Exemeus excerpt


Dawn rapidly approached as the last battle of the Treptonian War raged on. Thunder roared, shaking the ground below. Lightning ripped the skies with bursts of angry light. Torrents of rain descended from the sky as if a mischievous god had pricked the stratosphere with a pin--drenching everything in sight. Even the heavens seemed to know this battle marked the end of an era.
On the battlefield, soldiers cast beams of lasers from their very hands. Wands hurled deadly, poisonous vapors. Venomous snakes materialized in mid-air, poised to attack. Creatures of every magical species fought to their deaths. Even the RUMIA was used‑‑with the deadliest results.
The ground was littered with the bodies of the fallen.
Amidst the turmoil, a beautiful woman with glowing blue hair, multicolored eyes, and skin so clear that one could almost see through it, floated effortlessly in the air. She appeared almost transparent, sometimes so faint that she seemed to vanish from sight altogether. Swarms of Nguvu bees appeared at her command and water jetted from her hands, drowning her enemies.
The war and the weapons were peculiar, very peculiar indeed, especially to the boy, who stood by and watched. He didn’t know how he got to this place or what he needed to do to leave. He did, however, realize that he was incapable of participating in the events around him.
Like every other instance when he found himself in this faraway, unfamiliar place, the only clearly discernible face was that of the woman with blue hair. The others were shrouded in a haze, so he could only glimpse flashes of them fading in and out of the darkness.
Through the mist, the shadowy outline of a man fighting valiantly by the woman’s side was barely visible. With the powerful rumble of his voice, boulders emerged in mid-air and were hurled at his opponents. The boy watched breathlessly as one of the man’s opponents, tall, muscular and cloaked in green, turned the hurtling boulders to sand with a mere wave of his hand.
The boy’s fascination continued to grow as he witnessed the series of events that occurred next‑‑events that were the turning point of that fateful battle on April 6, 2021.
In a flash of red light and a puff of grey smoke, a man in a flowing red tunic appeared. Within seconds, a woman materialized beside him, promptly followed by a tall man with eyes and teeth so white they glistened in the darkness.
The boy had no idea who they were, but the woman with the blue hair did; that was abundantly clear from the look of shocked recognition and horror he observed flitting across her face.
The three newcomers smiled maliciously, as if the devil had whispered a secret joke. On cue, they released beams of white light through their fingertips. The beams united, striking the beautiful woman in the heart with such force that her body was hurled backward ten feet, dashing her to the ground in a blinding storm of light. With her death, the thunder stopped, the lightning ceased, and the war that had waged on for centuries finally ended.
And the reign of evil began.

Chapter 1
Thirteen Years Later
Dephon’s father had a power--a super power. Singleton Johnson had the amazing ability to blend seamlessly into the sofa.
Dephon wasn’t sure if it was due to his father’s fourteen-plus years of practice or some innate ability, but on days when his father wore his cream cardigan, beige cargo pants, and faded white socks‑‑which was everyday‑‑he almost disappeared. Dephon could always tell his father was there from the black remote gripped tightly in his hand.
As far back as Dephon could remember his father had always been on the couch. So of course, on March 26, when he entered their two-story Tudor-style home through the underground passage that linked the school’s sewer system to his home, he wasn’t surprised to find his father in his cream cardigan, beige cargo pants, and faded white socks‑‑on the couch.
“Hey, Dad.”
“Hello, Dephon. How was school?” his father asked in an uninterested monotone.
Dephon really wanted to tell him the truth, that school was a nightmare. The thugs on the football team had filled his locker with urine again. Kerry Dorsey thought it would be hilarious to put a dissected frog from the Biology lab on his seat during English class. And to top it all off, he’d gotten a D-plus on his Math test.
Dephon hated everything about school, except for History. But instead of telling his father any of this, he simply responded, “Fine.”
“That’s good. Do better in Math.”
“Yeah, okay.” Dephon mumbled, rolling his eyes. He knew from experience that their father-son time was over. What he had yet to figure out was how his dad always knew what grades he got without him ever saying a word.
He trudged up the stairs, careful to avoid the broken third step. Entering his room, he tossed his backpack on the floor next to his rickety wooden bureau, then made a bee-line for the well-worn selection of history books in his bookcase. He plucked his favorite volume from the shelf.
Dephon turned to the first chapter, a detailed account of the ancient American civilization. He couldn’t help smiling a bit ruefully as he thought of the diversity of the people that had founded the country. The only people allowed in Trepton IV all looked just like him, blond-haired and hazel-eyed. He desperately wanted to leave the city so he could finally experience the cultures he had only read about in books.
Over the next few hours, he explored ancient battles, thriving cities, and long-vanished traditions. His eyes closed soon after midnight, book still in hand. As always, he dreamed of the end of a long and brutal war, a beautiful woman with blue hair, and the death of a hero.
On the afternoon of March 27th Dephon returned home, tired and wet. The football team had pushed him, fully dressed, into the varsity swimming pool, and his homework had mysteriously disappeared from his third period History class. So far, a pretty typical Tuesday.
But what happened when Dephon walked through the passageway and into the living room, was far from normal.
“Hey, Dad!” he called as he trudged toward the stairs, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
No response. Dephon stopped, turned, and looked at the couch. It appeared to be empty. Where was his father? Dephon walked over and examined the fabric to make sure the couch hadn’t somehow swallowed Singleton Johnson, which seemed much more likely than him having left on his own. Maybe he had been kidnapped? But why would anyone kidnap a couch potato? That would be like stealing a sofa cushion without the sofa--what would be the point?
Despite the fact that he had never actually seen it happen, he knew his dad had to leave the living room occasionally. There was always breakfast on the table and food in the refrigerator. Someone had to shop for it. So maybe his dad had left on his own, but where had he gone?
Dephon didn’t get a chance to wonder for long. As if things couldn’t get any stranger, he heard his father arguing in the kitchen.
 There was never any arguing in the house. His dad had never showed enough emotion to raise his voice, let alone to argue. Dephon couldn’t even remember a time that his father had spoken above a slightly amplified whisper.
More importantly, it normally required more than one person to have an argument.  The Johnson family, like most law-abiding Treptonian families, never had visitors‑‑not even for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or birthdays. But unless his father had gone crazy since breakfast, he was definitely arguing with someone. But who?
Dephon crept toward the kitchen and pressed his ear against the swinging door. Now he could hear two voices. The male voice was definitely his dad’s, and the other voice was a woman’s. Her voice was melodious and reminded Dephon pleasantly of wind chimes rustling in the breeze. Despite the loud quarreling, the stranger’s voice had an immediate calming effect on Dephon; his anxiety vanished and he slipped into a relaxed, almost trancelike state where he wasn’t quite sure if he was awake or asleep.
