First Chapters



Prologue

 

 

“Please tell another Story.”

Yawning, the bushy-bearded Storyteller shook his head. It was getting late and he had been telling Stories one after another from sunrise until well past sundown. He was feeling good about the audiences cramming his tent this day, audiences large enough to prove he was the most popular Storyteller in the entire Region. On the other hand, he was in no mood to tell another Story. No, his throat was sore, his imagination depleted and all he wanted right now was to get home, settle himself in the wonderfully overstuffed chair in his front parlor and relax over a strong, hot toddy.

“Please, one more,” the girl pleaded. “Please.”

“It’s getting a little late, wouldn’t you say?” the Storyteller replied testily. “I’ve already told three of my best.”

He had a point. Most toddles would have been satisfied. Yet, the girl with the funny, red-and-brown-striped hair, green eyes and puffy lips refused to be put off.

She leaned forward and practically begged, “Please, just one more Story.”

A few of the other toddles sniggered, causing the Storyteller to think they had seen the girl acting like this before. An odd-looking boy with white hair sitting cross-legged directly behind the girl rolled his eyes and groaned. Other toddles fidgeted and looked about ready to get up and leave. The girl paid no attention to the others, however.

“Tell us the story about Trekking,” she said instead.

“Not another one,” the white-haired boy moaned.

“Yeah, really,” a skinny toddle-girl beside him agreed.

“It sounds like you already know that one,” groused the Storyteller, hoping but not really expecting to discourage the girl.

“Yes but you’re a great Storyteller,” she answered. “I’ve never heard Pacy’s Story from a Storyteller as great as you.”

“It’s a very long Story,” complained the Storyteller, though the girl’s flattery was softening him a bit. “At this hour, you surely don’t want to hear such a long Story, do you?”

“Oh, yes,” the girl cried, “I really love your Storytelling, sir.”

The girl’s enthusiasm was so earnest that, after hesitating for a moment, the man grudgingly relented.

“Well,” he said, glancing from the girl to the others in his audience and ignoring the groans from a few of the toddles in the back, “if you want to hear the best-bestiest Story ever told about Trekking, we need to go back a long, long way. We need to go back to those early days just after the Ancients left Eshmagick. Back to the days before they settled in the Westreach Region and created fine, little villages like Cowgrass here.”

Pausing, the Storyteller allowed his eyes to roam over the faces of the toddles in his audience before continuing, “Now close your eyes, all of you, and picture a time soon after the Ancients arrived here. A time when they were just starting to build their new homes, open their first shops and plow new fields. In most ways, it was a grand time of new ideas and new hopes. Sadly, too, it was also the time when our Ancients were forgetting the old ways, forgetting the old Stories, the traditions and the history that make us who we are.”

The Storyteller looked around. Oh yes, he was good at his craft. With this brief introduction, he already had all eyes on him, even those of the toddles who had been ready to leave just moments ago. He was pleased. He really did love Storytelling and when he was at his best, like now, he could capture an audience and transport them. Even the very short boy with the greasy, white hair was listening, though he pretended otherwise.

With a small smile of satisfaction, the Storyteller continued, “Yes, our Ancestors were forgetting the old ways and Eshmagick was becoming nothing more than a Storybook memory.”

“Not everyone was forgetting,” said the girl with the strange-looking hair, speaking in a hushed tone of voice.

The Storyteller smiled and nodded. His initial impatience with this girl was changing into something else, for how could a Storyteller not appreciate such obvious enthusiasm for the old Stories?

“You are correct, lass,” he agreed.  “Young Pacy Pace was just turning Fourteen and for better or worse, this young lass born of Cowgrass had Folksies with long memories and a love of the old Stories, even the ones all but forgotten, and so they—”

The girl practically bounced off the ground as she interrupted him.

“So they told Pacy about Fourteenies and the Birthday traditions of the olden times.”

“Quite so,” said the Storyteller, giving the girl another smile before turning his eyes to the others in his audience to draw them into his tale. “Does anyone here know what used to happen on toddles’ Fourteenth Birthdays, back in the Ancient times?” When the girl with the funny hair opened her mouth to speak, the Storyteller cut her off with a sharp shake of his head. “I mean, other than you, my deary,” he said to her with an indulgent smile. Then he gave a soft laugh. “I mean, we all know you know the answer.”

This drew snickers from a few of the toddles.

“All she ever does is talk about the olden Stories,” blurted a girl with bright red hair sitting in the back.

“You mean when she’s not off in the woods talking to trees,” laughed another girl in a tone of voice that was a little too cruel for the Storyteller’s tastes.

“Now, now,” he called, raising his voice to make it ring out authoritatively, “let’s not make fun of the Ancient Stories. As you will see, there’s much to learn from them.”

“If that’s true,” joked the boy with the white hair as he pointed to the funny-haired girl, “then this one here oughta be a genius with all the Stories she knows.”

This drew loud laughter from the other toddles in the audience, causing the poor girl to blush and lower her chin. The Storyteller immediately felt sorry for her.

Time to reign them in, he told himself.

“Listen, all,” he called. “Any of you ever wonder why, in Ancient times, many of the most famous warriors were as young as sixteen or fifteen or even fourteen? Have you not wondered why the most famous general of his day, the extraordinary Shane Shone, was a mere nineteen when he led thousands into battle? What was so very different about those Ancient times, you might ask, that toddles only a few Moon-years older than most of you were able to accomplish so much?” Here, he paused for effect. “Hmm? What was so different back then?”

There was a long moment of silence, which the Storyteller let hang like a kite in that suspenseful moment when one gust of wind has died and you don’t know whether another one is going to come up in time to keep your kite flying. When he had held the suspense just long enough, he continued.

“Well, let me tell you, turning Fourteen was very different back then. It wasn’t just another toddle Moon-year. Oh no, back in those distant times, the Ancients believed you went from toddle to oldster in the instant you turned Fourteen.” Searching the vast inventory in his mind for exactly the right tone of voice to use, the Storyteller chose one of his favorites. “Boom,” he cried, snapping his fingers. “For the Ancients, it happened just like that, at exactly noon on your Fourteenth Birthday.”

His Boom had caused at least half his audience to jump, the Storyteller noted with satisfaction as he continued, “And in that single moment of changing, you went from toddle to oldster. And this very special changing, well, it was such an important event in the life of every toddle the Ancients did something burnin’ special to mark it. The custom is long forgotten now but a Fourteeny like you and you…”

Here he paused to point to one toddle then another before continuing, “Well, back then you celebrated that special turning of age by going on a great Trek. Leaving at exactly noon of your Fourteenth Birthday, you journeyed for Fourteen days and Fourteen nights, one full day and one full night for each Moon-year of your life up to that moment.”

“Oh, yes,” the funny-haired girl now chimed in, her voice full of excitement as she looked over her shoulder to speak to the other toddles, “and it was not just any Trek you went on. You went alone into the wildest, deepest forest in the center of Eshmagick, looking for adventure and maybe coming home with great Stories to tell but maybe not coming back at all cuz you got killed and eaten.”

This time, the Storyteller noted, none of the toddles made fun of the girl. Maybe a few of them rolled their eyes but most looked quite interested in what she was saying.

“Quite right,” the Storyteller concurred, noting this girl had some of the talents of a Storyteller. “It was intentionally a daring adventure, one meant to prove your worthiness to be an oldster. And now,” he said, pausing dramatically before continuing, “shall I tell you the most amazing Story of the greatest Trek ever by a Fourteeny?”

He expected a chorus of yeses and he might have gotten them but suddenly the boy with the greasy, white hair stood up.

“I don’t think so,” he said in a tone of voice that left no room for arguing. “This toddle here is slakin’ nut-nutty enough to listen to your Stories all night long but the rest of us have heard quite enough.”

The boy’s words stung the Storyteller. True, he was tired. True, he was eager to get home after his long day of Storytelling and enjoy a hot toddy in his comfy chair. But when he was about to tell one of his Stories, he expected nothing less than everyone’s full attention and the Story only ended when he decided it should end. To think some ridiculously short boy with greasy, obviously unwashed hair would presume to make the choice for him.

How rude. How utterly obnoxious.

He would have reprimanded the lad with the full force of his voice but already the other toddles were climbing to their feet and moving to leave. For better or worse, the boy had broken the mood and in truth, he really didn’t have the energy to get it back. His glorious day of Storytelling was apparently over, ended in sudden failure.

As the toddles filed out of tent, the funny-haired girl didn’t move to leave with the others. Instead, she remained seated on the ground, staring at him, her forehead creased in thought. It was only when all the others had departed did she finally stand and speak to him in a tone of voice that was serious and reflective.

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t understand why Fourteenies don’t make the Trek nowadays.”

The Storyteller didn’t know what to say.

Hallow’s Fire, he thought, it isn’t even remembered.

The truth was, Trekking simply wasn’t done anymore. Like many of the Ancient ways, it had fallen out of memory. The girl might as well have asked why folks no longer celebrated Switching-Day. Or why they no longer paused to bow before the setting sun. Or why no one ate animal flesh or ever tried catching a Faerie. It wasn’t done because it wasn’t done and that was the simple but complex answer to her question.

And yet, the girl’s face had such an eager, pleading expression that the Storyteller indulged her a little, replying cautiously, “Well, I suppose it could be done if some Fourteeny had the will and the courage to resurrect the old ways and try it.”

“Do you really think so?” asked the girl, her eyes widening excitedly.

The man suddenly felt awkward. It was not his place to encourage such dreams in a young toddle-girl who was a stranger to him. Quickly, he backpedaled.

“Well, I cannot imagine any Fourteeny with Folksies so reckless that they would allow it,” he said, laughing uncomfortably. “I mean, it’s rather a dangerous notion, isn’t it? Exceedingly dangerous, you’d have to say. Yes?”

Nodding solemnly, the girl stood and turned to leave but as she did, she muttered a few words in a voice too quiet for the Storyteller to hear.

“Still, it could be done,” was what she said under her breath. “If a Fourteeny had the will, it could be done.”

Then she smiled happily, though the Storyteller didn’t see her smile. Passing through the doorway of his tent, she disappeared into the darkness of the night.

When she was gone, the Storyteller sighed deeply. Now that his day of Storytelling was over and he was alone in his tent, he felt very tired. Used up, really. The way he always felt after a day like this one. Reaching over his shoulder, he plucked his cloak from the hook on a post behind him. With a groan, he slipped it over his shoulders and started toward the door, limping slightly.

Time to go home, he thought, and Good Gidden, that first toddy will be tasting might-mightily good tonight.

As he trudged home, the Storyteller gave no more thought to the funny girl or to her odd, final question about whether a modern Fourteeny might go Trekking nowadays. In truth, he never again thought about the girl or about their little exchange in the tent, which was rather a funny thing considering how much the idea he put into her head that night would someday alter the history of his world.

Of course, that’s how life is. An event may seem very small at the time but you never really know, do you? How can you?

So let’s jump ahead six years and see what this event wrought.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

Duggan sat hunched over her worktable, her mind focused on the difficult task of weaving a long, thin strand of Creeper-Vine through the complicated pattern of River-Willow branches that formed the bowl of her Bottle Basket.

Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

Duggan tried her best to ignore the sound but whatever was making the obnoxious tapping noise outside the window behind her, it did not intend to cooperate.

Tap.

Duggan sighed mightily. To get this particular Bottle Basket done right, she needed to concentrate, which meant she needed peace and quiet. Total peace and quiet.

“Go slakin’ away,” she cried.

But no matter how much she wished it gone, the tapping sound refused to go away. It was as if something or someone was intent on ruining her day.

Tap. Tap-tap.

“Hallow’s Fire,” she swore, “I hate this.”

With a mighty sigh, Duggan struggled to her feet. Grabbing her chair by its back, she dragged it to the window in the back of the workshop and climbed onto its seat. Pushing her head against the window’s dirty pane, she peered out to see what was causing the annoying racket. Her eyes were a bit blurry from her many hours of close-up work and so it took a second or two for the object standing beneath the window to come into focus.

Zagger.

There stood obnoxious, utterly aggravating Zagger Dunleavy and standing right behind him was the girl who really should have known better, none other than Duggan’s best friend, Lambrell Quiverill. Zagger was holding one end of a long, crooked branch in his two hands and he was about to bang the other end against the pane of Duggan’s window when she hurriedly pushed it open. Immediately, Zagger looked up and grinned stupidly at her.

In response, Duggan gave the obnoxious boy her most disdainful look. At least, she hoped it was a disdainful look.

“Stop that,” she cried, “what do you think you’re doing, Zagger Dunleavy?”

“There you are, Duggan McDuggan. Finally. I’ve been banging on this stupid window forever.”

“Yes, yes, believe me, I know. Well, here I am. Not where I should be. Where I should be is back at my table, working. I’m very busy, so please go away.”

“We need to talk,” retorted Zagger, ignoring her plea. “Right now. Get down here and join Lambrell and me. We’ll be waiting in the trees at the usual spot.”

“No way. I can’t.”

“We’ll be waiting. Get down here and meet us. Hurry.”

Abruptly, Zagger turned and headed into the trees, with skinny, do-everything-Zagger-says Lambrell following a step or two behind him. Frustrated, Duggan sighed loudly. Although she was burnin’ annoyed, what could she do? Ignore him? No, it was pointless to argue with Zagger when he had his mind made up and obviously, his mind was made up.

Sighing again, she closed the window and went back to her worktable. The Bottle Basket was coming along nicely and she hated to abandon her work at this critical point in its creation but Zagger had left her with no choice. She had to go.

On a normal afternoon, it would have been impossible for Duggan to leave the workshop. Her parents were strict taskmasters and they accepted no excuses for her stopping work before a task was done. Fortunately—or  unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it right now—Duggan’s Mum and Pops were gone for the day to deliver several crates of new baskets to the owner of the largest and most popular pub in the neighboring village of Groundlevel, leaving Duggan under the neglectful care of her old and rather addled Grandmum, Needles Korney.

“Gru’m,” called Duggan, turning from her worktable and raising her voice so her nearly deaf Grandmum could hear, “I’m going out to stretch my legs. I won’t be gone long.”

Duggan’s Grandmum was sitting at her own worktable in a far, back corner of the shop. Bent over her work, she was vigorously attacking a pile of slender River-Willow branches with her razor-sharp knife, expertly stripping away the bark from one branch after another with deft flicks of her wrist. The nearly deaf, old woman obviously had not heard Zagger’s banging on the window, Duggan noted. Nor had she heard any of the argument between Zagger and her. Nor had she heard Duggan’s raised voice just now.

“Gr’um, do you hear me?” repeated Duggan, shouting more loudly and moving near her Grandmum. “I’m going out for a bit to stretch my legs.”

This time, her old Gr’um must have heard because she looked up to give Duggan an indulgent smile.

“Of course,” she said, “Take your time, deary. It’s spring. Go out and enjoy the sun. Have some fun.”

“Um, thanks, Gr’um,” Duggan answered.

“Certainly, my deary,” murmured the elderly woman. “It’s a day to be playing, not working.”

“Gr’um, I’m not going out to play,” Duggan quickly corrected.

The old lady either didn’t hear her or didn’t understand her words.

“When I was your age,” she continued, “I had to work all the time. Never got to play. Not that that was right, mind. No, it was not right, not right at all. Never got to play.”

Before Duggan could explain again she was not going out to play, her elderly Gr’um lowered her head and went back to stripping bark off her River-Willow branches, their conversation apparently over. Duggan gave a soft smile. She was getting used to these fragmented exchanges with her Grandmum, who was growing more and more addled as she passed into very old age. Impulsively, she bent and gave her Grandmum a quick kiss on the top of her head before heading out.

“Bye, Gru’mmy,” she called quietly as she moved to the doorway, knowing the old woman would not hear. “I love you, Vankayhol,” she added, using the Ancient word for Grandmum, a word meaning the vine that ties everything together.

Outside the door, Duggan pulled up her hood and veered to her left, making her way to the narrow footpath that led to Crystal Creek and breaking into a jog when she was on it. Her Gr’um certainly was right, she observed as she hurried down the path, it really was the kind of afternoon one should pause to enjoy.

Smiling, Duggan glanced up. The sun was well into its afternoon phase and yet it was still high enough in the sky to bathe the whole world in its lovely, golden glow. Struck by the beauty of the afternoon, she slowed to enjoy the forest unfolding around her and what she saw, smelled and heard was so wondrous it took away her breath. Leaves colored in the soft greens of the new spring season were just beginning to sprout on all the trees and bushes, covering branches long bared by winter in new color. And everywhere, the flowers of early spring were thrusting themselves out of the ground to create a fantastic patchwork of brilliant colors across the forest floor.

Duggan sighed happily.

She knew all these pretty flowers by name and she loved every one of them. There were brightly yellow Pollypads and rosy Bollybeets that were said to blush even more deeply than a young maiden’s cheeks. In the dark shadows, she could make out aptly named Bluebuttons so perfectly round they looked manufactured.

Duggan quickly decided there was no point in hurrying just because jerky Zagger had told her to hurry. Putting the boy out of her mind, she slowed even more to savor and enjoy this wondrous reawakening of springtime. As she passed a waist-high bush newly come into bloom, she ran her fingers lightly through its supple, young leaves. A few moments later, she paused briefly under a very old tree that was like an old friend to her. A little farther down the trail, when an orange-breasted Bobbin’ Robin landed on a high limb and called down to her, she whistled back while imagining that the Bobbin’ Robin was not an ordinary bird at all but rather, it was one of those brightly crimsoned, long-tailed Carnival-Flickers of Eshmagick.

With so much beauty around her, Duggan really didn’t care if she was keeping her friends waiting. It could be weeks before she had another chance to enjoy a day as gorgeous as this one. And besides, that little jerk, Zagger, deserved to be kept waiting.

When she finally reached their meeting place under the old Gnarly-Oak, she found her two friends sitting on one of the fallen limbs littering the ground beneath the magnificent tree, their hoods raised, their backs to her, chatting quietly.

“What’s up?” Duggan called, laying a hand lightly on the Gnarly-Oak’s coarse bark as she worked her way around the giant curve of its trunk.

Under her soft touch, the tree seemed to purr appreciatively, like a cat being petted. Duggan quickly reminded herself trees don’t purr; their trunks only vibrate from the wind. Still, she liked imagining that this was not your ordinary Gnarly-Oak but a Magickal one, able to move and talk the way they do in Eshmagick. The breeze gusted, shaking loose a few, dried-out leaves of the recent winter that fluttered like tiny, Magickal whispers to the ground. Duggan smiled happily and was about to pick up one of the pretty leaves when Zagger’s voice snapped her back to reality.

“What’s up, you ask? Nothing is up,” complained the boy, standing and pulling Lambrell up with him. “That’s the slakin’ problem. Nothing is up.”

Duggan knew exactly why Zagger was complaining but she really didn’t care. “It’s your problem, not mine,” she shot back testily. “I told you, I have work to do.”

“No, it is definitely not my problem,” replied Zagger, “it is most definitely our problem since you were the one who put the idea of going to Eshmagick into our heads, you were the one who said, let’s leave as soon as everything is ready. So there’s no saying, it’s your problem, Zagger Dunleavy, not mine. There’s no saying, I’m too busy for you, Zagger Dunleavy. There’s no saying, I’ve got too much work today, Zagger Dunleavy. There’s no saying—”

Duggan had to laugh. Zagger was the most annoying creature she’d ever met in her life but he did have his moments. And there was no arguing his main point. The idea of going to Eshmagick had been hers.

“All right, all right,” Duggan cried, “I get your point. So tell me, Zagger Dunleavy, what’s so slakin’ important that it can’t wait and we need to talk right now?”

“OK. That’s better. I have a burnin’ important question for you, Duggan McDuggan. My question is, what’s the thing that’s most keeping us stuck here?”

Duggan always hated the way Zagger dragged out unexpected words for effect.

“What makes you think we’re stuck?” she replied.

“Come on,” said Zagger, “you’re the queen of excuses. You always have a reason why we need to wait another week. Then another week. Then another. I’m just asking why.”

Duggan suddenly grew angry.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons why we don’t just take off,” she countered.

“Such as?”

“Um, like, you know. Having to go to school. Work. Parents. The fact that we’re still toddles and we can’t just walk away, just like that.”

“No, come on. We all know the big-biggiest problem is with you and your scaredy ways. But that’s not my point. What I want to know is, besides you being a total scaredy, what’s really, really keeping us from getting started.”

Not in the mood for argument, Duggan ignored the fact that Zagger had just insulted her in a huge way. An obvious point came to mind.

“Um, we don’t really know where we’re going. I mean, all we know is that Eshmagick is somewhere to the east but we don’t know exactly where. We don’t know how far.”

“Not a bad guess. Lack of geographical knowledge, we might call it. That’s one, very big problem facing us. Not the top one but big. So Duggan, what’s the big-biggiest thing holding us back?”

Duggan thought for a moment.

“Um, that there are scaredier things than getting lost on the way. Like, if we ever get to Eshmagick, they say it’s full of deadly creatures.”

His lips twitching, Zagger agreed much too readily for Duggan’s tastes.

“Another good thought,” he said. “If we ever did find Eshmagick and the Storytellers are right, we could meet Black Chargers with giant horns and poisonous Red-Eye Snakes.”

“And Dragonsy Lions,” added Lambrell, speaking up for the first time.

“Dragonsy Lions would be bad,” Duggan agreed, giving Lambrell a small smile.

There was a moment of silence while Duggan and her friends contemplated fierce Chargers, poisonous Snakes and fire-breathing Dragonsy Lions. Then Zagger spoke up.

“Anything else?”

“I think those are pretty good reasons. This thing obviously needs careful planning so we can all come back in one piece.”

Zagger shook his head so vigorously a greasy lock of his hair came loose and fell across his forehead, covering an eye.

“Maybe, but this is exactly why I wanted you to come here and talk.”

When Zagger gave Duggan a sly, know-it-all wink, she could only respond by asking, “What are you talking about?”

Brushing his lock of hair back into place, Zagger raised his head to gaze at the face of the much taller Lambrell. Duggan immediately noticed how terribly uncomfortable Lambrell grew under the boy’s gaze.

“Tell Duggan your idea, Lambrell Quiverill,” he said to her.

Lambrell blushed and lowered her eyes.

“No, Zagger, you tell her,” the girl practically whispered.

“No, it’s your idea. You tell her,” Zagger urged.

“No, you tell her,” the girl insisted, her face growing even redder.

Watching this little exchange between her two friends gave Duggan a very bad feeling.

“All right,” Zagger finally agreed, turning his pale eyes on Duggan. “Lambrell is the one who should be telling this because it’s a slakin’ fantastic idea. Fantastic because it’s so simple and yet it will solve all our problems. I mean, not just one or two of them but all of ‘em. It’s that burnin’ fantastic.”

“Fine,” said Duggan. “Just tell me the idea.”

“We catch a Faerie.”

Duggan’s jaw dropped.

“Do what?”

“Catch a Faerie.”

“Zagger, you’re slakin’ out of your mind. We can’t go catching a Faerie and why, in Hallow’s Fire, would we even want to try?”

“Interesting you should ask,” replied Zagger, giving a smile that made Duggan worry. “Actually, it was Lambrell who figured it all out. Go ahead. Ask her.”

Facing her friend, Duggan raised a questioning eyebrow but the shy girl only blushed more deeply. Duggan summoned up her soft voice, the one that usually worked to coax Lambrell out of her embarrassment and into talking.

“Lambrell?” she murmured. “You have something to say?”

Her friend didn’t answer right away but after a long hesitation, she raised her chin and looked Duggan in the eyes.

“Um, well,” she finally said, “I do believe I know how to catch a Faerie.”

“No one has ever caught a Faerie,” Duggan pointed out, “not in modern times.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” replied Lambrell, her eyes widening. “I mean, even if there is a terrible Curse.”

 

http://eshmagick.com/eshsecrets/

 





Chapter 1

 

The Calling

 

“I wonder if it’s true,” said Violet, reading the last page of the diary.

The last page was signed, Deacon Mills, 1970, Riverton, Vermont”. A pencil sketch of the Statue of Liberty was drawn below it. The flame of her torch was gold. The diary was signed ten years ago, just before Deacon and his children died in a fire that burned down his Vermont estate.

Violet slit open the diary’s secret panel—slightly larger than the five by seven inch diary itself. Admiring its smooth white cover, she sensed the aura around it was very pure. The pages were a bright white and hadn’t faded. Her hands tingled, as did the middle of her forehead, a sign her psychic abilities, as Mason called them, were kicking in. She felt as though she drank root beer too fast and the carbonation bubbled between her eyes and through her fingertips. She suddenly knew the diary would change her life forever yet she didn’t know how or why.

She carefully hid the white leather bound book behind the wooden panel, where she’d found it the day before.

Maybe…maybe I am right, she hoped.

She re-shelved the books on United States history, her favorite subject, covering up the secret panel. She wondered why the information in the diary was missing in the history books. She glanced up at the copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, hanging above the bookshelf. She wondered how much the diary had to do with the famous documents framed above her head.

As she peered out the library window, she heard giggling outside. Her friends were still playing hopscotch in front of the Manor, a mansion turned orphanage—thanks to the will of Deacon Mills. No one knew why the huge English Tudor was built in a small town amidst the rolling hills of Vermont. Because Vermonters were open to anything, no one questioned its peculiar location.

“All right, children,” Ms. Tiffany announced. Her smile was relaxed and her long her brown mane was tamed with enough hair spray to scare off the breeze. Her pink lipstick outlined her perfectly enunciated speech. “I’ll let you run and roam another twenty minutes but that’s it. The sun is setting and I shall soon need you back inside where it's safe.”

Violet shut the window and raced out of the library, hoping she wasn’t late. She sprinted out the front door and passed Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld, a portly fellow three inches shorter than Ms. Tiffany was. Violet didn’t know what he saw in her headmistress but the longer they flirted, the more time she’d have to spend outside.

“Hello, Violet,” Mayor Klumsfeld called out.

Violet waved without breaking her stride, knowing he only recognized her by the dark purple overalls she always wore over a white shirt. She jogged toward the oak tree but was stopped by her admirers.

“I can’t play right now,” said Violet to the younger orphans. “I’m sorry. I’m meeting Mason. Maybe, tomorrow.” She gently tugged Vanessa’s ponytail and tapped her on the nose, which made the six-year-old giggle. They were disappointed but immediately returned to the business of hopscotch.

The mighty oak was there to greet her but Mason was nowhere in sight. Violet climbed half way up the tree in less than ten seconds, whistling “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”the song she learned in music class yesterday. “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” was the perfect refrain for her discovery in the library. She settled into her favorite nook and scouted the territory below for Mason.

To her left, she saw the horses in their stable; Buckskin, Bay, Bandit and Ballentine were imprisoned in their stalls. She missed riding them in the fields, which came to a halt once children in New England began disappearing. The horses were not exercised anymore, which was hardest on Bandit, who was once a racehorse. Buckskin neighed in response to her glance.

To her right, she saw Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld chatting. She stopped whistling so she could hear their conversation.

“You’re so good with the children,” Mayor Klumsfeld remarked. He wiped his shiny baldhead with his handkerchief, before the sweat dripped onto his grey suit. “It’s wonderful to know they’re safe and have a home with you.”

“Oh, you know how I adore children,” said Ms. Tiffany, emphasizing adore and placing her hand over her heart. “I don’t know what I would do if one of these precious children disappeared.” She looked at the Mayor with a deep sense of worry that wrinkled the lines in her forehead. “Why, I, I would never be able to forgive myself.”

“Yeah, right,” scoffed Violet, rolling her big brown eyes that never missed a thing.

Some sparrows landed on the branches above her. A squirrel scampered closer to her feet. Violet was comforted, witnessing many times before that the wildlife in Riverton was not afraid of her or Mason. She shook her head in disgust and put her dark brown hair behind her ears. It was bobbed and cut almost as sharp as her sassiness.

“What do adults around here live for anyway?” said Violet. “This place puts the “b” in boring. Nothing ever changes. Kids keep disappearing and they don’t do anything about it. There’s a crazy homeless man on the loose and no one does anything about that, either.” Violet shook her head and sighed. “I guess when you can ignore anything bad and pretend it’s not happening then you must really be an adult.” She sneered at Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld. “When you can wear lots of make-up and act like the opposite of what you are, then you must really be an adult. When you won’t see the truth about anything and you just don’t care, then you must really be an adult. Well, I am never going to be one of them,” she assured her friends in the tree. She crossed her arms in front of her chest.

She grinned and set her arms free when she saw Mason climbing up the trunk of the tree. He had just turned eleven and was one year younger and one inch shorter than she was. He wanted more art supplies for his birthday but, instead, received a tan leather cap, the kind an English chap would wear on a Sunday drive.

“I have a special calling and it’s not to rot in this orphanage,” said Violet. “There’s more to life than this. I can feel it. I know there’s something else out there to believe in.”

She glanced at the full moon. The tingling in her hands flared up as did the bubbling sensation between her eyes. She had a fleeting feeling that maybe the diary was right. Maybe the diary was the answer.

“Like the magic of Merlin?” said Mason, straddling the branch across from her.

Violet loved the tales of Merlin, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table that Mason’s parents had shared with him. She preferred them over Cinderella, whose life was too much like her own. Unlike fairy tales, she had the feeling no one was going to save her.

“Maybe,” said Violet. “Sometimes, I feel like something’s going to change. I feel like it’s going to happen soon, too, but I don’t know what it is.”

Mason adjusted his cap over his short, sandy-blond hair and sighed, catching his breath. “Have you been getting those peculiar feelings again?” he asked. “You’ve been getting a lot of them lately, you know. I think you’re psychic.”

Violet also loved the sound of Mason’s English accent, which he still had, having lived with his English parents before they died. Violet and Mason had been together ever since his orphanage in New York closed two years ago. Aside from being a gentleman, he always took her seriously.

“Do you think they’re real?” asked Violet. “They must be if they’re feelings. Nobody just makes up a feeling. If it comes from your heart, it must be real, right?” Violet stopped thinking and gazed at the moon. The tingling in her hands and forehead became stronger and her heart felt warmer. The oak leaves suddenly had a hundred shades of green that she hadn’t noticed before. The breeze blew across her cheeks as if to say hello and purposely keep her cool from the summer heat. She felt as if she was on live television. Something was watching her and wanting her attention, keeping her in the present moment so she wouldn’t miss anything.

“I don’t know what they are, exactly—except that they’re always right,” he added confidently. “Whatever you feel is truth enough for me.” His smile was sincere and he fixed attentively on her every word. “What are they saying this time, those feelings you’ve been getting?”

“I can’t see it yet it feels like something in the air is trying to tell me something.” As she explained, the birds took flight and swirled above them in an excited flurry. “It feels like something’s guiding us.”

“Really,” said Mason.

“An invisible force or something—it’s hard to describe. It’s stronger in us—in kids. I don’t feel it much in adults. I don’t know what it is—but it’s everywhere”. She smiled and stretched her arms out to the side, taking a deep breath. “It’s in the warm, golden rays of the smiling sun, the pearly white light of the moon and the high blue sky. It’s in all of the trees and the changing colors of the autumn leaves.”

“It’s too bad the kidnappings will scare away the leaf peepers this year,” said Mason.

Violet wondered when the tourists would flock back to Vermont to watch the trees change colors. She hoped a tourist would adopt someone but they never did. They drove by the mansion and admired the past of the wealthy, eccentric man who once owned it before hitting the hiking trails and disappearing into the Green Mountains.

She closed her eyes and felt the tingling in her fingers grow stronger. “It feels like we’re supposed to leave—before it’s too late.”

“Come along children,” Ms. Tiffany cheerfully called out. “It’s time to come inside.”

Violet opened her eyes and sighed. “Oh, maybe I’m making it up and it’s just wishful thinking.”

The sparrows stopped chirping and settled back down on the branches.

“I think it’s real,” said Mason.

“You can feel it now, too?”

“No, but I believe you,” he said. “You’re my best friend, you know.”

Violet felt comforted. He smiled at her but her descent took her attention away from him. He climbed down after her.

“Well, I don’t know if I can trust it but I’d do anything to get out of here. There’s something else out there for me, Mason. I’d never settle for this. This town is still living in the Dark Ages.”

“I couldn’t imagine living without electricity. Could you? It’s bad enough we don’t get to watch television.”

She skipped the last branch and jumped triumphantly to the ground. Mason used the last branch as a step and gracefully dismounted the tree with less drama. Violet pulled the cap over his eyes.

“The Dark Ages weren’t dark because there was no electricity,” said Violet. “It was a time of ignorance—a period of intellectual and artistic decline that lost the enlightened ideals of the Roman civilization.” Because they were in a hurry, she gave up a rare opportunity to educate him on her knowledge of history.

“I’m not stupid, you know,” he said, grinning. “I just don’t like to read.”

“Ah, yet in the words are the answers to the mysteries,” Violet said, as she brushed the leaves off his white Oxford shirt. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows and she could see scratches on his forearms where the bark had lightly scraped his pale white skin.

“Still you don’t need the answers to enjoy the mysteries. I like chocolate. I don’t care what’s in it. I’ve never once read the list of ingredients.” He shook a twig out of his khaki pants.

“Mason Williams. That’s a good answer.”

Mason slipped off one of his black loafers and emptied out more dust. “From now on, only gym shoes when I’m out with you.”

Bandit neighed and bashed the side of his stall with his hoof.

“Sometimes I think the animals around here understand English,” said Violet, feeling sorry for the horse. His horseshoes hadn’t brought him any good luck and he wanted out of his prison, too.

Violet squatted to tie her white striped sneakers. As she pulled the shoestring, her hands started tingling and her heart felt warm. She suddenly knew—the identity of the kidnapper would be known soon.

“Shoot, another knot,” she said.

Mason came to her rescue.

“Thanks. Is there any knot you can’t untie?” She tightened the strap of her overalls that hung over her thin frame. She was only four foot eleven but her strength out shined her will, which never tired. “I have a secret. I’ll share it with you at dinner. We’d better get back.”

“You’ve discovered the identity of the kidnappers?”

“No,” said Violet. “I found a diary hidden in the library.”

“Your true home?” Mason teased, as they headed for the Manor. “What does it say?” His stomach growled as they inhaled the warm buttery scent of freshly baked bread wafting out the kitchen window.

“It’s like a travel log—but way more intriguing,” said Violet, eavesdropping on Ms. Tiffany.

“Perhaps, I will see you again tomorrow?” said Mayor Klumsfeld.

“Intriguing?” said Mason.

“We’ll see,” said Ms. Tiffany, smiling down at the Mayor. “It depends how the children’s schooling comes along.”

Violet saw Mason frown. Home schooling at the orphanage continued through the end of summer. She scrutinized Mayor Klumsfeld, hoping he didn’t bring Ms. Tiffany any new gifts.

“Oh, of course,” Mayor Klumsfeld replied. “Goodnight. Oh and, ah, don’t forget to lock the doors and windows.”

“We always do,” said Ms. Tiffany

“What’s intriguing about it?” Mason asked.

“It’s a mystery. I’ll tell you at dinner. Come on,” said Violet, jogging toward the front door. “I don’t want to find out what happens if we’re late.”

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Snoots and Rotten Apples

 The hot Arizona sun beat down on Ellen Baron, roasting her like a turkey in the oven, except they didn’t have an oven or a turkey. She sat alone on the grass, her back against the stone wall surrounding the middle-school yard. Ellen tried to shrivel into the stone, hoping for some coolness, and maybe disappear into the wall. She felt a tickle on the back of her neck and slapped at whatever flying critter wanted to bite. Ellen looked at her hand, but it was clean. She shook her head but the tickle kept on tickling, so she pushed her hair aside and scratched. Finally she gave up and figured a mosquito had already bitten her and flown away. Blood sucker.

Letting her hair fall back, she watched the other kids sit in groups eating their lunches, talking and laughing, some on the grass, others on benches, a few on the middle-school steps. They had grabbed up all the shady spots, leaving Ellen to eat a mushy apple, brown spots and all, and a few stale crackers, while baking in the heat of the day. Sure, she and her twin brother, Troy could get free lunch and, sometimes, if they were really hungry, they would sit alone in the smelly cafeteria, choking on a dry sandwich that never went down without a gulp of milk.  The other kid’s snickers weren’t worth it.

She nibbled the apple down to the core then pushed it down into the cracked earth, hoping it might grow into a special apple tree, just for her; a magic tree, where no one could ever sit but her, because it was invisible to everyone else.

It would be her own secret fruit orchard, cool and shady, where she’d sit under the thick branches that showered her every day with apple blossoms and fresh crisp red apples, their juices dripping down her chin. She worked hard to imagine the crunch as her teeth bit into the fruit, the tang of liquid filling her mouth, something she rarely ever enjoyed except at Gram’s house, the few times they had visited when she was little.

It was a long ride across the valley to Gram’s, riding on a lot of buses. When Uncle Jake picked them up at the bus stop, he never said hello, except to grumble about wasting his time. Ellen hated her uncle Jake but he seemed to hate them just as much. She promised herself one day, she would find out why. They hadn’t gone to their grandmother’s house in a long time. She wondered about that. Didn’t Gram care about them anymore? They couldn’t even call her on the telephone, because her mom said they couldn’t afford a phone. Ellen missed her grandmother but not Uncle Jake.

Looking off into the distance she watched girls practice flips for the tryouts for next year’s cheerleader squad. A few brave members of the marching band tootled on their wind instruments under the shady overhang of the building. Ellen saw Kinsey Taylor tilt the saxophone so that it glinted off the sun. It should have been her saxophone but they couldn’t afford to rent it, so Kinsey played it instead. Ellen wiped away the tear that dripped over her eyelid. She hated Kinsey for that but it was wrong, because it wasn’t Kinsey’s fault her father couldn’t pay for it. Ellen hadn’t seen her father in five years, because just after their seventh birthday, he went away and didn’t come back. She and Troy didn’t know why, so there wasn’t anybody to blame. She pushed down the anger and squashed it under her toe until she didn’t feel it any more.

Then she heard the low voices and giggles, just loud enough for her to hear. She refused to turn toward the sound, because she heard her name and knew it was the snoots. That was the name she gave them, snoots. The snobby, mean rich girls, the pretty ones on the cheerleading squad, prancing around in their red and white short skirts, giggling at the boys on the football team, Maris, Jennifer, Zoe, and Cindy, the girls she wished would disappear forever.

“Did you see her hair? I don’t think she ever washes it,” Cindy said.

Maris nodded. “Probably smells like wet dog.”

Zoe shrugged. “It doesn’t matter because nobody would get close enough to smell it.”

            “Did you see that shirt she’s wearing, looks like she pulled it right out of the dirty laundry.” Jennifer rolled her eyes.

“Probably doesn’t have a washing machine,” Maris said.

“Maybe she washes it in the toilet,” Zoe giggled.

“I don’t think they even have a toilet. I heard they use a latrine, whatever that is,” Jennifer said.

“It’s like a hole in the ground with a toilet seat,” Zoe explained.

“Ugh, I might just throw up my lunch,” Cindy said.

“Use the lunch bag and get off the blanket,” Maris said.

They all laughed. Zoe said, “I heard my mother telling Mrs. Pickel that she saw Ellen’s mother walking like she was going to fall over; like she couldn’t walk in a straight line.”

“Maybe she’s a lush, whatever that is,” Zoe said.

“I think it’s somebody who drinks a lot,” Cindy said.

“Oh, you mean like that dirty man with the paper bag who sleeps in the alley by the liquor store?” Zoe asked.

Cindy nodded, then looked around and whispered, “I think her father’s a murderer or something. I heard my mom talking on the phone.”

“What?” Maris shrieked.

“Quiet, Maris,” Jennifer said. “Ellen’s sitting right over there.”

Maris clapped her hand over her mouth. Then she whispered, “My father’s on the school board. He’ll freak if he finds out there are a murderer’s kids in the school.”

“Don’t tell him. My mom says they’ve had to move a lot of times because somebody always finds out. I feel kind of sorry for them.”

“Come on, Jennifer, you never feel sorry for anybody.”

There was no breeze but the tree shook slightly and leaves fell down on the blanket. Jennifer absently brushed them off her lap. “I know, Cindy, it’s like I’m suddenly being really stupid.”

Ellen started to jump up and scream, “You’re all liars, your mothers are liars, it’s all lies,” but something pressed her shoulder and held her down. She brushed at her shoulder as if she could get rid of whatever it was but it didn’t help. She looked around and didn’t see anything. Still the pressure kept up and, now, she was scared. Then, in a twinkle, Ellen relaxed and felt safe. She knew yelling at the snoots was hopeless, people believed what they heard. Her mom didn’t drink; she had one leg that hadn’t worked right since she was born, from a thing called Cerebral Palsy. Troy looked it up in the library; it was something that could happen at birth, like an accident, maybe. It made her walk funny, like she lurched and dragged her leg.

Besides they didn’t have money for liquor. Dad, well he sure wasn’t a murderer, he just went missing after the car accident. She could still remember his scratchy face when he hugged her, the smell of his after shave, and his booming laugh. No, it was all lies.

The bell rang, so the snoots picked up their lunch bags and the picnic blanket and walked away toward the school, giggling. Ellen heard their laughter long after they were across the school yard. They knew she was sitting there because they did this every day. They always sat under the Palo Verde in the shade on their pretty flowered picnic blanket, eating lunch with nasty remarks about her for dessert.

Ellen swallowed hard, trying to keep the tears from falling. Why did she punish herself every day? “Go sit somewhere else, where they can’t find you,” she muttered, knowing they would find her anyway.

“Hey, there you are, sis. I saw the four witches-in-training walking back to school, so I knew I’d find you here.” Ellen smiled, as Troy sat down beside her.

“Where were you?”

“I got lunch inside, I was really hungry. Here I brought you a present.” Troy handed Ellen a bag.

Ellen opened the bag and peeked inside. “I love you, Troy.” She fished out half a sandwich, some carrot sticks, an opened package of cookies and an orange. “This is part of your lunch, Troy. I can’t eat it, it belongs to you.”

“Big sandwich, two carrot sticks and a cookie. I’m full.”

Ellen looked at her brother. “I’m not sure I believe you but thank you.”

“Eat it fast, the bell’s about to ring.”

Ellen stuffed the half sandwich in her mouth and pocketed the rest with the orange. “For later. What would I do without you, bro?”

“Well, you almost did away with me, sitting on my head in the womb.”

Ellen peered around at Troy’s head. “Looks OK to me, brain’s intact. I can’t say much for your hair, there isn’t enough of it to comment on.”

