In the overgrown backyard of a neat suburban house, there stood a treehouse falling into loving disrepair. Unlike the catalogue-bought boxes in toy stores, this treehouse sat nestled in the arms of an aging oak tree, almost like it had always been there somehow. If you were passing through, you might have mistaken it for ordinary, or even missed it entirely, but the kids of the neighborhood knew better. On this night in particular, it was crammed full of ten children sitting Indian-style on the floor. Starlight leaked through the slats in the walls, illuminating their eyes like bats in a cartoon forest. The bluish darkness seemed to amplify the youngins’ rumor-swapping, giggling, and the incessant arguing of the backyard crickets. Then there was a scrape and an unmistakable creak at the door.
A hush fell. The first thing they saw was the glint of her sequined cowboy boots. It was her, their leader, Zeeba Yoke.
Zeeba ranked as the oldest member of the club—the BIG BAD ten year old. She was smooth as wax paper rushing along a steep slide, sharp as shattered glass from one of your mom’s precious vases. Some said she had walked on the surface of the sun and lived. It was rumored that a troll lived in her tuft of wild dark hair. Yes, Zeeba was a legend, and on that night in particular she seemed infected by some cosmic force. She stood with the moon hanging full behind her, bathed in an eerie glow from the old lantern in her hand. Moths flocked around the light, and the kids were no better. All of the inferior six, seven, eight year old eyes gazed up at her, waiting expectantly.
And then she spoke. “Evenin’, fartbrains. Boy, do I have news for you.”
A few minutes later they had situated themselves in the usual circle. Billy Bikowski was picking his nose again, tilting his chair back until it wobbled like two toothpicks holding up a marshmallow (he always took the only chair). Little Fritz O’Donnell bounced ethereally in the corner. Dewey Rogers’ pale eyes skittered around the room, waiting for a grown up to appear at any second.
Zeeba pounded her makeshift gavel—a light up Sketcher—against the warped wood, yelling, “Order! Order!” Silence fell. “So I know I’ve been gone these last few weeks, and you probably cried yourselves silly in your mamas’ arms every night I was gone, dreaming of what I might have been up to on my dangerous expedition. If that’s not what you were doing then it should’ve been, because everything I’ve cooked up before this has been a pair of underwear in your Christmas stocking, apples in your Happy Meal…”
A collective gasp. “…compared to what I have now.” She produced a scroll, tied with a purple scrunchie, from her back pocket and, with a crack like a whip, unfurled it. The crowd couldn’t quite suppress their giggles. Her master plan was written on the back of a Dora the Explorer poster.
“I couldn’t find any paper in my room, okay?” And giving up on her aura of mystery, Zeeba showed them the plan.
Incomprehensible scribbles filled nearly every corner of the shiny white surface. Only three words could be discerned in the middle of the chaotic jumble:
“Kids on strike?” Fritz cocked her head to the side, squinting at the words in confusion.
Zeeba smiled. “Yes, Fritz. Kids on strike.”
“What’s a strike?” Billy asked.
“It’s when grownups decide they’re tired of something, so they just don’t do it. Except they use something called a lickit line, where people lick the elbows of the strikers to show they’re on board. I heard my mom talking about it on the phone,” Zeeba said impressively.
“I think I’ve heard of that,” Dewey said, pushing his thick glasses up to the bridge of his nose pompously.
Fritz piped up, “But why would we go on a strike? I don’t want anyone to lick my elbows. ”Kush Patel, a small boy with three charmingly crooked teeth, leaned over, tongue outstretched, and dabbed her elbow. “Ack! Kush, gross!”
“Excellent question. We’re going on strike from grownups. Let me ask you, what causes all the bad things in the world? War, math tests, those stickers in the back of your sticker book that always rip—”
“Voldemort!” cried Billy, “Bad guys in comic books!”
“The Big O Tree on the news,” added Dewey knowingly.
“Parent controls on my YouTube!” yelled a kid from the back.
“Yes! So you see why we have to do this, right? It’s up to us to fix the messed up world. I was wandering the wilderness, looking for an answer, when I had a vision. I saw a better America, butt-munchers. No tests. Free pizza all the time. All we have to do is build a rocket ship and run away to—”
“Hey wait a second. You didn’t have a vision. That was on Herb and Quinn last night,” said Billy.
“Oh yeah, I saw that one too! They tried to fly to Planet Wobnock. But then a giraffe ate all the parts, and it rained pudding.” mused Fritz, rubbing her chin.
