Van Bender

I’d like you to meet Richie Van Bender. He’s a good kid. A teenage rock star with a mom who keeps him locked away from the world as if he were Rapunzel. This is his story.

Well, okay, it’s a novelette introducing his strange and magical world, reproduced in its entirety below. If, after you read this, you want to read more, check out the Van Bender Archives–three books , available on Amazon right now.

 Van Bender and the Spirit Tether

A novelette introducing the strange
and magical world of Richie Van Bender

By S. James Nelson

Chapter 1: Best. Gift. Ever.

I know Richie thinks I’m crazy. I’m not. I’m just over-protective. The world is full of magical crap he has no idea about.

-Elizabeth Van Bender

I’m Richie Van Bender, and my mother is a lunatic.

I suppose that could be normal for moms of teenage rock stars. I mean, when your son’s first single sells almost ten million copies, it’s sure to jack you up. When his third album has industry experts saying he might someday be the greatest rock star ever, that’s got to mess with your head. It sure messes with mine. It’s all I can do to keep things in perspective—that it all happened because of my friends.

I’m trying to keep it real.

Mom makes it harder, though. She has these rules I have to follow, and all they do is demonstrate her paranoia. For example, she won’t let me meet another rock star. Not one. And why is that? I have no idea.

No. Freaking. Idea.

But I sure would like to break that rule.

It’s my fifteenth birthday. We’re on vacation inHawaiiwith my friends, Sandra and Kurt. I invited them because I knew they would love learning how to surf as much as I would.

We have an entire beach-front restaurant to ourselves. Mom’s rented out the entire joint. She does that anytime we go somewhere public.

We sit at the edge of a patio, under a bamboo and grass tiki roof. The sun sets over the water, just beyond the high tide crashing against the beach. A breeze rustles nearby palm branches.

Three gifts sit on the next table. One looks just the right size for an iPad. It came in the mail that afternoon, while I was out taking my surfing lesson. Dad sent it.

He lives in the D.C. area. Right before we leftL.A., he joked that if Mom would let him zip on over, he would come. She got all uptight at that. I didn’t get why.

“Time for presents, right?” Kurt asks.

He takes an enormous swig of root beer, then suppresses a belch. Since arriving inHawaii, he’s worn a thick layer of sunscreen on his nose because he thinks it’s funny. He buzzed his hair for the trip, so a brown fuzz covers his head.

“Nah,” Sandra says. “Richie hates presents.”

She pops the last bit of barbequed pineapple into her mouth, and smiles at me. She’s wearing a lei of red blossoms. Her brown hair falls straight down her back, with a red and yellow hibiscus tucked under one ear. Like me, she’s tanner than usual, maybe even a little sunburned. That’s okay. She’s still hot.

“Presents are boring,” I say.

Mom laughs and stands. She turns to the gifts on the table behind her.

It’s a critical error.

Sandra passes me a note. I tuck it into the pocket of my Hawaiian shirt. My heart pounds as Mom turns back to us and places the gifts on the table.

Kurt pretends no note got passed.

“Open mine first,” he says. “It’s gonna blow your mind.”

I open it. It’s a strategy guide and cheat book for Shred Master IV: Heroic Legends of the Fatal Six String. Most kids just get cheats off the Internet, but as part of my rule that I can’t talk with fans or the media, I also can’t use the Internet. I’m on complete lockdown, without any devices that connect to the rest of the world. Combined with the “no meeting rock stars,” “no media interviews,” and “no concerts” rules, I’m pretty much isolated from the rest of the world.

Mom’s doing. Bless her heart. She means well. I’m sure.

That’s why notes from Sandra are so welcome. That’s why I’m so interested in that gift from Dad. Maybe it’s an iPad. Maybe Mom and Dad have decided to loosen that rule.

Unlikely? Yes. But I can hope.

I open Sandra’s gift. It’s a vintage rock t-shirt. Black, with the outline of a man with wings and the words Led Zeppelin on the front.

“It’s never been worn,” she says. “The seller promised.”

“Wow,” I say. “Led Zeppelin. It must be almost as ancient as—” I cut myself off, and widen my eyes at Mom.

She gives me an exaggerated, “I’m-not-amused” look.

“You are almost forty, Mrs. VB,” Kurt says. “You might as well be dead.”

She arches her eyebrows.

“Thanks, Sandra,” I say. “I love it.”

She gives me her usual coy smile—the kind that will most likely earn me the lecture from Mom that I’m too young for a girlfriend. I mean, seriously. I’m fifteen. I know what I’m doing.

Next, Mom hands me Dad’s gift. I run my hands over the smooth paper, relishing the thought of an iPad.

Mom sighs. “I wish it was what you really want.”

“The Best Young Entertainer of the Year Award?”

She shrugs and nods. “Sorry I can’t get you that, dear.”

We’re still several months out from the awards show. Kurt and Sandra say that my unofficial fan sites buzz with rumors that I’ll be nominated, but most pundits say I won’t be because I haven’t ever held a concert.

I got my first record deal after Kurt and his dad posted a video of me playing the guitar. In the three years since, my band and I have played many live concerts—all broadcast over the Internet. Mom won’t let me do a real concert despite the begging, pleading, and supplicating of fans, the media, my record label, and just about every other person on the freaking planet. Including me.

I try not to let it bother me. I mean, in a lot of ways I’m just lucky that Mom even lets me record and sell music. But man, I would sure love to hold a concert and win that award.

“What are you waiting for?” Kurt asks.

I tear the paper off. My hope fails.

It’s a hard-bound book titled “Majestic Moab.” I try to hide my disappointment by flipping through it. It’s filled with pictures of deep canyons, delicate arches, sheer cliffs, and pristine reservoirs. I stop half-way through. There’s something inserted in the pages.

I hold up the paper and unfold it. My disappointment almost vanishes.

“Holy mother of everything awesome,” Kurt says. “Are those what I think they are?”

I nod. A grin spreads across my face. Plane tickets.

“Your Dad and I thought it would be fun,” Mom says. “We know you want to test your climbing skills. He can’t come on the trip, but it was his idea and he paid for it.”

Since my cancer, I’ve been rock climbing in gyms, always wanting to do it for real. All my instructors sayMoabis the best place.

“We’re going in a month,” Mom says.

“Why not tomorrow?” I ask.

She laughs. “Kurt and Sandra couldn’t go so soon.”

“What? They’re coming, too?”

Mom nods, grinning. Kurt, Sandra, and I play air guitars in celebration.

From the corner of my vision, out near the beach, I see a flash of purple light. It kind of blends with the orange of the setting sun, but it’s undeniable. I pause my celebrations and look out over the sand.

“What?” Sandra says. She looks at the sunset with me.

“I thought I saw something,” I say. “A purple light. It was strange. Unnatural.”

Mom speaks up in a hurry. “We’ll stay in Moab for three days, and we’ll do whatever you want.”

Shrugging off the purple light, I return to the conversation. After chocolate cake for dessert, we go back to the hotel. I’m in the bathroom changing. Mom is out in the room, talking more about how she wishes I could be nominated for the award without holding a concert. I can only agree with her.

As I take off my shirt, I find Sandra’s note, and unfold it.

Kurt and I have another gift for you, but we couldn’t bring it toHawaii. So we hid it at your house. When you get home, look under the couch in your room.

A typical note from Sandra. To-the-point. Signed with hearts around her name. I always wonder about those hearts.

What’s the gift? How in the name of rock-climbing trips did she and Kurt get it under the couch in my room?

I wonder until the next day when we get to ourMalibu,Californiahome on Point Dume. I go straight to my room, look under the couch, and find the present.

The latest iPad. With a built-in data connection.

Watch out, world. Richie Van Bender can finally get on Facebook.

Chapter 2: The life-changing iPad

Finally. I could hang out with Richie online. Been waiting years for that.

-Sandra Montoya

Before the iPad, most of my days looked like this:

  1. Get up early to exercise (if there’s one thing my bout with cancer taught me, it’s to take my health seriously).
  2. Practice the guitar for two blissful hours.
  3. Study with my tutor for three agonizing hours.
  4. Do homework for an unbearable, indeterminate amount of time.
  5. Meet the band for practice.
  6. Perform miscellaneous rock-star-related duties.
  7. Chillax.

My free time usually arrives by about four in the afternoon. I spend a lot of it with Kurt and Sandra. I go to a rock-climbing gym twice a week. Mom rents the entire place out. Ridiculous.

Everything takes place under her watchful eyes. Of course.

Except for when I’m in my room.

And with the iPad, I suddenly find myself in my room way more, pouring over apps and finding friends on Facebook. Of course, I can’t use my real name—Mom would discover me in a heartbeat. So, I use the name Skinny McFarter.

Heh.

