This is a YA novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
JAYDEN NANJEE sighed. I’m such a loser. She looked out the classroom window while the teacher tried to impart some mathematical theory Jayden could not compute. Three credits short, three failures. My life sucks. All the thoughts of ‘if only’ came back to haunt her: if only I did my homework; if only I studied; if only I attended all my classes; if only if only if only. Having to attend another semester of high school in order to graduate made her feel like a failure. Oh, pity poor me.
Jayden picked up her pencil and jotted down the equation her teacher presented on the blackboard. They looked like Greek symbols. Probably one of them is, she mused, and decided to concentrate on the task. “Logic,” she told herself. “Math is logic. Logic is Spock. Be like Spock.” Tapping the end of her pencil on the desk, Jayden thought of the Star Trek character and his adventures in places where “no one has gone before.” Her mind began to roam. I’ve been there — to a place where no one has been before. A strange dream world. A place where a sick freak named Richard Hatemore — Dick — does everything he can to prevent you from climbing to the top of the mountain. A place where you have to be creative and logical in order to climb and then fall. To sleep. A small smile came to her lips. I wonder if that guy, Connor, was real or a figment of my dream? He was intense and smart, and quite the handsome dude. And the other boy, the freckle-faced ginger, named Max. He was a boy genius.
“Is everyone with me?” The teacher’s loud voice cut through her reverie and Jayden squirmed in her chair, sitting upright. “Be prepared for a quiz this week,” he warned. “I’ve given you a heads-up so don’t disappoint me. Or yourself.”
The bell sounded and Jayden shuffled her books together. Her school day was done and it was time to head home.
The apartment was quiet when Jayden let herself in.
“Ma?” No response.
Jayden’s image reflected in the dusty mirror of the small hallway. Her long black hair was plaited in a thick braid down her back and her cream-coloured blouse accentuated her light brown skin. The large green eyes that stared back seemed bereft of hope or joy and Jayden glanced away. There were those who said she had beautiful, striking features — but Jayden disagreed. At home with her mom she felt sad and ugly, inside and out.
The kitchen was a dirty, unkempt mess. An overfilled ashtray sat on the counter and both sinks were littered with food-encrusted dishes and empty, unrinsed soup cans. A bottle of vodka poked its head out of the garbage can. Jayden picked it up and moved it to the recycling bin. It joined other empty bottles and Jayden winced at the sight of them. No matter how much her mother drowned her bitterness in alcohol, reality rained down on her like a monsoon the next day.
Yet there were happier times. When she was a little girl, they all lived together as a content young family: her mom, Patty, her dad, Wasiem, who had emigrated from Bahrain, and little Jayden. I was sweet back then, she thought. But not anymore. At Gilmont High School, Jayden was hailed as queen of the bully gang, where she and three other girls ruled as the “Bully Biahtches.” But now there’s just two of us. Only cruel and vindictive Marj Daniels remained to bolster the gang’s nasty reputation. Jackie Vanderpost graduated in June and Barbara Hughes dropped out before the school year ended.
Jayden slumped into the kitchen chair, overwhelmed with bitterness. The “poor-me, pity-me” emotions swept over her and she soaked up the negativity like a sponge. The black emotion became her wall and her excuse for feeling nasty and inflicting nasty.
The cell phone ring interrupted her personal pity party. It was her dad.
“Jayden! I’m coming to pick you up!”
“But Dad, it’s not Friday.”
“It is not Friday, that is true. But today I will make your dream come true.”
“Oh Dad, and now you’re a poet . . . what say you?” Jayden smirked as she repeated one of her father’s favourite sayings.
“I’m on my way!”
“Dad!” But he had already hung up.
Jayden stood outside her apartment building, purse slung casually over one shoulder and hands in her jean pockets. Her dad, Wasiem Nanjee was the calmest, most positive person she knew. If he said he was going to make her dreams come true, then, wow! Whatever it was, it was going to be epic. Her dad always had the ability to pull her out of a sour mood, which was more than her mom could do. Even though Patty Watson-Nanjee blamed her ex-husband for all the bad things in her life, Jayden was smart enough to know that her mom’s choices in conduct, in jobs and especially in men, all backfired with supreme negativity. I think it’s her bitterness that makes her drink.
Glancing at her watch, Jayden tapped her toe on the sidewalk. Moments later, her dad pulled up to the curb in his sleek, SRT Dodge Challenger. His black, wavy hair and perfect smile greeted her as he got out of the car, and he paused to remove the stylish aviator sunglasses covering his brown eyes. Sweeping his arms wide, he gave Jayden a deep hug before opening the passenger door.
“Today is going to be a very special day,” he promised.
“Oh yeah?” replied Jayden.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Nanjee. “We are going to buy you a car.”
Jayden gasped. “We are . . . what?”
