Date Published: 08-10-2021
Publisher: Cinnabar Moth
Though he doesn’t know it, Marcus Talent is special. Unfortunately for Marcus, he discovers this unexpectedly when he wakes up in an unfamiliar forest, has his prosthetic arm eaten by a horrifying monster, and then wakes up in his own bed, terrified and bleeding.
Marcus’s dad, Deacon, has answers. He heals Marcus’s new injuries, promising to answer all of Marcus’s questions about what happened the next day after school. But when Marcus gets home, he finds his dad missing and a ransom note appears out of a screaming hole in the sky. The only demand: travel again to get him back.
Helped by his human friends, Marcus sets out to find his dad in a world filled with creatures he couldn’t have imagined. Some of them are friendly. Some of them want to murder him. Or each other. They’re not picky. And everyone seems to know of his famous father, who has been hiding a lot more than an entire other world.
Marcus Talent stretched slowly as he woke. He opened his
Marcus looked toward the desk near his bed, loose dark curls tumbling into his eyes. Impatiently, he shook the hair away. Why hadn’t his phone gone off?
He sat up, reached to his left to grab the cane leaning against the wall nearby, and pushed himself to his feet with a grunt. The phone’s black screen on the desk made it obvious why the alarm hadn’t gone off. He’d tossed it on the desk last night instead of placing it on its charging pad.
What time was it? His mom hadn’t come to wake him yet, so hopefully he wasn’t too late; getting ready took him longer than most sixteen-year-old boys. No time for a shower this morning.
He pulled on a Black Panther t-shirt and grabbed his prosthetic arm. He’d used one since the accident when he was nine years old.
These days it only took a minute to put on his myoelectric prosthesis. He’d forgotten to charge his phone, but at least he’d remembered to charge his arm; he had a body-powered version but didn’t like wearing its necessary harness, and it didn’t mimic his hand and skin very well.
Marcus sat to put on the rest of his clothes. Four back surgeries in the years since the accident had restored some of his ability to bend, but the pain from doing so was still severe.
He almost tripped on the way down the hall because he was in such a hurry. Not knowing the time made him anxious. He wanted enough time to enjoy his breakfast.
“Oh, by the way, Marcus,” his mom said as he entered the kitchen, “I forgot to grab bacon at the store yesterday, so it’s just pancakes today.” He looked at the clock. He still had twenty minutes before the bus.
“Ugh, Mom, bacon is half the reason I look forward to breakfast.”
“I know, Marcus, and I’m sorry. You’ll have to eat your pancakes without bacon today.” She set his plate on the table, then reached up and tenderly seized his face in her strong hands.
Marcus realized consciously for the first time that he was taller than his mom. He shared her hazel eyes, brown skin, and black hair, but got his curls from his dad, and his scars were on his torso rather than on his face. His mom gave his face another squeeze and kissed him on the cheek before letting him go.
The missing bacon was a disappointment, but at least his mom made the best pancakes anywhere. He’d rather eat her fluffy, buttery pancakes any day than go out to a restaurant. He ate the pancakes slowly, showing her he appreciated them despite complaining about the bacon.
When the time for the bus was close, Marcus couldn’t find his science homework. He was positive he’d left it lying on the desk in his room after finishing it the night before, but he had to abandon it and hurry out the door to catch the bus, almost late. The driver would wait for him, but only for so long.
Marcus eased into an open seat halfway back, grimacing in pain. He dug through his backpack. Maybe he had slipped his science homework into the bag and then forgotten. The bag was stuffed full of papers, and he tried pulling them up one at a time to look. When that failed, he set the backpack on the seat next to him to make the search easier. It tipped over before he could catch it. Papers slid out of the open bag, some sliding across the floor to the other side of the bus, some falling to the floor beneath him. Giggles and muffled chuckles erupted around him as other kids noticed his plight.
His face burning with embarrassment, Marcus squatted carefully in front of his seat and picked up all the papers he could reach. His back burned in pain as he reached to grab some from the floor. A couple kids in the seat in front of him passed back the ones that had slid all the way up there, and a new girl in the seat across from him grabbed the papers from the aisle and those that had slid further over her way. She had a pretty, round face with olive skin and long, dark, wavy hair.
