“There are many moments here that should delight young lovers of fantasy.”
The Gatekeeper’s Descendants
She died long ago. Now destiny needs her intervention.
Pipiera barely remembers living. And in the seventy years since her passing, the only real connection she’s built is with the head gatekeeper to the ethereal kingdom. So she hates leaving his side when his future replacement falls into trouble down on Earth and she’s tasked with stopping the boy from taking a dark path.
Resolving to make her mentor proud, Pipiera is horrified after she arrives to find her charge beaten and left for dead with his spirit on the loose. But as she struggles to rescue his incorporeal form, she faces a fight for his trust against a shadowy opponent.
Can she get his soul back on track before they’re both doomed?
The Gatekeeper’s Descendants is the extraordinary first book in a unique fantasy series. If you like characters worth connecting to, rich allegory, and unbelievable surprises, then you’ll love Johanna Frank’s trek through the heart.
Buy The Gatekeeper’s Descendants for an adventure into the heavens today!
From the Desk of
Somewhere Inside the Kingdom a File is Opened
THE WAY HUMANS track? I’d say 300 years, give or take. That’s when Megs signed on, and he’s never looked back. That job is his reason for being. He’s the most thankful gatekeeper the kingdom ever had.
I know, I know, things were different then. Such long backups in processing and new arrivals were coming in by the droves. They were desperate to hire, so many jobs to fill. In those days people just had to be eager, show an interest in taking a job.
Now? There’s so much competition, people have to stay “on track,” as they say. Now they need to develop a particular char- acter while on a humankind tour. As if surviving that tour, a lifetime on Earth, isn’t enough.
Yup, those were the good ol’ days, more jobs than there were kingdom citizens to take them. Most citizen folk know Megs as big, strong, and fearless—you know, the kinda guy you’d never mess with and yet the kinda guy whose heart still takes the prize as his biggest feature. But I know him better. I know what made the guy.
You see, Megs, or Megalos, as the king calls him, and I did our journey on Earth together. Actually, that’s when we met. I was a few years his senior and a good deal taller, and back then, we were buddies. He was of the scraggly, timid, weakling sort, forever bumping into things. We were farming buddies mostly, friends by association, I guess you could say. When I was milking our cows, I knew he’d be milking his. When I was feeding our chickens, I knew he’d be doing it too. On those unbearably hot, humid days, I’d feel like a pig shucking all that corn, but somehow it was comforting knowing he was over there yonder, sweating it up just as much.
Our families didn’t visit. My pa didn’t like his pa much, told me to stay away. “Somethin’s not right ’bout that man,” he would say. “Keep an eye out for his boy. Let me know if he needs protectin’.”
I had a perfect view of Megs’ yard from the window beside my trundle. Barely a half field away, a stormwater ravine served as the boundary line. A bunch of lavender bushes grew wild on our side while a rotted-out date palm stood beside a big pile of stones on his. I saw Megs’ pa kicking him in the behind now and again, and once I saw him get shoved into a patch of manure good and hard. Megs scrambled to get up and slipped even deeper. His pa offered him a hand and then yanked it away, causing Megs to slip again, headfirst. His pa laughed and spat out his tobacco, and Megs, well, he didn’t even clench his fists.
I never told my pa. He had a temper, and naturally, I didn’t want to start a feud. But I watched for Megs every day, making sure I caught a glimpse of him at least once, just to be sure he was alive and all. Poor kid, his head always hung in shame. I figured keeping an eye on him was enough, that I was doing good by doing that.
Therein something laid inside me, fresh as thick cement: a foundation of guilt. It was like a prison sentence for the rest of my earth years. How could I have known what was coming? I would ask myself. I had witnessed enough. I should have done something.
Megs was thirteen. I remember well because it was the year of mud, a time of trials, you might say. The horses and carts couldn’t get through most roads. And the harvest that year? It wasn’t much. In fact, most folks had diddly squat, including the farm next door. Megs’ family’s fields were akin to a swamp.
That was when Megs’ pa took the beating and punching indoors. He caught me watching from behind our lavender bush once, just as he heaved a fist into Megs’ temple. After that I couldn’t look no more, was best to forget it all.
One night a couple of weeks later, I heard commotion and some banging around com’n from his way—some muffled yelping too. I did the only thing I thought I could do: I convinced myself all was good. But the consistent haunting woos of the eagle owl hinted otherwise. So, I snuck out of the house, crossed the ravine, and crept up to their kitchen window.
There was Megs, on his back, swinging his arms and legs like a wildcat, only his pa had one of his dung-caked boots pressed hard, squishin’ his gut. Megs was yelling at him. “I hate you! I hate you!” His pa just laughed, called him a wussy mama’s boy.
I’ll never forget that shaky look on Megs’ face. “Yer no pa. I curse you.” Megs spat, but I gotta tell you, it didn’t get far. “I curse you—and all yer relatives… to infinity. I curse you. I curse them all!”
That did it. Megs’ pa didn’t laugh this time. His eyes grew devil- like and red with hate. “Yeah, you’ll never escape me. I’m yer family, but I’m gonna make sure you never get yer own.”
His pa grabbed the cast iron pot, still full of hot fat and chops, and well, I didn’t see anymore. Chicken that I was, I ran back home and cowered under my bed. Told no one.
The story ’round the village made no sense. “The boy didn’t have a chance,” people said. “Wolves charged straight through the gate. Jumped him whilst draining out the trough.” The incredulous part, “Not a single calf got touched.”
Megs’ pa blamed the unnatural weather, said it caused wild animals to act like bats in the belfry. Know something? He got away with it. The whole village lapped it up.
But the way my pa looked at me, he knew better. That was no wolf pack; it was a cold-blooded killer, not the kinda pa any kid should have. I pretty much blamed myself—for not intervening, that is. Things might have been different if I had done something. Maybe I could have stopped it, who knows.
For the rest of my tour on Earth, first thing each sunrise, Megs came to mind. That piercing sound when his pa shoveled gravel around, like it didn’t matter. All I could do back then was score some lavender from our bushes and toss it over the ravine, hoping it would land somewhere close to that pile of stones, hoping Megs would know that I knew and cared his body was down there, rotting in the deep.
