One of the only places where Luke found he could relax was the improvised park across the street. Mr. Branson, the owner of the barbershop beside the park, kept most riffraff away, so the new street boys didn’t come around while his store was open and even Danny Preston couldn’t follow Luke this far from school. Occasionally Luke’s father would see him through the living-room window and come out to sit with him. He seemed to laugh and smile more at the park, and when he didn’t come out, Luke could lean against the oak tree and lose himself in the pages of a book. Everything seemed calmer under the tree; even the sound of the passing cars seemed quieter. Luke walked across the street and sat against the tree often enough to have worn a bare patch in the grass, and after an afternoon of heart-racing hide-and-seek with Danny and with his father engrossed in the want-ad section of the paper, this is where he found himself one day a couple of weeks before school let out for summer. Orange light filtered down on him through the branches of the oak tree. He untucked his red polo shirt from his jeans and leaned back, resting his head on the grass. Sunlight faded above the brick building next to the park, and lights appeared in the windows of buildings across the street. Sweat plastered his rust-brown hair to his forehead. The honk of horns and the rumble of engines melted into the background, and streetlamps flickered to life as darkness descended on the empty lot.
It’s gotta be some cruel joke to still be in school on the first day of summer. Luke glanced across the street at lights shining from sliding windows of his living room. Shadows walked back and forth behind the drapes. He sighed and glanced up at the few twinkling lights overhead. I wish Dad would come outside. They hadn’t looked at stars since his father lost his job last winter, not that you could see many in the city anyway. A hot breeze swirled through the lot, rustling the leaves and the grass. Luke’s eyes scanned the sky and picked out three stars lined up side by side.
Orion. He smiled and his eyes darted to other parts of the sky with brighter stars. A wren flitted through the air and disappeared in the leaves of the oak tree. Chirp … chirp …
A chorus of chirps and flapping wings greeted the bird behind the leaves. Visible just above his townhome building, a red light twinkled to the north.
Airplane … Luke looked to the east. Now, where is Taurus? He glanced back to the north. The red light brightened and dimmed, but it didn’t move. That’s not an airplane. Luke propped himself on his elbows. A gust of wind made him shiver, and he swallowed and sat up, pulling his knees to his chest. His breath fogged in front of his face. Goose bumps raced up his arms, and he rose to his feet. The red light appeared as twice the size of anything around it.
A voice that sounded like air escaping from a tire hissed around him, and he whirled around. The back of the lot was empty save for the swing set and the stone arch in front of the crumbling brick wall.
Luke’s teeth chattered. A black mist drifted across the entrance to the lot like clouds slipping in front of the moon. He stepped back as the darkness blotted out the building lights across the street, then the streetlights, then the stars overhead. The sounds of birds and cars became muted, as if he had cotton balls in his ears, then vanished altogether. All around him the mist slithered over objects, swallowing a bench and a trash can. A pair of red circles glowed to life in the center of the darkness. A head formed around the orbs, then a neck and a body below it. The form of a man took shape before him, a black suit hanging over his frame, tan hands protruding from the sleeves and crossed at the waist. He gazed down at Luke with ember-red eyes and flashed a smile from under the brim of a black cordobes.
“Ah, Luke, I have waited so long to speak with you.”
Luke swallowed and slipped a foot toward the rear wall of the lot. “Who … who are you?” His eyes darted left and right. Blackness engulfed everything but the bubble surrounding him and the man standing opposite.
“I have quite a few names. I think Saul should fit nicely here.”
Gotta find a way out of here!
Saul chuckled. “I am not holding you here, Luke. You may leave whenever you wish.” The man waved his hand and a window appeared in the mist, showing the streetlights and apartments across the road. He dropped his arm and the opening faded away. “This”—he gestured toward the mist—“is merely to give us some privacy.”
Luke swallowed and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “I kinda like seeing the rest of the world.”
The corner of Saul’s mouth twitched. “I will take only a minute more of your time, Luke. I don’t have long tonight as it is. Events are fast approaching that you will not understand, but soon you must make a choice.”
Luke squinted at him warily. “A choice.”
The man nodded. “Yes, you must pick between two paths. It is a decision that millions have made before you, but yours is, shall we say, unique.” His smile fading, he leaned forward.
Luke’s heartbeat pounded in his ears.
“For your decision will affect not only yourself but the fate of the world.”
“The world? … How?”
The man glanced over Luke’s shoulder and frowned. “I do not have time tonight to answer all your questions, Luke.” Smiling sadly, he fixed his gaze back on Luke. “I would save you from this choice if I could. I have tried. But it is a choice you must make on your own. No one else can do it for you. I will help you as much as you will allow and guide you as time passes, but the choice is still yours alone.”
Luke blinked. “Why? Why me, and why is this so important?”
The man scowled. “Because, Luke Rayburn, unlike any mortal before you, your choice will decide for the world between slavery and war, or freedom and peace. I must go, but I will leave you with two things. First, help. You will soon travel to a place that contains something, something that will help you make your choice, and that may help save this world.”
“Go? Go where? Why?”
“Where is unimportant. The object is what you must focus on. It is a book, a very ancient book. It contains information that has been hidden for ages, hidden from all others, but not to you.”
“I know this is overwhelming,” Saul said, “but you must trust me for now. Luke, there are many others who want this book and what it contains … and you because of it.” His eyes narrowed. “You must not let them get it, or you. I—we need this book.”
Luke opened his mouth, but the man grimaced and spoke first.
“Luke, I must go. If you will allow, I will leave you with a glimpse of your choice to come.” He stretched out an arm.
“No!” Luke said, backing away.
The figure flickered as it stepped forward, dissipating into mist and then materializing again. The face of the man contorted and he doubled over. “Just one touch, Luuuukkke.”
Luke stepped back. “Hel—umfh!” His foot caught on a root and he fell backward. His back hit the ground and air rushed from his lungs. Gasping for air, he rolled onto his hands and knees. Unimaginable blackness surrounded him, and moisture froze on his skin.
Luke crawled blindly forward, searching in front of him with his hands.
I’m here, Luke.
Warmth flooded over him as his hand slapped down onto something soft and malleable. He coughed as the air cleared and saw that his hand rested on the toe of a pair of brown boots inches from his face. He glanced up and saw a green glow as tendrils of darkness snaked back around his face.
I’m here, Luke. Trust me, I will protect you.
The voice sounded in his head again as white light exploded around him. He covered his eyes with his hands and buried his face in the grass. He cringed as a hot breeze blew up his shirtsleeves. The rumble of engines sounded from the street, and voices carried around the corner from the barbershop. Luke opened one eye, then the other. He stood and turned in a circle. The lot was empty. He whipped his head behind him and back again. Nothing. Just the brick wall to the rear and the open street to the front.
The leaves of the oak tree rustled in the wind.
“Hello?” What was that? I know there was someone here.
Luke ran around the trunk of the oak tree. The green bench sat against the east wall. Fluorescent light filtered down from above as the wind pushed a crumpled piece of paper along the sidewalk. He was alone.
Do you really want to find anyone anyway? He shook his head and stepped onto the sidewalk. Why can’t I just have a normal, calm life? Something is going on around here. Something’s wrong, and I bet Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma know about it.
As he crossed the street, he looked at the night sky. The red star glared down at him, unmoving.
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