* Greengale, USA *
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Tabatha said in exasperation.
“I kind of agree with Tabatha,” Ace chimed. “I’m not getting this one at all.”
The two were on a couch in the family room of the Eastman manor. Tabatha was stretched out, her head on Ace’s lap as the two stared at the television that was perched above the dormant fireplace across from them.
“Oh come on guys, this is really good,” came the equally exasperated response from the adjacent recliner. There, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired boy in blue, plaid-striped pajama pants was gesturing animatedly as he talked.
His name was Ben Wilson, and he was trying, unsuccessfully, to get them invested in the anime series that was currently playing on the family room television. Though none of the other A&A members shared Ben’s passion for comics, manga, and anime, his friends still indulged him when he was excited about a new show or book.
Ace had known Ben for years, long before A&A, so he was used to Ben’s zeal when it came to the things he enjoyed. “Okay, so this guy was sent to another world to save it from a demon lord, but all he has for a weapon is his smartphone?” he said, trying to summarize the show.
“No—well kind of—but that’s not exactly how it happened,” Ben said, still clearly annoyed that his friend didn’t understand. He pressed pause on the remote before continuing. “He died on Earth, but these supernatural caretakers decided to reincarnate him on their world if he agreed to be their champion. In exchange he got to ask for one item to take with him to the other world, so he picked his smartphone.”
“Oh…okay?” Ace shook his head. “No, that still doesn’t make sense. What’s he going to do with a smartphone?”
“Well, it’s magical now because they gave it powers,” Ben explained, “so he can do all sorts of things like—”
“I’m still stuck on how he died,” Tabatha interrupted. “He was just walking across a street, and he gets killed by a truck? That seems suspicious. I think those so-called caretakers did it. They’re playing god and trying to get him to do their dirty work.”
“No, they saved him,” Ben insisted. “Instead of dying, he gets to be reincarnated. That’s just how these things work. The main character always gets hit by a truck, or struck by lightning, or some other random thing, and that’s how they’re sent to the other world.”
“If they really wanted to save him, they’d have stopped that truck,” Tabatha countered.
Ace laughed. “I don’t know how you can watch this stuff. It just seems a little corny.”
Ben’s blue eyes lit up with excitement. “Who doesn’t want to go to another world of fantasy and magic? Daniel, Melvin, back me up,” he added, indicating the two boys sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace.
Daniel had been ignoring the conversation, though he’d heard the exchange. His focus was on the chess board in front of him. His opponent, Melvin Conners, was one of the youngest and newest members of A&A. Like Amber, he was fifteen and had only been in the group for half a year. His current role was helping Daniel with the tutoring program since it had expanded greatly in the past year. Because of this, the two had become good friends and discovered a mutual enjoyment of games that involved mental strategy. Daniel was determined not to let the younger boy beat him, so he ignored Ben’s question as he continued to calculate his next move.
Melvin, however, looked up when he heard his name. “I don’t know. If it means having to fight a demon lord, I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
Ben waved away his concern. “That’s what the cool magic powers are for.”
Daniel finally moved his queen across the board to take one of Melvin’s knights. “You know, if there was life on other planets, it’s not like they’d have magic,” he said, adding his opinion now that his move was done. “The closest thing would be if some advanced alien civilization unlocked mental powers that we haven’t discovered, like telekinesis or telepathy, stuff like that.”
“Yes, because that’s more realistic,” Tabatha said sarcastically.
“You guys have no imagination,” Ben said. “It’d be totally cool to go to another world; I just don’t want to be hit by a truck to do it. I like the ones where they get summoned by some all-powerful magic.”
“You’ve put way too much thought into this,” Ace said.
Ben was about to counter when Jandor came into the room. “Ace, the lights on the basketball court just shut off for no reason.”
“Oh, I think they might be on a timer,” he looked to Ben. “You helped Dad setup the system; do you know how to get them back on?”
Ben hopped up from the recliner. “Yeah, let me take a look.”
Anime and comics weren’t Ben’s only passion. He was actually very talented when it came to working with electronics, mechanics, and computers, and it was those skills that he used as a member of A&A. Though he’d always had a knack for all things technical, he gained a passion for engineering in high school and now that he had graduated, he was going to college to study computer engineering.
As the groups resident technician, Ben was always called upon to assist with anything having to do with computers or technology, and he was very familiar with the Eastman’s home automation system as he’d helped Calvin put it together.