“You have to tell him,” the woman said. “He’s going to find out soon enough. Hyalee’s birthday‑‑”
“Don’t say her name!” his father’s bellowed. Suddenly the house shook with the force of an earthquake, the chandelier in the living room fell, and all the furniture skittered across the room.
Dephon dashed to a nearby closet and positioned himself under the door jamb. He had never experienced an earthquake before. He didn’t think Trepton IV even had earthquakes. The shaking stopped, but Dephon was still too afraid to move from the relative safety of the door jamb.
“Is that a new power?” he heard the woman ask calmly.
What was she talking about?
“Dephon, go to your room,” his father said sternly.
Dephon gasped. How did his father know he was listening? And how could he send him upstairs in the middle of an earthquake? The woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts, “Come in here, Dephon.”
Dephon felt a brush of wind wrap around his arms and legs, and his thoughts became so fuzzy that he could barely hear his father yelling for him to go upstairs. He followed the sound of the enchanting voice. When he entered the kitchen, the day went from strange to downright bizarre. The woman standing in front of him had an appearance that couldn’t be further from his and his father’s fair skin, blond hair, and hazel eyes. 
Her complexion was the creamy color of mocha. Jet-black braids hung loosely down her back. Her eyes were a deep, rich brown with a diamond-like sparkle. Dephon guessed that she was in her early thirties. She wore a red cloak, like the one Little Red Riding Hood had worn on her trip to grandmother’s house. Very long hieroglyphic earrings dangled from her ears.
She didn’t look like anyone he’d ever seen in Trepton IV. He’d heard of such people in History class, but wasn’t sure they actually existed--at least, not anymore. He knew they weren’t allowed in Trepton IV since the Division Act of 2022 was made into a law over eleven years ago.
For some unknown reason, Dephon felt strangely drawn to this mysterious visitor. He suddenly found himself standing directly in front of her, with no memory of how he got so close.
“Don’t you dare use your siren call on my son.”
The woman ignored his father. She leaned forward and clasped her hand under Dephon’s chin. “You look just like your mother, but you have your father’s piercing eyes... and those dimples. God, you’ve grown. It’s great to see you,” she said, engulfing him in a hug.
Dephon was overwhelmed with a feeling of warmth that he missed the moment she pulled away. There were actually tears in her eyes when she released him.
“You know my mother?” he whispered in a tone of reverent awe. His dad never talked about his mother, and there wasn’t a single picture of her in the house. Over the years, Dephon had made up a ton of stories about her.
“Of course, I knew her. She was the smartest, most alluring myst--”
“That’s enough,” his father thundered. Again, the house shook violently. The windows shattered and the floor tumbled out from under Dephon’s feet. He reached out wildly, searching for something to keep him from falling. His hand wrapped around the woman’s outstretched wrist.
She pulled him to her and held on to him until the ground grew still. He felt safe, comfortable, and secure in her arms. She squeezed him one last time before releasing him.
“Why don’t you go up to your room? We wouldn’t want to make your father angrier than he is already. I’ll see you soon.”
“No, you won’t,” his father said.
She smiled as though she knew differently. “Goodbye, Dephon.”
He turned to leave the room, but found it impossible. The house was in shambles. Chunks of the fallen ceiling covered the stairs. Shards of glass from the chandelier and the windows littered the hall. The furniture had all shifted or tipped over during the quake. Everything from bookshelves to his father’s high school football trophies covered the pathway. His exit was completely blocked.
“I’ll take care of that,” the woman said nonchalantly.
“Don’t,” his father yelled, but it was too late. The woman made a graceful, sweeping gesture with her right arm and suddenly ribbons of blue and black light mingled together, lifting the debris from the ground. The bookshelves righted themselves. Books flew from the ground, alphabetizing themselves onto the shelves. Furniture slid back to its rightful location. Glass and fallen plaster pieced itself together like a jigsaw puzzle. Within the span of ten seconds the entire house was more organized than it had been when he had left for school that morning.
Dephon gawked in disbelief. He turned back to look at the strange woman who had more power than the Treptonian Army. He had a thousand questions to ask her, but before he could open his mouth she said in a kind but firm voice, “Goodbye, Dephon.”
He was instantly in a sleep-like trance. As he headed up the stairs he skipped over the third step, although it was no longer broken. He ended up in his room again with no recollection of how he had gotten there.
Dephon willed himself to think clearly. He ran to the vents near his mahogany bed frame. The woman and his father had resumed arguing loudly below. Dephon lay flat on the frayed multicolored rug by his bed, and placing his ear against the ducts, he listened intently.
“Do you really think they’ll leave him alone because you’re hiding? In ten days he’ll receive his powers and they’ll come for him, whether you’re ready or not.”
“You don’t know that. We didn’t receive our powers until we were seventeen,” Dephon’s father said, a trace of bitterness in his voice.
“You two were a special case.”
“Clearly we weren’t special enough,” his father bellowed. The room shook. Dephon grabbed the bedpost to steady himself. The lamp by his bed wobbled precariously, but didn’t topple over.
“You really need to control that power.”
“You need to get out of my house. You’re not even allowed within the city limits.”
“You and everyone else might be perfectly willing to remain in fear of Du‑‑”
“Don’t you dare say his name in my presence,” his father snarled.
“You can’t be serious. Then what about Samee? He just joined the Treptonian Army, you know. He’ll probably be the one sent here to kill Dephon.”
“Clearly you’re going deaf. Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t want to talk about any of this.”
“What do you want to talk about, then? Everything I say is off-limits. Fine. Bury your head in the sand, but with that attitude you’re going to lose the only family you’ve got left.”
“I’ll die to keep my son safe,” his father said with more passion than Dephon had ever heard before. He was shocked that his father loved him. All these years, he hadn’t been sure.
“Then why don’t you live for him instead? Stop pretending you spend all day on the couch and actually live a life. Continue the fight, Hyalee would have‑‑”
“Don’t ‑‑”
“All right, I get the picture. Everything is off-limits. This conversation isn’t getting me anywhere. Your son will soon be facing the largest magical army in the world’s known history, and with your cowardly attitude, he’ll be doing it all alone. At least invite me to the funeral.” 
Dephon heard the door slam and realized the beautiful woman hadn’t used one of the many secret passageways, but had walked out onto a public street filled with Treptonian guards. No one risked walking outside in Trepton, not those who wanted to live, anyway.
Dephon ran to the window and lifted the shade an inch, staring down the street into the darkness. He was searching for any sign of their red-caped visitor, but the streets were clear. The only evidence of life was three armed guards, who kept the streets anything but safe.

