This award-winning short story for children by Stuart Lee is published here exclusively for TES readers to use in class. A secret, a friendship and conflicting loyalties are its enticing themes
There are only two people on earth who know what's in Old Jake's silo - Old Jake and me. I've often thought about telling someone, but I never have.
Not one living soul in the four years I've known. And anyway, who would believe me? Besides, I'd promised Old Jake I'd keep his secret.
The bus ride home seemed to take longer on Fridays. It didn't, of course, it was just a trick of the mind. The ride to and from school was always the same, day after day, year after year. I checked my watch. It was nearly 4 o'clock and we were three minutes from Old Jake's farm - and the silo.
Three minutes exactly; three minutes and counting.
The yellow bus rattled down the dusty valley road we had taken a thousand times before. It had emptied out along the way and now there were just two kids left on board - Jessie and me. We crossed Bailey's Bridge. Two minutes now and still counting. Jessie was talking. Man, girls can talk, but this time I wasn't listening. I looked past Jessie and up towards the sky. It somehow seemed different today. Bluer than normal, I swear, and the scattered clouds were moving quickly. Maybe they knew what was coming and were getting out of the way.
Jessie sat by the window with me beside her. That's how it worked on the ride home. I took the window seat in the mornings, but I guess that made sense as I was first on the bus. Jessie was 12, and a year behind me at school. I'm not sure if I could describe her as pretty. She was sort of half pretty, if there is such a thing. We lived on neighbouring farms and I'd known her all my life. We were born on the same date, June 15, but a year apart. I always thought that meant something.
"Ben, you're not listening!" Jessie had shiny eyes and they were locked on to me. "In fact," she continued, "you've been acting weird all day." The bus passed the beekeeper's place. Just one more minute and the silo would come into view.
"Sorry, what were you saying?" I said. She took a deep breath and rolled her eyes.
"I was just saying about Claire and Sarah, you know, about what they said."
I didn't need to answer. I just raised my eyebrows a little. She rolled her shiny eyes again.
"They keep saying that you're my boyfriend. I mean, can you imagine that?"
I just smiled and looked to the sky again. It was definitely bluer.
Thirty seconds to go. Every day we passed the silo and every day I searched it out just to make sure it was still there and nothing had changed. Sounds silly I know, but there you are. Jessie talked on - something about one of her teachers. And this is just between you and me, but I saved Jessie's life once. It was years ago, when she was eight and I was nine. All the local kids used to go swimming in the dam at the top of Wattle Valley near our farms. No one can swim there anymore. There's a barbed wire fence and "No Trespassing" signs everywhere. Anyway, on that day Jessie banged her head and disappeared under the murky water. Somehow I found her in time.
Everyone said I was a hero, but I wasn't really. I just did what I did.
Jessie never talks about it with me but she tells other people. She tells them I'm a hero.
The bus rattled on. Just 10 seconds to go. I'd been to see Old Jake last Monday after school. That's when he told me. "Young Ben," he had announced in his croaky voice, "all our good work has come to an end and now the time is right." I guess I was a bit shocked. For some reason I thought it would never leave, but he said everything was ready. A lot of people said he was a bit crazy and Mum didn't like me spending too much time at his farm. But to me he wasn't crazy, he was just a bit sad. His wife had died many years ago and I'm sure he missed her a lot.
Five, four, three, two, one... we cleared a bank of trees on the left and Old Jake's farm came into view. The silo stood on its own away from the other farm buildings. It was about 20 metres high and six metres wide. It used to hold grain feed for Jake's cattle, but that was years ago. Now it held his secret. Jake had made a lot of changes to it and he'd fitted a door at the back that couldn't be seen from the road. There was a large latch with a large padlock on it. And I knew where he hid the key.
The silo disappeared as we moved past the farm. Jessie talked on. She and I always celebrated our birthdays together. Sometimes at my place and sometimes at hers. It made for a good-sized crowd and a good party. Not long after I'd fished her out of the dam she made me swear a promise: that we'd always be friends and tell each other everything and that there'd never be secrets between us. I agreed, of course, but that was then and we were young. I wasn't sure if it still counted. But if there was one person in the world I'd tell about the silo, it was Jessie. I would trust her with my life.
The bus slowed at Hampton's Corner and Jessie made herself ready to leave.
I didn't get up to let her out like I usually did. I just sat there as the bus slowed to a stop. It didn't make sense for her to sit by the window on the way home, as she always got out first. But that's just how we did it.
