Charlie Storm didn’t know today would be his last among friends and family. Getting ready for school in the morning, Charlie went about the same routine as he did every day: he scoured his closet for his cleanest and freshest smelling clothes, threw them on, then ran to the kitchen, where he stuffed his mouth with a piece of peanut-butter smeared toast, all while listening to his favourite music—bagpipes—and humming along as best he could, which, he would be the first to tell you, was not very good.
He left his home in a flurry and began sprinting down the street toward the bus-stop, groaning as he glanced at the plain-black watch attached to his wrist. He’d be late again, and Mr. Snyder, his insufferable homeroom and math teacher, would surely have him in detention after class—most likely sat in the desk specially set aside for the “troublesome child.” Charlie went to detention so much he considered it just another class to get through before the school-day was done.
Soot quickly charred Charlie’s pants as he ran and kicked up dust from the unpaved road. The town in which Charlie lived lay hidden in the mountains on the west coast of Canada, among the remnants of mining operations that had helped to build the great railroad spread
out across the land, and the town was named accordingly: Black Rock. To clear a path for the railroad, miners had used tons upon tons of dynamite to blast the mountain to pieces. The resulting char was forever ingrained into the remaining stone.
Black Rock was no longer useful for any great projects or plans, but merely existed—and within it, the people, too, merely existed.
The lack of adventure and excitement was excruciating for Charlie, and his troublesome ways were merely a product of his attempt to spice up his life. He didn’t fit in with the normal teenagers or with their ideas of fun. He couldn’t play hockey very well and thus couldn’t join the only sports team in town, nor did he enjoy watching, and so he didn’t go cheer on the others. Charlie wouldn’t be caught with that crowd, anyway.
Instead, Charlie liked experimenting with limits: How high could he climb before the air became too thin or he became too cold? How often could he skip school before someone noticed and got him in trouble for it? How many times could he spray-paint green Mr. Snyder’s prized poodle?
These were of course the simplest and least exciting of Charlie’s tests. Charlie’s affinity for pushing limits coincided nicely with his love for science, and he often spent his hours playing with chemistry sets or building things he learned about in physics books. Just last week he had taken a coil of copper and wrapped it around a piece of metal, attaching one end to a set of batteries. The resulting solenoid had proved destructive when he had broken one of his mother’s paintings with a golf ball he had fired through the house. Even now, in his pocket he felt one of the black powders he had found on one of his treks into the mountains and secreted away.
Charlie’s parents discouraged his pursuits but did little to stop them altogether. But if any of the other adults in town ever caught wind of what he played around with, he was sure he’d have to find new hobbies.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Sick of waiting for you, Mr. Storm. Move it!”
A woman with red hair and cracked skin yelled at him as he scrambled the last few feet to the bus, the big yellow brick—the cheesewagon—herding all of the town’s highschoolers and snagged a seat at the front. It was only one of a few seats left unoccupied, as the gangs and groupies had taken up everything in the back and middle.
“Late again, Chucky? Haven’t you learned to use that hideous thing strapped to your wrist?” A hawkish-looking girl yelled at him from the back of the bus. She was surrounded by a gaggle of wide-eyed followers hanging to her every word. “What is it that you’re wearing, anyway? If you’re going to keep us waiting you might as well have the decency to spare our eyesight.” Raucous laughter erupted from the sitting circle of girls, cheering at Cindy Martin’s slight. She was the queen-bee, and her sycophants were her mindless workers. She even looked the part today, adorned in a bright yellow sundress with black trim and leathery boots. A white orchid poked out from her immaculately crafted hair, which fell around her face perfectly.
The scene made Charlie want to throw up in his mouth, but that would just give her more ammunition. Instead, he just ignored her and stared out the window.
The cheesewagon made its way around town, swerving through winding streets carved into the mountainside, bumping over asphalt not paved for many years, and picking up somber-looking kids wherever it went. School was never a popular destination for those who would rather sleep and play video games, but life to a 15-year-old was hardly fair. Charlie daydreamed about what he might get up to this afternoon once the final bell had rung—likely something involving black powder—while taking in beautiful glacier-tipped skies. A lone falcon soared through the air, seeming to follow the path of the bus, and every-so-often flapped its gigantic wings to continue its forward motion.
