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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Social Issues  ➡  Fantasy

The Age of Amy: Bonehead Bootcamp - Revised Edition

by Bruce Edwards

REVISED EDITION

To all the teenage Amys

(and non-Amys)

who know who the real boneheads are.

www.BruceEdwardsBooks.com

The Age of Amy Box Set

THE COMPLETE SERIES by Bruce Edwards

16-year-old Amy doesn’t like the self-destructive path the world is on. Surviving adolescence is hard enough without stressing over the end of civilization, too. Can anything be done to save this sinking ship? Only a miracle and one determined teenager. Join Amy in these fantasy adventures, as she struggles to make sense of the times she was born into.

TITLES INCLUDED:

#1 Bonehead Bootcamp

Amy is unjustly sent to a boot camp for troubled teens.

#2 The Thumper Amendment

Amy joins a presidential campaign to get even with a grade school bully.

#3 Channel ’63

Amy finds love through a TV that receives signals from the past.

#4 Behind the Fun Zone

Amy takes on Silicon Valley when device-addicted teens start disappearing.

#5 Mad Dogs and Makeovers

A late-night phone call from a stranger implicates Amy in a terrorist plot.

Available at AMAZON.com

CONTENTS

Title

Boxset

    1. Shankstonville

    2. The Rumor Spreads

    3. Day One

    4. Crossroads

    5. Stubborn

    6. The Diner

    7. Going Up

    8. All Rise

    9. At Your Own Risk

  10. You’re Back

About the Author

More by Bruce

Credits

Cover

Chapter 1

Shankstonville

My upstairs bedroom shook. The closet door trembled on its hinges. Loose change tap-danced on my dresser. A deep rumbling like rolling thunder pounded my eardrums. No, it wasn’t an earthquake or an erupting volcano. A derailed freight train hadn’t just crossed our front lawn. It was something far less destructive, yet no less annoying. My room had been jolted by it many times before, and I knew exactly what was causing the disturbance: the earth-shaking roar of the downstairs TV!

The electronic beast was the size of a refrigerator, and its deafening sound system could blow the feathers off a goose. It ruled the living room directly below me. Amplifier switches glowed in its dark lair, like sinister eyes peering out of a forbidden forest. A comfy couch was provided for anyone foolish enough to enter. Care and feeding of the beast was easy. Just turn it on and watch it devour its prey with hours of mind-numbing programming.

My parents were in the living room watching some cheesy action movie and had turned the volume up from reasonable to earsplitting. Our wood-framed house sucked up the sound waves like a sponge. It wasn’t that the flooring was substandard or the insulation not up to code. For sure, the newest house in Shankstonville had been built with the highest grade materials. Still, the vibration had turned my bedroom into a giant foot massager. Every car-crashing, bomb-exploding, alien-blasting ka-boom rattled the walls—and my nerves.

I was laying on my bed, engaged in my favorite pastime: reading. I was deep into the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. How Atticus Finch was going to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence had me totally captivated. The tender father-daughter bond between Atticus and Scout was the most touching thing I ever read. But learning the life lessons of Depression-era Alabama would have to wait, while I dealt with the low frequencies traveling up my bed posts.

I tried to isolate the noise by wedging my head between two pillows. No success. Then I stuffed my ears with wax earplugs and cotton. I tried pulling a wastebasket full of towels over my head, but even that was no match for the beast’s fifteen-inch subwoofers.

I could never understand people’s obsession with hi-tech gadgetry. To me it was all a big, consumer-gouging scam, and I refused to be sucked into it. Wireless devices were nothing more than time-wasting distractions with advertising, and held no appeal for a girl of my intelligence. The only piece of dumb-down technology I was willing to tolerate was my mobile phone. Texting, at least, offered some degree of usefulness. My main gripe, however, was how modern technology was widening the rift between me and my folks. Too bad. I so wanted to narrow that gap with them, but refusing to join their digital realm kept me an outsider.

By now it was clear that the racket below me would not end anytime soon. My failure to filter out the noise left me with only one option: a quest downstairs to slay the beast!

I gazed down our mahogany staircase. The brightness of the TV against the banister cast long shadows up the wall, like the bars of a prison cell. All the downstairs lights were off, window blinds were closed, and curtains drawn. Outside, the midwestern sky was bright with sunlight, but in the shuttered room below, night had already fallen.

I grabbed hold of the handrail and started down. With each step, the low-pitched rumbling got more intense. I could hear it rattling the liquor bottles behind the living room wet bar. The crystals in the chandelier above me jingled like wind chimes. Still, I continued on, like an avenging angel sent to Earth to rid the world of mindless entertainment.

Just beyond the foyer, I saw my parents sitting on the living room couch, the back of their heads silhouetted like paper doll cutouts. The room smelled like an onion field. Empty pizza boxes and beer bottles were strewn about. Candy wrappers and greasy popcorn kernels littered the coffee table—and the housekeeper had just cleaned the room that morning.

Charging across the marble floor, I slid behind the couch on my knees like a base-stealing baseball hero. I cautiously peered over the top. There it was! On the far wall hung the video monster. Its flickering light danced in the glazed eyes of my brain-dead parents, as if a poisonous snake had injected them with hypnotic venom.

So far, so good. Now to complete my mission. The TV’s cable wire was within arm’s reach, and a pair of scissors lay conveniently on a nearby table. I decided that wire-cutting was a bit too bold for my purposes. Then I noticed the TV remote control left carelessly unguarded on the couch. I sprang to my feet, grabbed the device like it was the sword Excalibur, and aimed it toward the howling beast.

Click!

Silence.

“Amy Dawson!” my mother shouted. “Turn that back on.”

My father leaped off the couch. “What’s the meaning of this, young lady?” he said. “Give me that!”

He reached for the remote. I jerked it away. “No way!” I said. “All you ever do anymore is watch this crap.”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“You’re so wrong,” I said. “Look at you two. That thing controls your whole lives.”

“How do you figure that?”

“When’s the last time you threw me a birthday party?”

My dad thought a moment. “I’ll give you one on your fifteenth birthday.”

“I’m sixteen! Why don’t we ever go anywhere?”

My mom’s hand went up. “What about our trip to Disneyland?”

“That was five years ago. And why don’t our friends visit us anymore?”

“They’re all busy and can’t find the time.”

“You mean they won’t find the time,” I said. “I can’t say I blame them. Look at this dump!”

“I was just about to call the housekeeper back,” said Dad, “but you know how she hates driving out here after dark.”

“After dark?” I pulled on a window blind cord, flooding the den of darkness with sunlight. My parents shaded their eyes and trembled, as if Armageddon had begun in our driveway.

My dad lowered his head and stared at me menacingly, then pointed a finger toward the stairs. “You know what this means, don’t you?” It was his theatrical way of saying “Go to your room!” Though his performance showed a severe lack of parenting skills, it was a brilliant tactical move. While my attention was diverted, my mother snatched the remote out of my hand. The TV was back on in less than a nanosecond, and just as quickly, they both turned back toward the screen as if nothing had happened.

An apology from them seemed highly unlikely. They showed no sign of remorse—or any sign of a pulse, for that matter. In my endless struggle to reconnect with my parents, this was yet another crushing defeat.

My fingernails dug into the handrail as I climbed the stairs. Halfway up sat my older brother, his head slumped down to his chest, playing a game on his smartphone. He owned hundreds of game titles, and when he wasn’t thumb-tapping the handheld version, he’d be playing the extreme equivalent on his gaming console. He was two years older than me. Laziness was his occupation.

I tried to step around him. “Excuse me,” I said, but he wouldn’t budge. I yanked out his earbuds and shouted, “The house is on fire!” No use. He continued playing with no sound, his eyes fixed on the small screen.

I finally wrestled the phone away from him. “Hey, gimme that!” he cried. I threw it down the stairs. My brother let out a frightful gasp as he chased after it like a crazed drug addict.

“Why don’t you go mow the lawn or something?” I said.

Down the hall, the door to my big sister’s bedroom stood open. That nauseating scent of eau de Wal-Mart poured out into the hallway. Inside, my sister was slouched in a recliner chair, balancing a computer tablet on her large belly. The Facebook icon was clearly visible on its screen. She was a master at abusing social media. Words like code of conduct, ethics, and etiquette were not in her vocabulary. To my sister, sharing “inappropriate content” was her solemn duty.

I quietly crept into the room, her plump fingers were busily trashing another unsuspecting victim. Catching her off-guard, I said, “Who are we dumping on today?” A dozen chicken nuggets fell to their death as she flew out of her chair. Her tablet tumbled to the floor. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted at the screen, “Careful, in there!” I said. “Don’t friend her unless you want your life ruined.”

My sister snapped up her device. “Mind your own business, Amy!” she said. “You got some nerve. You’re just jealous ‘cause I got Facebook friends and you don’t.”

“Friends?” I said. “They’re all losers—like you!”

“You oughta know, jerk!”

“Loser!”

“Jerk!”

“Loser!”

“Jerk!”

“Loser!”

“Mommm?”

I raced down the hall to my bedroom and slammed the door behind me. My head was throbbing. The howling TV continued its audio assault on my sanity. I covered my ears with my hands and paced the floor. Suddenly, the sound stopped. I cracked open the door and listened; no atomic blasts, no Jurassic growls, no exploding heads.

There was no way to know when the next attack would come, so I retrieved my book and plopped down on my bed. I had just removed my bookmark when I realized that every word in the book was blurred. My eyes wouldn’t focus on the pages. The book slipped through my fingers like it was made of butter. Though my bedroom had stopped shaking, I hadn’t. What just happened?

Getting bawled out by my parents almost never happened. As the youngest in the family, I made every attempt to make them proud of me. I got excellent grades in school and even worked summer jobs so that I wouldn’t have to ask for pocket money. I was the ideal teenage daughter—or so I thought. Now there was always something to argue about, someone to accuse, and no place to escape the hostility.

Okay, I knew I wasn’t perfect, but why did they have to be so judgmental? True, I dressed a little on the shabby side. I listened to Chicago blues. I read the editorial page of the Sunday paper. This might seem like abnormal behavior for a modern-day teenager, but so what? I had no tattoos or piercings in uncomfortable places. My only display of teenage angst was the neon-blue streak in my hair. Even that, I ran down the back so it wouldn’t be so noticeable. Wasn’t that worth something?

As for my conduct downstairs, I guess I was pretty disrespectful. That’s unusual for me, because I’m normally not such a meanie. I rarely raised my voice in anger. I was known as the easy-going gal with a great sense of humor, always fun to be around, never causing any trouble. But that was before . . .

the Move.

I reached under my bed and pulled out a cardboard box. Inside were lots of knick-knacks from my early childhood: worn out toys, torn ticket stubs, school report cards, stuff like that. On the top was an old welcome mat. It was battered and worn from all the feet that trampled across it over the years. It once graced the doorstep of a modest city apartment where my family lived. Big red letters on it read Enter at your own risk! To most people its message was a threat, but to those who knew us, it was an invitation to a good time. Anyone crossing our threshold was fairly warned: This was a happy home. If you enter, you might not want to leave!

Friends and relatives gathered there often to enjoy our hospitality. Laughter would fill the air like a comedy club on a Saturday night. Often the merriment penetrated the paper-thin walls, trying the patience of our neighbors, but no one complained. Each tenant graciously respected the other’s right to rock the house every once in a while.

City life was great. I never got bored. Adventure was as close as the nearest subway station. I was popular at school, and had more friends than I could count. I even had a boyfriend of sorts for a while.

My box of memories held many more souvenirs from happier days, but it also contained reminders of times that were not so joyful. I found a copy of a book my dad had written. He was a struggling author then. We lived on a tight budget while he labored over that thing. Except for the bare necessities, anything we didn’t need we did without. Our only luxury was an old piano my mom picked up at a garage sale. I think she had visions of her offspring developing an ear for music, but an out-of-tune rendition of “Heart and Soul” was the best we could manage. Sometimes Dad would join in, typing to the beat on his typewriter from his room.

The first of each month meant scraping together rent money that we didn’t always have. Bill collectors visited us so often that we called them by their first names. It’s only temporary, I would tell myself, and happily robbed my piggy bank to help out. Most families would have collapsed under such pressure, but we stuck together like super glue. It was a bond no one could break.

Reaching deeper into my box, I pulled out a faded photograph. It was one of those four-pictures-for-a-dollar kind you get at the carnival: step into a booth, make a funny face, and your photo prints in sixty seconds. The goofy expressions belonged to myself and Kurt, my oldest brother.

Kurt was my elder by six years. But despite our age difference, the two of us were inseparable. Between high school and managing a teenage social life, Kurt always found time to indulge his little sister, swapping his world of cars and girls for tea parties and Parcheesi. Kurt was also my protector, coming to my defense whenever my parents scolded me for the mischief little girls so often get into.

One of Kurt’s hobbies was looking after the sparrows that thrived in our neighborhood. Each morning he replenished the seed in his handmade bird feeder that hung outside our living room window.

It was on such a morning, shortly after Kurt had driven off to meet some friends, that the phone rang. The local hospital was calling to tell us that Kurt had been badly hurt in an auto accident. The whole family left for the hospital immediately, unaware of how life-threatening his condition was. By the time we arrived, Kurt had tragically died from his injuries.

The grief my family suffered was almost unbearable. I was especially devastated, having never once told Kurt how much I loved him. Our wonderful, quirky relationship meant everything to me, but finding the words to express those feelings isn’t easy at such a young age.

Rolling loose in the bottom of the box were the game pieces from that old Parcheesi set. I put one in my pocket, pledging to keep it with me always as a reminder of those bittersweet times.

While putting away Dad’s book, a paper receipt fell out of the sleeve. It was from Tri-city Movers, the company that moved us to Shankstonville. Dad’s persistence and talent for writing had set our family on a new course. His book became a national best-seller, and it was time for us to move up in the world. So, we emptied the little apartment that had seen us through so much hardship and happiness, and left the city I loved so dearly.

My dad chose to settle us in a remote midwestern town. The seclusion and unhurried pace of our new home took some getting used to. The other family members had no problem adjusting to the heartland lifestyle—but not me. I hated it! The sounds of traffic and street musicians had turned to hay balers and tractors. Conversation revolved around cow milking, sheep shearing, and who could grow the biggest pumpkin. Things were no longer exhilarating and fun, they were plain and practical. High school wasn’t much better. Making friends was a challenge, having little in common with my country bumpkin classmates.

As I returned my keepsakes to the box, I took one last look at myself in that silly carnival photo. Little did I know then, that would be the last time I would be caught smiling.

I went to my bedroom’s open window. The air was thick with the scent of manure that loomed over Shankstonville like an invisible cloud. Sheep grazed behind a wire fence in the field across the road. What a simple, uncomplicated life those sheep must lead, I thought. They had everything they needed and not a care in the world. Too bad they would all end up an entrée on someone’s dinner plate. Whoever said life was fair?

I heard a knock at my door, and was surprised to see my father standing in the doorway. He eased the door closed as he entered. We stared awkwardly at each other for a moment, then he said, “Amy, I know the changes we’ve gone through as a family haven’t been easy for you.” Hearing his words was like having a weight lifted off my shoulders. At last, I thought, we were going to put aside our petty differences and try to recapture those happier times. “But you have to admit,” he continued, “you haven’t made things any easier for the rest of us, either.” I didn’t like where this was going. “Your disrespectful behavior has become more than your mother and I can stand.” He pulled a three-fold brochure out of his back pocket. “We’re sending you here for the weekend.” He tossed the literature onto my bed. It was for one of those camps for out-of-control teenagers; a place where moms and dads send their kids, when they can’t admit they’ve failed as parents.

“You’re leaving the day after tomorrow,” my dad said. He started for the door, then paused to look back at me. “It’s for your own good.” My own good? There was no way I was going to buy into that tired, old line. I folded my arms and turned my back to my father. He was no Atticus Finch!

After he left the room, I sat down on my bed to examine the brochure. The camp was named Bonehead Bootcamp. A picture of a large iron gate swung open as I unfolded the glossy paper. Inside were color photos of a flowering landscape with majestic oaks and green, rolling hills. It didn’t seem to gel with what I had heard about those places. They usually boasted how effectively they reformed troubled teens through a program of discipline and physical activity. This looked more like a picnic ground than a camp for teenage misfits. The back page showed teenagers smiling broadly, like they had just returned from a Caribbean cruise.

It all seemed a little phony to me. I didn’t know what to believe. I was only sure of one thing: I did not want to go there. But what could I do? Nothing, except hope that my parents would come to their senses and change their minds; to realize they were the boneheaded ones.

I could almost hear the slamming of the gate as I closed the brochure. A chill numbed my whole body. I got up to close the window. Then I heard a clanging noise outside. The sheep across the road had all left, except one with a small bell hanging around its neck. The sheep rested its head on the fence while its jaw rotated around a blade of grass. It was no different from the thousands of other sheep I saw around Shankstonville, and I wouldn’t have given this one a second glance, if it hadn’t been staring at me. At me! Plenty of other objects were around to focus its attention on. A truck drove by within inches of the fence. The sheep didn’t flinch.

Maybe it was the stress of the day, or just the stale air breezing through my window, but something weird was happening. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the little sheep with the bell was trying to tell me something—perhaps a warning: that once the fences go up, you’re no better off than an animal!

Chapter 2

The Rumor Spreads

The halls of Shankstonville High School were jammed with students, plodding along like cattle in a stockyard. Like most mornings, they shoved backpacks into lockers, checked local football scores, and gossiped around the water fountains before being corralled into class. Normally the school kids went out of their way to avoid me. But on this particular morning, all eyes were pointed in my direction. When I returned their stares, they quickly turned away. They must have thought I was hung over, or something. My lack of sleep the night before from my face-off with Dad probably left me looking a little dopey

Needless to say, I wasn’t in a very good mood. My crabbiness was made even worse by that awful hillbilly music playing over the P.A. system. Thankfully, it was interrupted for an announcement by our school principal. An assembly was scheduled for that afternoon in the school gymnasium and he was encouraging everyone to attend. The school would soon be electing a new student body president, and the two competing candidates would be making their final appeal for votes. That was an event I definitely did not want to miss—especially since I was one of the candidates.

I elbowed my way over to my locker and rested my forehead against it. The cold steel felt good on my tired head. My eyelids were almost too heavy to keep open. Then I was suddenly vibrated awake by my cell phone. A text message had arrived from my best friend, Emily. It read “Are the rumors true?” The phone vibrated again . . . then again . . . then continuously. Word of my exile to Bonehead Bootcamp had already leaked out.

Who would stoop so low to expose something so personal to so many? My answer arrived with the next message. It began, “Your sister says . . .” My sister! She must have had her ear to the wall while Dad lectured me, then stayed up half the night spreading the demoralizing details. And why not? She had all the latest apps for dragging my name through the mud. (Yet another fine example of better living through modern technology!)

It was only a matter of time before everyone in school knew my situation. I wasn’t so worried about the gossip that was sure to haunt me the rest of the day. If people got their jollies by talking behind my back, let ‘em! I was more afraid that my chances of being elected were turning from “hope springs eternal” to “don’t make me laugh.”

A voice called out above the hallway clamor. “Over here, Amy!” It was Emily, no doubt with a thousand questions for me. I was happy to answer them all. We were buddies, and confided nearly everything to each other. When I announced my run for the student presidency, Emily was the first (and only) volunteer to support my campaign. I think she would have preferred to run for the office herself, but her lack of self-confidence stood in her way. In every class we shared, she never raised her hand, and slumped behind her desk whenever the class was asked a question.

I plowed through the field of students over to Emily. She reached deep into her tote bag full of campaign buttons. After combing the bottom of it, she pulled out her phone, tapped the screen, and handed it to me. I began to read the texts she had received about me. My unmerciful sister had started a chain reaction of lies that got more distorted with each exchange. Some claimed I had been turned out into the streets by my parents. Others were proof positive they had committed me to a mental institution.

Emily stared blankly at me, ready to burst into tears at any moment. I handed the phone back to her and wrapped my fingers around her trembling hand. “Calm yourself, old friend,” I said. “They’re only rumors. Just talk. And talk can’t hurt anybody.”

Emily’s lower lip quivered against her wiry braces. “Oh, no?” she said. “Look!” She pointed to a large paper banner on the wall. It had read:

VOTE FOR AMY!

But thanks to some jerk with a can of spray paint, it now read:

DON’T VOTE FOR A BONEHEAD!

Emily faced the ground and shook her head. “Why would anyone do something so mean?”

I placed my hand on her shoulder. “Politics as usual,” I said.