Troy shrugged. “I’m getting ready for the Marines.”

Ellen shivered. “Stop talking like that. You know how I hate war.”

“I know, big sis, but at least I’ll have a decent roof over my head and three meals a day.”

“At the risk of killing or being killed. It’s not worth it.”

“Well I’m only twelve so I have at least five or six years to think about it.”

“You’re very smart, Troy, you can go to college and make something amazing of yourself.”

“Yeah, well, so can you and whose gonna pay for it? And what do we put down for parents on the application? Did you think of that? Father’s occupation: lawyer, but he ran away so who knows. Mother’s occupation: cleans toilets, wipes up messes at a burger joint.”

Ellen put her hands over her ears. “Shut up, OK? I don’t want to hear that any more. Get over it. We can’t change it, so we have to work around it, somehow.”

“Yeah, well you let me know when you come up with an answer on how we deal with a Mother who never finished college and a Father who disappeared one day, and the town thinks he might be a murderer.” Troy stood and looked around, the schoolyard was almost empty. “Come on, we’ll be late for class.” He held out his hand and Ellen grasped it, letting him pull her to her feet.

As they walked hand in hand across the yard, a blond boy appeared on the stone wall. He swiped his hand across his eyes and shook his head.

Ellen looked back sensing something was off but all she saw was a shadowy space. “Troy, did you see something on the wall?”

He shook his head. “Nope, just hot air rising from the baking stones.”

“I swore I saw a shadow but I guess it was a trick of the light.”

As they entered the school and the doors shut behind them, the blond boy reappeared. “I don’t know about this one, there are a lot of problems here.”

A woman appeared beside him. Her hair was blonde like his, but long and flowing. She wore a colorful long dress and bangle bracelets on her arms. “You’ll do very well, Huby. You always do.” She put an arm around him and they sat there listening to the birds. Butterflies flitted in and out of the yellow flowering Palo Verde tree, and a hummingbird did his helicopter buzz over the bougainvilla bushes, stopping to check out a red flower, wings beating a birdsong. “The world is a beautiful place, Huby. People just need to stop a while to look and listen.”

The boy leaned against the woman. “Thanks, Aunt Sonda, you always make me feel good.”

“That’s why I’m here, Huby.”

 

                                                                                                           Chapter 1    

            It was nearing the end of another long and stressful work day, one on which Jack Holden had performed his usual obligations as the new partner at Humphry, Gardner and Holden, a small law firm in Winnipeg. He was the junior partner specializing in civil law.

            A normal day for him generally consisted of getting up at the crack of dawn, showering, eating an energy bar on the go and rushing to arrive on time at his office. He lived only a few blocks away in a small but modern condo, he rented from a colleague.

            On his way to work, however, he regularly stopped at the local coffee shop and from there he continued, with a hot cup of Tim Horton’s coffee in his right hand, a blueberry muffin in his pocket and an attaché case shoved and secured under his left arm.

            As a rule, he worked until the late evening hours, leafing through legal papers and calling clients. Nobody waited for him at home, so he spent countless days staying at his desk working until midnight. 

            At twenty-six, he remained unmarried, mainly because his work and his schedule didn’t give him the free time to pursue a social life. He did have one passion to which he devoted every minute of his virtually non- existent spare time.

            Quite recently, Jack discovered a secret about his origin he suspected but which he’d never proven until he’d done a thorough online investigation. His research results revealed to him, a paternal great-grandmother who was a Mohawk princess, Emily Pauline Johnson, making him in part, a descendant of that First Nation’s Tribe. This relative herself was the daughter of an English woman and it was Emily’s father, George Henri Martin Johnson a Mohawk hereditary clan chief who gave her the royal title. Jack embraced his new status with pride. Because of his discovery, and a few other factors, he moved to Manitoba from Quebec and joined forces with his childhood friend, Bob Dane, also an Aboriginal man, to embark on a path dedicated to defending the rights of all Indigenous people in Canada.

            The Winnipeg law firm gave him the opportunity to build his career as a civil litigator and simultaneously continue his role as a human rights’ activist. The latter was not part of his mandate in Montreal, where his life and law career had started.

             Taking up the cause of the mistreated and misguided Aboriginal population in Manitoba was, itself, a full-time endeavor. It presented him with considerable challenges and, at times, he even felt his life was in danger.

As a routine, a newsboy placed a copy of the city’s daily newspaper on his desk every day. Before he cleared his desk at the end of the day, he kept the newspaper because one headline, on the front page of the day, had caught his attention. Although the large pile of legal papers and clients’ folders cluttered his desk, Jack leaned back in his chair to read the newspaper article. He felt mounting anger and a noticeable disappointment as he read. Both sorrow and hopelessness were already deeply engraved in the fine lines on his forehead but were hidden well by his youthful and well contoured face. His ebony black hair was draped strategically over his facial features to conceal the vintage marks of despair.   

He’d come to Winnipeg just over a year ago, to join a cause that once didn’t matter to him but, over the last few months, had grown closer to his heart, ever since his new identity as a part-aboriginal man was unveiled. Previously, as with many Canadians, he didn’t care too much about the fate of the First Nation’s People. Now, his every second thought was about them.

             “Damn it. Not again,” he roared as he turned and anxiously looked over to Bob, who had his back to him. Bob was cordially talking to another colleague and, too, struggling to unwind after a hectic day.

             “Will you look at this?” Jack shouted louder to emphasize his concern and to catch both of their attentions. Out of shear rage, Jack tossed the newspaper over toward his friend before he got up from his seat to pace around the small office.

            Bob, alarmed by Jack’s impulsive outburst, picked up the discarded paper and read the article immediately to pacify him.

          “The mangled and mutilated body of an Aboriginal woman was found on the banks of the Red River last night. Police are baffled by the sudden acceleration in the number of missing and killed Indigenous women in the area. No obvious motive or evidence has been found. Suicide is not likely but has not been ruled out.”

The Winnipeg Free Press, June 2000

             “When will this ever end, Bob? Every day there is another one. We save one and lose two. Somehow, we must get to the bottom of this. I can’t believe atrocities like this are still happening in our country. God Almighty, it’s the twenty-first century.”

            “Jack, take it easy. One day, we’ll find a way to end this, you must have faith,” Bob replied.

            A few minutes later, the two friends locked the doors of the legal aid office and went to the closest bar to have a drink, hoping to end the day soothed by a few beers.

            Tony’s Bistro and Bar was only a few steps from the legal aid storefront and it took no time for the two young men to settle into their regular spots next to the bar. It was a favorite watering hole for the young and upcoming lawyers from the nearby offices in downtown Winnipeg. The place was packed as usual, bumper to bumper with young and older men, who dropped in after work to catch up with friends and to share the legal jargon of the day.

            The odor of spirits and brew infused the room sharply. The noise reverberated with the conversations, blending into one solid, indistinguishable hum.

             Jack and Bob sat by the bar. They had managed to grab the last two available stools before the place filled. They were compelled to talk into each other’s ear, otherwise their exchange of words could not be heard.

            “Let’s leave early in the morning. We should hit the road by dawn to make it to Saskatoon by tomorrow night. Then, the following morning we’ll get to the airport on time. I called earlier to confirm the flight plan with the pilot. The girls and I will pick you up at six. “Be ready.” Bob shouted into his friend’s ear and Jack nodded in agreement.

 


 

Prologue

 Call me Gib. No, really call me Gib because that’s actually my name. I’m not trying to be cryptic or anything. Well, specifically my name’s Gibson Bartleby but my mom told me in one of our last conversations that she tried to use the name my father picked (they flipped for the choice and he called tails which didn’t work out for her that time) but she always imagined she was calling a guitar when she yelled my name. She said every image from Slash to Angus Young went through her head when she called it out, so she shortened it to Gib. Dad didn’t seem to mind. He never really brought it up that I recall. Well, it doesn’t matter now because that’s my name as was given to me some fourteen years ago. It’s a random thought to be sure but I find it funny the stuff you think about when you’re in the middle of nowhere and past the witching hour.

There’s a special kind of isolation in being out of doors when the sun goes down, true enough. It’s the illusion of infinity in all directions, or perhaps that’s not an illusion at all come to think of it. It’s the not knowing what is beyond the stifling boundaries of already limited perception. It’s the suffocating emptiness brought on by—it’s the dark, OK. It’s the freakin’ dark. Humans are creatures of light. Go to sleep during the period of the sun being on the other side of the dirt ball, wake up when He comes back around. What makes the night even more intimidating is moving through it. Standing in one spot at least provides the benefit of all the other senses that have been put into overdrive but movement, particularly rapid movement, like oh say running or riding a bike, that creates a vacuum where the only existence is the wind cupping the ears and numbing the cheeks, especially cold wind. And that’s where I am right now. That’s what I’m doing like some lunatic evading the authorities or some lovesick kid trying to sneak to his companion. I’m riding a bike in the morning, one of the clock though not the shiny newness of post seven am that the word morning usually brings to mind. It’s the middle of the night and this section of the world seems to be entirely unconscious, not the first car has passed, not a lit window to be seen, and I’m out here not only trying to be alone but going to a place where I can practice, hone my skills as best I can. Yet what I really want to do is find out something about myself. I’m going to a house I know to be abandoned and I’m going to walk through it, scour its contents, find out everything I can find out about it. While doing that, I want to find out one thing, discover a single aspect of my personality that as far as I can tell makes me stand out from everyone else, more so even than the rest of my personality. I want to find out if I can get scared. Because other than heights, I’ve never found anything that gives me the sensation of what it’s supposed to entail to be afraid, and you know what, that kind of scares me if you can wrap your head around that.

I’m not a daredevil. I’m not a thrill seeker. I’m not even exciting as far as I can tell. What I am is good at figuring things out. I’m smart, as far as the definition goes, able to solve things with minimal help but that help usually comes from someone who makes me look average, below average actually, and it’s funny in a way because everybody thinks he’s delayed until they get to know him.

My younger brother, Jack, is the absolute man when it comes to figuring things out. He’s autistic, moves around about as much as a sloth on Nyquil because his movements are so awkward they look exhausting even to me but he’s a genius, addicted to only one thing in this world and that’s reading. It’s like a drug to him or, to put it a little more gently, it’s like his Xbox or PlayStation, his pc or cell phone. It’s what he does every chance he gets. The coolest part about it is he remembers every single word that goes in. He’s like a sponge but one that never gets full or squeezes anything out. Still I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now I need to focus on getting into this house and discovering whatever it is I can about myself.

Everything feels like downhill at night, it seems. A welcome feeling during daylight hours but out here, it doesn’t allow the opportunity to slow down much. A dog barks in the distance to disturb the wind in my ears and the tires humming on the asphalt. I squeeze the brake and let the front wheel gently hit the concrete step at the bottom of the redbrick walk that leads to 1134 Boland Street. The streetlight in front of the house is out, which is typical for my luck, and the sky is overcast, not the first star to be seen, not a sliver of moon. There’s a soft wind, not enough for anything more than the slight rustle of leaves, and the quiet is a little unsettling after the ride. Walking my bike up to the next set of steps leading to the porch, I lean it over and let it fall on the grass to the side of the walk then I step back and look up at the house.

An old Victorian that must’ve been one of the first built in this neighborhood, probably erected before this even was a neighborhood, the house has the rustic look typical of an eighties horror flick. White exterior with black shudders, the paint peeling in places, one of the shudders hanging crookedly where the tired nail gave out, this might as well be a scene from a movie. All it needs is the hooting of a lone owl perched on the porch railing and the squealing made by the rusted chain of a porch swing in the breeze, maybe a wind chime to boot. I shrug and plant my black Converse on the first step with the customary creak coming from the board under my weight. An old screen door with the metal screen sliced diagonally all the way across swings open easily. There’s a brass knocker that looks somewhat like a Fleur-de-lis and a peephole above it. I grab the old doorknob and try to turn it but it’s locked. Absolutely no give in the heavy door as I lean into it, so I doubt I could open it with a card. Too bad, I watched a lot of YouTube for that. A pair of windows peers out of the wall about halfway down the porch to the left, and I decide to give those a try.

I keep my steps close to the wall, not trusting the old boards under my feet. An animal scurries across the yard and into the woods nearby, the sound of leaves rustling, a broken stick. Looking in the direction of the noise with the futility of my eyes that only work with light, the shapes of trees slowly take shape on the other side of the yard. A gust of wind helps them wave to me, and I stand there watching them and the spaces between realizing just how alone I am.

Light would help so much. I have my flashlight in my backpack but I’m not about to turn it on out here where I would undoubtedly get the cops called on me for burglary or vandalism. No, the world is the same at night, Gib. Don’t let the idea that it’s not even enter your head. Realizing I wasn’t going to win this staring contest with the trees, I walk on to the first window and place my hands on the bottom wood that holds the glass. It rattles back and forth, far less sturdy than the door, and I put my fingers underneath the cross section of the wood that separates the panes. It slides up. I place my fingers underneath the window after I’ve worked enough room, and wiggle it up the wooden sides. There’s no counterweight that I can tell, or if there ever was the line connecting it had long broken, so the opening takes a full minute but I eventually slide through head first. My eyes can’t adjust to the blackness inside the house even when I get my head past the thin curtain that smells of grandmothers or great-grandmothers—I assume that’s what they smelled like, since I’ve never known mine but I’ve been around older people enough to know the smell. Teachers come to mind. I turn and try to close the window but after shaking it until my arms start aching, I hear a crack and decide to leave it open, taking off my pack and placing it underneath to soften the fall just in case it comes down on its own. Turning into the room, I click on the flashlight.

A mirror on the opposite wall throws the light right back at me and, for a second, a blip of a second, I feel that which I was seeking but it is just a start, not real fear, a jolt of something unexpected. A hoarse laugh escapes me, and I shine the light on the floor, waiting for my heart to slow. The ceilings are high, far higher than modern houses, and I know that’s because these older homes were built to maximize heating and cooling by design rather than technology. There’s a well-used fireplace on the opposite wall, only scatterings of furniture. The shape of a couch covered with a white sheet sits in the middle of the room, and I look around carefully, looking for anything out of place, anything recent or just anything that doesn’t belong. The smell of dust and rodent droppings makes me want to sneeze but a finger to my nose helps it pass. When the tingling stops, I feel the heaviness of the silence for the first time. Outside there was always something. A barking dog, rustling leaves, a distant car horn but in the house there is nothing, and it is unnerving as much as the blackness constantly trying to defeat the beam of my flashlight.

With Jack there’s always sound. There’s usually a box fan in his presence. He even has a fan by his desk at school because he suffers from tinnitus, a high-pitched ringing in the ears if there is no background noise. Because of this, there’s always noise in the house and obviously I have become accustomed to it. In here, the silence is as alien to me as if the walls were made of foam.

I move through the room letting my breath hiss through my teeth, anything to defeat the house’s noiselessness. The soot in the fireplace is old and untouched, no sign of use for a long time, maybe years. The floor is covered in a layer of dust, and I look behind me to see it has been disturbed by my footsteps, no evidence of that anywhere else except where I’ve been. This room offers nothing, and I make my way to the next, cursing the sturdiness of the floors that won’t give me the luxury of a sound. I move into the foyer in front of the locked door I abandoned on the porch. The white beam of the light shows a deadbolt in addition to the doorknob, a good thing I didn’t waste time trying to unlock that. There’s something wrong with the deadbolt, and I see as I nearly touch it with my nose that it lacks dust, a swirl of clean around the edge of the brass. Grabbing the mechanism, I turn it unlocked then lock it back, my knuckle dragging across the clean wood around the lock.

“Someone locked this recently,” the house swallows my voice like a predator at table.

Behind me is a set of stairs against the wall opposite the room I just left, and on the other side of these, what looks to be the dining room, or what’s left of a dining room. I can see the kitchen beyond. Stepping toward the dining room, I stop and look back at the stairs.

“Let’s go ahead and do this.”

My flashlight is strong, doing well to cut through the blackness where I can see the top of the stairs. I listen intently to anything the house will tell me. A scratching somewhere upstairs, a rodent feeding on the insects slowly devouring this place, a bird nesting away from the elements, a bat? I move on, one step at a time. I find myself counting the steps, fifteen now, only halfway. These ceilings are so high; outlines of squares and rectangles on the wall beside the stairs, family pictures long gone perhaps, or works of art. My flashlight flickers like a cliché, and I give it a little shake. If it comes down to it I can use the light of my phone but this is a good flashlight, always has been. I’ve used it many times to read myself to sleep under the covers. The light bobbles a bit as if I’m shaking but I’m not. There’s a walkway at the top of the stairs that goes to the right, a series of doors along the wall of it, I count four. As I move the beam across the walkway, the darkness instantly falls back into place like something palpable, as if the beam is an extension of my hand pushing a blanket away from me only for gravity to pull it down all the time, a constant struggle. The unused hinges of a door moaning, it’s unmistakable, and I stop two steps from the top.

There’s a tingling on the back of my neck that crawls up to my scalp like a living thing. Every hair, every pore, every fiber of my being stands on end. Is this fear? A minute passes. Two. My brain transforms the sound of the hinge into doubt. It didn’t happen. How could it? Or, it did happen, and it does it all the time. This house is drafty, the wind moves the door twenty, thirty, a hundred times a day. I haven’t been here to say otherwise. Let it go. Let logic take over. The world is the same when the sun goes down. I tighten my jaw and move on, wishing I could bathe the whole room in the flashlight beam, like water from a hose, something that would stick to the walls.

The walk is wide, the banister sturdy or so it appears to be. This used to be a glorious house and still is in its own right. The first door opens easily, not the first sound from it. The bed is covered, even the canopy posts, by a number of white sheets. Location alone has kept this house from being taken advantage of by the homeless or anyone else who could use the solitude of an old structure to satisfy the id. Perhaps there were too many neighbors, or perhaps there was a story about the residence that kept the riff raff away. I’ll make sure to research it the moment I wake up in the comfort of my own home with Jack and Lula. This room offers nothing, and I leave it exactly as it was found, making my way to the next.

I pause. Something about the banister here catches my eye. I move the beam to it, sweeping it back and forth slowly as if I can clear away the darkness. There on the side, something on the rail, pale against the stained wood. I find myself moving closer even after the letters come into focus. Why would I keep moving except to run down the stairs and out the door, leaving a Bugs Bunny hole in the wood from hyperbolic escape? This image actually goes through my mind as I hold the beam on the spot, the light now shaking and not because I’m walking because I’m not. I leave it there for some time while my brain works at the speed of synaptic firing, not sure what I am to do next.

 

Gibson Bartleby

 

My name stands out on the wood to me as if this house were built around it. Shavings of wood along the edges tell me this carving was done recently, less than a day, in fact. I look at my name stenciled there with the element I came here so desperately searching for. If this isn’t fear then I don’t want to know what is. I find no joy in this.

Images flash through my mind as I sweep the beam like a sword against my enemy. Everything seems to slow down from the adrenalin dump—a defense mechanism as I understand it, the brain’s way of coping with a dangerous situation. Experiments have been conducted where people pushed out of a plane could read digital numbers moving too fast to decipher when the same numbers were viewed while standing on the ground.

This image finally leaves me. I see Jack at home, possibly asleep, likely sitting up in his swinging chair that hangs from the ceiling, or sitting cross-legged with book in lap, a fan droning away in the background, nothing in the world, in all existence concerning him except the words on the page.

I see Lula in her bed, the day’s agenda sketched in pencil on the notepad that sits on the bedside table, her green sleep mask accenting her red hair that spills all over the pillow like a cascade of frozen fire. She tries so hard to raise us the way she thinks our parents would want us to be raised.

Stranger images plague me now. I see the emblem I had toyed with in my childish fantasies, perhaps delusions of grandeur. I see the letter B backwards, a capital letter next to one facing forward, like a butterfly perhaps, a symmetrical symbol for the Brothers Bartleby, my backward brother and me. I see the girl I can’t seem to stop thinking about. I see them together with my brother while I set off trying to make a difference, trying to make the world a better place, or perhaps just trying to improve myself or prove something to myself.

I see Jack and me sitting in that classroom answering John’s questions, showing him that we stand out even in a world of adults. We could answer anything, me with my deduction and Jack with his limitless bank of information to shine a light on an answer or something as close to an answer as could humanly be obtained much the same way I shine my own light on this carving now. There is a whisper in the distance, from the right or the left I can’t tell but it brings me out of my trance, back to the present to the situation I find myself in right now.

“Hello?” the word comes out before I can stop myself, sounding like a victim in a horror movie.

There’s no need to move to the next door. I am approximately one hundred and fifty feet from the closest exit—that I know to be locked—two hundred and twenty-five from the window I entered, and someone knew I would be here, that I would get to this spot. Did they know I would be here tonight? Did they know I would be here now? That is the question I can’t help but ask myself.

My beam sweeps in front of me. The walk ends in yet another door. That would be the last thing expected, that I would move forward, that I would go on. Whoever left this little message for me obviously knew I would be here, and what they would expect would be what every person alive would expect and that is for me to go back, to tuck tail and run out the same way I’d come in. Why not? Who wouldn’t do that, after all?

I sweep the beam back down the stairs at the door that stands waiting for me then I swing it back, half expecting the Devil himself to be standing on the walk with me but there is only the door, one that I know for an architectural fact does not  lead to the outside world. I move forward because I am not one to be intimidated but more importantly, I am not one to do what is expected of me at any time. There isn’t the first creak from the wood below, and I find myself walking on tiptoe despite the fact that my Converse wouldn’t make any noise unless I jumped up and down with effort. I pass the second door then the third. My confidence grows with every step like a faulty metronome.

There’s nothing here that a little sunlight wouldn’t cure. Doors lining a walkway, stairs leading to an exit, I keep the logic of the situation firmly in mind as I move forward to the last door, the one that faces me at the end of the walk. I realize that the others no doubt lead to bedrooms. The exterior of the structure and the layout I’ve seen so far dictate that this is the case. There is likely a bathroom in the middle of the four rooms, fancy for a house of this age to have an upstairs lavatory but by the look of the layout and the money spent on its initial construction, I do not doubt this is the case. Perhaps I’ll make a trip back here in the near future and in broad daylight but for now all I’m concerned with is getting out of here, getting on my bike and peddling my way back to Jack as fast as I can and ask him what he thought of the engraving on the rail, who put it there. If he couldn’t tell me who did it then no person alive could except for the one responsible. I keep these thoughts close to me as I make my way to the end, the white beam cutting away the darkness as a dependable old friend. I need Jack in my ear. That’s what I’m missing more than anything. Always calm, always confident Jack.

My feet move faster now. I find myself reaching out to the doorknob several steps before I get to it. It takes less than a few seconds to put me where I belong, which is in the state I so longed for. I don’t fear for my life or my safety, not that I’m aware. It’s the not knowing, the not understanding. My thoughts bounce all over the place. The smell of whatever lotion Minnie uses, Jack’s humming while he’s reading, Lula’s dancing to old music in the kitchen back and forth; these thoughts hit me. The smell of cinnamon throughout the house where Lula hangs it in over a dozen places, John’s refusal to give me the real reason for all this, his questions to us in the classroom. I stop and look at the floor in front of my feet then look for a way to find my center, and it hits me. I look at the end of the beam, blocked by the wood of the floor, and I push the button of the flashlight.

When there’s no difference between eyes open or eyes closed, that’s when you know you’re in the dark. The blackness hits me like a weight but not one that hurts, more like a heavy blanket, camouflage. It doesn’t make me vulnerable; it makes me invisible. I give it sixty seconds, a hundred and twenty. I see just as much now as when I turned the light off, not even the outline of the railing, so my eyes are not going to be able to adjust to this. I breathe deep with no noise, letting the darkness soothe me. My heart beats against my chest like some primitive alarm. Thirteen steps back to the stairs, thirty stairs, twenty-six steps to the right, give or take, to the window that’s still open. My thoughts are clear now; no more jumping around, no more jumble. I open my mouth to laugh, and there it is. The same moan from the same door I heard earlier. I don’t know which door but I do know which direction and I know it wasn’t the wind.

With my first step, I crouch and turn. I might as well be in socks because my Converse make zero noise, so thank goodness for that. Twelve, eleven, ten, I reach to the left and touch the wood of the railing to judge my distance. There’s the moan again and a creak then a whisper. It’s behind me without doubt, the other side of the door at the end and given my distance now, I make it to the first step with three more strides. I hit the button on the flashlight at the first step, just in time to get my footing, and I’m descending two at a time. The locked door to the porch is in front of me but I’m not wasting time. My best option is going through the window that’s still open. I can be on my bike between five and ten seconds tops, realizing with some sense of satisfaction, indeed, I can feel fear outside looking out of a high window or trying to climb a ladder. 

The door crashes open at the top of the stairs, and the beam of another light hits me. I can almost feel it but I’m not slowing down nor speeding up. There’s no way I can be caught at this distance. I plant my hand on the wall to make the right turn.

“Gib,” the voice is harsh and deep but there’s a bit of restraint in it like he too doesn’t want to make too much noise. Two more steps, and it hits me. I plant my feet, sliding on the dusty floor and stand breathing for a few seconds before I turn and see the figure at the top of the stairs then I walk back and shine my light on him as he does me.

“John?” I’m panting but there’s no doubt. I see him clearly now.

“You did the right thing by turning the light off,” he said, walking toward the stairs and stopping at the carving. He rubbed his hand over it a few times.

“Please tell me you did that,” I’m half serious.

“Ha, I did this time,” he walked down halfway and stopped. “I can only imagine what you’ve got in mind by coming in this house, kid. You watch the videos I give you and give me feedback, you and your brother. That’s it. Now, what would you have done if I had been someone else? What would you have done if I was a killer?”

“I did exactly what I would’ve done,” there was confidence in my voice, trying to disguise the doubt. “If you hadn’t called my name I’d be doing twenty-five on my bike in the middle of the blacktop right now.”

“There’s not always the option to run,” his voice was monotone. On the last syllable, he made his way to the bottom of the stairs, unlocking the deadbolt, his knuckle dragging right where I knew it would. “What would you do if you couldn’t run?”

“I could do whatever you’ll train me to do,” I answer without a second’s hesitation. With that, he walked out the door with what I swear was the hint of a smile on his face. “Hey, how’d you know I was coming here, anyway?”

“I know everything, kid, didn’t you know that?”

“If that were true you wouldn’t need me and my brother!”

Touché, I’ll give you that one. And why don’t you keep yelling, maybe somebody’ll call a cop.” He disappeared around the side of the house with the last words trailing him.

I stand at the door for several minutes, flashlight by my side. It flickers again and I give it a shake. Maybe it is time for a new one. I turn to go get my bag from underneath the window, and there it is again, the same moan from the door upstairs. Stopping for just a second like a deer in the headlights, I make my way to the porch door and get my bag from the outside.

I’m on my bike with the wind in my ears again before this night gets any weirder. I must say however, as far as the weird factor is concerned, this night is pretty much on par with most others the past few weeks. It all started when Mr. Sunshine there, John Blacksuit as I call him, the guy who just nearly gave me a heart attack, came into my brother’s classroom at school for some sort of crazy recruitment. Ever since that day, we’ve gotten out of regular school but the work load certainly hasn’t decreased. You know what? It’s easier just to start at the beginning…


 Chapter One

           Jess was a mess. She knew it was true, because that’s what everyone told her. It’s not that she looked so bad. Short auburn curls flip-flopped around her just-round-enough-but-not-too-round face and her eyes were what her grandmother once called “sunflower hazel”. At five feet and two and one-quarter inches, Jessica was just the right height for a seventh grader, as far as could be told from all the seventh graders Jess had experienced so far. But she’d missed the first full month of school. Today was her first day at the new school. There might have been several other seventh graders, other than the two boys who sat with her in the principal’s office.

            The office door was opened just wide enough to let in a whiff of coffee and the sound of the school secretary’s phone ringing. “I’m sorry,” Jessica heard the secretary say, “Mr. Peters is tied up right now.”

            I wish he were tied up right now. Real tight. With a rope that smells like fish guts. Jessica smiles.

            “Yes,” the secretary continued. “Dealing with those kids from the bus incident. I’ll have him come down to your room when he’s through, although from the looks of it, it may take a while.”

            Rolling her eyes, Jessica sank deeper into the vinyl on her chair and pretended not to look at the two kids across from her. Principal Peters was writing so fast and so hard on the paper in front of him that Jessica almost thought she could see steam coming off his pen. Burn it, baby. Write that referral as fast as you can. The faster you write, the faster I’m outta here.

 

            “Miss Burns.” The principal said her name as if it were more of a burp than a title. “Miss Burns.”

            All right, I’ll look at you. Jessica lowered her eyebrows and scowled toward Mr. Peters.

            “Do you understand, Miss Burns, it is a privilege to ride the bus to school each day? That the little stunt like the one you pulled today not only wasn’t funny, but quite dangerous?”

            Dangerous? Since when is stinking like poop dangerous?

            Wrinkling their noses, the boys in the office kept from making eye contact with Jess.

            The principal’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “Do you see the trouble you’ve caused? These young men are here to learn, right? How are they supposed to learn if they’re maliciously attacked on their way to school?”

            Does he really expect me to answer all those questions? What a lame sermon. Of course, I see the trouble I’ve caused these two precious students. I created that trouble. I am trouble. I am Jess the mess. It’s who I am.

            Scraping his chair behind him, Mr. Peters stood and moved around his desk until he was just inches from Jessica’s face.

            Gee, he really needs to trim his nose hair.

            “Look at these two students, Miss Burns.”

            Jessica sighed and looked at the boys across from her. She couldn’t keep her lips from smiling again. The boys’ hair looked like it had been moussed with snott, but the odor from their heads warned that the mousse was something far worse than nose excrement.

            One boy hadn’t looked up since they’d all been brought to the office. Now he raised his eyes to meet Jessica’s. With a start, Jessica realized he’d been crying. For a moment she felt what she imagined must be shame then her attention was taken by the other boy.

            “We weren’t doin’ nothin’, Mr. Peters. She just reached over her seat and smeared that, that, that...cow dung or whatever… all over us. She had it in her lunch bag.”

            Actually, it was on my shoe. I didn’t have anything for lunch today. If you call tripping me on my way to my seat nothing, then this school is gonna be just like my last one.

            “You boys are dismissed. You may use the showers in the gym to remove that...uh...hair dressing. And you,” Mr. Peters growled, “Give me your home phone number. Now.”

            Jessica felt her nostrils go in and out. Here it comes.

            “I don’t have a home phone number. We don’t have a phone.” She fixed Mr. Peters with her steadiest look.

            “Then where do your parents work? There must surely be a number there.”

            Parents? I haven’t seen my dad since I was four and you don’t wanna meet my mom, mister. Jessica’s third smile of the day slipped over her face.

            “My mom doesn’t work. She’s kind of unemployed right now.”

            Mr. Peters let out a frustrated “humpfth” and grabbed his notes from his desk. “You just wait right here.”

            Jessica watched the last of the principal’s suit swish around the office door before allowing herself to relax. If Mr. Peters had glanced back in the office, he might have seen the smallest hint of uncertainty trace itself down the side of Jessica’s face, in the form of a single tear.


 

Chapter 1

 

Dr. Vera Drake examined the unconscious young man. “He has lost too much blood,” she murmured. She figured he was about the same age as Marshal, her grandson, making him no older than thirteen or fourteen years old.

As the doctor in charge of Raven Hills Regional ER, she was surprised she had never seen this teenager before. All of Raven Hills came through her emergency room at one time or another. She turned to the nurse on duty.

“Mabel, who is this boy?”

“His name is Blue, Blue MacGregor. After his father became a drug addict, he lived with an uncle who  died  then  with  his  grandmother,  who became

terminally ill and was sent to hospice. He has been on his own for a few months now.”

“Where does he live?”

             “I don’t know. His grandmother had a trailer in Ergo Estates,” snarled Mabel, as she walked away.

A ghost of a smile wafted across Dr. Vera’s lips. Ergo Estates, she mused. No wonder Mabel was acting as if she did not want to touch the boy. Ergo Estates was a trailer park, home to many of the county’s poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. It was  the place for petty criminals, drug dealers, methamphetamine abusers and prostitutes to ply their illegal trade.

The hospital staff would have been surprised to learn she had grown up there. Back then, most of the residents of Ergo Estates worked for Mr. Ergo Himes. Himes’ Mill produced over fifty percent of all the bed sheets made in the United States. Ergo Estates was a mill village. It was modeled after William Gregg’s Graniteville Mill. Graniteville in Aiken County was South Carolina’s first cotton factory.

But transferring the idea to another county in South Carolina had not worked. Three decades ago, the factory/mill had gone bankrupt. Later Mr. Himes’ grandson had turned the place into a large low- maintenance trailer park. Dr. Vera was deep in memory when she felt a gentle tug on her lower left arm.

Here,” Mabel said with characteristic gruffness. She had returned with a large blood- spattered backpack in tow. “This came with that boy in the ambulance.”

              “Thank you, Mabel. Please collect any insurance information from the sheriff and make sure you take care of your duties as head nurse.”

“Yes, Dr. Vera.” Inwardly, Mabel heaved a sigh of relief. Let the good doctor take care of trailer trash, she thought. Personally, she did not care for  the open-door policy that Dr. Vera seemed to favor. As a nurse, she wanted nothing to do with the likes of Blue MacGregor. What if he had impetigo or something even worse? Who knows what a blood test might reveal?

Dr. Drake continued to examine Blue. He reminded her so much of her grandson, Marshal. Like her grandson, he was fair and blond. Blue was lanky, a tad bit taller than Marshal. Her grandchild was growing wider and muscular.

Marshal resembled his mother, who had married Dr. Vera’s son. She disliked his mother, Nora, but for reasons that were unworthy of a woman whose intellect was stellar.

Dr. Vera had always resented Marshal’s mother because she was everything Dr. Vera was not. His mother was tall, a former model, born blond with blue-green eyes. Her grandson had inherited his mother’s good looks. As Marshal’s grandmother, she was no longer considered that shorthaired  old- looking Italian woman or even more often called that “Jewish doctor” .

In fact, she was neither Jewish nor Italian. Dr. Vera’s ancestors were French Huguenots who arrived as settlers in South Carolina over 200 years ago. Her parents had not been prosperous and eventually were able to secure employment at Himes Mill. After   that

business went under, her father worked as the manager/maintenance man in Ergo Estates until his retirement. She would have suffered the same fate but she was smart enough to make the best grades and, later, wily enough to marry a wealthy “good old  boy”. The husband always bragged to his friends that his wife was unique. She could take care of him in sickness and in health. One day, as he played golf,  her husband had a massive heart attack, which killed him where he lay. She decided to forgive and to forget his insensitive treatment. Her son now ran several million-dollar businesses. She lived in a big mansion and her parents resided in a nearby home with assisted living. Marshal III and the hospital were her life now.

Still, the road to the top of her profession was littered with despair about past decisions made and numerous regrets, such as having but one child. Yet Marshal III had made all negative thoughts go away. Unlike his grandfather, her deceased husband, Marshal truly loved her. As a little boy, he had  always been concerned about his “grandmamma.” She, in turn, adored him. Marshal II, her son, and Nora, his wife, were just close enough to  be respectful and leave her to her own devices.

As Dr. Vera reminisced, Blue opened his big blue-green eyes. He emitted a gurgling sound, which surprised her. She gently admonished him to lie still. Every movement jeopardized his horribly injured body. He quickly shut and opened his eyes, moved his lips as if trying to tell her something. Then he fell into a fitful sleep.

           Poor child. She had to get professional help for him. This hospital had no trauma physicians. She decided to call Dr. Patel in Spartanburg. He was one of the best trauma surgeons in the world. He was married to one of her best friends and he came pro bono. On his way through Greenville, he picked up the best anesthesiologists in the state. The husband and wife team, Dr. and Dr. (Mrs.) Wang, were willing to come just for the experience of the work. Dr. Vera was happy to have all of this doctor power available to her hospital, General Memorial.

After a long two-hour wait, the doctors finally arrived. Dr. Vera and a resident had prepped Blue for surgery because his condition refused to  stabilize. She welcomed all of her comrades with open arms. Dr. Patel was one of her favorite people. Having been born on a dirt floor in a Delhi slum, he was humble, always willing to help the less fortunate. Sometimes, people who escape poverty choose to pretend the condition is unknown to them. He did not. His work with Doctors Without Borders indicated a genuine concern for the wretched of the earth. However, by the time the trio was ready to operate, Blue’s condition had worsened.

Dr. Patel did an initial examination and shook his head as he stood over Blue. “I don’t think I can help this young man but I will try.”

Dr. Vera begged him to do his best. That was all that was required. Dr. Patel insisted that a nearby hospital in Anderson provide another surgeon for standby, just in case he was needed. There was not enough time, so Dr. Vera chose one of General Memorial’s young surgeons for that purpose.

           As the orderlies rolled Blue in for  the surgery, Dr. Vera moved slowly toward the elevator. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she pushed the button to leave all of this misery on the floor above. When the doors opened, Nurse Mabel grabbed her hand and brusquely steered her into the elevator.

“Dr. Vera, the duty roster indicates you have been here for more than two days. You ought to fire some of these sorry doctors who don’t want to do emergency room duty. As women, we have to make it clear our orders are to be followed.”

Dr. Drake ignored her while nodding in agreement. If she fired her doctors, willy-nilly, with whom would she replace them? Few qualified surgeons and physicians wanted to work in rural areas, such as Raven Hills. So often she took what she could get and considered that a gift.

Dr. Vera walked back to the emergency room to resume her duties. In one hour, Dr. Hollis would relieve her for a couple of days. He never shirked his emergency room duties. Perhaps, he had the same type of home life as she did.

As she entered the room where Blue had been, she stumbled over his backpack. She picked it up and carefully emptied the contents on top of a hospital cot. There were three paperback short juvenile novels checked out from the public library, an algebra textbook, some pens, several legal pads, loose leaf papers, photos and a couple of binders. Her eyes were drawn to the legal pads and papers. The back of each pad was numbered and the papers were stamped   with   the   words,   “Lieutenant Governor’s

Writing Award for Fifth Grade, Aiken County School District 5 Winner.”

“You’re smart, aren’t you, Blue?” Dr. Vera muttered. She shook her head. Why must she always talk to herself in the emergency room? It was disconcerting to patients. Yet worse than that,  was the constant comment by Mabel, “Senile old people talk to themselves that way.”

Dr. Vera put everything except the numbered pads and paper back into the bag. Usually she did not spend this much time trying to find out about a patient. For some reason, Blue intrigued her and she believed his writings must be well worth reading. She decided to take them to her office for a more thorough examination.

By the time she got back to her office, she realized she only had a few minutes to snack and no time to read. She locked the legal pads and papers in  a metal cabinet in her office, munched a Baby Ruth bar, and guzzled a Fresca. Dr. Vera carefully locked her office and hurried back to a slow day in the ER. She slowed her walking pace as two men came toward her.

“Sheriff Thompson and Dr. Springham, to what do I owe this visit? Both of you should be resting after the accident.”

The sheriff, with a large hand bandage fastened securely, held up Blue’s backpack.

“Is this all that was brought with him, that Blue boy?”

“Yes, Sheriff, that’s all,” Dr. Vera replied, with a firm voice and direct eyes, which told a perfect lie.

              “Sheriff,  do  you  know  what  happened to Blue?”

          “We   suspect   he   set   fire   to   the  college research center last week. Videotape footage places him in the building. We think he may have set the fires at the Methodist AME Zion Church and at First Baptist on Friendship Drive. We were taking him in for questioning. I figured he was just a boy and there was no need for handcuffs. He and Dr. Springham were seated in the back of the police car. Then, for no reason, he tried to escape from a moving police car, causing us to collide with an eighteen-wheeler. My official car was completely destroyed. He was hanging out the door. A truck missed him but a car  hit him as he was clinging to the door on the side of the highway.”

At that point, Dr. Vera understood why Dr. Patel felt he could not save Blue. She believed any child who could survive in a feral manner on his own might make it. In her heart, she prayed for his survival.

The sheriff made it clear he wanted to examine the contents of the backpack. “I need that bag for evidence. A nurse told me the boy was in surgery. When will he be out?”

Dr. Vera found the bloody backpack and turned it over to the sheriff. She forced a smile. “Blue is in surgery. As soon as the operation is over, I will call you, Sheriff.”

“Thank you, Doctor. But I will leave a couple of deputies here to insure everybody’s safety. That boy is a natural-born maniac.”

              Dr.  Vera  nodded.  She  knew  better  than to protest.

              “I appreciate that  you  and  your deputies  are looking out for this hospital, Sheriff.”

               Dr. Vera watched them leave. She had no idea why she had chosen to keep the pads and papers to herself. The sheriff and Dr. Springham gave her  the heebie-jeebies.

Sheriff Thompson had worked as head of her late husband’s security detail for ten years before becoming Raven Hills’ chief law enforcement  officer. Since he had taken the helm, there had been many unexplained, mysterious occurrences but they were too vague to point clearly to an incompetent or corrupt police department. Crime appeared to be spiraling out of control. Mrs. Thompson was always coming to the ER, claiming she had fallen. Her motor skill responses had been checked and she was free of any major illnesses. Dr. Vera suspected the sheriff beat his wife, who tried to cover it up. His wife always described herself as a klutz.

While the sheriff annoyed her, Dr.  Springham filled her with dread. He was the albino great grandson of the founder of Raven Hills. While serving in the U.S. armed services, his father had married his German mother, who was rumored to be Hitler’s cousin. Others said she was the daughter of a commandant of one of the German extermination camps in Poland. No one really knew the true story.

Many people credited Dr. Springham with turning Raven Hills College into America’s premier pre-med school. He was trained as a chemist, so this was  quite  an  achievement.  There  were    questions about how a school with over 5,000 students could afford to award full scholarships to more than 40 percent of the student body without the benefit of federal money. Raven Hills College had the largest private endowment of any college of its size in the world.

Dr. Vera stifled a yawn as she walked toward her office. Her shift was now officially over. She decided she was too tired to drive the distance to her house. She would definitely have to take a quick nap before going home.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

I survived the long drive from Cleveland. Now if I could just survive the Russians, I’d be OK. Some people worried they were going to blow up the United States. Mom and I had come back to West Virginia to start over. How could we start over if the world was coming to an end?

Mom turned off the ignition and the car lurched and hiccupped. Our old Chevy needed help almost as much as I did. A mechanic could repair an engine and have it running right in no time but a mechanic couldn’t fix a twelve-year-old boy’s ailment. Dad died six months ago and I missed him so much.

