Legal Stuff: The following is a speculative fan fiction based on Dungeons & Dragons, the animated series. The characters portrayed in this story are not mine (with the exception of a few minor ones) nor are they being used with the written consent of those who do own the copyright. That honor belongs to Marvel Productions, TSR Inc., and their most recent successors. Credit is given by this story's author to them, as well as those creators of any other copyrighted labels used herein (such as Disney, Six Flags, Pontiac, Ford, and others). No infringement of any kind is intended, and no money is being made on my part. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this story, as well as relate to events contained within, as long as proper notice and credit is given to its author. Thank you, and enjoy!
Author's Note: My thanks to Victoria Bishop for her version of the kids' last names. I only used one, but I wanted to give credit where it was due! An extra special "thank you" to Ashleyien for helping me proofread this story. I am grateful for your input and honesty! As always, any feedback is greatly appreciated -- Please R&R! Thanx! :)
". . . . The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. 'Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?' he asked.
'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end; then stop . . . .'"
-From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
by: N.L. Rummi
"Run, Eric! Run!" The short, spectacled boy shouted behind him as he dashed forward.
"I'm trying!" called his companion, a taller, raven-haired young man.
"Come on! Hurry!"
"I can't go any faster! We're not going to make it!"
"Yes, we will! Come on!"
The dark-haired boy, Eric by name, began to slow. He started to hunch over, his left hand pressing into the runner's stitch forming in his side, but continued on at a fast-paced walk. He shook his head at the other boy in front of him. His friend may be short, skinny, and not visibly built for running, but he certainly didn't seem to be having any trouble right now! "You go on without me! I ca--, I can't run any more!" he panted as he waved the other boy on.
The shorter young man changed course and sped back to Eric. Grabbing him tightly around the lower arm, he pulled his friend onward. "You can do it, Eric! We're almost there!"
Eric gave in and continued running, panting heavily with every step.
"I see it! Just a little further! We're gonna make it!"
Eric groaned and tried to keep up, his legs and lungs aching.
The shorter boy began to frantically wave his arms. "Stop!" he cried, "Wait! Open the door! Let us in!"
The two boys skidded to a halt as the doors in front of them slowly opened. They were met by the stern gaze of a gruff-looking old man. He cocked an eyebrow at them and his surly expression turned to one of slight amusement. He glanced at his wrist. "Bus leaves at 8:00 am on the dot, Preston," he said, "One of these times I'm not going to stop for you."
"Sorry, Mr. Beldish," the auburn-haired boy, Preston, answered, "It won't happen again." As he clambered to board the bus, he tripped over the first step, spilling several items from his bag into the isle. He hastily fumbled to pick the items up so they wouldn't be any later than they already were. An assortment of textbooks, notebooks, and a pencil case, which opened upon impact with the floor, were scattered everywhere. Eric rolled his eyes and let out a puff of impatience from behind Preston.
"Until next Monday, you mean," Mr. Beldish replied as he tried to help Preston pick his things up off the floor of the bus; not so much to be nice, but to hurry along his morning schedule. He handed Preston a few of the books that had slid under his driver's seat: Advanced Biology, Codor's Anthology of English Literature, Algebra: The Second Year Edition 4, and, finally, The Magician's Secrets: A Collection of Magic's Greatest Tricks Revealed by S. Valentín DelGrosso. Mr. Beldish shook his head at the last one. "What you need is to 'magic' yourself up a better alarm clock. I don't suppose Señor DelGrosso helps you crack that one!"
Preston smiled shyly and, piling his belongings awkwardly into his arms, made his way to the back of the bus. A few snickers rose up from the other children sitting around him as he passed. He stumbled forward when one of them "accidentally" stretched his foot into the center of the isle. Preston tripped, but didn't fall and didn't drop anything else. He glumly sank into the first empty seat he could find. He adjusted his glasses and began to fit his belongings back into his bag.
Eric settled beside him with a jolt as the bus finally lunged forward. Looking past Preston out the grimy window of the bus, he began to pick at the already ripped seat in front of him. His fingers touched something sticky. Someone had written "C.L. + M.T. 4-ever!" in a heart on the seat in what Eric could only guess was red nail polish -- still tacky, too. He grimaced at the substance on his fingers and wiped them underneath his seat, hoping that he wouldn't find any more surprises there.
He glanced around the rest of the bus in disgust. "Boy, am I glad my dad's limo will be out of the shop today," he mumbled, "I don't think I could take another day of having to ride this bus to school!"
"Diana? Are you in here?"
At the sound of the voice, a dark-skinned girl emerged from around a set of lockers. She tucked in the end of a towel at her chest to hold it around her body and blotted at her damp hair with another.
"Back here, Mrs. Incavido!" Diana tiptoed quickly across the chilly floor of the girls' locker room to where a short, boxy but muscular woman was standing. "Here are your keys, Coach. Thanks for letting me borrow them again!"
Coach Incavido placed the set of keys back on the board in the athletics office that led from the gymnasium into the ladies' locker room. "You know where they are if you need 'em, Hon," she said. "Just do what you always do and leave me a note at the end of the day before."
"I really appreciate you letting me use the showers in the morning," Diana said as she continued to dry her hair.
"I couldn't do it for just anybody, you know," the Coach answered, "But then not all my gymnasts are as dedicated as you! I don't see many of your other teammates being very eager to run four miles to the school every morning!" Mrs. Incavido took another set of keys off the board before pulling the office door closed. She jiggled the handle to make sure it was locked, then walked over to open the main door of the locker room with the other keys. Going through the athletic office was the only way to get into the shower area before the school opened and Diana took advantage of her coach's offer to use the keys every chance she got. "I'll tell you, Hon," Incavido continued, "I'm just glad to see you're still conditioning. Not everybody does during the off season."
Diana laughed and shrugged happily. "Well, I enjoy it," she said, "And besides, I'm getting ready for track anyway. Coach Henzes says that I might have a shot at medalling at States in the pole vault this year!"
Mrs. Incavido looked thoughtful. "Yeah, you always were pretty good at that event too," she said flatly, "But I have been meaning to discuss that with you." She sat down on the bench beside Diana who was continuing to dry off. "Now, Hon, you're gifted in a lot of different areas and you would undoubtedly be valuable to the track team this year. I know you enjoy it as much as you do the gymnastics. And I certainly wouldn't want to deprive Coach Henzes and the team of your abilities. Lord knows, they could use you!"
She paused for a moment as though choosing her words carefully. "I'm concerned about injury, Hon, that's all. You know that next year are the Olympic trials. Now, our school has never had anyone with your kind of talent in gymnastics before; someone who could actually represent us in the Olympics! I just think that with pole vaulting being so strenuous, . . . well, . . . you might want to focus your energy on your strongest talent." She laid a hand on Diana's shoulder. The girl looked sober.
"Hon, I'm just advising you. That's what coaches do." The hefty woman laughed. "That's why I get paid the big bucks!"
This finally got a chuckle from Diana.
"It's your decision, of course," she concluded as she rose off the bench to give Diana her privacy, "But if you seriously want to make a showing at the trials, we need to start focusing on only one thing. A first place medal in States for pole vaulting is wonderful, but don't forget you already have two State Championship titles for gymnastics and you now have the chance to try out for the Olympics! I'll support whatever you decide, of course, but just don't take too long. We only have a year. And this is a once in a lifetime opportunity." With that, and a gentle squeeze to Diana's shoulder, the coach left the locker room.
Diana pursed her lips thoughtfully. She hated the idea of giving up something that she loved; especially since she had the chance to go all the way this year. But Coach Incavido was right. The Olympics! That was a once in a lifetime chance! It wasn't something that she could pass up. Especially since, in another four years, she could be past her prime. An athlete's shelf life wasn't the longest, and the window of time that one could get into the Olympics was even shorter.
