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By ANDREW KLAVAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Andrew Klavan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Torture Room
Suddenly I woke up strapped to a chair.
"What ...?" I whispered.
Dazed, I looked around me. I was in a room with a concrete floor and cinder block walls. A single bare lightbulb hung glaring from a wire above me. Against the wall across from me was a set of white metal drawers. A tray was attached to it. There were instruments on the tray—awful instruments—blades and pincers and something that looked like a miniature version of those acetylene torches welders use. The instruments lay on a white cloth. The cloth was stained with blood.
The sight of the blood jolted me into full consciousness. I tried to move my arms and legs. I couldn't. That's when I saw the straps. One on each wrist holding me to the chair's metal arms. One on each ankle holding me to its metal legs. And there was blood here too. More blood. On the floor at my feet. On my white shirt, on my black slacks, on my arms. And there were bruises on my arms, dark purple bruises. And there were oozing burn marks on the backs of my hands.
I hurt. I kind of just realized it all at once. My whole body ached and stung inside and out. My shirt was soaking wet. My skin felt clammy with sweat. My mouth tasted like dirt. I smelled like garbage.
Have you ever had a nightmare, a really bad one, where you woke up and you could feel your heart hammering against the bed and you couldn't catch your breath? Then, as you started to understand that the nightmare wasn't real, that it was all a dream, your heart slowed down again and your breathing got deeper and you relaxed and thought, Whew, that sure seemed real.
Well, this was exactly the opposite. I opened my eyes expecting to see my bedroom at home, my black-belt certificate, my trophies, my poster of The Lord of the Rings. Instead, I was in what should have been a nightmare, but wasn't. It was real. And with every second, my heart beat harder. My breath came shorter. Panic flared up in me like a living flame.
Where was I? Where was my room? Where were my parents? What was happening to me? How did I get here?
Terrified, I racked my brain, trying to think, trying to figure it out, asking myself in the depths of my confusion and fear: what was the last thing I remembered ...?
Chapter TwoAn Ordinary Day
An ordinary day. That's it. An ordinary September day. That's all there was before the insanity began.
That night—that last night—I was in my room, working on my homework as usual. I had a history paper due. "What Is the Best Form of Government?" A classic Mr. Sherman assignment. Mr. Sherman liked to pretend he was some kind of radical. He wanted us to "question our assumptions" and "think outside the box." It never seemed to occur to him that sometimes the simple, most obvious answer might be the right one. "What Is the Best Form of Government?" I wanted to title my paper, "Constitutional Democracy, You Doofus, What Do You Think?" But somehow I figured that might not be the best way to get a good grade.
So as ten o'clock rolled around, I was sitting at my computer, working on my arguments. About how people had the right to be free and choose their own leaders. About how leaders who thought they should be in charge no matter what, who thought they had all the answers or some super-duper system that was going to make things fair and perfect for everyone—people like kings and dictators and Communists—always wound up messing their countries up in the end, telling everyone what to say and do and murdering the people who didn't fit in with the way they wanted to run things.
It was hard work—and it didn't help that, at the same time I was polishing my deathless prose, I had Josh Lerner—GalaxyMaster, as he calls himself online—on the Instant Messenger. GalaxyMaster was watching an ancient episode of Star Trek on YouTube and sending me a message every time something cool or stupid happened. Which was, like, every two seconds. And which I could see for myself anyway because I had the same episode running on the upper right-hand corner of my computer, even though I'd turned the sound down low so I could listen to George Strait piping out of my iPod dock.
GalaxyMaster: look at that rock! sooooo paper-machier!
BBelt1: i know josh. im watching it.
GalaxyMaster: Ooooo its so heavy. i cant lift it. roflmayo!
BBelt1: josh I can c it.
GalaxyMaster: that klingon mask is so fake!
GalaxyMaster could be kind of a dork sometimes. Plus he was making it tough for me to hold up my end of the conversation with Rick Donnelly, who was on my headset. I'd called him to tell him about the argument I'd had that evening with Alex Hauser, but then we'd gotten to talking about the history paper. Rick had Sherman for history too, and he was totally aware of Sherman's high level of doofy-os-itude. But Rick was the kind of guy who was always trying to play the angles, always trying to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear. His paper made the argument that Communism was theoretically the best form of government, but it just hadn't been done right yet.
"That's nuts," I told him. "They ought to have a sign outside those countries, like at McDonald's or something: 'Communism: Over 100 Million Murdered.'"
"Hey," said Rick. "All I know is that with Sherman, radicalism is where the As are. Follow the grades, my son. Follow the grades."
I laughed and shook my head and went on writing about the joys of liberty.
