Excerpt from Short People, a story collection by Joshua Furst. 


"The Age of Exploration."

It's summer, and when it rains the concrete smells sweet, slightly mineral, fresh. When it's sunny and dry, wavy lines hover over the asphalt. You have to wear shoes or you'll burn your feet. The neighborhood belongs to children, to chipmunks and ducklings, to things that haven't stopped growing. It belongs to Jason and Billy.

Billy is smart--he wears glasses. When he finds things, he learns what they are. He's older than Jason. Jason was born on April eleven, and Billy was born on January five. That makes Billy more than three months older. Jason and Billy are both six, but Billy will be seven first. Jason wishes that he were as old as Billy. Then he would know all the things Billy knows.

Billy knows what he's going to be when he grows up. A paleontologist. Not just somebody who knows about dinosaurs, a paleontologist is a searcher of the past, a finder of fossils, reader of bones and rocks, knower of what's hidden deep in the earth--ten million years deep; time is recorded in rings you can see if you dig deep under the blacktop. He has scoured the neighborhood, examined every rock and every chunk of bark in search of new fossils. Billy's favorite animal is the trilobite. It's a kind of an arthropod, a crab the size of a quarter, and it has a horseshoe shell. It's been extinct for hundreds of thousands of millions of years. He has one in his collection. He didn't find it, though; his father bought it for him at the museum. His other fossils he found. Footprints of a tiny bird. Petrified wood. A cluster of shells embedded in a piece of dolomite.

What does Jason know? He knows the routes to his favorite places. In one direction is the park with the concrete duck pond. In the other, the public pool. He knows which direction is which. He knows the shortcut you can take through the Evergreen Plaza parking lot if you want to go to the pool. He knows, when you walk to the park, that you have to walk on the grass and know where you're going because the sidewalk stops before you get there. Each time he goes exploring with Billy, the map in Jason's head gets bigger, but at the same time, everything already on the map takes on a greater variety of detail. He knows that the pool is east and the park is west. He's never been north or south, but he knows what they are and one day, hopefully, he'll go to these places. He might even go farther east past the pool, but he'll never go west past the park; after the park is the highway and you're not allowed to go across the highway.

Jason doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. Maybe a guy who works at the grocery story and tells you where to find marshmallow fluff. Maybe a lifeguard, like at the pool. Maybe unemployed, like his father, or an engineer, like his father was before. He won't be a paleontologist, though; that's Billy's job.

Billy knows, when you're at the pool, that you have to wait twenty minutes after you eat before you can go in the water again. Otherwise you get cramped up in your stomach. It's because of digestion.

The two of them sit on the scalding deck waiting for their twenty minutes to be up. They just ate Doritos. The other kids are playing. Not even the big kids are waiting for digestion, only Jason and Billy. Billy wishes he were a big kid, then he would've remembered that if you eat the Doritos the lifeguards sell at the snack stand you lose out on pool time. He would have known it's not worth it. He'll save the Starbursts he bought for the walk home. Billy is learning a bit about the world. He now knows to choose his temptations. The Doritos at the pool are always stale anyway.

What else does Jason know? Jason knows that the pool is always crowded. He knows where the invisible elephant lives by the fence. He knows that Doritos taste really good. He knows his phone number so if he's lost he can get a grown-up to call. He knows that the big kid with the white stuff caked on his cheeks, the one standing on the Jacksonville Jaguars blanket--see him, he's stretching his arms behind his head, flexing his muscles, yeah, that guy, with number 19 shaved on his head--he's going to dive off the high dive.

"No, he's not," Billy says.

"He is. I'll bet you."

"I'll bet you a dollar."

The big kid is walking now toward the diving part of the pool, but does that mean he's going to the high dive? He might be going to talk to the lifeguard, or find a girl he can throw in the pool. He might be looking for his friends to say it's time to go.

"That's too much," says Jason. "A quarter. Or okay, how 'bout a Starburst?"

"See, you're not sure."

