There’s an irony in the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,’ in which the truth is that’s exactly how we judge our books. We look over the front, drawn in by either the title or the image, and soon we find ourselves skimming the blurb on the back. Sometimes, there isn’t even that, and we’re further drawn in to skim the first page because of this mystery. Or, on the other hand, we discover nothing that catches our attention and quickly toss the work aside, never to touch it again.
Needless to say, that’s exactly how Nikko found it. An exceptional cover by any standard, with no explanation or even a title to give him a clue. Just a locked book, full of questions. He’d turned it over a few times, admiring the leather that bore a pattern of aged wood, covered in symbols all wrapped around a milky white gem set in the center. Moonstone, the owner of the yard sale explained, although he could offer no answers either, having never been able to open the book himself. Nikko turned it over again, studying the blank back and admiring the bell that hung from a single red string like a fancy book mark, silent no matter how much he shook it.
Yard sales were always an adventure, and fairly common around Nikko’s hometown. There was always one to be found at some hour of the day, and he made a point to wake up early just to find one on his way to school each day. Most of the time he found nothing interesting, but sometimes he’d get his hands on a good set of binders for school, or a lamp or something like that. Never anything as curious as this book, reasonably priced at only five bucks. Even though he couldn’t pry the pages apart no matter how hard he tried, the teen soon found himself slipping it in his bag, as well as a five-dollar bill into the mans sweaty palm.
The mystery of the book only hung in his head for about ten minutes, just long enough to turn the corner and step back, narrowly avoiding a Smartcar as it cut around the corner like it wanted to be a Mustang. Then his thoughts turned forward, to school projects and the upcoming fall dance. That was the last thing he wanted to think about, but it was also pretty important. While most guys had a girl in mind, pre-booked like a venue, Nikko was still running the singles lane. It wasn’t that he was bad looking or anything. A little on the pale side, true, and not exactly a body builder, but he had a nice lean look about him. Dark black hair hung over his right eye in a layered emo-bang, curling just past the nape of his neck and framing his features nicely. A few shorter pieces stuck up at the top, but in a pleasing manner, and a few blue, green, and blond streaks added a splash of punkish color to the whole thing. They also matched the turquoise color of his eyes, right down the the brownish-gold ring around the iris. Even the light freckles across the bridge of his nose and cheeks were considered somewhat attractive, enough to earn him a few girls asking him out.
The real problem was the fact that none of the girls in school actually interested him. At first it wasn’t a big deal, but as time wore on people, mostly his closer friends, started to notice. The thing was, for the life of him Nikko just couldn’t find himself pining for any kind of girl. Now guys on the other hand well.. There was Carji.
In a small, backwater town like Nikko’s, there was actually a surprising lack of homophobia, which should have been a great invitation for Nikko to feel comfortable liking a guy over a girl. Still, it wasn’t exactly something he’d ever spoken to someone about, knowing nobody else who’d come out of the proverberal closet, and his only family member having passed away a year ago. Even then, his mother and him had never exactly been close. She’d always been distant in his life, just barely emotionally alive enough to teach him the basics, without any real connection. It had only been after her suicide he’d found out the truth, that she’d suffered from severe depression. At least she’d had enough of her mind still together to bother setting up an insurance thing for Nikko, which had kept him financed for the past year, being legally of age to care for himself since his birthday, only a week before his mothers passing.
He should have felt upset, but he couldn’t dredge up much of anything to feel about it, except maybe some relief that he had a name for what it had all been. An answer of sorts. She’d been so little in his life, that her sudden loss hadn’t impacted him as much as it should have. He simply carried on, making his own sandwiches for school, taking the bus and all that. He’d even picked up a job at a local campground during the summer for extra funds, although it had ended a month ago and he’d yet to get another job. He hadn’t even gone to the funeral, which never actually occured since he was apparently the only one who would have gone at all. In the end she left as quietly as she’d lived, cremated as her will had requested, the ashes scattered into the ocean.
Thoughts of his mother didn’t linger in his mind long anyways. There was his last year of school to think about, and then what to do afterwards. The insurance didn’t cover college, and only two more years of rent and necessities. He’d thought about working to save up for something, maybe go on into the arts and do make-up for the movies. He enjoyed doing that much at least. Speaking of make-up, he still hadn’t decided on a costume for the upcoming dance. Being so close to halloween, it was a costumed event, and despite common belief that teenagers were ‘too cool’ to dress up, everyone always showed up in costume. Being older just meant you got to be something cooler, like a zombie or the headless horseman.
