To an outsider, Martin James Holland seemed like a normal person in the photos that captured his life. The way he used to talk, however, and the stories he used to tell about adventure and doing the right thing made his grandson, Jamie Holland, realize that Martin was the most honorable man on earth. Jamie would never forget what he told him shortly before he died.
“Life is one giant metaphor, Jamie,” he said. “You’re the hero of your own story, and there are going to be villains out there who try to hold you back. The thing you need to remember is that there is always a way to defeat them.”
There’s always a way to defeat them. Jamie had never forgotten those words. He remembered exactly when Martin said them. Even though it was ten years ago, Jamie felt like it was yesterday. They had been sitting out on Martin’s back deck, peeling potatoes. Jamie had watched as the knife pulled the rough, dirty brown skin away from the smooth, slippery meat. He had liked the way the peels curled and fell into the metal bucket at their feet. Jamie was in third grade at the time, only eight years old, and he’d been having trouble with bullies at school. Just that day, he’d had a particularly nasty run-in with one of the larger fifth-graders, Drake Bol, and as soon as the bus dropped him off, he had run to Grandpa Martin’s house in tears.
“Do you think this boy knows you?” Martin raised an eyebrow at his grandson. Jamie blinked, shocked at the question.
“I don’t think he does,” Martin countered. “Because if he really knew who you are, he wouldn’t lay a finger on you.” Eight-year-old Jamie stared at him, a vacant expression on his tear-streaked face.
“Tell me, Jams,” Martin continued, “what do you see when you look at this potato?” Grabbing a grotesque, brown lump from the basket, he held it up for Jamie to see. It had warts and large, bulging eyes with hairs growing from the tips. Jamie wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“It looks like a turd.”
Martin chuckled. “But do you know what on the inside?” He picked up the peeler and cut away the thick, brown skin to reveal the pure ivory inside. “That’s quite a difference, isn’t it?” He looked at his grandson carefully. At the time, Jamie had had no idea why his grandpa was telling him this, but then Martin said something that blew his tiny, eight-year-old mind.
“You see, it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, Jams. It’s what you find on the inside that defines who you are.” He handed the potato to Jamie, who looked at it strangely. “That boy, Drake, makes fun of you at school, but he doesn’t know you because he can only see your outside. If he saw your inside, he would think twice before messing with you.”
Life is a giant metaphor, indeed—not that Martin was calling his grandson a potato (which is what it sounded like to an eight-year-old boy). He had been trying to explain that there will always be mean people in life, but as long as they knew who Jamie really was, they would never have power over him. That was Martin Holland for you: full of insight and brimming with determination.
Jamie had always wanted to be more like his grandpa, but, the next day at school, Drake had grabbed his glasses and crunched them underneath his boot, all the while calling him names, and Jamie said something that didn’t improve his chances, “I’m like a potato! You don’t know me!”
Every time he thought back to that incident, Jamie would cringe. Not because he totally humiliated himself or because he had needed to buy a new pair of glasses, but because from that moment on, he never took advice from his Grandpa Martin again. Now Martin was gone, and, because of coincidental evidence and misplaced accusations, Jamie’s mother had been falsely accused of his murder. Seeing his mother get a life sentence in jail tore Jamie apart, and, to top it all off, he felt like he’d let his grandpa down by ignoring his advice. He never told him what had happened with Drake, and now he never could.
The jailhouse was within walking distance from Quincy High School. It was a Thursday, just after school got out, and the sun was hot. Jamie trekked across the parking lot, hoping to avoid the worst of the traffic, when he smelled the smoke.
It was coming from a clunky, beaten-up truck with rust patches and loud rock music pounding from the speakers. Five guys in leather jackets and ripped jeans loitered on the sagging hood, yacking it up and blowing smoke into each other’s faces. Jamie tried not to make eye contact with any of them, but it didn’t matter. They had already seen him. “Hey, potato boy!”
Jamie cringed at the nickname Drake had given him. Hadn’t he forgotten that by now? Jamie ignored him and kept walking.
