Barely A Crime (novel)
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First Chapter: Voyage to Alpha Centauri

September 21, 2015 6:50 pm | 1 Comment

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Read the first chapters of the novel Voyage to Alpha Centauri by Michael O’Brien. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order!

5 October 2097

A week from now I leave this sanctuary—my home, my solitude, my consolation. I have almost completed packing, though I remain haunted by a sense of the unreality of what is about to happen. Even so, without warning, my heart begins thumping with the thrill of it. At other times, I am full of fears, regrets, fragmentary thoughts. I am a little at a loss for what to do with myself.

This morning I puttered about the cabin and greenhouse, touching beloved objects, standing still for long moments, pondering the turquoise cube on my desk, the budding cacti, and the riot of cosmos flowers blooming in the yard I have never mowed.

In the entrance hall, I stroked the horse’s skull, like an ancient saint absorbed in meditations on mortality. I recalled the day, years ago, when I had found the skeleton in a ravine higher up on the mountain. The bones were bleached white, the metacarpal broken, the remnant unshod hoofs proving that it had been a wild mustang—a loner. I had brought the skull home to keep me company.

“So long, ol’ pard”, I said to him, and went out onto the front porch.

Sitting on the steps, I gazed out over the crowns of piñon trees to the blue haze of the valley below. I grew drowsy, despite the mug of strong illegal coffee I sipped. I closed my eyes, and from across the void of more than sixty years came the memory of a time when I was eight years old:

In the predawn light of what promised to be an exceedingly hot day in July, I awoke in a trailer park on the outskirts of Las Cruces, New Mexico. For no reason that I might have offered to myself, or to my parents sleeping in the other room, or to the dog yawning on the end of my bed, nor to the cats meowing outside the kitchen door, begging for scraps, I knew that this was the day for which I had prepared throughout the previous year—ever since I had reached the age of reason, as my mother called it, on the feast of my First Holy Communion.

I patted the dog, slipped into my shorts, and pulled a woolen vest over my T-shirt, for the night chill was still on the land. After strapping sandals onto my feet, I dropped to my knees beside the bed, and from beneath it, I pulled a cardboard box on which I had printed in red crayon: Property of Neil Benigno Ruiz de Hoyos.

The box contained necessary materials, some of which I had purchased at the flea market; some of which I had made with cast-off tin, bolts, and wire; and a single most beautiful item which I had found in the dump, discarded by wealthy people. It was a glass bell. Like all of the other handbells in the box, it made its own distinctive sound, which at the moment, for the sake of my parents’ need for rest, and for the sake of my mission, I did not employ.

Carrying the box with the greatest care, I passed through the doorway of my small room into the kitchen, and quietly opened the door to the yard. The dog tried to step out behind me, but I pushed him back.

“Stay, Rusty, stay!” I whispered. “I’m goin’ alone.” I closed the door on his whines and set off into the silent maze of trailers, heading in the direction of the great mountains. It was not my task to reach the mountains, for, though they towered above the city, they were far. My destination was the desert. I would recognize the place where I must go when I found it, I was sure, and I felt also that it would not be a great distance from my home, though it would be better if it was far enough that sounds could not be heard by the people in the encampment where my family lived among a hundred other families no different from my own.

As I trod through the sagebrush and octopus plants, a frightened chaparral bird cried out in alarm and bolted, and a few steps beyond that, a small rattlesnake slithered away from my path, causing me some alarm of my own. Then came a whiptail lizard that darted from under a rock overturned by the toe of my sandal, its long tail rasping my ankle as it disappeared against the dust. Followed by a kit fox running through the bushes to my left.

Not long after, I stopped on the brink of a dry arroyo and put down my box. There, I huffed and puffed until my breath eased, all the while watching the sky turn colors and the tips of the mountain melt from rose into gold.

