Part 1: The Beginning

Chapter 1: Chris and Ben

I slowly awoke from my blissful, comatose-like state to the harsh reality of my screeching alarm clock. Prying my sleepy eyes open, I sluggishly deciphered the clock's glowing red numbers.

"… 7… 5… 8…" I mumbled. Then it hit me. "Oh, shoot!" I shot out of my comfy entanglement of blankets, catching the cord of my alarm clock and taking it out in the process. The clock was hardly designed to survive an impact into a hardwood floor at such a high rate of speed, so, needless to say, shattered once it impacted, sending plastic shrapnel in all directions. As I jumped into the first clothes I could find, I didn't see the rather sharp piece of plastic laying on the floor until it had imbedded itself into my foot. Gritting my teeth, I yanked it out and shoved my sockless feet into my sneakers. Despite my newly developed limp, I made it down stairs in record time.

I muttered an obscure greeting to my dad as I stuffed various school related items into my backpack and flung it over my shoulder.

"Bye, Chris," he yawned from the dining room table. He raised his third cup of coffee to his lips and took a drink, the newspaper spread out in front of him. Slamming the door behind me, I sprinted to the bus stop on the corner.

I made it just as the bus pulled away. "Hey! I'm here!" I screamed, "Stop!" Being the cruel (and deaf) person the bus driver was, he sped away without another thought. I stood there, watching the bus drive into the sunset (well, sunrise, actually) without me, drawing invisible stares from imaginary onlookers.

"This can't be happening," I groaned, combing my fingers through my unruly hair. After glancing both ways for cars before crossing the street (Because nothing can ruin your day more than getting hit by a car, which could've happened with my luck.), I began running to school.

Because my hometown of Jeyasia, Illinois (smack dab in the middle of nowhere) is rather small, I managed to make it to my first hour class only ten minutes late (As opposed to never making it at all if that car had hit me, not that I'm suicidal or anything. No, really.) Coach would've been proud (Not because I didn't get hit by that car, but that I ran pretty dang fast getting to school. I'll ease up on the inserts.)

"Late again I see, Mr. Martin," said Mr. Kimbro, as I not so inconspicuously dove to my desk in the corner, drawing real stares this time. Mr. Kimbro, my history teacher, is the classic example of a short, middle-aged man who holds grudges against unsuspecting slackers, like me.

"Sorry," I apologized half-heartedly, "Missed the bus." Mr. Kimbro glared at me and finished taking role.

"That's the fifth time in a row, Chris!" whispered Benjamin Wilson worriedly from across the aisle. He was a tall, lanky boy with tousled, pale blonde hair.

"Shut up, Ben," I whispered back. Rummaging through my backpack, I hastily pulled out my history book.

Mr. Kimbro grinned wickedly and said, "Take out that red pen, guys. We're checking our homework assignment!" He slowly paced the floor, rhythmically slapping the answer booklet against his palm. I searched my book for the assignment but came up with a poorly drawn picture of some pop singer instead.

"Keya…" I growled, crumpling the paper in my hand and stuffing it into my backpack. "Hey, Ben! I called out in a whisper, "Can you help me out with this assignment?"

"Sure," he answered with his usual optimistic smile. He handed me a sheet of paper. I scanned it over.

"It's in Braille, Ben," I hissed. He took his Braille copy of the assignment back, still smiling.

Mr. Kimbro chose that moment to speak to me. "Is there something wrong, Mr. Martin?"

"Um, no, nothing," I answered distractedly, burrowing through my book bag for the paper.

"You do have your assignment, don't you?" he asked. I stopped digging, sat up, and tried to answer with the confidence I most certainly didn't feel.

"Uh, yeah. Yes I do." The class collectively turned their ears towards me to take in the following exchange of words.

"Good," Mr. Kimbro grinned once again, "Then you can tell me the answer to number four."

I swallowed nervously. "Number four?"

"Yes, number four." His smile slipped a notch. He never enjoyed repeating himself.