“I know you’re working hard to earn your diploma and I want to give you an early graduation gift.” He grinned at her as they drove away. Jayden sat in shock and silence.
“I don’t know what to say,” she finally blurted out.
“Well, you can say, ‘You’re the BEST DAD EVER!’”
Jayden leaned back and clasped her hands together, filling the car with a smile that could challenge the brilliance of the sun.
“Dad, you make me believe I won the father lottery. You ARE the best dad ever.”
Mr. Nanjee smiled back. “I found a nice, sporty Jeep for you and I want you to check it out.”
“A Jeep? I love love love Jeeps!”
They drove for a few miles while Mr. Nanjee talked and Jayden nodded inanely, grappling with the depth of unconditional generosity from her father.
Suddenly, her dad pointed ahead. “There’s the dealership.”
An oversized neon sign glowed across the front of the building, displaying the words “MAXIMUM DRIVE” in large capital letters. There were dozens of cars in the lot and hanging above them were bright red flags, exclaiming RED HOT SALES ZONE. Mr. Nanjee was grinning like a proud father as Jayden got out of the car and he angled his head toward the east side of the building. Parked beside a fire-engine red 1970 Boss Mustang was a pumpkin-orange Jeep Wrangler. “Well, what do you think? Is that you, or is that you?”
Jayden’s heartbeat tripled and she reached out to support herself against her father.
This is beyond epic. Pinch me . . . I’m a daytime Cinderella.
And then Jayden glanced at the red Mustang. It began to drive slowly toward them, heading for the street exit. As it passed them, the passenger in the car leaned forward and pointed at her. Jayden’s knees buckled and she leaned heavily on her father.
It can’t be. She blinked and time slowed down. Each second felt like 10. The passenger in the Mustang had ginger hair. He had freckles all over his face. He appeared to be in shock. She suspected her face had the same look.
It was him, the boy genius from her dreams. He was the shy, stuttering, super-smart, freckled, ginger boy who had saved her from the wolves.
Max was opening his mouth and, in slow motion, she read his lips.
The Mustang drove past them without stopping.
“Are you okay?” Mr. Nanjee was holding his daughter firmly by the elbow. He examined her face closely. “I thought you were going to faint!”
Jayden stood frozen, not blinking.
“Judging from your reaction, I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t buy you a Benz.” Her father smiled sheepishly.
Jayden gulped. Her eyes turned toward the departing Mustang. What does this mean? She shifted her glance back to her dad, uncertain if she should tell him that the passenger in the Mustang was Max, one of the characters from her dreams. She knew her dad believed in the power of dreams and their ability to guide you or show you whatever it was in your life that needed attention.
“Do you like the Jeep?”
“Oh Dad, um, yeah. Of course, I do.”
“I was certain you’d love the orange,” he said, pulling her toward the vehicle. “It’s s-o-o-o you. Come on, let’s check it out.”
Jayden allowed herself to be dragged along, glancing again at the Mustang as it drove out of the lot. Mr. Nanjee stopped.
“Would you rather have a Mustang?” He pointed to the departing car. “I can double-check, but I’m pretty sure it’s out of my budget.”
“No, Dad.” Jayden hesitated. “I, um, thought I recognized someone in that car.”
“Someone from school?”
It was Mr. Nanjee’s turn to pause. “Not from school. From . . . ?”
The wind pulled at Jayden’s hair and she tucked a strand behind her ear. The seconds ticked past. Her intuition was screaming at her: trust your dad. She cleared her throat.
“He’s from my dreams.”
Before her dad could respond, a handsome young salesman appeared out of nowhere. “Shall we take this Jeep for a test drive?”
“Sure,” Jayden replied. “But first, do you know who was in the red Mustang that just drove away?”
The salesman looked at her strangely. “That was my mom and my brother. The Mustang is my dad’s car — his favourite classic. Do you know my mother?”
“No. But I think I know your brother.”
“Really?” asked the salesman. “He just turned 15 and I don’t think he’d be in your circle of friends. Unless you have a younger brother?”
Jayden shook her head.
“He’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong,” the salesman added, “but Max is quite the math and science nerd.”
Jayden felt her head spin and her hearing dimmed. It was Max.
Max is real.
Jayden unlocked the apartment door and closed it quietly. Her mind was still reeling from the revelation that Max was not a figment of her dream world adventures, and that in a couple of days, she would be driving her own car.
“Jayden?” her mom’s voice blasted over the sound of the television in the living room. “Izzat you?”
The slurred words meant one thing. Drinking again. Oh great.
“Of course, it’s me,” Jayden responded. “Unless you gave someone the key to our home?”
Patty Watson-Nanjee staggered into the kitchen, empty wine glass in hand, her curly blond hair matted on one side as if she had been sleeping. Passed out more likely, thought Jayden. Patty placed the glass on the counter and stepped in front of her daughter. She strained her neck forward until she was a few centimetres from Jayden’s face. There was a momentary stare-down: bloodshot green eyes versus clear, brilliant green eyes. Jayden was the first to break eye contact.