Ben pressed play on the remote, “Just keep watching; I promise you’ll really get into it,” and then he left with Jandor.
“Checkmate,” Melvin declared a few seconds later.
“What!” Daniel examined the board from all sides but realized his opponent was correct. “Okay, we’re having a rematch; I couldn’t focus with Ben talking.”
He looked up from the game and finally seemed to notice Ace and Tabatha, who’d arrived long after they started playing. The couple looked rather cozy on the couch with Tabatha’s head in her boyfriend’s lap.
“Um, maybe we should head back down to the rec room,” Daniel said. “Henry will be back soon anyway.”
Melvin shrugged indifferently but stood with Daniel and they headed out of the room. “So, are these parties always like this?” he asked as they walked down the hall.
“Well, this is only my second year,” Daniel reminded him, “but yeah, for the most part. At least now I have someone I can really talk to. How are you liking A&A so far?”
Melvin shrugged again. He had a pensive look in his hazel eyes. “I don’t know. I feel like everyone’s so different from me. Plus, I don’t think I really contribute much.”
“Well having someone help with the tutoring has been great. I know it’s not flashy like running the tournaments, but it earns the group a lot of money.”
Melvin remained in contemplative silence until they reached the stairs that led down to the rec room. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but the reason why Jandor asked me to join A&A was because he saw me help a freshman kid who was getting bullied by Michael Keller. I just jumped in without thinking,” he admitted. “That jerk beat me up so many times when I was a freshman; I just couldn’t watch him do it to someone else.”
The lanky, pale-skinned boy was slightly shorter than Daniel and didn’t possess the skill or prowess to hold up in a physical fight. He’d been picked on quite a bit before joining A&A, so he was no stranger to bullying.
“That was brave of you,” Daniel said, “especially since he’s twice your size.”
“Yeah, well I had no idea what I was going to do. If Jandor hadn’t shown up when he did, Michael probably would’ve killed me,” Melvin admitted. “But now, Jandor thinks I’m some tough fighter. He probably expects me to be into the same stuff as the others and want me to help with the obstacle courses, or sports clubs, or something like that. I don’t want to let him down, but I have no idea how to do any of that.”
Daniel shrugged. “I think you’re worrying too much. Even if that’s what Jandor thinks, so what? Just tell him you don’t want to do that stuff. If he kicks you out for that, then he’s dumb. Jandor may be in charge of A&A, but he doesn’t know everything. It was Mr. E. that came up with the tutoring program. I’m sure Jandor didn’t want to do it at first, but it was a great idea. Parents are more willing to let their kids participate in the other activities if they know they’re also getting their homework done.”
Melvin was shocked at Daniel’s bluntness. “Do you not like Jandor?”
Daniel shook his head. “It’s not that. I just think sometimes the others go overboard with how much they praise him. He’s not any more special than you or me. He’s just…taller.” He smirked.
Melvin chuckled at this. “I’m pretty sure it’s more than that.”
The duo headed down the stairs to the Eastman manor’s rec room.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Jandor held a flashlight aloft as Ben was manipulating something in the small electrical box next to the Eastman’s outdoor basketball court.
“Yeah, just give me a minute,” Ben said distractedly. “I’m overriding the timers.”
Though it was long past sunset, two figures were still standing on the court, hoping to continue their game. One was Bernie Steward, Greengale High School’s most talented basketball player. The other was Derrick Banks, Bernie’s best friend and biggest rival when it came to athletic prowess. Both of them helped run the intermural sports clubs that were a part of A&A.
After a moment Ben slammed the hatch shut and flipped a switch. “Let there be light,” he said with a laugh as the lights flickered back to life.
“Nice!” Bernie threw the basketball to Derrick and the two resumed playing as if the game had never stopped.
Jandor flicked off the flashlight and helped Ben back to his feet. “Are you going to stay and watch?”
“Just for a minute, then I’m going to find Alyson. Wayne brought a game that I think she’d like, and I convinced her to play against me.”
The two turned back to the court to observe the action. Bernie and Derrick were entertaining to watch as they both hurled playful trash-talk at one another.
Bernie’s pale skin was already glistening with sweat, and his curly-brown hair seemed to bounce as he dribbled the ball. “Is that all you’ve got? Come on D-man, I know you can do better than that.” Despite his confident tone, there was a slight hesitance in his movements as he tried to figure out his next play. He faked left but it didn’t trick Derrick who quickly cut him off again.
