SHADOW MAN: AWAKENING

by RYAN DANIEL BUELL

Hello all.  Well, this is weird.  I'm sharing a story with you that I've (mostly) kept to myself for over a decade.  I finished writing "Shadow Man" over ten years ago, but due to the launch of "Paranormal State," I put this on the back burner.  After finishing "State," this was to be my next project.  But life stuff got in the way.  I didn't know it yet, but I was about to go on a five year journey into personal exploration.  Not all of it was good.  But, some good came out of it.  The release of this book is going to be my major goal for this year.  Back in 2012, I made the decision to not publish this through a traditional publisher.  At least not yet.  Yes, I had interest.  Mainly because I was already a success in the book publishing world due to my first book.  But due to that, publishers wanted another paranormal book.  Regardless whether "Shadow Man" was any good to them, they were willing to buy it just to placate me.  This book is my heart and soul.  It is the love of my life.  Or rather, the "Shadow Man" story.  The plan is to do nine books.  I have had them mapped out for some time and I'm almost finished with the second one.  I am very disappointed and angry over how much time drug addiction took from me.  I believe in a Higher Power, so perhaps all of this is part of a grand plan.  

"Shadow Man" is ultimately about a boy and his choices.  Will he save the world or help destroy it?  There's a lot of pain in his journey.  We all know what that is like.  

Right now, I need something in my life to root for.  This character, Elston Preston, is someone I have lived with in my head since I was ten years old.  So, I've shared my life with him for 25 years.  It's time to share him with the world.  I hope you enjoy the Prologue and the first two chapters.  

AUGUST 12, 2017


PROLOGUE - THE END OF THE WORLD

It was snowing.  It always snowed at times like this.  It was Christmas Eve in the land known as New York City, and the gods were very, very angry. Unsuspecting, the normal world unwound as midnight approached.  Children tried their best to sleep while parents held each other close, hoping the silent night would never end.  But it did, with a guttural growl so deep and loud, it sounded as if the whole earth were moaning in pain.

At first the blaze in the southwest looked like fireworks, but the light grew too bright, the sound too loud.  When it finally dimmed, a mushroom cloud stretched to the heavens, darkening the sky.  A shockwave followed, setting off alarms, shattering glass, shaking the buildings.

There should have been screams and panic coming from millions of terrified souls.  But not one cry was heard, for another unusual event happened.  Just before the explosion, everyone in the city, from the wealthy to the homeless, immediately fell into a deep sleep.  Everyone except Detective Martin Chilton.

Tall, bulky, in his late 30s, Chilton dashed along Parker Street, the mushroom cloud still rising behind him.  He looked back, hoping that the nightmare was over.  But it wasn’t.  Cannon blasts echoed at his feet.  He panted, wheezed.  He was exhausted, had to rest, but the sleeping boy he carried, wrapped in his black trench coat, was bleeding.  He needed help, a doctor, but a very strange woman said insisted he be taken somewhere else, a building, a sanctuary.  Otherwise, she said, he would die.

For some reason, Chilton believed her.

His goal was just a half-a-mile ahead, but Chilton was limping.

It’s no useI need to catch my breath.

The rolling chaos seemed far enough behind for a quick breather.  Spying a dark alley across the street, he headed for it, maneuvering among the motionless cars and sleeping drivers.  The last obstacle, an old Chevy, almost did him in.  It took all he had to jump up onto the hood.  Unbalanced, he rocked unevenly before sliding off to a rough landing on the pavement.

Sharp pain jolted through his right leg.  His heart pounded so hard, his eyeballs throbbed with each beat.  He slouched against the alley wall, mouth hanging open as he looked at the ruby sky.  It was freezing, but sweat poured down his shaved head.  The feel of snow on his bald spot told him he’d lost his hat.  The rest of his uniform was intact, the black pants still looking neatly pressed despite all his falling, his black shirt still bearing his police badge.

Two fellow officers slept on the road in front of him.  One even had a smile, as if he were in a happy dream.

“World’s gone mad,” he said to himself.  Recalling how the day had been going pretty well until about a half an hour ago, he had to chuckle.  Should’ve known it wouldn’t last.

Ever since he’d moved here, life had been odd.  Three years on the force in NYC and he’d seen enough weirdness for a lifetime -- objects flying in the sky, people disappearing into thin air, a human-sized dog leaping from an apartment window after attacking a woman.  Afterwards, the woman came up to Chilton, not to file a report, but to apologize for summoning the “wrong hell hound.”  He tried to shrug it all off, but some things he couldn’t; the odd fires that gripped the outer-city, the recent spike unexplained deaths.

A very expensive therapist said he was having trouble adjusting to city life.  Right.  Sure, Chilton had been raised in a small town in Texas, but he’d seen some of the world, even fought in the Afghanistan War during his twenties.  But the things he saw here…

Things were supposed to change tonight.  Earlier that afternoon, he’d been promoted and given a substantial raise. He was planning to propose to his girl, Marietta, the minute he’d gotten off duty at midnight.  His smile faded as he remembered how close he was not to picking up that last 911 call.  He thought it’d be quick.  A false alarm.  Someone hearing shots fired.  He found bodies.  And a scared boy (now in his arms) hiding down a scorched alleyway.  And it led to this…

The lights grew brighter, the blasts following it louder, as if a battle was getting closer.

“Marietta,” he whispered.  “Wherever you are, please be safe.”

A loud explosion shook the street.  Chilton burst out of the alley.  The building he’d been leaning against came crashing down seconds later.  As he ran, a line of rolling black smoke followed.

Finally, his destination, the “sanctuary” came into view.  But as he raced for it, several cars, somehow heaved into the air, crashed down around him.  More explosions rang in his ear.

Although he tried to stay in shape after his military years, he realized just out of shape he was. He felt hopeless. He should be falling over, but, fixing his eyes on the building, he picked up speed.  He was just twelve yards away.   He could make it.  Couldn’t he?

Again, the street rattled.  Street lamps exploded.  Twenty feet from the wooden doors, a flash of hot, white light overloaded his senses, followed by the loudest blast he’d heard since the war.  It drowned all sound, and the light blinded him.  He felt the ground quaking, in a rhythm, as if a hundred thousand soldiers were marching toward him and his tiny burden.

It was too much; Chilton tripped.  As he fell, he gripped his arms closely around the boy to shield him.

What would happen now?  What would happen to the world?

A whisper came from the void.  Was someone calling his name?

It came again.

He opened his eyes.  He should be able to see the building, but black smoke circled him, blocking his view.  More whispers came from the dark, several people talking.  Calling him?  Deciding what to do with him?

The world fell silent.  Coal black smoke continued to circle, like a murder of crows.

A new voice called from behind the smoke, desperate, pleading.  “Martin.”

The hair on his arms and neck rose.  He knew that voice, but hadn’t heard it for ages.  Just as he placed it, a shape formed within the black fog.  It was her.  Her hair, auburn, like his, blew to the current of the smoke.  It was Ashley, his younger sister, still sixteen, still wearing the same blue jeans and red hoodie, still bearing that smile.  That sweet smile.  She stepped closer.

She extended her hand, the tips of her fingers visible at the edge of the wall of smoke.  Though, they were several feet apart, but Chilton put out his own hand.  Despite the smile, she was crying.

“Martin,” she said, “I’ve missed you so much.  Please take me away from here.”

She looked the same as she did when she disappeared on Halloween.  It was more than a year of searching before he and family gave up.  Losing her was why he became a cop, to try to help others avoid that pain.  Yet here she was.  Wasn’t she?  It couldn’t be.  But Chilton’s heart was a child; wanting what it wanted, possible or not.

“Put him down and take me home!” she said, weeping.

He walked two steps closer, thinking to pull her free of the fog.  “Ashley, take my hand.”

A flash of black covered the blue of her eyes, as if she were angry he hadn’t simply obeyed.

Now both his mind and heart knew.  “You aren’t Ashley.”

She opened her mouth as if to scream.  Instead, a thousand flies rushed out.  Chilton fell back to the ground, covering the boy as the flies smacked his back like a horde of BB-gun pellets.

As he returned to his feet, the marching sound resumed.  When it stopped, another figure, male, appeared in the smoke.  Chilton didn’t feel any confusion this time, only anger.  He knew immediately this was another trick.  But the appearance of this man only made Chilton feel even more pain.

“You’re not him!  You’re NOT HIM!”

The man smiled and faded away.  And once again the hundreds of whispers returned.  Chilton looked down at the boy, still unconscious, yet still breathing.  He then looked up at the circling mist. 

