Jericho was a strange but predictable town where people went crazy trying not to upset anyone. They lived by the clock and clung to dull routines which gave them a sense of safety and security. The rows of square lawns, white picket fences, and brown-gray cookie cutter houses that adorned most neighborhoods gave proof of their devotion to tradition. Most folks preferred old, boring ways to new creative ones. Some forms of creativity had even been outlawed, including a special brand of comic book with colorful pictures and speech balloons that anyone could read and understand. If you got caught with one, you could get sent to jail.
Twelve-year-old Pete Plain knew such comic books spelled trouble, and he wasn’t the sort of boy to risk prison over one. Too well-behaved to break a rule at school or start a fight, he wanted only a calm and peaceful life.
He didn’t look for trouble, but it found him. Before the comic book touched his hands, he felt the danger, but its mysterious powers drew him in and left him hungering for more. His best friend snatched it from him, though, fearful of what Pete had done.
The comic book had taken Pete on a fantastic adventure. He couldn’t rest until he got it back.
His mind drifted back to the morning’s strange events, beginning with the voice he heard inside his head when he woke up.
“Loser!” it kept calling him “You’re such a loser!”
Pete covered his ears and moaned. “Leave me alone.”
At once, a ray of sunlight streamed through his bedroom window, filling the room with warmth. He heard a click.
Pete’s eyes shot open. At the door, he saw a heart-shaped face framed with tight, brown curls.
His mother’s blue eyes twinkled. “Time to get up and get educated.” She smoothed a wrinkle from her beige business suit, turned, and headed downstairs.
Pete yawned as he threw off his covers. “School is overrated. There should be a law against it.”
Pete hated school because he was shorter than his classmates and his teachers only taught dry facts, not useful skills such as how to handle bullies or get his parents to buy him a dog. The books he had to read were so boring, he took half an hour to muddle through one page. He never won a group game, and in nearly every subject – English, science, music, and even physical education – he made only average marks. He was so bad at sports he thought for sure he’d win the super flop prize, but Jimmy Crutchton limped away with that, making Pete feel like a real loser.
He stepped out of bed when something brushed up against his legs, causing him to trip and bang his right knee.
“Ow! How did I get such bad luck?”
Pete hobbled to a heap of clothes stacked on his closet floor and pulled out a drawing he had made of a wrinkle-faced elderly lady, his mean sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Fischer. She wore a tattered dress and held a long red pen which radiated Fs and Xs. It was pointed at the backs of two unsuspecting kids.
“Jack’s teacher is so much nicer. I wish I could be in her class,” Pete mumbled. He also wished his elementary school only went up to fifth grade. Then he’d be in middle school, and he’d have Mrs. Fischer for only one subject. But that wasn’t how things worked in Jericho.
The face Pete put on his teacher appeared fairly lifelike, but most people in Jericho might consider it too creative – not due to its bold colors, but because he drew it freehand instead of following the black-and-white rules in his art book. Pete’s artistic approach to subjects earned him a few minuses, which lowered both his grades and his confidence.
Pete placed the picture on a shelf at the top of his closet. Then, he plucked a pair of ragged blue jeans from his clothes pile, along with a red-collared shirt, and mismatched socks. He got dressed, walked to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, then grabbed his comb from the sink and ran it through his thick brown hair.
One stroke, two, and then three. In the mirror, he saw a shadowy blur pop up behind him.
Pete wheeled to face it, but all he saw was wallpaper – blue and yellow fish swimming in a brownish-gray sea. A twinge of fear raced through his veins, but he shrugged it off.
He must have imagined it.
He ran the comb through his hair a couple more times. As he set the comb down, he saw another shadow appear in the mirror. It rushed by in a hazy blur and vanished in a wisp of black smoke. Pete rubbed his eyes. That was weird.
He glanced at the bathroom curtains, wondering if a breeze had stirred them, creating a shadow. But the window was closed, and the curtains were still.
“It’s probably just nerves, so don’t worry,” Pete told himself, trying to be brave.