"Yes, I am."

"Why won't you bet a dollar, then?"

"Look."

The kid's climbing the ladder. He's strutting down to the end of the board and turning back toward the metal hand loops. He's standing at the top of the ladder and staring out at the water. He's running, he's jumping, he's twisting in the air, tucking his one knee up, flexing his other leg straight. He's landing with a flop, first his foot, then his butt. An arc of water erupts like out of a shook-up soda can, shoots over the diving board, and splatters in the grass past the concrete, on the other side of the chain-link fence.

Jason knew. Jason won. "You owe me a Starburst."

"No."

"He dived."

"He didn't dive. He did that other thing, a what's-it-called."

"Same difference."

"No, you said dive and he didn't dive."

"I still knew he was going to go off the diving board."

"You didn't say that, though. You said dive."

"You knew what I meant."

Jason has yet to learn that thinking is private and speaking is public. To him, the words don't matter; it's what he meant that's really important. But Billy knows: say what you mean. He knows life is literal, even if that's a word he doesn't understand. The boy did a what's-it-called, not a dive. That's the truth. Ask anyone. Jason needs to learn what's real and what isn't. No one can hurt you if you know what's real and what isn't.

But Jason did know the boy would jump off the diving board. That part was true. "You knew what I meant," he says.

Billy didn't know what he meant, but he does now. He was corrected. He learned. Why does being friends mean that sometimes you have to be wrong even when you're right? "Okay, Jason, I'll let you be right. But I don't have to give you a Starburst, because the bet was about diving."

Jason knows how to sulk.

"Jason, I said you were right."

"You didn't mean it, though." Jason knows more than he seems to.

"Do you want a Starburst? Here. I'll even give you a pink one."

"No. I was right, though, right?"

"Yes. You were right."

"That's pretty cool that I could know what he'd do before he did it, though," Jason says. "It's magic."

Billy knows nothing is magic if you're a scientist. Scientists can find the reason for everything. That's their job. But then, scientists might be magicians, too. They know the secrets that make magic happen. No, they're scientists. Okay, but if nothing's magic, how did Jason know the boy would go to the diving board? Billy thinks and thinks, but he doesn't know.

Anyway, the twenty minutes are up. It's time to play and play and play. Until the pool closes for adult swim, and then it's time to leave.

Billy shares his Starbursts on the walk home.

In a pile of gravel, Jason finds a rock, a fossil with gouges and squiggles and stickie-outies that, even etched into dead stone, look like they were alive yesterday and might come to life again tomorrow. Jason feels weird. His map gets bigger, not in a normal way but up and down: down into the ground because that's where the fossil came from before it was part of the pile of gravel, and up toward the sky because he doesn't know why. Because finding fossils is something Billy does, not something Jason does. It seems not right. Jason collects bottle caps, not fossils. But then--and this is why the map gets bigger--if he found a fossil, which is Billy's job, how are he and Billy different?

Billy looks at Jason's fossil to make sure it's real. "Yup. That's a fossil," Billy says. "I haven't seen that kind before."

"So, do you don't know what kind it is?"

"I can find out in my books."

"Do I have to let you have it for that?"

Billy twists his lip up inside his teeth while he thinks. Billy is always thinking in between what you say and what he says back to you. "Yeah."

"But then you'll give it back?"

Billy ponders, but a thought comes to Jason like magic. "No, you know what, it's better if you have it to have in your collection." Magic because Jason knows it's the same thing Billy was thinking. "But you have to tell me what it is."

"I told you, I don't know."

"Yeah, but when you do."

Billy won't forget. He'll find out everything there is to know about Jason's fossil. Billy's good at things like that.

Jason's good at other things, like having magic thoughts.

The things Jason's good at are kid things. He's good at feeding the invisible elephant. The elephant eats right out of his hand. It rubs its long snout against his forehead, wraps it around him and pulls him close. It pokes at his belly with its thick tongue, tickles him. Its snout is wet like his kitty cat's nose. Its tongue is a very strong muscle that helps it eat and talk and spit. Sometimes it picks Jason up and throws him sprawling into the water. If it wanted to it could drink the pool empty and still be thirsty. Jason shows the elephant to Billy, but Billy can't see it.

