Chapter 1 of The Last Disruptor — A new science fiction novel by RD Varnon. Crate is a boy with an unusual name and an unusual ability to tell stories that might destroy a couple planets or save them.
Sneak Peak Chapter 1
Walter the Whale
There was one thing extraordinarily odd about Elementary School 435 in Vacaville, California — an 11-year-old boy named Branden Barnes who only answered to the name “Crate.” However, it wasn’t the nickname that was the strangest thing about him.
It was that he persisted in telling highly imaginative stories despite the fact that the curriculum, and even the building’s design, was meant to encourage research and evidence-based learning, not flights of fancy. Why the school library did not even have a fiction section. That’s not surprising, School 435 was like almost all other elementary schools in the world. It was a white concrete edifice with two wings connected by a central office with a parking lot and bus area in the front, and open fields in the back and a 12-foot-high wall surrounding the play area which included monkey bars, swings and slides. Inside, each classroom looked the same. Each had a single small window, set high in the wall near the ceiling so children could not look out and lose focus. Instead, their desks all faced a chalkboard where the teacher would either write out the daily lesson or have children come up and answer questions and problems on the board. The walls of each classroom were adorned with the same posters providing examples of handwriting and math equations and each classroom had a board where the teacher displayed the students’ papers and projects.
On this particular day, February 2 to be specific, the project wall in Mrs. Sweeney’s Fifth grade classroom, 22 EW, displayed reports on animals.
Twenty-one of the twenty-two reports started roughly the same, “The ocelot is a mammal that has the characteristics of other felines,” and “The Holstein cow is a mammal that has the characteristics of other bovine,” etc. But it was the 22nd report that stood out. “If you were to ask George, a red kangaroo who lives in Australia, what the best thing about being a kangaroo is, he’d say, “leaping across the outback at 35 miles per hour with his pals, the other kangaroos. It’s almost like flying!”
That paper had created conflict for Mrs. Sweeney. She had initially awarded it a B, as the student had effectively used some complex sentence structure and had also woven in most of the factual information that the assignment called for. However, the Language Arts Master, who reviews all major assignments and grades, had told Mrs. Sweeney that the paper failed in content as it relied on several fictions and should be given an F. The variance being more than one grade automatically generated a hearing with the principal, and after discussion, the paper was awarded a D. But it was made clear to Sweeney that this type of variance would affect her own TEAR, Teacher Effectiveness and Review, if it happened again. Sweeney, herself, was secretly pleased to have gotten a paper that broke up the monotony of the other reports she had to grade, though it was a bit strange the student had chosen the form of narrative he had, she admitted at the time. Well, strange that is, unless you knew Crate. Even his reaction to the grade seemed odd. You see Crate was not bothered in the least by the poor grade, which of course was one of the maddening things about the boy.
No matter how many times his teachers and even the principal instructed him to stop telling stories, the boy continued to do so.
Like the school and classroom he attended, there was nothing extraordinary or very different about Crate’s appearance. He was a bit taller than most of his peers, though he was not the tallest. He was thin, with light brown hair, dark brown eyes and a sweet disposition.
Sweeney, herself, felt a twinge of guilt that Crate was not in class at the moment. It wasn’t because he was prone to outbursts or rude. In fact he was well behaved and polite, but he was peculiar. He would sometimes just gaze up at the window through which you could only see a sliver of sky and maybe the flash of a jet as it zipped by. When he was engaged with the lesson, he would ask strange questions, often off topic, during interaction time and his answers to questions tended to be correct, but they also contained some fantastic leaps of imagination that would either draw laughter or uncomfortable silences from his classmates.
Crate himself was down the hall sitting outside the principal’s office in a hard plastic chair while his mother and father discussed his latest transgression with Principal Fuss. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, even though Principal Fuss was talking very loudly, as he often did when he talked to, or about, Crate.
While he knew they were talking about him, Crate was not even trying to listen to that conversation. Instead he watched and listened to Cindy, the attendance secretary, make her calls. Crate knew all the office staff by name. Cindy was one of the more active ones in the office. She was a young woman who always wore something that had a flower on it. Today she wore a black blouse with one large lily designed across the front. She was making the usual calls to homes of students who were not in school. Her voice repeated the same statements and questions over and over again. Crate estimated she must say the same sentences about fifty times a day, so in a single school year, she probably said those sentences 10,000 times. He wondered if someday, those words would be the only ones she could say. And then he imagined maybe her words had secret meanings that she kept inside her heart.
“Has your student been to see a doctor,” Crate thought, might be her way of saying I love you.
He smiled at this, as he started to develop a code behind her exchanges on the phone.
“CRATE! Principal Fuss is talking to you.”
Crate looked up.
His mother sighed.
“Come in here, Mr. Barnes,” Principal Fuss said.
Crate went back to watching the staff.
“He means you, son,” Crate’s father said and patted him gently on the shoulder.