"It's, uh…" my mind scrambled for an answer, "The War of 1812?"

Mr. Kimbro's grin widened, "Well, I suppose that would've been a little difficult for the Spaniards to pull off in 1624, now wouldn't it?"

"I guess so, Mr. Kimbro." It was my turn to smile. "But they invented the time machine, don't ya know." Poorly suppressed giggles rippled through the classroom (The snappy comeback strikes again!). Mr. Kimbro's smile morphed into a hard line.

"Uh huh, it looks like you'll be facing another zero, Mr. Martin." He turned and wrote a zero in the grade book with the flourish he reserved for his least favorite student, me. I groaned. If there was one thing Mr. Kimbro liked less than a goof-off, it was a smart aleck. Unfortunately for me, I fit both categories. It was going to be a long day.

I didn't fare much better in my other classes (But it was infinitely more enjoyable than one of Mr. Kimbro's classes, which actually wasn't much.) since, as it turns out, I had taken more of my little sister's sketches than homework assignments this morning. I hoped things would look up after lunch, but I had no idea what was coming a little later on.

We chose an empty table in the far corner of the lunchroom (And in case you haven't noticed, I try to stay out of the public eye, with little success. The glare of publicity follows me like a mosquito, I tell you! Well… to some extent at least.). Ben and I sat down to another mystery meat lunch disguised as so called "steak fingers". Ben seemed uncertain actually consuming the hazardous meal.

"The smell reminds me slightly of manure, Chris," Ben commented off-hand, in that optimistic voice of his. I picked up a steak finger and examined it.

"Looks like it, smells like it, must be." I took a bite. Ben chuckled a little and cautiously followed suit. After a brief moment's silence, Ben spoke.

"So," he stopped eating, and continued, "How has your day gone since History class?" I was mixing my steak fingers with my instant mashed potatoes in a futile attempt to improve their taste. My mood darkened.

"Fine, just fine." I was now pounding the steak and potatoes into a gravy-like pulp.

"You don't sound like it's been fine," Ben said. My plastic fork snapped. I put the handle down in the gravy-infused mess and spoke.

"You're right, my day's sucked. I probably got another detention from Mr. Kimbro, and I still have to serve that other detention after school because I wasn't even here to serve it before school, so now I'm going to miss practice, which is going to make Coach angry at me, again, and all my home work was swapped for my sister's doodles, so the rest of the teachers are mad at me. It's a wonder I'm not ineligible for football yet…" I sighed.

"Are you quite done ranting?" Ben asked.

"Yeah," I twirled my fork in the goopy mess that remained of my food. Despite the fact I hadn't eaten breakfast, I had lost my appetite. Ben didn't seem very hungry either.

"You know," I said, rising from my seat, "Someone posted a petition to get these things changed. The steak fingers, I mean. Maybe we should look into it." Ben agreed, appearing relieved that he didn't have to consume the inedible lunch.

After dropping off out trays, we headed down the hall to the "Student Recreational Center," which consisted of only a meager amount of picnic tables and an undersized basketball court. As I was crossing the threshold to the great outdoors, just before I passed the "Student Monitor" (Mr. Kimbro, of all people), I heard Ben shout, "Hey," and the chuckles of the stupid. I hadn't noticed Ben falling behind.

Turning, I witnessed Ben being spun around and tripped by a familiar gang of juniors. They delighted in watching Ben's disoriented attempts to scramble away. It was the star quarterback, Milo Jones, and his pack of minions who tormented Ben. The sight of them sent my blood boiling. Mr. Kimbro looked on, seemingly oblivious.

"Yo, Milo," I shouted, "Leave him alone!" I marched over to them and helped Ben up. Milo crossed his arms, putting on his tough guy face.

"So," Milo taunted, "Want ta make somethin' of it?" I took a step back and met a living wall of gathering spectators, who pushed me into the center of the forming circle. What little bravado I had was beginning to wear thin. I cursed under my breath.

