When we were seven years old, the summer between second and third grade, Gareth and I had our own private playground in the form of the backyard of the vacant house next door. It was a huge yard with a big old oak tree in the back corner perfect for climbing, a massive bougainvillea sprawling all across the back fence, and a spooky little storage shed against a side fence, partly shaded by that big oak. At some point long ago, some creative residents had started making patio furniture out of pickle barrels and big cable spools, but had either moved away or given up before they finished, so the patio was a wonderland of sawhorses, barrel staves, and random planks and board scraps.
And that particular summer it was just the two of us; most of the other kids nearby were either considerably older or younger, and the handful we counted as friends all seemed to be off at camp or across the country visiting their other mom or dad. So for a few weeks, Gareth and I were in kid heaven. We used a barrel to create a tunnel into the bougainvillea, then set up a secret hideaway inside, away from most of the thorns. We nailed a few scraps to the trunk of the oak tree to facilitate access to the lower branches. (Gareth didn’t really need the cheats; he could climb a tree as handily as any ape.) This was summertime in southern California, so of course there was very little grass in the yard, and that was brown and brittle and riddled with sandspurs. The water was still on at the house, and we scraped a shallow basin in the hard dirt and used a borrowed hose to create a muddy little pond. We often came home looking like refugees from Lord of the Flies, but Mom would just shake her head, point us outside, and hose us down like we were dirty cars. We loved it.
Nothing that wonderful can last forever, and of course we knew that when school started again, our Life on the Mississippi would come to a bittersweet end. We weren’t, however, prepared for it to end any sooner. Then in early August, a new family moved in next door. They had seven or eight kids, all older than us, the youngest a freckle-faced ten year old with a bad haircut who looked for all the world like Beaver Cleaver. His name was Bobby Binkowski (and we quickly learned the hard way never to call him Beaver, at least not to his face).
Of course, Bobby didn’t really know any kids around his new neighborhood, and so was willing to play with us little guys by default, at least until school started. On the third day or so after they moved in, he was out in his backyard playing with a cool remote-control dune buggy when he looked up and saw us watching him over the fence. His face clouded up for just a second, and I thought he was going to tell us to buzz off. But he changed his mind and asked us if we wanted to come over and play.
For a few days we made the attempt, but of course it just wasn’t the same. We were no longer the masters of all we surveyed, and even worse, had to bite our tongues as Bobby and his father systematically dismantled our rustic paradise. (Mr. B was a nice enough man, a retired Chief Petty Officer with a bald head that was always sunburned and an anachronistic pencil-thin mustache that made him look like a character from some old B war movie; we always liked him, even if he did represent the end of an era.)
That last day in Bobby’s back yard, he had moved some junk around and uncovered a good-sized fire ant hill. He had a big stick and was stirring up the nest, watching the ants scramble. This was cool; normal boy stuff, and we all took turns at pushing the dirt around, trying to herd the ants one direction or another. Then Bobby said hang on, he had a great idea. He ran inside and came back out with a tin box full of firecrackers, matches, and a handful of sparklers; leftovers from the Fourth of July.
Now of course Gareth and I were absolutely forbidden to ever play with matches, let alone fireworks, so we were excited to get started. Then Bobby knelt down next to the anthill; I looked over at Gareth, saw the dark frown on his face. “What are you gonna do?” he asked.
“Whataya mean, Dummy? I’m gonna blow me up some fire ants!”
“What are you, a retard? ’Cause it’ll be fun! Duh!”
Gareth had been holding the stick, one end down amongst the ants, and now a few had climbed up the wood and onto his hand. In the way that fire ants always seem to do, they bit him all at once, and he flung the stick away and swatted the ants off his hand.
“See? The little fuckers have it coming.” Bobby had several older brothers and was very proud of his cursing skills.
But Gareth wasn’t having it. “We don’t need to do that. They’re just ants, you know, being ants. Let’s blow up some Coke cans or something.”
“BOR-ring! Look, if it’s gonna hurt your wittle feelings or something, you can go home. Me’n Grady here will blow up your share too.” (We knew Bobby for at least five years; he never once called either one of us by our right names.)
