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When I looked over Matt was already drawing the lasers on his Star Force fighter. He was way ahead of me. I still had to pencil out the portside wing, put Derek Wildstar into the cockpit and close the hatch over his head. After a quick minute of work I checked again. Matt wasn’t sitting up straight and confident like before, but drooping in close with his nose inches from the page. A nervous sliver of tongue was clamped tightly between his lips and his hand which earlier flashed across the sheet in a cosmic blur of inspiration had stalled into a timid trace. This is it, I thought, this is where I’ll blow him away.

Matt was better than me at drawing almost everything. In fact he was a legend among us. He was the only one who had convincingly depicted the Argo destroyer with its turrets and torpedoes fixed and full-battle ready; a feat that garnered the admiration of everyone in Mr. Ott’s third grade class, at least those who mattered. But there was one thing he hadn’t mastered— thruster flames. He would draw and erase, draw and erase, until he had buffed the pink end of his no. 2 pencil into a shiny useless black bead.  Time was running out. Matt hopelessly threw himself back in his chair. Without thrusters his fighter was vulnerable to attack, sputtering through space, coughing and choking out a grey cloud of pencil exhaust and worn out newsprint. With two minutes left I went in for the kill. I ignited Wildstar’s booster rocket with a set of colored pencils that sent my jet fighter smoldering across the page in a glory of afterburner blue and orange.

I looked at the clock over the door and the red hand was just beginning its final rotation. Matt looked at the clock at the same time and then at me. He had less than a minute to save his Wildstar. But it wasn’t defeat that I saw in his eyes, it was fight. He picked up his desk and swung it around so all I could see was his back. Mr. Ott looked up and scowled but didn’t say anything. I couldn’t see what he was up to, just that his hand was furiously working the far corner of the page. I half stood and half stepped from my desk to peek over his shoulder but it was no good, Mr. Ott saw my foot in the aisle and cleared his throat and I plopped back into my chair. The clock was my only hope. I begged it to tick faster, but the closer I watched the more it worked against me. It seemed the seconds were getting longer and the finger that marked each one was struggling, like it had to stop and rest and work up the strength to leap from one little line to the next. By the time it reached the 4 I thought it might quit altogether.

I glanced at Matt and then back at the clock. After an eternity the second hand made the 6 and started the hard crawl up the back side. It jerked and then paused, jerked and then paused, as if each pause was a great gasp for air. Climbing up the Matterhorn on my hands and knees might have been quicker. At the 7 I went ahead and quit breathing, just held to the sides of my desk for control. Finally, finally, I thought as the second hand began to summit. I leaned in low and started counting back, “10, 9, 8,” growling out numbers in a low and menacing whisper to irk Matt’s concentration, praying Mr. Ott wouldn’t hear, “3, 2…” and the instant I said “1” Matt slammed down his pencil, swept the picture off the desk, thrust his skinny arm straight back so I could see what he’d done and announced—“Eat my astro dust, butt wad!”

I couldn’t believe it. Sure, his Star Force fighter was still drifting helplessly through space, but blasting out of the dark lonely left-hand corner of the cosmos was a repair vessel only moments away. And I could clearly see Chief Sandor through one of its portholes. I had to give it up for Matt, within minutes of making contact with the distressed fighter Chief Sandor, the tech wizard of the Black Tiger Fighter Squadron, would fix it better than new. Not only that, he’d likely rig up some way out gadget the universe had never seen. Matt’s Star Force fighter would blaze past mine and sure enough save the day.

I looked up at Matt whose eyes were wide and awaiting my reaction. I looked again at his drawing still thrust out at me and then back at him. He was so worked up with victory he had the goose bumps. He took his free hand, dragged the backside against his crusty nose and put it on his hip and asked, “Well?” “Well nothing,” I said back. “That’s totally awesome!” Matt finally relaxed his arm and looked at his drawing. “Yeah,” he said, “but your thruster flames are better.” “Yeah, but once your fighter’s fixed we can race to Iscandar together and there’s no telling what will happen.” Matt straightened his desk and we both lifted the lids and crammed our drawings in, shoving them to the back where they would be mangled and soon forgotten. We looked at the clock. “There’s still time for one more,” he announced. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Ready… Set… Go!” we rallied, then ripped out fresh sheets and started drawing all over again.