But was taking the chance of not making the Olympic team a year from now worth giving up something she knew she could do right now? The biggest problem for Diana was that she was tall; a first-rate gymnast, but not nearly as petite as most of the other Olympic hopefuls. There was a strong chance she wouldn't make the U.S. team at all. Was it worth letting her track teammates down? After all, aside from Diana and a few others, their high school's track-and-field team wasn't the greatest. Even Coach Henzes had said repeatedly how much they counted on her. Would they think she was selfish?
Diana glanced down to see that she had been unconsciously biting her already stubby fingernails. Of all Diana's features, her hands were her least favorite. With all of her training with the pole vault, uneven bars, the beam, and floor exercises (among others) as well as more pounds of chalk being rubbed into them than she cared to count, they were rough, callused, and looked much older than those of other seventeen-year-old girls. Diana didn't like that idea any more than having to choose between the two sports she loved; and possibly disappointing one of the coaches who have done so much for her.
Diana shoved her hands between her knees and looked up at the clock on the high wall of the locker room. 8:10, she thought, I have a half-hour before the first bell. She then stood so she could finish drying off and change before homeroom at 8:40.
The Grand Am stalled before its driver pulled it completely into the parking spot. Rather than restart it and ease in the rest of the way, the young man behind the wheel decided to just leave it where it was. It's good enough, he thought. He ran his hand through his thick blonde hair quickly twice before getting out.
The little car had served him well since he bought it from his neighbor as a sixteenth birthday present to himself two years ago. Best car in the world, he smiled. But it had definitely seen better days and he could no longer afford the type of engine work it would need. It was probably just as well. He couldn't take it with him to college next year anyway since freshmen couldn't have cars on campus. "Just hang on for a few more months," he said aloud to the car as he locked the door, "We'll give you a proper burial in June."
"You know, some people name their cars, Hank," a voice said from behind him, "But you're the only guy I know who has conversations with his!"
Hank turned to see Craig Whitaker, an acquaintance and teammate, walking across the student parking lot.
"Hey, man. What's up?" Hank lifted his hand for a high-five. "Just trying to give her a little encouragement before she dies and leaves me car-less until graduation!"
The two boys began to cross the street and walk toward the high school. "You gonna get a new one then?" Craig asked.
"Nah," Hank replied, "No cars on campus at the University for the first year. But it doesn't matter. Everything's within walking distance anyway. I probably won't get a new one until after I'm done with college."
The two paused in the middle of the road to allow a bus to pass in front of them. It pulled to a stop at the main doors to the school to let its passengers off. Hank and Craig crossed behind it and continued walking toward the school. They heard a voice coming from just inside the doors of the bus. "See ya later, Mr. Beldish! Thanks again for waiting!" Preston stumbled out of the doors and sent some of his books tumbling to the ground again.
Craig bent down and picked up the DelGrosso book. "I think I may have found a solution to your problem, my friend," he said laughingly to Hank as he dangled the book in front of Preston, "We could just get him to cast a spell on your car to keep it alive!" The young man started to laugh hysterically.
"Can you give me my book back, please," the shorter boy pleaded as he made a few unsuccessful grabs for it. He pushed his glasses further up onto his nose.
"Pretty please," Craig coached with a sly grin.
"Pretty please." Preston's voice was quiet; it's dignity ebbing away.
"Come on, Craig. Knock it off," Hank said impatiently.
"Pretty please with sugar on top, Mister Whitaker!" Craig continued, heedless of Hank's growing anger.
Preston stood still as a stone, not wanting to subject himself to any more humiliation. "Can you just give it back?" he asked nervously.
"What's the matter 'Presto'?" Craig asked, still laughing as he emphasized the nickname, "What'll you do to me if I don't? Oooohh! Not turn me into a toad, I hope!" He cringed in mock fright.
"Stop it, Craig! I mean it!" Hank said angrily, scowling at Craig as he snatched the book away and returned it to Preston, "Let's go. We're gonna be late." He flashed a smile at Preston as he walked past.
"I hate that nickname," Preston muttered as Eric exited the bus and stood behind him.
Eric chuckled a bit. "It would be a cool stage name for your magic career!" He then snorted as he laughed harder. "Something to really strike fear into the hearts of rival magicians!"
Preston said nothing as he stuffed the book back into his bag and trudged toward the school.
Hank turned to Craig with an angry glare when they were a few paces away. "Do you always have to pick on that poor kid?" he asked.
"He's a dweeb," Craig sniffed and was about to say more when he noticed that Hank was no longer paying attention to him. The blonde-haired young man was now looking past him toward the cafeteria entrance that connected the main building of the high school to the elementary school annex.
A slender redhead was getting out of the passenger side of a Ford LTD. She turned back toward the car as its rear door opened.
Craig was glad for the distraction that the redhead created. He knew that Hank had not planned on letting him get away with teasing that wannabe magician!
"Come on, Bobby!" the redhead coaxed.
A young boy with dusty-blonde hair started to emerge from the back seat of the LTD.
"No, you don't!" said a voice from the driver's seat. The woman seated there arched back with her cheek pointed toward the boy.
"Aw, Mom!" Bobby groaned, "That's gushy stuff!"
When the woman didn't move, and even pressed her cheek closer to him, Bobby eased back into the car, looked around, and quickly kissed his mother before dashing out the door. He marched past the redhead, who flashed a conspiratorial smile at her mother as she turned to join Bobby. The LTD then drove away.
Bobby turned as his sister suddenly began to walk at a slower pace up the sidewalk toward the door of the school. "Let's go, Sheila!" he said, "I thought you were in a hurry!"
Sheila glanced around the crowds of students entering the building. "Oh, we're okay now," she responded without looking at her brother.
"I don't get you, Sis! First, you're so impatient to get here every morning, then once we're here you move like a slug!" Bobby commented as his sister began to walk even slower, "And by the way, you're the one who always makes us late! You sure spend a long time doing your hair! You trying to impress somebody or somethin'?"
"Oh, Bobby," Sheila retorted dismissively, but blushed a bit.
"Eww! You are!" the boy said, his next few statements becoming a whirlwind, "Do Mom and Dad know? Who is it? Never mind! Aw, Sis! All that gushy stuff is so gross!"
Sheila shrugged. "Someday you may not think girls are gross," she said. She then froze momentarily and ran her fingers quickly through her red hair. Her eyes focused on what they had been looking for: a pair of boys who were approaching from up the hill by the main entrance. She pretended not to notice them as she fumbled through her purse. She wasn't looking for anything, but she wanted to look like she was.
"Hey," said the tall, blonde young man as he passed her.
"Hi, Hank," Sheila returned sweetly, "H-how was your weekend?"
"Okay," Hank answered, "And yours?"
Sheila nodded her answer before actually speaking. "Good! Well, . . . m-maybe I'll see you later."
"Sounds great!" Hank replied as he and Craig continued on their way. He placed a hand on Bobby's shoulder as he walked past. "How's it going, pal?" he asked. The boy gave Hank a thumbs-up.
When they were out of earshot, Craig nudged Hank in the ribs. "Smooth, man! Real smooth! When are you going to say more than six words to that girl?"
"When I think of something better to say."
"How about: 'Hey, Red, how's about joining me on the archery range for a little game of Cupid?'" Craig offered melodramatically.
Hank scoffed and shoved the other boy in the shoulder as they entered the school.
When Sheila looked again at Bobby, the boy was snickering. "Gee, Sis, I sure hope Hank doesn't think girls are gross!"
"Bobby!" she started to whine, but it soon faded as something registered in her mind. "How do you know Hank?" she asked.
"Everybody knows him," Bobby shrugged, "He plays football, he's president of the archery club, . . . I know him the same way you know him!" The boy turned and began walking again. "Oh . . . ," he added as though he suddenly remembered something, "And he also happens to help me out with my math through the Honor Society elementary tutoring program!"
"Bobby, are you serious?!" Sheila cried as she ran after her brother.