“Oh, sure,” Crate responded. “Right.” And the boy stood up and walked into the office. His parents did not follow him in.
“Sit down, Mr. Barnes,” Principal Fuss said.
Standing by the window was a tall, thin woman with hair so black it seemed to be tinged blue. Her skin reminded Crate of coffee after his mother added milk to it. She wore a gray pant suit and sported rectangular, rimless glasses. In her hands, she held a tablet. She studied Crate as he took a seat on the left. It was still warm from where one of his parents had been sitting. Crate liked to sit in the left-hand seat because it provided the best chance to look out the window of Fuss’s office. It was one of the things Crate liked about Fuss’s office. The big window opened up on the front of the school and you could watch the birds and squirrels outside and occasionally people mowing the green lawns in front of the beige homes across the street.
Today, there was nothing happening.
Fuss pushed a button on his desk and a shade slowly rolled down covering the window. The woman leaned against the wall next to the window. Crate watched the shade descend until the whirring of the mechanisms stopped and the view was gone leaving the two adults and the boy in a dimly lit room where shadows had grown in every corner.
Crate looked at Principal Fuss. They had gotten to know each other quite well over the years. Principal Fuss was a loud man, but underneath this loudness was a nice man with a wife and daughter. He liked baseball.
“Hi, Principal Fuss,” Crate said brightly.
“Mr. Barnes. Crate,” Fuss said. “We must stop meeting like this.”
Crate smiled. It was a joke between them.
“Crate, I am afraid I’m serious this time. You see, your actions have been noticed by the, er, district office.” Fuss held up a piece of paper. “They have sent me a verbal inquiry as to your educational experience.”
Crate was fascinated. “A verbal inquiry, sir? On a piece of paper? Can I see it and listen to it then?”
“The document is called a verbal inquiry, it isn’t actually verbal. Its name is not the most important thing about it. It is the first step in the process. I must now assure the office that your educational experience is in fact satisfactory and on track.”
“Will you be answering the letter verbally?”
“Crate, this is serious.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am serious. I was just curious. What will happen?”
Fuss seemed to ponder this for a moment and then sighed. “To you Crate? Well, that is why Ms. Read is here and she will explain that.”
“Hi, Ms. Read. I’m Crate,” he said, looking at the woman now.
She raised an eyebrow.
“My file says your name is Branden.” And she pursed her lips. “Do all teachers and staff allow him to be called ‘Crate?’” She directed the question to Fuss.
Principal Fuss went a little red in the face. “It’s just that he really doesn’t respond when we call him Branden. We’re just trying to educate him the best we can. I told you, it’s one of the things about him that I can’t explain,” Fuss stammered.
“I don’t know if they allow it so much as that’s my name. That’s what I’ve always been called,” Crate replied, trying to be helpful.
“We will be calling you by your given name from now on, Branden,” Ms. Read said.
“You were saying, Principal Fuss?” she asked.
“Well, it’s just that, like his nickname. It’s like you can’t help yourself. I’ve had other students who have exhibited this same kind of problem with story telling and the other students, well, they wouldn’t stand for it. Neither would the staff or teachers. But with Cra.., I mean Branden, well, it’s different. It’s like there’s some kind of electric field around him that just sucks you in and then, you’re listening to his story, or going along with calling him that nickname. I… can’t explain it,” the principal said with embarrassment.
“I see,” Ms. Read said. “I believe he just needs a more disciplined hand at this.”
“Will you be one of my teachers now?” Crate asked.
“We are still determining that,” Ms. Read replied. “What we need is for you to listen and answer our questions to your best ability. Can you do that?”
“Of course,” Crate said. “You sound funny. You don’t talk like us.”
“What you are hearing is my British accent and the proper pronunciation of English. Now, please just answer our questions.”
Ms. Read nodded to Fuss, indicating he should begin. She held up her tablet and waited.
“Crate, what did you do yesterday at recess?” Fuss asked.
“I talked to my friends about a whale that could walk on land.”
“Whales don’t walk on land. Whales don’t walk at all. You know this.”
“Yes, but this whale was different. You see, he was swimming in the ocean by a farm that had an orchard of orange trees near the shore, and this whale, whose name was Walter, he could see the oranges ripening in the groves and he wondered what they were. He would surface from time to time, blowing out a blast of water and then watch them out of one eye when the sun had slipped just beyond noon and the light would glisten on the oranges making them wink like Christmas lights. And Walter asked the other whales what they could be, but none of them knew and some didn’t believe he had seen anything at all.
“So Walter hatched a plan. He decided he would find a way to walk up to that orange grove and find out what oranges were. But he didn’t call it walking, he called it swimming, because, you know that’s what whales do. Swim.