“Thanks,” he muttered, taking the papers from her with his left hand.
“Sure,” the girl said. “It sucks when that happens. You saving all that stuff for something?”
Marcus laughed. “I was just asking myself that question.”
“I’m Sadie,” she said. “I just moved here.”
“Marcus,” he said. “What an embarrassing way to meet the new girl.”
“Don’t worry about it. What grade are you in?” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and slid into the seat beside him.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m a freshman.”
“Oh. So, where did you move here from?”
“You’re not serious.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Is my English too good?” she laughed, but he sensed he had hurt her feelings.
“No, not at all. I don’t think like that. It just seems like such a long way away and - aren’t the schools better there?”
She seemed to relax as she chuckled. “I think they might be, actually, but my dad is American military and was just reassigned to the base here.”
“Oh, that makes sense. That has to be kind of difficult – always moving around.”
Sadie smiled. “It can be. But I find that I meet the most interesting people moving from place to place. It’s hard to make new friends and then leave them behind all the time.”
“I think it would be hard – at least for me. I’ve gone to school here all my life and the kids are still hard to deal with.” Marcus indicated his cane and his right arm.
“Can I ask – what happened? Or is that terrible of me?”
fine, don’t worry,” he said. “It was a car accident. My mom was driving me home
from a school program when I was nine, and we were hit by a drunk driver. The
car hit us on my side in the front. My right forearm was crushed. I’ve had four
surgeries on my back, including two fusions. Some of the bones that are fused
in place didn’t give or grow right. It makes it difficult to walk, and hurts
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” Sadie exclaimed. “What about your mom, was she hurt too?”
“She was burned on her face and right arm. She’s had to have several skin graft surgeries.”
“So, what happened to the drunk driver?”
Marcus looked down at his hands, squeezing the fingers of his prosthesis with the fingers of his left hand. “He, um… he died. His airbag didn’t go off and he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.”
“I’m so sorry, Marcus. It sounds awful. How are you doing now?”
He looked up to see that Sadie was looking him right in the face, not staring at his prosthesis, or the cane leaning against the seat next to him. She made him feel better than anyone had, other than his one best friend, for a long time.
“I’m doing okay. I used a wheelchair for a long time, but I had a lot of physical therapy, and I can walk now with a cane. If I want to go somewhere that I would have to walk really long distances, I still have to use the wheelchair. I’m so used to my arm now it’s not a big deal – other than phantom pain and itching.”
Sadie’s eyes widened. “What is that?”
Marcus laughed. “It just means that sometimes I still feel pain or itching in the hand and part of my arm that isn’t there anymore.”
“What can you do when that happens? You can’t scratch your parts that aren’t there anymore!”
“Sometimes it helps if I rub or scratch the same area on the other side. Sometimes I just have to distract myself. My back pain is actually much worse than my arm. Even with all the surgeries, it still hurts all the time. I’m glad I don’t need the wheelchair all the time now, but sometimes my back hurts so much I wish I had the chair when I don’t feel like I can walk anymore.”
“You’ve really had a rough time of things, haven’t you?” Sadie said.
“Please don’t do that,” Marcus said.
“Do what?” Sadie sounded confused.
“Don’t pity me. Everyone who isn’t mean to me treats me with pity.”
“I’d never do that,” Sadie said. “I’m just saying that life has been rough for you. It can’t be easy to concentrate on homework and teachers’ lectures and other students’ babbling when half your mind is feeling pain.”
“I don’t think anyone has ever explained it like that,” Marcus replied. “But it’s dead-on how I feel every day. Oh, man, we’re here.” The bus was pulling up to the two-story brick school building while kids piled out of buses that had already arrived.
“Hey, I’m glad I met you,” Sadie said. “Great first friend!”
“Yeah,” Marcus said as they made their way off the bus. “Maybe I’ll see you at lunch.” Sadie waved as she ran ahead to join the crowds entering the school.