Chapter 2

The next day at school, Dephon couldn’t concentrate. Although it was a mere two days before the Treptonian break, no one was talking about their plans for the weeklong holiday. The whole school was abuzz with chatter about the earthquake that had inexplicably rocked the city. Even the guys on the football team were too preoccupied to pick on him.
 “I don’t see you dropping, Mr. Johnson,” Mrs. Hensley said, her raspy voice breaking through his reverie. Her owl-shaped eyes glared at him over the rims of her glasses.
“Huh?” Dephon asked, blinking in surprise. He looked around to discover all the other students crouched under their desks. He sighed. Not again. This was the fifth earthquake drill of the day, and he was finding it harder and harder to pay attention. Would these drills help if there wasn’t a desk handy?
“Sorry, Mrs. Hensley,” he mumbled. He slunk under the desk and put his arms over his head. After drilling them once again with the same ridiculous earthquake tips that each teacher before had given earlier that day, Mrs. Hensley released the class.
Dephon trudged to his locker, ignoring the whispered rumors that the government had discovered the illegal underground schools and had set up the earthquake to demolish them. It seemed like the whole school was awash with absurd speculations. Dephon had more important things to worry about, like his impending demise.
Lost in thought, Dephon dialed his combination into the lock on his locker and swung open the door. That was the last thing he remembered before a gigantic book tumbled out and smacked him squarely in the face. Stars clouded his vision and profanities swirled in his head.
He didn’t know why he bothered having a lock. The football team couldn’t manage to collectively pass a test, but they could always manage to break into his locker and leave him something gross or smelly. Dephon wondered why they would leave a book in his locker, but, who knew why people with such low IQs did anything?
Through watering eyes, Dephon bent down and picked up the heavily bound object. He had to hand it to those dumb jocks--they really went all out to find the thickest, heaviest book in the school library. Dephon was impressed they even knew how to find the library.
He rubbed his nose, still hurting from the impact. The book was bound in a green material that felt like nothing he’d ever touched before. An uncomfortable tingling sensation began in his fingers and traveled the length of his spine.
He turned the book over and examined the cover. The Exemeus: Volume III was printed in raised letters at the top. In the center of the cover were strange symbols that reminded him of the hieroglyphics on the strange visitor’s earrings. On the lower right hand corner, and repeated on the book’s spine, was the name “Hyalee A.Z.H.E.T Smith,” in that same perfect print.
Dephon absently ran his hand over the exquisitely embossed letters and symbols. “Hyalee” was a very unusual name, but he was sure he had heard it very recently. Yes, the mystery woman said that name before his father cut her off. Why?
A shrill ringing filled the hallway; the bell for sixth period. Dephon was late. He quickly shoved the book back into his locker. Only then did he notice a tattered Dallas Cowboys hat--a real antique!--and a fluorescent pink envelope stacked neatly on top of his pile of books. Grabbing the envelope, he ran to Math class.
As Dephon slid through the classroom door, Mr. Thompson gave him a withering stare. “We almost sent out a search party for you. Please sit down, Mr. Johnson, and try not to disrupt the class again.” Dephon slid into his chair. Normally he would have been embarrassed by all the attention, but today it only measured a tolerable 5 on his mortification scale.
Turning his bald spot to the class, Mr. Thompson started to write a detailed explanation of the quadratic formula on the board and everyone frantically scribbled down everything he wrote. The equation looked like some archaic language to Dephon. The only bright side about dying in ten days was that he’d no longer have to worry about Algebra. That was almost worth dying for.
Taking care to keep the fluorescent pink envelope out of Mr. Thompson’s view, Dephon silently opened the letter. The paper glowed lightly in his hands, even in the strong lights of the classroom. Considering the strange day he’d had yesterday, this shouldn’t have shocked him, but it did. He almost dropped the letter while trying to quickly hide it under his desk. It was written in red calligraphy:
Hello, Dephon,
I’m sure you have a lot of questions after eavesdropping through the vents yesterday. I wish I could tell you everything, but I didn’t think it was right, nor appropriate, to send a letter on exploding paper.
Unfortunately, I don’t know where my explanation should start. But to avoid leaving out any important details, I sent your mother’s Exemeus. You only have the third volume, but that’s more than enough. If you’re even half as smart as your parents, you will figure it out. Make sure the book is read in its entirety by the morning of April 6. Time is of the essence.
Wear the hat at least ten minutes a day. Put it on before you see your father today and every day as soon as you wake up in the morning. Lastly, don’t worry about Mallea. She is harmless, well, actually she’s quite violent, but she probably won’t hurt you.
Good luck!
Love always,
Jacqueline Soreno.
P.S. Pay attention, you’re still in Math class!

Dephon’s mind reeled. Never mind how she knew he had eavesdropped yesterday; how did she know he’d be reading this letter in Math class? And exploding paper? Dephon shuddered at the mental image that created.
Worse still, she expected him to read a book that looked to be probably three thousand pages--in nine days. This magic business was already worse than school. His biggest concern, though, was not the size of the book or why he would have to wear a beat-up old hat from a sports team that no longer existed, but this mention of “Mallea,” whoever or whatever that was. A character on a Friday night Creature Feature, it sounded like.
Dephon glanced down at the letter one more time to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. At the bottom of the page there was a new message: “P.P.S: The quadratic formula isn’t easy, you know. Listen to your teacher!”
Dephon hurriedly stuffed the letter in his jacket pocket and tried to listen to Mr. Thompson. Classes had been moving at a glacial pace all day-- this one wasn’t any different. Every time Dephon looked at the clock it was only ten seconds later. When the jarring sound of the bell finally pierced the air, he was the first one out the door, flying down the hall.
Throwing open his locker, Dephon grabbed the hat and placed it firmly on his head. Flipping his backpack over, he dropped its entire contents onto the linoleum tile floor. Using almost every bit of strength that he could muster, Dephon pulled the Exemeus out of his locker and stuffed it into his weathered backpack.
He hoisted the bag over his shoulders and had to momentarily grab onto his locker to keep from tumbling over. Holding his school books in one hand, he slammed the locker shut with the other and headed toward the stench-filled Treptonian sewer system.
The normally-ten-minute walk home took fifteen minutes longer than usual. When he finally arrived, he was panting and sweating from exertion. Dephon shoved the hat between his school books and brushed the sweaty hair out of his face. When he entered the house his father wasn’t on the couch.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. It was abundantly clear that his father had been leading a double life, and Dephon had barely scratched the surface of it. As he headed toward the stairs, movement in the kitchen caught his eye. His father was sitting at the breakfast table, poring over an old shoebox full of pictures. Dephon struggled with his desire to get started on the million pages of reading versus his natural nosiness to investigate what his father was doing.
