So, there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.
As you might imagine, that sort of situation can be quite disturbing. It does funny things to the brain to be in such danger—in fact, it often makes a person pause and reflect upon his life. If you’ve never faced such a situation, then you’ll simply have to take my word. If, on the other hand, you have faced such a situation, then you are probably dead, and aren’t likely to be reading this.
In my case, the moment of impending death made me think about my parents. It was an odd thought, since I hadn’t grown up with my parents. In fact, up until my thirteenth birthday, I really only knew one thing about my parents: that they had a twisted sense of humor.
Why do I say this, you ask? Well, you see, my parents named me ‘Al.’ In most cases, this would be short for ‘Albert,’ which is a fine name. In fact, you have probably known an Albert or two in your lifetime, and chances are that they were decent fellows. If they weren’t, then it certainly wasn’t the name’s fault.
My name isn’t Albert.
‘Al’ also could be short for ‘Alexander.’ I wouldn’t have minded this either, since Alexander is a great name. It sounds kind of regal.
My name isn’t Alexander.
I’m certain that you can think of other names ‘Al’ might be short for. Alfonso has a pleasant ring to it. Alan would also be acceptable, as would have been Alfred—though I really don’t have an inclination toward butlery.
My name is not Alfonso, Alan, or Alfred. Nor is it Alejandro, Alton, Aldris, or Alonzo.
My name is Alcatraz. Alcatraz Smedry. Now, some of you Free Kingdomers might be impressed by my name. That’s wonderful for you, but I grew up in the Hushlands—in the United States itself. I didn’t know about Oculators or the like, though I did know about prisons.
And that was why I figured that my parents must have had a twisted sense of humor. Why else would they name their child after the most infamous prison in U.S. history?
On my thirteenth birthday, I received a second confirmation that my parents were—indeed—cruel people. That was the day when I unexpectedly received in the mail the only inheritance that they had left me.
It was a simple bag of sand.
I stood at the door, looking down at the unwrapped package in my hands, frowning as the postman drove away. The package looked old—its string ties were frayed, and its brown paper packaging was worn and faded. Inside of the package, I found a box containing a simple note.
Alcatraz, it read. Happy thirteenth birthday! Here is your inheritance, as promised.
Love, Mom and Dad.
Underneath the note, I found the bag of sand. It was small, perhaps the size of a fist, and was filled with ordinary brown beach sand.
Now, my first inclination was to think that the package was a joke. You would probably have thought the same. One thing, however, made me pause. I set the box down, then smoothed out its wrinkled packaging paper.
One edge of the paper was covered with wild scribbles—a little like those made by a person trying to get the ink in a pen to flow. On the front there was writing. It looked old and faded—almost illegible in places—and yet it accurately spelled out my address. An address I’d only been living at for eight months.
Impossible, I thought.
Then I went inside my house and set the kitchen on fire.
Now, I warned you that I wasn’t a good person. Those who knew me when I was young would never have believed that one day I would be known as a hero. ‘Heroic’ just didn’t apply to me. Nor did people use words like ‘nice’ or even ‘friendly’ to describe me. They might have used the word ‘clever,’ though I suspect that ‘devious’ may have been more correct. ‘Destructive’ was another common one that I heard, though I didn’t care for it. (It wasn’t actually all that accurate.)
No, people never said good things about me. Good people don’t burn down kitchens.
Still holding the strange package, I strode into my foster parents’ house and wandered toward the kitchen, lost in thought. It was a very nice kitchen, modern looking with white wallpaper and lots of shiny chrome appliances. Anyone entering it would immediately notice that this was the kitchen of a person who took pride in their cooking skills.
I set my package on the table, then moved over to the kitchen stove. If you’re a Hushlander, you would have thought I looked like a fairly normal American boy, dressed in loose jeans and a T-shirt. I’ve been told I was a handsome kid—and some even said that I had an ‘innocent face’. I was not too tall, had dark brown hair, and was quite skilled at breaking things.