Waiting for first-period English class to start, I took my seat and deleted all those bogus texts from my phone. I noticed the girl seated two rows over watching me closely. Glancing in her direction, I saw her eyes peeking over the top of that morning’s student newspaper. She aimed the front page at me like it was a weapon. Large type announced the latest election poll results. A colorful pie chart illustrated which candidate was favored to win. My share of voter support was a dismal 10%!

The girl gave me a snooty grin, then turned her attention to the mirror in her makeup purse. I watched as she skillfully applied eyeshadow above her baby blue eyes, blush to her cherub cheeks, lip gloss to her delicate mouth. Then she brushed her long, auburn hair that framed her radiant face. She was the undisputed, prettiest girl in school. If only she had an inner beauty to match. A large sticker on her back pack showed a red circle and a slash over the name Amy. Her name was Lydia Hobbs, and she was my fierce opponent in the race for student body president.

I didn’t fault Lydia for being a snob. I really blamed her parents, even though I had never met them. In fact, no one in town had ever seen them in public. Some said her father was a U.S. Ambassador to some country no one had ever heard of, and her mother was a former Hollywood movie studio executive. How many other secrets lay behind the walls of their multimillion-dollar mansion, I couldn’t say. I only knew that the student’s fascination guaranteed Lydia’s popularity at school.

Directly behind Lydia sat her boyfriend: Shankstonville High’s premier jock, Andy. All the google-eyed farm girls thought he was a total hunk. To me, he was just a big ape in overalls. To the school football team, however, he was an absolute savior. His winning, on-the-field performance kept the school trophy case well-stocked. The local school board conveniently overlooked his pitiful grade point average to keep him on the team. After all, who cares about learning when you’ve got The Hulk for a linebacker?

Andy had his eyes on me, too, and begged for my attention by loudly pencil-drumming on his desk. When I finally looked over at him, he leaned in toward Lydia. “Ah guess da ‘lection’s in da bag now, ain’t it, darlin’?” he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear him.

What a moron! Andy knew I would be speaking at that afternoon’s assembly and was trying to rattle me. I acted like his rudeness was having no effect—but it was. Tolerating a doofus like Andy was one thing, but I would sooner bury my head in a cow pasture than face a gymnasium full of the likes of him.

The class settled down as a short, round gentleman came through the door. He was our English teacher, Mr. Pierce. He had a laptop computer crammed under one arm. “Goooood morning, class,” he said, in a lilting voice. He plopped the computer down on his desk, straightened his plaid bow tie, and raised a textbook up over his head. “Please turn to chapter four of Classic Greek Mythology.” Taking a piece of chalk from his desk drawer, he reached high up on the blackboard and wrote Theseus and the Minotaur in big letters. “Anybody familiar with this one?”

“It’s an awesome video game,” spouted one of the students.

“I’m sure it is,” said the unimpressed teacher. “No, I’m talking about the mythological Minotaur, the flesh-eating beast, and Theseus, the boy who slays it.” The textbook illustration showed how the Minotaur looked; basically, a pumped-up man in a loincloth with the head of a ferocious bull.

“Here’s the gist,” said Mr. Pierce. “To prevent a war with the Isle of Crete, the king of Athens agrees to send seven children over to the island, where they will become a tasty lunch for the half-bull Minotaur. Theseus, the king’s son, wants a shot at slaying the beast and asks if he can tag along. Dad says okay. So, Theseus ships out, unaware that his task isn’t going to be all that easy. You see, the Minotaur lives at the center of a giant maze that’s so big, once you go in, you can never find your way back out. Anyone know what happens next?”

Lydia spoke up. “Ask Andy. He’s half-bull.”

“True,” I added. “But there’s some question about the other half.”

Mild chuckles rose from the class. I looked over at Andy and wrinkled my nose at him. He was not amused.

The teacher continued, “Well, it turns out that Theseus is a pretty clever dude. He figures out a way to slay the beast and get out of the maze all before lunchtime. In the end, Theseus kills the Minotaur, saves the children, and they all live happily ever after—except the dead Minotaur, of course. Any questions?”

I raised my hand. “I don’t get the point of the maze,” I said. “Why not just keep the thing in a cage?”

“It’s symbolic,” said Mr. Pierce. “The maze represents the obstacles we all face in life.”

“Then what does the Minotaur represent?”

“The savagery of man. Please note, however, that it’s man’s ingenuity, not his brutality, that ultimately saves the day.”

“Really?” I said. “Then explain this: by killing the Minotaur, didn’t Theseus kind of mess up the peace deal? I mean, so Athens and Crete had a bloody war after that, right?”

Mr. Pierce stared at me a few seconds then turned to the class. “Anyone else have a question?”

The lunch bell rang, and I was once again the target of student gossip. As I entered the cafeteria, whispers began flying at me from all directions. Though I tried not to draw attention to myself, a plate accidentally fell from my lunch tray and crashed on the floor. I could feel the stares at my back as I picked up the pieces. I desperately needed to find a friendly face. A comforting word from anyone would do wonders for my self-esteem.

Then I spotted my good friend, Hubert. He and I were an odd pair: he, the brainiac nerd and I, the rebellious outsider. We had both come to Shankstonville from similar backgrounds and shared the same distaste for the local culture. And although we connected immediately, our friendship remained strictly on an intellectual level, free from any romantic complications, if you know what I mean.

Hubert was just what I needed to lift my spirits. I crossed the cafeteria to his usual table and found him with his nose buried in a book on String Theory. I dropped my food tray on the table, just missing his peanut butter sandwich, and sat down next to him. “How goes it?” I said. Hubert ignored me. I leaned in close to the side of his face. “Hey! It’s Amy. Remember me?”

With his eyes still glued to his book, he said, “Is it true?” A jolt of disappointment shot through me. Of all the kids at school, Hubert was the last one I would have expected to believe idle rumors.

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” I said.

Hubert nudged his horn-rimmed glasses up to the bridge of his nose and looked at me. “Is it true?” he asked a second time.

“You mean the boot camp thing? Well . . . to be honest . . . Yes.” Hubert hung his head as if he had finished last in a science fair competition. “It’s not a big deal,” I said. “I had an argument with my folks and they overreacted, that’s all. Why is everyone so freaked out over this?”

“I’m not freaked out,” said Hubert. “It’s just that those places don’t always deliver the desired result. You might go in as Amy and come out as Medusa.” His eyes filled with deep concern. “I’m worried about you.”

Then he placed his hand gently over mine, and in that moment, my fears melted away. My sadness disappeared and calmness poured over me like a cool breeze in August. It was a simple act, and yet it touched my heart in a way I did not expect.

Feeling a little embarrassed, I slowly pulled my hand away. “You don’t have to be so concerned,” I said. “It’s not like I’m going in for shock therapy, or something.”

“I know that,” said Hubert, “but they don’t. This is a small town and its people are even smaller. These country folk will crucify you for being drunk in church on Sunday, then laugh it off on Monday. They may not be so forgiving of you when you get back.”

Hubert could have saved his breath. Nothing he said bothered me in the least. He had forgotten that I was the type who spit in the eye of adversity. There was no obstacle I couldn’t overcome. I would return from boot camp, win the election, and emerge victorious. Yeah, right! Who was I kidding? I was forming a storybook ending to a situation I had no control over. People already had a low opinion of me, and my banishment to Bonehead Bootcamp wasn’t exactly going to boost my approval rating.

Hubert started to get up from the table when I noticed him shift his weight onto a walking cane. A plaster cast was wrapped around his right ankle. “How’d you get that? “ I asked.

“Being stupid,” he said. “I tripped in the stairwell yesterday after last period and fell down a whole flight of stairs.”

I grabbed hold of his arm and joked, “A nerd, a geek, and now a gimp.” Hubert playfully pinched my cheek, then hobbled off with his book under his arm, leaving behind his uneaten peanut butter sandwich.

Assembly.

A portable stage had been erected inside the school gymnasium. A freshly-lacquered podium, courtesy of the Senior Woodshop Club, stood center stage. Our school principal was seated directly under a basketball hoop next to a life-size cutout of the school mascot, Sammy Shark. (Why our team was named The Shankstonville Sharks, when the nearest ocean was a thousand miles away, was never made clear to me.)

The stage creaked as I took my seat next to the principal. Lydia sat on the other side of him, silently facing forward. The rest of the student body filed in. More of that nauseating huckleberry music played over the sound system, making it hard for me to study my notes.

The minute hand on the scoreboard clock snapped to the top of the hour. The principal signaled to stop the music, then stepped up to the podium. He tapped on the microphone. “Y’all please take your seats so we can get started,” he said to the murmuring crowd. “Soon you will be voting for a new student body president. Today, you will have an opportunity to hear each of the candidates speak.”

A coin toss had determined that I would go first. After a brief introduction, I stepped up to the mic and tilted it down. A burst of feedback quieted the audience. I scanned the gym, praying no one could hear my notes rustling in my shaking hands.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “Many of you are probably wondering: What will the next student body president do for me? Well, if I’m elected, I would propose changes to help make your high school years richer and more rewarding.”

The students stared back at me in dazed silence—not unexpected, just earlier in my speech than I had hoped.

I continued, “For example: what’s up with the school newspaper? Instead of providing objective reporting, it distorts the facts and blurs the details. I would recommend restructuring its format from a tabloid rag into a model of journalistic excellence.”

I looked out at an ocean of frozen stares.

“We all know that teenage obesity is a problem. How about healthier food choices in the cafeteria? I would lobby for more nutritional alternatives like tofu salads, bean sprout sandwiches, and fruit smoothies.”

The crowd was now getting restless.

“And what about the music that plays over the P.A. system? A different musical style could be offered for each day of the week, like:

Motown Mondays,

Teen pop Tuesdays,

Woodstock Wednesdays,

Thrash metal Thursdays, and

Funk rock Fridays.”

“You suck!” shouted a lone voice from the back of the gym.

I shook off the rude interruption. “So remember,” I concluded, “a vote for Amy Dawson is a vote for a brighter tomorrow. Thank you.”

I returned to my seat with no applause.

Lydia didn’t wait for her introduction. She marched up to the podium like a battlefield commander.

“You all know me,” she said. “You know I can get things done. We, the student body, have demands that our lame-ass school board refuses to recognize, like:

texting in class . . .”

That got the audience’s attention.

“more restrooms, especially for girls . . .”

They were now sitting upright.

“and junk food alternatives for school lunches.”

A roar of jubilation filled the gym.

“So, would you rather have a bonehead for your president?” Lydia shot me an evil grin. “Or someone who will fight for the changes you want?”

The students were now on their feet, chanting, “Ly-di-a! Ly-di-a! Ly-di-a!”

I stood up, folded my notes, and quietly walked off the stage.

I walked home alone that day, past the split rail fences, past the cud-chewing cows. My cell phone didn’t ring once the entire time, as if I was the only human on the planet. My only company was Chopper, an old hound dog belonging to one of the farmers near my house. He would spot me from his front porch and come bounding over to me, whereupon I commenced scratching behind his big floppy ears. Good boy!

That kind of companionship from a human would have been nice, but that was wishful thinking. I felt abandoned. Worse, I felt ashamed. The next morning I would be off to Bonehead Bootcamp, a place that was causing me grief even before I passed through its gates. This whole mess was the result of a huge misunderstanding, and I was determined to prove it. I had to, if I ever wanted to show my face at school again.

As I rounded the final turn for home, I heard the sound of a clanging bell. My little sheep friend was right where it had been the day before, and true to form, its eyes tracked my every move. I completely ignored it as I crossed the road.

Suddenly, I heard the sheep’s bell behind me rattle violently. I dropped my schoolbooks as I spun around. To my shock and surprise, the sheep was gone! The bell lay silent in the grass where the little guy had been standing only seconds before.

Okay, I told myself, now you’ve really lost it.

Chapter 3

Day One

The silver and blue bus barreled down the empty highway. Passengers shaded their eyes from the glare of the morning sun. The day was already starting out to be a scorcher. Being an old-style bus, there was no window tinting to help filter the daytime heat. To make matters worse, its air conditioning failed moments after leaving Shankstonville. The windows could only be lowered a few inches, so most of the riders had to settle for fanning themselves to keep cool. Anyone lucky enough to have gotten a window seat savored the modest airflow. I was one of the fortunate ones. Next stop: Bonehead Bootcamp.

Taking the bus was my own idea. My dad offered to drive me, but I turned him down. I wasn’t about to accept favors from the enemy. I even refused a ride to the bus station, choosing instead to walk there by myself. The click-clacking of my suitcase wheels over the cracked sidewalk made it hard to think. I needed to devise a plan that would prevent me from arriving at the boot camp. Of course, there was the obvious solution: simply hop off the bus somewhere along the way. But my dad’s warning was sill fresh: any shenanigans, and he would change the locks on every door of our house. What a guy!

The bus screeched to a halt. I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked out the window. There were no highway signs or billboards to indicate our location. The bus had passed the Shankstonville city limits an hour earlier, and I had no idea where I was.

The bus driver motioned me up to the front. Grabbing my suitcase from the overhead bin, I moved forward, past the scowls of the other passengers anxious to get moving again. I stood beside the driver and stared out the bug-splattered windshield. The landscape was barren and lifeless. Tumble weeds rolled across the deserted road. A column of dust swirled into the air like a mini Kansas City twister.

The bus stop was marked only by a bent-over pole, its sign having blown off in the wind. I asked the elderly driver, “You sure this is my stop?”

“Yup,” he said. “This here’s the place.”

“You absolutely sure?”

“Young lady, I’ve been drivin’ this route near fifteen years. Don’t stop here often, but I know my stops, and this here’s yours.”

“But where are all the trees? Where are the flowers and the green hills?”

“Ain’t gonna find none of that ‘round here, missy,” he said. “Used to be a farm over yonder. Grew corn and herded livestock, as I recall. The bank foreclosed it twenty years ago. Ain’t a seed been planted there since.” He pulled on a lever and opened the squeaky door. “Funny thing, though.”

“What’s funny?” I asked nervously.

“Don’t never pick no one up here. Just drop ‘em off.” With that illuminating bit of information, I stepped off the bus.

Black exhaust fumes billowed into the air as the bus continued on its way. The cloud of dust left in its wake made it hard to see my surroundings. Waving my hand in front of my face, something came into view across the road: a wrought iron gate—the same one I had seen in the boot camp brochure. Bonehead Bootcamp was spelled out in large letters across the top. Below that was a crudely painted sign that warned, Trespassers will be sorry! I clutched the handle of my suitcase, gulped down the last drop of moisture in my dry throat, and headed on over.

The vertical, metal bars were a good fifteen feet high. Topped with coiled razor wire, they stretched for miles on either side of the gate. A decaying guard tower stood high above the entrance. It was so eroded that the slightest touch might easily send it crashing to the ground. The rotting ladder to the guard shack made it totally inaccessible—a bonus for the vultures nesting on the roof. Beyond the bars in the distance were the remains of the old farm the bus driver had described. I saw a dilapidated farmhouse, a crumbling red barn, and a rusted tractor.

As I stepped forward to get a closer look, I nearly flattened a desert lizard. He was lying on his belly, basking under the hot sun. He looked quite content and right at home. And why wouldn’t he? He belonged here. I didn’t. My home seemed light-years away. I longed for the comfort of my room, the coziness of my bed, the softness of my plush animals.

Suddenly, the little lizard scurried off. I heard a loud, metallic clunk and jumped back. The massive gate began opening inward, its rusty hinges wailing like a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex. Another loud clunk and the gate stopped. Before me lay miles of desolation. Though I had no idea what awaited me inside, there was nowhere else to go but forward.

Then the front door to the old farmhouse swung open. Out stepped a stout-looking man in a military uniform. He marched toward me like a soldier in a homecoming parade. It was hard to make out his face at that distance. Though I couldn’t be certain of his intentions, I was pretty sure he wasn’t coming to welcome me to a barn dance.

My heart pounded. I looked down the empty road behind me, hoping a passing car would offer me a ride back to town. I would have gladly hopped a cattle truck if it meant getting away from that place.

Convinced that a rescue wasn’t in my future, I turned back around, only to come face-to-face with the man in uniform. He was a big brute: large chest, broad shoulders, solid forearms. Military stripes were sewn to the sleeves of his spotless uniform. He was everything you would expect to see in a disciplined officer—everything except his head. His face was covered in soft, white wool. He had a long, protruding nose and droopy ears that stuck out under his pointy, green hat. Apparently, not all of the livestock had been removed from the farm, for while the man standing before me was unquestionably human, he had the head of a sheep!

I thought half-man/half-animal creatures only existed in Greek legend. True, he looked nothing like the Minotaur I learned about in school, but he did share one thing in common with that mythical beast: he had the fire of a raging bull in his eyes.

With his fists firmly planted on his hips, the sheep leaned toward me. “All mobile devices will be confiscated!” he demanded. The cell phone in my pocket was my only connection to the outside world. I was reluctant to part with it, even though finding a wireless signal this far from nowhere was doubtful.

The sheep’s squinty eyes shifted to my pocket. Then, quick as an ear twitch, he reached in, retrieved the phone, and tossed it into a shoebox he had tucked under one arm. The box was full of other electronic gadgets.

“Anything more to declare?” asked the sheep. I stood rigid as an iceberg and shook my head. The sheep performed an about-face. “You will follow me,” he said, and headed back toward the farmhouse. I followed the footprints of his combat boots as the iron gate slammed shut behind us.

This was getting a little scary. The reality of my situation was sinking in. Then again, how much of this was real? My sheep-headed host, for example. What’s up with that? Only one thing was certain: I was fenced in, behind bars like a common criminal. Escape would have to be my first order of business. There weren’t any guards around, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. All I needed was a ladder tall enough to reach the top of the fence. Or, maybe I could crash the gate with that old tractor, if it still operated. With great hopefulness, I listened for the whine of a diesel engine, but all I heard was the squeaking of my suitcase wheels and the drone of the lonesome wind.

We followed a picket fence to a rickety gate. On the other side stood a long, white building, as old and weather-beaten as the farmhouse. Half of its sun-baked shingles were missing. Flakes of chipped whitewash were sprinkled on the dirt all around it. I had seen buildings like this on the chicken ranches around Shankstonville. For sure, it was an old chicken coop, but not one any self-respecting hen would want to occupy.

A row of doors ran across the front like a city housing project. The sheep pointed to the closest one. “These are your quarters,” he said. “Stow your gear and be ready for inspection at oh-nine-hundred hours. You will report there.” He pointed to a clearing a short distance away. Painted white rocks encircled an area the size of a backyard swimming pool. A flag pole marked the center of it. With that, the man-sheep then spun around and marched back to the farmhouse. I took a deep breath and climbed the wobbly steps to my new digs.

My first look inside confirmed who its previous residents were. Not only were chicken feathers scattered all around, it smelled of its former inhabitants. The only indoor furnishings were a sagging cot, a termite-ravaged dresser, and a small desk. I slid open the desk drawer; no writing paper, no Gideon Bible, no reminders of the world outside the boot camp. The phone booth-sized bathroom was even less inviting, and smelled even worse. I looked for some deodorizing spray or anything that would freshened the air. I tried the medicine cabinet over the sink. Empty!

Frustrated, I started to slam shut the cabinet door to get my anger out, then I stopped myself. There was no point getting upset. I was a prisoner of Bonehead Bootcamp and nothing was going to change that. Escaping it was a long shot at best. I should just do as I was told and get the whole thing over with. If other kids had survived that miserable place, then so could I. Then I noticed some handwriting on the back of the medicine cabinet door. A message had been scrawled in pink lipstick. It read, simply, Beware the sheep!

Oh-nine-hundred.

I arrived at the inspection site just as I had been ordered to do. Leaning against the flag pole were two boys about my age. They stood silently with their backs to each other. One was tall and thin. He tapped his finger on a handheld device he held inches away from his face. The other was heavier and shorter. He stared off into space while blowing smoke rings from a cigarette. Neither of the boys seemed very interested in me.

I stepped in front of the lanky one. “Nice day,” I said.

He lowered his sunglasses and glared down at me, then replied, “If you’re in Hell.”

I pointed to the device in his hand. “Where’d you get that? I thought we had to give up all our gizmos.”

“Only the wireless ones, sweetheart,” said the boy. He showed me his device as an electronic calculator, then resumed tapping on it.

I didn’t like the way he spoke to me. There I was, trying to be friendly, and he brushed me off like a bad case of dandruff. Then I understood why. As his finger raced across the keypad, the sunlight reflected off his diamond-studded Rolex wristwatch. Not many teenagers tell the time from such a big-ticket timepiece, unless you’re a child of privilege, a little rich boy. This guy obviously was, and had the attitude to go along with it.

