After their mother is poisoned by demons, technology genius and cancer patient, Callen Thorne and his psychic sister, Ania are pulled into a desperate quest to save her by their mysterious demon hunting grandfather.
Beyond the wet hospital window, the distorted glow of neon painted the city electronic fire. A variety of aircraft sporadically flashed across the skyline like a paintbrush, as if an invisible artist was struggling to save a ruined masterpiece. However, nothing pleasing could be pulled from those colors. The world was dying, rotting, inside and out, and it was only a matter of time until the last of its beauty was little more than legend.
A fourteen-year-old boy, dressed in worn jeans and a black t- shirt, placed his hand on the window glass and the lingering summer warmth ran up his arm. His hair was buzzed short. However, it wasn’t by choice. A little over a week ago, the golden brown had just started to grow back.
The room was dimly lit, which allowed him to look into the night without the artificial glare obscuring his view. Through his glasses, he watched the drops of water bead up on the windowpane and run like rivers of tears. He liked the rain. To him it meant luck or the closest thing to it.
On the street far below, people were moving about with their umbrellas, like ants caught up in the drive of consumption. They bounced between fast food joints and coffee shops on their way to perpetually fuel both the cycle of the industry and their wanton desires. That saturation of greed was a luxury that was so far from the mind of Callen Thorne that he could scarcely imagine what it would be like to ride the wave of humanity’s progress. He had always focused on a something that people take for granted. That something was, quite simply, living.
Callen had spent the last ten years of his life juggling cycles of partial remissions, treatments, and the failures of modern medicine. One foot was stuck in a grave that he could neither lie in nor climb out. If, for some reason, he did manage to climb out, the scent of the graveyard would forever cling to him, for one doesn’t stare into the eyes of the reaper and remain unchanged.
On the bed behind him sat his few belongings that he had packed hours ago in hope that his mother would have managed to get out of work early. His medical gown was half resting on a worn cardboard box that was full of his belongs that included his collection of 1980s action movies and variety of custom-built electronics.
The lights clicked on, illuminating a variety of medical devices, monitors, and furniture for visitors. The nurses rolled a bed into the fully lit room.
The flash stung the Callen’s eyes, but after a few blinks he saw the zombie-like face of his roommate being wheeled in on a bed reflected in the window.
Callen watched the reflection, with a grim shadow hanging over his heart, as the nurses connected the computerized monitoring system and IV bags to the subcutaneous medical implants under his roommate’s skin.
The electronics hissed on, followed by the faint gulp of a
pump. Callen’s roommate winced, and his tattooed flesh rippled with goose bumps as the chemical wave hit his bloodstream.
Callen knew that pain all too well. His roommate was fresh out of a treatment, and those connections hurt at reattachment even without the extreme skin sensitivity gifted by the chemotherapy.
“Going home tonight, Callen?” Derrick gasped from his bed. He forced a smile and slid up on the pillow. The smile didn’t do much to hide his grimace. Callen didn’t answer. “Hey, earth to Peter Parker!” He coughed.
Callen slowly released his breath. He knew that this was probably the last day he would see his best friend and roommate. Soon Derrick would step into Charon’s boat.
“Don’t call me that.” Callen turned to glare at his friend. “I’m not ten anymore.” Neither the growl nor the glare had any real anger behind it, only the slight annoyed feeling, like that a younger child gets when teased by an older sibling.
“Well, you look like him, and you certainly like to invent stuff…” Derrick teased. “You read the comics quite a bit too…”
“My sister leaves them for me to read…” Callen grumbled.
“Come on, you know you’re a fan…” Derrick laughed. “But, so am I…By the way, can I have your window bed when you leave?”
“Maybe…ask Dr. James.” He took a breath. “But, it will only be until I come back.”
“Come on, man, you’re out of here. ‘Sides, if they hear you, they might make you watch that wicked good positive thinking video again.” He laughed, and then coughed.
“Have you ever watched that thing?” Callen asked. “It is all
about how thoughts control your destiny. I was trying to make sense of it using quantum…”
“Stop.” He laughed. “I don’t get it when you talk all science. I don’t think anyone does, except Dr. James and his techno-nerd engineer of a son Matt, but no I don’t ever listen to it. It’s crap, ‘sides every time they put it on I hear nothing but the good stuff. Nothing’ but classic metal is on my iPod.”