Matt Haddock was my best friend. I had other best friends at the same time but none that I knew for as long, not for the better part of two grades. Star Blazers was our favorite show and the purpose of our existence. We weren’t alone; it was why all the boys in Mr. Ott’s fourth grade class bothered coming to school. Reading and math were the dumb forty-five minute interruptions we wriggled through so we could get on with the real work of drawing and playing Blazers. The important stuff wasn’t taking place in books like Mr. Ott insisted every single day, but in the gaps between his lessons and during that most precious hour of a boy’s life— recess. When the bell rang we raced from our desks to huddle together in a corner of the playground committed, brothers in arms, to answering the only meaningful question anyone ever asked at Rose Hill Elementary— could Planet Iscandar be saved?

In our estimation anyone who didn’t know Star Blazers was either retarded or a girl. And it wasn’t enough to have a general understanding of the action from one week to another. No, to be a true Blazer meant you had to watch every single morning. Anyone who missed an episode, no matter the reason, was banned from Blazer activities for the entire day. We were pitiless. We shielded the squadron with force fields that were impregnable to the most desperate pleas of our best friends. Of course we all dreaded finding ourselves excluded, banished to the place we called deep space isolation, so we took every precaution to protect ourselves. But one day it happened to Matt. It wasn’t even his fault. That morning he was eating his cereal just as Star Blazers was coming on. He was leaning over his Captain Crunch singing the “Our Star Blazers” anthem with his hand over his heart and milk dribbling down his chin. He said he could feel the power of the words gushing up from his guts like Mrs. Rosenberger our music teacher said should happen when we really believed in a song. Then smack in the middle of his reverie, just as he was pledging undying allegiance to the Star Force, his mom reached over and switched off the tv. “You shouldn’t watch cartoons for breakfast,” she said, “you’ll get a stomach ache.”

We shook our heads in disbelief as he recalled the tragic event. “His own mother!” we gasped. But then we turned toward Matt with fingers locked in ray gun formation and pointed them straight at his heart. It was deep space for him. He looked over at me and because we were super best friends I felt awful for a second. Then I shrugged my shoulders and pulled the trigger like everyone else. Matt kicked the dirt and went off to the farthest reaches of the schoolyard to wait out recess alone. The next morning he was a little more reserved over his Captain Crunch so when he got to school order was restored to the Rose Hill Star Force Fleet.

Then one day my worst fear came true. My mom woke me early and told me I had a dentist appointment. For a moment I laid there stunned, like maybe I was still dreaming. There’s no way I could have a dentist appointment, the Argo was heading straight into an asteroid blizzard with its polarity shield down. Last I saw the ship was in flames and about to be destroyed. I would rather suffer Chinese torture than miss that morning’s episode. But when my mom yanked the blankets off and told me to hustle the cruel truth of deep space isolation flashed before my eyes. I felt the sudden sting of tears and then I started balling. I gave it everything I had. There were some harsh things said about cry babies since third grade but in my mind, and I was pretty sure the other Blazers would back me up, it was for the good of the Star Force.

Despite my tears I missed one of the most important episodes of my fourth grade career. I was heading to school a total reject. No way, I thought. No way was I going to pout around a whole recess for a bunch of teeth which felt perfectly fine in the first place. So just before mom dropped me at the front steps I became gravely ill. I clutched my stomach and hollered, “I’m gonna puke my guts out!” I even worked in a few more tears. Mom, who took no interest in Star Blazers, was particularly moved by vomit. She swerved and hit the brakes. I thought we were both going to die. “Fluoride poisoning!” she proclaimed, and she whisked the Plymouth around without hesitation and headed for home.

Only staying home sucked. It was fun for the first couple of hours, but after the novelty of Cheetos for breakfast and Pop Tarts for lunch wore off, after I realized I couldn’t go outside and that nothing worth watching was on till school got out and that the best games were no fun alone, I regretted faking it. I imagined the space battles my friends were having on the playground and longed to join them. But then I remembered why I was at home to begin with. Without the latest word on the Argo nobody cool was going to play with me. The girls might see me dragging around and feel sorry and invite me to jump Double Dutch but to accept such an invitation would be social suicide for a nine year old boy. It was better to be stuck at home.

