Jerry Windley-Daoust

Feb 222014
 

Jonah didn’t know exactly what he expected to see when he stepped from the elevator, but he had a vague sense that it would be something mysterious and otherworldly. A wide-open space full of fog, mist, and lots of whites and light grays, maybe. Somber chant or choral music sung by unseen beings, that sort of thing. Or perhaps green pastures, bubbling brooks, and rainbows in a blue sky . . . the My Little Pony afterlife.

To read Angeling from the beginning, see the table of contents at the Angeling book page.

Which is why he was so shocked by the scene that actually greeted him.

“A mall? Really?” he asked incredulously as his grandfather stepped up beside him. “All that for a shopping mall?”

The elevator dinged as its doors rattled shut behind them.

Indeed, Jonah and his grandfather found themselves standing at the edge of a wide, curved concourse crowded with people of every possible description. The shoppers strolled by carrying bags and packages, glancing curiously at the stores lining the outside wall of the concourse; some sipped drinks, or carried fried food in small cardboard trays. Others lounged against the railing that ran along the inside curve of the concourse, looking out over a vast atrium that echoed with the noise of other shoppers elsewhere in the mall.

The scene could have taken place in any of the malls from back home, except that something felt different about this place . . . like the beefy guy in sunglasses and a t-shirt that read: i went to the realm of the dead and all i got was this lousy t-shirt. (Ironically, he was carrying several very full shopping bags.)

Jonah slowly circled in place, gaping at the storefronts that lined the wall alongside the elevator: Casket&Burial, Pandora’s Boxers, Bed and Bath for the Way Beyond. A blue information kiosk not only displayed a map and store directory on its huge video screen, but the full-size image of a guy in a white tuxedo singing a bluesy tune: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” he crooned.

Cute, thought Jonah. Real cute.

“Not what you expected, huh?” Grandpa Zograffos asked.

“I didn’t expect heaven to be a mall.”

“Heaven? This isn’t heaven, much less Home, which is a better name for it. Wait—what were you expecting heaven to be, anyway?”

Jonah had never really thought about it before. His only ideas about heaven came from television or online. “I don’t know. Fat babies flying through clouds with little golden harps, maybe?”

Angeling SunflowerThat got a snort of laughter. “You do have a small idea of heaven! Well, so did I. But since arriving Home, I’ve catalogued four hundred and ninety different names for it. For instance: The Ultimate Desire of Lovers, Fulfilled to Overflowing; The Splendor of the Truth; The Long Ascent to the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility; The Fountain of Creation; Playground of Artists. . . .”

“Okay—”

“I’m not finished. Some of the most ancient of the Aeloién refer to it as The Empyrean Eternal; others call it The Dormitory of the Beautiful Song, or The Majestic Threefold Seat of Being. Your grandmother sometimes calls it The Wedding Feast of the One Who Ate Death for the Sake of His Bride—a little over the top, but that’s your grandmother; she’s always been a romantic. It’s been called the Festival of the Illuminated Souls, the Littlest Hazelnut, the Great Lake of Beer—ha!”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Jonah said, waving his hands.

“The place can’t be contained by any single name. In fact, it’s more than a place, which is why Home is the simplest and best name for it.”

“But if this isn’t heaven, what is it?”

“See for yourself,” Grandpa Zograffos said, pointing to the lighted sign above the information kiosk: Welcome to the Have It All Mall. You are on level: 41.

The man in the tuxedo quit singing, letting an unseen piano and bass carry on with long, lazy riffs. “Well, who do we have here?” he said.

“This is Mr. Jonah Phinneas Wilder, lately of blood and bone but now awakening to the Light,” Grandpa Zograffos said, clapping Jonah on the back. “He’s new.”

“New, huh? Well, welcome, kid—welcome to the Have It All Mall.” From his black, gelled-up hair to his polished, black leather shoes, the singer was the picture of suave, Frank Sinatra style. “I’m Mel Morendo, certified G.P.S. agent. Gentle Prodding for Souls . . . getting souls where they need to go. Also, aspiring Broadway singer. Speaking of which, we’ve got a little song to welcome you on board.” He looked off-screen. “Okay, guys, let’s roll out the red carpet for the kid here.”

Jonah leaned over to Grandpa Zograffos. “He’s not going to sing to me, is he?” His mom had once brought him to a restaurant on his birthday, and the entire staff had come out singing to him. When he turned eighteen, he planned to sue the restaurant for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m afraid so,” Grandpa Zograffos whispered back. “It’s kind of a tradition.”

Sure enough, the off-screen band began playing bright, jazzy notes on a piano, with a snare drum, cymbals, and bass setting the beat lightly in the background. Mel began snapping his fingers, and after a few bars, began singing:

Everybody wants to go to heaven
but don’t nobody want to die,
so they aim a little lower,
don’t set their hopes too high.

Well, if heaven seems a little too pricey
and your heart feels a little bit small,
then you’ve come to the right place, my friend—
welcome to the Have It All Mall!

By now, the band and a trio of backup singers had floated into view behind Mel; they improvised an instrumental bridge while Mel snapped his fingers and did a little dance across the map of the mall. A few shoppers who had gathered to watch broke into applause.

“Okay, well that was great—” Jonah said, hoping the show was over.

“Shh!” hissed a handsome man in a dark suit and red tie. “My line’s coming up.”

“Your line? You’re not going to sing too, are you?”

“Second verse, people!” Mel called.

Welcome to the Have It All Mall!

Whatever your heart’s desire,
whatever your wants or wishes,
it’s here for you to acquire—
from aardvarks to zebra fishes!

Now cash don’t pass beyond death’s door
but don’t worry ’bout having no money;
it’s stories they want at every store,
whether tragic or dramatic
or just plain funny.

Hey, people, tell the kid what’s what—
come on, people, tell us what you got!

Different people in the crowd (which was really grooving now) began singing out in response: a woman whose shopping carts looked like she’d just robbed a library, a glamorous magazine-cover model, the red tie man, a handful of teens.

“I’d always wanted a thousand books!”

“Hey, my face is suddenly all good looks!”

“People finally back my ideology!”

“I got an A in advanced biology!”

“See how well I can dance?”

“At last I’ve found true romance!”

“Yeah, but do you have the latest Nintendo?”

“How ’bout a kiss from Mr. Mel Morendo?”

This last line came from one of the backup singers; she pouted when Mel shook his head dolefully, making the crowd laugh. But then he put an arm around her shoulders and sang consolingly: “You’ll always be my friend, though!”

Then he swung around and pointed at one of the trumpet players, who stepped forward for a solo. When the trumpeter finished, everyone cheered, and Mel turned to the crowd and called, “Big finish, now!”

Now what you want is just what you get,
so be sure you want enough;
’cause your heart’s one tricky shopping cart—
you can’t fill it with any old stuff.

So kid, listen close
if you don’t want to be no ghost:
don’t settle for a heart that’s small!
You’ve got to aspire
to move higher and higher—
you gotta heed that Homeward call.

’Cause your heart wants more
than it can find at any store
in this whole entire Mall;
so don’t give it nothing less
than everything—
come on and have it all!

Yeah, your credit line’s unlimited!
Get the best prices of the fall!
Come Home and we’ll throw a party—
come Home and have it all!

The whole crowd sang along, lifting their hands in the air for the big finish.

And then the song was (finally) over. The shoppers gathered their things and dispersed, and the musicians began packing up and drifting off screen.

Mel pulled a white silk handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. “Well, kid, what did you think?”

“I think that if one more person breaks into song, I’ll take it as proof that this is actually hell.”

Mel scowled. “Some people just don’t appreciate musical theater. But hey, don’t let that stop you from asking me for directions—don’t want you getting lost.”

“Come on, Jonah—I want to show you something,” Grandpa Zograffos said, taking Jonah by the elbow and steering him toward the railing. “Thanks, Mel—fantastic as always.”

“You think so?”

“Sure! You should head upmall. We have music in spades back Home, you know.”

Mel waved him away. “Nah. People need me here.”

Grandpa Zograffos waved back. “I think he just likes having his own one-man show,” he murmured to Jonah as they arrived at the railing.

The view from the railing was impressive; this wasn’t some sprawling suburban mall; this was a mall packed into a skyscraper. The levels rose in a long spiral around the atrium, a colorful festival of stores and cafés and kiosks and food courts and entertainment venues. The spiral converged as it rose, each level slightly smaller than the one below. Looking directly across the open space, Jonah couldn’t quite make out the names of the shops on the far side.

Rising through the middle of the atrium was what at first looked like a bright pillar of glass; but then Jonah saw that it was moving—a column of water rushing upward, illuminated from above and undulating lazily from side to side, more like a river . . . a river that, having gotten tired of lying around in its banks, had decided to stand up and take a look around. As he stared at it, he could see dark shapes—large fish, or dolphins?—shooting up through the water.

“What is that?” he asked Grandpa Zograffos.

“That’s the Fountain of Awakening. You can see the lower pool way, way down there, in the Food Court of Last Resort, and it reaches all the way to the upper pool, which you can’t quite see from here. ”

Grandpa Zograffos craned his neck to look upward, and Jonah followed his gaze; the glimmering Fountain rose up and up through the center of the Mall for hundreds of levels,  finally disappearing into a bright, far-off light. Even at this distance, Jonah knew it was the same Light he had turned away from before: he could feel its warmth, and the way it tugged at something inside of him; and even at this distance, he couldn’t look directly into it, for fear of drowning in its flood.

“See those people there?” Grandpa Zograffos asked, pointing at some of the shapes that Jonah had noticed in the Fountain before.

“Those are people?”

“Yeah. Newly deceased people—or newly awakened, is the way we think of them on this side. If your shadowling hadn’t gotten the better of you, you’d have passed the same way. Anyway, they’ll come out at the upper pool, in the middle of the Garden, which is the front lawn, so to speak, of our Home.”

Jonah watched the people moving so easily through the Fountain, and felt a twinge of regret that he’d turned away. If he really had to walk all the way Home, it was going to take forever.

“So, do we really need to get directions?” he asked. “Mel mentioned getting lost, but I don’t see how; it looks like the whole place goes around and around in one long spiral.”

Grandpa Zograffos nodded. “You won’t get lost as long as you stick to the concourse. Where people get lost is in the stores. They walk into a store, find whatever small things they spent their whole lives wanting, and think they’re Home. They end up hanging out someplace small when they could have it all.”

“So, stay out of the stores?”

Grandpa Zograffos shook his head. “No, you might find something you need for your Clarification inside the stores. So go ahead and explore the stores, if you feel so moved; just don’t stay so long that you ghost out.”

Before Jonah could ask more questions, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a harp.

“Ah, that’s me,” Grandpa Zograffos said, patting the many pockets covering his overalls. “I set the ringtone to Liszt’s Third Consolation for Harp in honor of your small idea of heaven.”

“You have a cell phone?” Jonah asked. “What do you need a cell phone for? Can’t you just, you know, use telepathy or something?”

That was his SciFi channel experience coming in handy again.

“You’re right. You don’t need a cell phone once you’re Home, but this is all being translated for you, remember? Besides, with unlimited ring tones, who wouldn’t want a cell phone? You should hear Beethoven’s latest Symphony for Cells. Magnificent!”

Grandpa Zograffos was pulling an astonishing assortment of items out of his pockets and placing them on a bench by the railing: a wide paintbrush, a harmonica, a pack of gum, several fishing lures, a calculator, a protractor, packets of seeds, aviator goggles, a bunch of colorful handkerchiefs. . . . “Here it is,” he said finally, producing an ultra-thin silver phone. He held up a “just one moment” finger as he answered.

“Cosmas Zograffos here. Hey, Gregor . . . yeah, I got pulled off that to go meet my grandson at the Avenue of Awakenings, but there was a slight hiccup . . . yeah, that. . . .”

Who is it? Jonah mouthed. He had no idea who “Gregor” was, but the interruption was a little annoying. It just seemed like whatever it was couldn’t possibly be more important than Jonah’s death—or awakening, or whatever—which he was itching to get on with.

He stared at the creepy shadowling under his feet, then jumped up and stomped down on it, but the thing wouldn’t be provoked into revealing itself as anything other than an ordinary shadow. Glancing around, Jonah noticed that with the exception of his grandfather, every other person in the Mall was similarly shadowed.

Something that Gregor said made Grandpa Zograffos’s face light up. “Really? Wow, I’d be honored. Yeah. I have a couple other things to take care of first, but I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Another long pause as Grandpa Zograffos listened.

“Yeah, yeah. Hey, don’t let the pigeon eat the peas. Ha, ha! Okay . . . all right . . . goodbye!”

“Who was that?” Jonah asked as soon as his grandfather had ended the call.

“That was Gregor Mendel—the Gregor Mendel. You know, the nineteenth-century German monk who figured out the basic principles of genetic inheritance. Now he’s the emerging life forms project manager for the latest universe to come online.” Grandpa Zograffos beamed happily. He lowered his voice. “He’s commissioning me to do a fish.”

Jonah stared at his grandfather for a long moment as all of that sank in. “Gregor Mendel wants you to ‘do a fish’?”

“Yes! Said he’d always admired my house painting, and of course you know how much I love fishing. Gregor put two and two together, and—voilà! The fish gig is mine.” He winked. “So to speak. Hope I don’t mess it up, though. It would be pretty embarrassing if it went straight to extinction, wouldn’t it?”

“I guess,” Jonah said, although he had no idea, since he had no previous experience launching a new species.

Grandpa Zograffos sat down on the bench and picked up an army dog tag, letting the small chain run through his fingers as he looked over all the rest of the stuff he’d dumped out of his pockets. “Every time someone calls me, I end up with a mess!”

Jonah sat down next to him. “Grandpa, where’d you get all this stuff?”

“Here and there. They’re scraps of memories, really.” He picked up a ball of purple yarn. “What’s this remind you of?”

“Grandma’s knitting yarn?”

“That’s right. Reminds me of sitting on the green couch watching TV after the dishes were done. You could tell when there was a good part, because the needles would stop clicking.”

The yarn disappeared into a pocket. Then Grandpa Zograffos picked up a paintbrush and waggled it in the air as if he were painting a wall. “This one’s pretty obvious. Nothing beats a high-quality polyester-nylon sashed brush for tight work. Do you know how many houses I touched with a paintbrush over thirty-two years? I never kept track during my blood-and-bone days, but after my awakening I looked it up: six hundred and fifty-two.”

“That’s a lot of houses.”

“Seemed like more. Not bad work, though. I used to grumble about the weather and the wasps, but on a good day, it was like playing with light. You paint the side of a house red, and you’ve changed more than that one wall; you’ve changed the entire landscape. The garden, the giant oak in the backyard, the faces of people looking out the window, the cars passing by with that streak of red reflected in their windows. Even the sky looks just a little different, next to that red wall.”

Jonah picked up a few of the fishing lures—a silver spoon, and a black-and-silver minnow. “I remember these,” he said, thinking of childhood fishing trips with his grandfather.

“You always wanted to use the silver spoon—against my advice.”

“I liked the way it flashed in the water.”

“And then,” Grandpa Zograffos said, chuckling at the memory, “you actually caught something on it, which amazes me to this day—a big old muskie—and I can’t net it because you’re standing on the darn net!” He laughed. “And after the line broke, you looked at me and you said, ‘Well, what now?’ Leave it to a seven-year-old! ‘What now?’ Well, son, nothing now—the darn fish got away!” He laughed some more.

Jonah laughed, too. It was cool, hanging out with his grandfather like this. He’d never had such an easy-going conversation like this with any adult, not even his mom. Maybe it had something to do with being dead.

His grandfather picked up a packet of sunflower seeds. “Now, these—I used to plant sunflowers in the backyard for your mom, when she was little. I’d plant them in a square, see, and if everything worked out—meaning if the deer didn’t eat the plants—by late summer she’d have a little hideaway. Her sunflower house.” He deposited the seeds in a side pocket.

“She never told me about that.”

“Well, your mother is a busy woman. She has a lot on her mind.” He cleared his throat and returned to his task of clearing the bench, quickly pocketing a compass and a pack of cards and an empty medicine bottle. “Speaking of which, I want to go check on your mother before I get started on Gregor’s little ichthyological project. And you need to get going on your journey Home.”

Jonah started. “Wait—I’m going alone?”

Grandpa Zograffos shook his head. “There’s no such thing as ‘alone,’ Jonah, unless you believe the lies of the Shadow.”

“But you’re not going with me.”

“Nope. It’s a rule.” A pair of binoculars, a set of keys, and a wedding band found their way into Grandpa Zograffos’s pockets, and he pointed at a sign posted prominently on the information kiosk: Guardians may not accompany newly awakened souls beyond this point. Thank you for your cooperation. A smaller sign below it read: Warning! Please do not feed the Shadow. “The many circles of the Mall are designed to aid your Clarification; you don’t need my help. I’d only be in the way. You’d always be asking me questions whose answers only you can provide.”

“You keep talking about Clarification—what is that, anyway?” Jonah asked.

“See—another question! All right, don’t scowl; I’m only kidding. Look, Clarification is nothing more than becoming clear, so the Light can pass through you. It’s about sifting through what good things you can hold onto, and what dark things you must release. Once you decide to let the Light pass through you, there will be no place for your shadowling to hide, and it will drown. It’s like Mel said; you need to figure out what you want. Do you want to live in Light or Shadow?”

“Like that’s a hard choice.”

“Really? Well, if the choice is so simple, then why did you turn away from the Light? And why don’t you fall into it now? You could throw yourself into the Fountain this very moment, you know. It’d carry you straight Home, zippity-zip.”

Jonah looked over the railing and licked his lips; it was a long way down, if he fell.

“You see?” Grandpa Zograffos said. “You’re still Shadow-bound. It’s true that you want the Light—you wouldn’t be here otherwise; you’d be in the belly of the dark beast. And yet you can’t quite bring yourself to kill your shadowling. You’re Shadow-haunted and Shadow-hunted, like everyone here. And I could tell you right now exactly why you hold tight to your shadowling, Jonah Phinneas Wilder, because I can see right through you.” The Light in his eyes sparked and flared. “But would it do you any good? No. You’re the one who has to bring your shadowling into the Light, so you can see it for what it is, and seeing it for what it is, let it drown. And for that to happen, I need to get out of the way.”

Jonah looked out over the railing at the crowds of people—small dots, at this distance—making their slow progress along the Mall’s many wide circles. Too bad there weren’t any escalators. Oh yeah, the Fountain’s the escalator—right. He sighed. It was looking to be a long walk. Okay. Whatever. “Grandpa, like I told you, all I want right now is to go home, my home,” he said. “Or, if I have to die, I want to somehow let my mom know I’m all right.”

Grandpa Zograffos nodded. “That’s not a bad way to start, following the things you love from your blood-and-bone days. The love of smaller things may be the seed for something more.” He picked up a lone sunflower seed from the bench and held it out to Jonah, who took it in the palm of his hand. “Here—take this. You can plant it in the Garden when you get Home.”

Jonah fingered the seed, nothing more than a tiny, gray promise of a sunflower, and slipped it into his jeans pocket.

His grandfather held up a single finger. “But wait! There’s more!” He reached into his overalls and produced a golden cell phone similar to his own. “You’ve always wanted a smart phone, right? Well, this is as smart as they come. It’s genius. You can use it to call me or anyone in your contacts list. And if it’s a Shadow emergency, dial ‘zero’ for Soul Support, and they’ll dispatch help.” He handed it to Jonah.

Jonah smiled in surprise, holding the device in his hands. “Thanks, Grandpa,” he said, with genuine gratitude; it made him feel a little bit better about being on his own. He turned the phone over, looking for the power button. It was the size of an ordinary phone, but as thin and light as a credit card, and its smooth golden surface was completely featureless.

“Try imagining a power button, Jonah, and press that.”

Jonah pressed the middle of the phone and the blank surface lit up. Three white, interlocking circles appeared on the screen above the words Welcome to Yarper.

He looked up. “What’s Yarper?”

“Yarper is the universal communications network; everyone uses it around here. So do a few blood-and-bones folk.”

The logo disappeared, replaced by a screen with familiar-looking cell phone options—all part of the translation, Jonah guessed. He clicked on Favorites and the screen filled with little profile pictures: his grandfather, his grandmother, a bunch of people he didn’t recognize—and a horse.

“Um. Grandpa? There’s a horse listed in my contacts?”

“Oh yeah—don’t you recognize Iridius? The angel-horse that carried us on our flight from your shadowling? I suppose you were never properly introduced, we were in such a hurry. Iridius a’ Laamenhi Ocoar’en is one of the family of angels known as the Fenfallini, and he is a good friend of ours.”

Jonah snorted and shook his head in wonder.  “Right, the angel-horse,” he said. “I should have known that angels came in different species.”

“The kinds of angels are endless,” Grandpa Zograffos said, his face brightening. “Besides the Fenfallini, there’s Aeloién, Felox Fera, and Tahn; the little Khy-Jo and the great songmasters, the Whisselfaar. And may all of them watch over you, Jonah, on your journey; and may you hear their song of welcome very soon. I think it’s time for me to fly now.”

And then he spread his arms wide, and to his surprise, Jonah found himself moving easily into his grandfather’s embrace. His pre-accident self would have been downright squirmy, but now he just sighed deeply and soaked up the warmth and strength radiating from his grandfather.

Grandpa Zograffos stepped back and looked at Jonah with kind eyes. “I’ll see you at Home, okay?”

