Chapter 1 The Park & the City The Boy with the Golden Heart by Ian William Dunlop
JOHN ran like hell through the trees, between trunks massive and small. He dared not stop to look behind him. His pursuers were fast and catching up, he was sure. If he could only outpace them to the hiding places in the centre of the park, he might make it to safety. Leaves and branches whipped past his face as he ran. He gulped lungfuls of air, breathing fast and heavy in his race for escape. If they caught him, they would tear him to pieces. His limbs and internal organs would litter the forest floor, until the pack was finished devouring his remains. When they were done with him, there would be only scattered remnants. Bones bloodied and etched with the marks of tooth and fang would lay strewn about. A heap of rib cage and a skull that were once part of a set, previously connected to the now missing limbs of his body, would lie as a testament to his failure, each remaining bone barely connected with another. He would never be found, and the others would wonder what had ever become of him. His tattered clothes would decay, along with this remainder of his carcass, rotting on the forest floor, heavy with the smell of his death.
John plowed ruts in the earth under his feet as he stopped and turned in his mad dash. He had reached the centre of the park, near to the hiding places, but he couldn’t remember whether to turn left or right. He listened feverishly, but there was only silence behind him now. The killers that chased him appeared to be gone.
His daydreaming came to an end. Daydreaming was one of those things he was particularly good at. He continued along the path through Evansgate Fields, toward the centre of the city at a more leisurely pace now, catching his breath.
Evansgate was a very old park, saved for a hundred years against the onslaught of concrete and asphalt. It was empty now, except for birds and four legged creatures. Two legged creatures that slept during the day came out at night, and John wouldn’t walk through here at night. As a rule, no one did. No one you could trust anyway.
But for now, the sky was bright, the sun slipping in and out of the cotton clouds, and John’s eyes were now examining the ground, as they usually were, searching for things. Scraps of this and that, perhaps a lost coin or two. He kept his eyes open for abandoned or lost items he could gather into a little pile at home, and sell to scrap dealers for a few cents, or sometimes a few dollars.
He knew that his mother and he were poor, and could use the extra money that the scrap would bring, but it wasn’t really why John searched. He just liked to search. He saw himself as a seeker of sorts. He learned things from the items he found. Before he traded them in, they told him stories, of where they had been and what they had been a part of. He filled in the blanks of their journey from their once shiny world, to their semi-demise in the dust and dirt of Evansgate Fields. Then he became a part of their continuing story, as he carried them to the scrap dealers. He was a little part of something each time. He wished he could be part of something much larger, but… well, he also knew his reality. Little things were his reality. The little things he watched for and found helped his mother and him get along in their world of tight finances, and so he became good at it. He had an eye for it. He loved the smile on his mother’s face when he brought home another find, or a nickel or a dollar. He loved that smile more than anything. It was enough. It was all he wanted, to make her smile.
So far, today, nothing showed itself, in amongst the twigs and stones, and boulders. The occasional animal scooted by. Mostly rabbits. Birds twittered in the branches. He sat himself down, with his back against a boulder, in a little grove of bushes. It was a nice private place under the sun to rest, to listen, and to breathe the scent of the new leaves. He pushed a small stick he carried in his hand around idly in the dirt while he relaxed, dislodging small stones, and making designs in the dry dirt patches near him. He lay on his side and scraped the stick back and forth in front of him while the birds chirped.
He lay, he thought, what must have been twenty or thirty minutes in a snooze, and decided he should move along. Clumsily righting himself, he began to stand, putting his foot into that rut he and his stick had been constructing earlier, and he toppled over fast, slipping on something. “Damn stone!” he exclaimed, his face full of the dust he had encountered on the solid end of his fall.
He stood again to inspect the rut and the adversarial rock that had felled him. He intended to kick it back into the Stone Age, where it had come from, but this one glinted. Then his practiced eye for finding useful things took over.
“What’s this?” he muttered, and bent down to inspect it.
