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Authors: John Hulme

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BOOK: The Split Second
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“You bet,” Jennifer answered, whipping past the boy on her three-speed Schwinn. “I’m pickin’ up supplies right now.”

Vikram Pemundi was also relatively new to the neighborhood, and had endured a similar fate upon his entrance to Gary Middle School, which is probably why he and Jennifer had become such fast friends. “Don’t forget the carpenter’s glue!”

“I won’t!” Jennifer yelled over her shoulder
,
then kicked her bike into a higher gear. “And tell everyone else to meet me at the woods!”

Today was gonna be a really good day.

Raceway Gas Station, Highland Park, New Jersey

Though Becker made it out of the house just before his mother had a conniption, the Drane family wagon had still not left the borough of Highland Park. While the gas tank was being filled, Benjamin had been sent inside to take a pee (so they wouldn’t have to stop at the Grover Cleveland rest area like last year), and their dad was completing his checklist of water, Sun Chips, and a book called
Car Games for the Entire Family,
which Becker dreaded like the plague.

“It’s noon and I’m
still
not on vacation,” complained his mom, frustration coming out of her in waves.

As that awful feeling of not being able to get out of Dodge permeated the car, Benjamin hid inside a sketch pad, while Becker took out his Blinker and jacked in his headphones and Transport Goggles™—necessary plug-ins for Mission Simulator mode.
9

“Is it just me,” Professor Drane was starting to come apart at the seams, “or is that guy moving in slow motion?”

Becker looked up from his Blinker to see the turbaned gas-station attendant not pulling the nozzle out of their already-full tank. He seemed to be lost in thought, or caught in a daydream, but when Becker looked closer, his hand was slowly moving. Very slowly.

“Rafik!” Becker rolled down the window and yelled at the attendant, who he knew from late-night Slim Jim and Chip-which runs to the twenty-four-hour Racemart. “Rise and shine!”

Rafik slowly turned to reply to Becker. Very slowly. So slowly that it reminded him of “super slo-mo” on the DVD player at 12 Grant Avenue.

“Dude, my mom is gonna blow a gasket if you don’t—”

Suddenly, Rafik seemed to kick back to regular speed, topping off the gas tank, hanging it up on its holder, and rescrewing the cap back onto the car.

“$52.93, please. Thank you, sir.”

“$52.93!” As Professor Drane handed Rafik his credit card, his face began to turn a darker shade of red. “I knew we should’ve gotten the hybrid!”

“I thought you said hybrids were ugly and riddled with technical problems.” His mom was
still
not on vacation.

“It was the guy at the Saturn dealer who said that!”

As his parents exchanged looks that only people who’ve been married fifteen years can understand, Benjamin tunneled deeper into his drawing of “Shanty Town,” the name of the broken-down beach house that had been in the Drane family for generations. Meanwhile, his older brother reaffixed his headphones and tried to shake off the weird little moment with Rafik.

In all truth, Becker should have seen it coming. Yes, he remembered Casey Lake’s admonition to tune his 7
th
Sense to Time, and no, he didn’t forget that the Powers That Be had refused to grant Triton’s demands in the week that ensued— but his ability to put the pieces together properly was blocked by the stress level in the car.

So he just put on his headphones, cued up “Mission: Eye of the Storm,” and forgot the whole thing.

Alton Forest, Caledon, Ontario

After dropping off the eggs and the OJ at home, Jennifer pedaled out to the Alton Forest Conservation Area and parked her bike by the edge of the hiking trail. She slipped onto the red path, which led to the yellow path, which led to the unmarked path, which Jennifer had marked with a blue splotch of paint. These woods had been a refuge for her during those early days in Caledon, and she would never forget the afternoons where the trickling brook and the wind-blown leaves had been her only companions. Today, however, she was expecting company.

“Marco!” yelled Jennifer into the woods.

No response except the wind and the chattering of squirrels in the trees.

“Marco!” she yelled again, and waited for the other half of the password, but it never came.

Seeing that she was the first one there, Jennifer snuck past the waterfall, climbed up the shale staircase, and slipped beyond the pricker forest to find a fallen pine tree, which now lay at a forty-five-degree angle against a towering elm. Using the pine as a slanted roof, she had built a kind of clubhouse for herself with plywood and sticks, and spent most of her time here—even when she had been the only member of the club.