Nosiness won out, and he slipped into the kitchen. As he neared the table he couldn’t stop himself from gasping. The photos in his father’s hand were of the face he saw every night in his dreams, the woman with the blue hair. Before he could get a closer look, his father whirled around.
“What are you doing here?” his father cried out, startled. He began throwing the photographs into the shoebox so quickly that the images blurred.
“Uh, I live here?” Dephon said, gripping his books tighter in confusion.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that again. You should have called first.”
“Called before I came home?” Dephon wondered why he would use the restrictive Treptonian phone system to contact anyone. The calls were always recorded and you had to answer a dozen questions before the operator would connect the call.
“That’s what I said.” He snatched the box up from the table and stormed out of the kitchen.
Dephon was perplexed. Why would he call his father before coming home? He had always come home from school around this time, there had always been a snack on the table, and his father had always been barely breathing on the couch. Why was today any different?
Disconcerted by his father’s outburst, Dephon headed up the stairs. He couldn't stop thinking of the woman in the photographs. He wanted to know who she was, but clearly his father didn’t like questions as a couch potato or as a superhero.
He dropped his books on the scarred hardwood floor and removed his backpack. Yanking the huge book out of his bag, he held it gingerly as he climbed in bed and set the Exemeus on his thighs. He opened it cautiously.
On the inside cover there was a rotating dialing system, much like the pre-1960s telephones, but instead of numbers there were options for viewing the book neatly written in a half circle around the dial:
Read only
Read and Audio
Read and Visual
Read, Audio, and Visual
Dephon reached for the dial. But before he could touch it, the entire book quivered, then trembled, and finally shook with such a violent force that the whole bed moved along with it.
Frozen in shock, Dephon stared bug-eyed at the rattling pages. Shock quickly turned into utter disbelief as a tiny girl dressed in purple appeared on the pages, and within an instant, grew to full size right there on his lap.   
Dephon barely registered her toffee skin tone, her black and brown streaked curly hair, or the inquisitive look in her eyes, before he shrieked.
She quickly sshhed him with a finger pressed to her pale pink lips and vanished into thin air, taking the book with her. The door flew open and Dephon’s father rushed into the room, looking alarmed and ready for battle.
“What happened? What’s wrong?”
Dephon knew better than to answer the question truthfully. “I‑‑I saw a spider,” he stammered.
His father looked at him with equal parts annoyance and disgust. “You saw a spider?”
“A big one,” Dephon said, holding his hands about three feet apart.
His father glared at him with piercing hazel eyes. As hard as it was, Dephon absolutely refused to look away. Finally his dad shook his head, glanced around the room once more, then walked out the door without a word.
The Incredible Growing Girl soon returned, dropping the book into his lap like a pile of bricks. Dephon cringed from the impact. She stood beside his bed, an amber necklace knocking against her collarbone. “Even I could’ve come up with a better lie than that, and I never lie.”
“You try thinking of something on the spot like that,” Dephon said defensively.
“Yeah, I’ll put that on my to-do list.” She looked him up and down. “You were a lot cuter as a baby. Your head seems a little too big for your body, and, did you know, you have acne on the left side of your face?” she asked, rubbing her own cheek for emphasis. “Are you sure you’re the Singleton and Hyalee’s son?”
Dephon didn’t know what to say. He sure didn’t need reminding about his acne problem, especially from someone with such a flawless complexion. And whether or not he was his father’s son was now officially up for debate. He was beginning to get the sinking feeling that he had been adopted and no one had bothered to tell him. Unsure of the best way to answer her question, he simply said, “You don’t lie, do you?”
“No, why would I?” She looked him over once more and extended her hand. Her skin was as smooth as silk when he tentatively took it and gave it a weak shake. “Yeah, I’d work on that handshake. Try squeezing a rubber ball. My name’s Mallea, by the way.”
You’re Mallea?” He couldn’t believe it. Since reading Jacqueline Soreno’s letter, he’d been expecting a dragon or a three-headed hound from hell, not a girl who couldn’t be any older than he was. “You don’t seem violent. Rude, yes, but violent, no.”
She ignored his snide comment. “You’ve been talking to Jacqueline, huh? Let’s just say she remembers our first encounter and it wasn’t too pleasant. Anyway, we’re wasting time. You need to read the book, or you won’t ever be prepared. Provided Jacqueline’s plan works, you’ll need all the knowledge you can get. Read.
“What plan?” he asked, but again Mallea and the book were gone as his door flew open. His father looked around the room, inspecting it intently now, before allowing his suspicious gaze to settle back on Dephon.
“Who were you talking to?”
“I was singing.” Dephon said, trying to silence the loud beating of his heart. His father’s eyebrows shot straight into his hairline. Dephon prayed he wouldn’t ask him to sing the song. His father stared at him for what felt like an eternity before he left the room again, shaking his head.
In the deafening silence that followed his father’s departure, it occurred to Dephon that he had probably spoken more words to his father in the last two days than he had in his entire life up to that point. He didn’t get to ponder that pathetic fact any longer because Mallea reappeared, this time by the window. The book landed with a painful thud in his lap. Dephon was pretty positive he would have bruises the following morning.
She pulled the drapes away from the window and peered out at the street. “Don’t do that. They’ll see you,” Dephon whispered loudly, pushing the book aside, jumping out of bed, and running to pull the drapes back over the windows. “You aren’t allowed in Trepton IV, and looking out the window is strictly prohibited.” 
Mallea ignored him, pulling the curtain back again. “It looks awful out there. The constant darkness, rubble-filled streets... I can’t believe what he’s done to the world. You know, when I first came to Earth, I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, more beautiful than Oreland....
“No, I don’t know,” Dephon muttered snidely.
“Now it all looks like a war zone. Where is everything? The schools, stores, and trolley cars? Where did it all go?”
“I don’t know what a trolley car is. Is it something you push a baby around in? And as for everything else, it all has to be underground. Gathering in groups is against the law, so schools are banned, and anyone caught playing team sports is sentenced to death.
 “Hospitals, television studios, groceries and supply stores are the only places allowed under the Treptonian sanctions, and you can only shop on your allotted shopping day. Some of the more radical families decided to move entirely into the sewer system, but people fear what will happen if the Treptonian government ever finds out. Where have you been?”
She sighed deeply, a heart-wrenching sound filled with such pain. “I haven’t been out since we lost the war. But after seeing this, I realize Jacqueline’s right. We have to do something.”
