Bartholomew Borax III staggered back, bouncing off something hard. He thrust out his hands, but still tumbled over, landing on all fours. Gasping for breath, he dug his fingers into the ground and clung to the grassy soil.
Please stay this time, he prayed.
Arching his back, he gulped in a lungful of fresh air, choking on the ash in his throat. His body spasmed and he sputtered, coughing up dark phlegm. He spat twice.
Dew soaked through his silk pajamas to his knees. The boy leaned back on his haunches and tried to calm his breathing. He closed his eyes and began a silent count. One… Ten…Thirty-one…Thirty-three. Once he could take a breath without spluttering, he opened them.
The shining moon broke through the clouds illuminating the Spanish style building beyond. The school was still standing?
But he had just watched it melt away.
A breeze blew back his blonde hair. He stood, bare feet slipping on the wet grass.
Bartholomew leaned against the flagpole and brushed his cheek against metal. Cool as the dark sky above. No hint of that fiery furnace now.
That he was back in the real world.
The fourteen-year-old had traveled into the mystical Artania three times before, and while each journey was unique, he’d never experienced anything quite like this. Every other crossing had been with Alex by his side knowing full well that something magical was about to happen; he was about to breach an enchanted doorway.
Not this time.
This time he’d plodded into Mother’s office to dutifully say goodnight and submit to inspection. After taking his third bath and patting his head to tame the cowlick that refused to stay down, Bartholomew had applied hand sanitizer, deodorant, and cologne. Since Hygenette Borax’s sense of smell was stronger than a Mudlark elephant, he doubled each application before descending the winding staircase to make his way down the long hall toward her office.
As his footsteps echoed down the lonely hallway, he considered asking to return to school. Maybe the months of being extra clean were enough for her to say yes. It had been almost two years since the incident. When he saw her from the doorway, he knew it wouldn’t do any good.
The monitor light shone on her pale skin as she mumbled something about cleansers. As she stared at her laptop on the Plexiglas desk, he felt a pang of pity. Those diamond blue eyes used to cut him to the core, but not anymore. Now, Bartholomew understood her cool glances were simply a mask protecting her from the world. A world where a husband can drown in inches of water and leave you to raise a child on your own.
“I’m ready to rest Mother,” the fourteen-year-old said.
Her gaze stayed fixed on the computer screen. Mother must have been preoccupied because, for once, she didn’t beckon him closer to look for dirt under his nails or specks of dust on his monogrammed robe.
He stepped up behind her. “Mother?”
“What?” she demanded, closing the laptop. She set a hand over it protectively.
That was strange. She usually reveled in sharing articles about how germs live everywhere or a new cleanser. What was she looking at?
“I-I uhh have bathed.”
“Hmm,” she sniffed raising her nose in the air. “Hand sanitizer?”
He held up his hands for inspection.
“Fine. Good night.” She waved him away with a flick of her wrist but waited until he was back at the doorway before returning to whatever was on the computer screen.
Back inside his room, Bartholomew pondered her strange behavior. Hygenette Borax was many things; controlling, fearful, and of course, obsessed with cleanliness. One thing she had never been though, was secretive. All his life Bartholomew had heard her tell stories of the horrors that waited just outside. How if he weren’t careful, he could end up just like his father, drowning in mud.
For many years he’d believed her, but over time came to realize that it was all lies. Lies she told herself to explain Father’s death.
He shook his head and had just hung up his robe when the humming began. Then there was a flash.
And that crazy night began.