CHAPTER ONE 

GETTING REAL

    

“No, Dan, don’t!”    

Too late. Dan was already sprinting at bullet speed straight into a brick wall. Sandy tried to grab him, but her hand missed the back of his sweatshirt. She cringed. He crashed and crumbled to the grimy, gray tiled floor of the train station. A white-haired woman screamed. People gathered around. 

“Should we call an ambulance?” someone asked.

Sandy crouched over Dan. The oversized football helmet had twisted around to the other side, and the back of it covered his face. Oh God, it had better be just your helmet and not your head that’s on backward, you idiot.

“Are you all right?” a conductor asked.

Sandy held her breath. There was a long pause before Dan’s muffled voice replied.

“Sure.”  

He sat up and leaned against the wall. The helmet slid around again so that the opening almost returned to the front, and Sandy could see his familiar freckled face and shiny brown eyes. She let out a sigh of relief.

“You know if you hadn’t been wearing that thing,” the conductor said, “you could have seen where you were going.”

Dan shook his head. The helmet waggled from side to side.

“Oh, I knew exactly where I was –” 

Oh God, he’s going to say it. She threw her arms around him and stopped him in mid-sentence. “Dan, I’m so glad you’re okay!”

“Yes, but I’ve missed the Hogwart Express.”

Sandy’s shoulder and head drooped to one side. Come on, Dan, when are you going to learn to keep your big mouth shut?

 “What’s the Hogwart Express?” asked the conductor.

“It’s from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies,” said a man in a brown suit. He snickered but put a hand over his mouth to hide it.

“It’s from the books,” said a little woman with little glasses and short, dark hair. “It’s a fantasy series by J.K. Rowling. Surely, you’ve heard of Harry Potter?”

The conductor rolled his eyes. “You mean to say that this kid ran into a wall on purpose because of something he read in a book?”

This is nothing. You should see the scar he got on his arm six years ago after he tried to go through a looking glass. Sandy grabbed Dan’s hand and helped him up. Just one more year of bad luck to go.  

“He’s delirious,” she said. “He might have a concussion. We just came back from seeing a football game.”

“There is no game today,” said the man in brown.

“A high school football game.” She tried to look serious but could feel herself blush. This guy’s not going to buy it.

“Oh.”  Then again maybe he will.

“You really ought to be more careful,” the conductor said. He held up his hands in an authoritative manner and spoke loudly to the crowd. “The boy’s fine. There’s nothing to see here, so just move along.”

As the people walked away, Dan got back on his feet and leaned against the wall to steady himself.

“This is like the part in ‘The Chamber of Secrets’,” he said, “where someone tried to prevent Harry from getting to school. We just have to figure out who.”

“Oh, I know who,” Sandy said.

“Really, who?”

“Reality.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Sandy, ow!” Dan put his hand to his forehead and blinked. “I probably should have got a football helmet that fit better.”

“No, you should have used your bicycle helmet.”  Wait a minute, what I am saying?

“It’s not as tough as this one,” Dan said. “And it doesn’t have a face guard. Anyway, getting back on track, reality is only for boring people. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

“You think so, huh? Here’s a little reality check for you - it’s a school night, and we’ve got a ton of homework.”

“Who cares?” Dan shrugged and started walking back to the train station exit.

“Obviously not you.” Sandy followed him. “You couldn’t care less that we’re in eighth grade.”

“So?”

“So we’re going to high school next year.”

“So?”

“So our grades are going to matter.”

“Yeah, right.” Dan laughed. “There’s just one high school in this town.”

They walked down the stairs and unchained their bikes.

“Yeah, well, you could always get bussed out of district with the special ed kids.”

“Give me a break.”

Sandy sighed.

“Our grades this year matter, because the class we get in high school matters. You don’t want us to get split up, do you?”

Dan shook his head, then winced and touched his forehead again.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sandy asked.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Let’s go do our homework.”

They pushed their bikes onto the asphalt, mounted them, and started pedaling. As they passed Sandy’s house, she reminded herself to call home when they got to Dan’s apartment. She wanted to let her parents know where she was, not that they would be worried. Her parents wouldn’t even be at home. Her older brother Josh had his own cell phone, and her younger sister Rachel hardly ever picked up the house one. So Sandy would leave a voice mail or a message with her older sister Elisa.  Elisa would be annoyed at being told something she already knew. Sandy and Dan were always somewhere together, just the two of them. It had been that way since they were five.

“Let’s not do our history homework!” Dan shouted over his shoulder. Sandy’s bike lagged behind to make room for a passing car.

“It’s going to take us hours, so we’ll do it last!” she called back.

They passed houses with jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, and glow-in-the-dark witches still outside, and two already decorated with reindeer, elves, and waves of red and green lights. The thick branches over their heads had been so beautiful only a month ago, covered in the most dazzling mix of red, green, orange, and yellow leaves. In another month they might be full again with sparkling white snow. Now they were neither bare nor beautiful, their spindly limbs like twisted fingers still holding onto a few brown reminders of their former glory. Early November was such an in-between time.

Sandy caught up to Dan at the corner that turned into the apartment complex. Each identical building housed four families and had a small plot of land outside with trees, bushes, and flowers.  Dan’s apartment was the on the ground floor in the building farthest from the entrance. His mom liked to grow fruits and vegetables by their door. Dan had moved there with her when he was seven, a few months after… Sandy didn’t like to think about it.

“I don’t see what the point is of working so hard,” said Dan. “The Dragon is going to flunk us all anyway.”

 

 

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