Enjoy the prologue and first chapter from Book #1. If you like it, click HERE to buy it!
Brandon’s weary body hit the sofa like a sack of concrete, and its springs groaned as a comfortable crater formed around his backside. Camp counselors filled the lobby of Bickford Hall, some rubbing red, swollen feet while others sprawled on the floor, their arms shielding tired pupils from heavy fluorescent lights.
A veteran counselor, CJ, sighed wearily, massaging his own neck. “I don’t know what went wrong during these kids’ childhoods, but someone must’a dropped them on their heads or somethin’.”
All but one of the counselors grunted in agreement.
“Well, at least your group’s not as bad as Brandon’s,” a counselor named Tristan declared. “His group reminds me of a circus – they look like a freak show and act like animals!”
“Hey!” Brandon pulled himself up to the edge of his seat and glared at Tristan. The laughter melted to silence. “Don’t talk about them that way, okay?”
Tristan looked up. “Yeah, okay. Sorry, dude, I was just joking. I actually do admire some of them, like that kid with the red hat. He’s somethin’.”
He sure was, Brandon thought to himself.
“You keep good track of him at night? That cop car pulled up outside and I immediately thought it was for him.”
Everyone laughed – except for Brandon. He knew the kid was already gone.
“There’s a trainer watching the hall,” Brandon sighed. “He’ll be fine.”
“Unless he tries to go out the window,” Tristan joked, “good thing it’s three stories to asphalt.”
CJ laughed. “From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t put it behind him.”
Outside the window, a shadow approached and all eyes converged on the winding sidewalk where a heavyset figure lumbered through sheets of rain. His bulk rushed up to the front door, rain cascading off him like a waterfall. A sudden crack of lightning flashed his portly silhouette against the wall and filled the doorway just as thunder shook the glass doors. Squinting his eyes as they adjusted to the bright, blue lobby, the man shook the remaining water from his poncho.
“Woooee! This storm’s packin’ a punch. Just doesn’t stop!” The head counselor hung his poncho on a peg and wiped the rain from his buzzed head.
“What if our kids are scared and want their mommies, Mac?” Tristan asked.
Mac smiled and tucked his shirt into his shorts. “Well, we don’t want anything like what happened to Dan in ’08.”
A few laughed as Mac took his seat in front of the twenty male counselors.
Tristan cocked his head. “Why? What happened?”
Everyone hushed and turned toward Mac. He dropped his bulk into his favorite recliner and took his time adjusting his weight into the old cushion. “Well, back then, kids were scared more about storms and monsters rather than terrorists or drone swarms.”
The older counselors chuckled as the newer counselors leaned in closer to catch every word. Brandon stood up and looked out the window toward the observatory.
“Well, Dan was about to sleep when a kid cries for him, says there’s a monster in his closet.” Mac paused, creating more tension and suspense. “So, Dan, being a veteran counselor, decided it was a good idea to tell him monsters only eat kids who don’t sleep.”
The counselors laughed lightly, waiting for the rest of the story.
“But the kid then says that his mother says the government locks up all the monsters. Frustrated, Dan says sometimes the government can’t get them all and that he should go to sleep or he’ll get eaten. Then he goes back to bed.” Mac reached down to remove his soggy shoes. “Next thing he knew, there were cops knocking on his door.”
“Why?” one of the new counselors asked, impatient.
“Well,” Mack continued, “Turns out the kid barricaded the imaginary monster in his room and snuck out to the police station to let them know they missed one!”
Wild laughter echoed down the halls, where a sole figure slowly padded down the center of a dark stretch of carpet.
“The kid thought he was some kind of hero!”
A flash of lightning illuminated the hall as a young boy crept toward them like a drugged zombie, ignoring their presence. His blue, striped pajamas hung loosely around his youthful frame.
Rain hammered the roof, creating multiple rivulets down the glass doors as the boy’s labored breathing competed against the pounding rain. He stopped in the center of the room – head low, mouth agape, eyes closed as he rocked back and forth.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?” Mac asked.
“10.” The boy spoke plainly, eyes still closed.
A frown creased Mac’s brow and his large head tilted to the side. “What? Ten what, son?”
“Whose kid is this?”