Jonah looked back into those eyes—those blue eyes, dancing with Light—and he could sense that it had made a bridge between them. They were connected, somehow, more deeply than they had been before. Maybe it was true, what his grandfather had said about going Home bringing you closer to the people you loved, rather than farther away.

It took his breath away, so he didn’t say “okay,” but only nodded in reply to his grandfather.

“Now, I’ve been practicing my take-off,” Grandpa Zograffos said, backing away from the railing and rubbing his hands together. “A little room here, please!” he called out, and the passing shoppers made a path for him. Some stopped to watch.

“All right, Jonah. Remember what I said about the Fountain being the quickest way Home? Well, watch and learn.” He turned to the small crowd that had gathered. “Folks, do try this at Home,” he joked, and a few people chuckled. “See what you think of this.”

He ran forward and threw himself into a cartwheel, and another cartwheel followed by a couple of backflips. He was headed straight toward the railing, but he did a handspring off the bench that sent him spinning over it, arcing head-over-heels through empty space; and then he began to fall—

—until the illuminated river that flowed up through the atrium shifted course and caught him, and he plunged through its surface with a splash that showered Jonah good.

The crowd applauded, and Jonah couldn’t help laughing in amazement. As Grandpa Zograffos rose in the Fountain, he shouted, “Ha! Not bad for a guy who died falling off a roof!”

Jonah waved, watching his grandfather grow smaller and smaller, until he finally lost sight of him where the bright water melted into the far-off Light.

Did you like this preview chapter of Angeling? Share it on your social network using the buttons below. This chapter is a work in progress; your constructive comments are more than welcome. See the Angeling book page for more chapters as they are released, or sign up to receive Angeling chapters and book release news by e-mail.
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P.S. Yes, the basic inspiration for the Have It All Mall is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. And the Broadway musical scene is inspired by….

 

 February 22, 2014  No Responses »
Feb 052014
 

The instant Jonah let go of his grandfather’s hand, his shadow jerked him backward, hard—like a parachute suddenly braking a skydiver’s fall, but in reverse.

Okay, that was a bad move, he thought.

To read Angeling from the beginning, see the table of contents at the Angeling book page.

Instead of rising toward the Light, Jonah found himself being dragged down, swallowed by his shadow. Everything in him screamed to breathe, but there was no air, only a suffocating coldness. He had wanted to save his shadow-self; instead, he was drowning with it, and he had the sickening thought that this, finally, was what it was like to die.

He was shocked, then, when the enveloping darkness shattered in a rush of splashing water and air and light—a dimmer light than the Light he had just left, but bright enough to flood Jonah with relief, and hope. He gasped and coughed and shook the water from his face. More water rained down on his head. He looked up and saw an enormous angel pouring water on him from its cupped hands—or the statue of an angel, he realized with relief; it was the centerpiece of the fountain in which Jonah found himself floating.

angel sculpture

And the fountain stood in the middle of the lobby of Aventa Regional Hospital, at least according to the big sign on the wall.

Before he could even begin to make sense of that, though, his grandfather shot out of the water right in front of him in a great whoosh, just like when they used to go swimming at his lake cabin.

“There you are,” Grandpa Zograffos said. “You decided to take the scenic route?”

“I’m sorry! I know that was a stupid thing to do—”

“I wouldn’t call it stupid,” his grandfather said, using a hand to wipe his face as he tread water. “Scramble-brained, reckless, muckled, mole-sighted, and stupid is more like it.”

“You said you wouldn’t call it stupid.”

“On further consideration, I changed my mind.”

“Grandpa, you’re the one who fell off a roof trying to get a badminton shuttle!”

His grandfather squinted at him. “You think that was stupid? You shoulda seen some of the things I did when I was your age. Amazing I lived long enough to fall off that roof.”

People were passing through the lobby without giving Jonah and his grandfather a second glance, as if they were figures in a dream.

“I’m dead, right?” Jonah asked, watching a woman walk right past them with a couple of little kids. Maybe the woman ignored Jonah and his grandfather out of politeness, but surely the little kids would have at least turned to look. “None of these people can see us, can they? But I can still see you, and I know you’re dead. Are we ghosts, or what?”

Grandpa Zograffos just snorted and made his way to the edge of the pool, where he pulled himself onto the low, octagon-shaped wall. He moved as easily as a kid, and kind of looked like one, too, in his bare feet. Jonah followed. His sopping wet clothes left a large puddle on the floor; his grandfather, by contrast, sat there in his painter’s clothes as dry and composed as if he’d just stepped out of an air-conditioned limo.

“Death wears many masks,” his grandfather said cheerfully. “Some of the people walking around here are more dead, in their own way, than both of us combined.”

“Grandpa, you know what I mean!”

“You mean are you dead enough for tax purposes? Show me your bellybutton.”

“What?”

“Your bellybutton—you know, that funny little giblet down around your middle.”

“The SciFi channel didn’t mention anything about bellybuttons during its in-depth report on near-death experiences,” Jonah muttered as he stood and lifted his t-shirt.

Grandpa Zograffos peered at his stomach. “If you’re relying on the SciFi channel as your authority on the afterlife, then you’re in for a few surprises. Hmm. What do you know? You have a bellybutton.”

Jonah served up his best Well, Duh! look and dropped his shirt.

Grandpa Zograffos rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, that’s a mystery.”

“What?”

“Why do you have a bellybutton? Obviously you died, or I wouldn’t have been sent to bring you Home. But dead people don’t wear bellybuttons.”

“Okay, I’m afraid to ask, but why not?”

“Bellybuttons are a mark of blood-and-bones birth; after your blood-and-bones body dies, your soul is embodied by Light or Shadow, so no bellybutton.”

“So I’m not dead?” Jonah asked. He moved into the path of a young woman and raised his hand for her to stop, but she stared through him impassively and never broke her stride. He stepped out of her way at the last second, not quite ready to test the whole passing-through-people thing.

“If you weren’t dead, you’d be suited up in your battered old body, not wandering around some hospital lobby. That’s the mystery.” He looked at Jonah intently. “But a more pressing question is: Why did you turn back toward your shadowling?”

Jonah stared at him for a moment. “Why did I turn back toward my shadowling?” He looked away. “I don’t know why.”

He had thought he knew, at the time; he had thought he was saving the fighter in himself. When he was younger, he spent the ride to school imagining that he was wearing a robotic exoskeleton, like in the Iron Man movies. He imagined it being jet black, because nothing says, “I’ve got a grudge against the world, but squashing you just might make me feel better” like black. He didn’t pretend that sort of thing anymore, though, maybe because he didn’t need to pretend. Maybe that Iron Man exoskeleton had become a part of him. And when he had looked into the eyes of his shadowling, he had thought that the strongest part of him would be destroyed if he let go of it.

But now that explanation seemed as empty as the ashy form of his shadowling, so he didn’t say anything about it.

His grandfather placed a hand gently on Jonah’s shoulder and drew him closer, close enough to look straight into his eyes.

“This matters, Jonah,” he whispered, and Jonah thought he saw something of the Light dancing in his eyes. “This is important. Do you know why?”

Jonah shook his head.

His grandfather spoke as if secretly into his ear. “Because you can’t go Home still attached to your shadowling. You have to let it go. You have to drown the thing, before it drowns you.”

Jonah considered that for a moment before whispering back. “Um, I thought I already did,” he said, tilting his head toward the fountain. “Isn’t it—back there?”

His grandfather slowly shook his head. “You ever heard of a ghost with a shadow?”

“What do you mean?” Jonah asked, but then he followed his grandfather’s gaze. The shadowling was right there in plain sight, attached to his feet as if it were any ordinary shadow. But once spotted, it shrunk, pulling itself into the smallest possible puddle of gray under Jonah’s feet.

Jonah shivered. It was worse than finding a leech stuck to your leg.

“Okay,” he said in a low voice, trying to stay calm. “Okay. What do I do to get rid of it?”

His grandfather squeezed Jonah’s shoulder. “Well,” he said, “the fountain would be quickest, but I’m afraid if we go back that way, your shadowling might try drowning you again. Which is why it would be good to figure out why you couldn’t let it go. Fortunately, I know just the place to do that. It’s a bit of a detour, but it’s also probably your best shot at getting Home. And we should leave now, before that shadowling of yours gets any funny ideas. You’re in danger until that thing is good and drowned.”

He stopped and followed Jonah’s gaze, which had been drawn to a woman hurrying through the lobby, her long black coat and long black hair flying out behind her. She was moving in a sort of limping jog, hobbled by her high heels.

Jonah’s mouth hung open. “Mom,” he said as she strode by, oblivious to his presence. “Mom! MOM!”

“Speaking of the trickery of your shadowling,” Grandpa Zograffos groaned. “That explains why it spit you out here. Jonah, she can’t see or hear you—”

But Jonah was already following her, dodging around people as best he could, considering they couldn’t see him. The way he moved felt so natural, it was hard to believe he was dead. He looked down and saw hands and legs that looked real—he even had on sneakers, the same ones he had been wearing at the time of the accident.

When he glanced up again, he was looking right into the face of a pudgy-nosed, squinty-eyed man. Jonah yelped in surprise as he and the man passed through one another. There was a slight tug, and then it was over, except for a faint odor of cigarettes, garlic, and gorgonzola cheese.

Eww, Jonah thought, and then he spotted his mother talking to someone at the reception desk.

“And you are—?” the receptionist was asking.

“I’m his mother,” his mother answered in her snappy I’m-Losing-My-Patience voice.

“Sorry, I meant your name, ma’am. I just need to collect some information for insurance purposes.”

His mother spelled out her name, Catherine Joy Zograffos, spitting out the letters faster than the woman could type. Her face was a tight mask, her lips pressed tight.

Jonah approached to within an arm’s length of his mother. He wanted to touch her, to reassure her with his presence; better yet, he wanted her to reassure him, like she used to do when he was little. But he didn’t even try; he knew his hand would just pass through her arm. He was still a little grossed out about walking through the smelly man.

“Jonah.”

He turned. There was his grandfather, shining faintly, lit up from inside by the Light; he cast no shadow. “Come on,” his grandfather said. “You don’t want to be here for this.”

“How can you say that? She’s your daughter.”

“Yes, which is why you should believe me.”

The woman behind the counter had seen something on the computer that made her pause.

Catherine leaned over the counter. “What’s going on? The school said he got hit by a baseball, but that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that you call an ambulance for, unless they were overreacting.”

“I can’t tell you anything, because I don’t know,” the woman said. “But I’m going to page someone who can help you.” She picked up the phone.

“Jonah,” Grandpa Zograffos said, “there isn’t anything you can do for her right now—she’s too anxious to sense anything illuminated by the Light, and you’re too Shadow-bound anyway.”

“I have to try.”

“If you really want to help your mother, come Home with me. You’re going to be more present to her there than you could ever be here, ghosting around. It’s what she would want you to do, if she knew.”

“She would want me dead?”

“No, of course not! But she would want you to be happy—and she would want you to be safe. And you’re not going to be either of those things here. Not as long your shadowling is still feeding off you.”

“I can handle the shadowling.”

“You still think so, even after it nearly drowned you? No one gets rid of their shadowling by themselves, Jonah.”

“Anyway, this has nothing to do with shadows,” Jonah snapped.

“You think it’s all about protecting your mother.”

“That’s right. What’s going to happen to her if I die?”

“You think you have to keep protecting her from your father, even though you haven’t seen or heard from him in more than two years.”

“He could come back. And then who will be there for her? Because no one was there when he was punching holes in walls and pushing Mom around. You weren’t there. I was. I was the only one there.”

He immediately regretted blaming his grandfather. But if the comment stung, his grandfather didn’t show it, nor did he try to defend himself. The shadowling under Jonah’s feet, however, swelled and darkened, like a tick growing fat on the blood of its host.

The receptionist hung up the phone and told Jonah’s mom that it would be a minute, if she wanted to have a seat. Catherine cast a skeptical eye over the waiting area, with its large couches and stacks of magazines, no doubt thinking that nothing in a hospital was ever just a minute.

Grandpa Zograffos spoke to Jonah again, kindly. “You promised yourself you wouldn’t let anything hurt your mother again,” he said. “All right. You keep that promise. And I promised someone that I would see you Home, so if you don’t mind, I’ll stay with you as long as you choose to be with your mother.”

That wasn’t the response Jonah had expected. “I don’t mind,” he said. He looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

He hadn’t meant to say quite so much.

~ ~ ~

Catherine found a seat on a couch across from two women who looked like they’d been there a while—empty soda cups and tissues and gum wrappers littered the area around them. Probably somebody had told them it would just be a minute, too.

Jonah half-knelt in front of his mother.

“Mom,” he said quietly, “I’m here.”

She had been jiggling one foot and staring out across the waiting area with a far-away look, but now she sighed and reached for an outdated copy of Southern Living magazine. “Let’s celebrate the peach,” the cover suggested.

In a moment you’re going to find out I died, Jonah thought, and you’re reading about peach cobbler. What was Southern Living even doing in the waiting area of a Midwestern hospital? Life was strange, but death was even stranger. Because how weird was it that he was about to witness his mother being told that he was dead?

If he was dead. He didn’t feel dead. Plus, there was the fact of his bellybutton. He quickly checked to see that it was still there, which it was—his one shred of hope of getting back home. Back to his real home, not the “Home” Grandpa Zograffos kept talking about. He hadn’t liked the new apartment when he and his mom first moved in, not the worn green carpet, nor the smell of cooking oil in the dim hallways. But they had been making it home by filling it with all their old familiar stuff: the tatty love seat, the wind chimes on the balcony, his mother’s keys on a hook by the door and her fuzzy slippers by the couch. The place was even beginning to smell more like home. Burnt toaster waffles in the morning, burnt microwave popcorn in the evening. And faint traces of his mother’s perfume when she walked in the door.

This other “Home” he didn’t know anything about.

“If I ever get home, I promise to never complain about your burnt toaster waffles ever again,” he said to his mother.

She turned a page and glanced over at the reception area with a look of annoyance.

Watching her face was like seeing her for the first time. It was a face lightly lined by stress, worry, and sadness—but also a lot of laughter. Especially in the last year, Jonah realized, they’d done a lot of teasing and joking around. Something in her had lightened in the last year.

Jonah bit his lip. “I wish you could hear me. All of a sudden it seems like I have a lot to tell you.”

One of the two women seated nearby sighed deeply. Dressed in a floral-print muumuu, she reclined in an overstuffed chair with her head tilted back, her hands folded across her round stomach, and her short legs splayed out.

“What time is it now?” she asked her companion.

“Hasn’t been five minutes since the last time you asked. Stop bugging me,” the other woman answered. Her large eyeglasses reflected the gigantic television mounted on the wall.

“But I feel awful.”

“Shh. They’re going to interview one of the survivors.”

“I might throw up any minute,” the splayed-out woman said, moaning. “Georgina! Go check on how long it’s gonna be, plee-eaze! I can’t take this anymore.”

The other woman tore her eyes away from the television and huffed. “I already did. Don’t you have any sympathy for other folks who might be worse off than you?”

“Like who would that be?”

“Me—I gotta put up with you.”

The two women cracked up at that.

Life is weird. Death is weirder. But these two take the cake, Jonah thought. His mother was peeking at them over the top of her magazine.

“Seriously, Prissy, it could always be worse,” Georgina continued once she had composed herself. “There’s a kid back there that got whacked in the head with a baseball bat.”

“Serious?” Prissy exclaimed, impressed.

Georgina nodded. “Last time I went out for a smoke, some of them orderlies were telling me all about it. He was hanging on by a thread, they said—and they sure didn’t look too hopeful. So settle down and count your blessings!”

Catherine Zograffos, whose magazine had fallen into her lap, jumped out of her seat. She opened her mouth as if to say something but then snagged her purse off the couch and flew toward the reception desk, her coat billowing behind her.

“What’s with her?” Georgina wondered out loud.

“I don’t know, but she’d better not be cutting in front of me,” Prissy answered.

Jonah stood and kicked the couch in frustration, but his foot just passed through it with the barest sensation of resistance.

“This is so unfair!” he shouted. The shadowling flared, as if in affirmation.

Grandpa Zograffos bowed his head a little; his face was grim. “Yes, it is,” he said, and he turned to follow his daughter.

 ~ ~ ~

When Catherine Zograffos was pregnant with Jonah, she decided to have a natural childbirth—no drugs or unnecessary medical interventions. It turned out to be some of the most painful hours of her life; each contraction had felt like someone was trying to rip her apart. But at the same time, it had been exhilarating, because she knew her pain and hard work were bringing a new life into the world.

Losing Jonah was like that, only in reverse.

The white-haired, well-dressed woman who intercepted her by the reception desk wore an ID tag that identified her as Pamela Reed, family crisis counselor. The word “crisis” was Catherine’s first sign that things were much worse than the phrase “accident playing baseball” might have initially suggested.

The second sign was the firm hand that Ms. Reed placed on her back as she guided Catherine into a small room filled with comfortable chairs and tissues, and then closed the heavy door. There was another woman in the room, a nurse by the name of Phoebe Weaver. The look on her face was the third sign, and it terrified Catherine.

“What’s going on?” she barely managed to ask, after Ms. Reed had steered her into a seat.

Ms. Reed looked her right in the eye. “What do you already know about what happened to your son?”

“The school said he was playing baseball and he was in an accident, that’s all. I came right away. Someone from the school was going to meet me here, but we must have missed each other. Is he going to be okay?”

Ms. Reed folded her hands together and pursed her lips. “This is going to be hard to hear, okay?” She paused to let that sink in; Catherine had frozen. “Your son was hit in the head with a baseball bat, hard enough to crack his skull and cause massive bleeding in his brain. Then shortly after he arrived here, he went into cardiac arrest—”

“Is he dead?”

“His heart is beating without assistance,” Pamela said.

Catherine breathed out loudly.

“But,” Pamela added, speaking carefully, “what concerns the medical team is the fact that it took forty-five minutes of CPR and defibrillator shocks to get there. So we can hope your son will recover, but I want to prepare you for the possibility—”

“What are his chances?”

“My understanding, Ms. Zograffos—and I’m trying to be truthful with you here—is that because of the degree of bleeding in the brain, and because they’re detecting only minimal brain activity, the doctors are not optimistic.”

Catherine put her hands up to her face, covering her eyes. She was very still for what seemed like a very long time. Her body began to shake, silently; and finally she let out a deep sob.

Jonah stood by helplessly. His throat felt swollen, like he needed to cry but couldn’t. Could ghosts cry? His grandfather’s hand on his shoulder was warm, and it steadied and strengthened him.

“Grandpa, we have to do something,” he whispered. He had never heard his mother cry like this—a low, animal moan that rose from deep within her and filled the room. Her back hunched, her face still hidden by her hands.

Jonah glanced at his grandfather and saw tears on the old man’s face, which shone more fairly than ever.

“Yes,” Grandpa Zograffos said. “And maybe we can.”

“How? You said she couldn’t sense us.”

“She’s wading neck-deep through a black river of grief; it’s taking everything she’s got just to stay afloat. What we need is an angeling—”

“What’s an angeling?”

“A little angel—a blood-and-bones person who senses the Light. Someone who stands with one foot in this world, and one foot—or even a little toe—in our Home. Someone to be a bridge. Someone like her.”

He nodded toward Phoebe Weaver, who was leaning forward on the edge of her easy chair, her hands held in front of her mouth, watching Catherine with a look of intent concern.

“Maybe you’re too Shadow-bound to see,” Grandpa Zograffos said, “but the Light dances around her like sunlight on water.”

He bent his knees a little and jumped. He rose through the air, doing a slow cartwheel until he was hovering upside down over Phoebe. He looked like an astronaut floating in zero gravity, hanging there. Slowly he descended until his face was near hers, and he held out his hands and whispered something. The Light inside of him sparked and flared, illuminating her face.

Phoebe had not moved and had barely breathed for several minutes, but now she made a small noise as she rose from her seat and went to Catherine, reaching out to touch her arm. Catherine let it rest there a moment before grabbing hold of Phoebe’s hand, and then pulling her into an embrace.

“It’s going to be okay,” Phoebe told her.

Catherine sobbed harder, gasping for breath like she might drown in her own tears. But after a few minutes, she took a last shuddering breath and was still.

“It’s going to be okay,” Phoebe said again; and even as she said it, she wondered where the words were coming from. They were words to comfort her, as well.

Grandpa Zograffos landed lightly near Jonah.

“How did you do that?” Jonah whispered.

“The laws of physics are more like general suggestions when you’re dead.”

“No, I meant how did you get that nurse to do what she did? What did you say to her?”

Grandpa Zograffos looked at Jonah in surprise. “Why, I told her that all would be well, of course!”

“How do you know that?”

Grandpa Zograffos spread his arms wide, in a grand gesture of invitation. “If you come Home, you can see for yourself.”

Ms. Reed had left the room and now came back with a glass of water for Catherine, who was still breathing deeply.

Jonah said nothing in reply to his grandfather, so Grandpa Zograffos pressed his case. “You know, going Home doesn’t take you away from those you love; it brings you closer to them. Close enough to touch.”

Jonah lifted his shirt to show his bellybutton. “What about this?”

“If your brain reboots, you’ll have to come back, unfortunately.”

“Kind of like all those people they interviewed on the SciFi channel, right? They all came back.”

Grandpa Zograffos nodded.

Jonah hesitated. His mother was blowing her nose and apologizing for crying. Phoebe said something that made her laugh, just a little, through her tears.