Now, I know the rule of time—it does not go backwards. But with the king as my ruler and witness, back then I pleaded with him over and over for a miracle, another chance to intervene, so I could somehow help my dear friend, Megalos.
Well, he heard me. ’Cause now, some three centuries later, Megalos came to me in my kingdom job as head of interventions and him in his kingdom job as head gatekeeper. He was all worked up, didn’t know what to do ’bout a situation. He came asking for a favor. An intervention, something I’m darn good at now. And let me tell you, was I eager to pull a few strings!
Wanna hear the story?
It’s Him Or Me
In the Outer Courtyard of the Kingdom
OH, JUST LOOK at him. Pipiera squirmed in private adoration. Even now, as he gripped tight the edges of a page and read its message with dedicated focus, simply standing in his shadow assured her. A stern and peculiar expression washed over his face. But none of that mattered. To Pipiera, Megalos’s presence was akin to a big, gentle bear hug. “What’s wrong, Papah Moolos?” her voice low and quiet, her eyes fixed upward in hopes to catch his. She knew he loved the nickname she invented, particularly the “Papah” part. It was a sure-fire way to make Megalos pause and grin. Plus, she loved the sense of belonging that came with the pretense she was his descendant, that he was somehow a grandfather to her.
But not today, no sheepish grin. This is highly unusual. Stress, could that be stress I detect? No, that’s strife. He seems worried. No matter however dreadful the news, she knew he would overcome it in a matter of blinks. He always did.
She considered his face a bit longer, remaining silent and methodical. Hmm, could it actually be that bad? There was a serious crinkle between his thick, dark brows. It almost appears to be fear. Almost. She cocked her head a tad. Surely not!
She raised her heels effortlessly, shifting all weight to her toes and turning her attention to peek out the only window of Papah’s humble living quarters, a single room held high atop the watch post. Nothing but an exquisitely carved bench to sit upon. She scanned the panoramic view. A pleasant aromatic breeze captured her senses and ruffled her bangs. Bored of debating which emotion was plaguing her papah, she decided to settle. Sad. It’s disappointing news. Therefore, he is sad.
Head gatekeeper was not an easy job. The way leading to the kingdom’s main gate saw a continuous hum of new arrivals. Nearly always there would be somebody on the edge of the horizon, heading in toward Megs. He truly shone. He was always prepared, always welcoming, always patient to answer questions and dispel concerns, and, when called for, he could shake his head in a kind and gentle manner. The latter inevitably meant the arrival was to go back. The rules were strict, the orders clear.
Pipiera loved being smack in the middle of the activity, a witness to it all. She teased him about how much fun his job was. He did his best to manage his concern that she did not recognize the seriousness of it all.
The other gatekeepers in the kingdom courtyard respected Megalos for his cautious analyzing, his calculated reasoning, and sometimes, though admittedly rare, his unenthusiastic kindness. But never, ever fear. His comrade, Roly, told Pip she was the only one Megalos would allow himself to banter with. That made Pipiera feel special and, in her own eyes, somewhat of an expert as to his inside track.
Her concern about him and whatever it was that stole his attention lingered. She crossed her arms and offered up some encouragement. “Papah, if you read it even just one more time, the words will not jump off the page and change clothes.” With both eyebrows arched, Pipiera hoped her teasing would lighten things up.
The mood changed, but not the way she hoped. His facial expression was obvious; he was annoyed. It was the same discerning frown he employed when lecturing her about not taking kingdom business to heart. I better back off, give him some space. I don’t know why he lets himself get so disrupted by these letters from those authoritarians. What’s the big deal anyway?
Megalos often received information in the same manner— a message scribed on official kingdom letterhead, sealed by an authoritarian, and then delivered by that busy little book room keeper guy.
She put her mind on a serious track. I bet it’s an update on a gatekeeper recruit. Papah says it’s a good job but really hard to get. He had explained it to her many times. All his replacement recruits had to develop certain characteristics during their tour, a journey on Earth bookmarked with a time to begin and a time to end. It seemed so easy. All they had to do was recognize how blessed they were, cast their concerns on the king, allow him to keep their hearts clean, and stay loyal. Yet only a few stuck to that on account of all the earthly challenges and whatnots.
The ornate bench creaked as he cast a foot upon it. Pushing her chin up, she dared a question, attempting to prove she could be serious. “Is somebody struggling?”
“It’s a page from Matthew’s book.” He waved it high briefly before crumpling it up and shoving the ball of parchment into the pocket of his linen trousers.
So, it wasn’t an official message; it was a page from a recruit’s book. That can’t be right. Since when do they rip pages out of one’s book? It was his turn to stare out the window.
Just being present and silent was the best way Pipiera could think of to support her papah at that moment. But her mind did swirl. Their paths had never crossed, hers and this Matthew’s. I knew it! You had him on a pedestal, you talked about him way too much anyway. I’m glad he’s struggling. Her Papah Moolos talked about him so much that anyone listening would come to know Matthew inside and out. That’s if they wanted to. Pipiera preferred to ignore it because she couldn’t bear the thought of Papah cherishing anyone more than her. Just because this Matthew boy chose your footsteps to follow, you think he’s so great. C’mon, Papah, he was barely qualified to take that assignment. You said so yourself. Pipiera hung her head, attempting to hide her thoughts. Dare I say it?
“So… was doing a tour to become your replacement one day actually the plan for Matthew?” There, I said it. Because truth be known, I think you want it more than he does.
His back stiffened and his brows formed a perfect V. “What are you suggesting?”
Okay, here goes… “Well, what I mean is, I dread to think if it wasn’t. I mean, if Matthew wasn’t actually meant to be groomed for your replacement, his earth journey would be…” She sucked and tucked in her bottom lip, letting her words trail. She kept to herself the obvious—Matthew’s journey would be an impossible one. Besides, why do you need to retire anyway? What will happen to me? Did you ever think of that? Probably not!
She could tell his mind was calculating away, surmising the situation at hand. “Matthew must be quite off track,” he mumbled whilst rubbing his chin. “Otherwise, Bookie would not have come over like that.”
“He’s always in a hurry. Everything is urgent with him.” She was trying to be helpful. The book room keeper was in charge of all the open books. If one was on a humankind tour, a book was certainly open in Bookie’s special room under the special care of his countless scribes, scribbling madly, capturing every thought and action, particularly the details requested by the king.