“I’m already doin’ better, fool,” Derrick retorted. “Five-two says I’m whoopin’ you.”
“I just like to let you get your shots in early. Makes it more fun when I come back and crush you.” Bernie’s blue eyes flashed with mischief as he stepped back and took a jump shot which he landed easily; the three-pointer now tying the two. They both raced for the ball again.
Though they were both competitive, the two best friends were different in many ways. Bernie was extremely focused on his athletic career. His hope was that he could use it to earn a scholarship to college, and the high school coach said that he would even try to entice some scouts to come see him during his senior year.
Derrick was just the opposite. His powerful physique and extremely dark features made him look menacing to those who didn’t know how kind and laid back he actually was. Though he was as athletic as Bernie, he had no desire to play on any of the high school sports teams and had no idea what he wanted to do after school, despite only having a year left.
Derrick liked to live in the moment and go with the flow. This was why he looked up to Jandor, as their leader tended to be fairly impulsive. Bernie, on the other hand, was more meticulous and liked to have a plan for his life and goals to achieve, which was why he admired Becky, the group’s resident planner. In truth, Bernie had a slight crush on her, but he knew she only had eyes for Jandor.
He thought about this as he dribbled the ball, skillfully keeping it out of Derrick’s grasp as he backed away from his opponent. When Bernie’s gaze fell on Jandor, he wondered, not for the first time, how it was that nearly everyone in A&A knew how Becky felt about Jandor, but Jandor himself seemed oblivious. In that momentary lapse of concentration, Derrick stole the ball and drove toward the hoop.
“Is that all Greengale’s star athlete has to offer?” Derrick taunted before dunking the ball expertly.
Bernie mentally berated himself for losing focus. “Just letting you show off a bit. Don’t want to embarrass you too much in front of the others,” he called as he ran after the loose ball.
Even though Bernie was highly skilled and practiced relentlessly, he only had a slight edge in the game. Derrick was naturally talented and always made Bernie work hard to beat him. Admittedly, it was a bit frustrating for Bernie that Derrick didn’t go through the same rigorous training he did yet was still able to match Bernie with raw talent alone, but he didn’t begrudge his friend’s natural abilities. If anything, it just pushed him to work even harder.
So far, they’d played four games, not including the two-on-two games that Jandor and Alyson joined them in earlier, and still neither of them were showing any fatigue. Each of them had earned two victories in their one-on-one battles so this fifth round would determine the winner. They were both going all out.
The basketball battle was heating up when Henry arrived on the scene, completely unnoticed by anyone. Jandor was engrossed in the game and also towered over the shorter boy, so it wasn’t until Henry spoke that Jandor noticed he was there.
“Jandor, we need your help.” He was out of breath, having run all the way from his house.
Jandor looked down at the black-haired teen as if he’d appeared out of nowhere. “Hey Henry, what’s up?”
“Something…it’s hard to explain. I… it’s at my house. You just have to sort of… see it to believe it. Everyone has to go right now. It’s really important.”
Jandor seemed confused. “Uh, is it something I can check out tomorrow? It’s getting late. Besides, I don’t think I can convince everyone to come see some cool thing at your house.” He chuckled as his gaze returned to the game.
“It’s not something cool it’s something… bad? I don’t know how to…” Henry seemed almost frustrated at his own inability to articulate. “Wayne can explain it better.”
“Where is Wayne?” Jandor asked, looking around as if he might see him.
“He’s at Amber’s old house, and he told me to come get you guys. He said to tell you it’s an emergency.”
Ben, who until that moment had only been half paying attention, turned immediately. “What?”
“Did he say that exact word: ‘emergency’?” Jandor asked, his expression more serious now.
Henry noticed the shift in his tone. “Yeah, he said to tell you that.”
“Derrick!” Jandor called sharply. “Come on, we have to go. Bernie you too.”
“This show is so dumb.” Tabatha chuckled. She still had her head on Ace’s lap. “He’s been in this new world only a week and already has two fiancés. No wonder Ben likes this stuff.”
Ace was stroking her hair absentmindedly. “You can change it if you want,” he told her. “I don’t really care.”
Tabatha rolled onto her back to look up at him, grinning. “Nah, it’s the right kind of dumb, something completely mind-numbing that I don’t have to think about.”