"Jessie." I turned and spoke to her directly. It was easier to hear now the bus had stopped. "I'm going to call you when I get home. There's something I want to tell you." She gave me a funny look as I stood up. I watched her walk slowly down the aisle and then turn as if to speak. "Ten minutes," I said, holding my hand to my ear with the thumb and finger like a telephone.
"When you're ready. Haven't got all day." The driver, Mrs Eckhoff, was getting impatient. I could see her eyes in the rear vision mirror. Jessie continued down the aisle and jumped down the steps. The bus moved off and she gave me the usual farewell holding a fist to her temple in a mock salute and a wide smile. The bus rattled on.
"See you on Monday, Mrs Eckhoff." "See ya, Ben." I leapt from the second step and rolled as I hit the ground and then jumped to my feet. That was my "commando bus exit" and it always made Jessie laugh when she saw it.
The dogs came running to greet me as I rode my bike up to the house. I loved the dogs and they were always happy to see me. I phoned Jessie, but she took some persuading. She rarely came over on a Friday evening. But I said it had to be tonight. Mum was suspicious. "Why is Jessie coming over tonight? Where are you going? What time will you be back?" Mothers just seem to know when things aren't quite right. Dad sat at dinner and we talked about the farm.
Jessie arrived on time at seven like I knew she would. She had to be home by eight, before it got dark. Mum stood on the steps with her hands on her hips. "Ben, back here by 7:45 and not a minute later. Do you understand me?" I understood. We rode our bikes to the main road and then pedalled the seven minutes to Old Jake's farm. Believe me, it was seven minutes. I'd timed it. We took the track that left his driveway and rode straight to the silo. I explained to Jessie that Old Jake didn't work on Friday evenings.
He listened to a concert programme on the radio. You know, the stuff old people listen to. I could hear the music in the distance.
The silo key was hidden under a rock. I pulled the door open and we stepped inside. There were no windows and we stood in the dark. "You have to promise not to tell," I said. She promised. I flicked the switch and the lights hummed. I turned my eyes to Jessie. Her mouth opened in wonder and her head tilted back. "Oh my god Ben, it's, it's, a..."
"It's a rocket," I said, finishing her sentence. Usually she finished mine.
"Ben. Is it... you know... is itI?"
"Yes, Jess, it's real." Her eyes asked me more questions. "Yes, he's going to send it into space. There's rocket fuel ready for the tanks."
"But how..." she started.
"It's an old one from Russia. Jake bought it in pieces years ago and put it back together. He's been working on it for over 10 years." The rocket was a shiny silver colour and Jessie's eyes were glued. She walked around it asking me more questions. I checked my watch. Time was running out. We biked back to the main road and then stopped at my driveway. Jessie didn't say a word on the way back. Not one.
"Ben..." Jessie's eyes seemed more shiny than normal and she was talking kind of funny. "You have to tell the police. People just can't send rockets into space."
"Because they can't, Ben, that's why. It could blow up and crash. It could crash on my house." Man, I'd never thought of that. "But Jessie," I said, "I promised not to tell."
"Yeah," she said. "You did promise". She biked off without giving me the mock salute. I guess the promise we made to have no secrets still counted.
Deep down I knew Jessie was right. I had to tell. I had to tell Jake's secret and break my promise. I rode home and everything began happening so fast. Mum made the phone call and the police arrived and Dad went with them to Jake's farm. When they came back I knew before they told me. I just knew. Old Man Jake had passed on from this world. They had found him in the house with his music still playing. Mum and Dad said he had enjoyed a good long life and that was true. But he was my friend and I would miss him. I asked the policeman about Jake's rocket. He said the air force would know what to do.
Monday morning came around quickly as it always does. I greeted Mrs Eckhoff as I jumped on the bus and we headed towards Hampton's Corner. The bus slowed down as usual but this time it didn't stop. Something was wrong.
Jessie wasn't there. But she always called me when she couldn't make school - always!
"Mrs Eckhoff!" I shouted. I could see her eyes in the rear vision mirror.
"I'm sorry Ben," she yelled back, "I can't wait. I've got times to keep." I moved to the back of the bus and looked out the rear window as Hampton's Corner faded away. I closed my eyes and put my head down on the seat. What had I done? The bus rattled on and when I looked up again we were outside Old Jake's farm. The bus was stopping. But the bus never stops here - never! The door hissed open and Jessie bounced up the stairs, walked down the aisle and sat down beside me. "I just had to see inside the silo one more time" she said, smiling at me with her shiny eyes. She placed her hands on mine. "And I'm sorry about Old Jake."
"Yeah," I said, "me too." The bus moved off and I turned and watched as the silo disappeared. I looked up towards the sky. It was definitely bluer.
Copyright Stuart Lee 2006