"Fight! Fight! Fight!" they chanted. I scanned the crowd desperately for a way out, but there was none. Milo's minions made a move to come after me, but Milo dissuaded them with the raising of his hand.

"I'll deal with 'em," he said.

"Come on," Ben hissed, "Lets go," but he said it unconvincingly, for even he knew there was no way out. Milo balled his fists and, smiling maliciously, threw a punch that missed me by only fractions of an inch. Milo's minions stood off to one side, cheering him on.

"Get out of the way, Ben!" I shouted over the roar of the crowd. Ben faced me, a worried look on his face, then ran. He found one of the empty lockers lining the hall and shut himself in. I stole a nervous glance in the direction of the locker. Sensing my anxiety, Milo pounded his fist into Ben's locker, causing Ben to emit a small whimper. My lack of courage was now being seared from my consciousness, replaced by the blind fury roaring into my veins. I knew for a fact that Mr. Kimbro was not so deaf as not to hear this.

"Leave Ben alone!" I bellowed, swinging my foot out for a kick. I connected with his right knee, lower than my intended target, but it sent him limping.

Infuriated, he threw a left hook that collided with my jaw and split my lower lip. The momentum sent me spinning, and I landed on one hand and knee, my side to him. I tried to get up, but he kicked me in the stomach, sending me the rest of the way to the floor. As I lay flat (and out of breath), he placed his right foot on my chest as a sign of victory, like an overweight alpha wolf that just took down his prey. Fortunately, the wolf didn't know the bleeding and humiliated prey was still alive. I grabbed his foot, twisting it until he was crying out and stumbling backwards.

"Why you little…" he started but didn't get a chance to finish. In an instant, I was on my feet again, and in the next, I slugged him as hard as I could in the nose. I heard a crack, and he began to scream, falling to his knees as he clutched his broken nose. Crimson liquid poured from beneath his fingers and dripped, bit-by-bit, onto the floor, staining the white linoleum. It was atonement for his past sins, sealed with his own blood. That's about when a bolt of awareness struck Mr. Kimbro, and his ears started working again. Pushing through the ecstatic mob, Mr. Kimbro found me standing over Milo, who was spewing various profanities.

"Christopher. Benjamin. To the office. Now." A mask of cold furry veiled his sadistic delight at seeing me punished. Facing him, I did a poor job of hiding my own anger and disgust. The fist I had punched Milo with was still clenched, and I was ready to use it again.

Just as I was about to let him have it, Ben, in a muffled voice, asked, "Is he gone?" His locker rattled. "Chris? Chris! I can't get out!" His typical composure was edging into panic. I reluctantly turned away from Mr. Kimbro and let Ben out of the locker. The crowd had finally dispersed. We walked towards the office.

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We were sent home early, suspended from school. Milo was shipped, crying, to the hospital. Despite my protests of Ben's innocence, he was suspended also (Because the principal is a complete moron who can't see the obvious if it stood in front of him naked.). The guilt of marring my friend's otherwise perfect record (He hasn't even turned in an assignment late in his whole school career, for crying out loud!) was one of the burdens that were now weighing me down. He tried to reassure me, saying that the teachers liked him and would give him extra credit to make up for the zeros, but his words didn't help much.

Neither of us had a death wish (In other words, we didn't exactly want to face the music at home yet.), so we went downtown instead. I began mentioning entertainment ideas.

"We could go to the old arcade," I offered.

"We have no money," Ben informed me.

"… or bowling…"

"We still have no money."

"Or," I smiled mischievously, "We could peek into the locker rooms at the girl's private school." That school accounted for the entire town's existence. Ben jabbed me twice with his elbow, once because he disapproved and the second time because he wouldn't actually be able to see in himself.

"Okay, okay," I chuckled, holding up my hands, "We won't do that either." We continued our walk down the sidewalk until Ben spoke.

"We could go into the old bookstore," he mentioned as we approached it. The small shop had an unmistakable musty odor that only got worse as we strolled in. It was an asthmatic's nightmare. In fact, the only reason Ben ever came to the store was the Braille books it sold. Apart from the smell and the books, the dingy shop was unremarkable.