Callen nodded and felt a slight tinge of jealousy. “Yeah, well, my mom can’t afford one of them. Besides, I could probably build one, just need the parts.”
Both of them enjoyed the same aged classics that were even old for their parents’ generation. In their opinion, that was music for men, by men, back in the golden age of muscle cars and muscle-bound action heroes that spit one-liners.
“That’s one way of getting the five-finger discount,” Derrick said. “But, maybe you’d have one if you didn’t use everything you had to make that e-reader or that laptop.”
Callen shrugged. He always felt weird when Derrick talked about things like stealing. It wasn’t because Callen had any particular attachment to the law. It was more because Derrick spoke of these things from experience rather than a boyhood outlaw fantasy. But, Derrick was a few years older than Callen and had experienced much of the world beyond the confines of the hospital. Derrick was a street kid through and through, and unlike Callen, didn’t know the love of a family.
He had spoken little of the time before he had been picked up by social services and Callen never asked. It wasn’t because he wasn’t curious; it was more out of respect for the baggage that his friend was carrying. Callen had weight of his own and didn’t want to walk down the path of those memories.
Although their friendship was of convenience and the unfortunate common bond of cancer, the two boys rapidly had become depend on each other, like soldiers in a war, and they were brothers.
Derrick made it his personal project to toughen Callen up, in a traditional Alpha-male sense, and Callen provided Derrick with that intellectual edge which true tough guys so often lacked. They would joke how if the world created a comic about them, and they would save the world through the blend of Callen’s brains and Derrick’s brawn.
Derrick looked especially sad today. Even the stale glow of the florescent lights couldn’t hide that. The room was now without color since Callen had taken down all the decorations his sister had drawn for him. The only thing that even resembled something that a parent would leave a sick child was a stock teddy bear that sat on one of Derrick’s monitors. He had added a hangman’s rope around its neck made of discarded medical tubing.
“I’m gonna miss you man.” Callen’s voice was sincere. “I’ll call you every day.”
“What are we, dating?” Derrick coughed. “You get out of here. You’ll forget me in a week. Everyone else does.” He tried to laugh it off, but Callen’s gaze didn’t waver.
“No, I won’t. Besides, if you’re not around, who’s gonna teach me not to be the prince of nerds?”, Callen smiled. That was Derrick’s other favorite nickname for him.
“Awww, you’re becoming the Prince of Queers now with your wicked emotions.”
“Hey, you’re the one who mentioned dating…”, Callen laughed. “Besides, you know I’m into girls.”
“Name one.” “Ah…”
“Is the Prince of Queers still worried I’m going to die without him to hold my hand?” He shot another teasing grin.
“Well, in all seriousness…”
“Come one man, I don’t care what the doc says about my
chances. Four years ago I was homeless. Then I got taken by social services. Then I got taken in by that shit foster family that abandoned me here…but because I am a ward of the state…I get everything paid for. There is no way all that stuff happened like that just to let me die here.”
“It is an interesting string of coincidences…”
“Luck.” He smiled. “Same shit that you got. Think about it,
you’re still here despite all odds.”
Callen shrugged. “My dad would call that God.”
“Nah. God is bullshit. Luck is better. Luck always works in your favor. If God is so good, then why does cancer exist in the first place?” He laughed bitterly. “Screw God, I’ll take piles of luck over God any day.”
“I guess luck is good.”
“Damn right.” Derrick’s expression got serious again. “But, as luck would have it…you’re going home today.”
“Yeah, that and other stuff.”
“Like what? You leaving me here?”
“Yeah.” Callen tore off a piece of his box of belongings and produced a pen from within his pocket. He quickly jotted down his phone number. “Here,” He handed Derrick the piece of cardboard. “Call me every day, and when you’re better, you can come visit. We don’t have much room but our couch is comfortable.” He felt a little weird as he handed Derrick his phone number.
Callen’s mother was paranoid about him giving out his address and had prohibited him from using his father’s last name. But it was important for patients to have support. He couldn’t leave his friend alone. Luckily, she had said nothing about phone numbers. So he shook it off.