So close, he thought.  Despite his wounds, he stood back up.  His heart still bled from seeing the ghostly images of his sister and the man.  It seemed that all was coming to an end.  He gripped the boy tight, preparing to run into the fog and try to get as close to the goal as possible.  He didn’t know why or how an atomic bomb-like explosion went off. But he knew New York City was burning to ash.  He didn’t know what to make of the supernatural phenomena he had witnessed all night.  But none of that mattered.  Survival instincts kicked in.  Chilton realized the odds of his survival – and the boy’s – were slim.  But he had to try.  He took in a few deep breaths and looked at the mist.  He knew which path he would take.  With resolve and with all the courage he had, he made a run for it. 

But he didn’t make it.  Just as he approached the wall of the mist, Chilton’s ears were filled with a high-pitched screeching.  He fell to his knees, almost letting go of the boy.  Chilton sensed a presence.  He couldn’t explain it, but it felt ancient, and it terrified him beyond anything else that night.  He looked up into the mist.  Three shadows, each nearly twenty feet high, floated within an inch of the smoky surface.  Each wore a huge crown, like the ancient kings of old.  Their faces were indistinct, their eyes a piercing red.  Whenever Chilton met their gaze, he felt a stabbing in his chest.

The three Shadow Kings observed their opponent.  Life had no meaning to them, for they moved throughout the world only to seek the ruin of souls.  And there was one they needed that night.  The one Chilton guarded in his arms.

Impatience and rage seemed to ooze from them, as if they had little time to finish an important task.

One spoke.  “We can return what we took.  You will have them if you give us the boy.”

Its voice was hollow, sexless, terrifying.  The image of his sister and the man reappeared, both staring with longing and despair.  Chilton ached for their return so much he longed to believe these evil creatures would honor their promise.  But then he looked at the boy in his arms.

Thunder rolled.  Chilton couldn’t tell if it was in the distance, or inside his heart.  He rocked on his feet, not knowing what to do.  The child felt heavy, heavier.  It would be easy to put him down.

The Shadow Kings hissed in anticipation, as if knowing it was now or never.  He’d either drop the child now, or die for him if he had to.

Chilton took a step toward them, but when he tried to put his foot down, he nearly tripped.  Instinctively, he held the child tighter, and in that moment realized he’d nearly made a terrible mistake.

He looked at the three Shadow Kings and shouted, “NO!”

They unleashed a hellish howling.  The sound alone made Chilton cry out in agony.  Maybe he would die to protect this child.

Neither Chilton nor the Shadow Kings noticed at first, but a light had appeared between them.   Within seconds it grew to the size of a beach ball.  The howling faded.  Chilton looked up and saw something beautiful; a bird, a fiery bird, like the legendary Phoenix.

Its wings and tail kept expanding.  As it grew, the darkness withdrew until Chilton could see the sanctuary again.  As he wished he could reach it, the phoenix sent a burst of white flame toward it that made the remaining darkness shrivel at lightning speed.  Within it, Chilton glimpsed the Shadow Kings.  They seemed horrified at the thought that the path to his destination was clear.

Chilton didn’t need any other cue.  He ran for it.  The phoenix-light collapsed the instant his foot touched the first step.  The darkness tumbled free and rushed up behind him.  He jumped the last three steps, gripping the boy tightly to his chest.  As he leapt, he felt as if a hundred fingers were trying to claw him back, but failed.

He pushed open the heavy outer wooden doors, found a second set, opened them, and finally arrived.  Before even taking in his new surroundings, he fell against a wooden pew and hacked violently.  As Chilton sucked in a few rattling breaths, the boy fell from his aching arms.

They were safe, weren’t they?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

The wooden doors shook.  Bright red light swept through the cracks.  Chilton snagged the boy and tried to inch as far as from the door as possible.  There was moaning outside, coming from all directions.  Beyond the tall stain-glass windows, he could see dark clouds circling the building.

Circling, but unable to enter.

The wooden door burst open.  The Shadow Kings stood just outside, red eyes locked on Chilton.

All three spoke with one voice:  “You alone made this choice; you alone will pay.”

They gave off a final howl.  It shattered all the windows, throwing shards everywhere.  A wild gust of wind rattled the pews.  Chilton sheltered the boy, until, seconds later, the scream and wind died down.

Now, for the first time, all was calm, except for Chilton’s pounding heart.  He was here.  The boy was safe.  Now what? 

Broken glass, torn books and splintered wood lay around his feet.  Beyond the pews, at the head of the large room, he saw several familiar images, all untouched by the attack.  There was a Christian cross, the Star of David, a sacred Buddha, a crescent moon, and others.

Was it a church?  What sort of church was this?

Chilton jumped.  A woman was standing below the images, the one who’d met him in the alley, ordered him to take the boy here in the first place.  How had he missed seeing her?  Her purple eyes conveyed a sense of authority.  A sky blue gown hung on her unusually tall, slender frame.  Her black hair was tied neatly in a ponytail.  Her dark skin, and the red dot on her forehead, suggested an eastern Indian descent.

“You are safe now, Martin,” she said.

But Chilton didn’t feel thankful.  He was too busy going into shock.

“Stay calm,” she said.  “The others are coming.”

A bald, older Asian man appeared in the open door, looking angry.  He’d been in the alley, too, although he hadn’t spoken at the time.  The long black goatee that reached down to his knees would be easy to spot anywhere.  Now, his purple robes were torn, and as he approached, grunting with every step, Chilton saw he had several deep gashes, including a cut across his right eye that ran along his forehead and cheek.  He limped nearer, leaving a trail of blood.

The woman placed her hands on his shoulders and surveyed his wounds.  “Benedict, dear brother, where are the others?”

“Com-ming,” was all he managed to say.  He gave Chilton a dark look.  Was he a threat?

The woman shook her head sadly.  “So much death.”

She turned to Chilton and tried to smile, but couldn’t keep the exhaustion and sadness from her eyes. “You’ve seen us before, Martin.  I mean, before tonight.  You know that, don’t you?”

Chilton stuttered, “No.  W-what do you mean?”

“Only what I said, that you’ve seen our kind before.  How many times has it been now?”

Chilton frowned.  “The fires, the oversized dogs, those were your doing?”

“Not our doing,” she said. “But we’ve been fighting a war in this city for a very long time.  Every effort is made to keep it secret, yet you always seem to show up.  Why do you think that is?”

“Believe me lady, I didn’t ask to see any of it,” Chilton said, still panting.  “Who are you people?”

“I am Ganeida Benedict.  The very few of your kind who know of our existence call us Lightbringers.  We’ve been trying to fend off the destruction, but tonight it was the worst it’s ever been.  Tonight, the world is burning.”

Now it was time for answers.  “What happened tonight?  Who dropped a bomb on us?  What were those things?  Is… is the world going to end?”  Chilton felt guilt rise within him as he looked back down at the boy he’d been holding on to for so long.  He had one final question.  “And why this boy?  Why did those things want him so badly?”

It seemed the last question had an effect on Ganeida and Benedict.  The two stared at one another for a moment. 

“No bomb was dropped,” Ganeida replied.  “It was caused by someone with a powerful ability.  And along with those creatures you saw, they had hoped to end the world.”

“Failed but they did,” the man known as Benedict growled.

Chilton stepped closer on shaky feet.  “What are they?  Where did they come from?  Why?”

Her purple eyes scanned Chilton.  “They showed you some people you lost, didn’t they?  And you almost succumbed?”

Chilton nodded.

“They’re an ancient force, ancient enough to believe this world is rightfully theirs.   What I don’t know is why they were suddenly pulled back here.  I do know you made a difference, Martin, a big one.  No one will ever know how big, but you have our gratitude.”

Her gaze fell on the boy. She moved a tuft of brown hair from his eyes, revealing a bleeding gash above the hairline.  He did not stir. He was no more than four years old, and still sleeping peacefully.

“Who is he?” Chilton asked.  “Where are his parents?"

“He is Elston Michael Preston,” Ganeida said.  “And his parents are gone.  You saw his father tonight in the alley.”

Chilton’s mind flashed back to the dead man sprawled in a townhouse doorway where he’d found the boy.  “I don’t understand.  Why did this force come after him?”

Once again Ganeida and Benedict looked at each other.  This time is was Ganeida who looked darkly at Chilton.

“Listen carefully to what I’m about to say.  Because we don’t have much time.  Elston is one of them.  One of the - stopped

“The shadows are cursed with knowing the future.  My guess is that knew they would be defeated and hoped to take the boy down with them.  Another fate, one they couldn’t see, would not let them.  It must be why you were there, Martin, why you always happen to show up during our conflicts.”

