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Shadow of the King: First 300 Words
[Subject to further revision, here’s the opening for the project I’ve been slogging through.]
Why, Rune wondered, were fallowmen so keen on eating breakfast foods at all hours of the night?
He sat at the far end of the counter. With his back to the wall, he could see everything in the diner. He had chosen not to mask his appearance. People saw him as he was: a slender young man with hair the color of cornsilk neatly combed and pulled back in a ponytail. His ears weren’t pointed, exactly, but the cartilage bent in obtuse angles at their tops.
Two men sat at the counter. Two others, a man and a woman, ate pancakes and gushed about the concert they had just come from. Rune took it all in, sipping his tea and pretending to read yesterday’s newspaper.
Outside, the city was dark. The streets were empty.
Three people were working at the diner: a waitress, a fry cook, and a manager helping both as needed.
It was the waitress that Rune had come for. She looked just like his client had described: average build, mid-twenties, mousy brown hair, not a great beauty but pretty enough by this world’s standards. She wiped down tables, lost in thought.
Rune wondered what was on her mind. Was she wrapped up in her work? Worrying about bills? She had a small child; was she thinking about her? Was she worried she was being watched? Is that why she seemed so jumpy?
Other people’s emotions were a puzzle to Rune. That’s what made this job different…and dangerous. How would she react? And how much did she know? Even fellowmen—or women—could be dangerous if they understood the Covenant, and Jo Ellen Hollart was sure to know something. A bit of iron or a hawthorn switch could turn even a simple job into a disaster.
Sneak Preview: War’s Little Brother (2)
“If you say so,” Taylor said said. She finished her sandwich and put her apple in her purse. Ayoka took up her leather pouch. The two girls weaved up the side of the embankment and off to a wooden structure, a dressing room where athletes prepared for competition.
Ayoka looked around the milling crowd. She leaned in and whispered, “You need to wait behind the dressing room.”
“No problem, I’ll just—“
“No,” Ayoka said. “I mean way on the far side. There’s a tree around back.”
There were trees all over the place.
“Uh, fine,” Taylor said. “I’ll just…wait behind the dressingroom, then.”
It didn’t surprise Taylor that there were plenty of trees
behind the dressing room. Even Topside, this part of the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds was near a wooded marsh.
What did surprise her was when she heard someone call her name. There wasn’t another person in sight.
“Who’s there?” she said.
“Taylor! Up!” the voice said again. This time she realized it wasn’t a human voice. It was more like the squawk of a parrot or—“A crow?” she said out loud as she scanned the nearest tree. A large black bird sat perched in a branch eight or nine feet up. “Raven,” the bird croaked. It fluttered to a lower branch so it could speak to Taylor face to face. “I’m only…borrowing.” The bird, it seemed, could only speak in brief phrases of two or three words at a time. Taylor was astounded it could communicate at all. But what was it talking about?
“Couldn’t come…in person… My parents…still looking.”
“It’s me, Taylor…Shanna.” The raven snapped at a passing bug and swallowed it whole.
Taylor furrowed her brow. “This is some kind of…”
“Trick?” the raven said. “Of course! We say, ‘faring forth.’” “Faring forth,” Taylor repeated.
“I’m still…in Tsuwatelda,” the raven said. “But my consciousness…is here.”
Taylor just stood there, nonplussed.
“You look good…. That color…suits you.” There was something sad in the raven’s croaky voice, and also something familiar.
“You’re really Shanna?”
“It’s me, Neunhirri.”
Taylor looked at the raven wide-eyed. The first time she met Shanna, she had told her that her true name, the name that powered her magic, was Neunhirri. It was a secret only she and her birth mother shared.
“I wanted to come…. Chief Tewa said…too dangerous.”
“So you…uh…fared forth?”
Taylor stood there, mystified.
“How are your parents…dealing with…everything?”
She lowered her head. “Actually, I’m still not sure how to tell them.”
“Taylor!” the raven scolded. “Over a month…. They deserve… to know!”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s just…. It’s a lot to take in, you know?”
“Tell them,” the raven squawked. “They can handle…better than…you think…. They love you.”
There was a long silence as Taylor considered what her mom—or the raven, or whatever—had to say.
“Listen,” the raven said, “I’m losing…my connection…. Have to go.”
“C-can you come again later?”
“Might not find…an animal…that can talk,” the raven said.
“Use your seeing stone!”
“And learn…language of birds…. Very handy.”
“How do I do that?” Taylor asked.
The raven gave a deep, throaty rattle. Shanna was gone. A second later, so was the raven.
When Ayoka re-emerged from the dressing room, she barely looked like herself. She wore a black, fringed skirt and a match- ing halter-top. Around her waist was a wide leather belt with elaborate loops along the edges, top and bottom. Fastened to the front was an animal pelt, turned so the skin part—dyed blood-red—faced outward.
On top of everything else, she was covered in war paint—her face, her stomach, her arms, and her legs all the way down to her bare feet were decked out in black and white stripes and whorls. Taylor realized Ayoka was wearing a feminine version of the same kind of outfits the stickball players had been wear- ing earlier. In fact, she clutched a pair of sticks in her hand that rested easily against her bare shoulder.
“We’ll talk later,” Ayoka said with a wink, and then whispered “Too many ears around here.”
Taylor smiled. She guessed Ayoka knew Shanna had hatched a plan to talk with her, but now she knew it for sure.
“Ready?” Ayoka said. Before Taylor could answer, the nunnehi girl strode forward. A line of competitors was forming several yards away. Most looked like teenagers. Older-looking players kept their distance but nodded encouragement to their younger teammates. Among these younger players, some like Ayoka had well-wishers tagging along, older men for the most part, but a few proud mothers were also in the group as well as several other kids Taylor’s age there to support their friends.
Taylor followed as Ayoka took her place in line. When she reached the front, she held her sticks over a great stone bowl while an older fae poured water over them from a smaller ceramic cup.
As with the previous game, the Ichisi players wore red and the Tsuwatelda black. Both teams huddled around their coach, who gave them a pre-game pep talk that lasted for several min- utes. Then everyone raised their sticks in the middle of the circle and joined in a thunderous war whoop.
At last, Ayoka motioned for Taylor to rejoin her.
Taylor followed the other supporters back to the playing field, but now she was given a seat much closer to the action, almost on the field itself. The other supporters of the younger Tsuwatelda players found their seats around her.
The musicians were still playing and singing, and by now the whole arena was filled with the haunting sounds of the music. A drumbeat rose to a crescendo as the players marched onto the field. It was another half-hour, however, before anybody even tried to settle down and start the game. The music continued to pulse through the arena like a living thing.
Taylor felt herself swaying to the music along with everyone around her. Jets of faery fire streamed across the noonday sky, a confusion of red and green and blue and gold. A thousand spectators seemed to become a single organism, wrapped up in the spectacle.
