CHAPTER ONE: The Disappearing Boy

Andrew Milligan was running.

He was in a dark forest. In his right hand, he held a useless flashlight, drained of power. On his head, his construction helmet bobbed up and down with each of his strides and each of his stumbles. Gnarled branches pulled at his worn work clothes from all sides like long, withered hands endevouring to slow him down.

His memories were a jumble, a flash of images too quick to understand. A big city reflected in a rear-view mirror. A woman and a boy inside an empty house. A construction site filled with noise and strange faces. The moon shining down on an old, rusted car. Beautiful music that called to him and begged him to come.

He could hear the music now as he ran. It was just ahead, deeper into the forest, a captivating symphony promising comfort and protection. He longed for it. He knew that if he could reach the source of the music then he would be safe from whatever was chasing him.

Andrew had only caught a glimpse of the creature. It had been preceded by thunder, loud and booming. Then, in an instant, the monster had emerged next to him in the darkness, towering over him as though he were a small child. Immediate panic had taken over him and he had fled.

Andrew threw the flashlight. He reached up and ripped the helmet off his head. Breathing had become a struggle and his heart was threatening to beat out of his chest.

The powerful thudding of the creature's footsteps signalled it was near. Andrew didn't dare look back. The music was his only hope.

Moonlight enveloped him as he sprung into a clearing. There was an old tree up ahead. Its wide trunk was adorned by a radiant circle of light, as though the moon had come down from the sky and nestled beneath the tree's branches.

Andrew understood. The music was in the light, and the light was the music. He rushed toward the tree and leaped into the portal.

Andrew Milligan fell into another world.

***

Early into the new school year, Emma became obsessed with a boy who disappeared.

It all began on the first day of class during morning recess. Emma was sitting on a swing in the playground, swaying her feet and reading the book that she had smuggled out of her classroom. She was keeping half an eye on some boys who were bouncing a tennis ball off the side of the building and chasing after it. She was wary of them because she had been a victim of a stray tennis ball once or twice before. Though tennis balls didn't seem all that dangerous, she had endured painful lumps on the top of her head for days.

During one of her glances up from the book, she spotted the disappearing boy quite by accident. He was a plain boy who was trying very hard to be hard to notice. He was walking around the playground with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the ground in order to avoid eye contact with the other kids. Whenever anyone approached him, either deliberately or simply during the normal course of play, he would do a sudden spin on his heels and walk away in a different direction. It was clear the boy did not want to make any friends. He wanted to be left alone for some reason that was entirely unimaginable to Emma but, at the same time, irresistibly intriguing. Maybe he was a spy or probably an explorer from an alien civilization not supposed to make contact with the backward locals.

Emma decided right then that she would become his best friend. She dogeared her place in the book and jumped down off the swing, intent on making a beeline toward the boy.

Her plans were interrupted by the school bell. She lost sight of her target as a crowd of children rushed past her, blocking her view. She stood on her tiptoes and tried to peek over the crowd but it was to no avail. Even the smallest eighth grader towered over her. She jumped in place, craning her neck and straining her eyes in order to get a better viewpoint. Her eyeballs remained firmly in place inside their sockets no matter how hard she pushed.

Several children had stopped to stare at her. Among them was her older brother, Will. His expression was equal parts confusion and embarrassment.

"Hey, Emma," he said. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," Emma said, still looking through the crowd.

"You better get to class, Emma. You don't want to get in trouble on your first day."

Emma sighed. Her eyes were starting to hurt. Will was probably right.

They entered the school together. Will went straight down the hallway to his classroom on the first floor. Emma's class was on the second floor. She made her way to the stairwell but stopped at the bottom of the steps, standing off to the side to watch as the remaining children ran past her on their way up. The boy was not among them.

"Go to class, please."

A deep voice startled her. It belonged to a tall man with gray hair and a round belly. Emma had not seen him approach, though she had no idea how she could have missed him.

"Sorry," she said, as she fled up the stairs. "I was just looking for someone."

When Emma entered her classroom, she found the boy she had been looking for. He was sitting at the desk nearest the door, hands folded neatly in front of him, eyes pointed forward in rapt attention.

"You're in my class? How did you get here?" she said, more loudly than intended. Plain, brown eyes turned to regard her, as did the eyes of everyone else in the class, including the teacher.

"Emma," Ms Robins said. "Please sit down. And try not to be late next time."

Emma turned pink. "Yes, Ms Robins," she said. She took another glance at the boy and then took her seat.

***

Emma tried to find the boy again during lunch time.

The cafeteria was noisy. The room was filled to the brim with loud children. Laughter erupted now and then from one table or another. Occasionally, an objectionable part of someone's lunch would streak though the air, an event met with an admonishment from a teacher.