In real life I only have two friends. All of the others dropped off during my cancer four years ago. So, it only takes me about twenty seconds to friend Kurt and Sandra, and then it’s on to famous people. Actors. Lots of actresses. Other rock stars. People I’ve always wanted to meet, who probably accept friend requests from random fans all the time. Like Roger Aires, Cecelia Wanless, Bobby Fretboard. And Nick Savage.

Especially Nick Savage.

In fact, I set a picture of him as my default wallpaper on the iPad. I’ve always looked to him as a rock star hero. I would really love to meet him. Heck, I’d like to meet any rock star.

I even go so far as to friend Marti Walker, a teenage country singer who gets compared to me all the time because of our ages. I friend her for professional reasons, to get a look at the competition. Not so I can look at all the pictures she posts online.

And man, does she post a lot of pictures of herself. And status updates. Like, multiple updates every hour. It makes me feel like a slacker because I just don’t have much to say online. I mostly just watch people.

I come to really love the feel of the iPad’s glass, it’s cool smoothness against my fingers whenever I tap it.

Mom, of course, gets suspicious. She’s always poking her head into my room, asking what I’m doing and trying to catch me at something illicit. I keep the book aboutMoabhandy and tell her I’m just looking through it. And sometimes I do, because I am looking forward to the trip. But I find the Internet has way better information on it.

I also tell Mom I’m waxing my surf board, which I brought back fromHawaiiand keep in my room. And I beg her about going surfing in the ocean right outside our house, but she says she’s disinclined to acquiesce to my request, quoting one of my favorite movies at me, as if that makes the “no” more fun.

Really, she thinks the crowds are too thick—which means there are more than zero people out there. She doesn’t want me with actual, live people. It’s too dangerous.

But really, I’m mostly on the Internet. On Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. The iPad repeatedly warns that I’m using too much of my data quota. I don’t care. I’ve been blocked from the Internet ever since I became famous, and now that the floodgates are open, I find myself consuming content. Videos. Articles. Games. The amount of sleep I get drops dramatically.

Mom tells me I look more tired than usual. Fatigued. She’s quite concerned, but she’s that way anyway. I mean, you would think it was she who had the cancer, and not me. I can’t sneeze without her calling an oncologist.

It goes on for about a week, when Bobby Fretboard, a thirty-nine-year-old guitarist for the Double Joints, figures out that Skinny McFarter is actually me. I have no idea how he knows, but he sends me a message on Facebook.

Chapter 3: A duo of problems

Richie may never know the measures I took to find out he was on Facebook. I had a purpose, you see. One given to me by my master.

-Bobby Fretboard

I’m sitting on my couch, facing the 65” TV in my room, back to my door. It’s evening. To my left, out my window, the sun hangs low over theMalibubeach. The message comes across on my iPad. It’s from Bobby Fretboard. And it’s not written on my wall or messaged to me. It’s live chat.

I know who you really are.

I pause, looking at the Facebook app and pursing my lips. How can he possibly know who I am? I’ve probably commented on something he’s posted, but I don’t think he’s responded to anything I’ve written.

Here, I realize, is a moment of choice. I can ignore him or pretend he’s insane. Or, I can acknowledge that he’s right, and talk with him rock star to rock star.

I’ve always wanted to meet a rock star. They always seem so much bigger than life, so above the rules. So invincible and confident.

Here, maybe, is an opportunity for that dream to come true.

And Mom would be none the wiser.

My fingers thump against the iPad glass as I respond with, I’m Skinny McFarter.

Well, that’s what I mean to respond. I actually type: Un Dommu NcGqtwee. My mouth has gone dry and my heart has started to pound. I can hardly think straight. Here is a real rock star. Talking to me. My hands shake as I delete the nonsense, and type, I’m Skinny McFarter.

He answers back with a link. When I tap it, the YouTube app opens. It takes me to the first video Kurt and his dad posted of me on the Internet. It’s titled, “Eleven-year-old on an electric guitar.” I’m standing in the back of a music shop, under the wall of electric guitars and the shop’s sunburst music logo, just wailing away on the instrument. I watch about thirty seconds, amazed I could play so well after so few lessons, and also astounded at how amateurish it sounds. I’ve come a long way since then.

I return to the Facebook app, and have to type my message twice before it actually makes sense.

Funny. How could I be him? His mom doesn’t even let him online.

He answers: A smart kid like you could find a way around your mom.

While researching myself online, I’d quickly found that Mom is a celebrity of sorts—the crazy, over-protective mother who won’t let her kid so much as meet a fan. She’s actually more famous now than when she was in a band. It kind of amuses me. Mom has never said a word about it. If it bothers her, she doesn’t let it show.

With minimal mistakes this time—I’m calming down a little—I tap on my keyboard: What if I was Richie Van Bender?

I’d want to meet you.

My heart pounds even harder. I’m sure Mom will come in any second. TheMoabbook is on the couch next to me, open to a page aboutArchesNational Park. If she knocks, I’ll have to slide the iPad between the cushions really fast.

I say to Bobby, Every kid knows not to meet with strangers they meet online.

That’s right. But this is different. You’re a famous rock star. I’m a famous rock star. We should hang.

Mom would never let it happen.

You know her nickname? I gave it to her, you know.

Mom and Dad both have histories in the music industry. Now they’re both has-beens, but they had mild success in the mid-nineties. Mom was known asElizabeth“the Storm” Malmstrom before marrying Dad and becoming Elizabeth Van Bender.

Why did you call her “the Storm?”

LOL. Because everywhere she went, she left things in a mess. Quite the diva in her day, your Mom was.

I have no trouble believing that.

He types before I have a chance to respond.

She seems to have gone off the deep end. Won’t let you do anything. Way over-protective.

My natural inclination is to agree, but something holds me back. She’s just Mom, doing her job as a mom and making sure my life doesn’t get too crazy. Sure, I push against her barriers like a crazy pushing against the padded walls, and I argue with her plenty, but I’m not about to throw her under a bus.

So, I tap, why would you want to meet me?

You’re Richie Van Bender. Who wouldn’t want to meet you?

So true.

We chat for another ten minutes, until it’s time for dinner. I can’t stop thinking about how cool it would be to meet Bobby Fretboard. Sure, it would be cooler to meet Nick Savage. Or maybe Marti Walker. But Bobby Fretboard is a pretty good score. It distracts me all through dinner.

Before I go to bed, I check to see if he’s sent me any more messages. I even dream about meeting him.

It all seems weird. I know I’m not supposed to trust anyone I meet online. And I’m sure not supposed to meet them in person. But I mean, it’s Bobby Fretboard. A well-known artist. What harm can come of it? Besides, I love the idea of meeting a peer—even if it means pushing Mom’s boundary.

Maybe in the long run she won’t care. I mean, in ten years would it make a difference? In fifty. Nah.

But, of course, I can’t ask her. She would just shoot me down. It would probably work better to meet him, then let her know I’m not ruined or anything. Maybe then she would relax the rules a little more.

In the morning, I pull out the iPad. Before turning it on, I run a palm over the smooth screen. My reflection in the glass shows me smiling. My long blond hair is all tangled.

I send him a message.

It would be cool to meet up. I’d like tips on my guitar work.

Chapter 4: I give reason a shot

The rules were Elizabeth’s idea. I was willing to go along because I knew that someday the rules would go away. And things would be awesome when they did.

-David Van Bender

Saturday afternoon. No band practice. No tutoring. Mom and I lounge on the back porch. A low table between us, with our sweating sodas and the remnants of a plate of nachos.

Later on, Sandra and Kurt will come over for a barbecue, but I already have a head start on the snacking. I’ve downed the entire platter of nachos and three cans of red cream soda.

A breeze blows from the ocean. Clouds spot the blue expanse above, moving in from the Pacific like a fleet of planes coming to bomb the crap out of us. Mom and I try to identify their shapes.

Yeah, it’s weird for a teenager and his mom to look at clouds, but it’s a holdover from when I was little—from before the cancer. I’ve been trying for months to stop doing it, but she insists, and I have no really good reason to deny her.

Yeah, I know. I’m not super-consistent with how I feel about Mom and how I act. I’m working on it. I should just rebel against her, outright, and get it over with.

But she lured me with the plate of nachos.

One cloud looks like an ice skater taking a nasty fall. Another like a basketball player getting ready to shoot two balls simultaneously. At least, that’s what I think it is. Mom says it’s a woman with an abnormally large and—probably—an exceedingly fake bosom. My favorite nimbus of the day is a cloud shaped like a man sticking out his behind in order to emphasize the toxic puff of gas he’s just passed.

My mood is light. My stomach is on its way to being full. I’m feeling bold.

“Mom, I’m fifteen now. Don’t you think we could relax my rules just a little bit?”

It’s absolutely the wrong way to approach the subject.

“No,” she says. “I’m not a lunatic.”

“But—”

“No.”

“Can’t I just meet one rock st—”

“No, Richie. How many times do I have to tell you? They can’t be trusted.”

“You would be with me.”

“They’re dangerous in ways you can’t understand.”