So that, basically, was me—just before ten on an ordinary Wednesday night in September. Writing my paper and IMing with Josh and talking with Rick and watching YouTube and listening to tunes on my iPod dock—and starting to fade out after a long, long day.
Then the clock in the living room downstairs chimed the hour. I could hear it through the floor. And about a nanosecond later, my mother—with a predictability that sometimes made me wonder if she were really some kind of automated device—called from the bottom of the stairs:
"Charlie. Ten o'clock. Time to get ready for bed."
I sighed. To my shame, I had the earliest school-night bedtime of any just-turned-seventeen-year-old I knew, and except in dire circumstances, it was nonnegotiable.
"Hey, I gotta shut down," I said to Rick.
"You're such a wuss."
"You're a Commie."
"If it'll get me into college."
"See you in the a.m." I clicked off and typed into my IM:
Then I saved my paper into Sherman's online homework file and shut down the computer.
Ten minutes later, I was lying in bed, paging through the latest issue of Black Belt magazine.
Five minutes after that, I laid the magazine on my bedside table. I reached up for the switch of the reading lamp set in the wall above me. My eyes went around the room one last time, from the computer to the tournament trophies on my shelves to the black-belt certificate framed on my wall to the movie poster of The Lord of the Rings. Finally, I looked at the back of my hand. There was a number written on it in black marker. That made me smile to myself.
Then I snapped the light off. I said a quick good-night prayer.
In sixty seconds, I was sound asleep.
Chapter Three"Kill Him"
Then, all at once, I woke up. There, in that bare, terrible room. Strapped to that chair. Hurt and helpless. With the awful instruments on the tray winking and glinting in the light from the single bare bulb dangling above.
How had it happened? Had I been kidnapped from my bed? Why? Who would've taken me? Who would want to hurt me? I was just a regular kid.
In my first panic, I struggled wildly, tying to break free of the straps. It was no good. They were made of some kind of canvas, strong. And the chair was bolted to the floor. I couldn't budge it. I thrashed and pulled, trying to rip myself out of the chair or to rip the chair out of the floor by main strength. Finally, I slumped, out of breath, exhausted.
The next moment, I heard voices. I tensed. I lifted my head, held still, listened. They were men's voices, murmuring, right outside the room, right outside the metal door.
My first instinct was to shout to them, to scream for help. But something stopped me. If I was here, someone had put me here. If I was hurt, someone had hurt me. Someone had strapped me in this chair. Someone had used those instruments on my flesh. The odds that the men outside that door were my friends seemed very slim.
So I kept my mouth shut. I listened to the low voices, straining with all my might to make out what they were saying over the pounding of my own pulse.
"... Homelander One," said one voice.
A second voice said something I couldn't hear.
Then the first voice said, "We'll never get another shot at Yarrow."
When the second voice answered, I could only make out part of it: "... two more days ... can send Orton ... knows the bridge as well as West."
West. That was me. Charlie West. What were they talking about? What bridge? I didn't know about any bridge.
The flame of panic roared through me again. Without thinking, I renewed my struggles. Trying to pull my arms up, trying to wrestle my body free, trying to tilt the chair one way or the other. Useless, all of it.
Tears came into my eyes—tears of terror and frustration. This couldn't be happening. It didn't make any sense. Where were my mom and dad? Where was my life? Where was everything? It had to be a nightmare. It had to be.
Now there were footsteps in the hall outside. Someone new was approaching.
"Here's Waylon," the second voice said.
The footsteps stopped outside the door. The first voice spoke again—louder this time, clearer, more formal than before. It was the voice of a man speaking to his superior. It was easier for me to make out the words.
"Did you reach Prince?" the voice said.
The new voice answered—the voice of authority. Waylon. It sounded like an American name, but the voice had a thick foreign accent of some kind.
"I reached him. I told him everything."
"We did exactly what he said. Exactly what he told us," the first voice went on. I could hear his fear, his fear of what Prince might do to him if he failed.
"The kid may be telling the truth. You have to consider that," said the second voice. I could tell he was frightened too.
Waylon answered them with a voice that was ironic and smooth. He was enjoying their fear. I could hear it. "Don't worry. Prince understands. He doesn't hold you responsible. But whatever the truth is, the West boy is useless to us now."
I was straining so hard to hear that my body had gone rigid, my head leaning toward the door, my neck stretching out, my hands pulling hard against the straps.
But for another second or two, there was nothing. Only the silence and my trembling breath, my wildly beating heart.
Then in the same smooth, cool, ironic voice, Waylon said softly, "Kill him."