“Yeah.” His finger tapped at his temple while his chin rested in his large, solid right hand. “But he’s never ripped out a page from anyone’s book before, least not that I know of.”
Pipiera watched as her papah continued to think. “Well, maybe he thinks you can have that page rewritten,” she said. It was a genuine notion.
Megalos finally broke the silence. “Possibly.” Then he shook his head, “I don’t think that’s it.” He chuckled gruffly. “The law clearly doesn’t allow for that.” Then his lips tightened across his face.
I think that’s a half smile. Pipiera took the relaxed muscles around his eyes as resignation to all this silly nonsense about some Matthew boy. All will work out, she wanted to assure him.
Alas, he gave the cue. “Let’s get back at it.” With that, he led the way.
The pair descended the interior circular staircase, seventy-three steps in all. She had counted them many times. Any other day Pip would have fluttered down those stairs, jumping two steps at a time, but today she followed obediently behind her papah. By the time they got to ground level, the heaviness had lifted. Megs paused briefly, flashing a curvy-lipped grin at his little sidekick. Then they stepped into the outer courtyard.
Ah, there you are. Back here with me. Where we belong. The two of us. She watched him head to his post by the gate only twenty something steps away. Our closeness, this life we share… She sighed. “I don’t want anything to change.”
Pipiera often wondered what drew her to Megalos, why she felt so close and connected, and why they made each other their closest of kin. At least six generations apart, they were quite different. Pipiera could only dream of adventure, but she wasn’t certain what that might be, and she lacked the courage to find out. Megalos? Not so much. He wasn’t into dreamy adventures. He realized his adventure in the here and now. Pip’s bubbly spirit oozed out of her constantly even if her mind did flip in views. Megs stayed on track, by the book, with his inner thoughts tucked neatly inside a serious, all-business exterior. Nevertheless, the two were a pair, together all the time in the kingdom’s outer courtyard—him working and her playing. Pipiera didn’t take their relationship for granted; rather, she feared it could all disappear one day without explanation. She shuddered at the notion.
Glancing toward Megalos to be sure he was more than an earshot away, she vocalized her grief. “Why should I care if this Matthew boy is struggling? I don’t want him, or anyone, to replace you. Why can’t you just let the boy struggle and keep things the way they are?”
I Bet Ya
In the Town of Havensight, May 1973
I JUST WANNA BE freakin’ normal.” Matthew Mackenzie was disheartened. “Why do we have to live here, anyway? This town is squarer than a deuce.” He backed himself up and got into position. Steady still for balance, he rocked his core back and forth and then wound up for the runoff. Leaping with his left leg,
he sprinted, gaining speed, eight steps, ready for takeoff. “Bogus.” His footing was off, and he ran through the sand pit. Least I didn’t trip. He was used to gladdening himself when it came to his jumps.
Andy Falcon, part-time track-and-field teacher and part-time guidance counselor at Havensight’s one and only high school, jogged by hauling a net of batons and a pile of orange cones with the help of two students. “Keep goin’, Matt! You can do it,” he hol
lered as he passed, motioning five more minutes with his free hand. Matt ignored him. Sure, he liked Mr. Falcon well enough, but Matt took so much mocking from being Vice Principal Decker’s unwanted love child that showing acceptance of any teacher, or anyone in authority for that matter, would just pose another barrier. He wanted to be normal and for everything to be okay.
Matt arched his back. With a casual coolness, he scanned the sports field for the other students. Particularly one. There he was, in front of the worn, tiered set of wooden bleachers. “Figures.” Half the class encircled Emerson. “Mr. Dufus Popularity, new and rich. That’s all it takes.” Matt conjured up a dose of spit and aimed for a patch of clover, then toed the glob into the dirt real good and hard with his spikes.
This was Matthew’s first year at Havensight Collegiate Secondary School. He had hoped it could be a new start, a new feeling. But the old feelings steeped and swirled just the same and wouldn’t disappear. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason for his anger, but it was easy enough to figure out where to direct it: Marnie. Lately, he refused to call her “Mom,” choosing to distance himself instead. After all, she was the betrayer. And as far as his pestering little sister Karo went, she’s the love child, not me.
Matthew eyed a lump of grass growing through the sparse sand at the near end of the pit and positioned for another jump. The Tri-Town regional meet was tomorrow, and he was Havensight’s top hope to take the running long jump prize. Problem was, the school had a self-reporting system, and Matthew had added more than just a few inches on his distance, then bragged heartily about his abilities. He loved white lies; they gave him a better life.
How could he possibly win? Good question.
Matt sighed. The way he figured it, just placing in the top three was his chance to become a regular kid at school, accepted, not a forgotten love child, no longer an outcast. He kicked the ground some more, chuckling about the previous week’s big scene. Being strong-armed down the halls by the town fuzz didn’t help. Apparently, smoking a doobie was cool. Getting caught wasn’t. The walls were closing in. I’ve got to win.
He angled his body forward this time and picked his landing spot. Ready… run hard… leap. Matthew’s legs ran wildly through the air. Thud. He landed, fell backwards. “Bogus!” Get it right, this time he scolded himself.
“Get up, doofus.” Emerson stood over Matt, grinning ear to ear.
Grody, whatta you doing here? “Get yer face outta here,” Matt replied.
“Everyone says you’re our best shot tomorrow. I say you’re not good enough.”
“Better ’n you.”
“I’m not entering.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me.” With ease and confidence, Matthew jumped to his feet then faced the kid at school he most hated. Instinctively his upper lip tensed and curled, his teeth clenched. As of late, this was a routine expression for Matthew. Go for it, freak, I dare you!
Emerson nodded to a threesome of jocks at his heels, pulling them into the act. Matt considered them groupies. His two childhood friends, Josh and Nick, called them thugs on account of their muscular frames and their cowboy-farmin’ man boots. Most of HCSS’s students were bused in from farms north of town, including these Emerson loyalists. Matt could never figure out why they hung out and protected Emerson, who was as slick as a big city could conjure up. It’s gotta be a money thing.
Head high and chin up, Matt speared into the eyes of the thug in the middle. He shook his head three times. Tsk, tsk, tsk. “Does he pay you to be his friend or just his bodyguard?”
Another nod by Emerson, and the thugs pushed Matthew onto his back, into the hardened and dirty sand.