Maybe he’d dress up as a zombie, or something with a cool prosthetic mask. Assuming he even found a date. He could always go solo, but that would mean being the awkward third wheel, as all of his friends had a date. Even the ever so geeky Sean.
So busy was Nikko’s mind with these thoughts, he didn’t even realize he’d arrived at school. He also didn’t realize there was someone at the door until he ran right into him. It wasn’t a hard contact, but the shock was enough to stagger the other figure as well as drop Nikko on his backside. Grimacing, he risked a glance up, and felt all the color drain from his face.
At least four inches taller than Nikko, the guy had a soccer players build, not quite as lean as Nikko himself but still fairly lithe. He had a slight tan, a lip piercing, and hair the color of melted gold that fell in light spikes to his shoulders, with a streak of purplish-brown that framed his left eye. It was the eyes Nikko liked the best, a golden brown like honey and lashes a girl with kill for. Or ten girls, which was exactly how many he’d turned down for the dance if rumors were to be believed. Nikko sure believed them, because a guy like Carji was the reason ‘popular’ became a high school term. He was sure of it. As much as he was sure he had about two minutes before the strangely alone Carji became swarmed by his usual fanbase.
Carji blinked slowly, taking in Nikko’s appearance as if he’d never seen him before. Sudddenly Nikko wished he’d chosen something a little neater to wear, instead of his favorite gray hoody. The thing showed it’s favoritism in every tear and loose thread, as well as the missing zipper that left the whole thing open, showing off a simple faded black tee. At least his jeans weren’t scuffed, unlike his only pair of blue and white sneakers, the left one showing a crack where the sole was falling away.
Carji on the other hand looked as great as ever. His blue sweater hung in a way that made him look like he was shirtless underneath, enough to let the mind wander suggestively, and with bring yellow print on the front that read “LOL”. His black jeans had a yellow suspender and a blue one, the latter bearing repetitive print of the word “You” in black. His sneakers seemed to match the blue-black-yellow color code, with laces and sole of blue and a smiley face of the same color on the black tongue. Nikko heard a throat clear and quickly looked away, realizing he’d been staring too intently to notice the offered hand.
It took him a moment to register the fact that Carji was offering a hand up, and another moment to actually build up the courage to accept it. Courage that failed him when he tried to mutter a thankyou, instead emitting some sort of garbled sound that made his face flame up. Carji laughed warmly, offering a matching smile. “You’re welcome,” he answered as if he’d understood regardless. “You alright?” Nikko could only nod, studying the curves of yellow over Carji’s sneakers. The other teen stood there a moment, still holding Nikko’s hand before finally dropping it. Blinking quickly, Nikko’s head shot up just in time to vomit up a rushed “Sorry!” to the blondes retreating back. Carji paused and looked over his shoulder for a moment, the corners of his eyes crinkling with a smile. “I’m not,” he answered simply, carrying on his way.
Nikko stood there, dumb struck. He’d bumped into Carji. He’d held his hand. Carji wasn’t sorry for it. The last fact was enough to shove a stupid grin on the teens face as he shuffled inside, urged on by the first bell. He was still grinning as he slammed his locker shut, coming face to face with his trio of best buddies and nearly choking on his own heart. “You didn’t show up.” Quick to the point, that was Sean. Not even bothering to match Nikko’s gaze as he focused on the effort of cleaning his glasses. An inch under Nikko’s own height, the black haired Asian had a bluntness about him that sometimes rubbed against Nikko’s self-conciousness, but he was close friends with Yamu, and thus as an extension sort of friends with Nikko. At least he was someone who could always be counted on to say it as it was.
Yamu was a sort of irony. People joked they were switched at birth, because of the fact Yamu’s family was Asian and Sean’s was American, but their appearances said the opposite. With a wild shock of blond hair and bright blue eyes, Yamu fit the stereotype of a preppy cool boy by image. He definitly took care about his sense of style, and made a point of poking fun at Nikko’s drab sense of fashion, but it was always in a friendly sort of way. Even now, Nikko could see the way Yamu sized up his favorite hoody, flashing him a ‘you’ve got to be joking’ look.
“Give him a break, if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have had the tickets in the first place.” Like his own little savour, Elis piped up. The only girl in the group, she had a sense of fashion more on par with Nikko’s own, but enough to get Yamu’s approval. Pink hair fell all over the place down to her chin, and today seemed to be her red hoody and patched green and yellow gypsy pants day. Of course, she never failed to show up with a pair of headphones over her neck, a fact her teachers hated her for. She was also Nikko’s best friend of the three, and the only one he’d ever admitted the truth to about his choice in dates. As well as the fact he’d never been on one.
