There was a spider on the ceiling. The shadow was illuminated by the single nightlight that came from a corner of the room. It dangled above my head like a bungee jumper at the edge of a bridge. If it were to begin its slow descent, its destination was looking to be the cave of my mouth. It hadn’t begun its journey yet, thank God. I tapped my finger in rhythms of three, just waiting.
It shifted. Just a little, but it was clearly positioned in the middle of the air now, like a frozen frame from a movie featuring kung fu stunts. The invisible silky thread was the only lifeline preventing it from falling right on my face.
It occurred to me that I should move, but I’d just settled myself into a comfortable position on the bed, an occasion that was rare, considering my wrestling matches with insomnia every night. And why should I move for a spider, a creature that was barely bigger than my toe nail? If anything, it should move for me.
The spider lunged. I rolled off the bed just in time, falling onto the ground with a loud oomph.
I picked myself up, and with a long string of curses, clapped my hands twice to turn on the light, twice again to turn it off, and twice a final time to turn it on again. Frantically, I searched the bed covers for the damned spider, but it was nowhere in sight.
A cricket took the moment to start chirping in pure mockery. Crickets were even worse than spiders. Clearly, all insects were conspiring against me.
Well then, this would just have to be another sleepless night. There was no way I was sleeping in a room with a spider and a cricket. What if one of them was pregnant and decided to give birth in my bed? The thought of all those spider and cricket babies scurrying about in my bedroom made my skin crawl. The maids would have to burn the bed sheets tomorrow and do a double cleaning.
Quietly, I walked out of my room and crept through the halls. The house was just as silent at night as it was during the day. The servants never spoke unless spoken to, and even when I tried to strike a conversation with them, they’d reply with one word answers.
Usually, I liked quiet, but recently it was becoming all a little tedious. I wondered if they would say something if I ran streaking through the house naked, singing teeny-bopper idol songs at the top of my lungs. One day I might just try it to get a reaction.
At the other end of the hall, I stopped in front of my cousin’s door and peeped in. Being only eight months younger than me, we were very close, and he was the one I turned to in the midst of a crisis. I didn’t hear any snoring, which gave me hope.
“Toph,” I whispered. “You awake?”
“Toph.” This time I spoke louder. When there was still no reply, I went over to the side of the bed to shake him. “Are you sleeping?”
He moaned. “Now I’m not.” Slowly, he sat up. “There better be a good reason why you’re waking me up at—” He cast a quick glance at the clock. “—Three in the morning. I was having the awesomest dream about Haley.”
I snorted. Hot Haley was so dubbed because she was the hottest girl at Ryder Prep. “In your dreams.”
“Exactly,” he said, laying back down on his pillow.
“You can’t go to sleep,” I complained, shaking him again. “I’m bored, and your job is to entertain me. Besides, it’s summer, and we don’t have school tomorrow. Why would you want to sleep, when you can play Zombie Shooters IV with me, your favorite older cousin in the world?”
“Two words. Hot Haley. And besides, you’re my only cousin in the world. Now, good night.” He rolled to his side, away from me and faked a snore.
Useless little brat. Fine then, I’d just play Zombie Shooters IV by myself.
I made my way downstairs to the game room. This too-calm silence could be fixed easily with the sound of fake gunfire. Carefully, I closed the doors. If Aunt Marisa or Gramps found out I was still having insomnia, I’d get my ears chopped off with hours-long lectures of how pathetic I was. Of course, neither of them was in town, but one never knew where a servant’s ear might stray.
All video games were organized neatly in one single cabinet by the TV. I quickly went to the bottom shelf on the far right, where Z for Zombie Shooters would be. Immediately locating the game of choice, I was about to grab it when my eyes dashed further south to where some other games had been placed out of alphabetical order. What’s more, they didn’t look like games.
Frowning, I grabbed them, scanned the title of the first disc, and paused. Living Among the Malnourished? I was right, these weren’t games. My hands shook as I frantically searched the other titles. Modern Cannibals, The Truth Behind Human Trafficking, Poverty in Our Own Backyard: Homeless and Hungry.
These were my parents’ documentaries. Shaking and amazed, I stared at the titles once more just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. When Gramps found out I harbored a secret interest in photography, he’d been enraged, believing I meant to follow in my parents’ footsteps. He’d forbidden any copy of my parents’ works from entering the house. So what were they doing here?
Quickly, I rose to my feet, taking the DVDs with me. I rushed to the DVD player and popped one of the discs in. Instantly, my mother’s face filled the screen, her solemn tone speaking of the problem of malnourishment in third world countries. Then her image faded, replaced by shocking pictures of children with Kwashiorkor or Marasmus, two types of common malnourishment conditions. I knew my parents were behind the camera, and occasionally, their voices took turns explaining the images of the documentary.