“Thanks, Callen. I wish I met you a long time ago. It would have been nice to have a little brother for longer. Things might have been different for me.” He started to choke up a bit, but hid it with a cough. He forced a smile. “But, I will call, and I expect you to have a nice lady friend when I do…that better be your priority when you’re a sophomore in a few months…”
“Yeah right.” Callen rolled his eyes. “Like that will ever happen.”
Both boys looked towards the door as the squeak of wet shoes, and voices came down the hall.
“Guess your mom and sister are here.” Derrick pointed out. “Time for you to go.”
“Yeah.” Callen sighed. “Home.” Worries of going back to school flooded into his head. It wasn’t the work that bothered him; it was the other students. He was always a target because the treatments had taken their toll on his body and made him small for his age. He wished Derrick was coming with him. He helped him feel tough. Luckily, it was summer, so he had some time to deal with that reality later.
“You ready, pup?” Callen’s mother, Eve, asked as she walked into the room. Her layered red hair fell loosely just above her shoulders, and underneath her light raincoat, she still wore the uniform of a cashier from an electronics store. “Sorry, we’re late. Boss was shorthanded.”
“It’s ok Mom.”
“Hi Ms. Thorne.” Derrick coughed.
“Hello, Derrick.” She smiled, but Callen knew she forced a smile. There was something that his mother didn’t like about him, but she managed to bury her emotions so only her children could see her discontent. “How are you feeling?”
“Same as always, Ms. Thorne.” Derrick coughed.
“Well, I pray that will change.” Eve pulled off her coat and rested it on a chair in the corner of the room. Despite the stress in her life, Eve looked much younger than 37 and walked with the spring of a dancer. She kept her body fit and trim, much like a gymnast. Callen got a little grossed out when he saw Derrick
Shadowing their mother was Callen’s thirteen-year-old sister,
Ania, carrying a sketchbook in her arm with a pencil tucked into the binding. Her deep chestnut hair flopped with each step as she grinned with the excitement that her brother was coming home.
“Well, let me talk to Dr. James and I’ll get you signed out.” She turned and went back into the hall.
“Pup, what a lame nickname,” Derrick teased. “Who came up with that name?”
Callen scratched his head. “I have no idea.”
“Me either.” Ania moved their mother’s coat off the chair and
pulled off her backpack before sitting down. “But, for some reason…it makes me think of a Native American…but with a heavy beard.” She laughed at the absurdity and placed her notebook on a nearby table and unzipped her bag. She glowed with excitement but didn’t remove anything. She leaned back in the chair and grinned.
“You know…I think the same thing.” Callen admitted with a shrug. “Ridiculous considering Native Americans don’t have beards…”
“Whatever.” Derrick shook his head and looked at Ania. “You look different, Ania. Did you do grow or something since the last
time I saw you?” He scratched his bald head. “Naw, it wouldn’t be, that would be ridiculous. I saw you last week.”
“I got my cartilage pierced on Monday.” She smiled and pushed back her hair to reveal a gold loop with a small platinum bead.”
“That looks expensive…” Derrick pointed out.
She nodded. “Took some saving…because I can’t wear
stainless. It makes my ears swell up.” “They look wicked,” Derrick said. Ania blushed a little.
A loud commotion was coming from the hall, and in walked Dr. James and Eve. “All set, pup.” Eve had three pieces of cake in her hand, which she handed to her two children and Derrick. She had brought a cake for the children in the hospital wing to celebrate her son’s remission.
“Give everyone a few minutes,” Dr. James said. He was a heavy set balding man in his late fifties. His bifocals sat low on his nose, and he had always reminded Callen of an absent- minded professor, but he was far from absent-minded. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on rare unclassifiable forms of cancer. He usually worked with children and despite the pain caused by endless streams of death, his face was kind and lightly creased like a beardless Santa Clause. He carried a clipboard under his arm and a package wrapped in brown paper.
Callen knew exactly what was going on. The nurses were moving the other children in the ward that could move into the hall to bid him farewell. It was more about the other children than Callen at this point since he had gone through the same cycle many times before. They always made it a big deal when someone went home. They had to, since so many didn’t. Dr. James placed his clipboard under his arm and took the brown package. He handed it to Callen. “This is from all of us.” He said. “A going away present.”