The plump shop owner eyed me suspiciously from behind her cluttered desk, pilled high with romance novels. Although I came here near as frequently as Ben did, who was most likely her best customer, it was clear she never had trusted me. I guess I had that book-killer look about me. Taking my gaze from the pudgy woman, I noticed two men with their faces hidden deeply inside their hoodies. One wore a bright yellow one and the other, blue. They seemed to be browsing the over-flowing romance section, but they seemed to be doing more talking amongst themselves than actual book browsing. I began to feel uneasy.

"Come on, let's go," I whispered to Ben, who was flipping through a book.

"Why?" he asked, not taking his attention from the book, "We just got here." Mr. Blue-Hoodie was looking my direction. I couldn't see his face.

"Well, there are some creepy looking guys here," I answered, "and I don't want to stick around to see if they pull out guns and start shooting up the place or something." Why anyone would want to shoot up a small, nearly empty bookstore was beyond me, but it was mainly an excuse to get the heck out of there. I stepped towards the door, but was shoved aside by Mr. Blue-Hoodie.

"Hey! What was…" He was out the door before I could finish. I checked my pocket to see if my wallet was still with me. It was, but something else was there, too. I pulled out a dazzling blue marble, about the size of a walnut. Upon closer examination, I noticed something moving inside, a smoky, liquid-like substance swirling just beneath the surface and a slowly pulsating inner light. I slipped the curious object back into the safety of my jeans, out of sight and looked up just in time to see Mr. Yellow-Hoodie hurry out the door after his buddy. I turned back to Ben, who wore a puzzled expression as he ran his fingers over a book he held.

"What's that?" I asked. He shook his head.

"Well," he said, "It's a book, but it's not in Braille, so I don't know what. Somebody just shoved it into my hands, saying I'd like it."

I grabbed the book from him and read the title aloud, " 'Attack of the Purple Kangaroos'?" We burst out laughing. The shop owner narrowed her eyes at us. Flipping through the pages, I wondered why that guy had given Ben such an unusual (and incredibly stupid looking) book. Something golden flashed at me from between the pages. Opening the book all the way, I saw a hole had been cut out to fit another mysterious marble, except this one was a shimmering gold.

"Another one…" I mumbled.

"Another what?" Ben asked.

"Here." I handed him the book, strangely reluctant to touch the marble. Ben swept the page with his hand until he felt the marble. A peculiar expression, somewhere between curiosity and shock, spread across his face. He quickly shoved the marble into his pocket. Someone began breathing heavily behind us. One quick glance revealed the shopkeeper looming over us (Well, looming as much as a short chubby person could.), livid.

"Destroy my books will you?" she bellowed, snatching the book from Ben's open hands.

"Uh, no," I tried to explain, "This guy gave Ben, here, the book and…" She grabbed us by our shirt collars and dragged us out the door before I could say another word, tossing us onto the sidewalk.

"And don't you little miscreants ever come back!" she screamed, her eyes wild with rage and spittle flying from her flapping maw. We shot from the concrete and dashed away from the store as fast as our teen-age legs could go, not stopping until we reached the park almost halfway across town. Pausing under a large oak (it was quite a warm October day), we caught our breath.

"Great," I grumbled, sliding down the tree trunk and plopping onto the bare dirt around it, "I got us kicked out of school and a bookstore." Ben smiled and sat down next to me.

"At least this day can't get any worse," he said.

"Shut up Mr. Optimistic or we might get a freak hailstorm." I sighed. Children still too young for school played in the distance.

I remembered I had that odd marble, but as I shoved my hand into my pocket to retrieve it; I was greeted by a peculiar tingling sensation in my fingers. It wasn't unpleasant but definitely abnormal. Yanking my hand from my pocket, I examined my fingers. They appeared perfectly fine.

Sensing my lack of chatter, Ben asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, still staring at my fingers. I cautiously reached back into my pocket, but the marble was gone. I checked every pocket on my person, then the dirt around me, but it was nowhere to be seen.