Only the guy in the “Wild Hunt” tee shirt seemed unfazed. He sat cross-legged on his blanket apparently unmoved. For a split second, he and Taylor made eye contact, but he immediately looked away.
There was something familiar about him; Taylor couldn’t decide what.
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Sneak Preview: War’s Little Brother (1)
She picked up her pace as she wandered west toward the river and soon arrived at an open-air sports arena. A thousand or more fans sat on blankets all around a large, flat depression between two mounds. The place was bigger than a football field, with sixteen-foot tall poles at either end.
Two teams were going at it: running up and down the field, each player with a stick in each hand. The sticks had little mesh cups on one end, and they used them to carry a little ball back and forth. There were about twenty on a side, and Taylor had seen nothing like them.
It was a fast, brutal game. Apparently, you were allowed to tackle the player who had the ball, because players were constantly slamming into each other. They didn’t wear any padding. In fact, they played barefooted, wearing just a loincloth and war paint, with a horsehair tail trailing behind them.
But something else was also going on. Occasionally, some- one would lunge at an opposing player, only to have his target vanish into thin air with a flash of light. Then, he would reappear somewhere else on the field and continue his run toward the goal post. At other times, a runner would stop short, magically blasted off his feet by a member of the other team. Or else he changed course unexpectedly as if he saw an opponent rushing him even though no one was there.
It was like a non-lethal form of combat, with generous doses of magic added in.
She looked up from the game. Ayoka was weaving toward her through the crowd of spectators.
“You made it!” Ayoka smiled. She looked like an ordinary teenage Native American girl, dressed similar to Taylor. No sooner had the two girls hugged each other than the crowd erupted in wild applause.
The girls whipped around to see one team, dressed in red loincloths, lifting one of its members into the air in exultation.
From somewhere near the field, an amplified voice called out something in a language Taylor didn’t understand, followed by, “Ichisi goal by Shupco for one point. Ichisi 13, Tsuwatelda 10.”
“They’ve been on fire for the last half hour,” Ayoka said. “Four unanswered points!”
“Uh…right,” Taylor said. Ayoka and her family were visiting from Tsuwatelda, or what Topsiders called Pilot Knob, North Carolina.
“My parents are saving us seats,” Ayoka said. “This way.”
Taylor followed her friend through the maze of spectators. Ayoka kept one eye on the game, which wasn’t easy when fans jumped up to cheer for their team or complain when they did something wrong.
“You’ve never seen stickball, have you? At least, not the way we nunnehi play it?”
“Not the way anybody plays it.” Taylor winced as two players went down in a flash of crimson light.
“It’s pretty simple,” Ayoka went on, weaving among the spectators and their blankets and coolers. “The goal post has two marks: one halfway up and another one between the mid- dle and the ground. Hit the goal with the ball between the two marks for one point, above the midline for two points, or the very top for three.”
Taylor noted the oblong wooden finials at the top of each goalpost. “And you’re allowed to use magic?” Taylor said.
“You can’t charm the ball or the sticks—yours or another player’s—and there’s no shapeshifting or size-shifting allowed. Other than that, yeah, pretty much anything that won’t cause a permanent injury is fair game. Blinking, blasting, invisibil- ity, glamour diversions…whatever you can think of, as long as you’re at least ten yards from the goal post. See those circles on the field?”
Just then a player in a black loincloth leaped into the air and used one of his sticks to fling the ball toward the nearest goalpost. It slammed into the finial, which spun around like a weather vane in a tornado. Ayoka shrieked and pumped her fist in the air while most of the fans around her shook their heads.
The announcer said something again, then translated: “Tsuwatelda goal by Tsisgwa for three points, and the score is tied at 13.”
“That’s my cousin!” Ayoka beamed.
“I remember,” Taylor said. She had seen Tsisgwa from a distance back in April. Her heart fluttered as the young fae spun and dodged on the field, his bare chest heaving with exertion, a look of fierce concentration on his face. She looked away before she started to blush.
They soon found Ayoka’s parents seated near what Taylor would have called the fifty-yard line.
“You remember my parents, don’t you?”
A nunnehi man and woman smiled at Taylor. She nodded and took her seat on the blankets they had spread out.
“I don’t see a clock,” Taylor said. “How do you know when the game is over?”
“They play to fifteen points, so there’s probably just a few more minutes left. They’ve been at it since sunrise.”
Ayoka nodded, then jumped up to cheer something that happened on the field.
“You’re really into this, huh?”
Ayoka nodded again. “I wish girls could play—I mean, on this level. Everybody plays when they’re kids, of course. But I qualified for the exhibition game—only kids age twenty-five to fifty. That starts this afternoon.”
Taylor had nearly forgotten that Ayoka had just turned twenty-six years old, even though she only looked about thirteen or fourteen.
There was another bone-crunching tackle. A couple of players from both teams sprawled on the field. They were quickly escorted off, however, and play continued almost immediately.
“And I thought football was violent,” Taylor muttered.
“Is football how Topsiders train their warriors?” Ayoka asked.
“It’s mostly how they keep the big dumb jocks all in one place so they can keep an eye on them. Wait a minute: this is warrior training?”
“Sure. We call it ‘little brother of war.’ In the past, the nunnehi have even used it as a substitute for bloodshed. Whoever wins the game, wins the war.”
“Wow,” Taylor said. “That’s…intense.”
Everyone around her was suddenly on their feet. The Ichisi team was driving toward the goal, the ball in the possession of a giant of a man who muscled through the Tsuwatelda defenders like they were children. Tsisgwa flew toward him in a flying tackle, but the Ichisi player blinked away in a flash of super- heated dust, appearing just outside the no-magic line. Just as suddenly, another Tsuwatelda player blasted him with an explosion of purple flame, and the ball came loose from his stick.
Players from both teams scrambled to retrieve the ball. It looked to Taylor like an honest-to-goodness riot was about to break out, when at last an Ichisi player swatted the ball into the cup of an awaiting teammate. This player wasted no time: he flung the ball toward the goal just as four Tsuwatelda players piled into him.
The ball sailed through the air for thirty feet and struck the goalpost above the midline.
“Ichisi goal by Enomako for two points and the win. The final score: Ichisi 15, Tsuwatelda 13.”
“Arrgh! We almost did it!”
“Maybe next time,” Ayoka’s dad said. “Come and eat something before you have to get ready.”
Ayoka’s mom opened a picnic basket and offered both girls sandwiches and fresh fruit: a delicious selection of apples and plums. Ayoka scarfed down her sandwich like she hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Slow down, honey,” her mom said. “You’ll give yourself a stomachache.”
“I’m just itching to get started,” she said. “Can I have some cookies?”