Dephon blinked. “We? I’m just trying to stay alive.”
Mallea gave him a scathing glance. “You’re not at all like your mother.”
It was as if someone had stabbed him in the chest. Although he knew nothing about his mother, Dephon always believed that he was like her. It gave him hope that he wouldn’t end up like his father.
“How can I be like someone I never knew?” Dephon said defensively. “And maybe it’s a good thing that I’m not like her; look at where being a hero got her.”
She gave him a sad, pitying look. “It’s always better to die like a hero than live like a coward. Read the book, Dephon,” she sighed as she headed toward the door. “Maybe there’s something you can learn.”
“You’re leaving? For real?” Dephon asked, worried. She was infuriating, but she was the only companion he had.
“Where would I go? You have my home,” she said, gesturing to the book. She didn’t leave his bedroom; she only locked the door and returned to the window.
“Wait--you live in this book?”
“No, really, you live in the book?” Dephon repeated in shock.
“And you live in a pile of bricks stuck together with cement. What’s your point?”
Dephon didn’t know how to respond. “How is it? Living in the book, I mean.”
“It’s a laugh a minute.” She moved the shades and glanced out the window one more time, ignoring his cringe of discomfort. “Anything is better than living here.” She clapped her hands, and the book appeared in front of her. She gave it to him with one hand, even though it was so heavy that it was a strain for him to lift it with both hands. His upper body bent under the sheer weight.
After readjusting the load, he glanced up to see that Mallea had closed her eyes and now appeared to be sound asleep. While standing. Dephon stared at her, stunned.

It took thirty minutes to figure out how to use the book. Its complicated dialing system made algebra seem easy.
As he began reading, a three-dimensional visual appeared, taking up the full expanse of the room. Dephon looked around in awe. His bed was still there and so was the furniture, but over it--as if a color transparency had been placed in front of him--he could see a totally different world.
There were steep streets and sidewalks lined with bustling shops open-air cafes. Vehicles packed the road, making fast movement impossible. An odd-shaped bus with no doors was attached to lines suspended from the air. It was overflowing with passengers--some even hanging out the doors while holding precariously onto side bars.
The vehicle passed street vendors, sandal-wearing tourists, and people with signs that read WILL WORK FOR FOOD. Dephon was amazed to see that the sun was out and shining, and despite the gusts of wind, he could actually feel it warming his skin. The sky was a lot clearer than Trepton’s, but there was still smog, which now loomed in the space above Dephon’s bed.
So many people were getting on and off the bus that he had trouble deciding who to focus on. Finally, the bus stopped, and two girls hopped off. One of them had long, cascading dark brown hair that bounced with each step. Her full lips glistened in the afternoon sun. Dephon barely noticed her.
He was focused on the girl walking beside her. She had matted, unruly blonde hair that was barely long enough to stay fastened in its ponytail. Her face was covered in pimples, and a tiny gash sat above her right eye. Her eyes were an unexceptional shade of blue. She looked insignificant standing next to her friend, but Dephon was fascinated with her. She was the woman who haunted his dreams.

Chapter 3

No doubt about it, it was her--an extremely unremarkable version of the blue-haired, multi-color-eyed vision from his dreams. Only in the scene he was now witnessing, this Plain Jane looked to be about sixteen.
After he stared at her a few moments, Dephon realized the image was no longer moving. He glanced down at the book, wondering if somehow he had done something wrong. After minutes of fiddling with the rotary dial in the inside front page, he sighed in frustration, realizing he’d have to read the entire book.
Solemnly, he turned to the first page and began to read. It was written in first person, and he suspected it was from the point-of-view of this Plain Jane he was so strangely drawn to. It began in the middle of things, with no introduction:
April 5, 2014 4:03 pm
I was trying to think of a surefire way to kill David Morrow, but Virginia’s constant chatter kept disrupting my thoughts. 
“I don’t think you should worry about David. He was a total loser,” Virginia said. “You could do so much better.”
“You’re just saying that,” I told her. “Face it, I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life. Guys want girls who are attractive and popular. They don’t want someone who looks like me.”
“Oh, please, what’s bringing this on? David was nobody, and if a guy only cares about looks, who needs him? Trust me, there are lots of great guys out there who’ll fall for a girl who’s intelligent and funny like you. You don’t need bland David. You need someone who’s so passionate that he lights you on fire.”
“Why don’t I just get some kerosene and a match, and then I can do it myself?”
“Don’t be bitter,” Virginia said as we reached the front door of my house. “Today’s your birthday. We should go out and do something wild.”
Instantly, I became nervous. Whenever Virginia said the word wild in that Spanish accent of hers, I either ended up in a lot of trouble or in a lot of pain. When we were really wild, I ended up in both.
“I don’t think we should do anything of the sort,” I said as I fumbled in my purse for the key.
“No, I definitely think we should go to the salon in the mall and dye our hair pink. Ooohh, oooh,” she said, jumping up and down like she needed to find a ladies’ room fast, “or blue! I could totally see you with blue hair. We don’t have to get it professionally done. We can do it ourselves.”
I looked at her in amazement. She was completely serious. “Do you remember the perm you gave me? My hair is only now growing back.” I found my key and pushed it into the lock. “In fact, it shrinks a little every time you come near it.”
Virginia waved her hand airily, as though what I said was trivial. “You can’t let little things set you back or you’ll end up like...” she leaned over to whisper the last two words as we entered my house, “your father.”
I shook my head. There he was on the couch.
“I’m surprised to find you here, Mr. Smith,” Virginia said cheerfully. She had an amazing talent for keeping the sarcasm out of her voice.
“Hello, Ms. Castellanos,” my dad said. He didn’t bother to take his eyes off the television.
“Anything interesting on?” She derived perverse pleasure from needling my dad. In the beginning he used to get annoyed, but he’s since learned to tune her out. Most of the time, anyway.
“You’re not watching this tired old show, are you?” she continued, pointing to the television. “I’ll save you the trouble--he dies in the end.” The vein in my father’s neck bulged, and his jaw clenched. Score, Virginia.
As my father grumpily changed the channel, she said, “Oh, I love this show, I’ve seen every episode a million times. Maybe I’ll come back down in a bit and watch some of it with you.” The muscle in Dad’s neck twitched again. Virginia grinned her sadist’s grin, heading up the stairs with a spring in her step.
“Bye, Dad,” I said, trying to keep from laughing.
“Bye, Hyalee,” he sighed, changing the channel to the local news.
By the time I got upstairs, the door to my room was already open and Virginia was rummaging through my closet.