Emma scanned her surroundings as she sipped out of a box of apple juice. At her table sat her brother and his two friends, all in grade eight. Joey claimed to tolerate her. Kevin claimed to not.

"It's so full in here this year," Kevin said. "It's all the stupid grade sixes."

"Yeah," Joey said. "So many new ones." He glanced at Emma, the sixth grader, and winced apologetically.

"Emma's not that stupid," Kevin said. "Stupid, yeah, but not as much as all the other ones."

"Thanks," Emma said, sipping her apple juice and continuing to look around for the boy. She was too preoccupied with her task to deal with Kevin's insults at the moment.

The problem that had presented itself in the playground once again reared its ugly head. There were too many heads in the way. It was a constant problem for Emma and she could not think of a solution that did not involve wearing stilts or carrying around a barrel. Both solutions seemed fun and practical but she was sure there were probably rules against them. Most fun things, in her experience, were usually outlawed.

Emma stood up.

"Still not tall enough," she said to no one in particular.

She climbed on top of her chair. A carrot stick flew past her head. She estimated that she could see maybe two thirds of the students in the cafeteria. She needed to go even higher.

She climbed on top of the table. There was some rattling of lunch trays and soda cans as well as plenty of protests from Kevin. Emma paid him no attention. She had an important mission.

"Emma, what are you doing?" Will said, addressing her for the first time during lunch period.

"Looking for someone," she said. A pizza crust sailed past her, inches from her face. Three tables over, the boys who had been playing with the tennis ball earlier were taking aim. One of them held an unusually large pickle. Emma hated pickles, no matter what their size.

"Mr Clarence is coming," Joey said.

Emma did not take her eyes off the pickle. She was sure she would find herself having to dodge it momentarily.

"Emma," Will said. "What are you doing? You're going to get in trouble."

"Oh, fine," Emma said. She spun around in time to see the arrival of the tall, gray-haired man from before, the one she had run into at the bottom of the stairs.

"Hello," she said.

"Emma," Will said. "He's the principal."

Emma blinked. "Hello, sir."

"What is your name?" Mr Clarence said.

"Emma, Mr Clarence."

"Please get down from there, Emma."

"Yes, Mr Clarence."

An unusually large pickle struck Emma in the back of the head.

***

The next morning, during attendance, Emma kept her gaze fixed on the boy. She had began to suspect that he was, in fact, a wizard, and that he was able to make himself disappear whenever he wanted to. It was the only thing that made sense. If she paid close attention during attendance, she would be able to find out his name and then she could look him up in a wizard directory at her father's university. They had every book in the world at the university.

The boy was sitting in much the same way as he had been the day before. He was perfectly still, hands on his desk, his full attention on the teacher at the front of the classroom. His hair was neat. His clothes were clean, though a bit faded. It was all perfectly suspicious. Almost magically so.

"Collins, Suzanne," Ms Robins called out. The girl in the desk directly behind the boy raised her hand.

"Close!" Emma whispered.

"Cosby, Laura."

"Present!"

"Grieger, Eric."

"Here!"

"Johns, Jeff."

A hand went up.

"Laurier, Molly."

"Here!"

And so on down the list. But still the boy barely even moved.

"Wilkins, Emma."

There was silence. No one had responded this time. Maybe this was it. The moment had come. She would figure out the boy's name and all of his secrets would be revealed.

"Wilkins, Emma!" Ms Robins said, exasperated. Still no one answered.

Emma frowned. She realized that everyone was looking at her. Even the wizard boy was watching her. "Collins, Suzanne" was snickering. Even Ms Robins was staring at her.

"Yes, Ms Robins?" Emma said, confused.

"Are you present, Emma? Do you remember your own name?"

Emma raised her hand and barked a swift "Present!"

"Good," Ms Robins said. "Everyone's here."

"Everyone?" Emma said.

"Is there a problem, Emma?"

She had not taken her eyes off the boy. His name had not been called.

"Do you people even see him?" Emma said. "Is he invisible?"

"Emma, who in the world are you talking about?"

"Him!" Emma said. She stood up and tried to raise her hand to point at the boy. Instead, she punched her notebook and sent it flying straight into the face of "Johns, Jeff."

"Emma Wilkins!" Ms Robins said. "Sit down right this minute. That's one strike for disturbing the class!"

