The Pinnacle of Power

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Harsh Punishment

Lúnembril stood halfway across the world from the Desert Continent of Ocrecia, but the third day of spring on the year nineteen eighty-four AR was as hot and dry as if the Earth Continent’s capital city stood in the middle of the desert.

In short, it was definitely not a day you’d like to spend standing on the schoolyard for two or three hours under the midday sun. Alas the problem was not the time that had passed since Earlyan was punished.

The thing was that he didn’t know how much longer Mistress Montblond planned to keep him roasting on the schoolyard, as punishment for what he did earlier. A man had the right to defend himself, after all . . . even though a boy of thirteen could hardly call himself a man. That still didn’t mean he was a coward.

“You must learn to treat the ladies with the proper respect, Mister Marnes.” Those had been the words of the Green Mound School’s stern Headmistress. “And I will have no more of your protests! You know your behavior was unacceptable, and that you must never offend a lady . . . especially not with such a terrible word!

“Finally, I didn’t hear it when your two poor classmates were taunting you, as you claim. What I heard was you, tossing that . . . terrible word straight at them!”

The terrible word in question, bastards, was a strong insult, no doubt. Though the two poor classmates had it coming to them for a while now.

Yonivanne Bramlean was a beauty and Darianne Thribeaux, her inseparable best friend, was no slouch in the looks department either. It was a shame that the beauty of both girls was exceeded only by their insufferable arrogance and haughtiness. In a school teeming with spoiled rich brats, Yonie and Daria were two of the worst, a couple of . . . bastards with no equal!

Aright. Fine. Perhaps Earlyan overdid it. Maybe neither girl deserved to be called a bastard. At least not for taunting him silly with obnoxious, albeit harmless chants of “Early is a girly! Early is a girly!” all slamming morning long. He’d heard much worse in that bastard school, and that was the true reason behind it all: he was sick and tired of enduring with so much bastard abuse, every single bastard day!

In spite of the time that had gone by since the incident, his head was still hotter than the searing sunrays frying his brains at this moment. No, the heat of this blue, clear day in Lúnembril was definitely nothing next to the way that the blood had been boiling in his veins all slamming morning long.

He needed an outlet for his frustration, and Yoni and Daria provided him with the perfect opportunity to blow off some of that steam.

The problem was that the old Montblond witch happened to walk right behind me when I was defending myself and not earlier, when both girls were goading me unto death!

If something good came out of the whole thing it was that Earlyan had finally fought back . . . though his victory lasted less than a sigh and his reward was nothing other than the bile that he could still taste in his mouth. A long sigh escaped from his lips as he squinted hard to protect his eyes from the blinding sun’s reflection coming off the grey cemecrete under his feet.

How much longer does that witch plan to keep me here? Till I melt, probably. As if this will stop me from swearing ever again!

His brow was drenched in sweat, his legs felt like jelly and his ears would not stop buzzing. Mistress Montblond should appear at any time now, certain that Mister Marnes had learned his lesson. He was sure of it. And she’d better do it before—

He was raising a hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead when the worst of his fears came true. The school bell gave a loud wail announcing that the previous hour of class was over. Soon the schoolyard would be filled with students on their ten-minute break between classes.

And sure enough . . .

Freak!” a sudden voice yelped behind his back, forcing Earlyan to whirl around to face his aggressor. Alas his movement was so swift that it only made him feel more lightheaded, the hiss tormenting his ears becoming a fierce roar.

Loser!” That one came from his left, he knew, but he was past the point of caring.

Black dots took shape before his eyes, growing larger as the sound of more insults mixed with the gale of loud, mocking cackles tormented his ears. His head went spinning and in his sudden vertigo, he had no choice but to forget all about the great apprehension that took hold of him when he heard the school bell ring.

The taunting laughter continued, though the sound was hollow and muffled now. It was as if the fun his peers were having at his expense was not happening all around him anymore; it seemed to be coming from a place far, far away.

His vision blurred and suddenly his head felt so heavy that it was as if a ton of bricks had fallen straight on it.His body swayed from side to side as the humiliating laughs raged on mercilessly. The black dots grew larger and larger before his eyes and the distant echoes of taunting chants and mocking laughter, so sharp and annoying at first, ended abruptly.

As everything faded to black, the last conscious thought that went through his mind was that he couldn’t even hold on to his precious anger any longer . . .

When he next opened his eyes he realized that he was lying on a cold, hard pallet.

He blinked slowly and repeatedly in an effort to regain his focus. His ears were still buzzing and his head felt like a ripe melon that had just been split in two by an invisible knife. A brief glimpse at his surroundings revealed that he was in a small, rectangular cubicle walled by thick, lifeless cemecrete grey as a rat.

I must be in some neuropsychiatric clinic . . . again. But no–Wait . . . I was supposed to be in school.

