The Storm Runner – J.C. Cervantes

It all started when Mom screamed. I thought she’d seen a scorpion, but when I got to the kitchen, she was waving a letter over her head and dancing in circles barefoot. After a year of being homeschooled, I was going to get to go to school again. Did you catch that word? Get. As in, someone was allowing me to learn. Stupid! Who put adults in charge, anyway? But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to go to some stuffy private school called Holy Ghost where nuns gave me the evil eye. And I for sure didn’t want the Holy Ghost “shuttle” to come all the way out to no-man’s-land to pick me up. Mine was the last stop, and that meant the van would probably be full when it arrived. And full meant at least a dozen eyes staring at me. I smiled at Mom, because she looked happy. She took care of sick people in their homes all day, and she also let her brother, Hondo, live with us. He spent most of his time watching wrestling matches on TV and eating bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, so she didn’t wear smiles too often. “But…” I didn’t know where to start. “You said I could be homeschooled.” “For a year,” she said, still beaming.

“That was the agreement. Remember? A single year.” Pretty sure that wasn’t the agreement, but once something was in Mom’s head, it was superglued there. Arguing was useless. Plus, I wanted her to be happy. Really, really happy. So I nodded hard and fast, because the harder I nodded, the more excited I’d look. I even threw in another smile. “When?” It was September, and that meant I’d already missed a month of classes. “You start tomorrow.

” Crap! “How about I start in January?” Yeah, you could say I was super optimistic. Mom shook her head. “This is an incredible opportunity, Zane.” “Doesn’t private school cost a lot?” “They gave you a scholarship. Look!” She flashed the letter as proof. Oh. Mom folded the letter neatly. “You’ve been on the waiting list since…” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t need to. Since referred to the day this jerk —a jerk whose face was seared into my brain—had mopped the floor with me at my old school, and I’d sworn never to set foot in any “place of learning” again. “What about Ms.

Cab?” I asked. “She needs my help. How am I going to pay for Rosie’s food if I don’t work?” My neighbor, Ms. Cab (her real last name is Caballero, but I couldn’t pronounce it as a little kid and the nickname stuck), was blind and needed an assistant to help her do stuff around the house. Also, she worked as a phone psychic, and I answered the calls before she came on the line. It made her seem more legit. She paid me pretty good, enough to feed my dog, Rosie. Rosie was a boxmatian (half-boxer, half-dalmatian) and ate like an elephant. “You can work in the afternoons.” Mom took my hand in hers.

I hated when she did that during our arguments. “Zane, honey, please. Things will be mejor this time. You’re thirteen now. You need friends. You can’t live out here alone with these…” Out here was a narrow, dusty road in the New Mexico desert. Other than my two neighbors, there were tumbleweeds, rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners, a dried-up riverbed, and even a dead volcano. But more on that later. Most people are surprised when they find out New Mexico has so many volcanoes. (Of course, mine was no ordinary act of nature, right, gods?) “With these what?” I asked, even though I knew what she was thinking: misfits.

So what that Ms. Cab was a little different? And who cared that my other neighbor, Mr. Ortiz, grew weird varieties of chile peppers in his greenhouse? Didn’t mean they were misfits. “I’m just saying that you need to be with kids your age.” “But I don’t like kids my age,” I told her. “And I learn more without teachers.” She couldn’t argue with that. I’d taught myself all sorts of things, like the generals of the Civil War, the number of blood vessels in the human body, and the names of stars and planets. That was the best thing about not going to school: I was the boss. Mom ruffled my dark hair and sighed.

“You’re a genius, yes, but I don’t like you hanging out only with a bunch of old people.” “Two isn’t a bunch.” I guess I’d sort of been hoping Mom would forget our deal. Or maybe Holy Ghost (who named that school, anyway?) would disappear off the face of the earth in a freak cataclysmic accident. “Mom.” I got real serious and made her look me in the eyes. “No one wants to be friends with a freak.” I tapped my cane on the ground twice. One of my legs was shorter than the other, which meant I walked with a dumb limp. It earned me all sorts of nicknames from the other kids: Sir Limps-a-Lot, McGimpster, Zane the Cane, and my all-time favorite: Uno—for the one good leg.

“You are not a freak, Zane, and…” Oh boy. Her eyes got all watery like they were going to drown in her sadness. “Okay, I’ll go,” I said, because I’d rather face a hundred hateful eyes than two crying ones. She straightened, wiped her tears away with the back of her hand, and said, “Your uniform is pressed and waiting on your bed. Oh, and I have a present for you.” Notice how she dropped the bad news with something good? She should’ve run for mayor. There was no point in my griping about the uniform, even though the tie would probably give my neck a rash. Instead I decided to focus on the word present, and I held my breath, hoping it wasn’t a rosary or something. Mom went to a cabinet and pulled out a skinny umbrella-size box with a silver ribbon tied around it. “What is it?” “Just open it.