I pretend not to be too upset about it by wiping some of the remaining cheese from the nacho plate. As I lick the cheese from my finger, I mumble, “How come?”

“Why do you think?”

She does that all the time. Makes me answer my own questions. I roll my eyes. Why would I ask the question if I knew the answer?

“Because an exposure to their pure awesomeness would blind me?”

“Hardly.”

“They’re evil magicians and would curse me?”

She gives me a sharp look, with narrow eyes. “You’re not meeting any rock stars.”

“Then maybe,” I say, “it’s because I would see just how brilliant an adult could actually be?”

“Richie, you have no idea what’s going on here. It’s for your own protection.”

I stand, pick up the plate, and head for the kitchen for another bag of chips.

Very well, then. Mom isn’t willing to bend her rule at all. Enough is enough. I’ll just have to break it.

Chapter 5: Saved by the squeaky floorboard

The moment is never right with Richie. But that’s okay, I’ll wait patiently.

-Sandra Montoya

One a.m.Darkness fills my bedroom except for the iPad’s screen. Silence shrouds the house, except for the rush of the air conditioning and the tapping of my fingers on the screen. I lay on my bed, on top of the covers, chatting with Kurt and Sandra. We do that a lot, these days. Until the iPad, we haven’t had any un-chaperoned conversations in years.

Sandra says, I can’t believe you’re going to do it. Your mom will kill you.

Kurt: I can believe it. I would do it.

Sandra: But you’re an idiot.

Me: She’s not going to find out.

Sandra: Is it worth the risk?

That’s the question, isn’t it? Is it worth it?

Kurt: What’s the worst that could happen?

I think about that a lot these days. If I get caught, maybe Mom cancelsMoab. Plus, what if Bobby Fretboard manifests as some kind of freak? Mom always says that rock stars are dangerous. I can only assume she’s talking about drugs or something, because how else could they pose a threat? They might teach me how to enjoy my stardom? Come on.

Sandra: His mom might kill him.

That’s not one I’ve considered, but I suppose it’s possible. She is a little trigger-happy when it comes to laying the smack down.

Me: I think it’s worth the risk.

Sandra: Where is the worth?

Me: Meeting a rock star.

I’ve thought a lot about that, too. I actually don’t know for sure if meeting a rock star will be so awesome. How could I know? I’ve never actually done it. But for whatever reason, I really want to find out what it’s like.

I’ve tried to break the rules before, but it never seems to work out. I’ve tried to sneak out with Sandra and Kurt. They tried passing me a smart phone once. I’ve tried about everything, but until the iPad nothing seems to ever work. Mom always catches me. I’m sick of it.

Sandra: You’re a rock star. What’s the big deal about meeting one?

Kurt: Crap.

A message pops up that he’s left the conversation. The next day he’ll probably tell us that his dad caught him. Not that it’s going to matter much. Kurt’s dad tends be a pushover when it comes to punishing him. Sure he’ll make threats, but he never carries through with them. Kurt has it pretty good, really.

Me: Ha ha! Busted!

Sandra: I still think you shouldn’t do it.

Me: I’m going to do it.

Sandra: Richie, I want to tell you something.

My heart starts to thump as I read it. My fingers hover over the digital keyboard. I’ve suspected for a while that Sandra has a crush on me. I’ve got one on her, too, even if I’m not ready to do anything about it. The entire situation is strange because we’ve been friends for about ten years, but we’ve never had a chance to talk about it.

And we still don’t.

I hear a noise outside the door. A creak of the floorboards—it’s saved my life on more than one occasion.

I put the iPad face down, slide it under my pillow, and curl up with my face toward the door. I let my mouth drop open—Mom says I sleep with my mouth gaping—and start to breathe in a deep rhythm.

The door clicks as it opens. Then silence. I don’t dare crack my eyes at all. It wouldn’t help, anyway. It’s too dark in the room to see anything.

Mom crosses the room to the bed. Her bare feet shuffle on the carpet. My world consists of blackness, the rush of the AC, the sound of my own deep breathing, and the flowing of blood through my ears.

Until recently, I didn’t know that sometimes Mom comes in late at night. She sneaks over to my bed, stands above me, just looking. Sometimes, if I’m lying in a position close to the edge, she leans over and kisses my forehead before heading out.

I can only assume she’s always done this, and I’ve just never been awake when she has.

This time she stands there for a while. Maybe she can hear my heart, and knows I’ve been up to no good. I sure can, and I sure do. Guilt courses through me, pumped through my blood.

Can I really do this? Can I really defy her?

She leans over to kiss my forehead. I have an instant of warning because of the sound of her clothes rustling—otherwise it would have scared the snot out of me. And that would have been messy in more than one way.

A hand runs over my hair. Mom sighs, retreats from the room, and shuts the door. The floorboard creaks as she heads back down the hallway.

I’ve learned that as long as my heart thunders, there might still be danger, so I wait until my heartbeat calms down before I get the iPad back out. Sandra has logged off, but not before typing several more lines.

I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.

Richie?

Hello?

Are you there?

Busted, eh? Talk with you tomorrow.

By the time I finish reading it, my heart is once again working overtime. I can’t fall asleep for a good half an hour.

The next night, I make my first real effort to meet Bobby.

Chapter 6: Skirting the alarms

I knew I should have changed the alarm code years ago.

-Elizabeth Van Bender

The next night at2:50 a.m.Mom has already crept into my room and kissed me good night. I get up from my bed and begin to execute my plan.

I dress in my wet suit and pull some shorts on over it. I bring my surfboard with me, careful not to bang it against the walls and doors. If Mom catches me, I’ll have an excuse. Yeah, I know that going surfing at night alone isn’t smart, but Mom might like that excuse better than “I’m defying your direct order to not meet a rock star.”

As far as I can remember, she’s never told me not to go surfing at night. Her bad.

The problem is going to be the alarm system and the fact that Mom is a light sleeper. When I disable the system, it’s going to beep with each push of a button, and then announce in a loud voice that the system is ready to arm. Then when I open the backdoor, it’s going to say that the back door is ajar. My best bet is to muffle the speaker.

I stand in front of the security console in the kitchen. It’s dark except for a few appliances and the moonbeams coming in through the blinds. A green glow illuminates the soft rubber numbers on the security keypad.

Mom has never divulged the security code to me, but I’ve watched from the corner of my eyes over the last year. I think I’ve got it, but am not quite certain. If I don’t, then Bobby is going to be disappointed, and I could end up mortally wounded.

A throw pillow from my couch and some duct tape—those are my tools. In my closet, I peeled strips from the roll of tape so the sound wouldn’t wake Mom. I have five strips, each about four feet long. I use them to tape the pillow over the speaker, and in order to cover the speaker completely, I do partially cover the top row of numbers.

I raise my index finger and lick my lips. My heart rate accelerates. Mom likes show tunes. She especially enjoys Les Mis. Jean Val Jean is her favorite character.

I press the first number in the sequence. 2.

The console beeps. It seems as loud as a rocket engine, even though the pillow does a fair job of muffling the sound. But I’m jumpy, certain I’m going to get caught.

In a rush, I type the rest of the sequence: 4601. Each beep is like a bomb going off in the kitchen.

The automatic icemaker in the fridge, just to my right, drops a tray of ice with a clatter of plastic and frozen water. The sound makes me jump. For several seconds I focus on the sound of water filling the tray. My finger hovers over the Enter button.

Holding my breath, I hit it.

A nice lady’s voice comes from beneath the pillow, “Security system disarmed. Ready to arm.”

It’s so loud.

That’s what it feels like anyway. I’m frozen with inaction, but want to tear the pillow away and run back to my room—abort the mission before it’s too late, and before Mom executes me for insubordination.

But I don’t retreat. I just stand there, holding my breath, watching the hallway from the corner of my eye.

A full minute passes.

It’s safe.

I head for the back door.

Chapter 7: Holy freaking impossible

When I saw the purple flash, I knew the gig was up.

-Bobby Fretboard

I unlock the back door and swing it open. It bumps my surfboard, which in turn whacks me in the face. Behind me in the kitchen, the same lady announces from the security system that the back door is open. I can hear it clearly, just as I can hear the waves from the beach and my heart in my chest. Everything else is quiet. But the security alert sounds much softer than usual. The pillow has done its job. Hopefully it’s enough.

I wait, rubbing my face and watching the hallway where Mom would emerge.

Nothing.

I maneuver the board through the doorway, then pull the door almost shut. I don’t close it all the way. After all, there’s no need to take crazy risks. If I do close it, when I sneak back in, it will sound again. If I leave it cracked open the entire time, it won’t make its announcement again.

I head for the stairs on the opposite side of the deck. My sandals are almost silent on the wood. There’s a full moon, so I can see my way past the chairs and table without a problem. At the bottom of the stairs, I follow the concrete path to the gate in the stone wall. Beyond, stairs lead down the cliff to the beach.