Callen took the package. “Thanks.” The curiosity was swelling. His birthday wasn’t until the fall, and he hadn’t given the slightest thoughts to any presents. He tore back the brown paper and found a box. He slid it open and inside rested a roll of bubble wrap with a thin plastic rectangle inside. His eyes widened with excitement as he realized what it was. “You didn’t!” He unwrapped the computer display screen.
Dr. James smiled. “Of course we did. Matt’s project moved from alpha testing to beta testing, so he made sure to ‘borrow’ one of the prototypes. He’s sorry he couldn’t be here to send you off; he got called off on business. All the firmware is in the USB taped to the back. You’ll have to hook it up, but I’m sure that won’t be hard.”
Callen smiled. Matt James had taken a liking to Callen over the years when he would help his father troubleshoot or install new diagnostic equipment from his company in the children’s cancer ward. He had helped Matt figure out a problem with a piece of equipment, and Matt started teaching him all sorts of electrical and computer engineering concepts. Callen contributed heavily to Matt’s projects and specifically this one, a touch screen with a motion sensor for video games and other advanced graphical manipulations.
“You just have to wire it up into that Frankenstein system of yours, load up the firmware, and it will take your gaming to a whole new level.” Dr. James’ face wrinkled. “I know, the slogan is terrible. The marketing guys need to work on it.”
Ania pulled a second package from her bag and handed it to her brother. “One more. Derrick and I picked it out, but it’s from Mom too.”
Callen tore off the paper to find a box decorated with
computer graphics and comic art. The box read ‘Shadowborne’ in black and army green lettering with the shadow of an elf holding a Thompson sub-machine gun.
The massively multiplayer online game had been recently released to critical acclaim. The game’ setting was WWII and layered in common fantasy archetypes into the frantic loot- based shooter.
“The next expansion is coming out in a few weeks,” Ania said. ”I…err…we got the version that gives you the expansion for free when it comes out.”
“Yeah,” Derrick said. “It’s all about an evil cult that worships some deep sea god…like Cthulu…influencing the war from the shadows…it looks badass.”
“Wow, thanks!” Callen knew that Matt was working with this game’s programmers so it will utilize the new gaming board. It was incredible; Callen was speechless and lost in the package art until a firm knock came from the door.
“We’re ready.” The nurse said.
“Come on, Callen.” Ania jumped up and grabbed her
brother’s belongings from the bed.
Callen followed his sister, Dr. James, and his mother into the
hall. He turned back to look at Derrick and a lump formed in his throat. He felt tears beginning to form. The excitement of gifts was something he wasn’t used to, and unfortunately dulled the pain of leaving his friend only for a mere second.
“Derrick…” Callen started to say.
Derrick leaned over the edge of the bed and pulled open a
drawer on a small bedside table. He coughed as he pulled out a small electronic device wrapped in a thin white wire. He held it out. “For you.” He said with a sickly smile. “Get going. The car’s waiting.” He coughed.
“But…” Callen stuttered as Derrick dropped the iPod into his hand.
“I can’t let your sis buy presents for you from me. Tough guys don’t listen to that popular crap that passes for music these days. ‘Sides, I’m not gonna need it where I’m going.”
Callen didn’t say anything he just stared at his friend and let the tears stream down his face. He expected Derrick to tease him, but he didn’t.
“Callen?” Ania poked her head in the room. “Everyone’s waiting.” She glanced at Derrick, and she understood. She gave him a warm smile. “Get well.”
Derrick rubbed his eye and pretended an eyelash got caught in it. “Just do me two favors…one, if you put anything new in the mix, make sure it’s badass…”
Callen nodded, but didn’t even try to say another word; he knew that if he spoke he could do nothing to hold back his sobs. He just gave his friend a forlorn glance and turned towards the door hoping that this wouldn’t be the last time he saw him.
“And two, don’t look back, Callen.” Derrick choked as the tears started rolling down his cheeks. “Don’t ever look back.”
CH2 and the Rest of the Book are free on Smashwords.