The Twisted Climb
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The Twisted Climb


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93 pages

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Falling to sleep has never been so tiring. Sleep climbers Jayden, Connor and Max meet in a strange, moonlit dream land where the only way to ‘fall’ asleep is to climb. The climbing is not so simple, though. The mountain is full of night-time animals and things that could only exist in a dream world. Jayden, a brash, assertive girl, battles her own demons while joining forces with Connor, a calm, intuitive young man, and Max, a young teenager trying to be a man in a boy’s body. Together, they climb their way up the mountain but their many adventures are interrupted by Richard Hatemore, an evil, sickly-looking boy who will stop at nothing to prevent them from reaching their goal. As the sleep climbers move closer to the top, they begin to work as a team and ultimately, face their greatest challenge together.



Publié par
Date de parution 12 juin 2016
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781772991352
Langue English

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The TwistedClimb
By J.C.Kavanagh
Digital ISBNs:
EPUB: 9781772991352
WEB: 9781772991376
Print ISBN:9781772991383

Copyright 2016 by J.C.Kavanagh
Cover art by MichelleLee
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the publisher of this book
To Ian, for helping tomake my dreams come true.
Chapter 1
Green Eyes
Jayden Nanjeelooked up. The full moon shone like a ghostly yellow torch againstthe midnight black of the night sky. The pale, low-lying cloudsseemed to hug the earth as the moon peeked in and out of theirembrace. They reminded Jayden of the lumpy potatoes her motherserved when she felt like making dinner. She raised one hand andstared at the light brown skin that contrasted so starkly againstthe vivid pink of her pyjamas.
“I think I’mdreaming,” she said out loud.
Suddenly, awolf howled. Then another. There was a forlorn quality to theircries, triggering goosebumps on Jayden’s arms and the hairsprickled along the back of her neck.
“I have toclimb, but climb where?”
A multitude ofcarefully pruned apple trees surrounded her. The bony limbs castmysterious shadows in the moonlight and their heavily ladenbranches seemed to moan under the weight of its fruit. Above thetrees, a mountainside loomed, covered in shadows. The gloom wasbroken only by the dim glow of street lights rimming a long,twisting road.
Her bare feetmade no sound on the lush grass as she broke into a run and withinminutes, a cornfield came into view, jutting past the edge of theorchard. She reduced her pace and turned around. Something behindher was advancing stealthily. Jayden’s eyes watered with the strainof searching the orchard, where the trees wavered and danced in themoon shadows.
She stiffenedand then stifled a scream. Racing toward her, with ears laid backand fangs bared, was an angry pack of wolves. Mind racing, shereviewed her options. Should she run out of the orchard, past thecornfield and toward the street lights on the mountainside? Theremight be help in one of the homes along the way. Jayden glancedupward. Or should she climb one of the trees and mount some kind ofdefense?
“I’ll nevermake it to those street lights,” she muttered. The wolves wereadvancing way too fast. “And I can’t hide in these bright pinkpj’s.”
Jumping andgrabbing the lowest branch, Jayden pulled herself upward, swingingone leg around it. Then, arms and legs hugging the limb and herbutt hanging down, Jayden looked back. The wolves were so close,the glare of the moon reflected in their eyes and gobs of frothydrool dripped from their jaws. Panic spread its tantalizing fingersaround her body as the lead wolf raced ahead of the pack, snarlingand snapping its sharp, yellow fangs. Before terror fully consumedher, Jayden pulled her butt up and twisted her body to the top ofthe branch, just as the wolf attacked.
* * *
“You’re goingto be late for school!”
Jayden’s eyessnapped open. She reached for her cell phone on the chair besideher bed, which served double-duty as a night table and light stand.It was 7:40 a.m.
“I’m not goingto call you again!” hollered her mother.
“Okay, okay,”mumbled Jayden under her breath. “I heard you the first time!” shebellowed.