” Her hands twitched with excitement. I ripped open the box to get to the present that we didn’t have money for. Inside was a wad of brown paper and under that, a shiny black wooden cane. It had a brass tip shaped like a dragon’s head. “This is…” I blinked, searching for the right word. “Do you like it?” Her smile could’ve lit up the whole world. I turned the cane in my hands, testing its weight, and decided it looked like something a warrior would carry, which made it the coolest gift in the universe. “I bet it cost a lot.” Mom shook her head. “It was given to me….

Mr. Chang died last week, remember?” Mr. Chang was a rich client who lived in a grande house in town and sent Mom home with chow mein every Tuesday. He was also a customer of Ms. Cab’s—she was the one who’d gotten Mom the job to take care of him until he died. I hated to think of Mom hanging out with dying people, but as she always said, we had to eat. I’d tried eating less, but that was getting harder and harder the older I got. I’d already reached a whopping five foot nine. That made me the tallest in my family. I ran my hands over the brass dragon head with the flames flying out of its mouth.

“He collected all sorts of things,” Mom continued. “And his daughter said I should have this. She knew you—” She stopped herself. “She said the dragon symbolizes protection.” So Mom thought I needed protection. That made me feel pretty miserable. But I knew she meant well. I rested my weight against it. It felt perfect, like it was made for me. I was excited to cruise around with this much cooler cane instead of my dumb plain brown one that screamed I’m a freak.

“Thanks, Mom. I really like it.” “I thought it would make going back to school… easier,” Mom said. Right. Easier. Nothing, not even this warrior dragon cane, was going to make my being the new kid any easier. It was a low point, and I didn’t think things could get any worse. But boy, was I wrong. That night, as I lay in bed, I thought about the next day. My stomach was all twisted in knots, and I wished I could turn into primordial ooze and seep into the ground.

Rosie knew something was up, because she let out little groans and nuzzled her head against my hand, soft-like. I petted the white patch between her eyes in small circles. “I know, girl,” I whispered. “But Mom looked so happy.” I wondered what my dad would say about the whole thing. Not that I’d ever know—I’d never even met the guy. He and Mom hadn’t gotten married, and he’d bounced before I was born. She’d only told me three things about him: He was superbly handsome (her words, not mine). He was from Mexico’s Yucatán region. (She’d spent time there before I was born and said the sea is like glass.

) And the third thing? She loved him to pieces. Whatever. It was all quiet, except for the crickets and my guts churning. I clicked on the lamp and sat up. On my nightstand was the Maya mythology book Mom had given me for my eighth birthday. It was part of a five-volume set about Mexico, but this book was the coolest. I figured it was her way of showing me my dad’s culture without having to talk about him. The book had a tattered green cover with big gold letters on it: The Myths and Magic of the Maya. It was filled with color illustrations and stories about the adventures of different gods, kings, and heroes. The gods sounded awesome, but authors lie all the time.

I opened the book. On the endpapers was an illustration of a Maya death mask made of crumbling jade, with squinted lidless eyes and square stone teeth like tiny gravestones. I swear the face was smiling at me. “What’re you looking at?” I huffed, slamming the book closed. I tossed off the covers, got up, and peered out the window. It was all shadows and silence. There was only one good thing about living on the mesa: it was a hundred yards from a dead volcano (aka the Beast). Having my own volcano was about the most interesting thing in my short life. (Up until that point, that is.) I’d even found a secret entrance into it last month.

Rosie and I were hiking down from the top, and about halfway down I heard a strangled gasp. Naturally, I went to investigate, half expecting to find a hurt animal. But when I parted the scraggly creosote branches, I discovered something else: an opening just big enough to crawl through. It led to a whole labyrinth of caves, and for half a second I’d thought about calling National Geographic or something. But then I’d decided I would rather have a private place for Rosie and me than be on the cover of some dumb magazine. Rosie leaped off the bed when she saw me slip on my sneakers. “Come on, girl. Let’s get out of here.” I went outside with my new warrior cane and limped past Nana’s grave (she died when I was two, so I didn’t remember her). I crossed the big stretch of desert, zigzagging between creosote, ocotillo, and yucca.

The moon looked like a huge fish eye. “Maybe I could just pretend to go to school,” I said to Rosie as we got closer to the Beast, a black cone rising a couple hundred yards out of the sand to meet the sky. Rosie stopped, sniffed the air. Her ears pricked. “Okay, fine. Bad idea. You have a better one?” With a whimper, Rosie inched back. “You smell something?” I said, hoping it wasn’t a rattlesnake. I hated snakes. When I didn’t hear the familiar rattling, I relaxed.