“What’re you doing?” I threw myself down on the bed. Kicking off my shoes, I picked up the latest issue of People from my nightstand and flipped through it.
“I’m looking for something you can wear with our new blue hair, but you have less selection than a nun. Just like your mom. Soon you’ll be wearing turtle necks on burning hot days.” 
My parents had a turtleneck for every occasion--turtleneck evening wear to turtleneck pajamas. Mom never went swimming, but if she did, I was sure she could find a turtleneck bathing suit.
“I’m not dyeing my hair. My mom would flip.” Why would I want blue hair anyway?
“On the bright side, your dad would only notice if you stood in front of the TV,” she said, holding up a green and blue hoodie to her body before chucking it on the closet floor.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, but my mom would see it. She notices everything.”
“Come on, it’s your birthday! Your mom should remember how much birthdays meant to her when she was our age. Hers is in what, two days? I’m sure even she’s going to let loose a little. Besides, you only turn seventeen once, and it is senior year. The whole occasion practically screams blue hair.”
“That might make sense in your convoluted little mind, but if I cross my mom, the only screaming will come from me.”
Virginia pouted. I hated that look, but I wasn’t going to get dumped and get grounded on my birthday. “Okay, maybe I’ll go to the store and watch you and maybe... I’ll try on a blue wig,” I said, biting my fingernail.
“Fair enough. If we’re lucky, they’ll have a sale and you can get an outfit to match your wig.”
I snorted. “You know that’s not going to happen. I have the worst luck.” I pulled on my shoes and grabbed my Dallas Cowboys hat from the floor, placing it on my head.
“We all make our own luck,” Virginia said confidently, shimmying in front of the mirror. She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “But if I did believe in luck, I definitely wouldn’t want yours.”
“Thanks,” I said as we headed out the door. “Thanks a lot.”
Dephon glanced at his clock. Thirty minutes had passed. At this rate he wouldn’t finish the book anytime this century. He was just going to have to skip around or this would take forever.
He flipped forward ten pages to the middle of the following day and began to read:
April 6, 2014 12:27
Glancing at my watch, I realized it was only minutes before the start of fourth period. The football team was already out on the field. I hesitated, thinking maybe I should turn back and make myself really late to class. But that wasn’t an option. I already had two tardies. One more and I’d be sitting in detention.
So I began to jog across the football field, careful to keep my eyes off the team members, who were irritatingly attractive, despite their totally repellant personalities. Halfway to the other side, pain exploded in my temple.
I toppled backwards. Darkness descended around me as my butt collided with the ground and I suddenly felt very, very wet. As my vision slowly cleared, I realized I was sitting in a puddle of mud. The right side of my face tingled, and a football lay at my feet.
Great, just great, I said to myself. The whole football team was doubled over laughing at my misfortune. I loathe football players.
One player I’d never seen before, in or out of uniform, broke away from the pack and jogged over to me. I thought of giving him a piece of my mind, but when he stood over me, I couldn’t even speak.
He was gorgeous, with skin so tanned you just knew he sat out in the sun all day long. He had sandy blond hair and hazel eyes that just about took my breath away.
“I’m so sorry. Let me help you up,” he said as he nonchalantly extended a perfectly chiseled arm toward me. He was built more like a bodybuilder than a high school football player.
I would have sat there in the mud gawking at him the way I usually do whenever a gorgeous guy deigns to talk to me--which is never, but I was still trying to make it to class on time. Breathing deeply, I grasped his hand and heat surged through my palms and up my arm. The air sizzled between us and I felt a tightening sensation in my chest. We both let go, and I fell back in the mud with a resounding thud.
As the other teammates roared with laughter, a shrill whistle pierced the air. “Mr. Johnson, stop flirting and get over here!” The hunk glanced languidly over his shoulder to where the football coach stood, a whistle in his mouth and hands balled into fists on his unshapely waist. I took the moment to hurriedly pull myself up from the ground.
“Well, Mr. Johnson, thank you, but I have to go,” I said, dashing away before I could make a bigger fool of myself.
“Wait,” I heard him call after me, but I pretended not to hear him. The bell rang. I was late. Third time this week. That meant detention for sure.
April 6, 2014, 3:08 pm
I was late for detention. The same woman with the braids, who’d been watching me in the mall yesterday, was here at school today. This time I was positive she was staring at me. The second we made eye contact, she turned and disappeared into the bathroom. I ran after her, but the bathroom was empty. WHO WAS SHE?
I finally arrived at detention, slipping through the door with as much stealth as I could muster. I slid into a seat, pointedly ignoring the killer glare Mrs. Ramirez gave me. Half of the students had their heads down, sleeping. My mind was too distracted to study, so I closed my eyes, laid my head down and tried to get some shut-eye.
The desk next to me squealed as someone skidded it across the linoleum floor. A poke in my right side was quickly followed by a surge of heat. I turned my head and almost fell out of my chair. It was the hunk from the football field.
He grinned and folded his arms on the table. His eyes locked with mine, making a connection so intense that it was impossible for me to look away. I could vaguely feel Mrs. Ramirez’s eyes burning on us, almost daring us to talk.
The boy turned his head, pulling me out of my reverie. He flashed Mrs. Ramirez a winning smile. She frowned, although it looked like she was trying hard not to smile back. His grin broadened, he gave her a rather inappropriate wink, before dropping his head onto his folded arms and promptly falling asleep.
Sleep was no longer an option for me. I stared intently at the back of his head through the remainder of detention.
Four o’clock came much too quickly. As we Future Criminals of America all filed out of the classroom, Mrs. Ramirez called out, “The two latecomers, you missed roll. What are your names?”
“Hyalee Smith,” I said, pausing at her desk. Mrs. Ramirez glanced down at her list, the bun in her hair bobbing a little as she scanned the page and crossed off my name.
“And yours?” she asked, looking back up at the hunk.
“Singleton Johnson,” he said. He was talking to her, but staring at me. I felt myself blush from my collarbone to the top of my scalp.
Again, Mrs. Ramirez searched the paper in front of her. “Your name isn’t on this list.”
“I know,” he said, winking at me. He walked out, leaving her looking rather puzzled. But no more puzzled than I was. I ran out after him.
“You crashed detention just to see me?” I asked when I caught up with him in the hallway. His legs were so much longer than mine; I had to jog to keep up. The mud on my pants made my jeans stick together uncomfortably as I walked.
“No, I just love the sparkle in Mrs. Ramirez’s eyes.” I thought he was joking, but he sounded dead serious, so I was left with my mouth hanging open like an idiot. He was walking toward the parking lot, and my bus was in the other direction.
“See you around then,” I said lamely, coming to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk.
He stopped abruptly, pivoting. “Where you goin’?”