Jayden rolledout of bed and rubbed her eyes. An uncomfortable thought nagged ather and she was certain something bad happened during the night.But was it something real or something in a dream? Dreams usuallyreflected good times but life with her mother was more like anightmare.
She combed herlong, black hair, pulled it into a ponytail and examined her facein the mirror. Her mother’s green eyes peered back at her,contrasting with the light brown colouring and black hair inheritedfrom her dad. Everyone told her she was beautiful in a strikingway. Jayden pretended to agree with them, but she knew it was alie. She was ugly from the inside out.
After makingher way to the kitchen, Jayden sat down at the table and studiedher mother. Patty Watson-Nanjee stood at the counter, stirring hercoffee with jerky movements. She must have pulled anotherall-nighter judging by her messy, dyed-blond hair, smudged eyemakeup and bloodshot eyes. She looked quizzically at Jayden, ahalf-smoked cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“Want one?” sheasked, offering the package.
“Ma, I justwoke up.”
Her motherstamped out the cigarette in quick, angry motions. “Well, aren’tyou Miss Priss this morning.”
Jayden rolledher eyes. It was better to keep the conversation easy and calm.Obviously, Ma had a bad night. Jayden wished she could tell her howher own sleepless nights were getting worse.
Jayden ignoredher mother’s agitation and began twisting her ponytail into a fat,sausage ringlet. She pretended to examine the box of cereal on thetable, remembering the one-sided conversations she used to havewith the characters on the box. “Will you come out and play withme?” was her ritual morning question to the cartoon characters. Butthey always remained where they were, motionless and silent, stuckin the cold cardboard. Man, that feels like a century ago . Thoughts of happier childhood days came flooding back.The time when sleep came easily and without recurring nightmares.When playing and colouring were daily priorities. Now in her finalyear of high school, Jayden remembered her 12-year-old self, thegirl who couldn’t wait to take on all the responsibilities of anadult. She slowly shook her head. What was I thinking? She wished her childhood would come back and neverend.
“Ya got half anhour to get outta here,” her mother said, looking at thedust-covered clock hanging crookedly on the beige wall. “Afterthat, I need the bathroom to get gussied up for the employmentcentre.”
Jayden looked up from her cereal, raising oneeyebrow. “You got fired again?”
“ It wasn’t my fault.” Her mother flashed adefensive look. “Those fools at the hotel don’t understand awoman’s needs. And besides,” she added, “the tips werelousy.”
Jayden glanced at the empty liquor bottleson the counter, all ‘permanently borrowed’ from the hotel, as her mother liked to say. It wouldn’t bethe first time Ma got caught stealing.
“Whatever,” Jayden muttered under herbreath.
“ Don’t give me any lip, girl!” Ma hissed.“I try my best, and all you give me in return is attitude.” Her pale face darkened topurple with suppressed rage. Jayden sighed. If she didn’t get outnow, her mother would commence her daily morning rant. Before shecould escape, the tirade began.
“ If it wasn’t for your father deserting us,we’d have a better life. I’d have some money, and my own car, and Iwould not need astinkin’ low-life, menial job.”
Jayden shook her head furiously. It’ll just make hermadder if I defend Dad. Don’t do it…. don’t do it. But as usual, she couldn’t stopherself. She stood slowly, putting the words together that wouldsurely detonate Ma’s short fuse.
“He left because you won’t stopdrinking!”
Ma smacked her coffee cup on the counter. “Get out. Getout now!”
Jayden picked up her cell phone from thetable, thrust it into the pocket of her backpack and swung the bagover her shoulder. Blood rushed to her face as it always did whenshe was upset, creating a prickling heat. Slamming the apartmentdoor behind her, Jayden ran along the hall and sprinted down thethree flights of stairs, banging the outer door so forcefully itricocheted off the brick wall and nearly hit her in theface.
Oh, Dad . Her conflicting emotions swirled and threatened tooverwhelm her. If he hadn’t left, would things be any better? Orworse? Couldn’t be any worse. Jayden was constantly amazed at how she could hate him andlove him at the same time. “Why am I even here?” she reflected sadly. There seemed to be nopeace, no joy in her life. The bitter unfairness of it made her gutburn and fuelled herresentment.