Marcus waited by his locker for Leopold, his best friend. The two boys had been close since kindergarten. After the accident, being best friends with the blond, blue-eyed boy with the easy laugh had definitely made life a little easier for Marcus. Leopold had visited every day while Marcus recuperated, even when Marcus didn’t want to see him. During the first difficult days back at school, Leopold had been by his side. Leopold was often the loud center of attention against Marcus’s quieter personality. That didn’t matter. They were best friends no matter what their differences were.
hadn’t shown up after fifteen minutes
Throughout the morning, Marcus looked for Leopold. Leopold wasn’t in third period English, the only class they had together.
Lunch was Italian Dunkers, a fancy name for dry breadsticks and tasteless tomato sauce. It was the lunch Marcus disliked the most. Usually, he’d complain to Leopold about how horrible it was to expect kids to eat unhealthy bread and tomato sauce for lunch, but today he stood silently in line, sliding his tray along to accept his food. Once he was through the line, he turned toward the tables, tucked his cane under his right arm and carried the tray with his left hand. Walking without his cane was difficult and painful, but sometimes necessary.
Marcus had become used to having Leopold there to carry things for him. He put the tray down and worked his way into the chair. Leaning his cane against the table, he looked around for Sadie but didn’t see her. She must have ended up with the second lunch period. He’d be sitting alone today, which was his usual situation without Leopold since the other kids at school avoided him, if they weren’t making fun of him.
The breadsticks were even drier than usual, and the tomato sauce even more bland. After forcing them down with some milk, Marcus got up to leave the cafeteria.
As he was heading to drop his tray off, he saw Sadie with some other freshmen walk in the door just ahead of him. At that exact moment Jamie and Thomas, two of the popular kids in his grade, walked past. Marcus was hanging back waiting for Sadie to leave the cafeteria. He was a little embarrassed about the food he hadn’t eaten.
One of the boys in his grade knocked the tray from Marcus’s hands, spraying tomato sauce across the floor and Marcus’s jeans and shoes.
Sadie noticed. Marcus was left staring down at the mess in embarrassment, knowing he couldn’t even clean it up.
One of the cafeteria workers attempted to wipe as much sauce as she could from his clothes and shoes, and Sadie walked over. She picked up the tray and returned it, then followed him when he left the cafeteria.
“Does that happen a lot?” she asked.
“Not really. I’m guessing today just looked like a good opportunity to them because Leopold isn’t here, and they felt like they had an audience.”
“My best friend. Usually, we eat together at lunch. Leopold’s pretty loud, and he’s not afraid of taking on anyone – not that he fights physically, or anything.”
Sadie laughed. Marcus realized he was becoming used to the sound of that laugh, which wasn’t a regular thing for him, outside of his friendship with Leopold. He liked it.
“You should go back and eat, though. I’m just going to grab my books and head to my next class. It’ll take me a while,” Marcus said.
“Are you sure?” Sadie asked. “I can stay with you.”
“No, I’ll be fine. You go ahead.”
“Okay, if you’re sure. I am hungry,” she said.
“Thanks for your help back there,” Marcus said. “I really appreciate it. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Back atcha,” she said, pointing at him as she dashed away down the hall.
The rest of the afternoon dragged by. Hunger made it hard to concentrate. His science teacher didn’t care that he had really done his homework, and there was a pop quiz in math that Marcus got a D on.
At last, it was time to go home. Marcus took a seat on the bus with relief and stared out the window. Someone sat down beside him. He turned to find Sadie there.
“Hi!” she said. “What a day, huh?”
“Tell me about it. At least it’s over. Although it wasn’t all bad,” he stammered quickly, so she wouldn’t think he regretted meeting her.
“Did you ever sort out that mess in your backpack?”
Marcus laughed. “Yeah, actually I did. I don’t know why I had all that stuff in there, it was almost all garbage. Just a book and some homework in there now,” he said, patting the bag beside him.
They talked. She told him about her friends in Korea and taught him a few words of Korean. He marveled at the sound of her laugh and the way her eyes lit up as she talked. Why had it taken someone coming from all the way across the world for him to finally feel seen?
When the bus slowed at his stop, he felt glum.
“Do you have your phone?” Sadie asked. “I can give you my number.”
“I don’t have it today, I forgot to charge it last night.”