The tall boy switched off his calculator and stuffed it into the pocket of his pleated pants. He removed his designer shades. “I’m Devin,” he said. “And what in heaven’s name brings you to this god-awful place?”

“My god-awful parents,” I said. I reached out to shake his hand. “My name’s Amy.”

At that moment, the short boy cut in between us and looked angrily into my eyes. “Parents are screwups!” he yelled, his cigarette dangling from his lips. “They screw up their kids, they screw up the country, they screw up the whole screwed up world!”

The disgruntled teen would have seemed more threatening if not for his size. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach eye level with me. I guess his cockiness was supposed to make me afraid of him. I wasn’t. He must have thought his shaved head and bleached goatee made him look tough. It didn’t. Still, I did like his leather biker jacket, even though it didn’t quite say “hooligan” to me. A wicked-looking skull was embroidered on it, and above that, his name: Jake.

The smoke from the boy’s cigarette made my eyes water. I plucked it out of his mouth. “Don’t you know those things will kill you?” I said.

“Says who?” he replied.

“Ask any doctor.”

“Who can afford to do that?”

“Ever heard of company health insurance?”

“Ever heard of unemployment?”

“The president is working to fix that.”

“The president is working to get reelected.”

“Outspoken, aren’t you.”

“Free Speech: it’s the only freedom we got left in this country.”

I shoved his cigarette back in his mouth. There are some people in this world against whom you will never win an argument. This guy was one of them.

Devin stepped forward. “Pay no attention to this fugitive from The Doobie Brothers. He’s a hotheaded, un-American swine.”

“Call me names if you want,” responded Jake. “That’s your constitutional right. At least I’m not a greedy hog like you!” After an intense staring contest, the two boys resumed their back-to-back position.

While Jake puffed more smoke rings, Devin grabbed my wrist and quietly pulled me aside. We walked a short distance, and with Jake safely out of earshot, Devin dug into his pocket. He pulled out a wad of cash the size of a grapefruit. “I don’t usually ask for favors,” he whispered, extending his money-filled fist, “but I don’t suppose you know a way out of this hellhole.”

Jake’s head popped up over Devin’s shoulder. “Ya see?” said Jake. “He’s one of them capitalist worms who thinks he can buy his way out of anything.”

Boneheads! I was in the company of pea-brained, knuckleheaded numbskulls. I refused to accept that I was in the same league as them. This boot camp looney bin was no place for me. No matter how I got sent there, I was determined to break out of it, one way or another. All I had to do was wait for the right opportunity, and the right moment to make my move.

The boys and I somehow made it back to the flagpole without any more sparks flying. “So, Amy,” said Devin, “what devilish deed has brought you to this teenage wasteland?”

“Self-expression,” I said.

“What’d I tell ya, man,” said Jake. “Speakin’ your mind these days only gets you into trouble.”

“That’s not all,” I said. “My family hates me, too, and I’m the laughing stock at school. And I would’ve made such a great student body president.”

Jake’s face lit up. “Running for office?”

“Was,” I said. “The latest polls have me losing by a landslide.”

“Polls!” grumbled Devin. “Those things don’t mean squat. Pay no attention to them.”

“The scumbag’s right,” said Jake. “Get back in there and show ‘em how democracy works. Give the other guy a good smearing and get yourself elected.”

“Sorry, Jake,” I said, “but I’m not the type to resort to dirty politics. That’s just what my opponent has been doing to me. She slings more mud than a monkey in a pigsty.”

“Listen to me,” insisted Jake. “Dig up some dirt. Spread some ugly rumors. That’s how you win elections.”

Devin disagreed. “I should say it is not! You’ve got to outspend the competition. One well-financed media blitz and those voting sheep will be eating out of your hand.”

“Phony sex scandals,” said Jake. “It’s the only way.”

“Market saturation,” countered Devin. “Works every time.”

The boys were getting on my nerves again, and I was about to tell them so, when a brilliant light flashed across my face. I shaded my eyes as I turned toward it. Someone was standing alongside the light source. Then the light went away, and as my eyes readjusted to the daylight, I got a good look at the culprit: Lydia! She had been bouncing the sunlight off her ever-present makeup mirror.

Lydia swaggered over to Devin and Jake, like a model strutting down a fashion show runway. “I like your campaign strategies, boys,” she said, “but you’re forgetting one thing: people don’t vote for boneheads.” She ambled over to me and pointed her finger in my face. “Especially this one!”

Devin whispered in Jake’s ear, “It’s the monkey from the pigsty.”

“Well, well!” I said to Lydia. “This kind of puts a crimp in your political ambitions, doesn’t it? I mean, how can you steal the election if you’re here?”

“You’re so dim,” said Lydia. “I only entered the race to teach you a lesson. Losing doesn’t bother me in the slightest, so long as your sorry ass goes down with me.”

I nodded. “You’re gonna fit right in with this place. Why are you here, anyway?”

“For something I totally didn’t do.”

There was no point in asking Lydia to explain herself. I had long since learned not to believe anything she told me:

She said she had traveled Europe.

She hadn’t.

She said she was a straight-A student.

She wasn’t.

She said she knew Johnny Depp.

She didn’t.

Too bad Devin and Jake didn’t know Lydia the way I did. Not that it would have made any difference. The adolescent males only knew a smoking-hot babe when they saw one. They hurried over to her and introduced themselves. But the formalities would end abruptly, as a loud voice roared out from the skies:

“ATTENNN—TION!”

Out from behind us marched that same sheep-headed man who greeted me at the front gate. We immediately stood at attention, like buck privates in an old war movie.

“Fall in!” hollered the sheep.

We all looked at each other, not sure what he was ordering us to do.

The sheep snapped, “A straight line, you idiots!” We jumped into formation and stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Shoulder-to-elbow in Jake’s case.

The sheep paraded back and forth in front of us like a drill sergeant; head up, chest out, his hands clasped behind his back. He eyeballed each of us intensely, then snarled, “Alright, recruits, listen up! You all know why you’re here. You lack discipline, have no sense of decency, and act like a pack of wild animals. I have been tasked to see that you learn to behave like human beings, and you will remain here until I declare you are no longer a black mark on society.”

Jake raised his hand. “I thought this was only supposed to be for the weekend.”

Sergeant Sheep marched up to Jake and slapped the cigarette out of his mouth. “You have been sadly misinformed, mister!” he hollered. “Isn’t that right, runt?”

Jake saluted meekly. “Sir, yes, sir.”

“They tell me you’re nothing but a stubborn jackass with the big mouth. Well, you are not leaving here until you learn some humility.”

Devin let a chuckle slip out. The sergeant moved over to face him. “You think this is funny, slimeball?” he shouted, the brim of his hat butting against Devin’s forehead.

“N-no, sir,” answered Devin.

“Your pursuit of wealth is no laughing matter. You’d sell your own grandmother if there was a profit in it. A greedy weasel, that’s what you are.”

The sergeant stepped in front of Lydia. “And this one’s no better. You can add deceit to her list of personality flaws. She’s a conniving snake hiding a dark secret; a secret that was about to be revealed by that poor boy you shoved down the stairs.”

I knew immediately who that boy was: Hubert. So, he didn’t just trip down those stairs. Whatever secret Hubert had uncovered about Lydia must have been pretty damaging. I needed to get home and find out what it was. Using it against her was the key to defeating Lydia in the election. I raised my hand. “Excuse me please, sir,” I said to the sergeant respectfully. “May I have a word?”

The sheep frowned as his head whipped in my direction. Then, a gentle smile appeared as he casually strolled over to me. “Of course, my dear,” he said, with fake politeness. “By all means.”

I took a step forward. “Well, sir, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I belong here.”

“Gracious!” he said. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“You see, I understand why the others are here. They’ve got issues. Serious issues. They’re the real boneheads.”

“You don’t say.” The sheep’s pleasantness was fading quickly.

“Yes sir,” I said. “Believe me, I know all about boneheads. I’ve got a whole houseful of ‘em back home.”

The sergeant’s face turned red. He inhaled deeply, and I knew I was next to receive his wrath.

“Get back in line!” he screamed. “So, you make the rules. It’s your way or no way. Live and let live, so long as it’s on your terms, is that it? I think I smell a skunk.”

I inched back into line and hung my head, but not in shame. I was pissed. It was bad enough having to take that kind of verbal abuse at home, now I had to hear it from a freaky farm animal.

Sergeant Sheep stepped back and faced the group. “Alright, you social rejects. Get this through your bony heads: I own you. You will obey my every command. Disorderly conduct will be subject to disciplinary action. And there will be no deserters in my camp. Is that clear?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

Chapter 4

Crossroads

The instructions were simple: swing from the rope, balance on the beam, run through the tires. Failing any of these tasks, however, brought consequences: lose your grip and fall in the mud; lose your balance and fall in the ditch; lose your focus and fall on your face. Several other hurdles rounded out the military-style obstacle course. It didn’t look all that difficult to me. I was up to the challenge mentally. Physically, well, I wished I’d been more athletic in school. Taking Track and Field might have better prepared me for the final obstacle: scaling an eight-foot wall.

The boys looked over the course while Lydia and I waited at the starting line. I suggested to her that we at least be on speaking terms. Being the only females in the camp, watching each other’s back seemed like a wise thing to do. Lydia agreed, and a truce was officially declared. We temporarily put aside our differences, even though our mutual distrust for each other was still out there.

To test our new alliance, we engaged in our first ever civil conversation, choosing a topic near and dear to teen girls everywhere: boys.

I went first. “So, what do you think of those guys?”

Lydia didn’t hesitate to respond. “Devin’s loaded, isn’t he?”

“It would seem so,” I said. “I had a feeling you’d like him.”

“He’s kinda cute, too. Don’t you think?”

“Cuter than Andy?”

“You’ve gotta be kidding. Andy’s about as cute as a Sherman tank. Besides, I’ll take money over muscle any day.”

Devin and Jake soon joined us, and we all parked our toes behind the chalk line in the dirt. Sergeant Sheep stood off to one side holding a starting pistol. “Alright, you mindless plebes,” he said. “You all know your objective. Complete this course successfully and you’ll be one step closer to being discharged.”

The sheep aimed his gun in the air.

We leaned forward.

Bang!

Devin was the first one out front, followed by Jake, then Lydia. I fell into last place almost immediately. Even though no trophies would be awarded for finishing first, there was no way I was going to lose to Lydia. My chance came to pass her when she tripped over the tires. But my lead quickly faded after bumbling across the balance beam. Devin and Jake’s determination to win was even more evident. They shoved, bumped, and tripped each other every chance they had.

Despite this unsportsmanlike behavior, the pace was pretty even. The only traffic tie-up was at the rope swing. With only one rope, you had to wait your turn. This provided the perfect opportunity to get even with your competitors. A quick push and your rival would fall into the foul muck below. I was above such cruelty. Lydia was not. She gave me a shove just as I reached out for the rope. But to her dismay, her shove gave me the extra boost I needed to reach the other side.

Only one obstacle remained: the wall. Devin attacked it first. He leaped into the air, stretched out his long arms and pulled himself up to the top. There he sat, beaming in his victory. To further torment us, he beat his chest like Tarzan, before dropping down to the other side. We all expected him to come around the front displaying more of his bloated ego, but he didn’t. In fact, he didn’t show himself at all. I was worried he might have injured himself.

Jake went next. Surprisingly, he scrambled up and over the wall with little effort. I expected him to come out with Devin, but he, too, was a no-show. It was the same with Lydia. Once over the top, each of them seemed to disappear. There was no way they could have run off without me seeing them. Maybe they were resting in the shade, or more likely, awaiting my arrival, so they could rag on me for finishing last.

It was my turn to tackle the wall. I jumped up with all I had left in my weary legs, grabbed hold, and hoisted myself up. I sat there on the top, heaving from exhaustion, and looked down the other side. No one was there! The loose dirt below me hadn’t even been disturbed. I turned back toward the front to find Sergeant Sheep staring up at me.

“What’s going on here?” I asked him. “Where’d everybody go?”

The sheep just smiled, raised his arm, and turned the palm of his hand toward me. A blast of wind blew into my face. I felt myself falling backward, like a hurricane was blowing me over.

Down I went, tumbling head-over-heal like a sock in a clothes dryer. I prepared myself for a hard landing, but strangely, I stayed airborne. How long before I returned to Earth? I wondered. Panic started to set in. My heartbeat drummed in my ears. Voices from my past echoed in my head:

“It’s for your own good.”

“Don’t vote for a bonehead.”

“You might come out as Medusa.”

With no warning, I hit the ground solidly on my feet, then fell onto my back. Laying perfectly still, I kept my eyes closed while trying to catch my breath. It was eerily quiet. My fingers patted the soft earth under me. I didn’t seem to have been injured from the fall; no pain in my arms or legs. Then I opened my eyes and saw a clear, blue sky.

I sat up and found the others sitting on the ground in front of me. Lydia was staring into her mirror, fixing her makeup. Devin sampled the wind direction with his index finger. Jake grumbled obscenities while throwing fistfuls of dirt at the ground. I scanned the unfamiliar landscape. The powerful wind had dropped us onto a country crossroad that cut across an enormous cornfield. Each road ran perfectly straight and stretched clear to the horizon. The cornfield was tall and green, and hugged the roadsides like prison walls. There was no sign of the boot camp, the obstacle course, or even the wall we had just climbed over.

Devin dusted himself off as he stood up. “It’s a mystery,” he said.

“It’s a conspiracy,” said Jake.

Lydia closed her makeup mirror, “You okay, Amy?”

“Call me Alice,” I said, holding my head. “I feel like I just fell down a rabbit hole.” I rose to my feet. “So, what do we do now?”

“Call 9-1-1, of course,” said Devin. “Oh . . . yeah . . . no phones. If we only knew where we were.”

Lydia said, “What we totally need is a map.”

Jake laughed. “A map? You guys are so 20th Century.” He pulled an empty pack of cigarettes from his pocket and tipped it forward. Into his hand dropped a small GPS device!

Devin’s eyes widened in amazement. “How’d you get that past the sheep?”

Jake smirked. “A good smuggler never reveals his secrets.” He switched on the device, and a digital voice spoke to us from its tiny speaker:

“Activating maps . . .”

“Awesome!” said Lydia. “Now we can get outta here.”

“Recalculating . . .”

“What do mean, we?” said Jake, holding the device close to his chest.

“Searching location . . .”

Devin said, “Something tells me he has other plans.”

“Location found.”

“You’re so right,” said Jake, backing away, “and they don’t include any of you.” He looked at the small screen and started into the cornfield. “So long, losers!”

Lydia ran up to him and stroked his shoulder seductively. “Sure you don’t want some company?”

Jake looked down at her cherry-red fingernails and scowled. “Save it, sister!” he said. “I don’t need no extra baggage.”

Just then, a rapid series of beeps rang out from the device. It played a breezy little melody, then politely said:

“Good-bye.”

Jake frantically pressed every button on the device he could find. He banged the screen with his fist, then shook it like a salt shaker. Lydia removed her hand from his shoulder.

“Battery trouble?” said Devin smugly. He walked up to Jake and ripped the object from his hands. “Big man!” said Devin. “A real American hero, aren’t you?”

“Get off it, rich boy!” said Jake. “You woulda done the same thing.”

Devin tossed the useless device into the cornfield. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Only a sadistic madman who enjoys tormenting people could be so inhuman. I’d say you’re less than human. You’ve got about as much humanity in you as a jackass!”

Jake was furious, and rightly so. This was the second time he had been compared to that dumb animal. But instead of lashing out at Devin, he threw his hands up. “Okay!” shouted Jake. “I tried to save my own skin. So, I’m not a saint, but I sure as hell ain’t no jackass. As for you . . .”

Here we go again. All day I had listened to those two hurl insults at each other, and now Jake was gearing up for another round. But this time, Devin was about to win the name-calling contest. His “jackass” remark was spot on, for at that moment, a donkey ear popped out the top of Jake’s bald head.

“Hey!” said Devin. “How’d you do that?”

“How’d I do what?” Jake said, as a second long ear burst out of his scalp. Coarse, brown hair began growing from his forehead and cheeks. Gray stubble sprouted around his nose and chin. His mouth began to stretch, like being pulled in a taffy machine.

We all cringed at the sight. “I’m so gonna puke!” said Lydia.

“At what?” said Jake, scratching the mane between his long ears. Lydia handed him her makeup mirror. Seeing his deformed face in the reflection, there wasn’t much he could say, except, “What the hell?”

However impossible, Jake had turned into a mule! Only his head, though. Below the neck his body was unchanged. Curiously, his animal face resembled his human one—like a caricature portrait: funny, yet still recognizable.

Devin’s look of astonishment quickly turned to delight. “Well, whataya know?” he said. “He’s an even bigger ass than I took him for.”

I nudged Devin. “Don’t joke about this,” I said.

“But I’m getting such a kick out of it.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Maybe not, but I wouldn’t stand behind him if I were you.”

Actually, a swift kick was just what Devin needed. Had he not been so elated over Jake’s misfortune, he would have realized that his own head was changing. Gray fur was growing from every pore in Devin’s face. His nose morphed into a long, pointed snout. Whiskers sprang from his cheeks. His now furry ears slid to the top of his round head.

Unable to see his shape-shifting face, Devin continued ribbing Jake. “Anyone for Pin the Tail on the Donkey? Squeak! What was that? Squeak! Squeak!”

Jake was the one smiling now. “Looks like the joke’s on you, pal,” he said. “Let’s see you weasel your way out of this one.” He handed him the mirror.

Devin took a long look at his shocking reflection. He dropped the mirror and ran his fingers over his furry face. Devin’s wealth and prestige couldn’t help him now. No amount of money could undo what he had become. He had the head of a weasel.

But while Jake reveled in Devin’s shocking appearance, Lydia and I shared a sudden realization. We looked over at each other in terror. Were we next? The answer came without delay. Lydia’s rosy cheeks turned pale as a raw onion. Her beautiful auburn hair floated to the ground like dried leaves. Nearly hysterical, Lydia covered her rapidly changing face and turned away.

“Lydia!” I cried.

When she turned back to me, her clear complexion had turned a slimy yellow. Her once petite nose now spread across the width of her head. Fangs dropped down between her perfectly straightened teeth.

Lydia crossed her eyes to view her flattened nose. “Omigod!” she said. “I’m a snake!”

It was a strange and disturbing sight, but it all made perfect sense: Jake, the stubborn mule; Devin, the shifty weasel; Lydia, the sneaky snake. So, this was Sergeant Sheep’s method for reforming troubled teens—forcing them to see themselves as the little beasts they truly were.

I picked Lydia’s mirror up off the ground and offered it to her. But as I handed it over, I caught sight of my own reflection. I had become a critter-headed teenager like the rest of them. My head was covered in black fur, parted by a white stripe running over the top. I had a pointy, pink nose and two stubby ears that poked out the sides of my head.

Lydia’s snake face appeared behind me in the reflection. “Just like I thought,” she said. “You are a little stinker.” And so I was. I had the head of a skunk!

For once Lydia was right about me. It was my stinky disposition that got me sent to Bonehead Bootcamp in the first place. No wonder I had trouble making friends. Every one I met was behind me holding their noses.

We passed around Lydia’s mirror as we came to grips with our new animal identities. Jake folded his mule ears down hoping to make them less noticeable. Devin strummed his weasel whiskers like they were guitar strings. I fluffed my hair trying to cover my skunk stripe. For us, our transformation was more bewildering than worrisome, but for Lydia, the change was devastating. Having to accept the ugliness of her reptile face was more than she could handle. She fell to her knees and cried uncontrollably.

I tried my best to console her. “Don’t cry, Lydia.” I said, “I’ll help you get through this.”

Devin then ushered me aside and kneeled down beside her. He tenderly wrapped Lydia in his arms. “Cry all you want,” he said. “You’ve got no reason to feel ashamed. What they’ve done to us is some kind of cruel joke. But what they’ve done to you is unforgivable. Cry, Lydia. And when you’ve run out of tears, you’ll see that this was all just a bad dream.”

Lydia lifted her tear-stained face up at Devin. “Will I ever wake up?” she asked.

Devin wiped a tear from Lydia’s scaly cheek and helped her to her feet. “We’re walking out of this nightmare right now!” he declared. Then he perched his shades on the ridge of his weasel nose, looked up at the sun, and pointed down the road in front of him. “We’ll go east.”

“How do ya figure that?” protested Jake. He pointed in the opposite direction. “I say we go west.”

Devin pointed again with more emphasis. “My instincts say east.”