Damn you, Dad. You’re the one whotold me life was what you made of it — your choices determined your happiness. Well, if that’strue, then why didn’t you choose to make me happy? I’m your onlychild.
Jayden sighed and kicked a pebble onto theroad. There was only one way to make herself feel better. She hadto make someone else feel worse.
Chapter 2
The Queen
“ Whaddya say we go lunch fishing?” Jaydenasked , using their codefor stealing someone’s lunch. She and her friends slouched by theschool’s outer gate, the only place on the grounds they couldsmoke. Jayden revelled in her position as leader of the Bully Biahtches, a nastyname chosen by others and perfect for its four female members.Jayden was the cruellest and prettiest of the gang, revered by the bullies anddespised by the bullied.
“Gordie Winfield had an awesome lunch lastweek,” Marj reminded them. “Remember the huge BLT and the bag ofOreo cookies?” Marj Daniels, dyed-blond and blue-eyed, was theunofficial deputy of the gang, always quick to think up ways toridicule and torment others.
“Well, lookie, lookie,” said Jayden, noddingher head toward an approaching student. “Here he comes now.”
Gordie adjusted the volume on his headset,spying the girls at the gate when he raised his head. Long blondhair flew across his face as he shook his head in disgust. Theymade fun of him last week, shoving him between them and emptyingthe contents of his backpack. One of them even stole his lunch. Dadalways told him to be nice to girls, but these girls weren’t nice.They were the meanest girls he had ever met. Now the bunch of themwere looking at him and that wasn’t a good sign. Trying to avoidthem, he made an abrupt turn into the school’s parking lot,stepping over the curb. But it was too late.
“ Whatchya got there, Gordie-boy?” Marjdemanded, yanking the headset from his ears. “Any good tunes youwant to share?” She smiled wickedly.
The other two girls, Barbara Hughes andJackie Vanderpost, moved in front of him. He turned and was aboutto take a step, but Marj blocked him. He tried to side-step her,but was confronted by Jayden. She smiled but it didn’t reach hercold, green eyes. Snake eyes, thought Gordie.
“ Why are you in such a hurry?” purredJayden. “You’re one of the best looking guys in school so whywouldn’t you want to chat with us cool girls?”
Gordie looked at each of them. He remindedhimself of his father’s advice about being nice to girls. All girls. “Do you need my help?”he asked, trying to be a gentleman.
“ Do we need your help?” repeated Jayden. “What do you think, girls? Do weneed Gordie’s help?”
Marj reached over and wrapped one armaround his waist. “I forgot to eat breakfast,” she said, looking upat him and batting her long, black artificial eyelashes. They madeher blue eyes look bigger. “Maybe you can buy me something in thecafeteria?” she suggested sweetly, slyly removing his wallet fromthe back pocket of his jeans.
“ Hold on there!” Gordie protested, tryingto snatch his wallet. Marj waved him away and threw it to Barbara.Unfolding the wallet, Barbara opened it, exposing two ten dollarbills. Gordie lunged, but Barbara ducked and threw the wallet toJayden. Calmly removing the bills and tucking them into hercleavage, Jayden dangled the empty wallet in front ofGordie.
“I believe this is yours?” she asked, smilingthe same non-smile as before.
“ You girls make me sick,” he spat out. “Ifsomeone told you you’re cool, well, they lied. You’re mean and rudeand there’s nothing cool about that.” Gordie took a deep breath.Despite the inner quaking, he kept his gaze levelled atJayden.
“ Well, look at you,” declared Jayden in hermost arrogant voice. “Handsome and brave.” She tossed her head, sending the ponytail flickinginto the air. A small crowd gathered, sensing a fight much like apack of dogs would circle weaker prey. If anyone saw me take the cash fromhis wallet, and it comes down to my word against theirs, I probablywon’t be the winner.