“Sure,” her mom said, digging into the picnic basket.
Taylor’s eyes wandered across the playing field, now empty except for attendants smoothing out the densely packed earth and spreading out a fine coat of sand.
The spectators were a sight to see. If anything, they were even more diverse than the residents of the town of Ichisi she had seen on the way in. Fae of every conceivable size and appearance were there: young women in dresses made of leaves, pointy-eared men no taller than children in bright tee shirts and tennis shoes, bronzed men in buckskins who stood nearly seven feet tall, green-haired, barefooted maidens in diaphanous beach cover-ups. Across the field was a man whose tee shirt said, “The Wild Hunt – 1997.”
With the playing field in order, a nunnehi musical group began to sing an upbeat song in their own language. Many in the crowd began to join in.
When she turned back around, Taylor saw that Ayoka had finished off her second cookie and was opening a bag of fruity candy.
“Hungry?” she scoffed.
“Stuffed,” Ayoka said, “but I’ll need my magic for the tournament.”
“Oh, right.” Sweet snacks helped to power fae magic. Taylor wondered how many cookies those stickball players had to put away to do the things they were doing.
“I’d better get going,” Ayoka announced. “Taylor, you can go with me if you like. Get a front row seat?”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind sitting with your parents.”
“No, I think I’d like you to go with me.” Ayoka glanced at her parents, the three nunnehi exchanged subtle grins.
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Sneak Preview: Between Two Worlds (2)
By the time she came out of her room, the house was empty. It was the first Friday after the end of school. If her best friend hadn’t gone to visit her grandma in Louisiana, she would likely be hanging out with her all day. But something better came up, so it was just as well she didn’t have to worry about Jill.
She hadn’t figured out how to let Jill in on her secret, either. She had meant to tell her everything. But how do you explain something like that to somebody who’s been your best friend since fourth grade? By the way, Jill, it turns out I’m a mythological being. Cool, huh? No, she had to find a better way. Ease into it somehow. Maybe she could think of what to say over the Memorial Day weekend.
She grabbed a granola bar and a glass of orange juice. She watched a little TV. Then she pulled back her long, straight hair in a ponytail, donned the floppy sunhat she bought at the beach last summer, and headed out the door. She checked the time on her phone. It was a little past eight.
Taylor locked up the house and got on her bike. Twenty minutes later, she had reached her destination. The gate at the Ocmulgee National Monument was already open. She wheeled down the park road past the Welcome Center and kept on going. The shadow of the trees kept the heat from feeling unbearable. Birds sang. She had the park pretty much to herself.
The Ocmulgee Indian Mounds had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Now, it was a national park in the middle of Macon, Georgia. The park hosted an annual Indian powwow every fall, and a lot of school groups took field trips to the place. Taylor hadn’t been there in a couple of years, but it wasn’t hard for her to get her bearings.
In another ten minutes of cycling, she arrived at a small parking lot at the foot of an immense artificial mound, taller than a five-story building. The sign by the side of the road iden- tified it as the Great Temple Mound. A footpath led to stairs creeping up one side. A family with two young children stood at the very top, enjoying the view.
She chained her bike to the sign and continued on foot.
“Any mound should do,” Ayoka had told her. “Just pick one near the river.” She gazed up at the top of the mound and sighed. It was a long way to the top. She decided to veer off the footpath and head to the Lesser Temple Mound, which was both closer and smaller. She tried to take her time; it didn’t take much for her to get out of breath. Even though she hadn’t had an asthma attack in over a month, she wasn’t ready to take any chances.
The family on the Greater Mound above her was no longer in sight. It wouldn’t be long until they reappeared on the path, however. It was time.
She took a deep breath and imagined a magical mist surrounding her like a blanket. Danny Underhill had taught her that. Confident she was effectively invisible, she hiked up the wooden stairs to the top of the Lesser Mound.
She paused to take in the view. Not only could she see several of the other mounds in the park, if she looked off to the west, across the Ocmulgee River, she saw the buildings of downtown Macon.
She checked the time again on her phone. If she left by 4:15 or so, she should have plenty of time to get home before her parents, and they would never have to know she had left the house.
But first, she had to get to where she was going. She pulled down the brim of her hat against the glare of the sun. She bit her lip and gazed at the top of the mound, looking for the telltale shimmer in the air.
There it was, right at the edge, where the mound ended abruptly as it looked over the parking area. She took a deep breath and took a couple of tentative steps toward the spot. What had Ayoka told her on the seeing stone? “It’s something like putting on a veil of magical mist, except you imagine the magic seeping up out of the ground. Use your hands if you have to. Oh, and singing sometimes helps.”
Here goes, she thought. She took another breath as she closed her eyes and imagined a billowing cloud of mist rising from the ground. Without even thinking about it, she gestured with her hand, like a conductor leading a choir to sing louder.
She felt ridiculous.
And then it happened. A swirling wall of gold and silver lights erupted from the mound, a shimmering circle ten feet across. Taylor suppressed a giggle and plunged straight in.
Immediately, she was in a different world. She was still atop the Lesser Temple Mound, but the mound itself was huge— maybe three times larger than it was before. To the west, the downtown buildings were missing completely. To the north, the two deep railroad cuts—one still in use by the railroad and the other turned into the very park road she had taken to get there—were also missing. Instead, a vast, broad plaza stretched out from where she stood all the way to the Earth Lodge a quarter of a mile away.
The plaza was dotted with dozens of houses, some ancient and traditional, others more modern. And hundreds of people filled the entire complex! These were the Fair Folk: the people to which Taylor’s birth parents belonged. Most were nunnehi, Native American fae like Ayoka. Some were in traditional dress and others in regular street clothes. Some were white or African American. Some had pointed ears. Others had tails or snake- like eye slits. Some were little folk: dusky-skinned and only three feet tall.
Taylor had slipped into the Wonder.
None of this existed Topside, of course, and nobody Topside had any inkling that a whole other world existed right under their noses (although Native Americans told stories of “spirit warriors” who sang and danced at the mounds). In this version of the Ocmulgee Mounds, in the town of Ichisi, there was no city just beyond the trees. Everything was wild, untamed. Free.
She looked up into the sky. As expected, the hue was more turquoise than the blue it had been Topside. The air was filled with the smells of exotic foods and the hubbub of conversation. In the distance, fans cheered some kind of sporting event. That, she knew, was her destination.
Taylor came down off the mound and made her way through the crowd toward the sound of cheering.
From inside the open doors, she saw women cooking untold delicacies in huge copper cauldrons. Young children ran willy- nilly through the streets, laughing and playing. A couple of men were haggling over some sort of magical implement. Oth- ers, both men and women, had stopped at the corner for an impromptu a cappella jam session.
Further down the street, a teenage fae dazzled a crowd of younger kids by creating rings of colored smoke out of thin air and sending them skyward.