"He's not an it, he's a him, and of course you can't see him. He's invisible. Look, though. I take the invisible peanut out of my pocket and hold it like that, and the elephant bends down like that and like that. See? He's eating."

Twisting and cavorting, Jason gets Billy laughing so he can't stop, so he's on his back on the cement. "It goes like that, and like that, and like that." Billy can see the elephant now. It might be invisible, but it's real, too. He won't admit it, but Jason can tell: he wouldn't be laughing if it wasn't real.

Jason's good at making Billy laugh. Jason's good at being silly.

Billy would deny it, but he wishes he were as silly as Jason. Life can't be all books. You have to go out and play sometimes. Playing is painful. Without any rules, Billy might get it wrong. Playing is like dreaming in front of other people. Billy only dreams when he's alone. He dreams that he's ten million years old and has watched the fishes crawl out of the sea, that he taught the apes how to speak, that he took the Cro-Magnon men hunting and caught a woolly mammoth. He's embarrassed by his dreams because they aren't true. Billy can't understand Jason. Jason dreams constantly, even in public. He doesn't care if other people laugh at him. He makes up what he doesn't know and believes so strongly in what he makes up that it almost doesn't matter that it's not true. It doesn't matter to Jason. It matters to Billy, though. How can Billy, after being needled--"Come on, it's your turn to come up with a game, it's not fair if I have to do everything"--to the point at which, daring himself not to be scared, he finally says, "Okay, let's play Stone Age," then go on a hunt for a dragon instead of a mammoth? There weren't any dragons in the Stone Age. There weren't any dragons ever--they're make-believe. It's silly. Billy feels foolish. But here he is crouching behind a park bench, crawling on his hands and knees.

"That's not a dragon, Jason, that's a bunny."

"No, it's a dragon disguised as a bunny," and somehow this makes sense when Jason says it.

Now Billy's running after the dragon, actually afraid that he might get burned if he lets it breathe on him. The dragon darts away--or did it fly? Jason says he saw its wings pop out, but who knows. Anyway, they've saved the world. They spin in circles and gaze at the sky until they're so dizzy they fall to the ground. Now Billy's grinning and flat on his stomach, exhausted and happy and feeling the prickle of grass on his skin, the clumpy soil, the breeze cutting over his sun-flushed body. The dragon got away. One day it will come back, but that's okay. Right now they're safe. How can he have so much fun? He doesn't know, but he can--with Jason he can.

Then when he gets home, he can't again.

They play Billy's games, too, sometimes, not really games but experiments. That way if anyone tells him he's being immature he can say, "No, I'm not, it's scientific." Who can hold his breath the longest underwater? Jason. Who can do the most somersaults in a row underwater? Jason. Okay, backward somersaults? Jason. Who can swim the farthest along the bottom of the pool before coming up for a breath? Jason. Who can jump off of the side of the pool and kick the most times in the air before he lands in the water? Jason again. Jason is better at playing than Billy.

Just look at him, scraped and scabbed, band-aids everywhere from when he flew off that swing, when he took that quick turn on his Big Wheel and it tumbled over him, from the time he waded into the duck pond and slipped on the algae-caked concrete. Jason's a rubber ball; he'll bounce off anything. Billy is scrawnier, bony, pale, tender. He could fit one and a half of himself inside Jason. Winner games are no fun. Even when Billy comes up with the game, he loses. What would it be like to be like Jason, to jump really high and run really fast and believe in make-believe things?

How about this: who can jump into the pool backward and get closest to the edge without hitting it?

"You have to pretend there's an edge right behind you, too, like you're jumping into a tiny crack in the ground and if you can fit you'll go to the Fish Kingdom and grow gills and what else, Jason? I can't think what else."