Hogarth took the old wool blanket with him, the one with two holes in it that smelled of salt and seaweed and pine needles no matter how many times Mom washed it. He folded it into a knapsack, climbed out the window -- because what his mom didn't know wouldn't hurt her -- and rode his bike out to the junkyard, knowing the route so well by now he could do it at night with no trouble.
The back seat of the Ford Roadster had a large rip in the cover, but it was comfortable enough for Hogarth to hunch into his jacket under the blanket with his back against the door. He stretched out his legs, resting the heels of his sneakers on the other door as he stared up at the stars. Some seemed brighter than others, closer. He counted them, for something to do to pass the time, then got out his flashlight and played with that for a while, aiming the circle of its beam against the darkness, pretending the beam really did go all the way up into the sky to touch the stars. Maybe anything up there could see it, his super-duper space-searching special beam. They'd put a dog in outer space. Hogarth thought about that, how it might've felt for the dog.
He stopped playing with the flashlight beam after a little while because Dean might wake up in the night, look out his window, and notice. Then there would be a lot of awkward questions, a phone call to his mother, more questions, lots of fussing and worrying and Mom would tell him about the rules again and then her brow would wrinkle up and she'd look at him very worried and Hogarth would feel bad.
All summer it'd been warm enough to stay out there for hours, even at night, but now the nights were colder. So far Dean hadn't figured out that Hogarth had been camping out in a Roadster in his junkyard some nights.
One of the stars appeared to blink, to change intensity. Hogarth's heart jumped, but the star stayed where it was, not moving.
Hogarth plowed his fork through the pile of mac and cheese on his plate, making little mountains. He wasn't all that hungry.
"See anything good with the telescope?" His mom asked, arranging her napkin on her lap.
"Nah. Not really." He ate a mouthful and went back to pushing the food around on his plate again.
His mom stopped eating her plate of mac and cheese, and he caught her giving him a doubtful look. "Hogarth, maybe..." She huffed out a breath, dislodging the stray strand of hair that had fallen over her forehead. "Maybe the one part they sent you just..." She made a fluttering motion with her hand. "Maybe you did misplace it after all."
"No!" Hogarth threw down his fork. "I told you, I didn't misplace it. I told you, it rolled out of the box and out the window and it followed his homing beacon. It was on a mission. These things take time, all right?" He pushed back his chair. Adults could be so thick, they knew all kinds of things about some stuff and nothing at all about others. Hogarth threw up his hands. "We've been over this."
"All right, sweetie. I know. I know." She leaned her chin on her hand, elbow on the table, exactly the way she had told him never to do. "It's been a year since he's been gone," she added gently.
Hogarth dropped back into his chair, his voice quieter -- it wasn't her fault, after all. "It's taking him a while, is all. He's got a lot of parts. Little parts and big parts, they were scattered all over, I'll bet. I'll bet some of them are in Antarctica and Australia and the West Indies and at the bottom of the ocean." He stared down at the hills of noodles and cheese on his plate. It smelled good, bread crumbs baked in a layer on top, and his stomach rumbled, but he still didn't feel like eating.
Describing things that way made Hogarth think of Dean's junkyard. Different parts and they were neat to look at but they didn't really fit together, not until Dean decided they needed to, and then he used a soldering iron and drill and rivets to make them into something.
At least Mom's worry over this meant she hadn't noticed the pair of deer mice he'd brought into the house.
He dreamed about his dad. They were on the hill behind the house and his dad picked up Hogarth, who was very small, and swung him around and around, like an amusement park ride.
Then Hogarth was in the barn, and the age he was now, with a light shining too bright in his face and Kent Mansley asking him, over and over, where the Giant was.
I don't know, Hogarth said, I don't know, and Mansley kept getting angrier until finally Hogarth yelled at him to shut up and he woke with scent of bacon in the air and his mom calling up the stairs.
Hogarth drank his mug of hot cocoa, sitting cross-legged on an empty oil drum while Dean worked. Sparks reflected in the glass window of his helmet.
"So, what's it stand for again?" Dean asked, raising his voice a little, muffled through the helmet.
"National Aeronautics and Space Act," Hogarth shouted. He'd had two Twinkies for lunch instead of the sandwich Mom had left for him, and had tried to get Dean to give him Espresso, but Dean had just laughed and handed him the hot cocoa instead. "They're going to put a man in space."
Dean stopped welding and pulled off his helmet. "Cool. Anything's possible. They'll try to send someone to the moon next. So," he said, gesturing to his latest creation. "What do you think?"
"It's cool. It's cool." Hogarth slid off the oil drum, walking around the iron sculpture. He squinted, trying to look like he knew what he was talking about. "That part there needs to be a few inches lower." He gestured with his mug.
"You think so?"
"Yep...no, another inch...more to the left."
There were times when the weird hollow feeling in Hogarth's chest went away. When he was playing football with his friends, or lost in the noisy hallways at school, or when he and Mom went on long rides on Sundays with Dean, or like now, when he watched Dean make one of his junk sculptures.
