Monday, May 21, 2018

Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus

"Self-help for teens, cleverly wrapped in a YA urban fantasy novel. Fans of Wonder, Chicken Soup for the Soul, How to Win Friends and Influence People, A Separate Peace, and Bridge to Terabithia will want to read this book."

Can teenage Sorcerer and high school freshman Rob Seablue save his best friend from a magical curse before it's too late? This novel is a clever mix of YA fiction, urban fantasy, and self-help for teens, which one reviewer called "Harry Potter meets The Psychology of Self-Esteem." If you're thinking to yourself that you've never read a novel like this before, you are right. This novel is like no other. Buy a copy today and enjoy a positive, uplifting, exciting, fun experience!

Chapter One: Hater Gator

I open my eyes like a newborn opening them for the first time. There is a crack in the ceiling above me. I try to sit up, but can’t. My hands are tied behind my back and my feet are tied to the leg of a table nearby. I’m slightly dizzy, my head hurts terribly and I can feel blood oozing from a cut in the back of my scalp. Leonard “Hugs” Huggins, my best friend since kindergarten all the way up to our present place as soon-to-be ninth graders at East Norwalk High School in East Norwalk, Connecticut, is sitting in a chair, staring down at me with a curious half-frown on his lips. On the desk behind him is a jar, and inside of the jar is… what is that thing?

“What happened, Hugs?” I ask. “Why am I tied up on the floor of your bedroom? We were making sandwiches, I opened that jar of pickles for you, and that’s the last thing I remember. What’s up?” I recall that there was a strange magic spell on the jar of pickles that held the lid shut and I cast a spell to remove it without bothering to think about why it was there. That may have been a mistake on my part. But who would put an enchanted seal on a jar of pickles?

“That was not a jar of pickles, Rob,” Hugs says. His voice sounds sad and forlorn and tense and also kind of bored, as if he has given up on life but finds his resignation to be healthy and normal.

“Well, then, what is it?” I ask, as memories float up through my mind like bubbles coming up from boiling water. Suddenly I remember that Hugs and I had a fight about a month ago; he had stopped talking to me for a few weeks, and today was the first time that we had hung out in a month. I never learned what he was mad at me for; I never asked and I didn’t care; my forgiveness for my friends is absolute. But I thought that it was just Hugs being Hugs; he gets a little bit scary sometimes, even though I love him dearly.

“And were you the one that hit me in the head and knocked me out?” I ask. “That was not funny, Hugs. That wasn’t funny at all.”

Hugs smiles, although it is a smile completely devoid of joy.

“Yes, I did feel a little bit squeamish about punching you in the head. I didn’t… I didn’t want you to die. But it was the only way. The Eye told me to do it.”

“The what?” I ask. The illusion magic spell that had caused me to see a jar full of pickles fades away, and now I can see the thing that is really in the jar: it’s an eyeball floating in a glass jar filled with embalming fluid. It is an albino’s eye, the iris is red. Even though the eye just floats there and doesn’t move, I get the feeling that the eye is watching me. And not only is it an eye, but I can see its aura—the ability to see auras is one of the magical powers that I have as a Sorcerer—and the disembodied eye’s aura is dark red and black and oozing, like a bleeding deep cut in somebody’s arm, except that underneath the red and black is another color, shimmering, shiny silver and… I can feel an intelligence in the silver, and it is looking at me.

“Hugs, what have you done? And what in the world is in that jar?”

“They call it the Eye of Tantalus,” Hugs says. “I read about it in a book in the secret room in the South Norwalk Public Library, the room where they keep the books for Sorcerers.”

“What room? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lie.

“How patronizing of you to maintain your charade! You were never a good actor, Rob, so confess to being a Sorcerer. I must admit that I was very surprised when I learned that magic is real, but then, somehow, it all made sense. And of course, it behooves the Sorcerers to keep the rest of the world from learning that magic exists—how convenient of you to keep all those powers for yourself and to let the rest of us be weak and vulnerable!”

“Magic isn’t real, Hugs. Everyone knows that. There is no such thing as magic.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Hugs says furiously. “The truth about sorcery has been revealed to me—so you might as well drop the normal American teenager act and admit to being a Sorcerer.”

“Fine,” I say. “You’ve got me, I admit it. I’m a Sorcerer. But I’m still the same person you’ve always known, Hugs. I’m still Rob Seablue, your best friend. And we have a very good reason for hiding the truth: we keep our secret to protect ourselves; we’ve been massacred by witch hunts in the past. We’re in danger from normal humans, not the other way around. But I have a question: who told you that magic is real? Who showed the secret room in the library to you? Who broke the Code of Secrecy?”

“That is… an interesting question, but no longer relevant,” Hugs says. “Suffice it to say that thanks to a conspiracy of fate, I now have in my possession the Eye of Tantalus. Only a Sorcerer with a loving heart could have opened the seal that held it prisoner, so thank you for doing that, Rob. The Eye is a very old, very dangerous magical object, and it can grant to non-magical humans the ability to cast spells, by giving us a power similar to your Sorcerer’s Gift. I can feel it inside of me already, twisting me, changing me. Soon I will no longer feel any pain at all. Soon the Eye will solve all my problems.”

“What problems do you even have?” I ask.

“You have no idea how angry I am!” Hugs screams, so loudly that I flinch as if struck. I can’t take this anymore. Even though I’m only fourteen years old, I am a very talented Sorcerer. It should be a simple matter for me to cast a magic spell to free myself and to destroy that creepy, disgusting eyeball, which is obviously full of evil magic. I can’t move my hands enough to reach the bag of spell ingredients I keep in my pocket; I struggle but the rope presses tight against my skin. All of my best magic spells require spell ingredients, so I try to think of a spell I can cast to break myself free without using my spell ingredients. A spell that turns light into knives occurs to me; I can use it to turn the sunlight coming from the window into a blade and then cut through the ropes that bind me. I whisper the words of an ancient language, move my fingertips in the most subtle, delicate, precise gesture, channel the heat of my life into a focus of intensity, and snap my fingers. The magic pours forth, and the light crystallizes into a golden sword—and then a bolt of liquid darkness spits out from the Eye and makes my spell fizzle out.