For a moment, I hesitated, because I sensed the importance of what I was about to do, though why it should be so I did not question. Now, I opened the box lid and removed the bells one by one and set them in a row on the gravel. Then, after dusting off my hands, I picked up each one and shook it. The morning air was warming, yet cool enough that the sounds were sharp and made small echoes on the rocks. One old brass school bell—clang-clang. One small painted bell from India—tinkle-tinkle. Two I had made myself, the first a cone of aluminum with a nut on a string—klonk-klonk—and the other a tin cup with a bolt on a wire—binga-bang. I was very fond of them but did admit that their sounds were not as nice as the others.

Finally, the glass bell. It was shaped like a regular handbell, cut with crystal designs, chipped and cracked, but still very fine. I grasped the handle and shook it. The glass bead inside swung and made a high ding-ding-ding. I shook it again. And then I kept shaking it, making a beat, a rhythm that made my feet tap in time and a song rise in my throat. First a hum, then a warble, no words, no meaning, just a trickle, like water flowing through an arroyo in spring.

Now I was dancing up and down and all around, shaking the bell harder, lifting my legs, throwing back my head, warbling and hooting and laughing. I danced in circles, I danced in lines, I crossed the pattern back and forth and made a circle again, and as I looked up and up, I closed my eyes. Singing, singing, I heard the arroyo roaring in my ears with sweet, fast waters, smelled cactus flowering and perfuming the air, and felt the wingtips of birds brushing my face, my bare arms, and my legs.

I did not know why I was doing this, did not pause to think about it. It was a good feeling, so happy, so happy, and that was reason enough. And with arms lifted high in the air, on and on I danced until the sun burst over the eastern mountains and the land filled with gold.

*

Then another memory surfaced, a time when I was fourteen years old: One Saturday afternoon in October, I stepped quietly through the scrub brush with a .22 rifle in hand, stalking jackrabbits. During the past hour, I had stopped from time to time and turned about-face, catching my dog in the act of following me.

“Go home, Rusty”, I said in my most commanding voice. And Rusty would turn around and amble homeward with his arthritic gait, only to reappear again a hundred yards farther along.

Frustrated, but feeling some affection for the dog’s loyalty, I walked back to him. Rusty promptly sat down on his haunches and let his tongue loll out. I patted him on the head and tried to explain. “You’re too old for this. Look at you, you’re a wreck. You make all kinds of noises, and the jacks can hear you a mile away.”

Rusty responded with panting and drooling, and a wide dog smile.

“Look, you gotta go home. If you want some stew for supper, you gotta beat it. Now scram.”

Rusty put on his doleful look, heaved a great sigh, got up, and ambled away homeward. Ten minutes later, he was back. I decided to ignore him and trust to my luck. There was a breeze blowing now, and I was downwind, so it wasn’t an entirely hopeless situation. Not long after, I came to a place that seemed familiar to me, and then I recalled that it was the dry arroyo I had sometimes visited when I was a child. I smiled and shook my head. There on the brink of it, right there on that spot, I had danced and sung and shaken my bells—thank heavens, there had been no witnesses.

I sidled down the bank onto the riverbed and turned north on it. There were snakes in the shadows of the banks, I knew, but it was autumn, and I wasn’t too concerned. I had shot dozens over the years, as had my father, and caught hundreds more on the glue plank I set for them in the crawlspace beneath the trailer.

Now and then a rustling in the bushes at the top of the bank drew me out of the bottom, gun at the ready, safety off, eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. But there was nothing. I went back down into the arroyo and continued to walk. It was like a wide road through the rough desert, a highway really. It was interesting to look at all the rounded stones, to think that once a year they were under water after the rains. Like looking through a telescope or a microscope, seeing what was usually hidden. Like people, in a way. You could always see their faces but never really know what was going on inside of them.