One warm July night Hogarth had been sitting in the armchair reading Isaac Asimov, the windows open and music on the radio. Hogarth had heard his mother laughing outside -- she didn't laugh all that much -- and Hogarth had looked up to see Dean and his mother dancing out on the porch, fireflies blinking behind them like stars.
Hogarth wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he knew it was less lonely with Dean around than without him and he made his mom smile a lot more easily. So that was okay.
It was almost too cold to go this time, but Hogarth decided he would anyway, and so he snuck out and rode his bike to Dean's junkyard again. He had on his coat and had brought the blanket, but it was freezing cold anyway. His breath rose in little puffs as he huddled in the back of the Roadster, watching the horizon over the ocean. The moon was too bright for stars.
He must have drifted off, because when he looked again the moon was in a different position in the sky and Dean was yelling his name with a panicked note in his voice.
"Hogarth?" The voice got closer.
Hogarth considered running for it but was too startled to think fast enough.
"Hogarth!" Dean shouted. "Annie, he's here, in the Roadster, follow my voice." Dean ran over, his breath quick puffs into the night air. "What the hell are you doing, kid?"
A flashlight beam caught him in the face. "Hogarth?" Then Mom was reaching into the car, grabbing him into a fierce hug. "Hogarth Hughes, I was worried sick. What have we said about not sneaking out, especially at night? It's freezing out here. Come on," she said, less gently, putting him down. "We're going home."
Dean walked them to their car and before she got in, Mom turned and flung her arms around him. He held her back tightly. "Thank you," Hogarth heard her say.
Hogarth was suddenly glad Dean had found him and really sorry he'd worried his mom, who had enough to worry about already.
Fireflies, Hogarth explained, lying on his back in the meadow, the tops of the pine trees outlined against the night sky above him.
Fire...flies, the Giant grated, voice like the rusted hinges of the door of a car in Dean's junkyard. He sat near Hogarth, his metal bulk a small mountain blocking part of Hogarth's view of the forest and stars.
The Giant lifted one big hand and watched as one of the bugs landed on his fingertip. He stared at it.
It's called bioluminescence. They need oxygen to complete the process and make their behinds light up.
The Giant twitched his finger and the firefly zipped off into the night.
Oxygen, the Giant rasped.
Yeah, said Hogarth, folding his arms behind his head. People and animals need it to breathe. He demonstrated, inhaling deeply and then exhaling.
The Giant imitated him with a sound like a thousand iron ball bearings rolling down a sheet of metal. Then the Giant lay down folding his arms behind his head, imitating Hogarth.
They watched the fireflies for a few moments and then Hogarth said I'm dreaming you, right?
The Giant's jaw moved in a nod, eyes dimming a little.
Why's it taking you so long? Hogarth sat up. I watch every night I can, I've got a telescope and I check the sky and the horizon, looking for you, and I thought for sure you'd be back by now.
In answer the Giant turned his head towards Hogarth, iron jaw lowering. He moved his heavy hand and lightly bumped his finger against Hogarth's chest.
Sorry, the Giant said.
Hogarth woke up with his face wet and snow falling outside his window.
Mom was in jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair tied up under a handkerchief as she stood in front of the kitchen sink with a wrench gripped in her hand and an expression on her face Hogarth had learned to fear.
Hogarth normally liked snow, but today he felt sluggish and couldn't seem to get warm and his head hurt and there was nothing on TV. He dropped into a chair at the table and watched as his mom knelt and reached under the sink with the wrench. There was the clang of metal on metal and then his mom said a word that Hogarth was never, ever allowed to say.
She pulled her head out and turned to look at him over her shoulder, a dark smudge on her nose. "You are never, ever allowed to say that."
"Sheesh, I know, you've only told me a hundred times," he said dully.
His mother frowned at him. "Are you all right, Hogarth?"
"I'm fine," he snapped.
She looked skeptical, one hand on her hip, but then let out a sigh, ruffling the bit of hair peeking out from under the handkerchief. It took about ten seconds of work under the sink before she used the same swear word again.
Hogarth felt like this should be an exciting morning. His mom was swearing like a fisherman, the toolbox was out and open, and there was water on the floor. But instead he put his forehead down against the table cloth, wishing his head would stop hurting and that he could stop shivering.
He wasn't aware that his mother had moved until he felt her palm cool against his cheek. "Let me feel your forehead," she ordered and Hogarth lifted his head obediently. "Okay, back into bed with you. I'll bring you up some soup."
"But me and Randy Jenkins were s'posed to--"
So Hogarth dragged himself upstairs.
First he was too hot, then he was too cold. Hogarth felt okay after having his soup but then started to feel worse after sunset, his legs, fingers, and neck aching. His mom stuck a thermometer in his mouth. When she took it out and looked at it she tucked her lower lip under her teeth, then left him to go call the doctor.
The next few days were snippets of things -- the doctor, a heavyset man with a kind voice, large hands, and a black bag. More soup. His mother sitting in the chair by his bed with a blanket over her shoulders, reading in the glow of the lamp in the times when Hogarth was awake. He tried to get out of bed, legs shaky, and the room spun, and Mom tucked him back in while his teeth chattered. She gave him a lecture on taking good care of himself, being sensible, and what was he thinking camping out in the junkyard in this cold weather to begin with, no wonder he got sick.
