Here’s the conclusion to chapter one of The Changeling, which is my rewrite of my first book, Discovery. You can find part 1 here.
A small boy wandered directly under his window but did not look up, even when Charlie called a concerned, “Are you okay?” A hooded shepherd turned in Charlie’s direction and snarled, his teeth bared. It had the face of a wolf, though its hands—clenched around his shepherd’s staff—were human. Charlie drew back inside of the window. Within moments, the shepherd had prodded the boy into rejoining his flock, and the group disappeared into the darkness beyond the highway. Charlie turned to see the girl’s reaction to all this, but she was gone.
Closing the window, he sat in silence for a time as the bus continued on its way. Despite the dragon’s appearance, he was beginning to fear this school would not be as cool as he had hoped. However, within minutes, he was lulled into a renewed sense of security by the bus’ gentle motion. Unfortunately, as soon as he began to relax, the bus screeched to another stop, banging Charlie’s head hard against the window frame.
In addition to now having a headache, he was choking on cigarette smoke, as the open window had drawn Mr. Shoe Polish’s smoke in his direction. The cloud of smoke drifted into the form of a skull, which hovered over Charlie’s head before dissipating. He turned to Mr. Shoe Polish, who shrugged, and flicked his cigarette butt in Charlie’s direction.
“Don’t look at me, kid,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “It’s your dream, not mine. Your stop, by the way.”
Charlie rose and crept down the aisle, by now harkening to the sound of a chainsaw or knives being sharpened. As he approached the front door, he glanced back and saw Mr. Shoe Polish still seated, obscured by a rancid smoke cloud. No knives. Charlie, however, was not reassured. The back of the bus was now ensconced in black and white, which he knew to be the dominion of absolute evil. Movies had taught him that. He hesitated at the bus’ front steps, craning his neck to see the three-story entrance to his new school. Welcome to the ZONE! was emblazoned in dripping red over the enormous double doors. Of course he couldn’t actually read the sign, since it was just a jumble of symbols, but somehow he knew what it meant. He gulped, hoping against hope the sign-maker had used paint.
“Wow!” exclaimed the dark-haired girl behind him.
Charlie had forgotten she was there and responded to her excitement by screaming in a lovely soprano. He stood clutching his chest, checking for angina. He couldn’t find it, as he wasn’t entirely certain what it was. “Don’t do that!” he managed to gasp out.
“You are so funny,” she responded, grinning, and ruffling his curly hair.
Her attentions made him turn beet red. Though he had inherited his mother’s caramel color, Charlie’s skin seemed to flush at the slightest embarrassment. It was a gift, he reckoned, from his father, along with curly brown hair, deep dimples, broad shoulders, and spectacularly average height. He stood muttering for a moment, cursing his father’s genes and wondering if it was safe to move. He finally settled on actually meeting her direct gaze in an attempt to fool her into believing he wasn’t afraid. He had never seen the girl up close. She was a Cute Girl with lightly tanned skin, large eyes outlined with black mascara, and dark hair that fell in loose curls around her face, from under which Charlie could make out three earrings on one side, and none on the other.
“Um, I-I think you lost an earring,” Charlie offered, hoping his helpfulness would prevent her slashing him. Her eyes seemed to change from blue to hazel as he watched, but he decided against mentioning that. One never knew what would set off a psychopath.
“Oh, my left ear wasn’t in the mood for decoration today,” she said, without a smile. She poked him casually in the rib cage as she walked by. “Come on, silly, you’re gonna be late for school.” She descended the stairs without so much as a backward glance.
Charlie stood dumbfounded. She didn’t appear to be Japanese, but, rather, Hispanic. Importantly, though her poking had caused a second, smaller yelp, he wasn’t bleeding. He was unfamiliar with Spanish-language horror movies, but thought he should look them up for future reference. This could still be a trick.
“Off!” yelled his former second-grade teacher—apparently now moonlighting as a bus driver—as she kicked him in the seat of his pants. He landed with a splash in a fresh mound of (he hoped) mud and looked up. Standing over him was the biggest, ugliest kid he had ever seen. He thought it might be a girl … or a goat.
Maybe both, because it does have one of those goatee things.
Goatisha (he decided the she-goat was called) picked him up with one hairy-knuckled hand and yelled, “I liked my new dress yellow, not mud brown! You are dead, kid.”
For the very first time in his life, Charlie learned what “saved by the bell” means. As one ham-sized fist (with spring pomegranate polish) entered gravity on a collision course with his smile, the school bell rang.
“I said, mama said, ‘Wake up!’“
It was the unmistakable siren song of his sixteen-year-old sister, Layla, who was holding Charlie’s ringing alarm clock and earthquaking the bed. It was possibly the first time he had ever been glad to see her. He always believed she yelled so loudly in the mornings in the secret hope she would scare him into wetting the bed. She had only been successful in that endeavor once.
“Look, boy,” Layla continued, “Mama said if you are late to school today, you don’t get to visit the Senior Center this weekend. And that’d mean you might have to get an actual life of your own.” Layla dropped the still-ringing clock in his lap and stormed off, muttering, “What kind of kid wants to spend his whole weekend hanging around a bunch of old folks?”
Layla treated Charlie as if he were an alien species, despite the fact that they were the spitting image of each other. Of course, neither of them would admit to bearing any familial resemblance at all.
Charlie sat on his bed, his eyes blinking at his orange and green walls. This had been the third disturbing dream of the week. Charlie had been prone to nightmares when he was six, but it had been years since he had a dream he remembered. Now, entering middle school, the dreams had returned in spades. As the summer progressed, he found himself in one nightmare after the other, with each more vivid than the last. His hope that it was just a symptom of puberty was beginning to fade into a fear that perhaps he was going crazy.
He slid himself out of bed, headed toward the bathroom, and paused. “What if this one comes true too?” he wondered aloud. If so, it was going to be an interesting first day of school