“Where are we going?” I asked, clutching my fluffy pillow to my chest and following Mom out to the car. It was still early, four-thirty in the morning, I think. Mom had asked me to pack last night, and I’d known about the trip for a couple weeks now, but they still hadn’t told me where it was we were going.

“To the mountains, honey. Remember Uncle Joe’s place? We’re going to stay up there for a while,” Mom replied with a tone of concern. 

I did remember Uncle Joe’s cabin. It was warm and cozy and had a big fireplace I could sit by and read for hours on end while everyone was out playing in the snow. I didn’t care for the snow or the cold, personally, which made our surprise exodus from our Denver home that much more unwelcome. It was starting to snow. And it didn’t help at all that both Mom and Dad appeared to be operating under a mild, silent fright as they packed the van. Their luggage looked hastily packed and the normal, Tetris-like efficiency that they usually packed the van with was nowhere to be seen. Something was bothering them.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, fixing my eyes on my mom as she looked up at me.

She met my eyes for a long moment, then tore hers away and looked over her shoulder, down the street. She took a deep breath before responding, “We aren’t sure, honey. We’ve heard there’s a Quanta squad moving up the street, checking houses for unregistered mages.”

A cold chill ran through me at that and I sank down into my chair. I didn’t know much about Quanta, but I did know that they policed magic-users and that it was technically illegal to use magic without getting a license to do so from them. But, as I understood it, most people couldn’t do magic at all without going through Quanta training and getting cybernetic implants. Most people weren’t like me.

“Okay,” I responded, twisting around to face forward and slumping into the back seat of the minivan. “Will we be coming back?” I asked.

At that, my dad climbed into the van and kneeled in front of me, taking my hands in his. He could have closed one of his hands around both of mine with little effort. He looked at me and smiled, squeezing my hands with one of his and pointing out the window to the big cottonwood in the front yard with the other. “It’s okay, Ben,” he said. “Remember the tree?”

Looking where he pointed, I remembered our nights lying on the ground under the tree and watching the sunsets together and nodded. “They never forget,” I replied.

“That’s right, Ben,” he nodded. “We’ll all be okay, as long as we keep one another in our hearts. This is just a place, whether we come back or not. What’s important is our memories, okay?”

Nodding at him, he gave me a smile, patted my hands, then backed out of the van and resumed packing with mom. Without another word, I pulled the seatbelt into place.

I watched the automatic door slide closed in the late evening light of the aging day. Before it finished closing though, the tailgate opened and Dad huffed a couple of times, lifting some things in behind the seats. “Geez, Ben, how many books did you pack in here?” he asked.

“Only eleven,” I looked back at him. “Mom said I couldn’t bring them all.”

“Did you leave any space for clothes?” he asked, looking nervously down the street.

“Of course,” I beamed back at him, trying to lighten the mood. “I read about the optimal way to fold and roll my clothes so I could fit two weeks worth in half as much space as the last time I packed for that long.”

“Of course you did,” he nodded, distracted. “Okay, couple more minutes and we’re on the road. You all ready?”

“Yes,” I nodded, rubbing sleep from my eyes and peering down the street through the van’s side window. A pair of dark gray vehicles sat on the side of the road a block or so away, both of them parked at strange angles in front of a house in such a way as to make it difficult for people in the street to pass them and impossible for people in the house’s driveway to leave. “Is that them?” I asked, pointing.

Dad’s gaze followed my finger and as soon as he laid eyes on those cars, he started to shiver and glance around nervously. “Dammit,” he said under his breath, maybe thinking I hadn’t heard him. “Stay put Ben,” he added. “I’ll get your mom and we’ll get going.”

A few minutes later, we were all in the van and headed toward the highway. I watched my parents whisper back and forth quite a lot for the first part of the trip. They kept looking over their shoulders and down every side street, as if they expected the Quanta boogeyman to leap out at us from any corner or alley. 

An hour or so later, as we emerged from the Eisenhower Tunnel, we were greeted with the worst snowstorm I’d ever seen in my life. Dad slowed us down to a crawl because, even with the rows of super-bright lights singing either side of the road, there was little more than the light of our headlights to drive by. The snow was so thick we could barely see the car in front of us. It looked like we were on the bridge of the millennium falcon going into hyperspace.

We crawled down the hill, pulled off in Silverthorn, and stopped to get breakfast at the fast food place right off the highway. Mom and Dad talked quite a lot about whether or not they wanted to press on in the terrible weather, given their urgency. They spoke to a couple of locals while I sipped some hot chocolate and stared out the window at the crazy amount of snow dumping out of the sky. I created little swirls and eddies in the downpour with a twitch of my finger, bending the snow with my will as I waited for them to decide what would come next. I was just mesmerized by the beauty of the snow, backlit by the faint glow of what little light managed to wind its way through the mass from the artificial sources surrounding the parking lot.

Before long we were back in the van though, so obviously they had decided to press on toward Kremmling and then Steamboat. It was on the road to Kremmling that my life took its first turn down a dark, frightening path from which it would never return. I remember we were more than two hours out of Silverthorn, which on any normal day would have put us well inside the city limits of Steamboat, our final destination. But that day, we still had yet to see Kremmling. My parents said we were a little over halfway there when the snow got so bad that we couldn’t even see the end of the van’s stubby little hood. I tried to divert the snow around the car to add to the visibility, but there was so much of it that even creating an area around us with no snow in it just created an impenetrable wall of white beyond the range of my ability.

Dad tried to scoot along the edge of the road, using the reflective marker posts there to just stay on the asphalt but, after only a couple minutes of that, decided it was far too dangerous to carry on that way. Instead, he just put the van in park, turned on the hazard lights, and we all dug in a little bit to wait out the storm. 

Maybe twenty minutes later, we heard the sound of an approaching engine and what sounded like something scraping on the road. It wasn’t far off and sounded like it was coming at us fast, but we still couldn’t see more than a couple feet outside the van. Mom and Dad rolled down their windows, hanging their heads out into the snow to try to get a better look without the reflectivity of the glass and our headlights and a second later, I heard Mom scream. My dad started shouting something, waving his arms wildly in the snow with a flashlight in one hand, trying to get someone’s attention. Mom pulled her head in, looked over her shoulder with panic on her face and said, “Hold on, Ben. Hold on tight.”

Those were the last words I ever heard my mother say. And it was the last time I ever saw either of them.

I remember a column of bright yellow sparks approaching the front of the van, and I remember a loud crashing noise. I remember, just before the crash, my emotions welled up inside me and exploded outward, creating a sphere of clear weather a hundred feet in diameter. I remember seeing the snowplow bearing down on us, too close for anyone to do anything about it, except maybe me. I pushed with all my might, forcing my will into the effort and sending out a wall of force that washed out from me, tearing the front off the van, shattering the plow on the front of the on-rushing truck, smashing its windshield, and utterly failing to stop the vehicle. Then everything turned upside down and, while I know it’s entirely impossible, I remember my fluffy pillow, floating in the air in front of me. I reached out to grab it, my hair floating in a dark halo around my head, but just as I was about to snag it, there was another loud bang, the sound of crashing glass, a rush of cold, wet air and snow, and then darkness.

Darkness. And cold.

 

Chapter 3