I grabbed hold of the dangling broken car handle. It scraped against the surface when I opened the door. My legs stuck to the car’s vinyl upholstery. I squirmed, loosened the grip of the sweaty seat, and stepped out into the muggy evening air. My long legs, stiff from sitting for so long, buckled. I fell against our car and slid down the fender onto the gravel.

Mom frowned. “Teddy, are you all right?” She pushed back her damp hair from her forehead.

“I’m fine.” I stood and dusted off the back of my shorts.

She exited the car and stretched her weary body. Lightning bugs surrounded us and turned on their little taillights at the same time. They lit up the dark sky like sparklers on Independence Day. Our boring trip ended with an exploding display of yellow, green and orange.

A screen door squeaked. My aunt and uncle and their two-year-old twins, Calvin and Chester spilled out onto the porch. Their dog, Mamie, bombarded me with sloppy kisses. Eleanor, my travel weary cat, jumped out the car window and pounced on the grass alongside their dog. Hiss. Her back arched, fur standing on end, ready to attack.

After all the commotion died down, I grabbed my suitcase and box of stuff. I followed Aunt Dolley into the room where I was to sleep. Oh shoot. I had to share a bedroom with the twins. At least they weren’t in diapers and there weren’t any bunnies painted on the wall. They jumped up and down on the one large bed as I unpacked and put my things into two drawers Aunt Dolley had cleared out for me. The last, and most important, items I put away were a picture of Dad and me fishing, my worry stone and a crumpled list.

A big drug store calendar hung from a long skinny nail. I circled the date, August 24, 1962. OK, Theodore Ulysses Haynes, today is the first day of the rest of your life. Try not to mess it up.

I wish I could turn back the pages of the calendar.

When we moved to Cleveland three years ago from Haynes Branch, which was just another holler surrounded by hills a few miles from here, Dad and I had written down all the stuff he was going to teach me how to do. Our only adventures marked off the list were fishing and basketball. It was all crinkled and worn but I treasured that wrinkled paper. It was my little piece of Dad. Whenever I missed him, I got out the list and read his promises. Maybe Mom could teach me some of the stuff we’d written down. But I doubt if she cared to teach me how to spit or hunt. Those were man things.

Except for the singing of the insects that drifted in through the opened window, silence filled the room. I turned to see the twins collapsed under the bed sheet.

“Too much excitement for one evening,” said Aunt Dolley as she kissed them on the forehead. “They’re worn out. They’ll sleep ‘til the sun comes up, maybe later if we’re lucky.” 

She left and Mom tiptoed in to tell me goodnight. She held my hand and whispered, “It’s going to be OK. This is the best place for us to be right now. My dad used to tell me, ‘Hang your dreams on a star and you’ll go far.’ Look out the window at all those stars. Have you ever in your life seen so many?”

I stared up at her and then at the stars. It looked like all the lightning bugs had been shot into space and emptied into the night sky. The heavens may have been filled with twinkling lights but there were no stars in Mom’s eyes, only sadness. I’d travel anywhere with Mom, even up this old dirt road if it brought back the shine in her eyes. I needed to be somewhere else, too. The big city of Cleveland held too many sad memories.

 

Mom found a job pretty quick at the newspaper office. That left me alone at the house with Aunt Dolley and her twins, who had more energy than Mexican jumping beans. Uncle Henry worked shift work and slept most of the day. Aunt Dolley did all the cooking, so I helped with Calvin and Chester. I didn’t mind but my idea of a fun day wasn’t having two toddlers following me around every minute like puppy dogs, nipping at my feet.

Mom’s baby sister didn’t look a bit like Mom on the outside, except for the dimples in their cheeks. But on the inside, they were the same—the nicest aunt and mom a boy could ask for. One day after Aunt Dolley put the boys down for their nap, she took me aside and said, “A person can only grieve for so long. You’re too much like your dad to just sit around and mope all the time. He wouldn’t like that. He’s up there looking down just itching to give you a shove but he can’t. So I will. Now go outside and get some sunshine. Winter will be here soon and a gray sky, icy potholes and knee-deep snow is all you’ll be seeing.” She nudged me out onto the front porch.

The rickety screen door got loose and slammed so fast behind me, my cat, Eleanor, yowled when it caught her tail. She bolted off the porch and then scrambled up the trunk of the tall sycamore growing along the creek bank. I ran after her. Feet shuffling behind me drew my attention away from rescuing my furry friend.

 “Hey, Teddy, wait up,” a voice said. “You sure do have long legs. You’re going to have to slow down if I’m to catch up to you.”

I slowed and glanced over my shoulder. A neighborhood boy walked toward me with a limp. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him out and about a few times. He lived a couple houses up the road. Puffs of dust trailed behind his scuffed shoes.

 “My name’s Melvin.” He grinned and waved his arm. “Where you going so all powerful fast?”

I stopped walking and stared at this curious kid. How did he know who I was?

“Where you going?” he repeated.

“Nowhere.” Wasn’t anywhere to go around here except maybe up the tree with my cat, and I didn’t like to climb trees. But I wasn’t about to let him know that.

“Mind if I walk along with you?”

“Nope, I don’t mind.” I stared up at Eleanor clinging onto a branch high up in the sycamore. She’d be all right. I think her pride hurt more than her tail. She wouldn’t be coming down any time soon. I took off down the road with a stranger, something I would never have done in Cleveland.

I shoved my right hand into my pants pocket and rubbed my worry stone. “How’d you know my name? You got ESP or something?”

“ESP? Heck no. Mom told me.”

His grin curved across his face, pushing his freckles into one big clump. You could drive a coal truck through the big gap between his front teeth. He blended right into the landscape. His hair matched the dusty color of the dirt road and the haze of the late August sky. If it wasn’t for his bright plaid shirt, you’d miss seeing him altogether. He did have a unique voice, though. A tart voice that reminded me of green apples not quite ready to pick.

“Welcome to the holler.” He cleared his throat and rubbed his shoes into the dust on the road. “I’m real sorry about your dad dying.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. Word sure traveled fast around here. I wondered what else he knew about me.

He straightened up and looked into my eyes. “Well anyways, classes begin in a few days. I’d hate for you to start school in a new place and not know anybody. I figured we could hang out together. Everybody needs a friend. I’ll be in the seventh grade. How about you?”

“Me too.”

Melvin nodded. “Thought so. You got a transistor?”

“Nope. I lost it.” I lowered my head, stared down at my new shoes, and avoided eye contact.

Dad had given me a transistor on my last birthday and I missed it something fierce. I lost it when we moved. I searched in all my stuff, I even rummaged through my socks and pushed my hands into the toes of my winter boots, even though the thought of spiders hidden in dark spaces scared me. I looked every place it shouldn’t have been and every place it should. The music kept me company and helped pass the time. I wasn’t going to quit looking until I found it. I figured the twins snatched it and hid it somewhere.

 “That’s OK. I’ve got one,” said Melvin. He pulled out a little black radio from his shirt pocket and then twirled the volume wheel. Loud music burst forth from the tiny speakers. “I can’t dance much. Mom says I sound like a coyote crying in the woods when I try to sing but I sure like rock and roll. What about you?” He took a gulp from his bottle of Pepsi.

“Sure,” I said. I listened to it on our front porch in Cleveland. Mom didn’t mind, just so it wasn’t turned up too loud.

We walked down the holler to nowhere in particular. I didn’t talk much unless someone asked me a direct question. Our walk would have been awfully quiet, if it weren’t for Melvin. But he never stopped talking long enough for me to worry about coming back with a remark. We reached a wide spot in the road. It seemed like as good a place as any to turn around and start back, so we did. A coal truck rumbled past us, covering our clothes in a cloud of gray dust.

I listened to the music while Melvin told me everything about everybody. He sure liked to talk—and talk. Listening to him was better than listening in on the telephone party line. I didn’t know if I would ever need to know that a trapper by the name of Tupper was the first white man to set foot in this area of the world or that Mrs. Taylor bragged she actually shook John F. Kennedy’s hand during his campaign for president but my brain soaked in every word. He talked so much that I got full up inside and thought I’d explode.

At least he never asked me a lot of dumb questions and he didn’t make fun of the way I talked. In fact, he talked exactly like me, except he used big words a lot. His voice had that little twang I never lost, even after living in Cleveland for three years. He called Pepsi Cola “pop,” and he dropped salted peanuts in the bottle just like I did.

“Have a drink,” he said.

Mom told me I shouldn’t drink after people, unless they were family but I couldn’t resist. My dry throat screamed for something wet. “Thanks.” I gulped a drink of Pepsi, capturing a salty peanut in my throat.

I sucked in deeply and tried to catch my breath. But there it came—a big fat cough. I gasped and coughed again. Stinging pop squirted out my nose.

The next thing I knew, Melvin was pounding my back. Oh shoot. How’d I manage to get choked on a peanut? Bet my face was redder than the planet Mars. I should’ve listened to Mom.

“Are you all right, Teddy?”

I bent over, sucked in hard and held my breath. The peanut hadn’t budged, making itself at home in my throat. My whole life flashed before me, and it didn’t take long. Geez, I couldn’t die now, I hadn’t even kissed a girl yet. Who am I kidding. I hadn’t even wanted to kiss a girl yet.

“Teddy. You’re turning blue.” Melvin slapped my back again and the peanut shot out like a rocket shooting toward the moon. I just about fell over. Melvin’s strong arms had saved me.

I breathed in deeply and stood, wiping my face on my sleeve. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I managed to choke out. “Thanks Melvin, I was a goner for sure.”

The urge to cough hit me again but I held it back. Thank goodness, we were almost to Aunt Dolley’s house. I could go inside and hole up in my room all alone. Well, not all alone, I’m sure the twins would find me. Still Melvin followed me through our front gate. He stuck to me like a fly to flypaper.

 

 

Chapter One

The Apparition

 

Early January, 1984

 Along the Moenkopi wash, south of Tuba City, Arizona, a full moon illuminated the colorful midnight desert of the nipping Colorado Plateau. The familiar howling of coyotes beyond the distant towering rocks did not disturb the young Hopi woman who rested motionless on the hand-woven fabric that separated her from the pliant desert sand. A few feet away, a stalwart Navajo Indian stood beside a pile of burning woods. The crackling fire provided little warmth for the silent woman who had given birth only moments earlier. The baby boy, tucked cozily to his mother, was wrapped snugly in a sheepskin blanket.

The man gathered more sticks and bark from adjacent dry shrubs. He piled the woods at different sides, closer to those he cherished, watching the fire rise briskly toward the open sky. The heat radiated summarily in all directions, pushing away the cold surrounding air.

The tall Navajo Indian turned his face. His ears were tuned to the sounds of whispering beetles a hundred yards away but his eyes caught sight of a nearby potential menace. A yellow scorpion crawled from beneath the cold soil. He swiftly reached for the bow, aiming the arrow steadily at the creeping creature. In a split second, the arrow left his fingers, dividing the scorpion in half.

“I provide comfort for my family only. I will protect them even from you, venomous spider of death,” he whispered in Navajo.

The Indian stooped to retrieve his arrow, drawing his bow once more. This time, he aimed the arrow toward the sky above him. The bountiful stars twinkled like sparkling diamonds on dark blue velour.

“By the spirits of my fathers, Hashkeh Naabah, K’uuch’ish and Moketavato, I release this arrow into the midnight sky, marking the liberation of my bonds with you. You have taught me well but times have changed. My soul shall forever burn by the flames of my Navajo, Apache and Cheyenne ancestors; now that my son is born, he shall be part of the future. I bid you and the reservation farewell, forever.”

The arrow darted in a straight path heavenward. The small wooden missile continued its ascent, disappearing among the distant stars. The Navajo man gazed into the skies, peering through the vast blue-black yonder, wondering whether the stars might have indeed swallowed it. Either way, the arrow did not return.

From among the heavenly bodies, a fiery ball unexpectedly appeared to light the midnight firmament. Racing toward Earth, it fell ever faster unto the silent Arizona desert. It seemed to be heading straight for the Navajo man. Soon, he could distinguish the fiery orb as a huge burning spear, piercing the cold desert soil only inches away from his colorful moccasins.

Behind the burning spear, an apparition of a great Indian warrior took the Navajo man further by surprise. The earthly Indian withdrew a few steps, observing a bare-chested, bald-headed tattooed specter materializing before him. He allowed the fierce look of the phantom to pierce his eyes.

“Who are you?” the Navajo Indian asked, puzzled.

“I am Starface, a Cahokia of the Inoca confederation. I am known as Starface the Cahokia,” he replied, deliberately and in a reverberating voice.

The Navajo man pondered, searching his memories for a man calling himself Starface the Cahokia but he could not recall having ever heard of him.

“My name is Jerome Smallfeather. I am a Navajo from the reservation of this place,” he said.

“I know of you, Jerome Smallfeather, and I speak your language. You have come from many Indian tribes. You are proud and resilient. You are good with your bow. You are sharp and fast but not as fast as I am,” the apparition noted.

“What do you want? I have only this bow…and my family,” the Navajo man said, pointing with his bow at the defenseless mortals on the blanket.

The specter glanced at the mother and her child. “Shooting your arrow into the sky, marking your liberation from your ancestors is a vow of serious discontent,” he remarked. “I was the spirit who grabbed your arrow, turning it with my wrath into this mighty burning spear. Almost six thousand moons ago, an unusual, yet very gratifying marriage took place between me and Malinal, the daughter of Cuauhtémoc, a great Anahuac warrior. She bore us sons and daughters. You, Jerome Smallfeather, are my descendant. We have quarreled with and fought among ourselves throughout this vast land of ours but my most bitter enemy was the white man. They divided the Indians, turned us into unforgiving foes, hunting the Cahokia to extinction. I am Starface the Cahokia, the fastest runner created by heaven. I can outrun horses and leopards and at one time, I even outran death. The flying darts, metals and gunpowder from those white men’s muskets could not catch me. They came from the left and from the right and then…I decided to even outrun myself. That’s when I leaped into the stars, into a different world, a different zone. I left this earth never to be seen again by man but I vowed to return as I am now to take my revenge against the white men who forced me to leave my family behind.”

“So you were shot by the white man, after all,” Jerome Smallfeather ascertained.

“Yes, I was seventy years old at the time but I could have lived many more,” he replied.

The Navajo observed the phantom, inquisitively. “The fastest runners I know are the Rarámuri, also known as the Tarahumara, and you claim to be a Cahokia of the Northeast.”

“Rarámuri, indeed. When a French priest told me the Spanish conquered the Nahua, I decided to see for myself because the Nahua were fierce fighters. Such news was not easy for me to accept. I made a long journey, discovering the truth. However, to my deep disappointment, our brave Nahua brothers were on their knees before the white conquistadores. That was enough for me to see…especially when I understood that I, myself, was in danger. I could not go back home the same way I came, so I went westward and crossed the Copper Canyon south of here. There, I had my first encounter with the Rarámuri, a separate and unique tribe who lived alongside the fierce and aggressive Nahua. I spoke their language not. Only by signs of our hands did we talk. Among them, I discovered Malinal, the beautiful maiden, daughter of Cuauhtémoc the Nahua, an honorable guest who took temporary refuge at the Rarámuri camp. I loved her at first sight but she was to marry Zolton, the fastest Rarámuri runner alive. Her father told me that if I could outrun Zolton, she would be mine. Everybody laughed, for they thought my competition would be futile. The Rarámuri are a brave nation. Not even the Nahua could rule them.”

“What did you do? Did you confront Zolton?” the Navajo asked.

“My burning desire for that pretty maiden caused me to accept the challenge. Malinal was very lovely. I could feel her desire for me. Zolton was undoubtedly a fast runner and one such as him I had never seen but my love for Malinal was even greater. I suddenly felt the power of the winds whisking me away to become the returning winner. That same night, Malinal and I were joined. She whispered into my ears words of an everlasting bond, ‘You are the man whose face, a bright star in heaven has shown me. Whatever your name was or is, from now on and forever you are called Citlalli Ixtli—Starface.’ The next day, I took her back with me to my tribe. Ever since, I have become the fastest runner that roamed this earth. I am Starface the Cahokia,” the phantom said, smugly.

Jerome Smallfeather looked at the ghost for some time. “So you are here because you want revenge against the pale skins? Six thousand moons is a long time, Starface. Everything has changed since then. The wars between them and us have long been over. Today, they have far more superior weapons than when you knew them. They can fly like gods, faster and higher than our mighty eagles, also, they have extended their hands to us. They want us to join them in the destiny of this earth. The only chance of survival is to join them. That’s why I have decided to take my son away from the reservation. I want to give him a new future…a good future.”

“A future with the white man?” the voice of the apparition interrupted.

“The white man has changed too, Starface,” the Navajo said. “They are younger, erudite and purer at heart. Today, millions throughout the land support the well-being of the natives. Go into the reservations, Starface, and see what has become of us. As you can see, I do not even have a horse.”

The specter remained silent for a long while, gazing at the skies above. He then turned back to the Navajo before him. “Jerome Smallfeather, I am only a spirit. I can’t force you to see it my way, so I will do the only thing I can.”

“What will you do, Starface?”

“I will resign myself from the Council of Stars and reside inside the body of your son for the remainder of his life,” the specter replied.

“No, Starface, I…I beg of you. He is only a few hours old. Your spirit may be too strong for him,” the Navajo Indian objected, cautiously.

The ghostly Indian peered into Smallfeather’s eyes. “Perhaps, I am mistaken. You are not as strong as your fathers were. You fear too much.”

“I fear only for my son, Starface. He is innocent and defenseless. I do not fear for myself.”

“What do you call your son?” the spirit asked.

The Navajo man hesitated awhile. “Hiilchi’i' Night Sky,” he finally disclosed.

“Very well, we shall see if he will carry my spirit. With the eclipse of the last star, if he still breathes, you will know my spirit is in him. Then, you shall call him Starface the Cahokia,” the ghostly Indian declared.

“But, what if he dies?” Jerome Smallfeather asked, apprehensively.

“If he dies, I will die with him. Before I go, I will leave this burning spear with you. If you succeed to unearth this powerful weapon, throw it as far as you can with both of your hands…,” the apparition said, vanishing slowly along with the spear’s flames into the thin air of the cold desert.

The Navajo grabbed the wooden shaft. Unearthing the enormous beam was no easy task. It was buried deep inside the desert sand. The Indian’s muscular arm tightened, struggling to remove it from the soil below. He arched backward, as the spear sloped upward, rising above his head.

“This is only a spear. Why is it so difficult to remove?” he muttered aloud.

However, Jerome Smallfeather did not succumb. His persistent pull and strong grip paid dividends. The heavy spear was finally out of the sand, throwing the rugged Indian on his back. With his bruised, bloodied hands, he kept holding on to it. He tried getting to his feet, wondering what kind of wood it was. “This is indeed a heavy one,” he murmured.

When he stood up at last, he lifted the weapon slowly and with difficulty above his head. For a while, the weight of the spear seemed too much for him to bear but, with much effort and strength, he threw it only a few feet in front of him.

To his surprise, the spear turned into a graceful, white stallion, standing high and proud before him. Jerome Smallfeather looked in disbelief. “This burning spear is magic,” he whispered aloud.

The neighing stallion beckoned the approaching Indian to retain him.

The man gently stroked the horse’s nose. “Your name is Burning Spear,” he said, clearly.

Holding his mane, he jumped on the animal’s back, riding proudly along the outskirts of the Moenkopi Wash.

Three weeks had passed since they left their dwellings, walking the sandy, rocky desert by foot. To Jerome, the new stallion he rode was an esteemed commodity. When he returned to the resting Hopi woman, her eyes were open.

“We have a horse,” he told her.

“I have seen it all,” she whispered.

“Are you able to continue the journey?”

“I will tell you after the eclipse of the last star,” she replied, turning to the infant beside her.

Dawn came slowly; when it came, the cry of the boy was heard, again.

The man took the child into his hands. “My son, he lives,” he told the smiling Hopi woman.

“Yes,” she whispered. “His name is now Starface—Starface the Cahokia.”

Jerome Smallfeather looked despondent. “No,” he protested. “Somewhere along the line of history I may have some Cahokia blood, and his spirit may be that of Starface, yet he is no Cahokia. He is Navajo and Hopi. We shall call our son Starface Smallfeather.”

That same morning, at the appearance of the first rays of sun, the Indians continued their journey westward. Riding Burning Spear, their handsome white stallion, they crossed the Little Colorado River at a wooden junction. They then traversed a magnificent forest, finding shelter among the tall, green trees. The fresh waters of the river quenched their thirst during the day, while the abundance of wildlife satisfied their hunger at night.

Burning Spear led his masters through the Coconino Plateau, on the south rim of the majestic Grand Canyon, climbing the impossible steep slopes of mighty rock cliffs. Surprised by Burning Spear’s spontaneous mountaineering, Jerome Smallfeather squeezed the horse’s body tightly with his straddled legs while seizing the animal’s mane firmly in his right hand. His wife and child were securely strapped in front of him. He held them snug by his left arm.

“Burning Spear…turn back,” the Indian ordered but the white horse kept climbing the steep rock-face with magical capabilities until he finally reached the top of the plateau.

They stood high at the peak of a grand precipice, overlooking the beauty and grandeur of the awesome Grand Canyon. The cool breeze awoke their senses, refreshing their faces to unexpected delight. They watched several eagles fly above and below only to disappear into the depths of the abrupt ravines.

“It is a beautiful country,” Jerome spoke into the wind.

“It is a magical land,” his wife whispered.

 

Three miles down, on a small mound surrounded by ponderosa pine, David McDane, a National Park Ranger, spotted the Indians and their white horse. At first glance, the tall, blond ranger thought he had slipped into an imaginary world. He removed the binoculars, rubbing his eyes.

It can’t be true, he thought. He peeked through the lenses again, focusing them to a crystal clear image. He saw them once more.

“God almighty, how did they get up there?” he mumbled.

Jorge Sanchez, another park ranger, stood beside him. “What is it, David?”

“Look over there.” David pointed to the distant ridge overlooking the canyon.

Jorge scanned through his own field glasses.

“Do you see them?” McDane asked, eagerly.

McDane’s associate kept peering through his scope, ignoring the question.

David became impatient. Lowering his binoculars, he turned to Jorge, grabbing his shoulders. “Do you see them, George?”

“Magnificent. They are breathtakingly magnificent,” the ranger replied.

“What is so breathtakingly magnificent, George?”

Jorge removed the binoculars slowly from his face, smiling at David. “Those Indians on their white horse.”

“Yes. Well, I’m glad you see them, too.”

“And why wouldn’t I see them?” Jorge questioned.

“Why? Well, for being so indifferent. Has it ever occur to you how they managed to get up there?”

“If you were up there, Dave, it would make me wonder,” Jorge jested.

“All jokes aside, big G, only a helicopter would be able to place them on top of that towering rock,” David declared.

“Not necessarily. From what I see, they’re Indians through and through…” Jorge surmised.

“Oh, come off it, George. They’re human just like everybody else. Save me those legendary stories for another time,” David interrupted.

Jorge’s smile faded, as he looked earnestly at his friend. “What I’ve told you about these Indians is true. They’re great, spiritual people and, in a land as enchanting as this, anything is possible,” he said, firmly.

“I’m about to hear you say their white horse flew them up there,” David replied, with laughter.

“That could be, Dave. Yes, that could very well be.”

“Oh, come off it. What makes you an authority on Indians anyway, Sanchez? You’re of Mexican ancestry. Your people don’t believe in those Indian tales any more than I do,” David charged.

“You’re right, David. I’m of Mexican blood, which means part of me is Indian,” Jorge revealed.

David strode down the hill. Below, an Arizona ranger’s wagon was parked on the side trail. His friend followed briskly behind him. David reached for the mike beneath the dashboard.

“Ranger Control…Ranger Control…this is unit ten…over,” he announced, placing the hand-piece close to his mouth.

“Unit ten, this is Ranger Control. What’s up, Dave?” came a swift and familiar response.

David laughed. “What’s up is the right question. I’ve got something here to blow your top...” Observing the pensive look on Jorge’s face, David cleared his throat. “…but big G, here doesn’t find this case particularly unusual…”

“Why don’t you try me? I’m all ears,” the voice responded.

Shaking his head, Jorge placed his hand on the mike. “Let it go, Dave. They’re part of this unexplainable beauty. They’re part of nature,” he said, trying to persuade his friend.

“But…we’ve got to report it. It’s part of our job,” David protested.

Jorge withdrew his hand from the mike. “OK, pal, it’s all yours. Report it if you must. Just think what purpose will be served by your report.”

David pondered on the words of his friend but the voice from the citizens band kept interrupting.

“Unit ten…unit ten…this is Ranger Control. Are you still with me, over?”

David seemed to have made up his mind reporting his sighting to Ranger Headquarters.

It took only moments for a surveillance helicopter to hover above the erect standing horse and the travelers he carried.

“This is surveillance chopper NAR three. I’ve spotted them. I’m going in for a closer look,” the pilot reported, flying his machine around the towering cliff. The pilot observed them close up, while snapping a few pictures.

“Ranger Control, this is surveillance chopper NAR three,” the pilot furthered. “I’ve covered this mammoth five times. I just don’t see how they made it up here. None of the slopes leading to the plateau are less than eighty degrees. To get to the top table…it’s…it’s just impossible to do it by climbing up there. All slopes have acute angles for at least seven feet. The only explanation I can offer is…eh…it may be a stunt…some wise guy in a chopper somehow lifted them to this place…over.”

“Surveillance chopper NAR three. How many are there, over?” the voice from Ranger Headquarters came through.

“I see a man, a woman and a suckling on a splendid, stupendous white horse…but…they ought to get down immediately. The winds are strong at this moment and may certainly get the better of them, over.”

“Copy that, NAR three. We’re dispatching paramedics…over and out.”

The pilot hovered for a final look at the miracle below him. His camera clicked with another set of close-ups, catching the sharp, confident looks in the Indians’ eyes.

The Navajo man looked up, pointing his finger at the chopper. “That’s the mighty white man’s eagle, Starface,” he whispered into his son’s ears. “One day, you too, shall fly that mighty bird. The world is yours, Starface…all yours.”

Burning Spear rose in neighing agreement, as the helicopter returned to base with its final pictures.

When the paramedics arrived at the scene, the Indians and their horse were no longer there. The paramedics and the pilots requested more information.

“This is NARP one. We’ve no visual on reported Indians, over.”

“Search ‘til you find them,” Ranger Headquarters instructed the pilots.

The pilots swooped as low to the canyon as they could.

“NARP one, this is Base Control. Did you spot them, over?”

“Negative…negative…who did the initial surveying, over?”

“Our very own…Captain Anton Mooreson, over,” Base Control responded.

“Ask Anton to give us more exact coordinates, or we may think he had one too many, over,” the pilots responded.

“Those are his coordinates, over.”

“Put that old timer on, over,” one of the pilots requested.

“No can do. He’s at the lab developing the pictures, over.”

The pilots and the highly trained paramedics inside the helicopter laughed. “We sure would like to see what turns out on those pictures besides his empty bottle, over,” they jested.

Moments later, Captain Mooreson returned from the laboratory to converse with Chopper NARP one. The dialogue turned serious.

“My God,” the captain exclaimed. “They must’ve fallen off somehow. There’s no way they could’ve gotten down that rock by themselves. Go down to the bottom of that canyon…and…please find them, over.”

“Anton? Are you sure you spotted Indians on a white horse, over?” the pilot questioned.

“The entire staff, including Colonel Tappers, is right here, looking at the pictures I developed. I assume…that if they’re on these pictures…they were there,” the captain replied.

“All right, Cap. They aren’t here now but we shall go down these cliffs once more, all the way down to the bottom of this ravine, over and out.”

After an exhaustive and futile search, the pilots were ordered to return. By then, Burning Spear and his masters had already traversed the lowlands.

 

When night came, distant sounds of music and flickering firelights attracted Burning Spear to the dark, cool valley below. Vacationing campers from all walks of life came from different states and even from other countries across the oceans. Their tents and campers were located near the tall cypress, fir and oak trees. The men, women and children frolicked around the fire, playing their instruments, singing and dancing to the tunes of various songs until the very edge of midnight.

Unattended, a three-year-old, away from the crowd, toddled to the rattling sounds of a brown, venomous killer. A fourteen-year-old teen noticed the snake approaching the tyke, ever closer. She screamed.

The music stopped. The alerted parents of the child along with thirty others watched in agonizing panic as the rattler made its final stance against its innocent victim. The snake leaped with its fangs clearly exposed, when an arrow, faster than lightning, pierced the rattler’s head only inches from the child’s face. The sharp arrow sent the snake summersaulting, killing it instantly. With gasps and screams of some onlooking adults, the toddler returned to his parents’ arms in tears.

An observant seven-year-old boy followed the arrow’s path, catching a quick glimpse of the white horse and the Indians. A few others too had seen the Indians swiftly disappear into the dark woods of the forest.

A young couple from neighboring Utah had seen the Indians clearly. They hurried to their parked camper.

The young man placed the microphone of his CB close to his mouth. “This is Double MU, the Magical Mormon from Utah. I have an important question for any Arizonian out there…come in.”

He repeated the message several times before turning the dial to a different frequency.

“This is Double MU, the Magical Mormon from Utah…any Arizonian out there…please respond,” he tried again.

 Five miles away, on Highway 66, a heavy-duty truck driver received the message from Double MU.

 “Well, halloo there, Magical Mormon. This is Wild, Wild Roger. You’re coming in loud and clear. I’m no Arizonian but I carry this rig of mine through this state every week. How can I assist?” the trucker offered.

“I need to know about wild Indians. Do they still roam freely around these areas? We’re about twenty-five miles southwest of the national park and Grand Canyon Village, south of the great Colorado River,” the Mormon documented.

“Wild Indians, huh? You’re in the middle of Indian country, all right. There’re Indian reservations north, south, east and west of you, son but the only wild one around here is me—Wild, Wild Roger. What you need, son, is a good night’s rest,” the driver suggested, with a great burst of laughter.

That same night, Arizona police and the National Park Rangers carefully interviewed the travelers. Their description of the white horse and the Indians satisfied Captain Mooreson. He showed one of the developed pictures to the seven-year-old boy.

“Is this what you saw, son?” he asked.

The boy, shy and confused, nodded, holding on to his parents. “Yes, yes, exactly them,” he finally uttered.

At the end of the table, the dead rattler, pierced by the sharp arrow, had been laid out for inspection.

Ranger McDane stood tall, questioning Barbara Wayne, the fourteen-year-old who had first seen the poisonous snake approach the toddler.

“Everything happened so fast,” she explained. “I was sure the snake was going to strike little Bobbie, when suddenly, out of nowhere, came that arrow.” She paused, pointing at the arrow on the table. “It saved Bobbie’s life. Then, I turned into the direction it came from. I briefly saw a tall, rugged looking Indian sitting on a big white horse. A woman holding a baby tight to her chest was sitting in front of him.”

“Did you see him shoot that arrow?” the ranger asked.

“No, I didn’t. I barely saw their faces when they disappeared,” the girl explained, with emotion.

“What do you mean by ‘disappeared’?” McDane pursued. “Did they vanish like magic? Poof, as a ghost?”

“No. That Indian I told you about made his horse turn, retreating into the dark forest,” Barbara replied, with a smile.

McDane took out a picture marked “For Circulation.” He pushed the picture beneath her nose.

The teen glanced at the picture, responding without more ado. “Yes, that’s them. So you know them,” she quipped.

David McDane turned briefly to Jorge Sanchez who stood by his side.

Jorge smiled. “I told you to let this go but you insisted on reporting it,” he whispered.

“Sooner or later, this would be reported anyway,” McDane whispered back.

“What are you two saying?” the girl asked, impatiently. “You do know them, don’t you?” she persisted, with annoyance.

Taking a deep breath, McDane narrowed his eyes, peering at the teen. “Isn’t it obvious to you that if what’s on this picture is the same thing you saw, and you did not snap this shot, then someone else must’ve seen them, too?”

Barbara Wayne lowered her head, embarrassed by the tall ranger’s logic. “Yes, Sir, I was only concerned for their safety, being homeless and all…”

“That’s mighty nice of you, young lady,” Jorge hurried to reply. “They’ll be all right. We’ll take care of them.”

The rangers and the policemen thanked the teenager as she left, along with the rest of the vacationing party.

The Mormon couple had the closest and possibly the longest encounter with the Indians, yet they testified briefly and left hurriedly. They parted from everyone else, driving northward to the campfire site of the night before.

Gabrien Smoot stopped the camper, turning to his wife, Shanlee. During the shimmering light of dawn, the dense forest into which the Indians disappeared, stood before them. They recalled vividly the Indians on their white horse. Gabrien pushed his foot slowly on the gas pedal, moving the big car carefully into the woods. The terrain was hardly passable for human machines, least of all for their big camper. Nevertheless, nature seemed to have been kind to them, facilitating their passage with ease.

The stern look on the Indian’s face haunted the couple, pulling them ever deeper into the forest. Passing the squirrels, beavers and bears, they pushed against the evergreens and Ponderosa pine for two hours before reaching a wide, open plane. They continued driving as far as the land would permit. Gabrien turned the engine off. They could not drive any further, for deep below, the Colorado River rumbled. Walking toward the edge of the terrain, they observed the forceful waters gushing through the enchanting territory that had once exclusively belonged to the Indian nations. They gazed extensively at their surroundings, hypnotized by the marvel of the great land. Holding each other, the couple kissed and returned to their camper for a snack.

Astonished, they saw the Indians and their white horse, awaiting them from a distance.

The neighing stallion moved slowly forward. Majestic and rugged, yet ordinarily human, the Indian got off his horse, standing tall. The woman, holding the baby remained firmly on the horse. The couple observed the robust, bare-chested Indian approach them. The arrows inside his quiver were firmly tied to his left side, while his bow was strung across his shoulder behind him. The Indian raised his right hand.

Yá’át’ééh,” he greeted them.

Shanlee Smoot was cautious, holding tightly to her man.

“Don’t be frightened,” Gabrien whispered. “He won’t harm us,” he added, allaying her fears. He then stepped forward a few paces. “Hello,” he said, returning the Indian’s greeting. “I’m sorry we don’t speak your language. Do you know English?”

“Not very good,” the Indian replied. “We come from reservation. We learn speak English little but reservation not good for ah-wayh’.”

“Reservation no good for ah-wayh’? Who or what is ah-wayh’?” Gabrien asked.

The Indian took the baby from his mother, showing it to the young couple. “This is ah-wayh’.”

The young couple approached the baby boy, observing him tucked in his cozy blanket. Shanlee took an immediate liking to the baby.

“His name is Ah-wayh’,” Gabrien said but Shanlee shook her head, looking up at the mother who sat on the horse not far from them.

The Hopi woman chuckled, shaking her head as well.

“I think ah-wayh’ means ‘baby,’” Shanlee said, looking at the woman on the horse again.

The mother nodded her head.

“Yes.” Shanlee smiled back. “Ah-wayh’ means baby…but…what is his name? What is he called?” she asked the woman.

Jerome Smallfeather turned briefly to his wife who simply kept smiling. “His name is Starface,” he replied. “I want you help little Starface get education.”

Gabrien looked a bit confused. “Like I said, I don’t speak your language but you speak plenty English,” he said, getting off subject. “We saw what you did down in the valley. You saved a little boy from a snake,” the Mormon reminded.

Aoo’, I  kill snake but reservation no good,” the Indian reiterated.

“I understand,” Gabrien said. “You don’t like reservation. So, you want us to educate Starface?”

Aoo’, I want Starface to have good education,” Jerome Smallfeather said.

The young couple glanced at each other.

“All right, it’s not a problem,” Gabrien assured him. “We’ll take you to the proper government body that takes care of Indians who want to leave the reservation. Many Indians go to public schools these days.”

The Navajo man returned a firm response, “Doh-tah. No government. First, Starface live with you. When Starface big, Starface go to government school,” he suggested.

Surprised, the young couple looked at each other.

“We live in Salt Lake City,” Shanlee explained, “in the state of Utah, across the big mountains, way beyond this big river, far away.”

Jerome Smallfeather insisted. “You go to Utah; Starface go, too.”

“No, we can’t take Starface with us,” Shanlee said. “It’s not as simple as you think. People would ask many questions but, I have an idea.”

 




Chapter 1

             Tuesday morning started out just like every other morning, but it wouldn’t remain that way for very long. Mermilo, a strikingly handsome purebred golden retriever, had an appointment with the dog groomer to get his coat trimmed and shampooed, and his nails clipped and manicured. He had a very important dinner date that night with the adorable poodle of his dreams who just so happened to live right across the street from his house. 

 As Mermilo started down the sidewalk to his favorite salon, Clausen’s Clipper Clinic, his mood swelled with happiness and anticipation at how debonair he would look this evening as he would proudly trot alongside Miss Penny Purelove. His imagination began to wander. The crisp night air would ruffle his finely trimmed fur as he gazed at his beautiful companion. Her lashes would be blinking rapidly, while her eyes would be shimmering, reflecting the glow from the streetlights above. Her dainty, perfectly fashioned nails would make an elegant clicking rhythm as she pranced down the sidewalk upon her neatly groomed paws. They would both regard each other with admiring eyes. It would be the most glorious night of his dreams.

He had anxiously waited for months, trying to muster up the nerve to invite the curly-haired canine out for an evening on the town. There had been many times he started across the street only to retrace his steps because he lost every ounce of courage; his words would start to evaporate from his brain, his mouth would dry up like the sands of Death Valley, and he would start to tremble. Yes, it had been a strenuous several months until he finally decided to take the plunge and pop the question. So with all that in mind, can you blame him for wanting to look his “dog show best”, as they say in the canine world?

For days and days he had anticipated how the evening would proceed, and the night was finally here. But he still had a serious problem to solve. Where would he take her? Perhaps they could get a reservation at Dagwood’s Dog Biscuits Divine. No, their cuisine was too dry and overly crunchy. It would only create embarrassing crumbs upon both of their immaculately groomed coats.

Maybe they should try Baileys’ Burger Bits. They had just recently been given a four star rating for catering to the canine cuisine in “Dog Diner’s Directory”, a weekly news guide for the trendiest canine bistros. Unfortunately, upon further thought, that also became a “no way”, as their entrees were too juicy and runny and he surely didn’t want to mess up his or her fresh grooming. He would really have to think this one through in order to make a huge impression on the little curly-haired poodle.

            As he sauntered down Hazelnut Street towards Clausen’s Clipper Clinic, his mind was heavily preoccupied in another world, totally oblivious to his surroundings. 

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, everything went pitch black and his hearing became extremely muffled. His head was completely enveloped with some strange mesh-type dark colored material, pressing down heavily on his neck and restraining him so he couldn’t move his head or body. He couldn’t see a thing. What in the world was happening? 

He struggled to breathe through his nose and mouth, his thoughts scrambling for answers as to what his next step should be. Was the world crumbling in on him or was he just experiencing a nightmare? If this was a nightmare, it was one he was definitely fighting his hardest to escape.

            While he struggled to become free from whatever monster was holding him down, he realized he was being dragged across the sidewalk, his surrounding world still black as night. He could barely make out stifled voices. One? No, two deep voices; definitely, two men. They were discussing how to lift him. But lift him to where? Soon, his question was answered. A large coarse-feeling piece of “something” was abruptly slid between the sidewalk and his backside. With a jolt, he was violently hoisted into the air and dumped into an abyss. A loud slam echoed through his ears and the voices became even more distant.

Fear started coursing through his veins. What was happening? Who did these voices belong to? What did they want with him? Didn’t they know he had a very important evening ahead of him with the pooch of his dreams? All of this nonsense was putting him far behind schedule.

            The floor of whatever he was laying upon started to rumble and vibrate uncomfortably below his body. He must be in a trunk of a car, he thought frantically. He knew the sound of a car from the many times he had accompanied his master for a jaunt in the country. Oh, how he loved riding in automobiles! His master would roll down the windows and Mermilo would stick his big furry head out the passenger side, feeling the rush of cool wind whipping through his cheeks. His big jowls would rustle against the force of the air, allowing the drool to fly out of his mouth, hopefully not hitting the car behind them, and Mermilo would feel free and fresh.

A good car ride was one of his favorite pastimes. Unfortunately, it certainly wasn’t a favorite when he was trapped in the trunk. This space was dark, cramped and very uncomfortable. Oh, how he wished he was in the front seat right now with his master.

            The car started moving, but poor Mermilo could not tell which direction he was heading. How could this be happening? The poor retriever was just minding his own business, making his way to get groomed and gussied up for his exciting evening with the poodle of his dreams. Why me? Why?

As he lay in the trunk feeling panicked and forlorn, the car continued to speed further and further away from Mermilo’s original destination, towards an unknown location.

 

 

Chapter 1

 Dr. Vera Drake examined the unconscious young man. “He has lost too much blood,” she murmured. She figured he was about the same age as Marshal, her grandson, making him no older than thirteen or fourteen years old.

As the doctor in charge of Raven Hills Regional ER, she was surprised she had never seen this teenager before. All of Raven Hills came through her emergency room at one time or another. She turned to the nurse on duty.

“Mabel, who is this boy?”

“His name is Blue, Blue MacGregor. After his father became a drug addict, he lived with an uncle who  died  then  with  his  grandmother,  who became terminally ill and was sent to hospice. He has been on his own for a few months now.”

“Where does he live?”

“I don’t know. His grandmother had a trailer in Ergo Estates,” snarled Mabel, as she walked away.

A ghost of a smile wafted across Dr. Vera’s lips. Ergo Estates, she mused. No wonder Mabel was acting as if she did not want to touch the boy. Ergo Estates was a trailer park, home to many of the county’s poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. It was  the place for petty criminals, drug dealers, methamphetamine abusers and prostitutes to ply their illegal trade.

The hospital staff would have been surprised to learn she had grown up there. Back then, most of the residents of Ergo Estates worked for Mr. Ergo Himes. Himes’ Mill produced over fifty percent of all the bed sheets made in the United States. Ergo Estates was a mill village. It was modeled after William Gregg’s Graniteville Mill. Graniteville in Aiken County was South Carolina’s first cotton factory.

But transferring the idea to another county in South Carolina had not worked. Three decades ago, the factory/mill had gone bankrupt. Later Mr. Himes’ grandson had turned the place into a large low- maintenance trailer park. Dr. Vera was deep in memory when she felt a gentle tug on her lower left arm.