“Well, as attractive as I look covered in mud, I have to get home, and I’d hate to miss my bus. I need a shower,” I said, surreptitiously removing a clump of dried mud from my hair.
“Yeah, I guess you do.”
“Gee, you sure know how to make a girl feel special.”
He laughed. “I’m sorry. I just assumed you already knew you were special. I don’t throw footballs at just anyone, you know.”
My jaw dropped once again. “Did you bash me in the head with a football on purpose?”
He gave me a devilish grin. “I don’t live too far from here. You can shower there,” he said, ignoring my question. He looked me up and down, assessing. “My mother’s about your size. She’ll give you something to wear.”
Despite the completely Outer Limits nature of this conversation, I desperately wanted to go with him. “Uh, it’s probably better if I went home,” I heard myself say.
“You don’t want to take the bus looking like that. Come on, I rarely bite,” he said with a grin. His teeth were perfect, his dimples inviting.
“No, it’s okay, I live nearby. It would probably--” 
“I live nearby, too,” he persisted.
“Where do you live?”
“Where do you live?” he asked, leaning a little closer. The sun seemed to shine a little brighter.
“Is there an echo in here?” I asked him. He grinned in reply, but made no effort to answer any of my questions. His stare was intense, his face mesmerizing. “I live on Forty-Second Street,” I said, gesturing over my shoulder.
“Great. I pass by there on my way home.”
“Really? Where do you live?”
“Clarendon Heights.”
“Clarendon Heights,” I said sarcastically. “Do you pass China on your way home too? Because that’s the only way Forty-Second Street, in the opposite direction, is on the way to Clarendon Heights.”
He stepped even closer. An unbearable heat washed over me. His voice dropped an octave until it was a smooth baritone. “Hyalee... Hyalee Smith,” my heart stopped at the sound of my name on his lips. “I promise that you’ll get changed and make your way back to Forty-Second Street, even if I have to pass China to get you there. You comin’?” His eyes locked with mine as he waited confidently for my answer.
This was torture. Guys like him didn’t go for girls like me. The world just didn’t work that way. But I knew if I didn’t go, I’d forever obsess about what would have happened if I did. So for once in my life, without the prodding of Virginia, I, Hyalee Smith, took a risk. “Sure, why not,” I said.
Gesturing with his head, as if he had expected this victory all along, he said, “Come on.” He walked me the last couple of paces to his waiting car. My eyes widened.
“You drive a Lamborghini? Your parents bought you a Lamborghini?” My voice was shrill as I stared in awe at the bright yellow dream on wheels.
“It’s not like I’m spoiled or anything,” he drawled, swinging the passenger door upward. “I have to pay for gas.”
“Must be tough.” Again, I thought about taking the bus. I was way, way out of my league. I’m sure if my mother knew what I was doing, she’d quote me the statistics on fast cars, accidents, and males under the age of eighteen.
I also didn’t want to get mud on his leather seats, but most importantly I wondered what a guy like him saw in a girl like me. “I should probably just go home instead. It’s getting late,” I said, my footsteps faltering.
“It’s 4:10 in the afternoon. What’s the real problem?” He was standing close, and despite the cool San Francisco breeze, I felt sweat beads form on my brow and neck.
“I’m ... I’m extremely hot.”
“You are,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
I wasn’t sure how to take that. “You’re not hot?”
“You seem to have that effect on me.”
He stepped even closer, and the temperature jumped up about ten degrees. “Your seats will get all muddy,” I said lamely.
He just smiled, but didn’t comment.
“Are you sure you want me to sit in your car?”
“Unless you know how to float, I’m pretty sure that’s our only option.”
He didn’t look like he was going to budge, so I climbed into the car feeling extremely self-conscious as he closed the door behind me. I was locked in.
He jogged around to the driver’s side, folded his long body into his seat, put the car in gear, and pulled smoothly out of the parking spot. As we left the lot, I saw the woman with long braids again. She smiled as we drove off.
“Did you see that?” I asked, abruptly turning to him.
“See what?”
“The woman we just--” I looked back, and she was gone.
“Nothing,” I mumbled. He turned the air conditioner on full blast, but the temperature in the car still felt like 100 degrees.
“So, do you normally go home with strange guys?”
My head snapped in his direction so quickly, I thought my neck would break off. He was grinning, so I decided to loosen up a bit. “Only about a dozen per week, why, did I make the wrong choice this time? Are you the devil?”
“I could be if you want me to be.” He turned the car into Clarendon Heights, an upscale San Francisco neighborhood. As we drove down Clarendon Street, I stared at the gorgeous overpriced homes with fantastic views. He turned left into the garage of a rather large olive-green house with a “Sold” sign in front.
“Are you moving?” I asked.
“Just moved in. We move a lot.” He climbed out of the car, and I let myself out. The air suddenly seemed filled with a powerful but foreign energy. It was so overwhelming that I had to forcefully drag myself back into the conversation.
Searching my memory, I recalled his last statement. “Really? So do we. Move, I mean.” I was clearly finding it hard to form coherent sentences.
“Yeah? Where’ve you lived?” 
“Philadelphia before this,” I shrugged.
He gave me a weird look as we boarded the elevator. His house had an elevator, an elevator!
“Are you serious?”
“Why, is Pennsylvania a weird place to live?” I asked, puzzled by his reaction.
“No, we just moved from Pennsylvania, that’s all. We’ve only been in the area for a few weeks. Where else?” he asked as he pushed button three on the elevator, and we began to ascend.
My heartbeat accelerated. I was suddenly nervous. “Are your parents at home?” I didn’t know what I wanted his answer to be. If his parents were home, I’d have to meet them covered in mud. If they weren’t, this impulsive visit might have different implications entirely.
“My mom’s here. Why?”
“Do you think she’ll like me?” I was suddenly self-conscious about my disheveled appearance. What would a woman with a multimillion-dollar home think of me trailing dried mud clods onto her floor?
“Don’t take it personally. She hasn’t liked any of the girls I’ve brought home.”
The elevator ride took forever. A sliver of sweat slid down my face. I hurriedly wiped it away with the back of my hand. “So... you bring a lot of girls home?” I asked as nonchalantly as possible, trying to fix my clothes.
He grinned at me, his eyes sparkling with amusement. “I’m a popular guy.”
Great, just great. The elevator stopped, and the doors slid open onto a beautiful and spacious living room. The place was beyond opulent. Each piece of furniture looked more expensive than my mom’s Volkswagen Passat.
“Mom,” he yelled, exiting the elevator. “I’m home. I have a guest, so please leave the claws in the drawer.” My eyes widened in horror. I stood still, my feet rooted to the elevator floor. “I’m kidding,” he said jovially.