“Give me your number, and I’ll just put in my phone.”
Marcus rattled off his number quickly as she stood to let him out. He grabbed his cane, shifted his backpack onto his back, and said, “Bye. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Marcus hoped the good end to his school day meant he would find something positive waiting for him inside.
His mom came out of the kitchen to meet him, wearing an apron over a t-shirt and jeans. At first, he was hopeful this meant she was preparing a wonderful dinner to fill up on after his long, hungry day.
“Hi, son. Get your homework done before supper, because Derek and Gina are coming over.”
Marcus was filled with dread. Derek was his uncle, and Gina was Derek’s new girlfriend. While Marcus was always happy to see his uncle, Derek’s favorite food was liver and onions, and Marcus’s mom often cooked it when he visited.
“Please tell me we aren’t having – “
“Sorry Marcus, I love to make my baby brother’s favorite supper, you know that.” She tried to sound sorry, but it was clear from the slight smile on her face that she didn’t really feel that bad.
“Probably should have seen it coming,” Marcus muttered to himself as he walked down the hall to his room. It seemed so much worse since he was hungry from not eating much at lunch.
“Hey mom!” Marcus called down the hall. “How about a snack?”
“No, I don’t want you to ruin your supper!” she called back.
Marcus collapsed onto his bed. If he told her he was hungry because he hadn’t eaten lunch, he’d just get a lecture about not eating lunch. This day just wouldn’t end. If only he could just go to sleep and be done with it.
He peeled himself off his bed and grabbed his backpack to do his
“Argh!” he yelled. What else could go wrong? The cut wasn’t
bleeding a lot but hurt as much as a bee sting.
He texted back. Me too.
See you on the bus!
He sent a smiley emoji, saved her number in his contacts, and turned back to his homework.
His math homework was long but not difficult. He had just finished when his mom called him for supper.
As he made his way down the hall, Marcus heard the happy sound of his father’s booming voice. His parents, his uncle Derek, and Gina were sitting at the kitchen table waiting for him. His father, Deacon, was sitting in his usual place at the end of the table saying something to Derek, who was laughing hard. Marcus’s uncle looked just like his mom. His girlfriend, Gina, had wild curly blonde hair, white skin, and startlingly golden eyes. In fact, Marcus noticed as he sat down, those golden eyes were looking at him right now. She winked at him, then looked away. Weird, thought Marcus.
Marcus’s father was a big man, taking up most of the end of the table. He was still dressed in his work clothes: a blue dress shirt with blue and silver patterned tie, which had been loosened and his top button undone. His skin was very pale but covered in red freckles. His light blue eyes stood out in his colorful face. Marcus loved his dad but was glad he hadn’t gotten the man’s freckles.
His mom stood up and kissed his dad on the cheek, laughing. She wiped a little lipstick off his face where it had smeared. She put the platter of liver on the table and sat down. “Dig in, everyone!” she said.
“Kate, this looks and smells amazing,” Gina said, using her fork to slide a piece of liver onto her plate.
“Yes, it does,” added Derek. “My big sis is the only one who can cook it the same way that Mom did.”
“So, Gina, what do you do?” Marcus’s mom asked as she held out the plate of liver to him with a pointed look. He groaned and took the smallest piece he could find, avoiding any of the onions.
“I work in fashion photography, but I’m hoping to become a designer someday,” Gina answered. She was looking at Marcus while she answered the question. What the heck? He looked over at his mom to see if she noticed, but she was grabbing the vegetable bowl and passing it his way.
To his dismay, not only were they having liver and onions, but his mom had cooked green beans, the vegetable he hated the most. He scooped as little as he thought he could get away with onto his plate and passed the bowl to Gina. She took it, grabbing his hand along with the bowl. He pulled his hand away, wondering what she was doing.
Once she had served herself, she turned and started chatting with his mom.
“Can I get the ketchup?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, Marcus, you can make your liver taste terrible by putting ketchup on it,” his dad chuckled. Then he turned to Derek again and asked something about Derek’s job. Derek was a freelance journalist, and Marcus knew his dad was fascinated by the stories Derek got to track down. His uncle had even been embedded with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marcus got the ketchup from the refrigerator and squeezed it onto the liver on his plate until all he could see was a ketchup covered lump.