"It's gone, Ben! It's gone!" I got up and circled the tree.

"What's gone?" Ben asked. He also rose from his seat in the dirt. I stopped circling, but I was frantic. I knew that marble was special.

"The marble! The marble's gone! I had one like yours, but now it's gone!" Ben checked his pocket and a bewildered expression filled his face.

"Funny," Ben murmured, "Mine is gone also."

I calmed myself (I mean, there's no reason to get worked up over a little marble, right?) and moaned, "Geez, just when we find something interesting, we go and lose it."

Ben faced me, his face set in a curious look. "Why are you so upset over this marble, Chris?"

"It's just," I started, "it wasn't a normal marble, Ben. It glowed! Not a glow-in-the-dark glow but… it was like it had a little light inside but that was impossible because it was solid glass or something and it might've been worth something…"

"You're ranting again," Ben said, interrupting my little spiel.

"Sorry," I replied, calming myself once again, "I'm just a little worked up over…"

"A marble."

"It wasn't…!" I lowered my voice, "It wasn't a marble. We'll just leave it at that." I must've been pretty loud, because the little kids were staring at us now. My stomach growled.

"Uh, you want to get a bite to eat, Ben?" I asked.

He replied, "Sure." We walked out of the park and away from the young children who had long lost interest in us.

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It wasn't long before we were sitting down to a lat lunch at Mickey-D's (Paid for by your truly through my Arch Card.). I was halfway through my Big Mac when I started to feel dizzy. Just a second ago, I was staring at this pretty girl (definitely a cheerleader) with long, wavy brown hair streaked with blonde highlights. She was dressed in one of the private school's (the Jeyasia Academy for girls') uniforms and was chatting with her friends, when everything was suddenly draped in a blue haze. I could still see the girls across the way, but they were glowing, the one girl especially. It lasted only a moment, and once I blinked, it was gone.

"Whoa…" I whispered.

"Is she pretty?" Ben asked.

"What?" I looked away from the group. "Uh, no, wait… well, yeah, the girl's pretty but that's not… what I meant…"

Ben cocked his head. "What did you mean, then?" I rubbed the back of my neck and explained to him what I had seen.

"So the people were glowing?" Ben said in his philosophical tone, "I wonder if this has something to be with those magic marbles."

"Hey! I'm serious!"

'So am I." An awkward silence ensued.

'I wonder if that girl saw me staring at her,' I thought. My answer came once the girls had gotten up to leave. She and her black friend were whispering to each other, and the girl gave me a sideways glance as she exited.

'So she did see me…' I thought, slightly embarrassed. I checked my watch for the time. School had let out a while ago.

"Uh, It's 3:50. We should be heading," I gulped, "home." That last word didn't conjure thoughts of love and comfort, but rather thoughts of malicious monsters ready to use their mighty jaws to behead me. I was fully aware of the impending doom that awaited us, but with nowhere else to go (My current state of trouble was bad enough. I didn't want to make it worse by showing up at home around midnight or something.), we had no choice but to make that journey home.

Un fortunately, it didn't take us as long as I hoped to get home. I guess time flies when you're having fun (I'm joking. I've never had less fun.). Ben said his last goodbyes when we approached his house and I returned the gesture, adding a parting salute even though he couldn't see it.

I moved on down the sidewalk, Ben's house falling further and further from view and mine looming ahead. The closer I got to the small two-story house I called "Home", the heavier my feet became, until I was certain I had stepped in a puddle of molten lead and sunk up to my knees in the stuff without realizing it. A quick glance to my feet revealed (hardly) that it was all just in my head. Looking up, I saw my dad's car parked in the driveway, which meant he must've gotten off work early. He probably got a call from school informing him of my suspension and that I'm now ineligible for football. I never really liked football; it was all Dads' idea. He just wanted his son to "follow in his foot steps." I'm not even remotely good at it. In fact, I'm one of those kids who just warms the bench for the other players, never actually playing. I guess that's one plus of being suspended.