“You’re not afraid of another jackrabbit, are you?” Rosie yelped at me. “You were afraid, don’t try to deny it.” She took off toward the volcano. “Hey!” I called, trying to keep up. “Wait for me!” I’d found Rosie wandering the desert four years ago. At the time, I figured someone had dumped her there. She was all skin and bones, and she acted skittish at first, like someone had abused her. When I begged Mom to let me keep her, she said we couldn’t afford it, so I promised to earn money for dog food. Rosie was cinnamon brown like most boxers, but she had black spots all over, including on her floppy ears, which is why I was sure she had dalmatian in her, too. She only had three legs, so she got me and I got her.

When we got to the base of my volcano, I stopped abruptly. There, in the moonlit sand, was a series of paw prints—massive, with long claws. I stepped into one of the impressions and my sizetwelve foot took up only a third of the space. The paw was definitely too big to belong to a coyote. I thought maybe they were bear tracks, except bears don’t cruise the desert. I kneeled to investigate. Even without the moonlight I would’ve been able to see the huge prints, because I had perfect eyesight in the dark. Mom called it a sacred ancestral blessing. Whatever. I called it another freak-of-nature thing.

“They look big enough to belong to a dinosaur, Rosie.” She sniffed one, then another, and whimpered. I followed the trail, but it ended suddenly, like whatever creature the prints belonged to had simply vanished. Shivers crept up my spine. Rosie whimpered again, looking up at me with her soft brown eyes as if to say Let’s get outta here. “Okay, okay,” I said, just as eager as she was to get to the top of the volcano. We climbed the switchback trail, past my secret cave (which I’d camouflaged with a net of creosote and mesquite branches), toward the ridge. When we got to the top, I took in the jaw-dropping view. To the east was a glittering night sky rolling over the desert, and to the west was a lush valley dividing the city and the flat mesa. And beyond that? A looming mountain range with jagged peaks that stood shoulder to shoulder like a band of soldiers.

This was pretty much my favorite place in the world. Not that I’d ever been outside New Mexico, but I read a lot. Mom always told me the volcano was unsafe, without ever really saying why, but to me it had always felt quiet and calm. It also happened to be where I trained. After the docs had said there was no way to fix my bum leg, I spent hours hiking the Beast, thinking if I could just make my shorter leg stronger, maybe my limp would be less noticeable. No such luck. But by walking the rim’s edge I learned how to be a boss at balancing, and that’s a handy skill when you get shoved around by kids at school. I set down my cane and began teetering along the rim of the crater while holding my arms out to my sides. Mom would kill me if she knew I did this. One slip and I’d tumble fifty feet down the rocky hill.

Rosie cruised behind me, sniffing the ground. “How ’bout I pretend to be sick?” I said, still stuck on how to get out of Holy Ghost school. “Or I could release rats into the cafeteria….There can’t be school if there’s no food, right?” Did Catholic schools even have a cafeteria? The only problem was, my ideas would only buy me a day or two. A low rumble rolled across the sky. Rosie and I both stopped in our tracks and looked up. A small aircraft zoomed over the Beast, turned, and came back. I stepped away from the crater’s edge, craning my neck to get a better look. I waved, hoping the pilot could see me. But he didn’t come near enough.

Instead, he started zigzagging like a crazy person. I thought maybe he was borracho until he circled back perfectly for another run. This time he came in tighter. Just when I thought the pilot was going to pull up, he pointed the plane’s nose toward the center of the crater. The wings were so close to me I could practically see the screws holding them together. The plane’s thrust shook the ground, sending me stumbling, but I caught myself. Then something started glowing inside the cockpit. An eerie yellowish-blue light. Except what I saw had to have been some kind of a hallucination or optical illusion, because there was no pilot— there was a thing. An alien head thing with red bulging eyes, no nose, and a mouth filled with long sharp fangs.

Yeah, that’s right. An alien demon dude was flying the plane right into the Beast’s mouth! Everything happened in sickeningly slow motion. I heard a crash, and a fiery explosion rocked the world, big enough to make even the planets shake. I did a drop roll as flames burst from the top of the volcano. Rosie yelped. “Rosie!” And before I knew it I was tumbling down, down, down away from the Beast, away from my dog, and away from life as I knew it. 2 When I opened my eyes, the sky was a sea of black and the world was muffled, like I had cotton balls stuffed in my ears. I rolled over with a groan and saw that I’d tumbled about twenty yards down from the rim. My head was pounding and, after a quick inventory, I found two scraped wrists and a bleeding elbow. Then I remembered: Rosie! Where was she? I got to my feet, frantically scanning the dark.