Then she sighed, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. Hogarth didn't remember her looking this tired in a long time, not since before the Giant.
Hogarth, of course, couldn't breathe underwater normally but he didn't seem to be having any trouble now as he and the Giant sat on the bottom of the lake, thin trails of bubbles around them in the dark blue water. Fish swam by, flitting in bright flashes around the Giant's arms and head, and around Hogarth.
The Giant wriggled his fingers in the water, making the fish scatter in a multi-colored panic.
This is amazing, Hogarth said, his voice sounding normal despite the fact that they were sitting at the bottom of the lake. Hey, look at that! He took a few steps towards the large shadow that slid over the rocks.
When he turned back, the Giant was gone.
Where'd you go? Hi, Giant...oh, Giiiiiiant... Hogarth peered through the water, as far as he could see, until black swallowed up the blue. Come back! Hey, come back! He took a step, then another, a school of fish swirling around him, scales glinting silvery as metal.
Hogarth was alone. The water grew colder.
The picture of his father that he kept on his nightstand appeared, hovering in the water. It was the one of his dad in flight gear about to climb into a fighter plane.
(He's not coming back.)
"He's not coming back." Hogarth opened his eyes, staring at the picture, which was now back on his nightstand.
Someone put a wet cloth on his forehead. "Take it easy, Hogarth."
Hogarth blinked, surprised to hear Dean's voice. He turned away from the picture and looked at Dean, wondering what he was doing here.
"Your mom's getting some sleep," he said, and yawned, hand curled into a fist over his mouth. "It's been a rough couple of days."
"Oh," said Hogarth. He looked around the room, and realized it was night, darkness outside the window, his bedside lamp the only illumination.
His pajamas were drenched with sweat, but he actually felt a little better.
It was a couple of days before Hogarth was allowed to be out of bed. Randy Jenkins brought him his homework and they played Parcheesi while it snowed again. It took about three days before Mom finally threw up her hands and told Hogarth to stop bouncing off the walls already and take a breath once in a while instead of talking nonstop and yes, he could go outside if he bundled up, and he was going back to school on Monday.
The snow was crunchy under his boots, his breath rising in thin clouds. He walked part of the way to the mouth of the woods, the tall pines green above the smooth white curve of the earth. Hogarth knelt, made a snowball, threw it at a tree.
He stared at the woods and said into the ethereal quiet, "Come back."
Hogarth sat cross-legged on the living room floor with a blanket draped around him watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents and eating cookies he wasn't supposed to have because he'd already had two after dinner, and Mom said that was enough for one day. But she was working late at the diner again, and what she didn't know couldn't hurt her, so he'd filched a couple.
Right at the most exciting part of the episode, bands of static jumped across the screen, and then it went to a snowy blank.
"What? No! Stupid antenna!" Hogarth flung off the blanket.
He heard the rumble of their truck pulling up to the house. Hogarth jammed the other cookie into his mouth and tried to chew and swallow the evidence as fast as he could.
But his mother didn't come inside right away.
The house trembled, as if something had tugged at it.
"HOGARTH HUGHES GET OUT HERE THIS INSTANT!" His mother shouted.
He couldn't quite tell how to read her tone. She didn't sound angry, although she only used his full name like that in certain circumstances. Not scared, exactly, although there was a shake in her voice.
Hogarth ran, pausing to grab his coat from the hook by the door, because he didn't want to cause her further trouble by getting sick again. He jammed his feet into his boots and hurried outside, leaping down the porch steps.
His mother was standing in front of the truck, staring up towards the roof, one hand raised.
"No!" She said sternly, the way she sometimes addressed overly rambunctious farm dogs, but she was grinning. "Bad robot!"
Sweat broke out on Hogarth's forehead. He stumbled another couple of steps and looked up.
The Iron Giant was crouched next to their house, their TV antenna held halfway to his mouth. He glanced at the antenna, then at the roof, hunched his shoulders sheepishly, and then tried to reattach it. That didn't work, so he put it down on the snow. His head turned, and the two big bright circles of his eyes fixed on Hogarth.
"Hogarth," the Giant said, in his raspy metallic voice, like the steel hull of a boat scraping against another boat.
Everything got very quiet, as a wind gusted across the yard, tossing the branches of the pines. Hogarth's legs felt wobbly and he fell to his knees, his fingers in the cold snow.
The Giant's massive jaw opened and he looked happier than Hogarth had ever seen him. He reached a finger down so Hogarth could grab onto it. The Giant tugged slightly, helping Hogarth to his feet.
"Took you long enough," Hogarth said, hearing the shakiness in his own voice. He glanced at his mother. Her eyes seemed to be watering from the wind.
Hogarth turned back to the Giant, a shout of joy caught in his chest, yet Hogarth found it difficult to make a sound.
"Sorry," said the giant.
"That's okay." Hogarth leaned into the giant's iron hand. "You came back."