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The Year of Lightning
The Time Shift Trilogy Book One
By Ryan Dalton
Jolly Fish PressCopyright © 2016 Ryan Dalton
All rights reserved.
A torrent of lightning struck the roof of the old house. Malcolm had never noticed the place before, but now he stood transfixed at his bedroom window. Despite the storm's power, the house seemed strangely untouched — no damage, no fire, nothing.
The towering house sat across the street. Faded whitewash covered its three wooden stories, and tall brown grass curled around its worn wrought-iron fence. Malcolm guessed it had been abandoned for decades. Even the round window at the top revealed nothing but shadows.
Thunder boomed and his own window rattled. He rubbed his arms, feeling chilled. In the window's reflection, he saw his twin sister move her queen.
"Check," Valentine said.
"Two months of living here, and we didn't notice it until now?" he said. "How can that be? It's right across from us."
Valentine's eyes stayed on the chess board. "Noticed what, the storm?"
"No, that." He tapped the glass. "Aren't you listening?"
"I'm playing the game." Valentine smirked. "Which is why you're in check."
Malcolm tore himself away from the window. He grimaced at his remaining pieces. "I thought we agreed to slow-play this one."
"I had a good move."
He blocked with his knight. "You always have a good move. Science geeks shouldn't beat history geeks at chess. It's not natural."
Valentine grinned. "Well, maybe we should trade hobbies. I know some history."
"Really. Which empire first settled the British Isles?"
She stared down at the board.
"Can't answer, can you?"
"No, but I can do this." She advanced her rook, removing his last bishop. "Check. Again."
Malcolm winced and blocked with a pawn. His attention returned to the window. "How does it stand all that lightning? Shouldn't something that old just, like, catch fire and fall over?"
"Shouldn't what fall over?"
"Geez, Val. Come on, get up and look at this." Malcolm tugged on his sister's arm until she followed him to the window. "Look right there. Wait for more lightning and you'll see it better."
"Mal, I don't see —"
"Just keep looking, it's ... there!"
A massive bolt struck the corner of the old house, and a crack of thunder rumbled through Malcolm's chest. For an instant, the sky lit up like mid-afternoon.
"Holy cow, that's loud," Valentine said. "The storms here are crazy!" Then she stopped, and Malcolm saw realization in her eyes. "Oh, wow. I hadn't noticed that place before."
"Right? That's what I've been saying."
"But it's just an old house. What's the big deal?" She squinted, leaning closer to the window. "Though, I wonder who'd build a place with —"
Malcolm nodded fervently. "With no front door."
"Actually, there aren't any doors at all. Now that I think about it, I saw the back from the main road once. I just didn't remember until now." Valentine shook her head. "Weird."
"Looks like each side has a window at the top. No doors, though." Malcolm's voice fell to a whisper. "No way in or out. Why would someone build that?"
Valentine stared for a moment longer, then turned away with a shrug. "Maybe Oma Grace knows."
Malcolm's shoulders fell. "You're not even curious?"
"A little, maybe, but old stuff is your department. Show me something new and you'll have my attention." She glanced at her phone. "It's getting late, and tomorrow is the first day of high school. I should go to bed. But first ..." She moved to the chess board and slid a knight into position. "Checkmate."
Malcolm came to her side and stared at the board, crestfallen. "Wait, wait, no way."
Valentine patted his shoulder in mock sympathy and crossed the hall to her room.
"Hey wait!" he called. "I think I see a move —"
"Bedtime, Mal. G'night."
Her bedroom door clicked shut. Malcolm studied the pieces a moment longer, sighed, and tipped over his king. Turning on the bedside lamp, he grabbed a book and settled onto the bed.
Hours drifted by as he let the historical adventure envelope him through the dead of night. Between chapters, he stretched stiff joints and watched the night sky battle on. His room had the best view of the storm, which appeared to be growing angrier by the hour. Lightning flashed constantly behind the dark clouds, and the air rumbled with rolling thunder. His brow furrowed as he noticed that frost had formed on the edges of his windows.
Frost seems odd for summer. Maybe we're close to the storm center.
Malcolm picked out the largest bolts of lightning and the most intense thunderclaps. Mentally he counted the seconds between them, hoping to guess their distance away. Wait, that can't be right. He counted again and got the same result.