Now to be honest, my interest in blowing things up outweighed my sympathy for the ants by a long shot, but then I had to live with Gareth, so I stood up with him, and told Bobby thanks but no thanks. Bobby called us a couple of pussies, then started setting firecrackers down in the ant bed, like candles on a birthday cake.
Gareth said, “I don’t get it, man. Why do you hafta do this?”
“Geez, Gary, you really are retarded. I don’t haff to do it. I want to do it. My yard. My ants. Can if I wanna. Get it?”
So, no matter how much I wanted to ask Eloi why we were bothering with stirring up Washington, and presumably later Moscow and Beijing and London and the rest, I knew better than to ask. Their world; their people; can if they want to.
I said, “What am I supposed to do, pop up on the White House lawn and say, ‘Take me to your leader’?”
“If you think that best.”
Just when I had been starting to think he might be developing a sense of humor after all. “I was kidding. Joking. Being ironic. Sorry. I assume you already have a plan in place.”
“Only broadly. We are relying on your insight as to how to most effectively deliver our message to the people of Washington.”
My insight? Wow. Alrighty then. “Okay, that’s easy. Turn the power back on, or at least the TVs and radios. Broadcast an invitation to gather on the Mall in—Wait, it’s what? About six p.m. or so right now in Washington?”
Mr. Precise. “And when is sunset?”
If I thought that would stump him, I had another think coming; he immediately said, “7:19.”
“Perfect. So we tell everybody to be on the Mall in an hour. Maybe specifically invite the President, but everybody’s welcome. That’ll get their attention, plus it’ll show them that you have total control over the power grid, not just the ability to shut it down. Then I show up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Abdiel and Zagzagel, or maybe a whole multitude of heavenly hosts, and see how it plays. Should give everybody plenty to think about.” I was making this up on the spot, but hey, it sounded good so far.
“Can you guys set up another sky angel there?” Eloi nodded. “Good. Then that’s my counsel: set up a new Angel-in-the-Sky, right over the Washington Monument if possible, and put its image on every TV and computer screen in town. Then add a big, booming voice, inviting everybody to come on down.” Too bad that whole Darth Vader voice gimmick only worked inside my head; they’d have to come up with some kind of synthesizer version, but I doubted that would give them much trouble. “Then if you can somehow arrange to put the whole appearance on TV, even the folks who can’t get to the Mall will get the message.”
I noticed Eloi’s eyes were closed; he was no doubt sharing all this with his brethren. “So? What does everybody think?”
“You must provide the exact script for this ‘booming voice.’ The Angel image is appearing even now. We will proceed as you suggest. But Abdiel and Zagzagel will not join you; instead Gabriel and Michael will appear.” Ah, the big guns; Washington was getting the VIP treatment. “Your ‘multitude of heavenly hosts’ will consist of a legion of Ishim Guard—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. A legion? What, like four or five thousand giant silver soldiers? Everybody will run away screaming! You can’t send in a legion of troops, for cryin’ out loud. Haven’t you guys ever heard of ‘less is more’? Never mind. Of course not. Everything about you says more is more.” I took a breath, trying to shake off this cranky attitude. I was tired and not feeling at all ready to face the man who until four days ago had been the most powerful man in the world and tell him he was now just another ant on the hill. “Listen, I’m sorry I’m such a smartass; I was just kidding about the whole heavenly hosts thing. If we need the security, maybe a dozen or so Ishim. That should be plenty.”
“All right. A security detail only.”
Within a few minutes, I had dictated a “script” for the Angel’s booming voice effect, and Eloi assured me the announcement would be made immediately. “Good.” I thought about faking a yawn, but then just thinking about it was enough to make me yawn for real; I really was tired. “Now we’ve got an hour to kill, and if I’ve got my time ratio at all right, that means four days or so here inside the pyramid. Right?” Eloi nodded. “Great. That gives us plenty of time to figure out what we’re going to do exactly. You know what they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But before I do anything else, I’ve got to sleep. Really.”
“Very well.” And without another word, he vanished.
And so I crashed.