And huddled beneath his feet, his shadowling tried to look smaller and weaker than it really was, even as it sucked life from him.

His mind flashed on the time he and his grandfather had gotten stranded way out on the lake at the cabin up north. Jonah had been seven or so. They’d gone fishing after supper, and they’d cast their lines without catching anything until the sun sat low and fat on the horizon. But when it was time to head back, his grandfather couldn’t get the motor started, leaving them no choice but to row for the cabin in the dark. Jonah remembered a blanket of stars in the sky, their wobbly twins reflected in the water below, and his grandpa pulling at the oars for nearly an hour, telling jokes and stories the whole time.

This was like that, wasn’t it? Just another dark lake to get across.

A dark lake populated by carnivorous, soul-sucking shadows, but still.

As difficult as it would be to leave his mother, the more he thought about it, the more obvious the choice became. He wasn’t doing her any good here, and his shadowling would only grow stronger the longer he lingered. On the other hand, his grandfather really wanted him to head Home, somehow drowning his shadowling along the way. And Jonah trusted his grandfather more than anyone, his mother included.

“All right,” Jonah said, without taking his eyes off his mother. “How do we get there?”

Grandpa Zograffos clapped a hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “We take the elevator.”

Jonah stared at his grandfather a moment, in case he was joking, but Grandpa Zograffos just patted him on the back and slipped through the wall, which made a sound like ripping paper as it yielded. Jonah sighed, rolled his eyes, and followed.

However this all turned out, someday, someone at the SciFi channel was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

 ~ ~ ~

The way Catherine finally managed to stop crying—which she had to do, if only because her face was becoming a raw mess of tears and snot, and the muscles in her chest and abdomen were so sore—was to start asking questions. Right away, though, Phoebe held up her hand.

“I’ll answer all your questions in a moment, but there’s something else we should discuss first—a new brain therapy that we’d like to try on your son. The thing is, we need your consent, and time is kind of a factor.”

Catherine leaned forward. “What is it?”

“It’s called combinational lazaroid therapy. The press are referring to it as the Lazarus therapy, which is a bit sensational. Basically it uses artificial aminosteroids called lazaroids to prevent—or even reverse—brain damage.”

Pamela jumped in. “But Ms. Zograffos, I have to caution you not to get your hopes up. This therapy has just been approved for study in humans; your son would be the first to try it. And there are risks, of course—”

“How can there be risks when you’re saying he’s probably going to die?”

“It could be only partially successful, for instance, so that while your son wouldn’t actually die, he wouldn’t make a full recovery. Or he could appear to fully recover, but have unexpected side effects.”

Catherine looked over to Phoebe questioningly.

“The animal studies have been very encouraging,” Phoebe offered. “The odds of success are still small, but Doctor Howell feels it’s worth a shot. If you consent, of course.”

Catherine didn’t ponder the question more than half a second before reaching for her purse to find a pen. “Just show me what I have to sign.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Jonah and his grandfather made their way through a maze of hallways to the hospital’s main elevators.

Grandpa Zograffos waved Jonah forward. “Press the button.”

“How? My hand goes right through anything I touch.”

“There are two elevators here—the one they’re waiting for,” Grandpa Zograffos said, nodding towards the handful of people gathered there, “and the one we’re waiting for. Just humor me.”

“Do I press up or down?”

Grandpa Zograffos rolled his eyes, and then slowly pointed upward.

“Okay, okay, just checking,” Jonah muttered. He pressed the button, which lit up.

The elevator arrived almost immediately with a ding, and its doors rattled open. Several people got off and a few people got on: a nurse holding a coffee, a large woman in a wheelchair, an old man pushing it. Grandpa Zograffos followed, and Jonah followed him, stepping carefully around the others.

“Three, please,” the woman in the wheelchair told the nurse, who pressed buttons for the third and fourth floors. Jonah noticed the hospital only had five floors.

“Which floor is ours?” he whispered to his grandfather. It was so quiet in there, he couldn’t help whispering, even though he knew none of the others could hear him.

“The elevator will take you where you need to be.” Grandpa Zograffos whistled a few bars of a song Jonah didn’t recognize. “They used to play music on elevators. Don’t you think they should play music on elevators?”

“Um. . . .” Jonah hadn’t ever given it any thought.

“What’s an elevator but a bunch of strangers stuck in a small box hanging over a really deep hole?” Grandpa Zograffos went on. “Seems to call for music.” And he whistled a musical flourish.

The elevator deposited the others on the third and fourth floors, and the doors slid closed with a disconcerting finality.

“You may want to hold on,” Grandpa Zograffos advised, gripping the railing that encircled the elevator with both hands.

“Why?”

Just then, the elevator shuddered, making a revving noise; with a lurch, it shot straight up at a speed that made Jonah’s knees buckle, forcing him to the floor.

That turned out to be a good place to be, because within seconds, the floor tilted as the elevator changed course, moving sideways now. Jonah went skittering across the floor before he managed to grab hold of the railing and carefully pull himself to a standing position. The digital readout of the floor numbers was a blur.

He glanced over at his grandpa, who was calmly standing in a corner of the elevator with his hands on the railing and his feet braced against the rocking and twisting of the floor. He looked like the captain of a ship standing stolidly at the helm in stormy seas. Jonah had been about to ask whether the roller coaster quality of the elevator was normal, but by the unperturbed look on his grandfather’s face, he guessed it must be.

Gripping the railing tightly, Jonah carefully edged his way over to his Grandpa Zograffos, pausing briefly when the elevator made a stomach-dropping loop-the-loop.

“This doesn’t seem very safe,” Jonah remarked, struggling to keep his balance.

“Fortunately, you’re already mostly dead, so I wouldn’t worry about it,” Grandpa Zograffos replied with a smile.

“If I’m already dead, then why do I feel like I’m going to throw up?” Jonah asked. As if on cue, the elevator spun around several times very quickly before suddenly dropping, causing Jonah’s feet to fly into the air. After he’d regained his footing, he added, “Actually, why do I feel anything at all? I thought I left my body behind in the hospital.”

“You did,” his grandfather replied, leaning into the wide turn the elevator was making. “But your soul is used to perceiving the world through a body, so it’s making one up for you. It’s like what happens when people lose an arm or leg—they feel a ‘ghost limb’ for a while, right?”

“They do?”

“Yes, they do. But in your case, you’re feeling a whole body—a ghost body. Complete with nausea.”

Jonah grimaced as the elevator shot off in yet another direction.

“Then none of this is real? It’s all a trick of my mind?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Everything you’re seeing and hearing and feeling is very real. But until the Light clarifies your soul and drowns your shadowling, the reality you’re experiencing has to be translated into a form you can understand.

“It’s like your video games. At bottom, the game is just a long series of zeroes and ones—switches being turned off and on. But you’d never be able to play the game if you had to interpret that stream of ones and zeroes directly; there’s just too much information passing by too quickly. So the computer translates the code into images you can understand and interact with. Make sense?”

“I think so,” Jonah said, frowning in a way that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure. “What about you? How much of you is—translated?” The last time he’d seen his grandfather had been in a casket at the wake, four years ago. But the man standing before him sure looked like the man Jonah had known before that: the bony, sun-burned nose, the strong, calloused hands, the twinkling blue eyes.

“I’m not bouncing around the afterlife in paint clothes, if that’s what you mean. But this is really me, your old Grandpa Z.”

“Who can’t help making a rhyme.” Jonah smiled, then shook his head. “I have so many more questions—”

The elevator rattled violently, as if it were traveling over railroad ties without the benefit of rails—or wheels.

“Like,” Jonah continued through gritted teeth, “when are we going to get there?”

The elevator made a few last hops, flipped over a few times, and finally jolted to an abrupt halt after striking something solid with a loud, bone-jarring bang. Jonah had to peel his face off the wall.

“It’s a good thing the laws of physics are more like suggestions around here,” Jonah muttered.

“Just be thankful this elevator worked at all.”

“Uh . . . why?” Jonah groaned as he found his footing.

“Otherwise we’d have to take a stairway to heaven,” Grandpa Zograffos said, barely keeping a straight face. When Jonah looked at him quizzically, his grandfather whistled a few bars of the Led Zeppelin song.

Jonah groaned again. “Please . . . stop . . . now.”

The elevator had come to rest slightly askew, the floor tilting slightly toward the back. It made an ominous hissing sound.

“Okay, question two,” Jonah said, staggering away from the wall. “Where exactly are we?”

The elevator dropped an inch with a loud clunk, its bell dinged, and the doors rattled open. The view was obscured by a curtain of steam rising up from somewhere beneath the elevator.

Grandpa Zograffos made his way to the entrance, gripping the side of the doorway to steady himself.

“Only one way to find out,” he said. He waved a hand dramatically toward the opening. “After you.”

Did you like this preview chapter of Angeling? Share it on your social network using the buttons below. This chapter is a work in progress; your constructive comments are more than welcome. See the Angeling book page for more chapters as they are released, or sign up to receive Angeling chapters and book release news by e-mail.
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P.S. Here’s an easy peach cobbler recipe from Southern Living magazine.

 February 5, 2014  No Responses »
Jan 122014
 

“And that is why we always wear a helmet, people,” Campbell quipped as he stood over Jonah, who lay unmoving where he’d landed, slightly to one side of home plate, arms and legs splayed out. That is why we always wear a helmet, people, was something the coach liked to say; Campbell quoted the saying now as an ironic understatement.

Peter was not amused. He bent down and shook Jonah’s shoulder. “Hey Jonah, you okay?” Jonah’s head wobbled slightly, and a moist choking noise rose up from his throat, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were open, but unfocused.

“Did you see the way his feet flew up in the air?” shouted the third baseman, a kid named Dylan, as he drifted over toward the scene of the accident. “That was sweet!”

“Shut up,” Peter snapped. The sensation of his bat hitting Jonah’s head reminded him sickeningly of the time when, for fun, he had thrown small watermelons into the air and smashed them with his bat to make them explode in glorious bursts of red flesh.

“Shwoop, bam!” Dylan used his hands to re-enact the trajectory of Jonah’s body.

“I said shut up!”

All the other guys were gathering around now, too.

“Is he dead?” Rusty asked.

“No.” Peter could feel a heartbeat, but he wasn’t reassured. He noticed an ugly bulge forming on top of Jonah’s head. That couldn’t be good. That couldn’t be good at all.

There was a long silence as everyone waited for Jonah to show signs of reviving.

“What do we do?” Rusty asked.

Peter glanced around. “Someone go to the school for help,” he said, “and someone call 911.”

For a split second, no one moved.

“Now!”

And Rusty took off running.

 

~ ~ ~

 Motion Blur Stretcher Gurney Patient Hospital Emergency

After the bat hit his head, Jonah’s world flipped upside down and exploded in hundreds of fireworks. Then the sizzling and snapping faded into darkness; and then, snippets of light and sound. . . .

. . . his body lying in the gravel behind home plate, pale and bloodied. . .

. . . Peter bending over his body, his face wet with sweat, or tears . . .

. . . the sound and flash of sirens . . .

. . . his body being loaded into the back of an ambulance as a small crowd of students and teachers looked on . . . grim faces . . . hands in front of mouths . . . crying . . . a cell phone held up in the air to snap a picture. . . .

. . . darkness again, a feeling of heaviness, the unintelligible sound of voices . . .

And then he was observing his body, small and white, as it lay on a table in a hospital trauma center. The room was crowded with people wearing blue scrubs and face masks; some were working on his body—cutting off his clothes, attaching wires and tubes and cuffs, packing ice around his legs—and others were monitoring computer screens or preparing equipment. He could hear them talking to one another.

“No verbal communication. Breath sounds are symmetric and clear. . . .”

“. . . any other injuries?”

“. . . why don’t you make it five-forty. That’s ten cc’s per kilo. . . .”

“. . . suction the airway. . . .”

A young nurse whose tag identified her as Phoebe Weaver shone a light in his eyes. “Jonah,” she called to him. “Jonah, can you hear me?”

Two people bent over the top of his head, gently probing where the bat had made contact.

“It looks like it broke into three pieces, with some fragmentation along the occipital edge,” one said. “There has to be a good-sized hematoma under there.”

“Mmm-hmm. Have we heard from imaging? We should get an MRI.”

This was no dream, Jonah realized; he was really floating above his own body, watching a medical team try to save him. Strangely, he felt more curious than frightened. The people working on him were intensely focused, their words and movements efficient and controlled. Professional, like the crew of a crippled airliner preparing for a crash landing.

Not the most encouraging image, he thought.

Jonah found he could see and hear everything perfectly, once he focused on it. Every detail popped—the light sheen of sweat on a nurse’s forehead, and her dilated pupils; a reflection of the entire room wrapped around chrome tubing; the sound of people breathing; the steady, syncopated beeping of the monitors. The room was flooded with light from powerful lamps; each person and every object cast eleven pale shadows that fanned outward like the hands of a clock.

Heads turned as a man walked into the room pulling on gloves. The tag clipped to his scrubs identified him as frederic howell | pediatric neurology.

“All right, what do we have here?” Dr. Howell asked the room at large.

“Young adolescent male with trauma to the parietal plate, probable subdural hematoma. Blood pressure’s been dropping. Consensus is a GCS of six. Kid got hit in the head with a baseball bat—supposedly by accident. Other than that, we don’t have a medical history.”

“Mom’s on the way,” Phoebe offered.

Mom, Jonah thought, is going to freak.

Dr. Howell moved around the table and began gently touching the top of Jonah’s head with his gloved fingers.

“Accident, huh?” Dr. Howell said. “Pretty good job for an accident.”

An alarm started beeping.

“Blood pressure’s dropped below one oh five.”

“Okay, we’re not going to have time for imaging,” Dr. Howell said. “Start prepping him now.”

The room erupted into a flurry of activity; everyone seemed to have a job to do, but the one who really caught Jonah’s attention was the nurse who was wielding an electric razor around his head. As she began shaving, large clumps of dark brown hair fell to the table and the floor.

Okay, now I hope I do die, Jonah thought, thinking it would save him the embarrassment of going back to school with a bald head. But then it occurred to him that if he died, he’d be bald at his funeral. It wasn’t like he was going to be able to grow his hair back after he was dead. Do funeral homes use wigs?

It seemed weird that he could have a sense of humor when his life hung in the balance, but he felt strangely free and unconcerned about the outcome of the drama unfolding below him.

Then an alarm on the heart monitor went off.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” someone asked. “What just happened?”

“All right, Weaver—defib. Tyler and Hernandez, stand by to begin CPR compressions.”

“I’m clear. Is everyone else clear?”

His body jumped as the defibrillator shocked his heart, then a nurse stepped forward and began pushing down rhythmically on his chest, so hard his whole body jumped.

“Begin compressions. Go ahead and prepare an epi needle.”

Viewing the scene from above, Jonah was suddenly overwhelmed with dread. It wasn’t dying that he was afraid of—at least he didn’t think so. Something else was going on.

He felt like he was being watched—or hunted—by some unseen predator . . . like a wolf, or a shark. Something with teeth. Something that made him want to curl up and hide, or run.

The urgent sounds of the medical team became muffled and distant, as if he were hearing them underwater. His consciousness took in the whole room, looking for the thing with teeth. Not having a body to shed his fear—a pounding heart, tingling arms and legs, darting eyes—somehow made it worse.

And then he saw it, the thing with teeth.

It was the shadows.

Before, under the glare of the trauma bay’s floodlights, the shadows had been the palest of shades; now, they darkened and darkened to the deepest black. They came unmoored from the objects casting them, morphing into weird silhouettes. The shadows of a bulky monitor shuffled and swelled, then hunched, beast-like, even though the monitor never moved. The eleven shadows fanning out from Dr. Howell lengthened and twisted grotesquely, the heads becoming like gargoyles. Wires hanging off a machine cast a mess of silhouettes that thinned and split and fractured like shattering glass. An otherwise innocent-looking IV stand grew eleven long, bony arms, at the end of which were eleven bony hands, clawing at the walls.

The shadows grew and merged, spilling over the floor like oil, blotting out everything they touched with a darkness as black as caves and graves. The doctors and nurses and medical technicians seemed oblivious; they were working feverishly to prod Jonah’s body back toward life, even as shadows wrapped around their legs and waists. Jonah could no longer hear what they were saying; their voices were lost in the hissing, shushing sound the shadows made as they sifted about the room. They sounded like blowing snow.

If he had been seeing through eyes, he would have closed them against the scene; if he had legs to run, he would have fled. But he was tethered to the scene by his own dying body. It seemed separate from him now, just the body of a boy. The darkness closed around it, washing out the forms of the doctors and nurses and techs, and pinching the lights smaller and smaller until only the body was illuminated.

The world had suddenly become very small.

Jonah saw a shadowy stain spread underneath his body, outlining it in black. It seeped across the table, then slowly gathered together its limbs and pushed up; and as it rose, it took on the shape of the boy, with a skin of burnt ashes.

It crouched there for a moment. It looked up at Jonah with gray, sunken eyes. It wore his face, Jonah saw—or the shadow of his face.

Who are you? Jonah thought.

The creature opened its dusty mouth and whispered: “Who are you?”

Its voice was the sound of sand and bones.

Jonah wasn’t sure whether the thing was mindless echoing him—shadowing his words—or actually turning the question back on him. But if the question was meant to be answered, he didn’t know what he would say. Always before he would have replied with his name: Jonah Wilder, or Jonah Phinneas Wilder, if he wanted to be fancy about it. But his first and middle names had been chosen by his mother, and his last name given by his father before he had even been born.

I am just myself, he thought.

“I am just myself,” the creature whispered. It looked down at the body of the boy on the table and gently touched the eyes, leaving small pools of darkness in them.

Jonah felt himself slowly sinking down toward the creature, like falling mist, until its ashen face loomed as large in his vision as if they stood face-to-face, inches apart.

What do you want?

“What do you want?” Stray ashes fell from its mouth.

Another unanswerable question. One of his therapists had asked Jonah the same thing a couple years ago. He thought of the answer he had given at the time: Nothing.

“Nothing,” the thing echoed.

Their dialogue was interrupted by a set of hands that emerged from the gloom to place defibrillator paddles on the naked chest of the boy. The creature of ash looked on disinterestedly as the shock caused the boy’s body to jump. Then it bent over the boy and gently, gently placed an ashy hand into his mouth, as if to smother him; and Jonah understood that his shadow meant its answer quite literally: It wanted nothing. As in, the absence of anything but itself.

Which it was about to get, because from somewhere very far away, Jonah could hear the urgent whine of the heart monitor.

Jonah thought of his mother, and his friends from the Panda Banshees, and Alaska and Trudy and Peter, and Mr. Berning and the impossibly alive pond water, and the swallows using their wings to describe some secret geometry over the outfield.

That isn’t true, that I want nothing, he thought.

“That isn’t true,” his shadow said. “I want nothing.”

I do want something, Jonah clarified.

His shadow was silent, looking at him with its dark eyes. Jonah hated those eyes. Those dark-as-nothing, dead eyes. He hated them as he hated himself.

I don’t know exactly what, Jonah added, but I do want something . . . something more. I need something more.

“I need nothing but myself,” his shadow whispered.

I need nothing but myself. Ironic—those were his words, Jonah recalled. They had been his rule for some years now. No surprise there. You get beat up and betrayed by enough people and you learn pretty quick to rely on nothing but yourself. Who had been there for him? Not his father. His mother? He loved his mother but he couldn’t bring himself to depend on her. He felt himself sinking into the skin of his shadow; it was an easy place to be.

The voice of Doctor Howell: “I think it’s time to call this.”

The voice of the nurse who had looked into Jonah’s eyes: “We can’t—his mom is out there.”

Doctor Howell: “I’m going to call this—”

The nurse: “Come on! Give him a few more minutes. For the mom—”

Help, Jonah thought. Who could help him? Who would hear him? None of these people. Not his mother. Not his friends. He couldn’t think who might help him, here in the night of his own shadow, but he called out anyway.

I need help! Someone—

And someone must have heard him, because a thin ray of light finally broke through the night. It grew brighter and brighter, like the headlights of an oncoming car, sending the shadows skittering across the walls. The faces of the people on the medical team were blasted white with light—not that they seemed to notice. Not except for Phoebe Weaver, who glanced curiously in the direction of the trauma bay’s swinging doors.

The doors banged open and the place lit up brilliantly, scattering the shadows, and a man on horseback rode at speed into the room.

The horse was a rosy cream color with shining blue eyes that followed Jonah even as it circled the room. The rider was an old man: straight-backed, bare-footed and tanned, his silver hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He sat astride the horse without the benefit of saddle or harness. He wore a rough white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and pale blue, paint-spattered overalls.

Jonah felt he should know the man and the horse, but he wasn’t able to place them until the man looked right at him.

“Jonah!” the man called. “Jo-nah!

And then Jonah knew—the man was his Grandpa Zograffos.

Grandpa Z?” Jonah answered incredulously. His grandfather had been lying in a coffin the last time Jonah had seen him, four years earlier. Ironically, after more than thirty years going up and down ladders painting houses, he’d fallen off a roof while retrieving a badminton shuttle. “What are you doing here?”

Grandpa Z simply reached out an open hand, his gray-blue eyes sparkling mischievously, and Jonah found himself suddenly astride the horse, steadied from behind by his grandfather.

“I could ask you the same thing,” his grandfather replied. “A bit young to be out dead on your own, I’d say. Come on, we’re getting out of here!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The horse passed through the trauma bay doors, leaving Jonah’s dying body behind—and the shadows flooded out the door after them.