I watched every second of the film, eyes wide open in fascination, missing nothing. Their work had never garnered much attention, and I doubted many people knew they were documentary film makers, since Gables Company tended to be all people associated with our family name, but my parents said as long as a few people watched it and were moved into action, they’d done their job.
When the film finished, I watched the next documentary. And the next. An idea began to form in my head.
It was there that Toph found me the next morning.
He came to stand by the sofa, shooting me an incredulous look. “Did you stay up the entire night again?”
I ignored the question, instead saying, “Look what I found. Old Gramps didn’t get to all of them after all.”
I knew he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, so I pointed to the TV screen, gesturing him to watch.
“Are those what I think they are?” He walked closer to the screen, squinting. “How in the world did you manage to get a hold of your parents’ films? I thought the old man banned them from the house.” He turned to me, adding quickly, “Not that I’m not happy you were able to sneak them in.”
“I didn’t sneak them in,” I told him. “They were just there, hiding among the video games.”
“Well, if you want to keep them, you’d better hide them away from Gramps,” Toph said. He stared into the screen again. “Even though I’ll never understand why Uncle Seth gave up his inheritance to travel among the slums of the slums, I do have to admit, this is some pretty good footage. Makes me cringe to think what some people have to live through and thankful I’m not one of them.” He gave an indifferent shrug, as if to say oh well, which I found to be a little annoying. I didn’t know why though, since I agreed with him.
Unlike Toph, I completely understood how my parents could give up all their luxuries and riches to travel in some of the most dangerous countries in the world and live in the worst conditions. They’d even left me, their only child, behind. The reason was a person: Gramps.
My grandfather had cut them out of his will when they’d made the decision. He was a stodgy, stern man who lacked humor and all emotion, and one mistake would earn years of disapproval and no forgiveness. Toph and I only dared address him as the old man or Gramps when he was nowhere in sight. We did it because we knew it would annoy him if he ever found out, but at the same time, we were too scared of him to want to be caught.
My grandfather was such a tyrant that he hadn’t let my parents take me with them. But they’d agreed, knowing it was safer for the eighteen month-old me to stay with Gramps than be a nomad in third world countries with them.
I couldn’t blame my parents for leaving me with Gramps, even though it had been torture to live under his thumb. My parents’ passion was to travel the world to document social issues and educate the world with their films. They’d been pretty successful too.
My only wish was that I could follow my own passion too. I wanted to be a photographer, not the heir in line for Gables Company, a multimillion dollar corporation that was a household name all over the world. But I had no choice.
I was the descendent of successful entrepreneurs, and Gramps expected me to follow in their footsteps.
My great great grandfather, Simon Gables, had been the son of a farmer in Blackberry Hills, so known because of its famous blackberry—and other fruit—jams. Simon Gables hadn’t been interested in harvesting blackberries or making jams though. He loved to draw comics and create stories. During school, he’d always been doodling sketches about a young pageboy named Thane, who lived in the medieval village of Khan, where an evil lord terrorized the poor peasants. Of course, Thane eventually grew up and decided that enough was enough. Hence the superhero called Dark Horse was born.
The Dark Horse of Khan became an instant hit. In fact, it was still ongoing, written by shadow writers. Simon went on to invent several of the world’s most well-known superheroes, Medieval and present-day, and his comics had become so famous that he became a billionaire. He’d established Gables Park, a theme park based around all things Medieval and superhero.
Gables Park had been aimed towards boys and adult geeks who liked the fantasy realm until Simon Gables’ son, Zachary, took over, expanding the target audience to include girls. Unlike his father, he hadn’t been much of an artist, but his wife had.
Sarah Gables wrote comics that were from the points-of-view of the princesses and heroines who went and helped the heroes Simon Gables had created. Together, Zachary and Sarah Gables managed to expand the theme park so that it appealed to girls as well as overall family fun.
When my grandfather came along, he was eager to make a contribution too. He didn’t have much talent in art, but he figured he didn’t have to, since the work in that arena was already done. So he set his mind on expanding our empire. Thanks to him, there were now thirty-three Gables Parks world-wide, twelve Gables Resorts, hundreds of hotels, a cruise line, and the list went on. We were even building a museum at the original Gables Park right here in Blackberry Hills to honor Simon Gables.
By the time Dad came along, it was drilled into his head that because he was descended from a line of successful entrepreneurs, he was expected to do the same.
Instead, Dad chose to travel the world with Mom, shooting documentaries. Gramps let me see them at Christmas and two weeks during the summer every year, until they’d been killed two years ago.
I watched the film a few moments more before the footage showed my parents living in a tumble-down shack with some of their film subjects. “I think this is a sign that I should enter that contest.”