The room was identical to all those therapy chambers in clinics and hospitals that he knew so well, however. A small first-aid kit hung from the opposite wall, slightly to his right. He lifted his upper body and spared a glance at the tiny, bare window standing before the pallet right below the ceiling.

No, he thought, the ordeal at the schoolyard coming back to his mind in a flash. This must be the Green Mound School’s Sick Bay.

He was alone in that rectangular room so devoid of color and life. Though he suddenly had the impression that he could hear voices coming from the outside. Indeed. The sound he heard was that of sharp muffled voices coming from the other side of the door.

Try as he might, however, he was all but unable to make out a single word. Using his right hand for support he pushed himself to the edge of the pallet in a painful effort to overhear the conversation outside the room. It was all for naught, alas, for he still couldn’t hear a thing with clarity.

Ignoring the pounding in his head, he rose from the pallet, tottered slowly towards the door and pressed his ear against cold, hard metal. Luckily the dizziness was gone by now, and though the headache was still quite annoying, it wasn’t bad enough to prevent him from eavesdropping on the argument raging beyond the door.

“ . . . Very sorry for all this.” He immediately recognized Mistress Montblond’s voice, “but I’m afraid that Earlyan’s behavior is nothing new to us, Britha, dear. Here at Green Mound School, we have ample experience dealing with . . . students diagnosed with your son’s condition.

“Experience has taught us that children with high brain energy levels tend to become much more hostile and rebellious than the rest of their peers. They have a very hard time adapting to their environment, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yes, I know, Grace,” said mom. “I’m also perfectly aware that you were only doing what you thought was right. But it’s because of my son’s situation, precisely, that I’m asking you to put yourself in my shoes. Earlyan’s condition is a very delicate issue, true. But that’s not his fault, and it’s being dealt with through the proper channels as we speak.”

Mom’s voice had an edge to it, suggesting that she wasn’t in the best of moods, Earlyan realized at once. “Besides, I must say that I do not agree with this sort of disciplinary measures. Children shouldn’t be punished so harshly, Gráciel, especially not under such inclement weather conditions. I’m only saying this as a concerned mother seeking to protect her children’s best interests, of course. As I’m sure you know.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Britha, dear!” allowed the school’s Headmistress, promptly. “But please, let me assure you that our methods have not only been approved by our own Psychology Advisor, but they also adhere strictly to the CDPC manual; that’s the UniCon’s Committee for the Defense and the Protection of Children, as you know.

“Furthermore, I understand you’ve already discussed this at length with Nailea, and that she’s provided you with a detailed explanation of the situation. Has she not?”

“Yes,” conceded mom. “Doctor Doralean and I had a lengthy conversation regarding Earlyan’s situation, and she told me basically the same as you. But still, I must insist, Grace. I do not agree with the Green Mound School’s disciplinary methods, even if Doctor Nailea Doralean and the UniCon do.

“Moreover, since my husband and I are paying a small fortune so that our children may attend your fine school, I believe that gives me the right to voice my displeasure, if I feel that their wellbeing’s put at risk. And now, with your permission, I would like to see my son.”

Tension kept rising steadily in mom’s voice with every word she uttered.

“Why, yes, of course!” said Mistress Montblond, in the sweetest voice Earlyan had ever heard coming from the lips of the stout, middle-aged woman. “I must go back to my duties now. But please, Britha, do not hesitate to let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”

“Thank you very much, Gráciel.” Mom’s reply was a little sharper than she intended perhaps, but that mattered little. In Earlyan’s opinion, the Montblond witch deserved that and more.

Why do my parents insist on keeping me in this horrible school?

It was also amazing to see what the power of Unicoin could do. If he were still in the same public school that he’d attended all of his life till this year, mom couldn’t have used the money that dad and she were paying to the Green Mound School as an excuse to set the old witch straight.

And I would certainly have no problems with all these rich, pampered runts, either.

When he heard footsteps approaching the door, he turned swiftly around and reached the pallet in two long, hasty strides, waiting eagerly for mom to come to the rescue. As if his thoughts had willed it, the school nurse opened the door and let Britha Marnes into the confining room.

Mom’s face was long as she stepped through the threshold, but the moment her big black eyes set on her son, any and all signs of worry were gone from her face in a blink, replaced instead by a loving grin.

“Hi, sweetie!” Her voice had recovered its usual warmth. “I just heard of what happened. How are you feeling?”

Earlyan stood from the pallet and gave a shrug. “I’m fine, mom. I only have a little headache, but it’s almost gone now.”

“I’m so glad to heard that, Early,” mom said, her voice filled with relief.

“Why am I here?”

“You fainted in the schoolyard.” This time it was the nurse who replied. “You were unconscious for about twenty minutes, Earlyan, and you gave us all a good scare. Are you sure you’re feeling better now?”

Yes, I could see how scared my peers were back at the slamming schoolyard.