Grandpa Z urged the horse into a gallop, and they took off down the hospital corridor, neatly swerving around a nurse pushing a woman in a wheelchair and a doctor walking with his eyes glued to a tablet computer. Open doorways flashed by in a blur. Jonah clenched his jaw and clutched the mane of the horse tightly. He’d ridden a horse once before, but that had been a trail ride that never moved faster than a walk, and he’d had a helmet and a saddle and a bridle. This was completely different; he had the sensation of flying each time the horse surged forward, its muscled back rippling under his legs. He leaned back into his grandpa’s chest, smelling the combination of soap, spearmint gum, and fresh paint that he remembered so well from his childhood.

Some dusty back room of Jonah’s mind wondered exactly how he suddenly had a body—including hair, which he could feel blowing—when he’d just left his body behind, pale and still (and bald) on a hospital gurney, but the rest of his mind was too busy holding on for dear life to give the question any thought.

The horse whipped sharply to the right down a side corridor, and then neatly jumped a laundry bin being wheeled along by an orderly. The guy didn’t look up, flinch, or blink. They shot past a counter where nurses stood laughing together, and veered down another hallway, and then another, until finally they were flying down a long, empty corridor—just shiny tile flooring and bare white walls lined with open doorways. Jonah couldn’t see the end of the passageway; it seemed to go on forever.

He could hear a whispering, rustling sound behind them so he twisted around to look and not more than ten feet back was the ashy form of his shadow, riding an ashy mishmash of a beast; and in the hallway beyond, a horde of other shadows clattered along the ceiling and walls.

Jonah yelped in surprise.

“Did I mention not to look back?” Grandpa Z asked.

“What are those things?” Jonah asked, shouting above the noise of the chase.

“They are the Shadow—it’s a parasite. Hides on the dark side of human souls, feeding on fear, violence, selfishness—whatever garbage it can scavange. Uses its host as a breeding ground for infecting other souls.”

At that moment the Shadow’s whispering became a hiss, and the sound of dead rustling became a loud, dry, bug-like clattering that made Jonah’s skin crawl.

“The thing usually lays low like any good parasite would,” Grandpa Z continued, “but it gets kind of vicious if you try to get away—as you can see.”

“Can we outrun it?”

His grandfather laughed. “No—it’s your shadow. You can’t outrun your shadow.”

Jonah waited for more—some kind of plan, or a word of encouragement, perhaps—but Grandpa Z only leaned forward, urging the horse on faster.

“If we can’t outrun it,” Jonah finally prompted, “then what can we do?”

“You’re going to have to drown it.”

What?

“Drown it—look!”

And as his grandpa spoke those words, Jonah saw it: far off where the lines of the corridor vanished into a point, there was a light, and the light was growing stronger with every beat of the horse’s hooves. It was rushing toward them like a storm, like a hurricane—like something fierce, powerful, and very much alive.

Jonah hadn’t logged more than four hundred hours watching the SciFi channel for nothing; he knew exactly what the light was. This was not just any light, but the Light—the Light that people saw when they were dying, and it was coming to carry him over the brink of eternity.

And then the floor dropped away, and they were falling, and Jonah fell off the back of the horse. The animal kicked and surged away, and his grandfather grabbed Jonah’s hand before they could tumble apart. The Light was liquid, it was so bright. Brighter than the sun, but not like sunlight at all, because its warmth did not stop at the surface of Jonah’s skin; the Light poured through him, filling him, overflowing him, catching him up. The Light was liquid, a living water.

We aren’t falling; we’re swimming.

They were swimming, or at least being swept along by a powerful current, and it was carrying them up toward the surface, up toward Light and air and the endless horizon of a vast sea.

Something tugged at him—at his hand, or his heart; it was hard to tell.

Jonah looked back and saw his shadow. It was drowning, its terrified face coming apart before Jonah’s eyes. It gripped Jonah’s ankle with one hand and reached up desperately with the other, but even as it did, its arm drifted away in clouds of ash. Behind it, the awful beast it had been riding disintegrated and disappeared.

Jonah felt his grandfather tug at his hand.

He looked into his shadow’s eyes and saw some of the terrible things he had known, and some of the terrible things he had done. Those were not just the eyes of his shadow; they were his eyes, too. It wasn’t just his shadow that was drowning, but a part of him. Who would he be, without all the dark things that had chased him since his childhood—that had made him who he was? Looking into the eyes of his shadow, he found he couldn’t let them go.

So he let go of his grandfather’s hand  instead.

4 | over the brink of eternity

 

“And that is why we always wear a helmet, people,” Campbell quipped as he stood over Jonah, who lay unmoving where he’d landed, slightly to one side of home plate, arms and legs splayed out. That is why we always wear a helmet, people, was something the coach liked to say; Campbell quoted the saying now as an ironic understatement.

Peter was not amused. He bent down and shook Jonah’s shoulder. “Hey Jonah, you okay?” Jonah’s head wobbled slightly, and a moist choking noise rose up from his throat, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were open, but unfocused.

“Did you see the way his feet flew up in the air?” shouted the third baseman, a kid named Dylan, as he drifted over toward the scene of the accident. “That was sweet!”

“Shut up,” Peter snapped. The sensation of his bat hitting Jonah’s head reminded him sickeningly of the time when, for fun, he had thrown small watermelons into the air and smashed them with his bat to make them explode in glorious bursts of red flesh.

“Shwoop, bam!” Dylan used his hands to re-enact the trajectory of Jonah’s body.

“I said shut up!”

All the other guys were gathering around now, too.

“Is he dead?” Rusty asked.

“No.” Peter could feel a heartbeat, but he wasn’t reassured. He noticed an ugly bulge forming on top of Jonah’s head. That couldn’t be good. That couldn’t be good at all.

There was a long silence as everyone waited for Jonah to show signs of reviving.

“What do we do?” Rusty asked.

Peter glanced around. “Someone go to the school for help,” he said, “and someone call 911.”

For a split second, no one moved.

“Now!”

And Rusty took off running.

 

~ ~ ~

 

After the bat hit his head, Jonah’s world flipped upside down and exploded in hundreds of fireworks. Then the sizzling and snapping faded into darkness; and then, snippets of light and sound. . . .

. . . his body lying in the gravel behind home plate, pale and bloodied. . .

. . . Peter bending over his body, his face wet with sweat, or tears . . .

. . . the sound and flash of sirens . . .

. . . his body being loaded into the back of an ambulance as a small crowd of students and teachers looked on . . . grim faces . . . hands in front of mouths . . . crying . . . a cell phone held up in the air to snap a picture. . . .

. . . darkness again, a feeling of heaviness, the unintelligible sound of voices . . .

And then he was observing his body, small and white, as it lay on a table in a hospital trauma center. The room was crowded with people wearing blue scrubs and face masks; some were working on his body—cutting off his clothes, attaching wires and tubes and cuffs, packing ice around his legs—and others were monitoring computer screens or preparing equipment. He could hear them talking to one another.

“No verbal communication. Breath sounds are symmetric and clear. . . .”

“. . . any other injuries?”

“. . . why don’t you make it five-forty. That’s ten cc’s per kilo. . . .”

“. . . suction the airway. . . .”

A young nurse whose tag identified her as Phoebe Weaver shone a light in his eyes. “Jonah,” she called to him. “Jonah, can you hear me?”

Two people bent over the top of his head, gently probing where the bat had made contact.

“It looks like it broke into three pieces, with some fragmentation along the occipital edge,” one said. “There has to be a good-sized hematoma under there.”

“Mmm-hmm. Have we heard from imaging? We should get an MRI.”

This was no dream, Jonah realized; he was really floating above his own body, watching a medical team try to save him. Strangely, he felt more curious than frightened. The people working on him were intensely focused, their words and movements efficient and controlled. Professional, like the crew of a crippled airliner preparing for a crash landing.

Not the most encouraging image, he thought.

Jonah found he could see and hear everything perfectly, once he focused on it. Every detail popped—the light sheen of sweat on a nurse’s forehead, and her dilated pupils; a reflection of the entire room wrapped around chrome tubing; the sound of people breathing; the steady, syncopated beeping of the monitors. The room was flooded with light from powerful lamps; each person and every object cast eleven pale shadows that fanned outward like the hands of a clock.

Heads turned as a man walked into the room pulling on gloves. The tag clipped to his scrubs identified him as frederic howell | pediatric neurology.

“All right, what do we have here?” Dr. Howell asked the room at large.

“Young adolescent male with trauma to the parietal plate, probable subdural hematoma. Blood pressure’s been dropping. Consensus is a GCS of six. Kid got hit in the head with a baseball bat—supposedly by accident. Other than that, we don’t have a medical history.”

“Mom’s on the way,” Phoebe offered.

Mom, Jonah thought, is going to freak.

Dr. Howell moved around the table and began gently touching the top of Jonah’s head with his gloved fingers.

“Accident, huh?” Dr. Howell said. “Pretty good job for an accident.”

An alarm started beeping.

“Blood pressure’s dropped below one oh five.”

“Okay, we’re not going to have time for imaging,” Dr. Howell said. “Start prepping him now.”

The room erupted into a flurry of activity; everyone seemed to have a job to do, but the one who really caught Jonah’s attention was the nurse who was wielding an electric razor around his head. As she began shaving, large clumps of dark brown hair fell to the table and the floor.

Okay, now I hope I do die, Jonah thought, thinking it would save him the embarrassment of going back to school with a bald head. But then it occurred to him that if he died, he’d be bald at his funeral. It wasn’t like he was going to be able to grow his hair back after he was dead. Do funeral homes use wigs?

It seemed weird that he could have a sense of humor when his life hung in the balance, but he felt strangely free and unconcerned about the outcome of the drama unfolding below him.

Then an alarm on the heart monitor went off.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” someone asked. “What just happened?”

“All right, Weaver—defib. Tyler and Hernandez, stand by to begin CPR compressions.”

“I’m clear. Is everyone else clear?”

His body jumped as the defibrillator shocked his heart, then a nurse stepped forward and began pushing down rhythmically on his chest, so hard his whole body jumped.

“Begin compressions. Go ahead and prepare an epi needle.”

Viewing the scene from above, Jonah was suddenly overwhelmed with dread. It wasn’t dying that he was afraid of—at least he didn’t think so. Something else was going on.

He felt like he was being watched—or hunted—by some unseen predator . . . like a wolf, or a shark. Something with teeth. Something that made him want to curl up and hide, or run.

The urgent sounds of the medical team became muffled and distant, as if he were hearing them underwater. His consciousness took in the whole room, looking for the thing with teeth. Not having a body to shed his fear—a pounding heart, tingling arms and legs, darting eyes—somehow made it worse.

And then he saw it, the thing with teeth.

It was the shadows.

Before, under the glare of the trauma bay’s floodlights, the shadows had been the palest of shades; now, they darkened and darkened to the deepest black. They came unmoored from the objects casting them, morphing into weird silhouettes. The shadows of a bulky monitor shuffled and swelled, then hunched, beast-like, even though the monitor never moved. The eleven shadows fanning out from Dr. Howell lengthened and twisted grotesquely, the heads becoming like gargoyles. Wires hanging off a machine cast a mess of silhouettes that thinned and split and fractured like shattering glass. An otherwise innocent-looking IV stand grew eleven long, bony arms, at the end of which were eleven bony hands, clawing at the walls.

The shadows grew and merged, spilling over the floor like oil, blotting out everything they touched with a darkness as black as caves and graves. The doctors and nurses and medical technicians seemed oblivious; they were working feverishly to prod Jonah’s body back toward life, even as shadows wrapped around their legs and waists. Jonah could no longer hear what they were saying; their voices were lost in the hissing, shushing sound the shadows made as they sifted about the room. They sounded like blowing snow.

If he had been seeing through eyes, he would have closed them against the scene; if he had legs to run, he would have fled. But he was tethered to the scene by his own dying body. It seemed separate from him now, just the body of a boy. The darkness closed around it, washing out the forms of the doctors and nurses and techs, and pinching the lights smaller and smaller until only the body was illuminated.

The world had suddenly become very small.

Jonah saw a shadowy stain spread underneath his body, outlining it in black. It seeped across the table, then slowly gathered together its limbs and pushed up; and as it rose, it took on the shape of the boy, with a skin of burnt ashes.

It crouched there for a moment. It looked up at Jonah with gray, sunken eyes. It wore his face, Jonah saw—or the shadow of his face.

Who are you? Jonah thought.

The creature opened its dusty mouth and whispered: “Who are you?”

Its voice was the sound of sand and bones.

Jonah wasn’t sure whether the thing was mindless echoing him—shadowing his words—or actually turning the question back on him. But if the question was meant to be answered, he didn’t know what he would say. Always before he would have replied with his name: Jonah Wilder, or Jonah Phinneas Wilder, if he wanted to be fancy about it. But his first and middle names had been chosen by his mother, and his last name given by his father before he had even been born.

I am just myself, he thought.

“I am just myself,” the creature whispered. It looked down at the body of the boy on the table and gently touched the eyes, leaving small pools of darkness in them.

Jonah felt himself slowly sinking down toward the creature, like falling mist, until its ashen face loomed as large in his vision as if they stood face-to-face, inches apart.

What do you want?

“What do you want?” Stray ashes fell from its mouth.

Another unanswerable question. One of his therapists had asked Jonah the same thing a couple years ago. He thought of the answer he had given at the time: Nothing.

“Nothing,” the thing echoed.

Their dialogue was interrupted by a set of hands that emerged from the gloom to place defibrillator paddles on the naked chest of the boy. The creature of ash looked on disinterestedly as the shock caused the boy’s body to jump. Then it bent over the boy and gently, gently placed an ashy hand into his mouth, as if to smother him; and Jonah understood that his shadow meant its answer quite literally: It wanted nothing. As in, the absence of anything but itself.

Which it was about to get, because from somewhere very far away, Jonah could hear the urgent whine of the heart monitor.

Jonah thought of his mother, and his friends from the Panda Banshees, and Alaska and Trudy and Peter, and Mr. Berning and the impossibly alive pond water, and the swallows using their wings to describe some secret geometry over the outfield.

That isn’t true, that I want nothing, he thought.

“That isn’t true,” his shadow said. “I want nothing.”

I do want something, Jonah clarified.

His shadow was silent, looking at him with its dark eyes. Jonah hated those eyes. Those dark-as-nothing, dead eyes. He hated them as he hated himself.

I don’t know exactly what, Jonah added, but I do want something . . . something more. I need something more.

“I need nothing but myself,” his shadow whispered.

I need nothing but myself. Ironic—those were his words, Jonah recalled. They had been his rule for some years now. No surprise there. You get beat up and betrayed by enough people and you learn pretty quick to rely on nothing but yourself. Who had been there for him? Not his father. His mother? He loved his mother but he couldn’t bring himself to depend on her. He felt himself sinking into the skin of his shadow; it was an easy place to be.

The voice of Doctor Howell: “I think it’s time to call this.”

The voice of the nurse who had looked into Jonah’s eyes: “We can’t—his mom is out there.”

Doctor Howell: “I’m going to call this—”

The nurse: “Come on! Give him a few more minutes. For the mom—”

Help, Jonah thought. Who could help him? Who would hear him? None of these people. Not his mother. Not his friends. He couldn’t think who might help him, here in the night of his own shadow, but he called out anyway.

I need help! Someone—

And someone must have heard him, because a thin ray of light finally broke through the night. It grew brighter and brighter, like the headlights of an oncoming car, sending the shadows skittering across the walls. The faces of the people on the medical team were blasted white with light—not that they seemed to notice. Not except for Phoebe Weaver, who glanced curiously in the direction of the trauma bay’s swinging doors.

The doors banged open and the place lit up brilliantly, scattering the shadows, and a man on horseback rode at speed into the room.

The horse was a rosy cream color with shining blue eyes that followed Jonah even as it circled the room. The rider was an old man: straight-backed, bare-footed and tanned, his silver hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He sat astride the horse without the benefit of saddle or harness. He wore a rough white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and pale blue, paint-spattered overalls.

Jonah felt he should know the man and the horse, but he wasn’t able to place them until the man looked right at him.

“Jonah!” the man called. “Jo-nah!

And then Jonah knew—the man was his Grandpa Zograffos.

Grandpa Z?” Jonah answered incredulously. His grandfather had been lying in a coffin the last time Jonah had seen him, four years earlier. Ironically, after more than thirty years going up and down ladders painting houses, he’d fallen off a roof while retrieving a badminton shuttle. “What are you doing here?”

Grandpa Z simply reached out an open hand, his gray-blue eyes sparkling mischievously, and Jonah found himself suddenly astride the horse, steadied from behind by his grandfather.

“I could ask you the same thing,” his grandfather replied. “A bit young to be out dead on your own, I’d say. Come on, we’re getting out of here!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The horse passed through the trauma bay doors, leaving Jonah’s dying body behind—and the shadows flooded out the door after them.

Grandpa Z urged the horse into a gallop, and they took off down the hospital corridor, neatly swerving around a nurse pushing a woman in a wheelchair and a doctor walking with his eyes glued to a tablet computer. Open doorways flashed by in a blur. Jonah clenched his jaw and clutched the mane of the horse tightly. He’d ridden a horse once before, but that had been a trail ride that never moved faster than a walk, and he’d had a helmet and a saddle and a bridle. This was completely different; he had the sensation of flying each time the horse surged forward, its muscled back rippling under his legs. He leaned back into his grandpa’s chest, smelling the combination of soap, spearmint gum, and fresh paint that he remembered so well from his childhood.

Some dusty back room of Jonah’s mind wondered exactly how he suddenly had a body—including hair, which he could feel blowing—when he’d just left his body behind, pale and still (and bald) on a hospital gurney, but the rest of his mind was too busy holding on for dear life to give the question any thought.

The horse whipped sharply to the right down a side corridor, and then neatly jumped a laundry bin being wheeled along by an orderly. The guy didn’t look up, flinch, or blink. They shot past a counter where nurses stood laughing together, and veered down another hallway, and then another, until finally they were flying down a long, empty corridor—just shiny tile flooring and bare white walls lined with open doorways. Jonah couldn’t see the end of the passageway; it seemed to go on forever.

He could hear a whispering, rustling sound behind them so he twisted around to look and not more than ten feet back was the ashy form of his shadow, riding an ashy mishmash of a beast; and in the hallway beyond, a horde of other shadows clattered along the ceiling and walls.

Jonah yelped in surprise.

“Did I mention not to look back?” Grandpa Z asked.

“What are those things?” Jonah asked, shouting above the noise of the chase.

“They are the Shadow—it’s a parasite. Hides on the dark side of human souls, feeding on fear, violence, selfishness—whatever garbage it can scavange. Uses its host as a breeding ground for infecting other souls.”

At that moment the Shadow’s whispering became a hiss, and the sound of dead rustling became a loud, dry, bug-like clattering that made Jonah’s skin crawl.

“The thing usually lays low like any good parasite would,” Grandpa Z continued, “but it gets kind of vicious if you try to get away—as you can see.”

“Can we outrun it?”

His grandfather laughed. “No—it’s your shadow. You can’t outrun your shadow.”

Jonah waited for more—some kind of plan, or a word of encouragement, perhaps—but Grandpa Z only leaned forward, urging the horse on faster.

“If we can’t outrun it,” Jonah finally prompted, “then what can we do?”

“You’re going to have to drown it.”

What?

“Drown it—look!”

And as his grandpa spoke those words, Jonah saw it: far off where the lines of the corridor vanished into a point, there was a light, and the light was growing stronger with every beat of the horse’s hooves. It was rushing toward them like a storm, like a hurricane—like something fierce, powerful, and very much alive.

Jonah hadn’t logged more than four hundred hours watching the SciFi channel for nothing; he knew exactly what the light was. This was not just any light, but the Light—the Light that people saw when they were dying, and it was coming to carry him over the brink of eternity.

And then the floor dropped away, and they were falling, and Jonah fell off the back of the horse. The animal kicked and surged away, and his grandfather grabbed Jonah’s hand before they could tumble apart. The Light was liquid, it was so bright. Brighter than the sun, but not like sunlight at all, because its warmth did not stop at the surface of Jonah’s skin; the Light poured through him, filling him, overflowing him, catching him up. The Light was liquid, a living water.

We aren’t falling; we’re swimming.

They were swimming, or at least being swept along by a powerful current, and it was carrying them up toward the surface, up toward Light and air and the endless horizon of a vast sea.

Something tugged at him—at his hand, or his heart; it was hard to tell.

Jonah looked back and saw his shadow. It was drowning, its terrified face coming apart before Jonah’s eyes. It gripped Jonah’s ankle with one hand and reached up desperately with the other, but even as it did, its arm drifted away in clouds of ash. Behind it, the awful beast it had been riding disintegrated and disappeared.

Jonah felt his grandfather tug at his hand.

He looked into his shadow’s eyes and saw some of the terrible things he had known, and some of the terrible things he had done. Those were not just the eyes of his shadow; they were his eyes, too. It wasn’t just his shadow that was drowning, but a part of him. Who would he be, without all the dark things that had chased him since his childhood—that had made him who he was? Looking into the eyes of his shadow, he found he couldn’t let them go.

So he let go of his grandfather’s hand  instead.

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 January 12, 2014  No Responses »
Dec 312013
 

Old Baseball

“I’m going to kill that Grubinski kid,” Alaska muttered darkly.

“Wouldn’t that go against your Quaker beliefs?” Jonah asked.