When I was very young, kids called me a klutz. I was always breaking things—plates, cameras, chickens. It seemed inevitable that whatever I picked up, I would end up dropping, cracking, or otherwise mixing up. Not exactly the most inspiring talent a young man ever had, I know. However, I generally tried to do my best despite it.
Just like I did this day. Still thinking about the strange package, I filled a pot with water. Next, I got out a few packs of instant ramen noodles. I set them down, looking at the stove. It was a fancy, gas one with real flames. Joan wouldn’t settle for electric.
Sometimes it was daunting, knowing how easily I could break things. This one, simple curse seemed to dominate my entire life. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone down to fix dinner. Perhaps I should simply have remained in my room. But, what was I to do? Stay there all the time? Never go out because I was worried about the things I might break? Of course not.
I reached out and turned on the gas burner.
And, of course, the flames immediately flared up around the sides of the pan, reaching far higher than should have been possible. I quickly reached to turn off the flames, but the knob broke off in my hand. I tried to grab the pot and take it off of the stove. But, of course, the handle broke off, leaving the pot itself on the burner. I stared at the broken handle for a moment, then looked up at the flames. They flickered, starting the drapes on fire. The fire gleefully began to devour the cloth.
Well, so much for that, I thought with a sigh, tossing the broken handle over my shoulder. I left the fire burning—once again, I feel I must remind you that I’m not a very nice person—and picked up my strange package as I walked out into the den.
There, I pulled out the brown wrapper from my ‘inheritance’ box, flattening it against the table with one hand and looking the stamps. One had a picture of a woman wearing flight goggles, with an old-fashioned airplane in the background behind her. All of the stamps looked old—perhaps as old as I was. I turned on the computer and checked a database of stamp publication dates, and found that I was right. From the pictures on them, I could tell that they had been printed thirteen years ago.
Someone had taken quite a bit of effort to make it seem like my present had been packaged, addressed, and stamped over a decade earlier. That, however, was ridiculous. How would they have known where I’d be living? During the last thirteen years, I’d gone through dozens of sets of foster parents. Besides, my experience has been that the number of stamps it takes to send a package increases without warning or pattern. (The postage people are, I’m convinced, quite sadistic in that regard.) There was no way someone could have known, thirteen years ago, how much postage it would cost to send a package in my day.
I shook my head, standing up and tossing the ‘M’ key from the computer keyboard into the trash. I’d stopped trying to stick the keys back on—they always fell off again anyway. I got the fire extinguisher from the hall closet, then walked back into the kitchen, which was now quite thoroughly billowing with smoke. I put the box and extinguisher on the table, then picked up a broom, holding my breath as I calmly knocked the tattered remnants of the drapes into the sink. I turned on the water, then finally used the extinguisher to blast the burning wallpaper and cabinets, also putting out the stove.
The smoke alarm didn’t go off, of course. You see, I’d broken that previously. All I’d needed to do was rest my hand against its case for a second, and it had fallen apart.
I didn’t open a window, but did have the peace of mind to get a pair of pliers and twist the stove’s gas gage off. Then, I glanced at the curtains, smoldering as an ashen lump in the sink.
Well, that’s it, I thought, a bit frustrated. Joan and Roy will never continue to put up with me after this.
Perhaps you think I should have felt ashamed. But, what was I supposed to do? Like I said—I couldn’t simply just hide in my room all the time. Was I to avoid living just because life for me was a little different than it was for regular people? No. I had learned to deal with my strange curse. I figured that others would simply have to do so as well.
I heard a car in the driveway. Finally realizing that the kitchen was still rank with smoke, I opened the window and began using a towel to fan it out. My foster mother—Joan—rushed into the kitchen a moment later. She stood, horrified, looking at the fire damage.
I tossed aside the towel and left without a word, going up to my room.
“That boy is a disaster!”
Joan’s voice drifted up through the open window into my room. My foster parents were in the study down on the first floor, their favorite place for ‘quiet’ conferences about me. Fortunately, one of the first things that I’d broken in the house had been the study’s window rollers, locking the windows themselves permanently open so that I could listen in.
“Now, Joan,” said a consoling voice. That one belonged to Roy, my current foster father.