I’ve only used them once, not long after we moved in, when Mom snuck me down to the beach one winter day when the place was practically abandoned. Still, fans recognized me and mobbed us. I don’t really remember how it ended, just that I was suddenly back at the house.

Just before I reach the gate, a flash of eerie purple light blossoms on the opposite side of the fence. The glow spills over the wall and makes me squint. A pop, like a single kernel of corn popping in the microwave, accompanies the glow. The light only lasts a second.

I pause. Was it my imagination? It reminds me of the light I saw on the beach inHawaii. It was so fast, and the pop was so soft, I might have just imagined it.

The house remains dark. The windows reflect the moonlight.

Nothing, it must have been nothing.

At the gate, I lean the board against the fence, fish the key from my pocket, and unlock the handle. The mechanism grinds, and the latch clicks. The gate swings inward.

And standing there in the moonlight, wearing pajamas—

Is Mom.

I’m so screwed.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking,” she says, “but you’d better stop it and get back up to your room this instant.”

Tremors rise up through my legs and into my body and arms. I don’t move. I just stand there, looking at her in her footie pajamas. Yes, my mom wears footies to bed. Tonight, she has on her pink camouflage ones.

Past her, down the cliff and out on the beach near the water, stands a person. Just a dark figure. It must be Bobby.

“I’m just going surfing.”

“Get back inside.”

“You haven’t let me go surfing since we got back fromHawaii.”

“So help me, Richie Van Bender, I’m going to cancel the trip toMoabif you don’t turn around—”

“Mom! Come on!”

She points at the house. “Now.”

I grab the surfboard and head back up toward the house. She follows me, lecturing the entire way. I don’t say another word—I’m too busy wondering how she got out there and how she even knew I was awake. Inside, she rips the pillow off the wall and marches me back to my room. The duct tape gets tangled in her hair, which gives me a small amount of satisfaction.

“Go to sleep,” she says. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

I’ve almost made it to my closet door, then I turn around.

“What the crap are we going to talk about?” I say. “You won’t let me go surfing. I tried to sneak out. I’m in trouble.”

“You bet you are.”

“There’s only one thing to talk about. And that’s about how you’re going to punish me.”

It’s risky to provoke her, but I’m too mad to care. I was a few hundred yards away from meeting another rock star, and she materializes out of nowhere to stop me. It’s like she has these incredible powers and her only purpose in life is to bend them toward making me miserable.

“Don’t tempt me, Richie,” she says.

“I’m sick of being locked up like I’m some kind of criminal.”

“It’s for your own good.”

“You’ve said that a billion times! Where’s the proof? I don’t believe it! It’s almost enough to make me want out.”

“You can’t have out. It’s too late. You’re a celebrity, and will be the rest of your life. I’m trying to protect you, give you as normal a life as possible.”

“This is normal? Being secluded like a monk is normal?”

“It’s more normal than having people worshipping you. And more normal than the other stuff out there.”

I want to come up with something great. A comeback to totally deflate her. But I only manage, “Well, it sucks!”

I turn my back on her and head into the walk-in closet. I don’t bother turning the light on before slamming the door as hard as I can.

An instant later, the door to my bedroom slams.

Nice, Mom. Real mature.

I stand there in the dark, my body shaking. If I’d known that being a rock star would be like this, would I have pursued it? That’s a stupid question. I can’t change the past. Neither can Mom, with her magical, appearing-outside-the­-yard-suddenly power. I’m a rock star. I’m famous. No changing that.

But did she have to make it so freaking miserable?

With the light still off, I head to the corner. I’m not super tall; the cancer stunted my growth. So, to reach the shelves in the closet, I need a stepping stool.

In a few moments, I’ve retrieved the iPad. It illuminates the room like a flashlight. Somehow, I find the glow comforting. The feel of the glass soothes me.

Not all is lost.

On the Facebook app, there’s already a message from Bobby.

You almost made it.

We get to work, planning our next effort to meet.

Moab, Utah. Three weeks later. Day three of our trip.

Chapter 8: Escape

It actually took her several minutes to realize Richie was gone. I’ve never seen her so distracted. Either she had the hots for that park ranger, or she was really into the Fiery Furnace.

-Kurt Strand

Kurt, Sandra, and I are hiking with Mom in Arches National Park. During the trip, we’ve already seen Delicate Arch, climbed some serious cliffs, and bouldered in several spots. Now, we’re in the Fiery Furnace, led by a park ranger through the maze of vertical rock formations.

All around us, sandstone fins tower overhead. We tread along rock and sand, winding through the labyrinth of narrow canyons. We squeeze through tight spaces, to find an arch, an overhang, or the light hitting red stone just right, making it glow. I would probably find the place the most amazing location on earth if I weren’t so distracted.

I’m sweating. Even in the shade of the Fiery Furnace, it’s a million degrees. Kurt complains without end. Sandra must have told him to shut up at least fifty times. Mom walks ahead with the ranger, listening to him yammer on about the delicate crust over much of the ground.

I’m in the back of the group, waiting for the right moment to break away and “get lost” in the maze. Along with water and food, I have the iPad in my backpack. I’ve marked the rendezvous point with Bobby on a backpacking app. If theGPSstill works in this remote location, I should have no trouble finding him.

Kurt and Sandra know all about my plan. And they’re going to help.

We stop for lunch under a double arch, and the entire time I wonder if the opportunity to escape will ever come. After we get going again, it does. Mom and the ranger go on ahead, almost as if forgetting we followed. Kurt and Sandra give me the nod, indicating they’ll cover for me as long as they can, and possibly send Mom down the wrong way. They know the location I’m meeting Bobby at, so if I don’t reappear before long, they can come find me.

In celebration of my impending disobedience, we play air guitars. They wish me luck. I head back the way we came, and the second they’re out of sight, I pull the iPad out and get on with finding Bobby Fretboard.

I have no data service in the park, but theGPSservice still works, and I’d loaded the map that morning while sneaking the iPad in the bathroom. Not that it does me much good. Even zoomed in all the way, it’s just a mess of diagonal lines, circles, and shadows. The spaces between the rocks are too small to make out on the screen.

But I know the general direction I need to go, and so I wind through the rocks, moving as fast as I can. I turn right here, left there. I scale a rock in one spot, and jump down another. One second the shadows envelop me, and the next sunlight blinds me.

I keep the iPad out, and my blue dot on the map moves closer and closer toward the purple pin that represents where we’ll meet. It’s right in the heart of the Fiery Furnace.

Soon, I come around a sandstone fin, and see him.

In this spot, several fins have broken. They lay on the ground as rubble that weather has worn round with untold years of persistence. The space stretches thirty-feet wide, with an enormous wall rising on each side. On the right, one fin blocks out the sun on the ground. The other fin glows red in the full sun. The air hangs cool and still.

Bobby stands at the far end, on a pile of rocks, silhouetted against the blue sky.

We hadn’t set a specific time to meet. We’d figured I would just come when I had the opportunity. Nevertheless, he sees me the second I come into the area, and scrambles down the pile of rocks toward me. We meet in the center of the cove.

He wears canvas shorts with a million pockets, and a t-shirt with the image of a knee bending backwards. It’s the icon of his band, the Double Joints. His backpack is belted at the waist with rubber hydration tubes poking out the top. A brown cord ties his bleached hair back in a ponytail. I wear my hair the same way sometimes, only my hair is naturally blonde.

I stand there with weak knees, looking at him, breathing hard. Just enjoying this victory.

I’ve done it. I’ve met a rock star. The degree of satisfaction surprises me because I’ve never actually succeeded at breaking this particular rule. And man, it feels good—even if I am tired. I’ve felt that way a lot, lately. Sure, I’ve jogged through a maze of rough terrain, but I shouldn’t feel this tired. It’s probably just that I haven’t slept much lately. Sometimes I have to tell myself that usually being tired is just being tired. It’s not cancer.

“I suspect,” Bobby says, “we don’t have much time.”

I try to agree. But to my surprise, I only manage a croak. I’m not thirsty. My mouth and throat aren’t dry. But words simply fail me.

I mean, this is Bobby Fretboard. A huge rock star. I’m flabbergasted. Astounded. In awe of his awesomeness.

I try to speak again. Only gibberish comes out.

He raises an eyebrow.

“Well, okay,” he says. “Let’s get right to it. I want to show you why your mom is paranoid. It’s time you see what she’s been hiding from you.”

Chapter 9: Welcome to the big bad world of magic

It’s always a pleasure to introduce someone to brink. It’s fun to watch their reaction to the impossible.

-Bobby Fretboard

I try to speak again. Mush comes out of my mouth. My tongue feels as big as a banana, and about as articulate. I’m in too much awe of Bobby.

He, however, has a careful voice, like he’s afraid excessive talking will ruin it. “There’s an entire world hidden from you, Richie. It’s hidden from everyone, but I need to show it to you, so you’ll better understand the things that are to come.”

