THE AMETHYST HOUR
I guess in the old days, in other places, boys like me usually ended up twisting and kicking in the empty air beneath gallows.
It’s no wonder I became a monster, too.
I mean, what would you expect, anyway?
And all the guys I know—all the guys I ever knew—can look at their lives and point to the one defining moment that made them who they were, no question about it. Usually those moments involved things like hitting baseballs, or their dads showing them how to gap spark plugs or bait a hook. Stuff like that.
My defining moment came last summer, when I was sixteen.
That’s when I got kidnapped.
I am going to build something big for you.
It’s like one of those Russian dolls that you open up, and open up again. And each layer becomes something else.
On the outside is the universe, painted dark purple, decorated with planets and comets, stars. Then you open it, and you see the Earth, and when that comes apart, there’s Marbury, a place that’s kind of like here, except none of the horrible things in Marbury are invisible. They’re painted right there on the surface where you can plainly see them.
The next layer is Henry Hewitt, the man with the glasses, and when you twist him in half, there’s my best friend, Conner Kirk, painted to look like some kind of Hindu god, arms like snakes, shirtless, radiant.
When you open him up, you’ll find Nickie Stromberg, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, and maybe the only person in this world, besides Conner, who ever really loved me.
Now it’s getting smaller, and inside is Freddie Horvath. That’s the man who kidnapped me.
Next, there’s the pale form of the boy, Seth, a ghost from Mar-bury who found me, and helped me. I guess he was looking for me for a long time. And the last thing on the inside is me. John Wynn Whitmore.
They call me Jack.
But then I open up, too, and what you’ll find there is something small and black and shriveled.
The center of the universe.
Fun game, wasn’t it?
I don’t know if the things I see and what I do in Marbury are in the future or from the past. Maybe everything’s really happening at the same time. But I do know that once I started going to Marbury, I couldn’t stop myself. I know it sounds crazy, but Marbury began to feel safer, at least more predictable, than the here and now.
I need to explain.
Everything smells like cigarettes.
The stink helps me get my head focused so I can will my eyes open. I don’t know where I am, but I can tell there are cigarettes. The smoke turns my stomach, but at least it is something I can connect to—like an anchor, I guess, and it keeps my head from floating away again.
I want to move.
My arms are telephone poles.
I’m lying on my back, right?
Wasn’t I supposed to be leaving soon?
My eyes are open. I am sure I felt the paste between the lids giving way, but it’s like trying to see in a swimming pool. A yellow and gray swimming pool, where I can make out the shape of a window and the outline of Freddie Horvath standing there.
I fall to sleep again.
My whole first day is like this.
Five seconds long.
Let me back up a bit.
I lived in my grandparents’ house then. Wynn and Stella. I guess it’s kind of a stupid thing to say, because I’d never lived anywhere else.
It was one of the biggest houses in Glenbrook. Wynn built it when my mother was just a kid. It sat on over four hundred acres of some of the best grape-growing land in Central California, and that’s how Wynn and Stella made all their money.
I was born on the kitchen floor.
Stella said I couldn’t wait to get here. That’s why I came out between my mother’s blood-spattered feet, right on Wynn and Stella’s nice wood kitchen floor, while Amy leaned over the breakfast table grunting, her legs locked in the only contraction she’d had.
She was seventeen.
I’ve only seen her one time that I can remember, and I always dreaded the two times per year I’d feel forced to say awkward hellos by telephone.
Sometimes, okay, a lot of times, I’d stare at that spot on the floor—Stella drew imaginary circles around it with her fingers whenever she’d retell the story—and I’d wish that Amy had been standing at the top of a ladder or something so Little Jack would have hit his head just hard enough that he’d never know any world could ever exist outside the lukewarm nothing of the amnesiac womb.
It was the first weekend of summer, and just about everyone I knew was going to be at Conner Kirk’s house getting drunk that night to celebrate twelve weeks with no school. Of course, I was going to be there, too. That’s what kids do.
But mostly all I cared about was getting away. Wynn and Stella promised to send me to England for two weeks, and my flight was in just five more days. Wynn decided he wanted me to visit his old school—a “grammar school” in Kent—to take a tour. He told me if I liked it enough, he’d send me there for my junior year. And I already knew I’d like it enough, that there was something itching inside that made me want to get as far away as possible from that invisible circle on the kitchen floor. Conner was going to come, too. His parents had enough money that they made the same offer to Conner about attending St. Atticus. If we both liked it. So it was like this fantastic opportunity for me and my best friend to do something together we’d probably never get a chance to do again.
