Today, Toad decided he knew better than his father. Some rare and wondrous adventure lay over the low rise, across the dry wash and up onto the higher plateau. He approached the rim; the new thing, the spaceship, was on the other side.
“Whaddya think, Shorty? Should we cross?”
Shorty lowered her head, shook her ears and snorted. Rex barked and bounded down the trail, tail wagging, nose scenting the air. He stopped at the bottom, looked up at Toad and Shorty and barked again.
Toad checked north, saw no clouds, and led Shorty down one side of the wash, across the deep sandy bottom, and up the rocky far side. His heart thumped by the time he climbed out. Rex led the way, until he took off after a jack rabbit and disappeared behind a clump of Joshua trees.
“We won’t tell anyone where we went. Okay?”
Shorty blew warm breath on his face. By the time he reached the rim of the wash, he was thirsty and stopped to rest. He threw himself on the ground.
“We must have come at least a hundred miles,” he said to his animals.
He took a swig of warm water from the canteen, thought about the peanut butter sandwich squished in his pocket, and decided to save it. Shorty rested her head on Toad’s shoulder and nuzzled his shirt pocket for another treat.
“Is food all you think about? It’s no wonder you’re so round.”
Toad pulled her gray ears, patted her fuzzy forehead and surrendered a treat. Rex loped back, panting, to flop in Shorty’s shade. Once again, the jack rabbit was safe. Toad watched a tarantula make its awkward way across a small patch of scree. Unusual for it to be out in the daylight, he assumed something strange had disrupted its normal hunting patterns. The spider didn’t rear up in a threatening manner, but Toad knew better than to provoke it. He’d been bitten the first week at the compound. The bite hurt less than a bee sting, but it had left a red lump for a couple of days. He reached out and touched a hairy leg.
“If you walked on me, I bet you’d tickle.” He wasn’t afraid of spiders like Jimmy was. He was too old for such nonsense.
He shifted sand between his fingers and put a bit of green bottle glass and a couple of rose quartz rocks into his pocket. Not the one with the peanut butter sandwich, the one on the other side.
“I wish I could fly.”
Lying on the warm sand, Toad watched contrails loop, spread and fade in the jet stream.
“Way above that cloud into the sky.”
He pointed to a puffy cotton ball, which appeared out of nowhere. Rex and Shorty ignored him. Rex put his head on his paws and snoozed; Shorty rested her weight on three hooves, eyes half-closed, ears flicking to keep flies from landing.
More contrails crisscrossed the bright blue sky. He dreamed of riding one to a distant land where wonders not yet imagined awaited. Could a contrail take him to the moon or even beyond? Could they be supply ships traveling between a large spaceship and the city spacemen were building? He dozed in the heat of the midday sun and dreamed of flying away.
Toad woke when Shorty nudged his nose and Rex licked his sweaty face. If he was going to finish his big adventure before his parents came home from work, he had to get moving. He ate the melted sandwich, not even noticing that the bread was soggy and the peanut butter slick. He remembered to save a bit of the crust for the chipmunks.
He brushed sand from the seat of his pants and picked up Shorty’s lead. Even though she wouldn’t stray, he felt responsible for her. Once more, Rex bounded away, nose to the ground, tail parallel and wagging. For another half hour, Toad neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary. The wind moaned softly, but otherwise the land was so silent and empty he might have been the only little boy on earth. Nothing stirred on the ground since he left the tarantula.
“I wonder where all the animals are. Could they be hiding from something?”
He’d never come this far before. He tried not to be afraid, but deep inside his chest, his heart thumped.
Toad stooped and picked up a piece of lava. “Cool. Another one for my collection.” Then he found a black snake skin, coiled it up and wrapped it in the waxed paper that once covered his sandwich. He put the skin into his pocket too. This side of the wash was loaded with treasures.
Finally, Toad heard a low rumble, the same noise almost every day for two weeks, a noise made by no one and nothing. He squinted against the glare.
“It’s just gotta be spacemen.”
Shorty’s head shot up, and she yanked back on the lead, which shipped through his fingers. Rex whined and clamped his tail between his legs.
The rumble got louder. The spaceship was headed right toward him.
Whoosh! The noise knocked Toad on his butt, his chest too tight to breathe. Shorty brayed and took off for home, followed by a yipping Rex. Toad couldn’t move. More whooshes. Then, a silver-gray jet roared thirty feet above Toad’s head. Upside down.
Toad sat and stared. Other jets followed. Some soared upward and disappeared, leaving only contrails behind. Four flew wingtip to wingtip. Then all disappeared, leaving behind little more than the normal mid afternoon wind, which lifted columns of sand skyward, dust devils replacing clouds of sand from the low-flying jets.
Toad still couldn’t move. He sat and grinned and grinned and grinned.
Later, when it was obvious neither the jets nor his four-legged friends would return, Toad picked his way to the edge of the wash, down the rocky trail and up the other side. An hour of steady marching brought him to the gate where Rex and Shorty waited as if nothing unusual had happened. Shorty flicked her tail and shook her head; Rex lay in the dust and panted.
“Hey, you’re the ‘fraidy cats. You ran off and left me behind. Remember?” He petted each of his best friends.
He let them in, fed and watered both and ran a brush across Shorty’s rough coat. He returned to the platform and threw himself on a ratty sofa, which should have long ago made its way to the town dump. Too restless to take a nap and forbidden to watch television during the day, he searched for a spare tablet and began to write his first short story: “The Day My World Changed Forever.”
Maybe, just maybe, Toad thought, he hadn’t heard a spaceship after all. Maybe, just maybe, they were jet planes. If he couldn’t fly like the pilots he’d seen, he could write a story about them. Maybe, just maybe, his mother was right.This time, anyway.
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.