Read an Excerpt
Aaron Corbet was having the dream again.
Yet it was so much more than that.
Since they began, over three months before, the visions of sleep had grown more and more intense—more vivid. Almost real.
He is making his way through the primitive city, an ancient place constructed of brown brick, mud, and hay. The people here are in a panic, for something attacks their homes. They run about frenzied, their frightened cries echoing throughout the cool night. Sounds of violence fill the air, blades clanging together in battle, the moans of the wounded—and something else he can’t quite place, a strange sound in the distance, but moving closer.
Other nights he has tried to stop the frightened citizens, to catch their attention, to ask them what is happening, but they do not see or hear him. He is a ghost to their turmoil.
Husbands and wives, shielding small children between them, scramble across sand-covered streets desperately searching for shelter. Again he listens to their fear-filled voices. He does not understand their language, but the meaning is quite clear. Their lives and the lives of their children are in danger.
For nights too numerous to count he has come to this place, to this sad village and witnessed the panic of its people. But not once has he seen the source of their terror.
He moves through the winding streets of the dream place, feeling the roughness of desert sand beneath his bare feet. Every night this city under siege becomes more real to him, and tonight he feels its fear as if it were his own. And again he asks himself, fear of what? Who are they who can bring such terror to these simple people?
In the marketplace a boy dressed in rags, no older than he, darts out from beneath a tarp covering a large pile of yellow, gourdlike fruit. He watches the boy stealthily travel across the deserted market, sticking close to the shadows. The boy nervously watches the sky as he runs.
Odd that the boy would be so concerned with the sky overhead.
The boy stops at the edge of the market and crouches within a thick pool of night. He stares longingly across the expanse of open ground at another area of darkness on the other side.
There is unrelenting fear on the dark-skinned youth’s face; his eyes are wide and white. What is he so afraid of? Aaronlooks up himself and sees only the night, like velvet adorned with twinkling jewels. There is nothing to fear there, only beauty to admire.
The boy darts from his hiding place and scrambles across the open area. He is halfway there when the winds begin. Sudden, powerful gusts that come out of nowhere, hurling sand, dirt, and dust.
The boy stops short and shields his face from the scouring particles. He is blinded, unsure of his direction. Aaron wants to call to him, to help the boy escape the mysterious sandstorm, but knows that his attempts would be futile, that he is only an observer.
And there is the sound. He can’t place it exactly, but knows it is familiar. There is something in the sky above—something that beats at the air, stirring the winds, creating the sudden storm.
The boy is screaming. His sweat-dampened body is powdered almost white in a sheen of fine dust and desert sand.
The sounds are louder now, closer.
What is that? The answer is right at the edge of his knowing. He again looks up into the sky. The sand still flies about, tossed by the winds. It stings his face and eyes, but he has to see—he has to know what makes these strange pounding sounds, what creates gusts of wind powerful enough to propel sand and rock. He has to know the source of such unbridled horror in these people of the dream-city—in this boy.
And through the clouds of fine debris, he sees them. For the first time he sees them.
They are wearing armor. Golden armor that glistens in the dancing light thrown from the flames of their weapons.
The boy runs toward him. It seems that Aaron is suddenly visible. The boy reaches out, pleading to be saved in the language of his people.
This time, he understands every word. He tries to answer, but earsplitting shrieks fill the night, the excited cries of predators that have discovered their prey.
The boy tries to run, but there are too many.
Aaron can do nothing but watch as the birdlike creatures descend from the sky, falling upon the boy, his plaintive screams of terror drowned out by the beating of powerful wings.
It was Gabriel’s powerful, bed-shaking sneeze that pulled Aaron from the dream and back to the waking world.
Aaron’s eyes snapped open as another explosion of moisture dappled his face. For the moment, the dream was forgotten and all that occupied his mind was the attentions of an eighty-pound Labrador retriever named Gabriel.
“Unnngh,” he moaned as he pulled his arm up from the warmth beneath the covers to wipe away the newest spattering of dog spittle.
“Thanks, Gabe,” he said, his voice husky from sleep.
“What time is it anyway? Time to get up?” he asked the dog lying beside him.
The yellow retriever leaned its blocky head forward to lick the back of his exposed hand, his muscular bulk blocking Aaron’s view of the alarm clock.
“Okay, okay,” Aaron said as he pulled his other hand out to ruffle the dog’s velvety soft, golden-brown ears, and wiggled himself into an upright position to check the time.
