Strange Lands Chapter 1 Preview

 

This book is a Young Adult Book. Ages 10 on up will love this fantasy!

Chapter 1 PREVIEW:

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Chapter 1: Born to Race

Allan Westerfield strolls down a long corridor toward the huge indoor pool, hearing roars from the crowd and echoes from the swim meet’s announcer. His nerves are tight, twitching. He’s used to being in front of crowds wearing only a speedo, that’s not his problem. This is the largest crowd he’s ever swam in front of, and the most important race of his burgeoning swim career.

A man emerges from the shadow of a side doorway, startling Allan. It’s his large bear-like principal, Mr. Greggory, wearing a dark blue shirt and a silver tie, the school colors. The man is an imposing figure; six foot something, black hair, graying at the temples and a stare that can freeze souls.

“Before you swim, Mr. Westerfield,” Mr. Greggory begins, his voice deep like an Adams Family member. “I feel obligated to remind you of why you were let into our prestigious school in the first place. You’re here to win. If you do not live up to your repute, you will eventually be expelled due to your poor grades and lackluster attitude.”

“Uh–“ Allan’s tongue is tied, his entire body stiff as a board.

“I was informed yesterday that you failed your last math exam. You cannot swim with your grades.” Mr. Greggory lets his scowl fall from his face and replaces it with a large, fake smile.

Another swimmer in a bright red one-piece, passes, her towel over her shoulder, earbuds in her ears.

Mr. Greggory sighs and straightens his tie. “I’m a forgiving man, as you know. So, I’ve decided not to tell the judges. All you must do is beat Southern Catholic High. We’ll have to do something about that test score for your record to stand, but I’m willing to help so that our school reputation is not tarnished.”

Allan swallows hard, his voice lost in his chest. He had no idea he’d failed his math test and that it dropped his GPA to an unacceptable level. He hated school, expressly Greenville Academy, especially the teachers, particularly the principal.

Mr. Greggory rests his large hand on Allan’s shoulder, pressing down firmly. “If you do not win, I’ll see that any future you think you have in this sport is thoroughly demolished. Do I make myself clear?”

Allan nods and is pushed down the corridor toward the pool.

The indoor pool is huge, with bleachers on either side of the swim lanes; the air sharp with the smell of chlorine. Allan’s mother is sitting near the main entrance next to his friend Max. The rest of the stands are full of classmates and strangers. Allan mills near his team, waiting until his name is called. Other swimmers speak to him, but his brain can’t focus on what they say. All he can do is concentrate on winning his race. If he fails, his life will go down in a ball of flame.

Allan’s name is called and he steps to the edge of the pool. His feet feel numb on the cold, wet tiles, and he can’t wait to jump in the water. The announcer reads his stats and finally, Allan is allowed onto the dive block. He waits as the other swimmers are introduced, breathing deep and ignoring the doubt that is always with him. He never expected to win this meet. His time wasn’t even close to the dead-eyed Chris Tanker, the Southern Catholic’s swim god, who was two lanes away, waving to the crowd, pumping his fist in the air.

The swimmers ready and the crowd goes silent.

The gun goes off. Allan jumps, his start flawlessly timed. He powers through water like a harpoon, forgetting the ten other kids he swam next to. It’s only him now, like he likes it. The water is another world to Allan, a strange atmosphere, but freeing, the only place he feels at home and in control. When he swims, he imagines himself in a deep ocean, full of other creatures or sunken cities. He usually pretends he’s being chased by great white sharks or by enormous squid.

Not today. Today, Allan is focused on nothing but movement. His head breaks into the air and he sucks in a breath. He kicks as hard as he can, and reaches as far as his arms will go. Move it! Faster! he yells to himself.

The intense roar of the crowd deadens every time Allan’s head falls below the waterline. But when his ears rise above the splashes he can hear them again. Someone yells his name, and then the sound vanishes, replaced by the silent peacefulness of being underwater. Allan feels his heart beat in his chest like a caged monster. Energy pumps through his body at dizzying speeds. His arms pull the water, and his legs power a tornado behind him.