I stand there, catching my breath, not jabbering.

He reaches into one of the enormous pockets of his shorts, and pulls out a bottle of lip gloss—a cylinder with a screw-on lid, about the size of ten stacked quarters.

Except it glows. If we were standing in direct sunlight, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the faint illumination, but we’re not, and a blue light surrounds the little vial.

He unscrews the lid. The smell of cinnamon hits me as sapphire light lifts from the container. He tilts it so I can see inside. An azure substance. Luminous. Sparkling. It tinkles like the sound of distant, tiny, silver bells.

“This,” he says, “is brink.”

All of Mom’s warnings come back to me. I should probably leave. But I don’t. Meeting a rock star feels too good. I don’t care what the danger is. I’m going to see what Bobby came to show me.

He tilts the bottle over one hand. A glob of the substance oozes onto his palm. The smell of cinnamon and the tinkling of bells grow stronger.

I still can’t manage to speak. At least, I don’t dare to. I also resist the urge to run. Bobby is weirder than I’d anticipated, yet what he’s showing me holds me captive.

Bobby closes his fist around the brink, and puts its container in his pocket.

Then, he draws in the air.

He raises his hand to the space between us, opens his palm, and moves it in a practiced manner. Where the brink passes, it smears through the air in a line about the width of a finger. It just hangs there, glowing and sparkling blue, as if clinging to glass.

I feel like my eyes will pop out of their sockets, but other than that I probably take this freaky show pretty well. It’s like I’ve seen it before.

He draws an eye with an iris.

“Now, hold still. This won’t hurt. I promise.”

If I’m ever going to run, now is the time. Because whenever someone tells you something isn’t going to hurt, you can bet it probably will. But I stay. I’m going to see this through.

From the eye, he extends a line straight toward me, right at my forehead. I expect the brink to feel hot against my skin. But it’s not. It’s cold and tingly. I stand frozen as he moves his hand in a circular motion on my forehead, then pulls away, his fist closed.

The brink prickles against my skin. I adjust my stance a little, and the line between the eye and my forehead stretches. The smell is so strong I can’t help but want a cinnamon roll.

“What are you doing?” I manage to ask.

He wipes the excess brink on his pants, and with the other hand grabs a fluorescent green lighter out of another pocket. He raises the lighter to the painted eye, and gives me a solemn look.

“I’m opening your eyes.”

I’m not so sure I want him to, but he moves too fast for me to say it.

He flicks the lighter’s wheel. Orange flame jumps up, touching the brink eye in one corner.

It catches fire.

Blue flames spread around the eye in both directions, taking one second to envelop the entire shape. The cinnamon smell becomes burnt. The moment the fire touches the line extending toward me, the line also ignites. The fire moves down the line toward my face.

Holy freaking crap! He’s going to burn my face off!

I step back, nearly stumbling on the uneven rocks. The line of brink connecting the eye to my head stretches.

“What the—”

“It won’t hurt,” he says.

Before the fire reaches my face, I reach up with my free hand—I still have the iPad in the other—to wipe the brink away. But the moment my hand touches the azure line, a jolt of electricity shoots down my fingers, into my wrist. I make a garbled noise, like someone being electrocuted.

The fire reaches my face, and I brace myself for burning.

It doesn’t hurt. It’s warm, yes. But it doesn’t scorch me.

“Close your eyes,” Bobby says.

“What?”

“Hurry!”

The brink transforms from blue flames back to sapphire light far brighter than before. That, more than Bobby’s instructions, makes me close my eyes.

And not a moment too soon.

Chapter 10: Among the stone titans

I like to show the cool things first. That way, people aren’t scared off by the frightening things.

-Bobby Fretboard

I have my eyes shut, but I can see from the eye Bobby painted on my forehead.

The blue light has transformed into ashes that float down to the rocks at my feet. Everything else has changed, as well. The sunlight on the stone fin shines far brighter—like it has caught fire. But the shadows have grown darker—almost too dark to see into. It’s like someone turned the contrast way up. What’s more, everything around me has sharp edges. The sandstone fins above me. The rocks all around. It’s like millennia of weathering has reversed.

“Richie,” Bobby says. “You’re looking at the spirit world. It surrounds and encompasses us.”

I turn in a slow circle. I’ve never seen such a blue sky.

“The spirit world is there all the time,” Bobby says. “And it’s filled with creatures. Look at the walls.”

I peer at the fin bathed in sunlight. Other than the pinched edges, I see no difference.

“I don’t see—”

“Look harder.”

I focus on the rock with this strange vision. I furrow my eyebrows and squint, even though my eyes are still closed.

There.

Deep in the rock and all along its surface. Something shifts. Something pulses and moves, breathes and lives inside the rock. It has a thin body like a cat’s, except without the fur, and a long neck. It looks like rock, but it isn’t the sandstone. It occupies the same space as the rock.

I gasp. “What is that?”

“That is a stone titan. It gives the rock life, just like your soul gives your body life.”

As if sensing someone talking about it, the creature moves. It has four legs. Many bones ridge its spine. It stretches long and tall, up almost to the top of the rock. And there, at the top, a long head almost like a horse’s. A snout. And eyes, staring down at me.

Cold eyes. Black. Not glossy. Dull. Ancient. And downright freaky.

The gaze startles me. I cry out and step back. My heel catches on something. I fall straight down, throwing my hands out to catch myself—a mistake. My iPad flies away from me as I hit the ground. The tablet clatters away on the rocks, metal and glass scraping on stone. I think I hear a shattering, but can’t look. My attention is pulled elsewhere.

Because as I fall, I open my eyes.

My vision shifts. It distorts as I simultaneously see everything with spirit vision and with my natural eyes. My brain can’t process the new information, and I become dizzy. My stomach starts the familiar routine of doing flips, as if from motion sickness.

Bobby stands above me, face solemn. It’s the first time since the he cast the spell that I really look at him. He has a glowing black eye on his forehead.

I point to it. “Is that what’s on my forehead?”

He nods.

Above and around him, the spirit world lays over the regular world. The stones are pinched and sharp, but they also aren’t. The stone titan stands in the rocks—and now that I look around, I see other stone titans in the sandstone fins all around me. One of them shifts inside its fin, and groans. The sound rumbles in my chest.

My head feels like it will explode.

“Holy crap,” I say. “What is this stuff?”

“Richie, you can do so much with brink. We’ve only been here for two minutes, and I’ve shown you just one thing. With the right spells, you can control the stone titans. You can travel the world in an instant. The possibilities are endless.”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“There’s an entire other world, Richie—and not just this unseen one. There’s an entire society of musicians and rock stars that use this power. You should be a part of it.”

Despite my confusion—despite my fear at what is happening, I want this incredible world with mind-bending powers far more than I’d wanted to meet Bobby. More than I ever wanted a concert, or to win that award.

This is what Mom has kept me from.

I wouldn’t have believed it’s real if someone had merely told me about it, but I can’t deny what I’m seeing with my own eyes. Physical and spiritual.

I want to tell Mom what I’ve learned, let her know just how angry it makes me that she’s hidden this from me.

“How can I be a part of it?” I say. I still haven’t bothered to stand.

“You need to hold a concert.”

To ease my reeling mind, I close my physical eyes. The world becomes high-contrast again. The stone titans become more visible. They look down at us with dull black eyes, but don’t otherwise seem to care that we’re invading their domain.

“What does a concert have to do with it?” I ask.

“Everything,” Bobby says. “Concerts have power, Richie. They generate the resources to create the brink. And you’ll need help harnessing that power.”

“You’ll help me?”

“Not me. My boss. Nick Savage.”

Nick Savage.

One of the most famous rock stars on the planet, with enormous hit albums and singles in the last three decades. Rumor has it he owns the best collection of classic guitars it the world. Plus, he always wears his hair in the most outrageous spikes imaginable. Blue. Red.Orange. He uses those spikes as weapons in his videos.

Bobby’s voice is soft. So quiet I almost can’t hear it. “If you can hold a concert, Nick will come to you. He’ll give you what you need in order to harness the power.”

“How am I supposed to talk my mom into that?”

Even though I want it, even though I know it’s real, it’s just so much so quickly. I look around, feeling different than only a few moments before—a little freaked out and excited all at the same time. It would have been nice if someone had told me about this spirit world before showing it to me. Maybe Mom should have told me, because there’s no going back now that I know.

“I can’t explain everything right now,” Bobby says. “We’ve been here too long already.”

“Not even five minutes.”

“Too long. You need to get back to the others. Just tell them you got lost. Don’t tell anyone about this.”

“No kidding. I’m not an idiot.”

“I’ll be in touch via Facebook.”

I remember the iPad. It’s resting in a crevice five feet away—out of reach, screen away from me. I can’t tell if it’s broken or not. I wish I’d thought to ask Sandra and Kurt for some kind of protective case.