"Of course I'm serious!" Bobby said. "You and Mom and Dad didn't really think I was doing better in math all by myself, did you?" He took a second to laugh at his own joke before nudging Sheila's arm. "Don't worry," he said as they entered the doors and separated to go to their respective buildings, "I could put in a good word for ya!"
The blue sphere glowed with a dull light. It seemed brighter than it actually was in the otherwise darkened chamber. Its luminescence cast a half-shadowed gleam on the aged face of the small man who stood before it. The man gazed at the sphere -- or, rather, into it; a sad look in his deep, bluish eyes.
He did not turn at the sound of fluttering wings and someone speaking gibberish behind him. He nodded at the voice as though he completely understood the unintelligible chatter, but he still peered straight ahead. "I see," he said in a low voice, as he reached his hand toward the soft light of the sphere in front of him.
His long, gnarled fingers traced the six faceless silhouettes that floated within the orb. The gibberish came from behind him once again. "No, my friend," the man answered the incomprehensible question. His voice was quiet and gentle, yet authoritative. But somehow it seemed as sad as his eyes. "We have no choice," he continued, "What must happen was meant to happen."
A soft tinkle was heard behind him and the man finally turned to see nothing but a shimmery cascade of tiny lights, which quickly dissipated into the darkness of the room. Whatever had been there had vanished. He smiled soberly and faced the hazy sphere again. "Soon, my friends" he muttered quietly, "I only pray that you can someday forgive me." He passed his hand over the surface of the orb, and the glowing died.
"Who remembers the quote that I wrote on the board yesterday?" Mr. Quick asked as he paced up and down the rows of his eleventh grade British Literature class. "Remember?" he coaxed, "We said it was one of the themes to the story that we're reading . . . "
A hand went up and Mr. Quick grinned.
"Anyone besides Preston?" he said with a broad smile. When no one else raised their hand, he nodded to the auburn-haired boy in the front row.
Preston held up his notebook, although he didn't actually read the quote from it. He didn't need to. "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," he stated as he adjusted his glasses for the millionth time that day and looked up at his teacher.
"Very good, Preston," Mr. Quick replied approvingly, "Can anyone else tell me who said this?"
The students in the fourth period literature class were, to say the least, unenthusiastic. There were only ten minutes left until lunch and none of them felt like soaking in any more of Robert Quick's dry narrations about plots, characterization, irony and the comparing/contrasting of classical English works. They especially disliked how their teacher would incorporate some of his favorite quotes into the theme of a story, while keeping after his students doggedly until they saw the connection.
A dark girl near the windows released the tip of the pencil on which she had been chewing and raised it slightly into the air.
"Yes, Diana, thank you!" Mr. Quick said as he gestured toward her.
"No one knows for sure, but it's attributed to Edmund Burke," she answered flatly.
"Good!" The teacher turned to the board to write Burke's name there for the umpteenth time since yesterday. "Now, who can tell me where they discovered an example of this situation in the scenes you had to read last night . . . ?"
Diana sighed and stared at the clock. She felt that she was safe for now. She had said her piece and probably wasn't in danger of being called on for at least a few more minutes. Normally, she wouldn't have minded. English was one of her favorite subjects. In fact, schoolwork in general wasn't a huge bother; she being one of the top students in her class in addition to one of the school's best athletes. Today, however, her heart wasn't in her work. She had other things on her mind -- namely the morning talk with her coach. Her goal for the day was to get through her classes without calling too much attention to herself. That's going to be tough, she thought, Especially if no one else wants to raise their hand either!
Just when she felt Mr. Quick's eyes settling on her again, she heard Preston's voice from a few seats in front of her. She breathed a sigh of relief as the boy described how Brutus goes along with the conspirators' plot to murder Julius Caesar even though he was morally against it.
Diana regarded Preston with a smile. Outside of class he was so quiet, so withdrawn. During classroom discussions was another story, however. He seemed to be a different person. It was almost as though he believed his teachers were the only ones who cared about what he had to say. Today he was even more verbal than usual. Diana thought about the quote they were discussing and wondered if the boy felt a personal connection to it. Few people ever stepped in when he was getting harassed. Eric Montgomery would, sometimes, but Diana was leery of the spoiled rich-kid's motives.
Diana had known Eric just about her entire life, although they weren't exactly friends. She pictured him as the type of person who would be nice to Preston in exchange for test answers and term papers. Diana rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to Preston, who was still explaining his answer.
Although Diana didn't know much about him personally, Preston's story was no secret. He was supposed to have been a sophomore this year, but had skipped a grade after acing the advanced placement tests he had taken before the end of last year. While his family must have believed it was the best thing for him, the transition could not have been easy. At 15, he was now the shortest, youngest upperclassman in the school and got a lot of ridicule for his very un-upperclassman-like interests.
He was fascinated with magic and fantasy and could often be seen practicing card tricks at his table in the cafeteria -- when he didn't have his nose buried in a book, that is. His little eccentricities had not earned him many friends among his new peers, and Diana was ashamed to say that she, herself, had even chuckled several times at the mention of his nickname, "Presto." The kid was teased . . . a lot. Maybe if someone stood up for him once in a while, he would be more confident around people . . . .
She sighed as she looked at the clock again. He had saved her today, though. The last thing she felt like doing was discussing Julius Caesar. She owed Preston one.
"Would someone like to read a passage from the text that illustrates, or is in some way related to, this quote?" Diana could hear Mr. Quick attempting to squeeze as much into the last few minutes of class as possible. "Eric?"
Diana turned her attention to the young man seated next to her. He sat unresponsively with his chin cupped in his hand. His eyes were open, but merely two slits as he stared blankly ahead. "Eric?" Robert Quick said again.
Diana swung her leg into the isle and kicked Eric's chair. The boy's head fell from his cupped hand and landed with a thunk on his desk. The class burst into wild laughter. Eric sat up with a start, his eyes suddenly wide as saucers and his face flushed as he turned to face Diana. "Hey! Watch where you put your feet, Wonder Woman!" he complained as he rubbed his forehead.
Diana made no reply, aside from a devilishly angelic smile as she motioned toward the front of the room with a crooked finger. Eric looked up to face the stern gaze of his teacher and gave a nervous chuckle.
"Good of you to join us, Eric," Mr. Quick said sarcastically, "Now maybe you can enlighten our discussion by . . . "
The teacher's words were cut off by the sudden ringing of the bell. Eric hurriedly gathered his books and made a mad dash for the door. He was stopped by the extended arm of Mr. Quick. "Not so fast, mister," the teacher said, "I hope you're well-rested now, because I expect you to spend tonight writing a detailed response paper as it relates to this topic. And I want it on my desk by the beginning of class tomorrow!" With that, Mr. Quick lowered his arm and allowed Eric to pass.
"You couldn't keep his attention off me for two more seconds!" Eric whined at Preston as the younger boy jogged through the hall to catch up with his friend.
"Sorry," Preston replied as he reached Eric's side, "I guess you'll need me to . . . er . . . help with that punishment assignment tonight, huh?"
Eric glanced in the direction of a slender blonde rummaging through her locker. "We'll see," Eric mused with a smirk. He then turned to Preston. "I'll see you downstairs in the caf, okay?" he said as he walked in the direction of the blonde.
Eric crossed his arms over his argyle v-neck sweater and leaned up against the locker next to the girl. "Hey, Tiffany," he said with another smirk.
Tiffany turned to him with an annoyed look. "I can't Eric," she said wearily, "I have cheerleading practice tonight."
"I'll make it worth your while," the dark-haired boy returned as he reached for his back pocket. "Fifteen bucks, for this one."
"I'm busy!" the girl insisted. "Besides, I thought you were getting 'help' from that little brainiac that follows you around!"
"He's my f--," Eric began, then changed his mind as the girl cocked her eyebrow at him. "Look, do you want this money or don't you?"
Tiffany sighed. "What is it this time?"
"Response paper. Something about evil and Julius Caesar and good men standing around doing nothing."