As soon as she heard the nurse’s query, mom’s gaze drilled her son’s green orbs. And when she gave him that look . . . Well, Earlyan seriously doubted that the best lie detector in all those action holofilms and thrilling novels that he liked so much would be as effective as the scrutiny of one Britha Marnes.

If truth be told, when mom stared at him like that he couldn’t help but wonder if she was able to read his mind. Somehow it seems like all mothers have that power on their children. Fortunately, this time he did not have to lie to his mother.

“Yes, I’m sure,” he replied at last, walking hastily towards the door to lend more weight to his words.

The sooner I’m out of this bastard dump, the better. Especially if mom was planning to do as he suspected. The way mom’s face changed as she heard her son’s words suggested that she was pleased with his answer, he saw.

She nodded firmly and gave her son another warm smile. “I have to go to the hypermarket to buy some things, and you’re coming with me, Early. We’ll head straight back home as soon as I’m done with my shopping, aright?”

“Solid!” Earlyan couldn’t stop a spontaneous grin from slicing his face from ear to ear, the slamming headache all but forgotten for the time being.

One less day to go in this bastard prison!

Even at midday, when most folk were at work or in school, air traffic in Outer Lúnembril was so heavy that the most patient of pilots could snap at any given time. Be that as it may, Earlyan had way too many things on his mind at the moment to concern himself with the heavy traffic plaguing the megalopolis’ outer district.

Try as he might, he couldn’t help but wonder—worse yet; he couldn’t help but worry sick—about everything that had happened during the school year. Alas the fiery glares that mom kept sending through the family aeroslider’s thick windshield suggested that he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t in the best of moods inside the olive green vessel’s cockpit.

Mom’s expression could be due to the unbearable traffic and the heat, more than to her son’s predicaments. But Earlyan would have to tread his way carefully on the trip to the hypermarket. For starters, mom wasn’t known for her patience, and her fuse was much shorter when things weren’t going her way, as was the case this very moment.

Either way, Earlyan was tired of having to put up with the situation. And it had certainly taken him long enough to do something about it. He’d kept his issues all to himself for too long, uncertain as to how to deal with all those problems for fear of his parents’ reaction.

Alas that little number with Yonie and Daria this morning had given voice to his problems already. And now, he was about to know his parents’ reaction, whether he liked it or not.

“Mom,” he muttered after a long, heavy silence, all but unable to take his gaze off the slider’s side window. “I don’t know why, but I think the brain test of ten days ago is . . . what made me faint in school today.”

Mom took her eyes off of the traffic lane for an instant to spare a quick, sideways glance at her son. “What makes you think that, Early? Doctor Elonga told me she’ll have to increase the dose on your medication, because the treatment’s going a little too slow for her taste, but she also said that it’s working.

“Besides, you’ve just spent close to three hours under the sun, honey. Anyone would faint after standing for so long under this dreadful heat.”

Earlyan looked for the right words to express his feelings.

Forget about slamming therapy and look for a way to talk your parents into transferring you to a new school.

Even if he could find a way to convince mom and dad that the bastard treatment wasn’t working, that it should be suspended at once, the law demanded that he stay in therapy till he was of a legal age.

Might as well open the door and hurl yourself out of the slider right slamming now, jested the little voice in his head. You’ll never talk your parents into getting you out of therapy. But if you can put mom on your side with regards to school . . .

“I don’t know,” he said at last, unable to keep despair from creeping into his voice. “All I know is that I’ve been feeling weird since that brain . . . mapping or . . . scanning or . . . whatever the name of that procedure I was put through ten days ago. But never mind that, mom. The thing’s that I just can’t stand that bast–that school, anymore.”

“Aright, sweetie.” Mom tried not to sound too stern, failing miserably in the process. “As far as therapy is concerned, the results of the brain scan indicated that you are not doing your part. You must relax and open your mind to the procedure, instead of letting fear take hold of you, Early.

“As for school, well your grades have been terrible this year, Early; much too low for someone as smart as you. And finally I didn’t like to hear what Doctor Doralean had to tell me. I didn’t like it one bit, actually.”

“Oh, come on, mom!” he turned swiftly around to look at his mother’s profile. “You’re only saying that I’m smart because . . . well, because you’re my mother! But what did that old witch tell you about me?”

Mom could hardly contain a laugh.

She was a pedagogue, after all, and she worked with children whose problems were far worse than her son’s, Earlyan knew. So she had to be the first to admit that Doctor Nailea Doralean, the Green Mound School’s resident psychologist, was in much more dire need of psychological help than any of the students she was supposed to counsel.

“Did you just call Doctor Doralean an old witch?” Oh yes, mom definitely found a way to keep a straight face. “Now I see what Mistress Montblond, and yes even Doctor Doralean herself, where trying to tell me. You must learn to respect your elders, Earlyan, especially the ladies.

“Because, tell me now, what did you call those two girls in school this morning? It must have been a very nasty word that you used, because Mistress Montblond wouldn’t even dare tell me what it was.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about here, mom! They insulted me first! I was only defending myself, I promise!”