Damn, that thing is powerful! Do I remember something, reading about a legendary magical object once, an eye… what did it say? A curse? I can’t remember! That light-into-blades magic spell was the best magic spell that I can cast without using my spell ingredients, and it didn’t work! How in the world am I going to set myself free and defeat that scary Eye if it can cancel out my magic spells? So am I helpless? What should I do now? And what is Hugs going to do to me? Most evil magical objects can feed on the blood of murdered Sorcerers… but Hugs is my best friend, and he couldn’t possibly murder me. I am absolutely sure that Hugs couldn’t kill me. Could he? No! In fact, Hugs saved my life once: two years ago he and I were hiking in the woods and I tripped and fell down a hill. I hit my head when I landed and was knocked unconscious, and while I was falling I also cut my leg open on a rock, and my leg started to bleed. I came very close to bleeding to death, but Hugs took off his shirt and tied it around my leg to stop the bleeding, and then he picked me up and carried me out of the woods and got me to a hospital before it was too late. I don’t think Hugs could hurt me—but then, I didn’t think that he could hit me in the head and tie me up either. And even if Hugs won’t attack me, the evil magic in that disembodied eyeball might still try to kill me.

“Why are you so angry, Hugs?” I ask, both to stall him while I figure out a spell to defuse the Eye, and, far more importantly, because I genuinely want to know.

“It’s… it’s…” Hugs stutters, and then he forces it out: “Dixie.”

Dixie?

Dixie is the nickname of Emily Dickinson Smith, a really cute girl in our class. I asked her out about two months ago, and we’ve been dating ever since. She’s a nice girl, and it’s nice to have a girlfriend. But Hugs has never even met her, so I don’t understand his problem.

“What about Dixie?”

“I wanted her! Me! And you stole her away from me!”

“Is that what this is about?” I ask, shocked. “You’re jealous of me because of my girlfriend? Are you insane? You never even told me that you were interested in Dixie. How was I supposed to know that you liked her? Did you expect me to read your mind?”

“But… but you were my friend!” Hugs says, as if explaining something so obvious that only an idiot would not have known it. “You were supposed to know! You were supposed to let me have her, and she would have gone out with me, and it would have made me happy, blast it! And you took that away from me! Now, with the help of the Eye of Tantalus, I’m going to have my revenge. In the name of all that is unholy, I’m going to take back what was taken away from me! I’m going to rip the butterfly wings off of this world!”

“As far as I know, Hugs, you’ve never even said two words to Dixie,”  I say, as if explaining to a six-year-old the principle that people will get mad at you if you’re mean to them. “I don’t believe that you’ve ever met Dixie. You probably don’t even know her. And yet you’re going to get mad at me and resent me for an opportunity that you never even had?”

“Yes! Yes I am! It’s true that I’ve never met Dixie. But I’ve passed her in the hall and seen her in class, I’ve gazed at her from a distance, and from across the room I’ve looked into her eyes, her mesmerizing hazel eyes, eyes that laugh with joy. I like her, but I can’t have her because you got to her first. It’s your fault that Dixie isn’t my girlfriend; you should have given her to me! You should have let me have her!”

“Hugs, if you want a girl to go out with you, you have to at least be friendly to her and ask her out. You did nothing to help your cause. You have only yourself to blame.”

“Blame myself?” Hugs laughs bitterly, almost self-mockingly. “I would rather blame the world. And blame you too, Rob. I’m no longer satisfied with being human, and having fear, and anxiety, and weakness, and vulnerability, and the capacity to love and to be rejected and to be miserable. I want to be more than human. I want to be invincible. I’ve given up on wanting love as a hopeless cause; now I want power. And the Eye of Tantalus will give all of that to me. It’s a cursed item, you see: I’ve been cursed by it, and once the curse is complete I will no longer be a human being. I will become a Shadow.”

That sounds familiar; I did read about the Eye of Tantalus somewhere before. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember this: the Eye is one of the oldest, deadliest, most dangerous relics in the history of evil magic!

I recall reading something else, what was it… the Eye needs humans to be its agents and servants, it is helpless without them. Maybe if I can get Hugs to calm down and stop being angry then he will turn against the Eye and set me free, and then I’ll be able to cast a magic spell to obliterate that repugnant thing!

“Level with me, Hugs,” I say, on a direct appeal to the better side of the person who is my best friend in the whole world, although sometimes he scares me to shivers. “I’ve always tried to be a good friend to you. I’ve always tried to make you happy. Is this really about Dixie? Are you really going to be mad at me because of a girl? That would be so silly! Talk to me, Hugs. Open up. Cry. Tell me your darkest, worst, most horrific nightmare. Tell me your most sinful fear. Because I’m sure that no matter what, we can fight against it. And we can beat it. Together.” I am shaking with fear, but I somehow manage to sound confident and persuasive.

Hugs stares at me, as if dumbstruck by kindness. Then he grins at me, but it is a cold, damp smile.

“I’m not okay, Rob. I’m sad. I’m alone. And this thing is going to fix all my problems.”

“Is it that you’re depressed, is that it? Well, we can fix that. Let’s go walk to Calf Pasture Beach and have hamburgers and ice cream and maybe go for a swim, after we get rid of that Eye, and then we can forget about this whole thing.”

“My problems aren’t going to be solved so easily, you fool. This isn’t some spur of the moment pain. This is my life, Rob. My life is poop. I have a problem that you can’t help me with. I’m a pathetic loser and nobody likes me. No girl is ever going to go out with me. I’m hopeless. Dixie was just the last straw.”