Since the night she’d had that Dream, however, not only had The World begun to look different, but she’d also managed to make a few friends. Part of that was because the bullies had backed off, seeing that they weren’t going to be able to break her—while at the same time, she’d been approached by a handful of the other outcasts from the seventh grade. They were certainly a motley crew, but one by one, she had brought them out here to form the underground insurgency whose name was chipped onto the massive elm:

Les Resistance

Most of their HQ had been built in the cool, cavelike environment beneath the dangling pine needles—but now that summer had arrived, Jennifer had been struck by the idea to build a
Swiss Family Robinson
–style addition to the clubhouse, complete with observatory deck, drink holders, and telescope that would allow them to scope out the surrounding terrain.

All they’d constructed so far was a circular platform about ten feet off the ground, and she quickly pulled herself up the rope ladder. Climbing had always come easily to Jennifer, which was why she was lead architect on this project, and in charge of constructing the second floor. She was just about to hammer some more nails into the frame when she heard an unusual sound . . .

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

The noise was coming from the other side of the elm tree, every three seconds or so. Jennifer carefully swiveled around on the platform, because the support beams were still loose—but when she finally made her way over, she couldn’t believe what she saw.

It was a woodpecker, with red and black feathers, only a few feet over her head. But unlike every other woodpecker she’d ever seen, this one was pecking the wood so slowly it looked like a wind-up toy whose batteries were dying.

“Marco!” A familiar voice with an Indian accent called out in the distance, but Jennifer was too amazed by what she was looking at to answer. The bird was still pecking, but appeared to be slowing down even further.

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

She tentatively reached up to touch it, to see if it was even real, but right before her hand stroked the feathers, the “battery” suddenly kicked into overdrive. The woodpecker not only went back to regular speed but shot far past it, slamming against the tree like a miniature jackhammer. Jennifer jumped back in shock and nearly fell off the platform, but not before watching
Picus canadensis
zip into the sky and disappear at an astonishing rate.

“Marco!” That same voice was louder the second time—the voice of her friend Vikram Pemundi. Jennifer looked out over the forest to see Vik and the other three members of Les Resistance emerging from the pricker patch, each with their own bag of construction materials.

Part of her wanted to shout for them to look to the sky or tell them all about the crazy woodpecker, but to be honest, the whole incident had her a little spooked. So Jennifer decided to keep it to herself.

“Polo!”

Grover Cleveland Rest Area, New Jersey Turnpike, New Jersey

Despite having relieved himself at the Raceway in Highland Park, Benjamin had again complained upon passing Exit 11 that he needed to go. Professor Drane pulled off the turnpike only fifteen minutes after starting out and gruffly escorted Benjamin inside the men’s room to take care of his business. Becker now sat on the hood of the aging Volvo station wagon that his father refused to part with, watching The World go by.

“I’m only gonna be gone a week,” reassured Dr. Natalie Drane over her cell phone, pacing back and forth by the picnic area. “If you have an emergency, page Dr. Rosetti and he’ll be more than happy to help you.”

Becker’s mom was just turning off her cell when one of her clients had called in a panic over the fact that there would be no session this week. Natalie saw an average of twenty-five clients a week, but only a few were raving lunatics like the unnamed person on the phone.

“Yes, Dr. Rosetti is licensed to practice in New Jersey, and no, I cannot meet you in Connecticut for a mini-session.”

Becker shook his head and turned his attention back to the front doors of the rest area. Though his experiences in The Seems had taught him to appreciate The World and all the people who lived there, he was still in a foul mood, and couldn’t help but notice that everyone who exited the building was carrying either a huge bag from Roy Roger’s or putting the finishing touches on a heaping mound of Carvel ice cream.

“This is the beauty of The World?” whispered Becker to the ghost of Grover Cleveland, but his father answered back instead.

“Becks! Get the heck back in the car!”

“Huh?”

Becker turned over his shoulder to see that his whole family was looking at him through the windshield.

“I know you’re working on your tan, but we really need to start making some time . . .”