Craving more attention, Gabriel flipped over onto his back and swatted at Aaron with his front paws. He chuckled and rubbed the dog’s exposed belly before training his eyes on the clock on the nightstand beside his bed.
Aaron watched the red digital readout change from 7:28 to 7:29.
“Shit,” he hissed.
Sensing alarm in his master, Gabriel rolled from his back to his stomach with a rumbling bark.
Aaron struggled from the bed, whipped into a frenzy by the lateness of the hour.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit,” he repeated as he pulled off his Dave Matthews concert T-shirt and threw it onto a pile of dirty clothes in the corner of the room. He pulled down his sweatpants and kicked them into the same general vicinity. He was late. Very late.
He’d been studying for Mr. Arslanian’s history exam last night, and his head was so crammed with minutiae about the Civil War that he must have forgotten to set the alarm. He had less than a half hour to get to Kenneth Curtis High School before first bell.
Aaron lunged for his dresser and yanked clean underwear and socks from the second drawer. In the mirror above, he could see Gabriel curiously staring at him from the bed.
“Man’s best friend, my butt,” he said to the dog on his way into the bathroom. “How could you let me oversleep?”
Gabriel just fell to his side among the tousled bedclothes and sighed heavily.
Aaron managed to shower, brush his teeth, and get dressed in a little more than seventeen minutes.
I might be able to pull this off yet, he thought as he bounded down the stairs, loaded bookbag slung over his shoulder. If he got out the door right at this moment and managed to make all the lights heading down North Common, he could probably pull into the parking lot just as the last bell rang.
It would be close, but it was the only option he had.
In the hallway he grabbed his jacket from the coatrack and was about to open the door when he felt Gabriel’s eyes upon him.
The dog stood behind him, watching him intensely, head cocked at a quizzical angle that said, “Haven’t you forgotten something?”
Aaron sighed. The dog needed to be fed and taken out to do his morning business. Normally he would have had more than enough time to see to his best friend’s needs, but today was another story.
“I can’t, Gabe,” he said as he turned the doorknob. “Lori will give you breakfast and take you out.”
And then it hit him. He’d been in such a hurry to get out of the house that he hadn’t noticed his foster mother’s absence.
“Lori?” he called as he stepped away from the door and quickly made his way down the hall to the kitchen. Gabriel followed close at his heels.
This is odd, he thought. Lori was usually the first to rise in the Stanley household. She would get up around five A.M., get the coffee brewing, and make her husband, Tom, a bag lunch so he could be out of the house and to the General Electric plant where he was a foreman, by seven sharp.
The kitchen was empty, and with a hungry Gabriel by his side, Aaron made his way through the dining room to the living room.
The room was dark, the shades on the four windows still drawn. The television was on, but had gone to static. His seven-year-old foster brother, Stevie, sat before the twenty-two-inch screen, staring as if watching the most amazing television program ever produced.
Across the room, below a wall of family photos that had jokingly become known as the wall of shame, his foster mom was asleep in a leather recliner. Aaron was disturbed at how old she looked, slumped in the chair, wrapped in a worn, navy blue terry cloth robe. It was the first time he ever really thought about her growing older, and that there would be a day when she wouldn’t be around anymore. Where the hell did that come from? he wondered. He pushed the strange and really depressing train of thought away and attempted to think of something more pleasant.
When the Stanleys had taken him into their home as a foster child, it had been his seventh placement since birth. What was it that the caseworkers used to say about him? “He’s not a bad kid, just a bit of an introvert with a bad temper.” Aaron smiled. He never expected the placements to last, and had imagined that there would be an eighth, ninth, and probably even a hundredth placement before he was cut loose from the foster care system and let out into the world on his own.
A warm pang of emotion flowed through him as he remembered the care this woman and her husband had given him over the years. No matter how he misbehaved, or acted out, they stuck with him, investing their time, their energy, and most importantly, their love. The Stanleys weren’t just collecting a check from the state; they really cared about him, and eventually he came to think of them as the parents he never knew.
Gabriel had wandered over to the boy in front of the television and was licking his face—Aaron knew it was only to catch the residue of the child’s breakfast. But the boy did not respond, continuing to stare at the static on the screen, eyes wide, mouth agape.