I look around Hugs’s room, desperate for anything close by that I can use as spell ingredients to cast a combat magic spell. Something small and yellow is poking out from the edge of the top of the table whose leg my feet are bound to. From here on the floor I can’t quite see what it is. I kick my legs as hard as I can; the rope binding my feet holds tight but my kick shakes the table and a yellow pencil rolls off and falls on the floor. That pencil is now within range of my spell casting! Hugs looks puzzled and doesn’t seem to understand what I’m doing. I speak magic words and twirl my fingers in circles, and the pencil jumps up and elongates into a long sharp-tipped wooden spear surrounded by glowing streaks of blue light. The spear hovers in the air for a moment and then shoots towards the Eye’s jar; I am sure that my knight’s lance magic spell will pierce the Eye and banish its evil magic. The pencil-spear rockets across the room and is about to impale the Eye… suddenly there is a shadow of darkness and a wet, slurping, sucking noise… and my spear is incinerated by silver light and crumbles into sawdust.

Damn it, the Eye’s curse defeated my magic spell! I choke and gag from the stink of burnt pencil wood that now fills the room. The Eye is completely unharmed and there is nothing else nearby that I can possibly use as spell ingredients. I sense the Eye gloating over its victory—but this duel is not over yet! Right now I can’t overpower the Eye with the strength of my magic, but maybe I can defeat it by persuading Hugs to untie me so that I can reach my bag of spell ingredients.

“Stop complaining about not getting what you want like a spoiled four-year-old who didn’t get the gift that he wanted for Christmas!” I say, a note of frustrated anger mixing with the fear in my voice. “Get up, go, and take what you want. Grow up, Hugs. Act like a human being!”

“This is how human beings act!” Hugs replies. “What could be more human than weakness, and want, and need, and pain, and unsatisfied desires, and unrequited love? What could be more human than my suffering and my envy and my longing for revenge, my resentment’s revenge? Haven’t you ever wondered why the world is so messed up and miserable, Rob? The answer to that mystery, and also to the question of why I have chosen the Eye over you, is the same. I’ll tell you the answer, the open secret that everyone knows and no one dares to whisper: we all hate our lives, and we hate our lives because you, the successful, have stolen the honey-filled chocolates of joy and satisfaction from me, the pathetic failure!”

Hugs snarls at me like a growling bear, and my heart almost leaps out of my chest with fear. I can feel my heart racing, my nerves are absolutely on edge, and yet I can neither run away nor stand up and fight. I am tied up, bound and helpless. All I can do is sit here and try to reason with someone who has abandoned his reason—but this is Hugs, my best friend, and he is an intelligent rational guy! It must be the Eye of Tantalus that is making his thinking so bizarre and insane! If only I could figure out a spell to free my hands….

Hugs walks over to me, his hands clenched tightly into fists. He leans over me, so that I can see the ice-blue of his eyes and smell the bologna sandwich on his breath.

“It is, of course, purely idle speculation that Dixie might like you less if your nose were broken and you were missing an eye or half an ear—to say nothing of the fact that Dixie won’t be able to date you once you’re dead. The Eye wants me to kill you so that it can drink your blood. I don’t want to hurt you, Rob—at least, I don’t think that I do—but the Eye is telling me to do it, and there is something inside of me that cannot resist the Eye’s temptations. And maybe I… maybe I really do hate you enough to… to kill you….” Hugs notices the fear in my eyes and laughs at me, but then he starts to shake (with remorse?) and he slowly, deliberately walks back to his desk and sits down. He immediately becomes more comfortable and stable once he is back next to the Eye of Tantalus, and he actually reaches out and rests a hand on the Eye’s jar, as if he is leaning against the railing of a dangerous staircase.

“Your problem is a way of looking at the world,” I say. “And if your problem is in your head then you can think it away. You’re afraid that people won’t like you and that the best you can do to make people happy won’t be good enough, so you’re rejecting the world before it can reject you, you’re launching a preemptive strike against your own angst. And I think that you’re better than that and you’re smarter than that. I think that you don’t have to doubt yourself so much. I know that you don’t have to be so sad and angry. I like you, and I only like nice, cool people. I’m your friend, and I’m going to help you fix your life. Now untie me and let me destroy that abominable Eye, and then let’s go get some hot fudge ice cream sundaes. What do you say?”

I’ve made a gamble, betting on a light mood to remind Hugs that I really am his friend; this could go either really well or really badly. I see a look of unimaginable pain in Hugs’s eyes, I see that I’ve reached him… but then Hugs leans his head to one side, as if listening intently to the Eye, and in the next instant the look of agony is replaced by a calm, cold, dead gaze of unwavering malice, a look of a fire of hatred that no love can quench. The Eye whispered something to Hugs in that moment, but I couldn’t hear what it said to him.

“Never! Do you hear me, Rob? I’ll never abandon the Eye of Tantalus! The Eye is my best friend now. You are no longer my best friend; you are my sworn enemy! The end of all life on this Earth, and the reign of the resentment of the unwanted, begins now. Welcome to my era, welcome to the era of… Hater Gator!”

A flicker of green light tinges the room, and he looks up at me with a sly, knowing, venomous look. The corners of his lips arch up in a bitter smile, and I see the color of his aura change: Hugs’s aura is normally a soft pastel green, but now it looks dark-green and reptilian, and it is covered with flecks of silver, like scales. “You can call me Hater Gator from now on; that is the name the Eye has bestowed upon me. And know this, Rob: the war between us has begun. And it won’t end until I win and you… fail.”

“Stop it, Hugs. Don’t do this. The Eye is evil, and it will destroy you. Listen to reason,” I beg, thinking of any spell I know that could defeat the Eye so that I can seal that disgusting thing back in the jar and then have a nice, long, deep conversation with Hugs, possibly ending in a good cathartic cry. This person standing here is not the real Hugs, I’m sure of it; it’s the influence of the Eye that’s doing this to him.