Alaska wrinkled her nose. “I’ll convert.”

Alaska and Jonah were playing with Mr. Berning’s tabby cat on a sunny windowsill while they waited for seventh-period biology to begin. Jonah had heard somewhere that cats had a soothing, calming effect on people, but even scratching the purring animal behind the ears didn’t seem to be doing much for Alaska. Two hours after their little meeting with Mr. Pincer and Bull, she was still fuming.

“I can’t believe Mr. Pincer fell for Bull’s story! The little faker.”

“Yeah, well, it was his word against ours,” Jonah said. “And if you were Mr. Pincer, who would you want to believe—your star wrestling champion, or a couple of freshman nobodies like us?”

Bull’s version of events—which Mr. Pincer had relayed to them as they sat in his overheated office—had Alaska and Jonah swearing at Bull’s friends in Shakespearean English, leading to “an exchange of words” (Mr. Pincer’s term) that ended in Jonah shoving Bull back over Alaska’s outstretched leg. According to Mr. Pincer, Bull wouldn’t have complained to the administration, but he had gone to the nurse’s office for a headache, and the nurse had asked about the bump on the back of his head.

Alaska tried telling Mr. Pincer what had really happened, but she may as well have saved her breath. Bull had a bump on his head and a handful of witnesses—his friends from the bus—to back up his story. By the time the gavel fell on their little meeting, Mr. Pincer had judged them both guilty and sentenced them to after-school detention the following day, plus a call to their parents—a punishment he described as “going easy on you this time.” Alaska’s mouth had actually dropped open at the verdict. Jonah guessed she probably had less experience with the general unfairness of life than he did.

Now she scowled out the window broodingly. “Do you think Bull went to the nurse’s office just to get us in trouble?”

Jonah gave her a Well, duh! look. “You think a kid like Bull shows up in the nurse’s office for a little bump on the head? I don’t think so. He must have come up with the idea during that locker room brainstorming session Pelé overheard.”

“Well, it’s totally not fair.”

“Welcome to the story of my life,” Jonah said. “Don’t worry, after a while you get used to it. I just hope the detention hall here is half as lame as the one at my old school.”

The tone marking the start of the period sounded. Mr. Berning, decked out in a white lab coat, clapped his hands together. “Everyone gather around!”

“What were you in detention so much for?” Alaska asked in a low voice as they moved to the front of the classroom. but Jonah pretended not to hear her.

Mr. Berning was waiting for them with a huge smile, bouncing on his toes as he waited for everyone to gather and settle down. When the room had been silent for a long moment, he lifted a glass of cloudy water high above his head.

“I hold in my hand evidence of the most amazing event in the history of the known universe,” he said, bouncing on his toes. “The most amazing event in the history of the known universe. Anyone want to guess what it is?” He moved the glass slowly around for them all to see, but no one spoke up. “Try smelling it,” he suggested, thrusting it in the faces of two unlucky guys in front of him.

“Whatever it is, I wouldn’t drink it,” one said.

“I wasn’t planning to,” Mr. Berning responded.

“Smells exactly like first day of the duck season opener,” the other guy offered.

Mr. Berning pointed a finger at the boy, as excited as if the kid had just discovered a new species of dinosaur. “Yes! And why is that? Because it’s pond water—ordinary pond water. Or is it so ordinary? Take a closer look.”

He set down the glass and placed a slide under a microscope that was hooked up to the Smart Board. Strange little bug-like creatures appeared on the board, wriggling appendages and zipping around.

“Magnify a drop of that pond water one hundred times or so, and what do you find? Life. Protozoa, in fact, from the Greek words meaning ‘first life.’” Mr. Berning pointed at an oval-shaped creature. “I think I’m going to name this guy Fred, after the famous American cell biologist Frederick W. True. Say hello to Fred”—a few kids obliged—“and take a good look. Now, Braeden, if you had gone duck hunting in a primordial pond three point eight billion years ago, not only would you have not seen a single duck, you wouldn’t have experienced the lovely aroma of pond water, either, because Fred and company didn’t exist yet. This entire planet was completely devoid of life—a rocky, watery wasteland in a barren universe.

“But then—then! The most amazing event in the history of the known universe occurs: abiogenesis, the beginning of life. At first, organisms even more simple than Fred here. Then, one-celled creatures like Fred; then plants, and fish, and amphibians, and insects, and flowers, and bees,  reptiles, mammals, and—you! And you!” Mr. Berning was pointing enthusiastically at different kids.

He had been shouting, but now his voice dropped to a near-whisper: “Do you know how many times abiogenesis has happened in the history of the Earth—in the history of the universe, as far as we know? How many times in four billion years has life just popped out of the chemical soup?” He held up a finger. “Just once. Every single living thing on the planet, including you and me, can be traced back to that singular event.”

The room was silent. Whether everyone else was mesmerized by the miracle of life or Mr. Berning’s impassioned performance, Jonah couldn’t tell. He only knew that he was suddenly aware of his own heartbeat, and the way it seemed to keep time with the movement of the little animals projected on the board.

Mr. Berning snapped a finger, and Jonah blinked. “For the test at the end of this unit, I’ll be asking you lots of questions about Fred and company—their scientific names, the names of their different parts, what makes them tick, and so on. But there’s also going to be this essay question, which you may answer for extra credit: What is life? We don’t call the chemical soup that covered the planet three point eight billion years ago ‘life,’ but when we look at little guys like Fred, we say that they are very much ‘alive.’ Why? What is the essential difference between living and not living?”

He wasn’t bouncing on his toes anymore, just looking at each of them in turn, smiling. “And while you’re at it, ponder this: If the appearance of a one-celled creature is the single most amazing event in the history of the known universe, then what does that make each of you, my fellow talking, laughing, cogitating members of the species homo sapiens?”

Alaska raised a hand. “Mr. Berning?”

“Yes! Mirabelle! You have an answer to the mysteries of life already?”

“Um, no—I just have bad news.”

“What’s that?”

She pointed at the Smart Board behind him, where a life-and-death drama was unfolding as a large amoebic blob enveloped the oval-shaped creature.

“Fred is dead,” she said.

Everyone broke up laughing, and Mr. Berning threw up his hands in mock horror. “Fred, no!”

As the laughter died down, Mr. Berning shook his head regretfully.

“Rest in peace, Fred. Rest in peace,” he said. “Well, you know what the poets say: Without death, life wouldn’t be half so precious.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

By the end of the school day, Jonah was whipped. His whole body had been on high alert since the time he woke up. Now, as he stood at his locker filling his backpack with books and folders, he wanted nothing more than to go home, heat up some leftover pizza, collapse on the couch, maybe play a video game. If he didn’t actually fall asleep first.

He slammed his locker door shut and turned to make his way toward the buses out front. But as he thought about possibly facing Bull and company again, he hesitated. It wasn’t that he was afraid. That must be the silver lining to getting beaten up by Dad all the time when I was little, he thought. After a while, getting hit isn’t such a big deal.

He would have to take care of Bull eventually; at the very least, he needed to show the kid that he had no fear and wasn’t going to back down.

But do I have to do it now? he wondered. Even as he asked the question, his feet were taking him toward a side door. Dealing with Bull was a chore that could just as well wait until t0morrow.

He took a few long strides, slammed into the crash bar, and sent the door flying.

The athletic fields smelled of freshly mown grass, the sky curved bright blue overhead, the sun shone on his face. It would take half an hour to walk home, but he didn’t care.

“Hey! Jonah! Over here!”

Jonah looked and saw that it was Peter, waving him down from across the field, where a handful of guys were standing around throwing a baseball.

No, no, no, Jonah thought with a groan. He’d completely forgotten about his promise to show up for Peter’s unofficial baseball practice. I just want to get out of here.

His mind raced through possible excuses as he walked over to the field:

Sorry, the moving van finally showed up with our furniture and I need to let them in.

Sorry, I have to exercise my pet goldfish.

Sorry, my grandma just started playing World of Warcraft under the alias Duke Gruesome, and I need to take her to an elven guild meeting.

Peter jogged over to meet him. “You showed,” he said. “We’re just warming up.”

“I need to take a rain check,” Jonah told him. “I gotta go home.”

“Why?” Peter asked.

“Uh, because. . . .” Jonah said, quickly reviewing his selection of excuses. “Homework. I have a lot of catching up to do.”

Peter was carrying an extra glove that he tossed way up in the air and caught again one-handed. “Come on,” he urged. “You don’t have to turn it all in tomorrow. We could use an extra man to cover right field.”

“Maybe next time,” Jonah countered.

Peter shrugged and tossed the glove in the air again. “Yeah, all right.”

But Jonah had a feeling it was now or never. That if he walked away, Peter would still be friendly—he seemed too laid-back to be real cliquey—but not in that Slapping-Hands-in-the-Hallway sort of way. Not in that We’re-All-On-The-Same-Team way. It wasn’t like he could ever expect to sit at their lunch table, in other words, if he walked away now.

“Well,” Jonah said, “maybe for just half an hour. Here, give me the glove. Just remember I haven’t played since fifth grade.”

The well-worn glove that Peter handed him was for a right-handed player, and Jonah was left-handed, but he didn’t say anything about it, just slid it on and walked to the backstop to throw down his backpack.

“You met Rusty and Campbell, right?” Peter said, nodding toward the guys they had passed in the hall earlier in the day. They nodded back at Jonah. Rusty looked at Jonah appraisingly and spat. Peter quickly rattled off the names of the other guys, then directed Jonah to right field.

The ball traced quick, straight lines in the air as the guys threw it to one another; it landed in a glove with a thwack and an instant later it was gone again. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Their throws and catches were flawless, like a machine.

Jonah wouldn’t have been nearly as good even if he hadn’t been using the wrong glove. He could catch most of what they sent his way, but his throws kept going wide or high.

The others didn’t seem to mind chasing down the ball, but after a while Rusty looked disgusted. “Yeah, throw it to me. Over here, see? Throw underhand if you have to.”

“Let’s just keep it casual,” Peter said.

“I am. I don’t care if he throws underhand, as long as it gets to me.”

“Sorry,” Jonah said, a little put out. He’d told them he hadn’t played in years.

“Let’s hit a few,” Peter suggested.

Rusty arched his eyebrows at Jonah. “So, can you hit?”

“Yeah, I can hit,” Jonah said.

Each kid took a turn batting while the others fielded. Jonah caught a grounder and a couple fly balls that came his way, and Peter and a few others complimented him. They weren’t complimenting anyone else, he noticed, so it was a little condescending, like he was a little kid who needed fake praise, but what did he care?

Not a bit, he told himself.

But when it was his turn to bat, standing there in the batter’s box with every eye on the field staring at him, he found his hands were maybe a little sweaty.

Rusty was pitching. Jonah just watched the first ball zip past him at what must have been eighty miles an hour.

He cranked at the next pitch, but half a second late.

“Just keep your eye on the ball,” advised Campbell, who was catching.

Jonah glanced back at him. “Really? And all this time I was counting the outfielders’ freckles.”

“I can slow pitch,” Rusty called from the mound.

“No, no—it’s all right,” Jonah shouted back. “Your catcher says keep my eye on the ball, so I should be good now.”

That got a few laughs.

“I was counting the freckles on your nose before, see,” Jonah said. “I’ll just keep my eye on the ball now, though.”

More laughter, which proved the rule that you usually couldn’t go wrong making fun of yourself.

“I’ll pitch slower anyway,” Rusty said.

Jonah shrugged and squared up over the plate. Rusty kicked the mound, looked up, narrowed his eyes. He was just getting set to pitch when Jonah suddenly stepped back from the plate, out of the batter’s box. Rusty rolled his eyes and dropped his arms, but Jonah stared off past Rusty, past the other guys watching him.

It suddenly seemed really important to make contact with the ball right now. Even a tipped-back foul would do. It seemed like it might make a big difference in how things went for him in this new place, like it might be the hinge that the rest of his high school career turned on. How many hours had he spent in therapy? Counselors’ offices? Meetings with teachers? All those thousands of words poured over his head by well-meaning adults didn’t have anywhere near the power to change his life as much as getting one hit right now. Most of the kids standing out there on the green field wanted him to get a hit. All he had to do was swing an aluminum stick through the air within the fraction of an inch and within the fraction of a second necessary to intercept an orb the size of an apple as it passed by him at the speed of a small plane. That’s all.

His eyes found a flock of swallows catching insects in the outfield, and he thought of Mr. Berning and the most amazing event in the universe—things coming together magically, miraculously, just once. Just that once, and all of a sudden what might have been barren rock always and forever was instead a green field swarming with swooping swallows. He followed one as it rode the wind, arcing up and up and hanging there, suspended in mid-air, before breaking forth and bending back to earth, gracefully.

All of this passed through his mind in about ten seconds. Weeks and months later, he would wonder whether the hope borne in those ten seconds had weighed enough to somehow tip the balance in what happened next.

He stepped back into the box. Rusty didn’t waste any time getting rid of the ball. Jonah tracked it all the way to the plate, a plain-as-vanilla fast ball, and he swung the bat and crushed it.

“Whoa,” said Campbell, standing up to watch the ball soar way out into center field, way beyond the outfielders.

“Nice!” Peter called appreciatively.

Jonah stared at the gone ball for an amazed moment before remembering to jog around the bases. He couldn’t kill the smile on his face as he slapped hands with the first baseman, a kid named Luke, and then the hands of the kids playing second and third base, too.

That should have been the end of Jonah’s time at bat; Peter was already jogging in for his turn, but Rusty wanted another go. “I want a re-do. I slow-pitched that one.”

“Nah, nah—he nailed it, no re-do,” Luke said.

“He got lucky,” Rusty complained.

Jonah arched his eyebrows, picked up the bat and walked to the batter’s box. “One pitch?” he suggested to Peter. “Let him get his strikeout, and then it’ll be your turn.”

But Jonah crushed the next pitch, too, even though Rusty had thrown it harder than he had the first one. This time Jonah put more power in the swing, and the ball flew even farther than before.

There was a moment of silence on the field, and then someone laughed, and someone else swore.

“Hey,” Peter said warningly, but he was looking at where the ball had landed and then back at Jonah and back at the ball in a kind of open-mouthed wonder.

“I thought you said you hadn’t played since fifth grade?”

Jonah just shrugged and shook his head. He wasn’t sure how he’d just done that, two homeruns in a row.

Rusty had the ball again. “One more pitch,” he said, but now he didn’t look so much annoyed as curious.

Jonah was holding the bat out to Peter, but Peter waved it off. “Do it again,” he said.

Jonah almost opened his mouth to protest—there was no way he was going to get another hit like that—but he could see Peter wouldn’t hear it, so he walked back to the plate and got set. The swallows he’d been watching before were still skating over the outfield grass.

This time the pitch was a curveball, but it didn’t matter. It was like there was a magnetic attraction between bat and ball, and when Jonah connected, he hit a really hard line-drive into right field.

“That is crazy!” Campbell shouted, tearing his facemask off. “That is just crazy!” He walked up to Jonah and punched him in the shoulder before putting an arm around his neck.

“Ow,” Jonah said, grinning. Everyone else was talking and laughing, too.

“Don’t hurt that arm,” Peter joked. “If this were a real game, that would have to be some kind of record. Luke, run see if coach is around—he should see this.”

Jonah shook his head. “My arm is getting sore.” Which was partly true—his hands were still tingling from the last hit—but more than that, he was beginning to get a little self-conscious.

“Okay, you rest that arm while some of the rest of us hit,” Peter said, picking up the bat and looking at it as if it might be magic. He took a test swing.

Rusty was waiting for the outfielders to find the ball. “Hey,” he called to Jonah from the mound. “You were hitting left-handed. How come? You a lefty?”

“Yeah,” Jonah answered.

Rusty grinned and shook his head. “But you were using a right-throw glove. Shoot, if you can throw left-handed half as well as you hit, I take back everything I said before.”

While they were talking, someone threw the ball to Rusty from the outfield, but it soared over him, bounced past Peter in the batter’s box, and caromed off the backstop.

“I got it,” Jonah said, moving to grab it as it rolled past him. Before his hand got to it, though, his foot accidentally kicked it ahead of him.

“That was just like in The Natural,” Peter was saying. “That was pretty amazing, Wilder, but—”

Jonah wasn’t even listening, he was so focused on chasing down the ball; it would be ironic if he made a fool of himself in front of everyone now. He half-dove for it, grabbed it, nearly fell—

“—I got a feeling we ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Peter finished, taking another practice swing.

Jonah caught himself with his free hand and pushed up triumphantly, just in time to see the aluminum bat headed straight for his head.

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P.S. The description of the swallows was inspired by Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem The Windhover:

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

 December 31, 2013  No Responses »
Dec 262013
 

Anna should not open the door for the beautiful woman in black. How many times have her parents warned her against opening the door for strangers while she is home alone? Up until now, she has obediently ignored the various delivery people, politicians, salesmen, missionaries—and yes, even Girl Scouts, with their promises of Thin Mints—who have rung the bell at 12 Cherry Street.

Then again, none of those people were nearly as beautiful as the woman at the door. None of them arrived during the blizzard of the century. And none of them carried a box wrapped in shiny gold foil, tied up in a white ribbon.

Perhaps Anna should not open the door, but if she doesn’t, how will she open the box? And if she doesn’t open the box, how will her future unfold?

Anna should not open the door for the beautiful woman in black. But she does. Every action has its consequences. Even the simple act of opening a door may admit a future once unimagined.

 

š›∞ ∞ ∞

david-diaz-boston-snow

Photo credit: David Diaz*

The storm rides into Boston on the back of a howling wind. It shakes the glass in the windows and whips old maple and oak trees into a fury, clawing at the sky. Trillions of snowflakes whip along on the wind, making the whole world fade away as if behind a sheer curtain. Already the roads and sidewalks and lawns have vanished under an unbroken field of white.

At the corner of Cherry and Arlington streets, a school bus creaks to a stop. Two young girls hop off and make their way down Cherry Street, arms shielding their faces against the stinging snow. They wear trim gray coats (too thin for the weather), and carry book bags slung over their shoulders. The taller of the two girls turns to squint back at the other, briefly revealing her heart-shaped face, slapped red by the wind.

The girl does not notice the black Volvo parked across the street. Nor does she notice Elizabeth Stark, whose pale blue eyes watch her from behind the Volvo’s tinted windows. As the girls disappear inside the narrow three-story brownstone at 12 Cherry Street, Stark purses her lips and looks away from the window.

“Well?” she asks.

A middle-aged, stubble-faced man sits beside her wearing oversized earphones and tapping on the screen of a hand-held device. Another man sits in the driver’s seat, arms folded across his chest, head back, eyes closed.

“I couldn’t get a clear shot of their faces,” says the man with the earphones, still peering at the screen. “Not enough to make  a positive identification. I’m getting audio, though.”

Stark glances at the screen, which displays an enlarged picture of the taller girl’s face, mostly obscured by passing snowflakes. The shot is clear enough for Stark, though.

“It’s her,” she says quietly. The girl’s hair is longer and darker than when Stark last saw her, but the eyes—those are the same. Dark and searching. Curious. Unafraid. And lit by a spark that could be laughter, or fire.

Stark’s companion glances at her, eyebrows raised, then turns back to the screen. “How can you tell?” he asks. “The last time you saw her she was, what, thirty-seven?”

There is a pause, as Stark remembers. “Some things never change,” she finally says.

“We have audio,” the man says again. He presses the headphones against his ear, listening intently. “She sounds like your typical twelve-year-old kid to me. Probably leaving her boots in the middle of the hall,” the man says. “Probably getting snow all over everything, just like my kid.”

“Typical 12-year-old kids don’t cause as much trouble as she has,” Stark replies. “Or will, anyway. Let me listen.”

The man taps the device and the dark interior of the car is suddenly filled with the sound of a girl’s laughter.

 

š›š›∞ ∞ ∞

 

Anna laughs, bright and happy. She is kicking off her boots and (just as the man listening in the car across the street suspects) leaving them in the middle of the hallway, where the snow packed into their bottoms will melt into puddles that she will step in later, wetting her socks.

What is making her laugh is the way Elly has wrapped her scarf around the head of their calico cat, Fritz, so that he looks like a Russian peasant woman. She is sitting on the bench just inside the doorway, holding Fritz upright in her lap.

“I tell your fortune, cheap, birthday girl!” Elly says, making her voice croak like an old gypsy’s as she waves Fritz’s paws around. “Two krona for a good fortune. One krona for bad! Cheap! Madame Fritzy never cheat customer!”

Anna shrugs off her coat and deposits it on the floor by the bench. She plops down next to her sister and the fortune-telling cat, who looks at her plaintively. Please be my rescuer from this embarrassing situation, his face seems to say, but instead she holds out her palm.

“Oh, great fortune teller, tell me, tell me, what do you see in my future?” Anna asks, with a melodramatic flourish of her other arm.

Elly puts Fritz’s paw on her sister’s palm. “It is hazy, yes, so hazy,” she intones. “I see…yes, I see…you are walking into a dark room…a dark room with many dark strangers…and it smells like…sardines…and there is a purple panda….”

Anna smirks and rolls her eyes; she knows where this is going. Elly has closed her eyes, totally immersed in her role. Fritz, on the other hand, is trying to squirm away.

“…who says to you: ‘Welcome. Welcome to…Pandemonium Pizza!”

“Elly, I told you we’re not going to Pandemonium Pizza for my birthday dinner!” Anna jerks her hand away and liberates Fritz, lifting him out of Elly’s grasp. She stands and carries Fritz down the hall and into the kitchen.