“Rosie! Come on, girl.” I was about to climb back up to the top, when I thought I heard her cry near the base. “Rosie!” Quickly, I hobbled to the bottom of the trail, feeling woozy and light-headed. When I got there, I squatted to catch my breath. That’s when Mom showed up. She fell to her knees in front of me and death-gripped my shoulders. Her eyes were flooded with tears and she was spitting out all kinds of Spanish—mostly “Gracias a Dios”—which she always did when she was freaked. “I heard the explosion!” she cried. “I went to check on you and you weren’t in your bed and”— she gripped me tighter—“I told you not to come out here. Especially at night.

What were you thinking?” “I’m okay,” I said, slipping onto my butt. I looked up at the Beast, blacker than a desert beetle. How long had I been knocked out? “Have you seen Rosie?” I asked hopefully. But Mom didn’t answer. She was too busy thanking the saints and squeezing me. My heart started to jackhammer against my chest in a terrible panic. “Mom!” I shrugged her off me. “Where is she?” A second later, Rosie was there with my cane tucked in her mouth. I took it from her and she began licking my face and pawing me like she was making sure I was really alive. I pulled my dog to me, hugging her broad chest, burying my face in her neck so Mom wouldn’t see the tears forming.

“I love you, you stupid, stupid dog,” I whispered so only Rosie could hear. It didn’t take long for the ambulance, cops, fire trucks, and camera crews to show up. Was everyone here just for me? Then I remembered the creepy guy who had crashed. He definitely needed more help than I did. Within a few minutes the paramedics checked me out, bandaged my cuts, and told Mom I had a bump on the head and should get a CT scan. That sounded expensive. “I’m fine,” I said, standing to prove it. I could read the paramedic’s doubtful elevator eyes taking me in and stopping on my cane. “I’ve got a straw leg,” I told him, leaning against my cane, thinking that sounded better than freak leg. Mom shook her head.

“What’s wrong with your leg?” the paramedic asked. “His right leg just hasn’t caught up with the left one yet,” she said. The truth was, nobody knew. Not a single doctor had been able to tell us “definitively” why my leg hadn’t grown properly, which meant I could probably be on one of those medical mystery shows if I wanted to. I’d for sure rather be a mystery than a definition. I was glad Mom didn’t say anything about my right foot. It was two sizes smaller than my left one, which was why Mom always had to buy two stupid pairs of shoes every time I wore out a pair. The cops were next. After I told Officer Smart (real name, no lie) what happened, she said, “So the plane just crashed into the crater.” I nodded, keeping a tight grip on Rosie, who was dancing in place and whining as she stared at the volcano.

“We’re safe now, girl,” I told her in a low voice. Smart continued with the questions. “Did the plane look like it was in trouble? Did it make any weird sounds? Was there any smoke?” I shook my head. There’d been no signs of distress, but I recalled the pilot’s glowing red eyes and long fangs. I must have imagined them…. “Well?” Officer Smart asked. “I don’t remember.” The less I said, the better. If I told them what I’d seen, they’d really think I needed a head scan. “What happened to the pilot?” I had to ask.

Smart glanced at Mom like she was looking for permission to tell me the awful truth. “We haven’t found anyone,” Smart said. “There’s a search crew on the way.” I didn’t see how anyone could have survived crashing into…Hold on. Search crew? My body stiffened. What if they found my cave? It would be all over the news and all kinds of explorers would show up, thinking it was their volcano. A car pulled up, and a second later Mr. O and Ms. Cab got out. They crossed the night desert slowly.

She was wearing her big Chanel sunglasses to cover her nonworking eyes, and he had on his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, as usual, to cover his baldness. They looked like an old married couple, but unfortunately for Mr. O, that wasn’t the case. He was always asking me questions about her: What’s her favorite color? Does she ever talk about me? Do you think she’d go out with me? So one day I finally asked Ms. Cab if she’d ever be Mr. O’s girlfriend. By the look she gave me, you’d think I had asked her to leap into a fire pit. I never told Mr. O about it, because I knew it would make him feel fatter and balder than he already did, and he hadn’t given up. He was always working on some scheme to get her to go out to dinner with him.

I respected the guy for that. “Zane!” Mr. O said as he led Ms. Cab by the arm. His brown eyes were huge with worry. “I saw the explosion. Are you okay? Did the fire catched you?” “It’s catch,” Ms. Cab mumbled as she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I must’ve drop-rolled just in time, I thought. Mom patted my shoulders.

“Thank the saints, he’s safe now.”

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