Steven was the Stanleys’ only biological child and he had autism, the often misunderstood mental condition that left those afflicted so absorbed with their own reality, that they were rarely able to interact with the world around them. The boy could be quite a handful and Lori stayed home to care for his special needs.
Lori twitched and came awake with a start. “Stevie?” she asked groggily, looking for her young son.
“He’s watching his favorite show,” Aaron said, indicating Gabriel and the little boy. He looked back to his foster mom. “You all right?”
Lori stretched and, pulling her robe tight around her throat, smiled at him. Her smile had always made him feel special and this morning wasn’t any different. “I’m fine, hon, just a little tired is all.” She motioned with her chin to the boy in front of the television. “He had a bad night and the static was the only thing that calmed him down.”
She glanced over at the mini–grandfather clock hanging on the wall and squinted. “Is that the time?” she asked. “What are you still doing here? You’re going to be late for school.”
He started to explain as she sprang from the seat and began to push him from the room. “I was up late studying and forgot to set the alarm and …”
“Tell me later,” she said as she placed the palm of her hand in the small of his back, helping him along.
“Would you mind feeding—”
“No, I wouldn’t, and I’ll take him for a walk,” Lori said, cutting him off. “Get to school and ace that history test.”
He was halfway out the door when he heard her call his name from the kitchen. There was a hint of panic in her voice.
Aaron poked his head back in.
“I almost forgot,” she said, the dog’s bowl in one hand and a cup of dry food in the other. Gabriel stood attentively at her side, drool streaming from his mouth to form a shiny puddle at his paws.
“What is it?” he asked, a touch of impatience beginning to find its way into his tone.
She smiled. “Happy birthday,” she said, and pursed her lips in a long distance kiss. “Have a great day.”
My birthday, he thought closing the door behind him and running to his car.
With all the rushing about this morning, he’d forgotten.
Aaron squeaked into homeroom just as the day’s announcements were being read over the school’s ancient PA system.
Mrs. Mihos, the elderly head of the math department mere months away from retirement, looked up from her copy of Family Circle and gave him an icy stare.
He mouthed the words “I’m sorry” and quickly found his seat. He had learned that the less said to Mrs. Mihos the better. Her edicts were simple: Be on time to homeroom, turn in notes to explain absences in a timely fashion, and whatever you do, don’t be a wiseass. Aaron chillingly recalled how Tommy Philips, now seated at the back of the classroom intently keeping his mouth shut, had attempted to be the funny guy. He’d written a joke letter to explain an absence, and found himself with a week’s worth of detentions. There was nothing the math teacher hated more than a wiseass.
Aaron chanced a look at the old woman and saw that she was flipping through the attendance sheets to change his status from absent to present. He breathed a sigh of relief as the first period bell began to ring. Maybe today wouldn’t be a total disaster after all.
First period American Literature went fine, but halfway through second period, while taking Mr. Arslanian’s test, Aaron decided that he couldn’t have been more wrong about the day. Not only was he blanking on some of the information he had studied, but he also had one of the worst headaches he could ever remember. His head felt as if it were vibrating, buzzing like someone had left an electric shaver running inside his skull. He rubbed at his brow furiously and tried to focus on an essay question about the social and political ramifications of the Richmond Bread Riot. Arslanian’s fascination with obscure events of the Civil War was going to give him an aneurysm.
The remainder of the class passed in the blink of an eye, and Aaron wondered if he had passed out or maybe even been taken by space aliens. He had barely finished the last of the essay questions when the end-of-period bell clanged, a real plus for the pain in his head. He quickly glanced over the pages of his test. It wasn’t the best he’d ever done, but considering how he felt, he didn’t think it was too bad.
“I’d like to give you another couple of hours to wrap the test up in a pretty pink bow, Mr. Corbet …”
Aaron had zoned out again. He looked up to see the heavyset form of Mr. Arslanian standing beside his desk, hand beckoning.
“But my wife made a killer turkey for dinner last night and I have leftovers waiting for me in the teachers’ lounge.”
Aaron just stared, the annoying buzz in his head growing louder and more painful.
“Your exam, Mr. Corbet,” demanded Mr. Arslanian.
Aaron pulled himself together and handed the test to his teacher. Then he gathered up his books and prepared to leave. As he stood the room began to spin and he held on to the desk for a moment, just in case.
“Are you all right, Mr. Corbet?” Arslanian asked as he ambled back to his desk. “You look a little pale.”