“He’s mine,” Brandon stated as he rushed over to the boy.
“Austin, are you awake?”
“He’s counting down. What is he counting down to?”
“I don’t know.”
The room grew tense as the counselors sucked in their breath and slid to the edge of their seats.
“6.” The boy’s whisper grew louder – his eyes opened and stared blankly out the window.
“Austin. Look at me.”
Brandon knelt and grabbed the boy’s arms, looking straight into his eyes. “Austin. Wake up, Austin!”
“Austin, listen to me, what are you counting down to?”
The counselors in the room stood up, muscles taut, eyes frantically darting from the boy to wherever his gaze led.
“Wake him up! Quick!”
“AUSTIN! Wake up! What happens at zero?”
“What happens? WHAT HAPPENS AT ZERO!”
Austin snapped awake and turned toward Brandon with a desperation and fear he had never seen before. The boy’s dry lips formed the last word…hesitated…then spoke.
Four days ago. Sunday afternoon.
“I still remember the legends and pranks my counselor pulled on me ten years ago,” CJ said as he stuck a loop of masking tape onto one of the incoming camper’s room signs on the third floor of Bickford Hall, the future home of eighteen seventh-grade campers. “The Observatory Legend, the Legend of Paul Newton, squirt gun wars at night…” The veteran counselor closed his eyes as sweet memories played like a movie in his mind.
Brandon smiled and shook his head as he pressed the last room sign onto one of his future camper’s doors.
Morris College All-Sports Camp
Minor 1: Rock Climbing
Minor 2: Horseback Riding
Brandon smoothed the sign out and turned to CJ. “Legends, huh?”
CJ grinned mischievously, mounting one of his own ‘Cowboys Purple’ signs up across the hall. “I’d tell ya all about them, but the Legends are not something to be shared loosely,” CJ whispered. “Tonight, prepare your kids –– you know — build up the suspense, turn out the lights and all. I’ll come by and let you see how it’s done. Then, the fun is all yours. You can even make up your own legend if a kid asks some dumb question you don’t feel deserves an honest answer.”
Brandon’s thoughts wandered to the week ahead. Babysitting nine seventh-graders from morning to night…would it be as bad as some said it can be?
“Well, it’s almost that time,” CJ warned, interrupting his thoughts. “The early ones are probably heading here from the Rec Center right now.”
Brandon shook off the nerves tingling up his spine and was about to head to the room for one last moment of peace when he heard voices rising from the stairway.
“This is it, Sammy. Third Floor.”
“I’m a Cowboyth Gold!” came the lispy reply. “Does that mean I have to paint mythelf gold? Then I’d rather be a Cowboyth Albino!”
A boy emerged from the staircase with a suitcase in his left hand, an over-sized backpack that hung down to his knees, and a huge box fan wobbling precariously under his right arm. His short, black hair was matted to the side and his thick eyelashes were dark enough that one might think he used eyeliner. A slightly lazy left eye offset a ridiculous smile that revealed a need for braces in the future. His grey-haired grandmother followed him closely, lugging another two suitcases.
Brandon sighed inwardly but rushed over to introduce himself. “Hi! I’m Brandon. I’ll be your counselor for the week.”
“Or are you…?” the boy furrowed his brow and puckered his mouth to one side as his lazy eye rolled inward toward his nose.
Brandon froze, his arm still extended for a handshake. His lips moved to speak, but he didn’t know how to respond. “Uh…yeah. I am. And your name is?”
“I’m Thammy, but only people call me that.”
Brandon laughed, thinking this might all be a joke. He glanced at the grandmother, hoping for an ally or some explanation of Sammy’s strange behavior, but she was glaring at him like he had just farted in church.
“Aren’t you going to take his things, boy?”
“Uh…yes – sorry. Let me take those for you, uh…Sammy,” Brandon offered as he reached out for the suitcase and fan. “If you’ll follow me, your room is just down this hall.”
As Brandon led them past his own room, he could hear CJ laughing inside. Did CJ know this kid?
“Thereth a window, Grandma! I can thee outthide!”
Grandma’s words were softened with love. “That’s good, Sammy-dear.”
“But that meanth the thquirrels can look in, too. They’ll be eyeing my nutth.”