Ace tweaked her nose and she giggled. This was the most relaxed he’d seen her in quite some time. “It’s nice to see you smiling.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked as she swatted his hand away from her nose. “You act like I never smile.”
“You’ve been a bit sulky lately,” Ace said before adding quickly, “I’m just worried about you; that’s all.”
Tabatha’s smile faded and she rolled to her side again, but not to watch the movie. “I think visiting the garden yesterday just made everything real to me for the first time,” she said. “That was my home and now it’s gone, my parents are gone, my whole life is gone.”
“Not your whole life,” Ace countered, stroking her hair.
Tabatha attempted to shrug but only one shoulder moved because of how she was positioned. “Maybe it’s not a bad thing. Once I turn eighteen and graduate next year, I can leave Greengale and move somewhere far away. I could have a whole new life. No one would know, no one would care, no one would come looking for me.”
“Your aunt and uncle would care. Your friends would care,” Ace said, patting her side now.
“We’re already splitting up and going our separate ways. I bet you in three or four years none of us will even be in contact with each other. No one’s going to care if I just drop off the face of the Earth.”
“I’ll care,” Ace said slapping her leg playfully. “I’ll always come looking for you. I don’t care if you move halfway across the country or across the world. You could move to another planet, and I’ll still find you.”
Tabatha laughed and swatted at his hand again. “Oh really?”
He interlaced his fingers with hers. “Yes, my dad has a lot of money and I’ll gladly waste it tracking you down.”
“I see…” she said quietly.
Tabatha knew Ace cared about her, but she wondered how long it would really last. He’d be in college soon, and she still had a year left in high school. What would happen when he went away and met another girl he found interesting?
She rolled on her back again, intent on expressing this, but when she saw the look in his hazel eyes, Tabatha could tell how serious he was. She leaned up and gave him a brief but meaningful kiss. When their lips parted, she smirked. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
Ben walked in just as their kiss ended. He gave an exaggerated grimace. “Geeze, do you two have to make out all the time?”
Ace chuckled, clearly not embarrassed. “Hey Ben; did you change clothes?”
Ben had switched out of his pajamas and into jeans and a t-shirt. “Yeah, something’s up at Amber’s old house. Wayne wants us all to come.”
Ace raised an eyebrow. “What? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted with a shrug, “but Wayne said it was an emergency. Think about it: when’s the last time he said that?” he asked pointedly.
Ace gave a nod of comprehension. Like the others who were close to Wayne, they knew he’d only used the word emergency twice before, and both were life threatening situations.
“Right, let’s go,” Ace said, nudging Tabatha to move off his lap.
A half-hour later, all the A&A teens were gathered in the empty kitchen at the back of Amber’s old home, except for Amber herself who was still spying on the Summerson house. Henry decided it was best to bring everyone and let Wayne explain what happened, thinking it would be better coming from him.
As Wayne relayed to his friends what they’d witnessed, it was clear that there were mixed emotions: some were listening with rapt attention, others looked bored, others confused, and a few clearly skeptical. But it was Jandor who Wayne was focused on as he told the tale, sparing no details, all the way to the disappearance of the group in the basement. Jandor had a pensive look on his face. He knew Wayne wouldn’t make something up or call them out there without a good reason, so even though the story sounded far-fetched, he listened with an open mind.
It was Becky who spoke first though. “Wayne, that…” It was clear she didn’t want to offend her friend, but disbelief was written all over her face. “You had to have just misheard them.”
“All three of us heard and saw the exact same thing,” Wayne said.
Henry nodded in agreement.
Ace also looked unconvinced. “Our parents disappearing in Henry’s basement; are you sure they didn’t go through some secret doorway you didn’t see?”
“You’d believe a secret doorway in Henry’s basement?” Terri scoffed. “That’s just as dumb. Besides, what would they be hiding?”
“Uh, let’s think,” Tabatha said snidely. “How about the real reason our parents died last year!”
“Not this again.” Becky turned on her heels to face Tabatha. “Our parents died in a gas explosion. It was a freak accident, nothing else.”
“I’m not sure about that anymore.” Jandor was facing the window, staring at the Simmons house. “I’m beginning to think there’s something they haven’t been telling us about the accident.”
Terri’s demeanor softened as she put a hand on his arm. “What makes you say that?”