“Buggers!” Matt would have stood up quickly to challenge the trio, only the taunting started. Taunting that struck a deep emotional chord, one that made him weak in every way imaginable. “Go home and go cry to daddy. Oh, wait, little love child, daddy’s gone.” Emerson, his thugs, and now a half dozen other students circled around Matt to enjoy the mockery and a good laugh.
“Daddy, Daddy, don’t go…” Emerson mocked.
Matt wished he could melt into the sand. Better yet, underneath it, be totally hidden, totally gone. Who would care anyway? The bell rang. Perfect timing. Everyone left but Emerson. Apparently, he had more to say.
“So, you say you can do it. You better, kid, ’cause I’m a bettin’ man.” He narrowed his eyes and leaned in. “And I don’t like to lose.”
Emerson strolled back into the school building. Matthew slowly got up and shook himself off. Shook the dirt out. For a long moment he stared at the slow-closing double door to the gymnasium where the rest of the class had just finished entering.
He spied the sky for an opening in the clouds. No matter the day, no matter how cloudy, there was always an opening. He found it. An entrance to another world, one high above the school building and well beyond his life in Havensight. “Dad,” he whispered while his throat tightened, “why didn’t you take me with you?”
Matthew talked to his dad regularly each day. He was Matt’s confidante, the only one who would listen. The problem is, that Mat thew’s dad, his real dad, Franklin Mackenzie, died five-and-a-half years ago.
Two Days Later
MARNIE NEVER SLEPT a wink. Certain she heard every click, swish, and tick from her three alarms, she wondered if it was time to get a new clock. Just one, the digital kind. The kind that was supposed to be silent. Darned squirrels. Too many power outages. I could never rely on those new plug-in types.
Her fingers found the lever between the two bells atop the windup, her most trustworthy clock. She ceased the loud, continuous ring to not awaken the other two occupants in the house—her son, Matthew, and daughter, Karo.
Why on earth would that keep me up all night? She smothered a pillow over her face and groaned miserably into the package of feathers. Karo going on and on about her bones…and her sloppy muscles…and how she’s not fast like the other kids…and, oh my, what else? That’s a job for me, isn’t it, to ensure my children eat and grow properly? To be so competitive and so tiny. Oh dear.
She pushed the pillow away and pulled up a cool section of her duvet. Fifteen more minutes! Her mind continued to race, away from her four-year-old daughter’s persistence on nutrition, straight over to her job at Semi-Permanent Staffing. She had eight interviews scheduled for that day, all requiring reference checks and selection recommendations for Lance by the time five o’clock rolled around. It was late spring, and that meant Havensight’s summer hiring rush was on in full force.
The long buzzer, the second alarm clock on her dressing cup board, blared away, jolting her once again. Two steps out of bed, she slammed it down and then a quick jump to nestle back under the covers. Where was I? Oh yeah, first interview at 9:15, that nincompoop, the police chief’s nephew. Ugh, what a way to start my day. Hmm… I wonder if there’s enough bread for Matty’s lunch and my own. She melted into another snooze.
The final alarm sounded off like a hesitant fire engine clang. It was seven a.m. She had strategically placed the clock on the floor in the only washroom upstairs, forcing herself to leap out of bed and shut its echo down as quickly as possible. Then there’d be no going back to bed. She’d turn on the taps, pull out the greys, brush her teeth, and slip into a tub of hot shallow water. The surrounding soft, minty tiles had become her place of refuge.
Marnie’s single-family brick home sat along a tidy row with a dozen others on Warmud Street. Before becoming zoned for residential use, the area had been a field, a shallow stretch of unused land that coexisted with the main road into Havensight. The orphaned new development was a good three miles from town. In the back of the lots, an evergreen forest formed a corridor that nearly hid the hilly and non-farmable landscape. Despite water drainage issues—a regular complaint from residents—a heavy population of wildflowers, bushes, bunnies, squirrels, and field mice survived just fine. Unfortunately, so did the rats, particularly the night before weekly garbage pickup. The occasional deer could be seen meandering down the hills and through the trees to scour fresh buds from residential landscapes. Neighbors would shoo them away, but Marnie didn’t mind them. To her, they represented peace and freedom. Hmm… and grace, another thing she wished she had. Seeing the deer also meant spring had arrived, stirring up a bittersweet emotion that was, quite frankly, better than just bitter.
In front, the one-sided row of houses appeared perfect, almost too perfect, much like something a hobbyist might build out of Legos; driveways curbed and graveled, each house with three to five concrete steps, iron railings leading up to aluminum screens, and freshly stained wooden doors with peek-a-boo pearl-drop windows, and black mailboxes with shiny even numerals, 1002 up to 1032. Who knew why those numbers?
Stretched out in front of the long row of houses and lined by the highway was a long, narrow grassy boulevard, not wide enough for a soccer game, but certainly long enough to play decent rounds of catch. And for kids like Matthew, it was perfect for running and jumping the whole day through. Warmud Street, “that stretch over yonder,” as the locals called it, had been another of the town council’s self-acclaimed brilliant ideas, a way to use up that useless unfarmable land and attract newcomers at the same time. It was oddly situated west of town, away from the schools, shops, and restaurants that provided all the basic services that residents of Havensight could ever want. “Typical,” Marnie would say. “New comers are welcome as long as they stay over yonder.”
The tourist section, where mostly small owner-run businesses tried desperately to stay afloat season after season, was even farther west by the same distance. Marnie’s little Legoland community was smack amid a much-gossiped-about nowhere, blanketed by a wide open sky, a magnificent spot for those who were into stargazing. Marnie had one of only three houses that boasted a second floor. That alone was enough to make it stand out. She would have much preferred it didn’t. Out of all the houses, hers was the only one with the garage turned into a workshop. A workshop she never used but still housed all of his equipment—all kinds of observatory gadgets and whatnots that were no longer put to use or admired. That was another thing that Marnie knew stood out, a garage that wasn’t used for their car, heavens to Betsy. But what topped it all off, separating her from all others on Warmud Street, was what ailed her the most. Her home was the only one on the street where the man of the house no longer lived. Neither of them. Marnie was reminded of that at the end of every workday. Each time she pulled into her driveway, she whispered his name and sensed a hollow chill, as if perhaps he were hiding behind the dusty black out curtain that hung inside the garage door, judging her. Frank. Matty was especially touchy about protecting his dad’s stuff in the workshop, so she left it be. The second man, Arnie, didn’t count, at least not much. Arnie hadn’t lived there very long.
