These are the first two chapters of "Make Every Word Count" a Science Fiction/Fantasy social skills novel for upper elementary and middle school-age students. While I'm working on a sequel, I'm interested to know what behaviors you'd like to see covered in future books. Also, are you interested in similar works for younger children and, if so, would you prefer books, shorter audio stories, or computer/mobile phone apps that would include illustrations? Should audio stories include music and sound effects? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
(If you'd prefer to listen to these chapters, you'll find a recording on YouTube.)
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Mike’s too perfect sister, Emily, walked into their den Friday evening and shattered his escape into a medieval battle. He was sprawled shoeless on the sofa with his feet on the coffee table watching the Military History Channel. Emily couldn’t ding him for putting his shoes on the furniture. But there would be something. It was that kind of day.
She sniffed the air and waved her hand in front of her nose. Over the sound of swords and screams, she said, "Phew, Mike. Think of the other people who live here."
Bingo! Take your shoes off to protect the furniture, and you get dinged because your feet smell. Just when he'd almost succeeded in blocking out what happened at school. He eyeballed his sister, bleakly.
At fifteen, Emily was built like an aerobics instructor. Her tank top and faded jeans looked like a fashion statement. She’d pulled her highlighted brown-blond hair into a pony tail, revealing a face that didn’t need makeup to turn heads.
Younger and several inches shorter than his sister, Mike was still waiting for the puberty growth spurt his parents promised. His mirror showed him a face similar to Emily’s, but his hair was routinely in disarray. She could look stunning just by smiling. His attempts to smile made him look like a goof. If his face was an instrument, he couldn’t play it.
With exaggerated care, Mike removed his legs from the table one at a time and pulled on his New Balance running shoes. Without a word, he tied his laces in double knots, stabbed the TV remote to turn off "Battle Detectives," and stood to leave. He knew he was acting like a passive aggressive jerk, but he couldn’t help himself.
Emily wasn’t buying it.
"Mom said you were sulking. Sit your butt down and tell me what happened."
She sank onto the other end of the sofa with one leg curled beneath her.
Mike stayed because, while Emily bossed him like a parent, she understood some things way better than his mom. She even backed him up when his dad pushed him too hard to act like a normal person. And she’d been his protector at middle school last year. Nobody had wanted to cross a smart, popular girl who studied martial arts. This year, she’d moved on to high school and he was on his own.
"There was a new girl at school today," he said. "Named Sarah. She seemed really nice and I decided to talk to her after English class. A preemptive strike to make a friend before someone warned her off. But I had an Asperger attack."
His stomach clenched at the memory.
"Mrs. Radisson said something about the Napoleon complex. I told her the Napoleon complex was a myth based on British war propaganda that portrayed Napoleon as short. Records show he was 5 foot 2 inches tall, but that was measured in French inches that were longer than British inches. So he was actually 5 foot 6 in the inches we use today in the United States. That was taller than the average Frenchman at the time. Also, he picked tall soldiers for his imperial guards, so he looked…"
"Sorry. Sorry. That’s what happened at school. My brain started a download and I couldn’t stop myself. Mrs. Radisson was cool about it, like always, but I felt like sinking through the floor when she ‘redirected’ me. Before anyone else could tell the new girl I’m a freak, I gave her a flag-waving demonstration. Why can’t I keep my stupid mouth shut?"
"Cancel that. It’s not the end of the world. And you’re not a freak. Except you’re scary smart and compulsive about showing it. That’s in the freaky neighborhood. Call it freak-adjacent." Emily grinned to take any sting out of her words. "So, want to use your smarts to crush me at one of your strategy games?"
"Nah. You hate them, which is probably why you suck at them. Maybe I could practice Tai Chi with you and you could kick the crap out of me."
"That would be fun," Emily agreed, "but then we’d have a room full of crap. And after smelling your feet… Anyway, I don’t hate your games. I just don’t drool over military strategy and maps. Of course, there is strategy in Tai Chi."
She was doing it again. Pulling him out of his funk when he wanted to wallow. He leaned back into the sofa, ran his fingertips across its thick fabric, and let his thoughts drift.
"Maps are models of the world," he said, after a moment. "But they haven’t helped me fit into it."
Emily gave him space to finish his thought. Why couldn’t he read other people like she could read him? He was tired of never fitting in.
"I wish I could start fresh in a world where I didn’t run my mouth off and people appreciated what I can do."
The walls around Mike blurred and a deep voice reverberated in his ears.