She flashed him her usual lazy smile, green eyes betraying a hint of concern for good reason. He’d promised he’d make that concert, even pitched in for tickets the other three couldn’t completely afford, and in the end he’d chickened out again. Even for Thousand Foot Krutch, he just couldn’t sum up the courage to deal with a packed evening crowd, his fear of it leaving him standing at the door for an hour before he’d given up. He could only shrug now, focusing on gathering his books under a weight of guilt while the others chatted up a storm about how the concert had gone, how one guy had tried to stage dive and broke his wrist, and how Yamu managed to get the last autographed t-shirt. It wasn’t a conversation that lasted long, as the second bell had the others splitting off for class, Elis giving him a look that insisted they have a chat later.
First class of the day was always a pain, but especially on Mondays. That was the day he had Global Geography. The subject alone was like something from his nightmares, full of places and roads and events he couldn’t piece together in his head. It left him dizzy and questioning the sanity of guys who decided to build freeways like two-dimensional roller coasters. Not to mention he didn’t share the class with anyone he could really call a friend, making partnering up for projects a nightmare, let alone presentations. The first one he’d thrown up on, literally. People still backed up whenever he had to crawl through them now.
To top it all off, it was on a Monday morning, the first class, and the teacher was not a morning person. With a face that reminded Nikko of a beet both in shape and color, Mr. Mullin always stank of beets, and had a stack of chins that wobbled when he was angry, and practically danced when he was seriously pissed. Nikko, unfortunantly, usually got a full recital on a frequent basis, thanks to Mr. Mullins lack of tolerance for those with social anxiety, and even more lacking tolerance for students in general. It was always a miserable point in the day, especially todays class, where they had to go through a slug-paced presentation about the different types of markings on some old map that looked like chicken scratch. It was droll enough to have Nikko’s mind wandering, and soon wandering back to the book he’d bought earlier that day.
After checking around quickly, Nikko fished the book partially out of his bag and peeked at it. He still couldn’t slide his fingers between the pages at all, and the lock wouldn’t budge, so he fascinated himself by taking a closer look at the cover.
The moonstone was semi-transparent, milky in color, and the slight ridges of the bumpy surface gave it shadows that really did make it look like the moon. A white spot sat inside, and when Nikko shifted the book it seemed to move around, like a tiny star trying to get out. Dark lines crossed over the stone like they’d been painted, creating a rough arching line that ran horizontally over the stone, crossing another running vertically at the center. Right over the white speck. It really was a pretty stone, and he found himself leaning forward, studying the tiny speck that shifted this way and that.
“Nikko!” He jolted sharply, barely shoving the book back into his bag. It occured to him that the teacher had called his name three times thus far, and now stood over him, chins doing a full swan lake impression. Every head had turned, and Nikko shrank under the dozens of stares. Mr. Mullin bent down, scooping up a small flip phone which Nikko realized with a sinking sensation had fallen from his bag when he’d shoved the book back in. “Texting in class! During a presentation no less!” Nikko wanted to defend himself, but his voice stuck in his throat and he could only stare at the surface of his desk awkwardly. He was already shuffling out the door before Mr. Mullin could finish gesturing.
The halls were quiet, only broken by the occasional murmur from an open class door. Out of the corner of his eye, Nikko could see a face here and there peek out at him, as if wondering why he was wandering down this way, then assuming it was a bathroom trip rather than one to the office. His shoulders sagged at the thought, and he didn’t even look up as he dropped into the office seat, his bag thumping to rest between his heels.
“The troublemaker strikes again I see.” Nikko jumped for the third time today, looking sharply to his side. Carji smiled back, his tone jovial as he leaned forward on his knees comfortably. Nikko shook his head awkwardly. “It.. I didn’t um..” Carji laughed, and Nikko felt himself melt under the sound. “I didn’t mean to assume. So, what are you in for?” Unable to look at the blonde for too long, Nikko fixed his gaze on his shoes and tried to sound casual. “Oh.. The usual.. Public defacement and disruption of the great works of map markings.” The joke felt lame on his lips, but he was awarded with another small chuckle. “Mr. Mullins class I take it? Don’t worry, he’s only like that with, say, eighty percent of his students.”