“I can’t take it!” Joan sputtered. “He destroys everything he touches!”
There was that word again. “Destroy.” I felt my hair bristle in annoyance. I don’t destroy things, I thought. I break them. They’re still there when I’m finished, they just don’t work right anymore.
“He means well,” Roy said. “He’s a kind-hearted boy.”
“First the washing machine,” Joan sputtered. “Then the lawn mower. Then the upstairs bath. Now the kitchen. All in less than a year!”
“He’s had a hard life,” Roy said. “He just tries too hard—how would you feel, being passed from family to family, never having a home. . . ?”
“Well, can you blame people for getting rid of him?” Joan said. “I—”
She was interrupted by a knock on the front door. There was a moment of silence, and I imagined what was going on between my foster parents. Joan was giving Roy “The Look.” Usually, it was the husband who gave “The Look,” insisting that I be sent away. Roy had always been the soft one here, however. I heard his footsteps as he went to answer the door.
“Come in,” Roy said, his voice faint, since he now stood in the entryway. I remained lying in my bed. It was still early evening—the sun hadn’t even set yet.
“Mrs. Sheldon,” a new voice said from below, acknowledging Joan. “I came as soon as I heard about the accident.” It was a woman’s voice, familiar to me. Businesslike, curt, and more than a little condescending. I figured those were all good reasons why Miss Fletcher wasn’t married.
“Miss Fletcher,” Joan said, faltering now that the time had come. They usually did. “I’m . . . sorry to. . . .”
“No,” Miss Fletcher said. “You did well to last this long. I can arrange for the boy to be taken tomorrow.”
I closed my eyes, sighing quietly. Joan and Roy had lasted quite long—longer, certainly, than any of my other recent sets of foster parents. Eight months was a valiant effort when taking care of me was concerned. I felt a little twist in my stomach.
“Where is the boy now?” Miss Fletcher asked.
I waited quietly. Miss Fletcher knocked, but didn’t wait for my reply before pushing open the door.
“Miss Fletcher,” I said. “You look lovely.”
It was a stretch. Miss Fletcher—my personal caseworker—might have been a pretty woman, had she not been wearing a pair of hideous, horn-rimmed glasses. She perpetually kept her hair up in a bun that was only slightly less tight than the dissatisfied line of her lips. She wore a simple white blouse and a black, ankle-length skirt. For her, it was a daring outfit—the shoes, after all, were maroon.
“The kitchen, Alcatraz?” Miss Fletcher asked. “Why the kitchen?”
“It was an accident,” I mumbled. “I was trying to do something nice for my foster parents.”
“You decided that you would be kind to Joan Sheldon—one of the city’s finest and most well-renowned chefs—by burning down her kitchen?”
I shrugged. “Just wanted to fix dinner. I figured even I couldn’t mess up ramen noodles.”
Miss Fletcher snorted. Finally, she walked into the room, shaking her head as she strolled past my dresser. She poked my inheritance package with her index finger, snorting quietly as she eyed the crumpled paper and worn strings. Miss Fletcher had a thing about messiness. Finally, she turned back to me. “We’re running out of families, Smedry. The other couples are hearing rumors. Soon, there won’t be any place left to send you.”
I remained quiet, still lying down.
Miss Fletcher sighed, folding her arms and tapping her index finger against one arm. “You realize, of course, that you are worthless.”
Here we go, I thought, feeling sick. This was my least favorite part of the process. I stared up at my ceiling.
“You are fatherless and motherless,” Miss Fletcher said, “a parasite upon the system. You are a child who has been given a second, third, and now twenty-seventh chance. And how have you received this generosity? With indifference, disrespect, and destructiveness!”
“I don’t destroy,” I said quietly. “I break. There’s a difference.”
Miss Fletcher sniffed in disgust. She left me then, walking out and pulling the door closed with a snap. I heard her say goodbye to the Sheldons, promising them that her assistant would arrive in the morning to deal with me.
It’s too bad, I thought with a sigh. Roy and Joan really were good people. They would have made great parents.