“Your instincts stink,” said Jake. “West!”

Of all the stupid things to argue over, this was about the dumbest. I pointed in yet another direction. “We’re going south!” I insisted. “If either of you can show some evidence why we shouldn’t, I’d like to see it.”

That shut ‘em up! We were hopelessly lost, and which road we took made absolutely no difference. It was more important to get moving if we were to get anywhere before nightfall—even though none of us knew where “anywhere” was.

Chapter 5

Stubborn

The crossroads were miles behind us, and our journey to an unknown destination was starting to wear on us. No one felt much like talking. Having already voiced our displeasure with our animal heads, there wasn’t much left to say. There wasn’t much to look at, either. The cornfields hugging the edge of the road kept us moving in a straight line. It was like traveling through a hedge maze with no turns. Best thing to do was keep our eyes on the road ahead, and hope something would turn up.

I wondered if we were the only ones on the road. Surely this wasn’t the first time Sergeant Sheep had used it for his devilish purposes. I listened. Not only were there no human sounds, I heard no other living creatures, either: no birds, no bees, no bullfrogs. Not even a housefly circled my skunk head. All I heard was the shuffling of our tired feet in the soft dirt.

The sky was clear, which was both pleasurable and unfortunate. A passing cloud to block out the sun would have brought welcome relief from the afternoon heat. A cool breeze would also have been nice, if only to fan the tempers of Devin and Jake. Their dislike for one another triggered the few times anyone spoke:

“Shoulda gone east,” said Devin.

“Shoulda gone west,” said Jake.

“Shoulda pushed you in the mud.”

“Shoulda whipped you with that rope.”

I blurted out, “Shoulda left you two behind! If you want to talk about something, how about some ideas on how to get us off this road?”

Lydia stayed out of the conversation, choosing to act on an idea we should have thought of sooner. She sat down by the side of the road, took off her shoes, and massaged her feet. Devin and I followed her lead. Jake was in no mood to join us.

Resting in the shade, Devin whipped out his calculator and started tapping on the keys. “What are you doing,” I asked him, “adding up our mileage?”

“Corn futures,” said Devin. “A field this size could yield a handsome return with the right investment strategy.” He hit the enter key. “Thought so! At today’s price per bushel, I could make a killing on corn-based ethanol alone.”

Jake had been studying the corn Devin was so enthralled with, and said, “Not with this crop, you won’t.”

“How do you know?” said Devin.

Jake reached for a corn stalk, grabbed the stem, and yanked the whole plant out of the ground with ease. The corn made a hollow thud as he tossed it on the ground. It had no roots on the bottom and looked like it was made out of cardboard.

We all jumped to our feet and backed away, as if the field was carrying a contagious disease. Devin plucked off an ear of corn and tore open its green husk. Nothing inside but air. “I’ll be damned!” he said. “It looks so real. How did you know?”

“I grew up on a farm,” said Jake. “Spent nearly all my childhood around this stuff. I remember that unharvested corn has a real mean odor. This doesn’t have it.”

“You think the whole field is that way?” I said. I started to walk into the cornfield.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warned Jake. “The other thing I remember is how easy it is to get lost in a cornfield. Did it once when I was six, and was almost never heard from again.”

“Everyone in Shankstonville knows that,” said Lydia. “I guess back then you were too young to know what you were doing.”

“Wrong,” said Jake. “I knew exactly what I was doing, My family was about to get kicked off our farm. Some highfalutin development company said it didn’t belong to us. They’d been digging around at the county records office and found that the old deed was never signed. It didn’t matter to those crooks that our family had plowed that land for generations. Next thing ya know, out comes the county sheriff and tells us we gotta move. So, I ran into our cornfield, figurin’ they couldn’t leave without me.”

“Where was your father?” I asked. “Didn’t he do something?”

“Pa? That bum? After those money-grubbers stole our property, we were moved into a smelly, old trailer. A real heap. Next morning, Pa puts on his straw cowboy hat and goes looking for work. He never came back. Ma and me drifted for years after that. Half the time we didn’t know what town we was in. Ma tried to get me to forgive Pa for what he did, but you’ll never make me believe he cared a hang about us.”

Devin tossed the hollow corncob at Jake’s feet. “That explains it,” he said.

“Explains what?”

“The stubborn mule. You were betrayed as a child, so now you don’t trust anybody. You reject everyone else’s point of view. It’s why you’re so unreasonable. You’re closed to any opinion that doesn’t match your own.”

The mule hair on Jake’s head bristled. His nostrils flared. Devin’s insults had finally pushed him over the edge. He lunged toward Devin with his fist in the air. Lydia and I rushed toward him to halt his aggression. Jake was ready to strike when he suddenly froze. His menacing stare melted into sadness. There was a measure of truth in Devin’s words, and he knew it. He unclenched his fist and slowly turned away.

No one knew quite what to say next. Finally, I said to Devin, “Since you’re so good at explaining things, suppose you explain this phony cornfield.

“That’s right,” said Lydia. “How did it get here?” She walked to the edge of the field and picked up a handful of dirt. “Someone had to stick these stalks in the ground. Things like this just don’t—” Lydia paused and looked down at her feet. Something had caught her eye. She squinted as the dirt in her fist sifted out between her fingers. “Footprints!”

Sure enough. Scattered in the soft earth was the unmistakable imprints of shoes—hundreds of them, by the looks of it. Devin kneeled down and touched the soil with his fingertips. “Someone’s been here all right,” he said. “And these prints lead straight into the cornfield.” He stood up and threw his shoulders back. “I’m going in to take a look.”

I grabbed Devin’s arm. “Is there something wrong with you?” I said. “Didn’t you hear what Jake said? You’ll get lost if you go in there.”

“No, I won’t,” said Devin. “If I get turned around, I can find my way back from the sound of your voices. You come with me, Jake.”

“Not on your life!” he replied.

Fearing another verbal battle was about to erupt, I said, “I have a better idea. Forget the footprints. Why don’t we get back on the road?”

Lydia pointed into the field. “But there are people in there. Maybe they can help us.”

“Whoever was here is long gone. I suggest that the best thing to do is keep moving.”

“I’ve got an even better suggestion,” said Lydia. “Why don’t we go back to the crossroads. If we’d gone a different way, we might be somewhere by now.”

“We’ve come this far already,” I said. “I say we go foreword.”

“And I say we go backward.”

I angrily marched up to Lydia. “How would you know backward from forward,” I said, “with your nose buried in a makeup case all day.”

“Who elected you boss?” said Lydia. “You can’t even get enough votes to win a stupid school election.”

Devin crossed over to Jake and nudged his elbow. He motioned toward Lydia and me. They both shook their heads at seeing us girls now at the center of a contemptuous argument.

Devin intervened. “Ladies, please! Your senseless bickering is giving Jake and I a headache. As for the road—” Devin halted his speech as his ears pricked up. “As for the road—” he repeated, putting an ear to the wind. He tilted his head up toward the sky. “As for the road, maybe we don’t have to walk out of here. Maybe we can fly out.”

I heard the distant sound of a sputtering airplane engine. A tiny object soon appeared in the sky. It got closer, and I saw that it was a crop duster, blanketing the fields with billowy clouds of smoke.

“Who’s for catching the next flight out of here?” said Devin. No reply was necessary. We all ran toward the low-flying plane, waving our arms and shouting.

The crop duster crisscrossed the fields, never straying far from the road. But why was it even there at all? If the crops weren’t real, then what was the point? Even more disconcerting, what kind of “dust” was it spraying?

We continued advancing on the slow-moving aircraft. Sooner or later, the pilot was sure to see four figures running down the solitary road. As we closed in we watched the plane drop its smoky cargo. But what we saw next put an abrupt end to our pursuit. The dust shrouded the crops as it did before, but this time, the cornstalks in the mist took on a strange and grotesque shape. All color and texture dissolved away, leaving behind a new form. As the smoke cleared, the change became ever more apparent. The transformation complete, we stood in stunned silence. The cornstalks were gone. The farmland consumed by the smoke was no longer a field of corn. In that very same space now stood crowds of people!

There were thousands of them. Men, women, young, old. They waved protest signs, hoisted American flags, and chanted rebellious slogans. Many of them wore everyday clothes, while others were dressed in attire I’d only seen in history books. Women in long dresses held signs reading Votes For Women. Men in Viet Nam-era military uniforms shouted, “No more war!” Young boys dressed in Union blue from the Civil War stood beside them.

“It’s a protest rally,” said Jake. “Just look at ‘em! Nothing more American than a rollicking peaceful protest.”

“They don’t sound so peaceful to me,” said Lydia.

“Only words,” said Jake. “‘Sticks and stones’ and all that. Just good ol’ free speech in action. ”

As we marveled at the spectacle, the plane was getting farther away. We had to act fast if we were going to catch up with it. Like Lydia, I was a little concerned about the demonstrators. Moving past them seemed kind of dangerous. Then again, they stayed within the boundaries of the field. Not one of them dared to venture into the road, as if a raging river was keeping them back. As long as we kept our distance, I figured, we wouldn’t be any trouble to them. Besides, what other option did we have? It was either the road, or the cornfield, and no one favored losing their way in there.

“What if they turn violent?” worried Lydia.

“Relax,” said Jake. “They’re just blowing off steam.”

I reassured Lydia. “We’ll be okay. Don’t you see? We’re neither for them nor against them. You might say we’re ‘middle-of-the-road’—literally.” We all nodded in agreement. It made sense. The only problem was, logic didn’t exactly rule in the wacko world we were in.

With our fingers crossed, we slowly crept down the road. We kept our heads down as the protester’s cries for justice got louder. But as predicted, they made no advances. They seemed to look right through us, like we were invisible. Seeing humans with animal heads didn’t even pique there curiosity.

Having made it safely past the angry crowd, we all breathed a sigh of relief. No one hassled us. There were no violent attacks. We congratulated ourselves for our cleverness and bravery, then noticed that Jake was missing from the celebration. I looked back and saw him waving to us from the road, right in front of the demonstration.

Devin shouted, “Jake! What are you doing?”

Jake pulled on his long mule ears, “Being stubborn,” he shouted. These are my people. I’m gonna join them, and you, nor anyone else, can stop me. I belong here.”

Devin turned to me. “He’s insane,” he said.

“No,” I said. “He’s in heaven.”

Just then, the crop duster made another pass, this time targeting the opposite side of the road. Smoke fell across the field, and again, the crops melted away, revealing thousands more people. Like the first group, they also held signs and vented their anger. But this rally was far from peaceful. The time-travelers carried burning torches and pitchforks. The present-day protesters shouted hateful slurs. Some were dressed in Confederate gray, while others concealed their identities under white linen. This was no gathering of protesters. It was an out-of-control mob. Never had I seen such display of hostility. It was as if every hatemonger across the centuries had convened for one giant hatefest.

The noise of the demonstrations grew deafening. The group on the right antagonized the group on the left. Tempers flared. Thrashing arms and shaking fists rose above the crowds. Each side looked ready to clobber the other, yet neither dared to cross the road.

We waved at Jake to come with us, but he shook his head in defiance. At that moment, a beer can was hurled into the road, hitting Jake in the forehead. He covered his injury with his hand. Blood seeped out between his fingers. A Molotov cocktail ignited his clothing. While swatting the flames, he dodged rocks and bricks. Glass bottles shattered on the ground around him. The sound of gunshots rang out.

Jake looked at us with panic in his eyes. “Wait for me!” he cried. As he ran toward us, a tear gas canister exploded at his feet. He coughed uncontrollably and became disoriented in the thick smoke.

“Come on, Jake!” I shouted. But it was too late. The flood gates had opened. The road that separated the crowds had become a battlefield. The unrestrained rioters poured out onto the road, colliding in the middle like a giant ocean wave against a rocky cliff.

The crop duster then reappeared behind us. It passed over our heads as it sped toward the commotion. The belly of the plane opened, and quickly covered the battle in white smoke, too thick to see through.

As the smoke faded, so did the screams of the protesters. I no longer heard the sounds of shattering glass and gunfire. Sunlight streamed through the mist to reveal an empty road. And when the last wisp of smoke had gone, the cornfield had been fully restored. There were no protesters, no evidence of any violent activity, and no trace of Jake.

Poor boy. In his rush to “let off steam,” Jake learned how easily too much anger can destroy the best of intentions. I was sorry, too, that I hadn’t paid more attention to what he was trying to say. Even if you disagree with people, you at least owe them that courtesy. I knew all too well that lonely feeling you get when no one listens to you.

We walked back to the spot where we had last seen Jake, trying to fathom what had just happened. As we stood there, numb, that chilling sputtering sound was heard yet again. I looked up and saw the crop duster far out above the field, heading in our direction. The fiendish contraption had crushed the demonstration, but it wasn’t done with us yet.

“Quick!” shouted Devin, “Into the cornfield before it sees us.” We jumped behind the first row of cornstalks and peered out between the leaves. The plane skimmed the surface of the road as it zoomed past us, and for the first time, we got a look at the pilot. There in the cockpit sat Sergeant Sheep in an aviator’s helmet!

The sound of the plane engine weakened, and we felt safe for the moment.

“Okay,” said Devin, “here’s what we’ll do. From now on we keep close to the side of the road. That way we can duck into the field if he comes back.”

“And then what?” said Lydia. “Keep walking until we drop dead from exhaustion? We’ll never get out of here at this rate. Sheep or no sheep, that plane’s our only hope of getting home.”

Lydia bolted into the road, waving her arms over her head. “Come back!” she shouted. Devin and I ran out and wrestled her arms to her side. To our surprise, the plane made a slow turn and headed back toward us. “Hooray!” shouted Lydia. But her delight was short-lived, as the plane laid down a plume of smoke while heading straight for us.

Devin shouted, “The field!” We ran blindly through the cornstalk jungle as fast as we could. The plane was fast approaching. “Get down!”

We dropped flat and covered our faces. The roar of the engine shook the ground like a California earthquake. The blast of its propeller blew over us like a Santa Ana windstorm. But surprisingly . . . no smoke!

The plane continued on, and this time did not return.

I lifted my head. “He must have run out of juice.”

“Could be,” said Lydia. “Maybe he’s going back to reload.”

Devin stood up. “If he is, I don’t want him finding us when he gets back.”

“How you going to do that?” I said. “He’ll see us from the air no matter where we are.”

“Not if we’re not here,” said Devin. He pointed down the path taken by the plane. “We’ll go that way.”

“Are you crazy?” said Lydia. “That mangy animal just tried to vaporize us like he did to Jake. Now you want to follow him?”

“Planes need a place to land, don’t they? They need fuel. They need supplies. That means an airport of some kind.” He stepped in front of me. “Get up on my shoulders, Amy.”

Devin crouched down. I braced myself on his narrow shoulders, being careful not to muss his weasel whiskers. Straightening up, Devin was just tall enough that I could see over the top of the field. Off in the distance, just as Devin had imagined, an airport windsock was blowing in the wind.

Chapter 6

The Diner

We hadn’t gone far when my tummy started rumbling. Drudging through the cornfield took a fair amount of energy, and my stomach was reminding me that feeding time had passed. We needed nourishment, and the paper mache corn that surrounded us wasn’t going to cut it. Where our next meal would come from was impossible to know. My body wanted answers, and it was time to address this problem before it turned into a crisis. “Am I the only one hungry?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” said Lydia. “I’m starving.”

Devin kneeled down. “How about another boost up, Amy?” he said. “Maybe you’ll see some golden arches out there this time.”

I wrapped my arms under Devin’s weasel chin. As he staggered to his feet, he rotated me around like a periscope and I scanned the horizon. We repeated this procedure at regular intervals to track our progress. Unfortunately, the view from Devin’s shoulders was always the same. The windsock was directly in our path as planned, but the distance between us never changed. For every mile we advanced, our reference point retreated the same amount. It was as far away now as it was when we started.

With no good news to report, Devin started lowering me to the ground. Then I noticed something I hadn’t before. “Wait!” I said. “Take me back up.” I saw a column of smoke rising above the cornfield. The clanging of a bell came from the same location. The blast of a steam whistle came next. “You hear that?”

“Sounds like a train whistle,” said Lydia.

“And not too far off, either,” said Devin.

I leaped off Devin’s shoulders and we ran toward the sound. We plowed through the cornfield like a football team racing for a touchdown. Mowing down the cornstalks was easy. Since the plants were made of paper, they didn’t offer much resistance. Before long a flicker of daylight began to appear through the leaves ahead. The end of the cornfield was coming into view.

With hearts pounding, we finally broke out of the field and onto an open plain. Train tracks lay stretched out in front of us. The smoke I had seen from the field was billowing out the smokestack of a steam locomotive. Its huge boiler hissed under a water tower by a railroad station. Behind the engine were coupled passenger cars, their shiny chrome shells glistening under the sun. The train was still some distance away, yet close enough that we could smell its hot engine grease.

“Ladies,” said Devin, with a gentlemanly bow, “transportation is provided.”

The end of our journey awaited down those tracks—a glorious ending to an incredible adventure. Like comic book heroes, we had escaped the brutality of Bonehead Bootcamp, and freed ourselves from the grip of that sadistic sheep. Being carried off into the sunset on an elegant steam train was the perfect ending. How romantic, I thought. I started to float off into a dreamy haze, when the blast of the train’s steam whistle jolted me awake. The engine’s massive wheels began to turn. The clanging bell announced its departure. I was so swept up in our storybook ending, that I forgot that the final chapter was still to be written. Our ride to glory was leaving—without us!

There we were, again, desperately chasing after a ride home. We were super tired by then, and couldn’t muster the speed we needed to catch the train. As the engine gained speed, the distance between us widened. With every passing second, overtaking it became more unlikely. Devin yelled at the engineer to stop, but it was no use. By the time we reached the station, the train was too far out ahead of us. We stood there on the steel rails, panting like Olympic runners after a race, astounded by our run of bad luck.

“There’ll be another one along,” said Devin. “You’ll see.”

I wasn’t too sure about that. The locomotive we saw must have been an illusion, because the station looked like no train had stopped there in ages. The ramshackle buildings were old and decaying. Cobwebs clung to old-fashioned lampposts like torn curtains. Broken panes of glass lay on the ground below every window.

“You think anyone was on that train?” asked Lydia.

“If there was,” said Devin, “they were sure in a big hurry to get outta here.”

“Who’s they?” I said. “This place is as empty as a ghost town.” We turned our heads, searching for signs of life, but there wasn’t a soul around: no camera-toting tourists; no baggage-lugging porters; no tearful good-byes, no embracing hellos.

Devin climbed up onto the elevated platform. “Let’s have a look around.” He helped Lydia and I up, being careful to avoid the gaping holes where the wooden planks had rotted through.

An old phone booth stood outside the entrance to the station’s waiting room. The bench seats inside were littered with chunks of plaster from the rain-damaged ceiling. Devin stood in the doorway. “Wait here while I check this out,” he said. But the instant he stepped inside, he immediately backed out.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lydia.

“Weird,” said Devin. “If I didn’t know better, I would say I’d been here before.” He reached for his wallet. Tucked inside was an old photograph. “Ah-ha! I thought this place looked familiar.”

Lydia and I leaned in to get a look at the photo. The black and white image showed the very same train station—clean, bright, and bustling with travelers. A distinguished-looking gentleman in a business suit posed in front of a ticket booth.

Lydia pointed to the man in the picture. “Who’s he?”

“That’s Vincent,” said Devin. “My dad.”

“You call your dad Vincent?”

“He likes to be addressed by his first name. He’s an incredibly successful businessman, but hates the whole ‘Mr. This, Mr. That’ thing. He demands people call him Vincent, including me.”

“What does your mom think about that?”

“Don’t know. She died when I was a baby.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “So, if your dad’s been here, then you must know where we are.”

“I wish. He never told me where this picture was taken, and I never thought to ask.”

“Not only that,” said Lydia, “we’ve got no way to contact him, unless . . .” She forced open the folding door to the phone booth and lifted the receiver. She blew the dust off, put it up to her ear, and listened. “Phone’s dead, wouldn’t you know it?” She spun the rotary dial for the operator just for the heck of it.

We walked to the front of the station and found the ticket booth. Except for a crack down the center of the glass, it matched the one in the photo exactly. A small desk bell rested on the dusty counter. I slapped it with the palm of my hand, then poked my skunk nose through the ticket slot. “Anybody home?” No answer.

Above the booth hung a blackboard timetable with wide columns for posting arrivals and departures. I wiped away the chalk smudge and found a date in the departure column: Westbound—8:45 P.M.—July 17, 1955. That was the most recent entry.