Allan’s eyes follow the dark blue tiles at the bottom of the pool until they end in a ‘T.’ At the perfect moment, he tucks his head under him and twists. Memory, deep in his muscles, guides his every move.

The boy in the next lane falls farther and farther behind. Allan’s lead fuels the clamor of the crowd. The echo is almost deafening. He knew he was fast, but this is a state competition and on paper his opponents are all faster than him. He gasps air and powers himself through the water.

Push it now! Allan strains every muscle, burns through every breath and lets himself become utterly silent inside.

Allan reaches up and touches the end of his lane, letting his body collide with the pool wall. His ears drain of water and the roar of the crowd powers out the announcer’s voice. Allan looks around. His mother jumps up and down, so is Max. Everyone’s looking at him. Confused, Allan looks at the other swimmers. Most smile or nod to him, Chris scowls.

Allan had won! His time was relayed by the announcer over and over. He’d beat some kind of national record, and by the look of it, by half a second! Allan holds up his hand, and the crowd claps a thunderous response.

So goes Allan Westerfield’s thirteen to fourteen, one-hundred-meter, local swimming committee, freestyle race. He won’t get kicked out of school and to top it off, he’s now qualified for the Nationals.

Allan lets the water fall off his swim cap and cascade down his face as he listens to beating of his heart. He’s light headed, but so happy. Swimming is his purpose, his reason for living. Allan looks across the sea of happy faces in the bleachers and listens to the clapping.

Allan grabs a towel from his coach, who’s as happy as an over-fed dolphin, turns and sits. He’s got one more race to win, but any worry or doubt vanishes. He can do it, there’s too much on the line.

His mother mouths something to him, her cheeks red from smiling and squealing.

From the entrance walks slightly crooked man, shorter than average and with a long brown pony tail. His math teacher, Mr. Morgan! What is he doing here? The guy was always trying to be cool and hip, but he’s so strict no one really likes him.

Mr. Morgan finds the principal sitting in the front row. The two chat as Mr. Morgan shakes his head. The principal waves him off, but Mr. Morgan won’t go.

“No,” Allan whispers. He knows what’s happening. Dread fills Allan’s chest like heavy lead balls.

A cascade effect happens, similar to falling dominoes. Morgan speaks to a referee, who speaks to the judge and recorder, who then scowl and stare. The referee finds Allan’s coach, who approaches with a sour face.

“Pack it up,” coach says. “You can’t finish the meet. Get your grades in line and do it again next year. Got it?”

Allan stands, stifling his tears. He notices the principal speaking to his mother and as her smile collapses into dust, Allan’s knees weaken to the point of overcooked spaghetti.

The crowd is still cheering for Allan, some try to catch his eye and wave. They’ll hear the news, soon. Allan feels the heat of embarrassment hit him head-on and rushes to the dressing room. The quiet, tile covered room allows his anger to surface. He changes into his blue and gray school uniform and slams his locker closed. Why do I have to know math anyway? None of it matters to me!

After gathering his things, he leaves, meeting his mother in the hall outside the locker room. His mother’s face is different, altered somehow.

She holds up the test Allan failed. Her grip has slightly crumpled the paper. Even still, Allan can clearly see the big red F on the top.

“Boy, you’ve messed up.”

“But.”

“Not another word. I’m ready to blow like a volcano. Let’s go.”

“You can’t swim with grades like these,” Mrs. Westerfield hisses, keeping her voice as low as possible. She grabs his shirt collar and tugs him toward the oversized mahogany door that leads to the main hallway.

Allan doesn’t say a word. He knew this day would come. It’s calling out the beast in his mother, and no athletic award could ease her anger. He wants to shrink into a tiny marble and roll away or clink down a gutter and into a storm drain where he will be safe.