“Hey, where you runnin’ off to, Holland? You ain’t scared, are ya?”
“He’s goin’ to see his momma,” one of Drake’s cronies sneered. “Heard she’s doin’ time in the big house, ain’t that right?”
The group burst into a round of crude laughter. Jamie wanted nothing more than to give them a piece of his mind, but since doing just that had earned him a foul nickname, he gritted his teeth and kept walking.
“Tell yo momma I say hi!”
Just ignore them, Jamie, Jamie told himself fervently. There’s always a way to defeat them.
The woman’s detention center was across from an old, run-down motel that no one stayed in. The giant sign above the entrance had once read Reed Motel, but the d and the l had burnt out, and at night “Ree Mote” flickered lamely, so everyone called it the “Remote.”
Before Jamie could turn away, he noticed movement in one of the far right windows. It was sort of a blur, and it all happened really quickly, but he thought he saw a flash of golden hair. Then the curtains were drawn tight before he had the chance to see anything else.
Frowning, he decided it was a trick of the light and placed his hand on the door of the center. Without warning, his head exploded in white pain. He didn’t remember ever crying out, but, then again, he didn’t remember much of anything. Strange shapes blurred in and out of his vision, and he thought he saw a flash of lighting. Then it was over, and the pain lessened to a dull throb. When Jamie opened his eyes, he was lying on the gravel, his arms and legs bent at awkward angles.
Struggling to sit up, he grimaced as his ears rang. Afraid he was starting to get sick, Jamie decided to go home and lie down. He would send his mom a letter explaining that he didn’t feel well and needed some rest, promising he would visit tomorrow.
The shower hissed off, and the hot water pelting Jamie’s back disappeared. Stepping out into the foggy bathroom, he grabbed a towel and dried off, wrapping it around his waist and rubbing a patch of condensation off the mirror. A boy with long, fine features and wide, brown eyes stared back at him. His pale blond hair stuck out at weird angles, and he ran his fingers through it. He was about to leave when the scar caught his attention.
It was long and thin and circled half of Jamie’s neck, just above his collarbone. Martin had told him that he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck. He had almost died, but at the last minute the nurse was somehow able to cut it off. Jamie’s mom told him he was lucky to be alive, let alone have his brain functioning properly. Besides his uncanny ability to be a social pariah, there wasn’t anything significantly wrong with him. There were only a few times when he could remember getting splitting headaches, but he had assumed it was normal. Until today, he had thought they were gone for good. Guess he was mistaken.
Shouldering his backpack, Jamie glanced up at the shining sun and decided it was a decent day to walk to school. Luckily, school was only a block away. Sticking in his earbuds, he blocked out the rest of the world as he walked. By the time he reached school, most of the parking lot had filled up. Crap! He he was cutting it close. Racing into the building, the bell blared just as he threw open the door to first period.
After a very long and dreary hour during which Jamie daydreamed, the bell finally rang. Chairs scraped and voices chattered loudly as people flooded the hallway. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, Jamie replaced his earbuds. The hallway seemed more crowded than usual, and he stayed close to the grey lockers lining the grey walls. Then, as, he approached a corner, he felt it: a subtle throbbing in his head. Closing his eyes, he stopped and tried to shake it off, but couldn’t. Instead, he saw something moving in the backs of his eyelids. He could see shapes beyond the corner: five large, bulky shapes pushing each other around. In the echoing distance, as if from the other end of a tunnel, Jamie heard crude laughter.
His eyes flew open, and his heart rate quickened. He turned and headed swiftly in the other direction. He was in such a hurry that he wasn’t looking where he was going, and he bumped into someone. He turned to apologize, but a flash of gold filled his vision and made his mind go blank. He watched as the golden-haired girl walked away, her mane shimmering under the bright lights. Mesmerized, Jamie continued to watch her until he felt the headache again. Panicking, he dashed into the closest room and slammed the door shut behind him. Luckily, the room was empty. Sliding down the wall, he held his head in his hands as the pain intensified.