Zeeba turned a choke into a cough and maintained her lofty tone. “Okay, yes. Maybe they had the same idea on the show. But I know that this mission came down to me from something bigger than our stinky club. I’m talking about freedom, where no one can boss you around. ”She paused. “We’re going to build a rocket ship.”
Even the crickets stopped chirping. Zeeba had come out with some outlandish plans in the past, but this one…
Dewey’s hand punctured the air. “Excuse me, but aren’t strikes supposed to achieve something? What exactly do you think a bunch of kids escaping to the moon will accomplish?”
The fire behind Zeeba’s eyes seemed to condense into a single, sharp flame. She had finally reached either the punchline to a long-winded joke or the mic drop moment. She flashed her signature shark smile and said, “We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”
CRASH. Billy’s chair fell over. Zeeba’s voice evaporated like the needle running out of grooves on a record. The crickets broke out in renewed frenzy, and several of the kids joined the chorus.
The smaller kids’ faces wrinkled like old lemons, imagining warm beds and their moms and dads tucking them in at night. A gif of his grandpa turning hamburgers on the grill looped in Billy’s mind. A few cheered, though they hadn’t heard a word of the speech, busy watching ants crawling out of cracks in the floorboards or picking at scabs from yesterday’s rug burns.
Then there was Fritz. Tiny, wood nymph fairy Fritz. Her nose turned upward like a house cat sniffing at the first weeds in a wild tangle of forest, eyes glassy and restless as a shaken snow globe. Zeeba had never seen a look like that on a person before, let alone on this five year old. It fascinated her. But before she could dwell on it for too long, Billy’s voice boomed over the clamor.
“We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”
“So you’re saying we should run away from home?” he said.
Zeeba nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Kush called out, “But what about school? What about our parents?”
“Those things will be here when we get back and the planet is fixed. Yeah, it might be hard, but you’ll be independent! You make the rules! Come on, guys. This is, like, every kid’s dream. Don’t weenie out on me here. We gotta save the world!” said Zeeba. It would be the closest thing to a “please” any of them would ever hear her utter.
“Let’s do it,” said Fritz.
Zeeba broke into a smile, whipped into action once again. “All in favor?” She asked.
Fritz’s hand was the first to go up. Then, one by one, thin and pudgy arms filled the air, each one adding oxygen to Zeeba’s flame. Everyone was on board, all except Dewey. Billy reached over and impatiently lifted his arm for him.
“That’s settled then,” said Zeeba.
* * *
They spent the next several days gathering supplies for the journey. Dewey, after letting the rest beg, graciously agreed to draw the plans for the rocket ship. By the end of each day, books and scraps of crumpled paper piled around him in heaps. On these days, his pencil spent equal time in his hand, behind his ear, and between his teeth, until eventually he emerged with a usable blueprint, colored and everything. Everyone got to work right away, blasting a Kidz Bop CD Billy had provided “from his sister” as others scrambled around with armfuls of hodgepodge objects.
Deprived of most conventional building materials, the kids resorted to what they could find buried in the neatly-trimmed grass and the piles of hidden treasure their parents had thrown out with the compost. They cultivated the precious buds and berries, the flexible yet brutally strong trunks of trees that had not yet crusted with bark—all the things that had no place in the square garden plot beside the house.
But not everything could be scavenged outside.
“I’m telling you, I need something to hold this thing together or the whole project is kaput.” Dewey was pointing aggressively at Kush and a little girl with pigtails—the sporty Stephanie Sholes—trying to tie two twigs together with a piece of grass.
Zeeba turned away from them. “What do you want from me?” she asked Dewey.
“And what’s that supposed to be?”
Dewey sighed, clearly frustrated. “String. Thin rope. For Pete’s sake, Zeeba, haven’t you ever opened a newspaper?”
Zeeba smiled proudly and said, “Nope. But where’s this mystery ‘twine’ hiding anyway?”
Dewey paused. This was the part he was afraid of. “The work bench.”
The work bench loomed in the dank recesses of the underworld, crooked in the armpit of The Dad Cave. Respectable fathers were known to grow extra arms and sprout gorilla hair when they entered, spending long hours hunched over the musky work table, their twisted faces warped in the glaring metal. This was a place no kid could go if she hoped to come out alive. People changed in The Dad Cave.
Zeeba turned a chalky green. “I’m not going in there.”
“You’re our leader. But if you won’t do it, you’ll have to find someone else who will. Just get me my twine,” said Dewey, and he turned away, flipping through pages in his clipboard.