The blonde sighed again. "Better make it an even twenty," she said, "I hardly have any time to do my own work tonight!"
"Deal," Eric replied as he turned on the charm with yet another smirk. "I'll grab it before fourth period tomorrow."
"Yeah, whatever," the girl griped as she shut her locker, "You know, Eric," she called after him, "You're not going to have anything left in that trust fund of yours once I'm through with you!" It was her turn to smirk as she walked toward her next class.
"He likes you, I'm telling you!" Diana had paused by Sheila's locker on her way down to lunch. Her redheaded friend had just finished telling her of Hank's greeting this morning outside the school's entrance.
"I don't know," Sheila blushed, "Don't you think something would have happened by now if he did? I mean, he is a senior and he'll be graduating in a few months. We're going to be here for another year. I would think that if he wanted to ask me out he would have done it while we had more time."
"Listen, Sheila," Diana said, "Hank is one of my best friends. So are you. So, I feel like I can let you in on a little secret: Hank has an overly developed sense of duty. He's the first one in his family to go to college and his folks are really proud of him because of that. But as a result, he tends to put the things that he wants on the back burner. He's always done that!" Diana smiled broadly. "Maybe I can do something to help things along!" She began to walk to the cafeteria.
"No! Don't!" Sheila called after her; flustered and clearly frustrated that she and her friend didn't have the same lunch period. She wanted to know what Diana was going to do.
Diana turned and waved to Sheila. "Look," she said as she continued to back down the hall, "Nothing's ever going to happen if we wait for Mr. Responsibility to do it himself! Just trust me!" And then she was gone.
Sheila bit her bottom lip and stared at the corner around which Diana had disappeared. Her stomach did a flip-flop. What is she going to do? she thought as she slowly walked to her next class. Why am I worried all of a sudden?
"Aw, gimme a break!" Eric whined as he searched through his book bag for the lunch he had forgotten to bring. He backed out of the cafeteria again and strode over to the bench in the vestibule, where he dumped the entire contents of his bag, determined to find his lunch.
Finally giving in to the fact that it was not there, he muttered, "Sonja is going to get an earful when I get home!"
"What?" a voice said from behind him. Eric turned to see Diana standing there, her hands on her hips. "Is it your hired help's responsibility to make sure you don't have to eat cafeteria food with the rest of us peons?"
"You don't seriously expect me to eat whatever mystery meat they've got in there, do you?"
"I do declare, you're right! How silly of me!" Diana shot back with a "Scarlett O'Hara" southern drawl as she batted her eyelashes at him, "Your little ol' digestive system is far too sensitive for that isn't it, Sleeping Beauty?" She breezed past him into the cafeteria.
Eric scowled as she brought up the embarrassing fiasco from the period before. He hated it when people laughed at him. "Can I help it if Quick's class is a snore?" he said to no one. He then slung his book bag over his shoulder and reluctantly made his way to the lunch line.
As Diana exited the kitchen with her tray a few minutes later, she caught sight of Preston sitting in one of the far corners of the room. There was another boy leaning toward him over the table: Jimmy Whitaker, Craig's obnoxious younger brother. What's he doing in here? Diana rolled her eyes as she glared at the boy, who had probably wandered over from the elementary center . . . again . . . while his class was at recess. He's just like his brother, she thought, He thinks he owns the whole place! Diana managed to hear the tail end of the boys' conversation.
". . . and your card mysteriously floats to the top!" Preston concluded with an air of drama to his voice as he produced the three of clubs.
"Bor-ring!" Jimmy exclaimed as he began to laugh. "Is that all you can do is stupid card tricks, Presto? And that one is so old it's collecting dust!" He walked away, still laughing. "Nerd!" he mumbled, not at all discreetly, as he brushed past Diana.
Diana's face softened as she studied the depressed magician. Poor guy, she thought, It's bad enough that he gets grief from Craig and his crowd. Does he have to put up with the bully-in-training, too?!
Preston sank down into his seat, dispirited. He started to put his cards away as he caught sight of his book, The Magician's Secrets, on the table in front of him. He disgustedly shoved it away from him toward the edge of the table. A hand caught it before it fell over the rim. "How about you let me try?" a voice said from above him.
Preston stared up, mouth gaping, as Diana smiled down at him. She gestured toward his cards. "S-sure," he stammered as he fumbled to get the deck out again. Oh, God, he thought, This has got to be some kind of joke! After all, this was Diana: smart, pretty, popular, great-at-everything Diana! What was she doing talking to him? He glanced over to where her friends were calling for her to join them, but Diana paid them no mind. "Do I just pick one?" she asked.
"Y-yeah," he stuttered as he fanned out the deck, "Don't let me see it . . . "
Eric emerged from the kitchen after a long deliberation between some strange pasta dish and the Gourmet Burger O' the Day. He decided to settle for the roll that came with the pasta (which was difficult to get since "Madame Hairnet" behind the counter kept insisting that they weren't priced a la carte) and a bag of chips.
"Eric! Over here!" he heard some of his friends calling to him from across the room. As usual, he glanced at Preston's table first. He had repeatedly offered to let the boy join them, but Preston was adamant about not wanting to "cramp Eric's style."
"Just 'cause we're neighbors," he had said, "Doesn't mean I have to stick next to you all day." A part of Eric was relieved, since his friends weren't exactly accepting of Preston's "oddness," but Eric's other half couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt every time he saw the guy sitting alone.
Today was a different story, however. What the heck is Diana doing sitting with him? Eric sauntered over to where the two were huddled over Preston's cards.
"Is this your card?" Preston asked as Eric appeared behind Diana.
"Amazing!" said the gymnast, "How'd you do that?"
Preston blushed a bit. "A true magician never reveals his secrets," he answered with a shy grin.
Diana held out Preston's book to him. "Then you must be a hundred times better than this DelGrosso guy," she said with a smile, "Especially since he writes books to give all his secrets away!" She picked up her tray and started to turn around to make her way over to where her friends, including Hank, were sitting. She bumped into Eric in the process.
"Oops! Excuse me! . . . Oh, it's you!" she said with a sarcastic grin.
Eric returned with a nasally "Ha, ha, ha," and stepped to the side so she could pass. Diana turned back to Preston before walking on. "Thanks for the trick, Presto," she said, with a softer smile than the one she gave Eric.
Eric stopped her again. "Excuse me, O, Queen-of-the-Gym, but Pres-ton hates that nickname!" he said smugly.
"Oh," Diana replied, looking at Preston, "That's too bad. It suits you." She turned again to walk away.
"P-Presto! Presto is fine! Presto's good," the young magician called after her. "Y-you can call me that . . . if you want."
Diana looked back at him and smiled. "Okay, Presto. See ya 'round!"
Eric watched her as she left, then turned back to Preston, now officially Presto. "I thought you hated that name," he insisted.
Presto shrugged with a twinkle in his eye. "I think it's starting to grow on me," he replied.
Sheila looked around for Bobby at the end of the day. He usually didn't take the bus, even on days when their mother wasn't picking them up. Normally the pair walked home together. But today, the boy was nowhere in sight.
Part of her knew that Bobby was probably fine. But she still became unnerved when the boy didn't tell her that he was going home another way. She was responsible for him, after all.
Sheila stood on the curb outside the school for a few more minutes waiting for her brother. He could have detention, she thought as she blew a strand of her bangs out of her eyes. Bobby did have a tendency to lose his temper and fight with some of the other kids. Especially when they were picking on someone smaller than them. If her brother was anything, he was very noble, albeit sometimes a bit too impetuous for his own good.
Sheila continued to wait alone until she felt a hand on her elbow. She turned around to scold her brother. "Bobby, I wish you would tell me when you have to . . . ."
She stopped. Standing next to her was not Bobby, but Hank.
"Ahh . . ." Sheila's voice squeaked.
Hank smiled at her. "Bobby told me to tell you that he took the bus home," he said, "Sorry I was late getting out here."
