Assistant Peter’s note: Brandon originally wrote the entire book in third person. For Brandon’s explanation, see this annotation. I’m posting two chapters from the draft before Brandon changed the book to first person.
There’s something about facing death while tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias—realizing that you’re about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil librarians—that tends to make a person stop and reflect upon their lives. If you’ve never faced such a situation, then you will simply have to take my word on matters. If, on the other hand, youhave faced such a situation, then you are probably dead, and aren’t likely to be reading this narrative.
Indeed, the prospect of dying at the hands of a knife-wielding librarian does strange things to a person’s mind. He tends to pause and reflect on the oddest of tangents, seeing his life in an entirely new light.
In our hero’s case, the moment of impending death made him think of his parents. It was an odd thought, since he had never met his parents. In fact, up until his fourteenth birthday, he had really only known one thing about them: that had a twisted sense of humor.
You see, our hero’s parents had named him ‘Al.’ In most cases, this would be short for ‘Albert,’ which is a fine name in most respects. 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.
Our hero was not named Albert.
‘Al’ also could have been short for ‘Alexander.’ Our hero would not have minded this either, for he’d heard that Alexander was a great name. It had a certain regality to it.
Our hero was not named Alexander.
The author is certain that you could devise other names that ‘Al’ could have been short for. Alfonso, while a little odd, might have been satisfactory. Alan would also have been acceptable, as would have been Alfred—though our hero had no inclination whatsoever toward butlery.
Our hero was not named Alfonso, Alan, or Alfred. Nor was he named Alejandro, Alton, Aldris, or Alonzo.
He was named Alcatraz. Alcatraz Smedry. And, this was why he figured his parents musthave had a twisted sense of humor. Why else would someone would name their child after the most infamous prison in the history of the United States?
On his fourteenth birthday, Young Alcatraz received his second confirmation that his parents were—indeed—cruel people. That was the day when, unexpectedly, he received in the mail the only inheritance they had decided to leave him.
It was a simple bag of sand.
Alcatraz stood at the door, looking down at the unwrapped package in his hands, frowning to himself as the postman drove away. The package looked old—its string ties had been frayed, and its brown paper packaging had been worn and faded. Inside, he had found box containing a simple note.
Alcatraz, it read. Happy fourteenth birthday! Here is your inheritance, as promised.
Love, mom and dad.
Underneath the note, he had found the bag of sand. It was small, perhaps the size of a fist, and was filled with ordinary brown beach sand.
Alcatraz’s first inclination was to assume that the package was a joke. One thing made him pause, however. He set the box down, then pulled out the torn, wrinkled brown packaging paper. On one edge, it was covered with wild scribbles—a little like those made by a person who was trying to get the ink in a pen to flow.
The writing on the front looked old and faded—almost illegible in places—and yet it accurately spelled out his address.
Impossible, he thought.
Then he went inside his house to set the kitchen on fire.
You see, Alcatraz Smedry could be accurately described by many words. ‘Clever’ was one that many people used, though ‘devious’ may have been more correct. ‘Destructive’ was another common one, though Alcatraz didn’t care for it—he found the word rather inaccurate.
One word that people never used to describe him, however, was ‘nice.’ Nice people don’t burn down kitchens.
Alcatraz walked into the kitchen, lost in thought. It was a very nice kitchen, rather modern looking with white wallpaper and lots of shiny chrome appliances. Whomever owned this kitchen obviously took quite a bit of pride in keeping it clean.
Alcatraz set his package down on the table, then moved over to the kitchen stove. He was a fairly normal looking young boy, dressed in loose jeans and a T-shirt. Some people told him he had an ‘innocent face,’ and he did his best to encourage such thought. He was not too tall, had dark brown hair, and was quite skilled at breaking things.
When he was younger, other kids had called him a klutz. He was always breaking things—plates, cameras, chickens. It seemed inevitable that whatever Alcatraz picked up, he would end up dropping, cracking, or otherwise befuddling.