Becker hopped off the hood, completely befuddled. Just a second ago his mom was on the phone with “unnamed client” and Benjamin and his dad hadn’t even emerged from the bathroom. But there they were, his father at the wheel and Benjamin buckled in and knocking back a Nathan’s footlong.

“When did you guys get back in the car?” asked Becker.

“What are you talking about?” his mother responded.

The Dranes looked at each other as if this strange query only confirmed their worst fears: that their son was, in fact, becoming a troubled youth.

“Hey, Mom?” Benjamin stoked the fire with an evil grin on his face. “If Becker has to go away for a while, can I have his room?”

As he got back in the car, Fixer #37 was too consumed with what had just happened to care about the little monstrosity and his barbs. He knew he wasn’t crazy—or at least he was 99 percent sure he wasn’t—but he couldn’t shake the feeling that Time itself had just skipped forw— And that’s when it happened.

One by one, the hairs on the back of Becker’s neck began to slowly rise, like people standing up in line. That line then began to march down the curvature of his spine and straight into his stomach, where #37 knew from experience they would soon be causing a mild set of chills. This was the progression of the 7
th
Sense—that feeling that all Fixers use to determine if something has gone wrong in The Seems (and hence The World)—and the fact that Becker had now broken out into a cold sweat meant that it was probably something severe.

“Mom!” cried Benjamin. “Becker’s breaking into a cold sweat back here!”

“I am not!”

Natalie examined her older son closely, who was definitely shivering in mid-July.

“It must be the video game I was playing.” Becker tried to throw his mother off the scent. “In Japan, it gave kids epileptic fits.”

“Then why are you playing it?” His mom was more than a little bit horrified.

“You’re right. I’m gonna read a book instead.”

“Don’t read a book. That’ll only make you more carsick! Why don’t you just rest your eyes for a little while?”

“Good idea, Mom. Thanks.”

Satisfied that she had exercised the proper amount of parental control, Natalie Drane went back to her book on tape. Becker, on the other hand, only half closed his eyes, concentrating most of his attention on his Blinker, which was set on vibrate mode and clipped to the side of his belt.

In years past, Fixers worked on a rotation—so everyone knew when they were next in line to receive a job—but recently, that process had changed. After many complaints and long discussions, the Powers That Be decided that Fixers would now be called in via a matching system. In other words, when a request came in to Central Command, the Dispatcher would decide whose individual skills best corresponded to the needs of the Mission—which meant that every Fixer had to be ready every time his or her 7
th
Sense went off.

The youngest Fixer opened one eye, and seeing that everyone in the car had fallen back into their routines, covertly slid one of the headphone buds into his ear. Based on what he’d seen today (combined with the monthly Briefing), Becker had a pretty good idea which department was in the midst of a crisis big enough to be causing hives to break out all along his ankles and feet.

The only question now was who would get the call?

Gandan Monastery, Sühbaatar Province, Outer Mongolia

Precisely sixteen seconds earlier, the inimitable Li Po’s eyes opened upon the sacred temple that he called home. He’d been deep in the process of training a new Initiate—perhaps his greatest student yet—when hives of his own had broken out, and now he waited serenely for Central Command to make its decision.

“Suvahhh.”

As the chanting of the monks rose in celebration of the celestial and unseen, Fixer #1 on the rotation rubbed the bottoms of his sockless feet. Whatever was happening in The Seems during the infinite space of the present, he was surely the first to feel it.

And tonight, he knew exactly who the Powers That Be were going to call.

Staten Island, New York

“Ma! I told you not to wash the cat in the freakin’ sink!”

As his mother muttered something about “Smokey needs to look pretty,” Tony the Plumber shook his head and yanked the massive furball from the pipe. He was about to pull himself out from under the sink when a nasty set of chills shot down his left leg.

“Ahh. They’re never gonna call me anyway.”

Ever since the new matching system had been put in place, Tony had only been summoned on one Mission. He wasn’t happy about this, especially because his ability to practically talk to machines had once been considered priceless. But even though he was miffed at the lack of respect, Fixer #26 pulled out his Blinker anyway.

BOOK: The Split Second
12.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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