So, the book I’m working on right now because it’s something I know Julian wanted me to write and because, to a certain extent, the book’s hero is based on him and his inventive mind, is a YA novel called SuperNormal. I started this years ago but set it aside because the plotting and world-building seemed daunting. Now, however, nothing seems as daunting as overcoming my grief, and writing this story helps me keep my son alive in some small way.
This is the first chapter.
Riley Weston stood at the bottom of the gutted steel frame of an office tower in the center of the Old City and peered up into the darkness, trying to make out the building’s parapet. The moon hung just above the horizon like a ripe blood orange, its light too muted to be of any real use to him. Although he’d brought a flashlight, its bulb was nowhere near powerful enough to pierce more than one hundred feet of inky night sky.
Unlike everyone else he knew, Riley liked the Old City. Even though it was now a ruined shell, he felt at home here. This was a place built for people who had to use stairs or mechanical lifts to get to the top of ten-story buildings.
People like him.
The longer he stared upward, the better his eyes adjusted, until he could at last distinguish the bluish-blackness of the sky from the grayish-blackness of the building. Taking a deep breath, he reached into his backpack and pulled out his latest invention. With its two foot long barrel and the large, circular housing for the ratchet mechanism, he’d based the design on the sketchy pictures he’d been able to find of machine guns from the BeforeTimes.
Of course, its intended purpose was entirely different.
Riley hooked the carabiner that exited the housing into his harness and hoisted the butt of the makeshift rifle to his shoulder. The sight he’d built using his father’s discarded reading glasses was crude, but better than trying to aim such a distance unassisted. He peered through the lens and selected a solid-looking section of the roofline as his target.
Bracing himself for the recoil of the spring-loaded charge, he steadied the barrel and fired. The crack as the retractable steel claw shot up into the air was louder than he expected and echoed off the walls of the canyon formed by the crumbling buildings that lined the overgrown street. He held his breath as the rope whistled up into the darkness, releasing it only when he heard the satisfying clink of metal on metal.
He let go of the barrel and tested the rope by yanking it hard. The rope slackened for a second, but then with a horrible screeching noise, the claw caught and held, and the line went taut.
An encouraging sign, but he couldn’t afford to be too satisfied. The anchor had to hold the whole way up and the whole way back down. There was no guarantee it wouldn’t come free while he was a hundred feet above ground—and send him hurtling to earth.
It might be fun, almost like flying. At least until the sudden stop at the bottom.
Taking a deep breath, he flipped the switch that engaged the mechanical ascender.
He rose from the ground, the motion surprisingly smooth and effortless. He’d expected the recoiling action of the spring to be jerkier, less fluid once the rope and coil had to bear his entire weight. Instead, he ascended ten feet, then twenty, then thirty, sliding by each story’s broken windows with ease. Somewhere around the seventh story—he’d decided to stop counting when he reached the fifth floor, knowing after that it wouldn’t make much difference how far he fell if the anchor gave way—the claw shifted, causing him to plunge almost a full floor. His stomach plummeted at least twice that far before the line pulled tight again, yanking him up almost as violently as it had dropped him.
But after that one scare, everything proceeded smoothly until he reached the top of the building. He hung there, suspended a hundred feet in the air, and looked out over the blackened ruins to the lights of Arboretum. They twinkled brilliant white and sharp blue and fractured yellow through the rustling leaves of the trees like the millions of stars described in ancient books. Stars that had been visible before the meteor hit and the dust obscured all but the brightest of them.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts, he didn’t notice he wasn’t alone until a voice near his ear said, “Here you are! Marta had a connip when she realized where you were.”
Startled, Riley looked up to find his girlfriend, Elle McDaniel, hovering beside him, arms crossed over her chest.
It was a nice chest, too.
Calling Elle his girlfriend, even in his head, was kind of wishful thinking. Riley wasn’t sure he’d ever have a girlfriend in the real sense of the word. After all, everyone knew that girls liked boys who were stronger than them, but every female he knew, up to and including his elderly grandmother, could take him down in two seconds flat. Riley didn’t stand a chance.
But Elle was a girl, she was his friend, and she’d let him get to second base with her a couple of times. She’d also told him he was a better kisser than Brody Voight, who had been her boyfriend last summer, and while it wasn’t exactly a declaration of devotion, Riley took it as a sign that she might someday let him get to third. Which was, when you got right down to it, almost better than having a girlfriend. All the perks without any of the problems.
“Hey. Are you listening?”
He blinked. No, obviously, he wasn’t. “Uh, yeah,” he mumbled.
“I said, Marta’s looking for you.”
Shizz! That was bad.
Marta was the Westons’ housekeeper and, when his parents were away, which they almost always were, his caretaker. If she was looking for him now, when she should think he was in bed, then it didn’t matter much where he was. She was going to be skeeved off no matter what. The fact that he was in the Old City, which she refused even to fly within a thousand feet of, let alone actually enter, would just add tinder to the fire.