“I don’t believe in fate,” Chilton said.

“You don’t have to,” Ganeida answered.  “As long as fate believes in you.”

The wounded Benedict grunted to get Ganeida’s attention.  He nodded towards the entrance whereno less than a dozen people, all torn and bloodied, were filing in.  A few carried bodies.

A muscular black man with a phoenix-tattoo on the side of his face bowed. 

“How many?” Ganeida asked him.

He seemed about to answer, but instead, began to cry.  All he could do was point to the doors.

When Chilton looked outside, he nearly dropped the boy.  New York had been all but destroyed.  The buildings that remained were aflame, littered with bodies, all dressed in similar robes.

“There are more in the alleys,” an elderly woman said.  Her red hair nearly matched her gown.

Ganeida leaned against a door and placed a hand over her heart.  Tears fell from her face, shining sky-blue like her robes.  Instead of falling, each blew into the air where they dissolved in to nothingness.

“We’re almost extinct,” she said softly.  She faced the others, struggling to regain her composure.

The red-haired woman pointed skyward.   “Someone approaches!”

A bright, pulsing light drifted down like a snowflake.  Near the ground, it hovered, glowing so brightly, Chilton had to free one hand from holding the boy, to cover his eyes.  As it faded, a remarkably beautiful woman appeared, her robe the color of moonlight, her hair white and flowing.  Her soft face, though, was filled with grief.  He to look in to her eyes, but they remained so bright he had to turn away.

Despite the carnage, everyone seemed relieved by the woman’s apperance.

“Who is she?” Chilton whispered.

“Flora,” Ganeida said.  Her tone was normal as if it didn’t matter they were speaking about someone a few feet away.  “One of the Three Sisters.  A… messenger for the being your people refer to as God, or gods.”

Her head low, her white tresses dangling, Flora walked among the Lightbringers, humming softly.  Chilton had never heard the melody, but it was clearly a song of mourning.  As she passed, each Lightbringers bowed and shut their eyes.

Beyond, the fires softened, making it easier to see the snow asflakes clung to Flora’s hair.  It seemed unusually dark.  Or did it just look that way because he hair was so light?  Chilton put his hand out and let a few fall into his palm.  They were powdery – like snow – but when he rubbed them between his fingers, they left black streaks.  It was ash, he realized, falling everywhere, burying the charred world.

Flora ended her lament at the foot of the sanctuary steps.  Ganeida stepped forward.  “Your presence here is most welcome.”

Flora looked at the grieving Lightbringers.  “The loss of your friends is not in vain.  Because of your efforts, the Decision has been postponed; the world has been granted a second chance.  Three gifts will be given to man tonight, in the hope they will be used to set things right.”

When she raised her hands the black clouds parted and a golden light shone down.

“To keep it from suffering, the world was placed in a deep sleep.  When they awake, they will not see the burning, but the dawn, a new day.  For the first gift, tonight’s horrors will be swept away, remembered only by those who embrace the light and chose to stand against its enemies.”

Amazed by the display of light, Chilton had a hard time following Flora’s words.  He had little time to figure it out.  Out of nowhere, a wall of snow blew past Flora and down the battered street.  As it passed, the bodies of the Lightbringers disappeared, replaced with parked cars full of sleeping drivers and passengers.  The snow lifted from the ground, carrying the debris of the fallen buildings.  Everything on the street was being put back in place just as it had been before the attack.

Chilton couldn’t help but smile.  It was as if the nightmare had never happened.

“Bring me the boy,” Flora said.  Her voice carried a power that echoed inside his chest. 

“It’s all right, Martin,” Ganeida said.  “I’ll walk with you.”

Together, they approached.  The closer Chilton got to Flora, the warmer he felt.  His aches and pains drifted away.  His fear melted.

“This is Martin Chilton,” Ganeid said.  “He saved the boy’s life.”

Flora didn’t respond.  She only stared at Chilton briefly, then lowered her gaze to the boy.  Instinctively, he handed him over, and as he did, Chilton felt as if an inner weight had been lifted.  He felt suddenly… free. 

Flora cradled the boy in her arms and smiled sweetly. “The second gift is to you, Elston Preston,” she whispered.  “You will start anew, free to live whatever life you choose, as was the dream of your parents.”

The golden light shone on the boy.  For the first time, he stirred, stretching his arms and yawning, though he remained asleep. 

“What shall become of him?” the red-haired woman asked.

Flora surveyed the surviving Lightbringers. 

“He shall go to his aunt.  Taken to there by the mortal, Martin Chilton.”

Everyone turned to look at him.  He felt Flora’s burning eyes seeking his own.  He forced himself to look into them, only this time it did not hurt.

“The final gift, we give to you, Martin Chilton, the only man who stood awake at the end of the world.”

“W-what sort of gift?”

She moved closer, her eyes digging into his soul.  He found it hard to breathe.

“A necessary burden,” she said softly.  “Foresight, the ability to know the events of tomorrow.”

Ganeida looked darkly at her.  “Please, not him.  He’s already done enough…”

Flora turned to her.  “Would you then, take this gift, Ganeida?”

Ganeida recoiled.  “No.  It would be too dangerous for someone like me to have such power.”

“Does anyone else feel fit to hold this gift?” Flora asked.  She looked at Benedict, the red-haired woman, and the others.  No one spoke.

“I don’t understand,” Chilton said.  “If I can see the future, isn’t that a good thing?”

Ganeida bowed her head.  “No, Martin, because you’ll be powerless to stop it.”

“But I’ll know what happens to the world?  Why they were after this boy?”

“You’ll likely know everything.  Far more than I do,” Ganeida said.

Briefly thinking over how much pain he’d experienced in his life because of what he did not know, Chilton shrugged.  “Then I’ll do it.  I’ll take the gift.”

“Martin,” Ganeida warned.  “It will change you.”

Chilton looked up at Flora.  “What happens if I say no?”

“All three gifts must be given, or none at all.”

“The world would be remained destroyed?  And the survivors will remember?”

Flora nodded.

“Then, I’ll take the gift.”

The golden light shone once more, this time on Chilton.  He half-expected to see the future, immediately, but nothing happened.  As far as he could tell, nothing changed.

Flora handed the boy back to Ganeida, then turned to the Lightbringers.  “For now the Enemy has been returned to the depths, but the decision has only been delayed.  Man and woman of all creeds must prepare for the battle to come.”

“My lady,” Ganeida asked, “How was the decision postponed?  And how much time do we have?”

Flora looked down at Ganeida.  “The rules were not obeyed.  In 18 years, the Decision will be delivered.”  As she raised her hands above her head, she turned to speak to Chilton.  “Please pray for us.”

White light radiated from her body, blinding Chilton once more, and she was gone.

He stepped over to Ganeida.  “So that’s it? Everything’s back to normal?”

He thought of Marietta, the ring in his pocket.  If that was all there was to it, he could deliver the boy to his aunt, as they asked, then still propose to Marietta.

But Ganeida answered:  “Except, for those who remember.”

A burst of light reflected off her face.  Chilton turned in time to see not just a single light, but a wall of the beautiful, golden rays rushing at him.  When it hit, his body shook as if struck by lightning.  He arched his back and screamed.

Ganeida covered her face.  The rest of the Lightbringers ducked.

Chilton fell to the ground, writhing.

Ganeida handed Elston to Benedict, then rushed to Chilton’s side.  “Martin, listen to my voice.  Stay with me!”

Chilton didn’t hear her.  Wave after wave of sensation flooded his brain, filling him with new, impossible memories, a myriad of dark and terrible things.  The pain was unbearable.  In his mind, he saw Marietta and had to reach her.  Thinking she was right in front of him, he crawled on his belly along the sidewalk, a new wave hitting every few moments, each one making him stretch, contort and scream.

Ganeida tried to comfort him.  “Martin, relax, don’t move, stay with me.”

His vision was blurred, fueled to bursting, but the last rush was the worst, for it showed him the end of all things.  Chilton let out a howl.  Tears streaked his face.  He didn’t want Marietta anymore.  He only wanted to die.

No longer able to crawl, he curled into a fetal position.  Ganeida laid him across the snow-covered street, tears welling in he own eyes.  She couldn’t understand his pain, but knew that whatever he saw was something they all would face one day.

Finally, like all things, the pain died.  Chilton opened his eyes.  He saw bricks, steel, concrete, glass, and cars being lifted and restored.  He saw the golden light of Flora pass over skyscrapers as the remaining parts of the Empire State Building stitched back together.