We walked back to the boarding platform and gazed down the tracks. The sun was setting, and it was quieter than a graveyard at midnight. The longer I stood there, the less convinced I was that another train was coming. Still, on the slim chance one did come by, missing it would be pretty stupid.

I swept the debris off a wooden bench and sat down. I laid my head back, closed my eyes, and drew a long, deep breath. It was the first restful moment I’d had all day. Lydia, too, relaxed on the bench. A moment later, she was fast asleep. Devin sat next to me and started to doze off himself. I leaned over to read the time on his wristwatch.

“6:18,” said Devin, with one eye open.

The brilliant jewels on his Rolex reflected the golden light of dusk. “You’ve probably heard this a hundred times,” I said, “but that’s a pretty awesome watch.”

Devin raised his arm and admired the elegant timepiece. “I’ve always treasured it,” he said. “Got it from Vincent years ago. He gave it to me out of the blue one day in the back of his private limo.”

Lydia was immediately awakened at hearing the word “limo”. She wiped the sleepiness from her eyes. “Your dad must be totally rich,” she said.

“And earned every penny of it,” said Devin. “He’s hoping I’ll follow in his footsteps, and I, for one, don’t plan to disappoint him.”

“How did he make his fortune, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Don’t mind at all, because I don’t know myself. He never mixes business and family. All I know is he’s worth a bundle, and someday I’m going to be worth 10 times that.”

“Is that why he sent you to Bonehead Bootcamp?” I said.

“Who says he did?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Your love of money. You’re determined to surpass your dad’s wealth. You said so yourself. You can’t be greedy without making enemies. Your dad would rather you had friends. You’re here because he doesn’t want you to make the same mistakes he did.”

Devin stretched out his arms and yawned. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “I can live with that. It’s a small price to pay for financial security.”

As much as I wanted to like Devin, he wasn’t making it easy. There’s nothing wrong with having ambition, what bothered me was Devin’s total disregard for anyone who stands in his way. Jake picked up on that back at the boot camp. Clearly, Devin admired his father, but he didn’t respect him. Of course, I was just as guilty of that with my own father. I hated to admit it, but the better I got to know Devin, the more I saw myself in him—and I didn’t like what I was seeing.

But that was an matter for another day. I could barely keep my eyes open. Though Lydia ached to hear more about Devin’s family fortune, she had fallen asleep. Devin, too, was out for the count. I soon drifted off to Slumberland with them.

The train station was aglow in amber light. While we slept soundly, the platform lamps had come on. I opened my eyes, expecting to see the dawn spreading over the flatland, but it was still dark. Maybe I’m still asleep, I thought, far away in some imaginary dream state. Then I stared up at the lamp hanging over me. I turned and saw train tracks and the old, dilapidated station. Oh . . . yeah.

I checked Devin’s watch to see how long I had been asleep. The time was 6:18—the same exact time it was before I dozed off. Had I slept for 12 hours? The horizon showed no hint of an approaching sunrise. The sky was black as deep space. Either time had stood still, or Devin’s watch had stopped. Whichever it was, it didn’t really matter. We were in a world of cardboard cornfields and beast-headed people, after all.

Lydia blinked herself awake and roared out a serious yawn. “Morning already?”

Devin rubbed his eyes. “Any trains come by?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” I said, “and the place is as deserted as ever.” I patted my tummy. “Where do they serve breakfast around here?”

Devin walked to the edge of the platform, stuck his long nose into the air, and breathed in. He walked toward the station entrance. “This way!”

Leading away from the station was a paved road, lit by roadside streetlights. Like the station, it was in pretty bad shape. Dry weeds sprouted up through the cracks in the asphalt. On a wooden post was a white arrow pointing straight ahead. Downtown read the sign below it.

Following the arrow, we soon arrived at the town with no name. Florescent lights illuminated a downtown from another age. The 1950s-era storefronts evoked those simpler times. There was a store selling vinyl records, a grain and feed depot, and a five-and-dime emporium. A filling station advertised 18-cents-a-gallon gas. A movie theater displayed showtimes for its current release. I think it was showing The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was hard to tell. Like every other sign in town, the marquee wasn’t lit, and difficult to see in the dark.

We came upon the town’s main intersection. Above it hung a huge banner praising the local high school football team. The sign read Welcome Home, Champs! You could almost hear the marching bands and cheering crowds the day that sign went up. But those were echoes from the past. Like the train station, the town had been abandoned a half-century earlier. Either that, or the local townsfolk were all asleep. Hard to say, given that we didn’t know whether it was day or night.

Devin’s nose twitched, and we were redirected around the corner. Halfway down the block, light from a storefront window poured out into the street. A neon welcome sign glowed above its front door. It was the only shop open, and fortunately for us, it was a diner!

Pushing open its stainless steel doors was like stepping into a time tunnel. It was a wonderland of red vinyl seats, yellow mustard dispensers, and chrome napkin holders. A jukebox in the corner played Les Paul’s “How High The Moon”. Neon signs hung all around, advertising Bubble Up Soda, Frostie Root Beer, and Howdy Doody Fudge Bars.

It was a perfectly charming eatery, but also a very empty one. There were no people seated in the booths, around the chrome tables, or on the round stools at the counter.

As the song ended, the jukebox went dark, leaving only the sound of buzzing neon. Suddenly, the kitchen door swung open, and out walked a man in a red bow tie and a paper server’s hat. He whistled cheerfully while balancing a tray of pies on his shoulder. He placed it carefully under the counter, unaware that he had customers.

Devin cleared his throat. “Excuse me, sir.”

The startled man jumped. “Jiggers!” he said. Then, a sweet smile. “Sorry ‘about that, folks. Didn’t hear y’all come in. Have a seat, and I’ll be right with ya.” He retreated to the kitchen.

The gentleman seemed harmless enough, and we would have had no reason to fear him if not for one distinct, physical feature: his sheep head!

“Is that who I think it is?” I asked.

“That’s him, alright,” said Devin. “It’s our sheep-headed sergeant again.”

Lydia started out the door. “That’s it! I’m outta here.”

“Well, I’m not,” I said. “If I don’t get something in my stomach I’m gonna faint.”

Devin turned Lydia back around. “It’s okay,” he said. “Get some food in you, and don’t worry about him. I’ll keep my eye on ol’ Sergeant Soda Jerk.”

We crossed the checkerboard floor to the counter and sat down. The stools were the old-fashioned kind that swiveled. As we waited to be served, none of us could resist the urge for a quick spin.

Thud! The kitchen door banged into the wall as the sheep returned. We abruptly stopped spinning, our faces flushed, like naughty children caught misbehaving.

“Oh, come on now,” said the sheep. “You ain’t ascared of little ol’ me, are ya?” He stared at us and shook his head. “Goodness gracious. Y’all look skinnier than a litter of wet poodles.” He reached under the counter and placed an apple pie on the counter in front of us. It was the most scrumptious-looking thing I ever laid eyes on. Its sweet filling oozed up through a steaming, golden-brown crust. Lydia flicked her snake tongue at it to sample its delightful aroma.

The sheep cut us each a generous slice. I picked up my fork, but before sampling the pie, I nudged Lydia and nodded toward Devin. We watched with apprehension as he took the first bite. Devin’s eyes rolled over with elation, the juicy filling dripping from the corner of his mouth. With that, Lydia and I scarfed ours down like it was our last meal on Earth.

“Like it?” asked the sheep, still playing the cordial host. We nodded our answer, our mouths too busy munching the sumptuous dessert. “Tell you what. Since y’all are newcomers, this one’s on the house.” He stepped over to an old-style cash register and pressed the sales key.

Ka-ching!

“No, no!” said Devin. He moved to the register and reached for his wallet. “Treat the others if you like, but I insist on paying for mine.”

“But, it’s free,” said the sheep. “I’m giving it to you.”

“Business is business.”

As Devin opened his wallet, the old photo of his father fell onto the counter. The sheep immediately snatched it up. “What’s this?”

“Nothing,” said Devin, reaching to reclaim his picture.

The sheep pulled back. “Hey!” he said, pointing at the image. “I know this man!”

Devin reached for the photo again, but this time the sheep grabbed hold of his wrist and pinned it to the counter. He rolled Devin’s arm over to reveal his Rolex. “That’s a darned expensive watch you got there, son,” said the sheep. “Must have set you back a pretty penny. Right . . . Vincent?”

“Vincent?” said Devin. “Oh, you must have me confused with my father.”

“Don’t give me that, Vince. I’d know you anywhere.”

Devin finally wrestled the photo back. He straightened the corners that had gotten bent in the scuffle, then suddenly stopped. I literally saw his jaw drop as he looked at it. The photo slipped through his fingers onto the counter. I craned my neck to get a look at it. The image was the same as I had seen it before, only now his dad had a weasel head like Devin’s!

“Been gone a long time, Vince,” said the sheep. “You haven’t forgotten what a great town this was, have you? We were a tight-knit community then, and proud of it. Generous and kind. When the earth was bountiful, we celebrated together. When the crops failed, we helped each other get by. That was before you and your money took over. Sky-high interest rates, unaffordable housing, meager health care. You made people miserable and got rich off their suffering.” The sheep stepped behind the register. “Now you’ve returned, and a local citizen’s committee wants to welcome you back.”

The sheep hit a register key.

Ka-ching!

The overhead lights in the diner went out, leaving only the neon signs to see by. The glowing yellow, red, and blue lit up Devin’s face like a midway sideshow. Lydia and I dove under a nearby table. I cautiously lifted the edge of the tablecloth to watch.

It was dead quite. Devin stood motionless. Then a raspy voice called out from the back of the room. “You ruined my life!” said the voice. Out from a booth stepped a pale man with sunken eyes, holding a tattered briefcase. He was thin and brittle. His wrinkled suit hung over his skeletal frame like a scarecrow. Clumps of dirt fell from his shoulders, as if he had just crawled out of a grave. He pointed his bony finger at Devin. “You sold me those phony stocks,” he said. “I lost every cent I had.”

Though shaken, Devin stood firm, clearly resenting the man’s accusation. “Tough luck, pal,” he said. “You gambled and you lost.”

Ka-ching!

A second voice called out, “We went homeless!” A woman wearing a veil over her face crept out of the shadows. Her body was frail and her hair matted. Two underfed children with filthy faces clung to her torn dress. “I was laid off and couldn’t make my house payments,” she said. “I begged you not to foreclose.”

Devin was unaffected by her story. “You should have read the fine print on your mortgage contract.”

The jukebox lit up. “How High The Moon” began playing again, loudly.

Ka-ching!

A haggard, old man in a bloody surgical gown rose up from behind the counter. Dark bruises covered his face. His arms were riddled with wounds. “I was too sick to work,” he said. “You cut off my health benefits. I couldn’t afford treatment, and died from a curable illness.”

Again, Devin was unmoved. “You should have taken your vitamins.”

More apparitions appeared:

Ka-ching!

“My family went hungry while you dined with senators.”

Ka-ching!

“I died in the street while you guzzled wine in your mansion.”

Ka-ching!

“I begged for pennies while you squandered your millions.”

With outstretched arms, the ghoulish figures inched toward Devin.

Sweat poured down Devin’s face. He covered his ears from the deafening jukebox. He tried to run, but his feet wouldn’t move, as if his shoes had been nailed to the floor. “You’ve got it all wrong!” he cried. “That wasn’t me.” He reached into his pocket and tossed all his cash onto the floor. “Take it! It’s yours!”

But the restless souls continued to close in. They formed a circle around Devin, raised their arms over their heads, and wailed like banshees. Light bulbs exploded. Neon sparks scattered across the diner like fireworks.

The power overload plunged the diner into total darkness. At that same instant, the screaming and the loud music stopped. The ceiling lights flickered back to life. The people who had surrounded Devin were gone—and so was Devin.

Lydia had kept her eyes shut throughout this whole ordeal. She tugged at my sleeve and whispered, “Is it safe to leave now?” But before I could answer, the sound of rousing applause filled the room. By the front door stood a studio audience, cheering, whooping, and clapping wildly.

The kitchen door flung open and out bounded the sheep to take his bows. The show was over, or so I thought. The spirited crowd demanded more, chanting, “Encore! Encore!” I felt the floor under me give as a pair of combat boots stepped up to our table. The corner of the tablecloth rose, revealing the sheep’s scowling face. He removed his server hat and replaced it with his military headgear. The show wasn’t over. Not even. It was just getting started.

Chapter 7

Going Up?

After Jake’s smokescreen vanishing act and Devin’s ghostly disappearance, I wasn’t eager to see what Sergeant Sheep had in mind for Lydia and me. Getting out of that diner was going to take some street smarts. The enthusiastic audience blocked the front entrance, and using the back door meant getting past the sheep.

I felt Lydia shaking next to me. “What are we gonna do?” she said

After considering what few options we had, I said, “Follow me!”

I rolled out from under the table and sprinted for the front door. Outflanking the spectators, I bolted outside, then ran around to the side of the building. From the dark shadows, I peered back at the diner. I had hoped to see Lydia on my heels, but all I saw was the front door swinging closed. Having barely squeezed past the crowd myself, they might have closed in on her behind me. Maybe the sheep got to her first while still under the table. Not knowing Lydia’s fate was unsettling, but there was no going back to find out. For the first time since all this craziness started, I was genuinely worried about her. Who would have thought I would miss having Lydia around?

Get tough! I told myself. This is no time to go soft. At any moment the sheep and his gang would fly out the door to come after me. With Lydia gone, I had to focus on saving myself. I kept a sharp eye on the diner, ready to make a quick getaway, when all the lights suddenly went out. Even the neon welcome sign went off. Not one person came through the door, not even the sheep.

I sensed a disquieting stillness. I listened for the sound of footsteps and voices, but heard only a squeaking noise coming from across the street. The revolving door to a department store was slowly rotating. Maybe Lydia was inside. In all the bedlam, she might have escaped the diner and taken refuge in there.

I sneaked over to the store and squatted behind the glass door. Brass letters inlaid in the glittery sidewalk spelled out Zillman’s. Long before online shopping, the old store was probably the center of the town’s retail activity. Now, the grand building looked ready for the wrecking ball. Strange that the revolving door was still functioning. I nudged it forward and crept inside.

The glow of the streetlights streamed in through cracks in the boarded-up windows. In the dimness I got a glimpse of the store’s former grandeur. Huge columns rose up from the marble floor. Wrought iron chandeliers hung from an ornate ceiling. Though very elegant, there was a creepiness about it. Acres of display cases were covered with white sheets, like rows of linen-draped coffins. Store shelves sat empty, stocked only with spider webs and dust bunnies. More than once, I jumped at the sight of the mannequins still in residence. This downtown store, too, appeared to have been frozen in the 1950s. I imagined crowds of ghost-shoppers, packing the aisles and jammed onto escalators, combing the store for specials on hula-hoops and silk stockings.

Crossing the sales floor, a shaft of outdoor light flickered from a passing object. I leaped behind a counter. It was Sergeant Sheep, wiping a circle in the grimy front door. His nose was pressed flat against the glass as he looked into the dark interior. I ducked down and pressed my back against the counter. I should have known he would show up sooner or later. Was this cat-and-mouse game ever going to end? Only time would tell. Until then, this was one mouse in need of a hole to escape into.

As I looked for a place where the sheep wouldn’t find me, the perfect hideout revealed itself with the pinging sound of a bell.

Ding!

A sliver of golden light streaked down the aisle next to me, then parted like curtains in a darkened theater. The door of an elevator in front of me was opening. The mellow music playing inside reverberated through the store as the doors widened. A young man in a purple and gold uniform stood at the control panel. Elevator Operator was embroidered above his breast pocket. A striped bow tie encircled his starched collar. If this guy was a ghost, he was certainly a snappy dresser.

The man gave me a charming grin. “Going up, miss?” he asked.

I crawled along the floor to the elevator car and crouched down in the corner. The man tipped his pillbox hat. “Welcome to Zillman’s,” he said politely. “What floor would you like?”

“Any floor!” I snapped. “Close the doors. Hurry!”

“Very good, miss.”

The operator grabbed a lever with his white-gloved hand and closed the doors. He pressed the button to the second floor and the elevator lunged upward.

Unlike the deplorable condition of the store, the elevator was like new. The brass doors were polished to a soft sheen. Mounted to the wood-paneled wall were posters promoting the cafeteria’s mid-week special: roast beef, smothered in mushroom gravy.

I grabbed hold of the railing and pulled myself up, just as the elevator eased to a stop.

Ding!

The man threw his shoulders back, and announced proudly, “Second floor: Apparel!

Baby clothes, tank tops,

Panty hose, flip flops.

T-shirts, tube socks,

Miniskirts, house frocks.

Pink pajamas, comfy slippers,

Flippers, zippers, toenail clippers.

Bathing caps, wet suits,

Jockstraps, work boots.”

The doors opened onto a shopper’s paradise from a bygone era. Clothes racks were stocked with poodle skirts and polka dot dresses. Saddle shoes and penny loafers lined the shelves in the shoe department. Was that a pair of eyes staring at me? No, just a female mannequin modeling a cross-your-heart bra. A dummy outdoorsman next to her showed off his plaid hunting jacket.

I was tempted to explore the retail wonderland, even though I would be the only customer. The mannequins tried to fool me into thinking there were people inside, but there weren’t. No shoppers. No sales clerks. I had one other good reason not to go in there: the elevator operator. What if he left without me? I might be stuck there forever. I decided it was safer to stay put.

I asked the man, “What else have you got?”

He glared at me, annoyed, then hit the button to the next floor. The doors closed, and a moment later—

Ding!

“Third floor: Housewares!

Electric toasters, door stops,

Turkey roasters, floor mops.

Towel racks, soap bars,

Candle wax, cookie jars.

Salt shakers, throw rugs,

Coffee makers, beer mugs.

Egg beaters, bed sheets,

Space heaters, toilet seats.”

The doors parted, and I was overcome by the scent of Ivory Soap and fresh linen. The floor offered everything the happy homemaker could ever want, from pink toilet seat covers to cat-faced clocks with pendulum tails. An immaculate kitchen displayed all the latest appliances: countertop stoves, electric dishwashers, frost-free refrigerators. It was a carefree world of purity and innocence. Well, maybe not that innocent: an exploding atomic bomb was depicted on a child’s lunch box.

Again, I didn’t dare leave the security of the elevator car. By now the friendly operator was getting impatient with me. He frowned as he pressed another button.

Ding!

“Fourth floor: Hardware!

Workbenches, flower beds,

Socket wrenches, shower heads.

Gas grills, hard hats,

Power drills, thermostats.

Rubber tires, water pails,

Pairs of pliers, finish nails.

Garden hoses, sun visors,

Needle noses, fertilizers.”

Even if there was something in there I wanted, I didn’t move from my spot.

Clearly irritated, the operator said, “We could do this all night, miss. Why don’t you just tell me what you want.”

I thought a moment. “Actually, I don’t want anything.”

“Don’t be silly. Everybody wants something.”

Silly, am I? Well, maybe I was. If talking to an imaginary man from the land of Doo-wop isn’t wacky, I don’t know what is. But for the sake of argument, was there indeed anything I badly wanted? Certainly nothing that outmoded store could sell me. There was one thing, however, that I was honestly short on—an item I desperately needed. “Happiness!” I said. “That’s what I want. Give me that and you’ve got a customer for life.”

The man straightened his bow tie. “Well, why didn’t you say so? That’s our most popular product.”

We were whisked away to the next floor.

Ding!

“Fifth floor: Wealth!

Dollars, Pounds, Euros, Yen,

Happy days are here again.”

The song “We’re In the Money” began playing the moment the doors opened. Beyond them was a vast showroom of prosperity and riches. There were stacks of cash ten feet tall in every denomination. Money literally grew on trees. Stock certificates rained down from above like a winter’s day on Wall Street. But I wasn’t all that impressed. Seeing that enormous stash, I couldn’t help think of Devin, and the price he paid for his greediness.

“There’s an old saying,” I said. “‘Money won’t buy you happiness’. Ever heard that one?”

The man responded, “Ever heard this one: ‘There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty.’”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve seen what the almighty dollar does to people. Haven’t you got some happy merchandise that’s not so self-destructive?”

Ding!

“Sixth floor: Leisure!

Tranquility, peace, and relaxation,

No frets, no debts, no obligation.”

Ocean waves lapped upon a sandy beach, under a golden sun. Palm trees swayed to the rhythm of strumming ukuleles. An ocean breeze carried the aroma of grilled mahi-mahi. It was a tropical island paradise, but the view wasn’t all coconuts and hula skirts. I saw fat men sleeping in hammocks, their bellies bloated like beached whales. Women with sauced-stained lips gorged themselves at gluttonous luaus. The island paradise was an island of excess. But what bothered me most was its location: smack dab in the middle of a boundless ocean.