"Th-that's okay," Sheila replied, "Thank you for telling me." She shifted her books in her arms. "Well, I suppose I should start walking then. Leave it to my little brother to go running off and abandoning me to go home by myself." She chuckled a bit, but did not start to walk away. Instead, she transferred her weight to her other foot and stood in silence for a moment, shifting her gaze from Hank to the ground.
Hank looked up the road to the student parking lot where his Grand Am was sitting. He then turned back to Sheila. "Do you want some company walking home?"
Sheila could not hide her smile. "Sure! It's not too far out of your way is it?"
"Nah," Hank replied as he reached forward to take her books from her. "It's on my way home."
As they walked away, Diana poked her head around the side of the building and smiled. She heard Sheila's voice asking, "What's this I hear about you tutoring Bobby in math?"
About a half-hour later, Hank and Sheila had reached the front door of Sheila's house. The girl smirked as she saw the light on up in her brother's room. Diana must have drafted Bobby as a co-conspirator. She took her books from Hank. "Thanks for the walk," she said, pausing and standing still for a moment . . . just in case Hank wanted to ask her anything. When he didn't, she spoke again, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow." She turned and headed for her front door.
"I was wondering," his voice said from behind her, "This weekend is opening weekend at the amusement park. Do you maybe want to go?"
Sheila turned with a smile. "I'd love to," she said, "That would be fun!"
"Great," Hank responded, letting out a loud whoosh of air, as though a huge weight had been lifted. "I thought maybe Sunday afternoon. We can talk in school to finalize!"
"Okay!" Sheila said happily. She then entered her house and allowed herself to finally let out a squeal of delight.
Hank waved, even though there was no one left to wave to, then turned and began his walk back to the school to pick up his car.
When he got there, he found someone perched on the Grand Am's hood.
"That was just sooo sweet!" Diana was half-panting. She had probably just finished up her after-school workout in the gym. "I especially liked how you opted not to drive her home. Walking certainly does allow for more time together!" Diana flashed a teasing smile at him.
"Thanks for helping me get my butt in gear," Hank replied as Diana hopped off his hood. "She said she would go."
Diana threw her arms around Hank's neck. "Was there ever any doubt?" she laughed.
Hank shook his head with a smile. "You need a ride home?" he asked.
"Sure," she responded, "I'll accept it as payment for my matchmaking services!"
"You're next, you know," Hank said as he got into the car. "If you want to come with us to the park, I could bring somebody." He shrugged thoughtfully, "Craig, maybe?"
"Nooo thanks!" Diana replied as she got into the passenger seat. "I need someone a little more down-to-earth. I honestly don't know how you can be friends with him. You're just a saint, Hank, because he's so exasperating! A bully, really. Have you seen the way he treats that Presto kid? And don't even get me started on that snot-nosed brother of his!"
Hank nodded as he remembered how Craig had teased Presto that morning. He had been paying so much attention to Sheila that he had forgotten to give Craig a piece of his mind. I won't do that any more, he inwardly promised himself, Presto's a nice guy and doesn't deserve to get bullied. I won't let myself get distracted from doing what's right again. "Well," Hank offered as he turned the ignition key for the third time, "What about Eric? You two always seem to have a lot to say to each other!"
"Give me a break!" Diana scoffed, "I said down-to-earth! That guy is the biggest snob I've ever known! All he does is complain. If we have anything in common, it's pure annoyance!"
"That's how it begins!"
"Ugh!" Diana shoved Hank in the arm. He laughed as the engine of his car finally turned over and they were able to back out of the lot.
The little man was perched on a large rock overlooking a vast landscape. The expanse that spread out before him was, for the most part, breathtakingly beautiful. The man ran his hand over his bald head and down the back, where a long trail of white hair would have reached almost to his feet, had he been standing. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and the scene before him changed.
The land became desolate, barren. Trees hung dead, their roots barely holding them into the dry ground. What were once magnificent castles now lay in ruins. Prominent lords and ladies of their own respective kingdoms now wandered the countryside as tramps and vagabonds. The lucky ones settled into new lives in poverty-stricken villages. The unlucky ones were forced into eternal servitude; some even transformed into hideous creatures.
The diminutive man finally stood and opened his eyes. He smoothed his long red robe and looked out in front of him again. The terrain before him was back to the way it had been moments ago, beautiful and lush. He lifted a diamond-shaped crystal from its spot around his neck and gazed at it sadly. As he looked up again, a corner of the landscape caught his eye. Far to the North, beyond the tallest mountain in the distance, a column of smoke was billowing up into the otherwise sterling sky.
Evil will triumph if the pure-of-heart do nothing,
he thought. He then allowed the amulet around his neck to fall back into its place. It began to glow and pulse with a soft red light. "It is time," the man said.
On Friday afternoon, Sheila sought Hank out. She found him on the school's front lawn, where most of the guys hung out after eating lunch, especially on gorgeous days like today. She glanced around cautiously before approaching him, as she was supposed to be in her fifth period biology class. She seldom needed to worry about such things, however. No one saw her. No one ever seemed to see her. Oftentimes, people took little notice of the quiet girl to the point where she almost felt invisible. This really bothered Sheila because being unseen or unnoticed made her feel alone; like she wasn't important enough for people to stand up and pay attention.
So, she was eternally grateful for her friends, like Diana, who made her feel wanted and accepted; less timid. And now, the simple fact that Hank had noticed her made her happier than she ever thought she could be. Which was one of the reasons she dreaded talking to him now.
As she neared Hank, she began to wring her hands nervously. He spotted her when she was only a few feet away. "Hey!" he said happily, "Aren't you supposed to be in class?"
"I needed to see you."
"I'm flattered!" But Hank's wide grin faded when he saw that she was serious. "What's wrong?"
"I -- um -- I think I need to cancel. You know, for Sunday afternoon," she said quietly.
"W-well," Sheila stammered nervously. She felt that she was ruining everything and that Hank would never want to go out with her again after this. "My parents are going out of town. The daughter of my mom's best friend is getting married and -- well -- they need to leave Bobby with me. And he's only nine. And I couldn't leave him alone for the whole afternoon. And . . . ." Sheila had had the entire conversation planned in her mind. But what came out of her mouth was what sounded like an endless stream of pathetic, flustered excuses. Sheila wanted to dig a hole right there, crawl in, and never come out.
What she hadn't planned on was Hank's response. "So, bring him along," he said with a smile.
Sheila blinked her large eyes repeatedly before she responded. "I-I couldn't . . . We can't . . . You wouldn't mind?"
Hank shrugged. "Of course not. I like Bobby. And he would have a great time. I think we all would."
Sheila thought, I can't believe how nice he is! "Well, then," she said, relieved, "I guess we're still on! I'm really, really sorry about this, Hank!"
"Hey, don't worry about it," the blonde young man responded, "I know we'll all have fun. And you and I can always do something else another time. We'll have plenty of opportunities!"
Reassured, Sheila gave him a parting smile and made her way back into the school and back to class.
"BIG mistake!" Hank heard a cocky voice say from behind him. He turned around to see Eric standing there.
"What are you talking about?"
"I can just see it now," Eric continued in a sarcastically dreamy voice, "You and the fair Sheila on the Ferris Wheel. The ride pauses at the top just as the sky begins to turn lovely shades of pink and orange. You reach over to take her hand . . . only to discover that the rugrat's beat you to it!" The dark-haired boy started to laugh.
"Get real, Eric," Hank said, attempting to brush him off.
"Mark my words, my friend," Eric persisted, "You may as well prepare yourself for a fun-filled afternoon of crying and kiddie rides!"
"You know, it's a wonder you aren't beating the ladies off with a stick," Diana interjected as she walked up from behind Eric. "You certainly are Mr. Sensitivity!"
"I'm just calling it like I see it," he retorted as he turned back to the other boy, "Don't get me wrong, Hank, Sheila's a really nice girl, but this is gonna be more like a daycare than a date!"