The delay was identical every time — one and a half seconds between lightning and thunder. Strike-pause-boom, wait, repeat. After twenty minutes of counting, the cycle still ran like clockwork. Is that normal around here? Valentine probably knew but must be dreaming by now. Maybe he'd ask her tomorrow.
As Malcolm turned away from the window, something brushed the corner of his vision. A burst of light, but not like the others. He whipped back around and stared into the night. A bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder greeted him again.
Whatever it was, it had looked different than the lightning — brighter, and a slightly different color. Light must be playing with my eyes. He rubbed them and moved to turn away again. Probably just — no, there it is again!
He saw it this time — a strange pulse of blue-white light. It hadn't come from the clouds. It had been closer to eye level and from the direction of —
Malcolm lunged at the shelf over his headboard. Grabbing an antique spyglass, he pointed the lens across the street, toward the house with no doors. He held deathly still, his eye trained on the front window.
A beam of light lanced from the window, piercing the inky darkness. One point-five seconds later the sky erupted in thunder and lightning. Malcolm felt like he'd been dunked in ice.
"Pulse-lightning-boom. House-sky-air, every time. What on earth is —"
A man's face glared at him through the window.
With cold fury, he stared into Malcolm's room and straight down his spyglass. Malcolm froze under those accusing eyes as they pulled him toward the window. His panicked breath came ragged and hoarse, his muscles refused to budge.
The face disappeared.
Malcolm snapped back like a broken rubber band, yelping as he fell from his bed. He smacked onto the floor and collided with the dresser. Antiques and picture frames toppled onto him as he sprawled on the floor, groaning.
A moment later Valentine staggered in, squinting. "What are you doing? It's like two a.m."
Malcolm sprang up and dragged his sister to the window, shoving the spyglass into her hands. "Look across the street."
"You know what! Come on, just do it."
Sighing, Valentine held the spyglass to her eye. "What am I looking for?"
"You'll know. Shouldn't be long now."
Malcolm watched with her, determined to catch the next pulse. But after a moment, he knew something was wrong. It should have happened already. "These pulses of light were coming from the window across the street! I ..." What's taking so long? Minutes passed as they watched absolutely nothing happen.
Valentine handed him the spyglass. "Well, this was fun. Go to sleep. Tomorrow is a school day." She glanced out the window as she turned to leave. "Hmm, looks like the storm broke. G'night."
Deflated, Malcolm studied the sky as his twin closed the door. The lightning had stopped, the thunder had quieted, and the house had become a dark, old shell again. He dropped onto his bed with a sigh.
Maybe the light just played tricks on me.
But the face in the window would not leave his mind. Sleep eluded him, and he found himself shivering at the memory of those eyes. Despite his efforts to believe otherwise, Malcolm knew what he'd seen.
"Someone's inside that house."CHAPTER 2
First-day jitters. That's all they are, Malcolm told himself as he and Valentine entered their first classroom at Emmett Brown High School. They picked a lab table next to the windows and settled onto a stool.
Everyone has jitters the first day of school, he reminded himself. Being in a new town didn't make his own any better. Plus, they'd be scattering to different classrooms for every subject. Six classes, six teachers — that meant six chances of getting someone weird or mean or half-crazy. Or worse, someone boring. Malcolm perused his class schedule, trying to deduce if any of the names suggested evil tendencies.
The key is the first class, he repeated. Just hit the ground running, don't look back, and it'll be smooth sailing. The morning bell rang as the last few students filed in past the open door. Oh, and try to forget about the mystery man inside the impossible house.
Malcolm chuckled as Valentine fidgeted with her supplies, arranging and then rearranging them.
"Shut up," she said, brushing a lock of wavy red hair out of her eyes.
"No, I get it. I mean, how can you ace the class with your pen at the wrong angle?"
She shot him a fake glare.
Malcolm grinned at his twin. "Don't worry, Val. You know you're a science wizard. It'll be —"
The classroom door slammed shut with a boom. A man in his late thirties stood in the corner, staring out at the students with sharp eyes.
"Mal," Valentine whispered. "Was he behind the door the whole time?"
Malcolm nodded, transfixed by the strange sight.
The man's attention stopped on a sweaty, petrified student with braces. Lurching from his hiding spot, the teacher pulled a rough, gray stone from his pocket, charged toward the lab tables and hurled it at the student. A collective gasp exploded from the class, and the boy flinched as it bounced off his chest and fell lightly to the floor.