The bus finally arrived at his school. It was not that impressive, really. The front entrance stuck out from the rest of the building, which had the look of a castle made of Lego; the squared lines and turns in the brick could have been designed by a child, and the building’s reddish colour did nothing to add to the charm. The bus driver, an ancient man with a grizzled beard and wrinkled hands, pushed the level to the bus’s front door. It made a small hiss as it folded open, beckoning to the stink of teenagers to flow out. The driver inhaled deep and slow as if to emphasize this cleansing. “Out you go, brats!”
Students immediately stood up and started yelling conversations, discussing homework, rumours, sports, and parties. They climbed over seats and pushed each other to the side, wrestling towards the exit. Testosterone was fierce in Black Rock. The dullness of life was tempered only by an inevitable passion to compete with each other.
Charlie just kept sitting in his seat and staring out the window. The falcon that had flown along with the bus now sat perched atop the school’s flagpole, which rose high from the entrance to the school. A large flag bearing the mighty maple leaf flapped in a strong wind, slightly in conflict with the falcon perched so majestically and so statuesque in the sun. Charlie looked at the falcon with a new interest; he could have sworn it was looking straight back at him. For a moment, he felt unnerved and uncomfortable, but he quickly dismissed the feelings. He always felt that way. He just didn’t fit in.
Charlie was last off the bus, as usual. He pulled his backpack tight and picked at peanut butter caught in his teeth. Satisfied, he moped his way to his homeroom class, careful to avoid any other school figureheads like Cindy Martin. He wasn’t afraid of confrontation or any unfortunate run-ins, but he definitely preferred to avoid them. The last time his temper flared in the face of an aggressor, his punishment had been severe—Mr. Synder had said it “fit the crime,” though Charlie hardly believed scrubbing toilets in the hockey team’s dressing room was proportional to breaking Josh Tennenbaums’ prized stick—even if Josh was the captain of the team and “number one in the hearts of all Black Rockers.”
Mr. Snyder was already calling attendance when Charlie entered the classroom, and made very sure to slow his words and gaze at Charlie as he took his desk. Charlie wasn’t late, and so Mr. Snyder couldn’t technically punish him, but Charlie knew a technicality wouldn’t stop the vile teacher from attempting to make Charlie’s life miserable. Mr. Snyder proved him right.
“Ah, Mr. Storm. Please turn in your assignment right away. Placing it in this box shall do.” Mr. Synder pointed to a flat cardboard box sitting on the table in front of him. It looked like it had previously contained a case of soda or cheap beer. Classy.
“What assignment are you talking about? There’s nothing due for homeroom, and I know you know that.” Charlie’s indignant tone was quite clear. While he didn’t have any problems confronting Mr. Snyder, Charlie had an issue with tact—as in he had none. Mr. Snyder smirked in response,
“Honestly, Mr. Storm, I don’t know how you made it this far in your academic career. You clearly cannot follow instructions. Yesterday your entire class was given a problem set on linear algebra to be turned in to me today. Your classmates have not forgotten, Storm.” Mr. Snyder snatched the box and tilted it forward, demonstrating the stack of papers already lining the stained bottom.
Charlie felt a fury rise up in him,
“This is homeroom, Snyder, not math class. I don’t have to turn in anything to you right now. You’ll have to try harder than that.” A hush fell over the room. While the other students had seen Charlie argue with Mr. Snyder before, he might have crossed the line this time by not addressing his teacher properly or professionally.
Mr. Snyder responded in barely a whisper, clipping his words short and staring at Charlie with venom in dull grey eyes.
“You have no respect, Mr. Storm, for your elders or for your betters. You are but a snivelling child, crying how the world isn’t fair. I am your teacher and I want your assignment. If you do not have your assignment to give me, Mr. Storm, then I will add to the detention and punishment you have just earned by way of your insolence. Do you understand me? Actually, it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. You will leave this classroom—immediately. You will go to my office and to the punishment desk there within. I assume you remember where that is? Go. Now.”