“He tried all kinds of ways of getting up there. His first attempt nearly killed him, as he beached himself and realized he couldn’t really swim over the land. It was very scary for him, being stuck on the beach. He was sure he would die there, but luckily the tide came in and he was able to free himself. Despite his near death experience, he was undeterred. Obsessed, really. That was our word of the day, by the way, obsessed. Anyway, there were old boards and twine and plastic floating in the water and that gave Walter an idea and he began to put them together, binding them with plastic bags. It was very hard for him to tie the things together with his big fins and his teeth. And he failed a lot of times to make his walking machine. But then he got a friend of his, a crab named Ox, to help him.
“Well, after a few weeks of building and some more trial and error, Walter and Ox had created a working walking machine. And then, he climbed out of the water, moving the walking machine’s legs with his fins and his body. You see, he would wriggle around a bit to make the walker move. Much like swimming.
“The walker groaned under his weight, because you know, he is a whale, but it held.
“So Walter finally walked on land and into the orange grove, where he was able to eat an orange off a tree. The farmer and his family were quite stunned to see a whale do this. You should have seen their faces.”
“Indeed,” Ms. Read said, before adding, “Continue.”
“Well, Walter ate his orange,” Crate said. “He only needed one to be satisfied. And then he simply walked back into the sea.”
Crate finished telling the story. There was a silence in the room.
“You see what I mean,” Fuss said. “He just sucks you in.”
Ms. Read’s tablet dinged. She swiped at its screen and pursed her lips.
She looked up and told Fuss to continue.
“Yes, um, well. Why did you tell your classmates about something that didn’t happen?” Fuss asked.
“I’m not sure it didn’t happen. It seemed like it happened. It just popped into my head. So I told them about it.”
“But you understand it is a fiction, a lie, you told?”
“I don’t know that it was a lie,” Crate said, feeling a bit defensive. “Why couldn’t it have happened?”
“Because whales don’t make things. They aren’t inventors or tool users.”
“But Walter the whale is.”
“Walter the whale doesn’t exist. Crate, this is the problem. When you told that story, several of your classmates went home and told their parents. Several of those parents complained that their children were learning that whales could invent things and walk on land. One of your classmates is now scared that whales are building devices and will invade the land and take over.”
“Now that would be a sight. But Walter is a right whale — they’re the most gentle whales in the world. He’s a friendly whale and the other whales aren’t interested at all in going on land,” Crate said logically.
Fuss sat quietly counting to himself for a moment. Yelling didn’t work with Crate. He knew that but he could see Ms. Read and her ilk taking up residence here in his school. She would probably want his office and he’d be forced to share Joe’s small vice principal office. It had happened to Fuss’ friend Jerry who was the principal of a middle school. Jerry said it was awful. But Jerry also said it only lasted for a month and then everything returned to normal. So, maybe it would be like a holiday?
“Crate, you must stop telling these stories.” Fuss said. “You must start following directions on assignments to the letter. You have to understand that society needs people who are rooted in reality, who understand facts and what exists. That’s also what the colleges need. The goal of this school is to educate you so you can be a productive citizen. So you can go to college, get a job. Be a useful person who is grounded in reality. It’s for society’s good. You know fictional stories are not supposed to be told. They are only for very little, little, children.”
Now it was Crate’s turn to think a bit as he let Fuss’ words sink in. But he was troubled by something he couldn’t quite understand. Something was pulling on his mind.
“I was just telling them what I saw in my head.”
“Well, try telling your friends something that really happened. Something that you saw with your eyes, or actually heard with your ears,“ Fuss’s voice rose.
“Well, like what you did in class, or a vacation you took with your parents. Or even something your parents did and told you about.”
“Well, my mom is an office manager for Bigsby, Malcolm and Kelley. They’re a law firm and they’re defending a man who is accused of murdering his landlord.”
“Well, not that. Maybe something your father told you about. What does he do?”
“He goes to meetings every day and discusses his employees’ performances. He’s a medical records division manager of Better Health Insurance so I don’t have any details on the patients they’re collecting records about. But it sounds like many of them are very sick.”
“Ok, well, that’s not a good thing to talk about either. How about you just stick to what you do and see? Hmm?”
“But I saw Walter doing those things…”
“Not in your head!” Fuss shouted, but then recovered and gave a quick glance to Ms. Read, who typed something in her tablet. The principal ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I mean the real things you see and do, Crate. I mean, Branden. Please. I’m warning you. This could all be out of my hands. Oh, I wonder if I was too lenient with you over all this. But I’m telling you, if I was too lenient, those days are over. To make you understand how serious this is, I’m sending you home with your parents today.”
“What? But Mrs. Sweeney is teaching chemical reactions today in the last hour. I really wanted to see that!”
“Well, your actions have forced me to do this. Now maybe you see why it’s important to not tell lies.”
Crate said nothing. He was trying not to cry.
“I think, sending him home right now, is not a good idea,” Ms. Read said, her voice making it plain that this was a directive and not a suggestion.
“Um, well, yes, if you think so?” Fuss replied.
Crate looked at Ms. Read. “You mean me?”
“Branden, go back to class and send your parents in. We’ve some things to discuss.”