Elly follows on her heels. “Oh, come on, Anna!”

“I want to go to the Beehive, Elly. Seriously,” Anna says, carrying Fritz into the kitchen. “And it’s anchovies that they put on pizza, not sardines.”

“Sometimes they put sardines on pizza!” Elly insists. “Ask Mom!”

Anna gives her a disgusted look and sets Fritz down on the floor. She opens one of the cabinets and fishes out a can of tuna.

“Madame Fritzy deserves to be paid anyway,” Anna says, “even if she is a lousy fortune teller.” She pops the can onto the electric can opener.

“You can’t use that,” Elly says. “The power’s out.” She opens the refrigerator door and quickly grabs the cream cheese and blueberry jam. The refrigerator light doesn’t come on.

“Argh. Not again,” Anna groans. “First the cell network is down. Now this.”

“The power is always out,” Elly says flatly. It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. She finds some bread, spreads two slices out on the cutting board, and proceeds to make an extremely sticky sandwich overflowing with cream cheese and jam.

Meanwhile, Anna digs through the utensil drawer until she finds the manual can opener. She dumps the tuna fish into the cat’s bowl; Fritz responds with loudly purred thank yous. Anna stands there watching Fritz eat, thinking about her homework. She is supposed to be keeping a daily journal for thirty days, writing down all her thoughts and experiences. It is due in a week, so now seems like a good time to get started, even if it is her birthday; after all, what is she going to do with the power out? She can’t work on her blog. And her parents will probably be late getting home because of the storm. Caroline Fox is an editor at the Boston Globe; David Fox is a professor of theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both are usually home late, but tonight they had planned to come home early so the whole family could go out for a special dinner celebrating Anna’s birthday. Her heart sinks at the thought that those plans might get scrapped.

“We might not even go to a restaurant tonight, if the storm gets worse,” Anna tells Elly. “Maybe Mom and Dad will pick up some takeout.”

“I can make you another cream cheese and jam sandwich,” Elly suggests, her mouth half full. A big gob of jam drips out of the far end of her creation and splatters all over the floor. “If you’re hungry,” she adds.

“Uh, no thanks.”

Anna loves her little sister dearly—but her taste in food, not so much.

 

š›š›∞ ∞ ∞

 

Elly runs up the stairs to her third-floor bedroom—possibly to sing and dance around while listening to her iPod. “Ha, ha!” she calls over her shoulder when she finds out that Anna will be doing homework.

Anna finds the notebook that is supposed to be filled with journal entries from the past month. After digging around in her mother’s desk for a pen, she gets comfortable on the window seat in the front parlor. Fritz hops up next to her. They look out the window at the storm. Cars creep by slowly, headlights glowing and windshield wipers slashing furiously. A handful of parked cars are turning into hulking polar bears, huddled against the wind.

The blank notebook sits in Anna’s lap, its pages as white as the snow swirling against the cold window-glass. What to write? What to write? Anna broods over the empty journal, scowl-faced. She can’t really remember many details from the past thirty days; they all blur into one another. Cinnamon toast for breakfast. The sleepy car ride to school; the droning voice of Mr. Pathos explaining fractions; texting her friends, Isa and Sam…if she retrieves those texts, would they say anything worth mentioning in the journal? She guesses not. On the weekends, going shopping with Elly and her mother in the antique shops lining Charles Street. If only she were interested in antiques, she could fill three journal entries talking about that, but she’s not. She always sits in the corner, reading, while Elly and her mother explore the uncharted back rooms. Anna only goes along because afterward, her mother takes them out for lunch at Eduardo’s. Their quesadillas make Anna drool.

If you don’t know how to start, her mother has often advised, start anywhere, with anything. You can always go back and re-write. Easy enough for her to say; her mother did all her writing on computer screens, not in a notebook. Also, her mother wrote about interesting things, not the boring details of her everyday life.

“It would be a lot easier to write about my life if I had lived a different one,” she says to Fritz, absently rubbing his stomach. She begins to think that she will have to resort to making things up. Fiction, she can handle; real life, not so much.

The parlor, Anna suddenly notices, has grown darker. Besides being crammed full of the prizes her mother and sister bring home from antique shops and estate sales—ancient wardrobes and mirrors and lamps and heavy wooden sidetables and bookshelves—it is now also filling up with shadows. She gets up and grabs a couple of  small battery-powered lamps from a closet, flicking them on and setting them on a bookshelf and a side table near the window.

As she does, she glances outside to see how much more of the world has disappeared. Everything, it seems—everything but the black car that slowly glides to a stop in front of the house.

Anna stands frozen, wondering who it could be. These days, black cars with tinted windows tend to be bad news. Presently the passenger door opens, and a young woman steps out. She looks at the house. Her eyes find Anna in the window. Anna steps away from the window, back into the shadows, as shy as a fawn. She thinks of running upstairs, but she would have to pass the front entrance, with its glass windows, to do that.

As she wonders what to do, she catches the sad eyes of Abraham Lincoln—or his bust, anyway, proudly displayed on a tall wooden stand.

“Shh,” Anna whispers to Lincoln. She crouches down and crawls to the parlor entrance, where she can hide out of view but still get a pretty good look at the front door reflected in a mirror hanging in the hallway.

The woman is already standing there, reaching for the bell-pull; then the bell mounted inside the door swings and clangs.

Peering at the woman’s image in the hallway mirror, Anna is struck by her beauty: blonde hair pulled back neatly from a heart-shaped face, rose-colored lips, eyes as pale blue as a winter sky, and a smile as kind as a kindergarten teacher’s. And although she wears only a three-quarter sleeve jacket that is already covered in a thin white mantle of snow, she seems totally unperturbed. She must be cold, Anna thinks. If the woman’s beauty was not enough to persuade her to open the door, she might have done it just to bring the woman in out of the cold.

And then there is the package, wrapped in shiny gold foil and tied with a white ribbon. The woman holds it to herself, just high enough to be visible through the doorway window. Could it be a birthday present?

For all of these reasons—for beauty and compassion and, yes, a touch of concupiscence—Anna stands up, pads across the rug in her damp socks, and opens the door—just a crack. Cold air floods through the opening, along with the faint scent of a perfume that immediately reminds Anna of summer.

“Yes?” she says, coolly.

The woman looks at her calmly with ice-blue eyes, and smiles as if recognizing an old friend.

“Hello,” the woman says. “Are you Anna Fox?”

“Yes.”

“Anna Quincy Fox?”

“Yes,” Anna says again, with a bit of an edge.

“I understand that it’s your birthday today, Ms. Fox.”

Anna says nothing, just looks the lady up and down, because nothing annoys her more than a condescending adult. Even one with great shoes, which Anna pauses briefly to admire. Pumps—black, of course, sunk ankle-deep in the accumulating snow. The woman also wears a thigh-length skirt; she must be freezing, Anna thinks again.

“May I come in?” the woman asks.

“I’m not even supposed to open the door for strangers,” Anna says.

“Then let me introduce myself.” The woman extends a hand, gloved in black leather. “Elizabeth Stark. I’m a colleague of your father’s.”

Anna accepts her hand, which Stark grasps rather firmly. She uses the handshake to maneuver Anna out of the way as she steps inside. She shuts the door behind her.

“I promise I won’t stay,” Stark says, with a smile and a wink. She hands the box wrapped in gold foil to Anna. “This is for you. It is a birthday present.”

From the weight of the thing, Anna decides it must be a thick book.

“What is it?”

“Open it,” says Stark, smiling coyly as she pulls off her gloves. Her eyes linger on Anna’s face.

Anna hesitates, remembering warnings about not accepting candy from strangers. Although Stark claims to be a colleague of her father’s, Anna does not remember her from among the many guests her parents have had for their frequent parties. There have been professors and reporters and activists and politicians, all of them chattering endlessly (if quietly) about the Crisis and the Emergency Government, but no fashion-model kindergarten teachers. Anna thinks she would have remembered someone as striking as Stark.

“You work with my father at the university?” she asks. “Are you a secretary or something?”

Stark’s face makes the tiniest frown. “Mmm, no. Administration, you might say. Your father has told us all so much about you and your sister over the years. Your backyard campouts. Gymnastics meets. The little musical plays you put on.”

Anna flushes a little; putting on musical plays sounds childish, coming from the lips of the elegant Ms. Stark. Anna and Elly always called them operas, even before they’d been to a real opera.

Stark steps into the parlor, slowly taking it all in. Her gaze lands on several pictures of Anna and Elly on the wall, and she steps up close to them, admiringly. There are some school portraits, and a portrait of the whole family—all four of them—from two years ago. Anna, Elly, and her mother have very dark hair, a gift from their Indian and Italian ancestors. David Fox has reddish hair—a little thin on top—and a full beard. He is grinning in a way that suggests he might not be taking this all that seriously. There are also several pictures from family vacations: Elly and Anna at the Grand Canyon, and another of them on the beach, during their trip to the Outer Banks last summer.

“Hasn’t your father ever told you about me?” Stark asks.

“No. He doesn’t tell me much about his work. He spends a lot of time doing math on computers.”

“Hmm,” Stark says. She suddenly turns away from the pictures. “You’re so much more patient than I am. If I were you, I’d have ripped that present open by now. Go ahead! It’s one of the many wonderful things that your father’s work makes possible.”

Anna sits down on the piano bench, knocking aside several music books that have been abandoned there, and carefully unties the ribbon, then pulls back the gold foil.

“It’s a book,” she says, a bit disappointed. The cover features a photograph of a woman in a red sleeveless dress standing against a clear blue sky. The woman, who is maybe as old as Anna’s mother, smiles as she looks off into the distance. For the Sake of the People is emblazoned across the cover in shiny gold lettering. Below the title, in equally large white letters, is her name: Anna Q. Fox.

“So…the author of this book has the same name as me? I’ve never heard of her.” Anna flips the book over and reads from the back cover: “‘In the wake of her triumphant return after ten years in exile, Anna Quincy Fox tells the story of her extraordinary life for the first time. Her now-legendary birth on the floor of the Boston Globe on the very night of the State of the Union Attacks foreshadowed a life at the center of the ensuing Crisis. In these pages, she recalls quiet moments from her Boston childhood, as well as the heretofore secret details of her rise within the ranks of the Restorationist movement….’ Oh, I get it,” Anna says, looking up at Stark. “I have a friend at school who got a book like this. This is one of those designer books, right? They put your name in the place of the main character, so it’s like you’re the center of the story.”

Stark raises her eyebrows, then slowly bends down, bringing her face inches from Anna’s. She looks at Anna as if she is both seeing her and seeing through her to someone else. When Anna looks back at her, it is with very large eyes.

“Anna,” Stark says in a whisper. “You’re the author of this book.” She lets this sink in for a moment, then continues. “You’re the author. This is you on the cover.”

Okay, Anna thinks. I have let a crazy woman into my house.

“I’ve never written a book,” Anna says to the beautiful crazy lady hovering way too close to her face. “Not about me. Not about anything.”

“No, you haven’t,” Stark says. “But you will.” She draws her fingertips lightly across the cover of the book until she reaches the edge, then lifts it open and turns the pages to the first chapter. “Go ahead, Anna. Read.”

Stark straightens up and begins to slowly walk through the parlor with her hands clasped behind her back, just as if she were casually sampling the displays in a museum.

Anna watches Stark’s back for a moment. She definitely does not like this woman. But what can be done? Besides, now she’s curious. She bends her head to the book and begins to read:

I was born at ten minutes to midnight on January 27, 2010—just hours after the State of the Union Attacks. Go ahead, wince and frown sympathetically—everyone does when I tell them this. Not exactly the most promising time to come into the world, was it? Some consider it bad luck. I did, as a child; but who could blame me? All those birthdays shared with the grim anniversary rituals. I don’t remember a single birthday before I was ten that wasn’t spent in my best dress, sitting or standing somewhere listening to somber music and somber speakers drone on and on while the adults around me—my mother, especially—dabbed at tears.

Speaking of my mother, I should share her perspective on my birth story, the one endlessly retold at countless parties: my mother, at the time the assistant metro editor at the Boston Globe, giving birth to me in the middle of the newsroom on that horrible night. Undoubtedly the story has been embellished over the years, but the way she likes to tell it, she went down still clutching her Blackberry, shouting questions at her staff between pushes. The captain going down with her ship, so to speak. “I don’t believe in letting a little thing like childbirth get in the way of a deadline,” she likes to deadpan. The hospitals were overwhelmed, anyway; it was either give birth in the newsroom, or in some chaotic emergency room hallway. Abbey Kakissis, who covered the cops and courts beat back then, delivered me into the world; she was the only person in the newsroom with any experience in this sort of thing, having had a couple kids of her own and not being too squeamish about a little blood.

And so the joke that followed me throughout my short-lived career in journalism: “Anna,” says every editor I’ve ever had, “it’s no wonder you’re always late. You were even late for the story of the century!”

To which I retort: “Ah, but at least I came in under budget.”

Anna shivers—not from the cold, but from the tingling feeling in her arms. Is it a practical joke? A really elaborate one? Lots of people know that story; everyone at the Globe, for starters. She flips to the cover photo again. It is hard to believe this woman could be her. The hair and eyes are the same dark shade of brown, though: almost black. The woman’s hair is cut in a bob, while Anna’s hair is tied back in a simple ponytail that falls just below her shoulders.

She flips the book open and turns a few pages before beginning to read again: “My introduction to the world of romance came by way of one Jasper Vanderbilt, my first serious crush—and my first serious heartbreak. He’d peek at me from under those long bangs with his teasing half-smile, and my heart would melt….”

Anna stops reading as her mouth slowly falls open and her face flushes. She has told no one, not even Isa, about Jasper.

This is real, she thinks, after re-reading the passage several times. She is so amazed, the fact that Jasper apparently is going to break her heart doesn’t even register. She sits down in the window seat, where Fritz is curled up fast asleep, holding the book open in her lap.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” says Stark from across the room. Turning gracefully on her heel, she strolls back to Anna’s side, languid as a cat. “How could you hold a book that you haven’t yet written? A book about a life you haven’t yet lived? Impossible! And yet, here it is. You, Anna Quincy Fox, hold the story of your life’s future in your hands.”

Standing over Anna, Stark reaches out and turns the pages of the book until she comes to a centerfold made of thick, glossy paper. On the left-hand page is a baby, presumably Anna, who has been posed in a jaunty red jumper, holding a blue and yellow ball in her pudgy hands. She is either laughing or screaming; it is hard to tell which. On the right-hand page is a group of young people sitting and standing around a cluttered office. A young woman who looks strikingly like Anna, but more grown up, has been highlighted with a sort of halo effect; she is sitting on the edge of a desk and smiling.

Before Anna can read the captions on these photos, Stark touches the picture controls that have been embossed into the bottom of the left-hand page, making the image flicker and change several times before it resolves into a picture of Anna as a young woman in a cap and gown. Anna’s grinning father is standing next to her on one side, arms around her shoulder. A teenaged Elly stands on the other side, looking away. Stark slides a finger over the controls again and the image begins to move. The voice of Anna’s mother comes through tiny speakers embedded in the spine of the book.

“You did it, honey,” her mother’s voice is saying. “You survived the longest, most boring graduation ceremony I have ever been so unlucky to attend.” Anna and her father laugh. Elly, who has been distractedly looking away, smiles as she turns to face the camera.

Their laughter makes the here-and-now Anna laugh, too. She can’t take her eyes off the video clip—or, more accurately, herself. The older Anna seems graceful, confident, at ease with herself and the world. Beautiful.

Finally the clip comes to an end and she looks up at Stark. “This is impossible.”

Stark cocks an eyebrow. “As I said. And yet, here it is.”

“How did you get this?”

“This is a unique and very valuable gift, Anna. People like to believe that they make their own destinies. The truth is that most people stumble into their destiny blindly. But not you, Anna Fox.”

Stark turns and gazes at her reflection in the mirror that hangs over the piano, absentmindedly pulling on her gloves. She seems wistful, as if her mirror image were a million miles away. The grandfather clock standing in the corner of the room begins to chime the four o’clock hour.

“But you didn’t answer my question,” Anna says, a little more insistently. “How did you get this? And what am I supposed to do with it?”

Stark turns her far-away eyes to Anna. “I think your first question is best answered by your father. It is his work that helped us to obtain the book, and it is because of him that you hold it in your hands today.” Her eyes twinkle. “Although I am sure that he will be surprised to see it.

“As for your second question; well, that’s entirely up to you. It’s your story, after all.”

She looks back at the mirror one last time, gently patting her perfect hair, then walks out of the parlor to the front door. Anna gets up and follows, still holding the book.

Stark opens the door. An icy wind blows into the house, lifting Anna’s hair and ruffling the pages of the book.

“Tell your father hello for me,” Stark says, smiling that kindergarten teacher smile. “Happy birthday, Anna Quincy Fox.”

And then she is gone, leaving Anna holding the story of her future in her hands.

This is the first chapter of a planned book tentatively titled Anna Fox: A Year of Snows. I wrote this chapter in July 2011 and hope to finish it after completing Angeling. If you are interested in reading more of Anna’s story, leave a comment to that effect; you can also sign up to receive e-mail updates so you’ll be the first to know when her story continues.
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*The photo above of the 2013 Boston blizzard is courtesy of Dr. David Diaz; used with permission. You can see more gorgeous pictures of the blizzard and New England, as well as some wonderful essays, at his blog, An Armchair Academic.

 December 26, 2013  No Responses »
Dec 182013
 

Jonah made his way into the school as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run, dodging around packs of kids to lose anyone who might have followed him from the bus. By the time he was sure no one was after him, though, he was completely lost. He couldn’t find the green-eyed girl among the hundreds of unfamiliar faces crowding the hallways. He wandered around for ten minutes, map in hand, before the tone for homeroom sounded. Once almost everyone else had disappeared into classrooms, one of the adult hall monitors spotted him and took him to his locker.

By the time he finally figured out his locker, the tone for first period had sounded and the hallways were swirling with kids again. His homeroom teacher, Mr. Berning, was standing in the classroom doorway when Jonah finally arrived.

“Ah, Mr. Wilder,” Mr. Berning said brightly. “You made it. First day, huh?” He clasped Jonah’s hand firmly in his own, smiling enthusiastically.

“Sorry I’m late,” Jonah said, trying to catch his breath. “I couldn’t find my locker, and then—”

“Welcome to James Buchanan Regional High School!” Mr. Berning went on. He was still shaking Jonah’s hand. “You’re going to love it here. We’ve got a great school, a great bunch of kids. Go Eagles! You’re going to love it. What do you play?”

“Um, music or sports?”

“Anything!” Mr. Berning replied, looking intently at Jonah over his black-rimmed glasses.

“Sports, I’m game for just about everything. And I play piano, and a little guitar.”

Mr. Berning finally released Jonah’s hand to strum a few chords on air guitar. “Great, great! What’s your next class?”

Jonah showed him his schedule.

“Ah! Music Theory. That’s all the way across the school, and you’re already late! Here—Peter!”

He grabbed the arm of a giant in a baseball jersey who was slipping into the classroom. “Peter, this is Jonah Wilder. Jonah, meet Peter Porter. Plays baseball and bass, isn’t that right? Jonah is new, Peter—big first day today! Isn’t that exciting? Would you please accompany him to Ms. Affretando’s music studio?”

“Sure,” Peter agreed amiably, and Mr. Berning wrote out a hall pass for them.

“Don’t blow anything up without me, Mr. B!” Peter called as he and Jonah started down the hall.

Mr. Berning laughed. “Tell Jonah about blowing up pumpkins at the end of the month, would you?”

pumpkin~ ~ ~

As Peter led the way through the labyrinth of corridors, he asked Jonah the usual questions about where he was from and why he had moved. He seemed pretty friendly, which Jonah wouldn’t normally have expected from a hard-core athlete like him. He even waited while Jonah stopped by his locker.

“So, what’s up with Mr. Berning and the, uh, exploding pumpkins?” Jonah asked when they got underway again.

“Last Friday of the month, if the class has enough points, we get to blow things up. Mr. Berning calls it Explosion Day. It’s very educational,” Peter explained with a grin. “You just missed exploding eggs with dry ice. Next time we’re doing exploding pumpkin faces, for Halloween.”

A couple of guys wearing sports jerseys and baseball caps lifted their chins at Peter and held out a hand as they approached.

“Porter,” one of them said.

“Campbell, Rusty,” Peter said back, slapping their hands.

After they’d passed, Peter explained that he was on the baseball team with them. “Do you play?” he asked Jonah.

“Uh, Little League, when I was a kid.” His father had signed him up and then sat in the bleachers offering “encouragement” at every game.

“You can still play, though,” Peter said, sounding more as if he were making a statement than asking a question. “You should come to our practice after school today. It’s not an official practice, so it’s pretty casual.”

“I haven’t played on a team since fifth grade,” Jonah objected.

“Just come. Worst case, you can chase down balls and hang out. It’ll be cool.”

“Okay,” Jonah said.

He agreed partly because he didn’t think Peter was going to take no for an answer, and partly to show his mom that he was actually trying to “thrive,” as she put it—because of course she’d want to know every detail of his day as soon as she got home from work. He could only hope that after-school baseball would be enough to distract her from his nearly getting into a fight before he’d even stepped foot inside the school.

