Chapter 1: Conch Shell
Nobody questioned the Sacred Hour in the town of Candlewick anymore. For the past fifteen years, everyone had learned to sleep through the bell chimes that rang out exactly one hour prior to the sun rising over the United States of the Common Good. The IDEAL, the leader of this newly founded country, enforced it strongly on the basis that it was to keep the people safe. There were rare occasions when an angry or defiant individual disobeyed this law. These unfortunate individuals were caught, imprisoned, and never heard from again. This Sacred Hour was deemed a symbol of unity among the people. This is the way it was and the way it would always be.
It was a sweltering night in July, and the town of Candlewick was fast asleep during the Sacred Hour. But one girl awoke out of her slumber, eyelids open and ears perked up as if still in the confines of the dream. She froze, fearful that she had heard the sound in error and that she was imagining things. But then the deep bellowing noise echoed again from beyond her window sill. She sprang out of her bed and dashed to the opened window. She tried to discern from which direction the noise came. She held her breath, afraid that if she disturbed the silence of the night it would not sound again, counting the seconds in her head. Then it sounded again, loud and clear through the night, and the direction of its source was from the little ruby-red house directly opposite her on Wishbone Avenue.
No lights were on as the house lay hidden beneath the pin oak trees, with their long branches intertwined and sticking upward like a spiked fence. The old weather-beaten shutters were hanging off their hinges as if they were fighting for survival, and the overgrown blades of grass resembled a wild prairie that had grown as high as the top of the front porch. A statue of a black cat stood guard beside the wicker rocking chair, and the paint was chipping off the scripted engraving of the number fifteen right above the chalky white screen door. The ominous street was vacant except for the occasional Common Good patrol car driving past, its headlights radiating through the shadows of the starless night, to ensure that curfew was being obeyed.
She heard the sound again. She could have sworn it was a conch shell resounding from the confines of the ruby-red house. It blew again, and she opened the window another inch and pressed her ear against the opening. It sounded like the musical outburst was searching the night for someone to hear its cry for help. Silence ensued again, and she whispered into the night, “I hear you. Do you need help? My name is Aurora.”
The sound resonated again in her ears like a whisper in the night, translating itself inside her mind.
Alarmed, she quickly slammed the window shut but fell backward over her tower of textbooks that were piled against the wall. She lay there, facing the ceiling and trying to catch her breath, her heartbeat racing. Then she dusted herself off and fixed her purple nightgown, covering her knees again before peeking through the cool glass of the window pane, resisting the urge to blink. Silence prevailed over the night as she waited for the conch shell to sound again. She stared into the darkness of the night but drifted off to sleep as the little ruby-red house stared back at her, unflinching.
Fifteen-year-old Aurora Alvarez darted down the emerald carpeted stairs and entered the shambles that was the kitchen. She had wavy golden-brown hair that was cropped just above her shoulders, with a slight bang that was styled to the left side of her forehead. She rubbed the corner of her sunburnt cheeks that stood out over her naturally tanned complexion. She was about five foot six with wide, curvy hips and a nice sized bust that she held back against her chest with a sports bra. She possessed big, diamond-shaped brown eyes with thick eyelashes reminiscent of old Hollywood, a small, distinctive nose, and mauve lips that curled up to reveal a hint of two dimples when she smiled. Neighbors were keen on mentioning her beautiful features but her unfortunate weight. “The pretty frump girl,” she was known as on Wishbone Avenue, as she had struggled with her weight since she was in elementary school. Though she was an active teenager, she did have a larger midsection than the other stick thin girls who attended Candlewick High School, which made her feel more like a giant compared to them.
Her parents were collectors of antique memorabilia and had run out of space in their house on Wishbone Avenue. They basically began piling knickknacks of all types of collections from baseball cards to Native American pottery to American Girl dolls in every open space they could find. It was like a discombobulated museum, and Aurora had to squeeze through the towering abyss to the kitchen table, where her father was hidden behind a pile of old history magazines; he made it a point to read at least one every morning before starting his day. She sat down in her chair, its metal legs screeching against the wooden floor.
“I heard it again last night, Dad.”
Mr. Alvarez was immersed in his reading, and she watched him as his fingers kept getting stuck to the magazine pages as he tried to turn them. His cheek muscles twitched, knocking his reading glasses off the bridge of his sharp, pointed nose. He took a bite of whole grain toast, and bits of crumbs got stuck in his prematurely white mustache that contrasted with his chocolate-colored hair, combed ever so discreetly over his bald spot.