“Maybe I can’t use the Eye to make myself happy, but I’ll give it an honest try,” Hugs says. He pauses, listening to the Eye. “I had a plan for how to use the Eye, but the Eye has plans of its own, and now I am bound to obey. The Eye wants to make some new friends. Yes, this will be interesting, very interesting indeed. Ha ha ha!”

I don’t like that smirk-sounding chuckle, that innuendo that the Eye is going to try to take over the world, and the strands of silver in his aura are growing, there are more of them, almost as though they’re multiplying before my eyes. What have I done? What in the world have I done? Clearly the Eye has taken control of Hugs… although I still don’t understand how right under my nose the person whom I care about most in the world could have totally lost his self-confidence and spiraled down to this. I don’t understand why Hugs is letting the Eye do this to him, letting it play his anger like a flute… but in any case, Hugs isn’t the problem, it’s the Eye of Tantalus that’s the real threat. I’ve got to destroy it before it warps Hugs’s mind, I’ve got to keep the evil magic from asserting itself and trying to take over the world. Hugs is just a pawn, the Eye is the source of the evil, and like most evil magical objects the Eye wants world domination. It must be stopped. And if it comes down to a duel of magic between me and the Eye… I can win. I hope.

There is one other powerful magic spell that I can cast without my spell ingredients, but I hadn’t seriously considered it before because of how dangerous it is. I think about my best spell, the most dangerous spell I know, a glittering fireball of annihilation. The spell is an ancient secret that my mother taught to me for use only in desperate emergencies (on the condition that I never tell my father that I learned it from her). I can cast it without saying magic words or making magical gestures, and the only ingredients it needs are the air around me and the warmth of my skin. It would be an act of desperation; it could blow a hole in the wall and make the whole room catch fire. But I am a talented Sorcerer; I can cast the fireball spell at the Eye to destroy it, and then, once the Eye can’t block my spells anymore, I can grab Hugs and teleport away before the room burns down. It’s risky… but I can’t let the Eye get away, I must save the world. The Eye of Tantalus is an evil, icky thing, and the human race cannot be happy until it is destroyed.

“The Eye senses what you are planning,” Hugs says; the tone of his voice is now monotonous and emotionless. “You won’t be allowed to stop us. The Eye wants me to kill you. But perhaps, in the spirit of all the good times we had, all the video games and the hot dogs at the beach, and that time I threw you into the pool… one last moment of mercy before I plunge the dagger of darkness into your heart….”

Hugs lifts his arm and a silver light flows from the Eye into Hugs’s hand. He twists his fingers in the intricate twirls of a teleportation spell and then he opens his mouth and utters an ancient word. I can’t let him cast that magic spell! No! No!!!

“No, Hugs! Let me help you! Please! Together we can defeat the Eye, and you will be happy!”

“Goodbye, for now, Rob Seablue,” Hugs says. “Don’t be surprised if I am different and less merciful when I see you next. And by the way, my name is Hater Gator now, not Hugs.”

The teleportation spell lifts me up, and I fly at the speed of light and am dumped on the damp early autumn ground of my front yard. The front of my house is so white that it makes my eyes hurt; Hugs’s house, and the Eye of Tantalus, are on the other side of town. Now that I am no longer within range of the Eye’s anti-magic bolts I use a spell to cut the ropes binding me. I stand up, straighten my shirt collar, and stagger through the front door of my house.

“Where have you been?!” my father screams at me as soon as I’m inside the house. He is sitting in his armchair, smoking a pipe; my mother is sitting across from him on the sofa, knitting a scarf. The scarf is bright red; I hope she’s making it for me.

“Out,” I say.

“Were you anywhere near the old Clayscott mansion today?” he asks.

“No, Dad. Why?”

“Rob, are you telling us the truth?” Mom asks, with a tone of motherly concern in her voice.

“Yes, of course. Why? What happened?”

My father is silent; my mother turns towards us.

“Something very dangerous was stolen from—” “Stop!” Dad interrupts Mom.

“What is it?” I ask. “What was stolen?”

“Nothing,” Dad replies.

“Well, it can’t be nothing, Mom just said it was something. What is it?”

“This doesn’t concern you. Just stay away from the Clayscott mansion.”

“Whatever you want, Dad,” I say. The Clayscott mansion is haunted; I would never go near it. I go up to my room and think frantically about what to do about the Eye of Tantalus. What am I supposed to do? I don’t dare to tell my parents about it; if my father knew that I opened that jar he would explode like a volcano. I’m the most talented Sorcerer in my family, I’m one of the most powerful Sorcerers in our whole hidden community in Connecticut, and even I could not defeat the Eye; I was not strong enough. Is the world doomed? Will we all become the Eye’s slaves?

A thought pops into my head and I can’t resist it: I failed him. I did not save him. Despite what he did to me today, Hugs is my favorite person in the whole world. I like him more than anyone else, I would do anything for him. I must help Hugs somehow… but how can I save him? What did the Eye say to him? If I could just figure that out then I would know what to do, I would know what to say to Hugs… but I have no idea what it is about the Eye that has hypnotized him. Hugs is a good person, and I don’t understand why he is allowing the Eye to use him. I felt such hatred in him, such snowy, stormy, hopeless rage, in a person who up until recently had always been kind and warm. Where did his hate come from all of a sudden?

Up until now I’ve always felt competent and capable, as though this world could not throw any horror at me so gloomy that I could not overcome it, as though there could never be a problem so severe that it could not be defeated, as if every darkness will eventually yield to a new sunrise. But the Eye of Tantalus looms before me like a riddle that cannot be answered, like a mystery incapable of being understood—and I don’t believe that such a thing is possible. For the first time in my entire life, I am helpless and ignorant. I’ve faced evil magic before, but this time is different. I’ve never faced a malice like the Eye. Can I possibly handle this problem? Can I somehow figure out Hugs and save him before it’s too late?