A smile tugged Nikko’s lips faintly. At least it wasn’t just him then. Besides, if this was punishment, he’d have texted in class ages ago. Talking with Carji face to face not once, but twice in the same day, was like some stroke of lottery luck. “I’m Carji, but you can call me Car,” was offered along side a hand, which Nikko took in a paper light grip. “I know,” he blurted before he could help himself. “I- I mean uh.. I’m Nikko.. You can call me uh...” He faltered, his face flushing. “Nikko.” He risked a glance up, meeting with a humored gaze. “The honor is mine, Nikko.”
Biting the inside of his cheek, he quickly looked down again and dropped his hand, an awkward silence following. Carji occupied himself by studying a poster on the side wall, one of the many for the upcoming dance. “You going?” he asked with a tilt of his head. Nikko blinked a few times quickly, trying to follow the conversation. “Oh...uh... I- I might be.” Carji nodded once, giving a brief pause. “Anyone special you’re going with?” Nikko shook his head. “No.. Not really, I mean a few girls asked but..” he shrugged awkwardly, his smile slipping. ‘But I’m only interested in guys.’ He’d sooner die than finish that sentance aloud, especially to Carji. The other teen nodded, with an understanding look, despite the fact that it was impossible for him to really understand. “Well.. Maybe I’ll see you there?” There was a hint, a hopeful note in his voice that Nikko might have missed if it wasn’t for Carji’s hand, which had subtly rested on Nikko’s knee. Looking up, he struggled to find his voice and failed as he found the blonde leaning forward, closer than he’d expected. He could only nod, just as the Principle came out and called for Carji. The nod was enough though for the teen to visibly light up, giving Nikko’s knee a little squeeze and, without a word, slipping off after the principal.
By lunch, Nikko was still struggling with what had happened. He’d barely listened to the Principals warning about texting in class, which had earned him a one day suspension. Still, he hung around because he had to. He needed to talk to Elis, to have another set of eyes on the situation and another person to tell him he was insane and hoping too much. Or worse, that he wasn’t.
“You got suspended?” Nikko sighed, gesturing aimlessly at the wall. “Not the point here! Hurry up and tell me I’m crazy before I look like an idiot.” Thankfully it was just the two of them, switching sandwiches on the steps as they always did. Elis’ mother had a thing for weird health foods, and Nikko had an easy taste for said foods, so he always switched his plain PB and J for her seaweed sandwich, or at least that what he assumed it was today. Even Elis wasn’t so sure today.
“You’re not crazy.” Nikko choked, spewing a bit of green onto his lap which he idly flicked away. “Of course I am! There’s no way he’s into me.” Elis shrugged, leaning back against the wall and flicking her legs onto his lap, covering the smudge of green and stopping him from rubbing at it. The contact was lazy and friendly, the pair always having a sort of sibling relationship. Besides, Elis was a loud and proud lesbian, and that was part of the reason he’d opened up to her about his own situation.
“Maybe he is. He touched your knee, asked if he’d see you there. Pretty sure he just asked you out.” Fortunately Nikko wasn’t eating at the time, but he still made a small choking noise. “He what?!” Elis gave him a look. “Yes, lame-brain, he just asked you out. You seriously didn’t get that vibe?” Nikko could only shake his head, feeling a touch of shame over his obliviousness. “Are you sure?” he asked, shifting a little under the heat of her calfs. She nodded, yanking the crust of her bread to eat first. “Absolutely.”
Even on the way home after lunch, Nikko still couldn’t wrap his head around it. Nor could he wipe away the smile. There was a good chance that not only was the guy of his dreams also gay, but that he’d just asked him out! For the sixth time in an hour, Nikko had to pinch himself. Nope, not dreaming. He was going to the dance with Carji. Probably. Elis had told him to wait before assuming, since if it was true then Carji would probably say something more blunt about it within the next few days, but that it was more than likely a thing.
That also meant that Nikko would have to come clean publicly about it. As long as he thought about being with Carji, though, the idea of people knowing didn’t bother him all that much. It actually made him feel a little proud, and he started to understand how Elis must feel all the time. It also made him a little envious he’d never felt like this sooner, but not much. The whole walk home, only interrupted by a slight stop by the store for a few dinner supplies, it was all he could think about. Going to the dance with Carji. What would he wear? Would they do matching costumes? That would probably trash the idea of zombies, but then again Carji had that more laid back air that suggested maybe he’d be all for it. Nikko found himself daydreaming about how the conversation would go, to the point he got lost multiple times. It took him hours to finally get home, and when he checked the time it told him school had been out for about fourty minutes.