He could only hope that his mother would not think him the whiny babe that he felt like, then and there. He really needed his parents’ support here, and throwing tantrums like a little girl wouldn’t help his cause in the very least.

“No, that’s no justification for what you did, Earlyan.” That was the second time mom had called him by his full name in less than a minute. So far things were not looking good, at all. “This is exactly what Doctor Doralean told me. According to her report, you’ve been very hostile to your peers at school. You’ve been coming across as antisocial, and—”

“That’s not true!” Earlyan was beside himself now. “They are the problem, mom, not me! I mean you know me. You know that wi–Doctor Doralean is lying! She’s a liar and you know it!”

Now that was one huge mistake, and there’s no doubting it!

Mother and son could be stuck for a long time in the slider’s cockpit, what with that slamming traffic and all, and mom was looking more strung out with each passing second. She’d kept a mask of serenity on till now, but Earlyan’s last words ripped it right off of her face in a blink.

“Don’t you dare talk back to me like that, young man!” Mom would make no more concessions. “I can’t do what you’re asking of me because you know I don’t make all family-related decisions by myself.

“We’ll have to wait till we can discuss this with your father as soon as he gets back home from work tonight. But I’m warning you, Earlyan, your father’s very upset because of your low grades and–Hey! Yes, you! Why don’t you learn how to fly, you savage?”

Not being the target of mom’s ire anymore was quite a relief. No sooner had her attention gone back to the sky and the vessels flying all about them than Earlyan had decided to keep his mouth shut. Trying to climb his way out of the deep hole he’d dug for himself was only making it deeper, it seemed.

He knew his mother well enough to know that he shouldn’t keep pressing, lest he were to make things worse for himself. Especially when traffic put mom in such a black mood. Forcing things here would only be counterproductive indeed, not to mention that his head was still hotter than the bastard weather outside.

Hostile? Antisocial? Yeah right! He thought, as he gave his head a sharp shake. What did the school shrink know about him in truth, anyways? She’s definitely an old witch–No, she’s an old bastard, is what she is!

They were home in less than a couple of hours and Earlyan decided to do a little reading to set his many problems aside, even if it were only for a while.

The holobook hovering before his face was a truly never-ending story. The novel was as large as it was complex, though he couldn’t put it down for he felt a strong connection with the main character. For what boy wouldn’t love to go out on an adventure of his own, the way that the book’s twelve-year old hero was doing?

Not too many, it seems. Folk interested in the thrill of adventure were few and far between in Akaladia. No wonder I’ve been having all those crazy dreams lately. How can you believe in yourself when most folk don’t believe in anything at all?

The worst part was that books as good as the one floating before his eyes were hard to come by in Lúnembril. Actually, Earlyan often felt as if everything he liked was impossible to find in the Continent of Zevantika’s capital city.

He gave his head a shake and turned his attention back to his holobook, where he kept it till he was done reading a very interesting chapter. He rubbed his eyes, shook those unpleasant thoughts from his head, turned off the holoreader and spared a glance in Tyrie’s direction.

Little sister was kneeling on the rug, her chubby fingers moving about her three-dimensional dollhouse, completely immersed in her own, little private world, in perfect imitation of mom when she went about her daily chores around the house.

Truth be told, Tyrie was a perfect, ten-year old clone of mom. Not physically, for Britha Marnes was a tall, thin woman with skin the color of an olive, and hair and eyes black as night. Tyrie, on the other hand, was short, even for her age, and just a tad overweight. Besides, like her father and her brother Tyrie’s skin was creamy white and her hair as brown as Earlyan’s.

It was little sister’s gestures and moves that were a carbon copy of mom’s. Tyrie’s strongest attributes were her soft, delicate features and her big eyes, blue as the sky. She would have to watch her weight closely though, lest she become as unpopular with the opposite sex as her big brother.

Deep down, he couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of little, chubby Tyrie, however. For little sister’s life was simple and uncomplicated. She’d never been subjected to any kind of therapy in her life, and she certainly didn’t have to carry the burden of all the problems that her brother had to deal with in school, every single slamming day.

But would you be willing to change who you are if that could help you bring the bastard ordeal to an end?

There was no answer.

His eyes went from Tyrie to the digiclock hovering above the technovisor before the couch where he was comfortably seated. Seven o’clock. Dad should be back from work at any minute now.

As if his thoughts had willed it, the buzz of the bell announcing that the front door to the Marnes residence was sliding open reached up to the family room. The sound of hushed voices coming from the kitchen, where mom was fixing dinner, did not take long to rise towards the family room in the second floor, either.

Try as he might, however, Earlyan was unable to make out a single word of the exchange that mom and dad were having downstairs. He didn’t have to wait long to find out what the talk was all about, though, for some ten minutes later dad appeared in the family room.

“Hello, my lord and lady of the house!” Bald, plump Eadavar Marnes greeted his children with a wide smile on his lips.