Marta’s fear of the ruins explained why she’d called Elle to come for him when his chip pinged his location, but it didn’t explain something else. Something ominous.
“Why the heck is she looking for me at two in the morning?”
Elle tossed her head, a trademark gesture. Riley had known her long enough to recognize it as the equivalent of a shrug.
“I don’t know. She just commed to ask me to find you and bring you home. She did say you should turn your chip back on and call your parents a-sap, though.”
At least he knew how Marta had found out he wasn’t at home. His parents had tried to comm him and, when he didn’t answer, they’d commed Marta to find out where he was. But why were they trying to get in touch with him at two in the morning? That didn’t make sense.
Unless something was very, very wrong.
Riley’s parents were old. So old that for a long time, they thought they were never going to have kids. They’d devoted their lives to charity and politics. Then, when his mom was almost fifty and his dad well past it, along came Riley. And as if that hadn’t been a big enough shock, he’d been born normal. Not normal like his parents and peers, with superpowers, but normal like people in the BeforeTimes.
Riley wasn’t sure his parents had ever gotten over the indignity of having a normal child—or the fear that they might have caused it. Although none of the dozens of doctors who’d tried to determine why his body couldn’t process Antinite dust like everyone else’s had never specifically cited his parents’ age as the root cause, none had ruled it out, either. Of course, they hadn’t ruled out anything else, either.
But as strained as his relationship with his parents was—both because they were always off in the capital, devoted to their many causes, and because they had never really come to terms with his normalcy—Riley had always been scared of losing them and acutely aware of the likelihood that he would lose them sooner than most kids. It seemed strange that he felt that way, since in some ways, he’d never had parents, but that might have been why the thought of really not having them made him queasy.
“Damn it,” Riley muttered. He was doing it again. Letting his imagination get the better of him. It was probably nothing. His mom was notorious for thinking everything from runny noses to stubbed toes were an emergency.
He kicked the metal wall with the toe of his boot. The action caused him to swing wildly back and forth, and the cable on which he was suspended creaked, reminding him that while Elle could hang in midair without the benefit of a rope, he couldn’t.
“You gonna turn on your chip and comm them?” Elle asked, her long blonde hair ruffling in the cool night air. “Because I’m getting cold and I want to go back to bed.” She rubbed her arms for emphasis.
Riley closed his eyes for a second and nodded. “Yeah, but I have to get down first.” Although he was pretty sure the rope and ratchet would support his weight for a good long while, he didn’t want to take the chance of anything giving way in the middle of a comm.
“I can’t believe you don’t mind being down there.” Elle looked toward the ground and shuddered. “It’s so…dirty.”
Riley didn’t answer, because there was really nothing to say. It wasn’t as if he had a choice about being earthbound, and he’d gotten over feeling sorry for himself a long time ago. He only wished other people could do the same.
He flipped the switch on the housing to engage the descender. To his satisfaction, the ride down was as smooth and effortless to the trip to the top.
Elle floated down beside him, coming to a halt a good five feet above ground. Riley didn’t have to look at her to know her nose was wrinkling with distaste at the sight of his feet and legs surrounded by the weeds that pushed through the cracks in the buckling sidewalk. She was probably thinking of all the bugs and mites crawling on the dirt and plants and imagining them making their way onto him.
Probably, it would take some time and a lot of showers after this for him to get to second base again, let alone to third.
With a mental sigh of resignation, he unhooked the carabiner from the harness and set his new invention on the sturdy bicycle rack he’d built to carry it. The AutoHoist was far too heavy to carry for long distances in his backpack, although he was pretty sure he could manage it around school and most other public places where he might need it to get from one floor to another.
What a relief it would be to be able to move around the way his friends did, with no concern about installing rope ladders or other permanent scaling devices. Tonight’s test had been a brilliant success; things had gone much better than he had anticipated. Between his bike and the AutoHoist, he’d be able to do almost anything anyone else could.
When he was finished strapping the AutoHoist onto the rack, he glanced over at Elle. She’d crossed her arms over her chest again. That was way distracting. Probably not what he should be looking at—or thinking about—when he called his mother.
He looked away and tapped his temple twice to activate his comm chip. “Call Mom,” he commanded silently.
A few seconds later, he heard her voice inside his head. The comm chip tapped directly into the brain’s audio pathway, bypassing the ears but producing waves the brain recognized as sound. “Is that you, Riley?”
“Yeah, Mom, it’s me.”
“Thank God. I was worried sick when Marta said you weren’t in bed. Where were you?”
He rolled his eyes. She was worried about him? “That’s not important right now. Is Dad okay? Are you okay?”
“We’re fine, dear.”
Riley thought maybe his eyes would roll right out of his head. “Then what’s so urgent that you had to comm at two in the morning?”
This question produced a pause. After a few seconds, his mother said the words Riley dreaded more than any others. “I don’t want to alarm you, but…”
He was officially alarmed.