Read a preview of chapter 1 of Comet Boy, the new young adult/middle-grade adventure from award-winning cartoonist Ed Stein.
Life isn’t fair.
That’s what Mom says every time she does something that’s totally unfair. Like grounding me for a whole month. Yeah, you heard that right. I’ve been grounded for an entire month! Locked up at home with nothing to do but homework and chores for four long weeks, thirty endless days. No getting together with friends after school, no playing football on the weekend, no fun of any kind. What horrible, awful, terrible thing did I do to deserve that? Oh, nothing much.
I just saved the entire planet is all.
Funny, I was grounded then, too, when it all started. That actually turned out to be a very good thing, not that I thought so at the time. I mean, you just never know what’s going to happen. If I hadn’t been in that exact place on that particular day at precisely that time, I wouldn’t have become the world-famous superhero who saved the Earth and everyone on it from a terrible fate.
But I didn’t know that then. What I knew then was that The Misfits were playing football in the park and I was stuck indoors while the perfect sunny September Saturday was slipping away.
Okay, I admit it was my own fault that I was grounded, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I got caught drawing in biology class when I was supposed to be taking notes. Mr. Scott was droning on about something or other when a brilliant idea for how to begin the story of The Dart, my newest and greatest cartoon creation, popped into my head.
See, the famous scientist Dr. Lepton is working in his lab when his amazing invention, the graviton machine, zaps him with a billion trillion volts of electro-gravitonic energy! The ceiling caves in, and he’s about to get crushed when an anti-graviton beam shoots from his fingers and lifts the whole roof away! He can control gravity! He finds he can make things super light or super heavy. He can even fly! He devotes his life from then on to fighting crime and helping mankind as the costumed superhero, The Dart.
Oh, this was good! It was really good, my best ever. It was genius! I needed to get it down on paper before I forgot it.
I’ve tried a million times to explain this to Mom and Dad, but they just don’t understand. When an idea pops into my head, I have to draw it. It doesn’t matter what else is happening at the time. It could be in the middle of an earthquake and my hand would still reach for a pen or a pencil and any piece of paper I could find. It’s like I don’t have a choice.
As soon as I start drawing, the whole rest of the world just goes away. The only thing real is what’s on the paper in front of me. I become part of the world I’m creating, which is almost always a whole lot more interesting than anything going on around me, which in this case was Mr. Scott’s insanely boring snoozer of a biology class. The last class of the day. Like, couldn’t the idea have waited for another lousy 20 minutes until the bell rang? But, no, it had come right then, and, of course, I had to draw it.
On about the third page I sensed that something wasn’t quite right. The room was too quiet, except for a few kids who were laughing. That was weird. Nobody ever dared to laugh in Mr. Scott’s class. And he was no longer speaking. I looked up to find him standing right next to my desk. He did not look happy.
He held out his hand.
“Mr. Green,” he said, “May I see what you’ve been working on so diligently during my lecture?”
Only Mr. Scott calls us by our last names. To every other teacher I’m Gabe.
He shuffled through the pages. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to congratulate me on the artistic brilliance of my drawings.
I was right.
“Let me guess. These are not the careful notes you’ve been taking of today’s discussion.”
“Uhh . . .”
“And would you mind telling the class what the rest of us have been talking about while you were otherwise engaged?”
“Uhhh . . .”
At least I was smart enough not to say, “Stupid boring biology stuff nobody cares about,” which is what I was thinking.
“And there will be a quiz on today’s lecture. Which would be — oh, let me think — on Monday.”
He handed my drawings back to me. “Good luck studying these.”
The rest of the period dragged on for what seemed like a month until the bell mercifully rang.
My brilliant art earned me a trip to the office after school, and a note for my parents to sign. And that earned me a weekend under house arrest.
At least I had the house to myself. Mom and Dad were at work and Ben, my big brother, was at football practice. And Dad didn’t exactly say that I couldn’t draw. My homework could wait.
I decided that Mr. Scott would make the perfect villain for The Dart to defeat. I was working so hard on the drawing of my hero foiling BiologyMan’s dastardly plot to brainwash kids and take over the world that I didn’t notice that the weather had changed.
There was a flash of lightning and then the hail started.
It was small, mostly sleet and a few larger pellets. It only lasted about ten seconds and melted almost immediately.
I had just turned back to my drawing when there was a loud crack and a little white ball rolled to a stop on the carpet.
One of the windows next to the fireplace had a nice big hole in it and pieces of broken glass lay on the rug. I bent down to examine the ball. At first I thought it was a golf ball; it was about the right size -- but then I realized it was ice.
Why is it that people always compare hail to the size of balls? Golf ball-sized hail fell on Hilltown today, while Valley View got baseball-sized hail. Bowling ball-sized hail demolished the Glendale Mall and Oakmont was wiped off the map by basketball-sized hail. Why not pearl-sized hail or cherry tomato-sized hail or ostrich egg-sized hail? Probably because the people who make these things up are people like my brother, guys whose imaginations only go as far as playing games with balls.
I bent down and picked up the hailstone. It was so cold I almost set it down, but then it began to glow. I was pretty sure that hail wasn’t supposed to do that. At first there was just a pale blue light coming from the center of the stone. Then I felt a weird little tingle in the palm of my hand. The tingle became a vibration, and the vibration turned into a buzz, then a sharp searing pain, which went up my arm all the way to the shoulder. My whole arm felt like it was on fire. I tried to drop the thing, but my fist was clamped tight around it.
I thought I was going to pass out when a blinding flash of blue light shot out from between my fingers.