* * *
Fritz had no idea that it was the absolute worst possible moment for her to skip up to Zeeba, singing “Love is an Open Door,” but sadly that’s what happened. Zeeba’s head swiveled and locked Fritz in her crosshairs. The singing drifted off mid verse; Fritz backed away involuntarily.
“Fritzy. Fritz. Fritz. How would you like to go on a special mission for me?” Zeeba’s smile burned with a maniacal gleam.
Fritz stuttered, her tiny heart jumping to off-beats, “What m-mission?”
“A special mission that will help us with the rocket.” Not-so-deep-down, Zeeba knew that what she was doing was despicable. But she took it as a freebee and pushed mutinous thoughts aside. She suddenly became aware of the nightmarish smile stretching her face and hurriedly laughed it off.
Zeeba started over. “Listen Fritz, we really need your help. I need your help,” she said. Fritz tilted her head back and took in Zeeba’s full height. The goliath’s face settled into a soft smile. Unable to hold her gaze, she averted her eyes after a few seconds. It was difficult to lock eyes with Fritz, who carried a cloud of sincerity wherever she walked. Zeeba cleared her throat uncomfortably and said, “We need you to get something out of the work bench.”
Fritz crumpled, folding into herself like one of those paper fortune tellers you played with at recess. Then, in the smallest of voices, “Oh.”
Zeeba hesitated, losing faith in the whole plan with each crease in Fritz’s tiny forehead. Steeling herself, she placed both hands on her shoulders and said, “You’re the only one who can do this. We need someone who can…get in small spaces. And think on the fly, you know? You’re good at that. I believe in you.”
Fritz stared at her shoes for a long time before looking up. “Is that a yes?” asked Zeeba.
* * *
Bored with their other jobs, most of the club gathered in a frenzied jumble around Fritz as Zeeba and Dewey marched her toward the house. A few people in the older rungs of the ladder hung back, muttering darkly to each other and glaring at Fritz’s retreating figure.
Fritz herself tried to enjoy the attention—the cheers and chanting of her name from the crowd, Zeeba’s mentorial warmth beside her. However, yesterday’s peanut butter sandwich was threatening to resurface, sloshing unpleasantly in her stomach.
“Zeeba, don’t do this!” It was little Kush, shoving his way through the ring.
Zeeba froze, heart thumping, and turned to face the defector. “Kush, little buddy, Fritz says it’s okay. This is how we’re going to get that rocket built. You want that don’t you?”
“It doesn’t have to be her! She’s too little!” he shouted.
Zeeba addressed the crowd. “Any volunteers? Who wants to brave The Cave?” Silence. “That’s what I thought.”
“Why don’t you do it?” he said almost under his breath but each word clear as a bell.
“Because it’s not my job. Sometimes a leader has to make tough choices.” She approached him. “You do trust me, don’t you?” Zeeba punched him lightly on the shoulder, trying to pretend her insides weren’t crumbling.
Kush’s eyes narrowed. He shook her off and staggered away.
When Zeeba turned around, Fritz was already tramping her way to the basement door at top speed. “What numbers do I push to get in?” she yelled out behind her.
Zeeba’s cool faltered. This was one question she did not have an answer for. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your house!” said Dewey, throwing his arms up in exasperation.
“My parents know it. They didn’t tell me! I’m sorry!”
“Well someone’s going to have to go in the front door and open it from the inside then,” said Stephanie matter-of-factly.
All eyes probed Zeeba, waiting for an excuse or a snappy comeback. But she had never been one to do what was expected. “Alright,” she said. “See you on the other side, jerks.” She sauntered off, circling to the front of the house. The surprised muttering behind her bolstered her step, settling warmly in her chest. This would show them. Did they think she, Zeeba Yoke, would chicken out of a dangerous task? Who did they think they were dealing with?
At the same time, misgivings swarmed in the back of her mind. She saw herself caught by her parents, strung up by her ankles, stuck to flypaper under a heat lamp, or (dare she even think it?) banned from watching TV. No. She pushed these images aside as she stepped onto the porch. The doormat read “Welcome to the Nut House” beside a picture of a squirrel, whose soulless eyes always gave Zeeba the heebie jeebies. Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside.
Every gleaming surface stank of artificial lemons and Pine Sol. Zeeba’s smiling face peered down at her from portrait frames neatly hung in a grid formation.
From down the hall, a voice rang out, “Shoes off, please!”