“Chilton,” Ganeida said softly.  “Can you hear me?”

Chilton looked at her, knowing that seeing him broke her heart.  The innocence she’d seen in him was gone.  Martin Chilton was dead, replaced by a man who had seen too much.  Chilton even knew what she was telling herself, that if this “gift” came from Flora, it had to have some good to it.  What that was, however, remained, for her, to be seen.

He sat up.  It was Christmas morning, the world was still fast asleep.  All vestiges of the war were gone, replaced with a typical city street, filled with cars and taxi’s, the drivers still sleeping.

“I’m sorry to ask you this,” Ganeida said, “but we need you to do one last thing.  We need you to take the boy to the hospital.  When the world wakes, he will need doctors.  You, as a police officer will need to tell them what happened to his parents.”

Chilton didn’t respond.  There was no point.  He already knew, of course, that he’d take Elston Preston to the nearest hospital, that his aunt would fly up from South Carolina and eventually take custody .

Benedict lowered the boy in to his lap.  Ganeida place a hand on his shoulder.  and nodded toward the street.  They heard sirens.  The world was waking.

“Martin, we have to leave,” she said.  “We’ll find you once you bring the boy to the hospital.  I promise.”

The other Lightbringers were already gone.  A snowy whirlwind covered Ganeida and Benedict.  When the wind dropped and the snow fell, the two were gone.

Chilton wiped his nose on his sleeve.  All around him, people awoke, not knowing what to think of the strange police officer standing between the lanes carrying a small boy in his arms.  He looked down at Elston with fear and pity, knowing his fate was tied every living man, woman and child.  Then, as the snow fell in earnest, Martin Chilton walked the road set before him, weeping for the world.


CHAPTER ONE - ONE AWFUL DAY

Nine years later, on a warm October morning, Elston rode his bike down Shore Avenue on the way to Bantam Middle School.  Thirteen now, he was five-ten and had a deep voice.  His floppy brown hair remained unchanged, forever getting into his brown eyes.

After Aunt Nora adopted him, they’d moved around a few years before settling in Sumter, a quiet middle-class town outside New York City.  They lived in a nice, two-story house with a backyard and a white picket fence.  Elston didn’t know it, but it was just the way his parents always wanted. He had little memory of how they died.  His aunt would only say they died for something they believed in, and she’d tell him more when he turned sixteen.  For Elston, that was an eternity.

Plump, boisterous and white-haired, his aunt spent most of her time in her small greenhouse.  She also had quite a collection of rare books, the rarest locked in a ceiling-high antique chest, Elston forbidden to see them.  For the most part, though, she gave him his space.  Living with someone is very different from visiting.  Some like to lay the line down right away, others prefer to let things emerge naturally.  Aunt Nora preferred the natural, never forcing anything on the growing boy.  Elston appreciated this, but never told her.  At though they’d lived together nine years, they were still learning how to understand one another.

“Hey, Elston!” a voice yelled from behind.

He turned, wind pushing his hair into his face, and saw a black boy speeding toward him on his bike. 

“Hiya Eric,” Elston said, slowing for his friend to catch up.

“Another glorious morning,” Eric said sarcastically.

 “You study for Mr. Brock’s science test?”

“Nah, I was busy.”

“Doing what?”

“Basketball, man,” Eric said.  He sipped from his water bottle, then placed it back in its holder.   “Let’s speed up, I need to get to the school early.  They’re having a basketball team meeting at 8am.”

They were in eighth grade, off to high school next year.  Aunt Nora was pushing him to get good grades so he could attend a private school, Benedict High.  That was fine with Elston, who hated the middle school.  Constantly ridiculed and bullied, he told her he wouldn’t be surprised if all his teachers were demons.  Aunt Nora, apparently a demon expert, claimed they generally did not go undercover as teachers.   “It doesn’t pay very well,” she said in her thick southern accent.  (She and Elston’s mother had been raised in another Sumter, North Carolina, not to be confused with the famous Fort Sumter in Charleston.)

Elston wished he could tell Eric they’d meet up later.  Getting to school early only meant there’d be more time for him to get picked on.  But, not wanting his friend to suspect he was afraid, they rode on.

Ten minutes later they were at thegates, cars lined up to drop off their children.  The more impatient parents had their kids get out and walk the last few yards.  Trailing Eric, Elston rode past the cars, into the area where the busses parked.  Placing their bikes side by side on the rail, they walked in with the crowd.

Every morning, the floors were polished and shiny, the chalkboards clean.  By afternoon, two thousand feet, tramping in dirty shoes, had ruined them.  If you ever got caught dirtying the school on purpose, Mrs. Mulberry came after you like a freight train.  A large woman with one long bushy eyebrow, a mustache and an unidentifiable accent, even the teachers were afraid of her.

The boys stopped outside one of the smaller gyms.  Inside, a group of boys sat in the bleachers while a petite, muscular man strode back and forth, lecturing them on teamwork. 

“They’ve started!” Eric moaned.  “Gotta run.  See ya second period, Elston!”

“Yeah, later.”  While Elston turned away, a female teacher yelled at Eric to walk, not run.

Alone, he looked at his watch.  8:03am, seven minutes until the homeroom bell.

As slowly as possible, he walked toward the cafeteria.  There, hundreds of students sat and talked cheerfully, some lining up for last minute orders of eggs, sausage and sandwiches.  The second floor mezzanine was a cooler, nicer place to hang, with comfortable couches, but you had to be part of a team or a student organization like band, choir or the newspaper to earn a spot up there.  Elston had never joined a club in his life, and he wasn’t very skilled at sports.  He was a decent student, but really did nothing else , which made it tough to find friends.  There was Eric, and a handful of others, but most had closer pals they’d rather hang with.

He wandered until he came upon a table filled with kids in the same predicament: no one to sit with.  A chubby girl with pigtails and pimples drew in a big notebook covered with kittens.  Her backpack was covered, too.  She even wore kitten hairclips at the ends of each pigtail.  Another boy, obviously a sixth grader, sat reading a Nickelodeon book.

Sitting there would be humiliating.  Instead, he got on line and tried to look as if he had someplace better to be.  But what if someone saw him near the Loser’s Table before he go on line?  Would they figure out what he was doing?  He saw some kids staring at him, but in a room full of students, eyes moving everywhere, you were bound to catch one or two.  Still, his ears burned in embarrassment. 

He looked at the A-Table, where the popular students sat, chief among them, Zachary Thomas.  Surrounded by pals, he chugged his milk carton then let out a loud massive belch.  Finished, he chucked the empty carton at an innocent bystander, whacking him in the head.  The victim slouched away, Zach and his friends laughing.

Zach’s good-looks didn’t make him any more likeable in Elston’s book.  As far as he was concerned, popular people shouldn’t be allowed to be attractive.  He had sharp blue eyes, too, like his own aunt’s.  Elston had read somewhere that people with highly noticeable eyes were good people-persons and made good speakersElston’s eyes were a big, dull brown.  He decided he hated Zach.

“What do you want?” the thin, old lunch lady said irritably.

Elston hadn’t noticed, but he was already at the front of the line.  School was about to begin and the line had dwindled fast.  

“Um, yeah…”

He quickly looked up at the menu and ordered French toast.  After he paid, the woman threw down something that looked like clay molded into a shape like toast by a two-year-old.

He looked at his watch.  Three long, painful minutes to go.  Surrendering, he trudged toward the table occupied by the kitty-cat lover and took a seat, sealing his fate.

The boy reading the book smiled at him.  Wanting to maintain some dignity and at least pretend he didn’t have a choice about sitting there, Elston didn’t smile back.

But the boy said, “Hi.”

“Hello,” Elston said back, but he didn’t look.  He tried to eat his French toast, but it tasted worse than it looked.  Disgusted, he took a napkin, spit out the toast and balled it up.

“Not so great, huh?” the boy said.

“Err, no, not really.”

“I’m Rowan.  You’re in eighth grade, aren’t you?”

“Um, yeah.  How’d you know?”

“I’ve seen you walking around with other eighth graders.  Plus, you helped me get around the school last month when I was new here.”

“I...did?”

“Don’t worry if you don’t remember.  Not many people notice me anyways,” Rowan said gloomily.

Now Elston felt bad for both of them.  “Oh, um-”

The bell rang.  Thankfully, Elston stood and grabbed his book bag.  “Nice to meet you Rowan.  Later.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Err….”

Mumbling something, Elston bolted into the mass of students trying to exit the cafeteria.  A pro at getting through crowds, he slipped through, reached the steps and quickly made it to his second floor homeroom – first row, fifth seat.  Thankfully they weren’t alphabetical order, so Elston managed a seat near the door.  Easy in, easy out.

