The boy was nearly five when an invader arrived in his house. His aunt had taken him to see a new science fiction movie as an early birthday present, and then they had gone to the hospital to see his new baby sister. He barely noticed her, because they had also given him a golden robot action figure, which he found far more interesting.
His parents kept the baby in their big upstairs room until she was big enough to move into his cozy downstairs room with him. He didn’t mind sharing, but Dad decided to add a new Master Bedroom to the house. The boy left the smaller downstairs room to little sister, and moved Upstairs.
Upstairs was enormous, especially to one whose age hadn’t quite reached double digits yet. He quickly filled it with his action figures: army men with unlikely weapons systems, aliens and monsters, wilderness sets with boat-planes, tractors, safari jeeps, park rangers, an ambulance with a driver… and of course, that first golden robot. He built (and destroyed) cities, towns, space stations, airports, bases, and battle cruisers every day. He constantly terraformed his little world, barely noticed the world outside his window. There wasn’t much to look at out there, admittedly.
The house was built from the desert up by the boy’s father. It sat back from a washboard road in an un-incorporated part of the county, a good 20 miles northwest of the outer reaches of the state capital. The Upstairs window looked due North over the shingled roof of the patio/sunroom below, and across several acres of citrus orchard. Further away – only a few miles, though it seemed further to the boy – were the “mountains”. They were sad, scorched hills that signaled the edge of the known world to a small child busy with a world of his own. They were hardly worth thinking about.
He was perfectly happy with this arrangement. He went to public school, where he enjoyed his classes and got along well enough, and he attended church with his family on Sundays. He put the minimum expected effort into his school work, hardly noticing that all the other kids lived close enough to each other to have a social life. Perhaps he was aware that he was the outsider in every group. It never bothered him; he was just as happy not sharing his world with them.
He did his best to please everyone at his church, too. They were part of a tiny congregation whose “youth group” most years consisted of him, his sister, their cousin, and the pastor’s kids. He enjoyed the stories, but the lessons usually involved something about resisting all of the sin and corruption in the World, or earning the Great Reward of Everlasting Life. It seemed to him that his own little world of Upstairs was the best place for him to hide out and wait with his burgeoning population of plastic folk for his own Great Reward, whatever that might mean.
One afternoon, his father came up to the room Upstairs, and sat on the window seat. The window seat was really a lid to a built-in chest that ran the length of the window. All of the toys fit nicely into it on those occasions when his mother insisted that he tidy the big room. The rest of the time, it was a secret, underground base filled with row upon row of armed action figures. As his father’s weight settled, causing that lid to creak, the boy thought he heard the toy soldiers readying their weapons to fend off an invader that had settled above them.
“You know I think you’re a great kid, right?” his father said. The boy shrugged modestly, and nodded. “We’re really proud of you; but you’re getting older, now. You may want to think about starting to out-grow playing with do… er, with your ‘guys’.”
The boy felt a dull shock creep through his stomach. In all his imaginary tales of invasion or destruction, he had never envisioned a real end to his world. “My what?” he gasped.
“I know there’s not a lot else for you to do, living out here. We try to keep you safe, but I know you probably miss having friends nearby. I know you read a lot, and draw. But your mother and I were thinking you might want to start taking some music lessons, and maybe start getting rid of some of the dolls…”
“They aren’t dolls!” the boy said. He didn’t shout, but his fists were clenched, and so were his teeth. “They are my friends!”
His dad colored, and then dropped his gaze, not quite believing the reaction he had provoked. “Well, just start thinking about it,” he murmured. He looked back out the window for a moment. “They won’t be much use to you out there, you know,” he said, hooking a thumb toward the weary, sun-blasted hills. “I just hope that when you try to make real friends, they won’t laugh at you; you really don’t want to be a teenaged boy who plays with dolls.”
With that, his father retreated down the stairs.
“They aren’t ‘dolls’, Dad,” the boy called after him. He sat on the top step, heart thudding, terrified of pending loss, but uncertain when it would come. How do you protect yourself from those who think they are helping you? As he sat fuming with his back to the room, he heard a small creak from the lid of the window seat.
Originally, the south wall of the room had been a big, open balcony window looking down the vaulted ceiling into the living room. After moving the boy up there, however, it had become clear that something needed to be done about the arrangement. Not only had the boy taken to dropping things over the wall (strictly accidentally, of course), but it was too hard to get him to settle down and go to sleep when they had company over. The boy was never stealthy enough to stifle his giggles when dad and uncle Frank started telling their mildly rude jokes, and one night he had let out a horrified scream after uncle Doug – a recently returned Vietnam veteran – told the story of an Army Ranger he knew who had crashed his helicopter, knocked out his left eye, and hiked back to U.S. lines; loose eye pinned to his eyelid with his infantry badge.