~ ~ ~

Although Jonah met a few more friendly kids in his morning classes, none invited him to sit with them at lunch. As he stood at the edge of the cafeteria, his slightly worse-for-wear sack lunch in hand, that left him in the classic dilemma of new kids everywhere: Did he find a seat by himself and hope someone friendly would sit down near him, or did he find a likely looking table of kids and crash their party?

The cafeteria was a buzzing hive of unfamiliar faces. Everybody seemed to know somebody; all the round tables were occupied by at least a handful of people, and he didn’t recognize any of them—until he spotted the girl from the bus, sitting at a table with a handful of other kids.

Even from a distance, he could tell that they were the type of kids who had found themselves left standing when the music stopped in that great game of musical chairs that was the high school social scene. Everyone else had a group to belong to: the only thing holding their group together was their shared inability to fit in anywhere else.

He was scanning the room for better prospects when the girl saw him and waved him over. He felt both relieved and doomed as he approached the table.

“Hey, Alaska,” he called.

She looked amused at what he’d called her.

“Well, I don’t know your real name,” he explained. “Just that you’re from Alaska.”

“I know your name: Jonah Wilder!”

“How did you know that?”

“It was written on your backpack.” She grinned, lazily peeling a slice of orange.

Jonah flushed. That must have been his mom’s doing.

“Come on—you can sit with us,” she said. “This is Penny, Franklin, Pelé, and Trudy.”

Jonah took a seat and glanced around the table as he unpacked his lunch. They were a motley bunch. Penny was a small girl whose round face and red overalls made her look about ten years old. Franklin, wide-eyed and surprised-looking under a mess of curly red hair, instantly reminded Jonah of a rooster, while Pelé might have been a mouse, the way his eyes darted around; he even nibbled at his chicken sandwich with quick little bites.

Those three seemed shy or maybe a little wary of Jonah. But Trudy—black-skinned, all arms and legs, hair done up in braids and beads—made a show of giving Jonah the once-over.

“You’ve got something on your cheek,” she said, dropping French fries into her mouth.

Jonah touched a hand to his face, feeling for what it might be.

“Other cheek,” Trudy directed. “Now up a little. Higher. Little higher. Yeah, there.”

Jonah rolled his eyes. “That’s a mole.”

“Oh!” She giggled hysterically. “That’s all right, we like moles. Your mole can sit here, too.”

Pelé shook his head and whirled his finger in the “crazy-loco” sign.

Trudy ignored him. “Where’d you pick up this one, Mirabelle?”

“I think I’m going to go by Alaska from now on, actually,” the green-eyed girl replied. “I kinda like it.”

Trudy made a face. “I’m not calling you Alaska.”

“But I never liked Mirabelle. Alaska is cool.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Hey, get it? ‘Alaska is cool?’”

“Hardee-har-har. Where’d you pick him up, Alaska?”

“I didn’t pick him up anywhere,” Alaska replied, biting into the slice of orange. “We kind of fell in together on the bus this morning. Today’s Jonah’s first day at good old James Buchanan Regional.”

“That right?” Trudy said, giving Jonah another look.

“Our deepest condolences,” Franklin said mournfully.

Jonah shrugged. “It doesn’t seem that bad, actually.”

“Jonah’s in a band,” Penny piped up. Turning to Jonah, she said, “I was in Ms. Affretando’s Music Theory with you this morning.”

Ms. Affretando had asked him a few questions when she was introducing him to the class and the subject of the Panda Banshees came up—although, to his relief, she hadn’t asked him for the band’s name, which Jonah had always been iffy about. It had been Danny’s suggestion.

“A real band? Really?” Alaska asked.

Jonah nodded. “Just a few of us in someone’s garage. We weren’t that good.”

“What was the name of the band?”

Dang. Jonah took a big bite of his ham-and-cheese sandwich and chewed slowly, trying to think up a better name.

On the other hand, what did he care? He swallowed and cleared his throat. “The Panda Banshees.”

As expected, that got snorts and laughs all around the table.

“It wasn’t my idea,” Jonah protested. “I wanted to call us Ghost Opera.”

“That’s not bad,” Alaska said, but Trudy was not impressed.

“Oh, please,” she said. “I can list ten band names cooler than that in sixty seconds.”

Which she then did—or began to, anyway; people kept interrupting her with their own suggestions, which got increasingly outrageous.

“What about—what was it that you called Bull on the bus this morning?” Jonah asked Alaska.

Her eyes lit up. “Oh yeah! That would be a good band name: ‘The Burping, Blasphemous Dogs.’”

Pelé had gone wide-eyed when Jonah mentioned Bull, as if he’d just thought of a really good name—but that wasn’t what came out of his mouth after he gulped down the mouthful he’d been chewing.

“You’re the kid who beat up Bull on the bus this morning!” he said, pointing a finger at Jonah.

That hushed everyone up. Jonah just blinked in surprise.

“How you talk, Pelé!” Trudy exclaimed. “You can tell just by looking at him that he didn’t lay a finger on Bull.”

Penny examined Jonah doubtfully. “You can?”

“No bleeding, no broken bones, no bruises. Ergo and therefore, no fight with Bull.”

“I didn’t say he fought him, I said he beat him up,” Pelé insisted. “I heard it in the locker room. George McLackey and Brian Stoker were all like teasing Bull about getting beat up by a freshman half his size. Like, ‘quickest take-down ever’ and ‘They’re not asking for your wrestling trophy back, are they?’ That kind of stuff.”

“Well, I was there,” Alaska said. “The only person who beat anyone up was me and Mr. Shakespeare. Bull and some other kids were throwing stuff at Jonah and me, but I used my extensive knowledge of Shakespearean insults to fend them off.”

Jonah ducked his head and coughed. “Actually, Bull and I kind of had a second act after you got off the bus.”

“What?!” Alaska exclaimed. “I told you not to fight him!”

“Well, I didn’t,” Jonah snapped. “He grabbed me from behind, like this—” He demonstrated on Franklin, who hunched his shoulders in surprise. “—and he fell on his back when I broke free. End of movie. Roll the credits and all that.”

Alaska narrowed her eyes at him.

“Maybe it’s end of movie for you, but Bull is looking for a sequel,” Pelé said matter-of-factly. “He was saying how he’s gonna get you back.”

Trudy shook her head regretfully and gave Jonah a pitying look. “It all comes of running with the wrong crowd. Mirabelle’s bad enough, but her and Shakespeare are the dog.”

Alaska,” Alaska corrected her. “But, Pelé, how’d you hear Bull say all that? Bull’s in tenth grade. You don’t have gym with him.”

“Prentiss locked Pelé in a locker after gym again,” Penny said. “We have gym together the period before the tenth graders, so he was still trapped in the locker when Bull and those guys arrived.”

“Oh, Pelé!” Alaska gave him a sympathetic look.

“Those no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrels got me again,” Pelé acknowledged. “But there was a bunch of towels and gym clothes in there, so I kind of took a little nap. When I heard the tenth graders come in, I was going to shout for help, but then I heard Bull and them, so I was like, what’s the point?”

“What’d he say?” Trudy prompted.

“He was mad. At first he was boasting how he’s gonna get this kid and beat him up and all like that kind of talk that those kind of guys do, but then the other guys are like, ‘No, no, you’ll get suspended from the team,’ so then Bull says he’ll do it after school, like take the bus home and get off at your stop and pound the juice out of your gallbladder and break your fingers and stick your tongue to a freezing pole and rip it off and stick bugs in your ears and pine needles under your toenails and—”

“Okay, I get the basic idea,” Jonah interrupted.

“But then those guys are like, ‘No, you’ll still get in trouble, and then the wrestling team won’t go to state, wah, wah, wah,’ so then they start talking about how to do it under the radar—like stealing your homework and egging your house and maybe roughing you up a little every day on the bus, but not enough to get in trouble, stuff like that.”

Trudy fake-yawned. “That is so old school. They should steal his clothes out of his gym locker so he has to wear his gym uniform the rest of the day.”

“Or make up a blog by him,” Franklin said. “Something embarrassing, like bad rhyming love poems to, um, Miss Andrews—”

“—and then spread it on Facebook!” Trudy added.

Penny tapped her chin. “That would be traceable. It would be better if they swiped his phone without him knowing and posted weird Facebook updates on his account. The only problem would be how to swipe his phone.”

Franklin waved a hand. “That would be simple. Someone distracts him while his locker’s open, someone else sticks chewing gum in the lock so it doesn’t quite latch—”

“Or they could just stuff him in the locker,” Pelé suggested. “No one ever gets in trouble for stuffing a kid in a locker.”

Jonah held up his hands. “Uh, yeah, so—excuse me, but whose side are you guys on, anyway?”

“Oh, this is all purely hypothetical,” Penny assured him innocently. She was waving the spoon from her pudding cup around pedantically. “We often have little hypothetical discussions about this and that.”

“Guys, guys!” Alaska waved her hands to get their attention. “We should be thinking of ways to stop them! We have to help Jonah out here.”

An awkward silence fell over the group as Alaska looked from face to face for agreement. No one said anything.

And then no one said anything some more.

Franklin slowly raised a tortilla chip to his mouth and bit down.

It made a very loud crunching noise.

“We do?” he said, arching an eyebrow.

“Come on, people!” Alaska pleaded.

Trudy took a swig of water. “Sorry. I’m already lined up for detention this week. I can’t get into any more trouble, and Bull is nothing but.”

“I heard he made a substitute teacher cry once,” Penny said.

Pelé just looked down at his half-empty lunch tray.

Jonah was embarrassed for them. He focused on his apple and chips, all business-like. “I don’t need anyone’s help,” he said. “If Bull touches me again, the next thing he’s going to remember is waking up in the emergency room.”

He said it matter-of-factly, but with enough heat to make the others shift in their seats uncomfortably. In their faces he could see them recalculating their first impressions of him. They were thinking maybe he was a little more dangerous than their usual company.

He wondered if they could somehow tell he’d beaten up other kids before. He counted them all in his head. Six, if you counted the time he’d knocked down that loud-mouthed know-it-all of a sixth grader, Shelley Winter.

Six, if you didn’t count the time he went after his father.

Trudy picked up her tray and stood up to go. “Don’t worry about Bull,” she told Jonah. “He’s full of it. He talks big, but next week he won’t even remember your name. Just lay low, and it’ll blow over.”

The words had barely died on her lips when Jonah noticed the assistant principal—the same guy who had toured Jonah and his mom around the school—working his way over to their table.

He didn’t look like he was making a social call. He looked for all the world like the sheriff in an old Western—the weather-beaten face, the steel-blue eyes, the salt-and-pepper mustache. All he needed was a star and a gun holster.

He laid a firm hand on Jonah’s shoulder.

“Mr. Wilder,” he said. “I need to see you in my office for a few minutes.”

Jonah slid his eyes over to Trudy in a What Were You Saying About It Blowing Over? kind of look.

“All right,” he said, and to himself he was thinking that this had to be a new record for him—half a day between walking through the front doors to walking through the principal’s door.

The assistant principal scanned the lunch table. “And Mirabelle Delacroix?”

Alaska raised her hand, ever so slowly. She looked stunned.

Trudy slapped Alaska’s hand down. “Actually she only answers to Alaska now. Don’t ask me why. I’d trade my old name for ‘Mirabelle’ any day of the week—except for now, since you’re looking for someone named Mirabelle and I think the last time you and I had a little chat in your office we agreed that I’d better not come back anytime soon, right, Mr. Pincer? If it’s someone to discipline you want, Alaska, née Mirabelle, is the gal for you.” And she clapped Alaska on the back.

“That’s fine, Trudy,” Mr. Pincer said dryly. “I only need to borrow your friends for a few minutes—now, please.”

Jonah and Alaska stood and followed Mr. Pincer out of the cafeteria, attracting curious stares and a few not-so-subtle comments. Judging by her pale face, Jonah guessed Alaska was the type of kid who never got in trouble. He wasn’t sure what she had to worry about—she hadn’t touched Bull.

Mr. Pincer led them through the busy administrative suite and ushered them into his small office. Family pictures and posters with inspirational quotes covered the walls. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” So said Mahatma Gandhi, apparently.

“Wait here,” Mr. Pincer said, indicating a couple of orange plastic chairs positioned in front of his desk. He ducked out of the office.

Jonah glanced over at Alaska, who looked like she’d swallowed a stone. Her eyes were glistening, and she bit her lip.

“Hey,” Jonah whispered, “this is no big deal.”

She glared at him contradictorily.

“Look, I’ve been in the hot seat more times than I can count, and I’m telling you, this is no big deal. Just let me do the talking—I’ll say you were an innocent bystander, which you were.”

Before she could reply, though, Mr. Pincer was standing in the doorway again.

“Are these the ones?” he asked, beckoning someone in the hall to come look.

The figure who appeared in the doorway was none other than Bull Grubinski, holding an ice pack to the back of his head.

“Yes, Mr. Pincer,” Bull said, mild as butter on grits. “These are the ones who jumped me.”

Did you like this preview chapter of Angeling? Share it on your social network using the buttons below. This chapter is a work in progress; your constructive comments are more than welcome. See the Angeling book page for more chapters as they are released, or sign up to receive Angeling chapters and book release news by e-mail.
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P.S. And for the record, exploding pumpkins is actually an honest-to-goodness science geek pastime — see for yourself:

 December 18, 2013  No Responses »
Dec 112013
 

Four days before he woke up in the hospital able to see and hear things he shouldn’t, Jonah stood on an unfamiliar street corner waiting for the bus that would take him to his first day at James Buchanan Regional High School.

He didn’t see his grandfather as he waited, nor any beautiful star-filled creatures shining with light.

4thWalnutIn fact, Jonah’s head was so busy imagining how the day might unfold that the list of things he didn’t see, hear, or feel as he stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets was actually rather long: The tiny, curled-up body of a dead spider floating past on a silk thread. Half a dozen species of grass and weeds growing greenly between slabs of sidewalk. The man standing over his kitchen sink eating a peach as he watched Jonah out the window. The buzz of the lawnmower half a block away, and the buzzy thoughts of the white-haired woman pushing the lawnmower. Clouds of insects rising into the sunlight in advance of the Lawnmower of Doom. The neon “Bud Light” sign (with the “u” and “d” burnt out) in the window of the bar across the street. Hundreds of cell phone conversations passing through his body on invisible radio waves. Dozens of sugar ants maneuvering stealthily around his dangerous feet. The countless stars, planets, and galaxies spinning above his head behind a curtain of blue sky.

All of these things, never mind spirits and shadows, escaped his attention. James Buchanan Regional High School loomed far too large in his mind to allow room for anything else, whether ant or planet.

~ ~ ~

The assistant principal had shown Jonah and his mom around the school late one afternoon a few days before. The long, empty halls were lined with a couple thousand beat-up orange and powder-blue lockers. They reminded Jonah of coffins—or, worse, cryogenic chambers for storing students after hours. He could imagine thousands of kids emerging from those lockers at first bell, zombie-like after their frozen sleep.

When he shared this image with his mom as they drove away from the school, she just rolled her eyes.

“Okay, I get that you don’t want to start another new school, Jonah, and I get that you’re sad about leaving your friends, but the Zombie Apocalypse? Really?”

To which Jonah slouched lower in his seat and scowled out the window. It might not have been the Zombie Apocalypse, but James Buchanan Regional would be his third school transfer in three years.

He had been expelled for fighting the first two times. This time wasn’t his fault, though, so if anyone asked why he was transferring a month into the school year, he wouldn’t have to lie. He could tell them the truth, which was that his mom had taken a job that required moving halfway across the state on short notice. It wouldn’t be lying to not mention that she didn’t exactly have a choice, after being unemployed for eight months.

His mom kept glancing over at him in the car, but he wouldn’t look at her, in case it inspired another speech about positive thinking. She was all about positive thinking—it was something she had picked up from her survivors of domestic abuse support group and all the self-help books she was always reading.

She spoke up anyway. “Okay, so maybe it is the Zombie Apocalypse,” she said.

“Worse than. At least in the Zombie Apocalypse you get to bash a few zombies,” Jonah deadpanned.

She bit back a smile. “Yeah. Look, you’re totally right, okay? It’s not fair. It’s not fair to you to have to start over from scratch when you were doing so well. It’s not fair to me to have to take this meat-packing job. Okay. So, we agree. It’s totally unfair.”

Then she was quiet for so long, Jonah wondered whether she might be crying, or trying not to cry. He just kept staring at the tiny drops of mist collecting on the window, blurring his view.

But when she spoke again, her voice was strong and clear. “So what are we going to do about it? Go around angry for another month? I’m so, so tired of being angry, Jonah. Geez, your dad had plenty of good reasons to be angry. And he just got angrier and angrier, until that’s all there was left of him. And look where it got him.”

They stopped at a red light, and she leaned over and shoved his shoulder, trying to get him to look at her. When he did, he saw that although her eyes were wet, they were also hard.

“If you walk through the doors of that school with nothing more than a lot of well-justified resentment, you know exactly where you’re going to end up.”

She meant expelled again.

“So I’m supposed to fake being happy?” Jonah snapped. “‘La, la, la, oh how happy I am with my horrible life! Give me black coffee over sugar and cream any day!’ Not exactly authentic, Mom.” Authentic was a word she’d brought home from her group.

His goofiness made her smile, though. “I’m not saying we should be happy with the way things are, Jonah. I’m just saying that as long as we’ve both got all this anger to burn, we might as well turn it into rocket fuel so it can take us somewhere. But we’ve got to have somewhere to go. You know what Moon says?”

“Let me guess—something enlightening, right?” Moon was his mom’s all-knowing group leader.

“She says we won’t get everything we want in life, but we also won’t get more than we want. So we should want more.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, you do. What do you want, Jonah? If you could make your life anything from this day on, what would you want?”

“I don’t know.” Actually, he did know, but it was pointless to say he wanted things to go back to the way they had been a month ago.

The light changed, and his mom turned her attention back to the road again, much to Jonah’s relief. She set the windshield wipers going; the mist had become a light rain.

“You know what I want for you, Jonah? I want you to have good friends. Friends you can make good memories with. I want you to . . . to enjoy life. Like the way you did when you were little, and it was just you and me while your dad was away. Like this summer, when you guys started that band.” She hit the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “We’re not settling for the stale crusts of life, Jonah. We’re going to suck the creamy goodness right out of the middle of its oatmeal crème pies. We’re not going to just live; we’re going to thrive!”

And that would be positive thinking run amok, Jonah thought. He couldn’t afford such high hopes; he wouldn’t be able to stand the disappointment.

“Yeah, you don’t ask for much,” he told her.

“Why not ask for it all, Jonah?” she said. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

~ ~ ~

So now, watching the bus finally lurch around the corner, groaning and belching black smoke, Jonah tried to want more. He tried to imagine getting on the bus and being friendly, or walking into his homeroom and making eye contact—in other words, he tried to imagine acting normal, instead of retreating into the mental robotic exoskeleton that he usually wore in situations like this.

The bus shuddered to a stop in front of Jonah. The door slapped open. A bent old man sat in the driver’s seat, a blue cardigan sweater drooping limply from his bony shoulders.

“G’morning,” the driver said.

Jonah climbed aboard.

Pausing at the head of the aisle, Jonah scanned the bus for the best place to sit. Way in the back, a posse of large, loud, lanky boys spilled out of the seats. One of them sat high on a seat back, eyeing Jonah predatorily. He was muscular in a wiry way, with thin blonde hair and thin lips. Perched up there, he looked like a vulture.

“Take a seat!” the driver said.

Jonah was still making his way down the aisle when the bus lurched into motion. He stumbled a little, grabbed a seatback and swung unceremoniously into the seat behind it.

“Nice,” laughed Vulture Boy. Jonah glanced over his shoulder. The kid was smirking. Jonah met his gaze just long enough to warn him off, then turned away.

He’d landed next to a girl glued to her phone. She didn’t even look up as she scrunched over to make room for him.

“Mind if I sit here?” Jonah asked. That was him being friendly.

“You just did,” the girl pointed out.

“Well, do you mind?”

“If you don’t mind me talking to myself,” she replied.

Oka-ay, he thought.

He shoved his backpack under the seat. The bus bounced and pitched like a lifeboat on stormy seas, making the kids bob and sway. A lot of them had phones. Jonah thought about texting some friends from his old school, but they were probably already in first period.

He thought about it and realized that he hadn’t had actual, text-able friends before. That was how well things had been going at Thomas Paine Academy: three disciplinary write-ups in the first three weeks, a fight off school grounds in December (he remembered the kid’s red blood soaking into the white snow), but otherwise, nothing. Danny Peach, the class clown, had joked his way through Jonah’s defenses, and then he and Jonah formed a garage band with a couple other kids from their lunch table, Meagan Fogg and Mike Woo. The Panda Banshees, they called themselves. They’d spent large chunks of the summer in Danny’s garage, practicing and making up music. They weren’t actually any good, but they had fun.

But as of two weeks ago, that was all over. And now he was bouncing along on a bus with Vulture Boy and don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-talking-to-myself girl.

“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beautiful mankind is!” she was saying, with feeling. “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!”

“What are you reading?” Jonah asked. Friendly, friendly.

The girl looked at him for a second as if weighing whether she could trust him with her answer, and for a moment Jonah wondered whether she was going to put him down. Something mischievous lurked in those green eyes.

“It’s Shakespeare,” she said, absently tucking a lock of auburn hair back behind her ear. “The Tempest. I’m auditioning for the play.”

“Oh.” Jonah didn’t know anything about Shakespeare other than it was supposed to be hard.

“You can help me, if you want, by reading the other parts,” the girl added hopefully.