My feet still felt no lighter, and I surprised myself by actually making it up the back steps. I cautiously opened the door and peered in. Luckily, the kitchen was deserted.

'The dishes need to be washed,' I thought as I slogged through the kitchen. It's funny, the things one thinks about as they face their impending death. About halfway through the kitchen, I realized I had forgotten to close the door, and, when I turned to shut it, I was greeted by Keya's grinning face, which, in turn, caused me to leap about a foot in the air.

"Don't do that!" I hissed.

She giggled, "Whatcha doing, Chris?" She slammed the door shut.

"Shh!" I shushed.

"Chris?" Dad called from the living room. I closed my eyes, frustrated, and sighed.

"Dad's been waiting for you," Keya said with that impish grin of hers. "I'll see you upstairs." Her brown ponytail cut a swath in the air as she turned and skipped up the stairs. I edged into the living room.

Somehow, I was surprised to see my father calmly sitting on the couch, watching T.V. He wasn't towering over me, ready to bite my head off or yelling at me the second I walked in. I guess I was expecting something more dramatic. He flipped the T.V. off and got up. His features seemed to sag, as if he had instantly aged 20 years and was now an old man. This disturbed me, to see the man who always appeared so strong to stand before me looking so tired and weak. He crossed his arms.

"I heard what happened at school today," he said in a low, disappointed voice. I subconsciously tried to cover the band-aid on my split lip with my hand, and my guilt to some extent.

"Sorry…" I said lamely, averting my eyes.

"I expected more from you," he stated. He was talking in clichés, ones he usually used for this kind of situation. He was leading up to something.

'It's coming. It's coming…' I thought. This wasn't the first time this had happened.

I'm disappointed in you… and that you got poor Ben caught up in this." He pursed his lips, as he always did when he was upset. I had heard this before. It shouldn't have affected me the way it had. I shouldn't have got angry, yet I did.

"I said I was sorry, okay!" I said, daring to make eye contact. He closed his eyes and sighed.

"Since you're suspended," he started, reopening his eyes, "you'll be giving this house a thorough cleaning before you go back to school. It hasn't had one since…"

'…Mom died,' I finished his sentence in my mind. We don't ever talk about her anymore. I was only 6 when it happened.

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Mom was driving me home from a kid's birthday party one night, the roads slick from a recent rain. Some guy in the oncoming lane was swerving in and out of his lane in a new red Mustang convertible, drunk. Mom was tired. Neither of them could react fast enough to prevent the almost head-on collision. The hit sent the van spinning, and it wrapped itself around a light pole lining the highway. The Mustang hit our van off center just enough that I didn't get hurt. The car also wrapped itself around the pole on the left side, and I sat in the back seat on the right. I escaped out a broken window and got away before the car exploded. I only glanced back once and saw the bloody corpse that remained of my mother in the driver's seat. That image has haunted me ever since.

I don't remember anything for a while after that. My dad says I was quiet and wouldn't speak to anyone, that is, until Ben moved into the neighborhood. He played with me and talked to me until I actually responded to things again. We were best friends from then on.

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Dad regained his composure and said, "For now, you can stay upstairs until dinner."

"It wasn't my fault," I grumbled. His eyes followed me as I headed towards the door into the hall, then up the stairs. Once in my room, I flopped onto my bed and closed my eyes. This was one of those days I wished I had never bothered getting out of bed for. After a moment's peace, I felt thick, salty breath puff against my face.

"You're in major trouble," Keya said, a grin infusing her voice.

"Can't you read?" I asked, gesturing to the "Keep Out" sign posted on my door, my eyes remaining closed.

"You left the door open," she retorted, "So it doesn't count."

"Get out!" I bellowed, shooting off my bed. I shoved Keya out of my room and slammed the door behind her. On impulse, I tried to throw her stupid drawings out after her but realized I had left my backpack at school. After falling back onto my bed, I sighed, drifting into a fitful sleep.