“Dad, I heard it again last night.” Aurora repeated louder so that she was nearly screaming into his ear.
“What?” her father snapped back to reality. “Oh, it must have been the garbage truck making weird noises.” He wiped the sweat from his brow and folded the magazine page over, the ink staining his fingertips.
“There was no garbage truck, Dad.” Aurora folded her sleeves so that they were now like tank top straps over her shoulders. “Besides, it was at the Sacred Hour, and no garbage trucks come down our street at that time.”
“You should be fast asleep at that hour,” her father commented, plopping the history magazine down in the read pile and picking up the next one sitting at the top of the unread pile. “You know fully well that no one is supposed to be awake and especially not go outside during the Sacred Hour. That mandatory curfew may be a power hungry mandate by the IDEAL, but this family is not ending up in Candlewick prison.”
It reminded Aurora of the poem she had learned in her Kindergarten class:
Do not be found outside
During the Sacred Hour
The IDEAL has said it so
And the IDEAL has the Power.
When the sun awakens
You can awaken and should,
For the Awakened Hour
Is what’s best for the Common Good.
Aurora bit her lower lip and asked, “Who in their right mind would want to get up at that hour anyway?”
Her father took his comb out of his breast pocket and tried to smooth what was left of his hair over his forehead. “It’s been that way for the past fifteen years, right after you were born. It’s the Common Good’s way of imposing their laws on us. If they can control time, they can control anything.”
He paused in mid stroke and then dropped the comb so that it collided onto the top of his history magazines pile. “No hablamos mas de eso No more talk about that. Now name one of the battles won by General Washington during the Revolutionary War. You have five seconds. Go.”
“Yorktown,” she said with a yawn. “Don’t you get tired of quizzing me on these history magazines?”
“It’s important for us to remember our country’s history, Aurora.”
“They don’t teach this stuff in school anymore. You know that. We have a new history.”
Aurora took out the frying pan from beneath the sink and started mixing ingredients together in a bowl to make pancakes. She continued to look over her shoulder to make sure her father was too absorbed in his magazines to notice. She poured the gooey cream-colored batter into the pan and stood over them, eyeing the circular dots expanding and turning crispy brown on both sides. She flipped them over and her mouth started watering.
Her father wiped the crumbs off his mustache and continued, “Well, you’ll be the smartest girl in the class when they decide to start teaching this again. Now, how did General Washington escape from the British after they were defeated in the Battle of Brooklyn? You have three seconds. Go.”
“Snuck across the East River at midnight during a storm,” Aurora spit out before her father could say, “Time is up.” She laughed, sitting back down at the table, and poured maple syrup over her crispy brown pancakes. She took a big bite, savoring the taste of maple syrup drizzling down her throat, creating a sweet, sugary blend for her taste buds. She swallowed heartily and started to cut another piece, digging her fork into the fried doughy delicacy.
“Dad, did you not hear what I said before? The sound came from that creepy red house. I am sure of it. I could have sworn it was a conch shell. Remember when we heard them play it on that old video of Lord of the Flies? Anyway, you must have heard it. It was as loud and clear as anything.”
“Did you know, Aurora, that in an ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, the warriors of ancient India blew conch shells to announce battle?”
“Dad, are you listening to me?”
“Is she talking about Mrs. Taboo again?” Her mother’s nightingale voice sounded behind a pile of comic books on the counter to the left of her. Her footsteps darted through the maze and headed straight for the coffee machine. Without her morning coffee, Mrs. Alvarez was a maniacal monster, so they kept a clear path for her to go to the coffee machine with no delay—the only clear path in the house. Aurora quickly shoved the rest of the pancake into her mouth to destroy the evidence before her mother could notice her through the box filled with the Captain America comic book series.
“She thought she heard music coming from their house this morning,” her dad sighed, turning the page of his magazine and twirling his mustache with his other hand. “And at the Sacred Hour too.”
“The Sacred Hour? That is three nights in a row. Aurora, this is not allowed, and you know it. Now stop with your stories and get dressed. You are going to be late for school.”
“I know I heard it!” Aurora exclaimed, aggravated, and her chair screeched backward as she stood up and tiptoed her way toward her sanctuary, the bay window seat that faced Wishbone Avenue. She plopped herself down on the yellow cushioned seat and eyed the one-story ruby-red house directly across from their own. The curtains were still drawn, windows shut, and no air conditioner in sight. In this heat she was sure that whoever inhabited that house was either passed out or dead, their corpses decomposing while they ate their morning breakfast.