Bobby has brink out again, and pours it into his hand. I scramble over to the rocks toward the iPad. It’s cold in my hand as I turn it around to look at the front.

The screen is shattered.

I feel sick.

My connection to the world is broken. I’m going to have to secure another one, somehow. It’s a miracle that I got this one and have kept it for so long. How can I possibly get another? I can’t just order a new one and hope it gets delivered when Mom’s not around.

Hoping it’s not as bad as it seems, I press the power button. Fortunately, it turns on, presenting me with the picture I’d set as my wallpaper: Nick Savage on stage, shredding on his guitar.

Bobby steps over and holds a hand out to help me up.

“I’m going to get rid of that third eye,” he says. “Then you’ll be on your way. And I’ll be in touch.”

“No you won’t. Because I’m here.”

I look up to the space where Bobby had stood when I entered the cove. On the same rock a little higher, Mom now stands.

She has a black eyeball on her forehead. Into her palm, she’s pouring a glowing red substance.

Oh crap.

Chapter 11: Stones come tumbling down

Only Richie could find a way to put himself between a bunch of stone titans and fragile rocks.

-Elizabeth Van Bender

Things happen so fast I can hardly follow them. I begin to stand, ignoring the dizziness and nausea from the third eye.

Mom jumps down from her perch, leaping over the rocks. Bobby runs to my left, toward the fin with sunlight hitting it. He pockets his blue brink, and produces a vial of yellow. By the time he reaches the stone wall with the titan inside it, he has the lid off, and the brink poured into his hand.

Mom sets her feet and draws two circles next to each other, touching. She adds a triangle in each. It takes her less than two seconds.

“Mom,” I say. “What’s going on?”

Bobby slides his hand across the sandstone. It leaves a yellow arc of brink.

“Bobby,” Mom says, “don’t do that. You’ll kill us all.”

She has a lighter, and ignites her spell. It burns faster than the blue stuff Bobby has been using. It flares bright red. A bar of humming white light shoots straight from the shape, directly toward Bobby. He ducks out of the way. The white light misses, and with a screech dissipates as it hits the wall.

The stone titan shifts, turning its head enough to look down at us. The fin groans as if under extreme pressure.

Where Mom drew her spell, the burnt brink becomes ashes that flutter to the ground.

Bobby jumps back to his spell. He draws foot-high circles in a row beneath the arc. They glow yellow against the red stone. Mom runs closer, stops ten feet away, and draws two more circles in half a second.

“Richie, you need to get out of here,” she says.

As if that’s going to happen.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We’re fighting!” Mom says. She draws a triangle inside one of the circles. “You need to get out!” She puts a triangle inside the other circle.

“No kidding,” I say. My back hits the shaded fin. I haven’t realized it, but I’ve been moving backward, away from the fight. “But what’s going on?”

Is this fight really about me? Is Bobby trying to liberate me from something good or bad? Is Mom trying to protect me from something I really should have been a part of?

I’m beginning to second-guess the wisdom of breaking Mom’s rules.

Bobby finishes his spell, six circles in a curve beneath the long arc. He lights the circle on one end, and as the shape burns along the rock, he leaps to the other end, drawing a line out behind him, trailing it like a fishing line. The fire races around the six circles and up the arc, then out into the air along the line extending from Bobby’s hand.

Mom finishes her second spell, and lights it. It burns in red curling flames before turning incandescent and shooting that beam of white at Bobby.

He ducks and rolls across the ground, dragging the brink through the air so it creates a hoop. The white bar of humming light passes right through the center of the hoop as the fire spreads along it.

“Richie,” Mom says, “you’ve got to run!”

She’s already started drawing the spell a third time. Is she daft? That spell has already failed twice, and she’s going to try it again?

“How can I help?” I say.

Right now, I don’t really care who’s good or bad—it’s not a luxury I can afford. I have to help Mom if I can.

“Richie,” Bobby says as he gains his feet, “do as she says. Run away. As fast and as far as you can.”

The fire burning along his yellow brink reaches his hand. With the entire spell alight, it transforms from flame to a golden rope.

On the stone, the circles and arc change. They sink into the rock. I wouldn’t have been able to see it except for the eye on my forehead. They surround the body, four legs, and neck of the stone titan. Like shackles and a collar. The golden line extends from the collar through the air, to Bobby’s fist.

It’s a leash.

He grips it in a fist, and yanks. The stone titan responds with a groan. It moves inside the rock, turning toward us and standing. Muscles ripple beneath rough skin as the head swings out of the stone above, and hovers back and forth in annoyance. The stone cracks. Dust and pebbles fall away and the fin sways.

Bobby pulls again. The leash stretches tight. The stone titan responds with a roar. It’s not the roar of a dragon. And it’s not the cry of a lion. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s like the sound the Earth might make just before imploding. It shakes my bones. I stand frozen with my back against the cold stone that, fortunately, isn’t moving even though there’s a stone titan inside it.

I want to run. But not only can’t I, I’ve also got to save Mom. I’ve got to get her out of there.

She’s drawing that same ineffective spell, and almost has it done.

Bobby yanks on the golden tether a third time, and this time the stone titan responds with an even deeper groan. As it steps out of the rock, the fin shatters. It breaks into massive jagged boulders with sounds like lightning striking. I flinch, expecting to get a face full of stone, but instead of collapsing toward us, the fin falls the other way. Rock grinds on rock, sending clouds of dust into the air. The ground rumbles. It shakes.

The stone titan’s gangly legs end in what look like enormous dog paws, one of which falls not ten feet from Mom even as the fin is still collapsing. The stones the titan steps on turn to powder that puffs into the air. The spirit towers over Mom, its head reaching at least forty feet high.

“Elizabeth,” Bobby says, “don’t make me do this. Just step away and nobody gets hurt.”

That, I decide, is the threat of a bad guy if I’ve ever heard one.

What have I done? What have I gotten us into?

The fin is still collapsing. Mom has finished drawing her spell. She lights it, and dodges as a boulder bounces at her.

Bobby yanks on the tether again, forcing the creature toward Mom. But this time he’s too focused on controlling the stone titan. Mom’s spell finishes burning, and the white light strikes Bobby right in the chest.

He doesn’t cry out. He doesn’t convulse. He just topples backward, onto his backpack, eyes blank. The tether slips from his hand, and the stone titan lets out another roar as the shackles and collar fade to ashes.

The fin lies in rubble across the way from me. My head rings from the noise, but now the stone titan steps toward me. Its foot lands two feet away. The smell of earth and dust almost overpowers. I want to run.

“Richie, hold still!” Mom says. She’s already drawing in the air, again.

I stand there, my back against the fin as the stone titan steps into it. The spirit already in the rock shifts and grumbles, making room for the second creature. They seem to talk with each other in a series of rumbles and cracks similar to the sounds of the fin collapsing a few moments before. With each step, the ground shakes.

In a few seconds, the stone titan has stepped into the fin behind me, and settled. It looks down at Mom and me with its long, horse-like face as if we’ve offended it greatly.

Bobby lies in the midst of rocks, staring at nothing. Mom has finished drawing another spell. It’s an oval with a squiggly line down the middle.

“What just happened, Mom?”

“How long have you been with Bobby?” she asks.

“How long have you known about brink?”

“How long, Richie?”

“How long, Mommy?”

She purses her lips, narrows her eyes at me, and lights her spell.

In a second, the entire thing burns. It flares bright red. The center of the oval becomes a sheet of shimmering white—but only for a second.

Dad’s face replaces the white.

“David,” Mom says. “Code red.”

Dad’s eyes widen. “Again!”

Mom nods. “I’ll draw your zip code.”

“On my way.”

Mom swipes her hand across Dad’s face, and the image disappears. The brink turns to ash.

Mom draws a diagonal, jagged line with practiced speed. “What did Bobby tell you?”

I look at Bobby. He still lies on the ground, frozen. His eyes stare straight ahead.

“I see you have a third eye,” Mom says. She turns to me, hands on her hips. “How’s that working out for you?”

I nod at her forehead. “You have one, too. But I had to learn about all this from Bobby Fretboard?”

“Richie, you have no idea what you’ve gotten into. No idea. You’re not supposed to learn about this for several more years. And what is that in your hands? An iPad? Where did you get that?”

I’m not about to throw Sandra and Kurt under the bus. “You’re worried about an iPad? Magic is real, and you’re upset about me having an iPad?”

I’ve never seen her look so serious—with her eyebrows so high and her lips so tight.

“Richie David Van Bender.”

I’m in such deep crap.

But she doesn’t say anything else. Instead, she turns back to the diagonal jagged line and lights it.

A moment after it finishes burning, there’s a single pop, like popcorn. A purple door flashes into existence, and Dad steps out.

Chapter 12: My dad, the teleporting maniac

I’ve almost lost track of how many times we’ve had a Code Red. I’m getting just a little tired of it.