Yes I can!

(At least, I hope I can….)

Chapter Two: Ray Firebrand 

It’s early September, it’s the first week of school, and in the rush of excitement of starting at a new school and meeting new people my concern over the unleashing of the Eye of Tantalus fades into the background of my mind, and my foreground of awareness is focused intently upon having fun. I’ve waited my whole life to be a student in high school, and my time has finally come.

On the morning of my first day I eagerly climb onto the school bus, nervously gripping my bright red bookbag which has the emblems of all my favorite heavy metal bands stitched onto it like a flag proclaiming my allegiance. I take a seat at the very front of the bus, as far away from where my brother and sisters are sitting in the back as I can manage. After a brief ride East Norwalk High comes into view, and I feel as though destiny itself is pulling me towards the school. It is a bulky box-like building with a concrete exterior and row upon row of dark, narrow windows; it looks sterile and mechanical and cold but also effective and efficient, like a straight A student trying to do as much homework as possible as quickly as possible without making a major mistake.

The entire school, both exterior walls and inner halls and classrooms, has been painted a uniform disgusting olive-green color, which is possibly why I have heard my older siblings refer to East Norwalk High as “the mucus palace.” There is also a huge metal satellite dish mounted on top of the school building’s roof which watches over the campus like a vigilante superhero. It was put up as part of a science experiment by a twelfth-grade Science class over a decade ago; the dish malfunctioned and the experiment was abandoned (so the legend goes) and no one ever bothered to take the satellite dish down. I get out of the bus with the rest of the kids and join the mob of students swarming up the steps and rushing into the building. Now, entering these halls as a ninth grader, I feel ready to take my rightful place in this world, as if I had just been released from prison after completing a fourteen-year sentence and today was my first day of freedom.

There is the hazing, of course, but I cast simple illusion spells on all the predatory twelfth-graders to make them think that I’m standing a few feet away from where I really am, and they splash buckets of ice-water on the ground thinking that they’re dousing me; it would be too much of a clichĂ© to allow myself to fall victim to something so juvenile. I’m a young adult now, and this is no time to behave childishly. There are people to meet and parties to go to, and also classes to cope with. One of my goals this year is to learn something in a class that will actually be useful for me at some point in my adult life; we’ll see how likely that is. My other goal is to meet everyone in my class. I always enjoy meeting new people and there’s no greater thrill than to make a new friend.

This morning I have English with the infamous East Norwalk High ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Gray. I talked to my older sister Patricia about what to expect, and she turned pale when I told her that I had Mr. Gray.

“He’s tough, mean, and sadistic,” Patricia said. “You’ll either really like him—if you get to be one of his favorites—or else you’ll really hate him. Just watch out. Sometimes he reminds me of a volcano ogre.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah, well, let’s just say that the comparison is insulting to volcano ogres.”

I race into Mr. Gray’s class in the nick of time. I see some of my friends in the class, and also a bunch of people I don’t know. Mr. Gray stands at the front of the class; he has a sharp, angular, slender body and a disproportionately large, round head. He writes “Mr. Gray” on the chalkboard and underlines it three times.

“Good morning, class,” he says in a nasal high-pitched voice. “Let’s get right to the point. This is an English class, and in spite of the fact that most of you are going to end up flipping burgers at fast food restaurants or ringing up sales at cash registers in clothing stores, I still take this subject seriously. And since I care about it, so will you!”

One of the girls in front of me whispers something to the girl sitting next to her. Mr. Gray glares at her with an almost wolf-like snarl, and she abruptly stops talking.

“Right,” Mr. Gray says. “This is an English class, which means that my job is not only to expand your vocabulary, but also to teach you how to think, in the context of studying literature. In this class we are going to learn about irony, which is one of the fundamental pillars that holds up great literature. What is irony? Irony is what happens when a person’s actions result in the opposite of what they intended. But irony’s true depth goes beyond the traditional definition. An irony is a contradiction that mocks those who are ignorant of it or who choose not to see it. Irony is the mockery that life directs towards those of us who are proud and arrogant, the mockery that drags us down and makes us human. Irony is an unexpected twist, the twist that hurts people for precisely the reason that they expected it to help them. And a terrible irony, also known as a tragic irony, is an irony that destroys the people whom it mocks. In this class we will be studying one of the great masters of irony, one of the most famous playwrights and poets of all time, William Shakespeare. In particular we will be reading three classics: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar.”

There are groans throughout the class; nothing could be more boring than reading plays that were already outdated a hundred years ago. But it makes me excited; I kind of like Shakespeare. I’ve never read him, but I did watch an independent black-and-white movie that was an updated version of Othello set in modern-day America. It had some great acting and some really moving scenes. I’ve always fancied myself to be a little bit dramatic; maybe I can snag one of the good parts like Romeo or Julius Caesar if we read portions of the plays in class.

“Let me be clear: I will not tolerate disobedience,” Mr. Gray says in a scary, forceful voice, living up to his reputation. “You will do the reading, you will participate in class discussion, and you will think, even if I have to hold a gun to your head and force you to think. I don’t care if you enjoy the plays, I only care that you learn from them. And by God you’re going to learn something in this class!”

Mr. Gray then launches into a discussion of William Shakespeare’s life and times. I half-listen and fight not to grow bored, and my thoughts turn inevitably toward Unicorn of Innocence, this really cool heavy metal band that I discovered while surfing the internet a few days ago. I downloaded one of their songs that they were giving away for free, and I really want to get the band that me and some of my friends formed last year (we named the band All The Chocolate You Want) to try to perform the song. It has a tricky guitar solo; I hope our lead guitarist Billy the Kid is up to the challenge—

Suddenly I sense a pain, like an itchy burning, off to my side. My friend Pete “the Plum” Katz is wheezing and desperately trying to get Mr. Gray’s attention.

