Change is Coming

When you’re sixteen, summer is the absolutely worst season of all. Unless you have money. With dollars in your pocket you could do almost anything, go almost anywhere and hang out with your friends.

The problem was that Andrew Nesbitt had no money, few friends and nowhere to go. He had no cell phone, no Internet and no cable TV. That left almost nothing to do except complete the endless chores that his mom assigned: mow the grass, wash the windows, clean your room, take out the trash. Boring.

He tried to find a job, but because of a depressed economy, no one was hiring teens when they could hire adults for kids’ pay. He was even willing to cut his shoulder-length hair if a future employer demanded it, but still no offers.

That meant endless days of reading or playing with his annoying younger sister Angela who he had to babysit for free.

One day as he huddled in his room reading a sci-fi novel that he’d checked out from the library, the doorbell unexpectedly rang.

His mom had strict rules about opening the door, but Angela beat him and so had it wide open, staring at an unusually-dressed woman holding a tall staff in her right hand.

“Who are you?” Andrew asked as he brushed his hair behind his ears.

“Your transport,” the woman said.

“Transport?” Angela asked. “Where are we going?” She leaned against her brother’s side, wrapping her arm around his slim waist.

The stranger stared into Angela’s blue eyes. “To Maru Island near North Carolina.”

Andrew, questioning the sanity of the peculiarly dressed woman, attempted to close the door, but her sandaled foot was firmly planted in the way. “We’ve vacationed many times in the Outer Banks. No Maru. You’re lying,” he said.

The woman grabbed Angela’s arm and pulled her onto the porch. “You’re coming,” the woman said. “You’re needed.” The woman’s body fizzled as if it was disappearing. Before she was completely gone, Andrew grabbed his sister’s free arm and held on.

The three of them were sucked into a vortex of swirling lights and screeching sound. It was difficult to breathe and took all of Andrew’s concentration to bring in enough air to stay alive. He worried about his sister. Were her lungs strong enough to withstand the pressure?

When Andrew’s feet touched solid ground, the swirl of colors and sounds abruptly ceased. His first thought was Angela. He tucked her against his side and asked, “Are you okay?”

She nodded.

What Andrew found odd was that although he was scared, Angela was not. A huge grin lit up her face, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled. “Look, Andrew,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a very strange village.”

They stood on a cobblestone street lined with odd-shaped cottages. No roof was flat, no windows aligned, no sides straight. And no two doors matched.

Some doors were circular with no windows. Some had one window at the top. Some doors were square and others rectangular, but the rectangular ones had the long sides parallel to the ground. Very weird. And all buildings were exactly the same height. No two-story buildings, no steeples, no towers.

“We must hurry,” the woman said.

Andrew stood firm. “Who are you and what you want with us?”

“I am Qutari, the shaman of Maru. Hidden inside one of these houses is a talisman that will stop the decay that is seeping into the heart of the city. Our mages have tried to no avail. They have decided that only non-magical beings can ferret out the talisman because of some kind of blockage. That’s why you’re here.”

“How do you know we’re non-magical?” Andrew asked.

Qutari tapped her nose. “I can sense magic. Both of you have none. But you have smarts. It’s been predestined that you are the ones who will save the city. Now, come. We will search until we find the talisman. Step up to the first door.”

Angela approached a powder-blue rectangular door. Just as she prepared to knock, the door opened. Out wafted wonderful smells of baking. “Chocolate chip cookies,” Angela screeched as she hurried inside.

Indeed, standing behind a speckled blue counter stood a tiny old woman, an apron tightly tied around her waist. She picked up a tray of still steaming cookies. “Have one, my pretties.”

As Andrew reached for his favorite flavor of cookie, Angela stopped him before his fingers came in contact. “No,” she said with wide-opened eyes. “There’s something wrong.”

The old woman cackled, sending shivers down Andrew’s spine.

Qutari leaned close to Angela and whispered, “Is it the cookies?”

Angela nodded, a terrified look on her face. “I sense danger,” she said as she tugged Andrew out of the kitchen and onto the tiny street. “Can you remove the danger? To keep others safe?”

Qutari lifted her staff high over her head and brought it crashing to the ground. A great earthquake shook the house into rubble. “Done.” She led them to the next house, one with a circular door. “Go inside.”