Jayden took a step toward Gordie and bentat the waist in a mock, contrite bow. “We thought you’d be happy tosave the starving girls of Gilmont High,” she said shamelessly.Removing one bill from her bosom, she tucked it into Gordie’swallet. “There. I found this money, but if you say it’s yours,fine. You can have it.”
Gordie gaped at her, astonishment and furyflashing across his face. “You found it? That’s a lie.” He looked around, seeking support fromthe crowd, but they turned away. No one wanted to cross the BullyBiahtches. Gordie glared at each of the girls. “I hope you enjoyyour breakfast, ladies. ” Hestraightened his shoulders and marched toward theschool.
All the girls giggled, except Jayden. Thepit of her stomach ached. Gordie’s family wasn’t well off and sheknew the despair of an empty wallet. Sometimes being mean justdidn’t make her feel better. She jumped guiltily when Marj pulledout the ten dollar bill from Jayden’s bosom and squealed, “Hotchocolates are on me!” Jayden slowly followed her gang to thecafeteria.
* * *
The school day finally ended and Jaydentrudged reluctantlyhomeward. Without a job to occupy her time, Ma would be anxious fora quarrel. Physical exhaustion dogged her steps. Emotionally, shedidn’t feel any better. The effort of maintaining the ‘mean-girl’façade was draining her too. She thought about her sleeping issuesand strange dreams. Why do I feel like I have to climb somewhere before I fallasleep? She shrugged,too tired to explore the issue any further. She unlocked theapartment door and stepped inside. “This is not science fiction,”she said aloud.
“ What’s not science fiction?” said a voicefrom the kitchen. A chair scraped across the floor and a momentlater, her mother stepped into view. “What are you talkingabout?”
“Nothing,” replied Jayden.
Her mother looked her up and down, fromfeet to ponytail, and then stepped back into the kitchen. “Why’dyou have to look so much like your dad,” she accused herdaughter.
Ignoring the comment, Jayden followed herinto the room, glancing at the half-empty bottle of booze on thetable and overflowing ashtray beside it. Ma was standing unsteadilyin front of the stovetop. “Do ya want some beefaronis?” She reachedup and removed a can from the cupboard.
“ I’ll make it.” Jayden took the can andplaced it on the counter. “How did it go at the employmentoffice?”
Patty shook her head, the long blond curlsdancing around her face. “Those bureau…. those bureau…. bureau….”she slurred.
“Bureaucrats,” suggested Jayden.
“Yeah, them! Them damn bureaucrats want me towork for pennies. Pennies! Who can live like that? Who?” sherepeated, throwing her hands in the air dramatically. “I think I’llhave a drink and think… think about it.” She poured herself agenerous dose and walked unsteadily into the living room where theTV was blaring the bad news of the day.
Jayden shook her head. Did everyone livelike this, she wondered. Gordie Winfield’s handsome face came tomind. He looked like he had it good, like his parents cared aboutwhat he did. Guilt surged through her for baiting him and stealinghis money. But then she thought of her mother and their crappyapartment and crappy life and she began to feel sorry forherself. That’s more my style. The familiar weight of despair closed in on her.It was useless to fight it so she didn’t try. The evening passedslowly with Jayden engrossed in her self-pity and her motherabsorbed in her liquid prison.
It was bedtime. Glancing at the clock,Jayden stood and stretched. Ma was passed out on the couch andJayden had thrown a blanket over her earlier. She looked down atthe woman, and for a brief moment, felt a pang of pity. Pattylooked so helpless and innocent, even with disheveled hair and darkshadows under her eyes. Is this what I have to look forward to? Jayden swallowedmiserably. Will I be just like my mother? She remembered her father’s advice about makingchoices and how those choices helped determine your happiness. Healways seemed to be happy — on the phone, in his quirky texts, andespecially when she visited him on weekends. He was going to pickher up Friday night and take her to soccer practice and then hersoftball game on Saturday. Jayden was totally into sports and thatpart of her life was a secret she shared with no one.