Tyrie forgot all about her virtual dollhouse and jumped straight into dad’s arms, a shrill, spontaneous “Daddy!” escaping from her lips, as she held on tight to her father’s arms and chest.

“Hello, sweetheart! How’s my little princess doing today?”

In response Tyrie planted a big, warm, wet kiss on her father’s cheek, which dad returned gladly and promptly. He placed his daughter gently back on the rug, with a little grunt and a wince, soon enough though. Earlyan knew that carrying his ten-year old girl in his arms was not easy for dad anymore, even when he wasn’t as exhausted as he looked tonight.

“I’m great, daddy!” said the smallest member of the Marnes clan, before turning her entire attention back to her holographic dollhouse, as if she had no other care in the world.

“I’m glad to hear that, princess.” Dad sent a loving grin at his daughter as Earlyan stood from the couch to stretch his hand. He would have kissed dad on the cheek, but that was not the way of Lúnembrili boys when they reached their teens.

“Could you please go into your room for a second, honey?” dad asked of Tyrie, exchanging serious glances with his boy as he spoke.

That little family chat’s about to take place right now, whether you like it or not . . . And judging by the look drawn on dad’s clean-shaven face, Earlyan knew that the family chat would be as serious as he’d been expecting all along. Well, might as well get on with it already . . .

“What did you do now?” Tyrie demanded of her brother, with a disapproving look in her eyes and a shake of her head identical to mom when she was forced to chastise her children. “You’re truly incorrigible, Early!”

“Just get out of here before the Dhurabasin come to get you!”

Perhaps he’d overdone it, but stress made Tyrie’s obnoxious antics far more irritating than usual.

“Aw, don’t be silly, Early!” little sister shot back, in that shrill, angry voice so typical of all girls her age, before sending a pleading look at dad. “You tell him, daddy. Tell this silly boy how the Dhurabasin aren’t real!”

“Of course they aren’t real, sweetie,” said dad, reprehending his boy with a stern look before turning back quickly in his daughter’s direction. “Don’t you worry about that now. But please, go to your room, like I asked, and wait for mom to call you for dinner, aright?”

Earlyan gave his head an incredulous shake and went back to his seat. To think that he used to wet the bed when he was Tyrie’s age for fear that the Dhurabasin would come to fetch him in the middle of the night!

Every time he misbehaved, made some mischief or refused to go to bed early, mom and dad would tell him that the Dhurabasin came in the middle of the night to steal away naughty children and take them to a terrible place known to them alone, where the miscreants were kept in miserable darkness till the end of times. That was why Tyrie’s reaction came as such a surprise.

Not even children believe in anything these days, he thought, dryly. Oh, and incorrigible? Now, where the heck did she hear that word?

That was certainly not something you’d expect to hear coming out of the lips of your average girl of ten. Perhaps Tyrie had learned the word from dad or mom, and if they’d used it when speaking about Earlyan . . . Well, this evening could turn out to be far more complicated than it already promised to be.

Without another word chubby Tyrie deactivated her holo-dollhouse, rose from the rug and left the family room, crossing paths with mom under the threshold as she went.

“Let’s see now.” Dad let his round frame collapse heavily on his favorite chair. “First of all, how you feeling son?” he asked, while removing his shoes, letting out a long, wearisome sigh as he did.

He’s definitely as beat as he looks, Earlyan confirmed. And that could only help to complicate things further. So far this isn’t looking good at all.

“I’m fine, dad.” At least his voice sounded firm to his ears. And that was the truth, besides, at least as far as the physical side of things was concerned. “Don’t worry.”

“I’ve already told your father about the little chat we had after I picked you up at school, Early,” announced mom quietly, her gaze falling on her son’s face as heavily as her husband’s smallish brown orbs were doing.

Oh no, this is definitely not looking good at all.

Earlyan was suddenly under the impression that the family chat had turned into a sort of trial . . . with him standing as the accused party!

“Very well, let’s see then,” insisted dad, without preamble. “What’s going on, Early?”

He told dad everything he shared with mom during the flight to the hypermarket, and then some. He took advantage of the opportunity to add a few more details, such as the heavy pranks he’d been suffering at the hands of his peers in school, almost since the school year began.

Those details were quite important, of course. But between dizziness, headaches, traffic jams and the like, Earlyan had forgotten to share all of that vital information with mom earlier. As he went on with his explanation he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done the right thing by shutting his parents out for so long.

Alas he was about to discover why he’d harbored such misgivings in the first place.

“Hmm,” mused dad, stroking the few, thin strands of hair that he still had left on the crown of his head, as absently as he always did when lost in his thoughts. “I honestly don’t know what to say. But it goes without saying that this situation is troubling, indeed.

“How is it possible that an educational institution with the Green Mound School’s reputation wouldn’t look into students’ possessions as they go through the main gate? Otherwise, how did this Fontanos punk manage to smuggle a laserlighter into school? And why didn’t Gráciel Montblond look into this? I find it all very hard to believe.”