Andrew knocked and then as before, the door swung wide open. Inside a middle-aged man dressed in dark blue overalls sat in a comfy chair, book in his lap, smoking a pipe.

“Welcome,” he said with a sneer. “Have a seat.” He pipe pointed to an empty sofa.

Andrew tightened his grip on his sister’s hand and stood stock still. “Why?” he said. “What do you want with us?”

The man laughed a rather eerie sounding noise. “You want something from me,” he said.

Andrew looked about the room. His eyes locked on a wooden box on a shelf just behind the man’s head. “What’s that?” he asked.

“My treasure box. It belonged to my wife but now it’s mine.”

As Andrew picked up the box, a strange tingling traveled up his arm. He put it back on the shelf. “There’s something wrong with this.”

Angela took it from his hands and opened it. Inside was an old-fashioned skeleton key that was a bit tarnished. She said, “This might be what you’re looking for.”

Qutari said, “Tell me what you think it might do.”

Angela held the key against her forehead. She scrunched her eyes and her breathing slowed. She stood transfixed for what seemed to Andrew like ten minutes.

He ran his hand over his sister’s messy brown hair. “Angela, speak to me.”

In a voice that wasn’t hers, words poured out. The gravelly voice said, “Give the key to Qutari and get off the island as soon as you can.” The key fell to the floor, Angela’s eyes opened and then she reached for her brother’s hand. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

Qutari tucked the key into a leather satchel that fell nearly to her hips. “Well done,” she said once the threesome was outside. “You found the talisman. But there’s a problem.”

Andrew sighed. “What do you need from us now?”

“To find the lock that the key opens.”

“No,” Andrew said. “You only wanted the talisman.”

Qutari shook her head as she ushered the children down the street. “I said that you had to solve a problem. Well, you got the key, but now we need to know what the key opens. Solve that and I will take you home.”

A stiff breeze ruffled Andrew’s short-sleeved shirt. He wrapped his arms around his body for warmth. Angela did the same. “I’m cold,” she said. “I wish I had a sweatshirt.”

Qutari banged her staff against the cobblestone street and two sweatshirts appeared before their feet, one dark blue in Andrew’s size, one bright red in Angela’s. The kids slipped them over their heads and then the trio proceeded down the street.

“We don’t have to go in every house,” Qutari said. “Let’s stand before each one for a few minutes. Close your eyes and allow your senses to speak.”

They stopped in front of a house with a red tile roof that slanted sharply to the right. A red door stood open and a sharp smell of rotting food floated about. “Something’s dead in there,” Andrew said. “We shouldn’t go in there.”

At the next house, one with a slanted green door, Angela nodded. “This might be the one. Look at the lock. It’s old-fashioned, just like the key.”

Qutari hesitated. “No one locks their doors here. But you can check.” She handed the key to Angela, who, after first trying the knob and finding it locked, inserted the key and turned. The door opened.

The sounds of children crying filled the air. Qutari entered first after telling Andrew and Angela to wait outside. Within minutes Qutari came out with at least a dozen kids of all ages trailing behind.

“You did it!” Qutari said. “You found our children! They’ve been missing for weeks.” A grin lit up her craggy face. She banged her staff on the ground and two men appeared wearing tan robes. “Our children have been found thanks to the young people. Please, take the kids home.”

The men led the children down the street. Some of the kids were Andrew’s age. They either clutched a toddler to their chests or tightly held the hand of a crying youngster. Some of the kids followed on their own. All of their faces were smudged with tears and their clothing was dirty. All of them smelled as if they hadn’t washed for a long time. They were thin and walked as if to a slow waltz, barely lifting their feet off the ground.

“I will take you home now,” Qutari said as she grabbed Andrew’s arm. “Hold on tight,” she said as they entered that same swirling tunnel from before.

When they settled on solid ground, Qutari bowed before the kids. “Thank you for your help. Those kids will be given a nice warm bath and some healthy food and then returned to their families.   We will be forever grateful to you.”

Qutari pulled two amulets out of a pocket of her robe. She handed one to Andrew, the other to Angela. “If you ever find yourselves in trouble, put these around your necks, close your eyes and allow my image to come to your minds. I will come.”

Angela wrapped her arms around Qutari and hugged her tightly. “Thanks for allowing me to help,” she said.