Twenty minutes later, things weren’t so easy.  He was in the gym, again feeling bad.  Some of the other boys were already muscular, leaving a shamed Elston scrambling to put on his shorts and t-shirt to hide his scrawny, unattractive body.  It was the same every day.

“All right boys,” Coach Nelson said, walking down the long line of young boys at attention.  As usual, he inspected their uniforms to make sure they were up to his standards.  They couldn’t smell bad, couldn’t be wrinkly, and couldn’t be too big or small.  Fail inspection, and you had to scrub the gym floors after school.

When he was finished, he announced, “We’re playing basketball for the next two weeks.”

He might as well have said, “Attention Elston Preston:  Your next two weeks of P.E. will consist of torture, both physical and mental, with occasional spates of ridicule!”

Elston groaned, earning a quick glare from the coach.  “I’ll pick four captains, they’ll pick teams.   This week, everyone competes.  Next week, we’ll have a tournament.  We’ll use Martin Nelson’s Half-Court rules.  In case you’re completely stupid, I’m Martin Brown!  In other words, we play by my rules.”

Never having played basketball at school, Elston had no idea what Nelson’s Rules rules were.  How different could they be?

“David, Jake, Steven, Chad…captains.  Choose up.”

 Jake Millian was decent enough, and even though the others weren’t exactly on friendly terms with Elston, he was confident he wouldn’t be the last boy picked.  There was plenty of other bad talent in the room.  But, surprise, surprise…

He was.  Worse, David Brone’s team moaned in unison when they realized they had to take him.

And then the game started.  With Elston was the only man free, David passed him the ball.  He froze, and didn’t even try to catch it. 

“Thanks Preston!” Jeremy, a sandy-haired boy on the opposing team, chortled.

After that, Elston told himself he should just try to stay unnoticed.  Do nothing.  Time would pass and eventually it would be over.  That was the plan, but…. something inside him said different:

No.  Show them what you have.

Without thinking, he snatched the ball from one of the opposing players and chucked it into the air.

Swish – it went through the hoop.  A basket!  The opposing team cheered!

 Huh?

Elston didn’t understand, but he kept at it, stealing the ball, making baskets, earning cheers from the other team.  Finally, Josh Mills whispered to him, “you’re scoring points for them.  Each team gets a set time to score while the other team can only block.  When you score during their time, they get the points.”

“But… since when aren’t you allowed to intercept and score for your own team?”

“Nelson’s Half-Court Rules.  I guess he wants us to focus on either offense or defense.  Wait until Coach Nelson blows the whistle, and then it’s our turn.”

“Stop giving the dip wad pointers!” David yelled.

Josh shrugged.  “Hey man, you’re the captain.”

A whistle turned them around.  The coach had been playing at another basked against some of the students.  “You bounced the ball three times in a row in the same spot,” he shouted.  “A violation of Nelson’s rules.  Drop and give me fifty!”

“Y-yessir,” the boy said nervously.  He fell to the ground and started doing push-ups.

“God I hate this class,” Elston said beneath his breath.

Seconds later, Nelson blew the whistle again.  Some kid had hollered for his teammate to pass him the ball.  Apparently, according to Nelson’s rules, you couldn’t talk to your teammates, even about the game.

Many painful minutes later, his team had lost by forty points, ten scored by Elston.  As everyone headed to the locker room, Adam, one of the kids from the winning team, Adam, smiled at him.

“You’re not half-bad out there,” he said, holding up his hand.

Adam, who had a mixed Asian and European look, was usually angry, so Elston was happy to try to slap him five.  Instead, the boy lowered his hand and smacked him.  Embarrassing, sure, but the pain was crazy.  It was sharp and severe, like he’d been hit with a hammer.

Elston recoiled and bent over, nearly blinded by agony.

“Adam!  What’d you do?” screamed Coach Nelson.

As the coach approached Elston, Adam answered in a panic, “ I just tapped him on his forehead!”

“He didn’t hit him hard, sir, he must be faking,” another boy said.

But he wasn’t.  Elston was on his knees,  feeling as if all the blood had rushed out of him.  He had a metallic taste in the back of his throat that made him want to puke.

Nelson grabbed him.   “Come on, get up!  It was just a tap.”

With great effort, Elston sat up and opened his eyes.  His vision was blurred, his eyes burning.  For a moment, he thought he saw someone in the rafters, an old man with a long white goatee, chuckling.

Nelson snapped his fingers in front of his face.  “Earth to Elston!”

A couple of the boys laughed.

He blinked.  The rafters were empty.  Slowly, he regained his vision.  The pain receded.  Nelson helped him lean forward.  “What’s your malfunction, son?  Can you hear me?”

Elston felt his forehead.  It was damp.  He half-expecting to feel blood ooze down his face, but it was just sweat. “Yessir,” he managed. 

“Alright then, on your feet.”

Once the coach helped him up, he made it to the locker room on his own.  From the way everyone snickered as they looked at him, it was obvious they thought he’d staged the whole thing.

Ell-stonn!” Adam shouted.  “Gonna go home and cry to your mommy as she breast feeds you?”

Ignoring him, Elston put on his pants and dug in his locker for his shirt.  Before he could put it on, Adam snatched it away.

“Give it back!” Elston said.  He tried to sound intimidating, but the other boys just laughed.

Adam twirled and snapped it.  The shirt popped loudly on Elston’s chest, leaving a wide red mark. 

“Stop!” Elston cried.   All at once, the pain was back.

And then the lights began to flicker.

Adam looked up at the fixtures.  Elston felt himself throbbing, sort of in tune with the darkness. It seemed as if something was about to happen.  But then Coach Nelson walked in on his way to his office and all at once, the lights came back on.

“Get dressed!  The bell’s about to ring,” the coach called absently.

Adam smiled at Elston, balled up his shirt and threw it to the ground. 

“Pick it up, Prestard.”

He slammed Elston’s locker shut and then headed for his own.

The pain vanishing again, Elston bent over to pick up his wrinkled shirt.  Fantasizing about beating Adam’s face in, he shook the dirt off of it as best as he could.  He was still dressing when the bell rang.  Most left in groups or pairs, talking sports, or about how geeky Elston was.

He sat down to put his shoes on, realizing exactly why he hated P.E. so much.  It demanded interaction with his peers.  In History or Science he didn’t have to speak to anyone if he didn’t want to.

As he tied his shoes, something warm dripped from his head.  Putting his hand to his forehead, he felt something drip down along his nose.  He wiped it with his hand and looked.

It couldn’t be blood.  It was light blue.  Looking in the mirror, he saw it came from a small bruise on the border of his forehead and hairline, the spot where Adam tapped him.

“Weird.”

He wiped the rest on a paper towel and headed out.

By lunchtime, everyone knew about the gym incident.

 “Who does Adam think he is, picking on people smaller than he is?” Eric fumed as he dug into his chicken breast.

“What am I?  Eleven?” Elston shot back, annoyed.

“You know what I mean,” Eric said.  “I just hate how everyone picks on you.”

“They don’t all pick on me… and I fight back,” Elston said, but he felt his ears go red.  Eric was right.  It should be easy to blend in, but he’d somehow managed to become the school’s biggest loser.

He played gloomily with his rice until Mark, another member of their small group, broke the silence.  “You gonna eat the rest of your chicken?”

Eric scolded him.  “Can’t you see he’s upset?  How can you think of food?”

Elston pushed the tray toward both of them.  “You can have it.”

But before Mark could get at it, Eric snagged the chicken.  Mark got the canned peaches, and the two began to fight over the rice.  In a winning move, Mark, who always dressed in dark, baggy clothes that matched his long black hair, spit on it.

Eric grimaced.  “That’s sick man.”

“Yeah, but I won, didn’t I?”  At least once a week, Mark managed to gross out Eric and win some extra food.  Turning to Elston he asked, “Why are you glum today, man?”

So there was someone who hadn’t heard about Adam or the bullying.

“Nothing, forget it,” Elston mumbled, preferring to keep it that way.

He took his empty tray and headed for the waste area.  He was so busy hating his existence, after he gave the tray to the lunch lady, he turned and accidentally slammed into the worst person possible; Tony Frollo.

Elston was taller and a year older, but the curly red-haired 7th grader had a lot of friends who were big, strong and… evil.

Tony shouted and dropped his own tray.  As the food splattered over his shoes, three of his big friends turned to watch.  He looked up at Elston with rage in his eyes.

“Err, sorry?” Elston said.