After a heartbeat of silence, the man in the jacket laughed. The boy bent to pick it up and let out a relieved giggle, showing the class how he could squeeze the trick "stone" flat in his fist.
The class joined in with the laughter, and the strange man sat on the edge of the teacher's desk with a satisfied sigh. Malcolm noticed that his feet didn't touch the floor. He couldn't have been more than five-foot-two.
"Ah, I love foam. So versatile," he said, revealing another surprise — a proper British accent.
"Pretty good trick," Malcolm whispered. "For a hobbit."
Valentine stifled a laugh.
The teacher wrote Lucius Carmichael on the chalkboard in large block letters. "Like some of you, possibly, I am new to the fair town of Emmett's Bluff. You may call me Mr. Carmichael, and this year I will be teaching you the secrets of the universe."
He faced the students with an impish grin. "My superiors like to call it Introduction to Chemistry. But what is chemistry, really? It is the key, the central science that connects all other natural sciences. Astronomy, physics, geology — the tools for unlocking the mysteries of our world — eventually they all come back to their master. That is what chemistry is, and that is what I will teach you — to be the masters of your own destiny, one molecule at a time."
He paused as if waiting for something, then seemed disappointed. Malcolm wondered if he'd expected them to cheer.
"Well," he said. "Let's unlock our future, shall we? First, we'll see what you already know. Who can tell me what chemical property describes the ability of an atom to attract electrons toward itself in a covalent bond?"
Twenty pairs of eyes looked everywhere but at the teacher. Malcolm watched Valentine fidget with a familiar gleam in her eye. She knew the answer, but couldn't bring herself to speak up.
"Should I answer for you?" he whispered. "Or just tell them what happened at homecoming last year?"
Her hand sprang into the air.
"Ah, a brave soul! Miss?"
"Valentine Gilbert. Um, electronegativity?"
Mr. Carmichael's eyes narrowed. "Are you asking me or telling me?"
"Well, um." She braced herself. "Telling?"
"Relax, Miss Gilbert." He flashed another easy grin. "You are most certainly correct. Round one goes to you!"
Valentine released the breath she'd been holding and gave Malcolm a grateful look. An instant later, the door burst open. A tall, skinny boy stumbled into the classroom, nearly tripping over his low-slung sports bag.
"Whoa!" Half his textbooks tumbled to the floor. "Figures." He knelt to gather them and lost two more. A murmur grew among the class, and the boy stared up from the floor. "Okay, who moved the gym?"
The class burst into laughter. He straightened, looking proud of himself as he smoothed his blue and gray basketball uniform.
"Mister ...?" the teacher called.
"Fred Marshall in the flesh, dawg. Where can I park?"
"Unless 'dawg' is slang for 'brilliant one,' you will address me as Mr. Carmichael. Take any open seat. Quietly."
While Mr. Carmichael resumed the discussion, the new student chose a seat directly across the aisle from Valentine. He ran his fingers through strikingly blond, spiked hair that seemed to stick out in every direction, and then he peered around the room as if already bored.
Malcolm watched as Fred's gaze settled on Valentine, lingering for a moment too long. He leaned in her direction, and Malcolm grinned inside. This would be good.
"Hey, sorry 'bout charging in like that," Fred whispered to her. "Coach wouldn't let me go. 'Gotta start the year off right, whatever that means. Y'know?"
Valentine barely glanced in his direction.
"So, uh, what'd I miss?"
"Oh, Mr. Marshall," Mr. Carmichael interrupted. "I assume, based on your attention level, that you are familiar with the basic concepts of chemistry. Tell me, how would you identify a chemical element by examining its nucleus?"
Fred's eyes widened like a deer in headlights.
"Care to venture a guess?"
Fred glanced around the room as if looking for the answer on the walls. His face reddened as he sank into the chair and folded his arms.
"You don't know?" The teacher's stare bored into him. "Well, at least you can throw a ball through a hoop. I'm sure that's everything you'll need in life." He let the silence drag, then turned back to the board. "Continuing ..."
Three classes and a lunch period later, the hallways were crowded and buzzing with first-day energy. At their lockers, the twins changed out textbooks and tried not to drop anything in the sea of sneakers. Malcolm slowed when he grasped World History, easing it into his bag to avoid scuffs and bends.
"Wow." Valentine shook her head. "So much love, it's almost creepy. If history were a girl, you'd be staring in her window at night."