“The problem’s that Earlyan didn’t report the incident,” mom explained. “Had he done so, I’m sure the school would have looked deep into this, love. And unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with what Doctor Doralean told me about Earlyan this morning . . . ”

Dad was not yet done speaking when Earlyan’s spirits were already rising like a rocket ship. Dad’s initial reaction had definitely rekindled the flame of hope in his heart. Though the feeling evaporated just as quickly, as soon as mom was done sharing with her husband the information that Doctor Doralean had provided for her.

Every word that mom uttered was like a missile bent on bringing her son’s spirits crashing right back down to earth.

“Aright,” decided dad, after taking a few seconds to assess the situation with care. “But still, this doesn’t justify that some bully tried to set my son on fire!”

His deep, penetrating gaze drilled Earlyan’s face once more. “But if you’re hostile to your peers, the way Doctor Doralean’s report seems to suggest, then you can only expect them to pay you back with the same token, son. We can only reap what we sow, Earlyan.”

“But I didn’t do anything to deserve this, dad!” How can they place more weight on the words of that crazy witch, than in their own son’s? They were the ones who started it all, dad, those boys and girls in school. Since the school year began, they’ve done nothing other than mock and bully me silly. And . . . and it’s all because I’m different!

“Plus we’re not rich like them, dad. That’s why Mistress Montblond left me there, standing on the schoolyard till I melt, only because I threw a bad word at a couple of girls. I mean, wasn’t it enough to put me in detention after class?

“Of course not! Mistress Montblond did what she did because she knows I’m no son of some rich businessman or some high-ranking politician. And that . . . that Doctor Doralean, she’s a liar! She’s got it in good for me, dad, they both do, Montblond and her. I don’t know why, but that’s the truth.”

“I’m the first to admit that I don’t like the school’s disciplinary methods,” mom put in quietly . . . much too quietly for Earlyan’s taste, especially after his latest outburst. “I told Gráciel as much. But this doesn’t mean Doctor Doralean, or Grace Montblond herself, have anything against you, Early. Or against any other student for that matter, regardless on whom their parents might be.

“Your father and I may not be famous, rich folk, but we pay the same Unicoin as anyone else to have you and your sister attend the school.”

Mom turned to dad next. “Moreover, Doctor Doralean’s report was a very thorough, professional assessment of Earlyan’s profile, based on the tests that the school demanded of him when we sent his application. So I’m afraid that this comes as no surprise, because the tests had already predicted that something like this could happen at any given time.”

“Besides,” added dad quickly, before Earlyan could refute, “none of this justifies your terrible grades this year, son. You’ve always done much better, and you know your mother and I always expect the best of you, Earlyan.”

Tests and more slamming tests! A despairing Earlyan thought. Suddenly the adversity he was facing here seemed worse than all the trials and tribulations that his favorite fictional characters had to endure.

My heroes have to face great challenges and imposing villains, yes, but the bad guys are never their parents! Well, that wasn’t entirely true for the villain in his favorite story did turn out to be none other than the hero’s father. Yes, but even in that case the hero was no mere thirteen-year old boy!

“But, dad,” he replied at last, doing his best to keep his dignity intact despite the overwhelming evidence that mom had just presented against him, “how am I supposed to keep my focus in class, when I have to keep looking over my shoulder all the time, just to see what those bullies are planning to do to me next?”

He raised his hands and brought them up in front of his face in a desperate plea. I won’t cry, I won’t sulk, and I will definitely not pout like a little girl! I’m only standing up for my rights, is all.

“I know how you must feel, son.” Dad’s voice was sympathetic but firm. He raised a hand and gave it a slow shake in his son’s direction as a sort of peace offering. “Still, this doesn’t justify your behavior in school this morning. Especially the way you yelled at those two girls to . . . defend yourself.

“Taking justice into your own hands is never the answer, son. Just look at what that got you this morning. Now, like your mother, I certainly don’t like the way Grace Montblond chose to deal with the situation. But it’s precisely this sort of behavior on your part that keeps you in therapy.”

“Besides,” mom decided to add more salt to the wound, “your father and I are making a huge effort to pay for your school, sweetheart. It’s not fair to see all the Unicoin invested in your education go down the drain. You must learn the importance and the value of money, and how hard it is to earn it.”

Mom, at least, should have been on his side . . . or so Earlyan had been hoping. The attack was relentless, though, both foes coming at him from all sides at once, offering no pity and no quarter.

This isn’t how battles are supposed to be fought, he remembered from the stories. It’s always the good guys against the bad guys, one on one!

Still, mom had just lowered her guard for a second and her son was too smart not to take advantage of the opportunity to launch his counterstrike.

