Some nights Toad slept alone in his trailer. He like to read late into the night, but he couldn’t if he was out on the platform. When his father was ready for bed, he forbid any lights on outside. After Jimmy dropped off to sleep, his parents would talk. They acted as if they didn’t know Toad could hear every word.
“When we got married, I never figured we’d be living in three trailers connected by a covered outdoor platform on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.” His mother never let his father forget he’d lost the families money when his business failed.
“Right now, we don’t have a choice. This place is free, and we need to save money to get back on our feet.” His father sounded resigned to their situation.
His grandfather owned the twenty-acre plot off Route 66 but no longer lived there. When his grandfather’s health declined, he moved into town to be closer to the hospital.
“I just wish your father had told us what to expect.” His mother complained often about the difficulty of their lives in the compound. “He should have told us everything about this place before we moved up here.”
The power company had run lines along the highway years before, so the trailers had electricity. One even had a small window air conditioner, a necessity because that was where his mother cooked. Toad and Jimmy had to make do with a fan in their trailer. Most nights the whole family slept outside on cots on the covered platform. A television antenna on the top of the largest trailer brought in three black-and-white stations. Evening viewing centered on what his parents wanted to watch. During the summer the television was outside, but Toad suspected that when the weather changed, his father would move it into the main trailer, because that was also where his parents would sleep.
What the compound lacked was running water, hence the outhouses. His mother took large water bottles to work with her once a week to fill at a public tap.
“What could be better than not having to take a bath every night,” Jimmy said.
Sun heated water in a large outdoor tank. During the week, the boys took sponge baths every night; on Saturday a full washtub bath was the rule.
Toad had grown brown and sturdy under the relentless sun. He was no longer the pasty stick-boy he had been when his family left the city for a new beginning in the desert.
Rex sat patiently, tongue hanging out, tail sending up small plumes of sandy dust with each wag. Toad pulled Rex’s ear and gave him a scratch under the chin. In a pen at the far side of the compound, adjacent to a pair of outhouses, Shorty thrust her head over the rail and blew softly. When he walked up to the gate, she nuzzled his pocket for a treat. He clipped a lead to her halter, opened the gate and led her through the main opening in the perimeter fence. His parents trusted him to leave the compound to play and explore as long as he took Shorty and Rex with him. Usually, Jimmy tagged along. When he became too tired to walk, Toad would boost him onto Shorty’s broad back. He hooked and locked the gate behind him to keep wild animals and strangers out. With only two wooden houses on his dirt road and no children except his brother, these animals were Toad’s best friends.
Behind him came the whoosh of big rigs running north. Toad headed toward the end of the world far away from the rising sun and the highway. This had become his daily routine since the family moved in May after school ended. Rex took a couple of steps toward the highway and whined. Toad whistled.
“No, boy. Not that way. I don’t want you to get hit by a truck.”
Thirty minutes after he started walking, Toad noticed a slight shift in the sand near his foot. He froze, stooped and saw a tiny dinosaur sunning itself beside a rock. He picked up the horny toad and stroked its armored head and spiny back.
“You just stay here and warm yourself,” Toad said to the dinosaur. “I can’t play with you today. I got bigger things on my mind. I have to meet the spacemen.”
Toad put the reptile back on the ground where it burrowed itself halfway into the sand. He continued his hike toward the spaceship. Behind him, half asleep, Shorty bobbed her long-eared head. Rex flushed a rabbit but lost it down a hole and barked at a snake on a patch of sand. Toad turned away from the snake, but kept marching toward a low rise. He saw a scurry of activity when a striped head with two shiny black eyes popped out of a hole. He squatted in the sand and held out his hand. A striped body and short bushy tail followed the head out of the hole and into Toad’s hand.
“Hey, Chip. Where’s Dale?” Toad stroked the little critter, which rewarded him with a chirp and a couple of pellets of poop in his hand. Toad had named the chipmunks Chip and Dale after his favorite comic book characters right around the time he made friends with them.
Dale ran out of a different burrow a couple of yards away. He chattered as if complaining that Toad wasn’t petting him.
“You’re such little beggars. I’ll save some of my sandwich. You can have it when I get back,” Toad promised. He played with them until they jumped out of his hand, and with twin swishes of their tails disappeared into their holes.
Ever since his family moved into the compound, Toad had spent his days exploring and daydreaming. At first he didn’t know anything about this new world. To keep him safe, his father and grandfather taught him and his brother how to identify snake trails, ant nests, clouds on the distant horizon, and plants that bit if you touched them. Toad forgot about the plants once and came home one afternoon full of sharp spines. It hurt like heck when his mother pulled jumping cactus out with tweezers.
He had no idea how much land he had to roam in. He and Jimmy started close to the fenced perimeter of the compound, gradually working their way outward.
“What do you want to play today?” Toad asked every morning.
“Cowboys and Indians.”
But sometimes when Toad grew tired of cowboys and Indians, they dug a shallow fort and played war. What one boy couldn’t dream up, the other could.
Not only was Toad more imaginative, he was also the braver one. Jimmy followed his father’s instructions to the letter, even when they got in the way of a grand adventure. Toad thought those instructions were suggestions for good behavior, not orders to be blindly obeyed.
“You are never, ever, to go into the dry wash. It could flood in minutes if there’s a storm to the north,” his father had warned. “It’s the most dangerous place around here. Other than the highway, that is.”
What could be more exciting, more dangerous than finding spacemen? Natural hazards had nothing on the possibility of a real spaceship.
Toad had crossed the wash a few times. before. Jimmy tattled on him once. His father spanked him; he ate dinner standing up. Well, his brother couldn’t tattle today.
### Toad continues on November 27.
### Toad continues on November 27.
Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I'm really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.