Hugging her knees, she gave the sudsy tub water a swirl and held up an unusually large bubble. Early morning was her only chance for an exhale. Being dead tired was nothing unusual. Recently, she’d received a nervous disorder diagnosis from the one and only family doctor in Havensight.
“Bogue,” she snapped at a bubble, imagining it to be her doctor. “I just lead a busy life. You try stepping into my shoes.” Raising two children on her own and proving herself at her job while managing a mortgage higher than she was comfortable with all weighed heavily. She shelved her own dreams for at least a decade, maybe two, though it wasn’t clear if Marnie even knew what her dreams were. What was definite though, she was finished trying to fit into any of Havensight’s trivial social buckets. She grabbed the semi-clean towel off the rack and wrapped it around her. Matthew. He’s the one I should have been awake all night worrying about. What am I to do with him?
She shuddered and tucked the towel end tight. Just thinking about that telephone call from the previous week, the one from Harry Cooke, and all the ridiculous drama that came after it. Harry had put his ‘I’m-your-son’s-principal-and-you-better-listen-to-me’ voice to work—that was annoying enough. A stark contrast to the pathetic hinting that he’d like a turn to take her out. Perhaps since Marnie was married to his vice principal, Arnie Decker, for a brief stint, Harry figured a date was possible. He figured wrong. All that aside, on that dreadful call, he informed her the town duo of law enforcement, Constable Rusch and Detective Johnstone, were in his office, along with Matthew Mackenzie, her son. They were threatening to charge him with a felony offense.
Matthew was tall with oversized hands and feet for a thirteen year-old. He still had a good four inches to grow if he was to be like his father, from whom he also inherited his mop of fiery red hair. His physique gave off mixed messages. A firm chin and neck suggested confidence, but slouchy shoulders begged otherwise. His eyes, one green, one blue, spelled trouble with the hope of honesty depending on which one you looked into. His recent practice of continuous fibbing and regular use of a sharpened tongue distressed Marnie. He had more energy than she could rein in, and he was far too easily influenced. That combination concerned Marnie, and his recent brush with drugs was justification enough.
He would turn fourteen in a few weeks. Now that’s something. I’ll really be a mother of a teenager, no denying it now. Matthew had fought her all of last year, claiming his independence as an official teen, but he lost on a technicality. As far as I’m concerned, a teenager starts at fourteen, not thirteen. Using her fingers to untangle her damp mid-length auburn hair, she chuckled, wishing she had argued it was seventeen instead. I remember the day of your birth, my son, like it was yesterday. Overcooked you were with big ears! A brief chuckle escaped before frustration returned. But Matthew Sebastian, what do I do with you now? Wrapped in her towel, she scurried back to her room before Matty woke and would come banging the bathroom door down with his fist.
By the time she tossed her towel into the heap of laundry on the bedroom floor, Marnie had switched emotional gears yet again.
She wanted to do something nice for Matty’s birthday. But what, what, what? We could really use a celebration, especially after yesterday. Matt had fallen short and came in last at the regionals. So be it.
Marnie shook her head, as if that might shake her thoughts away. Using her fingers to separate the last tangles of thick hair, she exhaled. What’s next, Matty? Seriously, what’s next?
If only she knew.
Livin’ The Dream
MATT RUBBED HIS eyes with the back of his hand and cautiously perused his room. It was a small oblong-shaped bedroom, yet bigger than Karo’s. The walls still a builder’s beige— no one ever had time to apply fresh paint nor wallpaper. Some of Matt’s crayon episodes were still visible and reminded him of his younger years, years when his dad was still alive. A tall single dresser sat beside a single closet door at the foot of his bed. The lamp on his bedside table was reachable if he slept on the lower bunk, which he never did. Fortunately, Matt didn’t have to share this private space; he had that to be thankful for.
He awoke from a disturbingly deep and mindfully active sleep. Am I awake? His attempt to shake away the daze didn’t work. That was some dream, so freakin’ real.
The tail end of it echoed in his head. “All that matters,” had been the reply from the tall, strong presence standing behind him. He hadn’t even asked the question aloud, What’s all this? Then Mr. Invisible’s warm, heavy hand came to rest on his right shoulder. Matt actually felt it. The reprieve of the unity was salve to a wound he didn’t know he had. And that voice—it penetrated a chord deep inside Matthew, the exact one which was suffering from a raw and chronic inflammation.
Matt leaned back and closed his eyes, urging his brain to recite more. He could picture it. A small, gleaming white door at the back of a long room that seemed to go on forever had opened. Even though a distance away, the details were incredibly vivid. The door frame was covered with ivy and speckled with tiny, perfect, white, aromatic blossoms. He could smell them, a delicious aroma. Matt was pretty sure one of the blossoms had winked at him. There were endless rows of perfectly spaced pedestals, each with an open book floating a few inches above it. Finished with padded gleaming white covers and pages edged with generous sparkles of gold, the books cautioned all things official. Tiny hummingbird-like creatures holding feathery instruments were writing furiously on the open pages, some faster than others and some resting and chatting.
A tiny man, a third of Matt’s height though appearing a hundred times his age, rushed into the room, scurrying and waving his short little arms. “Enough, enough! We have work to do.” The little man wanted Matthew out of the room and lickety-split.
It was a most profound dream. Somebody’s trying to tell me something. But what?
Any other day, Matt would have jumped out of his upper bunk without thought and hardly awake. The thud of his fall purposely announced to the household that he was up, so clear the bathroom. This morning, though, he lay staring at his ceiling light. All what matters? He tried to catch more pieces of the mystery, but it quickly faded away.
The crescent moonlight fixture on his ceiling glowed softly. Mom must have switched on the light. I wonder when she did that? It was the best gift he had received from both his mom and dad together. He was all of five years at the time and infatuated with the moon. Every gift he got had some type of lunar theme associated with it. Now he imagined his dad living somewhere up there, far beyond the moon, watching over him with some type of super-powered telescope. Maybe you were the man standing behind me in my dream, Dad. Matt wished it were so, but somehow, he knew it wasn’t.