E xcelling at sports was her biggest motivation for gainingDad’s attention and approval. He lived in the neighbouring county,and that’s where she played all her sports: softball, soccer,swimming, snowboarding, skating. There, Jayden was popular asWasiem Nanjee’s sports-loving daughter, not the queen bully fromGilmont High.
Leaving her mother, Jayden went to her room. After a while sheclosed the biology book she was pretending to study, and with asigh, prepared for bed. Her eyes were heavy and her brain wasseriously contemplating the move to sleep shut-down. “Let ithappen,” Jayden said and closed her eyes.
* * *
The dream picked up where it left off thatmorning , in the orchard.Jayden hugged the apple tree tighter and screamed again. She couldalmost feel the hot breath of the lead wolf as it lunged towardher. She skooched her body along the branch toward the main trunk.The wolves snarled and yipped below her, taking turns attackingwith their fangs bared and eyes glowering. Jayden rolled her bodyand sat up on the branch. She pulled an apple from the branch andlooked down at the pack. She had an impressive arm as shortstop andcould out-throw most runners to first base. Taking aim, shelaunched the apple like a rocket. It hit one of the wolves squareon the snout and he yelped in confusion. Taking another apple,Jayden hurled it at the lead wolf and it struck him hard on thehead, breaking into pieces. She threw another apple, and another,until the wolves stopped their attack and retreated inconfusion.
Jayden squinted in the darkness. Theyellow moon continued to dance in and out of the puffy clouds,making shadowy creatures in the darkness below. All was silent.There were no sounds from the pack of wolves and Jayden coulddetect no movement in the orchard around her and in theneighbouring field. They were gone. At least, for now.
Jayden scrambled down the tree, lookingbehind her for any sign of movement. All was still. I have to get to thetop of that mountain. She didn’t know why she needed to so badly, just that shedid. It wasn’t a tall giant like those in the Alps or the Rockies —the mountain ahead of her was stunted in comparison. It would probablytake a day to hike to the top. Or a night. Crouching, she raced through the orcharduntil she reached the last apple tree at edge of the field. Aheadstretched a short cornfield and to her right, a small wooden shackstood in darkness between the cornfield and the apple orchard.Jayden hesitated, wondering if she should take shelterthere.
“ No, I have to get to the top of themountain,” she saidagain. In the distance, street lights wound up the mountainside,their dim lights casting ominous shadows on the homes beneath them.Entering the cornfield, Jayden burst into a run, her hands skimmingthe tips of the growing stalks. Suddenly, multiple growling,snorting sounds set her heart racing faster. She stopped and turnedaround.
“ No-o-o-o-o-o!”
The wolves were back , racing toward her like bloodhounds on ahare.
The metallic taste of fear rose in herthroat — equal partscopper mixed with blood. She looked at the homes on themountainside and knew she would never make it in time. The wolveswere in attack mode and they were almost at the cornfield. BeforeJayden could react, the lead wolf was thrown back on its haunches.The wolves behind it also appeared to crash and stop dead, as ifthey had run into an invisible brick wall. Jayden dropped to oneknee with relief and uncertainty. “Am I seeing things?” she askedincredulously.
T he lead wolf attempted to run forward, but again, wasprevented from advancing by some invisible barrier. An acrid smellhung in the air and Jayden wasn’t sure if it was the scent of herown fear or something burning. Backing up, she looked in amazementas the wolves began to slink back and forth by the invisible wall.One by one, they turned and trotted slowly back into the appleorchard. Jayden breathed a sigh of relief. She glanced at the dark,wooden shack beside her, wondering if it might be the source of theinvisible barrier. The shack was dark, the lone windowblack. Noone’s home. Sensing noactivity, she turned and headed toward the mountain, where everyinstinct was urging her to go.
“ One foot in front of the other. Up, up Iclimb,” Jayden chanted,over and over. It was her new mantra, and she was going to make theclimb. To wherever it was leading her.