“Well,” he said, as casually as possible under the circumstances, “in that case the problem can be easily solved. All you have to do is transfer me to a new school. You know, one that isn’t as expensive as all that . . . ”

Alas dad wouldn’t budge. “Taking into account your low grades, and your more than questionable behavior at school this year, you really think you’re allowed any demands here, young man?”

Before continuing to berate his boy he turned quickly to mom, who gave a prompt nod to show her full support for her husband’s words. “Your mother’s just told me you don’t want to go to therapy anymore either. And well, since the treatment doesn’t seem to be working, I’d consider suspending it if possible.

“But you know that decision’s not in our hands, Earlyan. And now, you’re telling me you don’t want to go to school anymore? Let’s see then, what in the blazes do you want to do with your life, Earlyan Marnes?”

“Now, hold on a second, dad!” he wailed, sharply. “How am I supposed to know what I want to do with the rest of my life, when I’m only thirteen? Plus I’ve never said I don’t want to go to school anymore. All I know is that I’ve had more than enough of this situation and I have no idea on how to fix it.

“I’m sick and tired of having to watch my back all the slamming time, and of having to put up with so much abuse, every single slamming day! Maybe . . . maybe I should move out to the Desert Continent, like all those crazies and misfits living there. Because that’s all I am to all those kids at school, dad! They call me a loser and a freak and . . . and much worse, too!”

Mom and dad exchanged brief glances filled with concern before mom rolled her eyes and shook her head reluctantly.

Dad would not be as forgiving, though. “This is all because of that Desert Stones, or . . . Rocks, or whatever you call that music you like so much, Earlyan.”

He turned his attention to his wife next, a look of frustrated exasperation etched on his benign features. “These so-called musicians fill our children’s heads with nonsense through their stupid lyrics about the Spark of Life, the Awakening of the Conscience, and who knows what else!”

Dad’s forefinger shot up imperiously in his son’s direction, his full attention back on Earlyan in a flash. “There will be no more of that . . . crap you call music, not while you live under my roof. Understood, Earlyan?”

“What?” A profound mix of confusion and anger took hold of him at once, a thick knot forming in his throat as he spoke. “Are you seriously telling me that I cannot even enjoy one of the few thinks that I like, anymore?”

I won’t cry; I’m almost a man full grown now. Besides, how is all this stupid stuff supposed to make my life better? I won’t sulk. I won’t pout. I won’t . . .

His eyes began to water, but he wouldn’t give his parents [his enemies!] the pleasure of watching his defeat. He sprang up from his seat as if shot by a turbocannon, bolted for the family room’s door, ran straight down the hallway and did not stop until he reached his room at full speed.

Some ten minutes later he was lying flat on his back, his head leaning softly against the header as his mind went over the scene at the family room, over and over again.

I failed so miserably!

He’d solemnly vowed to himself that he would keep calm through thick and thin, and that he’d try to reason with his parents because . . . well, that was about the only chance for a positive outcome in a battle where all odds had been pitted against him even before the first shot was fired.

He knew going into the family chat that his parents would never take him out of the bastard therapy. But being transferred to a new school was a completely different thing altogether; one that he’d fervently wished his parents would allow.

If you’d only kept your stupid temper under control and your head as cool as the heroes in the stories.

Oh, but no, siree!

Earlyan had thrown a tantrum and cried and whimpered like a babe, all but unable to climb out of the deep hole he’d dug for himself with his childish rants. He gave in to impatience as opposed to keeping a cool head on his shoulders to think of a way to overcome the great challenge rising before him.

To think he’d dared think of himself as an almost full grown man!

You’re nothing other than a miserable, childish loser and a freak, Marnes, whispered the little voice in his head. Yes, you are a freak and a coward who gives in and lowers his arms at the slightest sign of adversity.

A loser and a freak . . .

Like all the boys and girls at school loved to remind him all the slammed time.

A loser and a freak . . .

That was why he was in therapy. His brain produced too much energy to function properly.

A loser and a freak

A sudden knock on his door brought his attention back to the here and now.

If he was right, this was the call he’d been expecting since the moment he locked himself in his room. And if this was the case, it meant he still knew his parents as well as he thought, at least. Perhaps he still had the slightest of chances . . . assuming that he kept his cool this time, of course.

“Come in,” was all he said, allowing for dad to come into his bedroom.

As soon as dad let himself in, his eyes roamed the room uncomfortably whilst he approached the bed. “I’m truly sorry, son,” he muttered, as he set his heavy frame on the edge of the bed.

Earlyan straightened at once. He fixed his gaze on dad and his face became a mask of serenity in spite of the great anxiety that took hold of him as he waited to hear what dad was about to say.

“I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that,” dad resumed in full earnest. “You’re a good boy and I have no right to tell you what kind of music you should listen to . . . or what kind of clothes to wear, for that matter. That’s not my place. But you must understand that all I said to you in the family room is because your current situation has got me worried sick, son.”