“Who are these people?” I asked.

“The Idle Class,” said the elevator man. “Wonderful, isn’t it? Look how happy they are.”

“But, no one smiles.”

“Not if they don’t have to. Shirking responsibility is what makes them happy. But their real bliss lies in keeping as far away from humanity as possible.”

“I couldn’t be happy here,” I said. “I need human contact, the warmth of friendships, the glow you feel from helping people. If I had my way, everyone would be like that.”

The man pondered my remark. “I see. So, you’d be happy if everyone was like you. Is that what you’re saying?”

“You know it.”

Ding!

“Seventh floor: Equality!

No sides to choose, no one to blame,

Beliefs and views, are all the same.”

I heard the ringing of a school bell, just like the one I heard each day at Shankstonville High. And when the doors opened, that’s where I was—sort of. Where Zillman’s seventh floor should have been was an exact replica of my first-period English classroom. It had been reproduced with incredible accuracy: the American flag in the corner; the football field out the window; the smell of sulfur from the science lab next door.

No detail had been overlooked, including the girl sitting at my desk. Hard as it was to believe, she was an exact replica of . . . me! Like everything else in the room, I had been copied with equal precision, right down to the neon-blue streak in my hair. Only one thing was different between us: I had a skunk head and she didn’t.

I looked to see if Lydia was in her regular seat. But it was another me. A third me was at Andy’s desk. In fact, Amys were seated behind every desk in the classroom!

“It’s our Back-to-School Special,” said the smiling elevator man. “A world full of people exactly like you. This ought to make you happy.”

Okay. It was time to end this little joke. Up till now, my elevator tour of Zillman’s Department Store had been pretty weird. Now it was just plain freaky. I was about to tell the operator to take me back down, when I noticed Mr. Pierce’s laptop lying open on his desk. Maybe this wasn’t a wasted trip after all. An online search and a map might show me a way home, provided, of course, his computer was linked to a real World Wide Web. I had to find out, but that meant leaving the protection of the elevator.

I reached for the door lever and yanked off its handle. The operator jumped back. “A little insurance,” I told him, stuffing the handle in my back pocket. “We can’t have you running off without me, can we?”

Stepping out of the elevator, every head in the classroom turned toward me. Returning their stares was like seeing my reflection in thirty mirrors at once. Every eye followed me as I crept to the teacher’s desk. I sat down and hit the computer’s power button. Its welcoming graphics came up. Then I clicked to enable the internet connection, when suddenly the screen went blank.

Across the desk from me stood one of the Amys, whirling the computer’s power cord in her hand. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “Those things are just time-wasting distractions with advertising.”

“That’s true,” I said, “but this is going to be time well spent.”

Another Amy approached the desk. “You could ask one of those Shankstonville hillbillies for help, but all they know is how to grow big pumpkins.”

“Careful what you say about them,” I said. “You’re gonna need their votes if you want to win the election.”

A third Amy stepped forward. “Our dad could come pick you up, but he’s too busy watching that crap on TV.”

“Maybe if you were a little nicer to him . . .”

What was I doing? There I was, appalled by the language I was hearing, heedless of the fact that those same words had crossed my own lips.

I was now surrounded by Amys, each one glaring at me with contempt. One of them slammed the laptop closed, just missing my fingers. “What the hell kind of Amy are you?” she said.

“The smelly kind,” shouted another Amy. “She’s half skunk!

I slowly stood up and backed away from the desk.

“True,” said yet another, “but there’s some question about the other half?”

A barrage of insults quickly followed:

“Eew! I can smell her from here.”

“Open the windows, quick!”

“Stand back! She’s raising her tail.”

I ran to the elevator, reattached the lever handle, and closed the doors. I stood with my back to the wall, trembling.

The operator asked, “See anything you like, miss?”

“Absolutely not!” I said.

“Sorry to hear that. Perhaps you’d like a sample to take home with you.”

“No thanks. Got one already, and I’m not at all happy with it. What’s your return policy?”

“Thirty days from time of purchase with a receipt. How long have you had it?”

“Sixteen years. I was hoping to trade it in for a better model.”

How depressing! I hung my head and shoved my hands into my pants pockets. Then I felt something in my right hand: the Parcheesi game piece from long ago.

I pulled out my precious memento. “I’ve got it!” I said.

“Miss?”

“I know what will make me happy: the good ol’ days!”

“How’s that?”

“You know, the good times. I want to go back to when I was little, to the city. That’s the only time in my life I was truly happy.”

The man pulled a notepad from his shirt pocket and riffled through the pages. “Sorry, miss,” he said. “We’re out of stock on that.”

Then he pushed the button to the ground floor. The elevator rocketed downward, the rapid descent nearly lifting my feet off the floor. Over the roar of the pulley motor, I shouted, “What are you doing?”

“Sorry, miss. Store’s closing.”

“But I know what I want now.”

“Face the front of the elevator, please.”

The elevator car slowed, then screeched to an abrupt halt.

Ding!

“Main floor: Reality!

Meanness, anger, doubt, despair,

Bungling boneheads everywhere.”

The man levered the doors open, then looked straight ahead into the empty store. “Everyone out, please.”

“Take me back up!” I demanded.

“Exit doors are to your right.”

“I want to complain to the management.”

“All grievances must be submitted in writing.”

For whatever reason, the man who had been so obliging didn’t want me around anymore. I wasn’t too fond of myself at that point, either. The 7th-floor Amys showed me a rotten girl, that would be hard for anyone to like.

I got out and faced the young man in the purple and gold uniform.“Sorry I didn’t buy anything,” I said. “I’m not the shop-till-you-drop type. But I’ll tell you this: I’d spend my life savings to have people like me again.”

“Respect isn’t something you can buy,” said the man. “It has to be earned.” He tipped his hat and smiled. “Thank you for shopping at Zillman’s.” A wink, and the doors banged shut.

I faced the dark and dusty emporium. It was just as dreary as it was when I first came in, but now a light was coming from the women’s beauty department. The florescent tubes in the makeup display case were on. Moths fluttered around its soft light. And seated in the makeover chair was the very person I had come there to find: Lydia!

I was happy she was all right, but peeved at all I had gone through to find her. I marched over and said, sharply, “Next time I say ‘follow me,’ do it!”

As usual, Lydia didn’t hear a word I said. She was more interested in the item in her hand. She held it out to me. “Look,” she said excitedly. “Twiggy’s favorite eyeliner.”

The squeak of the revolving door drew our attention to the store’s entrance. Lydia quickly dowsed the light. The silhouette of a menacing-looking figure in a pointy hat stood just inside. The light hadn’t only attracted moths, it had attracted the attention of Sergeant Sheep.

Chapter 8

All Rise

Lydia and I dashed down the dark alley behind Zillman’s Department Store. The sheep stood under the service lights above its loading dock. “Get your little tails back here!” he shouted, forgetting that our animal add-ons hadn’t come with tails.

Civic Center Straight Ahead read a street sign with an arrow pointing the way. We heard the faint sound of a calliope coming from the same direction. “More trickery by the sheep?” asked Lydia.

“Could be,” I said, “or, maybe there’s an old-time country fair going on. Sounds like a merry-go-round.”

“That’s it! That’s why the town is so empty. All the store owners closed up shop because the townsfolk are all at the fair.”

“Is that what you think?”

Lydia shrugged. “No,  but it sounded good. Now you’re going to tell me we’re going there anyway. Am I right?”

“When’s the last time you tasted cotton candy?” I said. “Let’s go!”

The melody bursting from the steam organ pipes got louder as we neared the center of town. We turned a corner to find a brightly lit plaza. Of course, the instant we saw it, the music stopped. Figures!

The old town square was bordered by historic municipal buildings: a city hall, a public library, a county courthouse. All the structures were weathered and run down. Signs warned that the condemned buildings were unsafe to enter.

Adjacent to the square, strings of lights crisscrossed above a public park. Its once green lawns were now parched fields of weeds. Pathways meandered past crumbling statues of the town’s founding fathers. Creeping up a Spanish tile water fountain, lifeless vines strangled it dry. A bandstand, too, suffocated under years of neglect. But despite the park’s gloomy appearance, it radiated with nostalgia. It must have been a real hub of activity in its day. I thought of the locals picnicking there on warm summer nights, then flocking to the bandstand, hopping and bopping to their favorite swing bands.

Then we came upon the source of the music we heard: a broken-down carousel that no sane mother would let her children ride. But we weren’t there to enjoy carnival rides. We were on the run, and the old relic seemed as good a hiding place as any.

Crouching down among the flying horses and jumping giraffes, I said, “We better hide out here for a while.”

“Okay,” said Lydia, “but not here. This old thing creeps me out.”

I considered the nearby buildings. The war memorial cannons at City Hall were too small to hide us both, and the weathered steps at the library were too unsafe to climb. The steps of the courthouse, however, rose high above the square, and the dark entryway at the top provided perfect cover. We could hide behind its wide columns, while keeping tabs on the goings-on from our elevated vantage point.

We wasted no time reaching the courthouse entrance. I stood with my back to one of the columns. Lydia did the same behind the next one over. Not a sound came from the plaza below, not even a cricket chirp.

Lydia peeked around her protective pillar, and whispered, “No sign of the sheep. I think we lost him.” If only it was that easy. How many times before had we eluded that demented animal, only to have him crop up again later? 

I leaned out to have a look for myself, when,

Click!

One of the streetlights went out. Then,

Click!

Another one switched off. The strings of lights hanging over the park popped off, too. One by one, every streetlight, gaslight, and flashlight was going out. The whole town was now shrouded in darkness—total darkness—the kind where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. I waited for my eyes to adjust to what little ambient light there must have been, but they never did. It was like being lost in a black fog. It didn’t help that there was no moon out, either.

I wrapped my arms around the column in front of me, when suddenly, I couldn’t feel it anymore! I reached out but found nothing but empty space. Desperate to touch anything, I flailed my arms wildly, like a blindfolded birthday girl swinging at a piñata. The column had simply vanished—poof!—like it had popped into another dimension.

I called out, “Lydia! Are you there?”

“Over here!” she replied.

I turned toward the sound of her panic-stricken voice, when out from above, a spotlight shined down directly over her head. The brilliant shaft of light lit her up like a prison escapee, caught in the beam of a searchlight. And just like an apprehended criminal, she was put in a place from where no escape was possible. Lydia was locked up tight in a jail cell!

A second spotlight beamed down next to her. This one illuminated a ten-foot high judge’s bench. A third light revealed an empty jury box. A witness stand with a vacant chair sat alongside it. Somehow, a courtroom had sprung forth out of the darkness. It felt creepy, like standing on the soundstage of a horror film, only this one had no walls or ceiling, just a black void beyond the glare of the movie lights. Count on that maniacal sheep to conjure up a nightmarish scene like this.

Lydia tilted her snake head and looked at me between the jail cell bars. “Well, just don’t stand there,” she said.

I walked around her metal cage. There was no door handle to turn or padlock to pick. I shook some of the bars to see if any could be wiggled loose. As a last resort, I grabbed the steel bars and tried to pry them apart. “Sorry, Lydia,” I said. “Not even Superman could get you out of this one.”

Lydia sank to the corner of her cell, afraid and defeated. I felt her anguish. She was the sheep’s unwitting prisoner, but then, so was I. The emptiness that surrounded us was like an invisible cell of its own, showing no pathway to freedom. I gazed up at the tall judge’s bench, then touched it to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The wood was as solid as the bars of Lydia’s cell. The stage was set for a courtroom drama, and by the looks of it, Lydia would be playing the defendant. The role I had been cast to play was yet unknown.

Beyond the darkness, a deep voice spoke: “All rise! Court is now in session. The honorable Judge Sheep presiding.”

A wood-panel doorway descended to the floor. Out through it came Sergeant Sheep, this time wearing a black robe and a white judge’s wig. Under his arm he held a stack of documents. Stepping behind the tall desk, he reappeared at the top an instant later. He examined his papers through a pair of reading glasses, then banged a huge wooden gavel.

Clomp!

“The People vs Lydia Hobbs,” said the judge.

Lydia rattled the bars of her cell. “Amy! Get me out of here!”

Clomp!

“Outbursts of any kind will not be tolerated!” yelled the judge. He lowered his glasses and looked down at Lydia. “Miss Hobbs, you have been brought before this court for allegations of misconduct and snake-like behavior. You are accused of:

Lying, spying, scamming, cheating,

Accusing, abusing, shamming, mistreating.

You’re lewd, rude, malicious, obscene,

Hateful, ungrateful, vicious, and mean.

A snake, a fake, a fool, and a phony,

A sneak, a freak, and full of baloney.

Dishonest, immodest, ambitious, disgusting,

Depriving, conniving, suspicious, mistrusting.

Pandering, slandering, naughty, unholy,

Thieving, deceiving, snotty, and lowly.

Disgraceful, distasteful, a coward indeed,

You’ve heard the charges, now how do you plead?”

“What is this?” cried Lydia.

“You must enter a plea,” demanded the judge.

Lydia slammed her fist against the cell bars. “I will not!”

The judge sighed. “Very well. Let the record show the the accused has declined to enter a plea. The court, therefore, enters a plea on her behalf: Guilty!”

I knew a little something about courtroom trials from watching reruns of Perry Mason. The judge was not following legal procedure. In announcing his guilty plea, he had conveniently skipped over the part about being “presumed innocent.” Still, I watched this mockery of justice without saying a word. Then I looked over at Lydia, helpless as a wounded canary in a birdcage. Despite wanting to stay out of the proceedings, I couldn’t stand by and watch her suffer any longer.

I marched up to the judge’s bench. “What kind of a court do you call this?” I said. “You can’t have a trial here. Where’s the prosecutor? Where’s the defense attorney?” I pointed to the empty jury box. “Where’s the jury?”

My answer came with the whining sound of a hydraulic lift. An enormous video screen slowly rose up out of the jury box. It was even bigger than that TV monstrosity back home. A whoosh of compressed air, and the ascending screen came to a stop.

“Meet the Darrow 9000,” said the judge. “It’s a super-duper supercomputer, programmed to uncover the truth. It knows all, sees all, never lies, and never makes a mistake.” He pointed a remote control at the screen and pressed a key. The computer screen turned blue as thousands of lines of code rapidly scrolled down it. “Takes a minute to boot up,” the judge said apologetically.

The computer then chimed a happy little tune as a title popped up on its screen:

Darrow 9000

Speedier Convictions Through Technology

A computer-simulated voice spoke. “Ready to proceed,” said Darrow, in a mellow tone.

“Very well,” said the judge. “I will now question the accused.”

“Just a minute,” I said. “Since when does the judge ask the questions? That’s the attorney’s job, and there aren’t any here that I can see.”

The judge leaned down to me. “Do you wish to act as counsel for the defendant?”

I knew nothing about being a trial lawyer outside of what I learned from reading To Kill a Mockingbird. But I was willing to give it a shot. Facing down that surly sheep was an opportunity too good to pass up. Of course, it was risky. Getting Lydia acquitted was going to be tough. I had neither the smarts nor the experience to pull it off. Regardless, I felt someone should at least speak in Lydia’s defense, even if the accusations against her were . . . well . . . indefensible.

“I accept,” I said. “I’ll be Lydia’s defense attorney.”

“And I will serve as prosecutor,” said the judge, “if that’s all right with you.”

“It most certainly is not,” I said, “but under the circumstances, I accept your terms.”

What was I thinking? With the sheep as both judge and prosecutor, he could offer all the false evidence he wanted and uphold them at the same time, meanwhile overruling any objections I might have. I was doomed before I even got started. My only hope of winning relied on Darrow’s fact-checking capability—provided the sheep hadn’t already toyed with its circuitry.

The judge faced Lydia. “State your name, please,” he said.

“Lydia Hobbs.”

Darrow made a pinging sound. The word TRUE popped onto its screen.

“True,” confirmed the computer voice.

The judge continued. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

A loud buzzer blared. Police sirens wailed as revolving red lights lit up the courtroom. Darrow’s screen flashed:

LIAR!

LIAR!

LIAR!

After the light and sound show ended, I asked Lydia, “You okay, Lydia?”

Clomp!

“Counsel!” said the judge. “You will refrain from addressing the defendant while being questioned by the prosecutor,” 

The kind voice of Darrow repeated my concern, “You okay, Lydia?”

The judge waved his gavel at the computer, yelling, “That goes for you, too!” He resumed his questioning. “Now, let’s try this again. How old are you?”

Lydia hesitated. “Sixteen.”

Darrow pinged. “True.”

“Isn’t it true you reside in a rather large estate in Shankstonville?”

“Pretty much.”

“And who else lives there with you?”

“My mother and father.”

A large question mark popped onto Darrow’s screen. The judge eyed Lydia suspiciously. “You care to be more specific?”

Lydia looked over at Darrow and gulped. “My mother and . . . step-father.”

Ping. “True.”

“And where is your real father?” asked the judge.

Lydia lowered her head and muttered softly, “In prison.”

“Louder, please!”

Lydia’s face turned red. Her head shook like a pressure cooker about to explode. “In prison!” she screamed. “A thousand miles away in a prison cell. Hear me that time?”

So, that was Lydia’s big secret. She was the daughter of a convicted criminal. No wonder she wanted Hubert to keep silent about it.

Darrow displayed a police mugshot of Lydia’s biological father. “I object!” I blurted out.

“On what grounds?” asked the judge.

I tried to imagine how Perry Mason would have handled this. “You’re badgering the witness,” I said.

“Overruled!” said the judge. “I see no badger in this courtroom, only a snake in a cage and a skunk who is ignorant of the law.”

“Whose law?” I said. “Your law?”

“The law of common decency.” The judge lifted his stack of papers into the air. “These documents list the wicked deeds perpetrated by the accused. I offer them as evidence of her guilt.”

As the judge read the list aloud, Darrow supplied images supporting each allegation. The long list included betraying her closest friends, stealing from her parents, blackmailing school teachers. Darrow displayed photos, e-mails, text messages, even video of Lydia pushing Hubert down the school stairwell. Don’t ask me how, but that machine seemed to have a visual record of everything.

The judge hit the pause button on his remote. “Need I go on?” he asked me.

I said, “We get the picture, your honor.”

“You may now cross-examine.”

With the judge’s airtight case, there was little I could do to refute the charges. There was one tactic, however, I was willing to try, even though there was a good chance it could backfire. “No questions, your honor,” I said.

Panic returned to Lydia’s face. “What are you doing?”

The judge scribbled down a few notes. “Very well,” he said. “Bring in the other defendants.” Two more spotlights beamed down. Standing in the glow were Jake and Devin, each in his own jail cell.

The judge stood up and faced his prisoners. “You have all been brought before this court for crimes against civility, for which you have been tried fairly. You have been provided the opportunity to defend yourselves, for which you have failed miserably. Upon careful review of your testimonies, and thorough examination of the evidence, a verdict has been reached. I, therefore, by the power vested in me as Supreme Justice of Boneheadedness, find the defendants—”

“Not so fast!” I interrupted. “The defense has not yet rested its case. On behalf of each of the accused, I wish to question one more witness: the Darrow 9000.”

Balloons and confetti filled Darrow’s screen. The sounds of cheering crowds and noisemakers rang from his speakers. Darrow was ecstatic, as if being recognized as something more than a heartless machine pleased him. Having earlier shown sympathy toward Lydia, he now rejoiced in helping her and her friends in their moment of crisis.

Clomp!

“Order!” hollered the judge. “This is highly irregular.”

“You’ve never heard of a surprise witness?” I asked.

“And what do you intend to prove?”

“Your honor, it’s true that these defendants have behaved badly. They have been irresponsible and generally not very nice. But there’s one crucial aspect in this trial that has yet to be established: motive. I intend to show evidence justifying their actions—evidence that only the Darrow 9000 can provide. And furthermore, may I remind the court that withholding evidence is a crime. Is it not?”

The judge was visibly pissed. He knew I had him over a barrel. “Very well,” he relented. “You may proceed.” It was a minor victory, but it sure felt good beating the sheep at his own game.

I strutted confidently over to the jury box. “Darrow,” I said, “for the record, is it true you are incapable of presenting anything that is not factual?”

“Affirmative,” said Darrow.

“And that you have been programmed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

“I do.”

I approached Lydia’s cell. “This poor girl has been forced to live in an unhappy situation through no fault of her own. She has testified that her father is currently serving jail time. Darrow, please show us the events leading up to her father’s arrest.”