“I knew that,” I said, stepping uncertainly onto the hardwood floor.
“I’m in the kitchen,” a voice answered, and it didn’t sound friendly.
We turned the corner and entered the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was we were not the same size. His mother was about five-foot-eight, at least five inches taller than me. Her willowy frame made my 132 pounds look obese in comparison. Her red hair practically lit up the room as it glistened in the reflection from the big fat butcher’s knife she was using to chop onions.
“Mom,” he said cautiously, as if to a tiger whose cage we were entering, “this is Hyalee. Hyalee, meet my mom, Ms. Johnson.”
His mom’s head snapped up in surprise, and she stared at me like I was a mutant from another planet. I knew I probably looked nothing like the other girls he brought home to meet mom, and yes, I was caked in mud, but at least act like I’m not a complete freak. She dropped the knife with a resounding clatter on the cutting board.
“Hyalee,” she said in a whisper. Then she walked around the counter and hugged me like we were sorority sisters meeting at our twenty-year reunion. Amazingly, she was clearly unconcerned about the mud so obviously clinging to my shirt. I didn’t know what was going on, and from the look on Singleton’s face, he was just as confused as I was.
He picked up the glass on the counter and sniffed its contents. She didn’t let me go, and I feared for a moment that she was going to squeeze me to death. With my luck, that would be exactly how I’d die. What would my mother say?
“Mom, have you been drinking?” Singleton asked.
“Don’t be silly, Singleton. Set an extra place for dinner. Hyalee has to join us.” She turned to me and asked, “How have you been?”
“Good, I guess.” I was a bit flustered, because she still had me in a bear hug. The kind of hug that makes you wish you’d popped a breath mint.
“Mom, let the poor girl go. You know you’re a little much to take all at once.” She released me, but stood abnormally close, a smile still plastered on her face.
“So, four places, Mom?”
”No, just three. Your brother won’t be joining us.”
“God, what’s he doing today? Chess Club? Future Politicians of America?”
“Don’t talk badly about your brother,” his mother scolded.
Singleton rolled his eyes. I was still trying to figure out why I had received such an uncomfortably warm reception when my phone vibrated. It was my mom. She rarely called during the day, and when she did, it was never good news.
I flipped my phone open with a sense of dread. “Yes, Mom?” I asked wearily.
“Where are you? I need you home, now.”
“Mom, I’m busy.”
“Get. Home. Now,” she said, pronouncing each word distinctly.
“Sure, I’ll just teleport there.”
“What?” my mother asked in alarm.
“It was a joke.” Knowing my mother, she probably thought that teleporting was something illegal or, heaven forbid, fun that all the cool kids were doing. When the Wii came out, she thought it was a code word for making out. You know, like, “Whee!”
“Get home,” she repeated before hanging up on me.   
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking at their expectant faces as I closed my phone and gripped it tightly in my hand. “I have to go home. My mother is having one of her meltdowns.”
Ms. Johnson’s face fell, as if I’d just told her that her Neiman-Marcus credit card had been declined. “Make sure you come back soon,” she said, giving me one last hug.
“I will,” I said, this time hugging her back.
“I’ll take you home,” Singleton said, pulling his key from the pocket of his jeans.
I hated leaving their house. I didn’t know how much that had to do with the energy that infused it or the welcome reception I’d received. No, it was just dreading whatever crisis awaited me at home. The elevator ride was marked by an awkward silence. I fidgeted with my phone, turning the ringer on and off in an effort to appear busy.
“So,” he said as we loaded into his car and backed out of the garage, “you increase the temperature wherever you go and you can make my mother like you. Is there anything you can’t do?”
“I only seem to have this effect on your family. Everyone else barely notices I exist.”
“I doubt that. I bet you’ve left a trail of broken hearts behind you. Where did you live before Philly?”
“Oh,” I said, thinking back. “Let’s see... We spent a couple years in Houston.”
“Are you joking?” he asked in surprise.
“Now why would that be funny?”
“We used to live in Houston, before we moved to Philadelphia.”
“That’s weird. What school did you go to?”
“Fred F. Florence Middle School.”
“Me too,” I said, turning to look at him in shock. I was so distracted I almost missed our turn. “Here,” I said, indicating a left on Kezar Drive. The Lamborghini easily made the turn. The engine on that baby purred with power.
“Isn’t it strange that we’ve have lived in all of the same places?”
“Very strange. Take another left here,” I said, indicating a turn onto Forty-Second Street.
The car stopped with a jolt.
“Not here,” I said rubbing my neck as I gestured at a point further down the street. “It’s a few houses down.”
“No, I ... I didn’t do that on purpose. My car just stopped.” He leaned forward, turning his ear toward the dashboard. “Actually, I still hear the engine, it sounds fine. But it won’t drive.” He pushed down on the gas, the engine roared, he checked the accelerator to make sure nothing was stuck underneath, but the car remained stubbornly still.
“See if you can reverse,” I suggested.
Singleton threw the car into reverse, and it easily followed his command. He tried to drive forward again, and once more the car came to an abrupt halt. At the same exact spot.
“Does this happen often?”
“No. Weird things only seem to occur around you,” he said, a trace of irritation in his voice. 
“Thanks, I feel so much better about myself now,” I said drily.
“I’m sorry. This car is my baby. Don’t worry about it, I’ll park here and walk you the rest of the way. Tomorrow, I’ll take it to the shop.” He pulled over to the side of the road. We stepped out and began to walk.
One minute he was walking, the next he was flat on his back. I ran around the side of the car and knelt beside him.
“What happened?” I asked him, concerned.
“Hell if I know. Everything was fine, then it was like running into an invisible concrete wall,” he said, sitting up and staring forward.
I looked at the spot where he had stopped walking. There was nothing there. Standing, I walked forward cautiously. Nothing. I turned and gave him a perplexed look, wondering if I’d made a mistake by letting him drive me home.
“I’m not nuts, I didn’t throw myself down.”
Of course you didn’t. “No, I believe
He scowled at me, and for good reason--I’m a terrible liar. Standing up, he walked forward and stopped. Reaching his arms out, he pushed against something I couldn’t see. He looked like a mime--a really good mime--trapped in a glass box. Perplexed, I watched him closely as he took a step backward, extended his arms, and leaned forward. His hands stopped against an invisible something as he leaned forward at a twenty- to thirty-degree angle. I don’t care if you’re a gymnastic whiz or a master illusionist--nobody can do that. It was clear that something was there or he would have fallen on his face.

Something was keeping Singleton Johnson off my street.

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