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Sunday.Six months earlier.
I sat alone in the passenger seat of a self-driving Volkswagen Beetle.
Summer was over, and I was headed back to Kepler Academy—a super secret school for kids with superpowers.
It was like the X-Mansion, but without all the spandex.
A whole summer had passed since I saved the academy from an army of plant people created by a woman named Abigail Cutter.
She was all kinds of crazy.
With a loogie, some dirt, and a strand of your hair, Abigail could grow your evil twin, which she controlled with her mind.
They were horrifying plant zombies who ate earthworms by the handful, or as the greatest scientific minds called them, worm-eaters.
Premium-grade nightmare fuel.
My car had been driving all day, so the school had to be close. It should’ve been all Colorado mountains and trees outside my window.
But it wasn’t.
An empty desert wasteland stretched out for miles on all sides of me.
“Computer, where am I?” I asked.
The GPS didn’t answer because I don’t live in a Star Trek movie.
The clock showed 1 a.m.
“Flippin’ eggs, are you serious?” I muttered.
I should’ve been at Kepler Academy hours ago! What was my car thinking driving through the desert at one in the stupid idiot morning?
The VW sputtered to a stop. The headlights died slowly, leaving me alone in the dark. My door unlocked and popped open by itself.
I looked for the North Star, but it was cloudy. My dad and I have this thing—whenever I’m scared, all I have to do is find that star. We both look at it every night; it’s like our way of saying “I miss you” to each other even if we’re in different places.
Doesn’t work when it’s cloudy, though.
I stared at the empty desert outside my car.
And that’s when I heard it—the sloppy, chomping sounds of worm-eaters.
I grabbed the edge of the car door to shut it, but instead of metal … I felt somebody’s fingers.
Worm-eaters burst from the darkness, sprinting toward me. No screams. No grunts. Just moist feet slapping the dry desert crust.
The hand at my door grabbed my wrist and yanked me into the air until I was face-to-face with her.
It was Abigail Cutter.
Mangled worms fell from her nasty, chapped lips as her fingers morphed into thick vines that slithered around my neck, suffocating me.
I shot forward, eyes shut, drenched in cold sweat, screaming at the top of my lungs. I tried to push Abigail away, but when I opened my eyes …
She was gone.
I was still in my bed at home.
I’ll say it again: nightmare fuel.
… What the jibs was wrong with me?
I pushed the blankets aside and looked out my window. Still black, but that’s how it is when you need to get on the road by 4 a.m.
Mom flipped on the light. “Oh, good, you’re up! Your car’s outside!” she said, excited for my second year at Kepler Academy. Way more excited than I was.
When I left the academy last year, I was the baddest hero ever, but all that disappeared once I got home.
Every time I closed my eyes at night, I saw worm-eaters. I spent most nights wide awake, staring at my door until the sun came up.
My parents didn’t know about the nightmares.
Or much of anything that happened last year.
Including the fact that I was powerless—the only powerless kid at Kepler Academy.
They asked me all summer to spill the beans, but all I ever said was, “It was fun,” because saying, “I jumped off a ten-story building to save the school from a Godzilla-size plant zombie,” would’ve given them a panic attack.
Or maybe it would’ve given me one.
I had spent the last three months dodging their questions by mowing lawns morning till night, every single day.
The work helped keep my mind off worm-eaters, and I liked the extra cash, too. I thought about blowing it all on a mountain of peanut butter cups, but instead I saved up and bought myself something nice.
After getting dressed and scraping a toothbrush across my teeth, I went outside.
Mom stood by the Kepler car as Dad tossed my bags into the trunk.
“That’ll do it,” Dad said, messing my hair up. “Don’t come home this time without a power!”
I knew he was joking—that he only said it because he believed I already had come back with a power.
… joke’s on him though, right?
Mom knelt and gave me a hug, but I just stood there like a stiff doll.
She pulled back. “Are you all right?”
“I guess,” I said, but she saw through me.
“Hey, it’ll be okay. You’ve already done this once. Going back will be like riding a bike. Once you’re there, you’ll hardly miss home at all.”
“Even though we’ll be missing you like crazy,” Dad added.
I didn’t want them to know I was scared, but I wasn’t good at hiding it.
Mom hugged me tighter. “I know this is hard for you, but you need to know that it’s harder for me. I don’t want you to go, Ben. I want you to stay here and go to a boring school and sit around our boring house at night, but we both know you can’t.”
Dad put his hand on my head while I squeezed my mom.
“But … I’m scared,” I said honestly.
Mom smiled. “Nothing wrong with that. I’m scared, too. Scared that something terrible will happen to you while you’re gone.”
Like jumping off a ten-story building.
“Being scared just means you get to be brave,” Mom said. “Because we both know you have to go back. You belong there. People spend their entire lives looking for a greater destiny, but yours knocked at our door and invited you to come out to play. We might not know exactly why yet, but you belong at that school.”
She was right.
I had to go back.
For my dad.
For all the students at the academy.
I was the hero who saved the school last year.
And what kind of hero goes into hiding after something like that?
Copyright © 2019 by David Halvorson