“Are your little friends done playing?” asked a deeper voice.
“Yeah, we’re just…tired,” Zeeba said, peeling off her muddy boots with the sense that she was shedding her only protection.
“Do you want anything?”
“No, I’m just gonna go upstairs.” Zeeba sidestepped to the stairs and thump thump thumped against the bottom step to give the illusion of climbing. Her ears were perked, waiting for her cue. She would have to sneak down the hall and through the kitchen to make it to the basement steps. If her calculations were correct, madre and padre would vacate the kitchen approximately one minute after the coffee-maker quieted down. The ticking of the clock trudged onward as Zeeba watched it, her eyes bulging, bloodshot, and unblinking.
When the coffee pot finally spluttered to a stop, Zeeba had the look of a soldier emerging from a World War I trench. She snapped to action and skidded silently around the corner. The coast was clear. Without breathing, she sidled down the hallway and crept into the kitchen. She could hear the sounds of daytime talk shows leaking in from the living room, and pictured her parents settled on the couch, sipping coffee. She let out a sigh of relief.
The basement door loomed at the far side of the kitchen. It seemed to retreat further away the longer she looked at it, so she tiptoed as fast as she could across the room. Just as she was about to open the door, she heard a soft, threatening creak. The pantry door had swung ajar of its own accord, blocking her way. Zeeba eased it closed again, biting her lip so hard a trickle of blood slid down her chin. A click, then a thunderous crash. Several boxes of organic, whole grain cereal, cans of Spaghettios and soup, pasteurized juice, pickled olives, old boxes of stuffing, packets of flavoring, peanuts of every variety. Several weeks’ worth of grocery store visits came raining down.
How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.
Zeeba braced herself. This was the end. Her parents would find her here and lock her in her room until her hair turned gray. Trip to the moon? Ha. Forget it. The screaming and lecturing would start any second…
But wait. The only sound that could be heard was a blaring TV commercial for a cruise line—raucous laughter, the clinking of glasses, and a female voice describing the exotic getaways. No screams. No response at all.
Well, Zeeba wasn’t about to wait around at the crime scene. She threw open the basement door. Darkness washed over her as she descended the stairs one rickety step at a time. The sound of her heartbeat flooded her ears, along with, what was that? A saw? When she finally reached the floor, she noticed a yellow glow coming from the far corner. A single, bare bulb illuminated a masked man standing over a table, feeding wood into a raging machine. The Dad. Panic surged inside her as Zeeba flew behind a stack of tote bins full of her early childhood. What was she going to do?
Then an idea struck that stunned Zeeba with her own brilliance. The Cave was cramped in the very back, far away from where she needed to be to unlock the door. All she had to do was make it the few yards to the door and somehow distract her father. How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.
Bolstered with confidence, she crawled along between rows of boxes and old furniture and sprinted past the no man’s land to the door. Hands shaking, she turned the lock and snuck one look through the blinds at Dewey standing outside. The sawing stopped abruptly.
Time for phase two.
Zeeba scurried back to the foot of the stairs and curled into the fetal position. Then she cried as loud as she could, an eruptive wail that rattled the foundations around her. Within seconds, her father scooped her up in his arms and launched up the stairs.
“What’s wrong, Peanut? Are you hurt? How did your lip start bleeding? Oh God.”
He deposited her at the kitchen table, where her mother fussed around her, hovering and pecking like a worrywart bird of prey. “What happened? Is anything broken? Ah! I think she has a concussion! Baby, how many fingers am I holding up? HOW MANY?!”
“Don’t yell at her, Honey,” the father said.
Zeeba tilted her head back, eyes welling with well-rehearsed tears. She opened her mouth, outlined in blood, and said, “I’m okay, Mama. I just fell…down the stairs.” She burst into fresh sobs, burying her face in her hands.
Outside, the children gathered around the basement door, preparing Fritz to face the catacombs. At Dewey’s cue, Billy pulled the door open. Absolute darkness engulfed them, and everyone became momentarily hypnotized, intoxicated by the sight of nothingness. Fritz cleared her head and ran forward, swallowed.
Meanwhile, sulking under a tree, Kush watched Zeeba and her parents through the second floor window. He saw her sitting at the kitchen table, spooning chocolate cake into her mouth. Her mother pinched her cheeks. Zeeba smiled.
* * *
Fritz was trying to master her panic. She had reached the threshold outside the inner sanctum—natural light at her back, blackness meshing with The Cave’s dim, rusty glow. The single bare bulb swung ominously from the ceiling, illuminating her round face in warped reflections of tin cans and power tools. The mouths of chainsaws, wood chippers, and weed whackers curled their serrated lips threateningly at her.
