Three-year-old Jersey Lem leaned forward and rested his chin on his tan, plump forearms, which bridged the handlebars of his tricycle. There was an invisible force field that ran between the last square of concrete sidewalk and the driveway of the house next door. The front wheel of his low-slung plastic trike was turned sideways and respectfully nudged right up to, but not touching, the force field. Lounging in his saddle, Jersey Lem was regarding gravely the awesome power of his mother; it was her job to recharge the force field. His bare foot rested on the warm sidewalk, and he felt as if the concrete radiated his mother’s warmth. It was connected to her by the walkway to the front step, and through the wood flooring beneath the forest of books and papers that grew around her. She was inside now, carefully plucking fruits from those trees and harvesting their leaves. The floor was littered with the humus of their discarded pages.
Jersey Lem closed his eyes and felt the warmth on the soles of his feet and the sunshine on his skin. His Superman cape, which he had taken the precaution of soaking in the sprinkler, was pulled up over his head — otherwise his scalp would feel warm, too. The wet cape gave him a delicious chill as he sat at his sentry point. He was good at his job, which was to monitor the force field and alert his mother when it began to weaken.
Interestingly enough, the force field allowed grown-ups to pass through it.
“Hey, Jersey Lem. Does your mom know you’re out here?”
Neighbor Lady didn’t notice whether he nodded, which he didn’t. Her greeting was code for Hello, sweet child. I love you as if you were my own. He sympathetically regarded Neighbor Lady, who never had anything like the awesome, powerful love his mom could radiate when she emerged from her forest — love that would recharge itself whenever she rose to glance out the kitchen window, confirming his presence. He could feel it through his toes, the nails of which his sister had painted every color she had. This was code for Cuddle up, sweet child. I love you and am practicing to have sweet children of my own. Afterward, she had read him something, resting the book on his head. He leaned heavily against her flat bosom, beneath the rain of curls and mist of young perfume, resting his feet on her knees. He waved his toes so the tiny spots of pink and red and iridescent pearl would dry and sparkle. He barely heard the story, listening only to the rhythm of her warbling voice and shallow breath.
Jersey Lem’s sister did not yet have their mother’s power, and he knew this frustrated her, so he rarely let her know that her efforts to invoke it were ineffective. She was out now —able to penetrate the force field unescorted — but he knew she would be home soon because he was starting to feel a little hungry, which meant that it was time to rummage through the cupboards and decide on cookies or cereal or, if it weren’t too hot, cinnamon toast, or maybe even early dinner.
Jersey Lem’s mom rose from her forest and came to her post at the kitchen window. Her heavy eyes opened a bit as she breathed in a deep lungful of outside air. Seeing her, Jersey Lem edged his front wheel through the force field — a simple matter of straightening it — and she strolled through the door out along the sidewalk toward him. Eyes blinking and a mild smile on her face, she leaned over, peeked under his cape, and said, “Hey,” which was code for something no words could express.
Then she stepped through the force field and turned to face him, lowering her kindly gaze to meet his. She held up her hand, waved it back and forth from the elbow like a windshield wiper, and said, “Nope, nope, nope.” And she turned her arm to show him her watch, and swung it in another arc: “Nope, nope, nope.” Then the force field was fully charged and he was relieved from duty and could follow her in for a snack.
He did not feel like driving, so he pushed his vehicle onto the grass, and stepped quickly to time his arrival to match hers. At the same time, in the back door walked his sister and their brother, who was just past sentry age himself. The synchronicity was inspiring. Not many caped sentries were this well connected, he was sure.
It was then that Jersey Lem spoke his first word since breakfast, when he had said, “Chocolate milk.” Now he said, conspiratorially, “Popcorn,” which was code for Enter, crusaders, to the castle of strength, which never forgot you.
“Hey, Jersey Lem,” his sister said. “Nice cape.”
And he breathed easier. It was always a little tricky when satellites docked, but soon the energy hummed evenly through all their feet.
A variety of chairs decorated the kitchen like random clouds on which they could float. Often, Jersey Lem would travel from cloud to cloud without touching the ground, going on ever lengthier missions as he prepared for his own crusades beyond the force field.
“Jersey Lem,” his mother said as he stepped neatly onto the cushion beside her thigh and leaned toward his brother’s cushion, “perhaps some air-traffic-control signals would help clear the runways.”
His brother turned and, when he saw Jersey Lem ready to leap, casually extended both arms. Like trapeze artists meeting high above the center ring, they locked fingers, pivoted, and released as Jersey Lem stepped neatly onto his sister’s lap. The clouds were very buoyant. Maybe, when the time came, he would ride one of them, floating above the unknown ground.
He was busy fashioning a cushion into an emergency backup booster cape when his sister mildly remarked, “These cushions are easier to untie than tie, aren’t they?” which was code for Perhaps this is not what others who share these clouds would expect, sweet child. He decided the cushions probably needed to stay on the chairs to connect with the floor, so as to keep a direct link to the warmth generated by his mother. But there was no way to think more about it until his sister stopped tickling him. He felt the warmth surge through him as he gasped for air and ricocheted off her arms and legs, and he smiled to see that she did have some capacity to tap into the power. She smiled, too. There was no doubt, she had potential.
Dizzy and hiccuping, he bounced off his mother’s knee and met her eyes. This was code for How awesome is the power you control. It must be unfathomable. Its energy will never be exhausted. And she bent to kiss his forehead on her way back to the forest. He followed her and insinuated himself between a box of file folders and the table with the word processor. She was already bent over a field of books open like flowers. Her function was cross-pollination: she connected ideas from many different sources. The files were genetic markers for the mutations she engineered.
He floated his fingers over the keyboard, wondering how her fingers were able to bend so independently and at such clean angles. (His own were round and indistinct, and moved all together.) He did not touch the keys, for they were the fragile holders of the pixels, which might evaporate if the keys were pressed. There was a mild force field over them, and he rested his fingertips on it respectfully.
His mother by now had looked up from the books and was regarding him with a calm, neutral expression that was code for I love you, sweet child, and cannot breathe without you. She shifted her rolling chair and reached her arms around him to let her fingers settle on the keys. Bink: the monitor revealed a blank screen, which was code for Speak through the fingers of your goddess.
Jersey Lem spoke at length, pausing occasionally to point out how much space to leave for the elaborate illustrations he would later add. His story was one of bravery and natural catastrophe and technological cleverness and a cape. And popcorn.
When he had finished, he watched his J appear, followed by other letters until Lem marked the corner, tattooing the story forever. Then he indicated with his fingers how large to make his name. She copied it six times in different styles and fonts. He pointed to the only possible choice, slid off her lap, and pulled the tray out of the printer.
He sang along with the printer’s song, “Drrr-dee-dr-dr-dr-woooo-pp-pp,” as he fished around in different boxes and between stacks of papers for a pencil, preferably not chewed. He saw several of them marking places in books. His mother carefully removed one and replaced it with a file folder that stuck out from the side of the book like a tongue.
Pencil now held lightly in his mouth, Jersey Lem guided the page from the printer and lay down on the couch that bordered the forest to examine it. The words were gray buffer zones between the blank areas that waited for him to draw the real story. He closed his eyes and could easily see what needed to be drawn, and he heard the muffled ticking of her fingers on the keyboard, felt the warmth softly envelop the couch and then his cape and then the story and then his toes, and he could not imagine being anywhere else.