The computer’s presentation had all the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster, including a dramatic musical score, even a visual countdown.

5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . .

bq.
bq. FADE IN:

INTERIORSUBWAY CARDAY

A subway car is packed with commuters. LYDIA is standing, holding the overhead handrail. A handbag is draped over her shoulder.

SUBWAY STATION

A MAN runs through the station, chased by POLICE OFFICERS. As Lydia’s train rolls to a stop, the man ducks into her subway car, just as the doors close. The officers run by, unaware of his evasive maneuver.

SUBWAY CAR

The man stands next to Lydia. With her back to him, the man reaches into his coat pocket and produces a clear PLASTIC BAG full of white powder. As the moving subway car sways, he gingerly lifts the flap of Lydia’s handbag and places it inside.

CUT TO:

bq.
bq. INTERIORLYDIA’S HOMELATER

Lydia’s REAL FATHER is preparing dinner in the kitchen. Lydia happily bounds in and kisses him on the cheek.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     LYDIA
Hey, Dad.

bq.
bq. She tosses her handbag onto the kitchen counter and goes upstairs. A small amount of the white powder spills out onto the counter. Lydia’s father looks in the handbag and sees the plastic bag.

We hear a CRASH. The police enter the kitchen with their guns drawn.

CUT TO:

bq.
bq. INSERTNEWSPAPER HEADLINE

bq.
bq.
bq. “FATHER PLEADS GUILTY TO DRUG POSSESSION

bq.
bq. We hear the BANG of a judge’s gavel.

CUT TO:

bq.
bq. INTERIORSTATE PRISONDAY

Lydia’s father, in a prison uniform, stands in an open prison cell. The CELL DOOR glides past in the foreground. We hear the SLAM of the cell door closing.

FADE OUT

Lydia wiped away a tear. “If only I had known,” she said.

Next, it was Jake’s turn for a little justice. His hostile attitude began when his dad walked out on his family. That much I knew. Why his father did such an awful thing, however, wasn’t clear. A piece was missing from this puzzle, and finding it might justify Jake’s longstanding bitterness.

I walked up to Jake’s cell, and continued my questioning of Darrow. “This young man is mad at the world because he got burned by the System. His family imploded as a result. He recalled to us the day his father deserted him. What happened after that?”

bq.
bq. FADE IN:

EXTERIORTRAILER PARKDAY

A MAN knocks on the front door of a broken-down trailer. A sign above the door reads MANAGER. An unkempt WOMAN in a bathrobe answers.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     WOMAN
What do ya want?

    MAN
Afternoon, ma’am. Sorry to bother you.

bq.
bq. The man produces a family portrait showing a young Jake and his parents. His father in the photo wears a straw cowboy hat.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     MAN
You know these folks?

    WOMAN
The lady and the boy was here. Moved out two weeks ago owing me back rent.

    MAN
They leave a forwarding address?

    WOMAN
‘Course not. I told you. They was behind in the rent.

bq.
bq. The woman slams the door in the man’s face.

The man puts on a straw cowboy hat. He is JAKE’S FATHER. He walks to a car where a FRIEND sits behind the wheel. As the father gets in, he bumps his head on the door frame.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     FRIEND
Careful there, buddy. That’s how you lost your memory the last time.

    JAKE’S FATHER
That was a concussion, remember, or have you lost it, too?

    FRIEND
p.    (indicating trailer)
Any luck?

    JAKE’S FATHER
No. They already moved out.

bq.
bq. Friend starts the engine.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     FRIEND
What now?

    JAKE’S FATHER
Keep looking. Gotta find my family.

bq.
bq. The car drives off.

FADE OUT

Jake stared at the screen like he was hypnotized. “Who’da thought,” he said.

Devin was the last to have his history probed by Darrow. For sure, Devin was a money grubber, but was it his fault he was raised in an environment where greed is rewarded? If he had been born to parents who valued generosity, would he have turned out differently? That’s what I had to prove, if he was going to gain his freedom.

I addressed Darrow. “Since the day he was born, Devin has been showered with riches. He’s ruthless and greedy, and doesn’t care who gets hurt, so long as there’s a profit in it. They say ‘money is the root of all evil.’ Is there more to it in this case?”

bq.
bq. FADE IN:

INTERIORHOSPITALDAY

INTENSIVE CARE UNIT

A newborn BABY is in an incubator. Monitoring sensors are attached to its tiny body. The baby’s NAME is on the incubator.

INSERTBABY’S NAME

bq.
bq.
bq. “RICHARD

bq.
bq. HOSPITAL HALLWAY

The baby’s MOTHER watches her child through the ICU window. A DOCTOR approaches her.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     DOCTOR
Are you Richard’s mother?

    MOTHER
Yes, doctor. How’s he doing?

    DOCTOR
I’m afraid his condition has worsened. He’s going to require surgery. Unfortunately. . .

bq.
bq. He hands her a piece of paper.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     DOCTOR
Your insurance has declined to cover the expense of the procedure. This is what it will cost.

    MOTHER
p.    (weeping)
I’m sorry, Doctor. Getting by hasn’t been easy since my husband died. He was a kind man, but not very good at handling money.

    DOCTOR
I think you had better talk to one of our financial counselors.

bq.
bq. As he exits, a MAN emerges from the shadows.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     MAN
p.    (to Mother)
Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing. Is there some way I can help?

bq.
bq. She shows him the bill.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     MOTHER
p.    (indicating the total)
You don’t happen to have this on you, do you?

bq.
bq. The man whips out a check book, signs a blank check, and hands it to her.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     MOTHER
Are you serious? There’s no way I can repay this.

bq.
bq. The man looks through the ICU window at the baby.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     MAN
p.    (to himself)
He’s going to be a fine son, and a rich one.

    MOTHER
What did you say?

    MAN
I said, let me take you to dinner, and see if we can arrange a way for you to pay me back.

    MOTHER
p.    (embarrassed)
I don’t know how to thank you. Funny, though, I don’t even know your name.

    MAN
Vincent. In means, to conquer.

    MOTHER
That’s a nice name.

bq.
bq. ICU INCUBATOR

Baby Richard sleeps. We hear the BEEPS from his monitoring equipment. Vincent looks at him through the glass.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     VINCENT
Devin is a nice name, too.

bq.
bq. FADE OUT

Devin nodded, and said, “That’s one mean dad.”

I approached the bench. “Your honor, these defendants are not villains—their victims. They’re the product of circumstances beyond their control. I’m not saying what they’ve done is right. Kids our age do plenty of dumb things, but we learn from our mistakes. We rise above them and become better people having lived the experience. Therefore, I demand the defendants be found not guilty by reason of immaturity.” I looked over at my buddies to see three grateful grins. “Defense rests!”

I was pretty impressed with myself after making that speech. Somewhere inside me, I found a depth of understanding I never knew I had. Atticus Finch would be proud.

The judge stood up in anger. “Think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?” he said. “Well, I decide innocence or guilt in this court, and I find the defendants . . . guilty as charged!”

The judge raised his gavel over his head and was about to slam it down, when Darrow’s screen suddenly lit up.

“Overruled!” he declared.

Everyone turned toward Darrow’s screen as it played one last video:

bq.
bq. FADE IN:

EXTBONEHEAD BOOTCAMPDAY

AMY, DEVIN, JAKE, and LYDIA stand at attention while SERGEANT SHEEP barks out commands.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq.     SERGEANT SHEEP
Alright, you social rejects. Get this through your bony heads: I own you!

The judge shouted at Darrow, “You’re out of order!”

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq. You will obey my every command. . .

He pounded the buttons on his remote control to no avail.

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq. disorderly conduct will be subject to disciplinary action. . .

“You’re in contempt of court!”

bq.
bq.
bq.
bq. and there will be no deserters in my camp. Is that clear?

    AMY, DEVIN, LYDIA, JAKE
Sir, yes sir!

Darrow froze the video on a close-up of the sergeant’s grumpy face, then displayed text over it:

FRAUD!

FRAUD!

FRAUD!

“Your honor,” I said, “or whatever you are, the Darrow 9000 has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you are, in fact, not a judge, and have no authority to pass judgment on anybody. I declare a mistrial, and demand the defendants be released at once!”

The judge was fuming—huffing and puffing like a big, bad wolf. Knowing he was licked, he threw off his wig and slammed it down on his desk. “Cases dismissed!”

Clomp!

After the echo of the gavel faded away, Lydia began clapping her hands, slowly at first. Devin and Jake, too, joined in to applaud my achievement. The sound of three people clapping may not seem like much, but to me, it felt like a standing ovation in a sports arena. For the first time I had actually accomplished something important.

But the defeated judge didn’t share in their appreciation. He sat down and put his wig back on. “Next case,” he said. “The People vs Amy Dawson!”

I heard the sound of rattling chains above me and looked up. Out of the darkness I saw a jail cell dropping down over me. I jumped out of the way just as it crashed to the floor.

Clomp!

“How do you plead?” yelled the judge.

I frantically turned in all directions, looking for a way out.

“The door!” cried Lydia, pointing to the doorway used by the sheep to enter the courtroom.

Chapter 9

At Your Own Risk

With my ear against the backside of the door, I heard nothing coming from the courtroom. I was tempted to peek inside to see if anyone was still there, but I didn’t want to provoke a rematch with that screwball sheep. That also meant not knowing if my friends had been released from their jail cells.

I kneeled down to examine the brass door handle, but didn’t find a keyhole. I also didn’t find a handle. The elegant brass hardware was now a cheap doorknob. It was dented and discolored, like it had seen years of bad weather. The condition of the wood was even worse. What had been a beautiful solid oak door was now covered with a weathered plywood veneer. I stood up and came face to face with an iron door knocker. I was so focused on the courtroom that I hadn’t noticed that the world had changed around me. I was outdoors, standing on the stoop of an apartment building, on a big-city street.

Dawn was breaking over the rooftops. The street was teeming with cars, busses, and bikes. Typical for that hour of the morning, traffic wasn’t moving, but strangely, neither was anything else. I mean, everything was standing still! People in crosswalks stood frozen like statues. Falling leaves didn’t reach the ground. Pigeons in flight hung motionless in midair. It was like staring at a giant postcard suspended in time, frozen for everyone and everything . . . but me!

Then it occurred to me how familiar everything looked: the tree-lined sidewalks, the bus stop benches, the brownstone row houses. I recognized the street signs and knew the names of the street vendors. And why wouldn’t I? I was back in the city I knew as a child!

It was just the way I remembered it. The playground where I spent so much of my youth was still down the street. The candy store I raided each day after school hadn’t changed. Even the striped awning at Vito’s corner delicatessen shaded his storefront window. And there was no mistaking the door in front of me. It was the entrance to our family’s old apartment.

I lifted the door knocker and tapped lightly. Waiting for someone to answer, the door slowly swung open by itself. I wiped my feet on the welcome mat. Enter at your own risk was printed on it in bright, red letters. No question. It was the same one I kept under my bed at home, only brand new.

I stepped inside. It was quiet as a funeral parlor. The morning light through the window blinds sent long shadows streaking across the wall. I saw our piano in the corner, Kurt’s Parcheesi board on the coffee table, and our family photos on the fireplace mantle. Everything was in its proper place. Only one detail was missing; there was no laughter, no playful chaos, none of the high-spirited ruckus that used to drive our neighbors crazy.

Touching the furniture awakened memories I had kept buried for a decade. Long-forgotten sounds played back in my ears. I heard my sister gabbing on the phone; the squeal of my brother practicing his clarinet. I even heard Mom singing Sinatra tunes from the kitchen. Of course, I didn’t really hear anything. I was replaying the soundtrack of my past in my mind. But then, I heard something for real: the clicking of typewriter keys behind the bedroom wall!

“Dad!”

I ran to my parent’s room and threw open the door. The sound of typing stopped the moment I entered the room. On the desk sat Dad’s typewriter, its keys motionless. Typewritten manuscripts were strewn across the unmade bed. Then I heard the shower running in the bathroom across the room. Steam began pouring out through its open door. The smell of Dad’s shaving cream hung in the air.

I started for the shower, when another smell stopped me in my tracks. A new scent now beckoned me into the kitchen: the tantalizing smell of frying bacon. I followed the sounds of sizzling grease and clanging pots and pans. Pushing through the kitchen swing door, I expected to see my mother in her Snoopy apron, standing over an avocado-colored stove. But as I crossed the threshold, it was dead quiet.

The fried bacon lay on a plate at the center of a table set for five. Each place setting had a plate piled high with scrambled eggs, hash browns, and a home-baked muffin. Steam rose from the coffee cup where my dad always sat.

Then, the piano started playing in the living room. I raced back through the kitchen door, hoping, this time, to find a real person. Again, everything came to a standstill at my presence. I stared at the empty piano bench, alone and frustrated, hearing only the swish of the swing door behind me.

What kind of sick game was this? Was it yet another product of the sheep’s depraved sense of humor? Maybe this was my punishment for outwitting him in the courtroom. I looked up to the ceiling and gritted my teeth, then shouted, “What are you doing to me?”

Then a soft, youthful voice spoke, “Quiet. You’ll wake the dead.” Standing behind me was my late brother, Kurt—big as life, with that Cheshire Cat grin of his! I covered my mouth to hide my shock. Kurt had been dead for nearly ten years, yet there he was, in the same plaid shirt he was wearing the last time I saw him.

My best efforts to control my emotions couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. Seeing my big brother again was like a dream come true—only, this was an impossible dream. The day we buried him still haunted me. The eyes staring into mine simply couldn’t be his.

Kurt patted me on the head. “Off to a slow start this morning, aren’t we?” he said. “Mom’s got breakfast on the table. C’mon, sleepyhead.”

Kurt brushed past me. I wanted so badly to wrap my arms around him. I reached out, but stopped short. Accepting that he was alive would mean having to face his death all over again. That was a scene I didn’t want to play a second time.

Still, I had to ask, “Is it really you? How is this possible? How can you be—”

Kurt paid no attention to me. He walked over to the window, lifted up the sash, and inhaled the morning air. “Awww! That sweet smell of exhaust fumes.”

He grabbed a box of birdseed off the mantle and leaned out to refill his bird feeder. Of course, the birds were rigid as stuffed animals. But it was kind of sweet seeing Kurt attending to his wild pets, frozen as they were. Then I gasped at what I saw next. The back of his shirt was soaked with blood stains.

I quickly composed myself, not wishing to waste a single moment with him. “It’s been a long time, Kurt,” I said, “but I never stopped thinking about you, not even after—”

“Dammit!” shouted Kurt, tugging on the window. “Stuck again. When’s Dad gonna fix this thing?”

He forced the window shut as I stepped closer. I tried again to get through to him. “You were always so much more than a brother to me. I never got the chance to tell you how much I—”

Kurt interrupted. “Man, it’s cold in here. Must be late on the gas bill.”

Why was he being so rude? Kurt was never like this before. Whatever force had brought me here, and for whatever reason, I finally had my chance to express my affection for him. But his lack of courtesy was trying my patience.

I stepped in front of him and yanked the birdseed out of his hand. “Why won’t you listen to me?” I said. “I’m trying to tell you I miss you. I miss going to carnivals. I miss playing those silly games. I want everything back the way it was. You hear me? The tea parties, the roughhousing, the bill collectors, everything. ”

Kurt’s gentle smile turned to a surly frown. “I’m disappointed in you, Amy,” he grumbled.

I frowned back at him. “I’m disappointed in you, too. I thought you’d at least be a little more understanding.”

“Oh, I understand perfectly,” he said. “I understand how Mom and Dad just love having you around; how close you are to your brother and sister; not to mention your popularity at school. And you want to be their president? Dream on.”

“Back off!” I yelled. “You don’t know what it’s like out there. Those kids are shallow and stuck-up. I only want to help them. That’s why I joined the race.”

“Then you’re a damn fool!”

Kurt grabbed my arm, dragged me over to the mirror above the mantle, and pointed at my skunk head. “Look at yourself,” he said. “That’s the perfect look for you; a mouth that doesn’t know when to shut up; ears that won’t listen to anyone else; eyes that can’t see things the way they really are. You’re a bonehead just like everyone says, and I’ve got no use for a stinking, little brat like you!”

I shook off Kurt’s grip. We stared bitterly at each other. The big brother I so loved and admired had turned mean and hurtful. But in my heart, I knew better. A faint smile peeked through his scornful face, and I knew this was all just an act. He was performing out of concern for my welfare. The problem then was, I wasn’t acting. The awful things I said must have hurt him deeply. I searched his eyes for some sign he still had room in his heart for me.

I opened my arms. He started to reach for me, when he stopped to look at his wristwatch. “Oops!” he said. “Gotta go.” He trotted over to the front door jingling his car keys in his hand. “Gotta drive my buddies to the game. Don’t want to keep them waiting.” He turned the doorknob.

“Wait!” I cried. I ran to the door and held it shut. “Don’t go out there.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll die if you do. You’re going to crash the car and be killed.”

“Don’t be morbid.”

He nudged me aside and opened the door. Suddenly, the phone next to the couch rang. Half way across the threshold, Kurt said, “Aren’t you going to answer that?” I stared at the phone, gripped with fear. “Answer it!” he insisted.

“I don’t want to.”

The ringing got louder.

“Pick it up!”

“No. It’s the hospital.”

“Answer it. Now!”

“No! No! No!”

I covered my ears and screamed, “Take me away from here! Dear God, take me away!”

I pulled Kurt inside and ran through the open door. I slammed it shut, leaving behind that tragic day I had tried so hard to forget. Back on the stoop, I faced the door, then noticed that its knocker was missing. Fastened to the doorknob in my hand was a realtor’s lockbox. I turned around, and was amazed to find the freeze-frame city now bustling with life. Traffic moved in the street. Pigeons flew over rooftops. I was back in the city where it all began, only not the one from long ago. An office building rose where the playground used to be. My favorite candy store had been torn down. A For Lease sign hung in Vito’s delicatessen window. Under my feet the door mat had vanished, and in its place, the morning newspaper showing today’s date.

My trip back in time, whether real or imagined, had been a bittersweet journey. My reunion with Kurt had fulfilled a lifelong wish. How often in my dreams, Kurt and I had flown off like Peter Pan and Wendy to relive our fondest moments together. But living that dream required that I come face to face with my real self. Like it or not, everything Kurt said about me was true—the disrespect, the thoughtlessness. If there was ever a time I needed my big brother’s guidance and advice, this was it. But Kurt will forever inhabit Neverland, while I was stuck in the times I was born into—and no amount of wishing was going to change that.

I sat down on the stoop and leaned against the door. Wrapping my arms around my knees, I faced the ground, then closed my eyes. And there I sat, with the clamor of the city in my ears, in a world where wishes are only granted with strings attached.

A short time later I heard voices above me. I opened my eyes. The concrete stoop had turned to soft earth. The door I felt against my back was now the obstacle course wall. It was midday, and I was back at the cornfield crossroads!

Devin, Jake, and Lydia were sitting on top of the wall. Amazingly, their human heads had been restored. I immediately ran my fingers over my own head. Not a single strand of skunk fur had been shed.

Jake waved down to me. “Hey there, Alice,” he said, “how was Wonderland?”

“Terrible,” I said, standing up. “How’d you guys get here?”

“Beats me, man,” said Jake. “One minute the lights go out, next thing here we are.”

“I see that old mule is gone.”

“And where ever he is, I’m gonna make sure he stays there.”

“How so?”

“For starters,” said Jake, “Ma and I are gonna find my pa, then get us a new farm. A good friend has offered to loan us seed money to get things rolling.”

I pointed to Devin. “You don’t mean him?”

Jake smiled and slapped Devin on the back, nearly knocking him off the wall.

I crossed my arms and leered up at Devin. “And what’s in it for you, Mr. Wall Street tycoon?”

“.001 percent interest,” said Devin, with a laugh. “Business is business.”

Lydia brushed her long, auburn hair, now back to its original loveliness. “And you,” I said. “What happened to that snake-in-the-grass I used to know?”

“She’s heading for the green grass of home,” said Lydia. “Got an appointment with a judge who wants to reopen my dad’s case.” She held up a disc with the Darrow 9000 logo on it. “Got some compelling new evidence to show him.”

Jake had meanwhile turned toward the back of the wall. I asked him, “Off to another protest rally?”

“Nope,” he said. “Givin’ up being an angry protester.” He threw down a pack of cigarettes. “Givin’ those up, too.” As he prepared to jump down, he hesitated. “Mind if I give you a little friendly advice?”

“Sure thing.”