“You’re Preston, ain’t you?” Tony asked.

Elston reluctantly nodded.

“You just messed up my shoes.  Better do something about it.”

“L-like what?” Elston asked.  He was sorry he did.  He really didn’t want to know.

“Lick them clean,” he said.

His three friends laughed.

“No!” Elston said.

The boys stopped laughing.  Tony walked closer and pushed Elston up against the wall.  “Do what I say.”

Elston looked to the tray lady for help, but she was busy humming to herself.  As he watched, she absently took one of the used lunch trays and – thinking no one was watching - licked it clean!  Further back in the kitchen, the other lunch ladies were doing the same thing.

Was he imagining things, like that guy in the rafters?

Before he could decide, Tony punched him in the stomach.  His hand moved slowly, the blow was more for show.  It shouldn’t have hurt much, but, like Adam’s tap in the gym,  it felt like a ton of bricks.

Tony and his friend laughed as he bent over, and curled up to protect his stomach.

Still chuckling, Tony put his filthy shoe in front of Elston’s mouth.

“Now lick it,” Tony said.  Elston didn’t move.  “Lick it or I hit you again, Prestard!”

“Hey, I like that,” one of the boys said.  “Prestard!  Prestard!”

Defeated, miserable, Elston closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue.  The tip touched the shoe for a fraction of a second.  Triumphant, Tony slapped hands with his friends.

“What’s going on here?” an older voice broke in.  Coach Nelson.

“Elston’s being difficult,” Tony answered with a sigh.  “I was joking around with him, and he freaked out.  He knocked the tray out of my hand, and as soon as he saw you, fell to the floor and started whining.”

Coach Nelson looked down and crossed his arms.  “How many times are you going to play victim in one day?  Principal’s office for you, pal.”

Elston didn’t move.  If he did, he was sure he’d throw up.

The coach let out a deep breath and yanked him to his feet.  Then, all eyes on him, Elston followed the coach across the cafeteria to the main office.

 

*********

 

Principal Hingle was a cheerful man.  Thin gray hair slicked carefully back against his head, he wore the finest suits and looked to Elston more like a successful businessman than a school administrator.  His office was plastered with plaques, achievement awards, and photos with politicians.

“Well, well,” he said. “We have a problem, Mr. Preston.”

Elston sat hunched over, his hands still comforting his stomach.

“Coach Nelson tells me you’re having difficulty doing boyish things.”

“Boyish things?”

“Sports?  You’re always picked last, your teammates say you’re unmotivated and, judging from your build, you don’t play any sports outside of P.E.”

“I’m… not that good-”

“Do you know that Bantam is the most successful middle school in New York state?”  Hingle straightened his already-straight tie and looked at Elston more closely.  “Everything here is perfect.  Everyone does all the things they’re supposed to.  All the boys play sports, and none are ever picked last -- except you.”

“But if I’m not picked last, sir, wouldn’t someone else be?”

Hingle chuckled.  “When that happens, I’ll bring them in for a chat.  Right now, it’s you.  Time to stop being a sissy.  If I don’t see an improvement, I’ll be forced to fail you, leave you back.”

“What?” Elston said.  His indignation rose.  “I’d fail the whole 8th grade because I’m picked last during sports?  You can’t do that.”

“I can, if that’s what it takes,” he answered.  “What I can’t do is let you drift through here completely unproductive.  Son, you aren’t involved in any extra curricular activities.  Not even the nearly worthless theater club.”

Elston couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “Wait a minute.  Did you call me a sissy?”

Hingle sat back.  “Crying whenever someone confronts you?  What do you call it?”

“Tony Frollo punched me in the stomach.”

“Sure he did,” Hingle said.  “Elston, we don’t like losers here.  Perfect schools don’t have losers.  Shape up, or I will leave you back.  Maybe by the time next year rolls around you’ll be able to handle yourself better.”

Elston’s anger fled.  So there it was.  Even the principal knew he was a loser.  “Yes, sir.”

A false smile sprouted on Hingle’s face.  “Go on, get out of here.  No more being a waste of space, y’hear?”

Deflated, Elston realized the impossible had occurred.  He actually felt worse than when he’d arrived.

The rest of the day, everywhere he went, people whispered Prestard.  It didn’t make sense.  He’d been picked on all year.  Why the extra attention today?

The last class was study hall in the gym.  When Elston signed up for it, he hoped it would be full of students quietly reading.  Instead, he was usually the only one who’d crack open a book.  Mr. Cayce, old and hard of hearing, didn’t care what all the clowns and bullies did, as long as they kept their voices down.

Elston tried to sit by himself, but his classmates wouldn’t take the hint.  David Brone and a few others sat near him just to torment him.  WhenElston moved up to the bleachers, they followed.  He tried to ignore their sniggering until a balled-up piece of paper smacked him on the head.

“Would you guys cut it out?” Elston said, but they only cackled.

“Silence!” Mr. Cayce called from below.  Head up from his sports-planner, he peered at the class through his thick glasses.  The boys hushed.  David began whispering to them.  Brone wasn’t as bad as Frollo, but he was still someone to worry about.  Moments later, they split up, sat toward the front and took out some books. 

Finally, Elston thought.

But then one of them, using a fake voice, announced,  “Aww, I’ve got major gas!”

On queue, David put his hands against his mouth and made a fart-sound.

Everyone cracked up.

Mr. Cayce picked his head up and glared in the direction of the first disturbance – right where Elston sat.  When he did, David and his friends looked back at Elston in disgust.

“Who did that?” Mr. Cayce asked.  David and his friends stole glances at Elston.

Then came another, louder, farting sound.

“Geez, Elston,” Brone said.  Several “eww’ed” and looked at Elston.  Some laughed.  Those nearest stood and walked away, waving their hands and gasping for breath.

Mr. Cayce pointed a shaky finger at Elston.  “You there, control your bowel!”

“Sir, I-”  he began, trying to explain.

But someone cut him off, imitating his shy voice.  “…can’t help it.  Must’ve been all those taco’s I had for….  Uh-oh.  Here it comes again!”

A loud, wet noise echoed throughout the gym.

Mr. Cayce, always disoriented at best, rose and made or Elston.  On the way, he tripped and nearly fell.  “Detention for you,” he said, pinching his nose shut with one hand and grabbing Elston with the other.

“Detention for you.”

Elston’s jaw dropped.  “But…”

“Quiet!” Cayce snapped.

He made Elston stand in silence, ten feet away, as he wrote out the detention slip. 

“Take this to Mr. Pata,” he said, tossing the note toward Elston.  When he bent over to pick it up, David made a final, huge farting sound.  The class burst into jeers.

Cayce was easily fooled, but all the kids knew it wasn’t him,.  Not one spoke up for him.  They were having too much fun.

As he left, they broke into applause.  “I can breathe!  I can breathe again!” someone shouted.

Mr. Pata’s class was an older Asian man with a short, trimmed and slightly grayed goatee.  He sat at his desk wearing his reading glasses as he sorted through a stack of essays.  Elston hardly knew him, but he was the only teacher who treated him with respect.

“Mr. Preston,” Pata said curtly as he walked in.  “What can I do for you?”

“I have a detention I’m supposed to register with you,” Elston said bashfully.

After giving the teen a curious stare, he took the slip, raising his eyebrow as he read.

“Detention because you can’t control your bowels?

Elston’s ears turned bright red.  “It wasn’t me.  Some of the boys were making noises and…”

“Ah,” Mr. Pata said.  “Say no more.”  He tore the slip in half and tossed it in the trash.

Elston blinked several times.  “Does this mean I don’t have detention?”

“Why?  Do you want detention?”

“No, sir,” Elston said, relieved.  “It’s just that, well, most teachers don’t bother asking students to explain themselves.”

“Well,” he said, “I can’t speak for the entire staff, but I’ve never seen you act up and, frankly, Mr. Cayce’s retirement is long overdue.”  He picked up a stack of graded papers.  “Since you’re here, though, I’d like to talk to you about the paper you wrote for Advanced English.  It’s pretty good.”

The word confused Elston.  “Good?”

“Probably one of the best I’ve seen all year,” Mr. Pata said.  He heldup the essay.  A+ was written at the top.  Trying to hide the fact he was blushing, Elston pretended to look it over.

Pata lowered the essay to see Elston’s face.  “I was wondering if you’d like to join the school paper.”

“Be a reporter?” Elston asked, taken aback.  Do something creative instead of sitting and listening to lectures?  He could sit in the mezzanine instead of the Loser’s Table.