“No, dad,” said Earlyan, quietly. His breathing, as soft and firm as his voice, helped to keep his head clear. “It was all my fault. I never should have raised my voice at you. So please, forgive me.”

Dad’s lips curved into a smile as he gave his boy a nod and a little pat on the leg, as if to indicate that the apology was accepted. “Listen, son, your mother and I love you and your sister more than you know. That’s why we wish nothing but the best for you two. But mom and I are also aware that what you think is best for your children doesn’t always go hand in hand with what they want for themselves.

“So, after talking it over with your mother, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Green Mound School may not be the best choice for you at this time. With this in mind, I’ve come to make you a deal . . . ”

A renewed sense of hope surged inside of Earlyan. His body tensed with anticipation and his eyes widened as he waited eagerly to hear his father’s offer.

“The school year’s almost over,” said dad. “So it’s too late for a change now. But there’s still enough time for you to improve upon your grades. If you salvage the year I promise mom and I will transfer you to the school of your choosing next year.”

Earlyan’s face lit up like the black of night under the fireworks set off to celebrate Reform Day.

His son’s reaction brought another grin to dad’s lips. He closed his eyes for an instant and raised his right hand to make another concession. “I’ll even let you keep listening to that music you like so much. Just keep it at a decent volume, please!” He gave such a contagious chuckle that Earlyan was forced to join him at once. “What do you think?”

What do I think? Earlyan gave one of the happiest nods of his life. Finally!

He still had three months of school left, more than enough time to improve upon his grades, as long as he focused as hard as possible. That would be a walk in the park, however, for he was as smart as everyone claimed, and he knew it.

He just didn’t like hearing it all the slamming time, because together with therapy, his superior intelligence was part of what made him so different. That was precisely the reason why his peers at school rejected and shunned him. Though everything in life was what made him so different, it would seem now . . .

“Now, as far as therapy goes,” added dad, the look on his face so serious that Earlyan immediately realized he wouldn’t like what his father was about to say. “Well, life is though, son; it’s a hard struggle that can also be very unfair at times. Yet we all have to wage this battle.

“There are no such things as magic, prodigies or anything of the kind, Early; like all those stories you like so much have led you to believe. That’s mere fiction. In the real world, what you see is what you get and you must make ends meet any which way that you can.

“In real life, you must work hard just to put food on the table, whether you like your job or not. People don’t live off of dreams, my son. That’s why I must insist, you have to work hard to get by, and don’t think you’ll ever see your dreams fulfilled. We must accept our lot in life and take full advantage of our assets as best we can. Someday you’ll come to see what I mean with your own eyes.”

Dad gave a long sigh before resuming. “I know how much of a dreamer you are, my son. I’m only telling you this so you may know the truth. It’s better for you to start coping with reality right now instead of suffering a major disappointment down the road.

“Don’t dream impossible dreams, my son, for you will never see them fulfilled. This life’s all we have. Nothing came before it and nothing will come after it, either. So that’s why you’ll keep attending therapy and taking your medicine.”

“But—” Earlyan tried to protest but dad’s index finger pointed firmly at him, scarce centimeters from his face, stopped him cold.

Once he made certain his boy would remain quiet, dad resumed. “Don’t you think I haven’t noticed how you’ve stopped taking your meds lately. As of today, and as part of our deal, you will take your pills every night and continue going to therapy without complaint.”

When he saw the shadow that fell on his boy’s youthful features dad gave his head a slow shake, another smile forming on his lips as he did. “I really hate doing this to you, son, believe me. But as of tonight I’ll be counting the pills contained in that little flask on your nightstand every night, to make sure that you’re fulfilling your part of our bargain.”

This time Earlyan’s nod was a lot less enthusiastic, yet nod he did.

He had no choice but to accept dad’s terms, and he knew it. For his part, dad leaned forward to give his son’s wild mop of hair a hearty shake before rising from the bed and leaving the room with one last, big grin on his lips.

That night Earlyan waited.

He waited patiently for everyone in the house to be asleep before opening the small polyplastic flask rising on his nightstand. Then he waited some more . . .

When instinct told him that the time was right, he opened the flask and thrust his hand in the tiny container. His fingers reached for one of the small white pills lying therein before heading for the saniroom that he shared with Tyrie.

Down the hall he went, stealthily and cautiously, his steps nimble as a housecat’s. Once he reached his destination, he opened the door as slowly and quietly as possible, and slipped into the saniroom. He approached the toilet, opened the lid and tossed the bastard pill into the water below, pouring all of his strength into the throw, as if the slamming medication were to blame for all his troubles and tribulations.

Sudden, inexplicable relief flooded through him as if that thing known as the Voice of your Conscience were telling him that he’d done the right thing.

At any rate, the important thing’s that dumping the slammed pill straight into the toilet felt great!

The UniCon could force him to remain in therapy for five more long years. But there was no power on the face of Akaladia that could force Earlyan Marnes to do anything that went against his stubborn, unbreakable will.

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