With that, the overweight and balding teacher waved his hand at Charlie and turned back to his attendance sheet, resuming his mundane recital of those supposed to be present. Charlie stood in stunned silence for several moments, trying to process the events that had just transpired. He hadn’t even made it past the first bell before being hit with the cruel discipline at Black Rock High—just another cause for him to become more isolated from anything resembling a normal adolescence.
He stood abruptly, scraping the legs of his chair against concrete floors, and stomped out of the room, knocking over a stack of loose-leaf paper with this backpack as he went. The paper fell to the ground and slipped across the classroom, swishing as it went. Mr. Snyder ignored it and kept his face steady as a stone, eyes forward and attention focused. Charlie could never win the war with him.
The hallways of the school were empty as he made his way toward the north corridor, where the teacher’s offices resided. Here, lockers didn’t crash and bang close, murmuring of cliques didn’t assault his ears, and shrill voices of hallway monitors didn’t drown out his thoughts. Instead, an eerie silence followed him and his lonely footsteps.
The light seemed to dim as he moved further and further away from his homeroom, and the halls seemed to close around him. It made him claustrophobic, so he ran to one of the large windows lining the hallway. He unlatched it and pushed it up, taking a large breath of chilly air as it forced its way through the opening. Charlie closed his eyes for a second and let the rays of the sun pour down on his face, embracing a moment of serenity he could not find in this place anywhere else. How he wished to be free of Black Rock.
Charlie opened his eyes, then suddenly yelped, startled by a shadow splaying across the courtyard in front of him. The shadow was large, about ten feet from side to side, and had sharp edges and prongs poking out from weird angles.
The shadow moved, extending itself vertically in a ruffle of lines. Charlie stuck his head out the window and peered left towards the sun, trying to spot the figure responsible for the darkness, but all he could see was a bird sitting on an eave of the school.
No, not a bird—it was a falcon. The same falcon that had chased his bus and sat atop the flagpole.
It sat there unmoving and stared at him. Charlie pulled his head back inside and looked up and down the hallways. He saw no one. All was still. An eerie sensation caused his skin to prickle. The shadow seemed to grow larger on the schools’ lawn.
Charlie turned away from the window and shook his head, eager to forget the experience. He resumed his march towards Snyder’s office. At the end of the corridor, something flicked past his vision and moved quickly out of sight. Charlie was scared now, turning his head left and right as he hurried his steps. The eerie silence of before magnified, and his perceptions narrowed. It was as if there were no living creature around for miles and miles, and he was left alone in a world abandoned.
Am I going crazy, Charlie wondered? He had just been in a classroom full of disgusting teenagers, smelling awful and picking at themselves, learning to live with their changing bodies and hormones. He was no more alone than any of them. But he couldn’t explain his feeling that something was terribly wrong.
True to his nature, though, Charlie ventured forward, testing his limits. He didn’t care that he couldn’t hear anyone. He didn’t care that everything seemed darker and smaller, or that something big had just rushed past the end of the corridor. He didn’t care that a falcon was following him. He didn’t care that Snyder would not be happy to discover he was not waiting for him in his office, ready for another serving of discipline. Though he was afraid, Charlie was excited. Something at last was happening to him that merited his attention.
Charlie pulled from his backpack a flashlight, flicked it on, and crept forward, making sure to stick close to the lockers against the walls. A few times as he progressed, his bag snagged onto a lock or a piece of metal sticking out, causing him to curse under his breath. Every sound now echoed and crashed in his ears.
The end of the corridor approached now, and Charlie could now make out the sound of rustling of fabric coming from behind the corner. He crouched low with his back to the wall, his backpack pressing into him so that he wasn’t exactly flush. He flicked off his flashlight and sat in what was now utter darkness. All the lights in the school had extinguished themselves, as if they had winked out of existence. As slowly and quietly as he could, Charlie peeked his head around the corner. He wasn’t prepared.
Large gloved hands swooped down and grabbed him by the collar and yanked him standing, then quickly wrapped a piece of cloth around his mouth. Charlie bit his lip, and a metallic tasting trickle of blood ran down the inside of his cheek. He was slammed back against the wall and held there in place. Charlie couldn’t see what was restraining him, but his attacker now stood several paces from him and loomed large in the dark.