"Now, Eric, you're not just bitter because you aren't going to the park on opening weekend?" Diana teased.
"Are you kidding?!" Eric scoffed, "I am going!"
"Oh, really?" Diana came back, "With who?"
Eric rolled his eyes. "I'm not going with a date!" he replied as though it should have been obvious, "I'm no dummy. I don't need that kind of grief!"
"Clearly," Diana muttered amusedly. "So you're going alone?"
"Of course not!" Eric snapped. "I'm going with, uh, -- I'm -- with -- my pal Presto here!" Eric grabbed the boy by the collar as he passed, reading his magic book. "Yeah, we're going on Sunday afternoon!"
"Me?" Presto asked, gawking at Eric.
"We!" Eric corrected as he slung his arm around Presto's neck, knocking his glasses lopsided.
"Eric," Presto whispered to him, "Are you sure? I mean, I don't want to cramp . . . "
Eric knuckled Presto in the back of the head. "Would you give that a rest already! My style is un-crampable! Think of it, Presto," he lowered his voice a bit, "Hank-the-Great and Sheila-the-Meek trying to have a date with her twerpy brother in tow! I don't know about you, but I would pay cash money to see that fiasco!"
"I'll tell you what I'd pay to see," Diana laughed as she burst between the two boys. She pointed a finger at Eric, almost touching his nose. "I'd pay to see 'Eric Warbucks' hobnobbing with the common folk in the amusement park for a day!" She was still laughing as she walked away. "In fact," she said as she turned to face them again, "I'll even spring for the transportation! Pick you both up Sunday at noon!" She turned and dashed toward the school behind Hank just as the bell rang to signal the end of lunch.
As she ran, she couldn't help but think that for as uncouth as Eric tended to be, it was awfully nice of him to take Presto under his wing -- even if he was still cocky about it. Eric the Un-crampable, indeed! she thought. But maybe he wasn't all bad.
Presto stood flabbergasted beside Eric. "Did Diana just invite us to opening weekend at the amusement park!?"
Eric shrugged. "Girl knows a good thing when she sees it."
Bobby yawned as he watched the minute hand of the clock slowly tick the last few moments of the day away. Sheesh! It's slower than usual, he thought, Even for a Friday.
He had been disappointed ever since his dad had told him that they wouldn't be able to go to the park on opening weekend because he and the boy's mom were going out of town to a wedding.
"We'll only be gone for the day, son," he had said, "But we're leaving early and we won't be home until very late. Don't worry! Your sister will do something fun with you."
That put a damper on Sheila's plans too. Ever since Monday evening, all she could talk about was her date with Hank this weekend. She had been really upset to learn that this was the Sunday that her parents were going away. Bobby felt worse for his sister than he did for himself, though. He had always thought of Hank as a great guy, and Bobby hoped that he would live up to that reputation and be understanding with Sheila, because he hated to see his sister disappointed. Regardless of their age difference, Bobby and Sheila were very close.
Bobby put his head down on the desk and tried to resist the urge to count down the seconds until the bell. His willpower broke, however, and he missed most of his teacher's last announcement.
. . . eighteen . . . seventeen . . . sixteen . . . fifteen . . . fourteen . . .
"This Monday, class, you will have a new student joining your grade. If you meet her in any of your classes, please make her feel welcome. Her name is Teri . . . ."
The small town could have been Anywhere, USA. Sometimes it was painfully clear to the teens there just how far they were from the big cities. There wasn't much for them to do. There were occasional dances at the local community center and at the public high school, but hardly anyone ever went to them, dismissing them right away as being in some way substandard; places where only the "losers" would be seen.
The adults in the town didn't have it any easier. Some of them had to drive up to an hour to get to their jobs. It was a sacrifice they were willing to make, however, to do well by their children. While the town wasn't known for its industry, it did have a huge draw for families (including several wealthy ones), which had nothing to do with business. It was quaint, quiet, beautiful, and a great place to raise kids. The streets were safe and clean and the school system was one of the best in the country. It even boasted a highly accredited university at the edge of town.
But all of these things that attributed to the peaceful safety of the place, were often torture for the youth there. It left them with precious little to do. And being teens, not many of them had access to methods that would bring them beyond the town's borders to the excitement of the larger urban areas. So they were left with few outlets for real, youthful fun -- during the winter, that is.
Every year around the end of March or the beginning of April, things changed for the summer for the children. The local amusement park opened. It had been built years ago during a time when entrepreneurs were trying to recreate the success of places like Coney Island and Luna Park in their own backyards. The people of the town at the time were apprehensive at first because they didn't want their quaint surroundings turning into a boisterous tourist attraction. They even petitioned to have the park closed down before it ever opened.
But open it did, to little fanfare, much to the dismay of its creators. The people of the town were relieved that no travelers were coming in to disrupt their peaceful lives . . . but that didn't stop them from frequenting the place themselves! Soon, chain parks like Six Flags, Bush Gardens, and, of course, the Disney theme parks started popping up all over the nation; boasting the fastest rides, the farthest drops, the most advanced technologies, the happiest places on earth! Little attention was paid to the smaller parks like the one here, although over the years it was able to add many of the faster, more exciting attractions to its repertoire. But the overall lack of outside attention suited the people of the town just fine.
The youth of the town, not having many real places to call their own, claimed the amusement park as their official stomping ground. It was the place to go to meet friends, go on dates, or just hang out. It was only open from March or April until Labor Day, and the children waited with anticipation all year, especially for the grand opening weekend. Not only did this weekend bring about the sudden availability of a hangout, but it also represented the beginning of the end of the school year -- the coming of summer.
The teens here had few traditions, but making an appearance at the park during opening weekend was one of them, since everybody who was anybody was there! Another tradition, although no one knows for sure how it started, was that the park's grand opening always fell on a Sunday.
It was 11:50 am on Sunday when Eric poked his head through the door of his father's study. He regarded the stocky but well-dressed man behind the desk for a moment before speaking. "Dad, I'm going to the park with some friends."
Harlan Montgomery was the richest man in town. He had instructed his son as to the two important things that had made him so: "Know your business and know the talk." Eric knew that his father wasn't kidding. He had heard him countless times either on the phone or here in the study at all hours of the day and night lashing out at lawyers, competitors, corporate raiders, as well as doing just the opposite -- smooth-talking potential clients. The man's talent with words was amazing. However, this morning, he had only one for his son. "Humph . . . ," he muttered, never looking up from his work.
"I shouldn't be too late," Eric continued, hoping for some kind of reaction, but this time not even getting a grunt.
A hand was placed on Eric's shoulder, and he felt himself being drawn downward so his mother could kiss him on the cheek. "You have fun, Sweetie," she said quietly as she straightened the collar of the shirt beneath his yellow sweater vest. "How are you getting there? Do you want Franklin to drive you?"
"Presto and I are getting a ride from a girl in my class -- Diana."
"Who?" a gruff voice finally came from behind the desk in the study.
"Presto, Dad. Preston. You know, from next door. He's been here before. He, uh, helps me with my homework sometimes."
"Humph," Harlan grunted, clearly not actually interested in the answer to the question he had just asked. "And what girl?"
"Diana," Eric replied, "That girl on the gymnastics team. There was an article about her in the paper last week, remember? About her maybe trying out for the Olympics next year in LA."
Harlan raised his head from his work, along with his eyebrow. "What's her father do?" he asked as he faced the work on his desk again.
Eric shrugged. "I think he's a professor in the observatory at the University, but I'm not sure."
"Humph," Harlan grunted again, not really listening to that answer either.
Eric began walking toward the main doors of the house. He had to shield his eyes from the glare coming through the glass-domed skylight that arched high above the foyer as he turned to say goodbye again to his mother. She still stood in the doorway of the study, but with the morning sun streaming through the glass above, Eric could barely see her face. "Bye, Sunshine. I love you," she said.