It was the same image Jamie had seen the day before, but it lasted longer and came clearer. This time he saw four blurred, distorted figures, and the flashes of light began to change color. Something that looked frighteningly like blood pulsed through his brain, and a high-pitched scream brought him back to reality.
Jamie managed to make it to lunch without any more trouble. Granted, he was still pretty shaken-up, but he figured a little food might help him gain some strength back. Running a nervous hand through his hair, he sidled up to he lunch line. Chicken, gravy, and potato wedges. The chicken looked like it could bounce, the gravy was greyer than the cafeteria floor, and the potatoes were burnt to a crisp. Trying not to grimace at the lunch lady, Jamie shuffled off and grabbed a watered-down chocolate milk.
As luck would have it, on the way to his seat, Jamie had to pass by Drake Bol’s table. Just when he thought he had passed safely, something hit him in the back of the head. He turned to see Drake laughing loudly, pointing at him as he and his friend’s continued pelting Jamie with the potato crisps. “Potato boy!” Drake jeered. Several people in the vicinity laughed along with him. Jamie felt his face turn bright red, and he walked away sheepishly. Just then, they all gave a shout of surprise as their chairs simultaneously fell out from underneath them, and they all toppled to the floor. At the same time, a rush of wind ruffled Jamie’s hair.
The girl with the golden hair was standing in front of him. Their gazes met, and Jamie thought for a split second that her eyes were glowing like hot coals, but then they cooled back down, almost as if he had imagined it. She looked at him. “Are you okay?”
“Um...I think. Thanks for that.” He grimaced at how lame he sounded. The girl pulled her hood back up, stuffed her hands inside her black hoodie, and shrugged. Then she turned and walked away. Shaking it off, Jamie sat down, his head spinning. He had a forkful of chicken halfway to his mouth when the headache came again. He glanced around, making sure no one was looking, and the pain took over. This time, the vision changed, but he recognized the images, which were crystal clear.
A hotel room in the Remote, a flash of gold. The hallway in school and another flash of gold. Then he saw himself, holding his head on the gravel in front of the detention center and on the floor in the abandoned classroom. When his eyes fluttered open, Jamie realized something: It was her.
Scanning the crowd, he hoped to catch one last glimpse of her, but the golden hair had been swallowed up in a sea of browns and blacks.
Jamie couldn’t help himself. He spent the rest of the day looking for her, hardly paying attention in any of his classes. When the last bell rang, he scooped up his stuff and bolted out the door, hoping to catch sight of her again, even if it was from a distance. Despite the splitting headaches she seemed to bring, something about her made Jamie feel relaxed–like the calm before a storm.
Just outside the front doors, the sun glinted off something shiny and caught Jamie’s attention. He felt a small smile creep onto his face upon seeing her, but it didn’t last long when he realized Drake had her backed up against a brick wall. From a distance, it looked like she was in trouble. Jamie’s initial instinct was to run and flee like the coward he always was, but then he thought back to when she had defended him in the cafeteria. Jamie approached them before he could stop himself.
Her hood was down, and Drake was standing really close to her - uncomfortably close. His index finger was tracing her jaw, and at first Jamie thought he was trying to make a move, but then he realized that he was laughing at her. Then Jamie saw it: a long, shiny scar stretching across the bottom-left side of her jaw.
“Leave her alone, Drake.” Jamie spoke without thinking, and his own voice sounded strange. He just barely registered the girl’s surprised expression before Drake’s fist met his face. A searing pain shot through his cheek and up his nose. Something cracked loudly, and he fell to the ground, blinded with pain. There was muffled shouting and a faraway thump. Jamie reached up to touch his nose. It was sticky, and his fingers came away wet. His glasses had been punched off, and he couldn’t see anything very well. Then he heard her voice.
“I had it covered, you know.”