“Yes?” Mr. Gray asks, noticing the commotion.

“Mr. Gray, may I please go get my inhaler from the nurse? I think I’m having an asthma attack.”

“Unless you’re bleeding you’re not going anywhere.”

Pete turns plum-purple in the face and starts to choke; I casually flick my wrist and whisper a word in a language that had died when our Universe had not yet been born, and I cast a minor healing spell on him. The spell hits him in the chest and I hear him inhale a deep breath. This Mr. Gray really is as tough as nails.

After English I have Math. I really like my math teacher Ms. Oates, but that class is going to be a bloodbath. I can barely count to ten without making a mistake—which is surprising, because I’m really into music and most musicians are good at math (which, of course, leads one to the question of how good a musician I really am, but I’m the lead singer in a cool band and I think I’m as bright as the sun). Then I go to lunch at the cafeteria. After getting my helping of a dubious, questionable Sloppy Joe, I see a table in the back of the room where some of my friends are sitting, and I head over there. As I walk through the cafeteria I say “hi” to everyone I pass—most of them are friends of mine, and the rest of them are people I don’t know yet who are going to become friends of mine.

I sit down at the table.

“Hey Kid, hi Plum, hi Diamonds, hey Nick, hello Veronica, how’s it going, Chump?” I say to my friends. I gave most of my friends cool nicknames when I first met them in elementary school, and the names—like the friendships—have lasted for years. My friends are all “normal humans” (which is the term for non-Sorcerers) but it doesn’t matter to me whether they are magical or not. None of them knows that I’m a Sorcerer—which is the way I like it.

“I hate this school,” Shaqueena “Diamonds” Peppers says.

“It’s not going to be as easy to get good grades here as I had thought,” Billy “the Kid” Estisson says.

“Now now, Kid, I’m sure that if you continue to be such a goody-two-shoes teacher’s pet then they’ll keep giving you A’s,” John “Chump” Campbell says.

“Hey, I am not a teacher’s pet! It’s not my fault that I’ve been cursed with a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge!”

“Yes, getting good grades must be a real curse,” Nick Norton says. “It must make you so miserable to get better grades than the rest of us.”

“Come on, come on,” I say. “Let’s not get upset. These new classes are scary, it’s scary being in a new place, but I’m sure we’ll do fine. I have a great deal of confidence that we are all cool, smart people. Am I right? Are we all cool here? Are we all smart?”

“The Plum isn’t smart; he’s soft, round and purple,” Diamonds says.

“Not this again, Diamonds!” the Plum says. “I think we’ve established that every sane and rational person on the planet would be forced to agree that you are completely and totally wrong!”

“I haven’t heard about this,” I say with a tone of concern in my voice.

“Yes, tell Rob… if you dare,” Diamonds says.

“Well,” the Plum begins, “me, Diamonds, and Veronica were listening to the new album by Explode Guard, and I said that Tony Gardinel’s voice sounds like wind swirling around the inside of a canyon, and Diamonds here, well, she says that his voice sounds more like the throaty growl of a lion hunting its prey. And I’m pretty sure she’s wrong. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I am right and she is just the biggest fool in the whole planet.”

“A fool you’re in love with,” Veronica Vasquez says.

“Hey! I do not like Diamonds!”

“Yes you do, you’re clearly just starting a fight with her so that you can make up with her and take one step closer to not asking her out,” Veronica says. “Men are such cowards, aren’t they, Diamonds?”

“Yes….” Diamonds says, but with a surprising softness in her voice.

Whether or not the Plum likes Diamonds is a topic that is hotly debated by me and my friends when the Plum and Diamonds are not around. I don’t want either of them to feel uncomfortable, and in any case, I can clear this argument up very quickly.

“Plum, Diamonds, you’re both close to the mark, but you’re both slightly wrong,” I say. “Tony Gardinel’s voice is like an explosion of dynamite blasting through a mountain made out of solid, rough stone, the charge is set and then with a crack it bursts in a red fireball of power, issuing forth a huge cloud of smoke and sending boulders flying through the air as it rips into the heart of the mountain. And when the mountain is gone there is nothing left but the raw, naked, honest brown earth, the crater from the blast like a scar on this world, and the sky above so starkly blue that it hurts to look at it.”

“Oh, of course, you’re right!” the Plum says.

“That’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that?” Diamonds says.

“You didn’t think of it because you have the brains of a bowl of noodles,” the Plum says. “In fact, you are so foolish that if you took a plate of spaghetti and dressed it in a red skirt and a pink top like yours and put pink ribbons in its hair then the spaghetti would look like you… except that you would look like a bigger fool than the bowl of pasta!”

“If you’re looking at a fool then maybe you’re actually staring into a mirror,” Diamonds retorts.

“My, how mature we all are,” Chump says sarcastically. “And such clever insults. You people make me sick.”

“We like you too, Chump,” Nick says.

There is a boy sitting at a table two tables down from ours, sitting there by himself, and I have no idea who he is, I’ve never seen him before. While I stare at him he looks at me and our eyes meet, and I smile at him. He looks away. I notice that he’s wearing a red jacket branded with the emblem of The Neck-Breaking Kicks, which is a really cool heavy metal band.

“Hey, who is that?” I ask.

“Oh, that’s that new kid,” Veronica says. “I think his name is Ray Firebrand. His family recently moved here from New York, I think.”

“I heard about that guy, Firebrand,” Nick says. “Todd and I were talking about him in the hall. He was almost expelled from his school in New York City for doing practical jokes. He filled their auditorium with bird seed and lured a flock of pigeons into the school; they were cleaning up feathers for weeks. They could never prove that he did it, but they suspected him and he was almost kicked out. He gets into all sorts of trouble, apparently.”