Brandon choked and quickly faked a cough to camouflage his shock before Sammy removed a large package of salted peanuts from his backpack and hugged them close to his chest.
“I’m nutth for nutth! Even my tearth tathte thalty!”
Brandon nodded awkwardly and blurted his exit plan. “Well, feel free to unpack your things and make yourself at home. I’ll be in my room just down the hall if you have any questions.”
He left before he could hear a response and rushed into his room where CJ was on his bed, nodding with a knowing smirk
Brandon flopped face-down onto his bed. “What…the… heck?”
CJ laughed and turned toward Brandon. “Good luck with that one! He comes every year and is always a handful. He’s funny, though.”
“Are they all gonna to be like him?”
CJ took a reassuring tone. “Nah. There’s always one that makes it worth it. Well – usually.”
Greyson Gray held his mother’s hand, her wedding bands lightly pressing between his fingers. He felt his mother’s attention and looked up at her as they approached the large, capitol-like building with shining, golden letters printed on the side – BICKFORD HALL.
Greyson’s mother let go of his hand and ran her fingers through the brown hair sticking out the sides of his worn, red baseball cap with a white G stitched on the front. Smiling faintly, he tried to put on a happy face for his mother, but something restrained it. He hadn’t been happy enough to truly smile in months. In fact, it had been ten months and thirteen days.
“Yeah?” he replied in his quiet, still boyish voice.
“This is Bickford Hall.”
His mother smiled bleakly and knelt beside him. Their eyes held fast to one another for a moment, knowing each other’s pain – but she was first to look away, not able to bear it much longer. With a new determination, she reached around him, pulling and shifting the straps of his heavy backpack. “You sure you have all you need?”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
She nodded slowly, smoothing out his snug, white t-shirt and taking one last look into his calm green eyes.
“Remember. Do to others what you would want them to do to you.”
“And try to have fun, Greys!”
She pinched the tip of his nose, but his smile remained stagnant.
“Grey – I want to see your smiling face and hear you laugh again!” Tears welled up in his mother’s eyes, but she brushed them away, laughing lightly. “And I’m sure all the cute girls here will, too.”
Greyson blushed and looked at his feet. “Okay, Mom. I’ll try.”
“Dad was a little ladies man at your age, you know.”
Greyson’s face stiffened, and he looked into his mother’s eyes.
“Or at least he claimed he was.” She smiled and lost herself in a daydream for a moment. Snapping back to reality, she spoke softly. “He would want you to be happy; you know that, right?”
“Then do something about it. If you know something needs to change and you have the power to do it, you just do it.”
“Dad thought he had the power––”
“Greyson,” she snapped.
The boy stopped abruptly. He looked past her at the giant concrete building just paces ahead and watched the parents and children parading to their destinations – children with their moms and dads.
“Greyson. I’ll be back on Friday to watch you in the Camp Olympics. Promise me you’ll be smiling by then. I need you back.”
His mother held out her hand with her pinky outstretched; Greyson sighed and noticed a group of boys gazing at the woman holding out her pinky.
“Oh, don’t mind what they think of us. Do you promise?”
Greyson reached out his pinky and grabbed his mother’s. They shook twice, and released; then, before he could resist, his mother pulled him to her and squeezed him so close the brim of his hat pressed against her and fell to the ground.
Feeling the unfamiliar breeze on his hair, Greyson gasped and squirmed free from the embrace. Like a whip, his hand shot to the hat and shoved it back onto his head. Crisis averted, he repositioned it just right and offered a faint smile to his mother.
She stood up and nodded with an understanding sigh. “Have a great week. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Greyson watched her walk down the winding sidewalk until she turned a corner past the Recreation Building. Once she was gone, he turned, looked up at the colossal Bickford Hall with glittering gold letters, and made his way to his room.
“Hi, I’m Brandon. I’ll be your counselor for the week.”
The twin boys with identical blonde hair hanging down to their eyebrows and swooping over their ears smiled at him mischievously. The one with slightly pudgier cheeks jerked out his hand.
“Jarryd Aldeman,” he said excitedly, pumping his chin upward. “Pleasure to meet you. This is my brother, Nick.”
Nick extended his hand and shook Brandon’s hand. “I was born second.”