A man and a woman—Native Americans both at least ten feet tall—stooped to converse with another fae with an open suitcase filled with a multitude of jars, cases, and vials of multicolored liquid.
It was almost more than Taylor could take in.
It wasn’t home. It was anything but. Even so, something about it put Taylor at ease for the first time in weeks.
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Sneak Preview: Between Two Worlds (1)
Taylor Smart kept hoping things would get better, but they didn’t. The world was dull and gray. She had little to no appetite. Her favorite songs sounded tinny and distant when they played on the radio. Even something as relaxing as sitting at the piano and practicing her lessons left her unenthused. It was as if someone had turned a giant, invisible dial and watered down everything.
If Taylor were an ordinary thirteen-year-old, she might have just been in some weird hormone-induced funk. Nothing a hot fudge sundae or a trip to the mall with Jill couldn’t fix.
But nobody had ever mistaken Taylor for an ordinary thirteen-year-old. It wasn’t just that she was very bright. And it wasn’t just the vibe she gave off that told the world she knew full well she was probably the smartest person in the room. There were plenty of quick-witted, snarky teenagers in the world. That didn’t even set her apart at Bulloch Middle School. (Although she was reasonably sure she was in the top five.)
“Morning, sweetie,” her mom called from the door.
“Good morning,” Taylor said. “Time for work?”
Her mom nodded. “I just wanted to say goodbye before I left. Are you still sure about this?”
“I’ll be fine. You and Dad go on to work. I can fix myself breakfast.”
“Are you sure you’ll be here okay by yourself?”
“I’ve got my cell phone,” Taylor protested. “I can call if I need anything.”
“Whatever you want. I can have Mrs. Dibney check in on you if you like.”
“That’s not really necessary!” Taylor said. She tried to keep frustration out of her voice. The last thing she needed was their nosy neighbor snooping around—least of all today! “Besides,” she continued in a more even tone, “it’s just for one day. I can handle it.”
“Of course, you can. I love you, honey.” Mrs. Smart moved on.
Taylor sighed as she stumbled to her closet.
Get a grip, Taylor, she told herself. Just a few more minutes.
She rifled through the shirts hanging her closet in search of something to wear. She couldn’t help but grin when she thought about what she had planned for the day. While her parents were at work, Taylor was going on an adventure that might—just might—break her out of her funk.
Taylor’s problems all started in April, when she met her birth mother for the first time. That was when she discovered the truth: she was not entirely human. She was, in fact, a faery.
“Fae,” she corrected herself. Her Kind didn’t like that other word—though she still wasn’t entirely sure why. Whatever they were called, her birth parents were from a race of magical beings that had lived alongside humans in secrecy for thousands of years.
A month ago, she found this out when her classmate Danny Underhill kidnapped her on orders from her grandmother. Since then, she tried not to think too much about her biologi- cal family. It was enough to know that her true father, Aulberic Redmane, was dead—the victim of a deadly feud that pitted his family against that of Taylor’s mother, Shanna Hellebore. A lot of people thought Romeo and Juliet was a beautiful love story. They must have not read to the end, where everybody dies. But whatever the case, that was pretty much the story of Taylor’s biological parents. Fortunately, her birth mother survived and, after fourteen years in the Hellebore dungeons, was finally safe, living with Fair Folk in North Carolina.
But Taylor was stuck between two worlds. She wanted to fit in with her Topside friends and her Topside parents. But she wasn’t very good at it—even before magic started getting in the way.
And she still hadn’t figured out how to tell her parents about all this.
Maybe this little field trip she had planned would clear her head.
She got a quick shower and then put on the clothes she had picked out: khaki shorts, tennis shoes, and a royal blue top. It was cute and casual but not grungy. Perfect. She threw a few things into her new beaded purse—a souvenir from her first visit to the Wonder—wallet, some sunscreen, her cell phone, her asthma inhaler, and a few other odds and ends.
She also packed her seeing stone, a smooth, black stone with a hole in the middle. Her Kind used stones like this to communicate with each other over long distances. Actually, it was through a seeing-stone conversation that Taylor learned about Ichisi, a nearby fae town. When her new friend Ayoka scryed her right at the end of the school year and said she would be coming to Macon soon, Taylor’s heart did a somersault.
Now, at last, the day had come.
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Sneak Preview: The Dream
[The Devil’s Due is now available in paperback, Kindle, and NOOK formats. To celebrate, here’s a sneak preview, which will continue at about 1,000 words per day for the next few days. Enjoy!]
The air was muggy and damp, as if it had just rained. The ground was squishy under Jill Matthews’s bare feet. The mist began to clear, but her mind still buzzed as she fought off sleep.
“Take your time,” the woman said. “I don’t mind.”
She had heard the voice before. But what was she talking about?
In another second, she realized where she was. New Orleans. Gethsemane Cemetery. Above-ground crypts and mausoleums stretched out in every direction, punctuated by trees and religious statues. The pressure in her head got stronger. She shivered and let where she was standing sink in. She looked around, not frantic but curious. Before she saw it, she knew it had to be there.
Of course. It was right in front of her. Her Pawpaw’s crypt.
“Wh-why have you brought me here?” she said. “Who are you?”
“All in good time” was the woman’s only answer.
A small bouquet of flowers appeared in Jill’s hand as if by magic. She gasped and stared at them.
“Go ahead,” the woman said. Tentatively, the girl bent down and set the flowers in the stone vase provided.
As she rose, she spotted where the voice was coming from. The woman was seated on a stone bench only a few paces away underneath a statue of an angel. Her black hair blew free in the gentle breeze, as did her flowing green gown. Her fair, slender arms gleamed in the gray, predawn light. She smiled. There was no question she was very pretty, but something about her seemed a little too perfect. Her fierce dark eyes were brighter than should have been possible. Her voice had been just a bit too silky. With every word, she seemed to exude a subtle power that communicated she was not someone to be trifled with.
Jill slowly approached.
“What do you want?” She was tired of games. Scared and disoriented as she was, she wanted answers.
“Only to help you, my dear. Only to help you.”
“By bringing me here? To my grandfather’s grave? My parents—”
The woman laughed. “Darling, you have much to learn. Look around.” She gestured regally. “Pay close attention.”
The girl took in her surroundings. This was definitely the cemetery where her grandfather was buried, but something wasn’t right. The birds in the trees sang harmonies she had never heard before. The air exuded the slightest hint of spice. The color of the slowly brightening sky was ever so slightly off.
“This is some kind of dream.”
“Yes…and no,” the woman said. “This place does exist, I assure you. You’ve simply never seen it from this…ah…angle before. Graveyards usually exist in the Wonder as well as Top- side where you people build them. That is especially true in a place as full of magic as New Orleans.”