-David Van Bender

Everyone says I look just like Dad. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and light blue denim pants. He has light hair and stands six feet tall.

And he just teleported in. From D.C.

I stumble back in surprise, and almost fall.

“Dad!”

The doorway disappears and the brink turns to ash. The smell of burnt cinnamon is heavy in the cove. Mom turns to me, and pulls another little vial of brink out of her pocket.

Dad nods at me. “Richie, good to see you.”

Through Mom, I’d emailed him right before our trip. He’d told me to be safe, to not do anything crazy.

“What the heck, Dad? Did you just teleport?”

He turns his back to me, and starts drawing a large shape. “I zipped, Richie. I zipped. I’d love to stay and chat, but I don’t have time. I’ve got to get out of here before . . .”

“Before what?”

Mom stands in front of me, drawing a spell. It looks like an eyeball with a circle around it, and a line through it. Like the street sign for no U-turns, only no eyeballs. Her face is calmer, now. She doesn’t seem as upset.

“Richie,” she says, “everything will be clear in just a few moments. Just be quiet.”

“You’re going to explain everything?”

She nods. “Hold still so I can fix what Bobby did to you.”

“And you’ll tell me everything?”

“Just be patient.”

Mom has just defeated a rock star in some funky magical battle, I’ve almost been squashed by a stone titan, Dad has just teleported in from across the country—and I’m supposed to be freaking patient?

Dad’s about done drawing his shape—some type of rectangle, taller and wider than him, with spikes jutting out at each corner. Mom’s added an arrow that points from the anti-eye symbol to my face. She has a lighter up to it.

“Uh, is this going to hurt?” I say.

She shakes her head and lights the spell. “Nope.”

In a second her entire spell burns in red flame. With a sizzle like frying bacon, a jet of red light extends from the arrow to my face. I have my natural eyes open, so when it hits me, my vision shifts. The contrast all around me goes way down. The stone titans disappear. The sky shifts back to its usual blue.

The spell turns to ash, and floats away.

Mom is drawing another spell. Two circles.

“You got rid of the third eye,” I say.

“Very observant,” Dad says. He grins at Mom. “We really are raising a genius.”

He lights his door, and by the time the entire thing burns, he’s stepped over to Bobby and slung him over his shoulder. A shimmering white sheet of light appears inside the doorway.

“I’ll be in touch,” he says to Mom.

“I sure hope so,” she says without looking at him. She draws squares around the circles.

“Are you going to wipe his mind, again?” Dad asks.

Mom doesn’t look at him. Or me. “Of course.”

“It’s got to stop, eventually,” Dad says.

“What do you mean, ‘again’?” I say.

I’m starting to feel the fringes of panic.

“He’s not ready for brink,” Mom says.

Dad raises his eyebrows at her in a skeptical expression. “He will be soon, though.”

“I’m ready now!” I say.

Dad looks over his shoulder at me as he heads for the door.

“I don’t think so, Richie,” he says. His eyes sweep over the rubble. “This proves it.”

“I didn’t do all this! Bobby did!”

“Try not to get into too much trouble.”

“Dad, wait!”

But he’s through the door. With a purple flash, it disappears. The brink turns to ash, and floats down to the red rock.

Mom lifts her lighter. She’s finished drawing her spell. No longer distracted by Dad, I see it’s the same spell she’d used on Bobby, except this time she’s given it a little tail, about a foot long.

I start to back away. My heel catches on a rock and I nearly fall. “What are you doing?”

Mom lights it. “I’m sorry, Richie.”

Her spell finishes burning.

I’ve seen this spell three times, already, so I know what to expect. I dodge aside as the jet of white light shoots from the spell, missing my arm by a few inches.

I’ve had enough. I won’t let Mom do this to me.

I turn and run.

Chapter 13: Hostage negotiations

He always runs.

-Elizabeth Van Bender

I grab the iPad as I run. In three more seconds, Mom has drawn and lit her spell again. As it finishes burning, I dodge to one side. The light sizzles past me.

“Get back here, Richie!”

I ignore her. Naturally. There’s no way in Hades I’m stopping so she can wipe my mind. Before she finishes her next spell, I dart out of the area, around the nearest fin.

She pursues. I dart down alleyways made by the towering fins, cutting this way and that, trying to lose her, never quite able. Her shouts turn into screams, and I can tell she’s growing more desperate with every footfall. But I’m too fast, and she can’t catch me.

Until I find myself at the end of an alley, with a forty-foot drop ahead of me. No sunlight comes down between the two fins. The air is cool and damp. Where I stand at the end, breathing hard, heart thumping, I only have a foot of space on each side of me.

I can’t climb down the cliff. Scooting to the sides won’t work, either. It’s too sheer, worn smooth with centuries of weather.

Mom runs into the alley at the far end, and stops.

“Richie, you have to stop running.”

“Don’t come any nearer, Mom. I’ll jump.”

She raises a hand and starts drawing those circles.

“Stop!” I yell. “I’ll jump if you try and light that!”

Before I finish talking, I’ve positioned myself at the very edge of the cliff. She’s already drawn the triangles in each of the circles, and given the spell a little tail. She half lifts her lighter to the spell.

But she stops.

“Richie, don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’ll jump, Mom. I swear it. I don’t want my mind erased.”

“Richie, I have to do it.”

I almost can’t hear myself, from how the blood rushes in my ears. “I’ll jump and break my legs if I have to. Maybe my back.”

Facing her, with one hand holding onto the wall, and the other still gripping the iPad, I lift one foot over the abyss. It’s dark below, but I can make out jagged rocks at the bottom.

“Lower the lighter.” I sound like a terrorist, like I’ve taken myself hostage. “If you cast that spell, I’ll fall backward off this cliff.”

The red light of her spell casts a ruddy glow on both sides of the alley, and illuminates her face. With my third eye gone, I can no longer see hers. She frowns and furrows her eyebrows, shakes her head.

She lowers the lighter.

Licking my lips, hoping I can do this, I step all the way onto solid ground.

“It’s just not time, Richie. You’re not quite old enough. You need another few years under your belt before I’m willing to let you use brink.” She shakes her head. “Intersoc. SOaP. The Sunbeams. They would all try to use you. The best way to protect you is to keep you away from all of it.”

I have so many questions, but most importantly, how can I get out of this without having my memory erased or breaking my freaking neck? Maybe there is no way.

No. I have to get out of this without losing everything I’ve fought for.

“How many times have you erased my memory?”

She shakes her head, as if ashamed. Her shoulders slump.

“Five times.”

Five times! What has gone on in my freaking life that I don’t even know about?

There has to be a way.

Her shoulders had slumped. She’s tired of this, of erasing my brain.

That’s my leverage.

“Mom, I’m never going to stop trying. You’re probably going to have to lighten up on my rules, or I’m going to keep trying until I get myself killed. Or worse.” I didn’t know if there was a worse, but maybe she could imagine something.

“I’ll be here to protect you.”

I lift one foot back over the edge. “I’d rather risk it than have you erase my memory.”

“Don’t be stupid, Richie.”

“You can erase my memory, but I’m going to run again. I’m going to try and break the rules again. It’s just what I do.”

She shakes her head, half lifts the lighter.

“I’m so tired of this,” she says.

“I’ll fall backward when you cast that spell. Lower the lighter.”

She doesn’t. I lean backward.

“If you loosen my rules, I’ll be less likely to try it again. I’ll probably be satisfied with the slack you’ve given me. And I won’t jump right now. I’ll let you erase my memory.”

The lighter drops an inch or two.

“Loosen the rules?”

The rhythm of my heart changes from desperate to hopeful. I’m going to win this. I can feel it. Mom’s going to give some.

How do I make it count?

“A concert.”

She almost laughs. “A concert?”

“A concert.” That was what Bobby said I needed. Then Nick Savage would come to me, teach me how to harvest the powers created by the crowd. “Let me have a concert. That will get me nominated for the award. That’s what I want. A concert, so I can win that award. That will satisfy me.”

She laughs. It’s uncertain. But it isn’t a denial.

“I’ll let you erase my memory if you promise you’ll let me hold a concert.”

“You know, if I make you this promise and erase your memory, you’ll have no idea if I ever keep it or not. You won’t remember the promise.”

“Great, Mom. Thanks for the reassurance.”

“It’s just a fact.”

True, but I’m no dummy. I can deal with her threat. Just play on her conscience—which she’s already struggling with.

“I trust you. If you promise me, I won’t jump, and I’ll trust that you’ll do it. And I’ll let you erase my memory without a fight.”

Five seconds pass. Ten. The red brink hanging in the air churns and sparkles. Her lips purse. Her eyes narrow.

She nods. “Okay. A concert. I promise you I’ll let you have a concert.”

My heart leaps. I’m so excited I almost slip off the cliff.

Victory!

“Come here,” she says, and motions me toward her.