“Marnie!” he hollered loudly, getting no reply. She hates it when I call her that. “I know you’re awake!”
He couldn’t remember falling asleep with his track shorts and sweaty T-shirt still on. Then it all came flooding back. He had been so embarrassed that he skipped supper and went straight to bed.
Kicking off his blanket, he pulled off his crunchy Havensight knee-high sports socks and tossed them away as he maneuvered his legs over the bunk and wiggled his smelly toes. Before taking the leap, he thought again about his dream. He saw a secret room, he felt someone touch him, he smelled something delicious, he heard a distinguished voice. Huh, so weird.
Matt scratched his scalp as more of yesterday afternoon’s events trickled into mind. Doh. The Tri-Town regionals. I blew it. Of course you couldn’t win, you idiot. Scolding himself wasn’t enough. He punished himself by yanking his hair above his ears, wishing he could pluck two fistfuls of it right off his head.
Yesterday had been the worst day in Matthew’s history of school life, and he had no one to blame but himself. His shoulders slumped just thinking about what everyone would whisper today behind his back. Havensight Collegiate had taken the running long jump trophy in the Tri-Towns for juniors since 1966, seven years in a row. But not this year. This year they had to settle for ninth place. Dead last. Thanks to me. Me and my big mouth. Why’d I have to go ’round telling everyone it was a bagger?
He didn’t have to explain what a bagger was, they all knew it well—a hands-down-for-sure thing. Matt had been jumping a consistent five feet, seven inches. He boasted his actual distance was an even six, and that would have been easy enough to take first. Secretly, he figured with practice, he’d easily gain enough extra inches in no time. Once the bets around the school got out of hand, there was no turning back. Curse you, Josh, for taking wagers. Some friend. But Matt blamed Emerson in particular, always flaunting his affluence. As if styling and having plans after school every day didn’t present enough ways to show off, he was the one to drive up the bet value and blabber all over, like the entire universe needed to know.
Havensight was a community that, oddly enough, had attracted a half dozen successful entrepreneurs to the area. The hilly views of the winding Moon River north of town made perfect settings for large private estates. Close proximity to the regional airport meant fast and easy getaways. This kind of attraction led to another growing trend that the residents didn’t like, particularly Matthew. Their kids—rich kids—attending the same school as him. They didn’t belong.
Havensight was the only place he knew, although his mom told him they had moved to the sleepy town when he was three. From where, he had no idea. All Matt could remember was his dad watching, tracking, and measuring stars. Big-city scientists hired him to collect specific information on specific dates. With hardly much by way of artificial lighting, their location was perfect to observe groupings of stars given the nightfall gave way to idyllic deep darkness. The more observable the constellations were, the more jobs he’d get, and the more jobs he got, the happier Matt’s mom was. What Matt liked best was when he and his parents shared a blanket in the deep dark of the night, so his dad could point out which stars he was studying from their yard. He spewed off measurement stuff and got excited about shifts and angles and historical movements. His work, he used to say, provided evidence about the truths of our existence.
His dad was proud of his work; the people of Havensight not so much. They thought him suspiciously strange and unconventional. That filtered into Matthew’s school life, making it tough to fit in. Havensight was a town with families that made income from tourism and small businesses. They gossiped Monday through Friday, went to market on Saturday, and to church on Sunday. A family that paid their bills on account of the stars? Frank, Marnie, and Matthew Mackenzie may as well have been aliens themselves.
After some years, Matthew finally shed the forever hurtful “astro boy” label, thanks to nothing but the passing of simple time and the introduction of the “love child” label. He blamed his mom for that one, marrying and divorcing Arnie Decker inside a year and producing a baby sister, Karo, in record time. Why did it have to be him of all people? The high school’s vice principal. Everybody in Havensight talked about it.
Matthew checked out the floor. He wasn’t ready to jump off his bed, not just yet. Not only will I be the biggest dunderhead at school, I owe serious dough. Josh and Nick can’t pay up either.
He reflected on the celebration he and his two buddies had shared just yesterday morning over the greatly anticipated “bagger windfall.”
I let this happen.
He had been so successful at convincing Josh and Nick that he could jump the distance needed to keep the trophy that he came to believe it himself. After he won, he would bike to Hurley’s Sports and buy that catcher’s mitt he’d been eying. Nick yoo-hooed the plan and said he’d come along and get one too. The pair of them would have something exciting to do after school, figuring out who could throw the farthest. As for Josh, he tossed his options around secretly in his head, but whatever it was he wanted to get with the betting money, he was excited too. Now their much-chatted-about spending spree was squashed. And never mind that, fessing up to his bragging would be unthinkable. They’ll figure it out. I know it, they’ll figure out I lied. What am I gonna say? Bugger off, I had a bad day? Bogus, they’re not gonna buy that. How will I pay up? Borrow money from Mom? Yeah, right. I have no way to pay her back.
Debating the grim consequences, he leaned closer to the edge. He slipped off and crashed with a heavy thud.
“Bogus,” he yelped.
Matt was on the floor, feeling foolish and even more depressed, pampering the elbow that broke his fall. “I’m a doofus!” he shouted. He heard his mother’s footsteps rushing up the stairs, obviously in response to the noise of his fall. “I’m okay,” he shouted. “Just leave me alone.”
He scratched his head and patted down the two patches of yanked hair. I need to figure this out for myself. He pondered while rubbing his gut. A burning sensation churned in the pit of his stomach. Should I scoff it? Yeah. Yeah, that’s my ticket out. At that, Matt’s no-nonsense attitude took over. Regrettably, he decided on the only way out of this mess. In no way would he fess up to his deceitful brag. And as for the betting money, he would snatch the funds from his mother’s wallet.
“My life totally sucks!” he yelped, as if the universe needed to know that too.
You Don’t Get Me
BREAKFAST STARTED OUT with nothing but quibbles in the Decker-Mackenzie household that morning. Marnie was not impressed with Matt’s grumpiness. “There’s no reason to taunt Karo. Leave her alone, you know better.”
“She bugs me with her baby talk and her stupid blanket. What four-year-old kid walks around with a blanket, Marnie? And you don’t say anything.” Matt twisted a full stretch of his torso and groaned miserably. His back was still aching from the fall off his bunk. You let her do whatever she wants. Makes me wanna puke.