“I-I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” She set her hands on her hips. “And what do you mean, ‘you people’?” No, this white woman didn’t really go there, did she?
“No offense intended, my dear,” she said with a smile, and Jill couldn’t help but believe her. Her voice was so compelling… “Everything will become clear soon enough. But as I was saying, this is New Orleans—after a fashion. And you are quite right: it is also a dream.”
“‘Such stuff as dreams are made on,’ perhaps. Although I am quite real, I assure you. I thought it would be helpful for us to meet in a place like this, a place you hold close to your heart.” The woman leaned forward. Her eyes flashed once more.
“I’ve brought you here to warn you, child.”
The girl shuddered. “Warn me?”
The woman nodded.
“You are only now beginning to awaken to your potential. It can be a disorienting experience with no one to guide you.” Jill’s neck-hairs got fidgety. Something in the pit of her stomach told her this dream, or whatever it was, was about to get worse.
“Oh, you may not know in your head what’s coming, but I’ll bet you can feel it in your heart just the same. You’ve always been quite perceptive, haven’t you?”
Something shifted in Jill’s vision, like the shimmer of air over the pavement on a hot summer day. All at once, the trees seemed to grow wilder, twisting in tortured angles. It was as if the cemetery were in a haunted forest and not in the middle of a major American city. She suddenly felt exposed, vulnerable in her nightclothes.
She became aware of movement all around her—dark figures darting about, hiding behind the crypts and grave markers. As soon as she locked eyes on one, it was gone. There must have been a dozen of them, some large, some small. They slithered and skittered among the tombs, whispering to one another in the shadows.
“There’s no telling what you may see when your mind is fully opened to the Wonder,” the woman said.
“I-I want to go home.”
“Of course, child,” she said. “Go home to your family, your friends. But in time, you’ll realize that you need what I can offer you. When you do, I’ll be there.” She smiled broadly. “I promise.”
Jill sat up in bed, breathing heavily, sweating like she had just run a mile. Her alarm clock said 5:03. It took her a min- ute to convince herself of where she was—her grandmother’s house, in the guest bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall.
Every time she had the dream, it had gotten worse. More vivid. More like something real.
There was a quiet knock at her door.
“Jill? Are you okay?”
It was William, her twin brother.
“Go back to bed,” she said in a shaky voice.
Instead, he cracked the door open. “I heard you from the bathroom,” he whispered. “Are you okay? Have you been crying?”
“No,” she said. She wiped a tear from her cheek.
“You can’t lie to me, sis,” William said. “You never could. Something’s wrong.” He stepped into the room.
She decided to take a chance. She switched on the lamp on her bedside table, drew her legs up under her, and patted the side of her bed. William sat down next to her.
“Did you ever have a dream that seemed so real you’d swear it really happened?”
“Only, it couldn’t have happened, because…there were things in the dream that…that just couldn’t happen in real life?”
“You mean, like a nightmare?”
“Worse than a nightmare.”
“What’s up, Jill? You sound serious.”
“It’s probably nothing,” she said. “It’s just…It was so real. It was like I was there.”
“It’s just your imagination,” William said. “Like all those times you thought somebody was spying on you and Taylor.” Jill was suddenly wide-awake. What if somebody was spying on her and her best friend?
“You know, Danny Underhill never came back to school,” she said.
“What’s Danny Underhill got to do with anything?”
“Maybe nothing, but you’ve got to admit, it was weird for a kid to transfer into school in February and then transfer back out in April. They said his dad’s company moved him around a lot, but to only spend three months in Macon? That’s just ridiculous.”
“Jill, I know you never liked Danny, but do you really think he’s part of some kind of conspiracy to spy on you? And how in the world is he supposed to track you all the way to New Orleans?”
“You’re right,” she said, defeated. “That would be crazy… But you’ve got to admit, right before he left town was when Taylor started acting strange.”
“I remember,” William said, shaking his head. “Being all polite to her teachers. Flirting with all those guys…”
“You know she still thinks you’re a dork, right?” Jill scolded. William blushed.
Jill resumed her train of thought. “And then, just when Danny left, she went back to being herself. Only, not really. She was…I don’t know…not right. One minute she was looking over her shoulder like somebody was coming to get her. Then she was walking around in a daze. I don’t know how she ever finished the school year like that.”
“Since when has Taylor Smart ever cared about school?”
“Yeah, well, she was acting weird, even for her. And now, every time I go over to her house, she keeps looking at me funny. Like there’s something she wants to tell me. You ask me, some- thing happened to her last month. I’ve got a bad feeling Danny did something to her….”
In her mind, Jill pictured her former classmate, his bushy eyebrows, his curly black hair, the weird way his eyes glowed yel- low when he was startled or embarrassed. Those eyes reminded her a little too much of something from her dream.
“Listen, let’s just get back to sleep. Okay? You had a bad dream, and you’re worried about your friend, and both things got all jumbled up in your head.”
“Besides, Germaine and Tonya are coming tomorrow.”
That, at least was a pleasant thought. As soon as their cousins arrived, they’d have kids their age to hang out with for the rest of the weekend.
“Thanks for listening.”
“What are brothers for?” he said. “This time tomorrow, the only thing you’ll be dreaming about is having another bowl of Maymay’s jambalaya.”
“You’re not too bad—as brothers go. You know that?” She tossed a pillow at him. “Now get out of my room!”
Read more of The Devil’s Due…
Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (4)
He scowled at Taylor and broke into a trot.
Taylor gasped and started to run, but he was too fast—faster than should have been possible. In an instant he had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her off the path and into the trees. She tried to scream, but he clamped his hand tightly across her mouth before she even knew what was happening. She tried to kick, but he was too strong.
He threw her onto the ground. As she looked up, the stranger was standing nearly on top of her. Something about him had changed, and not in a good way. He was still tall and dressed all in black, like undertakers always dressed in the old Westerns her Grandpa Miller liked to watch. But now she could see he was carrying an empty burlap sack in his hand. What most concerned Taylor, however, was the man’s face.
His skin was mottled gray with splotches of pink, and his bushy unibrow made him look like he was wearing a fur-lined sun visor. His teeth were yellow and misshapen. There was a hard, brown wart on the end of his chin.
“Easy does it, chica. I don’t want to hurt you,” the man hissed.
He grinned a disgusting, toothy grin and reached toward her. Then he fell back, bowled over by dog that had appeared out of nowhere. It was lanky and medium sized with a tapering snout and short black fur. A Labrador retriever?
The dog chomped down on the strange man’s right hand, the one that held the sack. He fell to the ground, roaring in anger and pain, but the dog didn’t let go. It growled and shook its head back and forth. Taylor inched away and hid behind the nearest tree. Something in the back of her head told her to run, but she couldn’t convince her body to cooperate.