Finally deciding that if he thought anymore about blond and honey eyed men talking about which scar they want on their chest, Nikko pushed his mind to focus on dropping his bag on his bed and getting into a good shower. The warm water relaxed him, and he let his mind run blank, just enjoying the feeling of the smooth droplets falling in a river down his back. He stayed like that until his legs felt numb, then finally got toweled off and changed.
After a quick stir-fry, he lazed about a little, enjoying some mindless cable that drowned out thoughts of the day until late evening. With the moon just rising, he trecked upstairs for bed. The sight of his sideways bag made him recall the strange book for the first time since that morning, and he plopped down on the bed to fish it out for another look, flicking on his bedside lamp as he did so.
The cover still reminded him of old wood, and now that he held it out, he realized that the background, gem, and lock all made the book look like some kind of old door. The book was pretty big, bigger than a text book, but weirdly light. He tossed it up and down a few times, then puzzled over the rest of the cover.
He hadn’t noticed them before, as they’d looked so faded in the daylight, but now the various symbols over the cover were brightly scrawled in silver ink, except for those closest to the gem. A black circle hugged the base of it where it met the book, and small black lines like lightning shot out from it. He counted twelve, one in each cardinal direction with one on either side, all going in a circle. Another black circle sat close to the gem, arching around it just before the bend in each mark, and a final circle encompassed the entire design. The whole thing took up the bottom two-thirds of the book.
Above this, a sort of flag stretched from the lightning-piece beyond the outer circle in silver ink. It started off in a weird tree like shape, the top of the tree meeting a pair of curly threes back to back, but when he turned his head he realized that it looked more like an arrow with the threes hugging its stem. The top of the arrow was also the bottom of the ‘flag’, which looked like a square that had been split into a set of irregular triangles, and then the bottom was pulled out. It left the arrow shape below it, with the top left being and irregular triangle and the right being a smaller triangle. Inside the larger triangle, three dots sat near the top, each with a single line extending outwards like some sort of ray. The edge of the triangle seemed to cut the ray to the farthest right off. Inside the smaller triangle, a sweet pod or string beans or something was etched in more silver ink.
The symbol in the top left of the book was simple, just a seven pointed star, but the one in the top right was more complex. It was two tiny circles set on top of eachother, the top one looking like it had a set of horns. A christian cross extended from the bottom circle, the horizontal line encompassed by a rectangle. At the bottom of the cross, a slight arch like a crescent moon was outlined, and below that a crude cave drawing of a key.
And of course, the back was completely blank. There was no title along the spine, which looked like it was made of tiny scales, and the lock was just a strange keyhole set inside a sort of doorknob back panel. He searched around the bathroom and returned with a bobby pin, trying to see if he could pick the lock like a spy in a movie, but the moment he put the pin in there was a crunch, and the whole pin was yanked from his fingers. Bewhildered, he peered at the hole carefully as if there might be something alive in there.
More pins were tried, and even a screwdriver. The screwdriver came out with the entire end just... Gone. Flat, as if it had been cut off with a futuristic laser. Now Nikko wanted to know even more what was inside, but he was getting tired and the book wasn’t really going anywhere, so he decided to call it a night. Putting the radio on to something smooth and relaxing, he slipped into bed.
What felt like a minute later, Nikko was wide awake. It took him a minute to realize the reason he was awake was the silence. He always slept to music, but now it was silent. A look at the clock and he realized the power must have gone out, because there was no numbers to greet him. He sighed, closing his eyes again, but this time there wasn’t silence. A soft tinkle, once, then again. It was almost musical without changing it’s note.
He blinked sharply, remembering the bell on the book and tried to see it, but the room was too dark. Carefully feeling his way to the window, he flicked open the blinds and turned back.
The book was glowing. He had to rub his eyes a few times before he accepted that it wasn’t just the fuzz of sleep screwing with him. The silver ink on the book was soaking in the moonlight and reflecting it, creating a beautiful soft shine. Slowly, Nikko made his way over and stifled a gasp of awe. The moonstone had also taken in the light, and it’s glow was so beautiful it ached. The black lines stood out even stronger, looking like binding shadows. Like some sort of cage for the poor gem. Nikko found himself running his finger over the black bands with a strange pang of sympathy he chopped up to his sleepy status, when he felt a bump. The inked out lines he’d thought were painted on were actually glued on, and he managed to slip his nail underneath them. He gave a little experimental tug, and they snapped. He had to blink sharply, not just because they broke, but because the speck inside the stone was larger now. And it was moving.