Here,” Mabel said with characteristic gruffness. She had returned with a large blood- spattered backpack in tow. “This came with that boy in the ambulance.”

             “Thank you, Mabel. Please collect any insurance information from the sheriff and make sure you take care of your duties as head nurse.”

“Yes, Dr. Vera.” Inwardly, Mabel heaved a sigh of relief. Let the good doctor take care of trailer trash, she thought. Personally, she did not care for  the open-door policy that Dr. Vera seemed to favor. As a nurse, she wanted nothing to do with the likes of Blue MacGregor. What if he had impetigo or something even worse? Who knows what a blood test might reveal?

Dr. Drake continued to examine Blue. He reminded her so much of her grandson, Marshal. Like her grandson, he was fair and blond. Blue was lanky, a tad bit taller than Marshal. Her grandchild was growing wider and muscular.

Marshal resembled his mother, who had married Dr. Vera’s son. She disliked his mother, Nora, but for reasons that were unworthy of a woman whose intellect was stellar.

Dr. Vera had always resented Marshal’s mother because she was everything Dr. Vera was not. His mother was tall, a former model, born blond with blue-green eyes. Her grandson had inherited his mother’s good looks. As Marshal’s grandmother, she was no longer considered that short-haired  old- looking Italian woman or even more often called that “Jewish doctor” .

In fact, she was neither Jewish nor Italian. Dr. Vera’s ancestors were French Huguenots who arrived as settlers in South Carolina over 200 years ago. Her parents had not been prosperous and eventually were able to secure employment at Himes Mill. After   that business went under, her father worked as the manager/maintenance man in Ergo Estates until his retirement. She would have suffered the same fate but she was smart enough to make the best grades and, later, wily enough to marry a wealthy “good old  boy”. The husband always bragged to his friends that his wife was unique. She could take care of him in sickness and in health. One day, as he played golf,  her husband had a massive heart attack, which killed him where he lay. She decided to forgive and to forget his insensitive treatment. Her son now ran several million-dollar businesses. She lived in a big mansion and her parents resided in a nearby home with assisted living. Marshal III and the hospital were her life now.

Still, the road to the top of her profession was littered with despair about past decisions made and numerous regrets, such as having but one child. Yet Marshal III had made all negative thoughts go away. Unlike his grandfather, her deceased husband, Marshal truly loved her. As a little boy, he had  always been concerned about his “grandmamma.” She, in turn, adored him. Marshal II, her son, and Nora, his wife, were just close enough to  be respectful and leave her to her own devices.

As Dr. Vera reminisced, Blue opened his big blue-green eyes. He emitted a gurgling sound, which surprised her. She gently admonished him to lie still. Every movement jeopardized his horribly injured body. He quickly shut and opened his eyes, moved his lips as if trying to tell her something. Then he fell into a fitful sleep.

            Poor child. She had to get professional help for him. This hospital had no trauma physicians. She decided to call Dr. Patel in Spartanburg. He was one of the best trauma surgeons in the world. He was married to one of her best friends and he came pro bono. On his way through Greenville, he picked up the best anesthesiologists in the state. The husband and wife team, Dr. and Dr. (Mrs.) Wang, were willing to come just for the experience of the work. Dr. Vera was happy to have all of this doctor power available to her hospital, General Memorial.

After a long two-hour wait, the doctors finally arrived. Dr. Vera and a resident had prepped Blue for surgery because his condition refused to  stabilize. She welcomed all of her comrades with open arms. Dr. Patel was one of her favorite people. Having been born on a dirt floor in a Delhi slum, he was humble, always willing to help the less fortunate. Sometimes, people who escape poverty choose to pretend the condition is unknown to them. He did not. His work with Doctors Without Borders indicated a genuine concern for the wretched of the earth. However, by the time the trio was ready to operate, Blue’s condition had worsened.

Dr. Patel did an initial examination and shook his head as he stood over Blue. “I don’t think I can help this young man but I will try.”

Dr. Vera begged him to do his best. That was all that was required. Dr. Patel insisted that a nearby hospital in Anderson provide another surgeon for standby, just in case he was needed. There was not enough time, so Dr. Vera chose one of General Memorial’s young surgeons for that purpose.

As the orderlies rolled Blue in for  the surgery, Dr. Vera moved slowly toward the elevator. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she pushed the button to leave all of this misery on the floor above. When the doors opened, Nurse Mabel grabbed her hand and brusquely steered her into the elevator.

“Dr. Vera, the duty roster indicates you have been here for more than two days. You ought to fire some of these sorry doctors who don’t want to do emergency room duty. As women, we have to make it clear our orders are to be followed.”

Dr. Drake ignored her while nodding in agreement. If she fired her doctors, willy-nilly, with whom would she replace them? Few qualified surgeons and physicians wanted to work in rural areas, such as Raven Hills. So often she took what she could get and considered that a gift.

Dr. Vera walked back to the emergency room to resume her duties. In one hour, Dr. Hollis would relieve her for a couple of days. He never shirked his emergency room duties. Perhaps, he had the same type of home life as she did.

As she entered the room where Blue had been, she stumbled over his backpack. She picked it up and carefully emptied the contents on top of a hospital cot. There were three paperback short juvenile novels checked out from the public library, an algebra textbook, some pens, several legal pads, loose leaf papers, photos and a couple of binders. Her eyes were drawn to the legal pads and papers. The back of each pad was numbered and the papers were stamped   with   the   words,   “Lieutenant Governor’s Writing Award for Fifth Grade, Aiken County School District 5 Winner.”

“You’re smart, aren’t you, Blue?” Dr. Vera muttered. She shook her head. Why must she always talk to herself in the emergency room? It was disconcerting to patients. Yet worse than that,  was the constant comment by Mabel, “Senile old people talk to themselves that way.”

Dr. Vera put everything except the numbered pads and paper back into the bag. Usually she did not spend this much time trying to find out about a patient. For some reason, Blue intrigued her and she believed his writings must be well worth reading. She decided to take them to her office for a more thorough examination.

By the time she got back to her office, she realized she only had a few minutes to snack and no time to read. She locked the legal pads and papers in  a metal cabinet in her office, munched a Baby Ruth bar, and guzzled a Fresca. Dr. Vera carefully locked her office and hurried back to a slow day in the ER. She slowed her walking pace as two men came toward her.

“Sheriff Thompson and Dr. Springham, to what do I owe this visit? Both of you should be resting after the accident.”

The sheriff, with a large hand bandage fastened securely, held up Blue’s backpack.

“Is this all that was brought with him, that Blue boy?”

“Yes, Sheriff, that’s all,” Dr. Vera replied, with a firm voice and direct eyes, which told a perfect lie.

              “Sheriff,  do  you  know  what  happened to Blue?”

            “We   suspect   he   set   fire   to   the  college research center last week. Videotape footage places him in the building. We think he may have set the fires at the Methodist AME Zion Church and at First Baptist on Friendship Drive. We were taking him in for questioning. I figured he was just a boy and there was no need for handcuffs. He and Dr. Springham were seated in the back of the police car. Then, for no reason, he tried to escape from a moving police car, causing us to collide with an eighteen-wheeler. My official car was completely destroyed. He was hanging out the door. A truck missed him but a car  hit him as he was clinging to the door on the side of the highway.”

At that point, Dr. Vera understood why Dr. Patel felt he could not save Blue. She believed any child who could survive in a feral manner on his own might make it. In her heart, she prayed for his survival.

The sheriff made it clear he wanted to examine the contents of the backpack. “I need that bag for evidence. A nurse told me the boy was in surgery. When will he be out?”

Dr. Vera found the bloody backpack and turned it over to the sheriff. She forced a smile. “Blue is in surgery. As soon as the operation is over, I will call you, Sheriff.”

“Thank you, Doctor. But I will leave a couple of deputies here to insure everybody’s safety. That boy is a natural-born maniac.”

              Dr.  Vera  nodded.  She  knew  better  than to protest. “I appreciate that  you  and  your deputies  are looking out for this hospital, Sheriff.”

Dr. Vera watched them leave. She had no idea why she had chosen to keep the pads and papers to herself. The sheriff and Dr. Springham gave her  the heebie-jeebies.

Sheriff Thompson had worked as head of her late husband’s security detail for ten years before becoming Raven Hills’ chief law enforcement  officer. Since he had taken the helm, there had been many unexplained, mysterious occurrences but they were too vague to point clearly to an incompetent or corrupt police department. Crime appeared to be spiraling out of control. Mrs. Thompson was always coming to the ER, claiming she had fallen. Her motor skill responses had been checked and she was free of any major illnesses. Dr. Vera suspected the sheriff beat his wife, who tried to cover it up. His wife always described herself as a klutz.

While the sheriff annoyed her, Dr.  Springham filled her with dread. He was the albino great grandson of the founder of Raven Hills. While serving in the U.S. armed services, his father had married his German mother, who was rumored to be Hitler’s cousin. Others said she was the daughter of a commandant of one of the German extermination camps in Poland. No one really knew the true story.

Many people credited Dr. Springham with turning Raven Hills College into America’s premier pre-med school. He was trained as a chemist, so this was  quite  an  achievement.  There  were    questions about how a school with over 5,000 students could afford to award full scholarships to more than 40 percent of the student body without the benefit of federal money. Raven Hills College had the largest private endowment of any college of its size in the world.

Dr. Vera stifled a yawn as she walked toward her office. Her shift was now officially over. She decided she was too tired to drive the distance to her house. She would definitely have to take a quick nap before going home.

 

                                                                                     

                                                                                      Chapter 1

Dagny

My fingers shook violently as I dragged them across the smooth, cool surface of the metal coffin. It was pitch black inside the eight-foot cell and there was no way for me to tell if my sight had returned. I had been through this before but my new heartbeat still quickened with fear every time. In darkness and confinement, rational thought did not always prevail.

Suddenly, a spasm raced through my right leg. The sensation was more intense than I ever remembered feeling. That wasn’t saying much. I forgot a lot of things. The power to magically move your soul to another person’s body was not as exciting as it sounded. It had consequences. For me, one of those was memory loss.

To fit my soul into this new body, I had to chip away little pieces of myself and let them fall into oblivion. Every time I ‘Traveled’, I lost more and more of myself. I was just a bunch of broken pieces inside the shell of a body. I didn’t even know what it meant to be me anymore.

When my limbs began to wiggle, I knew I’d finally whittled away just enough to resemble a real person.

A jarring crack of a metal door thrown open announced one of my siblings was free.

“Where’s Dagny?” my brother asked, with a grunt.

“This is unacceptable. Look at this. I’m ugly,” my sister barked, ignoring my brother’s question.

Hiding in my cold, dark container, I felt as if millions of wires were attached to my body. With every word spoken, another wire jerked and compelled me to leave my cell. But I wasn’t ready yet.

When I ‘Traveled’, which is what we call it when we move from one body to the next, I felt free, at least for a little while. My soul floated above the earth. I had no weight, no burdens. I didn’t have eyes in that state of being. But my mystical vision saw all the auras on earth. Beneath me millions of colored lights pulsed in the darkness.

My parents called it flying on the wings of the raven because the raven ushered souls across realms. We Traveled by summoning its power. This was the first part of the transition. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. It was fleeting.

Then came the second part, my parents called that the landing, which was a nice way of describing it. It was more like crashing. I crashed down into someone else’s dead body and had to force my way through the flesh and into the marrow. I can’t lie. That part hurt.

My soul seeped into the different crevices of the corpse and worked hard to spark it back to life. This process was normally slow. I slowed it down even more. I wanted to be the last one to fully wake into a new body. Actually, the truth was, my much older siblings needed to be first. So I let them. They always looked at me funny when I did anything faster than they did.

That was just my physical transition. The spiritual transition was even harder.

My new body had to connect to my magical abilities. To do this, I accessed the four elements—earth, air, fire and water. Everything in Wicca was based on these elements.

It was time to start the next phase of the process.

 I focused on earth and coaxed the energy from the ground toward my body. Soon, a primal heat warmed my toes and spread up through my chest. Next, I tackled air. Breathing in and out slowly, I concentrated on exciting the oxygen around me. With my mind, I moved the atoms back and forth until my hair whipped at my face and a breeze tickled my arm. Two down, two to go. It was time to conjure water. I did this by willing the water vapors in the air to condense. Eventually, droplets formed above me and dripped down onto my nose. Last was fire. I focused only on the hum of electricity in the atmosphere. When my skin trilled with electric sparks, like tiny blue lightning strikes, it was time to wiggle my supernatural abilities.

I started by concentrating on one object, in this case the door handle to my coffin. An iridescent ball formed just beyond my toes, pulsing like a dim star. I flexed my mind and the star solidified into the chrome handle that stood between me and the outside world. As soon as I pictured the lock turning, the door cracked open and a sliver of light fell across my bare feet.

“Finally,” Jason yelled.

I slid out.

“You’re the pretty one,” Ava cried, seething. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m taking this up with Mother.”

That cold, solitary coffin was suddenly looking extremely appealing.

“Oh, Ava, don’t be upset,” I replied. “You’re so ugly you’re cute. Like a bulldog.”

I couldn’t resist.

Ava looked at me with horror and then began darting noiselessly through the dark room in search of a reflective surface. Finally finding something suitable, she ran her fingers slowly through her dirty blonde hair and frowned with dissatisfaction.

There was nothing wrong with Ava’s face or body. She was medium height with a thin, pointy frame. That alone should have made her happy. Her eyes were small but they seemed to fit her angular face and sharp aquiline nose. Regardless of her appearance, she maintained her pristine, birdlike composure.

I have never been able to stand Ava’s superficial nature but I must admit I, too, felt compelled to steal a glance at my reflection. I had to squint to see my face. In fact, the entire room was fuzzy.

“Well, this should make you feel better. I’m going to need glasses,” I said. Her consolation prize. “Guess that means I’ll have to be a nerd.”

“Sorry, little sister, it’s cheerleader or prom queen in your future,” Ava said, motioning for me to follow her toward the door. “Your eyes will clear up in a few minutes. Did you forget again?”

Yes, I had forgotten. Just one little fact but I forgot a lot of little facts. And little facts added up. It wasn’t just my vision that became blurrier in a new body. I became blurrier. Without all my memories, I felt incomplete. Who was I really? I was a sister, a daughter, a witch. There had to be more to me. For someone who could be boiled down into just a soul, why did I feel soulless?

My family didn’t understand. They remembered everything. They said the memory loss was because I was young. I have only existed for about three decades. They’re over 400 years old, give or take a few decades. They built up the magical ability to retain memory. Apparently, I will too, eventually.

The three of us tiptoed into a barren, narrow corridor illuminated only by dim halogen lights that flickered ominously. My new body shivered. Just then Jason stopped short and extended his arm out protectively in front of me. Before I could protest, he put a finger over his lips and nodded his head in the direction of the hallway.

Following his gaze, I saw a man standing several feet away. Clothed in a crumpled brown suit, his shoulders curved forward slightly, as though the world rested upon them. The body was different but the posture was unmistakable. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Dad.”

A quick inventory of this new version of my father revealed a rugged, weathered face that should’ve been accompanied by windblown hair. Instead, the gel-crusted follicles looked like a restrictive helmet. His skin, like all of ours, still had the sheen of death but his body seemed strong and young. This body had gone on hikes. It had battled river currents and run miles. It was an interesting contrast to my father’s pensive, quiet eyes. Except his expression was not thoughtful, it was full of pain.

Jason stood stiffly in the middle of the hall, looking at him with a blank expression. Jason’s body also had brawn and the same sandy-colored hair as my Dad. Clearly, the deceased son shared his father’s love of physical activity. The main difference was Jason’s body still had a layer of baby fat covering his muscles. He was puffy and not yet defined. His eyes had a single-mindedness, though—run, survive, protect. Those were not the eyes of the dead boy. Those were Jason’s eyes.

Our eyes are the one thing we brought with us from body to body. It was nice to have one part of my family that hadn’t changed after all these years. My father’s eyes were warm and wise with layers of brown hues. Ava’s were also brown but much darker, nearly black. When you looked Ava in the eyes, it was like looking into a mysterious, black hole. Jason’s were dark green, with small, almost inconsequential, flecks of yellow that reminded me of tiny, distant fireworks. My mother’s eyes were a haunting light green that instantly mesmerized.

Suddenly, I realized my mother and her eyes were nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Mom?” I cried out, fearful of the answer.

“She’s gone.” Dad’s hoarse voice barely registered in my ears. “They got her.”

Ava’s lips tightened as tears broke through her impassive eyes. “No, not again,” she said.

 

 Marc

The old car chugged up next to me. It was faded and dinged. Still, it was a good, sturdy vehicle. You just had to look closely to see it.

“Get in,” she called out through a small crack in the window.

“I’m going to walk,” I said.

She looked like she wanted to argue. Instead she said, “Fine, whatever.” With a roll of her eyes, my sister sped off.

I shrugged it off and started to walk toward home.

I was a creature of habit. I didn’t usually change my routine. After school I either went home with my sister, Jillian, or hung out with my best friend, Cody. Lately, the routine wasn’t enough. There was something missing from my life, like a void or emptiness inside me. That was the only way I could describe it. It didn’t just exist, it cried out to be filled.

The closest I’d come to filling it was two weeks and three days ago. From the top of the rocks above the Potomac River I jumped headfirst into the rushing water. I was a strong swimmer. Plus, I had calculated the likelihood I would actually die. Don’t worry, it was low. But that small margin of error made my pulse race and set me right again, at least for a while.

Today, the hungry, empty part of me was back and needed to be fed again. Walking gave me time to figure it out. Yes, even my spontaneity required some degree of planning. My family couldn’t know about this new adrenaline junkie part of me. They would not take it well, especially my mother.

My house was still about a half mile down the street. There was a car moving fast in the distance. The engine roared with every upward gearshift. It was probably less than 400 feet away and traveling about 50 miles per hour. I had about 5 seconds. Could I make it?

I lunged forward. My backpack banged against my ribs. The car rushed toward me. The driver didn’t even have time to slam the breaks. He whizzed by, barely missing me. His mirror clipped my backpack and I spun around. My heart pounded. The hunger subsided.

It would be back soon, though. That was not risky enough.

As I got closer to my house, I noticed my sister leaning against the front door. This was strange, especially since she was sun averse. She preferred her skin pasty and white.

“Did you just run in front of a speeding car?” Jillian asked as I came into earshot.

“No, I was just crossing the street,” I answered. “You should get a real prescription in those glasses. That guy didn’t come close to me.”

“Didn’t look like it to me. Whatever,” said Jillian as she looked down through thick-rimmed black glasses at her chipped dark purple fingernails. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“Trying to live a sincere life despite many existential obstacles,” I quipped as I reached the stoop.

“Funny,” she said, flatly. She had a sardonic way of speaking, similar to a late-night talk show host who slyly mocks her guests. “Nietzsche?”

“Kierkegaard.”

Her eyebrows rose in acknowledgment. I reached for the doorknob. She put her hand on my arm before I could grab the handle.

“Wait,” she commanded. “Seriously, what are you doing here?”

“Well.” I pulled out my wallet. “I live here. Yep, it says so on my license. See?”

“You said this morning you were going to Cody’s after school. I thought that’s why you decided to walk.”

“I changed my mind. Can we talk about this inside where there is cold air thanks to this modern convenience called AC?” I asked. Even though it was technically fall, the sun was beating down harshly on my neck. Thanks global warming.

“The AC isn’t on,” she replied quickly.

“Why?”

“The usual reasons. It broke and Mom hasn’t called the repair man yet. Our favorite stepdad does basically nothing other than sometimes help pay the mortgage. Whatever, just answer the question, Jerk-face.”

“Jerk-face? You’re really pulling out the good insults today,” I noted.

Her frown deepened.

“OK, OK,” I gave in, “I really wanted to have a close call with a car today.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

It was. I hoped humor would trivialize what she saw.

“Yes, but don’t smile. You might hurt yourself,” I said. “Can I go inside now?”

She hesitated. I got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me out of the house.

She rolled her eyes and moved aside. “Whatever, I give up,” she shrugged.

It didn’t take much.

As I entered the house, there was an unnatural silence. Typically, there was a constant hum of electrical currents, forced air and television. Today it was eerily still, like a vacant home.

Jillian followed me inside.

“What’s going on, Jill?” I asked.

“Mom’s sick, yada, yada, yada. She’s upstairs writing her next will and testament,” Jillian recited in a typical disinterested tone.

Despite everything I knew about my mother, my heart still pounded rapidly as I took the stairs two by two. When I got to her bedroom, she was lying listlessly on the bed. Her husband, my stepfather, stood next to the window, silent.

“Mom, are you OK?” I asked.

The smell of recently extinguished candles filled the room, which was odd. I’d paid the electric bill. It was $85.12, slightly higher than the previous month’s $81.17.

Looking around, I saw the alarm clock was still working.

“Oh, honey. I’m just a little sick.” Mom smiled thinly and took a sip of water. “Don’t I look OK?” she asked, seeing the look in my eyes.

“Don’t worry, Elaine, the Magic Mirror still says you’re the fairest in the land,” I said. Sometimes I used her first name when she was being particularly dramatic.

“Oh, Marc. You’re terrible.” She giggled, showing some of her normal liveliness.

“I’ll make you some soup,” I told her. “Chicken? Your favorite?”

“Marc, can we talk in private?” my stepfather interrupted. My mother looked away. Reluctantly, I walked with him to the other side of the room.

My stepfather was a plain man, small and thin with medium brown hair. I towered over him by more than a head. If he spoke, he spoke softly. He didn’t seem to fit with my mother. She was charismatic and beautiful. There was nothing remarkable about him, except his amber eyes. They were so light they glowed like embers. Still, my mother never left his side. She was smitten. I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t really my business anyway.

“It’s nothing really,” he half-whispered. “However, I think it’s a good idea if you go to your grandmother’s for a while.”

This was all very weird. Mom wasn’t sick yesterday.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking to mother. “Why do you want me to go to Gram’s?”

“Please, honey,” she said, hoarsely. “This way I don’t have to worry about you while I get better.”

“You worry about me?” I almost laughed. This was coming from the woman who still couldn’t figure out how to work the dishwasher.

My mother was a former starlet who had a brief stint on a television show. Her career never took off and she never became a star the way she always wanted to be but no one ever told her. She still walked around like the world was meant to serve her.

“Well, there’s something else too,” she said, looking down. “Your grandmother called last night. She broke her hip and needs some help.”

“Mom, I love Gram. But wouldn’t it be better to call a nurse rather then send me across the country? I wouldn’t even know how to help her.”

“Yes, see, I didn’t even think of that. That’s why I need you to go out there. Help her figure it out. She’s all alone,” my mother said. “When your weasel of a father abandoned us, he abandoned her too.”

It still shocked me that I felt the impulse to defend him. My biological father left us. The man standing here, Benjamin Michaelson, was my stepfather. He was devoted to my mother but he didn’t pay much attention to my sister or me. Neither did Mom. It wasn’t that surprising. My father held the family together. He cooked the meals and paid the bills. He forced us to spend time together. At least once a week, he pulled us all into the den and we sang songs as he played guitar. Those were on the good days, though. On the bad days, he and my mother fought a lot. One day, after a huge fight, he packed a bag and never came back. To be honest, even though he was the one who left, she was the one I blamed.

Still, it was hard to hate her. She was the one who stayed. Occasionally, she’d try to make up for her lack of parenting by taking us to a movie or lunch. This on-again off-again Mom business no longer affected me. It still bothered Jillian. She wanted a real Mom.

“I’ll go if you want me to,” I assured her. “But who will help you take care of the house?”

“Oh, Jillian can do that,” Mom said, airily.

“Jillian?” I laughed and Jillian shot me a look that practically singed my nose hairs.

“I am the older sibling,” Jillian said, in her aloof tone to convince me she didn’t really care.

“Coulda fooled me,” I mumbled. “What about school? I could miss a week or more.”

“Oh, Marc, could you just do something for once without plotting out everything beforehand?” my mother said, with her typical impatience.

“And we all know you could miss half the school year and you’d be fine,” my stepfather added.

“Besides, you won’t be gone too long. You’ll need to be back before your birthday," Mom noted wistfully.

“Why?” Now I knew she wasn’t feeling well. My mother hadn’t remembered my birthday, well, ever.

“It’s an important one. We should spend it as a family. Now leave me,” she said with a dramatic wave of her hand.

Jillian and I retreated to the kitchen. A large pile of dishes, thick with grime, sat in the sink. I turned on the faucet, grabbed a sponge and began to scrub.

“What do you want for dinner?” I asked Jillian.

She shrugged, picking up a towel. She half-dried a dish and put it back where she’d found it.

“What’s really going on?” I asked her. “Why were you acting like a nut case earlier?”

“Whatever,” she started. “They begged me to keep you away from the house after school today, which was seriously annoying. Of course, they’re always concerned about you and what might happen to you,” she said, with disdain.

“Jill, that doesn’t answer my question,” I said, trying to keep her focused.

“They wouldn’t tell me why.” She had near-permanent dark circles under her eyes. She’d had them since childhood. Now they were more pronounced because of her dyed-black hair and black glasses. The combination made her look constantly tired. “Listen, Gram needs help. You should go.”

“What about you?” I said.

“I can deal with Mom and her ‘illness’. You know it’ll probably turn out to be more of her melodrama,” Jillian said.

“I could do with a lot more mellow and a lot less drama,” I said, nudging her with my elbow.

“I could do without listening to her constantly worrying about you. God forbid the Golden Child catches something,” Jillian continued. “Please, just go.”

“Alright, but I’m not the Golden Child.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Just slightly bronzed,” I said, teasingly.

I smiled and nudged her again. She didn’t smile back.

Jillian

After Marc and I ate dinner, I tiptoed quietly up the stairs, glancing back one last time to make sure my mother and stepfather were still in the den. They were always together. They’d been married almost two years. The honeymoon phase should be over already. I rolled my internal eye dramatically. Whatever.

My mother had moved her sickbed from the bedroom to the den to “be closer to nature.” She insisted it helped her heal. I didn’t understand how that got her closer to nature. It just got her closer to the television. It didn’t matter to me. For once, something actually worked in my favor. Now I had chance to see what they were up to.

I quietly headed toward my parent’s room at the end of the hall.

Marc’s door was diagonal from their room. It was open a crack. I paused and watched him through the sliver. He tucked a sock into the corner of his suitcase. It fit perfectly. He approached packing the way he approached life. He was thoughtful, meticulous and deliberate. He was infuriatingly perfect. No wonder Mom liked him better.

I was a disappointment. When I was a child, she wanted me to take etiquette classes and wear frilly dresses. I wanted to roll around in the mud and color my Barbie’s hair black.

Marc was perfect from the start. He drew her sweet pictures when he was young. Later, he helped with the laundry and the cooking. The worst part was he did it just to be nice. So annoying. The more he did, the less I wanted to do.

I checked my desire to walk straight into his room and dump his bag on the floor. Instead I continued down the hall. I had to figure out what was going on. Sure, it was much easier just not to care. I did that well. But something was strange about this whole situation. It nagged at me. I couldn’t ignore it. Trust me, I tried.

I opened the door to my parent’s room. It squeaked loudly. Or maybe I imagined it. I was secretly terrified of getting caught. My parents were clear: I should never go into their room without permission.

Most kids were grounded for breaking the rules. I wasn’t like most kids, though. I could get turned into a toad. OK, maybe not a toad. But my parents could definitely do something much scarier than ground me.

I stopped to make sure no one heard me and then closed the door gently behind me.

The long wood dresser was covered with creams and lotions. It looked like the desk of a mad scientist. I pushed a few bottles aside to clear a small space. Quickly, I assembled the ingredients.

My hand shook as I poured a mixture of sand and salt into a small wooden cup. Inside I placed a pinch of homemade incense. My fumbling fingers sparked a match and dropped it in the cup. The pungent odor of pine, peppermint and jasmine filled the room. A thin stream of smoke twisted up toward the ceiling.

I took a practice breath to steady my nerves. This was a big spell for me. With my luck, it would set the room on fire instead of showing the last time magic was used. Nothing ever went my way.

I breathed in again. This time I inhaled the plume of smoke. I tried not to cough. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated on connecting with the elements. Heat entered through my toes first, then my fingers. Air danced across my skin. My spell was based in fire and air. So far, so good.

Of course, at any moment, the spell could still backfire and turn me to dust. Part of me wished it would. Being in this family was hard. I had a perfect brother, a self-centered mother, an emotionally absent stepfather and then there was the witch thing. It was a big secret. My friends couldn’t know. Marc couldn’t know. He didn’t have powers yet. So I had to hide my witchy-ness even in my own house. Being a witch in suburbia was complicated and lonely. Bottom line, it sucked.

I whispered words of the spell. As I spoke, smoke wafted out of my mouth.

Tem poris spaca,” I said.

The smoke expanded and thickened, like a fog. My body trembled. It worked. I couldn’t believe it. I’d performed small spells. Some worked, some didn’t. In Wiccan years, I was still practically a baby and it took effort to practice. So I didn’t do it much. In our Wiccan tribe, called the Aradnians, we get our powers when we’re seventeen. It’s called our Awakening. It was a dumb name. Whatever. The worst part was that we couldn’t even know we’re witches until we were seventeen. It was a stupid rule. I didn’t know much about other tribes but if they didn’t have that rule, I’d convert.

The fog moved with purpose. It coated the room with a thin gray film, except in one place. The place the last spell was cast. It was a space on the floor next to the bed. It had a distinct shape—an exact five point star.

Suddenly the door swung open.

“What are you doing?” my stepfather, Benjamin, said, through gritted teeth.

I gulped.

 


Chapter 1

Gossip Blues

 


Emma Sawyer nervously swept past the lockers of Riverside Middle School. Her hands were moist with sweat as she clutched her latest article for Emma’s Gossip Column. Once again, she was late turning it in and felt the pressure as classrooms whizzed by her. Fame had her running every which way to pick the right rumor to research but her mission was always to find the real truth behind it. This latest story had taken her down a slippery slope of surprises before she was confident it was true enough to complete. So now, her mission was to get it turned in.

Rounding the last hallway, she spotted Kelly Flynn and slowed her pace. It was never hard to notice her editor’s rotten mood and, by the look on Kelly’s face, today was one of those days.

Don’t panic, she thought. Just hand the article over and walk away.

“What took you so long?” Kelly demanded, snatching the article from Emma’s grip.

“I had to be sure my source was solid,” Emma countered with a shrug. “Justin gave in during English class and handed over the missing info I’ve been waiting for. Who knew it would take him two weeks to give up the fact he had spread the ‘Kacey Rumor’? Anyway, I’m not going to write something if I’m not sure it’s true,” she repeated, for the millionth time since Kelly’s dad insisted his daughter edit the school paper.

Even though she acted untouched, Emma was tired of this same conversation every time she handed in her articles. Instead of exiting quickly, she always found herself defending her work. She had hoped eighth grade would bring Kelly to a more mature accepting stage in her life. Unfortunately, it seemed to have made her worse. So knowing there was nothing she could do to end the rage, Emma braced herself for the usual.

“Who cares about solid when all our readers want is a piece of gossip?” Kelly flared. “Your article may still be most popular in our little school paper but it won’t be for much longer if all you ever write about is the boring truth,” she continued, as she waved her hands at the air. “Your once numerous fans are dwindling because they don’t want the truth anymore, Emma,” Kelly informed her, with a smirk. “They want the latest talk; talk about whether a rumor could be true or whether someone is guilty of something; not about who is really innocent or misunderstood.”

She paused for a reply but Emma just stood there silent with rage. What could she really say? The ugly truth was Kelly hit a nerve. How many times had Emma received a text about a rumor someone wanted her to write about? Or how many notes had been slipped into her locker prompting her to look at someone’s Facebook page to write what she thought about it? As much as her article continued to get rave reviews it was getting harder and harder to please her readers.

Kelly took advantage of Emma’s silent rage and aimed to hit another nerve with her.

“Everyone knows your number one goal in life is to become a real journalist. Am I right?”

Her sly smile sent Emma’s heart into her throat and before she could answer, Kelly continued.

“Well if you ever want my dad to hire you at Main Street News you better figure out what real gossip is. He definitely won’t hear good things from me if I don’t hear good things from you.”

Emma felt like she was going to explode. Instead, she bit her tongue then turned and stormed off—no use fighting a losing battle. Running for the exit, her heart was racing and her head spinning. How could Emma make Kelly happy? Kelly wants gossip; Emma wanted the truth.

Reaching the exit, she opened the doors and escaped outside. Her bitter thoughts came to a halt upon spotting Trevor Kavanaugh beside the bicycle racks. With one hand around his basketball and the other gripping his favorite candy bar, Trevor’s stunning composure softened Emma’s rage. He gave a cute smile as she approached.

“So did you and your best friend get along today?” he teased.

Trevor stood a good foot taller than Emma and tried to reach down to tug her hair, playfully. He knew how Emma despised Kelly’s bossy behavior and he loved to tease her about it. She pushed his hand away in irritation.

“You know Kelly and I get along about as well as you and Coach Palmer,” she replied.

“Can’t your mom and dad do something about that?” he asked. “Don’t they have some kind of pull, seein’ as they write for her dad at the paper an’ all?”

“I doubt it. Mr. Flynn is the one who made sure she edited our school paper. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want my parents coaching him on how his daughter should act,” she presumed. “The power Kelly has over me is so unfair. And the only reason for it is because her dad’s newspaper company sponsors our school newspaper.”

“Yeah, well I know how you feel. If I hear Coach Palmer fuss one more time about playing it safe on the court with those referees, I think I’m gonna hurl,” he insisted.

“Oh yeah, what did the coach want to talk to you about after school today? Was it more ref. talk?”

The color in Trevor’s face suddenly drained. Emma could tell it hadn’t been good.

“If you really want to know, I got suspended from the next game.”

Emma’s shock was revealed in her gasp, which drove Trevor to pound his basketball into the pavement.

“Coach said I’ve missed too many practices. Like it’s my fault I’ve been sick and had to miss a few.”

Emma was afraid he’d beat a hole in the pavement but she kept quiet and let him vent while he walked her home.

“So I guess the coach wants to risk losing the next game by sitting me out. It’s not like I’m the only one who’s missed lately.”

Emma stepped away from Trevor to avoid having her feet smashed into the sidewalk by his basketball. It was a good thing everywhere in their small town of Methuen was within walking distance or that just might have been more likely to happen.

“I know the coach threatened to take you out a couple of times before but I never thought he’d actually do it. He knows your one of the best players.”

“Well he won’t get away with this when my dad finds out.”

“What do you think your dad will do?”

“Hopefully he’ll make sure I’m back in the game before anyone finds out about this. Besides making the best candy bars anyone has ever tasted, my dad has also given jobs to half the people in town. Do you think anyone will question him?”

As cocky as he sounded, Trevor’s confidence was not unfounded. His dad owned Kavanaugh Kandy Works, which is why he usually had a candy bar in the hand he wasn’t using to bounce his basketball. Tobias Kavanaugh had talked with Coach Palmer many times before and always seemed to get Trevor off his bad side.

“Don’t tell anyone, OK, Emma?” Trevor pleaded. “There’s no game next week so my dad has all week to talk to him. I just hope Coach Palmer doesn’t say anything until my dad gets to him.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she promised. That was one story she wanted nothing to do with.

As the two arrived at Emma’s house, Trevor gave her a soft peck on the cheek and was off to shoot hoops. She then headed in and up to her room. After plopping her books on the bed, she logged onto her Facebook page. She really could have used the time to wind down after a stressful afternoon. Instead, she was bombarded with posts about a girl named Nicole who had tweeted about her dad losing his job at the candy factory. As she attempted to read all the posts about what people thought, she received a text from a girl in her health class requesting news about Nicole’s tweet.

Bet I can guess what Kelly will want me to write about next, Emma bitterly thought.

Some days she just wanted a break from rumors and gossip but apparently today was not one of those days. No one wanted true stories anymore. All anyone wanted was some unbelievable tale that exploded into endless drama. Emma wanted to make everyone happy but how could she write exaggerated articles without hurting someone in the process? Her thoughts ran rampant until she was interrupted by her vibrating phone.

“Emma speaking,” she answered.

“Hey it’s me,” Kelly said on the other end, as if the two hadn’t had their run-in earlier.

Too familiar with Kelly’s mood swings, Emma just hoped this wasn’t a pressure call.

“Oh hey, what’s up?”

“Well after you left school today, I heard something on my way out,” Kelly informed her. “When I walked by Coach Palmer’s office, I heard him on the phone. He was talking about your boyfriend.”

She paused for a reaction. Pressure call it was. Emma knew it must be about what Trevor told her earlier but she wasn’t prepared to respond.

“I heard him mention something about Trevor getting suspended from the basketball team,” Kelly continued after receiving no response.

It was obvious Kelly wanted the scoop on the subject but Emma promised complete secrecy.

“Come on Emma. Just tell me what it is,” Kelly insisted. And, as if she could read Emma’s thoughts, she added, “It’s not like you’re the one telling the secret. I already heard it from the coach’s own mouth. I just want a few details.”

Emma knew Kelly would push until she squeezed something out of her so she frantically searched her brain for the right words.

“OK, the only thing I’ll tell you right now is I did hear something about it this afternoon. But I am sworn to secrecy.”

“I knew it. I knew you’d hear from your boyfriend so now I want the deets. I want you to write me an edge-of-your-seat-we-want-more-article without all the sappy-happy-ending—the-truth-comes-out-crap.”

This time, instead of pausing for Emma’s reply, Kelly hung up. She just hung up. Emma should have felt rage but she didn’t. Instead she felt dread. What should she do now? She definitely had not intended to write her next big article about a secret meant for no one besides her and her boyfriend. Yet what choice did she have? It was becoming more and more obvious what people really wanted from Emma. No more truth behind the rumor. They wanted secrets revealed; something big to talk about. After all, it was named Emma’s Gossip Column for that very reason. Emma just wished the gossip she had to reveal wasn’t the secret she had promised to keep.

February, 2000

 

 

 

February 20, 2000 

Dear Diary,

Well, Mom and Dad found out everything… or at least part of everything. They found a page from my other journal—the one I keep as a log. It has my recorded weights, exercise hours, calories, fat grams, food in, food out, that kind of thing. It must have ripped out of the notebook. I tried to tell them it was for a school project but they didn’t believe me. Thank God, it was just one page. I’d be grounded for life if they saw the whole thing.

In a way, I don’t get what the big deal is all about. I mean—whatever. My friends are the same way and you can totally find other people doing this stuff on TV and online. Nevertheless, I guess if I’m being honest, when they talk about it, I can tell the difference. I mean, I think about it all the time, but

that just shows I’m dedicated. It’s not some passing little hobby I play around with.

So now my parents are away for the weekend for some “quiet time” to “talk things over.” I suppose they didn’t want my little sisters to overhear them or catch on to what’s going on. Kim and Dana are twins. They’re ten years old, seven years younger than me. I’ve been helping to take care of them for the past five or six years. But this weekend, our parents insisted that boring old Aunt Edna stay with us.

Actually, it’s not that I mind Aunt Edna, but she’s only here because Mom and Dad informed me that I’m, “no longer trustworthy.” Which is ridiculous, honestly, like counting calories or exercising a little bit is going to interfere with babysitting two ten-year-olds who will probably just sit around watching movies all night.

When I said as much, Mom got quiet, looked me right in the eye, and whispered, “Jessie, do you want to tell us about what happened the last time we went out of town, when Dana had the flu?”

I couldn’t say anything, really. I don’t know how she found out but she was right. The last time my parents went out of town was for their anniversary honeymoon trip three months ago. They got married in New Mexico and they travel there every year for a weekend away together. I’ve been in charge for the past few years, primarily because I have nothing better to do.

I’ve always been really good in school and, with college applications coming up, I’ve put even more work into it. My head has felt sort of fuzzy lately, so I’ve really been pushing myself with long hours of studying. I have a 4.0 GPA now. I’m probably not good enough to become valedictorian but, if I do everything perfectly and keep pushing, I could break into the top five or ten in our class.

Between my work-study job, babysitting the twins, studying and exercising, I don’t have much of a life. I only have two friends—Christine and Tiffany. In actuality, they’re best friends and I’m just along for the ride. We study together in a sort of competitive way, and occasionally, we exercise together, though I prefer doing it alone. That’s the extent of our friendship. There are no girly slumber parties where we share all of our secrets; no driving past the houses of the guys we like; no big drinking parties down by the railroad tracks where everyone else hangs out.

Which is why my journey with Mia and Ana (as the Internet message boards call them) is so vitally important right now. I can’t go through the next seventeen years the way I went through the first seventeen—fat, ugly, desperate, and alone with no boyfriend, no friends and no life.

But, these pathetic qualities so loathed by teenagers are the things that parents just love. So, up until now, they have made me a responsible and trustworthy adolescent in my parents’ eyes. Which is why, when my parents go away for their annual trip, they leave me alone to watch the twins.

The problem was that this year, taking care of the twins was a lot more stressful than I had anticipated.

I can usually figure out a way to get out of eating… or at least eating in front of other people, which I hate above all else. (Because who wants people staring at them, judging what they’re eating?)  To start off each day, I pretend to wake up late but secretly do crunches in my room. I skip breakfast or I grab a very low calorie option like a grapefruit or something, and I run out the door. At school, I skip lunch, and many times, Mom and Dad aren’t home by dinner time, so I can skip that too. When they are home for dinner, I pick at my food, or I say that I have to study, take my plate to my room then throw it away.

On the other days, when my willpower fails, I totally pig out. I once ordered two pizzas, a bucket of wings, breadsticks and soda at our local pizza place, drove alone to the park and ate it all in like twenty minutes. Then, I went and got an ice cream sundae with three toppings and extra whipped cream. It wasn’t too hard to get rid of all that. It made me pretty sick just having all that in my stomach. When I can’t puke everything up like I did that day, I work out like crazy.

I’ve been doing this ever since I started middle school when I was eleven or twelve when, after being picked on at school for being chubby, I decided to do something about it and read every book I could find about calories, exercise, and dieting. (Mom and Dad don’t know that part. They think it’s a “new phase”). If I could find the willpower to fully follow those dieting rules like doing a juice fast, eating only grapefruit and soup, or restricting to just vegetables, I’d probably be a lot thinner. Unless I told you about what I do, you probably wouldn’t believe me because I’m not super skinny like some of the girls in my school. I have a big belly and my arms

 

and thighs are flabby. Eventually, I’ll have a double or triple chin if I don’t get my act together.