Then he ate the green beans first, because as bad as they tasted warm, they tasted far worse cold. He knew his parents would make him eat them before he would be allowed to leave the table. After each mouthful, he quickly took a drink of milk to help swallow it. A couple of times, as he raised his glass to his mouth, he saw Gina looking at him.
Finally, he turned his attention to the dreaded liver. He had put enough ketchup on it that mostly he tasted ketchup with each bite, but it was still hard to chew and swallow. It was challenging for him to cut the meat one-handed, but he had gotten proficient at it with his parents’ insistence. Still, it slowed him down enough that with the addition of the ketchup, his liver had turned cold before he was done eating it. By the time he was finished, he felt like he had just fought an epic battle like something out of Lord of the Rings.
His parents, Derek, and Gina were talking and laughing, but Marcus was so tired after his long day that he didn’t even feel like being part of the conversation, which he hadn’t heard while focusing on eating. He also wanted to get away from Gina and her weird behavior.
“Can I be excused?” Marcus asked.
“Of course,” his father said, but gave Marcus a funny look.
When he was in his room, Marcus changed into his shorts and t-shirt. He lay on his bed on his belly and sighed. He didn’t feel like messing around on his computer, playing any video games, or anything.
His dad knocked on the door. “Can I come in, Son?”
“Sure, Dad.” His dad came in and sat on the edge of Marcus’s bed. “What’s going on? I can tell something’s bothering you.”
Marcus turned his head so the upper half of his face was covered by his pillow. “Nothing’s really wrong. I’ve just had a long day,” he said, his voice somewhat muffled by the comforter.
He felt his dad put a hand on his back. “Let’s talk about that. What kinds of things have happened to you today?” His father’s hand felt warm and heavy, or maybe it was just the weight of the day.
“Just - one of those days where things kept going wrong. Like, my alarm didn’t go off this morning, so I was running late. I dumped my backpack all over the floor on the bus, so this new girl ended up helping me pick up papers that scattered everywhere.”
“Whoa, hold up. New girl? That doesn’t sound like such bad luck to me,” Marcus’s dad chuckled.
“Well, you know, I guess that wasn’t the bad part of it. Sadie’s really nice.” Marcus rolled over and looked up at his dad, the grin on his face making him feel a little foolish.
“Oh, Sadie,” Deacon said. “Is that her name?”
Marcus felt his face getting hot. “C’mon, Dad…”
“I’m glad your whole day wasn’t terrible, Marcus. “
Marcus felt a little better. He was also very tired. He sat up and gave his dad a big hug.
Deacon hugged him back, then held his son’s chin. “Lord, but you look like your mother. Getting so tall, too.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Marcus said. “I’m so tired. I know it’s early, but I think I’m going to get some sleep.”
“That’s a good idea, but you do still have to brush your teeth first!” His dad laughed as he walked out of Marcus’s bedroom.
By the time Marcus got back from his bathroom, he could hardly keep his eyes open. He slid between his sheets and curled up with his pillow. In seconds, he was asleep.
About the Author
Cynthia McDonald is the author of Life is a Terminal Illness and Drōmfrangil (Autumn 2021 from Cinnabar Moth Publishing) as well as a childhood memoir, two American history books, and the “I See Your Hearts” blog.
Cynthia was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1972. She spent her early adulthood raising two sons with her husband and then, after returning to college, enjoyed a fulfilling career as a Respiratory Therapist and a Respiratory Supervisor. This included several years of volunteer work on the Wisconsin state respiratory board, which concluded with a term as the President of the board.
She started writing in her forties, after the diagnosis of a low-grade cancerous brain tumor forced her to stop working outside of her home. Cynthia has also lived with disability throughout her adult life, as advancing degenerative disk disease and multiple surgeries have caused her to live with chronic pain and made it difficult for her to remain involved in activities outside of her home.
She and her husband recently moved to Oregon to be closer to her oldest son and his family, including her beloved grandson, whose toddler years are adding a lot of delight to her life! Her two German Shorthairs are also a big part of her family, as dogs always have been.
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