Brushing aside the dust, it sparkled beautifully, just a square inch, but bright gold. Retrieving his stick, he crouched and began to dig around it. More shiny gold appeared as he dug at the dirt that covered it. The object was stuck solidly in the ground. He pried under it with his stick and it popped out suddenly, free of the earth, and lay on the ground, visible as a whole entity now. John gawked at the sight of it. He had never seen anything like it before. It gleamed brightly, even with the dust of the ground on it, and appeared to have no scratches or dull spots. Untarnished, it looked as new as it must have looked when it had been made. Leaning forward and extending his arm, John put his hand over it and picked it up. The object was about the size of his palm and had a strange shape to it, with protrusions like a starfish. His fingers fit nicely between them. It wasn’t made of stone; it was metal, and warm. That’s odd, he thought. It should have been cold, coming out of the ground as it did, but it was warm. For just a tiny moment, John thought he saw the object move in his hand, ever so slightly, as if it was stretching, but decided he was mistaken.
Making himself a little more comfortable, he came off of his knees and sat, his eyes never leaving the object in his hand. What is this thing? In his mind, he began his habitual story telling. Who made this? Where did it come from, and how did it find its way here into my hands?
“I’ll need to keep this safe.” John wrapped the golden starfish in a small cloth he carried with him, placed it into his shirt pocket, and gasped loudly as the world around him disappeared. All of it, all at once, went black. Every sight around him faded away as if the sun had suddenly vanished. He heard a loud and low moan crawling up from… from where? He couldn’t tell where it was coming from; it seemed to be all around him. He could feel it shake him, his body vibrating hard with the low frequency of the sound, and then his limbs began to tingle. The sound abruptly stopped, and there was a moment of complete silence. Then another sound arrived, much more hostile than the first. It split the air, like a long ripping, tearing peal of thunder, and with it came a long, bright, thin, undulating red line rushing toward his eyes. He closed them tight, gasping in fear, while something searing hot and aggressive grabbed his heart and enveloped it. He convulsed once, then again, and then again, and then the red line, the deep blackness and the ripping sounds faded, as his consciousness left him. John transitioned into sleep, unmoving on the ground of his little hidden glade.
When he awoke, the sun was still up, but had moved an hour forward. He perceived a slight sheen in the leaves and the rocks that made them appear more saturated looking than usual, but then the intense colours faded a little and disappeared, his sight returning to normal. He was a little lightheaded, but felt good. He thought he must have been dreaming, but of what he couldn’t remember. Pushing himself upright, he placed his hand over the rut in the ground and suddenly remembered everything. He jumped backwards, away from the hole, staring wildly at it. Then he reached into his shirt pocket for the golden star, but it was gone.
As he held his hands over his pocket, he felt the warmth, and the beat. Slowly, reluctantly, he undid the buttons of his shirt and looked down at his chest. It was there. Not on his chest, but in it. He could see the shape of the thing under his skin, and he could see it glow, just slightly. He panicked and began clawing and pushing at the thing in his chest, and began sweating and breathing fast. The thing beat faster, pounding against his hand. He let go, dizzy with his heavy breathing, and frantically steadied himself against the rock in the glen, moving his eyes down to look again at his beating chest. The thing slowed its rhythm and he calmed a little, then it slowed some more and he settled a little more. He looked around him, and saw a slight sheen over everything again. It faded quickly, and then he felt oddly good. “Humph,” he muttered. He looked down again at his chest. Only this time, he strangely accepted the new addition, and did not ask himself why. It beat normally, and there was only the barest outline showing of the golden star. His mind suddenly ignored it, and the initial fear and strangeness of it drifted from his thoughts as if they had never been there.
John looked around him, and up at the sky, and thought that he had better head for home. The birds twittered as usual, as he made his way back to the trail. He felt lightheaded, but his balance was fine, and soon he was merrily sauntering down the familiar trail, looking at everything as if it was new. He continued on his former journey, toward the center of the city. Only this time he wasn’t looking down around his feet for scrap. Now he looked everywhere, up and around, and breathed the air, as he had never done before.
Before long, the sounds in the air began to change. John approached the concrete and asphalt, and traffic of the city. He stepped out of the park onto the sidewalk, still slightly lightheaded, but feeling somewhat amused with himself. Crossing the street, he turned right and began the familiar walk to his apartment. The buildings were old here, in this somewhat shoddy old heart of the city, and most needed repair of one kind or another, but it was home to him and his mom, and he liked it just fine. Up to the end of the block, left for another block, and then right, passing the alley that was along the way to Mr. Aristotle’s pizza shop. That was the most direct route home. Across the street, Mr. Aristotle waved as John passed.