"Love you too," Eric replied. He then shot one more quick look to his father, still hard at work behind his desk and still not looking up. Eric turned and left through the elaborately carved main doors of the house and began his walk to the gate at the end of the driveway to wait for Diana.
She met him halfway.
"Hey!" Diana called to him, "I could have come to your door, you know."
Eric smirked at her as they came together in the driveway. "Isn't it usually customary for the man to go to the door for his date?"
"Date?" Diana snickered at him. "Don't flatter yourself! I was just dying to see how the other half lived! I didn't know your driveway was so long or I might have driven instead of leaving my car at the gate." She looked past him at the lengthy winding driveway that disappeared into a path of large willow trees. "God, Eric! I can't even see your house! How big are your grounds, anyway?"
Eric contorted his face as though he was in deep thought, then shrugged. "Big," he answered.
Diana gave him a lopsided grin. "I hope you don't mind," she said sarcastically, "My limo is in for repairs, so we'll have to make due with my dad's beetle. I hope that will be satisfactory, Mr. Montgomery."
"Let's go," she said, laughing as she turned to walk back down the driveway, "Presto's waiting. I'll have to see your humble cottage another time!"
"This is great!" shouted Bobby. He darted back and forth in the entrance area to the park while he waited for Hank and Sheila to come through the turnstiles. Bobby had been to the park many times before, but never on opening weekend. That was when the high school kids all came! It made him feel grown up to be here today.
Sheila smiled at Hank as he handed their tickets in. "Are you sure you don't mind him being here?" she asked one final time.
"Not at all," Hank replied, "Bobby's a good kid. It'll be great, you'll see!"
"Hey, Hank! Look at this!" Sheila could hear her brother's voice through the crowd and she frantically looked around to catch sight of his favorite orange and white T-shirt, the one he wore for special occasions. She zeroed in on it at the park's main Directory board and she and Hank eased through the crowd to come up behind Bobby. The boy was looking at the park map and the "New Editions" list. "They have some new stuff this year!" he exclaimed excitedly.
Hank read them aloud over Bobby's shoulder, "They rebuilt the Parachute Drop . . . there's a Laser Tag Arena . . . Hey, Sheila, there's a fireworks display tonight sponsored by the high school! Would you like to stay for that?"
Sheila bit her bottom lip. "It all depends on whether or not Bobby burns himself out by then," she whispered to Hank. The young man nodded and turned back to the board.
" . . . Oh, and there's a Dungeons and Dragons ride," he said, concluding the list of new attractions.
"Neat!" Bobby shouted, "I wanna see that first!"
"That's all the way across the park, Bobby," Sheila said as matronly as possible, "Why don't we make our way over there later."
"I agree, Bobby," Hank added, "Let's see what's in this area first."
"O-kay," the boy said disappointedly. He quickly recovered as he looked at the nearby Parachute Drop. "Come on, you guys! I'll race you there!"
Sheila shot Hank a sideways look as if to say "I-tried-to-warn-you," and the two followed Bobby toward their first ride.
"Ladies first!" Presto made an open-armed gesture to Diana as she crossed the bridge into the Fantasy Land section of the amusement park.
"Why thank you, kind sir!" she responded giving him a nod.
"Oh, brother!" Eric grumbled as he walked behind them. "This is stupid!" he added in a louder voice, which got Diana and Presto to turn around, "We've been looking for Hank and Sheila for two hours! When are we going to go on some rides?"
"Patience, Young One!" Presto said in a mysterious, airy voice, pressing his fingertips together, "We shall soon find what we seek!"
"Give me a break!" Eric whined, "What's got into you all of a sudden?"
"What can I say, Eric? I'm in my element!" Presto gestured toward the wizard statues, animatronic dragons, and magic shops that lined the sidewalks of Fantasy Land.
Diana smiled, her hands on her hips as she watched Presto gawk at his surroundings. It's good to see him come out of his shell, she thought. She then grabbed a pointy, purple magician's hat from the cart of a nearby vendor and placed it on Presto's head. "I'll bet you could do some great magic with this!" she exclaimed.
Presto took it off to look at it. "Nah," he sighed as he traced one of the silver star decals that dotted the hat's surface, "These things don't really work."
"You're right," Diana mused as she stepped back and eyed up the young magician, "You'd need a green one . . . one that matches your shirt!"
Presto grinned broadly as he replaced the hat onto the cart.
"I've always been fascinated with this time period, myself!" Diana was now gazing at a scene depicted in a medieval mural, which was painted on the side of one of the shops. "I love stories about knights and King Arthur and . . . "
"Eh," Eric shrugged as he shoved his way in front of her for a better look at the painting, "Doesn't interest me!"
"I'm not surprised," Diana retorted, giving him annoyed look.
"Pffft," he snorted, "Why? What makes them so special?" He shot his thumb in the direction of the knights on the mural.
"There's a thing called 'chivalry,' Eric," Diana sighed as she elbowed him out from in front of her, "And allow me let you in on a little secret: You ain't got it! Somehow I couldn't see you as a knight!" This comment caused a chuckle from Presto.
"Hey! Whose side are you on?" Eric glared at the auburn-haired boy before turning again to Diana. "For your information, I would have been too smart to be a knight! You wouldn't catch me traipsing around in a thousand pounds of armor every day!"
"You're right, Eric," Diana said, "After all, it already must be really tiring to lug your ego around! The extra weight would probably kill you! And I think we can all agree that you're no Lancelot!"
Eric was about to come back with another sarcastic remark when his attention was diverted elsewhere. "There they are!" he cried, pointing and catching Presto under the chin with his outstretched arm.
The three of them looked across the "town square" of Fantasy Land to catch sight of Hank, Sheila and Bobby emerging from the Viking Ship ride. Sheila was leaning on Hank's arm and Bobby was looking dizzy, but happy. "Finally!" Eric said, "Maybe now we can start having a little fun!"
"Let's go say hi!" Presto offered as he started walking towards them.
Diana caught him by the shoulder. "Not yet!" she said slyly. "Come on, guys, let's see where they're going!" Diana led the way as the three followed Hank, Sheila and Bobby deeper into Fantasy Land.
They peeked out from behind a souvenir cart and watched as Hank bought Sheila a cotton candy. The girl split it with her brother. Presto shifted uneasily. "I don't know, you guys," he muttered, "Do you really think we should be spying on them?"
"Shhh!" Eric hushed him, "And we're not spying! We're . . . we're . . . we're documenting the progression of the relationship for posterity!"
Diana snickered. "For once, I agree with you, Eric!" She then turned to Presto. "Try to think of us as long-distance chaperones!"
Presto smiled. Deep down he was enjoying the espionage. How could he not? After all, he was in a place that he never thought he would ever be! He was at the amusement park on opening weekend, socializing with some of the most popular kids in school. This was turning out to be the best day of his life!
"Yaaahh!" Presto cried as he suddenly felt a hand tightly grip the back of his neck and spin him around.
"I don't remember seeing the sign for the geek convention out front!" Presto's eyes trailed up to see Craig Whitaker towering over him. "Who invited you, Pres-to?" He then glanced over at Diana and scoffed at her. "Pu-leeze tell me that this is some charity outreach program, Di, and that you're not actually hanging out with this nerd!"
Diana leered at him. "Since when is it your business who my friends are, Craig?"
"I guess since now! You obviously need saving from your own generousness."
"That's 'generosity,' you dumb jock!" Presto corrected as he squirmed in Craig's grip. His boldness surprised him, but the events of the day had left him feeling momentarily invincible.
Momentarily. Presto gulped in fright as Craig glared down at him again. "What'd you say, Four-eyes?!" he growled as he began to draw his fist back. "You're gonna need a lot more than card tricks to get you out of this one, little man!"
Diana grabbed Craig's arm. "Stop it, Craig!" she shouted, "I said leave him alone!" The jock roughly shrugged her off and turned his attention back to Presto.