I start toward her, but something occurs to me. “This year. Promise me a concert this year. Before the awards show. In front of a big, live crowd. So I can win that award.”

She nods. “Yes, yes. A concert this year. In front of a big, live crowd. Before the awards. Now, get back off that cliff.”

Satisfied, elated, I step toward her, unable to stop grinning.

A concert! I’m finally going to get to hold a concert! I’m going to lose my memory, and forget that I ever met Bobby Fretboard, but maybe something more will happen. Maybe Nick Savage will find a way to meet me, and re-teach me everything about magic.

Victory. I’ve achieved a startling victory in my quest for freedom.

I run one hand along the rough, cold stone as I walk up the alley, toward her and the spell. When I’m just a few feet away, she raises her lighter to her spell. It ignites.

“Mom, what the—“

I can’t dodge it. There’s no space. The white light shoots from the spell toward me, hitting me in the chest.

 

Chapter 15: Promises, promises

The fact that Richie trusted me proves he’s too naïve for the world of brink.

-Elizabeth Van Bender

My body becomes unresponsive. I can no longer control my arms or legs. I can feel them, but they just won’t do what I want them to. I fall backward. The iPad slips out of my hand and hits the ground.

But Mom catches me. She eases my fall and turns me over so I’m looking into a ribbon of sky. I can move my eyes, and there’s so much I want to say, but I can’t. My mouth won’t move.

Mom has betrayed me. My sense of victory vanishes. Now I’m just enraged.

She lays me on the ground.

“Sorry about that,” she says. “This is the best way to do this. Don’t worry, I’m going to keep my promise to you. But this is how I need to erase your memory.”

I’m not reassured. I want to tell her she’d better keep her promise, or I’ll make her life a living hell.

“Don’t worry. I made the spell so it won’t last long. You’ll be able to move again in a minute.”

She stands over me, and begins to craft another spell, a circle inside a square. She talks as she draws. The red light in the relative darkness gives everything a crimson hue.

Questions. So many questions. But I can only lay there like a dead slug.

She finishes drawing her spell and extends a line from the square down toward me. She trails brink around my face and the top of my head. Once. Twice. She shakes her head again.

“Richie, you’re not ready for this. Someday, yes. Not now.”

Her words aren’t accusatory. They’re not angry. They’re just tired, frustrated, and disappointed. For pity’s sake, she’s done this five freaking times!

“I promise you. You can have a concert.”

Still kneeling over me, she raises her lighter to the circle and square. Despite her concentration, her face is also sad as she looks at me and nods.

How much of my memory is she going to erase? Is she really going to let me have a concert?

She lights the spell. The circle and square ignite, and red flames race from along them up the line that surrounds my head. She shoves the lighter into her pocket and gives me a stern look.

The spell finishes. It changes from red fire to a brilliant crimson light.

She strokes my hair and gives me a sad smile.

“Forget the last ten minutes.”

Chapter 16: Paralyzed

What a disappointment. We work so hard to help Richie, but his mom catches him, anyway. I swear, it’s likes she has magical, trouble-detecting powers.

-Kurt Strand

I start as if waking from a nightmare, and find myself laying on the ground in a narrow alley between two fins, Mom kneeling above me. Ashes float around her and me.

I can’t move. I can feel my arms and my legs and my body, but none of them respond. Fear engulfs me. I’m paralyzed. Last thing I remember is running through the Fiery Furnace, looking for Bobby, thinking I was almost there.

But instead I’ve fallen and broken my back, or something. I can’t even turn my head.

I try to speak—but words don’t come. My lips don’t move.

“Richie!” Mom says, her face worried. “Richie! Thank heavens you’re awake!”

I try to move my arms and legs and tell her I can’t do either, but my mouth refuses.

“You’ve fallen,” she says. “You blacked out. Are you okay?”

Of course I’m not okay! I can’t move and I can’t talk! About the only movement my body will produce is a thundering heart.

I try one more time, willing my body to respond.

And it does. My arms and legs and body come back at once, as if something had been turned off, and the switch got flipped. I leap upward, almost ramming into her.

She jumps back and away, crying out.

My heart pounds as I get to my feet. I’m so relieved to be moving again that I don’t care when Mom rushes forward and embraces me.

“You disappeared!” she said. “You were gone, and we split up to find you, and I found you unconscious, not moving!”

She’s crying as she presses her face into my neck. I’m so shocked and relieved that I hug her. The air around us is cool, damp, and dark. The alley is narrow enough that half a step to either side would place me against the stone.

I don’t remember getting here.

With the initial bout of relief subsiding, worry and doubt consume me. Bobby is still out there, somewhere. Waiting for me. I’ve blown my chance.

Mom’s body stops shaking, and she pulls away from me.

“What is that?” she asks.

She steps aside, bends over something I can’t see until she straightens. My stomach twists into knots.

The iPad.

“Richie David Van Bender,” she says. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I look around, trying to stammer a response. Everything seems off. The last thing I remember is running through the Fiery Furnace, looking for Bobby. I was almost to him—almost to the purple pin on the iPad app.

“Running off,” Mom says. Despite the tears, her face is twisting from worried to angry. “And, with an iPad.”

She runs a hand over it. Cracks cover the dark screen like a spider web. I can’t remember dropping it.

She stops crying, completing the transformation from concerned to enraged. All hints of worry and fear leave her voice.

“You are in such deep trouble.”

 

Chapter 17: Life changes

 

Richie didn’t seem right after that. It was like part of his head was missing.

-Sandra Montoya

 

When we get back toMalibu, Mom grounds me from Kurt and Sandra for a month. She searches my room for more contraband. Finds nothing, because there’s nothing hidden.

Things simmer for a week. Mom hardly speaks to me, and gives me long, ponderous looks when she thinks I don’t notice. She seems on the verge of saying things all the time, but almost never does.

I feel like crap. Not only because I got caught, but because I’ve so clearly upset Mom far worse than with any other stunt I’ve pulled.

I really miss the iPad. Who knows what Mom did with it. Probably put in a blender, or something.

I miss chatting with Kurt and Sandra late into the night, and kind of miss Marti Walker’s status updates.

One night as I’m in my room, playing my guitar with headphones on, she comes in without knocking and stands just inside the doorway, arms folded. I play on, ignoring her until she speaks. I can’t hear her through the music on the headphones, but stop playing and raise my eyebrows at her.

“I’ve made a decision,” she says.

This can’t be good. I just look at her. A million terrible things flash through my mind.

She licks her lips, looks to the ceiling, and shakes her head. Her mouth opens, closes. Opens, closes. She sighs.

“Any day, Mom.”

“I’m going to let you have a concert.”

“Funny, Mom.” Why would she even joke about that? It’s just cruel.

“I’ve decided the reason you pull stunts like with the iPad and trying to meet Bobby Fretboard is because I’m too restrictive. So, I’m going to give you some slack. I’m going to let you hold a concert.”

She’s serious. I nearly drop the guitar. My heart wants to burst through my chest.

“But I get to plan every detail of the concert, to make sure you’re safe. I get to decide the place, the size of the crowd, your opening act, the special effects, and any other special rules associated with the concert.”

“Uh, okay.” Something isn’t right about this. If she wants to punish me, why is she letting me hold a concert? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I don’t care. Because—finally—a freaking concert!

“I’m expecting you to be on your best behavior. No funny business.”

I nod. My fingers tremble, itching to get back on the guitar, to start practicing for the concert. I want to jump up and down and scream for joy. I want to hug Mom. I want to get on Facebook and tell the world that Skinny McFarter is really Richie freaking Van Bender, and he’s going to finally hold a concert!

Maybe I’m dreaming.

She looks at me for another ten seconds as if deciding to say anything else, or as if expecting something.

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you so, so, so, soooooo much.”

Her face softens and she shakes her head. “I just want you to be happy. And safe. Happy and safe. That’s all.”

Within a few weeks, Mom has major details for the concert organized, and announces it. When my grounding is over, Kurt and Sandra tell me about the near hysteria that has gripped the world of rock. I’m positively giddy.

My enthusiasm only increases when, a week later, the media announces nominees for the Best Young Entertainer of the Year. Marti Walker. F-Nasty. Some kid opera singer.

And me.

And like a cherry on top of everything else, I’m invited to perform a song at the awards ceremony. Mom agrees to it.

I eat two plates of nachos to celebrate.

Life is so dang good I can hardly contain myself.

Every second Kurt and Sandra are around, Mom is on us like a rat on a Cheeto, but in a colossal blunder, she turns her back and Sandra slips me a note. In it, she says that Bobby hasn’t contacted her, but someone else has without disclosing their identity. They want to meet me before my concert.

For fun, we designate them as the Celebrity of Mysterious Intentions.

And once again. I’m on my road to rebellion.

 

Find out what happens at Richie’s concert, and learn more about the magical world of brink, in Van Bender and the Burning Emblems, Book 1 of the Van Bender Trilogy. Available now on Amazon.com.

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