“It’s not easy admitting when you’ve been wrong,” he said, “but it sure feels good afterward. Try it sometime.” Then he leaped off the wall and disappeared, fading into the daylight.

Devin also lifted his feet over the other side. “You leaving, too?” I said.

“Got lots to talk over with my old man,” said Devin. He took off his Rolex and tossed it to me. “Give this to someone who can use a reliable timepiece. Giving is so much more fun than taking, don’t ya think?” Then he pushed off the wall and vanished.

Lydia reached her hand down to me. “C’mon, Amy,” she said. “I’ll help you up.”

I started to reach for her, then abruptly backed away. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

“What do mean?”

“I mean I can’t go with you. You guys have happily-ever-afters waiting for you back home. I’d just be going back to the same old problems.”

“What about Hubert?”

“I can’t see him.”

“What’s stopping you?”

I held my little skunk ears out to the side.

“I see your point,” said Lydia. She turned around and leaned out. I was sad to see her go. Through all the ups and downs we had encountered, a bond had formed between us that I didn’t want to see broken.

I asked Lydia, “Will I ever see you again?”

“I never thought I’d say this,” she said, “but I totally hope so. Sorry I can’t be there to wipe the floor with you in the school election. Always knew you were the better choice.”

Then she shoved off and was gone.

In the silence, I sensed the return of that terrible feeling of abandonment. I walked up to the wall and placed my hand against its cold, hard surface, and felt a loneliness worse than any I had ever known—but I wouldn’t be lonely for long.

“ATTENNN—TION!”

It was that pesky sheep again, and I was in no mood to be bossed around by him. “Not now,” I said.

He shouted, “Listen up! I order you to get over that wall—pronto!”

“Are you out of your mind? How can I go back with this skunk head on my shoulders? Speaking of which, how come the others got their normal heads back and I didn’t?”

“That’s classified information. Your orders are to scale that wall and go back where you came from.”

“Alright!” I yelled. “I’ll go, if only because I’m tired of being lectured by you.”

“And I’m tired of snot-nosed skunks stinking up my boot camp. Now, get up there. Move! Move! Move!”

I was ready to do anything to get away from that miserable Sergeant Sheep. I faced the wall, then felt something against the side of my foot. The sheep was crouched down next to me, his hands clasped together, ready to give me a boost. Imagine. That crabby old sergeant wanting to help me, especially after all the grief he had put me through. Actually, I wasn’t too surprised. I had a feeling from the beginning that under that hard-boiled sheepskin was a real, beating heart. I think he was going to miss me.

I placed my foot in the sheep’s sturdy hands. He lifted me gently. I grabbed hold of the wall and sat myself down at the top. On the other side, dawn was breaking over Shankstonville.

I turned back toward the sheep. “There’s something I’ve been wondering about,” I said. “What’s your real head look like?”

“This is my real head,” he said. “No human wanted the job.”

“You mean to tell me you’re not human?”

The sheep just smiled. Then his hand sprang to his forehead in a proper military salute. “On your way, cadet.”

I turned and looked out over the fields stretched out in front of me, then jumped down into a reality I wasn’t prepared to face.

Chapter 10

You’re Back

I landed on the sidewalk outside the Shankstonville bus station, my suitcase at my feet, my cell phone in my pocket, just as if I had never left. There was no trace of the obstacle course wall, leaving me to wonder if I had somehow imagined the whole thing.

Against the first light of day, the fluorescent sign at the Jiffy-Q mini-mart came on. The service bay doors at the corner gas station rolled open. There were no cars on the street, but plenty of traffic out in the fields. Huge harvesters chopped through the vast farmland. Dust clouds trailed behind pickup trucks speeding down dirt roads. A crop duster skimmed the horizon. I was cool with that, so long as it didn’t turn in my direction.

While I had survived Bonehead Bootcamp, returning home offered new challenges. In a town where chin wagging was something of a sport, all I needed was to be spotted with my skunk head and it would be all over town. I headed home without delay. Running with my suitcase under my arm, I must have looked like Dracula with his coffin, running from the sunrise. Fortunately, all the humble villagers were still asleep.

With only a few blocks to go, it looked like I was home free, until I heard loud barking up ahead. Chopper the hound dog had spotted me from his front porch and was determined to tell the whole neighborhood about it. He knew a skunk when he saw one, and charged toward me. But my old pal saw through my disguise and quietly nudged his wet nose under my arm. His huge, wagging tail nearly knocked me down as I scratched behind his big floppy ears. Good boy!

Arriving at my house, I hesitated before going inside. All the windows were dark, and since my family never rose before the farmers did, I figured no one was up yet. Then I noticed a flickering light through the living room blinds. I eased open the front door, crept through the foyer, and peered into the living room. The TV had been left on. Luckily for me, no one was in the room watching it.

With everything that had happened, I was feeling pretty frazzled. My feet felt like 30-pound cinder blocks as I climbed the stairs. I practically had to drag myself down the hall. Finally in my room, I kicked off my shoes and sank into bed with my clothes on. Out the window, the approaching dawn melted away the silver clouds. Daybreak flooded my room with golden light. I never realized what a beautiful sight that was.

It was nice to be home. It even felt good to be back with my family. Only, how was I going to explain my appearance to them? Who would believe what I had gone through? Perhaps some convincing answers would come to me in my sleep.

The alarm clock on my nightstand blared its wake-up call. I pried open my eyes and turned it off without reading the time. Why bother? Knowing how little sleep I’d gotten wasn’t going to make me anymore awake. I rolled onto my stomach and plowed my face into my pillow.

The clock wasn’t the only annoyance trying to coax me out of bed. I heard a knock at my door, and my father’s voice calling from the hallway, “Someone left their suitcase in the hall,” he said. “I know you’re in there, Amy. Time to get up.”

“Do I haaaave to?” I moaned into my pillow.

My dad entered the room. “Monday morning. School day.”

I rolled onto my back and propped myself up on my elbows. Through my clouded vision, I saw a figure standing at the foot of my bed, holding a coffee cup. I wiped the grogginess from my eyes and looked up, but something didn’t seem right. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. The man standing before me was the right height, the right build, and spoke in my dad’s voice. For sure, he was my dad, but his words were not being spoken through human lips. I shook my head in disbelief. My dad had the head of a walrus!

“Dad!” I said. “What happened to your head?”

Coffee sloshed over the rim of his cup as he hurried over to my dresser mirror. “What are you talking about?” he said, staring at himself. “There’s nothing wrong with my head.”

“Can’t you see it?” I said. “The whiskers? The blubber? You’re a walrus.”

Dad guided the cup between his long tusks and sipped his coffee. He came to my bedside and looked down on me through billiard ball-sized eyes. “You feeling alright?” he asked. The commotion brought the rest of the family into my room. They, too, had animal heads on top of their human bodies.

“The bonehead’s back,” grunted my sister, wiping the chocolate from her pig cheeks.

“So soon?” mumbled my brother, through the folds of his bulldog face.

“Sleeping in your clothes again?” complained my mother, rolling her baboon fur with a curling iron.

Was I in the right house? Of course I was. Everything was as I left it, only my family now resembled the main attraction at a circus sideshow. I held my pillow over my mouth to muffle my laughter. They all looked at each other, puzzled, curious to know what was so amusing. Then it dawned on me, while I observed their funny faces, none of them made any remarks about my skunk head.

I reached for the mirror on my nightstand and slowly swiveled it toward me. I caught sight of my right ear, then my right eye, then my nose. It was the same nose I knew from my baby pictures. I was human again!

“Well, Amy,” said my dad, “I hope you learned something positive at Bonehead Bootcamp. Sorry I had to raise such a stink over it.”

I leaped off the bed, threw my arms around his thick, hairy neck and hugged him tightly. “The only stink you raised was me,” I said. I was never so happy to see him.

I walked to school that morning, and despite a night of little sleep, I was alert and full of energy. I followed the same route I had taken a hundred times before. I past the same country farmland, but viewed it through a new pair of eyes. There was a beauty to our town I never appreciated: the green of the pastures, the fragrance of the sunflowers, the song of the meadowlarks.

At school I trotted merrily down the corridors, humming along with that wonderful hillbilly music playing over the P.A. I watched the students plow their way to class through the crowded halls. It was a typical morning at Shankstonville High School—or was I at the National Zoo? Not only had my family become critter heads, so had the entire student body.

Every species in the animal kingdom, from house pets to wild beasts, was represented, yet no one thought anything of it. Like my dad had demonstrated, they saw only human heads on themselves and each other. There were no fingers pointing at me, so I must have looked normal to them, too. I wondered, if those kids and I were seeing different worlds, which vision was true: the one I saw, or the one they perceived? That was way too much to wrap my head around. Either way, it didn’t much matter. I wasn’t going to spoil my fun by trying to make sense of a physical impossibility.

I breezed into my first-period English class. Mr. Pierce stood at his desk. “Goooood morning, class,” he said, slurring his speech through his turkey beak. Andy was there, too, and as I expected, he had a bull head, although he didn’t appear very ferocious. He looked mournfully at Lydia’s empty seat. I learned that she had insisted that they “see other people,” and Andy wasn’t used to being dumped.

And what a great bunch of kids. My boot camp ordeal had radically changed my attitude toward my fellow teens. As of that moment, all sins were forgiven and grudges forgotten. I wanted to hug every last one of them. They looked great, too. I mean, just because you’re half animal, doesn’t mean you can’t be stylish. I especially liked the highlights on chicken feathers, the dreadlocks on guinea pigs, the deer’s pierced antlers.

Lunchtime.

I could hardly wait to tell Hubert about my wild adventure. I ran to the cafeteria, loaded up a food tray in record time, and raced over to his usual table. There he was, reading a book on Quantum Mechanics. Sneaking up behind him, I said, “How goes it?”

Hubert turned and smiled, but not through tiger fangs or canine teeth. He had the head of a genuine, bona fide human.

“You’re back!” said Hubert, leaping to his feet.

I dropped my tray and wrapped my arms around him, nearly knocking him down. I pinched his nerdy little cheek. “Look at you,” I said. “You’re exactly the same.”

“Not exactly.” Hubert raised his foot onto the table. His ankle cast was gone. In my excitement, I hadn’t noticed him standing without a cane. I also didn’t see that his horn-rimmed glasses were missing.

“I’m wearing contacts now,” he said, lifting his eyelids. “How do I look?”

“Almost human,” I said. “And how do I look?”

“Fetching, as usual. I only wish I could have seen you with your animal head.”

I stepped back in shock. “How did you know about that?”

“It happens to everyone who goes to Bonehead Bootcamp.”

“I don’t believe this,” I said. “You knew I’d get turned into an animal and didn’t tell me?”

“I wanted to, but you would have thought I was crazy. What were you, anyway?”

“A skunk.”

Hubert mashed his lips together, trying to conceal his grin.

“Don’t laugh,” I said. “You should have seen the others.” I looked out over the cafeteria, at an ocean of animal-headed students. “And now there’s animal heads everywhere. You’re a smart guy. Can you explain it?”

“It’s simple,” he said. “Humans were blessed with the ability to think and reason, yet they behave with little more intelligence than a monkey. We act like animals all the time. We just don’t see ourselves that way.”

Hubert pointed to a boy across the room. “See Barney Moore over there? He never participates in school activities, afraid that someone will notice him.” Barney had the head of a timid mouse. He cowered behind his lunch box while nibbling on a slice of pizza.

“Then there’s Katey Richards. Ever notice how she hovers over other peoples conversations?” Katey was a vulture. She leaned her ear toward a group of giggling girls who were sharing the latest gossip.

“And how about Harry Jacobs, the school bully?” Harry had the head of a warthog. He bumped the boy next to him off the bench, then ate the poor boy’s Tater Tots.

I shot Hubert a look of suspicion. “How do know all this?”

Hubert handed me his bookmark. It was a snapshot of a boy with horn-rimmed glasses, balanced on the bridge of his crocodile snout. “That’s me,” he said. “Spent some time at that boot camp myself.”

“That explains how you know so much, but not why I’m seeing a cafeteria full of animals.”

Hubert placed his crocodile selfie back in his book. “Critter-vision,” he said. “A little gift from Sergeant Sheep.”

Evidently, no one recruited into Bonehead Bootcamp went away empty-handed. Critter-vision was the reward you got for all your hard work—like a parting gift TV game shows give their contestants.

And what a gift it was! School kids I thought were tough were really chickens. I knew which teachers would go ape if I didn’t turn in my homework. If someone was being dishonest, I didn’t need to smell a rat to see one.

Television never looked better. Commercials showed hippos promoting weight-loss programs. Sharks promised huge, personal injury settlements. C-SPAN showed donkeys and elephants running the country in Washington.

What if everyone was given this gift? I wondered. Think how society could benefit from it:

Politics: Citizens could tell a presidential debate from a dog and pony show.

Wall Street: Shareholders would know who’s been monkeying with their investments.

Public Safety: Police could spot road hogs before they created traffic jams.

Sex: Is your wife really asleep, or is she playing possum?

“This is awesome!” I said. “From now on I can tell what people are like just by looking at them.”

“Not quite,” said Hubert. “Critter-vision is only available for a limited time. After a day or two, everyone will go back to looking human again, including me in that photo.”

Just as Hubert predicted, all the animal-headed people turned back into their everyday, flawed, human selves. And I went back to a life I thought was as bad as it could be—only, it wasn’t. True, there were still plenty of disappointments and frustrations to deal with. But I no longer felt like a caged animal, scratching and clawing to get out. Funny thing about cages: sometimes we build our own.

I waltzed in through the front door like Ginger Rogers, happy to be home. Poking my head into the living room, I saw my mom and dad sitting comfortably on the couch, their eyes fixated on a movie playing on their TV monstrosity. “Afternoon, folks,” I said, in a cheerful voice. No response. Talking over the TV’s blaring audio was like reciting poetry during a thunder storm.

I climbed the stairs, carefully sidestepping my ear-budded, video-gaming brother. I tip-toed down the hall so that I wouldn’t disrupt my sister’s abuse of social media. Then I walked past the door that used to be my bedroom, and continued on to the attic stairs. My dad had converted the unused space into suitable living quarters, and I was quick to claim it as my new bedroom. The old welcome mat I kept under my bed was given a place of honor on its doorstep.

I stepped over the threshold of my third-floor sanctuary, then stopped to listen. The added distance between my room and the ground floor had tamed the TV’s disturbing roar, and when I closed the door, awww! Blissful silence.

My detour to Bonehead Bootcamp had kept me from finishing To Kill a Mockingbird. Book in hand, I plopped down on my bed. Then I heard a tapping noise at my window. A bird had landed on the sill and was pecking on the glass. It was a scruffy little sparrow, just like the ones that used to flock to Kurt’s bird feeder. It showed no fear of me as I opened the window. It stared at me for a moment, cocked its head, then flew off. Was that little bird Kurt’s winged messenger, sent to see if I was all right? Probably not. But that didn’t stop me from waving to it as it flitted off into the midwestern sky. “Thanks, big brother.”

In the field across the road grazed a herd of sheep, minus the little guy with the bell that seemed so interested in me. Had that sheep really been trying to warn me about Bonehead Bootcamp? Can an animal be that human? People love to compare the worst of themselves to animals: dumb as an ox, fat as a pig, lame as a duck. Maybe animals see our shortcomings the same way: boneheaded as a human.

I went to my dresser and gazed into the mirror. They say that when you look at your own reflection, you see yourself as others do. I don’t know about that. It seems like people only see what they want to see. As for me, I was perfectly content to view a teenager who dressed on the shabby side, who listened to Chicago blues, and read the editorial page of the Sunday paper. The neon-blue streak in her hair in no way detracted from her good looks.

But there was something extra in the girl staring back at me—something extraordinary, something I hadn’t seen in a long, long time . . .

She was smiling.

About the Author

Bruce Edwards is a former Hollywood film animator, and brings the whimsy of a character artist to his stories. A music major in college, he is also an accomplished musician and composer. As a writer he wrote screenplays during his Hollywood years before finding an audience for his young-adult fiction. His other creative endeavors include a stint as a puppeteer and performing magic at Disneyland. But his true passion lies in exploring the peculiarities in human behavior through imaginative storytelling. Bruce currently lives in Orange County, California.

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“Funny and bright and a lot of fun.”
—Readers’ Favorite

“Readers will appreciate Amy’s sharp wit.”
—Booklist

“Unfailingly entertaining read from beginning to end.”
—Midwest Book Review

“A riotous young-adult adventure.”
—Foreword Reviews

“Zany and delightful.”
—Readers’ Favorite

The Age of Amy

A SERIES FOR YOUNG ADULTS by Bruce Edwards

Bonehead Bootcamp
Book #1

Amy is uprooted from the city she loves to the Midwest. The 16-year-old blasts her parents for destroying her happiness. But when her verbal attacks turn physical, she is sent away to a boot camp for troubled teens. Expecting Bonehead Bootcamp to be a laid-back country retreat, Amy instead enters a frightening fantasy world where a mutant farm animal manipulates time and space. Together with three other unruly teenagers, she must summon all her courage and ingenuity to get back home.

***

The Thumper Amendment
Book #2

It’s an election year, and Congress has lowered the voting age to 14! In support for her favorite candidate, 16-year-old Amy joins his campaign—not out of patriotism, but because the opposing candidate’s son bullied her in the third grade. Defeating her offender would be the perfect payback for her maltreatment. But, there’s a problem. The wicked boy has grown into a tenderhearted (and cute) young adult, making it difficult for Amy to dislike him. Her vengeance turns to feelings of affection and admiration. Is she falling in love?

***

Channel ’63
Book #3

What if you could tune your TV to the year 1963, and watch—live? A new theme park attraction allows visitors to not only observe, but talk with the people of that turbulent decade. For 16-year-old Amy, it’s the perfect escape from her own time, and the hardships of teenage life in the 21st century. But things get complicated when Amy falls for a teenage boy in the 60s.

***

Behind the Fun Zone
Book #4

Are you a Jimmiehead, or are you still using one of those old-fashioned smartphones? Jimmies are tiny microchips, that when painlessly implanted into your brain, magically transform your eyes and ears into the ultimate hands-free device. Every teen wants one—except 16-year-old Amy, who detests technology in any form. But when her device-addicted friends start disappearing, only she can save them.

***

Mad Dogs and Makeovers
Book #5

Amy is in big trouble with the Law. A late-night phone call from a stranger implicates the 16-year-old girl in a terrorist plot. But when the nefarious man suddenly vanishes, Amy becomes the FBI’s prime suspect. To prove her innocence, she embarks on a fantastic journey to find her mysterious night caller. The clues to the man’s whereabouts are few, but all point to a dingy, old barbershop that caters to the rich and powerful.

***

AMAZON.com

MORE Books by Bruce

AN UNACCEPTABLE CHRISTMAS

Arriving Christmas 2017!

All 6-year-old Michael wants for Christmas is to welcome home his absent father. Jotting off a letter to Santa would be the norm for one so young, only the jolly ol’ elf is nowhere to be found. In fact, the cheerless boy has never even heard of Santa Claus. Federal courts have ruled once and for all that the beloved yuletide icon does not exist. Lawmakers have outlawed displaying his likeness or singing songs that mention his name. Outraged, Michael’s teenage sister launches a spirited campaign to demand the idiotic ruling be overturned—insisting that believing in Santa is every child’s right.

AMAZON.com

The Age of Amy: Bonehead Bootcamp

Published by
Lambert Hill
P.O. Box 1478
Brea, CA 92822-1478
www.LambertHill.com

Copyright © 2012 by Bruce Edwards
Revised edition Copyright © 2017 by Bruce Edwards
All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

No part of this e-book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher. For information regarding permissions, contact: Lambert Hill, P.O. Box 1478, Brea, CA 92822-1478, [email protected]

ISBN: 978-0-9837604-1-2 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-9837604-0-5 (print)

Visit  www.BruceEdwardsBooks.com


The Age of Amy: Bonehead Bootcamp - Revised Edition

Amy is uprooted from the city she loves to the Midwest. The 16-year-old blasts her parents for destroying her happiness. But when her verbal attacks turn physical, she is sent away to a boot camp for troubled teens. Expecting Bonehead Bootcamp to be a laid-back country retreat, Amy instead enters a frightening fantasy world where a mutant farm animal manipulates time and space. Together with three other unruly teenagers, she must summon all her courage and ingenuity to get back home.

  • ISBN: 9780983760412
  • Author: Bruce Edwards
  • Published: 2017-07-31 21:50:12
  • Words: 33982
The Age of Amy: Bonehead Bootcamp - Revised Edition The Age of Amy: Bonehead Bootcamp - Revised Edition