“Really?” the Kid says. “We could use some excitement around here.”

“That’s not all,” Nick continues. “People say that he skateboards on highways, and that he even skateboarded across I-95 after moving to Connecticut. He’s some kind of skateboarding genius; he can go the wrong way down a one-way street and not get hit by cars.”

“Are you serious?” I ask. “Wow, that’s a great way to get killed. That’s not cool, that’s just plain dangerous.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Ray Firebrand. He’s wild.”

I feel bad watching Ray Firebrand sit by himself eating his Sloppy Joe, so I get up and walk over to him. When he looks at me I feel a strange pressure in my forehead, but I don’t pay any attention to it.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Rob Seablue.”

“I’ve heard of you,” Ray says in a surprisingly deep voice. “They say you’re one of the only people in this prison camp who has any taste in music whatsoever.”

“Oh, well, I know some bands… The Neck-Breaking Kicks, for one.”

“My life revolves around The Neck-Breaking Kicks,” Ray says. “I consider Kirk Jellinek to be the living embodiment of everything awesome about life. Are they your favorite band too?”

“No, my favorite band is Explode Guard,” I say.

“Oh,” Ray says, as if disappointed in me. “Well, they’re pretty good too, I guess.”

“Hey, why don’t you come and eat with us over here?” I ask.

“Sure. Why not,” Ray says, as if he doesn’t care one way or the other.

Ray sits down between Nick and the Kid, and I feel the pressure in my head building into a minor headache. I whisper a soft healing spell and the feeling lessens somewhat.

“So,” Ray says, turning to me. “I see that you’re wearing a yellow shirt and yellow pants and your hair is dyed blonde. Let me guess: you’re doing color-core.”

“Yes, I am,” I reply. Color-core is this really cool trend where you dress all in one color, a different color every week, and each week you only listen to songs from albums with that color on the album cover. It was a trend started by my favorite band, Explode Guard, who name their albums after colors and only wear that color when they tour in support of their album. The color-core trend has grown within the New England heavy metal scene, and I’m doing my part to make it the next big thing in East Norwalk.

“Oh, come on, Seablue! Color-core? I expected better from you,” Ray says. “That style is so three hours ago! Didn’t you get the memo? Color-core is finished! And you’re really making me hungry, because you look like a banana. But without the a-peel!”

Everyone at the table (except for me) erupts in laughter.

“Or you could pass for a human-shaped wedge of cheese,” Ray continues, “only you would probably be one of those bad-smelling European cheeses that nobody really wants to eat. I could tell you were cheesy from the moment I met you! I think that would be a good nickname for you: Mr. Cheese!”

“Hey, yeah, that is a good name for you,” Veronica concurs.

Chump leans over and says to me: “I don’t think Ray’s funny at all, Mr. Cheese. I think that you’re a cheese of distinction.”

“Ha ha, yes, he’s a very sophisticated cheese!” Ray agrees.

“Stop calling me Mr. Cheese, you poop-heads!” I say, exasperated.

“Oh, don’t be so sad, Seablue,” Ray says. “Nobody likes a blue cheese!”

At this point everyone starts laughing in big hysterical fits; I can already tell that it’s going to take me weeks to get the gang to stop calling me Mr. Cheese.

The rest of lunch is a disaster; Ray convinces the gang that I should do a trend called “cheese-core” in which I dress up as different kinds of cheese, e.g. Swiss, cheddar, Gouda, etc.; I do not care for Ray Firebrand. After lunch I have History, which is staggeringly boring. After History, on my way to Gym, I pass Billy the Kid in the hall and he stops me; he looks concerned.

“Say, Mr. Cheese,” he begins.

“My name is Rob. Are, oh, bee. Rob,” I say, as if educating a toddler.

“Right, whatever you say, Mr. Cheese,” the Kid continues. “But I have something serious to talk about. I talked to Hugs,” he says.

“What?!” I exclaim. I had been keeping my eyes out for Hugs all day; I hadn’t seen him and I assumed that he wasn’t at school today.

“Yeah,” the Kid continues. “He looked really down. And like something was bothering him. You should talk to him; you always know how to cheer him up.”

“Where did you see him? I haven’t seen him all day,” I say.

“Well, of course you’ve seen him!” the Kid says. “He was in Math this morning. You were there too, I saw you.”

I had not seen Hugs in Math, and I’m sure I would have noticed his aura if he had been there. This is hugely disturbing.

“I’ll keep looking for Hugs, and if I see him I’ll talk to him,” I tell the Kid.

Next I have Gym, which I absolutely hate because I don’t have an athletic bone in my body, and the kids who are good at sports (of which Nick is one) tend to look down on me with a sad pitying half-smile on their lips whenever I’m assigned to their team. But I survive. I use spells to keep the balls from whacking me in the face when we play dodgeball, and I have the feeling that we’re going to be playing a lot of dodgeball. While we’re running around throwing balls at each other for no good reason, I cast a magical sight spell that enables me to look into every room and hallway of the school, to see everything (after all, I might as well do something productive while I’m being chased around like a gazelle fleeing from hungry lions). I study the images that the spell delivers into my mind, looking keenly for the one person that I want to see. I look closely but Hugs isn’t here. The Eye of Tantalus must be giving him magical invisibility somehow.

After school I see the Plum, Diamonds, Chump and Veronica standing on the street across from where the buses wait. I walk over to them.

“Hey guys!” I say. “Are you guys free this Friday? Because there’s a new Rex Damon Band album that’s coming out. How about we go over to Three Witches Records and pick up the album, play a little chess at Creamy Coffee CafĂ©, and then have a listening party? You know, a traditional heavy metal Friday. I’ll invite the whole crew, I’m sure I can get my mom to pick everyone up, and we can rock out to my awesome sound system. What do you say?”