Mrs. Westerfield practically drags him down the wide hallway. Its walls have accumulated a myriad of awards, photos, and student artwork. He’d won the one-hundred-meter freestyle, so he should get his picture on the wall, but he won’t. His math teacher has stripped him of his victory.

“You weren’t supposed to race today. You have to have a 3.2 GPA to play sports. You don’t have a 3.2 GPA. Do you know what that means?”

Allan shakes his head.

“You’re in the best private school in the state. Your father and I aren’t paying for you to swim. We’re paying for you to learn.” For a few moments, the only sound is the clicking of Mrs. Westerfield’s heels on the tile floor. “Besides, without that GPA you will be disqualified. All your efforts might go down the drain.”

Allan looks at the polished wood-paneled walls of Greenville Academy. He’s just won a state competition, but will be stripped of his trophy. It will go to that smarmy Chris guy. How can they do this? I still beat him. It has nothing to do with not turning in some work and failing one little math test.

Coming to Greenville Academy was supposed to make things better. At first its prestigious austere haunted Allan every time he walked through the towering front doors. Everyone is too smart, too driven, too…something he isn’t. Until taking the lead on the swim team, Allan had never felt like he belonged at the academy. They do not want average kids, kids that can’t figure out algebra or memorize the periodic table or grasp Latin. He hates Latin. Now he’ll be kicked out and have to go back to the public school, who didn’t even have a swim team.

Today, the kids that usually ignored him cheered his name. Their parents will talk about him. He is now the fastest swimmer Greenville has ever seen.

“You’ve never done this before,” Mrs. Westerfield hisses. She is normally a lean woman, but her outrage amplifies her muscles and veins. Her hair and eye make-up appear darker in her rage though it is mid-day and sunny. She’s normally very pretty, a good mom. But on occasions like this, she morphs into a surly, fire-breathing troll queen whose cruelty reigns over Allan and his father. Her nails dig into his arm as she pulls him down the steps toward the car that idles at the curb. They feel like claws. “You’ve never lied to me like this. You are grounded from Max and your video games for a month, or more. Your father and I haven’t quite decided, yet.  Unless you bring up these grades and fast, you will not swim on any team again. Do you hear me?”

Allan nods. He’s shorter than average with light brown hair like his dad, thin with blue eyes like his mom. He’s thirteen and a half and keenly aware that his mother is dragging him around like a child. School has been over for a couple of hours, but everyone still in the library can see his humiliation. “Your teacher said you’re failing assignments and doodling on everything. She’s caught you drawing a six-headed sea creature in a textbook. That’s vandalism. You are way better than this.” Allan sees troll hair sprouting from under his mother’s shirtsleeves. “It’s not just math. Mr. Morgan just got out of a meeting with your science and your language arts teachers. I just learned that you’ve flushed a third of your grade by not doing a science project. Why wouldn’t you do one? You didn’t even tell me you had one this quarter.” When Allan doesn’t answer, she bends to his eye level. “Answer me or so help me God.”

“I, uh—” Tears roll down his face. “I didn’t know what to do. Everyone had good ideas but me. I couldn’t think of anything.”

“Your brain works, I know it does.” Mrs. Westerfield opens the car door for Allan, the hunchback growing on her shoulders. The troll queen will eat me alive, Allan thinks. She taps her foot as Allan hops in, and then she slams the door shut. To Allan’s horror, his dad is driving.

“What in the hell are you doing? I know you’re only in the eighth grade, but if you mess this up, you won’t get into an Ivy League school. You can kiss Princeton goodbye.” Allan’s father clicks the car into gear and pulls into traffic, squealing the tires.