BEAM ME UP
The den's walls disappeared, and a stand of bright green trees snapped into focus. The sofa vanished too, dumping Mike onto a carpet of dead leaves that rustled and snapped beneath him. Squinting in the sudden sunlight, he scrambled to his feet and bumped into Emily. For once, she looked as disoriented as he felt. They stood at the edge of a forest clearing nearly the size of a football field. It was covered in knee-high grass.
Saturated colors and bird calls coming from all directions made Mike think of a virtual reality simulation. He automatically felt the front of his face. Nope, no VR headset. The heat of the sun on his skin and a breeze tickling the hairs on the back of his neck were further proof this was real. And, of course, the fact that he was standing next to his sister. But it was after six p.m. How could the sun be so high in the sky?
Movement caught his eye. From the far side of the clearing, a man waved at them energetically. The waver appeared to be wearing a peaked hat and a gray robe, and he stood in front of an elaborate log cabin. Suddenly, he sprinted toward them. One hand clamped his hat on his head as he took high, bouncing steps to negotiate the tall grass.
"Where are we?" asked Mike.
"I don’t know!" Emily answered. She stepped between Mike and the approaching man and settled into a defensive martial arts stance. A few stray leaves stuck to her butt, which Mike would have found funny if he wasn’t totally freaked out. As he automatically brushed some leaves from his own jeans, he felt his smartphone in his hip pocket. He pulled the phone out and tapped its screen.
"Hold it!" Emily yelled. Mike glanced up to see the sprinting man stop short about 30 feet away. His hat tumbled to the ground. He held his hands up, indicating he meant no harm. Mike was surprised to see the man was actually a tall teenager. Fiery red hair topped an open, freckled face that made him look a bit like a boy. But he had broad shoulders and the forearms revealed when he raised his arms were corded with muscle. Mike looked back at his phone.
"I’m here to help!" the redhead shouted, "I’m Chuck. I’m a wizard. You’re Mike and Emily. You just got pulled from your world to this one with no warning and you’re wondering what happened. I can explain. Can I come closer?"
"You can come within ten feet," called Emily.
Chuck retrieved his hat and closed the distance as Mike assessed what his phone showed.
"What did you mean pulled from your world?" asked Emily.
Mike waved the phone at her and spoke before Chuck could answer.
"I think he’s telling the truth. I can’t get any location information on my phone. Cell service depends on being close to a tower, but GPS satellite signals should reach us anywhere in the world. That’s because multiple GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day at an altitude of about 12,427 feet. There have to be 24 satellites operational 95 percent of the time to…"
In mid-sentence, Mike’s voice cut off. Was something wrong with his ears? No. The birds close to them had stopped singing when Emily raised her voice, but Mike could still hear others in the distance. He tried to yell. But he couldn’t make any sound. His throat and mouth felt like they were working, but…
He grabbed Emily’s arm and silently mouthed "I CAN’T TALK!"
She spun to face Chuck.
"What happened to him?"
Chuck motioned for them to say calm. He walked forward as he spoke.
"He’ll be all right. It’s not permanent."
As Chuck advanced, Emily moved forward to meet him. Her steps were almost a dance. Mike recognized she was moving in a way that constantly kept her balanced and ready to react.
"What was the last thing either of you said before you left your world?" asked Chuck. Up close, he was almost a head taller than Emily. He put his hand on her arm in what he probably thought was a reassuring gesture.
There was a blur of motion and the wizard was face down on the ground. Emily stood over him, locking his arm behind his back.
"You’re not like the girls from around here," Chuck said, his voice muffled by the leaves.
"What-happened-to-him?" asked Emily again, emphasizing each word.
Even near panic, a part of Mike’s brain was glad he wasn’t the focus of Emily’s wrath. That was like facing a blast furnace.
To his credit, Chuck kept his voice steady. He lifted his head slightly, spit out a leaf, and said, "It’s important. I need to know what you said so I can tell you what happened."
After a long moment, Emily released her grip and helped the wizard to his feet.
"Mike was saying maps were models," she recalled, "He said he wished he could be in a world where he didn’t run his mouth all the time."
She paused, with a raised finger, and looked at Mike.
"Oh, and you wanted to be appreciated," she finished.
"Well, that’s it," Chuck said, adjusting his robes and retrieving the hat that had come off again. "I’d like to ease you into this, but there’s no time. You’re not on Earth. You’re on the planet Mearl. On Earth, you use science. On Mearl, we use magic. You were brought here by a wizard temp agency that scans Earth for candidates for an exchange program. It fosters understanding between the two worlds. Normally you’d arrive at our welcoming center and go through orientation to explain your quest. But a war just started and the invitation/transportation spells got scrambled. Like one of your computer programs being corrupted. Mike’s wish triggered the damaged spell, and it swept you up."