Chapter 3
General Jaxxon
Max stood in front of the tall bedroommirror, studying his scrawny reflection with distaste. At 14, he was more boythan young man. Patches of freckles dotted his ghost-like skin andlong, pale feet protruded from his jeans. They were growing fasterthan his shoes could wear out. If only my body would match the pace. He grimaced at the face staringback at him from the mirror. Despite Mom’s assurances that he was ahandsome fellow, all Max could see was a flaming head of clown-redhair. Ginger theycalled it at school. His younger sister, Allie, called it orange.Max called it obnoxious.
“ Dinner’s ready!” Mom called from thekitchen.
Max crammed school books into his backpackand headed to the kitchen. Allie was already at the table, chattingnon-stop. She was 10 years old and pretty, with wavy, strawberryblonde hair, the same colour as their mom’s. The smattering offreckles across her nose accentuated the pale cream colour of herskin, what some would classify as “Canadian white.” But it was hereyes that drew your attention — deep brown with large flecks ofgold that made them seem amber in colour. That’s a good thing, because she’drather you look at her eyes than her mouth.
Allie’s front teeth were fortified withheavy-duty metal braces to correct the colossal overbite caused by many years ofthumb-sucking. No matter how many times he told her she was pretty,Allie was as unhappy with her appearance as Max was with his. “Wecould be the main attraction in a freak-show circus,” she used tosay. Their shared dissatisfaction with their physical appearanceforged a special bond and as a result, they were fiercely loyal toeach other.
Dad was working late again; the table was set for three insteadof five. It was Thursday night, so his older brother, Junior, wouldhave gone directly from school to their father’s used car business,or dealership as heinsisted they call it. Junior worked there two nights a week andall day Saturday, though his work schedule was always adjusted tosuit the school’s football schedule. Max’s father had big plans forJunior and he did everything in his power to persuade or manipulatefootball coaches into making Junior the first-string quarterback.Dad sponsored team jerseys, chartered buses for out-of-countygames, and generally got in the faces of all thecoaches.
“ A man shows a man how to be a man.” Thatwas the introductory statement his father recycled each time he had theopportunity to brag about Junior’s physical prowess on the footballfield. The implication that Junior’s abilities originated from hisfather was deliberate. Max sighed. His genes reflected his mom’sskinny, slight stature and as a result, he was treated with thesame indifference his father displayed toward his mom. Dad never bragsabout me, even though I win math and science awards. Not even forthe double-looped, gravity defying racetrack I built for my dinkycars when I was four.
Max turned his attention to Allie and smiled as he slid intohis seat at the kitchen table. Before smiling back, she covered hermouth. It was an automatic gesture to hide what some of the kids inher class referred to as railroad tracks. Max raised an eyebrow ather and she removed her hand, exposing silver and purple metallichardware. Allie insisted if she was going to wear a mouthful ofmetal, then it would be made in her favourite colours.
The dinner atmosphere was jovial andrelaxed. Their conversations were always two-sided and he washappier when it was just the three of them.
“ You know you hardly ever stutter anymore,”Mom observed.
They exchanged glances. Years ago, Dadberated him non-stop and dismissed his affliction as a weakness.“Who is going to take you seriously if you can’t even talk withouttripping over your own tongue?” he would say.
Max gave a weak smile, recalling thebitter period in his life. “Do you remember I used to think there was actuallysomething wrong with my tongue?”
His mom nodded. “I told you that you’dgrow out of it.”
Not as fast as I’d like. But atleast now I hardly ever cry when Dad shouts at me.
Max studied his mom again. He couldn’t understand hisparents’ relationship. Dad was brash and bold and loud, and Mom wasthe opposite: shy, soft, and sweet. Once upon a time, theiropposite personalities might have worked, but Dad’s domineeringways eventually caused Mom to retreat and hide behind a façade ofperpetual meekness.
“ I don’t stutter wh-wh-when I don’t thinkabout it,” Max replied and then threw his hands up helplessly afterspeaking in stutter-speak. “Geez!”
Allie giggled and then held up her rightindex finger.
“ I’ll bet you I get my braces off before you stopstuttering!”
“When do you get them removed?”