I was thinking especially of a girl in my high school, pretty, shy, and sweet. I would like to talk with her. I would like to ask her to the dance next month, my first, maybe her first too. But I wondered if it would come to anything, because I intended to drop out of school next year when it became legal for me to do so. I needed to get a job. There was a factory in town that made special cardboard boxes for fruit growers, minimum wage but better than nothing. Or maybe I could do seasonal work in the fields, though usually the Mexican migrants snapped up those jobs, willing to work for next to nothing, below minimum wage.

I needed to build an extension on the trailer, just a plywood box, a new room. I loved my home, but my bedroom was child-size, the bed so short that my head and toes touched the walls, and the ceiling so low that when I stood up my hair brushed it. Also, the well in the yard needed a new pump. My father was having no luck finding a job in Santa Fe. My mother never earned enough at the café. She was always worried, big things and small things.

Benigno,” she had called after me as I walked out of the yard in the direction of the desert, “watch out for snakes.”

“I’ll be fine, Mamacita”, I called back. “I’ve done this ten million times. You gotta stop worrying about everything.”

“You’re right, I know. Still. . .”

Still. I had heard her say it more times than I cared to remember: Still, Benigno, the world is a dangerous place.

Even though there was some Scottish in her blood—her grandfather, a prospector named Neil—she had always called me by my second name, because it meant “friendly” and “kind”. My Hispanic buddies at school told me it suited me, though they said Beanpole and Stilts would be good too. Punch you on the arm, tease you without mercy, then bring you home to their trailers where their mothers served you a Mexican meal, the best in the world. They were good guys. A few of them looked something like Spaniards, and most looked half and half, with Indian blood. The Aztecs, I called them. They were friendly and kind too, but don’t ever get them mad. Like my very own self, brown skin, black eyes, with the exception of my totally insane, thick, blond hair that stood on end and needed a hay scythe to crop it down.

Mamá had a point about snakes. My sneakers were falling apart, and lately I’d grown so fast there were two inches of ankle showing beneath the cuffs of my jeans. Another reason to find a job.

A few minutes later, I rounded a bend in the arroyo and, without noticing it, stepped on a diamondback rattler that lay coiled on a flat rock. It leaped and bit me just above the ankle. I stumbled sideways and fell onto the stones, the gun clattering away. I reached for it, and fired wildly in the direction of the snake, but it was already disappearing into a crevasse in the rocks.

Inspecting my leg, I saw that the swelling around the fang marks was spreading quickly. I unbuttoned my trail knife from the kit at my waist, clenched my teeth, and cut two slices into the flesh. There was no way I could suck out the poison, so I used both hands to compress the area around the wound and squeeze out as much as possible. The blood dripped, but the fangs must have hit deep, because the swelling was worse now, and it felt as if someone was putting a blowtorch to my leg. Using my belt, I made a tourniquet below my knee, and stifling a cry, I cut deeper. As the blood began to flow, I tried to stand up, intending to hobble home as fast as I could, praying for time.

But it was no good. I felt dizzy, and now there was a corona of light around everything. I took a few steps, then collapsed. My head ached, and I could not keep my eyes open because the sunlight was another kind of fire.

Without warning, something wet and hot laved my face. I pushed it away, but it returned, along with whimpering.

“Rusty”, I croaked, frightened by the sound of my rasping voice. “Rusty boy, go get Mamá.”

*

During the year following this event, a high school teacher visited me in the hospital, and later at my home in the trailer park. He brought books. These were mostly about science. Natural history, astronomy, a bit of physics, and a bit of math, things that he thought might help me with my lagging studies. I had never been a good student, and now it seemed that I would become one of Education’s countless casualties. But with little to do other than staring at ceilings and lavishing a good deal of affection on my dog, my attention was hooked, and then engrossed. I began to read in the subjects that had been arbitrarily brought to my attention, and begged for more. At first, my mind felt strained to its outer limits, and then the thing caught hold and I simply devoured. Five years later, I entered a college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, majoring in physics.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Novels page: check out this original short story by T.M. Doran, “Leonardo’s Work”, or read the first chapter of Michael D. O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha […]

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