“How about that job search — any luck with that, Ma?”
Months before, Jayden’s mom had been fired from her waitress position at the local hotel. The management accused her of stealing liquor, though Patty preferred to blur the lines of thievery, calling it instead, a case of “permanently borrowing a few things.” She was consequently ‘permanently’ sacked.
“I’m working on that,” her mom answered. “Get it? I’m working on that.” She cackle-laughed at her own joke and Jayden winced at the sound.
“Whatever you say, Ma,” Jayden replied, backing out of the kitchen slowly. “I’ll be in my room.”
Jayden semi-sprawled across her bed, notebook in her lap and a pillow propped between her back and the wall. Hers was a small bedroom, just big enough for a dresser, a chair and a bed. The chair served as her night stand; the bed was her couch and desk and dream station.
She doodled on the math textbook while her thoughts shifted between her new car and catching sight of the genius boy from her dreams. The exhilaration of owning her own vehicle was overshadowed at seeing Max in real life. What does it mean? Why are we seeing each other now? Even her dad was confused about seeing Max in the real world and he promised to discuss the encounter when he picked her up for the weekend. They were planning to sign the ownership papers for the Jeep on Saturday morning.
Jayden yawned. Placing her books on the bedside chair, she slipped under the covers. The thought of the orange Jeep made her smile. Two more sleeps and the Jeep is mine.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
There was a momentary sensation of floating and then she was falling. It started as a slow, gentle fall, like the start of the downward motion on a wooden swing after your legs pump you up to the maximum arc.
Jayden leaned forward to escalate the downward descent but the metal chain of the swing dissolved in her hands. She blinked and realized her eyes were already open – the blackness was so deep that there was no change between eyes shut and eyes open. And there was no wooden swing to hold on to. She was falling in slow motion, head-first, into blackness.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
She strained her ears, trying to pinpoint the location of the thudding sounds. The free-fall sensation continued and she felt like she was trapped inside a clear, transparent bubble.
Am I dreaming?
Jayden spread her arms as though preparing for a swan dive. Strangely, she felt no fear.
She blinked again. Was that a light? A small beam of light appeared to her right, shifting side to side, much like a lost camper holding a flashlight. Jayden folded her body, angling her feet up toward her head. Her invisible ‘bubble’ came to a stop across from the beam of light and she straightened into an upright position. The light became stronger as it got closer, seeming to radiate out of nowhere. It became so bright that she shut her eyes, immediately seeing white dots on her closed eyelids.
Jayden cocked her head. Was that a voice inside her head or did it come from the light. She shielded her eyes in a semi-salute and peered cautiously at the widening spotlight. Was there someone behind it?
“Jayden,” the voice whispered. “You have to cross over . . . before it’s too late.”
Max was transfixed. He stared straight ahead as his mother, Liv Mortimer, rambled on about his brother’s upcoming football event. He gave an occasional grunt of acknowledgement but his mind was reeling from the sight of Jayden. It had to be her. She recognized me!
“You’re a true Viking General Jaxxon Einstein.” His mother leaned over and patted his leg. “Don’t you agree?”
“Uh, yeah,” Max replied, not really listening. “I’m a . . . what?” Puzzled, he shook his head and a shock of flaming red hair fell across his forehead.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “You’ve been in a daze since we left your father’s dealership.”
Max pretended to find something interesting outside of the window. Don’t look at her! You know you’ll spill your guts. He had a deep, respectful relationship with his mom and he knew if she looked into his eyes, she’d sense his distress. And he knew she’d want to comfort him, and then she’d find out . . . about his dreams. Months before, Max had experienced nightmares in which he needed to climb an obstacle-filled mountain in order to “fall” asleep. Jayden was one of the characters he befriended in the dream world. In fact, he saved her life, as well as the life of the dark-haired fellow, Connor. Closing his eyes, Max recalled the electric type of shield he literally stumbled upon, and how his inquisitive mind prevented him from continuing the climb until he understood how the contraption worked. In doing so, he ended up saving their lives. Nobody would believe that kind of crazy stuff, even in a dream. But the logic-defying, futuristic device wasn’t the reason Max kept his dreams a secret. It was Richard — the aggressive, angry boy whose scarred-head shone so cruelly in the moon light. He was the reason Max hadn’t revealed the dream world adventures with anyone, not even his mom.
“Wh-wh-what’s for dinner?” Max stammered, hoping to change the subject. He always tripped over his tongue when he was upset. It was a weakness his father endlessly derided him about.
But his mom was not so easily swayed. “Is it that lovely young girl who gets on the school bus with you? Rosalynn?”