And so, being the clever young man that he was, he had decided to use his ability to an advantage.
“You have to use what God gave you,” Mabel Carthwrite—his third foster mother—had always said. She’d been referring to things like “being kind hearted” or perhaps “being able to bake good cookies.” But, Alcatraz figured that her advice would work for breaking things too.
Alcatraz carefully placed a pan on one of the stove’s burners. He filled the pan with a messy mixture of flour and eggs, then he proceeded to get out some matches and light the kitchen drapes on fire. Once they were burning nicely, he picked up his package and walked out into the den. He sat down at the computer, letting smoke creep out of the kitchen as he searched through an on-line database.
He pulled out the flat brown wrapper from his ‘inheritance’ box, then flattened it against the table with one hand. He looked back at the computer screen, scrolling down the web page, looking at stamp after stamp. It only took him a few moments to find the one he wanted.
Harriet Quimby, the text read. The stamp in question had a picture of a woman wearing flight goggles, and an old-fashioned airplane in the background behind her. This stamp on the screen exactly matched one of the stamps on the wrapper of his package—and the screen claimed the stamp had only been printed in 1991.
Someone had taken quite a bit of effort to make it seem like Alcatraz’s present had been packaged, addressed, and stamped fourteen years earlier. That, however, was ridiculous. How would they have known where he’d be living? During the last fourteen years, he’d gone through dozens of sets of foster parents.
Shaking his head, Alcatraz picked up the box and walked back into the kitchen, which was now quite thoroughly billowing with smoke. He put the box on the table, then picked up a broom, holding his breath as he calmly knocked the tattered remnants of the drapes into the sink. He turned on the water to extinguish them, then took out the fire extinguisher and blasted the burning wallpaper and wooden cabinets.
The smoke alarm didn’t go off, of course. He had broken it previously. All he’d had to do was rest his hand against its case for a second. As the author mentioned, Alcatraz was quitegood at breaking things.
Alcatraz didn’t open a window, but instead left the curtains in a soggy, ashen lump in the sink. He bent down beside a cabinet—taking a few good smoke-free breaths—then pulled out the small kitchen scale that his foster mother used for measuring portions of food. He set his box on it—sand, wrapping, and all—and got an estimated weight. Then he went back into the den, sat down at the computer, and checked the postal services website for current shipping prices.
The stamps on his package added up to the precise amount necessary to send a package of its weight—not a penny over. That cinched it for him. There was no way someone could have, fourteen years ago, know how much postage it would cost to send a package in 2005.
Someone was trying to play a very obscure joke on him. Alcatraz shook his head, standing up and tossing the ‘M’ key from the computer keyboard into the trash. It had popped off as he was typing—there were now more keys missing on the keyboard than there ones remaining. He’d stopped trying to stick them back on—they always fell off again anyway.
As he stood, he heard a car pulling up to the driveway. He calmly went to the kitchen, threw a few handfuls of flour into the air—careful to get some on his face—then opened the window and frantically began waving the remaining smoke out.
His foster mother—Joan—rushed into the kitchen a moment later. Alcatraz turned—putting on his best look of chagrin—and looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “I just wanted to surprise you by fixing pancakes for dinner.”
“That boy is a disaster!” Joan’s voice drifted up through Alcatraz’s open window into his room. His foster parents were in the study down on the first floor, their favorite place for ‘quiet’ conferences regarding him. One of the first things that Alcatraz had broken after moving into the house eight months previously had been the study’s window rollers. The move had locked the windows themselves permanently open.
“Now, Joan,” said a consoling voice. That one belonged to Roy, Alcatraz’s current foster father.
“I can’t take it!” Joan sputtered. “That . . . creature is a menace. He destroys everything he touches!”
There was that word again. “Destroy.” It was very inaccurate, in Alcatraz’s opinion. He didn’t destroy things—he simply broke them. They were still there when he was finished, they just didn’t work right any more.