"Hey, for me, history would just smile and wave," Malcolm returned, zipping his bag. "But you'd get a face full of pepper spray."
"Good thing I only spy on electrons, then."
Malcolm glanced over her shoulder with an evil grin. "Tell that to him."
"Hey, what up?"
Malcolm choked back laughter as Valentine slowly turned, face frozen in an awkward smile.
"Oh," she said. "Hi ... um, Fred?"
"The one and only." The lanky ball player held out his hand. "We didn't get properly acquainted. Fred Marshall, slammin' athlete."
"Hi," Valentine avoided his hand and grabbed for Malcolm. "Um, have you met my twin brother?" She took a step back and shoved Malcolm in front.
"S'up, player?" Fred leaned against the lockers. "So, you guys ever get social?"
"Yeah, sometimes," Malcolm replied. He felt Valentine poke him in the back and suppressed a smile. "Uh, but right now we're still helping our dad get the house organized."
"So gimme the stats. Where you from, where you live in town?"
"Came from Chicago. We live on the east side, in our grandmother's house. We're helping out 'cause she's, uh, kinda old."
"Awesome. You likin' it so far?"
"Yeah, it's pretty nice, even if the neighborhood's kind of odd. We're right across from that blank house."
"You know, the one with no doors. Big, super old, looks like ..." Malcolm noted Fred's puzzled expression and trailed off. "You don't know. Never mind, it's nothing."
"Don't sweat it." Fred peered past Malcolm. "How 'bout you, Miss Chemistry? You likin' the neighborhood?"
Valentine shrugged and pulled out her phone, focusing on the screen.
"Well, maybe you'll like it after you come to my world-famous Start of the Year party. First chance to let people know you're somebody! You gonna come?"
"Are you recruiting for your wannabe players' club again?" a new voice said.
Malcolm turned to see a short, pretty Chinese girl stalking toward them. She fixed Fred with a stare through long, half-purple hair.
Excerpted from The Year of Lightning by Ryan Dalton. Copyright © 2016 Ryan Dalton. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Year of Lightning straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction, in that the Gilbert twins discover that the strange meteorological occurrences happening in their new town are connected to this weird doorless house in their lane that no one notices. Now, I don't know why this blurb says they are 13 year olds or why it has been shelved as middle grade, for the twins are 15 year old high schoolers in this book, which definitely puts it in young-adult category. Anyway, moving on - both of them are new to the town, escaping the grief from the loss of their mother to her sickness, and a dad who is lost in his own grief. Malcolm is the one who notices the weirdness first, and is a boy of action, but after one encounter with the mysterious owner of the house, he decides to back down. Valentine, however, is much more angry and worried about the town and convinces her brother to help her investigate. Meanwhile, the weather keeps getting weirder and weirder, and soon they have to bring in their friends, who were also affected along with them in a freak accident. Now, a lot of the plot hinges on the 'magical' nature of the tech brought in from the future, so I would classify it more as paranormal than science fiction. There are also many other elements like the twin's resistance to mind control and the 'time shield' that makes this a little out there, so if you can suspend disbelief and treat it more as a paranormal novel, it goes down much easier. Malcolm and Valentine have this easy-going relationship with each other, but it is also not like the are attached at the hip. They have polarizing tastes in subjects, and personalities, but they both share a fierce love for their family, as well as a stable moral compass. The secondary characters give the book much more vivacity in my opinion, though, with the leader-like Winter, jock-like Fred and the hipster-ish John (who is MIA most the novel) making for a nice group of friends. Then there is also the older group - Grandma Gilbert, Miss Marcus, Clive and Walter, who sort of mirror the current group and lend much of the assistance to them in the second half. The book starts off slow, but by one-fifths it picks up speed and then we go charging into an action-filled venture with fancy tech, epic one-on-one battles, and the high stakes of an entire town's existence. The canon for the future time was explained but I was not wholly convinced - mostly because I can't believe they gathered that much information on their own and from a few spying ventures. Also, the fact that tech in the present was used to build future tech - a little out there, even for a brilliant scientist. However, in its entirety this book is a solid block of entertainment, so I recommend it for all sci-fi buffs.
The Year of Lightning had lots of hidden surprises--exciting world building, emotional depth, romance, humor, die-hard friendships, science and even some kick butt fighting. It was a very fun read and I absolutely can't wait to see what Dalton does next.