Since I’m not thin, or even lean and toned, no one suspects what I’ve been doing. But that weekend my parents were away, the twins were on top of me all the time. Now that they’re a little older, they’re starting to become more aware of stuff. Like when we were having dinner one night, I made them mac and cheese with hot dogs, which is Dana’s favorite. But then I only made myself a bowl of low-sodium chicken broth to help me feel full. Dana looked down at her plate, and then at mine asking, “How come you never eat with us?”

I stammered, but before I could answer, Kim jumped in and argued, “Don’t be dumb, Dana. She’s eating with us right now.”

“Not really,” Dana retorted. “She never eats when we eat. Haven’t you noticed? And then, sometimes I’ll go to look for a cookie or something and she’s eaten like the whole box.”

“I do not,” I protested.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Kim nodded, ignoring me.

This conversation made me furious. First, both my sisters are blonde, skinny, and gorgeous. Even when they’re older, they will never understand what I have to go through. Second, what I eat or don’t eat is none of their stupid business and third, they were talking about it.

So, I marched over to the sink, tossed the soup down the drain and heaped my bowl full with twice as much as they were having. “Happy?” I sneered.

 

“Yep,” Dana grinned unashamedly. “Now we’re all the same. Maybe when we get older, people will think we’re triplets.”

She was so sweet. It was hard to stay mad at Dana, even though no one in her right mind would ever think that. My sisters have big blue eyes with long lashes and these naturally thin bodies—not like mine, where I have to work so hard just to look normal. They’re starting to get taller and, right now, they’re at that perfect kid age where you’re all arms and legs and you don’t have to wear a bra yet. I miss that. I wish I could just run and not have to worry about my boobs getting in the way.

Anyway, I wasn’t mad at her anymore… until I started eating. It was all Dana’s fault, really. I had been doing perfectly that whole week until she screwed it up. Once I started eating, I felt out of control and couldn’t stop. I scarfed down the first bowl in under a minute then went back for seconds then thirds before they were even done with their first helpings.

“Oink, oink,” Dana joked and she and Kim burst into giggles. I wanted to scream but I kept my temper and sent them to the living room to watch a movie. It was then that I heard Dana say she didn’t feel well.

I ignored her, partially because I was angry and partially because I figured she ate too much, just like I had. I was trying to count up how much I’d eaten. It was a lot. The whole week was ruined with that one meal. I’d only had a few calories before dinner. The broth at dinner would have brought me to my limit. Instead, I’d pigged out and ingested close to

 

triple the calories I planned on eating that day just with dinner alone.

I was worried. Throwing up can take quite a bit of time and, if I did it right, the girls would be sure to notice. So, I decided I’d have to run it out then try puking in the park where no one would see.

“I’m going for a run,” I told them.

“Don’t go, Jessie,” Kim complained. “Come watch the movie with us. It’s just getting to the good part.”

“I can’t,” I answered. “Adults have to exercise. There’s another DVD from the video store on top of the TV. Just start that if I’m not back in time.”

“I feel hot and pricky,” Dana whined, coming up to me at the front door and hugging my leg like she used to when she was five.

“Take off your sweater then, silly,” I fluffed her hair and bolted out the door.

I’ve mapped out a few different running routes around our house—a 5K, a 10K, 10 miles. I decided to do the ten mile route and ran about five miles before the carbs sitting in my stomach started to boil. I could feel the fat congealing in my gut and making its way toward my arteries. By that point, I was approaching the park, so I sprinted over to my favorite garbage can, which sits behind a few bushes where most people can’t see. I drank my whole water bottle to make the process easier and then made everything come up. My stomach ached and my throat burned. I could still taste the vomit in my mouth but all the water was gone.

I was tired then yet I knew it wasn’t enough. So I did it again and again until I was sure everything was gone. Then, I ran the five miles back home. I paused on the doorstep. “Was that enough?” I wondered. I decided it wasn’t. So, I added an extra 5K onto the workout, making for 13. 1 miles total, a half marathon length. My time sucked, but I was somewhat proud of myself—tired, exhausted and completely wiped out but proud. I was finally making progress. I dragged myself in the doorway and planned to head up to the shower, when footsteps came crashing down the stairs.

“Where the hell have you been?” Kim demanded. “It’s been almost three hours since you left. Dana’s throwing up and she says she’s cold, even though her face is bright red and she’s all sweaty.” Kim started crying, “We were here all alone. When you didn’t come back, I thought maybe you were dead. I didn’t know what to do.”

I didn’t know what to do either. I just stood there looking at my beautiful sister, her pale cheeks covered in tears, her nose all red because she’d probably been crying for a while now. I felt so bad. I couldn’t believe I’d left them alone for so long. Then, I kinda got scared, too. “Did you tell Mom and Dad?” I asked. My heart started beating wildly off rhythm.

“No,” she sniffled, “it’s their special time and I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, especially not since you’ve been so cool this weekend—actually hanging out with us and everything.”

“OK,” I took a deep breath, “go get some washcloths and a bucket. We can cool her down with the washcloths and she can get sick in the bucket if she has to.”

Kim wiped her snotty nose on her sleeve but seemed to cheer up a bit. “OK,” she agreed.

I took Dana’s temp and it was 102. She was so small and shivering that I almost cried, but I didn’t want Kim to start crying again too, so instead, I hurried Dana to bed and cleaned up the bathroom. She cried that her mouth felt gross, so I gave her a clean wet washcloth to suck on… and I secretly took one for myself as well. Then, I gave her some aspirin to bring down the fever and I read a story to both of them until they both fell asleep.

Once they were settled, I shut their bedroom door and nearly collapsed. I had no energy left but I knew Mom and Dad would be upset if they found out Dana had been sick and no one told them. So, I called to tell them what was going on. By the time they called again to check on her the next morning, the fever had broken and she had stopped vomiting. But, she and Kim (who also caught the bug, though not nearly as bad) were in bed for the rest of the weekend.

When Mom and Dad came back, no one said anything and I thought I was safe. But, clearly one of them blabbed…so between that incident and the diary page my parents found, we got stuck with Aunt Edna this weekend and I’ll probably be forced into therapy.

I still feel guilty about what happened. My stomach churns every time I think about it. Dana’s fever could have made her pass out, like what happened to my friend Tiffany once. Even if she hadn’t gotten sick, I never should have left them alone that long. Anything could have happened in those three hours…

However, at the same time, that night was also the start of my marathon training. When Mom and Dad got back from vacation, I decided to do the half-marathon run at least three times a week. I usually can’t complete it because my body’s so fat and weak, but I try to push through. They never suspect, since I always claim to be studying at the library.

While I’m sure Aunt Edna knows a little bit about what’s going on, having her here is not going to stop me from pursuing my goals. She can’t make me eat but, if she does, or if I give in out of weakness, I’ll just run in the afternoon, sneak out at night, or work out in my room. I have exercise tapes and a small TV and VCR in my room, so sometimes at night, I watch them on mute and do aerobics for a few hours. Once, I went all night long. It was so great. I could probably do that tonight if I tried.

 

Yours,

Jessie

February 22, 2000

Dear Diary,

Mom and Dad still aren’t back. They were supposed to come back last night but they called Aunt Edna and told her they “still needed to talk things over”. So, I’m stuck with her until tomorrow, I guess.

I’m pretending to eat “normally” as far as everyone is concerned. I’m hoping Aunt Edna will give Mom and Dad a good report and they’ll think I’m “cured,” as if I needed curing.

School today was a nightmare. I felt completely invisible to most of the people there. Tiffany and Christine decided to skip school to go out for Chinese food during our free period, and they totally didn’t invite me…OK, so I might not have gone even if they had. I mean, they have invited me before. But, the thought of all that greasy food sitting in my belly through the rest of the day? No, thank you very much.

Both my friends are rail thin and extremely pretty right now, but if they don’t watch themselves, they’ll get the freshman fifteen plus once they get to college. When they have kids? Forget about it. You can’t just get your figure back after that, unless you put in the time and dedication up front.

But still, it would have been nice to be asked. Instead, I went to the guidance office for an extra shift at my work-study job. I enjoy my work-study position because it’s quiet in the office, and I can get schoolwork done after I file and make photocopies and stuff. Also, I get to stand there and greet people, most of whom are simply coming in for advice about choosing a college. But some of them are there to get help, or because they’re mandated to come. It’s not nice to say, but some of the meaner girls are required to come in, for whatever reason, and it sometimes makes me feel good that I’m on the other side of the desk and these girls who look down on me and make fun of me are probably in there crying their eyes out about how they’re pregnant or addicted to drugs or something.

Honestly, I really don’t like other girls and they don’t like me. Christine, Tiffany, and I are sort of friends of convenience. We don’t fit into any one group at school and we all want to get into good colleges but, to my mind, it’s more like we’re frenemies. Once we go to college, I’ll probably never see them again. They might go to the same school, or room together or something lame like that but I’m not going to let anyone hold me back, especially not some vapid girl like Tiffany, or some overbearing bore like Christine.

I know I sound like a complete witch right now. Sometimes, it does feel like my heart is completely empty and I feel lonely and depressed but then I just think, “Not having friends is good. You don’t need anyone.” That makes me feel strong even though my piece of crap body is so weak.

My plan is to ditch this town after high school. I want to be a lawyer and not that pie in the sky, “I’m going to help the little people” or “I’m going to defend people wrongly accused of murder” kind of lawyer. No, I want to go into medical malpractice because that’s where the real money is. Firms are always looking for people to defend them when their medications don’t work the right way…and smaller clients are always looking to get in on a big class-action lawsuit, so there’s a lot of money to be made on both sides of the fence. It might take a few extra years because they recommend you get a medical degree as well as a law degree but with my Advanced Placement courses this year and next, I’ll be starting out college as a junior, so I’ll have a good head start.

In the meantime, I’m stuck here in high school hell where I have to suffer through pointless classes like gym. Now, it’s not that I mind working out (obviously). I love to exercise. I just don’t love being all sweaty and awkward in front of a group of thin gorgeous popular girls. For example, last week we played volleyball, and one of the girls on my own team deliberately spiked the ball into my head. It was mortifying but I pretended to laugh along. Then said I had to go to the bathroom and hid there the rest of class.

Tomorrow, we’re swimming. You used to be able to lie about swimming and just say you had your period but they caught on and now everyone has to participate. Anyway, I don’t really even have a time of the month. I think it’s honestly because I find it so gross, I’ve trained my body not to do it as much as possible. Then, about three times a year, I get it for like a long time—like a couple weeks, and it’s extremely heavy and painful and annoying because I can’t work out the same way…Gross. I know.

In the meantime, I ate perfectly today, even with Aunt Edna skulking around. My calorie counts are in my other journal, but let’s just say that I hit my ultimate goal. Mostly, I had salad without dressing and plain black coffee, which I hate, but I read an article about how caffeine can increase your heart rate, decrease your appetite and help with weight loss. So, the bitterness was worth it.

 

Perfectly yours,

Jessie

 

 


February 23, 2000

Dear Diary,

Today was, without a doubt, the worst day of my life. I’m so stupid and worthless. I don’t really even know how to begin.

As I said yesterday, we had to go swimming today in gym. I would have considered leaving my suit at home but at our school, gym is graded and you get five points off every day you don’t participate. I’m not going to ruin my perfectly good grade point average just for gym, even if it is psychological torture.

I changed into my swimsuit in the bathroom stall. Everyone else changes in front of each other like it’s no big deal but I don’t even like people looking at me when I have all of my clothes on and I know that people like Alissa Masterson and her whole crew would totally size me up and, before I could spit, there’d be a whole set of rumors floating around about the size of my ugly floppy breasts, or the color of my too-deep belly button or something.

I hate my body so much. I wish I could trade it out for Alissa’s, or for Madison Granger’s. Madison is six inches shorter than me and has the tiniest waist. When she wears a lower cut shirt, you can see her collar bone jutting out. When she wore her bikini in gym today, I could see all her ribs, and her hip bones have that cut that all the Hollywood stars have. She honestly looks like she’s still eleven or twelve because she barely has any boobs at all. I’m so jealous.

I’m way too tall, I feel like a giant most of the time so, when I saw Madison and Alissa, I decided I was not going to change my giant, awkward Jabba the Hut body in front of the other girls. It’s bad enough I have to swim with them.

My swimsuit has a skirt, not like the kind that old ladies wear, but more like one of those slick tennis skirts. It’s a tankini, so it looks cool enough that no one makes fun of it like they do with the girls who can’t afford a good bathing suit, or are the girls like Amy Natty who are so fat they have to wear a giant one piece instead of a bikini. But, my suit still covers everything, with the skirt hiding my enormous thunder thighs, and a special band to suck in my flabby stomach.

I hoped we could do laps. I figured, if they were going to make us swim, at least I could get some real exercise in. But, the oh-so-wise gym teachers from on high decided that we’d do diving today—a preposterous idea, since most of the girls had on skimpy bikinis that were sure to fall off as soon as they hit the water… which was exactly what happened to Fiona Jamieson, who was first up to the diving board. Fiona is one of the cool girls and Alissa Masterson’s best friend—Alissa being the queen bee of the cool girl clique. So, when Fiona performed a pristine swan dive and surfaced, sans top, instead of cowering or crying with embarrassment like a freak like me would have done, she swam over to her top, grabbed it with one hand and get out of the pool totally topless like it was no big deal. 

I just stared at her, open mouthed. Not because she has a good body, which she sort of does, even though her middle is a bit pudgy, but because she was so completely brazen about it, strutting like it didn’t even matter. She honestly did not care that everyone could see nearly her entire body.

Then, it happened. Fiona saw me staring at her, and sneered, “Are you jealous, or are you trying to check me out?” I could have thrown up right then. I’m not gay or anything. It’s not that I think there’s something wrong with being gay. In fact, Maria Decker, who is also in our class, has a girlfriend, and no one cares because being a gay is not that big of an issue, at least not at our school… but I’m just not. I do think about girls’ bodies a lot, but that’s just because I’m comparing them to my own—trying to see how I measure up. In this instance, I was a bit jealous. Fiona might have a little pudge at her waist but she also has a nearly perfect chest. I was staring because I was trying to figure out whether or not they were paid for. Her parents are loaded, and when we were fifteen, she was complaining about how flat she was. Then, one summer, she totally “blossomed”, yeah, right.

“Well? What’s your problem, weirdo?” she poked me in the shoulder.

She was still topless, but after she said that, all the attention was focused on me. I didn’t say anything. I just put my head down, slouched my shoulders over a bit and tried to slump back into the diving board line.

But it didn’t matter that I slouched away because by then, everyone started staring at me and whispering. It was completely humiliating. I couldn’t even leave because I could see our teacher Mrs. Sherwood. She wasn’t looking right then and she wasn’t close enough to hear what was going on but she would have sent me to the principal’s office if I tried to leave. So, I just stood there, looking at the floor and trying not to cry, as Fiona put her top back on.

When Fiona had her top back in place, she leaned in close to me and asked, “What’s the matter, creeper? Not interested in looking anymore now they’re all covered up?”

Then, she shoved past me, digging her shoulder into my side. I stumbled back and fell into Alissa, who was snickering behind me. “Ugh,” Alissa said, pushing me to the cold floor, “get your gross dyke body off of me. Fiona, look. Jessie’s trying to feel me up.”

I started to cry a little then—not the loud tears I cry at night sometimes when no one’s around but just those angry tears that seep out of your eyes when you’re frustrated and can’t say anything. I knew that fighting back wouldn’t do any good. It would just give them more fuel to throw on the fire when they burned my effigy, later.

Then, Tiffany came over but instead of helping me up, she curled her lip and sniped, “Yeah, keep running, Jessie. It doesn’t look like it’s helping yet.” Then she laughed. I think she felt a little bit guilty right after she said it because, when she saw my face, she added, “Can’t you take a joke?”

I thought, “She’s right. If I laugh this off, maybe it won’t be so bad.” So I hopped up and said, “Whatever, Tiff. You know your legs are fatter than mine and I don’t know what you’re talking about with my supposedly gross body. Everybody knows that Amy Natty the big fat fatty is the biggest one here. She’s so huge she can’t even wear a real swimsuit.”

So then everyone’s eyes swung over to Amy Natty, a new girl at our school who is a huge fatty and was standing a few spaces ahead of me in line. She was wearing a big oversized t-shirt and shorts over the top of her bathing suit. I felt bad, especially since I’ve seen her in the guidance office lately and I don’t think it’s just to talk about her college choices but I was so embarrassed and angry, I pushed that guilt aside. Then, I don’t know what made me do it but I reached over and pinched some of her flab, and said, “If I have rolls, Amy has a whole breadbasket.”

Everyone laughed, which was good and took the focus off me and my fat ugly legs. But, unfortunately, Mrs. Sherwood had now come over (she certainly took her time) and I was, of course, the only one who got in trouble. She yelled for us all to go back into the locker room and told me she’d see me in her office after class. Then, she pulled Amy aside. I saw that Amy had tears in her eyes and looked completely stunned. Many people make fun of her but I never had. We obviously aren’t friends but we’re not enemies either. So, Mrs. Sherwood was talking to her, but Amy merely shook her head and blushed, clearly trying to get out of the whole situation. I’m sure that she didn’t want to be called out and put on display even more.

Later, while sitting in her office, Mrs. Sherwood stared me down, “I don’t know what’s going on with you, Jessie. I’ve never seen you do anything that mean before.”

This comment made me furious because she ignores everything. I get picked on literally all the time and she never says one thing about it. So, instead of acting ashamed, which was clearly what she wanted, I rolled my eyes and said, “Look, Mrs. S., you’re a gym teacher. Your whole job is supposed to be keeping kids fit and preventing them from getting fat. Amy is a huge tub of lard who never tries in here. She doesn’t swim, she refuses to run and when we play sports, she just stands there like a dumb cow. You can just tell that she’s going to be a lazy fatty who sits on her massive behind all day watching TV and rides a cart around the grocery store because she can’t even walk. That’s her destiny. But unlike you, I don’t want to just sit back and watch her fall into it. If a few mean comments can get her to realize how disgusting her body is, and get her to start exercising, I refuse to feel bad about it. Childhood obesity is a real thing, and it kills a lot more people than smoking does, nowadays.”

It was a long rant and, when I finished, she just sat there staring at me, open-mouthed. I meant all of it. I felt a little bit bad for doing what I did but I meant what I said. Mrs. Sherwood didn’t look like she was going to send me to the principal, probably because she knew I was right, so I just shrugged, picked up my things and left. Tiffany was waiting for me when I came out. “Way to go after the weak sheep in the herd, Jessie. What happened?” she asked, laughing, as if she hadn’t just called me disgusting a few minutes ago.

I tossed my head, “Nothing. I told her off. She knows I’m right. Amy totally deserved it.”

“For what?” Tiffany asked.

“For what? For being a complete disgusting blob that I have to look at every day. My arteries get clogged just being in her fat presence,” I retorted. Then, I saw Amy standing a few feet away. She opened her mouth, as if she wanted to say something but, instead, she backed down and turned away. I tried not to feel guilty. In a way, I did mean to help her a little bit. She needs to know how unhealthy she is. I guess I could have been nicer about it and given her diet tips or something.

Tiffany chomped the gum she always carries, “Well, I’m sorry I made that comment. You know I was totally kidding, right? Like, you have a totally slammin’ bod. I wish I had your abs.”

It was so obvious that she was just sucking up because she wanted to copy me in math class later. But, I just laughed and said, “I know. My abs aren’t that great though. Yours are way nicer and your hair always looks perfect.” So, things were OK again, as good as they ever are between us and we walked to math together.

However, I couldn’t concentrate all through class. I had been completely humiliated and betrayed by one of my only friends. I had told off a teacher and bullied a weak defenseless girl. I had a horrible knot in my stomach and felt totally rotten inside.

To try to clear my head and my stomach after school, I tried to vomit up what little I had eaten for lunch, then went running before picking up the twins from their after school program. Mom and Dad came home after I put the girls to bed.

Dad said something about reading some “very disturbing things” in my food journal, but they decided they weren’t going to do anything yet. Instead, they warned me they’d be “keeping an eye on things for a while.”

So now, I don’t know what to do. I’m going to have to plan out a whole routine that gets around their new rules in a way they won’t notice.

Yours,

Jessie

 

 February 28, 2000

Dear Diary,

I had a perfect day today. All of my classes went well. I got a 105 percent  on my history test (a perfect score plus bonus points). Then, I skipped gym. After what happened last time, there was no way I was going back today. I only had math afterwards, and I’m getting an A+ in there, so I skipped that as well and went for a run.

It was amazing. I got so many miles in. My marathon training is definitely back on track. I ate a few calories before running, then ran for three hours (lots of calories burned). Then, I ate a very small low-cal snack after. My total calorie count is a little much, but I weighed myself seven times today, and realized I lost a half pound. Hooray. Best day ever.

It’s sometimes hard to actually lose weight. Sometimes, I lose like five or six pounds in a week. Other times, when I’m not eating perfectly, my weight just hangs on. That’s why I weigh myself at least six times a day. I want to make sure that I stay on track throughout the day. Mom and Dad aren’t suspicious. They usually don’t even come home from work until at least seven or eight, so it’s surprising when they even notice anything.

After I finished my run, I decided to pick up the twins early from their daycare center and take them out for some fun. We went to the park, played Frisbee went on the swings, and then went to a nearby ice cream parlor. They had huge sundaes, and I was jealously drooling over the big piles of hot fudge and whipped cream, but I managed to not give in to temptation. Instead, I watched the joy on their sweet faces as they gobbled up all that sugar. When we came home, they were totally bouncing around, telling Mom and Dad how we all had ice cream.

We did have fun, and technically, since no one specifically asked me what I ate, I didn’t lie. It was nice to see that Mom and Dad were smiling at my “progress.” Mom came into my room before I went to bed. “You were great today, honey. Glad to see you’re back to your old self,” she cooed, giving me a side hug.

I went into what I call “perfect daughter mode” then. “I know,” I lied. “I guess I just got a little carried away with my dieting. It’s just hard, you know, this whole teenager thing. I want to look good, and my friends all have intense workouts. And, I really do like the running. But you and Dad were right. If I want to have energy to run and do good in school, I have to eat more, for sure.”

“Do well,” she said. “Huh?”

“Do well in school. Superman does good. You do well.”

That pissed me off. Because, I was totally lying to her, but even though she thought I was being sincere, she basically ignored my words and instead chose to correct my grammar. But, I was tired, and I didn’t want to ruin the vibe I was trying to put out. So, I just smiled and said, “Sorry, Mom. You’re right. ‘Do well’ in school.”

She smiled, “Honey, was this whole dieting craze all about a boy?”

I was relieved. That would be the most obvious reason, if any boys took time to notice me. “Yep. I didn’t want to say before because I thought it would sound stupid,” I lied again.

“It’s not stupid,” she assured me. “Girls try to look good for boys all the time. But, a quality man will not care what you look like. You’re a beautiful girl inside and out; you need to wait for the right guy to come along who can truly see that.”

I just smiled and nodded until she gave me another hug and left, but it was complete nonsense. First, it’s just the kind of garbage parents are supposed to say. Second, if I was beautiful on the outside, I wouldn’t have to wait for a guy to come along to see it. Everyone would be able to see it immediately. Third, I’m not beautiful on the inside. I’m a mess—just a hot black ball of hatred and sadness boiling up all over. I don’t even know why I’m mad half the time, but whatever is inside of me is the opposite of beautiful.

I tried not to think about that because today was one of the most perfect days ever in terms of food and exercise. I even lost a little weight. Tomorrow, I plan on doing the same thing, only maybe going biking instead of running because I read in a magazine yesterday that switching up your workout tricks your muscles and makes you burn more calories.

 

Until tomorrow,

Jessie



Chapter 1

Jessa

 

            Three months and eight days had passed since I watched Micha walk away from me. It didn’t matter, I’d fallen into the role of the queen. I still counted each sunset, from that time to this day; we were apart. Hoping I would see him walk back through the gate, to me and to the life we were meant to have.

            When I sat at my desk and jotted down a vision, in my book, the stars called to me. I stared up at the twinkling lights and remembered the night I spent with him.

 

            Sitting next to the fire, my back pressed against Micha’s chest and his hands gently sliding up and down my arms, chasing the cold away, I stared up at the star-filled sky.

            “In the human world, I’d fall asleep every night, looking up at the stars.” I pointed to them, outlining the constellations, “I always imagined a different world.” Laughing, I added, “I never believed it’d be in my own backyard.”

            “The sky is the same, my lady. These are the identical stars you fell asleep under each night.”

 

            I wondered if he remembered that night. If he thought of me the same way as I did him.

            They were a constant reminder of the man I wanted and the man I waited for. It didn’t matter to me how long it took him to return. I would be waiting.

            Even as I sat on my throne, listening to the chatter of Faeries business and of Trolls asking for immunity, I still thought of him. My mother’s picture hung to my right. I felt as if her eyes judged me for my actions, disapproving of the job I’d done since we fought the Ancients and for sending Micha away. Was it my fault? Am I to blame for his being gone so long?

            Letting out a breath, I focused on the conversation growing louder before me.

            “Please, Elders,” a tall man dressed in soft brown slacks and a white shirt said, “my sister would not leave on her own. She has a child.”

            John stood. His belly pooched to meet his authority. “We know of no child.”

            “He is two.” The man’s hazel eyes widened. “She told me you knew.”

            John turned to his right, looking for information from an Elder who sat at the table. He began flipping through papers in front of him, constantly pushing his round silver glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Sky Smalls is a single woman with no children,” The tiny man read from the stack.

            “But, she was married,” he thought, “To a Liam Shank.”

            John shook his head. “There is no one living in this village by that name.” His eyes narrowed at the man, as if he dared him to question his authority.

            I frowned, as I watched the Elders. Their glares and fidgeting told me something else was wrong. They were lying to the man. They knew who and where the woman was and they refused to tell the brother, because either I was there or they were just…evil. I huffed.

             “Excuse me,” I interrupted the talk, causing the room to become quiet, all eyes turned toward me.

            “My queen.” He bowed.

            “Tell me what’s wrong? Why do you think something has happened to your sister?”

            John huffed and began to speak but I raised my hand to him, warning him not to voice his opinion. With little resistance, he sat down.

            “I have not heard from her in days and when I went to her home, everything was gone.”

            “You said she was married, maybe she moved.” I tried to get him to think of positive things and not the worst.

            He shook his head. “Liam doesn’t live or work in this realm.” His eyes shifted from the Elders to me.

            I was confused. “What does that have to do with her moving?”

            John spoke, “A Faerie cannot move to another realm unless they ask permission from the queen or king.”

            “And I haven’t given anyone permission,” I stated.

            Standing, I went to the man. “Mr. Smalls, I will do what I can to find your sister and your nephew.” I reassured him. “You go home now and let me and the Elders talk, so we can figure out where she might be.”

            He nodded and bowed once more before he walked out the door.

 

            I faced the Elders. “Do you have any ideas?”

            They shook their heads.

            Sighing, I walked to the end of the table to where John stood. “Have there been other cases like this?” He seemed to have forgotten how to speak.

            “Yes, ma’am,” Sam replied, “The homes in the outer realm are being abandoned but we don’t know why.”

            I was glad to have Sam on my side yet why was I just now hearing about it. “How long has this been happening?” I tried not to let the shock I felt show on my face.

            “A little more than a month,” John said.

            “And you felt it wasn’t important for me to know that?” I stared at John. “If my people are disappearing then I should know, so that I can fix it.” My shock grew quickly to anger.

            “My apologies, ma’am.”

            I stood flabbergasted. He was calm without a hint of worry. It puzzled me. Why didn’t he care about the others? Were they so beneath him, he didn’t care about what happened to them?

            “Get out,” I told him then I looked down the table at the others. “This meeting is adjourned.” They all hurried out the door without a single objection.           

            Groaning, I sat on the throne, leaning against the backrest. Can things get any worse? My eyes closed then my body began to float and I crossed the realm and entered a vision.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Snorts, Snuffles and Grunts

 

 The laughter started in the corner at the last desk by the window. It always started there; a snuffle, a grunt, then another snuffle, like a pig in a sty pushing its nose into the slop pile. Nobody but JoJo laughed like that, well no human—nobody thought JoJo was human anyway. They did think he was funny, so titters and squeaks followed the grunts and snuffles, until the whole class was laughing. Ms. Gerard rapped on the board but nobody heard. Then she slammed the desktop with the metal stapler. Nobody listened. She tried shouting but there was so much noise with kids laughing so hard they practically fell off their chairs, she never stood a chance.

Besides Ms. Gerard, three kids in the room didn’t laugh, one standing in the front of the room because he was the cause of the class hysteria. The other at her desk, fuming. And the third, well nobody could see him sitting on the window sill, his mouth turned down, squinting. If you looked closely enough, you might see a faint shadow on the wall.

The butt of this laughter, Danny West, stared down at a tiny hole in the floor, his hands hanging down at his sides, the book poised and ready to drop from his fingers. If he concentrated hard enough on the hole, maybe he could disappear into it, like that girl, Alice who slid down a hole following a talking rabbit. Then he could take a drink of something magic and grow so tiny no one would notice him. He would never have to read aloud again, nobody would laugh and he wouldn’t feel so awful and, and….

But he didn’t fall down the tiny hole and Ms. Gerard finally got the class to calm down by slamming the button on the bell that sat on her desk. She glared at the now silent students, her blood-red lips pressed together, as if a knife had slashed a tight line across her face. Veins stood out on her long, giraffy neck, holding back terrible words she wanted to scream but couldn’t let them out.

Finally, words filled the room, squeezed between her gritted teeth. “Pop Quiz. Open a clean page in your notebooks and write two hundred words about why it is wrong to laugh at someone who makes a mistake. This will count toward your mid-term grade in language arts.”

“He started it,” Bari pointed at JoJo, who shot daggers at her, his eyes almost turning red like a vampire. Bari clapped her hand over her mouth in horror at what she had done and began to write, her nose nearly touching the paper.

          The teacher ignored Bari and stood hands on hips until every child appeared to be writing. Then she sat down behind her desk, still sending darts from her gleaming eyes, like a coyote sneaking through the desert at night. In the chaos, she hadn’t noticed Danny still standing at the front of the room.

Danny glanced up and saw only the top of everyone’s head, as they stared down at the blank page, some still not writing anything. His eyes wandered and he thought he saw the light shift by the window but it didn’t register, so he moved on to JoJo’ desk. He didn’t think JoJo cared at all but still he wrote. Well, his hand drifted in slow motion across the paper, a smart move considering Ms. Gerard’s mood. Maybe he wasn’t writing words, probably just drawing his stupid cartoons of Ms. Gerard with big ears and a mustache.

Danny still had two pages to read aloud but he couldn’t do it, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The letters and sounds wouldn’t come together and make sense, twisting and turning like they were alive. They left holes in the words and sentences that Danny couldn’t fill in and that stupid stammer would start.

 Sometimes he felt like he would suffocate under a heavy quilt of words that tried to smother him, unable to get even the first letter of the word out of his mouth, because the rest of the word would dance around over the white paper. Sometimes he thought the words were alive and wanted to play games just to make him crazy. It hurt so much, he wished he could run out of the classroom screaming, instead he kept it hidden inside where no one could see his pain. Danny kept quiet in a crowd and only talked when it was safe, like alone with his family or with his best friend, Amy Crowe.

His grandpa had trouble getting words out and Danny once asked him how it felt. “D-don’t talk about it,” Grandpa said, in as few words as possible. Danny figured maybe when he talked it didn’t come out smooth because of his grandpa. Maybe it was in his genes and went far back in his family. Danny pictured some cowboy named West, sitting on his horse a hundred years ago in the middle of the Sonoran desert staring at a rattlesnake crawling toward the campfire but all he could get out of his mouth was, “R-rat….” So nobody paid him any attention and somebody got bit by the snarky snake and died. Danny wished somebody would listen to him and answer his questions but it was the family secret, something they hid in the back of the closet and ignored; except it wasn’t a secret as soon as he opened his mouth.

He asked the speech teacher but she said not to worry, they were making progress, whatever that meant. After eight years, she might get the idea it wasn’t working. No, he didn’t stammer as much, at least not with people he trusted. Why didn’t somebody get the message he shouldn’t read aloud in front of a class. He tried to look it up, dyslexia but it was too scientific, so he gave up. Words hated him, so they tortured him just like the teacher and the kids in his class. One day, he might get up the nerve to ask Amy to do some research; nevertheless, something always stopped him, as if there were a little tickle of shame in the back of his neck. He dragged his eyes across the room where Amy sat still, staring out the window, tapping her pencil against her lips. She hadn’t laughed, not even a tiny giggle came from between her lips.

He heard her voice in his head, something she told him last night. “I believe in you, Danny West, I’ll never laugh or make fun. It’s not your fault and don’t you ever think it.”

Small and thin, Amy, with her long, dark, braid and big brown eyes was his BFF, somebody he had known since kindergarten. Not a girlfriend, just a best friend, someone he could tell stuff to, who would listen and not laugh or tease him. They were both twelve, born the same week but Amy seemed like an old soul, as if she’d been around forever. Danny wondered why somebody as smart and pretty as Amy would hang around with him but it made him feel like he was a winner, so he didn’t look too hard at the “why”. 

Sometimes they would sit outside in the backyard and watch the sun sink behind the mountains to the west of where they lived in a desert town somewhere south of nowhere Arizona. Silhouetted black against the fiery orange and gold sky, tall saguaros stood guard over the desert, arms reaching up like ancient sentinels. Surrounded by shrub and cactus plants, the town shrank against a mountain range, trying to survive while withering a little bit every day from the baking sun. 

It didn’t take long for the sky to darken and twinkling stars to pop up until they dotted the sky, surrounding a spotlight moon. Amy knew all the constellations and drew maps for Danny so he could follow her as she pointed out the dippers, bears and the archer. Pictures worked, not words, so Danny had no problem seeing the star patterns overhead.

Yes, Amy Crowe was one smart girl. She didn’t have a big head as did some of the others who thought they were so special because they were cheerleaders or on the champion soccer team. Instead, Amy played first clarinet in the school band, sitting right next to Danny who played second clarinet. It didn’t bother him at all that Amy had first chair; she played better, so it was only fair. Amy was better at everything and Danny liked her that way.

Amy turned her head and caught his eye, tossing her head toward his seat. Danny got the message, so while Ms. Gerard looked down, fiddling with papers on her desk, daring the class to make a sound, he crept on tiptoe to his desk and slid into his chair. Whew, the silence was so loud he couldn’t even hear the other kids breathing. Danny opened a blank page in his notebook and picked up his pencil. He started to write, in his cramped misspelled way about how it felt to stand up in front of the class and try to read aloud, listen to the kids laugh at him because he couldn’t find the words then start to stammer. He knew his spelling was terrible and sometimes the letters twisted around and faced the wrong way, nonetheless, he hoped Ms. Gerard would understand what he was trying to say.

Half an hour went by and they nearly missed art. Mr. Lewis, the art teacher poked his head in the door and Ms. Gerard stepped outside to speak with him. She left the door ajar so she could watch the class still writing their essays. After a few minutes, they both stepped back into the room. “Alright, class, pencils down. Line up please and follow Mr. Lewis. There will be no talking in the hall. One more breach of conduct and your homework for this weekend will be a ten-page essay on behaving in school and how to treat your fellow classmates.”

She turned to the board to write something and Danny caught the slight smile on her face. He liked Ms. Gerard even though she tortured him, too, making him read aloud. His favorite teacher was Mr. Lewis, because he taught art. Danny worked a couple of hours on Saturday mornings at his grandpa’s auto supply store, where he stocked shelves, swept the floors and did other odd jobs to earn money to pay for charcoal, colored pencils and sketch pads.

He liked being around his grandpa, who was like a father, since his real dad, a police officer, died trying to stop a robbery when Danny was a baby. He wanted to know more but nobody would tell him anything. He tried to read the old newspaper articles at the library but the letters just danced around the page daring him to stop them long enough to make sense of the words. He felt ashamed to ask somebody else to read to him. Yeah, grandpa, mom and Sarah, his stuck-up big sister, were all the family he had. Oh, there was his dad’s older brother, Uncle Rafe and his wife, Aunt Kris and a bunch of grown cousins. Grandpa was great for an old guy; he didn’t talk much—he didn’t ask Danny to talk much either.

Danny saved money every week so, one day, he would have enough money to buy some acrylic paint and canvases with which he could paint the desert landscapes he liked so much. Colored pencils worked but didn’t have the depth paint had; he found it hard to make the shading right. He wished his family could afford the art lessons some of the kids took privately with Mr. Lewis. There were books on using colored pencils but he got frustrated trying to put the words together, so he just experimented on his own. Danny had a pad of drawings in his locker to show Mr. Lewis, though he was afraid to take a chance Mr. Lewis would say no or tell him his work was awful. So, he left it in his locker, pushed to the back of the shelf. 

Amy liked his drawings—she liked everything he did, as did his mom, who thought he was a great kid. Sure, he didn’t get into trouble in school, did his homework, or tried but he wasn’t great, he wasn’t even good, not in his head. Danny wanted to hit out at everyone, especially JoJo McCoy and his sidekick, seventh-grader, Luke Allen, a big hairy moron who looked like King Kong. If there was an award for bullies of the year, they would win hands down. Danny had fantasies about waiting for them after school and…all this flew through Danny’s brain as he followed the class through the halls to the art room. If he’d looked to his right, he might have seen a shadow flicker on the wall but his head bulged with angry thoughts.

When they passed the principal’s office, JoJo turned and slid his finger across his throat then pointed his finger at Danny. Getting home could be nasty, today. He’d have to go the long way through the desert. He couldn’t ask Amy to go with him; it might be dangerous with snakes and all kinds of creepy critters hiding behind the cacti and under the rocks. He wished he had his boots on; high-top sneakers would have to do the job this time. He was thinking of an excuse to tell Amy why they couldn’t walk home together when the class stopped and he bumped into the boy in front.

“S-sorry, Jake.”

“Wake up, D-D-D-Danny.” Everybody at the end of the line laughed.

Mr. Lewis appeared in the doorway and glowered at the class. “Inside, now.”

Something tickled Danny’s neck and he raised his hand, slapping at the back of his neck. Must be a fly, he decided, a very big fly. When he neared the door, Mr. Lewis put a hand out. “Can you stop by after school, Danny? There’s something I want to discuss with you.”

Danny nodded, afraid to speak. Besides, all the air had evaporated from his lungs. His mind worked overtime, trying to figure out what he’d done wrong. Maybe Mr. Lewis thought he, not Jake, had made everybody laugh. At least he had an excuse for Amy; maybe, JoJo and Luke would get tired of hanging around waiting to use him as their personal punching bag. He breathed easier and went to the double easel he shared with Amy.

 

 

Chapter 1

Darkness

 

 Gasping, Eva felt the coolness of the blade as it sliced through her skin. She clutched her now oozing side and opened her eyes to darkness. She frantically looked around. Her heart pounded against her ribs as if trying to break free. Her face dripped with sweat. Where was she? What was going on?

            Feeling a sticky warmth on her hands, Eva looked down. Her hands still clutched her side. In the trickle of moonlight that filtered through the window, she could see blood. Her blood.

            Eva scanned her surroundings. The darkness that faced her now was just that, darkness. A lack of light. Nothing more. As her eyes began to adjust, Eva saw a vintage white, wooden dresser along the wall across from her and the outline of a door. She was sitting up in a bed, a bed that wasn’t hers. Looking to her side, she saw a matching vintage white nightstand with the red digital numbers, 3:12, staring back at her from an alarm clock. Next to it was a gardenia flower, tinged red from the light of the clock. Eva's hand automatically reached for the gardenia pendant hanging at her chest, a gift from her grandmother. Her parents’ divorce, the move, everything came flooding back to her and she knew where she was. She was at her grandma’s house. What had happened in her dream was also clear in her mind, as if it was still happening. 

            She had been running; running from something or someone. Who? She didn’t know. It was too dark to see. She just knew she had to get away. Her life depended on it. Looking back had been a mistake. The ground was uneven and she had tripped. She remembered landing on something soft. Soft, yet crunchy, with a slight moldy smell. Then he, if you could call it a he, was there. Wrapped in darkness, a hooded figure stood over her. Before she could scream, he had plunged the knife into her. How he had missed his mark, she didn’t know. Instinctively, she knew he had aimed for her heart, yet the blade had gone into and through her side. Now she was here and he was gone. 

            It must have been a dream—just a dream, a horrible dream. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Eva felt a stabbing pain in her side. Looking down again, Eva saw the blood was still there. It was seeping through her pajamas onto her sheets and her hands, which were still holding her oozing side. Her hands were covered in blood. How could she still be bleeding if it was only a dream?

            Eva stared at her side, trying to make sense of everything. As she did, she saw the blood begin to slow. Her mouth fell open as the blood not only slowed but stopped pulsing from her body. She tore the sheets away and pulled her pajama shirt up. The blood had definitely stopped. As she looked, the deep gash slowly came together. The wound became smaller and smaller until it was a line across her skin. Then it faded into nothing and her skin was perfect. How could a gash that deep heal so quickly? Eva looked at the alarm clock. The red numbers read 3:17. Only five minutes had passed.

            Eva thought she must still be dreaming. That made sense. Sure she could make sense of everything in the morning, she placed her head back on the pillow and fell into a fitful sleep. Not really sleeping at all, she remained on the verge of sleep and wakefulness. 

            When her alarm clock went off for 7:00 o’clock in the morning, Eva woke feeling as if she hadn’t slept at all. She rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. She was so tired. She pulled at the sheets as she rolled away from the window to block out the morning light and froze. Her hands were closed around a stiff section of the sheets. Eva opened her eyes as she slowly opened her hand. She stared down at some rather large crusted, dark brown splotches on her sheet.   

            “Eva, time to get up,” her mom called, knocking on her door. 

            As the doorknob began to turn, Eva sat bolt upright and said a little louder than she meant to, “OK, OK. I’m up. I’ll be right down.” She was rigid, staring at the door.

            “Everything OK?” her mom asked.

            Eva took a quick breath trying to calm her voice. “Yeah, just first day jitters at a new school is all. Be right down.” 

            “If you say so, I’ll go and get breakfast ready,” her mom said.

            Eva let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding when her mom’s footsteps retreated downstairs. 