Jamie blinked, trying his best to see. Before he knew what was happening, she was touching his nose. He winced, expecting pain, but the throbbing began to subside until it disappeared almost entirely. Pressing something hard into his hand, Jamie realized she had found his glasses. The frames were bent and the glass had cracked. Jamie groaned. “I really should get some contacts.”
The girl laughed, and Jamie felt himself smile a little. She helped him to his feet, and he wobbled but stayed upright. “You okay?”
“You mean besides the fact that I just got my face punched in and instantly healed? Yeah, I’m good.” Despite his nose being covered in dried blood, Jamie actually felt fine. It was weird.
The girl laughed again. “I’m Freya,” she said, holding out her hand. Jamie shook it.
“Jamie. I see you’ve met Drake.” He looked over at the bully, realizing for the first time that he had been shoved roughly up against the wall and was now sporting a black eye. “Wow...I guess you did have it covered. Impressive.”
Freya smiled, but Jamie hardly had the chance to enjoy it before the headache came for the third time that day. Doubling over in pain, he tried to resist it, but it was no use. He thought he heard Freya’s voice somewhere in the background, but he was too far gone to tell. Then he saw a woman. With high cheekbones, sunken eyes, and wild, curly hair, she stared straight at him, her face set and stony in a smoldering rage. She was beautiful in a dangerous type of way, but Jamie could tell she was not someone to cross. Her mouth was moving, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then the image blurred, and he opened his eyes to find himself staring at the blue sky. Freya sat off to the side, leaning against the wall with her eyes closed. “You...” Jamie lifted his head weakly, trying to speak. “Who are you?”
“Freya. Just Freya,” she said, turning her head warily. She sighed heavily. “Why?”
Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know. I keep getting these painful visions, and I feel like you have something to do with them.”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t just blame me for your visions and ask what exactly you saw?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie repeated dumbly, rubbing his head. He tried to remember the image that was fading rapidly form his mind. “A woman. She was kind of mean-looking with lots of crazy black hair and hallow cheekbones.”
Freya groaned. “That woman is my step-mother, Maria Hamel-Hale.”
“So it does have to do with you,” Jamie said, shooting her a wry grin. She scoffed and shoved him, standing up. He followed suit, brushing off the seat of his jeans. “What’s the deal with evil stepmothers, anyway?”
“That’s a good question,” a bodiless voice said from behind them.
Freya and Jamie both startled and turned around. A tall man wearing dark shades and a Yankees baseball cap stood before them, his arms crossed over his chest. A small smirk played across his weathered face.
“Umm...who are you? Jamie, do you know him?” Freya glanced over at Jamie. He didn’t know for sure, but something about the man’s smile seemed familiar. And that voice...
“It’s about time you two ran into each other, Jamie.” The man clapped Jamie heavily on the back. Utterly bewildered, the boy stared as the man continued, “It’s only together that you can defeat her. In order to save yourselves you have to save each other.”
Jamie blinked. “Wait, what? How do you know my name? And what on earth does the cryptic, fortune-cookie crap mean?”
“It’s my stepmother, isn’t it?” Freya guessed. The man nodded.
“Maria is coming for you both. She always has been, and she’s chosen now as her time to strike.”
“But it’s Friday!” Jamie grumbled, rubbing what remained of his glasses on the hem of his shirt.
“Exactly.” The man stepped forward slowly. “If you were hunting someone, wouldn’t it be easier to blend in with a loud, excited crowd?”
“You’re a stranger,” Freya said, looking at him coldly. “How do we know we can trust you?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I trusted her to a certain extent until now.”
“Besides, we’re practically kids.” Jamie gingerly placed the crooked glasses back on his nose. “How are we suppose to stop a middle-aged woman with a bad attitude?”
“I’ve told you before, Jamie,” the man began slowly, “you’re the hero of your own story. There are going to be villains out there who try and hold you back, but they exceed schoolyard bullies. The thing you need to remember is that there is always a way to defeat them.”
As if he had been rudely awoken from a dream, Jamie suddenly recognized the man. He took a step back, unable to believe what he was seeing. “Grandpa Martin?”