Waiting to be sucked into the floor or sawed in half at any second, Fritz searched every surface for the twine. She couldn’t see it anywhere, and it was becoming near impossible to focus with herself unravelling at alarming rates. Where was it? She threw open drawers and scoured counters, but still nothing. Then, there it was. Resting on the topmost shelf, desperately out of reach.
Fritz knew what she had to do; there was no other way. She began climbing onto the bench—the altar of The Dad Cave—then up the shelves, one by one. She went painfully slowly, hands slick with sweat, and with each trembling step the metal frame teetered under her. Three to go. Two to go. One.
The shelves buckled, unable to hold her anymore. She fell, clinging to the collapsing frame with her eyes squeezed shut. Heaps of dull metal rained down, knocking over the bench and denting the floor. As it fell, the shelf made contact with the lightbulb, smashing it to dust, soon lost in the piles of black iron. Fritz opened her eyes, and, in the instant before she hit the ground, she realized that this room looked much better without any light at all.
Pain. Fritz remembered once falling off her bicycle and scraping her knee, her sister pulling bits of gravel out of the cut, and someone covering it with a bandaid. She remembered the sting and how she felt every pulse of her life blood in sharpest detail. That was the kind of cut that made you feel alive. This pain was much, much worse. Fritz felt nothing but dull, throbbing numbness all over her body. It was like what people buried alive must feel. A silent whimper and the first tick of a wind-up clock. She lay in a bed of screwdrivers and overturned boxes of nails, trapped. This was the end; she knew it. Not a triumphant first step on another world, not Zeeba’s proud face—only blackness and fear.
* * *
From the doorway, the children watched Fritz disappear with uneasy feelings in their stomachs. The stairs blocked their view of The Cave, so all they could do was wait and keep a lookout for parents. Why had they let her go in alone? They were all despicable chickens, complacent in Zeeba’s assurances that this was all for a greater good.
“I don’t like this,” Stephanie whispered. “What if somethin’ bad happens? Someone should go in there.”
Dewey silenced her, flipping through notes in his clipboard. “No. She can do this. If you go after her you’ll just get her caught.”
“Come on, Fritz,” prayed Billy, eating his fingernails down to nothing.
A few agonizing minutes passed. Then they heard the deafening clanging coming from inside. Not pausing to think, Stephanie led the charge into the basement. Kush flew from his tree and sprinted after them, all of them desperate to get to Fritz. Many hearts nearly stopped when they saw Fritz buried and unmoving. Everyone grabbed at tools and threw them aside until they could pull their friend free.
The upstairs door opened as Zeeba’s concerned father appeared to investigate. Billy pulled Fritz onto his back and high tailed it from the house. Dewey scrambled around in the debris searching for his twine. Glasses askew, he scooped it up and ran after them, slamming the door behind him.
They laid Fritz in the soft, welcoming grass near the base of the treehouse. She was in bad shape—covered in freshly blossoming bruises and cuts, the sunflowers on her dress obscured with red. A quiet gasp escaped her body. The kids’ faces stared down at her, waiting for a word or phrase to slip out of those panting lips, waiting for the day to turn suddenly to night or for a drop of rain and a thunderclap—anything to give meaning to this situation. But there was no such thing. The partly cloudy skies stayed the way they were. A neighbor pulled into their driveway and began unloading groceries. Zeeba went on eating her cake.
Some part of their brains groped in the dark for images of rocket ships and a smiling Earth, but none came. The goal of that whimpering, broken child on the ground seemed so absolutely pointless in that moment. Their plans were just idle dreams, as fleeting and insubstantial as a single cinder leaping from a bonfire.
At the same time, they needed rocket ships then more than ever.
It didn’t matter that Zeeba had pulled her grand idea from her double digits ego. It didn’t belong to her in the first place. The whole thing was about the rocket ship and saving the world, anyway. In fact, let the grownups come too. Let everyone come. All this passed through the kids’ minds as they stood there in silence, waiting.
Fritz opened her eyes and blinked. “I’m okay,” she said, surprising even herself.
A pause. Then Billy let out a guffaw of confused laughter. Kush bent down and helped Fritz to her feet.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” he said.
“Did someone get the twine?” she asked.
Dewey waved it in the air, looking a wreck. “Yeah.”
“Good,” she said. And it was.