Uncle Waldo threw off the dog, which yelped as it hit the ground. He rose to one knee, nursing his arm.
Somehow the dog disappeared, but in its place crouched Danny Underhill. “Back off!” he yelled. Uncle Waldo growled. Taylor’s head swam.
“Oh…my…” she whispered.
Danny sprung forward, and this time Taylor saw him change. In midair, his face lengthened into a muzzle. His body shifted, compacted. His khakis and red polo shirt were overrun with sleek, black fur, and his hands and feet turned into paws. By the time he bowled into the stranger, he had turned back into a dog!
Uncle Waldo rolled on the ground, trying to regain his footing. The black Lab grabbed the tail of his coat in his teeth and held on tight. His eyes glowed like there was a fire inside his skull and his eyes were glass windows tinted yellow.
The stranger pulled himself out of his coat. The dog—could this really be Danny Underhill?—spat it out, growled, and bared his fangs. Uncle Waldo lifted his hands to shield himself from the next attack. And attack Danny did. He pounced on the stranger again. This time, the man with the sack took a bite to his throat and fell back bleeding. He shouted in fury, then threw the dog off him and scrambled away.
By this time, Taylor was hyperventilating. She sat on the ground at the base of her tree as Danny, who had once again turned into Danny, ran to her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (3)
“Taylor?” Danny Underhill whispered. Danny was about Taylor’s height, his nose was a bit large, and currently there was a pimple on the inside thatch of his bushy eyebrow that was threatening to erupt. Taylor had been worried since February that Danny had a crush on her.
She glanced in his direction.“Is this right?” He scooted a piece of paper her way. Taylor gave it a cursory glance and scooted it back to him with a nod.
Five minutes until the bell.
Jill always asked Taylor to look over their homework. As much as Taylor loved her, the girl couldn’t do math to save her life. Taylor never minded helping out her few friends, but it was just fine with her that nobody else seemed to notice how smart she was.
Nobody except for Danny Underhill.
Danny was a transfer student from some place up north. His family moved to Macon shortly after her birthday in February—which seemed weird, but whatever. She didn’t know much about him except that he seemed like a nice enough kid in a geeky, no-social-skills sort of way. But he was always looking for an excuse to start up a conversation with her. Taylor had spent the last two months trying not to encourage him.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Mr. Underhill? Miss Smart? Do you need my help?” Mr. Barfield said.
“N-no, Mr. Barfield,” Danny said. “I think I’ve got it now.”
“Losers,” Shelby muttered.
“I’ll have none of that!” Mr. Barfield said. He had pretty good hearing for an old guy.
Taylor noticed Jared McCaughey glancing at her from across the room. He smiled at her, and she immediately plunged her nose into her homework. Her face turned red, but she couldn’t help but smile. If only he would ask her for help with his schoolwork!
The bell rang as Mr. Barfield reminded them about the test coming up tomorrow. If anybody heard him, they didn’t let on. Rather, everybody bolted for the door like horses at the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby.
In a matter of minutes, she was at her locker. Directly across the hall, Danny fumbled with his combination.
“So, Taylor,” a voice behind her called. It was Shelby again. Of course. “Do you have plans this weekend with your boyfriend?”
“Who—?” Taylor began, but Shelby’s giggles signaled that something was up. Danny, still trying to get his locker open, turned several shades of pink all at once.
“I’d take him if I were you,” Shelby said. “I mean, it’s not like you can afford to be choosy! And is it just me, or have your ears gotten bigger since last year?”
Shelby was joined by her best friend, Jasmine Brown.
“What do you think, Dannyboy?” Jasmine said. “You want to ask her out?”
If anything, Danny turned ever redder. He finally got his locker open, but that only made things worse. Danny had one of the messiest lockers in school. As soon as the door flung open, a stack of textbooks and loose papers plopped to the floor.
“Cut it out, Shelby,” Taylor said through gritted teeth.
“Hey, we’re just trying to help,” Shelby teased. “We know it’s hard for some girls to get a boyfriend. If we can nudge things along…”
Taylor rounded on Shelby, and there was something different in her voice, an unexpected power or confidence. “I said, Cut it out.”
Her blue eyes turned icy cold. Shelby and Jasmine turned suddenly pale. Jasmine leaned on Shelby for support, as if her legs had turned to jelly. Both girls’ mouths dropped open.
“C-come on, Jasmine.”
They silently slinked away without another word.
Taylor stood there, dumbfounded. “That was interesting,” she said to herself.
“Whoa,” Danny sighed. “That’s some kind of death-glare you’ve got. Think you could teach me?”
She grabbed what she needed from her locker and joined the small clutch of kids streaming out the main entrance.
This wasn’t the first time Taylor had been able to scare off somebody who was bothering her. Last winter, she did the same thing to Cassie White. Cassie was giving her a hard time in the girl’s locker room after gym class. Taylor had a note from her doctor that excused her from activities whenever her asthma was acting up, and Cassie was teasing her about not being any good at sports. Taylor got so frustrated she felt like she could shoot laser beams out of her eyes. One look and Cassie choked up. She just walked away on the verge of tears.
And then there was the time she was home alone with her mom one afternoon and a vacuum-cleaner salesman showed up at their door. Mom was busy cooking supper, and Taylor learned the hard way that vacuum-cleaner salesmen didn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Then she looked him square in the eye and said, “I told you, We’re not interested.” The poor man dropped his clipboard as he retreated across the lawn.
“Death-glare,” Danny called it.
Most kids had to wait for the bus or for their parents to pick them up in the carpool line. Taylor lived less than a mile from school, so she walked home. Usually, it was just her and Jill.
The quickest way home was through the park three or four blocks from the schoolhouse. On a nice day like today, she and Jill loved to watch the birds and the squirrels, maybe sit and talk on the swings.
Today, there were just a couple of moms with preschoolers.
Something distracted her, a movement in the trees. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was wrong. She suddenly had goosebumps all over her arms despite the warm afternoon sun. She took in her surroundings, and though nothing seemed out of the ordinary, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.
Taylor pressed on. She made a point to steer as clear of the trees as she could. Whatever it was, it was hiding in those trees. Another hundred feet and she would be past the park and only a block from her house.
Then the stranger came into view from the other direction. He was tall, pale, with a sour expression on his face.
It was Uncle Waldo.
Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (2)
Taylor didn’t mind the C-minus on her English paper, but she knew her parents were going to blow a gasket. Every report card, they had the same argument. “You’re a smart girl,” they would say. “Your teachers all say you’re very bright. Would it hurt you to try a little bit harder?”