“I’m tired of this, Matt. Seriously. I hardly said anything about your… your… foolish choice last week.” She had said it so casually with her back toward both of her children while fetching milk from the fridge. She was obviously conscious of Karo’s big ears.
He knew his mom was referring to the doobie incident. Matt had sworn it was his first time. He wanted to test it out, so to speak. That’s all. Why do you have to bring that up again?
“I said nothing either, when you gave your three-piece graduation suit away two months ago,” she added. “Yeah, the one I could barely afford.” She slammed the milk jug on the table, startling Karo.
Gaugh, she’s on another rant. I wanted some money. How else do you expect me to get it?
Still annoyed, she continued to release, this time staring at him with her hands firmly planted on each hip and her upper body bent forward as if he might not figure she was talking to him. “And as far as yesterday goes, have I said a word about your boasting? Yeah, don’t think I didn’t hear you. You deserved to place last yesterday.” The scolding words pierced Matt like a dagger. That does it.
Matt tossed his spoon into his still-empty cereal bowl, appeased with the clatter. He felt hurt and betrayed. Breathing in deeply to subdue the choke in his throat, he decided anger would be better than tears. He narrowed his eyes and gave a stealthy stare. This time he held his lips tight, careful to not show his clenched teeth.
After all, she was his mom.
“Even you? I didn’t expect you to be like that!” He slammed his chair onto the floor and then stomped out of the kitchen. His dramatic exit enabled the tears he couldn’t control to go unnoticed. The monstrous, shadowy pain he knew so well but couldn’t describe clothed him again. He braced himself in the front hallway, hidden with his back pushed hard against the wall, fists clenched.
He needed to get a grip, pull it together.
“And it’s Mom to you!” she called out, finishing the argument.
Karo sat still while digesting the scene. “Mom,” she said, taking advantage of the moment, “I promise not to do that to you.” “Do what?”
“Be like that,” she twitched her nose.
“Like what?” For four years of age, Karo sure knew how to be sly on the competitive front with her one and only sibling. Marnie wondered more than just a few times where that skill came from.
“You know. Say things and do things to get you mad and stuff.” “Thank you, honey.”
Matt’s chin quivered and his chest heaved. It took all his strength to keep from falling forward into a collapse. Karo’s the stupid love child. And Mom, you’ll always be Marnie to me. You don’t get me.
The drive to school was tense and quiet. Matt stared at the window, studying his reflection and debating silently whether he liked what he saw. Karo sat in the back, peeking into her satchel, ensuring her blanket was tucked inside.
“Have a nice day, sweetie,” Marnie said as she kissed Karo on the cheek in return for a big “I love you” hug before she ran through the carefully guarded gate of Havensight’s Little Ones Day Care.
“Mom.” Matt was seeking a truce. He’d already packaged up the morning’s hurt.
She glanced at him before putting the car back into drive.
“Can I drive the rest of the way?” he teased, more so to lift his own mood.
With a roll of her eyes, Marnie pulled out onto the road. “Right. Of course you can, dear,” she said sarcastically.
A good thing going for Matt was his mom’s roller-coaster moods. When she got all huffy, detonating and being all accusing like, she could cool down even faster. Matt reveled in this.
He grinned. It was his best way to poke at his mom’s demeanor.
Matt wished he was sixteen already, thinking that might solve his issues, being more independent and older. Then he could quit school, drive a car, and even leave town.
The tension dissipated. His joking and grinning successfully lightened the mood, only to be replaced with empathy. Hers for him.
He could play that.
“I feel bad, Mom,” he said as they drove into the student dropoff lot. “Today isn’t going to be fun. I don’t want to go into that building today.”
“Face yourself first and then face your friends. If they are genuine friends, there will be no problems. You can sort this out.” She gave him a warm, encouraging smile, which told him that no matter what he did, or how he behaved, she would always be there to pick him up. Even if she was rock’n mad.
He examined her face, now soft and sincere. Could their relationship ever return to a loving and blind trust? If you only knew. Matt had pushed the envelope too far on this one. Emerson has reason now to have me pounded out. He’s been waiting for this. He thanked his mom. Usually he didn’t allow kisses or hugs in the student lot, but this time Matt reached over and hugged his mom.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and he meant it.
He had caught her off guard.
“Honey, it’s okay. You lost the jump. There are more important things in life. Look, you can get through this, and you will.”
He wondered if he really would get through this. His instincts were jarring his soul, warning him otherwise. Matt powerlessly witnessed his hands twisting around each other on his lap, yanking his fingers from his palms. He imprisoned his emotions, particularly the guilt to steal from her. He wished she knew about everything— the taunting at school, the debt because of the previous day’s disaster, and most of all, the deep monstrous sea he’d been drowning in since the day his dad died. But she didn’t. Matt drew a deep breath and then got out and headed toward the school’s side door, the closest to the locker he shared with a guy from homeroom.
Phil, a tall fellow with considerable extra poundage, was mostly quiet. He not only looked as though he preferred to stay out of the limelight, he usually went out of his way to avoid it.
“You gotta get out of here, man,” Phil hissed with quiet but determined urgency as Matt approached his locker. Phil’s eyes spelled out fear. If that wasn’t signal enough, his tight neck muscles arched toward someone down the hall got the message across. Phil shut the locker door as if to scream “Now!” and then hurried down the hallway in the opposite direction. Matt watched Phil disappear while Nick and Josh came toward him with the same sense of urgency.
“Emerson recruited the thugs. No guff. He’s callin’ you phony and lookin’ for a beat-down,” Nick warned.
“You’re finished, man. They’re telling everyone we’re all finished, Matt!” Josh shoved Matt’s shoulder into the lockers. Nick put his arm between the two to stop the friends from getting physical.
“Freak me out, man. I didn’t do anything. I jumped, and I didn’t make it. Big deal.” Matt turned his back on his buddies as if that would make the issue disappear. “He’s just a doofus, anyway.”
Opening his locker, he reached for his books on the second shelf and started sorting through them as if to concentrate on his morning schedule to see what classes were on tap. Josh forced Matt around and stepped close, so they were toe to toe, Matt’s back against the locker.
Nick sighed. No sense intervening right now.