“It’s too hot to shout, Aurora,” she heard her mom’s voice sound through the pile of carnival stuffed animals that made out the form of a doorway between her living room and kitchen. She heard her slurp down the black substance as if she was consuming the elixir of life. “Rumor has it that our neighbor Old Mr. Harold saw Mrs. Taboo.”
“When was this?” Her dad’s ears perked up, and the history magazine slid down onto his lap. “When were you going to tell me?”
“I didn’t know you cared,” Mrs. Alvarez laughed, taking a long slurp. “I mean it’s been about three months since she went away on vacation. She apparently told Old Mr. Harold that she was away visiting grandkids, but she’d never spoken about them before. What grandmother isn’t raving about her grandkids? Honestly. And her black hair was streaked with white highlights. I should give her the name of my hairdresser. She’s really the best Candlewick has to offer. Anyway, while he was speaking to her, a delivery man came up with a mysterious package.”
“Because Old Mr. Harold swears it was not Rick, our usual mailman. This delivery man wasn’t wearing a mailman uniform or driving a mail truck. Mrs. Taboo turned white as a ghost when she received this package, and once the delivery man had driven away, she hastily told Old Mr. Harold she had to leave and slammed the door swiftly behind her. Can you believe that?”
“She probably was in a hurry.” Her father huffed and returned to his reading.
“But this was over a week ago, and Old Mr. Harold hasn’t seen her leave that house since. And I haven’t seen her. I have been looking at her rundown house, and the blinds aren’t even drawn.”
Mr. Alvarez slammed the magazine down on top of the table. “Is Inspector Herald now forcing us to spy on our neighbors? That was McCarthyism and the Salem witch hunt, or have people forgotten that?”
“Charles, we may not like everything about the Common Good government, but it is better than what we had. Remember when there were those horrible religions fighting against each other? We needed the IDEAL to step in and contain those fanatics and make peace at whatever cost was necessary. Remember, what is best for the greater good is what’s best for everyone. Now stop reading those magazines and get ready for work. Candlewick Courthouse needs their finest attorney.”
“Listening to you is like listening to all that blasted propaganda back at the office.”
Aurora had ceased listening to her parents bicker and instead contemplated Mrs. Taboo. She was curious to find out if Mrs. Taboo was the one who’d been playing the conch shell during the Sacred Hour. And if so, why was Aurora the only one who heard it? Just then her mother’s voice made her stomach churn.
“Who made the pancakes?”
Aurora quickly licked a smidgen of syrup off her lips and replied hastily, “What pancakes?”
“Charles! I told you she is on a strict diet. Her doctor gave us strict instructions.”
“I didn’t even realize she was eating pancakes. Now, Aurora, what did Benedict Arnold do that caused him to become a traitor? You have five seconds.”
Her mother yanked the magazine out of his hands, tearing a sliver of the page. “Do you want your daughter to be overweight forever? I mean, she is fifteen years old! These are crucial years.”
“I think she looks fine,” her father said, pulling the magazine back. “Now look what you did. Where is the glue?”
“Charles, she is bigger than all the other girls on Wishbone Avenue. We have to support her. And if I could survive on a soup diet—where I lost ten pounds, mind you—then Aurora can survive with grapefruits. Aurora, do you hear me? Now if I catch you with pancakes again I will take away your TV privileges for a month. So go to your room and get dressed. You have school. And don’t forget the block party is this Saturday.”
“I’m not going,” Aurora cried out, fixing her nightgown that was riding up her legs. “I’m not going, and you’re not going to make me!”
“I bought you that nice indigo dress. I put it in your closet upstairs.”
Aurora felt her temperature rising as her mind swirled in circles. “It was for a size 12. I am a size 14, Mom!”
“Well, you are going to fit into a 12. No daughter of mine is wearing a size 14 dress.”
Aurora stumbled over the empty cereal boxes and stormed up the stairs until she was back in her room. She slammed the door shut, rattling the pictures of the Mayan ruins and the pyramids of Egypt that were fastened to her silver walls. She straightened the picture of the rainbow over the Great Wall of China, closed her eyes, and imagined climbing up the steps, admiring the view at the top, and having a picture of her taken on that iconic masterpiece of mankind.
She circled her room and smiled at the pictures that someone else had taken. Not her.
“One of these days I will be the one going on the adventure, not just reading about it. I am going to live it.”
The crooked picture of the glaciers in the Arctic Circle swayed back and forth like a hypnotic pendulum as she yanked her school uniform off the hanger and put it on.
“The Hypothesis of Giants Book One: The Assumption” by: Melissa Kuch