I could say it was going to be the trip of a lifetime, but that’s just because I can’t clearly remember what it was like slipping around naked and wet, gasping for my first breaths on the kitchen floor while Amy screamed and cursed, “The goddamned baby! The god-damned baby!” At least, that’s how I always imagined it happened.
In the end, Conner and I both ended up getting more than we bargained for there, I guess.
But that one Saturday morning at the start of the summer when I woke up, things felt changed—different. It was already so hot, and I could tell it was going to be the most hellacious boring and long day. I got right up from bed and looked out the window like I always do, snaked into a T-shirt and basketball shorts, grabbed an armload of extra clothes so I could spend a night or two at Conner’s, and I didn’t even say much more than hey to Stella or Wynn as I passed them in the kitchen.
I’m not exactly certain what made me such a loner around them. It wasn’t that I hated Wynn and Stella, but I think I probably expected them to abandon me, too, so I made it as easy as possible for them to assume I wasn’t even there.
“I’m going to be at Conner’s till Monday. His parents are gone for the weekend.”
Wynn nudged his glasses higher and looked me over. It made me feel like I’d forgotten to get dressed or something. I squeezed the bundle of clothes tighter under my arm.
“He could stay here if he wants,” Wynn said.
Oh, yeah. That would be real fun, Wynn.
I shrugged. “I have my phone.”
Stella said, “Have a nice time. We love you, Jack.”
“See you Monday sometime.”
I pushed the screen door open and walked across the wet lawn to my truck, thinking I’d go over the pass and head down to the beach. And I ended up in the other direction for no reason I can recall, driving, instead, toward Paso Robles out along the dirt roads that cut perfect squares through my grandfather’s vineyards.
I called Conner on my cell phone. I knew there was no way he’d be awake at seven thirty on a Saturday, and I got ready to shut it off if I heard his annoying voice mail greeting.
He answered. Just a grunt.
“What’s up, Jack? Damn.” I could hear him moving around in his bed. “Seven in the morning. Are you in jail or something?”
“I was going to go to the beach. I was bored. I ended up driving out across the fields toward Paso. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe it’s because you never know where the hell you are,” Conner said.
“Want to go to the beach?”
I steered with my knee and held my phone in one hand while I shifted gears.
Conner grunted again.
It sounded like no.
“I’m coming over. Okay?”
“Wake me up,” Conner said. “Bring me a Starbucks.”
Conner’s house was part of a walled-in tract of enormous stucco homes with no yards and fake tile roofs. Honestly, they were built so close together Conner said if his neighbors kept their bathroom window open wide enough, he could take a piss across the gap into their toilet. Good thing they liked their central air. I’m sure Conner would have tried it. And I swear there was never any sunlight that hit the ground between some of those tall houses, but most people in California like living like that nowadays.
Burning my fingers on two paper coffee cups, my bundle of clothes tucked under an arm, I pushed his front door open with an elbow and made my way upstairs to Conner’s room. I knew I’d find him sleeping.
I dropped my clothes on his desk chair and put the cups down on the stand next to his bed.
Conner pulled the sheet down from over his head and sat up. He looked at me, nodded, fumbled with his cell phone to check his missed calls, then dropped it on the bed next to him, and took a sip from the coffee.
“Thanks, man.” Conner scratched his armpit and yawned. “Looks like we’ve got a nonstop party for, like, the next couple weeks or so.”
My trip to England would be just over two weeks long—a few days shorter for Conner, because I’d be leaving before him and meeting him over there. I’ll admit I was pretty nervous about being on my own without anyone I knew there, too, but there was no way I’d say that to Conner or my grandparents. But it was just how the whole thing got set up by Wynn and Stella, and Conner couldn’t leave the same day because his brother was coming home from Cal. Family stuff. Like I’d know anything about that.
When I think about it now, it was like everyone involved in the whole thing was playing chicken—seeing who’d be the first to blink.
“I don’t have to be back home until Monday or so, just enough time to get my stuff together to leave,” I said.
“You want to go get something to eat?” Conner asked. “I don’t want to mess up downstairs before tonight.”
“Lauren Willis is going to come,” he said. “Maybe she’ll give you the same going-away present Dana’s giving me, so I don’t have to hang out for two weeks in the same room with a frustrated virgin who only pretends to never think about sex.”
He knew I thought Lauren was hot, even if I didn’t really care much about the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing.
“You think about it enough for both of us,” I said.
Conner got out of bed, hair crazy, wearing nothing but stretched-out red shorts. He grabbed his coffee, barefoot-stepped around the glass ice-block wall that separated his bathroom, and turned on the shower.
“Give me a minute,” he said.
Excerpted from The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith.
Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Smith.
Published in 2010 by Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.