His heart fluttered until he thought of all the times he’d seen reporters interviewing students at pep rallies or in audiences.  Elston tried to go unnoticed.  If he said yes, he’d have to mingle with people who hated him.  “I’m… not sure.”

Pata scrunched up his face.  “I underestimated you.  I’dhoped you’d be excited.”

Elston looked down and fidgeted with his hands.

Pata exhaled.  “I heard about gym this morning.  If you took journalism, you’d have to drop your first period class.”

Elston looked up.

“The choice is yours, but I think you’d be happy here.  At least happier.”  He handed Elston a sheet of paper.  “Take a permission form.  Think about it.  If you decide to join us, have your aunt sign it.”

Elston eyed the teacher.  He couldn’t recall telling Mr. Pata he lived with his aunt.

“I hope you’ll do it,” Pata said.  “And please don’t let anyone see your essay yet.  I haven’t finished grading the rest.”

“Yes, sir,” he said.  “But how did you…”

The bell rang.  School was over.  Pata went back to his work.  “See you tomorrow, Mr. Preston.”

He headed into the already packed halls.  On the stairs, a friend of Tony Frollo’s tripped him, sending him flying down to the landing.  The stairwell erupted with laughter. 

“Walk much, Prestard?”

Some of the boys swung their book bags into Elston as they passed.  On hands and knees, he crawled out of harm’s way until the herd moved on.

*********

At home he sat in bed, staring out the window.  Across the street, kids played soccer.   He couldn’t care less about soccer, but he did have to wonder why he was so different.

There was a knock on the door.  Before he could answer, Aunt Nora walked in.  “What y’all doin’ up here on a day like this?  It’s gorgeous outside!”

“Eh, I don’t feel like doing anything,” he said.

She sat next to him.  “I saw the permission form on the counter.  It sounds lovely!”

 “Oh that,” Elston said, still looking out the window.

“‘Oh that,’” she gently mocked.  She patted him on the leg.  “Come on, you should be proud.”

“Yeah, now I can stop being a waste of space.”

Now hold on, why on earth do you think you’re a waste of space?”

Elston shrugged.  Hingle was right, even if the way he said it was rude.  He wasn’t involved in anything, he wasn’t good at anything,  he wasn’t liked.  “I just feel like I am, that’s all.”

His aunt grabbed his chin.  “You listen to me.  You’re brilliant, and you come from two brilliant parents.  Right now you’re only thirteen.  There’s still plenty of time to find out who you are and where you belong.  You’re turning out just like your mother, you know that?  She was into journalism.  When we were kids, she wanted to be a detective.  When she got older, she decided a journalist was the modern day detective, devoted to uncovering truth.”

Elston smiled at the thought.  He always wound up smiling when Aunt Nora talked about his mother.  It was as if she was alive again.

“So do I sign it?” she asked.

Elston nodded.  After all, what else did he have to lose?

“Good deal then,” she said.  She stood and headed for the door.  “You can fester up here a little longer, if you want, but supper’s almost ready.”

Once she was gone, he turned toward the photo of his mother and father holding him when he was a baby.  He imagined becoming a great journalist, his mother, wherever she was, being proud.

Something dripped down his face.  He wiped at it.  One his fingers was the same bluish liquid he’d seen in gym.

“Weird.”


CHAPTER TWO - ONE EXTRAORDINARY DAY

Elston knew it was going to be a weird day.  As he yawned and stretched, he felt as if he had slept on the wrong side of the bed.  Opening his eyes, he realized he was hardly on his bed at all.  He was lying upside down against the wall, with only his head still in the bed, pressed down on the pillow.

“What the-”

He crashed down to the mattress, rolled off and looked at the bed suspiciously.  How on earth did he put himself in that position?

Shrugging it off, he walked to his dresser where, as usual, the drawer refused to open.  Nearly old as he was, it’d been locking up more and more.  He looked at his clock.  Almost seven forty-five –  time to leave for school.

“Come on, I’m going to be late,” he said, jiggling the handle.  But the dresser didn’t seem to care.

He pulled with all his might, then, frustrated, punched the drawer.  It didn’t react, but he did.  He jumped up and down trying to shake the pain out of his hand.

He looked at the dresser as if it were a punching bag with Adam’s face on it.  Gritting his teeth, he lifted his right leg and kicked it.  As his foot hit, the room seemed to darken a moment.  Then, the dresser.  flew back with such force, it splintered against the bedroom wall, leaving a heap ofwood and clothes.

He looked at the mess in amazement.

How did I do that?

Unlike the dresser, his foot was still in one piece.

“Okay, well, it was old.”

Seeing his clothing mingled with the wood, he decided to wear something from his closet instead.

*********

Elston arrived at Mr. Pata’s room just as the bell rang.

“Cutting it close,” the teachersaid.  “But I’m glad to see you.  Hopefully we can adjust your schedule before homeroom starts.”

The two made a quick visit to Administrator Halligan, where Elston learned the schedule change wouldn’t go into effect until Monday.  Two more days of P.E.

Just get it over with, hetold himself.

He walked into the gym and told the coach he’d be leaving.

“Oh good,” Nelson said with a grin.  “Now I can a class full of young, men who actually know how play sports!  Alright, go pretend to play basketball.”

When Elston rejoined his team, only Josh welcomed him back.  In a whisper, he explained that they weren’t using Nelson’s Half-Court rules anymore.  David, the captain, instructed the team to cover him Elston as much as possible.

“Yeah, his head might explode if you touch him,” another player quipped.

To Elston’s surprise, Josh snapped back, “Shut up.”

“Okay,” David said, “We’re playing Chad’s team.  They’re on top so far so it’s going to be a hard game.  But as long as someone doesn’t keep scoring points for them, then we’ll be fine, so let’s do this.”

As they walked over to meet the opposing team, Adam Scarborough smiled at Elston in a very unfriendly way.  He even heard him say, He’s going down.

But Adam’s lips weren’t moving.

Did I just read his mind?

Before Elston could think about it, Nelson blew his whistle and the game began.

They weren’t off to a bad start.  David got possession of the ball and sunk an easy basket.  When Jeremy, from the opposing team, tried to pass, Elston jumped up and caught it.  Elston passed it to the only person he trusted, Josh, who scored another basket.

David gave Josh a high five, but ran past Elston as if he didn’t exist.

When Adam got the ball, everyone was too terrified to try to steal itElston approached him, but Adam just shoved him out of the way and scored.  Elston fell and looked up to see Adam smiling down at him.  “Oh darn, your head didn’t explode.”

“Aren’t you afraid he’s contagious?” Jeremy put in.

Even his own team laughed at the joke.

But Elston got back up, feeling angry, full of adrenaline.  When his teammate Anthony, a boy with severe acne, took the ball and tried to pass it, it was caught, and passed over to Adam, but he missed and Elston grabbed it.

“Look out, the ball’s contaminated!” Adam shouted.

Elston looked at Adam.  “Hey, you jealous because a guy like me can at least catch a ball?”

Both teams “Ohhh’ed.”

“That a challenge?” Adam asked.

He stormed toward Elston.  Without hesitating, Elston pulled back to throw the ball at him.  As he let it fly, he felt a surge of power in his arm.  The ball slammed into Adam’s face hard enough to make him fall backwards.

As he lay on the floor clutching his throat, a few of his teammates ran over.  “Yo, breathe Adam!”

Josh laughed.  “Haha, Elston hit Adam in his Adam’s apple!”

“What’s going on?” Coach Nelson asked, rushing over.

“Nothing,” Adam said hoarsely.

“Alright, well come on, finish the game.  We only have ten minutes left.” The coach blew his whistle and left.

Adam stood and walked over to Elston, his team right behind him.

“Wanna play rough then, huh?”

Josh shot Elston a glance, telling him not to provoke Adam.  But Elston didn’t care.  Not this time.  He knew he should be scared, but he wasn’t.  Instead, he was still angry.  A strange tingling all over his body made him feel… protected.

The game resumed, fiercer and more intense.  As the other teams finished, they crowded around to watch.  Jeremy had possession of the ball, but Elston, coming out of nowhere, stole it instantly, and, from all the way across the gym, threw it into the hoop.  His team hollered.  The audience clapped, amazed.

As Elston and his team kept scoring, Adam’s look grew more fierce.  Soon the opposing team caught up, and, with only a minute left, they were tied.

The next time Elston had the ball he spotted Adam talking to a few of his teammates.  He knew they were talking about him, but he was too far away to hear.  No sooner did the though occur, though, then he did  hear them.  Or at least he could somehow feel what they were thinking.