Nothing escaped the eyes of Mr. Aristotle. He was a nice man, and vigilant. John liked him, and the free pepperoni sticks he sometimes received from him. After passing the pizza shop, John crossed over the road to the opposite sidewalk. One more block up and he would nearly be home.
Just passing the next alley, John heard the familiar and unwelcome voice of Branigan, and Branigan’s mean little minions. There they stood, commanding the corner at the end of the block, taunting John, as they liked to do, often and menacingly.
John stopped and looked for a way out, or around. Maybe the alley he had just passed would suffice. He could take the alley west and another two blocks north and arrive home by the back door instead of the front. Branigan liked to shove him around, punch him until he bruised, and take the things he had found. John occasionally tried to stand up to Branigan and most often found himself face down on the sidewalk with a bloody nose and a parting kick from one of Branigan’s idiot followers. Today, he didn’t feel like confronting the bully. He turned to go back to the alley, but stopped short when he heard the next sound. It was a high-pitched shriek, from a voice he recognized. It was his friend, a girl named Megan. John turned slowly around to face Branigan and his little gang of morons. Megan struggled as Branigan pulled her out from behind his body. She stood stooped over and obviously in pain. Branigan had Megan held fast by her ear. Imprisoned in one of his large fists, Megan’s ear was twisted over where it normally wouldn’t be. She flailed at him as she shrieked, and tried to remove his grip from her, but she was obviously no match for Branigan’s bulk. She pleaded with him to stop it and let her go.
“Hey Johnny,” yelled Branigan, “Look what I’ve got! It’s your whiny little girlfriend, isn’t it? You better come and get her, because I think she’s gonna’ cry.”
“Let her go Branigan,” yelled John, not feeling especially authoritative.
“Come and get her ya chicken,” yelled Branigan in return, promptly twisting Megan’s ear again, eliciting another hurtful wail. John could see another beating coming his way, but began to walk toward the conflict anyway. He couldn’t leave Megan undefended, even though it probably meant a fat lip or a black eye for him, or both, and he felt the reluctance in himself as he continued his approach. But, halfway down the remainder of the block, John began to feel something unfamiliar. Something not quite like anything he had felt previously when attempting bravery. He couldn’t name the feeling, but his body seemed to know what it was. Unquestioned certainty. He began to pick up his pace. His stride lengthened, his speed increasing, his body leaning into it. He could see everything clearly, that slight sheen he had experienced earlier in the park, back again and adding clarity. He felt confident in his movements and purpose. He was running full out now, getting closer, moving faster, harder, his muscles forming into higher tension as he approached the conflict that was Branigan. John raised his right arm and connected with Branigan’s forehead. He plowed right through him, spinning him out of control into the street, long before Branigan could drive his recoiled right arm forward in attack.
Megan fled the scene, now that she was released from Branigan’s grip. John was already on the other side of the street, turning and looking at the backside of Branigan’s head as Branigan sat dazed in the middle of the traffic, horns blaring at him, while a car screeched to a halt, almost running him over. Branigan’s minions scattered and disappeared.
Everything in John’s vision was now very crisp and clear. He turned and headed for home, a stoic figure in the noisy city. The conflict over, John immediately became unconcerned. He just turned back to his former task of going home. His impassivity to the violent event with Branigan did not cross his mind at all as he walked. John was not really thinking of anything now, but he felt good, and as he walked, he looked at the normal sights in his neighborhood with a new curiosity. It was as if someone else was in control of him and just bringing him along for the ride. His heightened awareness dissipated as he walked along, without him noticing it going, and by the time he was almost home, it was gone altogether.
Chapter 2 The Transition The Boy with the Golden Heart by Ian William Dunlop
AS JOHN reached the entrance to the apartment building where he and his mom lived, Megan came out from behind the stairwell and stood looking at him with an odd scrutiny.
“What are you looking at?” John asked, being a little mystified at Megan’s inspection.
“I’m looking at you,” said Megan in a soft, almost wondrous voice. Her eyes searched, looking John over. She began slowly walking around him, checking him up and down. “Something’s different,” she said, “I can’t exactly see it, but it’s like I can feel it, and well, I dunno, something’s just different, that’s all.”