"So you brought us here," said Emily.
"Not me personally, but, yes."
"Can you send us back?"
"No, I’m an apprentice. A journeyman wizard could send you back if the spell hadn’t been broken, but it’ll take a master wizard to repair it. My master, Tacitus, saw your transportation spell engaging and sent me here to rescue you. He can manipulate the time difference between our planets, so I got here before you."
"If this is another planet, why are you speaking English?"
"Your language? I’m not. There’s a translation sub-spell in the overall package. I hear you in my language and you hear me in yours."
Mike gestured impatiently. What about him?
"Sorry Mike," Emily said, and confronted Chuck again. "So why can’t he talk?"
"It’s the spell. You said part of his wish was not running off at the mouth. It appears the spell determined he was doing that. So it stopped him."
"For how long?" demanded Emily.
"Let me check."
Chuck pulled a wand from his sleeve and passed it over Mike like a hand-held metal detector at the airport.
"The silence sub-spell is a limitation special. Mike will be able to say five words every five minutes until the spell runs its course — or a master lifts it."
If Mike had his voice, he would have told Chuck how much this sucked. And how illogical it was. How could he do anything to be appreciated if he couldn’t talk? It was like he’d been plopped on a horse riding double. But his sister had the reins and he was stuck on the horse’s rear end as a passenger. In fact, he felt like a horse’s rear end.
While Mike stormed inside his head, Emily was practical. She looked at her own smartphone, apparently to confirm what Mike had said, then slid it into her jeans pocket.
"Okay Chuck, we need to know what we’re up against. Put yourself in our place and tell us what you’d want to know. The important stuff."
Chuck looked impressed. Mike just saw Emily being Emily: taking charge.
The wizard opened his mouth to answer when five men in chain mail armor and medieval helmets burst from the trees at the far side of the clearing. Four of them held long poles with combined spear/axe heads, and the fifth hefted a loaded crossbow.
Mike tried to shout a warning, but couldn’t. By the time he grabbed Emily and pointed to the soldiers, the bowman let an arrow fly. Emily pulled Mike and Chuck to the ground just before the arrow swished close over their heads. The bowman struggled to reload his weapon as the other soldiers ran forward, hampered by their armor, the weapons they carried, and the grass. From the burly size of the bowman and the time it was taking for him to cock his weapon, Mike estimated the crossbow had at least a 175 pound draw. That much power could deliver a short crossbow arrow or "bolt" at 300 feet per second. Mike’s instinct was to jump up and pull Emily toward the trees.
But before he could move, Chuck pointed his wand at their attackers and muttered. A fountain of fire shot from his wand and formed a wall of flames in front of the advancing men, then floated towards them, forcing them back. As Mike watched, fascinated, they dropped their weapons and fled.
Emily sprang to her feet and looked down at Chuck, "You set the field on fire?" she yelled. "What about the forest?"
"No," Chuck yelled back. "It’s an illusion, and it won’t last long."
"Illusion?" said Emily, staring at the flames.
As Mike picked himself up, he couldn’t take his eyes off the fire. Chuck had said he was a wizard, but he looked like a high school football player at a Halloween party. Mike never would have guessed he could do something this amazing.
"They’ll be back and they’ll bring a stronger wizard than I am," Mike heard Chuck say from behind him. "We need to get out of here. I’m going to use a portal."
Chuck’s words only half registered. The wall of fire had stopped moving at the far side of the clearing, but the grass beneath it wasn’t burning.
Mike felt a strong breeze rise from behind him. He turned to see Chuck pointing his wand at a small horizontal tornado that grew in size until it was large enough to walk into.
"Get ready!" shouted Chuck over the now howling wind. He pulled off his hat before a gust could rip it from his head and gathered his robe tight about him. He leaned close to Mike and Emily so they could hear him over what now sounded like an approaching freight train. "Keep your hands and feet within the portal walls at all times! Follow me!"
He ran into the mouth of the tornado.
Mike locked eyes with Emily. Looking grim, she took his hand. In spite of everything, Mike grinned. He’d just witnessed his first real battle -- and his side had won! As they ran into the vortex, he thought of the matter transporter on the original Star Trek series.
In his head, he shouted, "Beam me up, Scotty!"
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