Over on the side of the room, on the wall, there was a poster board with the word "STRIKES" written at the top of it. The rest of it was blank at the moment. Miss Robins took a permanent marker and wrote on it:

 

EMMA WILKENS: X

 

Emma was mortified in equal amounts by being the first one on the Strike Board and by the misspelling of her last name. She opened her mouth to protest, but Ms Robins raised a finger and lifted the marker up toward the Strike Board again. Emma pressed her lips together into a thin line to keep herself from speaking. At least now she knew that the boy was, in fact, a wizard, and there was a strong indication that she was the only one who could see him.

***

On Thursday, the boy did not show up to school at all, at least not in any visible manner

Emma squinted at the empty desk, concentrating and holding her breath. Maybe if she thought hard enough she could break through whatever magical barrier the boy was using to shield himself. After a couple of minutes, she thought she could see numerous specks of colour floating in the air. Her trick was working, but she was also becoming quite dizzy. It was time for a different, more tangible approach.

She raised her hand.

"Yes?"

"May I go to the bathroom, Ms Robins?"

Ms Robins nodded.

Emma stood up. On her way out, she stopped in front of the boy's desk.

"Are you here?" she whispered. There was no answer. Emma reached out and waved her hand through the air where the boy would be if was invisible. She felt nothing.

"Oh, alright," she said. It was obvious now that if he could disappear and become invisible, he could probably also become intangible.

"Emma," Ms Robins said. "Are you going to the bathroom or are you just going to stand there all day?"

Emma fled the room.

***

The worst time of day at the Wilkins household, as Emma saw it, was right after dinner because it was time for violin practice. Albert Einstein had been a physicist. Emma's father was a physicist. Albert Einstein had played the violin. Thus, Emma's father also had to play the violin. It was apparently a requirement of some sort. Emma often wondered how it was possible that her father had ever passed the physicist test. He would have been hopeless in the violin portion.

Emma liked to sit on the living room floor and do her homework on the coffee table. The screeching from her father's office made it difficult to concentrate. It would be the same no matter where in the house she went. Violin screeching carried far.

Emma put her pencil down. During the previous school year she had figured out a trick. She stood up, went to her father's office down the hallway, and knocked on the door.

The screeching continued.

"Dad!" she screeched back.

The screeching stopped and the door opened. Her father's office was messy. Along the wall there stood a wide bookshelf full of physics textbooks and science fiction hardcovers. Thick reference books littered the floor, scattered among boxes overflowing with scientific papers. His desk was in the shape of an "L." It was cluttered with stacks of even more paper. Among these stacks, fighting for space, stood her father's computer monitor.

Emma glanced at the screen and was satisfied to see that her trick had worked. At the start of violin practice, her father always set a countdown on his computer for exactly one hour. If he was interrupted, he usually never remembered to pause the timer.

"Hey, Dad."

"Hey, Emma, I was just practising."

"I know, Dad," she said. "I could hear you. I just wanted to talk to you."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing much," she said. There was not anything in particular she wanted to talk about. She could not think of anything to say but that was a never a problem when she was with her father. Something always popped into his head and even a physics lesson was better than listening to the screeching violin.

"Emma," he said. "Did you catch that wizard you were chasing?"

"No," she said. "No luck. I think he can turn invisible too."

"He must be very powerful." He frowned. "You know, if he isn't actually a wizard then maybe he's going somewhere outside the school when he disappears, don't you think?"

"Maybe. But we're not allowed to leave the school at lunch time."

"I know," he said, "but just suppose he did. That would explain a lot, wouldn't it?"

"I guess so."

"How many exits are there at Briardale?"

"Three or four, I think. Why?"

He smiled. "I'll leave the rest as an exercise to the student."

"Dad!"

It was pointless to argue. Her father did this sort of thing all the time. Emma would have to puzzle out the rest on her own.

"Thank you," Emma said. She hugged him and then went back to her spot at the coffee table to continue her homework and mull over her brand new puzzle.

The screeching resumed. Emma looked up at the clock on the wall to see how much practice time she had shaved off. Two whole minutes. She really needed to get better at keeping track of time.

Despite the shrieking from her father's office, it didn't take long for Emma to figure out what her father had been implying. She found out from Will that there were four ways in and out of Briardale Middle School. There were the main doors at the front of the building, the big doors leading to the playground in the back, and two smaller side doors. If the boy was leaving school during lunch time, he had to go through one of those exits. If he always left through the same door, all Emma had to do was wait for him at the correct one. If she waited at a different door each time, it would take her, at most, four tries to catch him.

But Emma narrowed her options down even further. She did not think that the boy would leave through the main doors because they were the main doors and thus not good for sneaking. The back doors were also out of the question because they were always supervised by a teacher whenever the students were let out. The only possibilities that remained were the two side doors, meaning that Emma had a fifty percent chance of catching the boy on her very first try.