Jonah shook his head. “I don’t even like giving oral reports.”

“You don’t have to be any good.”

Jonah shook his head more emphatically. Here was the problem with being friendly: people started expecting things from you.

“Then you’re just going to have to listen to me do all the voices, I guess.” She sighed as she turned back to her phone. “Have you started reading this yet? You’re in ninth, too, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m new. Today’s my first day.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Ohhh, that explains why I haven’t seen you before. I’m new too, but I started at the beginning of the school year. My dad’s job transferred him down here from Alaska over the summer.”

“Really? That’s what happened to me, but we didn’t move that far. Just from the city.”

“Well, if you’re in ninth, I hope you like Shakespeare, because you’re going to have to read it.” She said it like it was cafeteria leftovers.

“I thought you liked Shakespeare,” he said.

She scrunched her face. “No! When did I say that?”

“Well, you’re trying out for a part.”

She pushed her hair back. “That’s only because I always try out for the school play. Besides, the part I’m auditioning for, you get to fly around stage on wires.”

There were loud voices from the back of the bus, where Vulture Boy and companions were having a heated argument about Grand Theft Auto. They shouted and swore, like slobbery Labradors barking from behind a chain link fence just to remind everyone of their teeth. Jonah glanced back at them, and Vulture Boy caught his eye.

“Back in Alaska,” the girl was saying, “we did real plays—Grease, Oklahoma!, that sort of thing. Not Shakespeare. That’s why I’m going to write my end-of-unit essay on, ‘Why Shakespeare is the Dumbest Writer in the History of the World.’”

“Yeah, that sounds like an easy F.”

“Mr. Wordsworth says to bring it on.”

Jonah smirked appreciatively. He wasn’t sure what he thought of this girl—she was a little talky, a little strange, a little unpredictable—but he was glad to be talking to her. When you’re new, you’re glad to be talking to anyone.

He was about to ask how she was going to convince an English teacher that Shakespeare was the dumbest writer in the world when a ball of wadded-up paper hit his head, bounced off the seat, and dropped to the floor. Jonah turned and stared at the boys in the back.

Vulture Boy made a fake-sorry face and pointed at the grinning kid next to him.

“It wasn’t me. He did it,” Vulture whined. “He took my homework. Can I have it back, please?”

The three other guys in his posse guffawed.

Jonah reached down and grabbed the paper ball. He uncrumpled it enough to see that it was an old math worksheet, already completed. The name scrawled at the top of the page read Bull Grubinski.

Jonah crumpled up the paper again and tossed it toward the back of the bus, where it fell in the aisle.

“Hey, thanks!” said Bull. “Thanks for saving my homework, kid.” That got more laughs from his friends.

The girl was sliding down in her seat and looking at her phone again. “Just ignore them. They’re easily distracted.”

“Who are they?”

“Tenth graders without cars,” the girl smirked. “Your basic bullies and troublemakers. The leader is the state wrestling champion or something. Anyway most kids keep clear of him and his little gang.”

“I’m not afraid of them. I’d take them on,” Jonah said, and then he immediately regretted it. He was overreacting again; besides, no way would he stand a chance against four guys, all bigger than him. But he already felt the rush of adrenaline as his muscles tensed. Somewhere deep inside him, the feral animal his father had fed and trained for so many years was straining against its chains, wanting to get out and fight.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” the girl said. She tapped away at the phone. “Just wait a sec . . . I want to show you something. If there’s anything good about Shakespeare, it’s his insults. . . .”

Jonah watched her tapping away at the phone, one ear tuned to Grubinski and company. She found what she was looking for and, smiling, showed him the phone. “Look at this,” she said.

Just then, a banana peel fell on her head, one of its three yellow lobes hanging in her face. She yelped in surprise and knocked it away with her hand. There was cheering and clapping from the back seats. “Score!” someone crowed.

Jonah grabbed the banana peel and in one fluid motion whipped it back at the boys. It pelted Bull Grubinski in the face.

“Hey!” Bull yelled. “Aw, that wasn’t nice!” He threw it back at Jonah, but it hit the window and fell to the floor.

Jonah reached down to grab it, but the girl grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Just don’t. You’ll get in trouble.”

Jonah shook off her hand, but he let the banana peel drop. This was him being good. Being the brand-new, non-fighting Jonah. The one who walked away. Now, if only he could unclench his jaw.

The green-eyed girl slid down in the seat. “Look at this,” she said again.

But Jonah was listening to the Vultures conspiring back there—he could hear it in the tone of their lowered voices. Something else was coming.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out what: slimy wet spitballs began dropping onto him and the girl, who sighed wearily and covered her head with her backpack.

Jonah jumped up and chucked the banana peel, but this time Grubinski ducked. Jonah got hit in the forehead with a spitball, though, and the Vultures howled with laughter.

All the kids in the back half of the bus were watching now, some of them laughing, others ducking irritably to avoid getting hit by stray spitballs. Jonah glanced up front to see whether the driver was watching; incredibly, he wasn’t. He must have been blind and deaf.

He could hear his father now: The world isn’t kind to the weak, Jonah, he’d say. His father had taught him to always be ready for a fight.

Jonah ducked down and unzipped his backpack, hunting for ammunition. He had plenty of notebook paper, but the straw on the foil pouch of fruit juice in his lunch would be too small for spitballs; besides, the Vultures had him outgunned four-to-one. He had pens, pencils, a calculator, a USB drive . . . he was striking out.

The green-eyed, Shakespeare-hating girl watched him from under her backpack as a fusillade of spitballs showered down on them. “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain!” she sang, softly.

Jonah unzipped his lunch bag. The Vultures were all standing up or sitting on the backs of their seats now, to get a better angle on Jonah. “You’re not going to help me, are you?” he said to the girl.

She shook her head. “My family is Quaker.”

“Like the oatmeal guy? What does that have to do with it?”

“We don’t fight.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. We just don’t. Why are you taking out your lunch?”

“I’m hungry.” He scanned the contents of his lunch bag. An apple. Chips. Cheese. A ham and cheese sandwich. A foil pouch of fruit juice. It wasn’t much to work with.

And then, just as another spitball hit him, inspiration struck.

Quickly, he took the sandwich out of its plastic bag and shoved it in the lunch box. Next, he inserted the little straw into the pouch and put the end of the straw into the sandwich bag, and carefully began squeezing the juice into the sandwich bag.

It was like his own personal nuclear bomb: eight ounces of sticky juice that would explode everywhere. Even if he didn’t score a direct hit, he couldn’t miss.

The girl had been watching him curiously. Just as he was sealing the bag, her eyes went wide.

“Excuse me,” she said, snatching the sandwich bag out of his hands. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Hey! Give it!” Jonah tried grabbing it back, but she stood up, holding the bag out of his reach. He stood up, too, but she turned and began fiddling with the window latches.

Jonah reached around her and tugged at a corner of the bag.

“Don’t!” she warned. “You’ll get it all over both of us!”

And then she had the window down, and Jonah’s personal weapon of mass destruction was gone.

The boys in the back of the bus were clapping and cheering her on. Jonah dropped down into his seat.

But the girl wasn’t done. She glanced down at her phone, then at Bull Grubinski and his posse.

“You starvelings, you eel-skins, you dried neat’s-tongues! You bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish, you vile standing tuck!”

The back of the bus fell completely silent for a second.

“What?” asked Bull.

“If only you were clean enough to spit upon!” she continued.

“I think she’s trying to insult you,” said one of the boys.

“Shut up, McLacky,” Bull said. He eyed the girl. “Are you trying to insult me?”

“No. I’m insulting you and your friends. I’ve got the Shakespeare insult app right here, see?” She flashed the screen at Bull, then glanced at it again. “Here’s another one: ‘Off and away, you bawling, blasphemous, burping dog!’”

A bunch of kids laughed. Bull just stared at her uncertainly.

“Hey! ‘Your face is not worth sunburning!’” she proclaimed. “Okay, that one doesn’t make any sense. But how about this? ‘You cowardly shadow! Worms have more courage than thee, for they fear not thy grave as you do!”

“Okay, thanks for the English lesson, you can sit down now, weirdo,” Bull sneered. “Hey, you’ve got a spitball in your hair, there. I can come get it out for you if you want.”

“O vile braggart! Your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone!” She gave Bull a pointed look. “Translated that means you’re a big baby who couldn’t pee his diaper without your friends’ help.”

Even more kids were laughing now. Jonah, who had been red-faced and ready to fight, laughed out loud. A few people clapped.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said. She bowed once, then sat down.

“That was sweet,” Jonah said.

She shrugged. “Now I can say I’ve done Shakespeare. But you owe me one for getting you out of a guaranteed detention.”

Jonah cocked his head toward the back of the bus. He was pretty sure that Grubinski wasn’t going to be embarrassed into submission by Shakespeare insults. If anything, the lop-sided battle of wits between the green-eyed girl and Vulture Boy would drive him to save face on his own terms.

The bus slowed, then squealed to a stop in the shadow of the sprawling complex of concrete and brick buildings that made up James Buchanan Regional High School.

The door slapped open and kids crammed into the aisle. Jonah let the girl go ahead of him while he reassembled the contents of his backpack.

He was halfway down the aisle when he felt a strong hand grip his shoulder and the side of his neck, hard. He could feel Bull’s breath on his cheek.

“It’s a good thing she didn’t let you throw that water bomb,” Bull said casually, his mouth by Jonah’s ear.

“It was a juice bomb, actually,” Jonah corrected, and Bull’s hand squeezed harder, pushing down on Jonah’s shoulder.

“You and your girlfriend hurt my feelings. I think you need to say you’re sorry.”

What an amateur, Jonah thought. If his father had been doing the hurting, he would have used two hands to grab Jonah all the way around the back of his neck, and he would have pulled up until Jonah was on his toes, denying him any leverage for fighting back.

Jonah bowed his head down as far as it would go.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

Then he fell into a crouch, breaking the hold on his neck. He grabbed Bull’s ankles with both of his hands and threw himself forward, jerking Bull off his feet.

“But not that sorry!”

Jonah heard the heavy thud of Bull hitting the floor and the surprised shout of Bull’s friends, but he didn’t pause to look back as he stumbled down the aisle.

As he flashed past the bus driver, the old man lifted a hand in farewell. “Have a good day, now.”

The way things were going, Jonah figured he would settle for mere survival.

 

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 December 11, 2013  No Responses »
Dec 032013
 

Shining WaterThere is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

—Thomas Merton

 

It was the sound of his mother’s voice that woke Jonah Wilder from his drug-induced coma—the echo of a song, calling to him from the far side of a dark mist. In the mist there had been nothing—not even memories of the past or thoughts of the future. And without a past or a future, or stars above his head or ground beneath his feet, Jonah had been nothing, too.

When her voice found him, he clung to it as if it were a lifeline. The words held no meaning for him at first; they were only notes in a melody. This was the way she had roused him from his nap when he had been little (four rather than fourteen), gently dropping words into the deep pool of his sleep. Sometimes she would raise the window-shade, too, letting in the long light of a late afternoon.

Sunlight shone on him now. He could feel it on his face, and see it as an orange smear through his closed eyelids.

As he woke, her words became sentences he could follow, if not fully understand.

“Mmm-hmm. Well, when he first came around yesterday, he was totally out of it,” she was saying. “He kept trying to get up. I can see why they have him restrained.”

A long silence.

“No one will tell me anything about brain damage. They keep saying to take it one step at a time. They keep saying it’s a miracle he’s even alive—technically, he was dead for twenty-three minutes, did I tell you that?”

Jonah had no idea what she was talking about. He just knew his head hurt like he was wearing an iron helmet that was two sizes too small. Everything hurt, actually. He willed his heavy eyes open and saw his mother looking out a bright window, a phone at her ear. The sun shone through the window into his eyes, so that he had to squint to look at her.

His mouth and throat were dry as sand. He needed her to get him a drink.

“Mom,” he whispered. It hurt to speak. “Mom. . . .”

She jumped, and then her face lit up as she turned and saw him awake.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, putting the phone down without saying goodbye.

“I didn’t notice you woke up!” she laughed, coming to his bedside. “Good morning, Jonah! Or I guess it’s actually afternoon. It’s really good to see you, honey. How are you feeling?”

She took his hand and squeezed it, looking into his eyes.

A shimmering light rimmed her face, flashing like sunlight dancing on waves. He thought it was actually the sun, but then realized she wasn’t standing in front of the window anymore.

“Can I have water?” he whispered hoarsely.

“Sure! Or ice chips, maybe? Let me get a nurse.” She pressed a button on the bedside.

Nurse? Ice chips?

“Where am I?” he asked. He had a sudden flash of worry about being late for Mr. Berning’s homeroom again. “Am I late for school?”

That made her laugh, and then the tears that had been welling in her eyes spilled down her cheeks. She leaned over and kissed his forehead.

“Well, I can tell you got cracked in the head if you’re worried about being late for school,” she teased, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Don’t you remember waking up yesterday?”

He tried to remember yesterday, but it kept jumping around on him. “Not really. . . .”

She nodded. “That’s okay. You’ve been out for a while, you know.”

He looked around the room, and his gaze settled on the other people there: the insubstantial forms of his grandfather and a very large, strong man who might have been the star of an action-adventure movie. Both of them were shot through with light as if they were stained-glass windows, lit from the inside.

Jonah stared at the figures long and hard, trying to decide whether they were real or imagined. It was like he was seeing them through a great expanse of water. He kept waiting for them to disappear, but they didn’t.

He caught the strong man’s eye, which was filled with stars, and then he remembered. These men were Iridius, who was his guardian, and his Grandpa Z, who was dead.

“What are you two doing here?” Jonah asked them.

His grandfather and Iridius exchanged a look. It was a look that said that maybe there was a problem with that question.

Judging by the expression on his mom’s face, she thought it might be a problem, too. Her face had darkened as if shadowed by a passing cloud, even though the shimmering light still danced around her playfully.

The shadow, he thought, turning the phrase over in his mind, unsure what it meant. The shadow. The shadow.

The Shadow.

He struggled to sit up, but his hands and feet were still tied down with safety restraints.

“The Shadow,” he said to his grandfather, urgently. “I thought it got you!”

“Jonah! Jonah!” his mom was saying, touching his arm. “Okay, honey—calm down—”

But the memories were flooding back now. Instead of calming down, Jonah gripped his mother’s arm. “It has Evie,” he said hoarsely. “We were supposed to help her—I was supposed to help her—”

His eyes darted around the room. The thing had to be here somewhere. The Shadow was everywhere.

Then he looked into his mother’s eyes. There it was, a bit of black back there in her eyes, hiding from the dancing light. Lurking.

“Nurse! Nurse!” His mom was hitting the call button repeatedly as she shouted for help. A worried-looking nurse came running into the room.

A long comet-tail of light trailed behind her.

The whole room had become a kaleidoscope of light and shadow: crackling lines and bright flashes of color mixed up with black, smeary streaks of darkness. The nurse’s head was haloed so brightly he had to look away; turning his head, he saw dark shadows oozing across the floor like primeval creatures, unmoored from any solid object.

“He’s hallucinating again,” his mom told the nurse.

“Grandpa, what’s happening?” he asked, his voice panicked.

“It’s the sedatives, honey,” his mom said. “They’re making you see things that aren’t there.”

“Grandpa’s right there,” Jonah insisted. “Iridius—we’ve got to get Evie!”

Iridius and his grandfather came to him then, just as the nurse was adjusting dials on the intravenous drip that hung beside his bed. Iridius touched three fingers to Jonah’s cheek and placed a warming hand on his heart, and Grandpa Z moved his mouth close to Jonah’s ear, as if to whisper a secret.

You’re the only one who can see us, Grandpa Z said. And you shouldn’t be able to see or hear us, either, nor the Shadow. Not anymore.

“Why . . . why . . . .”

Jonah meant to ask him why not, but the mist was falling again, and the thought slipped away into the descending darkness.

Did you like this preview chapter of Angeling? Share it on your social network using the buttons below. This chapter is a work in progress; your constructive comments are more than welcome. See the Angeling book page for more chapters as they are released, or sign up to receive Angeling chapters and book release news by e-mail.
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 December 3, 2013  No Responses »
Dec 032013
 

iStock_000011844680XSmallRansom was so small that the state highway department noted its existence only by the SPEED LIMIT 40 sign on the way into town and the SPEED LIMIT 55 sign on the way out. Lacey was on her way out, and she had no intention of keeping any speed limits. It was a summer’s morning just after dawn, the road was empty, and her windows were rolled down. She wanted to feel the wind on her face as she left Ransom, a small place for small people. She wanted to fly.

Why she hadn’t left sooner was a mystery that would take years for her to unravel; when she finally did, Brett would undoubtedly be there, a charming grin on his face even as he clenched his fists behind his back. Now, though, Brett was probably still passed out on the couch, sleeping off last night. Smelling of booze and cologne and his own vomit.

She punched the accelerator, and her ’97 Buick LeSabre surged powerfully, like one of those barn swallows swooping and skating low over the dappled fields, ecstatic. And then, unbelievably, it quit, coughing and shuddering as it rolled to a stop on the graveled shoulder just short of the SPEED LIMIT 55 sign. The sign regarded Lacey accusingly, its single imperative urging her onward. Beyond it, the road rolled through a sea of green corn and pastures, disappearing into a hazy horizon.

She stared over the hood of the car in disbelief as the traitorous engine ticked and sighed. Slamming the palms of her hands against the steering wheel, she began weeping. Then her nose began running, and she had to practically excavate the footwell below the passenger seat to find any tissues, the car was such a mess. So was she, judging by her reflection in the rearview mirror: tangled hair, sad red eyes, a purplish bruise over her cheekbone.

She stared sullenly out the window at the damn swallows, who still sang and danced their greeting to the dawn. What did they care? She needed to think, which obviously required a cigarette. Although she’d quit last week, she found half a pack of cigarettes shoved under the passenger seat (Brett’s, probably), and a lighter in the glove compartment.

As she was fumbling with the lighter, a glint of something in the rearview mirror caught her eye. She turned to look, and there was Brett’s monster of a tow truck roaring up the road, yellow lights flashing.

“Dear God,” she whispered. Dropping the cigarette and lighter, she frantically turned the key in the ignition. The engine cranked but didn’t fire. He was coming up behind her really fast and for a moment she wondered if he would ram her, but the truck flashed by with just inches to spare before swerving to a stop crookedly in the gravel.

Lacey rolled up the windows and locked the doors.

Brett climbed out of the truck and slammed the door, leaving the yellow lights flashing. He was a beefy man with red, peeling skin and close-cropped hair covered by a cap that read brett whistler auto service. And as cocky as ever as he sauntered back to the Buick, grinning, arms spread wide in a why-what-a-surprise sort of gesture. When he rapped on the window glass, Lacey jumped.

“Hey,” he shouted. She lowered the window a crack. “Good thing I was passing by. Looks like she quit on you again, huh?”

Lacey swallowed, looking straight ahead at the speed limit sign. “Everything’s fine, Brett,” she said.

He lost the grin. “That’s not the way it looks, honey. Looks like you’re stranded. Looks like I need to haul you back to town. Again.” He smirked. When she made no move, he went on. “Your knight in shining armor. Huh. Remember you called me that the first time? You rolled into town with nothing but the clothes on your back, a dollar’s worth of gas, and a flat tire. Remember?” He laughed and kicked at the gravel.

Lacey bowed her head and stared blankly at the dashboard, remembering. She’d been eighteen then, almost two years ago, and a whole lot more naïve.

“Eighteen and pretty as a new penny,” Brett said, turning to lean against the car. “Still are.” He glanced down the road.

Lacey frowned. He’d always called her pretty, hadn’t he? But pretty wasn’t the right word. Pretty was for a little girl, or something small and delicate; a flower, maybe. It was a small word. It made her think of the old woman in the pew ahead of her at church last Sunday. How she had turned and reached out to Lacey with both hands during the sign of peace. They were strong, calloused hands, a lifetime of hard work in them. The old woman had looked directly into Lacey’s eyes as she took Lacey’s hands into her own, squeezing them hard for a long moment, as if to impart that strength. Lacey had been so taken aback that she hadn’t remembered to reciprocate the blessing until the woman was turning away, and then the words came out as only a whisper.

“Well,” said Brett, “get in the cab while I hitch her up.” He turned to walk back to the truck.

The memory of what the woman had said slapped Lacey awake. She’d been staring at the dash all this time, but only now did she notice the fuel gauge, which read empty. She was out of gas, even though she had filled the tank the previous night. No wonder Brett had arrived so fast; sometime in the night, after their fight but before coming home drunk, he’d siphoned off the gas.

Lacey got out of the car, but she didn’t follow Brett to the truck. Instead, she went around to the Buick’s trunk, popped it, and pulled out a five-gallon gas can.

Brett was backing up the tow truck before he noticed her fueling the car. He leaned out the window. “What are you doing?” he hollered.

“Leaving,” she yelled back. She raised the gas can, as if toasting him. “Daddy always said it was good to have some backup on a long trip.”

The look of surprise on his face as she drove past made Lacey laugh out loud. Pretty was not the right word at all. “Peace be with you,” the old woman had said, offering her strong hands. “You are so beautiful.”

The wind whipped Lacey’s hair, and the green horizon unfolded before her as the speedometer passed fifty-five. Lacey took one last look in the rearview mirror. The tow truck already looked small, sitting on the road back there, and it grew smaller every second, until finally it vanished over the horizon.

 December 3, 2013  No Responses »