All in all I was pretty okay with the way things worked in the world and was clear about my purpose in life. Then one day my all-consuming desire to save Iscandar came to a screeching halt. Over a long weekend while my friends were away and it seemed I was the only kid left in the neighborhood I encountered a more potent mystery. What it meant I didn’t exactly know, but I knew it was the biggest thing I had encountered so far. It felt like the Earth had cracked open above my head and all the secret pieces inside came crashing over me. Suddenly my thoughts were full of points and sharp edges that pricked my skin from the inside out. My joy for Star Blazers had deserted me and left a big black hole behind that made me dizzy. What more, the hole was filling up with the sort of feelings that didn’t make any sense. What scared me most was knowing life could change quick and without warning. I wanted to share this mystery with Matt, I wanted him to experience it too, I wanted us to figure it out together, but I had to wait. For two whole days I had to keep the fear and excitement all to myself. 

It was Monday when I told him. Over the weekend I worked out how I was going to do it. I would swear him to secrecy and invite him over after school and show him what I had discovered. Only it didn’t happen the way I had planned. During silent reading I passed Matt a note that read, “Meet me at the flat rock after school. I have a secret. Don’t tell anyone.” Underneath I drew two boxes, one with “yes” and one with “no”. After he read it Matt looked over his shoulder and squinted and turned his palm to the air as if to beg “what is it?” in a soundless way. Then he turned and scribbled and sent the note back to me. I was relieved to see that he checked the “yes” box but underneath it he wrote in parenthesis, “(what secret?!!!)” When Matt looked over again I leaned in and whispered, “Nothing, just meet.” Then he whispered back, “How big of a deal?” “Just meet me,” I hissed. “Not until you tell me how big of a deal,” he strained. “It’s huge,” I stressed with the loudest whisper I could muster up without getting caught. Matt was struggling with the idea and couldn’t sit still and then finally turned around and demanded in his outside voice, “If it’s so big tell me now cuz I can’t wait.” Then Mr. Ott excused himself and asked if we wished to share the important news of the day with the rest of the class. “No, Sir.” We said and then slunk down into our chairs.

I was waiting by the flat rock after school for what seemed like forever. Finally I saw Matt coming, but he wasn’t alone— Brian Nicholson was tagging along. “What’s he doing here?” I asked when they got close enough. “Brian wants to know the secret too,” At first I was mad because the secret was supposed to be between super best friends but after waiting all weekend I decided I couldn’t wait any longer so I told them the plan. Matt said he didn’t want to walk all the way over to my house unless he knew just how big the secret was. “Was it as big as sneaking into a movie without getting caught?” he asked. “Was it as big as hiding in Baskin and Robbins and trying all 31 flavors in the dark? As big as a new dirty word? Or, was it way big like stealing a handful of Jolly Ranchers from 7/11?”

“It’s bigger than all those,” I demanded. Then out of pure frustration and without thinking I let out the words I thought over the weekend but didn’t think I’d ever say to anyone, “It’s bigger than Star Blazers and the Wave Motion Gun put together.” Their mouths fell open in utter disbelief. Numbed by the power of my words, confused by their blasphemous implication, they stared at me. I knew I had put my entire fourth grade life on the line. “That’s right,” I said, “bigger than Blazers.”

We got almost all the way to my house without saying a single word. We were scared, but for different reasons. I wasn’t sure what would happen if they didn’t see things the way I did. The idea that they would make fun of me stuck like a cotton ball in my throat. By their faces I could tell they were trying to imagine life without Star Blazers and just couldn’t. Then, in the heaviness of a silence that in some ways held us together and in others drove us apart we heard the echoes of our names being called. We walked on until we realized someone was running up from behind. It was Todd Schneider who lived a few houses down.

Todd was a jerk. He was always bragging and making fun of people. There was a rumor that his dad was building him a fort in his backyard which suddenly made him popular though none of us got invited to play in it. “Where you guys going?” he demanded. “Nowhere,” I said. “Where’s nowhere?” he said back. Then Brian spilled the beans and told him that nowhere was my house and that I was taking them to see something better than Star Blazers. “Yeah, right,” he said, “I gotta see that.” “I’m only supposed to have two friends over at a time— sorry, you can’t come,” I said. Then he thought about it for a minute and looked me straight in the eye and said, “If I can’t come I’ll never let you play in my fort once it’s finished.” “Who cares,” I replied, “it’s just a stupid fort.” “Oh yeah?” he said all smart-alecky, “Well my dad is building it with two stories.” What a jerk, I thought, and then I told him he could come because I had never seen a fort with an upstairs.

