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"Alex doesn't get to have all the adventures--this time. Cleo is going to the Afterworld. When she touches her father's computer screen, Cleo emerges amid a fierce battle between the Nez Perce and Blackfoot Indians..."
Cleo Bellows rolled her wheelchair through the crowded cafeteria. She cut left around one girl, then grabbed the right wheel of her chair and twisted around a boy who bolted out from nowhere. She was almost in the clear when a lanky boy turned from the lunch line and nearly doubled over Cleo's lap. He teetered to the left and grabbed his milk, but sacrificed his chocolate cake. It fell to the ground, icing down, of course.
"What're you, blind?" David grumbled at Cleo, examining the tragedy that had once been his tasty dessert.
"Who said that?" Cleo asked, reaching her hands out, searching the air.
David leaned over and picked up his cake off the ground. Dirt and hair were stuck to the frosting.
"So what am I going to do about dessert?" David asked.
"What? What?" Cleo cupped her hand to her ear, pretending to be deaf. She slowly rolled away, one hand still nestled against her lobe. "Was someone there? Hello? Anybody?"
David watched Cleo roll away. He certainly loved chocolate cake, but he smiled. Cleo wasn't so bad on the eyes.
"Dear Dad." Cleo typed the two words into a new e-mail, then stopped. She stared at them and for a moment wondered why she had typed them at all. How long had her father been missing? Long enough for Cleo to have trouble remembering his face or the sound of his voice. She didn't forget often, but when she did, a chill raced down her spine.
Cleo rested her chin in her hand and collected her thoughts. Her brown hair hung down the side of her face and covered her long, artistic fingers. Emotions swirled behind brown eyes, and she immediately went back to typing to fight back tears. Sitting in her father's den, working on his computer,made her feel closer to her dad--and more far away.
"Things are starting to get really complicated. Mom says I should get out more, be like other kids, but what she doesn't get is that I like hanging out by myself."
Cleo stopped again. She lightly tapped the keys, taking a moment to plot her course.
"You always got that about me." She continued typing. "I still miss your bedtime stories, even though I'm way too old for them. And I won't stop looking for you until I can hear them again. I know you're not going to receive this, but, love forever. Cleo."
She finished her e-mail, quickly addressed it to "DAD@WHO_AM_I_KIDDING.COM," read over it a final time, then hit Delete. The message instantly disappeared, with no trace that it had ever existed--just like her father.
Cleo stared at the large plasma screen mounted to the wall. Before she had decided to type her e-mail, she had been wandering up and down the various corridors of the CyberMuseum, searching for clues, but mostly killing time until her brother, Alex, got home. Her father had entered digital scans of hundreds of artifacts into the computer and stored them here, in a virtual museum. She picked up her search where she had left off: the Plains Indians room.
Cleo was certainly frustrated. She was one of the top students at her school, so why couldn't she find anything in the CyberMuseum that would help her locate her father? She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed.
One thing she and Alex knew for certain: Something amazing had happened to the CyberMuseum that made it a portal into myths. By touching an artifact from any era, she or Alex, or anyone, could travel into a myth and assume the role of one of its key players. Alex had already been Theseus and battled the Minotaur, and Vali, the son of the Norse god Loki. The adventures were real and sometimes all too dangerous.
That was what must have happened to their father. He had, probably unwittingly, gotten lost in a myth. He had touched something in the CyberMuseum that began his adventure, and if Cleo and Alex could just find that artifact and touch it as well, they could find their missing father and bring him back to the real world. Easier said than done.
Thousands of artifacts filled the halls and rooms of the CyberMuseum. It was worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack. At least a needle will poke you to let you know it's there, Cleo thought.
Several Plains Indians artifacts were displayed on the screen before her: a club, a pipe, some arrowheads, a pair of moccasins, and a few other items.
Cleo rolled out from behind the desk and toward the screen. She lifted her hand, her fingers cautiously extending to the beckoning plasma screen.
"Cleo." Alex's stern voice sounded from behind her.
"What?" Cleo replied, retracting her hand, trying to cover her aching temptation.
"Nothing," Alex said, and entered their father's study. "Just get away from the screen, okay?"
"Why?" Cleo's voice was hard, but Alex didn't seem to notice his sister's anger.
"Because . . . it's on."
"I turned it on."
"I thought we had an understanding," Alex said. "We don't turn it on until just before I go in."
Cleo gave Alex a long look. "That's the thing."
"What's the thing?"
"It's not about us, Alex. It's about you," Cleo protested. "You look for Dad and I just sit around watching. Just 'cause you're the guy, the big hero, you get to do it and I don't."
"No, you stay here because you're in--" Alex caught himself, refusing to allow his anger to speak for him. "Cleo . . ."
"Like you can take it and I can't?" Cleo shot back.
"Look, this is not some video game. It's real!" Alex knew he didn't have to remind his sister that the myths they entered were as real as any day at school--only a hundred times more dangerous. And that there was no room for a wheelchair in the danger he faced.
Cleo glared at Alex but slowly rolled back a few feet from the plasma screen. She watched her older brother kneel and tighten the laces on his running shoes.
"Is those Plains Indians artifacts?" Alex asked, cutting the silence.
"Pretty obvious, isn't it?" Cleo's tone was surly. "Why're you tightening your shoes? You know you can't take anything with you."
"Helps psych me up."
"Uh-huh." Cleo wasn't really interested in the answer. She rolled to her father's desk and pulled off a book. When Alex stood, she tossed the volume to him.
"Heroines in the Myst of Time," Alex read from the cover. "Let me guess, chock-full of female heroes battling dragons and ne'er-do-wells? What's your point?"
"He's my father too."
"Yeah? But they didn't have sidewalk ramps in the mists of time."
"They didn't have sidewalks!" Cleo spat back. "So what's the problem?"
"I don't go in with my running shoes; you don't go in with your chair!" Alex countered. "How's that for a problem?"
Cleo couldn't debate Alex's logic. She didn't want to. She only wanted to help find her father. If she thought about it for too long, she'd never do what she needed to do. If she took her time and planned where to go and what to touch on the screen, Alex would figure out what she was up to and stop her.
"See ya," Cleo offered, and slapped one of the artifacts on the plasma screen.
"Cleo!" Alex screamed, but it was too late. There was no sound, and worse yet, no Cleo. Her empty wheelchair stood as the lone reminder she had ever been there at all.