Andrew shook Qutari’s hand. “Me too,” he said. “It was fun. I’d go back to that village any day.”

Qutari pounded her staff against the ground and disappeared.

The two kids went inside. Instead of turning on the television, they sat together on the sofa and talked. One thing they agreed on was that their normal boring day and suddenly become one-of-a-kind.

A Trying Situation

Jennifer wanted nothing more than to have one good friend. Someone she could rely on to be there for her. Someone who cared for her like no one else.

The problem was that she was the most unpopular kid in school. Dressed in too big jumpers, hand-me-down white blouses and oxford saddle shoes, she was a pariah. Her long hair was always in pigtails or braids, carefully done up by her mother, but not the popular style among girls her age.

How do you make friends when you are so radically different from everyone else? Jennifer didn’t know.

During recess and lunch, Jennifer followed the popular girls around closely enough that she could hear what they talked about. It was gossip, pure and simple. They made fun of everyone that wasn’t them. They laughed at things the teacher said or did. They chaffed at the teasing of boys, yet encouraged them by their suggestive saunters and shortened shirts.

Jennifer knew that she was often the butt of the snide comments, and this hurt, but yet she still wanted to be part of that group.

At home she practiced the walk. She begged and begged for a haircut until her mom relented and let it be shortened to shoulder length. She brushed her hair every night until it shone. In the morning she brushed it again, making sure there were no tangles, twists or poking out strands.

She convinced her dad to let her get new shoes that weren’t oxfords. It took a lot of work, but boy, did she feel happy when he relented! She saved her weekly allowance until she had enough to buy new shoes. It was May by the time her dad drove her to the store, but it didn’t matter. She finally had shoes like all the other girls wore.

There was nothing she could do about the jumpers and blouses. New ones cost too much, plus the year was almost over and she’d need replacements for eighth grade anyway.

Was it enough? Jennifer hoped so. When she walked on the campus in her new shoes with her new hair, she squared her shoulders and smiled at the first popular girl she saw.

The girl snubbed her. It was subtle, true. The girl, Marissa, looked at Jennifer, smirked, then turned and walked away. Not the greeting Jennifer was hoping for.

Tears came to her eyes, which she hastily wiped away before entering the classroom.

Yes, everyone saw her shorter, more stylish hair. She was sure that they also noticed her more modern shoes. But her clothes were still someone else’s. Her jumper was faded and baggy and her blouse off-white with a pixie collar than no one else wore.

Jennifer skulked to her desk and slid onto her seat, her shoulders drooping.

How to be accepted? She didn’t know.

During recess she went into the bathroom. Fortunately none of the popular girls were there. That quickly changed, however.

Jennifer recognized Susan’s voice first. “Did you see Jennifer’s hair? Not in braids or pigtails.”

“Yeah,” another girl said. “I couldn’t believe that she’d cut off her hair.”

“I loved her long hair,” Susan said. “No she looks more like a boy with that horse-face of hers.”

The other girl snorted. “Come on, she’s not that bad looking. She’s fat, but not too fat.”

“What boy would want to date her? Name one.”

The girls were silent for a moment. “Peter Strauss.”

Chuckles filled the room. “He’s just as fat and ugly,” Susan said. “They’d make a great pair.”

Water gushed from the faucets. Paper towels were ripped from the dispenser, the door opened and shut. Only then did Jennifer emerge. She stood before the mirror and checked out her face. Was she ugly? She didn’t think so. True, her cheeks were a bit puffy. She had a dimple when she smiled. Her eyebrows were thick, but not bushy.

She tossed her hair back and tried to picture a boy with the same cut. No names came to mind until she thought of Peter. His hair was long, shoulder length, like hers. Brown like hers. Straight like hers.

She imagined him standing next to her in front of the mirror. He would be taller, his shoulders broader, his neck thicker, but he was also overweight. He stuttered, while she did not. He spoke in a whisper only when forced to respond by the teacher. Jennifer also spoke in a whisper but she did it because she was easily embarrassed.

“Oh, well,” she said as she shrugged and exited the restroom.

Once outside Jennifer looked for the popular girls. They were clustered together near the teacher lunchroom, their usual place. Jennifer thought about walking over there, but then she spotted Peter leaning against the wall outside their classroom.

“Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. “What about you?”

Jennifer shrugged. “Hey, what’s your favorite TV show?”

“American Idol. I like to imagine that it’s me up there.”

“Do you sing?”

“Yeah, but only at home. And at church. What about you?”

Jennifer smiled. “Same with me. I have a radio in my room. I keep it tuned to 97.3 because I like the music they play.”

“That’s my favorite station. Want to come over sometime and we can listen together?”

Jennifer thought about the ramifications. If she palled around with Peter she didn’t stand a chance of ever being friends with the popular girls. On the other hand, there was a real good possibility that she’d never fit in with them anyway. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“How about tomorrow after school? My mom could pick you up.”

“Let’s say Friday. That’ll give me time to ask my parents and get permission. One thing I know is that they’ll want to talk to your parents before then.”

Peter pulled a crumpled paper out of his pants pocket and a pencil from his shirt pocket. He wrote something and then handed the paper to Jennifer. “That’s my number. Write yours at the bottom and tear it off. I’ll ask my mom to call this afternoon.”

When the bell rang, Jennifer was smiling. She had a friend! Her first real friend. Someone who wanted her to come over to his house and hang out. Granted it wasn’t one of the people she’d dreamt of having for a friend, but Peter was a loner like her. Together they’d make an awesome pair.

And that’s all that mattered.

One Special Day

Sherry watched woefully as her classmate Sabrina handed out bright yellow envelopes to the girls in the class. One by one eyes lit up and smiles creased faces as the envelopes were torn open. Squeals of delight filled the air.

Sherry crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping desperately that this time she would be included. As the pile slowly got smaller, she knew, due to years of experience, that once again she would be left out. It didn’t mean she couldn’t dream, however, that things had changed.

It brought tears to her eyes, watching all those happy faces, yearning to be among them as an equal. But she wasn’t equal Far from it. Her old-fashioned clothes made her stand out amid all the rest. Who wore seersucker skirts and gingham dresses?

No one. That’s who.

And her shoes. They didn’t help either. Her doctor insisted on saddle oxfords to support her weak arches. Sherry hated them.

She wanted Nikes or Keds: black and gray or blue and white, with the distinguishing logo on the side so that she could be like the other kids.

Even her hair distinguished her from the pack. Her classmates all had brown or black or blonde hair. But not her.   Bright red curls surrounded her head, forming a wild halo of color. No one else had red hari except for Billy, a rather odd-looking boy who often trailed after her, calling her names, pushing her from behind and pulling her hair while he cackled like a witch.

He was excluded from the boy groups just as she was from the girls.

Sherry had tried to convince her mom to cut her hair, to keep it close to her had so that she didn’t look like a crazy person, but her mom would have none of it. Her mom’s hair was just as red, just as curly, but she saw it as a source of pride, not embarrassment.

Sherry practically drooled as Sabrina neared her on the playground. Only one card left. Only one invitation to hand out. Only one girl not holding one.

As Sabrina walked up to Sherry, the girl’s face broke into a huge smile. Sherry trembled with excitement. This was it! She was no longer an outcast!

Sabrina’s hand slowly extended toward Sherry. Closer and closer the envelope came.

Was this going to be the time when she got invited?

Granted, when she was little she attended quite a few parties, but that was because of the rule that everyone got invited or no one did.

Those were the good days. Days when she didn’t feel different.

But in elementary school things changed. There were no rules, so kids could pick and choose who to invite. As soon as the teasing began in first grade, no invitations ever came her way.

She was in fourth grade now and should have known better. But she got good grades, never got in trouble, never teased other students, never gossiped. Surely the other kids noticed.

And so she smiled back at Sabrina. As the card got close enough to touch, Sherry extended her hand, ready to receive it with the increasing joy she felt welling inside.

Just as Sherry’s fingers neared the edge of the envelope, Sabrina moved past her. “Mrs. Allen?” Sabrina said. “Would you like to come to my party?”

Sherry turned around and looked at the smile on her teacher’s face.

Once again, she stood out. She was the odd girl. The one no one wanted at their party.

 

Fitting In

Jeremiah had always hated the first day of school, but it was particularly worse when it was at a new school. He should be used to it by now. As a child of a military parent he’d never stayed more than two years at any one place.