The pain suddenly stopped. I sat there on the rug, shaking in terror, my shirt soaked with sweat, too scared to move. My hand was still clenched in a tight fist. I was afraid to open it, certain there would be a huge bloody gash in my palm.
When I finally calmed down a little and got up the courage to uncurl my fingers, there was no cut, no burn, no wound, no sign of what had just happened, only a faint blue glow that slowly vanished. All that was left of the hailstone was a single drop of water. A pleasant warmth spread slowly up my arm and down the whole length of my body all the way to my toes. I looked at my hand again. It looked perfectly normal, pink and healthy.
Gingerly I touched my finger to my palm, scared it would hurt, but it felt just fine. In fact, I felt fine. I mean, something totally weird and scary had just happened. A few seconds ago a crazy blue light had been burning through my hand and I’d been in terrible pain, but now I felt perfectly okay – no, better than okay – I felt great!
And hungry. I suddenly realized that I was starved. I’d never in my entire life been that hungry. I opened the fridge and scarfed down what was left of last night’s pizza in about three seconds. The remains of a tuna noodle casserole went next. It didn’t seem to matter that normally I’d starve to death rather than eat tuna noodle casserole. I even licked the bowl! When that was gone I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I remember that much, but after that I lost track. All I know is that when I was done there were no M&M’s, Goldfish or Graham crackers left and all the milk was gone.
• • •
I just had time to clean up the kitchen, take my drawing stuff upstairs and pretend to be doing homework before Mom and Dad got home. I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t notice the broken window.
No such luck. I explained about the hailstorm, but Dad wasn’t buying it.
“Gabriel, I want the truth, and I want it now,” Dad said, his eye fixed on the hole in the window. Dad only calls me Gabriel when he’s mad at me. Otherwise it’s Gabe.
“Dad, I told you the truth.”
“Right. A giant hail stone.”
“It wasn’t giant. It was just bigger than the rest.”
“You were grounded for the weekend. The only thing you were allowed to do was stay in the house and do your homework.”
“And that’s what I was doing!” I protested. Okay, not exactly the truth — I was drawing The Dart — but I figured I’d have plenty of time to finish my homework on Sunday.
“Gabriel, I don’t know what’s gotten into you all of a sudden. Your Mom and I come home and find you’ve broken a window. And just yesterday you got sent home with a note from the principal for fooling around in class.”
“This isn’t like you, Gabe,” Mom chimed in.
“I wasn’t fooling around. I was working on my...”
“Drawing cartoons in biology class is not what I’d call working,” Dad growled.
Drawing is what I do! It’s who I am. I’m not going to be a biologist. I’m going to be a famous comic book artist. When The Dart sells a zillion copies nobody is going to care if I know which stupid phylum which dumb plant belongs to. Of course, I didn’t dare say that out loud.
“I know I shouldn’t have been drawing in his class, but biology is so boring, and Mr. Scott is just so — there’s just something creepy about that guy — everybody hates him. I’ve been in his class for a week and it feels like a whole year!”
“I don’t care,” Mom said. “He’s your teacher.”
“And about the window,” Dad went on, “I was downtown. There was no hailstorm downtown.”
“And no hail at the market, either,” Mom added, “which is less than two miles from here.”
“And if there was hail big enough to break the window,” Dad went on, “there’d be other damage, too. Dents in the gutters, leaves off of trees, the roses damaged. But there’s nothing.”
“There was just this little storm,” I protested. “with teensy little gravel-sized hail that lasted maybe a minute and then melted right away. Then there was this one crazy hailstone. It was like a million-to-one shot right through that little window. That really, really is the truth!”
I could tell from the look on their faces that they didn’t believe me. I didn’t dare tell them about the tingling and the buzzing and the pain and the flash of blue light and the glowing ice that melted in my hand.
“Okay, I tried,” Dad sighed. “We’ve always trusted you and you’ve never given your Mom and me any reason to doubt you. But this makes me wonder if anything you’ve been telling us lately is the truth.”
Just then my brother Ben walked into the room.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Mom said. “Just having a little chat with your brother..”
Yeah, right. Just a nice friendly little Inquisition.
“You’re home early, Dad said. “How was practice?”
“It was weird. It was sunny and all of a sudden it hailed for like a minute and then it stopped. But the field was wet so we ended a little early.”
Dad and Mom looked at each other. Then Mom went into the kitchen and Dad sat down on the sofa, turned on the TV and said,
“Well, I guess we’re done here.”
• • •
That night I dreamed I could fly.
That wasn’t unusual; I often dreamed of flying. In one of those dreams I drank from a little green bottle I found somewhere and suddenly found my feet lifting off the ground. One night I dreamed there was a moldy old manuscript inside a book in the school library that explained the secret of flight, something so simple it amazed me that I’d never figured it out before. In another dream an old man wearing a big hat with an eagle feather in it taught me the magic words that let me soar above the rooftops.
But the dream I had this night was different from all the others. It was so real I could feel the wind in my hair, the breeze ruffling my shirt, the sun warming the back of my neck. Every detail, every color, every sound and smell was more vivid than anything I’d experienced before.
I was standing on the hill behind my school, the one with the big water tower at the top. The word HILLDALE was painted on it in big letters, just above the spray-painted “Seniors ‘07” that had been there for years. The bricks in the school building below me were a brilliant orange-red, the blades of grass under my feet were a vibrant green. The sky was an electric blue.
I turned to face the wind.
And then I was in the air. My toes felt for the ground, but I’d already left it. I didn’t try to do anything other than hang there high above the hill, but, unlike in any of the other dreams, I actually felt what it was like to fly, in every inch, every muscle, every cell of my body. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, except that I wasn’t just flying, I was making myself fly. It was glorious. I never wanted it to stop.
Then I woke up.