“ Before Christmas. This year!”
That was six months away. “How m-much?” Maxasked.
“Not for money,” interrupted their mother.“For deeds.”
“Hmmmm,” Allie pondered. “I’ve got it! Youhave to bring me to the Justin Bieber concert!”
“No way!” said Max, rejecting her idea.“Anything but that.”
“ Yeah, that’s the bet!” she insisted. “Ifthat doesn’t make you stop stuttering, nothing will!”
“ You think you’re a little smarty-pants,d-don’t you?” Max folded his arms across his chest and grinned.“You’re on, little sister. We’ll see who’s the king oftongue-tripping, won’t we? It won’t be me!”
Later that evening as he was getting readyfor bed, Max rummaged through his dresser drawers, selectingclothes for school thenext day. He held up two shirts. “Brown, or brown?” Tossing oneback in the drawer, he said, “Brown it is.” He leaned over to closethe drawer and then paused. There, tucked under a few t-shirts, wasan old General Jaxxon sleep shirt, his all-time favouritesuper-human movie character. He shook it out and held it up,remembering how excited he was after opening it as a birthday gifta few years back. The crests of the Medals of Valour and Cross of Honour were stillvisible, just faded after a couple of hundred washes. He rubbed hisfingers over the image of the medals and reminisced. “I aminvincible!” he used to tell his mom. “There’s no tongue-trippingwhen I’m General Jaxxon!” The shirt conjured up all the images ofthe man Max wanted to be when he was a boy.
Slipping it over his head, Max wassurprised that the shirt still fit around his upper body, though itwas a bit short. It barely covered the waistband of his trackpants. He climbed into bed and pulled the covers up, but not beforeplacing his left hand on his chest, on top of General Jaxxon’smedals. “I am invincible,” he told himself and then drifted intosleep.
* * *
The darkness was all-consuming, shrouding thefield and the trees with a heavy blanket of gloom. Max closed hiseyes, panting from exertion. The air was warm on his cool skin.
“Go higher,” he told himself. “Don’tstop.”
The apple orchard was near the base of ashort, stumpy mountain. Ahead was a sprouting cornfield and beyondthat, on the slope of the mountain, the lights of a small townglimmered. Only the faint glow from the street lights reached theorchard. The darkness enveloped him, seeming to suffocate the palelight of the full moon. Creamy puffs of clouds filled the sky,circling the moon in a slow dance. His gaze followed the milky orbas it appeared to slide behind a cloud, throwing the field intomurky gloom. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Maxscrutinized his surroundings. There was a small, wooden shack atthe edge of the orchard and he walked toward it.
“ Ooomph.” Max stumbled and fell headlong into thedirt. He was only metres from the shack, but something tripped him.Max cautiously felt around for the cause of his fall. There! His fingers discoveredsomething buried in a long, shallow trench in the ground. His eyesfollowed the depression as it angled around the far side of theshack and then ran in a straight line out to the apple orchard andcornfield. A light covering of dirt hid whatever was buried in thetrench. He reached out and gently pushed away the top layer ofsoil, exposing a heavy-duty PVC pipe. Small spikes extended upwardfrom the pipe at intermittent points. Max had never seen anythinglike it. “It’s a conduit,” he said, excitement colouring his voice. “I’m not sure whatthe spikes are for but it looks like the shack haselectricity!”
Hoping to turn on some lights, Max stoodand made his way to the building. The door was unlocked so hepushed it open and peered inside. There was only one dirt-encrustedwindow on the far wall, leaving the interior shrouded in darkness.The blackness sent a surge of terror flooding through Max. Hegulped, willing away the fear and focusing on what he might find.It took a few moments before curiosity won the battle. Beads ofsweat stood out on his forehead. “I got this,” he whispered. “Noworries.”