The truth was, Taylor thought it probably would. Simply put, school was boring. It didn’t matter that she could usually get B’s in every class while barely trying. She had figured out a long time ago that nobody was ever going to teach her the things she was most interested in. When Mr. Barfield explained geometry, she wanted to know how his proofs about different kinds of angles would work if the triangles were drawn on a sphere instead of a flat surface. “You’ll get to that in college,” he said. Well, she was interested in that now!
That’s why she was so angry with Mrs. Markowitz. If she really was so far ahead of her classmates, what harm could there be in letting her study something that actually interested her? Instead, she had to write yet another brain-numbing report about stuff she had known since forever.
Taylor mostly quit caring about grades and schoolwork around the fourth grade. She had hoped her Greek mythology paper would be her crowning achievement: a paper written in one night with no prior research at all—just what was already in her head. She found it much more challenging—exciting, in fact—to wait until the last minute to finish her assignments, just to see if she could still land a good grade. And of course, she usually could.
A C-minus was not her definition of a good grade. She wondered how much trouble she was going to be in when she got home.
First, however, she had to get through fourth period. After Mrs. Markowitz’s impromptu meeting, she was almost certain to be late. She weaved through the corridors, trying not to get crushed as she made her way to Mr. Barfield’s room.
As Taylor navigated the halls, she tried to keep her head down, braced against any idiot classmates who weren’t looking where they were going. Of course, some of them know exactly where they were going but found ways to bump into her anyway. That came with the territory, Taylor supposed. Middle school was hard enough for a natural loner like her. It didn’t help that she was also pale, scrawny, and asthmatic.
“You did get my invitation, right?” a girl called ahead of her. Taylor looked up in surprise, only to see it was Shelby Crowthers. Thankfully, she was talking to somebody else. “Dad has reserved a room at the country club for Saturday night. It’s going to be the best birthday party ever! It’ll be a hundred times better than Jared’s lame party.”
Shelby Crowthers was pretty, popular, and rich—all the things Taylor wasn’t. Naturally, they hated each other. Taylor considered one of the high points of her year to be last September when she convinced her dad not to buy a car from Shelby’s dad’s car dealership—even though it boasted some of the best deals in central Georgia.
If only she could convince Mr. Crowthers to move to Australia.
Taylor wasn’t in a mood for a fight, but Shelby was standing in front of Mr. Barfield’s room, and the bell was going to ring any second. She didn’t have a choice but to wait there for her to finish arranging her social calendar. She probably should have kept her mouth shut, but she just couldn’t help herself.
“How inconsiderate of Jared to have a birthday the same week as yours,” she mocked.
“Jared’s party is fine with me,” Shelby sniffed. “It’ll just make it that more obvious who is who. The cool kids will be with me at the country club. The rest of you losers will just have to hope for the best.”
“All I’m hoping for is that you would just go away.”
“Dream on, honey. And are they ever going to do something about those eyes of yours?”
Taylor blushed. Shelby had said since third grade that Taylor’s eyes were funny. They were too far apart, she said, and Taylor looked like she was part goldfish. Plus, they weren’t a deep, pretty blue like Shelby’s, but washed-out and pale.
She sighed, rolled her not-pretty eyes, and sidestepped Shelby to enter the classroom. Shelby and her best friend, Jasmine, followed behind, along with Danny Underhill, Jared McCaughey, and the rest of the stragglers.
She took her usual seat in the back row and wished again that her best friend didn’t have the flu. Even though Jill’s brother William (never “Bill”) was kind of a dork, she and Jill had been best friends since fourth grade. The two girls lived across the street from each other. Jill would understand about Mrs. Markowitz. She was always there to listen to Taylor gripe—and to smack some sense into her when necessary.
“C’mon, your life is pretty good,” she could hear Jill say. “You’re super-smart, and really good at music and stuff. Plus, you’ve got about the coolest parents ever.”
The last part, which Jill never failed to point out, was the subject of ongoing debate between them. Jill insisted Taylor’s parents were much cooler than her own. Taylor wished they weren’t quite as strict and had a little bit more money. Though she had to admit she always knew her parents were in her corner, no matter what. They had fun family vacations every summer, and visits to Grandma Smart’s house for Christmas were definitely the best.
But on top of everything was the fact that they had chosen her.
Nobody knew anything about her biological parents. Taylor figured they were probably unmarried teenagers who at least had the sense to know they had no business trying to raise a baby. Whatever the case, the Smarts were her parents now—not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be. And stern lectures about schoolwork aside, most days that was something for which Taylor was very grateful.
Taylor came up from her daydream enough to realize that her balding, ruddy-faced teacher was already well into his geometry lecture. He had written about half a dozen diagrams on the board and a whole list of things that looked like they were important. Taylor jotted them down, half-listening to whatever it was Mr. Barfield was rambling on about. She figured out what page she was supposed to be on and scrambled to open her textbook without anyone noticing she was coming late to the game.
After about thirty minutes, he gave them a set of problems to work. Taylor finished them all in about fifteen. Most of her classmates would be taking at least a few of them home for homework.
She counted down the minutes until the last bell. Without Jill there, she had no one to pass notes to or to help her make fun of Shelby behind her back. Mr. Barfield was bent over Tommy Morgan’s desk, explaining basic geometry to the poor boy for what must have been the hundredth time.
She looked out the window. The sky was sunny and clear, but a stiff breeze blew through the trees. The school groundskeeper was mowing the grass outside her window.
Across the street, a fat lady in neon pink sweat pants was walking her poodle. A funny-looking guy in a dark suit stood on the corner as if he was lost. Taylor realized it was Uncle Waldo. What is he doing out there? she thought. That alien undead Justin Bieber fan was really starting to creep her out.
She wondered if he was one of those guys her Dad always slammed the door on when they came by wanting to tell them about their religion, but those types always seemed to travel in pairs. No, Taylor couldn’t imagine Uncle Waldo having any friends. And she definitely didn’t want to join any religion that would have him as a member. It was almost spooky the way he always seemed to show up lately. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she had even noticed him ducking around the corner of the restaurant when her folks went out for dinner last Sunday. Taylor’s neck hairs tickled her collar.
The lady’s dog nipped at Uncle Waldo, who bent down and yelled something. Fifi (or whatever its name was) twisted its leash around its human’s legs, and she nearly fell over. Taylor couldn’t help but giggle, and the spell of dread was broken. It was a perfect April afternoon, after all, and she couldn’t wait to enjoy it.
Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (1)
The next day started badly. Taylor got a text from Jill. She had woken up with a fever and a stomachache—probably the flu. She wouldn’t be going to school today. Taylor would have to walk to school without her. That wasn’t usually a problem except that, apart from lunch, the walk to and from school was the only time Taylor and Jill could properly make fun of their teachers and classmates. Some of them desperately needed making fun of.
