Chapter 1: The Suspension of Disbelief
PLANT CITY, FLORIDA
TEN MONTHS LATER.
A constant stream of cars roll through the turns of a busy four-way intersection on the southern edge of town. A familiar crossroads of boulevards seen before.
Nearing the end of a long afternoon and an hour long drive back from the Gulf Shore, a small white car stops and waits its turn in traffic, right signal on.
A few recognizable faces fill the car. Erika sits up front with her young mother, the driver for the day's beach adventure. Tucked tight into the backseat, all in swimsuits and atop damp towels sit Cory and Patrick, and the previously unseen but spoken of Natalie White, a girl of bleached blonde hair, dark eyeliner, and as described earlier, half of a false leg. It's lying disconnected on the floor beneath her other foot.
The other three haven't gone through many changes in the past ten months. Cory looks the same, but as those his age tend to do, has sprung up another inch or two. All four of them are seventeen at the moment. And all on the edge of sleep or already in it, waiting for the traffic-snarled ride home to end.
Their lane gets the green arrow, and they turn onto Alexander, the parkway leading back to the housing development they all call home.
There's nothing out of the ordinary on the home street. Houses of varying heights, small front yards of varying shades of green and brown. Old cars, new cars, whites and Latinos. A few American flags. Nothing to stand out, nothing to signify a place of importance or change.
Ms. Malus's small white car pulls up in front of the Danby house, and Cory shuffles out, towel and bag under his arm.
"Bye," they all exchange quietly, groggily.
He trods slowly up to the house, switching over to the scruffy grass next to the cracked cement when the hot concrete begins to singe the bottom of his feet.
"Anyone here? Mom?" he calls out in the entryway. The house is silent.
Upstairs, he closes the door to his bedroom and rolls onto his bed, yawning and letting his heavy eyes blink closer and closer to sleep, drifting into the haze of an unintended afternoon nap. The sort where the fast-setting dreams are quick and nonsensical, shuffling from one to the next, brain too tired and lazy to focus on one subject to run with. Basic feelings and sensations, shapes and colors, continuations of sights seen on the drive home and in the room around him.
Cory lies in a blissful stupor for half an hour, recharging as the sun stretches longer and dips lower towards the horizon.
Awake, he pulls on a shirt as he enters the kitchen. His eye catches a tablet on the small table, and he steps over to read the note left out.
He mumbles it out loud. "Cory. Ride with Big K out to his interview at 6:30. Make sure he goes! Mom." He makes a small noise of indifference and walks over to the sliding doors leading into the backyard.
Now-wrongfully-accused older brother, Kevin, early twenties, is sleeping in a lawn chair on the patio, crusty old hat pulled down over his face.
"Kevin," Cory asks, poking his head out the door. "What time's your interview at the farm?"
His brother tilts up his hat. "Hell, I don't know," he grumbles.
"It's at six-thirty, we gotta go."
The stigma of being the screw-up had cost Kevin one job opportunity after another. Pointing out in a resume or interview that you once attempted a bank robbery did wonders for stalling out a career. No high school diploma, criminal record, questionable work ethic – all ingredients for misery.
Cory rides bored in the passenger seat of Kevin's truck, driving south on a road out of town, into the rural countryside of farms, groves, and industrial plants. Kevin is driving angry, squirming around. Someone wearing noise-canceling headphones is riding a bicycle down the middle of the lane in front of them, weaving back and forth from the shoulder so that they can't pass.
"Get…off…the road," he growls. He toots the horn twice. "Hey! Move it!"
Cory looks up at Kevin. "Can't you fit around?"
Kevin lays down on the horn and shrieks out the window. "Get the hell out of the road!"
He blares the horn for a few more seconds before finally gunning the engine and cutting halfway through the median, passing the biker. Cory turns around to look; it was actually Patrick.
His brother's breathing is still very loud. His moods were powder kegs, waiting to be set off by obstacles or annoyances as life became more distant and unraveled.
"Do you want to get a job?" Cory asks him quietly.
Kevin looks over at him, eyebrows pinched together. "I don't…I don't know. You know what I think. I'd be better off winning a damn lottery."
His brother sighs. "No point in…hell, I don't know. Doesn't matter."
Dinner back at the Danby house, all four members of the family sitting around the table for pizza and salad. We've barely been introduced to the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Danby. Since Kevin's incident, their father has become an irritable man who lives for work and little else. Their mother, the southern housemaker and occasional teacher.
"So, what's your plan now?" Mr. Danby grills. "Kevin." His oldest son looks away. "You know what, you too," he says, pointing a fork at Cory. "What are you doing this summer?"
"I'll find stuff," Cory mumbles.
"No. What did you do all of last year, last summer? Cory, you gotta get a head start in life at some point. Don't end up just flailing for breath like someone else."
Cory makes a facial groan and looks down at his plate.
"Man, I tried. I'm trying," Kevin protests.
"What happened at the farm?"
"I don't know! They just…you know…wanted another direction I guess."
His father grimaces. "I find it very hard to believe that you couldn't even get hired for grunt work like that. Did you tank the interview or something? Was it that bad?"
"No, I swear. Guy just…I don't know, he didn't look comfortable with me there. Didn't like me."
"And that's probably your own fault."
If only they knew.
If only they knew.
Cory tells himself the same thing nearly every night as he tries to fall asleep in his dark bedroom, lying in bed with his hands behind his head, eyes closed.
If only they knew what I did, what I'd seen. If only there was some way of proving it, instead of sitting back and watching the slow speed crashes carry on.
Like they never even happened. Like the weeks disappeared, cut away and gone forever.
I remember. I searched up and down the fence for days, looking for anything. There's nothing. No way back. No keys or portals. I even let doubt creep in, wondering if it was all in my head, since there was nothing I could prove. But n., I remember enough. Places and faces and voices.
Besides, I'm not smart enough to create an entire world.
He was right. I've been completely cut off. It's been ten months. Ten ordinary months, and I'm no closer. So what happens next?