“Um, yeah, well…” the Plum says hesitantly.

“Well, what?” I ask.

“It’s just that Ray asked us to go skateboarding with him down by the beach,” Chump says. “And we all kind of said yes.”

“Oh,” I say. They all know that I have very little ability to balance myself or use hand-eye coordination. But I can always just do what I always do, and enchant a skateboard so that I can’t fall off. Sometimes it can be useful to be a Sorcerer.

“Well then let’s go skateboarding,” I say. “We haven’t been in a while. That could be fun.”

“Well, Mr. Ch—Rob,” Chump continues. “Ray kind of… well, it’s a little bit awkward, but he told us not to invite you. He said he didn’t think you would be into skateboarding, and we agreed, I mean, you’re not into it at all, are you?”

“This is unbelievable!” I say. “Sure, there are plenty of other things I can do on Friday, but for him to specifically tell you that he doesn’t want me there?”

“Rob, he didn’t say it like that,” Diamonds says.

“Oh? How did he say it?”

“Er… it wasn’t that he didn’t like you, it’s just that… he said he thinks you’re cheesy.”

“Cheesy?!”

“Don’t get mad, Rob,” Veronica says.

“I’m not angry, Veronica. I’m just perturbed. I’ll be okay… tomorrow.”

The next morning, after homeroom, I hunt down Ray Firebrand and find him skulking in a corner of the hall, gazing at the people as they walk by from under the brim of his New York Yankees baseball cap.

“Hey, Provolone,” Ray says.

“Enough,” I say. “Look, Ray, I’m going to level with you. I believe that the road to having healthy relationships is paved with communication. Open communication. So I’m going to tell you what’s on my mind, I’m going to share exactly what I think with you. I’m not going to hold back, but you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to me and tell me what you think once I’ve had my say. You clearly have good taste in music and you seem like a really cool person. But I keep getting the sense that you don’t like me. Am I crazy? Or what’s your problem with me? Because it isn’t fair for you to hate me without even telling me what I’m doing that annoys you.”

“I know all about you,” Ray says.

“You know what about me?”

“I know that you’re a Sorcerer,” he says. That I did not expect.

“You know what? I’m a what?”

“Oh, don’t try to deny the truth,” Ray says. “I’m a Sorcerer too.”

Only now do I notice Ray’s aura—or more specifically the fact that I can’t see his aura; a mask spell is hiding it.

“So, you’re a Sorcerer,” I say. I’m unsure what Ray is feeling, but he seems to be bothered by something. There aren’t many Sorcerers in the world, but a lot of us live in East Norwalk, so it isn’t too shocking to learn that Ray is one of us.

“Yes,” he says. “Of course, I’m merely from a little obscure family of Sorcerers, I’m not from an old family like the Seablues. I’ve heard all about you; news of your exploits has traveled as far as New York. People think that you’re some kind of big deal in the Sorcery community, that you’re a prodigy. Well, I’ve met you and I don’t think that you’re a big shot at all. In fact, I think you just better get used to being the second-best Sorcerer in East Norwalk.”

“Insecure in our magic skills, are we?” I say without thinking.

“Insecure?” Ray asks angrily. “You’re the one who should be feeling fear, Seablue. I’m not afraid of you. I’ve seen horrors that an innocent fool like you couldn’t even imagine.”

“You don’t know what I’ve done, or the evil magic I’ve fought, Ray. I dueled Bartholomew Donaldsbane’s ghost. I stopped the evil Sorcerer Pedro Garcia from sinking Florida into the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve stared into the eyes of a gate into the Underworld. And worst of all, I’ve had to listen to my dad scream bloody murder when he’s mad at me. I’ve faced nightmares come true.”

Ray shakes his head, as if impatient with a young child. “You can talk about those things all you want, but you’re just a little dog with a big bark. You clearly seek out trouble, Seablue, but that doesn’t make you brave, it makes you stupid.”

“I seek out trouble?” I say, amazed. “Donaldsbane murdered my cousin, and he nearly killed me and everyone in my entire family. I sought that out? Pedro’s demonic imps hunted me and my family down while we were on vacation in Florida. And I sought that out? I saved the world from Donaldsbane’s ghost, and I saved the entire state of Florida from annihilation by dragon-induced earthquakes. I don’t like to brag, but I’m a do-gooder, I use my magic to help people. Although you don’t seem to appreciate that.”

Ray fixes me with a tight, narrow, intense gaze. I meet his stare and look back into his mahogany brown eyes.

“Ray, are you an evil Sorcerer?” I ask, wondering how I’m going to protect everyone at the school if a magical duel breaks out.

“No… not yet, at least,” he says. “But I don’t let anyone push me around. All those stories about the things you’ve done? That’s all nonsense. I’m not impressed. Hey, can you do this?” Ray asks. He disappears.

“Yes, I can,” I say, only to realize that Ray Firebrand is no longer there.

***

It is Saturday evening and I’m hanging out with my heavy metal friends (but not Ray Firebrand, thankfully) in the basement of my house. I have a big screen TV and a state of the art video game system. I am feverishly battling Chump to see who can kill the most alien zombies before the planet Earth is destroyed. I pump a spray of bullets into a zombie which collapses into a gory red mess of blood. I grin—but then I look over and notice the empty seat at the end of my sofa. That’s the seat where Hugs always sits. My joy is instantly chilled into sadness. I miss Hugs!

“Something bothering you, Rob?” Veronica asks.

“It’s probably the crushing defeat of being beaten by me at zombie hunting,” Chump comments.

“You couldn’t beat me in a million years, Chump,” I reply. I fire a rocket into an approaching horde of zombies; the rocket explodes and body parts fly everywhere. My concentration is now completely filled with saving the world from the alien undead. I am not thinking about… the seat at the end of the sofa.

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