Which led to Taylor’s second problem. At breakfast her dad practically begged her not to get into any more trouble with Mrs. Markowitz, her English teacher. The old biddy had it in for Taylor ever since last September, when she complained, often and audibly, about the novels they were reading. It only got worse when they started a unit on “Technical Writing” last month. Although it fulfilled all the requirements of the assignment, Taylor’s sample complaint letter to the Board of Education about the quality of teachers they were hiring might have hit a little too close to home. Now they had begun a unit on myths and fables—something Taylor actually enjoyed—but Mrs. Markowitz seemed determined to do her best to suck every last drop of wonder from the subject.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to let things go,” her dad said. “Seventh grade won’t last forever.”
“Are you sure about that?” she scoffed.
“Positive. Come here.” He opened his arms and invited Taylor to sit in his lap. Taylor didn’t move. Sometime before Christmas, she had decided she was too grown up for such things. Her dad gave her a sad expression. He wasn’t mad at her, she knew, he just didn’t know quite what to do with her now that she was officially a teenager.
Mom came to his rescue. “All we’re trying to say, honey, is that part of this is up to you. All of your teachers think very highly of you. They just wish you’d—”
“Apply myself? Take school more seriously?”
“Well, yes,” Dad said, dropping his arms. “Taylor, right now, school is your job, and you need to start thinking of it that way.”
“It would help if my ‘job’ weren’t so boring!”
Dad sighed. “Every job in the world is boring some of the time. Do you think doing people’s taxes is a nonstop thrill ride? Do you think Mom has a party every day as Mr. Caulfield’s office manager?”
“I understand you haven’t had the greatest year in school, but you still have to go. So, if there’s no way around your problem, and no way over it or under it, you know what you have to do, right? You’re just going to have to put your head down and go straight through the middle of it.”
And with that pep talk, Taylor trudged off to another fun-filled day at Archibald Bulloch Middle School.
Uncle Waldo, the crazy old man in the black suit, was sitting on the park bench again, scaring away the pigeons. There was definitely something odd about that guy. Taylor had noticed him hanging out in the park for a couple of weeks now. All alone, never speaking to anyone except himself.
She picked up her pace the slightest bit. Not because she was scared of Uncle Waldo, of course, but because she really didn’t want to walk to school with Jill’s twin brother William, who was only a hundred yards behind her.
The real fun began when she got to school. Reggie Banks dropped a whole handful of sheet music in Chorus, so when Taylor finally got her copy, it had somebody’s dirty shoe print all over it. As she and her classmates sang “‘Tis the gift to be simple,” she tickled herself with the thought some people were apparently more gifted than others.
Everybody was late for first period because a couple of eighth-graders got in a fight in the hallway.
The pizza in the cafeteria was greasier than usual—but still a better option than the overcooked-and-always-too-salty barbeque sandwiches.
And Jill wasn’t around to help Taylor complain about any of it.
As might have been expected, third period was the worst. Mrs. Markowitz was in rare form. When the bell rang, she called Taylor up to her desk to discuss the homework assignment she had just returned.
“I give up,” she began. She didn’t even rise from her chair. “I’ve tried befriending you. I’ve tried encouraging you. I’ve tried having conferences with your parents. I’ve even tried threats. Nothing seems to get through to you.”
It was all Taylor could do not to grin at the ridiculous shade of red of her English teacher’s hair. The poor woman apparently didn’t want anyone to know she was gray—probably had been for the last fifty years—but she never managed to buy the same brand of hair dye twice. Today, her hair was more violently red than usual. Actually, it was bordering on purple. That was appropriate, Taylor thought, as it pretty much matched the color the veins on her face were turning.
“This should have been a simple assignment for a bright girl like you. All you had to do was write a three-page summary of the major gods of Greek mythology.”
“But that’s what I did,” Taylor protested. She held up her paper with the “C-” written across the top in very large, very angry red pen strokes. She resisted the urge to shove it in her teacher’s face.
Mrs. Markowitz scoffed. “Two pages and only three lines onto the third page!”
“It’s still three pages,” Taylor said.
“In sixteen-point type?”
“Fourteen, and I don’t remember you saying anything about font size when you gave the assignment.”
“It is assumed that papers are to be printed in twelve-point type.”
“Well, you know what they say about what happens when people assume.”
Mrs. Markowitz seethed. Taylor’s lips began to curl into a subtle grin. She absolutely hated her English teacher. Knowing she was getting under Mrs. Markowitz’s skin was like a shark smelling blood in the water.
“Taylor, why must you always behave as if you’re smarter than everyone else at this school—your teachers included?”
Taylor shrugged. An honest answer would not have been terribly diplomatic at that point. She congratulated herself on being able to hold her peace. Instead, she pushed on at her strongest angle of attack.
“Did I leave out any Greek gods that you consider to be ‘major,’ Mrs. Markowitz?”
“Of course not,” she said. “You got all the Olympians and several others beside. But—”
“And I notice you haven’t highlighted any spelling or grammar mistakes. So I take it you have no complaints in that area?”
“And you have to admit I gave you the three-page summary you asked for. The page numbers are all right there at the bottom. You never said we had to write three whole pages.”
“Don’t try to twist my words, Miss Smart. You know precisely what this assignment entailed. You could have done it properly in your sleep, yet—once again—it seems you’ve put more effort into intentionally misunderstanding my instructions than you have into completing your work. You’ll be off to high school in another couple of years, and I can assure you that coasting along on your natural intelligence and hoping for a passing grade with the least amount of effort won’t get you very far.”
“With all due respect, Mrs. Markowitz, why shouldn’t it? You only teach what’s going to be on the state assessment tests anyway.”
“That is not true!”
Then why couldn’t we ever do anything different? I’ve already read just about everything there is about Greek mythology in the public library. But every time I brought up any of the really cool stuff in class, you shut me down.”
“The ‘cool stuff’ as you call it is not suitable for a class full of impressionable twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.”
“That’s why I offered to write a summary of some other mythology. If the rest of the class needed the basics, then why not let me learn about the gods of the Egyptians or the Vikings? Anything but the same boring stuff I’ve already heard about since I first read The Children’s Homer!
“Miss Smart, we are not going to rehash that conversation—”
“Of course we’re not. Because the truth is, you only teach what the big shots in Atlanta tell you to. That’s why everybody in the seventh grade is doing the exact same lessons in the exact same way at the exact same time. Oh, you may say you want your students to be creative and love learning. Heck, you might even think you mean it. But let’s face it, Mrs. Markowitz, you just want us to score well on the test so you’ll look like you’ve done your job.”
“That is enough of that, Miss Smart!”
“I’m only following your exact words,” Taylor mumbled.
“And I’m only giving you the grade your pitiful efforts deserve.”
The two glared at each other for several tense seconds until students began to file into the classroom. “You’ll be late for your next class,” Mrs. Markowitz said. The conversation, it seemed, was over.