "It means you, Eldon Roberts, will be the new school, zone, provincial, and national junior track star--if we get the stuff."
"Think about it--if it can make Howell go up, it should make you go forward. Right? It’s physics. Up, down, around, whatever. Reaction equals re-action. This is like...it’s an enhanced motion applied by force."
I chewed on my lower lip and stared across the empty field. "So we just--what? Walk up to this Howell guy and like, borrow this...stuff?"
Tom rolled his eyes, frustrated. "Do I have to nail an explanation to your head? Don't be stupid. I told you he puts it in the garbage. We raid the dumpster--simple!" A sly grin spread across his face.
"That's stealin', you know," I replied, dead serious.
"If you had a brain you'd be dangerous." Tom sighed deeply. "You're not aware of the penalties for that, are you?" he asked sarcasm in his tone.
I folded my arms not sure this was going the right way. "Well, since I've never done anything like this..." I horse-pawed at the dirt.
Tom's tried to conceal his grin, before finally breaking into laughter. "Eldon, it's not illegal! It's garbage!"
I felt my face flush and looked away. Tom was right, maybe I was making a big deal out of nothing.
Tom patted me heartily on the back and assured me it would be his first time raiding garbage, too. "Just get your eyeballs back on the scientist and leave the logistics to me."
"But, but, but!" Tom said. "You're so full of buts you're startin' to look like one!" He shook his head a few times. "Look, you and I know the only way you're going to go to college, or university, or anything, is on some sort of athletic scholarship or grant." His eyes flared and he drew in a deep breath. "And, the only way you can do that is beat Stu Hodgkins. Since his championship time is better than yours, it don't look good--unless you have an edge."
I quickly hoisted the binoculars to avoid his piercing stare, not wanting to discuss the truth so coldly laid out. I hated having no options. Business or technology didn’t interest me, but I sure liked sports, running in particular. I was already helping the junior track team. Physical education was my definite interest, but to coach I need a degree--which my parents definitely can’t afford.
Why Tom didn't keep this a secret made me curious.
"It will come down to one race, Eldon. The first one. You’ve got to win it."