But what do students wear in Vallejo? At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, his last home, everyone wore t-shirts with crazy sayings or movie references. Granted, he was in eighth grade then, a time when kids could still be silly, so things might have changed if he’d stayed there for high school. He’ll never know, though.

But he’s got to be prepared. He has to have the right clothes before orientation, which is tomorrow. If he walks on campus wearing out-of-fashion clothes, his entire academic career will be shot.

“Mom? Can you take me shopping?” he asked when he spotted his mom cleaning the bathroom.

She sat up, brushed hair out of her eyes and said, “What do you need?”

“Clothes.”

“You’ve got plenty of clothes. Why do you need more?”

“I don’t know what kids wear here and the only way to find out before the orientation is to go to the mall. Whatever’s in the stores is what kids will be wearing.”

She sighed. “Let me finish here and then I’ll take you.”

Jeremiah went into the kitchen and fixed himself a peanut butter sandwich. He poured himself some water and took an apple from the bowl. He carried it all to the front room where he turned on the television, shuffled through stations, eventually landing on a baseball game.

“Let’s go,” his mom said several minutes later as she picked up her purse and keys. “We’ve got about an hour before I need to begin dinner.”

Within minutes they were at the outlet mall, one of those that sold discounted designer labels. Jeremiah found two awesome shirts and a pair of shoes at the Nike store, two shirts at Under Armour and one at Adidas.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said. “I didn’t want to look like a dork.”

She smiled as she drove toward their military housing. “You’re not a dork.”

“Anyone can be one if they don’t wear the right clothes.”

At home Jeremiah removed the tags from his new clothes and put them in his drawers. Then he got out his bike and rode around his neighborhood looking for kids his age. He was sure there would be some since this was the family housing section. For the longest time he saw no one, but on a third trip around the block he spotted a couple of teenagers standing in front of one of the units.

Jeremiah stopped next to them. “Hi.”

They stared at him like he was crazy.

“I’m new.”

They snickered. “Yeah, we figured that out as soon as we saw the bike.”

Jeremiah looked from side to side and saw no bikes. Okay. So he’s already discovered one rule here: nobody rides bikes. “Do you go to Fairfield High?”

“Yeah.” The blond haired boy said, “I’m Josh. I’m a sophomore.”

The black haired one said he was called Trevor and he was a freshman.

“So am I,” Jeremiah said. “Are you going to orientation tomorrow?”

“Yeah. It’s required,” Trevor said. “Besides, I’m new here, like you.”

“Do you walk to school?” Jeremiah asked.

“Nah. Our moms are friends now, so they’ll take turns driving us.”

Jeremiah wanted to ask for a ride, but that would be dorky. “Well, I’d better go. Maybe I’ll see you.”

When he got home, he told his mom about meeting the boys. She was happy for him. “The best part?” Jeremiah said, “They were both wearing shirts like my new ones. Now I know I won’t stand out.”

The next day Jeremiah was ready early. He was wearing his new shoes and the Adidas shirt. He felt pretty confident that he would fit in.

They arrived about twenty minutes before the orientation began. In the office she filled out some forms and picked up an information packet. Jeremiah was given his class schedule. Using a map they walked around campus, following his schedule, so that he’d know where to go. Jeremiah knew he could have figured this out on his own, so se was glad when his mom left.

He went into the gym where the first session was being held. Trevor waved to him, so he climbed up the bleachers and sat next to him.

“So,” Trevor said, “let’s compare schedules.”

It turned out that they had PE and English together. Considering that there were eight hundred or so freshman, that was pretty good. “Maybe we can study together,” Trevor said. “I struggle in English but I’m awesome in Algebra.”

“Sure,” Jeremiah said. “That will make it a lot more fun.”

“I’ll ask Josh, but maybe you can join our carpool.”

Jeremiah nodded. “That would be great.”

They stayed together for the rest of orientation, even getting into the same small group led by a senior. When there were breaks they talked about their interests. Trevor played baseball while Jeremiah wanted to be on the football team. Jeremiah liked horror movies but read fantasy. Trevor also liked horror movies and played video games.

By the time the morning was over, Jeremiah knew he had a new best friend. He smiled as he climbed in his mom’s car. “Guess what? I’m going to fit in here just fine.”