Ensuring the hallway was devoid of teachers, Josh scanned each direction before furthering his message.
“Chill, I’ll come up with the dough,” Matt said, holding tight to his position. “For all of us.”
“I didn’t make it. Big freakin’ deal.”
Matt could smell the cigarette stink from Josh’s index finger in his face, which was totally gross.
“You couldn’t do six, and you knew it. Emerson’s right. You freakin’ lied.”
As Josh’s face got even closer, Matt could smell the peanut butter Josh must have had for breakfast.
“You lied to us.”
“Oh, go choke on your toast,” Matt taunted.
“Cut it, man.” Nick was always the peacekeeper, the referee, the, “Hey, let’s just move on” kind of guy. Without Nick, Josh and Matt would have parted ways long ago. “Seriously, Matt. You gotta scram. Like, nowsville.” Then he pressed a directive to Josh. “Chill. We’ll figure it out.”
Josh balked at first. He had a hot temper, but he cooled just as quickly. “Yeah, blow it, get outta here. Make like you’re sick or somethin’. Stay home and chill till things cool down. We’ll cover for you, but you’re still a cheese weasel.”
Stay home till things cool down? How long will that take? Matt didn’t have to pretend he felt sick. He could produce vomit on cue—in fact, that might provide some relief from the burning pit feeling in his gut. A call to his mom from a teacher claiming he had the flu and should stay home for a few days could save the day, at least buy him some time.
The five-minute warning bell rang. Students scrambled to get to class. Josh and Nick left Matt at his locker, mouthing “scram” and pointing to the side door.
Matt hadn’t wanted to bet any more than a five-spot, but Emerson spat a dare. A Benjamin. Nothing more, nothing less. Doofus Josh agreed, not even knowing what a Benjamin was. Mom’s not even gonna have that kind of dough in her purse. First things first. I better get outta here before I’m face-to-face with Emerson and his hideous gang. Emerson—it’s not even a tough name. He’s the phony. But his hired thugs sure aren’t. They’re all truck.
Matt decided he would go out the side door and hoped no one would see his urgent stroll through the parking lot. He would tell Marnie he wasn’t feeling well. Well, bogus, she’ll know. She won’t believe me. She’ll think I don’t want to face up. But facing up to Emerson will be worse than dealing with Mom.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I really am,” Matt whispered into the universe.
Across the parking lot, Matt already felt some freedom from his dilemma. It was a half-decent strategy, definitely worth a try. Stay at home, lay low for a few days. This might just all blow over, up and away like.
Dad. He searched the sky. Only a few clouds, no need to find an opening. Can you make all this go away? I don’t want to steal from Mom. I don’t want to be like that. Help me out, would ya? Matt imagined his dad giving an approving wink.
Feeling better than he had all morning, he sped up into a run and headed toward the rotten, collapsed picnic table at the end of the schoolyard. His pace got faster and faster, propelled by a sense of renewal. Yes, this will go away, and I’ll be a better person. He felt a sudden urge of confidence and freedom. I’m gonna clear you clean, you rickety old wooden jalopy! Matt built up his run to top speed. Two more steps… Matt loved speed, and there was no better or more exhilarating way to do something with speed than to push off into the air with the force of his own body. He threw himself upward. Yes!
Thankfully, he had angled his body properly, just like he had trained. He made good height. And when he felt good height, he knew distance would happen.
Matt kept his feet in motion, running wildly through the air. He savored that brief feeling of an eagle in flight. He swept his arms forward and bent his knees, readying his body for the impact. Made it!
“Yes!” he cried. The jump felt great and solidified a boost of confidence.
But the fresh, invigorating rush ended abruptly. Before he sprang back to a solid stand, Matt collapsed because of a sharp, heavy-handed chopping pain in the middle of his back. His breath escaped him. What gives? Was I just kicked?
A bolt of pain jolted from his middle back up to his left jawbone.
Freakin’ what? Another kick?
Matt was flat on the ground, thankful for the wood chips that cushioned his right cheek. Matt spat some dirt and chips from his mouth and focused on his breathing. Albeit blurred, he could make out a pair of steel-toed cowboy boots with two-inch heels standing inches from his face. He buried his face in the wood chips like a scared chipmunk, protecting it from what might come next, a straight-on face kick.
“Bugger off,” he muttered. His heart was racing. He knew exactly what was happening. Emerson, what a chicken. He has to pay a bunch of thugs to kick me around.
Someone wrenched Matt’s arms behind his back, so his wrists met and were tightly held with a pair of rough hands. Another body sat on his back. That heeled boot pressed Matt’s head deeper into the dirt. Freak me out, there’s gotta be at least three of ’em. The boot pressed harder. Panicked, Matt couldn’t breathe. He struggled to turn his face sideways to get some air. He gagged and choked, struggling to loosen and spit out a mouthful of wood chips. His head ached, and the ground spun out of control. Am I still down?
Matt could barely make out the few words being thrown at him in rhythm with the pressure of the boot. “Nice jump, John Boy. Yer last.” The heavy weight on his back lightened up as his wrists were pulled, yanking his shoulder blades up.
Uumph. Matt felt the weight of a body jumping hard on his back. His ribs felt like they split, pushing vomit up his throat. His head forcefully pushed and held again, face down.
“What’s the matter, sandbagger?” another voice taunted. “Can’t jump now?”
Matt could no longer hear their words, nor did he care what they said. He panicked and wriggled in his struggle to breathe. Help, please. His head was hot, and his ears felt like a tire that was about to blow. His screams were silent. He kicked wildly, producing some relief, but only for a fraction of a second. Two thugs picked Matt up, each holding him by his armpits. Matt gasped an inhale and for a moment eyeballed upward. Dad, help me. The guy with the boots kicked Matthew in the gut. Then again. And then once more. The other two released his arms. Matthew collapsed, receiving one last kick to the back of his head.
Matt’s surroundings were spinning at an accelerating rate, his head throbbing. The light of day in his eyes dimmed till everything was black except for tiny lights that swirled like delicate sparkling stars. Then even they disappeared. His last thought was of an open gold-rimmed book with wings in a long, white room that had to be out of this world. Seriously? What did that mean?
Matt’s body lay crooked, limp, and lifeless as the three thugs ran off toward the school building to sit in class as if nothing had happened, as if they had done no harm.
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