            Then she looked down at her pajamas and saw more dried blood. Could that really be what it was? A slash right in the middle of the stain, in the side of my shirt, right where I’d been stabbed in my dream. My skin is fine though. No mark. Nothing. What happened? It’s not that time of the month. There’s no logical explanation for all the blood. It couldn’t have been a dream though if my shirt was ripped and dried blood is everywhere. Unless I’m still dreaming. That has to be it. I’m still dreaming. Aren’t I? Eva pinched herself. Nope. Not dreaming right now. 

            Eva did know one thing. Unless she wanted to tell her mom or grandma what had happened and have them look at her as if she were crazy, she needed to get the sheets to the laundry without them knowing. She didn’t have time now though so bunched them up and threw her blanket over them in case her grandma decided to come in and replace the gardenia with a fresh one, and got ready for school. As she walked downstairs, Eva hoped whatever had happened was a weird fluke, a one-time thing. Deep down though, she knew it was more than that. A tiny shiver crept up her spine as she realized she was about to face another nightmare, eighth grade at a new school, part way through the year.

 

 

 

 

 

  

Chapter 1

 

Who is Alex Cooper?

 

             By November 1st, the whole town believed that Alexander Cooper, age 11, had murdered The Worm on Mischief Night. In fact, no one had actually murdered the math teacher, Mr. Wormstead, known as The Worm. However, The Worm’s mailbox did blow up and he may have been pushed down the stairs of his front porch on that cold night before Halloween.

            In fact, no human actually blew up the mailbox or pushed him. The Worm wasn’t even pushed down the stairs, exactly; but an old man plodding along with his old dog, thought he saw a goblin on the porch just before the mailbox exploded. Then Mr. Wormstead ran out, tumbling down his long, steep front staircase.

            Alex wore a goblin costume for Halloween; exactly like the goblin seen at The Worm’s house that night. So, naturally, everyone immediately thought of Alex Cooper. Especially, since he’d just had a fight with the teacher in front of 30 other students. No one knew that Alex happened to be somewhere else when the goblin blew up The Worm’s mailbox. Well, at least one person knew but that comes later.

            The week before, an early October chill frosted the northern Arizona morning grass, turning it silver and shiny. Leaves blazed orange, yellow and red as they floated down from the almost naked, shivering trees. Alex dawdled along the street, stopping every so often to stomp on a particularly crunchy pile of dried, brown leaves. He wasn’t in any rush to get to school. It just meant he had to worry all day about his last class with The Worm. Most days he couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

            By lunch, his stomach churned so much it felt like his mom’s food processor. Alex pictured his lunch whirling around in his stomach trying to escape out his mouth. Sometimes it did. That was so gross.

            Alexander Cooper wasn’t the most popular boy in town. He could have had friends if he’d just tried to be a little friendly. Some of the kids in his class actually seemed to like him but he didn’t care. At least, that’s what he told himself. So, when the other kids said hello, Alex just nodded. He didn’t join their games or play sports. Nobody took him to the little league tryout or the soccer sign-up. He wasn’t in the band or the art club.

Alex pretty much kept to himself, except when he was with the town lowlifes, Matthew Murdock and Thomas Ashe, otherwise known as Mungo and Trash. They were a year older than Alex and he thought it was cool they wanted to be his friends; or so he thought. Actually, they used him as a cheering section for their small crimes and dangerous adventures.

            Trash wanted him as a lookout when they shoplifted at the variety store. Alex knew it was wrong but there was a delicious excitement too. He figured if he didn’t take the stuff, it was OK. He would just stand by the check-out counter, looking as if he couldn’t make up his mind which candy to buy but really making sure the clerk wasn’t checking the store or the video monitor. It was Alex’s job to distract the clerk if he happened to get curious about what two suspicious-looking boys were doing in aisle four.

            Trash usually tried to give Alex some of the stuff they shoplifted but he wouldn’t take it, like last Thursday. Trash had stuffed some comic books in his shirt. “Here, a reward,” he said, holding out a glossy book. Alex shook his head and pushed it away.

“Come on, don’t be a wuss,” Trash said.

“It’s OK, thanks. I don’t need it,” Alex said, looking at the comic book Trash was holding out. He loved X-Men comics but his throat tightened when he thought about sneaking one home inside his shirt. What if his mother found it? Fat chance of that. She never poked through his things. She wasn’t around enough. What was the harm? He almost reached out but, at the last second, shrugged and shook his head. It didn’t feel right. Overhead, in the oak tree, a branch shivered and acorns rained down on Trash’s head.

“Hey,” he yelled.

“Who did that?”

Mungo laughed. “Musta been the giant squirrel monster from outer space.”

“Shut up,” Trash said, brushing off his hair. Trash also needed someone to tell him how great he was, besides Mungo, who wasn’t very bright anyway. Alex was perfect for that job. He thought Trash was cool and Trash loved it. So, everyone assumed Alexander Cooper also lurked at the bottom of the pond feeding on the slime along with Trash and Mungo.

By this time, Alex had reached the hardware store. School was around the corner. Kids passed him on the street as if he were invisible. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? Alexander Cooper, the Invisible Boy. He could stand up in front of the classroom and jump up and down, waving his arms and making faces. Old Wormy wouldn’t even know he was there. If he wrote nasty things on the board, the chalk would be moving by itself. Alex giggled, thinking about the things he would write. “Wormy is an old….”

“Pssst,” a voice hissed from the alley between the hardware store and the bakery. Alex stopped short. His heart beat like a bongo drum.

“Hey, over here,” the voice called.

Alex peered around the corner of the alley. Trash and Mungo lounged against a wall behind the dumpster.

Alex breathed again and walked toward them. “What are you guys doing here?”

“Scared you, didn’t I?” Trash laughed.

“You did not,” Alex said.

“Did too, did too,” Mungo said.

“Yeah, you shoulda seen your face, like you was scared,” Trash said.

“I wasn’t scared. You startled me, that’s all,” Alex said, pulling his hair.

“Yeah, sure. So why you pulling your hair?” Mungo asked, grinning.

Alex put his hand in his pocket.

“Mungo, shut up,” Trash said. “So we were thinking of cutting school. Maybe go down to the river and look for snakes.”

Alex shook his head. “Not today. I have a spelling test.”

“Uh huh, since when is that so important,” Trash said.

“It’s important, OK? I promised my Mom I’d try to do better in school,” Alex said.

“You hear that, Trash, he promised his Mommy. That’s cute.”

“Just shut up, Mungo,” Alex shouted.

“Yeah, shut up, Mungo,” Trash yelled.

Mungo put up his hands. “OK, OK, don’t get so mad. I was just fooling.”

“Come on, guys, let’s go,” Alex said, backing out of the alley.

“Yeah, I guess,” Trash said, following him. Mungo trailed behind. A shadow followed the boys.

Chapter One

 

Stone Walls and Ghostly Calls

 

            “He’s gotta be somewhere,” Viggy whispered. “We saw him creep around those bushes.”

            Jimmy shook his head. “It’s like he just disappeared into the sand.”

            “How could that happen?”

            “Maybe he beamed up into space.”

            “Right, aliens in Arizona.” Viggy poked around the shrubs, but no Willie.”

            “I bet the sand swallowed him, as some of those giant lizards do.”

            “That was a movie and they lived under the sand; they just came up to eat people.”

            “Yuck,” Jimmy stuck his finger in his mouth and gagged.

            Viggy rolled his eyes and sat down under a tree. Jimmy plopped down next to him. “So now what?” he asked.

            Viggy shrugged. “How should I know?”

            The tree shook and yellow flowers rained down covering the boys. They jumped up and ran out from underneath the branches. “What was that?” Jimmy said shaking the petals from his shirt.

            Viggy looked up but couldn’t see anything in the branches. There was a blank spot, as if something blocked the sun, but then it was gone before Viggy could figure it out. “I’m getting out of here.” He raced across the empty lot tripping over a dented beer can.

            “Wait for me,” Jimmy yelled. He sideswiped a dead prickly pear cactus and grabbed Viggy’s arm pulling him up. The leaves on the tree shook as if they were laughing at clowns whooping it up in a circus, then it settled down. A boy-shaped shadow slid down from the lowest branch, landed on the ground and disappeared. Ten feet away, a pile of dead cactus and brush parted as if spread by an invisible hand, revealing a door behind the remains of cinder block basement and a chimney, it’s stone walls rising to the cloudless blue sky. The air was still, the only sound, the mournful moan of a dove calling for a mate. One by one, butterflies returned to the tree to flitter among the yellow flowers. A lone hummingbird checked out the red flowers of an ancient bougainvillea bush, now towering over six feet tall.

Below the desert, in one corner of the dark, cellar, a tiny spark of light flickered as though imbedded in the stone wall. A soft cry, so faint it would not have been heard by the human ear echoed from that same spot. The cellar smelled of decayed things, long gone; dead bugs and desiccated caterpillars returned to the earth. A tiny ribbon of light, creeping under the edges of the slanted door at the top of the rotting wooden steps, cut the blackness like a shiny knife.

Against the chipped stone walls, a shadowy figure sat cross-legged on the dry earth. For an hour now, he had been watching the boy, Willie, sleep. Every so often, he glanced at the soft pulsing glow in the wall behind the boy. A sigh echoed around the walls, but Willie never moved. He slept on, dreaming in the dark of spaceships moving faster than light. The watcher looked at the brown curls that fell over the boy’s smooth, round face. Willie was small and thin, but the watcher could see a hint of the tall, strong man he would one day become. Unconsciously, the observer pushed aside his own hair that fell forward in straight, yellow sticks across his eyes, and continued to watch.

            The light flickered again. The watcher sensed that something else was here with them, something that no longer belonged here. After a while, Willie rolled over and stretched. He blinked and looked around with a dazed expression. The shadow watcher stared deeply into Willie’s dark brown eyes but the boy saw only the blank darkness of the wall. The sigh grew louder and the light pulsed faster. Willie reached for his flashlight and flicked it on, brightening the dark space.

            Convinced that nothing was in the cellar with him, Willie clicked off the flashlight, and wrapped his arms tighter around his body to push away the cold that seeped up from the floor through the blanket. “Why did it always feel so cold down here?” he wondered. Sometimes he imagined he could feel squishy things moving in the dirt under him. Every so often Willie glanced at the soft, pulsing glow in the wall behind him.

            A sigh echoed once more around the walls, but Willie never moved. He lay there still in a dream state, imagining giant starships floating in the vast blackness of space. He saw them drifting in and out of planets, across galaxies, and skirting fiery stars. Willie was one with the universe, captain of his own space vehicle, exploring.

            The light pulsed again. Willie shifted so he could just see it winking out of the corner of his eye. He sensed that something else was here with him, something that should have left a long time ago.

            “Don’t be a baby,” he said aloud. “It’s probably fireflies or something.” Although he didn’t really think fireflies lived in abandoned cellars, anything else was too spooky. After a while, Willie sat up and stretched. There was a sigh, like wind drifting through the trees. He blinked and looked around. The sigh grew louder and the light pulsed faster. The boy reached for his flashlight and turned it on again, sending the shadows flying. Willie grabbed the book and stood up. “I should write all this down. I might be able to turn it into a ghost story and become famous.” His nervous giggle echoed, joined by the faint sound of laughter.

            “Just an echo,” he said, turning to climb the stairs toward the door at the top. The steps creaked in protest. The walls pulsed with sighs and the tiny light winked out. Willie thought he heard crying but that was impossible. The shadow in the now darkened corner flew up the wall and across the ceiling. Willie shivered. There was nothing in the old cellar but bugs and worms. He shoved hard against the door. The hinges shrieked in protest. “Think oil can, oil can,” Willie muttered, turning off the flashlight and laying it down on the top step. Sunshine streamed down the stairs. Squinting against the bright light, the boy slammed the door, and pushed branches and leaves over it. Then he stepped back to survey the camouflage. All he could see was an empty field filled with debris and the remains of an old stone chimney.

            There was a whoosh overhead. Willie glanced up, but there was nothing to see. Probably a bird, he thought, a big bird. He hurried faster through the grass toward the house on the other side of the field. You’re getting spooked, like some little kid, he thought. Satisfied, Willie jogged off across the field, head down, hugging the book to his chest.

            When he reached his own yard, Willie plopped down on his stomach in the soft grass and opened the book. He knew his mom was in the house, and he didn’t want to go in just yet. Just knowing she was nearby was OK, though. Willie could feel the warm blanket of the sun on his back. He drifted into that space of awareness where he was one with the ideas in his book, only vaguely aware of what was happening around him. Shifting time, folding space, Willie barely understood the theory, but knew it was important in his dreams of space travel.

 

CHAPTER 1

 
 

God, I loved that ball flight. I loved everything about it.

My pearly white Titleist breezed just along the tree line, teasing the branches that had gotten so much satisfaction from stealing an untold amount of perfect drives all season, and sailed by them, curving back into the fairway with a little draw.

It dropped safely into the short, apple-green grass about 280 yards from the tee box, rocketed off the sun-dried ground and bounded another ten to fifteen feet or so, leaving me with an easy wedge into the green.

It may have been just the first hole but we all knew this was going to be a low round for me today. When I had that ball flight working, there were few in Maryland who could beat me. Call me boastful or bigheaded but it’s true. So, I guess you could just call me honest. 

I could bend shots around trees at such a sharp angle the ball would look like a piece of paper being ripped by the wind. I could send them sailing over oaks sixty feet high that were just 10 yards in front of me. I could punch them under hungry limbs looking to eat up any unfortunate ball, coming their way only to have it whistle right under their branches and take a sharp hop and stop on a dime a few feet from the pin.

But, of course, golf is a masochistic game meant for the miserable and the insane. It was very rare for me to have this complete control of the ball but I had become so used to playing such erratic, risky, give-me-an-eagle-or-a-10 type of golf, I couldn’t go back to the safe, take-a-bogey-if-you-have-to type of golf I had been raised to play.

Since I had hit my growth spurt midway through my junior year of high school and sprouted about eight inches overnight, I could hit it farther than two decent players combined. I loved that. There was nothing better than taking out a driver and blasting it over trees to cut a dog leg down by a hundred yards. The only problem, and a rather big one at that, was with the 300-plus yard length I had off the tee and with the rather abstractly artistic element, I sometimes unnecessarily added to my shots, I was about as consistent as a center in basketball shooting free throws. 

My younger brother, Brian, who had just teed up his ball, was three years my junior and a shorter, stockier version of me and, befitting our disparate body types, was a much different type of golfer. We could both hit it a mile but he couldn’t make a putt if the cup had Bugs Bunny sitting under the hole with a giant magnet, as in Space Jam (one of the all-time greats, mind you). But the kid was an artist with a wedge in his hand. He could open up the face until it was nearly 90 degrees lofted and still have the confidence to take a full swing, sky it 30 feet in the air just to have it come down five feet in front of him purely for the show of it. We always had to one-up each other—much the way brothers do—me with my crafty ball flights and gargantuan drives and him with his deft wedge-work.

No matter how many issues we could potentially have on the course with our rather interesting, homegrown style of play, if we were paired together, we were a hellish tandem to beat.

Just three matches into the fall season, the local papers had already dubbed us the best duo the county had ever seen, possibly even the state. Neither of us really cared for that sort of thing. We were just out there because we loved the game and, of course, because we were driven mad to beat each other.

Our dad had to separate us about a dozen times a round when we were younger. We constantly argued and bickered, claiming the other had somehow cheated to lower his score by the one stroke, typically the difference between us.

Of course, we both knew neither of us would ever cheat with our father around, or even without him around. He was a stern man yet as loving as any father could be. He taught us the difference between playing and playing the right way.

Fathers have a tendency to do that. 

“Golf,” he always said, his deep blue eyes finding ours no matter how hard we tried to avoid them, “is a gentleman’s game—a game of honor and you are going to treat it as such. Do you hear me?”

Even as I walked down the fairway now, with him nowhere in sight, I could hear him in my head as clearly as I had the millions of times I had heard it before. Meanwhile, Brian was busy muttering things to himself in a language only he could understand. His ball hadn’t been quite as fortunate as mine. He played it a little too close to the tree line and his ball had caught a stray branch and wound up somewhere in the woods next to the left side of the fairway, a place each of us had been roughly 1,000 times before.

I think I heard him mutter “typical” and “lucky”, which probably were good guesses, considering those were his usual go-to lines when I hit a better shot than he did; but nobody will ever know what he said to himself on the course, maybe not even him.

The two poor kids we were playing against were from Ronald Reagan High School just a few miles down the road and, for lack of a better word or explanation, they sucked. Their game was about as pretty as their brown and black uniforms. Reagan had always gotten the short end of the stick when it came to golf just the same as we had always gotten that same treatment with football. I’m actually not too sure why these kids weren’t on the football team. They were both built like linebackers—broad shoulders, tree trunks for legs, a neck thick as a keg and arms that seriously tested the elasticity of their shirts. I’m not sure what they fed the kids over there at Reagan. Somehow, every year, they were built like trucks, yet equipped with blistering speed. This subsequently earned them the nickname ‘Ronald Roids High.’

My dad, a quarterback in his high school days who had gone on to play a few years in college, always joked he wished we’d moved to Reagan’s district where we would have likely ended up playing football. Well, that and because Ronald Reagan was his favorite president. He still has Ronald Reagan pictures hanging in our basement.

Unfortunate for him, or fortunate considering I was about as built for football as the Monstars were for basketball before they stole the NBA players’ talents. We had been raised in Parkstead where we grew up in a town that lived and breathed by the health of the local golf course.

That’s where we were now, good old Everdeen Hills.

Here I stood, smack dab in the middle of the fairway, completely alone as Brian crashed through the woods looking for his ball.

He had turned one of his irons into a makeshift machete, whipping it into as many unlucky branches as possible, where having a chainsaw in his bag might just have been worth it. The Reagan kids were somewhere off to the right in the neighboring ninth fairway, which ran parallel to the first hole but in the reverse direction. I chuckled as they moved farther and farther away from our hole and closer to the ninth tee box.

Football players, indeed. 

I turned and focused on my upcoming shot, nothing more than an easy sand wedge. The blue flag on top of the pin meant it was in the back, just over the second-tier of the green that stretched about 60-feet deep. Leave it short and it’s almost a sure three-putt. Sling it over and I’ll be left with a nasty chip that would give the best players in the world cold sweats. I only had about 100 yards left to the back so I pulled out my sand wedge.

A gap wedge would go way over and a full-swing lob wedge was too stupid for even reckless me to try. I glanced around to see if anybody else was ready to take his shot. Nobody was, so I stepped up to my ball.

The setting sun put a devilish glare even on the wedge’s graphite-colored clubface. I turned my focus away from the club and onto a target just in front of the ball, a nifty trick my dad had taught me when I was ten.

It took only a three-quarter, watery-smooth swing and as soon as I hit it, I knew it was going to be good. One of the greatest feelings in the world is a purely hit golf ball. It’s almost as if you hit nothing at all, completely effortless. That’s exactly what it felt like now. A wallet-sized divot flew from the ground as my ball took off, high and straight at the pin and into the merciless sun.

I lost sight of it moments after impact but I really didn’t have to look to know it was going to be good. My mother clapped as I heard the soft thud of my ball hitting the green. I didn’t know if it had made it to the second tier or not and there was no way my mom could have either. However, regardless of the result, she would cheer just the same.

She was an incredible woman, my mother. Somehow she balanced the duties of raising three children—all boys, no less—playing the role of cook, chauffeur, maid and devoted fan among at least a dozen other things. She managed to make it to every single one of my older brother Colton’s football games, even though she couldn’t bear watching him take a handoff.

She would squeeze my dad’s arm, wince when she heard the sound of pads crashing together, and then peek out with one eye, as a child plays hide and seek, only to see that about 99 percent of the time Colton was nowhere near the scrum in the middle of the field. He would be darting outside the fray, flitting this way and that, making a mockery of nearly every unfortunate defender who made any attempt to bring him down.

Poor Colt, ending up at Parkstead High with us. It was a black hole for football players. Even with his heart-stopping speed and remarkable ability to run 40 yards just to gain three, he had no chance with the puny offensive line that Parkstead threw in front of him. Still, he had had his cleats, jitterbug moves and an indomitable spirit, which earned him a scholarship to a little Division-III school to play running back, a much different future from his two younger brothers who had never known the blood sweat and tears attitude of a football field. We preferred the etiquette and quiet serenity of a golf course.

Well, I preferred that quiet serenity, at least. I was typically calmer than Brian, who had finally found his ball in the middle of the forest. It appeared to be buried under a collage of brightly colored early-fall leaves. The Reagan kids had found theirs in the other fairway, albeit the wrong one but a fairway, none-the-less.

I saw the glimmer of one of Brian’s irons, as he hacked his ball out of the woods. It thwacked one tree and zipped into another but somehow pin-balled its way out of the blanket of leaves and into the rough where it came to rest about the same distance from the hole where my drive had landed.

I still hadn’t even moved after I had hit my ball, still had no idea if it was going to be an easy birdie putt, an impossible 2-putt or a heart-attack-inducing downhill chip. As calm a person as my mother had raised me to be, I was already getting frustrated.

I hated slow play, just like my father. As much as I hate to admit it, I was just a seventeen-year-old version of my father, Don Lammey. The way he felt about things like slow play, I felt the same.

In what seemed like an eternity, which, realistically, was probably a maximum of five minutes, I watched the Reagan kids roll, shank, duff and scoot their ball ten more times before they reached the green. It made me wince watching them. They reminded me a bit of Crabbe and Goyle in Harry Potter. I hated playing with bad golfers.

To my relief, Brian had finally emerged from the woods, covered in sweat and dirt with a few leaves tangled in his shaggy brown hair.

 He got to his ball and didn’t even take a practice swing. He just stepped up and ripped at it and, even in the thick Everdeen Hills rough, he was able to knock it to what appeared to be on the second tier with me.

He slipped the club back into his bag without wiping it down and threw the bag over his shoulder. We walked to the green in silence until he let out a low whistle when he saw our balls sitting side by side about five feet from the pin.

“Ten says I’m closer,” he said, flashing a cocky grin, a grin that should never be allowed on a freshman’s face.

Despite my frustration with the glacial pace of the round induced by the Reagan kids, I felt a smile creeping. Competition, especially with Brian, put a fire in my belly every single time. I could forget about the Reagan kids.

“I tell you what,” I said. “I’ll bet you I’m closer, and I’ll even spot you three strokes the rest of the round. Winner does the trash tonight and dishes tomorrow.”

Our only two chores—the trash and the dishes. We didn’t even have to feed Jake, our yellow lab, or take him out when he needed to go about his business. Our parents asked very little of us and we still barely managed to do the only two things they did ask us to do. But I knew if one of us had to do it because of a lost bet, the other would never let him forget about it.

“Oh, you’re on, big brudda,” he said, extending a hand and then pulling it away as I went to shake it, acting like he was slicking back his hair.

Typical freshman, I thought but I was still unable to keep from laughing a little at his antics.

When we got to the green, it turned out his was, in fact, closer, by maybe an inch. Nevertheless, to him, an inch may as well have been a foot, a yard, 100 miles.

“Told ya.”

“I’m so nervous. I mean, you’re such a good putter,” I said, sarcasm dripping from my mouth. “Actually, why don’t you just pick it up now since we all know it’s automatic anyway, right?”

“You’re still a-wayyy,” he sang.

I smiled. I loved it.

I crouched down low, about three feet behind my ball, to read the putt, my knees cracking enough to sound like somebody just dropped a couple drumsticks on the ground (growing pains). I’d had this little 5-foot putt about a million times. It would slide a little to the left, maybe an inch, if I had the right speed. The greens looked as if they’d just been rolled that morning, which meant the ball would probably run a little quicker than normal.

As soon as I hit it, I knew it was in. I didn’t even watch it as it rolled towards the cup. Brian knew, too.

I saw him look my direction. I winked and blew him a kiss.

“You take any notes, sweetheart?” I crooned as the ball hit the bottom of the cup, making a satisfying ‘dink’ as it did.

 “Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” he grumbled.

My mother, of course, reacted as if I had just won the U.S. Open.

“Way to go, Jay,” she exclaimed. “Woo.”

Brian’s putt dropped halfway down on the right side of the cup, took a 360-degree turn and popped out. He proceeded to tomahawk his putter into the ground, spraying dirt and grass all over and let out a string of curses that would make a sailor blush.

“Well, I guess you should have taken notes,” I said, laughing as I slipped my putter back into my bag. 

Much to my pleasure and my little brother’s displeasure, that was generally how the rest of the round went.

My swing was just as silky as it had been on the first two shots. I don’t think I missed a fairway or green all day. Brian kept challenging me double or nothing as I rolled in birdie after birdie—five, in all. He didn’t play badly, tapping in for par on the ninth hole to shoot a 1-over-par 37. But very few high school players would have been able to get within three shots of my five-under 31, which somebody, I forget who, told me broke some age-old county record. 

After I picked my ball out of the ninth hole, I pointed directly to Brian.

“Trash tonight, dishes tomorrow…freshman.”

That always got him going. He hated being ridiculed for being the youngest. He didn’t even bother shaking Crabbe and Goyle’s hands afterwards, storming off and throwing his bag over his shoulder as he went.

Before I could even get off the green, my mother was wrapping me up in a bone-crunching hug.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, you were wonderful,” she shouted.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment. I tried to nudge her away just a little bit so I could get off the green. The group behind us still had to make their approach shots.

My coach, Mr. Hamilton, thumped me on my back as I made my way off the backside of the green, toward the cart path.

“I see Brian’s lost some sort of bet,” he laughed, pointing at Brian, who was already waiting by my clunky little Honda Civic.

“Something like that,” I chuckled.

I was about halfway to the parking lot before another person, someone I had never seen before, or at least I thought I hadn’t, but he did look awfully familiar, called me over.

“Young man,” he said, leaning his enormous frame against a pine tree next to the driving range. It seemed to bow a little under his weight. “You have one more minute?”

I sighed, held up a finger to Brian to let him know I would just be a minute, and made my way over to the man.

He had to be one of the largest people I’d ever seen. He was at least 300 pounds and had more chins than any normal person should have. Nevertheless, he had a friendly face and a Santa Clause-like twinkle in his brilliant blue eyes.

“Name’s Mike,” he said, extending a chubby, sweaty hand. “Mike Oberdorf. That was a hell of a round you had there, son.”

The name rung so many bells in my head but I couldn’t place it. I’d google it later.

I took his hand and tried to shake it but it ended up being more like a slippery high five.

“Thanks. I’m Jay. I guess I hit it alright out there,” I said sheepishly.

I was never any good at accepting praise.

“Alright?” he exclaimed. “Son, I’ve seen alright. I’ve seen good. I’ve seen remarkable. What you did out there was flat out stupid good but I’m not here to talk about your round. I’m here to talk to you about where you’re playing golf next year because, son, I’d damn well like you to be playing for me.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1


 

   It was early in the morning when I arrived at the small restaurant in the Old Bazaar for the first time. I looked around with real curiosity. After a while, I decided it looked like a chicken coop.

   Two round copper pots bubbled on top of the braziers. The smell of boiling soup hanging in the air could wake even the sleepiest of stomachs. The restaurant walls were yellowed with smoke, who knows when they’d last been whitewashed. The place was crawling with insects. Drawn by the warmth, they sat in clumps on the windowpanes, peering through the dark glass. They crawled over the tables, scrabbled over the bowls and then took up their position by the windows again.

   Everything in the restaurant was carefully arranged, everything had its place—two dusty tables, four long benches, the chair where Gazda1 Mito sat, his pigeonhole-sized cupboard in front of him. 

   The floor was a caked carpet of thick mud. Thin netting covered the corners where traps had been set up for all sorts of small creatures.

   After I’d inspected everything, I stole a glance at Gazda Mito’s hung-over face. He was stretched out and snoring on one of the benches. I wasn’t sure whether I should wake him but, in the end, I whispered, “Gazda, should I do some work?”

   “Ah,” he answered sleepily. “Of course,  do some work, that’s why you’re here.”

   He got up, rubbed his sweaty neck and tottered over to the washbasin as if walking a tightrope. When he’d woken up a bit more, he said, “Now fetch some water. And, when those two scoundrels get back, you’ll go with them to the slaughterhouse.”

   I peeked over at the washbasin and saw two big copper kettles. They were just above knee-height. My eyebrows shot up but I didn’t want Gazda Mito to think I was weak, so I grabbed the kettles and made my way over to the stairs. When I got there, I remembered to ask, “Where do you get water? Where should I fill them?”

   “From the pump opposite the inns,” I heard him say behind me, so I ran quickly down the two concrete steps. My wooden sandals were slippery and my feet slid all over the uneven cobblestones.

   Out in the Old Bazaar, the shutters on the small shops, lining the alleyways, creaked open and scruffy heads peered out at me. The shops looked like crooked matchboxes, leaning this way and that along the winding lanes. I loved the Old Bazaar. It was peaceful here and familiar. To me, this world was neither strange nor unreal.

   At the corner, opposite the small restaurant, was a barbershop. In front, a shorthaired boy sat on a chair, which had been turned backwards, as if he were sitting on a horse. It would be some time before he’d learn the skills of barbering, I thought to myself, inasmuch as the men around the Old Bazaar never seemed to cut their hair or shave.

   On the left was Shukri’s forge. The hammer blows on the anvils rang out like thunder and the bellows heaved. When the lemonade-seller’s clinking bottles were added to the mix, the Old Bazaar sounded like an orchestra.

   I took small steps along the street. My eyes wandered over the shop fronts, reading the names of their owners, which had been slapped on with paint. I quickly learned all their names and their crafts. When I came to the second crossroads, I noticed all the inns lined the small square where I was told I would find the pump. The most popular inn here belonged to innkeeper, Stevo’s wife. God had made her a widow but had left her a son; they worked and lived together at the inn.

   It was mid-July. The sky hung low over the baking roofs and it was unbearably hot. I tried carrying the kettles up high but their weight dragged me down. They tilted my spine and, in my wooden sandals, my feet felt like two thin sticks, threatening to break at any moment from the weight of the kettles. I put the kettles down on the cobblestones and blew onto my reddened palms. Hot and tired, I cursed the person who’d made them so big. I looked down the length of the street and shuddered. If I continued to rest after each step, I’d never get back. Mustering the last of my strength, I pushed on. Barely keeping my balance, I strained my muscles and counted each step, trying to see how much further I had to go.

   Among the neighbors was a Russian woman who took in hungry, homeless cats. Suddenly, a strange thought came to mind, instead of being born a person, I could have been born a cat, which is fed and taken care of. The idea disturbed me, so I gripped the handles of the kettles even tighter.

   When I got back to the restaurant, two pairs of hostile eyes greeted me. Two boys were sitting on the stairs in front of the restaurant, staring at me like I was a devil. They were about twelve years old but quite different from each other. One was dark, with a long face and straight, oily hair. The other had curly red hair, a ruddy nose and a round head, like a watermelon.

   When Gazda Mito saw me, he shouted at them, “Why are you standing around like cattle? Why don’t you take the kettles from her?”

   They sprang up suddenly as if they had been startled from a dream and took the kettles from me. The restaurant began to feel like a crowded coop filled with angry chickens. The boys grumbled and I stared back at them, angrily. I got the feeling, if they could have, they would have booted me out the same door I had entered that morning—they saw me as a threat to their daily crust. They glared at me in silence, like I was a traitor and I stared back—we were sizing each other up as if preparing for a fight.

   Gazda Mito told me their names. The one with the long face was Sami; the other one with the curly hair, who looked Jewish, was Leon. I thought, he’d probably been given a longer name at birth, just as I had. No doubt he’d been called Leonid.

   Either trouble followed me or me it; I’m not sure which. In any case, Gazda Mito sent the three of us to the slaughterhouse. We walked out, one after the other, bristling like cats. The two boys walked in front while I followed behind, keeping them firmly in my sight. When they turned the first corner they whispered something to one another and took off quickly. But there was no way I was going to let them get away. I took my sandals in my hands and ran after them, the sharp, uneven stones cutting my feet like knives. Despite the pain, I kept going and eventually caught up to them. They stopped, extended their arms surrounding me, holding me in a tight grip.

   “Where are you going?” Sami shouted, staring straight into my eyes.

   “Where Gazda Mito sent me,” I replied, defiantly.

   “Then go alone. Why are you glued to us?” one of them said.

   “I don’t know where the slaughterhouse is, otherwise …”

   The position they were holding me in became unbearable. I made my body into a ball and tried to get out from under their rough grasp but, guessing what I was up to, they gripped me even tighter, like pliers.

   “Let go of me,” I shouted, close to tears.

   “Listen,” Sami said, sharply, “D’you see the sun?”

   I looked up at the round ball and said, “Yes, I do. So what?”

   “If you can understand Kaurski,2 tonight when the sun disappears behind the hill, make sure you’re gone from the Old Bazaar, as well.”

   I knew exactly what he meant but I wanted to stir them up a bit and said, “Got it, sir. But tomorrow when the sun returns, I’ll be back here again.”

   “Don’t ever come back here again. Have you got that?”

   “How am I supposed to understand you when I don’t speak that gibberish?” I replied.

   Their anger erupted and sparks darted from Sami’s small eyes when he spoke. “I’m warning you—make sure you’re gone from the Old Bazaar.”

   “I’ll leave the Old Bazaar,” I said, going right up to his nose, “when your father hands you the deed to it.”

   I wanted to say more but I suddenly felt a strong pain in my shoulder.

   “Just wait and see how your bones are going to crack when I grind them,” Sami said, gripping me harder.

   I was determined to hold out to the end and replied, “I’ll be back and I’ll tell Gazda Mito about you. Then we’ll see who disappears from the Old Bazaar—me or you.”

   Leon, who was far more good-natured and timid, grabbed him by the hand, the way you would hold on to an old friend and pleaded with him, “Let her go. The hell with her. Can’t you see she’s a blabbermouth? She’ll tell Gazda Mito on us.”

   I stole a glance at Sami. I wanted to see if Leon’s words would have an impact and if I could find a way of escaping. I watched and listened carefully.

   “You want me to let her go?” Sami said, pulling his hand away from Leon, in disgust. “Are you afraid of a little alley cat? A silly little girl?”

   “Listen,” I interrupted. “Let’s make a deal; if you let me come with you to the slaughterhouse now, then tonight I’ll take you to the quarter where I live and show you lots of strange things.”

   “What things?” Sami asked, skeptically.

   “You’ll see later,” I said, wanting to get away.

   He put out his foot to stop me and said, “Tell us now, otherwise you’re not taking another step.”

   “I’m not telling you now,” I replied, offhandedly.

   “Where do you live?” he asked.

   “Near the abandoned hospital.”

   “There’s nothing interesting there,” he said, annoyed, as if he knew the whole city.

   Leon thought about it and asked, “Is your quarter big?”

   “Of course it is. It starts at Lenski Bridge and goes all the way to the station. Our street is very interesting, small—an alley. First, you enter through a narrow passageway, narrower than four feet. After that, it becomes a bit wider and starts to wind. Now listen carefully,” I said, trying not to seem too desperate. “There’s a building just where the alley widens, but it’s no ordinary building. It’s long with small windows. It looks like a dungeon. There are two gates on either side. They’re huge—as high as this shop here on the corner.”

   They looked at me doubtfully and Sami sneered, “So what if it has gates like that. What’s so important about that?”

   “The gates might not be important, but the hospital is.”

   It was obvious they didn’t understand much but they weren’t about to wait for me to explain.

   Leon said, “What is that hospital?”

   “You morons. You mean you don’t know it? Well, it’s an old abandoned building whose walls are the only things left standing. The entry doors are blocked and there’s no way in. But I know a secret entrance. And it leads all the way to the basement. They say there are gold kettles buried there, really big ones.”

   “How do you know that when you’ve never seen them? You just made that up,” Sami retorted.

   “I didn’t make anything up. But, if you take me with you now to the slaughterhouse, I’ll take you there tomorrow.”

   “Stay here,” Sami ordered. He grabbed Leon by the shoulder and took him aside to confer.

   Standing alone, I looked further down the road. A ditch divided the livestock market from the Jewish quarter. The sticky summer had started early, drying out the road and kicking up a thick dust. The houses were in no particular order; big ones stood next to small ones, old ones next to new ones, everything was built haphazardly. Painted various colors, the façades made for a strange patchwork. A few pigs grunted in a muddy ditch. I looked at everything and was overcome by the quiet sadness of the street.

   First, I saw Sami’s shadow in front of me and then his long face. He stood before me and said, “OK, you can come with us. But keep ten paces behind and don’t come an inch closer. And … carry the buckets.”

   I nodded in agreement, put my sandals back on and shuffled after them. They knew all the roads but I was worried I’d lose sight of them because they were constantly whispering to each other, which infuriated me—I was desperately trying to think of a way out.

   When we got near the slaughterhouse, Sami whistled through his teeth, gesturing at me with his hand and I rushed on. I hated having to be obedient but, still, I listened and obeyed him.

   When I got near them, Sami ordered, “Stop there.”

   I stood aside while they paced around self-importantly, as if they were inspecting something. The building was long and dirty with peeling walls. It looked more like a barn than a slaughterhouse.

   The sounds here were strange; on the left side, the river murmured quietly, inside the slaughterhouse sheep bleated and cows mooed, while outside, trucks roared by noisily and cartwheels creaked. You could also hear the shrieks of barefoot children. Every now and then, a shot from a revolver rang out.

   Sami came closer to me and told me to follow him. Everything was making me suspicious and uneasy, so I followed them cautiously. Coming to the back of the slaughterhouse, there was a small field with wooden stalls. Sami and Leon hid behind a crumbling wall and ordered me to crouch down beside them.

   “Why?” I asked, tired of giving in to all their demands.

   “So you don’t get your head blown off,” Sami replied, pleased for having more sense than I had.

   “Why are there soldiers here?” I asked, wanting to know everything.

   “They’re not soldiers. They’re Germans,” he said, trying to impress me.

   “I know they’re Germans but what are they doing here?”

   “Keep quiet and just watch,” he said. “And if you faint from what you see, I’ll                                                                     have to slap you to bring you back to life.”

   “I’m not scared of anything. I’ve even seen a dead person,” I said.

   Leon was crouching beside us, watching curiously and quietly.

   I heard another shot and, when I looked, I shivered at the sight; a horse was slumped in the wooden stall, attempting, in a last-ditch effort, to escape its inevitable death. Suddenly, at that moment, another bullet rang out and the horse lay entirely still.

   Sami approached me and whispered in my ear, “Did you see that? Another horse will get it now.”

   “Why are they killing them?” I asked, aware for the first time he knew something I didn’t.

   The expression on his face changed. He puffed up like a peacock and said confidently, “The Germans eat horse meat.”

   “Let’s go. There’s nothing else to be seen here,” I said, keen to avoid more terrible sights.

   “She’s scared,” I heard a sarcastic voice say.

   “No,” I whispered, not wanting to give myself away.

   Leon felt the same way I did, so we agreed to abandon the wall. I didn’t want to be the first to leave and lose sight of these two thugs. But the sound of another gunshot would have ripped right through me and it would have been difficult to stay calm.

   The sun was high; its rays beat down on us and bounced off the red curls on Leon’s head. Sami kicked listlessly at the dirt and got up to leave. Leon and I followed him. Near the door to the slaughterhouse, we found our buckets filled with steaming animal entrails that stank.

   “Pick up the buckets.” Sammy ordered.

   “What?” I said, astonished. I felt like I was going to be sick.

   “Pick them up and go down to the river and clean them. Or I’ll make you lick ‘em clean.” Sami shouted at me.

   I glanced at him, knowing I was too small and weak to retaliate.

   “You don’t need your sandals to dip your feet in the water,” he said. “Give them to Leon.”

   “They’re my sandals and I’m not giving them to anyone.” I said.

   “If you go into the river with them, the water will drag them off you,” he warned. “Either way, the leeches are going to come and suck your blood.”

   I didn’t want to listen to anything else he had to say. I looked at the leeches—those small, disgusting creatures with dark green flesh—and shuddered.

   “Leave your sandals and go to the river,” he yelled.

   Jagged acacia trees grew along the river. The water was strong and powerful, rushing over the stones and splashing loudly. In places, the water had driven piles that snagged grass and old rags. On both sides of the river, crumbling cottages lined the winding alleys, looking like a row of sleepy, old people.

   I handed over my wooden sandals without a fight and stood aside. Leon quickly tried them on and a huge smile lit up his face. They looked as if they had been carved just for him. I looked at my bare feet while he marched back and forth like a soldier on guard duty. I wanted them back.

   “The straps will break,” I said, tearfully.

   Sami pulled out a small knife from his pocket and flicked its blade. He headed straight for me, as if he was going to stick the knife into my chest. I tried not to show my fear. I waited silently. When he was quite close, he handed it to me and said, “Here’s the knife. Now go down to the river and clean and chop up the entrails.”

   Just as I was about to leave he said, “Hang on—I’ll carry the buckets because if they spill out, Gazda Mito will give us hell.”

   I shuffled off barefoot in the dust and ran after him, secretly plotting my revenge. An idea suddenly flashed into my mind; I’ll trick them and I won’t take them to the abandoned hospital tonight. They’ll find out just who I am, those alley rats. I felt much better after this and went into the river.

   The gurgling sound of the river, with its many small dangers lying in wait, frightened me. I fought hard against a cruel fate that always seemed to surround me. But all of a sudden, we quickly became friends and the water flowed around me obediently.

   My work kept me busy and the day passed quickly. At the end of the day, the sun sank behind a big hill and it suddenly turned cooler. Soon, the noise in the Old Bazaar died down. Suddenly, the wooden and iron shutters banged closed and a cold and empty darkness fell over the uneven cobblestones. The friendly world of the Old Bazaar slowly became deserted and it settled down to rest.

   All day, I had been mulling over things in my mind. When it got dark, Gazda Mito gave me permission to go and I left without being seen.

   The streets in the Old Bazaar were short, no more than thirty to sixty feet long and they crisscrossed one another. I avoided a few of them so I could cover my tracks, in case Sami and Leon discovered me. When I reached the wooden bridge near my quarter, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I held on to the wooden rails of the bridge and started walking across it. I couldn’t help smiling at my victory but then, all of a sudden, behind me, I heard someone out of breath and I recognized Sami’s rough voice, “Grab her.”

   I felt a sharp pain across the top of my head. They grabbed me by the hair and started dragging me back. I pressed the palms of my hands against my head to stop them from pulling my hair and turned around quickly.

   “You’re not going to get away from us,” Sami said, dragging me even harder.