Brandon smiled and nodded. “Good to know.”
The boys’ father reached between the two and thrust his hand toward Brandon’s.
“Thank you so much. You shouldn’t have any trouble with these two. I’ve got to run, but it’s good to know they’re in capable hands.”
“No problem.” When Brandon removed his hand, he felt paper. He looked down and caught a glimpse of a green bill. “Uh, yeah. I’ll take them from here. Let’s go boys; follow me to your room.”
As he walked past his room, rubbing the smooth paper in his hand, he smiled at CJ. Things were finally looking up.
“Wow. Nice pad. The chicks will dig this suite,” Jarryd quipped.
Nick laughed quietly and blushed at Brandon.
“You wish. The ‘chicks’ are staying in Binz Hall,” Brandon informed him.
“Hmm…who is this Ben and how can I get to know him?”
Nick shook his head and began unpacking his things. Jarryd’s eyes twinkled and his eyebrows jumped in anticipation of Brandon’s answer.
“Binz. B-I-N-Z. It’s a hundred yards away.”
Jarryd pumped his chin again with a sly smile that revealed two large front teeth. “Just a quick dash.”
Brandon smiled and watched Nick start to put the sheets on his bed as Jarryd walked over to him and reached for his hand. “How much my dad give ya?”
Brandon withdrew his hands. “Ah, no. That’s between your dad and me.”
“He gave my last counselor a hundred.”
Brandon opened his hand and looked down at the green bill. His eyes
frantically scanned the bill and landed on the number in the corner.
1,000,000. A fake.
Brandon’s crestfallen gaze rolled upward to Jarryd who then burst into laughter and jumped on his bed, the veins in his neck pulsing out as his face grew red. Nick merely shook his head and giggled to himself. “He paid Dad a dollar to do that to you.”
Brandon crumpled up the bill and threw it at Jarryd.
“Brandon,” CJ’s voice came from the hall. “Got another couple kids here.”
Great. More angels.
He turned to the twins, who were still giggling. He felt the need to explain a few more rules, especially for the trouble-maker with the pudgy cheeks and large front teeth. “Make sure you stay on this level – and turn in any electronics or drones you may have brought on accident…or on purpose.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that rule?” Jarryd asked. “How are we supposed to get deliveries? Manage our social media presence?”
Brandon just shook his head and sped to the hallway. CJ was down the hall visiting with a few of his campers. They looked normal enough. Why couldn’t he get normal campers?
“Yes?” Brandon spun around. A young, frail boy looked up at him with the biggest eyes he’d ever seen. They were deep eyes, sunken into his pale face, but they were glazed over with a deep concentration, like they were looking right through him.
“You’re my counselor. I’m Austin,” the boy stated plainly.
“Uh…yeah, nice to meet you.”
“I’ve already moved my things in, and my parents have left. They’ve given you this note to help you with my condition. It basically says that my psychiatrist doesn’t believe that I can tell the future…yet. Can I sit on my bed until I’m needed?”
Brandon took the small, folded note. “Yeah, sure, bud.”
The boy turned on his heels and slowly walked toward his room.
“Wow,” Brandon muttered under his breath.
“Brandon?” Austin poked his head outside of the room.
“Your next camper is about to arrive. I think he needs some help.”
“How do you know he needs help?”
“It would be easier if you just read the note.”
“Too late to help now.”
BANG! A series of loud thuds reverberated throughout the stairwell.
“Patrick!” A woman’s voice echoed loudly. “Why did you do that? Think!”
“I hate my stupid suitcase. It’s stupid.”
“Your case isn’t stupid, Patrick. Just because something isn’t what you want it to be doesn’t mean it’s stupid.”
“I hate it!”
Brandon stepped into the stairwell as Patrick passed him empty-handed. His mother stood several steps down, holding a broken suitcase with one hand, trying to stuff clothes back into it with the other.
“Here, let me help, ma’am.”
“Thank you very much,” the middle-aged woman responded with a tired sigh. The two filled the suitcase, and Brandon carefully carried the broken case up to the hall and into Patrick’s room, where Patrick sat in the center of the floor, legs crossed and arms folded.
“This room sucks.”