Chapter FourThe Word of the Day
I've heard that when you're about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes in an instant. That's not what happened to me. I was too wild with panic, too crazy with confusion to remember my whole life. Instead, my brain was desperately trying to grab hold of something—of anything—anything that made some kind of sense, that offered some kind of explanation for this sudden madness, this pain and terror. But there was nothing, nothing that explained it, nothing I could hold on to. I felt as if I were slipping down a sheer wall of ice, slipping down and down and down into emptiness, my fingers scrabbling for even the smallest handhold in the smooth, unbroken surface.
Eyes wide, body pulling wildly and uselessly against the straps, my mind raced back over that last day, the last day I remembered, hours flashing through my brain in a single second as I went back to before I had gone to bed that night, before
* * *
I had finished writing my history paper, before the argument with Alex, back and back to the beginning of the morning ... The alarm clock had gone off at 7:00 a.m., a pounding bass and a wild guitar blasting out of the iPod dock. I reached out sleepily and felt for the off switch. Hit it and sank back into a half doze. Then, exactly ten minutes later by the digital numbers on the clock, my mother's voice reached me from the bottom of the stairs.
"Charlie! It's seven o'clock! Time to get ready for school!"
I groaned and rolled over, swinging my feet to the floor, sitting up on the edge of the mattress before I'd even opened my eyes. When I could, I stood up. I staggered out of my room and directly into the bathroom next door.
I assembled myself. Showered the bod. Brushed the teeth. Shaved the beard, which still sprouted only in patches on my cheeks, chin, and neck. Viewed the finished product in the mirror. Not bad. Tall enough—edging up toward six feet. Slim but with good shoulders, and a lot of muscle def from all my workouts. The face? I don't know. Presentable, I guess. Lean, serious, with a mop of brown hair spilling into it. Brown eyes. I'm good with the eyes. I try to keep them honest, you know. I try to make it so they're not afraid to look straight at anyone.
I went back to my room to get dressed. But before I started, I tore off the page of my desk calendar. It was a Word of the Day calendar, and I liked to read the new word and memorize it while I put my clothes on.
Today's word: timorous. "Timid, fearful, prone to be apprehensive."
Timorous. That was a good one. It was the perfect word to describe my mother.
Now don't get me wrong. Mom was a pretty good mom, all in all. There were a couple of times in my life when she even approached Mom Greatness. She was just ... timorous. Timid, fearful. Prone to be apprehensive. As in frightened out of her wits about every little thing. Are you feeling all right? You don't look good. Do you have a fever? Wash your hands after you touch that or you'll get sick. Don't walk on the road after six, the cars can't see you. Don't go into that section of town. Put on your jacket, you'll catch cold. On and on and on. When I rode my bike, she was afraid a car would hit me. When I drove the car, she was afraid I'd hit another car. Oh, and my karate—she hated that. If she'd had her way, I would have had to wear a full set of metal armor before going to practice. In fact, if she really had her way, I would've worn a full set of metal armor and then stayed home.
When I came down to breakfast that morning, she was turning a couple of fried eggs in a pan. As I walked to the kitchen table, passing about two full feet behind her, she said, "Careful, it's hot."
Dad was at the table already, reading the paper. The Word of the Day for Dad would have to be: oblivious, meaning "unmindful, unconscious, unaware." He wasn't always like that. Sometimes he could be pretty cool, pretty smart about things. But he was an engineer for a corporation that manufactured a lot of the secondary systems that go into airplanes—guidance and communication systems and things like that. And sometimes—times like now—when he was involved in some important project, his mind got occupied and it took a lot to get his attention. You basically had to win first prize at a karate tournament or get the Best Grade Point Average of the Year award or wreck the car or set the house on fire before he even realized you were there. Otherwise: oblivious. Unmindful, unconscious, unaware.
And finally: overwrought would have to be the Word of the Day for Amy, my older sister by one year. Overwrought—"extremely or excessively excited or agitated." Emo to the extremo, in other words. In fact, as I poured myself a glass of orange juice and sat down next to my dad, I could already hear her shouting from the door of her room down the hall: "Moom! I just don't have any others!" Whatever that meant. Something about clothes, probably. Whatever: the Amy crisis of the day. Overwrought.
"Ah, the cry of the wild older sister in her natural habitat," I muttered, rooting through the newspaper for the sports page.
"Hush," Mom said—but she laughed a little as she said it. She put a plate of eggs and toast in front of me and hurried off to deal with Amy before the poor child got so full of girlish anxiety that she exploded in a cloud of pink dust.
"So," murmured my dad's voice from somewhere behind his newspaper. "What've you got going on today?"
Excerpted from THE HOMELANDERS by ANDREW KLAVAN Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Klavan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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