There was a small problem she had to overcome. The boy, because he sat so close to the door, always managed to leave the classroom before Emma did. He was always prepared for a quick exit. She would have to figure out a way to sneak out the door before him.

***

It was twenty minutes before lunch time.

Emma raised her hand.

"Emma?" Ms Robins said.

"May I go to the bathroom please?"

Emma had decided that if she waited too long to ask, Ms Robins would probably make her wait until the end of class. Being forced to wait even ten minutes seemed cruel, but this was Ms Robins, so Emma had decided that twenty minutes was just about right.

"Can't you wait until lunch?"

"Sorry, Ms Robins," Emma said, doing her best to sound desperate. "I really can't."

Ms Robins glanced at the clock on the wall. She pursed her lips for a moment. "Go ahead," she said, eventually, with what appeared to be considerable effort.

Emma rushed out the door and into the hallway, glancing sideways at the boy on her way out. Her heart raced as she sprinted down the stairs and into the first floor of the school. A peek to either side revealed that the coast was clear. From her position she could see both side entrances. The one down the far end of the hallway presented the most risk as she would have to sneak past the doorways of several classrooms. The exit closest to her was the safe option.

Emma tiptoed down the hallway toward the far door. Ten feet down the hall, she decided that tiptoeing was far too slow and resumed walking normally. Twenty feet down the hall, she crouched beside an open door to listen to a lesson about unit conversion and the metric system. Twelve metres down the hall, she stopped to take a drink from a water fountain.

She made it out the door without incident. She looked up at the sky to determine the time. The sun was straight up so it was close to noon. She couldn't figure out how to tell the minutes. There was no minute hand.

Emma sighed. She made her way to the side of the building and crouched next to the wall, peeking around the corner.

Some unknown time later, according to Emma's estimate based on the position of the sun, the school bell rang. Seconds later, the door to the school opened and out came the boy. He glanced around like a mouse looking out for cats. When he appeared satisfied that there were no cats about, he started running.

Emma chased after him.

They ran past the school's soccer field and out into the surrounding neighbourhood. The boy slowed to a walk. Emma resisted the urge to pounce on him right then. She was curious about where he was going.

The boy turned his head to look around and Emma ducked behind a tree. There were still no cats about. She stalked the boy all the way to a park, hiding now and then behind trees, bushes or the occasional fire hydrant.

The boy stepped quickly onto the grass and made his way to a copse of small trees some distance beyond a cluster of picnic benches. Emma took cover behind a smelly trash can and waited until he disappeared beneath the shade of the trees and, probably, into his secret lair. She then followed slowly, cautious of magical traps.

The air inside the shade was cool and it smelled of moss, a marked improvement from the smell of decomposing hot dogs near the trash can. A creek, little more than a trickle of water, followed a winding course among the trees. The boy was nowhere to be seen.

"Open Sesame!" Emma said. Nothing happened. "Abracadabra? Alakazam? Bibbidi-Dobby-something-boo?"

Emma sighed, disappointed in her limited knowledge of words of power. She was about to sit down to wait for the boy to return when she noticed a curious log lying across the creek. The water was very shallow but, Emma realized, a powerful wizard would not get his feet wet if he did not have to. The log was very old and rotted so it was almost certainly magical. Beyond the log there stood a steep little hill. It was nearly vertical, but there were lots of roots and stones sticking out of it. It would be an easy climb for Emma. The boy had probably levitated over it.

Emma stepped gingerly across the old log, careful not to slip on its mossy surface. The climb up the slope gave her difficulty. Halfway up, she looked back down and decided that the hill was, in actual fact, a wall. A magic wall. Nevertheless, despite several scrapes, she made it all the way to the top past whatever magical defences the boy had conjured up in order to make the climb so difficult for even an expert climber like Emma. She took a deep breath and smiled in triumph, ready for whatever wondrous sight awaited her.

A loud pop interrupted her reverie. She looked down. The slope was much more gentle on this side of the hill. Beyond where the ground levelled off, she saw the boy sitting on a big, flat rock. He was drinking from a can of soda. It looked like normal can of soda. A regular root beer. Not at all magical.

"Hey, boy!" Emma called down. "Are you a wizard?"

The boy almost fell off the rock, startled.

"A wizard?" he said, looking up. "I'm Jake."

Emma was disappointed. Jake wasn't a wizardly name.

"Jake?" she said.

"Jake," the boy said. He stood up, glanced around nervously, and wiped his hand on his jeans.

"Jake? What Jake?" Emma said. There was still the chance that he was a spy or an alien explorer or a time traveller. "Jake who?"

"I'm Jake Milligan," he said.

***