Chapter 1: A boy named Zak realizes that he doesn't fit in anywhere.
| Anyone from outside the city of Vazee would have taken one look at Zak Tomson and asked if he felt sick or if he had some kind of disorder. It was two and a half hours after sunrise on a Saturday and the boy had risen of his own will to start his workout. Of course, he really had no choice in the matter. What with school and homework, caltrop practice and guitar practices and performances, the skinny boy of 12 had very little time left during which he could condition his body. His calf muscles strained against foot pedals of an exercise machine. This contraption was attached to weighted rings, which he lifted one last time before letting them clatter to the floor. No amount of willpower or bodily strength remained in his body, as he lay on the padded bench a moment to recuperate.
As silence consumed the world around him, the boy’s brain buzzed with bits of yesterday’s conversations. He imagined his instructor, Joda, frowning in disappointment as he commented on Zak’s speed. The muscular man furrowed his brow after watching the rest of the caltrop team easily tackle him because his arms and legs were weaker. Before he could escape to the sanctuary home offered him, the coach had stopped in his way, towering over him and lecturing him about getting into shape. He had said that faster and stronger boys would forever dominate the game and that his team would not be dominated. Maybe pressure was what he needed, he now told himself; perhaps if he made enough of an effort, respect would find him.
Children were taught at a young age that caltrop, the city’s specialty, was a sport centered on the belief that speed was of utmost importance. Half of the runners on each team fought their way around the other team’s defenders in order to capture five balls. Each of these was guarded by one player (hence the name of the game, meaning a military device for delaying the enemy’s approach). Tackling was the only way to stop someone from stealing a ball, capture the other team once they crossed into enemy territory or steal the ball from a guard yourself. Zak was secretly convinced that speed was not as important as strategy in this game, however anyone he presented his theory to immediately shot him down. They scolded him, saying a novice like himself knew nothing of the sport. He had to wonder now if the aches in his calves and his triceps and his lack of sleeping hours were too high a price to pay for their listening ears.
Slowly and painfully, the boy put away the weights he had used. The shirt on his back stank slightly of sweat and would need to be changed before breakfast. Sore feet carried him automatically to the bedchamber next to his parents’, moving silently from many years practice sneaking past their sleeping forms for a midnight snack. A change of clothes lay ready on the bedside table; a short-sleeved pullover, perfect for late spring weather, and a pair of baggy pants that had straps to hold the otherwise wide edges close under the knee. They were comfortable clothes, and Zak happily traded in his damp garments for them. As he pushed his head through the shirt’s neck hole, another memory fought its way to the surface.
This one was an unpleasant vision of his language teacher telling her class,
“Time’s up! Pencils down.” That day, sheets lay littered before him, covered with his half-finished article written in an awkward hand, at the end of the exam. How the rest of the students could have finished the task was beyond him. He reasoned that the woman had cut their time short. Distraught, he placed his very detailed work on her desk and looked expectantly to her face, waiting for her attention.
“Miss, I think it’s a mistake...” he started, than let his gaze slip quickly toward the floor.
“This is about the amount of time given, am I right? I expect my students to produce satisfactory writing within half an hour the end of the year.” Zak studied the knots in the woodwork of her desk. “I’m sure you understand that it is a useful skill to be able to present your ideas quickly and succinctly without the bother of fancy adjectives or metaphors. In the real world there is almost no need for that embellishment. Do you understand?” Her student hesitantly nodded and she waved him out of the room before returning to her work.
Zak returned to reality and decided it was time for the morning meal. Once in the kitchen, as no one else was awake at that hour, the already tired boy fixed himself the best breakfast possible for someone his age. He toasted pieces of bread until they were completely browned, and cooked eggs, cheese and bits of pre-cut ham together in a frying pan. After arranging these on a plate, he brought a bottle of milk from the icebox and poured a refreshingly full glass before digging in. Halfway through his meal, a floorboard creaked in the next room and a younger girl with bedraggled brown hair in a nightgown entered the kitchen. Zak’s sister, Any, was a small girl for her age, though she made up for this with her extensive vocabulary and maturity beyond her six years. Like him, her first name was short and easy to pronounce, a trend unique to Vazee, helpful for preventing confusion. Middle names carried more syllables and were spelt however the doctors writing birth certificates chose (in her case, Louise had become Looiz in the transfer) because they had many more pressing issues on their hands. The siblings’ similarities stopped there, other than their having the same parents. Any had a round face and a way of talking to adults that got her whatever she wanted. Zak was gawky, skinny and shy, all to the dismay of the city it seemed. It was a miracle that they got along together.
Zak recognized the unfairness of the situation; how she could be her own sweet self without objection and he was scorned upon whenever he did things his own way. As he stood up to kiss her good morning, his stomach turned slightly with jealousy and he remembered the task given to him. He would need to do something to increase his speed. And quickly.