His father built a “lodge-style” ceiling over the living room, and turned the former balcony into a wall-length set of three bookcases. The right hand set of shelves was hinged, and the whole case swung into the newly created attic. It was a real-live, honest-to-goodness secret passage.
Even if it didn’t really go anywhere, the boy loved it. He managed to keep it secret long enough to baffle his visiting cousin at Hide-and-Seek, until his sister blabbed. Then it became a shared refuge; a part of their games, and part of his little world. The bookshelves served as rebel enclaves, Imperial lairs, and mountain redoubts. His men, as he thought of them, had quartered there through many a siege campaign.
Now, as he lay on his bed considering his father’s words, the boy contemplated the secret passage in a different light. He had never really noticed how old he was getting. He had no real desire to grow up, other than a vague urge to learn how to drive. It had certainly never occurred to him that adulthood could sneak up on one; that one day you were the center of your own, isolated realm, and the next you had to start thinking about The End. He wasn’t even all that certain what else he was expected to do. Most of his life had been spent in this room, bringing these plastic toys to life.
He lay on his back, holding his current favorite – a tough looking, heroic figure decked out with winter parka and ice planet survival gear. He stared glumly at the false door, wondering vaguely if some unexplored bit of Narnia lay behind it. Perhaps there would be a safe haven in there for his collection of soon-to-be refugees.
“What’re ya gonna do, kid?” his snow soldier asked him. The boy shrugged. “Well, I know what I need to do. We’ve gotta get a signal out.” The boy blinked. He’d role-played imaginary conversations with these toys for so long, it came naturally. But suddenly, he wasn’t 100% sure the voice had come from within his own head.
He regarded the toy in his hand; there was something odd about the way it felt. It was somehow more delicate and vital than plastic. It wasn’t moving, but it felt like it could. Holding it was like holding one of the puppies his dog had given birth to the winter before, when it was still exhausted from birth and lay trembling. He put the toy down on his night stand, leaning it against his clock radio. He wiped his hand absently on his sheet, and curled up on his side, staring at the still figure until he fell asleep.
His dreams were odd that night. Small, but adult voices swirled around his head, and at the foot of his bed. His floor teemed with activity as inventories were taken and repairs were made. He had played out mobilization scenarios a thousand times while awake, but in the dreams it felt larger. It was more active with everything moving at once. It felt more animated. More urgent. He couldn’t see what it was, but there was some crisis going on; there was some pending doom. The details were dream-sketchy and answers dream-elusive.
In the morning, when he got up and headed for the stairs, a movement caught the corner of his eye. He looked out at the yard, expecting to see the cat stalking a bird or rabbit in the small garden. He felt something under his hand as he leaned over to peer through the window; he had rested it on his soldier. He – it – was propped in the corner of the window sill, right where a small flap of screen had popped loose from its frame.
His mother’s voice calling up the stairs startled him: “Are you awake, yet?” He glanced over at the clock radio, and realized he had overslept, and his alarm hadn’t gone off. Something was wrong with the thing… but instead of investigating, he tossed the little man onto the bed, and dashed down to breakfast.
“Were you feeling alright last night?” his mother greeted him.
“I’m fine. My alarm just didn’t go off.”
“Well, I’m not surprised you overslept,” she said. “You came down to our room at about eleven. The front of your shirt was all wet, like you had been drooling – you must have left your retainer in – and you were acting so funny! You told us you were out in the sandbox playing with your men!” She laughed the way mothers do when their child has done something they find both naughty and charming. “We checked the doors, though, and they were all locked.”
The boy didn’t know why, but he was deeply shaken by the revelation of his nocturnal adventure. He couldn’t reach the locks on the doors, so he probably hadn’t gone outside. (He managed not to dwell on the ripped corner of the screen.) But he had never been a sleepwalker, either.
When he went back Upstairs to dress, he slipped that soldier into his pocket. He felt a twinge of guilt – it would be hot in there, wearing that blue parka – but he didn’t want the little man left to his own devices all day. The boy spent most of that day poking at the shape in his jeans, willing it to move, or make some noise of protest. The soldier kept his cool somehow, in spite of this.
Arriving home after school, the boy headed straight for the sandbox. He and his sister had both stopped playing in it long ago. It was one of the cat’s favorite places. He got a stick, and poked at a few patches that looked like they had been recently excavated. He ignored a few unsavory objects, unsure what he was searching for until he unearthed something a bit more solid: a nine-volt battery, and a small, plastic radar dish on a wheeled base. The radar had come with his ice planet play set; the battery was the kind that belonged in his clock radio.
His blood ran cold as he pulled a small, man-shaped figure out of the sand. He knew this was wrong. Not only had he never left any of his toys outside overnight before, he never buried any of the action figures in the sand for fear that he might lose one. He only made one dollar a week in allowance, and each of them cost an astronomical $3.65. They were far too precious to risk destroying or losing.