“Henrietta, she’s awful at keeping secrets; no poker face,” Jandor said flatly, referring to his stepmother. “I can see it in her eyes every time the accident’s mentioned.”
“Maggie and Adam too,” Tabatha said, clearly pleased to finally have an advocate. “Every time they look at me, it’s like something’s off.”
“Actually, I think they mentioned your father, Tabatha.” Wayne added, “and they definitely mentioned the accident.”
Becky still seemed unconvinced. “So, you really think they’re hiding some huge secret about our parents’ death?”
Wayne shrugged. “It could be anything, but I think the accident is connected for sure.”
“But what does that have to do with the rest of our parents?” Alyson asked. “You said my mom was there and Ace’s dad. I know some of our parents are friends but none of them were in Tabatha’s house when it went down. So, is it all our parents, the ones connected with A&A?”
“Yes, it’s all of them.” Amber seemed to appear in their midst. No one heard her enter the house and it caused many of them to jump with fright at her voice. “It’s all of the parents and just the A&A parents,” she reiterated.
“What did you find out when you went to Ash’s house?” Wayne asked.
“My house?” Ashley repeated, confused.
“The rest of our folks were there. All of them except your mom, Wayne, she’d already left, but they talked about her like she’s one of the people in charge of whatever this is.”
“What did they say?” Jandor asked.
“I couldn’t hear everything, but they talked about what they need to tell us and how they’re going to do it after the trip. There was something about the accident last year and how it changed everything. They also mentioned your grandmother’s death last month,” she said, turning to Ashley, “and what it meant for your calling.”
“My calling?” Ashley seemed even more confused.
“So, you’re saying all of our parents are in on it?” Stephanie asked. “Then it’s about A&A, right? That’s the only thing they all have in common.”
“Well, that would make a lot more sense than some weird cover-up about the accident,” Ace said. “I’m betting our folks meet to talk about A&A. It’s no secret my dad wants to turn it into a real business and they’re probably trying to figure out how to do it. I hear my dad talking about it when he thinks I’m not around. He’s always talking to mom about what we’re getting into and being worried about the risk. So that’s it then; they’ve just been having meetings behind our backs. That’s what this is all about.”
Everyone fell silent at this. Ace’s reasoning made sense. The tension in the room seemed to break as some of the others began to accept this explanation.
“One thing that’s kind of bugging me though,” Daniel said suddenly. “Why the basement?”
“What do you mean?” Ace asked as he leaned against a counter.
“It’s weird that they went down to the basement, especially since everyone that died in the accident last year was in the basement too,” Daniel said. “It’s just a weird coincidence.”
“Well, we meet in a basement. It’s not that odd,” Becky countered.
“True,” Jandor agreed. “Tabatha was there anything special in your basement?”
“I have no idea,” Tabatha shrugged. “I was never allowed down there. Dad said it was dangerous because it was unfinished. He always kept it locked.”
Henry gasped slightly, which didn’t go unnoticed by Jandor. “What?”
“Well, about three weeks after the accident, my father did the same thing with our basement: locked it up and wouldn’t let anyone go down there,” Henry revealed. “He said he was working on finishing it.”
“And that’s where you said they disappeared.” Jandor walked back to the window that faced Henry’s house.
There was more silence before Terri stepped up to him again. “What are you thinking?”
“All we’ve got are pieces,” Jandor said. “We need answers, and I don’t know about you guys but I’m not willing to wait until after the trip to get them.” The others nodded or murmured agreement. “Ace, you’re right: this could be about A&A, but even if it is, I still want to know. Honestly though, I think it’s bigger. Whatever you guys saw, I want to know what it was. I’m not going to dismiss it just because it seems impossible.”
“So, what do you think we should do?” Becky stepped up to Jandor’s other side. “Go to Ashley’s house and confront them?”
“No, they could just lie, and we’d have no way of knowing. Whatever it is, they’ve been keeping it a secret for a long time. I want more information before we confront them. I think we should all go to Henry’s basement and really look around,” he decided.
“But we have no idea when or if they’ll come out of that basement,” Amber said.
“No, we’re good. They’re coming out now.” Becky pointed to the window. They could see the shadows of several people emerging from the basement and heading back into the main house.
“So now what?” Henry asked.
“We just need to get them out of the house and make sure they won’t come back for a while,” Becky said. “I have an idea.”