   “Let go of me, you ape,” I shouted in agony, thinking how to get myself out of this hopeless situation.

   I punched his bony ribs a few times and made him let go of my hair but he grabbed me by my wrists, instead.

   “So, you wanted to get away from us?”

   “I’ll take you to the hospital tomorrow,” I lied so I could get free.

   “No, you’ll take us now.”

   “I won’t.”

   “What did you say?” he asked slowly.

   “I said I’m not taking you and you’re nothing but a piece of garbage.”

   He let go of my wrists suddenly and slapped me across the ear. I stumbled but tried to remain on my feet. Leon stood near us, pale and frightened, muttering something.

   “Now get a move on and lead the way or I’ll give you another slap,” he ordered, gruffly.

   I went on ahead, clenching my teeth in anger. Then, suddenly, I turned around to look at them and said, “Keep ten paces from me and don’t come one inch closer.”

   They were cornered—afraid I might escape again. Leon wiped the sweat from his dusty face with his sleeve. I tried to stay calm, acting as if I didn’t care. I was trying to think of a way I could convince them to let me go. Soon, the Old Bazaar came to an end and the street, which was next to mine, began. I slowed down to gain some time but Sami was on to me and said, “You want to trick us, don’t you?”

   “No,” I said and then added, “But I’m afraid.”

   “Of what?” he asked.

   I stood on the pavement. “It would be really dangerous for you to come to our street tonight.”

   “Dangerous? Why?” he asked, looking me in the eye.

   “Well …” I started to say, waving my hands in the air. “The only thing separating our yard from the Kavaev’s yard is a wall and every Wednesday Mr. and Mrs. Kavaev have visitors.”

   “So what?

   I tried to frighten them, “The Chief of Police is always invited and, when he’s here, it’s full of policemen from one end of our alley to the other. I know all this because I’m friends with the Kavaev’s daughter.”

   This explanation seemed to worry only Leon. He quickly took the yellow patch off his shirt, which all the Jews had to wear, and put it in the pocket of his torn pants. Sami finally understood the real danger. His courage and fighting spirit disappeared. Suddenly, he seemed small and rather stupid, even though he was a foot taller than I was. He looked at me suspiciously, trying to determine if what I had told them was just a lie.

   I took advantage of their uncertainty and added, “I live here and everyone knows me but I can’t promise you anything. If you’re scared, it would be better if you just went back the way you came.”

   They looked at me, skeptically. Leon was ready to give up but Sami grabbed his elbow and said, “Don’t believe her. She’s lying. She just wants to get away.”

   Then they suddenly made ready to go. “No,” I stopped them. “Wait.”

   “What?” Sami asked barely hiding his anger.

  “Listen. Our house has two entrances, two gates, d’you follow me? One from the alley and the other from the main street.”

   This was something new to them and they started thinking about things again.

   “Come on, stop dreaming,” I called to them and took off without waiting. They followed me quietly, looking around on all sides, like scared rabbits.

   It was almost dark. There was tension in the air. Without anyone seeing, I brought them over to the gate, the one on the main street. Behind it, the yard was overgrown with trees and bushes.

   Our gate was small and low. It was locked from the inside with a chain. However, I knew how to put my hand through a crack and open it. When I had done that, I grabbed the bell and stuffed it with a hanky so it wouldn’t ring. Therefore, there would be no chance of anyone seeing us entering the yard. I made a sign for them to enter under the cover of darkness, even though I knew there wouldn’t be anyone in the yard at that time.

   Right up against our tiny shack was a tall, yellow building whose threshold I had never crossed. The Kavaev family lived there. They didn’t want to mix with their poor neighbors. When they first moved here, we shared a small wooden fence but later they built a high wall and shut themselves up completely in their own world.

   For a long time, I tried to climb the wall so there wouldn’t be any secrets from the other side. My efforts paid off. Every night, without being seen, I would crouch on the wall and learn everything that went on in their house. What I found most unusual was all the strange food served at dinner. And compared to us, their behavior was different—weird and stuck up.

   The first step to climbing the wall was to get onto the roof of our washhouse, which I reached by climbing the large quince tree in our yard. From there, it was easy to climb onto the wall. I told Sami and Leon about my discovery and they climbed up together with me. When we were on the roof, I whispered to them, “Now you’ll get to see the Chief of Police up close.”

   Soft and gentle music was coming from the other side.

   “Is their radio playing?” asked Sami.

  “That’s not a radio. It’s a piano,” I said self-importantly, moving my fingers as if I were playing one.

   We sat on the high wall, crouched side by side, and looked on at this rare sight. Mrs. Kavaev’s short wrinkled fingers ran lightly over the black and white piano keys. A younger lady, who was walking around the room with a glass in her hand, looked up at the ceiling with half-closed eyes, as if she were seeking God. She went up to the Chief of Police and said, “Bach is my weakness.”

   Bach is her weakness, I repeated to myself, trying to guess who in our street that might be. I thought of the writer who lived at the end of our alley. He rubbed sherbet in his hair to make it shiny, straight and to keep the wind from tousling it. I was sure he was Bach and continued listening.

   The Chief of Police sat in a velvet armchair, smoking a big pipe. He was squeezed into a too tight uniform, making him look like a monkey in a cage. Silver braids, like those on the dress of a village bride, sparkled on his chest, while he dozed, resembling a stuffed turkey.

Pots hung from a balcony on the other side of the wall. Clumsily, Leon slipped, sending one of the flowerpots crashing to the marble floor. At that moment, my heart started to pound. Our bones shook. We quickly went back the way we came.

   As Sami was climbing back down the quince tree, a sharp branch pierced his skin, leaving a red mark. He curled up with pain but he didn’t cry out. When we got back to the gate, I said, “Now get out of here. I’ll show you the other things tomorrow.”

   Not waiting to hear their reply, I went inside and shut the gate behind me. I felt much better after they left. If I’m able to trick them this easily today, then tomorrow it would be even easier. I jumped into bed without dinner and without talking to anyone, because my worries were my own concern.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Bad Body Day

 

Freddy assaulted the piano. She pounded the opening chords of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. The lamp on the piano shook with the vibration. Isis, the cat, hid under the ottoman. Freddy pushed all her anger into her fingers, pummeling the keys. The house throbbed with the pulsation of Freddy’s rage. She raised her hands in anticipation of smashing another series of chords….

“Hey, you crazy? It’s Saturday morning. Quiet, down there,” Mike yelled.

“Quiet yourself,” she shouted back, slamming the keys one more time.

“Fredericka, your brother was sleeping. Don’t make me come in there,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Go get dressed before your friends come.”

Freddy stomped up the stairs. Mike muttered something from his room across the hall. She turned toward his door and stuck out her tongue. “Sorry,” she muttered but didn’t slam the door to her room. It wasn’t Mike’s fault she was angry. As big brothers went, he rocked compared to others she knew about.

Isis sat watching from the top of the dresser, her yellow eyes gleaming and her tail twitching. “What are you looking at?” Freddy growled, as Isis arched her neck and yawned. “So, OK, you don’t care. How would you feel if you looked like Garfield, with a fat belly hanging down to the floor?”

Isis licked her paws, watching as Freddy pulled out shirt after shirt and tossed each one on the floor. Freddy groaned, throwing herself down on the bed, said, “What am I going to do?”

Isis stood and stretched. Suddenly, she leaped five feet across the room and landed on Freddy’s stomach. “Ouch, that hurts,” she cried. “You are one crazy cat.” Isis purred and settled down on her chest, pushing her nose into Freddy’s neck. Still pouting, Freddy smoothed the soft black fur as Isis purred louder, gently kneading her claws against bare skin. “Hey, no claws.” Freddy sat up and pushed the cat off. Isis resumed licking her paws, pretending indifference to such undignified treatment.

Freddy’s eyes filled with tears. “What am I going to do, Isis? Why can’t I look like Brittany or Lauren? You know, thin and beautiful.” Even her best friend, Jess was petite with light blue eyes and dimples, which looked as if somebody’d poked holes in her cheeks when she smiled. She’d even settle for her other best friend Ruthie, with her flaming red hair and green eyes. Ruthie wasn’t as thin as Jess but not fat like you-know-who, either. Freddy hated her body. She just wouldn’t go to the game. Maybe she’d never go out of this room again.

“Frederica?” her mother called. “Ruthie and Jess are here. Where are you?”

She cringed. Why did her mom insist on calling her Frederica? “God, I hate her.” Freddy could feel a huge lump in her throat. She’d hated her mother more and more since her dad had left them. Her mom had become a grouch and she cried so much—she wasn’t Mom anymore. Freddy absently stroked the cat. “Do you miss Daddy too, Isis?” There was no way out of this. She swallowed the lump and shouted, “OK, Mom, I’ll be right down.”

There was a sharp rap at the door. It opened just enough for a hand to reach around waving a bright blue tee shirt. “I think somebody needs help,” a deep voice said.

Freddy grabbed the shirt and pulled it over her head, yanking it down as far as she could over the jeans. “OK, come on in.”

Mike grinned from the doorway. “Looks good on you, Freddy.”

“Is it clean?”

“Sure it’s clean. I got it from the pile on the left side of the floor. The dirty clothes are on the right.”       

“How can you live like that?”

“Hey, I know where everything is.” Mike looked around. “Besides, your room is starting to look a lot like mine.”

Freddy surveyed the floor, or what she could see of it, as her mother’s voice echoed up the stairs again. “I’ll get them later.” She smiled, swallowing a small lump. “Thanks, Mike. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“OK, don’t get all mushy. Enjoy the game,” he said, stepping into hall.

Freddy felt a tiny twinge of guilt thinking about how she acted before; Mike was an OK brother. She ran a brush through her thick brown hair, giving the mirror one last dirty look. “Yuck,” she said, then pushed past Mike and tried to run downstairs.

He grabbed her and tickled her side. “Hey, hold up kid. The smile’s gone.”

Freddy giggled.

Mike leaned over and whispered, “In a couple of years, you’re gonna be a knockout.”

“Oh, sure,” she said, the frown returning to her mouth.

“You’ll see,” he said seriously.

The lump was back in her throat. Freddy turned and ran down the stairs. Isis raced ahead to beat her to the bottom step.

“You look very nice, dear,” her mom said.

Freddy forced her mouth into a smile and said through clenched teeth, “Thanks, Mom.” Liar, she thought.

“Hello, Frederica,” Jess said sweetly.

“It’s Freddy,” she hissed. Mike called her that when she was born and it stuck, except for her mom, of course, and everybody in her family, and, well almost the whole world, including teachers. Why didn’t parents think of that when they named tiny babies after people who lived a thousand years ago? OK, maybe not a thousand but long enough to make it old-fashioned.

Ruthie interrupted Freddy’s thoughts on naming. “Hey, I like that shirt. Where’d you get it?”

Freddy looked down. “It’s Mike’s. Let’s go.”

Ruthie looked over at Jess and shrugged. “Sure, I’m ready. Bye, Mrs. Gold.”

“Have a good time, girls.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Gold,” Jess said, following them out the door.

Freddy looked back at the living room window and waved at Isis. The cat twitched her tail.

“Love that cat,” Jess said.

“It’s like she’s a person,” Ruthie added.

Freddy smiled, “Sometimes I think she reads my mind.”

“Maybe she’s a witch’s cat,” Ruthie said.

“Yeah, and I’m the witch,” Freddy grumbled.

Nobody said anything for the first couple of minutes. Finally, Jess said, “You’re a grouch today, Freddy.”

Freddy thought about what Jess said, as they walked down the street toward the ball park. “I just hate myself today, that’s all.”

“Your hair looks great,” Ruthie said, pulling at her own red curls. “Not like this mess.”

“It’s not my hair I’m talking about, Ruthie. Besides, I wish my hair was red and curly, not this straight ugly brown.”

Jess shrugged, “So, are you going to tell us or what?”

“It’s like a bad body day, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Jess said, nodding. “Well, everybody has those, Freddy. I even saw a zit this morning.”

Ruthie peered at Jess’ face. “Where?” Jess pointed to her chin. Ruthie looked closer. “I don’t see anything.”

“Of course not, I covered it with makeup.”

Ruthie looked at Freddy and rolled her eyes, probably thinking about her 4,000 freckles, which nothing could cover.

Freddy thought about her figure. What did Jess know about being fat or ugly? She didn’t have a fat, ugly cell in her whole body. Everything about her was perfect, from her blond hair to her long legs. Freddy sighed and asked, “Every day’s a bad body day, huh?”

“No, I guess not every day,” Jess said.

Freddy nodded. “See what I mean? I have one every day.”

She bet Jess never had to sneak huge sizes into the fitting room, terrified that someone from school would see her. She didn’t turn red from embarrassment and want to die when those stupid sales girls said dumb things like, “It doesn’t come any larger.” The worst was the day a skinny sales girl said to her mom, loud enough for the whole mall to hear, “Maybe she should try the woman’s department.” Death, it’s Freddy, come and get me, please.

“Our bodies are going to start to change next year,” Ruthie said hopefully.

Freddy raised her eyebrows. “Wow, I can hardly wait. A whole year, or maybe two or three. Or maybe never. You should see my Aunt Carol; she has three chins, with hairs growing out of them. If I have to go through life like her, I’ll kill myself first.”

“Listen, can we just forget our bodies and have some fun?” Jess asked.

“Yeah,” Ruthie said. “Let’s pretend we’re invisible like we did at camp a couple of years ago.”

Jess laughed, “We didn’t speak to anybody. Remember how mad the counselor got because we wouldn’t even look at her?”

Freddy giggled, “I thought she was going to explode by dinner, trying to get us to talk to her.”

“We would just float by and stare over everybody’s shoulders,” Ruthie said.

 

Now laughing, Freddy nodded. “OK, I got the message, sorry to be such a jerk.” The gremlins, Grumble and Grouch, fluttered around in her head for a couple of blocks but, as they reached the ballpark, her eyes danced with excitement.

Kids streamed in from every direction, squeezing through the gate. This was an important game; the playoff for the County Junior Baseball League title between the Blake school Dragons from Hopsville and their own Leesburg Panthers. Finally, pushing through the gate, they ran to the home team side of the ball field, scrambled up the bleachers and plopped down.

“Watch the bench don’t crack,” yelled a voice somewhere behind them.

Freddy’s heart stopped beating. She was dead. She knew without turning around it was Brock Ames, probably showing off for Brittany and his friends.

“Shut up, jerk,” Jess yelled. “It’s your head that’s cracked.”

Ruthie nudged Jess. “Don’t answer him or he’ll keep doing it. Think invisible.”

Sure enough he yelled, “Look at Fat Freddy and her pals Carrot Top and Messy Jessy.”

Freddy heard giggling. Please God, she begged, let me just disappear, but God wasn’t hanging out at the game. Brock Ames was and he was sitting two rows behind them.

“Let’s move,” she whispered.

“I’m not budging from these seats,” Jess said, between clenched teeth.

Freddy sighed and scrunched down. A loud crack behind them shattered the air.

“Hey, you hear that noise?” Brock yelled.

“Yeah, sounded like wood cracking to me,” Tommy Whitehead said loudly, getting into the act.

Then a deep voice said, “Boys, I suggest you keep your remarks to yourself. You’re starting to annoy me.”

It was Mr. Berns, the soccer coach. Brittany giggled. Then there was wonderful silence. Freddy wanted to kiss Mr. Berns, if he wasn’t so old. She just wished Brock would find somebody else to pick on. It all started last year, when Brock, leaning over to whisper in Brittany’s ear, walked into an open locker door. Freddy saw it and couldn’t stop giggling. His face turned bright red. “Shut up, fat face,” he shouted.

Maybe in a few years when she became thin and gorgeous like Mike said, Brock would ask her for a date and she’d make him beg. Then she’d make him apologize in front of the whole school for every mean thing he’d ever said about her. Of course, she would turn him down for the date. He’d turn red and slink away. Freddy giggled. Why did she always have to giggle?

“What’s so funny?” Ruthie asked.

“Nothing,” she said, trying to stop giggling.

 

Chapter 1

 

I loved spring break. It wasn’t the fresh green leaves, spreading across gray limbs or the mixture of scents from the new growth. It was because I got out of school for a week and it usually always landed on my birthday.

            Dad was stubborn about taking me to town each year so I could pick out my own present. He always said it was better if I chose the gift myself, instead of him picking something I might not want.

            This year was special. I’d be eighteen and graduating this summer. Thank God. I’d be saying good-bye to teachers and friends. Calling my companions, friends was a stretch. I sat with them at lunch and we goofed off during class but I never went to parties or on dates. I was looking forward to getting away from the seventeen-year-old stereotype.

            However, my birthday was more than that. Last year, Dad told me my eighteenth would be my best. I would travel to places most people only read about and meet new and interesting people. I’m still waiting for the adventure to start but, knowing Dad, he meant my adventure was going to college but I’m not sure that’s for me.

Dad turned on to the main road. It was a two-lane, taking one straight through town, past the major buildings of good old Silver City. When Dad slowed down to turn, I saw a yard sale set up on the lawn of a rundown house, Mrs. Crumley’s.

            The kids from school talked about her as if she were a witch or something. They always made a point of visiting her on Halloween, to see if she flew around on a broomstick. I felt sorry for her. She had no family and the way the town treated her, as if she had leprosy—was disturbing. Did something happen to her?

            There were tons of furniture and knickknacks spread across the grass. A rope connected two trees in the yard where her clothes hung. It looked as if everything she owned was strung across the lawn.   

            “It’s a yard sale, Dad. Can we stop?”

            Dad let out a breath and turned in to the driveway.

            I smiled as he put the truck in park. I seemed to get what I wanted when it came to antiques. He knew how I liked to browse through the flea market and a sale like this made my day.

He acted as if he didn’t want to stop but I knew he was pretending. The only reason I loved the stuff was he told me Mom had enjoyed browsing through antiques. For me, it was as if I was walking alongside her, feeling that connection as we looked at the collectibles.

            My eyes couldn’t focus on any one thing. There was stuff everywhere and I wanted to look at it all. I immediately forced my eyes to look forward and ran to a large chest next to a few smaller ones, which seemed to call my name. You know how you have a favorite color and, no matter what, you have to have it? That was the way I felt when I saw the chest. 

            Engraved vines worked along the edge of the lid and trees were carved on the side panels. I hunkered down to run my fingers along the smooth wood. The dark stain hid the nicks along the curved handles and blunt corners. I looked at the tree design closer. It was full of foliage and the roots spread down then around the tree in spiraling twists.

            It’s beautiful. Now what’s inside?

            I heeded my thoughts and flipped the lid up. I crinkled my nose as a puff of stale basement escaped. After the stench, a faint, soothing smell of roses wafted up from the chest. I couldn’t believe the condition of the inside. Small bronze tacks held the dark-red velvet against the wood and, to my surprise, two books lay in the bottom. 

            My breath caught in my throat as I stared at the covers. The larger one was gold with red swirling letters, which I couldn’t make out. The smaller one was older, with a dark-green cover and yellow letters. Myths and other Legends had been scratched across the top, as if it was carved into the leather. The cover opened easily. The pages were tinged and ripped from age and use.

            “What did you find?” Dad startled me. 

            “Oh … a book and this trunk.”

            He looked at the box. “It’s old, isn’t it?”

            I smiled. “So, it brings back memories?” I couldn’t resist the joke.

            He threw me a wry smile. “You are too funny.”

            “I know.” I put the book back in the trunk and groaned as I picked it up. Dang it, it’s heavy. I struggled to keep it steady in my arms. “Can I have it?”

            He sank his hands into his pockets, attempting to be unimpressed by my discovery. “If you must.”

            “Thank you.” A grin spread across my face.

 

            I set the trunk at the foot of my bed then took the books from inside. I sat at my desk, ready to see what mysteries the pages held. The larger book intrigued me—it was the not knowing what the strange words said. I scanned the pages until I found English writing. It was written in cursive, scribbled on the back of an empty page. 

 

                        All dreams have meanings.

                        Find the courage to decode them.

 

            Of all the things I could read, I read this. I’d awakened each night for a month, sweating and cringing, after random dreams. I wondered why I had them. They made no sense to me. It was always places and people I’d never seen but, oddly, I wanted to know them.

            I flipped through the pages to the last. Little notes had been written there, as well. I frowned as I stared at the cover. I need to figure out what language this is.

            “Dad?”

            He poked his head in the door. “Yeah, honey.”

            “What language is this?”

            He took the book. His brow furrowed as he turned the pages. “Did this come in the chest?” I saw a spark of interest in his eyes.

            I nodded. “What is it?”

            Latin.” He smiled lightly as he rubbed his hand along the cover. “This is a special book.”

“How do you know that?” The way he held the book made me think it was special, but why?

            “I did go to college.” He handed the book back to me.

            “Can you read it?”

            “Sorry, honey. I didn’t do that well in the class.” He returned to the living room.

             How was I going to figure out what the book said? I sighed and set it aside to look over the other one. 

            I flipped through the pages, ecstatic over the information inside. I couldn’t put the book down, as I read about things considered fantasy—the gods creating vampires and werewolves only attacking when they were crazed. I read about myths and legends from all over the planet, things I never knew existed. Finding the book was like finding a new world and I loved it. I wondered if legends like these existed in my own backyard.

 

Chapter 1


The Nemunas River flowed through the Eastern European country of Lithuania and finally emptied into the sea. A tiny village or shtetl, as it was called by the Jewish people who lived there, hugged the side of the riverbank. In 1897, it was an insignificant village whose name would eventually be crushed and forgotten under the marching boots of history. Its vibrant people reduced to a fading photo in a tattered album, a collage on a museum’s memorial wall, or just a pale memory, eventually fading into obscurity.

The river provided a bounty of fish for the people who lived near its shores. This included the Jews and the gentiles, or the outsiders, as the Jews referred to them. They shared the land, although no one ever intermingled. The gentiles hated the Jews and the Jews feared them and, thus, ignored the gentiles, unless something happened to set off a pogrom, a vengeance attack by the Cossacks, Russian cavalrymen, against the Jews. It might be nothing more than a wrong look or a rumor started by someone, but pogroms were the most feared form of retaliation, for they resulted in loss of homes, livestock and often people. For this reason the Jews minded their own business and the only contact was between the Jewish rabbi and the gentile mayor or sometimes an exchange of goods between merchants.

Lithuania, a beleaguered country of confused identities, had been conquered or annexed by one or another of the countries surrounding it for centuries. In 1897, it existed under the thumb of Czarist Russia, prey to Czar Nicholas II’s whims and laws.

The village was divided according to religion, the Jewish section, houses and businesses haphazardly clustered around the place of worship, the shul or synagogue that backed onto a path along the river’s estuary. Only a tiny portion of the town was Jewish and their lives centered on the shul. The word of the rabbi was law, Jewish law, and for the congregation it meant they would follow the laws written in the Talmud, the book of Rabbinical law; respect the Torah, the scrolls housing the five books of Moses; follow the ten commandments; and never take the name of the Lord in vain.

If the rabbi was the keeper and teacher of Jewish law, his wife, the rebitsin, set the example for all the girls and women; the model of how to maintain decorum and a traditional Jewish home and family.

At fifteen, Hannah Levin had reached the age of marriage. All the women and girls sat behind the screen in the balcony of the synagogue. Hannah peered between the heads of her mother, Bella, and younger sister, Rifka, trying to see through the screen of wooden strips that crisscrossed in a pattern she knew by heart. She even knew the number of spaces formed in each row, for she had sat up here for most of her young life, shielded from the wandering eyes of the young men. It was meant to screen the women from the men during religious services so they would not be distracted from their prayers but Hannah had other ideas.

Her eyes fixed on the back of one young man seated in the front row, the fringes on his tallis, prayer shawl, swaying as he rocked back and forth in prayer. His dark hair curled around the edges of the yarmulke, a cap perched on his head. She had spent days sewing and embroidering the head covering as a present for this boy, whom she had loved since she was a tiny girl. He was destined to become her husband, that is, if God heard her daily prayers and the matchmaker could be persuaded to agree.

Gershon Cohen, son of Rabbi Efrem Cohen, was expected to follow the family tradition that had been established for hundreds of years and, one day, become the rabbi of their village, God willing. This was the boy she had dreamed about most of her life, the cause of the strange feelings in her body she did not understand nor could ever explain, even if she had the temerity to talk about the taboo subject.

Hannah tried every Shabbas, Sabbath, to send mental messages to Gershon but, if he picked up her thoughts, he never acknowledged it. Certainly he would never talk about it were they even able to find a moment alone, an action forbidden in her protected world.

A serious boy, Gershon did not laugh often. In her moments of doubt, Hannah wondered what it would be like living with such a solemn soul for the rest of her life. Could she change him, at least in their own home, or would she eventually succumb to his moods and personality and lose her true happy self? Add to that the responsibilities of being a rabbi’s wife, the rebitsin of their congregation, as well as a wife and mother, Hannah felt the weight of thousands of years of tradition piling on her shoulders.

Gershon had five brothers and sisters and she had three. How many would she be expected to have? Probably one every year until she became a worn out old hag by age 25, dragged down by the burdens of birthing, nursing and raising a brood of children, not to mention all her other responsibilities. Hannah marveled at how her mood could swing from light to dark and back to light again with a single thought. Even nature took her sweet time with fading dusk as the sun dropped below the horizon, sending streaks of orange across the sky, painting the clouds. Then at dawn, nature raised the sun again to cast a golden glow that grew as the sun slowly emerged from its journey to the other side of the world. Hannah wished her mercurial moods would slow down like sunrise and sunset instead of the sudden crash of thunder and the downpour of rain that seemed to come over her faster than a flash of lightning.

“Stop it, foolish girl,” she silently chastised. Having many children was an honor for a Jewish woman, especially sons to carry on the name. Still, Hannah grimaced at the thought of being pregnant every year like some of the young women in the village. She would be old before she left her youth behind, old and fat. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Hannah fidgeted between her two best friends, Leah Bloomberg and Sarah Brodsky. Leah leaned over and whispered, “Stop wiggling. Do you think he knows you’re watching him?”

Her mood shifted and Hannah giggled, quickly covering her mouth.

“Hush,” Bella Levin hissed, reaching behind and tapping Hannah hard on the knee with her knuckles. Wincing, Hannah bit her lip not to giggle.

Leah’s mother also turned and glared at her wayward daughter, who bowed her head to hide her grin. Hannah bit her lip harder when she heard her little sister, Rifka, stifle a giggle as Bella turned and sent silent daggers at the younger girl. Hannah and Leah shook with silent laughter.

They were in big trouble, now. Hopefully, Bella would forget this breach of protocol by the time the never-ending service was over and she had gossiped with the other women while they walked home. Somehow, Hannah didn’t think her mother forgot anything, ever, but kept it stored in a drawer in her brain to pull out at some later date; like some long forgotten stocking stuffed behind the under-garments, suddenly recalled when it’s twin reappeared. Bella’s unfailing memory of things they wished she would forget, only added more to the weight of guilt imbedded in her children.

All the mothers talked about anyway was Malka Osterman, the matchmaker, and who would be a good match for a son or daughter of marriageable age. Sometimes they gossiped about the latest pregnancy or a new grandchild, but most of their thoughts focused on marriage possibilities, often arguing over the same boy or girl. No one ever thought to ask their children whom they might want to marry; that was just not done in this time and place. Instead, Malka Osterman with her widening waistline, ruled supreme, while gorging on delicious meals as she traveled from house to house, delivering her matchmaking decisions as though it came from a voice on a mountain in the Sinai desert; Malka’s commandments.

The woman hadn’t prepared a Shabbas dinner since her long-suffering husband had died three years ago, probably to get away from her constant nagging. Hannah hoped for his many years suffering his overbearing wife, he had gone to a better place as a reward, olov hasholem, may he rest in peace.

Malka Osterman lived off the largess of the families with children of marriageable age, like a tyrant beggar, traveling from house to house every Friday evening. Hannah glanced at the object of her thoughts who sat like a bloated toad, her beady eyes studying the young women in the balcony. Hannah looked away and shivered, wondering if just thinking this way could bring down the wrath of God, like a lightning strike.

After the service, Hannah and her friends slipped out before their mothers could stop them and rushed around the corner behind the synagogue.

“You girls are so bad,” Sarah said, trying to keep a straight face.

Hannah and Leah giggled.

“I know,” Leah said. “Wicked and evil.”

Hannah sighed. “Did you see Gershon? He was wearing my yarmulke.”

“I did see something new on his head but I was busy looking at Yussef Baum,” Sarah said.

“Of course you were,” Leah stated. “You are always looking at him, how could we not notice.”

Sarah lifted her head and twirled her long skirt. “You are just jealous.”

Leah shrugged. “We’ll see. Malka the Matchmaker is coming to our house next month for dinner.”

“She’s probably going to make a match for your sister,” Hannah said, laughing.

“Oh, be still both of you. I actually hope it is for my sister for I am not ready to be married,” Leah said.

Hannah grinned. “You’re just worried that she’ll pick someone you hate before you have a chance to choose someone yourself.”

“As if that would make any difference to my father. I think he already has someone picked out for me.” Leah announced, her expression grim.

“Who is it?” Sarah asked.

Leah shook her head. “He won’t talk about it, which makes me even more worried.”

“You asked him?” Sarah looked horrified.

“Of course not, I asked my mama and she wouldn’t say a word, but then she never tells us anything. I did hear the words New York one night when I went down to the kitchen for some water.”

Hannah grabbed Leah’s arm. “Do you think they are going to send you to America to be married?”

Leah pulled her arm free. “I told you, I don’t know anything. My parents are so secretive they would probably tell me to pack a bag the morning I was leaving.”

“That is so exciting, Leah. Imagine going to America.” Hannah saw the look of disgust on Leah’s face and said, “I mean, if you weren’t going to marry some stranger.”

“Hmph,” Leah grumbled.

“They probably want to marry off you and your sister quickly, since you are the last of the girls left at home,” Sarah suggested. “Or maybe they are planning on leaving here and taking you with them, after they marry off your sister, of course.”

Leah rolled her eyes. “Thank you, Sarah, you are always helpful.”

Sarah looked at Hannah. “What did I say?”

Hannah shook her head and turned back toward the road, “Nothing, Sarah, don’t worry about it. Come on, it isn’t worth speculating on things we don’t know.”

Leah followed. “That’s right, we’re already in enough trouble, let’s find our mothers and go home.”

The three girls walked to the front of the synagogue where the women and younger children had gathered in small groups for the walk back to their homes to eat the cold food set aside the night before. The men and older boys would soon follow and then return to the synagogue for study and final prayers.

Dinner would be served late when cooking could begin again after Shabbas, the Sabbath ended at sundown. Bella Levin beckoned to Hannah and she followed her mother and sister, still focused on the boy with the dark curls peeking out from under the yarmulke.

Award Winning Cover

Chapter 1

Nantes, France 1685

 

The wooden door to the spice shop shook under the fierce pounding of a fist and a deep voice from outside shouting, “The king’s men are coming.”

Then he was gone, his voice fading with the clatter of his clogs as he raced to the next door where the pounding began again; then on to the next and the next, until he reached the end of the street and disappeared into the shadows.

            Jules Dubois herded his three sons into the small back room of the shop. Jars and jugs of spices stood like soldiers at attention along the shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Each was carefully labeled, dated and fitted with its own pewter scoop. Jules, a spice trader of fine repute, was scrupulous about keeping the expensive and much sought-after spices clean and fresh; not a speck of dust was visible to the naked eye.

Jules looked at his sons and sighed. Their paths would take a sharp turn in the next few minutes, with the route as yet undetermined and he would not be there to see them to their final destination. The two younger boys, nine and thirteen, cowered in the corner, trying valiantly to be brave, but failing miserably. Tears rolled down Luc’s face and Paul’s body shook with fear.

Breathing deeply to calm his voice so they would not panic, he grasped the eldest, Jean-Claude, by the shoulders. “You must take responsibility for your brothers, Jean-Claude, and get them safely out of Nantes to Prussia. Your beloved mama’s brother, Charles, will be waiting and take you into his home.”

Jules opened his mouth to protest, but his father shook his head. “You are past sixteen, my son, and they are so young. Therefore, I am entrusting their lives into your care.”

“Papa, please...”

 Jules shook the boy. “Do not speak, just listen. Lead your brothers quietly through the woods. until you reach the docks. The Dutch East Indies ship,  Marianna, is  sailing at  dawn  for  Königsberg. You must board tonight.  Captain Van Sickles is expecting you, but do not delay for he will leave on the tide.”

He thrust a leather pouch into Jean-Claude’s hand. “This is a map of Königsberg and the route to your uncle’s house, your papers, a letter of introduction to the Dutch East India Company and the captain of the ship and enough money for your passage.”

The boy managed two words: “But, Papa.”

His father continued as though Jean-Claude had not interrupted. “There is also a letter for your Uncle Charles and money to purchase a partnership with him in his spice business and pay for your lodgings in his household.”

This time Jean-Claude did not allow his father to stop him. “You must come with us, Papa, please.”

Jules shook his head. “My decision to remain here in France until Charles could build the business in Prussia was a foolish mistake. Now I must live with that decision, but you and your brothers must survive and I will hold you back. With my bad leg, I cannot move as fast as you young ones. I will try to follow as soon as possible, my son. We shall meet again, I promise.”

The young man backed away, panic in his voice. “I will not leave you, Papa.”

“I am sorry, Jean-Claude, but you have no choice. I have packed clothing and packets of our most valuable spices for Uncle Charles in these saddle bags, one bag for each of you.” He whispered, “There is a sack of coins and your mother’s jewelry in your bag and also a letter for your uncle, so guard it well.”

They heard shouting and screaming echoing in the distance. Jules grimaced and quickly hung a leather bag over each boy’s shoulder. Then Jules did something he had never done before—he hugged his youngest and kissed him on both cheeks. He wiped away Luc’s tears and whispered, “You must be brave and very grown up, Luc. No more tears.”

Then he grasped Paul and held him close. “You, my son, the quiet poet, you are so sensitive and gentle. Be of brave heart and never lose your love of words.”

“Papa, I shall miss you so much.” Paul looked up at his father, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Jules brushed them away and kissed each cheek.

The shouting and screams grew louder. They could hear the pounding of boots on the cobblestones. Jules Dubois pushed his sons through the curtain and out the rear door of the shop. “Go, now. Quick. Stay in the shadows and make for the woods until you reach the wharf. Captain Van Sickles is waiting for you. Jean-Claude, keep those papers safe.” He patted the bulge inside the young man’s blouse under his leather jerkin then kissed him on both cheeks. Jean-Claude’s throat filled until he could barely swallow and he lowered his head so his father would not see the tears welling in his eyes.

Jean-Claude herded his terrified brothers across the field to the woods and turned once to look back. Smoke rose from the roof of a building in the distance. His father raised his hand and limped back into the store.

“Farewell, Papa,” Jean-Claude whispered, knowing in his heart that he might never see his father again. He turned and pushed his brothers ahead of him into the shelter of the trees, trying to block the loud smashing of wood and glass behind him and the shouting of the soldiers.

The three brothers moved as quickly as they could north through the dense forest, making as little noise as possible. Jean-Claude led the way and Paul held Luc’s hand, sometimes pulling him along. Suddenly, Luc tripped over a root and fell. He sat on the ground, rubbing his knee, and refused to move. Paul pulled at him, but the boy tensed his body until it was rock solid.

Jean-Claude turned back and knelt before him. “Luc, you must get up. Luc.”

The boy seemed not to hear him, but stared straight ahead, tears coursing down his face.

“I’m sorry, little brother.” Jean-Claude smacked Luc across the cheek and hauled him to his feet. “Now take Paul’s hand and walk.”

The child rubbed his cheek and sniffed, but he stood and clasped his brother’s hand; Jean-Claude slung Luc’s saddlebag across his own shoulder and beckoned them to follow. Eventually, they emerged at the edge of the wharf and Jean-Claude pulled the packet of papers from inside his shirt. He slipped the saddlebags from his shoulder and handed every-
thing to Paul.

“Keep these safe,” he ordered. “Stay down behind these pilings while I check for soldiers. If anything happens to me, do not show yourselves, but

find the ship, Marianna. Do you understand?” Seeing their nods, he stepped out onto the wharf. He turned back to look at his brothers. “Remember, keep still and do not follow me.”

Flames and dark smoke rose into the air above the town and drifted upward in funnels of gray-black clouds. Jean-Claude smelled the fiery smoke and he knew that this moment would return over and over again with the scent of burning wood. He tried not to listen to the distant screams or think about his father’s fate. Seeing no one, he pulled his brothers from their hiding place and retrieved the packets from Paul, tucking them once more into his shirt and slinging the bags over his shoulder. Then Jean-Claude urged the boys even faster toward the single ship gently rocking alongside the pier. Other ships were anchored out in the harbor, but only the Marianna remained at port.

When they reached the ship, Jean-Claude looked up at the man leaning against the railing, staring into the distance at the smoke. “Captain Van Sickles?” Jean-Claude called.

The man turned his head and peered down at the boys. “Ah, at last, Jean-Claude. I was about to raise anchor, but I promised your father I would wait until the moon rose in the night sky and here you are. Hurry, now.”

When the boys reached the deck, Captain Van Sickles asked, “But where is your father?”

Jean-Claude shook his head. “He would not come with us, sir. He said his bad leg would hold us up.”

The captain nodded. “Perhaps he will still arrive. I will leave two crewmen with a boat here at the pier in the event he appears.”

Jean-Claude nodded in gratitude. “You are very kind, Captain, and I thank you.”

“Be strong, young man. Your father is very resourceful. If he can get here, he will.” Then he turned and shouted to one of the officers, “Mr. Maarten, they are here, finally. Have someone take them below and put them in a cabin, then prepare to anchor offshore until the tide turns. Oh, and leave two seamen and a boat here in the event Monsieur Dubois appears, but tell them to make haste for the ship if they are put upon by the King’s men.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Mr. Maarten said. “You, there, take these passengers below to cabin two.” Then he began barking orders at the crew.

Jean-Claude looked around the tiny cabin. He gave his brothers the lower bunk and threw the saddlebags on the upper, covering them with the blanket. Not much of a hiding place, but he didn’t intend to leave them there permanently. He felt inside his shirt for the leather pouch and remembered his father’s final words: “Keep it safe.” He waited until his brothers fell asleep—Paul’s arm around Luc, who had cried himself to sleep.

The boy had never known their sweet, gentle mother who died giving birth to him, and now he would not have a father. Jean-Claude recalled the delicate, beautiful mother who had loved him for only seven short years; her blonde curls cascading down  her  back  and  her blue  eyes  twinkling  even when she was annoyed with him for some infraction.

 He felt her presence with every scent of roses or dried rose petals like those she always wore in a sachet fastened at her waist. His mouth watered at the memory of his mother’s wonderful soup and the fresh-baked bread, cooling on the rack.

The boy inside him remembered those bright eyes dimming in grief over the two lost baby girls who died in infancy and her joy when learning she was with child again. “I hope it is another girl and she is healthy,” she’d whispered to her husband, not knowing Jean-Claude was listening. “But a healthy boy would be just as welcome.” That healthy boy did arrive a few months later, but his dear mother never knew him, for the angels claimed her soul a few minutes after Luc was born.

Jean-Claude sighed as he considered the responsibility he now carried as father and mother to his younger brothers, barely out of childhood himself.

“Damn you to hell, King Louis, for destroying our lives and sending us into exile for our beliefs. I curse you for all eternity,” Jean-Claude swore under his breath, clenching his hands into painful fists.

“They call you the Sun King, but you should be called the King of Darkness for the misery and torment you have brought to the Huguenots because we are Protestants. I shall never forget.”

He breathed deeply and unclenched his fists. Checking once more that the boys were asleep, he slipped out of the cabin and climbed up to the deck. Mr. Maarten stood watch, and Jean-Claude went to stand beside him.

The officer stared across the water at the fire and smoke. “This is a sad night of death and destruction.”

Jean-Claude did not answer, but watched the tiny outline of the boat bobbing in the water by the pier. He knew his father would not appear for he would stand and fight to the end with his compatriots. Clenching his fists again, Jean-Claude dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands to imprison the sobs that pounded against his chest, pleading to be set free like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars.

Mr. Maarten laid a rough, calloused hand on his shoulder, but to Jean-Claude it was a lifeline because he felt a sudden peace move in where only anger had lived. He had bitten his lip to hold back the bitter words threatening to fly from his mouth, but now he released his breath in a huff and the weight of despair lifted, for childhood was not so far behind him that the strong hand of a man on his shoulder could not still impart a sense of safety.

“All is as it is meant to be, son, and you will survive this, too. Remember you are never alone,” the officer said.

They stood together on the deck, watching the pier until the moon drifted lower in the sky and a faint light glowed on the horizon. Jean-Claude watched the boat pull away from the dock and when it drew close, he saw only the two sailors. His father had not appeared.

“It is time, Mr. Maarten,” Captain Van Sickles’s voice sounded behind them.

The first officer strode across the deck and began shouting orders to the crew.

Jean-Claude felt the captain’s presence beside him. “I am sorry, son. We cannot wait any longer for we must sail with the tide.”

Jean-Claude simply nodded. He didn’t trust his voice, then he turned and went below to the cabin.

            The captain watched him go and shook his head. “So much grief for these children and the loss of a kind and peaceful man like Jules Dubois because of a foolish, selfish king’s tragic decision,” he muttered. He stared at the smoke still rising in the dawn sky for a minute, pondering the stupidity of kings then went about the business of setting sail.



Chapter 1

 

Blue blazer and pants, white shirt and blue tie; school emblem sewn on the right vest pocket. Underneath, a cloth “filakto” pinned to a tee shirt to ward off any evil spirits.

 

A

nd so I began another day in the South Bronx.

My buddy, Alex, was always the first one to dive in to his lunch. It didn’t matter what the chef in the back room cooked up that day, Alex would find a way to cram a little less than half a stick of butter in his mouth just before our school cafeteria offering landed on the table.

“Hmmmm. Good, no?” Alex would say, his mouth stuffed with yellow, slimy mush.  Earlier in the day, on the way to school, Alex would let out a moan from the back of the school bus as we crossed the Triborough Bridge and the smell of a nearby bread factory wafted through the windows.  “Hmmmm, French toast.” The smell would last as long as it took for the Hell Gate Bridge to vanish from our site, almost to the bridge tolls. There was a rumor that, if you could hit the Hell Gate with a paper wad just right, it would collapse into the East River, but no one ever tried.