He gathered the toys up, and shakily took them up to his bathroom. He carefully cleaned off all of the sand, and then lined up the soldier from his pocket, the man he had rescued from the sand, and a few other likely suspects along the window sill.
“Alright, you guys,” he said sternly. “What’s going on here?” They all stared back into the room vacantly; he didn’t know if he was glad or disappointed by that. “I’m not your enemy, you know,” he told them. “Neither is dad, really.”
He sat back and stared hard at them for a long time. He looked back over at the clock radio; it seemed to be working again, and he suspected that if he checked, there would be a fresh battery in it, just like the one he found outside.
“I think…” he said slowly, “I think time might be our little world’s only enemy.”
And he sat down on the edge of the bed to think some more.
When his father came upstairs to say goodnight, he looked around the unusually clean room. Lifting the lid on the window seat, he nodded satisfactorily.
“I notice you boxed up your men,” he told the boy. “If you think you’re done playing with them, you know your cousin would love to have them. They’re coming out to visit this weekend.”
“I’ll think about it, dad,” the boy murmured, as his father headed back downstairs.
He rolled over in his bed so that he could see out the window. He watched the stars appear one by one as the last of the sun disappeared. He watched the winking lights of distant airplanes moving across the sky, and he thought about the people on board; each with their own life, each having turned gradually into an adult, much to the shock of their inner child.
He watched one light in particular, which was low and moving fast… moving faster than it should have been. They lived under the approach path of the air force base a few miles up the road, so he knew what fighters looked like. But even fighters moved in straight lines. This light was dashing back and forth, and making crazy arcs across his field of vision. It stopped abruptly, and hung in the sky just above the mountains, as if marking a boundary line of some kind before zooming straight at his window.
With a faint but distinct “whoosh”, the light buzzed over the roof of the house. The boy was out of bed and down the stairs before he quite knew he was going. He rushed into his parents’ room, and to his father’s side of the bed.
“Dad!” he whisper-shouted, “Something just flew right over the house! Come see it! It might come back!”
His father bolted upright in bed, and switched on his lamp. The boy grabbed his hand, pulling and hissing, “C’mon, Dad!”
“What’s the matter with you?” his father snapped. “You know the jets fly over here all the time.”
The boy chattered a quick description of what he had seen. It couldn’t be anything else; it had to be some kind of ship! Dad had to listen!
“It’s probably just a headlight, or a reflector from the main road! I thought you were starting to outgrow this stuff!”
The boy stopped, stunned. His father went on, more gently, “Look, I know it’s hard on you, but you have to let go of your little world. You can’t come in here every night acting goofy and giving us some crazy story. Go back to bed, now.”
The boy started back down the hall, and could hear his father say to his mother, “I’ll pack it all away in the morning.”
Dejected, the boy made his way up the stairs. He didn’t register the blue glow until he was already at the top, and he could see small figures in silhouette balanced on the open lid of the window seat. They were pulling on shoe-lace ropes, hauling boxes and equipment from the depths of their secret underground base. It was an evacuation in progress. Behind them, in the window, the blue glow came from an energy field on the underside of what appeared to be a hovering tractor-trailer.
All work stopped when they noticed the boy at the top of the stairs, and they stood and regarded each other for a few moments. A familiar figure pulled himself up over the lip of the chest, shouting at the workers to keep moving, and then he spotted the boy.
“C’mon, kid, give us a hand, wouldja? You don’t want us to go to your cousin, either, do you? Have you seen what the kid does to lizards when he catches them?” He gave an exaggerated shudder; a tiny bit of vaudeville on his window seat stage.
The boy just stared in shock for another moment, but the image of his cousin torturing his friends broke him out of the paralysis.
“You don’t have to go, you know. We could hide you in there,” he said, gesturing back toward the secret passage. The little general just shook his plastic head, and the boy knew he was right. You can’t hide from the inevitable. A world has to be inhabited to stay alive and vital, and it was time for the boy to start bringing a bigger, dirtier world to life.
“Let me help you,” he said, finally, and began lifting boxes into the back of the hovering transport vessel outside his window.
In the morning, the boy’s father rose early to get ready for work. He went up to check on the boy, and found him asleep on the window seat. The window was open, the screen down, and several boxes of toys were lined up on the porch roof outside the Upstairs window. He hefted the boy, who was becoming too big for his father to lift, and tucked him into his bed. He took the boxes in off the roof - failing to notice that they were too small and light to possibly hold all of the boy’s things - and put them in the secret attic, behind the Christmas tree and the other boxes of old junk they couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of.
When he moved the last box, he found one remaining figure: the golden robot. Setting it on the headboard, the father left his son Upstairs, in a room that continued to grow smaller.