“He means well,” Roy said. “He’s such a kind-hearted boy.”
“First the washing machine,” Joan snapped. “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, getting passed from family to family, never having a home . . . ?”
“I can see why!” Joan said. “I—”
She was interrupted by a knock on the door. There was a moment of silence, and Alcatraz imagined what was going on between his foster parents. Joan was giving Roy “The Look.” Alcatraz had seen it several times—it always came at the end, when one of his foster parents couldn’t take any more.
Usually, it was the husband who gave “The Look,” insisting that Alcatraz be sent away. In this family, however, Joan was a liberated woman. In relevant terms, that meant Roy was the one who answered the door.
“Come in,” Roy said, his voice faint, since he now stood in the entryway.
Alcatraz remained laying in his 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 got your message.” It was a feminine voice, familiar to Alcatraz. Businesslike, curt, and just a tad condescending. All good reasons why Miss Fletcher wasn’t married.
“Miss Fletcher,” Joan said, faltering a bit now that the time had come. They usually did. “I’m . . . sorry to have to. . . . ”
“No,” Miss Fletcher said. “You did well to last this long. I can arrange for the boy to be taken tomorrow.”
Alcatraz closed his eyes, sighing quietly. Joan and Roy had lasted quite long—longer, certainly, than any of his other recent sets of foster parents. Eight months was quite a valiant effort when Alcatraz was concerned.
The kitchen had been a masterful move, he decided. Joan and Roy had patiently put up with everything else he’d broken—to get them to send him away, he’d needed something quite drastic indeed.
In truth, he felt a little embarrassed. Before Joan and Roy, he’d been on a roll. He’d managed to get one set of foster parents to abandon him after just fourteen days—that still stood as his personal record. After eight months, he’d been beginning to feel that he’d lost his touch.
“Where is the boy now?” Miss Fletcher asked from below.
Alcatraz waited quietly. Miss Fletcher knocked, but didn’t bother to wait for his reply before pushing open the door.
“Miss Fletcher,” Alcatraz said. “You look lovely this evening.”
It was a stretch. Miss Fletcher—his personal case worker—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 quite a daring outfit—the shoes, after all, were maroon, rather than her customary black. Perhaps she’d had a date.
Alcatraz paused as she gave him one of her trademarked crusty stares. No. He doubted she’d been on any dates recently.
“The kitchen, Smedry?” Miss Fletcher asked. She always called him by his last name. “Did it have to be the kitchen?”
“I honestly don’t know what you mean, Miss Fletcher,” Alcatraz said. “I was simply trying to be kind to my new parents.”
“You decided that you would be kind to Joan Sheldon—one of the city’s finest and most-renowned chefs—by burning down her kitchen?”
“It was an accident,” Alcatraz said.
Miss Fletcher walked into the room, shaking her head as she strolled past his dresser. “We’re running out of families, Smedry,” she said. “The other couples are hearing rumors about you. Soon, there won’t be any place left to send you.”
Alcatraz remained quiet.
Miss Fletcher sighed, folding her arms and tapping her index finger against one arm. “You realize, Smedry, that you are worthless.”
Here we go, Alcatraz thought. His least favorite part of the process. He leaned back and stared up at the 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 gross indifference, crude disrespect, and wantondestructiveness!”
“I don’t destroy,” Alcatraz said quietly. “I break. There’s a difference.”
Miss Fletcher snorted. She left him then, walking out the way she had come, pulling the door closed with a snap. He heard her say goodbye to the Sheldons, promising them that her assistant would arrive in the morning to deal with Alcatraz.
It’s a shame, Alcatraz thought, staring up at the ceiling. Roy and Joan really were good people. They would have made great parents.
But he’d learned—learned the hard way—that most people couldn’t stand him breaking things. It was better, therefore, to get things over quickly.
Before anyone had an opportunity to grow attached.