I made sure my sister wasn’t around and then I took them into my room and shut the door. “Ok, let’s see it,” someone said. I told them to turn and face the wall first. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would knock me down. None of it was happening the way I had planned. I wanted it to be between Matt and me and somehow Brian and Todd were there which pretty much guaranteed disaster. “C’mon…,” they whined, “we’re tired of waiting,” It took me a minute to work up the nerve, but then I pulled it out and held it up and told them they could look. They turned around to see what I had. Matt and Brian looked confused and Todd just sneered. “What is it?” asked Matt who stepped closer. “It’s a record, stupid,” Todd quipped. “Duh, I can see that, but what kind of record?” said Matt. My eyes lit up and suddenly I felt six feet tall. “It’s this really wicked record by this girl named Blondie. Look, she’s on the cover. She’s really amazing and has blonde hair like her name but in the back she’s got a triangle of dark hair that’s kinda strange and kinda neat at the same time. And look here, she’s not even wearing a real dress, but the thing ladies wear under them, and it doesn’t even look like she’s wearing anything under that. And check out the guys, they’re wearing old sneakers with suits. Can you believe it? Dirty sneakers with suits and skinny ties, wow! Look, you can see them closer on the back.”

“This is better than Star Blazers?” Brian wondered aloud. “No, not only this, but a song,” I said. “How can a stupid song be better than Blazers?” Todd added. “Because,” I insisted, “it’s a mystery. She says something terrible is going to happen at midnight. I don’t know, but I think it’s the end of the world and we all might die and she knows she’s going to die so she decides to do something really crazy in the last minute that’s just as good as living forever but she doesn’t say what it is.”

Brian was watching Matt to see if he thought the record had any chance of being cool or not. Matt looked at me confused and a little disappointed, but at least I could tell he was willing to listen. “Well?” he said, “what are you waiting for?” This was my chance, I thought. Then Todd threw up his hands, “This is completely dumb. I can’t believe you guys are getting suckered into this. I’m not buying it. Where are all your toys anyway?” I was happy to have Todd out of the way so I pointed to the giant plastic frog head in the corner and told him to go for it. I threw the album on the bed and got the record player out of the closet. It was a bright orange wooden box that folded together like a brief case. I set it in the middle of the floor and unclasped the lid and plugged it in and turned it on and waited for it come up to speed.

“Don’t you have any Hot Wheels?” Todd asked as he threw things around. “What kind of cheap toy box is this anyway? Your family poor or something?” I lied and said they were definitely there and to keep searching. Todd mumbled as he dug around for Hot Wheels that didn’t exist. “Hand me the record,” I told Brian. He grabbed it and passed it to me. I pulled the cover off and checked for side B then tossed it onto the spinning plate. It skidded for a second and when it caught up with the player I looked at Matt and Brian to make sure they were ready and then dropped the plastic needle down. It hissed and crackled. I turned the volume all the way to “10.” Brian’s eyes got as big as frisbees. Then like a stab of lightning through the chest a guitar tore through the speaker and knocked both Matt and Brian back a step. A second later a thunder of drums roared through the room. The sound was huge and relentless, and came at us with an urgency that crushed our ears.

I looked at Matt. He had never heard music like that before. And it was just the beginning, the first riffs, the first twenty seconds. I was on my knees and braced myself for what would come next, the thing I was most anxious about, the thing that really did it for me— her voice. I didn’t know how they would take to it. I still didn’t know myself. It lured me in, made me feel funny like she was singing just to me, it was a dream feeling, but at the same time troubling. She wasn’t like any girl. She was really tough like a guy, like she could have bruises on her arms and skinned-knees and wouldn’t care.

A lot of what she said didn’t make sense either. I had spent the whole weekend trying to figure out what a sidewalk social scientist was. By the looks of things Brian and Matt didn’t know because when she said it they twisted their eyes. But when she started singing about getting out before it’s too late it made me want to run too. I wanted to jump into her car and burn rubber and would even smoke cigarettes if she wanted me to. I thought about the kid in the movie they showed at school, the one that did something like that and disappeared forever. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be him right in front of Matt and Brian. I leapt to my feet and pointed down at the record and announced “This is it! This is the big deal! This is why it’s better than Star Blazers” and then with clenched fists I struck the air and sang with her, “It’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive!”