“MOM!” Max squirmed beside her, adjusting his t-shirt under the shoulder belt. All his clothes were getting too short, and Max was secretly thrilled his 15-year-old body would soon match his oversized feet.
He exhaled slowly. Maybe now I should tell her.
“Can dreams come true?” Max kept his eyes focused ahead, waiting for his mom’s response.
“If you work hard enough, then sure, you can make your dreams come true.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” He hesitated. “Um, can dreams be real?”
She laughed, tossing back her strawberry blond hair. “Don’t be silly. Dreams are dreams. Dreams come from that great imaginary part of your brain that never shuts down. So, they’re real, but only in the sense they’re real in your mind. Does that make sense?”
“Well, it’s true. Did that answer your question?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” No, it didn’t; so, forget sharing the dream stuff, Max decided. Better to stay out of the “great imaginary part of your brain.” Max knew if Jayden was at the dealership to buy a car, he would have to go back and see her himself, face to face.
“So, what’s for dinner?”
Jayden rolled over in bed, squeezing her eyes tightly shut.
The light seemed to come from everywhere — in front, behind, beside her. She peeked out from the corner of her eye. The glare from the light intensified but she could see a thin, stick-like figure in the distance. He was walking toward her but the light was too bright to discern any features.
Slowly and with deliberate enunciation, the voice whispered, “Jayden, you have to cross over.”
Jayden hesitated. Her heart was pounding so loudly she could hear it in her own ears.
Wait . . . that’s not my heart pounding . . . that’s something else.
Jayden cocked her head to one side. The pounding or banging noise was coming from her left and there were words accompanying the bangs. She couldn’t make out their meaning.
The figure in the light was closer now and he appeared to be holding out his hand. Remembering the falling sensation from her previous dream, Jayden faltered, frightened at the prospect of dropping into the unknown light. Which way? Sound or light?
Twisting her body to the left, Jayden lunged. The banging and the chanting and the darkness swallowed her.
In the far distance, somewhere to his left, there was banging.
Silence, then more banging.
Then a chant.
Max opened his eyes, expecting to see his bedroom walls. Instead, complete darkness.
He closed, then opened his eyes again. Silence and darkness. He raised a hand in front of his face but couldn’t see it. He reached out, hoping to feel something that would identify his surroundings. Emptiness.
“Hello?” he half-stated, half-asked.
Suddenly a beam of light flashed to his right and Max shielded his eyes, blinded by the brightness.
The hairs on Max’s arms stood at attention and he swallowed his terror. “You are invincible,” he reminded himself.
“Wh-what do you want?”
“Max,” the voice repeated. “You need to cross over, before it’s too late.”
Without hesitation, Max offered his hand.
“Now. I’ll cross over now.”
He stepped forward, out of the blackness, and touched the light. Time stood still as he and the light became one.
The light was so annoyingly bright. He turned away and then realized his eyes were closed and the light was actually penetrating his eyelids. Connor placed both hands across his face and squinted through his fingers. Am I still in bed? He could hear some kind of banging noise in the distance but he ignored it, focusing instead on the light to his right. There. A dark, human-like shape was slowly forming. Its body was pencil thin and there were no discernible features on its face – the radiance surrounding the figure obscured any specific characteristic.
“Connor.” It was a solemn male voice, its timbre smooth and low.
I am asleep, right?
“Connor,” the voice repeated. “You have to cross over. Before it’s too late.”
“I will,” Connor replied. “But how? Is my sister Georgia there?” His six-year-old sister was in a comatose state but Connor believed she was somehow “stuck” in Richard Hatemore’s horrific dream world.
“You have to cross over,” the voice insisted.
Connor nodded. “Alright. Show me how.”
“First, you have to fall,” whispered the voice. “And then climb.”
Against the blinding light, the figure extended an arm. Without hesitation, Connor reached for it. Instantly, he felt as though he was at the tallest peak of a high-speed roller coaster; there was a momentary sensation of hovering before the escalation of descension. Connor began to fall. He watched as the figure in the spotlight above him faded from view. He was descending into darkness. There was nothing to see, no sign of earth or sky, no landmark of any kind. There was only the fluttering in his stomach and the warm breeze on his face to confirm his downward movement.
The falling sensation ended as abruptly as it began. His feet touched ground. Connor steadied himself before crouching low, fingers skimming the area around his feet. Feels like grass. Standing, he tilted his head upward. As he gazed toward the heavens, the heavy darkness slowly transformed into a translucent gloom and stars began to twinkle in the sky. Pale, puffy clouds materialized and the scarred face of the moon emerged. The sound of chirping crickets filled the air. A few kilometres north, the top of a squat mountain appeared, separated by a grassy field and a deep gorge.
Where am I? He inhaled deeply and the scent of pungent earth filled his nostrils. Maybe in the Valley of Tired?
There was only one way to find out.
I have to climb.