Prologue

Gabe Atwiler tried to keep his glasses on his nose while he pried at the moss crisscrossing the asphalt below him.

“Perfect!”

The white edges of his fingernails darkened as they scraped the debris inside the crack. It was hot work in the middle of the driveway, but the discomfort was a small price to pay for crafting a battlefield for his toys. His fingers itched, longing to play with the pewter figures jabbing his thigh from inside his pocket.

He’d risked his mother’s wrath by stopping at the comic book shop on the way home from school. Several new issues filled his binder. They would join the others hidden under his mattress. Out of sight, out of mind—just like the little figures.

Gabe’s father had steered him toward G.I. Joes more than once since he started collecting. A number of them littered his room, their joints stiff from neglect. The metal figures didn’t move like the plastic ones, but Gabe liked their detail, their weight. After the third full set of pewter knights and sorcerers—sixty in all— his father had given up.

Grit pricked the delicate flesh under Gabe’s fingertips. The stickiness of his blood mingled with the dirt below the moss. He pushed his digits further down and began gently prying at the layer of green.

The patch of moss wobbled in his hands. It was a good find, almost a foot long. He would hide the scrap in his backpack until after dinner. More greenery was waiting in his closet, housed in the box that once held his slacks. This new addition would fill the rest of the space nicely. Gabe would set up the props he’d constructed, then, the medieval warriors stabbing him in the leg would have the battleground they deserved.

Gabe used his body to shield his find as a car engine drew close. His mother wasn’t supposed to be home for another forty minutes. A sigh of relief squeezed through his lips when he saw Mr. Handy pull into the driveway beside his own. Mr. Handy had caught Gabe at his special work before, and he didn’t mind.

The two were polar opposites in terms of appearance. Gabe was short and chunky, while Mr. Handy was a lanky scarecrow of a man; the adult’s eyes nearly as dark as the buttons one expected to find staring blankly from a cornfield. Gabe had found him intimidating when they first met, but Mr. Handy had an easy smile. He was quirky rather than cold. And he knew comics too.

Gabe returned the wave Mr. Handy gave him when his neighbor stepped out of his car. The suit he wore looked too small for his frame, and the edge of the sleeve nearly brushed his elbow before the hand fell back to his side. Mr. Handy’s head bobbed as six large strides carried him through the front door of his home.

Gabe felt a pang of envy watching his neighbor’s walk. The best Gabe could do was waddle. The comparison lingered in his head as he turned his attention back to his prize.

When his glasses slid off his nose and struck the asphalt, Gabe cursed. The grass beside the driveway rustled as the eyewear bounced into the soft blades. Although he was too far-sighted to make out the damage, he definitely heard a crack.

He knelt, going into the yard on all fours while groping through the grass.

They couldn’t have gotten far. Take it slow. Don’t squash the frames…

Footsteps thumped on the street. Gabe froze, fearful he’d have to race the local bully to the front door, until the sound passed him and entered Mr. Handy’s driveway. The steps traveled to the door, and Gabe clearly heard it both open and shut.

Gabe moved deeper into the yard, nearly crushing his glasses under his hand. He brushed them off before lifting them to his face. He grimaced. One lens was broken and the other cracked. His parents were going to have a fit.

He tried to come up with a cover story when he stood back up.

A crack in the sidewalk, maybe? Or some kid bumping into me at school?

Lies were still swelling in his head when the snap of a firecracker popped the lot of them like balloons.

There was a scream. Gabe’s flinch almost caused the broken glasses to fall off his face. Distorted as the cry was, there was no mistaking Mr. Handy’s voice. Gabe knew the next bang had nothing to do with fireworks. His school bus had driven through the bad part of town often enough for him to know gunfire when he heard it.

He stumbled toward home, his vision a blur of two different frequencies. Gabe’s feet felt like lead ingots as he strained to climb the steps, the sweat on his palm greasing the railing. His hand was hunting for the knob when he heard Mr. Handy’s door open. When it closed, he couldn’t help but turn.

Someone was there. The figure’s body was filled in with sloppy brushstrokes of blue and white; hair seemingly dark. A pinkish blob existed in place of a face. As the blotch grew larger, Gabe leaned harder on the railing, the last breath suddenly stuck in his throat. The shooter was looking at him.

Numb, Gabe couldn’t move while the indistinct gunman examined him. For a split-second Gabe’s world froze, the figure considering him with unknown intent before walking back down the driveway. The man’s shape shimmered in the heat haze floating above the asphalt.

Gabe sucked in air like a junkie huffing fumes. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and squinted before taking off his glasses. As poor as his vision was, he should have been able to see something. A shape, a blob, anything. Instead, there was only the slab of gray beneath the haze.

Even the shooter’s footfalls were gone. They hadn’t faded. Rather, the sound had fallen into oblivion itself. Gabe strained his senses in vain to find them, and as he did, a thought came to him that injected his shock with another dose of anesthetic.

When the gunman walked, his feet made the exact same secondhand click as Mr. Handy.