Aaron was amazed that he only looked pale. He imagined there should have been blood shooting out his ears and squirting from his nostrils. He was feeling that bad. “Headache,” he managed on his way to the door.
“Take some Tylenol,” the teacher called after him, “and a cold rag on your head. That’s what works for me.”
Always a big help, that Mr. Arslanian, Aaron thought as he stepped lightly in an effort to keep his skull from breaking apart and decorating the walls with gore.
The hallway was jammed with bodies coming, going, or just hanging out in small packs in front of brightly colored lockers, catching up on the freshest gossip. It’s amazing, Aaron thought sarcastically, how much dirt can happen during one fifty-minute period.
Aaron moved through the flow of students. He would drop off his books, and then go to the nurse’s office to get something for his headache. It was getting worse, like listening to the static of an untuned radio playing inside his brain.
As he maneuvered around the pockets of people, he exchanged an occasional smile or a nod of recognition, but the few who acknowledged him were only being polite. He knew people looked at him as the quiet, loner guy with the troubled past, and he did very little to dispel their notions of him. Aaron didn’t have any real friends at Ken Curtis, merely acquaintances, and it didn’t bother him in the least.
He finally reached his locker and began to dial the combination.
Maybe if he got something into his stomach he’d feel better, he thought, remembering that he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. He swung the locker door open and began to unload his books.
A girl laughed nearby. He looked behind him to see Vilma Santiago at her locker with three of her friends. They were staring in his direction, but quickly looked away and giggled conspiratorially. What’s so funny? he wondered.
They were speaking loudly enough for him to hear them. The only problem was they were speaking Portuguese, and he had no idea what they were saying. Two years of French did him little good while eavesdropping on Brazilian girls’ conversations.
Vilma was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen. She had transferred to Ken Curtis last year from Brazil, and within months had become one of the school’s top students. Smart as well as gorgeous, a dangerous combination, and one that had left him smitten. They saw each other at their lockers every day, but had never really spoken. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to speak to her, just that he could never think of anything to say.
He turned to arrange the books in his locker, and again felt their eyes upon him. They were whispering now, and he could feel his paranoia swell.
“Ele nâo é nada feio. Que bunda!”
The pain in his head was suddenly blinding, as if somebody had taken an ice pick and plunged it into the top of his skull. The feeling was excruciating and he almost cried out— certain to have provided his audience with a few good laughs. He pressed his forehead against the cool metal of the locker and prayed for respite. It can’t hurt this bad for very long, he hoped. As the hissing grew more and more intense, shards of broken glass rubbed into his brain. He thought he would pass out as strange colorful patterns blossomed before his eyes and the pain continued to build.
The torturous buzzing came to an explosive climax, circuits within his mind suddenly overloaded, and before he fell unconscious—it was gone. Aaron stood perfectly still, waiting, afraid that if he moved the agony would return. What was that all about? he wondered, his hand coming up to his nose to check for bleeding.
There was nothing. No pain, no blaring white noise. In fact, he felt better than he had all morning. Maybe this is just part of a bizarre biological process one goes through when turning eighteen, he thought, bemused, reminding himself again that it was his birthday.
As he slammed the locker door, he realized that Vilma and her friends were still talking. “Estou cansada de pizza. Semana passada, nós comemos pizza, quase todo dia.” They were discussing lunch options—cafeteria versus going off campus for pizza. Vilma wanted to go to the cafeteria, but the others were pressing for the pizza.
Aaron turned away from his locker considering whether or not he should still see the nurse, and caught Vilma’s eye. She smiled shyly and quickly averted her gaze.
But not before the others noticed and began to tease her mercilessly. “Porqué? Vocé está pensando que una certo persoa vai estar no refeitó rio hoje?” Did she want to eat in the cafeteria because of a certain boy standing nearby? they asked her.
Aaron felt himself break out in a cold sweat. His suspicion was justified, for in fact the girls were talking about him.
“É, e daí? Eu acho que ele é un tesâo.” Vilma responded to her friends’ taunts and glanced again in his direction.
They were all looking at him when it dawned. He knew what they were saying. Vilma and her friends were still speaking to one another in Portuguese—but somehow he could understand each and every word.
But the most startling thing was what Vilma had said.
“Eu acho que ele é un tesâo.”
She said he was cute.
Vilma Santiago thought he was cute!
© 2003 Thomas E. Sniegoski