Brandon hesitated for a moment in the doorway. “It’s the same as all the other rooms. It’ll look better when you get your sheets on and a fan blowing…”
“No it won’t.”
“Patrick,” his mother intervened, “you’re going to have a blast. Your dad and I are paying a lot of money for you to go here and learn your sports and make friends.”
“I hate sports. And friends.”
“Oh, that’s silly, Patrick. Of course you don’t hate your friends.”
“I hate ‘em.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? I do.”
“Because hate is a strong word.”
“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”
Brandon stepped over to the mother and son. “Patrick, we’ll have lots of fun this week, I guarantee it. It’s the fourth golden rule here: Have fun!”
Patrick glared at him. “Following rules isn’t fun. What a stupid rule!”
The kid has a point.
The woman sighed and touched Brandon’s shoulder. They took one last look at the sulking child and walked together into the hall.
“You should know…,” she began, whispering, “…Patrick has ADHD. But for this week we have upped his medication at breakfast and lunch. There’s a danger of some light depression with the medication, but you can get him to snap out of it with some encouragement. Please be patient with him.”
“I’ll do my best, ma’am.”
“Thank you. Good luck.”
The woman gave him a look of sympathy before turning to leave. As soon as she was out of sight, Brandon rubbed his throbbing temples.
“ADHD with depression, huh?” CJ stood down the hall, shaking his head at Brandon. “I feel for ya.”
Brandon looked down the hall to remind himself of the challenges he had in each of the rooms, and the situation began to overwhelm him. He let out a deep, frustrated sigh, put his arm against the wall, and slammed his forehead into it.
Brandon heard the unfamiliar boy’s voice and cringed. What would be wrong with this one? He reluctantly looked to his right through the open door. It was Greyson Gray and Liam Swank’s room.
Each boy sat in his bed across from the other, watching him with expectant eyes. Already, he began to calm. There was something about this boy with the red baseball cap that made him feel at ease.
“Hi…Greyson?” Brandon walked into the boy’s room.
“Yeah. And this is Liam. We just met.”
“H-h-hi,” Liam said shyly, avoiding eye contact and raising his hand for a timid wave.
Greyson arched one eyebrow. “He says he has a stuttering problem when he gets a little excited or nervous. And he says he’s pretty much always nervous.”
“Oh, yeah?” Brandon asked, looking at the freckled boy with buzzed blonde hair. “I have a little speech problem myself. Whenever I get around girls, I’ve been known to get kinda nervous and say things I don’t even understand.”
Liam smiled widely and giggled. “R-r-really?”
“Yeah. But most of them can see right through that and are flattered by the attention.”
Liam looked at his shoes and lost himself in thought for a few seconds.
Greyson nodded with a faint smile directed at Brandon. “Cool. You kinda seem like a good counselor already.”
Brandon’s face lifted and he hesitated for an awkward pause. “Yeah? Well, thanks, Greyson. It’s going to be a great week.”
The boy nodded. “We’re not doing anything. You need help or something?” Greyson asked with a shrug.
Liam jumped up, bright-eyed and eager to help.
“Well, alright. How about helping Patrick move in? Cheer him up a bit, huh?”
“Alright,” Greyson agreed, shifting his hat. “We got to be unified to beat Purple, right?”
“That’s right! Go Gold!”
Not far from the glittering golden letters of Bickford Hall, but well hidden from any prying eyes, a man’s thumb stroked the black barrel of his glistening shotgun, his fingers wrapped around the solid, mahogany pump. He sat in the dark, alone, but the arrays of flashing buttons on a control panel lit his pasty white, pockmarked skin in hues of green and red. He spoke in the empty room, as if to himself, but a small, wireless earphone that looped over his ear blinked methodically.
His calm, husky voice whispered. “You have the destination? Good. Then that is all we need. The storm should move in midweek. No more delay.”
He paused, listening to the response in his ear.
“There hasn’t been any suspicion.”
He propped his legs on the control panel next to the small security television. The tiny screen displayed the front entrance of Bickford Hall where boys and girls flooded in with uninhibited excitement. A moment later, the screen flickered and a silvery hallway appeared where two grizzly men armed with automatic rifles guarded a thick, metal door.
“Camp has begun. It should be no problem.”