The next three minutes were a blur. I don’t know what happened. I pumped the air down as hard as I could with every beat, in quick sharp bursts I punched it and kicked the floor. Then when the organ blew I spazzed out. I jumped and grabbed for the ceiling and when I came down I sang, “I’ve lost control, don’t leave me here, time is running out, take me down the highway like a rocket to the ocean.” I spun around, pounded my bunk bed, threw my stupid toys against the wall, wrapped myself up in Star Wars drapes then twirled out so fast I flung into Matt who pushed me into Brian. They pushed me away but I didn’t care. I jumped and danced and threw punches and kicks then collapsed on my back and beat the floor and shook my head from side to side until the song faded out.  

I lay for a moment panting and listening to the crackling hiss. She was gone. Did we make it? I wondered. When I came to my senses I leaned over and stopped the record and collapsed again until I caught my breath. I looked up at Matt and Brian who were staring down at me with stiff faces. I jumped to my feet and grabbed the album cover from the bed and raised it into the air like a trophy, “Is this awesome or what?”

Brian looked disturbed. He glanced over at Matt who looked back at him and then they both looked over at Todd who was halfway inside the toy box still digging around, and then they looked at me and nobody said anything. Finally Brian said with a look and a voice that sucked my insides right out, “You’re really weird.”

I lowered the album cover in front of my chest. I turned to Matt, desperate, sensing my world was unraveling and there might be no way of holding it together, thinking I made the greatest mistake of my life, hoping my super best friend would understand, would hear what I heard, and would stand with me. But Matt wouldn’t look up, he just toed around at the carpet. “Matt? Don’t you think it’s cool?” Matt refused to look at me. He shook his head sadly and said, “I can’t believe you think it’s better than Blazers.”

Then all of a sudden Todd threw the frog head open and burst out holding three action figures. “This place truly sucks!” We looked at him, relieved to be rescued from such a horrible moment.  “A storm trooper, C-3PO, and Leia? That’s all you got in this whole crappy box? And they’re not even good ones” Todd threw the action figures back into the frog head. “This is the lamest ever. We should ditch and go to my house. I have a Vader case that’s stuffed completely full.”

“No way,” doubted Brian, “that’s like 30 action figures.”

“Yeah way,” said Todd, “And it’s 31 to be exact. Not only that, I have Snaggletooth.”

“You can’t get Snaggletooth here,” insisted Matt. “My dad hunted all over for it and he even went to Toys’ r Us and they said so.

“Well my dad didn’t get it here, dickweed, he bought it for me when he went to the biggest toy store in California. I can prove it if you come over.”

“C’mon Matt, let’s go see,” pleaded Brian.

“You comin’ or what?” Todd asked me.

“I don’t care about your stupid action figures,” I said.

Todd strutted over and poked me in the chest which hurt and then squinted one eye and said, “You know what? You are weird. C’mon guys, let’s go have some real fun. And if you don’t want to come, forget about ever playing in the fort when it’s finished.”

Todd marched out and Brian followed and then Matt went after him. But Matt stopped before he left the room and turned and looked back and in an urgent whisper asked what in the world I was waiting for. I didn’t want to go, but I started following anyway. Then I realized I was still holding the album cover. I looked down at the guys in the band. They were laughing and motioning, bidding me to stay and to let the others go. I heard Matt call from outside. I looked back at Blondie who was teed off and standing with her fists locked at her hips like she was daring for a fight. But she wasn’t ticked at them, she was mad at me. She knew I didn’t have the guts to stay. I hated that she was right so I chucked the album hard as I could and slammed the door and ran to catch up.

I pushed Brian and Brian pushed Matt and Matt pushed Todd and we joked and carried on as if the incident in my room never happened.  Only it sure did, and I didn’t feel right with things anymore. I realized Blazers and action figures and forts would never be the same. A part of me hoped it was temporary, but mostly I knew that it wasn’t. Heading into Todd’s room I was certain I never wanted to be called weird that way again. So until I got the pieces of the universe sorted out like before, I knew I had to play it their way— I knew I would have to pretend. 

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