The attacker made a swift movement and Charlie flinched, expecting to be hit; instead, he heard the striking of a match. A blue flame erupted in front of him, lighting his surroundings in an eerie haze.
His attacker did not look right. He, if it could be called that, stood seven feet tall at least, and was draped in a silver cloak. The hands that cradled the blue flame were wrapped in a black fabric of some kind, seamless and strong. The attacker’s face reflected the flame sharply, for his facial structure was very boney, and the skin sat taught over them. A square jaw protruded from under pursed lips, and the man appeared to have no hair on his face whatsoever.
None of these features were as weird, though, as the eyes. Charlie could only describe them as milky white and swirling, constantly in motion. The attacker peered at Charlie, unblinking, taking in the boy with an almost insatiable curiosity.
Charlie could not tell if the man meant him harm—or, at least any more that he had already caused—or if he simply wanted to ask him a question. The moment lingered for what seemed like an age. Charlie realized he was the only one breathing. His attacker, the man with the milky white eyes and silver cloak, just stood in place as if a statue. Charlie struggled to free himself from the wall, but he simply could not move. Finally, the man spoke.
“You are the first.” That was all he said. Charlie blinked, dumbstruck, and just looked back at the man. It made no sense. Charlie tried to speak and found this time he was able.
“What do you mean I’m the first? Who the hell are you? Why did you attack me? Why can’t I move? Why is it so quiet? Where is everyone? How did it get so dark? What the hell?” The questions escaped Charlie’s lips in a matter of seconds, running together to form one long sound. He doubted this bizarre-looking man would answer his questions, if he had managed to understand them.
“Do you answer the call, Invoker?”
Ok, I need to get out of here, thought Charlie. Drug addicts did not frequent Black Rock very often, as there was no real reason to supply such a boring city. Everyone who lived here descended from mining families or academics, and everyone here knew each other. No one dealt drugs and no one used. So why was there a tweaked-out freak now in Charlie’s school, and why was he calling Charlie the first and Invoker?
“Are you going to hurt me?” Charlie asked in a very matter-of-fact manner. He tried to not make any emotional pleas or appeal to any sense of reason. Only someone clearly out of his or her mind would dress up in a silver robe, wax their body clean of any hair, and do something funky to their eyes. The man’s response to Charlie was to simply ask his question once more,
“Do you answer the call, Invoker?” This time he asked more forcefully. Charlie thought he detected a pang of desperation in the words. So weird.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, guy. Just let me go.” The silver-robed, milky-eyed attacker closed his eyes and smiled. He stood for a moment, not breathing, not moving, and just smiling in place with his eyes closed. The scene reminded Charlie of standing in front of a great marble-fountain statue at night.
Suddenly, without hesitation, the man jolted his eyes open and punched Charlie in the face. Blood spurted from his nose.
“Your blood has now been spilled, Invoker. The call has been answered.” Whatever force was restraining Charlie vanished, and he collapsed to the floor and cupped his nose. It hurt more than he remembered, having been the recipient of blows to the face before, and the blood ran sticky through his fingers. But as painful as it was, he didn’t think it was broken. He knew that pain too well.
He took a few minutes plugging his nose with tissue from his backpack, and slowly got to his knees. The light had restored itself in the hallways of his school, and the corridors were now packed with students staring at him and with looks of confusion and bewilderment. Some pointed and laughed. Most had mouths agape and dared not speak a word. Mr. Snyder stood at the forefront of the crowd of onlookers, arms crossed and great belly drooping over his belt, a smirk of satisfaction on his ugly face.
“Fighting invisible people, Mr. Storm? Accidentally hit yourself in the face? I hope that doesn’t hurt too much, and I hope your nose stops bleeding. Wouldn’t want you messing up my furniture, would I. Get a move on, boy. Now.”
Charlie scowled and got to his feet. He didn’t know what had just happened to him, but it seemed as if it had all been in his mind. Snyder had implied he had been fighting with invisible people. Charlie didn’t think he could live that down.
He dragged himself to Snyder’s office and plopped down into the hard, wooden chair he frequented so often. Waiting for Snyder to return and no doubt make his life more miserable than it already was at that moment, Charlie couldn’t help but notice the falcon sitting on Snyder’s windowsill, unmoving, eyes fixed.