He edged into the shack. It was completelyempty of furnishings — no table, chairs, nothing. Max moved furtherin, looking for a light or a light switch. Nothing hung from theceiling except old, stringy cobwebs. Looking toward the window, Maxspied a large metallic box on the wall. The pipe/conduit ranthrough the shack and connected to the box that hung open,revealing a metal handle similar to an old-fashioned breakerswitch. Max walked over to it and brushed away the dust. Anengraved label was visible above the lever, with the followingwords:
Activate Shield
Max stepped back, confused. “Whatshield?”
Suddenly, a wolf howled. Moments later,its long drawn-out cry was matched by another, and then another,until there were a chorus of wolves howling somewhere in thedarkness. Closer to the shack, something rustled the grasses andtwigs snapped. A deep, unbridled fear clenched his gut and thehairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up in response.Something was in the field.
Max crouched beneath the window. In thestillness of the night, loud breathing reached his ears. The kindof breathing someone makes when they’re running. He raised his headand peered out. In the graying darkness, a figure was runningthrough the apple orchard. It was a girl with dark hair tied up ina ponytail and wearing the brightest pink pyjamas Max had everseen. The expression on her face was part anger, part fear — a lookMax recognized. Cockiness .Junior wore the same expression when he was mentally preparing fora football game.
T he girl slowed her pace, pausing momentarily in the orchardto glance behind her. Max looked past her, too. He gasped at thesight of about half a dozen large wolves loping toward her, headslow to the ground, jaws open. She started running again. The girlstopped at the end of the apple orchard, placing one hand on thelast tree. Hesitating only for a moment, she jumped and swung herfeet up around the lowest branch. Dangling, she looked back at thewolves.
“ Don’t do that!” cried Max. “Gethigher!”
She seemed to hear him because she swungher body up and over, perching on top of the branch just as thelead wolf lunged for her. The girl was facing away from Max and hewas glad she couldn’t see the fear on his face. He was even moreglad the wolves couldn’t see him, either.
T he wolves snarled and yipped, jumping up at the girl. Butshe remained stubbornly in place and after a few minutes, hedetected movement on the branch. The pink arm was throwingsomething down at the wolves. “The apples! The girl is snipingapples at them!”
If Max could have safely cheered her on,he would have. But he remained silent and instead, gave a fist pumpeach time one of her throws hit a wolf. It wasn’t long before thepack of wolves stopped attacking and began cowering. One by one,they retreated into the orchard.
The pink pj girl collapsed on the branch,her back heaving. After a few minutes, she jumped down and began torun toward the cornfield. Max cupped his hands around his face andlooked out the window. Maybe I should I follow her? He hesitated, his attention caught by thebreaker-type switch. Instead of fleeing, he stayed put andformulated a number of explanations for the device. He couldn’thelp himself — he had to figure out what it was. Maybe it’s part ofan electric grid, linking power from the town to the bottom of themountain? It was possible the conduit suppliedthe town with electricity, but none of that logic supported thewords above the switch: Activate shield. If there was some kind of shield, it ran through the PVC conduit betweenthe apple orchard and the cornfield, effectively splitting theareas in two. Max’s mind raced. Did the spikes on the PVC pipeserve a specific purpose? Perhaps they were there to deflect theelectrical energy upward, to create some type of electrical forcefield? Butyou only see this kind of thing in movies or in science fictionbooks. The truth to thatstatement scared Max even more. If this really is a shield, then where amI?
The howling of wolves jarred Max back toreality. Looking out the window, he saw the pack of wolves hadreturned. In the cloudy moonlight, the girl’s bright pink pyjamaslit up the cornfield, serving as a beacon for the racing wolves.The girl stopped running, crouching low to the ground and theshadowy moonlight outlined her horror-struck features. The racingwolves were almost out of the apple orchard. Max realized there wasonly one thing to do.
“ Activate shield,” he said, grabbing thelever and heaving upward. There was an immediate crackling sound,as if a thousand insects simultaneously flew into a bug zapper. Theair hummed and Max smelt and tasted something burning.
He cautiously looked out thewindow. “Whaaat?”
The girl in pink was still hunkered downin the cornfield to his right. The wolves, all of them, weresnarling and yelping to his left, behind the ‘shield.

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