Alex grossed us out, but that was not what weighed heavily on our little minds at the Hellenic American School for the Arts. Awkwardly located in one of the worst sections of the Bronx, it took those of us who lived in Queens two hours to get there and two hours to return home. 

This was a highly regarded place of learning. Without it, our proud parents wouldn’t have been able to say they carried on the Greek traditions they had brought with them when they crossed the Atlantic. Their search was for a better life after the tyranny of the Germans during the Second World War. This was personal. 

“You see when we go to town,” my mother would say, referring to her hometown of Patras, “your cousins will kiss and pinch you because you know the words.” Mom took my brother and me to Greece practically every summer—11 days to get there on the Queen Frederica and another 11 days to come back.

“We are lucky to go,” Mom said, always punctuated with her finger pointed to the heavens.

 We spoke, read and wrote Greek at a very early age. Heck, we even spoke, read and wrote Ancient Greek.  And we learned our faith without reservation. This was education the way education was supposed to be carried out—with a purpose and a necessary strong hand whenever the young charges roaming the hallways got restless.

 Every day was a challenge and yet the same, for eight years, from first to eighth grade. Nothing ever changed at the school; not even the teachers.

  When it snowed, school was never half a day for us and it took sometimes four hours to get home. But even when it didn’t snow, the ride was so long there hardly was enough time to smack a baseball across the concrete ball field, doodle out my homework, eat the dandelion greens and the salad Mom served up for dinner and squeeze in the latest Twilight Zone. I hated homework. I saw it as a waste of good time.

The year was 1965, two years after President Kennedy was shot. That was a day that would stay with me forever. The teachers marched us down to the auditorium and we sat in the metal folding chairs, the ones usually used for music appreciation class. The radio was on and we listened as the events unfolded. 

 Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas, Texas. This is ABC Radio. We repeat . . . . In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today… We’re going to stand by for more details on the incident in Dallas. Stay tuned to your ABC station for further details. We now return you to our regular programming.”

With that, I got my ears boxed by Miss Papastavrou because I whispered something to Alex. I think it was mostly her anger at the tragic news. My head was just there for convenience.  It would have been lunchtime and then recess for us, but that was interrupted by the day’s news.  John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in his car in Dallas, Texas, and 1,500 miles away boys and girls in a Greek American private school in the South Bronx sat terrified on metal chairs not quite understanding it all.  

 The lunch menu at the Hellenic American School for the Arts was always a surprise.  Depending on which Greek immigrant jumped ship that month, lunch was either pretty damn good or it tasted like raw fish guts.

 Our principal, Mr. Paris, was considered a fine, upstanding pillar of the Greek American community. We were required to address him at all times as Kyrie, “sir” and nothing else. He was a brilliant scholar, respected and revered for drilling the Greek language and culture into American-born kids who just happened to have Greek parents. But inside the school’s walls, Kyrie spread fear along with the prerequisite respect. With his half-inch thick wooden ruler always at the ready in his jacket pocket, we knew he would use it if he had to. Kyrie was more than tough with us, but we were a tough bunch and it was his way of making what we needed to learn stick.

Friday mornings were always a treat. It was called “assembly,” much like a boot camp muster. The girls sat across from the boys, always separated, even during recess. From atop a stage, Kyrie would descend the stairs, causing trepidation in every little boy’s pants as he took his position in the middle of the freshly waxed wooden floor and on most occasions would call out a boy’s name.

“Please come forward…” were his usual well-chosen words before the “lesson” of the week, once again, played out on the day before a weekend.

Girls were never publicly disciplined like the boys, though they were at times sent home with the telltale sign that they had been caught in some  transgression─red palms.

Eight times out of 10, it was the same kid─ you guessed it, Alex─who was summoned front and center. Heck, he even prepped for it beforehand, entrusting me with his Coke-bottle glasses.

Alex took his punishment like a wussy, always interrupting Kyrie with tearful pleadings.  In the end, after several light whacks across the palms of his hands, Alex would turn on the drama and end up on the floor crying, crumpled like a pile of laundry.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Chapter 1

 Tsunami

 

L

ike a snake charmer flirting with death, I glide up and over the hypnotic waves as the ocean lures me into its magical spell. Fear exits my mind and my arms paddle faster, hoping to snag the swell past the pier. Surfing on the tail end of a storm rebels against common sense, but I ignore the warning and head for the danger zone.

            The prize rises like a cornered cobra. I spring into position and tunnel through the barrel, the crest ten feet above me. The rain stings my eyes; I could surf in my sleep. My aerial stunt projects my body from the board. My fingers skim the Pacific blue while I return to my ride; but, without warning, the wave crashes, slamming me into a wall of water. My surfboard flips in the angry surf and the lights blink out in my head.

            I awake to another life-threatening wave. The sea sucks me under as the ocean strangles my throat. The board’s leash attached to my ankle wraps around my upper body. My straight jacket twists me in a tailspin. I thrash my legs and turn in the opposite direction. The cord releases me from my funeral; I swim toward the veiled light and break the surface. Grabbing my board, I catch a ride back on the next wave.

            A seagull shrieks above and revives my senses. The sunlight pierces my vision and I roll off the surfboard and onto the sand. As I pull my hand away from my head, my fingers drip with blood. The salt water sears my throat and I gag on a mouthful of sand and part of a broken tooth. The mixture sends a wave of nausea to my stomach; I lean over and spit out more blood. I struggle to my feet, but my legs crumble like the tide washing over a sand castle.

            Sitting up, I try to recall what hit me. A couple strolls by; the woman helps me stand and asks, “Are you alright?”

            “I’m fine.” I stumble forward and cover the gash on my head with my hand. The lady presses a towel to my temple and a crowd gathers; the man next to her punches a few buttons on his phone. Without any friends or parents present, I have no choice when the ambulance arrives.

 

            I share the good news with my dad.  “I was riding this crazy wave and crashed in the roll. My surfboard came back and hit me in the head—only fourteen stitches and a partially broken molar.”

In the emergency room, the silence between us weighs on me, like one hundred percent humidity.

“So, where have you been? The nurse tried calling you a zillion times.”

            “Cam, we need to talk.” He takes a seat, runs his hand through his hair and speaks one sentence that changes my life forever. “We’re moving.”

            His newsflash jars me, like the aftershock of an earthquake. Tsunamis often trail earthquakes. I drag myself to the edge of the bed and clutch the sheets. The final wave of the tsunami steals everything I’ve ever known and washes it out to sea.



 

Chapter 1

 The advanced unit of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, had been notified by Division Headquarters their entire unit was to be airlifted by Huey helicopters, from the sunny, sandy beaches near Tuy Hoa, South Vietnam, to the Central Highlands, a mountainous area near Pleiku, South Vietnam.

An advance group of three light weapons platoons and all 12, 3-man LRRP teams, were quickly assembled and sent to secure the area chosen for the site. They were also given instructions to begin building sand bagged defense bunkers around the perimeter of what initially was called Fire Base Delta, later known as Camp Holloway.

The orders of the LRRP teams were to set up and maintain a first alert perimeter 200 meters outside the Fire Base, then scout the area forward of their position to gain firsthand knowledge of the surrounding area.

If any booby traps were found, they were to be disarmed. The teams were also instructed to report all movement or sightings of anything in question to Major Anthony Collins, who was the officer in charge of the advance unit.

Upon arriving, the advance group met with no resistance. When on the ground, the LRRP teams immediately headed away from the main group, to dig themselves in before nightfall. After each team found a vantage point that would allow them to see the team on either side of their position and still have a clear field of fire to their front, they dug in and placed claymore mines at 30 and 60 feet to the front of their position. Each team member carried a 200 foot roll of heavy-duty kite string, which they stretched out from their foxhole to the foxhole on either side. If anything moved in front of or on either side of them after dark, they could simply tug on the string and alert the others that something was heard or spotted. That way, no one had to speak and give away their location.

When the teams were in place, they each, in their turn, began to patrol forward of their site to have a mind print of the terrain. The first and second teams returned with nothing to report, but the third team reported finding an area about 100 meters forward of their site that looked as if 50 or 60 people had made camp the night before then left early that morning, heading northeast. After a short discussion, John Gresham, the team leader for the third team was sent back to report what they’d found and to inform Major Anthony Collins that the LRRP teams were dug in and ready. Word was passed to each team. Within an hour, John was back.

“What did the Major say?” inquired Little Fox, as John passed his position.

“I think we might’ve made him mad. He said he didn’t think what we found was anything to worry about. He also said he had received an intelligence report that said nothing had been spotted in this area for the past three days. He figures, more than likely, what we found was nothing more than villagers moving to another location, because they didn’t like the idea of us setting up our Fire Base so close to their village. The Major also wanted me to tell you ‘BOYS,’” John emphasized sarcastically, “‘too take it easy and not get spooked and start shootin’ up everything that moves.’”

“Well, go ahead and tell your team we’ll be proceeding according to our plan, just in case the Major happens to be wrong,” Little Fox commented dryly.

Little Fox couldn’t help but smile to himself after John had walked away, as he remembered the day Major Collins had come out to the firing range back at Fort Lewis. He reminded everyone of a high school coach the way he stood there with his feet spread apart and his hands on his hips with that ever present unlit cigar in his mouth, as if he dared someone to come and try to take it. Sergeant Rock had always referred to the major as “The Bull Dog”. When asked why he called him “The Bull Dog”, Rock said it was because of the way the major’s nose always looked as if it were being pressed against a window. Then he asked, “You know why a bull dog’s nose is pushed back, right? That way they can bite and breathe at the same time.”

The day progressed with each team patrolling their designated area. Although nothing else was spotted by the other teams, they still proceeded an hour after sundown with their plan of moving 10 meters back and shifting 20 meters to the right of their original position.

Major Collins had been angrily pacing outside the command tent since the first shot had been heard from the northeast outpost, shortly after midnight; he had instructed the radio operator to contact them.

“Well, have you been able to get hold of ‘em yet?” barked Major Collins, as he rushed back inside.

“No, Sir. They must have their radio turned off,” replied the on duty operator.

“Damn it. I knew it. I knew it.” growled the major, as he pounded his right fist into his left hand. “I’ll have those boys’ asses hangin’ from tree come daylight. And they’re supposed to be the Elite Outpost. Elite, my ass,” he added sarcastically, as he walked back to the entrance to the tent.

“We’ll be lucky if we find any of ‘em alive in the morning. They just may kill each other tonight.”

“Their line may have gotten probed by N.V.A. or VC, Sir,” injected Captain Harding, who had been in the command tent, checking the area maps.

“Hell no, there is not a damned thing out there but the wind blowin’ through the trees and a bunch of scared little boys who think the boogie man is about to get ‘em,” bellowed the major.

“You know, Sir, Chu Pong really isn’t that far from here. Last November, units from the 1st Calvary got their clocks cleaned at L.Z. X-ray because they refused to check out the area. Instead, they believed the intelligence reports and walked right into an ambush,” the captain reminded him.

“Oh hell, that’s old history, captain,” said the major, as they heard another claymore explode somewhere in the darkness, out toward the northeast.

“Damn their hides. I am goin’ to my tent and try to get some sleep. Wake me at first light and have a platoon ready to move, captain. I’m goin’ out there and rip them boys a new ass,” he growled, as he stormed out of the command tent.

“Yes, Sir, I’ll take care of it,” assured Capt. Harding. “Well, sergeant, I guess I’d better drop these maps off at artillery and turn in myself. Send someone to wake the major and myself at 0530 hrs.,” instructed the captain.

“Yes, Sir, I’ll pass it on, Sir.”

After dropping off the maps and speaking with Sergeant Andrews, Capt. Harding went to his tent and stretched out on his cot. But try as he may, sleep was the farthest thing from him. He could still hear an occasional shot fired. Nowhere in the far reaches of his mind did he believe those boys were spooked. After all the training they had been put through the past year, they knew exactly what was expected of them. Somewhere during his thoughts, he drifted into a troubled sleep.


 

Chapter One 

 

THUMP

 

            I had just finished practicing piano when I heard a loud noise in the kitchen. It wasn’t like a pan hitting the floor with a BANG or the CRACK of glass breaking.

It was a THUMP.

I’d never heard that sound coming from the kitchen before.

I found Mom sitting on the floor and I rushed to her as she started to get up.

            “Mommy, Mommy, what happened?”

            “Nothing, Amy,” Mom whispered. “I must have slipped. Maybe the floor is wet.”

            I hugged Mom and sat in the kitchen with her for a few minutes. She seemed OK.

            “Do you need help?” I asked her.

            “No, Amy, go on outside if you’ve finished piano for today,” she said.

            “OK.” I thought she sounded strange, but I went outside anyway to play with my best friend, Kayla. Playing with our Barbies wasn’t much fun, though.

I was still thinking about Mom. I told Kayla about Mom falling.

            “What if she falls again?” I asked Kayla. “It was a terrible noise.”

            “She probably won’t,” Kayla said. “I fell at school last week and skinned my knee, but I haven’t fallen since.”

            “I know, but we’re just kids,” I insisted. “Parents aren’t supposed to fall down.”

Kayla shrugged. “Come to my house. I want to show you what I made at Brownies for my mother for Mother’s Day,” she said.

            “Ok,” I said, but I was still thinking about my Mom.

            On the way, Kayla invited me to her birthday party. “I’ll be nine years old on Friday. We’re going to the county park on Saturday at 2:00 pm.”

            “That’ll be fun. I’ll ask my Mom,” I said. “My birthday is in August. I’ll be nine, too.”

            At Kayla’s house, we rushed to her room, calling hellos to her mother on the way. Kayla pulled out a box from under her bed and opened it. In the box was a picture of her mother in a bright red frame.

            “That’s beautiful. How did you make it?” I asked.

            “I cut a piece of cardboard to outline the photo,” Kayla said. “Then I wrapped the yarn over the cardboard until it was a thick covering and glued the end.”

             “It’s really cool. Maybe I’ll try to make something like that for my Mom.”

Suddenly, the thought of Mom sitting on the floor flashed through my mind and I told Kayla, “I’m going home to see if my Mom’s OK. I’ll be back later.”





Chapter 1

The History

 It all began in the large, dark forest of Gwendare, in the land ruled by Queen Gwendolyn. Now, in this forest lived a multitude of creatures. The furry ones lived in stumps, those with feathers lived in trees and some with scales lived in caves. Most who were human lived in houses. One such house dweller was a young witch named Quagmire Pinch.

Quaggy, as her family and friends knew her, came from a long line of natural witches going back hundreds of years. The family tree was quite impressive with her fifth great-grandmother Fancy, acting as Queen Gwendolyn’s seeress and astrologer. That fact alone made the Pinch family one of power and prestige in the witch community, until the reign of King Haight. At the time of his triumph over Queen Gwendolyn, Haight had grown tired of witches. He began to banish from the country and dispose of anyone who practiced the art of witchcraft.

Following the execution of Queen Gwendolyn, Fancy Pinch managed to escape that same fate by leaving Gwendare. To insure the witch community would offer no resistance, the King executed all castle servants loyal to Gwendolyn. Yes, it was a dark and gloomy time for witches, as well as all mystical creatures that dwelled in Gwendare.

   Immediately after a proclamation of Haight’s intensions, the rest of the Pinch family went into hiding, conjuring only out of necessity. After fifty years of the king‘s horrific plunder of the country, this cruel ruler was overthrown by the army of Gwendolyn’s daughter, Fortuna. Fortuna’s rule ushered in a quieter, more serene way of life.  It was at this point, the Pinch family came out of hiding, returning to their home to live openly as witches for two-hundred years.

   The house, in which Quagmire lived, saw many children born into the Pinch family. Because of its construction, this house withstood the most severe storms as well as any battles fought to secure freedom from potential invaders. Such had been the case during the half-century of terror inflicted by King Haight. The home was a small but comfortable stone structure, with a thickly thatched roof. It had a big main room, which contained a fireplace used for heating and cooking. There were two large bedrooms and ample loft space above. The windows were made of intricately shaped leaded glass. It was rather ornate for its time.

   Quagmire’s parents were priceless, as parents go. Her father, Lochlann Pendergast, loved to dance and play jokes on people. His fiery red hair was a mass of curls; a hint to his temperament and playfulness. He loved music and played the concertina for any occasion he could create. Showing an industrious side, he owned a meadery where he made both spiced and fruited mead, also known as honey wine. The people believed Lochlann’s mead was the very best mead in all of Gwendare and it was true. His was the finest because his family stole the recipe from another. This is not to say his was a family of thieves, but there was a proclamation during the reign of the king, to find the best mead for the royal family. The makers of the chosen elixir would be revered and spared a cruel demise. Therefore, what was Lochlann’s family to do?

   Quagmire’s mother, Spinney Pinch, was rather placid in her youth. It was not until she met Lochlann that she became a different person. She was frolicsome. Her head was in the clouds more than it was on her studies, but she managed to become a formidable witch, nonetheless. In her later years, after she had her daughter, she became somewhat matronly and could be quite strict. The only throwback to her youth was her flute playing.  When Lochlann would pick up his concertina, she would accompany him on her flute. It was a sight to behold. When those two would play, their music made people sing and dance.

   There were many happy moments spent in this home. Rarely was sadness a part of their life, when they no longer had to hide. They held parties, celebrations and festivals inside this house, as well as on the grounds. The Pinch family had owned this home for as long as anyone could remember. Moreover, just like those before her, Quagmire was very shrewd and imaginative. So much so, through her final years of study, she was under the discipline of Crone Sibyl Beldam. Sibyl was a crone with unequaled capabilities. She too, came from a line of natural witches whose powers had surpassed others in the sisterhood. Because of their strengths, the women of that family accepted the position of Crone for many generations. Fancy Pinch was the first witch in the Pinch family. When she began to show witchy talents as a child, the family allied themselves with the Beldams to tutor her.

   As for Quagmire, the Pinch family relied on Sibyl for instruction. Now, Sibyl rather liked her young student and quietly admired her, as she reminded the Crone of herself when she was Quagmire’s age. When her student feigned illness to get out of her chores, lessons and the like, Sibyl would ignore those bouts, continuing to prod the young witch to mind her studies, until her student would concede. At first, this made the young witch very angry, but eventually, she came to respect Sibyl more and more for seeing through her act.

    Quagmire Pinch was one in a million. The skill she had shown over the years was remarkable. The adults in her family felt she had the potential to become an outstanding witch, if only she would apply herself. She began conjuring at a very young age. Even though she was very good at it, she was also a bit careless. She once made the barn explode into a burst of flames, which turned into butterflies. Her mother undid that mishap and issued a stern warning followed by a lecture on the proper use of a wand, as well as the appropriate words used in incantations.

   Quagmire loved nature, as she should, and was naturally inquisitive. She found pleasure in poking her nose into things. Investigating might be a more appropriate term for what she did; whether it was the forest around her house, or asking questions of people on matters that may or may not have been her concern. When asking questions, the Crone had warned her on many occasions, to be less nosy, especially when or if the question was of a personal nature. Quaggy did consider the Crone’s warnings. After all, Sybil was the one in charge for the time being.

   In the art of persuasion, no one could match Quagmire Pinch. She had a way of drawing you in to believe whatever she suggested. In the beginning, she did this without the use of Magic, but as her knowledge of the craft increased, her methods were nearly boundless. It might have been the way she shifted her eyes, or the way she smiled, or even her tone of voice. No one really knew why she had this power nor could anyone learn how to mimic it. Worse yet, no one learned how to avoid it. It was exactly what it was. She neither harmed anyone with it, nor used it for evil means. Nonetheless, she did use it.

   The way of a witch’s tutelage is unique. The world around, when a child born into a family shows witchy talents, the parents school her until the age of eight. At that time the parents step aside and another older, wiser witch moves into the home where she will teach, train and prepare the young witch until such time as the young one is a full-fledged, adult witch. This process usually takes another ten years. However, in the case of Quagmire, she was a quick study and ready for the final test three years early.

   She was grateful when her parents chose Sibyl Beldam as her instructor. After all, if Sibyl were good enough to train her mother, she was good enough for her. Given time to prove herself, she felt she could and would be a more prominent witch than the Crone.

   By no means did Quagmire Pinch suffer humility. As a result of all the praise she received over the years, she thought very highly of herself, which was unusual for a witch, but probably not for one who had shown as much promise as she. Much to the disgruntlement of the Witches Council, she had, for years, accompanied and assisted the Crone on several matters of scrying, which is seeing the future in shiny objects, conjuring and incantations. The Council felt it was inappropriate for such a young witch, who had yet to obtain her academic credentials, to assist on the levels Sibyl had allowed. Still, once the Council had been witness to this student’s expertise, they were more inclined to acquiesce to her and the Crone on the matter. This only added to the young one’s feelings of self-importance, which, at times, would further irritate the elders.

   Regardless, she never challenged Sibyl’s authority. Sometimes however, she would answer her tutor’s questions with a quip of disrespect. On those occasions, the Crone would sit her down and firmly explain the true situation, pointing to the express fact that Quagmire had not graduated yet and, until such time, she was not all she imagined herself to be. Luckily, graduation was soon to be here.

   The final test was usually a demonstration of an original spell or potion concocted by the student. Part of the test would include a journey to collect ingredients that would require one or more nights spent alone in the forest. Once collected, the student would return home, mix the potion and demonstrate its properties. Upon acceptance of the potion and associated incantations, if any, the instructor issued a diploma. Then, and only then, Quagmire Pinch would be a full-fledged witch. She knew when she had graduated, she would be able to go out on her own and carry out feats no one had seen or could even imagine. In her heart, she knew she was ready.


 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 In the Season of Dry Heat, in the village of Windrow, Noni knelt inside her hut, mopping up spilled milk. Noni didn’t work in the fields, where watching others effortlessly plant and sow crops only reminded her of how different she was from everyone else. Bad enough that the leaves sliced at her skin and the dust and seeds made her sneeze, but worse was the reminder of what she could never do. She was much happier staying in her hut, caring for infants too young to know she was unlike them.

            Noni sat back on her heels and stared around her one room. This hut, its furnishings and a book were all Oma had left her. A rough-oak table, a three-legged stool, baskets, a cupboard and some shelves faced her stone hearth. A pot and long spoon dangled from nails above it. The dirt floor was packed hard, swept clean by her willow-twig broom. A narrow pegged ladder led to a low-ceilinged sleeping loft, below a thick layer of thatch. No windows eased the plain surface of the daubed walls, but the open door let in a breeze that smelled of fresh earth.

            A path started at her door, forking left and right as it entered a stand of oak. Above the woods, if the air was clear, she could see distant rosy mountains, marking the border between Mitlery and the dragons.

            Noni’s mind walked down the path to the fork. In her imagination, she glanced left to Windrow’s Market Square, but chose the right fork and flew away from the mountains, past Windrow’s fields to King’s Port and the Zilfur Zee; then back again to the mountains and the ‘Dragon Hold’.

            ‘Dragon Hold’ and Zilfur Zee, the words made her fingers tingle. Oma’s stories about them promised danger and thrills to anyone who ‘Traveled’ so far. But ‘Traveling’ required Magic. With a sigh, Noni gathered her long dark hair into a knot. She was stuck to the ground as surely as this hut.

            The breeze cooled the back of her neck. Although she gazed at the oaks, she was imagining ocean and dragons, with herself casting spells to tame each. No more hard work of lifting, bending or stretching to do the slightest thing. Instead, she would flick her fingers to harvest turnips and cabbages, to put supper on the table, to make dragons obey and oceans settle. She could be such a wise Mage, if only ….

            A sharp squeak drew her eyes to a pair of cradles, where two babies stirred. Strewn between her and the cradles were smidgens of bread, a ball of wool, several acorn caps and an oak leaf dried to a lacy outline.

            “You can’t possibly be hungry so soon,” she scolded Old Winesap’s grandniece, Aster, who squeaked again. “I just fed you that porridge. Now sit quietly while I take care of Betula.”  In her care, this morning, were these two, the strongest babies in the village; able to ‘Reach’ for toys, food, animals and even other children from an early age. To protect them, their cradles had been covered with ‘Wards’ soon after their births.

            Aster’s ‘Ward’ was made of delicate stems harvested under the Waking Moon and woven into willow leaf and cloud patterns. Betula’s was simpler, grass and fern fronds laced through a frame of branches. Noni preferred Betula’s sturdier ‘Ward’, for she always worried a leaf or cloud might snap off Aster’s. Aster’s short-tempered mother would hold back barterings if anything like that happened.

            Aster raised her arm, floating a piece of bread from the floor towards her basket, where it hit the ‘Ward’ and fell. The child screeched in frustration and ‘Reached’ again for the bit of bread. It bounced up and down several times between floor and ‘ward’ before finally disintegrating into crumbs, too small to be Magicked by anyone without a strong spell.

            “Oh, there you’ve done it, you wasteful child. That’s for the piglets, now,” Noni chided. “You must learn not to ‘Reach’ for everything you want.”  Aster looked ready to cry, but a crash and a long, skinny body falling through the doorway made the child’s eyes and mouth open wide.

            It was Twig, in another growing spurt that confused his feet and mind. Neither seemed able to keep up with what the other was planning. Noni noticed brown and green stains covering the front of his jersey. In his sand-colored hair, shorn just below his earlobes, two leaves stuck out, making him resemble a tufted owl. His leggings were patched at each knee and his bare feet showed scratches near his ankles. He frowned slightly as he picked at a clump of dried moss on his sleeve.

            “If someone would just teach me a ‘Scouring’ Spell or two,” he moaned, “I could fall all over the place and not worry.”

            “You do that already,” Noni joked. “Here.”  She handed him a rag and he scrubbed off what he could. But instead of placing the rag into her waiting hand, he released it into the room. Like a swallow soaring on a breeze, it gracefully sailed onto its hook next to the fruit baskets.

            “You’re just showing off,” Noni said, her voice tight and thin. “When did you master that spell?”

            Twig grinned, revealing a gap where his front teeth didn’t meet. “This morning, first thing, I’ve been practicing the ‘Reverse-Reach’ all week. Want to see it again?”

            “Not really.”  Noni turned back to her tasks. Twig was her best friend, but she couldn’t help wishing for the Magic he so easily controlled. All these seasons she’d watched him growing more and more skilled with spells, while she could brag of nothing but growing a little bit taller.

            There was one thing she could do, but she’d never mentioned it to Twig. Noni could read. Oma, her mother, called it ‘kenning’, and sometimes the ‘Old Knowing’. Noni had never heard anyone but Oma mention it, so she never spoke of it after Oma died. She worried others knowing about it would be the final thing separating her from the rest of the village. They would stop bringing their children to her. They might think her a witch.

            She was lucky that mothers trusted her with their infants. Without that, she’d have to beg for food. There was no other work she could do, for every other task in the village could be done with Magic. No one needed an extra hand and she would never be able to cast even the simplest of spells. Before dying, Oma had made that clear.

            She could remember the days when she imitated what other children did. Oma watched with thin lips, but never discouraged her. Noni would gesture towards a spoon or jump from the ladder’s lower rung, closing her eyes and hoping, “This time, it’ll work. This time I’ll cast the spell.”  She was eight before she stopped crying at each failure, ten before she stopped trying in front of others.

            Still not looking at Twig, Noni folded rags to use on the children's bottoms as she struggled with her feelings. As lightly as possible, she asked, "Where are Linden and Laure?  Don’t they usually follow you like your shadow?"  She forced a smile when she faced him.

            “I don’t know.”  Twig was twiddling his fingers to make the larger pieces of bread near Aster’s cradle do cartwheels around each other. “They’re probably off with Ma, practicing some cooking or sewing Spells or something. You know, girly stuff.”  The breadcrumbs moved in the Weaver Dance pattern, level with Twig’s shoulders. “The girls are getting pretty good at it. Won’t be long, now, before they ….”  He broke off after glancing at Noni. His hands stilled and the crumbs fell to the floor.

            Noni glared at him, one tight fist at her waist and the other pointing a long finger at his chin. “You. Are still. Showing. Off.”  The words came out softly but clearly and her pointing finger wagged to underline each of them.

            Twig’s eyes crossed as he focused on her fingertip.

            “Sixteen years old and still thinking about games. If you can’t be useful here,” Noni continued, “without using Magic, then go away.”  She turned back to her stack of rags and only heard Twig leave when he tripped again at the doorsill. “He’ll be impossible when he masters the ‘Traveling’ Spell,” she said out loud, almost hoping Twig would hear her. “No one’ll ever hear him coming or going.”

            A moment later, she regretted her quick temper and hard words. Magic was all Twig had. Because he has no affinity for bees, he could never hope to take over his mother’s hives. Any work with them always leaves him covered in welts. And, after all, it isn’t his fault I have no Magic skills.

            But whose fault was it?  Noni shuddered, trying again to free herself from the feelings that made her want to cry each time Twig learned a new Spell. Oma said kenning was her family’s birthright, passed from mother to daughter since that first Mage, Winter, had given kenning to Candleberry. If anyone was to blame, it was Winter. He gave everyone else Magic, but only kenning to Candleberry. Why?  Magic was so obviously the more valuable skill.

            Noni slammed a rag onto her table. For a moment she closed her eyes, fighting tears. When she was younger, Oma would patiently explain why kenning was better than Magic, but Oma’s reassurances could never erase her envy. Being able to ken and having Oma’s book did not fill the space in her chest that widened when others cast spells. Noni would happily trade kenning for the tiniest skill in Magic, to never feel the stares of everyone in Windrow. She knew they looked down on her. She knew they thought her family had done something terrible long ago.

            She took a deep breath and concentrated on the rag in front of her. Then, with eyes closed, she raised her right hand and chanted the Spell Twig had taught her long ago.

Oh come to me

This thing I want

I raise my hand

To call you nigh

She repeated it, and then again, but felt no soft brush of cloth against her fingers. Through barely opened eyes, she peeked at the cloth. It hadn’t stirred.

            With tight lips, Noni faced the infants. Toys, food and pottery were spread across the floor. Why could they cast ‘Reaching’ Spells before they could even speak?  She sighed as she bent to pick everything up. She truly loved the babies, but …. She didn’t let the thought continue.

            Later, as Betula and Aster slept, Noni sat in her doorway to watch the wind blow up dust from the path. In a patch of sun sat a barn-cat, flexing its paws. Sharp claws flashed and then disappeared. Noni wondered if dragons’ claws worked the same way.

            She thought of Twig and his growing Magical skills and felt admiration and jealousy battling each other in her heart. As she had done so often before, she swore to waste no more breath yearning for something she could never have. As Oma used to say, a wish and a wagon will take you to King’s Port.

            Old Winesap, one of the village elders, wandered by, muttering. His crooked cane-stick clicked against pebbles. Noni knew he could save his feet by ‘Traveling’, but he seemed to enjoy the sound of his cane-stick on the path. She was grateful that at least this one person didn’t zing by through the air, ‘Traveling’ as if already late for dinner.

            The old man stopped to stare at Noni. His gray eyes peered past his shambled hair and beard to study her face for a moment. Noni tried to smile. Then he moved on, scratching the top of his head with one hand as the other held the cane-stick, almost like a weapon. He seemed to attack the path with it.

            Two dames passed, gossiping about King Zollan’s new queen. Just three days earlier, the announcement of his second marriage had come by messenger, a young woman dressed in blue and gold. Children had gathered around the woman, like baby chicks around a mother hen. The messenger opened a box from which a clockwork pigeon leapt to squawk the words, “King Zollan XVIII takes pleasure in informing you that his new queen, Mirana, wishes joy to all.”  The dames passing Noni’s hut hissed about Mirana’s wedding gown, which reportedly had come from Sarony. “Everyone knows that Saronian weavers use only the cheapest and flimsiest of materials,” said one of the dames. “Our worst enemies. What kind of king would allow his queen to …?”

            The woman’s voice faded. Noni leaned her head against the doorframe and closed her eyes. The infants would sleep until late afternoon. All Windrow’s workers rested at this time of day, so no scythes whooshed through the grain stalks and no oven doors or pottery clattered in dwellings. It was quiet, just a few bird chirrups rising from the oak that shaded her from the warm sun. A fly whisked past her ear.

            Noni gently felt the square object in her pocket, the book of stories Oma had written down before Noni’s birth. Oma always said this book was to be her solace when she envied others’ Magic. She caressed the cover, remembering days of sitting with Oma and learning the ‘Old Knowing’ from it. It was stained from handling and the edges had begun to fray. Noni had read the book so often that she could recite each story from memory, but she had promised her mother she would never recite, only ken. But without Oma, it was hard for Noni to find comfort in her kenning.

            It was two years since Oma died and her mother’s last days were still vivid in Noni’s memory. “The ‘Old Knowing’ is precious, my girl,” Oma had gasped one evening, lying on the mattress in the loft. “You mustn’t lose it.”  The wasting fever that would soon kill her had taken her breath and strength and she strained at each word. “Our people were never Mages, not my grandmother, not my mother, not I. Not you, my daughter. But we always had the ‘Knowing’ and you have it, too.”  Oma closed her eyes, as if to concentrate on pulling air into weakened lungs. “You can capture the letters. Everyone else has forgotten you have it,” she whispered, “but they’ll remember, when they need you.”

            Before dying, Oma reminded Noni of another book, the most important one in the kingdom of Mitlery. “One day, you might ken that book, little Noni, like Candleberry does in my story. My stories will help you find it.”  She winced, held her breath against the pain and said no more. After sun-fall, while a Blood Moon wrestled with the branches of a leafless tree, Oma died as Noni slept next to her.

            The memory of waking to find her lifeless mother made Noni clutch the book in her pocket. She closed her eyes again to concentrate and saw herself two years earlier, sorting through cupboards and baskets. She couldn’t have said what she was looking for, but she searched through everything again and again, until Twig’s mother took her away. For many days, Noni huddled next to Twig’s hearth, Oma’s book always with her. When she returned to her lonely hut, she hid it in a crevice near her door, the reminder of her mother too sharp and painful. But soon, she had pulled it out, to ken her mother’s stories again, to keep her promise to Oma.

            Although she was only twelve when her mother had died, Noni stayed on alone in the hut. Her mother had tended the village children in exchange for food and cloth; Noni hoped to do the same. When a dame brought an infant for Noni, she agreed to watch it and soon there were other babies, as well.

            By now, the little book of stories was a comfortable weight in her pocket, a happy reminder of Oma, whose voice seemed to echo behind each word. She could touch its cover and still hear her mother kenning, “In the long ago, before Magic came to Mitlery….”

            “Noni,” Old Winesap’s nephew-wife stood on the path, tapping her leather-shod foot. She held a small bunch of vegetables and her narrow frame stood upright, as stiff and unbending as an old tree.

            Noni eyed the limp greens. But she forced a smile. “Yes, Dame. I hope you have not been waiting.” Noni quickly stood and brushed her shift over her knees. Dame Willowdale always made her feel dirty.

            “I’ve come for Aster,” announced the Dame, as though Noni were too stupid to know this. Noni had already gone inside for the baby, who was asleep and made no protest when lifted. When she took the vegetables, Noni tried not to scrunch her nose against the sour smell of greens too wilted for the Dame’s table.

            “Someone will bring Aster after Moon Time,” Dame Willowdale said brusquely, taking the child from Noni. Although still asleep in the Dame’s firm grip, Aster’s arms waved as though she were batting at humblebees.

            Noni watched the Dame stomp off towards her immaculate three-roomed house, its door carved with elaborate willow leaves of all varieties. Looking again at the greens in her hand, Noni envied the scullery at the Willowdale hearth, most likely stirring fresh onion tops, potatoes and some lamb into a pot of fragrant broth. She would willingly spend a day stirring that pot, in exchange for some of the stew. But for now, Noni would have to harvest some ferns in the copse. Cooked with her turnips and some thyme, it was a meal that would keep her from starving. With a grimace, she set the limp greens around her herbs, to keep the slugs away.

            When Betula’s sister came for her, the baby lay quietly in her cradle, chewing her toes. In exchange for tending this child, Noni received a loaf of bread and a lump of sheep’s cheese. She could smell the toasted oats and barley in the steam that rose from the bread.

            “My own Lucky Moon day.” she almost sang, grateful that Dame Ivy had remembered the Holiday. Noni danced into her hut, the bread and cheese held high. She placed her food in a basket and covered it, chanting ‘Lucky Moon Day’ softly to herself.

            Though they were sometimes days of hunger for her, Noni loved the Moon Time celebrations. This Moon Time, in honor of the Weavers Moon, was dedicated to flax weavers, whose celebrations often got noisy. The weavers liked to display their skills, ‘Ascending’ their looms above the flax fields whose blue flowers matched the color of all cloth woven during that month. The clacking of the treadles above everyone’s head made some villagers nervous. But no loom ever fell or failed to produce beautiful cloth, not even if its weaver had stepped into the tavern to hoist a draught of foaming barley ale. She had never missed a Weaver’s Moon festival; after her meal, she would go, even without Twig.

            Noni hid Oma’s book in her loft. Whether Holiday or Moon Time, it was safest to have empty pockets; too often, a young prankster had ‘Ascended’ and ‘Descended’ her and, later, she would find the smidgen in her pocket gone, her hard-earned meal wasted, forcing her to forage. Yet she didn’t mind these Moon Time jokes and even looked forward to being ‘Ascended’. Unless she climbed a tree or into her loft, it was the only chance her feet had to leave the ground.

            When she came down from the loft and looked out her doorway, Twig was facing her on the path. She hadn’t expected to see him again.

            “Your babies have all gone home, now, eh?” he asked. He was nervously working a rope that floated in front of him, controlling the ends with his index fingers.

            Noni could see he was attempting a Saron’s Hat knot but with little success. It began to look like a jumble of writhing snakes. Twig seemed to give up and the rope straightened, coiled itself neatly and slipped into his pocket.

            “Still no twins?” Noni asked. She’d rarely seen Twig without his two younger sisters framing him.

            “No. They’re busy yet, I suppose. ‘Um,” Twig paused to pull something out of his pocket. “Ma gave me a pasty for supper. Do you want some?”  He brushed some lint off the browned and flaking pastry.

            Noni thought he was apologizing for showing off earlier, so she smiled a return apology for her cutting remark. She knew words weren’t needed between them. “Yes, I can smell it from here.”  Still smiling, she stepped through her doorway, “Mutton?”

            “And turnips.”  Twig carefully broke the meat-filled pastry into two pieces and offered the larger half to Noni, but he made no protest when she took the smaller one. They sat under the oak and ate quietly, their eyes watching the sky above the flax field.

            “Is that …?” Twig asked suddenly, craning his neck to look towards the fields, above which a flock of pigeons swarmed up and then towards the Market Square. “No, I thought it might be one of the looms already ‘Ascended’, but not yet.”  He relaxed against the tree, his bent knees straining against the patches in his leggings.

            “Were you helping your mother today?” Noni asked, eyeing some red welts on Twig’s hands.

            “Oh, you noticed,” he responded, hiding them between his knees. “Yes, before sun-return. She wanted more honeycomb for Market. I hate those bees. Wish Ma would let me use Magic, but she says weak Magic makes the honey taste bad. I have to learn new spells for that.”  He raised his shoulders, as if to protect his neck from a swarm of insects.

            Noni, who had just eaten the last bite of her pastry, felt Twig’s eyes on her, but ignored him. She knew what he was going to ask next, because he asked it every holiday. She knew he wanted to help her, yet every time he asked, it hurt just a bit more. He didn’t know she still tried to ‘Reach’, still hoped for some Magic; still shed tears after each failed attempt. She stiffened, as if preparing for attack.

            Twig pulled at grass blades, uprooting several shoots. “Do you want to try doing some Magic today?  Ma says the holiday might make it easier for you.”

            “Twig, you’ve asked me that every holiday for the past I-don’t-know-how-long, and I keep telling you. I simply cannot do Magic. I don’t have the skill.”  She shook her head, guilt mixing with self-pity. Hadn’t she just tried it this morning?  Hadn’t she just failed again to cast a spell?  Why did she keep trying?  And why couldn’t she tell Twig how much she wanted to be like him?  At that moment, she wanted to rip up Oma’s book and feed the shreds to Betula’s goat.

            “But it’s so strange,” Twig protested. “You’re the only one in the village. Even the babies you take care of ….”

            “My mother couldn’t do it, my grandmother couldn’t do it. The women in my family have never been Mages.”  Noni’s fists clenched tighter at every word and she wanted to punch something with them. She stood to tower over Twig, one fist aimed at his head. All those pointless attempts, all that time wasted wanting something she could never have. She missed Oma so much. Frustration and loneliness exploded in her chest. She hated the look of pity on his face. With Magic so important to her friend, she had never told him about kenning. He would laugh at her and then give her that sad face again.

            “We never will be Mages,” she almost shouted, “so just stop asking me. And thanks for the pasty, but I have to go in now.”  She turned towards her door, but Twig caught her hand.

            “But the festival,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Aren’t you going?”

            The smile that had been in Twig’s voice was gone and Noni felt responsible. She paused, her back to Twig. Every festival was thrilling, with sounds, sights and smells to shake everyone into a happy mood. Traders came from Wintersett and as far away as King’s Port to hawk their foods, woven cloths and ironwork. Going with her mother was one of Noni’s favorite memories. Oma had stories about every village and every craft, and she would whisper them to Noni as they walked through the crowds, looking at oddities and wondering where they were from.

            Twig pleaded again, “Come to the festival, please.”

            She turned back to look at Twig. “I don’t know,” she said, her anger wavering. “I’m … I’m busy. I have to …, I have to clean. It’s a mess in there.”

            “But, I can help you,” Twig offered eagerly. “Only one room, how long can it take?  Then we can go.”

            A movement over the flax field caught Noni’s eye and she watched a large loom slowly ‘Ascend’ and begin to twirl high above. A short section of bright blue cloth was already completed; light from the lowering sun turned it purple. She heard the sound of the loom’s treadle and she caught her breath.

            In the past few weeks, as Twig’s Magic skills had expanded, it had become more difficult for her to spend time with him. In fact, when she recalled her loneliness since Oma’s death, she realized that she’d been avoiding nearly everyone in the village. Then she looked at his face again. There it was. He was feeling sorry for her. She shook herself again and finally decided.

            “Never.”  She took a breath to pull in her anger and when it was locked in her chest, she spoke more quietly. “Twig, I don’t want to. You go without me. I’m too tired. Tell me about it tomorrow.”  Without looking at him, she walked into her hut. Leaning against the wall, her eyes squeezed shut, she heard him calling. With one hand pressed to her chest, she wiped tears from her face with the other.