Hank had started running in their direction upon hearing Presto's shout, followed closely by Sheila and Bobby. They made it to where the others were standing just as Craig began to lift Presto off his feet by the collar. Hank lunged for the two boys . . . but it was Eric who got there first.
He positioned himself between Presto and Craig, gripping the fist that held Presto with one hand and raising the other out in front of him. He had no idea why he did that. It's not like his hand was going to do much should the hulking jock decide to haul off and punch him. But he stood like that anyway.
"Move it, Montgomery," Craig sneered, "I don't have a beef with you."
Hank stepped in as well. "Yeah, well, I'm gonna have one with you in about five seconds if you don't let him go!" The group was starting to draw a small crowd.
Craig glanced around before releasing Presto. He backed off and shook his head as he glared at them. "You're not worth it -- none of you!" His eyes settled on Hank. "I wouldn't have pegged you for such a goody-two-shoes, buddy," he snorted as he walked away.
Presto, who had been too stunned to move, finally looked up when Hank placed a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?" he asked.
"Y-yeah," Presto stammered. He looked in disbelief at the people around him. "Gee, thanks, guys," he said, "I'm awfully sorry I started a fight between you and your friend."
"That meathead?" Diana scoffed, "He's no friend."
"Just a bully," Hank added.
Diana suddenly remembered herself. "Oh, hey!" she exclaimed in mock surprise, "Fancy meeting you three here!" She looked wide-eyed at Hank, Sheila, and Bobby. Sheila met her eyes with a raised eyebrow.
"I'd say the jig is up," Presto muttered. But he couldn't hold back an intense smile. Even after what had just happened -- no -- especially after what had just happened, it was now without a doubt, the best day of his life. And it looked like it was only going to get better when Hank said, "Come on, you guys. Why don't we all just hang out together?"
Diana turned to Eric with a surprised smile. "You know, that was pretty impressive how you jumped in like that," she said.
"Are you nuts?" Eric responded, his first words since stepping in between Craig and Presto. It was almost as though his actions shocked even himself. "That had to have been the stupidest thing I've ever done!"
"Maybe," Diana replied, still smiling, "But it was certainly noble . . . chivalrous, even!"
Eric smiled back. Not his usual smirk, but a real smile.
"Hey look!" Bobby's voice brought them all back to the park. "The Dungeons and Dragons ride!" The boy began to sprint toward the huge gaping mouth of the mythical beast that was swallowing up little red roller-coaster cars one after the other.
"Well, you were the one who was eager to start riding some rides," Diana reminded him.
"Yeah . . . but that one?" he grumbled, "It looks so . . . lame!"
The two looked up to see Hank and Sheila following Bobby toward the entrance of the ride. "C'mon, Eric!" Diana said as she gripped his arm and led him forward, "We can't shirk our chaperoning duties! Let's go, Presto!" she called to the other boy and the six of them made their way to the line.
The line moved quickly. After only a few minutes of waiting, a red car pulled up in front of them and six giggling teenagers got out. Once the ride's operator had ushered the group toward the exit, he opened the gate to allow the six new passengers on.
Bobby clambered into the front seat excitedly and moved all the way over. Hank took Sheila's hand as she stepped down into the center seat and settled beside her brother. Diana, Eric and Presto climbed across the back row. Finally, Hank lowered himself into the front seat beside Sheila. His arm draped over her shoulder for a brief moment before the ride lurched forward. He then gripped the bar tightly as the coaster vanished into the mouth of the dragon.
It was a fairly gentle ride; not at all like a roller coaster. In fact, as the car moved along through the mechanical monsters and animatronics, it seemed more like a tour through a forgotten realm than a thrilling ride. This didn't seem to bother Bobby, however. "Wow! Neat!" he cried as an automated dragon breathed fire in a burst of impressive pyrotechnics.
Eric's attention was directed at two beastly creatures hovering over the car. They were swinging their weapons, a glaive and a spiked morningstar, in what Eric assumed were supposed to be menacing arcs. The dark-haired boy was not impressed. "Give me a break!" he groaned.
As the car advanced into the next chamber, the six individuals inside got the feeling that this was where the ride was supposed to take off. The creatures around them began to close in and the car sped up. Bobby looked around in glee.
As the monsters neared them, they started to fade into each other; emitting an eerie silvery white light as they swirled into a spinning vortex that surrounded the coaster car. The six looked up at the swirling tunnel through which they were passing. Eric was eating his words right now. He no longer thought the ride was lame. In fact, he had a new reason for not wanting to be there -- his boredom was gone, but the spinning was making him nauseous.
Then the shaking started. It was mild at first, almost what you would expect from a roller coaster that was about to take that eagerly anticipated plunge. But it changed. The plunge never came. Instead there was a rocking; a violent rocking. The car's sides lifted up and down, higher and higher; each time rising right up off the tracks and slamming down hard. Not yet wanting to panic, Sheila managed to voice the words that they were all thinking by this point: "I don't like this!"
Suddenly, the sensation below them changed. The car was still rocking violently back and forth, but the wheels were no longer slamming against the tracks. Hank was slightly relieved for a moment, until he glanced over the side of the car. "Whoa!" he cried. The wheels of the car weren't banging against the tracks because there were no tracks to bang against. The area below them was nothing but empty space. "What's happening?" Hank shouted.
The next few things that happened went by so quickly that they hardly had enough time to register in the minds of the terrified passengers. First, the car broke into pieces. It didn't simply lose a wheel or just fall apart; it actually seemed to be taken apart, piece by piece. The pieces then seemed to, not fall to the floor, but float away! It was as though a hundred invisible men each grabbed a section of their car and ran off with it.
The six youngsters found themselves floating in a void, so panic-stricken that they couldn't even scream. Before them appeared a blinding light that seemed to get closer and closer every second. Each of the six felt a tickling pull all over their bodies as they were drawn toward the light. As they grew closer to it, they felt a sudden jerk as the light swallowed them.
"WHOA!" Their unified scream echoed through the vortex for a split second -- then it was gone.
The feeling of floating became one of falling. Each of the six children hit the ground with a thud and struggled for a moment to get their bearings. Hank got to his feet and helped Sheila up. "Everyone okay?" he asked.
His friends muttered some inaudible replies as they all rose to their feet. They found themselves surrounded by a desolate, rocky landscape. They could do nothing at first except look around. "What kind of a ride is this?" Eric shouted, his voice echoing off the high walls of a canyon nearby. "I wanna talk to the park manager!"
His eyes locked on Diana's for a moment and she took a shuddering gasp when she looked at him. Wha--? he mouthed -- then saw what she was seeing. He glanced down at his clothing. What had been a yellow sweater vest was now a golden breastplate; his jeans had been replaced by chain mail leggings and knee-high metal boots; even his red button down was gone, but across his shoulders, a medium-length crimson cape. Eric trembled as he looked at himself.
"A knight!" Diana breathed.
The others noticed that their own clothing had undergone similar changes. Hank was now wearing green studded leather; Sheila, a short pink dress and thigh-high boots; Bobby's animal pelt loincloth was held up by crisscrossed leather straps and his head was topped by a horned helmet; Diana also wore animal hides, but hers was a breechcloth and halter combination garnished with golden jewelry; Presto found himself in an oversized green robe belted at the waist with a yellow sash.
The latter boy shoved his glasses higher up onto his nose before asking aloud the question that was on each of their minds: "Where are we?"
On a rock a short distance away stood a diminutive man in long red robes. Around his neck hung a white diamond-shaped amulet. His hands were clasped behind his back as he watched the panic-stricken children survey their new surroundings. The tallest blonde one was trying to keep them calm. The man's bluish eyes twinkled and hid a hint of sadness. In a few brief seconds, the children would know all too well the answer to Presto's question. If evil is to be vanquished, the pure-of-heart must do something, the man thought, Six pure hearts!
"Welcome, Young Ones," he said quietly to himself, "To the Realm of Dungeons and Dragons."
Not The End . . . Merely The Beginning !
Not The End . . . Merely The Beginning !