Walk to School

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"Hey, wait up," I yelled at my friends. Martin and Jerry both had new uniforms. Mine was a hand-me-down from my older brother, so it was heavy and tended to slow me down.

In addition to having been worn by my brother and weighing as much as a boat anchor, there was plenty, in fact, that I didn't like about my get up. To start with it was matte black, which was great for playing hide-and-seek, but we were only two weeks into the school year it was already getting very monotonous. Martin's was black too, but his Mom had helped him customize it with glowing EL-wire and reflective paint that made it look cool. And unlike mine it was made for a kid, all the joints had adjustments that would allow his suit to fit as he grew.

Jerry's suit was one of those sleek Formex™ get-ups that could only be called a uniform because it conformed to the Educator's Ballistics Safety Code. You could barely see the armor plating embedded in the shape conforming gel-fabric. Plus, he could program the suit's color. The technology embedded in the bulletproof fabric could do just about anything. This one time he turned it iridescent magenta and started prancing around the playground while making fun of Emily Smalls. We laughed so hard. Although, when he wasn't being mean to the girls, he pretty much always kept it green and blue with his name emblazoned across his chest in bright white letters. He looked like he played football for the Seahawks.

Martin turned around and keyed the microphone on his uniform's facemask. "Jeez Ben, hurry up. Would you? You're going to make us late." Martin couldn't stand being late. Even though the schoolyard was in sight, we still had to make it through the security check at its edge.

"My uniform is so heavy," I repeated letting my shoulders slouch under the weight. I dragged my school bag along the sidewalk and shuffled my feet. My friends heard these words all the time from me. I'm a small kid for my age; that's what my Mom says anyway. My brother is four years older and the size of a gorilla, which means that the armor plates needed to cover his vitals are so large they could protect me twice.

Three short, sharp cracks echoed off the brownstones bordering the street, and all three of us hit the ground. My uniform's proximity alarm wasn't chirping in my ear, so I got up and crouch-walked behind the nearest Jersey barrier.

There was a much louder "boom-smack" that must have come from one of the automated neighborhood protection drones. After counting to seven, I peeked over the barrier, but could not see where the firefight was happening. It was likely just traffic. All exchanges of light arms fire were called this, I guess because they often got started when people were driving.

Martin low crawled from the bush where he'd dropped to the barrier I was hunched behind. His helmet amplifier was still on, and he was chanting "Chuck, chuck, chuck, boom!" over and over again. I could hear Jerry giggling from the far side of a brick and mortar stoop.

"Ben, did you sample that one?" Martin asked sitting with his back to the concrete. We'd need to wait until we say a drone's beacon flash the all-clear before we could finish our walk to school. We both knew it might take a while.

I checked my pocket, rewinding the perpetual audio sample about two minutes behind where I saw our voices spike. The gunfire lost against the background noise.

"No. Not this time," I said.

"I bet you can beatbox it," Martin said.

I unclipped my face shield and thought about the sound, trying to dredge up the memory. Getting the automated neighborhood protection drone's 30-millimeter cannon right wasn't hard. We heard these all the time. The first three shot, however, made me think.

I have an excellent recall of sounds, and I can usually tell my friends exactly what kind of ordinance is going off around us. But this time there was something off about the first three shots. I guessed that the muzzle report had bent around the corner two intersections back and put my hand beside my mouth to imitate a three round burst from a short barreled .223 carbine bending around a corner.

"Chuck, chuck, chuck" I imitated. I waited a measure and then tossed in a perfect 30-millimeter "boom!" followed by my best copy the creation of random rubble.

"You are so good at that Ben," said Martin. "I wish I could do it."

"What, beatbox?" I said. I knew Martin played around with it, but never really practiced much. He had a clear singing voice, but his fricatives weren't crisp.

"Well yeah, that too. But I wish I could repeat sounds like you can," Martin said.

"'I wish I could repeat sounds like you can,'" I said holding my nose while speaking from the back of my mouth. Martin laughed.

"Hey guys," said Jerry. "Think I can come out yet?"

The beacons weren't on yet, but Martin called back anyway. "Yeah, sure. Better turn your suit pink so the drones will think you're a sissy," he said laughing.

I watched as Jerry vanished, his adaptive camouflage melting into the hedge he passed. He sat down opposite Martin and punched his suits usual program.

"Anyone call home yet?" Jerry asked.

"No, my Mom has a GPS fix on me," said Martin.

"Hum, both my Mom and Dad are too busy at work. I texted them, but I bet they're in meetings all morning," said Jerry. "How about you Ben?"

"No, I don't even have a phone," I said.

"What about your pocket?" Jerry pressed.

"No connection. Mom can't afford the data plan," I said.

"Martin, can I borrow this?" Jerry said reaching around me to tug at Martin's face mask.

"Yeah," said Martin unclipping the protective plate from his helmet.

Jerry handed me the mask. "Now do your thing into the amplifier. Just stay low."

"What? Why?" I said with a note of disbelief.

"Trust me. If this works we'll be able to spend the day at the arcade," said Jerry.

I rolled my eyes at my friend and ducked low behind the Jersey barrier before I repeated the sound of a three round burst into the amplifier.

All three of us heard the automated neighborhood protection drone come to life on the far side of the street. Jerry switched the program on his suit and vanished. I could tell from the sounds of his shuffling that he was checking on the drone while avoiding its target acquisition protocol.

"Do the cannon," he said.

I could see where this might be going, so I cupped a hand beside my mouth again and imitated the 30-millimeter "boom."

"Yes!" said Jerry's disembodied voice. I heard him sit down behind the wall. "You guys are going to need to walk quick and stay low, but the bots are in lockdown for another 30 minutes."

"So?" Martin said.

"So," both Jerry and I began at the same time.

He beat me to the "jinx," but I marched on with the full explanation. "If the neighborhood is on lockdown then the school is closed for the day."

"Oh," said Martin. "But what about my GPS?"

"Jeez Martin, just tell your Mom that the arcade was the safest place you could think of," said Jerry.


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