His mother holds up the test. “Allan failed his math mid-term. Not a low C or a D. A big fat F. He also missed his science project, but never misses swim practice or his TV shows.” Fangs have grown from her distended lower jaw. She snorts. Or did she? Allan rubs his eyes, and his mother looks normal again, though she continues her rant, “You’re father could have helped you with math. And you could have asked me for some ideas about your science project. I’m an Ornithologist. What about a project on rare birds? Remember the Yellow Bellied Canaries I studied last year? They turned red in a single generation. They would have made a wonderful science project.” She grunts in frustration, something she does when words cannot convey her emotions. The grunt is a good sign, however. It means she’s running out of steam.

Allan hopes he can still avoid being her main course. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think . . .” Allan tries to find a piece of fingernail to chew, but they have been chomped away already. He wants to tell his father that Princeton means nothing to him, but Allan bites his tongue. He knows better than to dismiss his father’s holy Princeton.

“That’s right. You didn’t think!” Mr. Westerfield snaps. He changes lanes and yells out the window at a car that zips by. “Watch it! Idiot drivers are everywhere.”

“Language, Warren.”

“This is your fault, you know. You’re the one that read all those crazy kid books by Adam Boldary to him when he was younger. You know, the ones with those crazy creatures and worlds and Morty’s adventures at sea. It messed up his brain. All he thinks about is adventuring and swimming and diving.”

“Okay, that makes absolutely no sense,” Mrs. Westerfield retorts.

Allan sniffles and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He hates himself when he makes his parents mad. He feels stupid, worthless. The science project scared him to death. School scares him. The only thing he really wants to do is swim and go on adventures. He thinks about racing other kids and going to the Olympics. He wants to explore the castles of Europe and hunt for elusive sea creatures and hold the record for the deepest free dive. The Discovery channel has tons of people that make good money doing that stuff.

Mrs. Westerfield turns to Allan. She takes a deep breath. Her usually tame hair is ruffled and messy. “Look, as you get older school gets harder. You’ve got to come to us for help. That’s what we’re here for.

“The world has too many Adam Boldary wannabes and head-screwed-on-backward athletes. We need scientists and mathematicians. That’s where the money is. That’s where you’ll have a future.”

Allan is about to say he won’t mess up again, but his mother cuts him off.

“I’m still mad,” she says, then turns away looking more tired than ferocious.

“You’ve got such a powerful drive. Look how you push yourself in the water. Why not push your mind like that? Science is only half academic. The other half is passion, which you have in spades. Just forget about the fantasies for a while. You can always race and dive and explore places; you only have one chance to get middle school right.”

Mr. Westerfield wears new leather gloves that have little holes cut around the knuckles. They creak like a rusty hinge when he squeezes the wheel. Traffic is thick, not unusual for this time of day. Allan looks out the window. The sun slips behind a dark cloud. I could do a science project about birds? How boring, Allan thinks. Now if that bird has short razor-sharp teeth, that would be cool.

Movement catches his eye as the car slows to a stop. A beetle with a black shell and an oblong body lands on the edge of the window. Beyond it, a swarm of beetles leap from car to car. Do beetles have parents that yell at them? Do they have homework that makes life difficult and cruel? If given the choice, would that beetle trade its meager life for mine? Allan taps the glass twice where the beetle is. To his surprise, it taps its front leg twice. Allan taps the glass three times. The beetle copies him. His eyes widen, and his breath catches in his chest.

The car starts to move again, sweeping past the swarm of beetles. The one beetle holds on for as long as it can until the wind whips it away. Allan slips out of the top part of the seatbelt and cranes his neck to look out the back windshield so he can see the beetle join the swarm. There are so many. He’s never seen a cloud of bugs so thick. It rises over the cars and into the sky like dark smoke.

Suddenly, the car is hit head on by a much larger vehicle. Airbags explode from the door panels and hammer Allan from the side. His lap belt catches his waist, but his unprotected torso snaps forward. Glass fills the air like confetti and sounds like a million wind chimes. Silence envelops him, and he sees only a bright light. Another car slams into the opposite side and flips the car over. Time slows as the vehicle absorbs the energy of the collision. The roof caves in as easily as crumpling paper. Then Allan blinks out, enveloped in silence.

 

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