“Let him run straight in, and then as he gets to the hoop, trip him up and I’ll accidentally elbow him.”

Smirking, Elston charged toward them.  He couldn’t see it, but he knew one of the boys positioned his leg for Elston to trip over it.  As he Elston easily jumped over the leg, he felt Adam coming in.  Moving to the side, without even thinking, he jammed his elbow into Adam’s jaw, grabbed the hoop and dumped the ball in.

The gym erupted into hoots, hollers and applause.

As he hit the ground, Elston felt reality click back in.  Adam was sprawled on the floor, clutching hisface.  Everyone on Elston’s team ran up to him to congratulate him, everyone except David.  The captain simply looked at him, clapped some of the opposing team members hands and walked to the locker room.

“Holy crap man!” Josh said.  “That was amazing!”

“Yeah, I know” Elston said.  He was dazed.  Amazing things never happened to him.  Why now?

On the floor, Adam spat some blood and wiped his face.  Over the sound of Coach Nelson’s whistle, Elston heard the boy mutter, “I’m going to kill you.”

“Excellent playing, Preston,” Coach Nelson said as they headed for the locker.  “About time you manned up.  Maybe you should consider signing up for the basketball team.”

Elston couldn’t help but smile.

Better yet, when Adam got up to follow Elston, Coach Nelson motioned him into his office to put some ice on his jaw.  Elston waved and walked in the locker room.  Everyone was talking excitedly about the game and looking at Elston.

“Elston’s got some moves on him,” Josh said to Jeremy.

“You mean Prestard?” Jeremy said in disbelief.

And everyone laughed again.

Elston swore under his breath as he dressed.  All it took was one insult him and everyone forgot how he did on the court.  He was a loser again.  He didn’t understand it.

Just one more day, he told himself.

 

*********

 

Biking home with Eric, Elston tried to tell him what happened, but his friend already knew. 

“I still don’t know how I did it,” Elston said.

“I know,” Eric said matter-of-factly.  “You got confident.  You’re fine when you and I play, but you hold back against everyone else.”

Elston shook his head.  “I don’t know.  I know it sounds weird, but I… I think I hear things.”

“Hear things?”

“Yeah, like when people say things about me, especially when I played against Adam.”

“Like some kind of psychic?” Eric said.  “Man, you’ve been reading comic books too much.”

As they passed alongside a public park, a few boys were chatting on their bikes.  Elston kept peddling, but felt something inside, like a warning.  He slowed down.

Eric swore.  “Come on, hurry up.”

“Why, what is it?”

He nodded toward the kids.  “That’s Adam and his gang!  Don’t look at them!”

But it was too late.  Elston had turned long enough for Adam to spot him.

“Get him!” he shouted.

“Great,” Eric said.

Instead of speeding up, though, Eric slammed on his breaks.  Elston had to stop just to keep from colliding with him.  “Eric, what are you doing?”

“We run, they catch up and then what?  Are we going to avoid them every day?”

“But they’re after me!”

“They’ll have to get through me first.” Eric got off his bike, removed his helmet and stood on the dirt path, waiting.

Adam twisted his wheel as he stopped, making the dirt fly up into their faces.  Adam had a swollen lip, but Elston was scared again.  He had four other boys with him, all just as evil. 

“Get out of here Eric, we’re cool,” Adam said without even looking at him.

“No we’re not.  You’re about to try to hurt my friend here, and I’m not letting that happen.”

The bully looked at Eric in disbelief.  “You’re going to defend this dingdong against five of us?”

“That’s right,” Eric said.

“Then you’re just as stupid as he is,” Adam said, getting off his bike.

“E-Eric, get out of here,” Elston said.  His voice was shaky, but he tried to regain his cool.  He certainly didn’t want Eric to see him get beat up. 

“I’m not going nowhere,” Eric said.

“Fine.  We’ll kick both your heads in,” Adam said.  “Let’s go to the park.”

The gang allowed them to pass by and lead the way into the park.  Elston was disappointed that they let him go first.  He’d been hoping they might not notice him running away as fast as humanly possible.  Eric was a loyal friend, but he crazy.  There was no way they could win.

Finally, Adam told them to stop.  “Let’s take Eric out first.”

Eric slammed his bicycle down and turned.  Elston did likewise, just in time to see Eric being pummeled by one of Adam’s henchmen.  He went down hard, but the bully continued to pound him.  Poor Eric was shielding his face as they laughed.

“Stop it!” Elston screamed.

Adam shoved him to the ground.  “Shut up you wuss!  You’re next.”

Eric was moaning, trying to defend himself.  Elston knew he had to do something.  In a panic, Elston kicked the bully hard as he could.  The boy fell forward, landing hard on his right arm.

Eric popped to his feet, wiping blood from his nose, but otherwise looking unharemed. 

Now Adam came in for the kill.  He took a swing at Elston, who dodged.

“Kick his ass, Adam!” one of his pals shouted.

Adam swung his fist again, but Elston already knew where he was aiming,  The blow hit the air.  Adam kept swinging, but Elston kept ducking.  Somehow he could sense the boy’s moves before they happened.  Moving fast, Elston sidestepped particularly powerful punch, making Adam smack his fist into a tree.  Adam howled in pain, clutching his fist. 

“We got your back, Adam,” one of his friends said.

Elston glanced over at Eric.  He was fighting two guys at once, and losing.  As he saw his friend take another blow, Elston was kicked in the groin.  In pain, he fell to the ground, kicked in the face before he could cry out.  A handful of dirt followed, blinding him.

As Elston shouted, he was picked up, thrown into the tree, then punched in the stomach repeatedly.

He tried to focus, it hurt too much.  And he was afraid.  His insides were on fire.

Just give up,  a voice said.

Adam kept laughing as he hit Elston again and again.

It’ll all be over soon.

Beyond Adam’s chortling, he heard another laugh, a memory from long ago.

“See you in hell, kid!”

Once again, Elston’s fear turned to rage.  He felt the hairs on his arms rise.  The temperature around them dropped.  The trees seemed to shift to cover the sun.  Within seconds, it was as dark as dusk, cold as winter.

“Whoa, what’s goin’ on?” one kid shouted.

 

Eyes still closed, he leapt up and brought the closest boys to the ground with him, punching him in the face.  Opening his eyes, he saw Adam coming.  Back on his feet in a flash, he dodged Adam’s swing effortlessly, then returned a blow to Adam’s chest.  He heard Adam’s ribs crack.  The bully cried out in pain just as Elston’s left fist smacked him in the jaw.

Adam’s eyes fluttered.  He fell.  Elston had knocked him out cold. 

He ran over to Eric.  The two boys attacking him didn’t notices his approach until they both felt his fists and staggered back.  A high kick knocked one to the ground.  The other tried to run.

“Where are you going?” Elston said coldly.

The boy picked up his pace, but Elston caught him in an instant.  He grabbed him by the hair and threw him upwards with all his strength.  The boy flew into the air, nearly ten feet.  His hair, though, remained in Elston’s hand.

When the boy crashed back down, Elston strode over.  The boy was desperately trying to crawl away.

Strike him now, a voice inside said.

Still furious, Elston was ready to kick him when he felt two hands pull him back.

“STOP!”

Elston whirled.  It was Eric.

The rage receded.  He tried to slow his breathing, but adrenaline was still running wild through his body.  What had he done?  He had single handedly tore through five boys.

 

“I’m sorry,” Elston panted.  “I’m sorry.”

Light filled the park, as if the sun had returned from hiding.

“Are you all right?” Elston asked Eric.

His friend, slightly shaking, stared at him with a mix of shock and curiosity.  His bloody nose was already dry, his eye swelling from a bruise.

A few seconds passed before Eric answered.  “Yeah…yeah, I am.  You?”

 “I-I don’t feel any pain,” Elston said, feeling his stomach.  He lifted his shirt.  No bruises.  Aside from a small headache, nothing hurt at all.  “Eric, how did I do that?  I’m going to get in so much trouble.”

Eric cautiously approached and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it man.  But we do need to get them to the hospital.”

“Yeah,” Elston said.  One boy was still crawling on the ground.  Elston held his hand out to him.  “Hey, err, are you all right?”  Elston held out his right hand.

The boy cowered and scrambled to his feet.  “Run, run!” he shouted as he stumbled away.

The boy who’d fall and now had a large bald spot, staggered to his feet and ran with him.

Elston looked at his left hand and noticed that he was still holding on to the bloody clump of hair.

He hollered after him.  “Wait!  Don’t you want your, uh, hair back?”


It was snowing. It always snowed at times like this.

END - RDB

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