“You never listen, do you?” I sighed in exasperation. “The photography contest I was talking about the other day. Winner gets a scholarship to Zenith Institute of Film and Photography. I decided not to do it because Gramps would be super mad, but I think finding these documentaries here is a sign that I should do it.”
“Gramps would still be super mad,” Toph said. “Even if you win, he’d never let you go. Besides, you don’t need a scholarship. Let the poor people have that money.”
“Once Gramps finds out I’m entering the contest, he’ll disinherit me. Then I’ll be poor, and I’ll need that scholarship.” Since I was the next in line for the throne, Gramps’ biggest fear was that I’d follow in my father’s footsteps. He’d already warned me that if I touched a camera again, he’d disown me faster than a single exhalation of air.
Toph let out a low whistle. “Unbelievable.” At first I thought he was talking about my decision to enter the contest. But his eyes had returned to the TV screen. “A man from one of the wealthiest, most prominent families in this country lived as though he were one of them.”
He said this so distastefully that I could no longer hold in my irritation. “Don’t be such a snob. It’s not like those people chose to live in those conditions. And my dad didn’t choose to be born into the almighty Gables family either.”
Toph held up his hands defensively. “Hey, I’m not criticizing. I’m just pointing out the irony. But I get that this is a sensitive issue for you, so I’m sorry if I offended. I loved Uncle Seth and Aunt Vi too.”
My annoyance with him dwindled as a look of true grief overcame my cousin’s face. Although like me, Toph had only seen my parents at Christmas and two weeks during summer, they were probably more like parents to him than his own. Aunt Marisa was always away on business, and her ex-husband, Jon, spent more time with his new family than with Toph.
I sighed, slapping his back fondly. “Yeah, I know you did.”
We turned our attention back to the TV, watching as my mother held an emaciated little baby in her arms. “Do you ever get angry with them?” Toph asked. “I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, but sometimes I feel like they abandoned us for them.” He nudged his chin towards the screen.
“Sometimes,” I admitted. “But I understand why they did it. They found their cause more worthy. Like I said, those kids can’t help being born into their environment. Maybe Mom and Dad felt those people needed them more than we did, since we have everything.”
Although he made no reply, I knew he was thinking about what I said. After a minute more, he pointed to the screen, which showed the river that acted as the main water source for the village. “Look at how dirty that water is. Hell, I can’t even go camping.”
“That’s because you’re a wimp,” I replied.
“Look who’s talking, Mister Must Sanitize Hands Three Times Before Eating Anything. I’ll bet you can’t even live among the middle class. No servants to bleach your shirts three times before you wear them.”
“I just like to be clean,” I retorted.
Toph just grinned. “Fine, if you insist. So about that contest, what subject are you thinking of doing for your entry?”
“Well,” I said, starting to get excited again. “I thought about it all night. The theme this coming year is contrasts. I think I want to do something on the lives of ordinary people and contrast that to the lives of rich people like us. Thing is I need to familiarize myself with the lifestyle of the average person before I start the project. I don’t know a thing about them.” Even though I wanted to. I wished I was average, with supportive relatives who allowed me to pursue my dreams. Instead, I was stuck with a rich family who hired servants to monitor my every move.
“So how’re you gonna find out how they live? Join them?” At my silence, Toph let out a disbelieving snort. “I was just joking. There’s no way you’re really considering…”
I nodded. “I’m going to use this year I have off to live like an average person. I want to prove that I can.” Because if I could, I’d have the satisfaction in knowing I didn’t need Gramps’s money to survive. “You have to help me keep it a secret from Gramps and your mom.”
I’d already missed the deadline for this year’s contest, but the contest was annual. The next deadline wasn’t until next May. Until then, I planned to live on my own, immersed in the middle class. I’d find a job, rent an apartment, and for a year, I’d be one of them. I’d work on the perfect set of photos that portrayed the working middle class and contrast that with my own lifestyle.
Toph stared at me, jaw dropping, clearly speechless. When he finally found his voice, he said, “You’re insane. Gramps let you take off a year between high school and college to get over your OCD, not run away.”
It was a little ironic. Gramps demanded that I snap out of it, and yet he refused to let me see a shrink, claiming only lunatics needed that. He insisted that my OCD was a result of my own weakness, and if I could start this nonsense, then I could very well stop it too. He’d given me a year to “correct the problem,” and I hoped to God that I could.
Now Toph looked at me in concern, and I found my irritation returning. I hated talking about my problem. “It’s not that bad.” I was in denial, and I knew it.
“Everyone else seems to think otherwise.”
“I just like to keep clean,” I said, although there was more to it than that. I had rituals, where I had to do everything in threes or multiples of three, or I started sweating and felt like vomiting. For example, I had to keep three pencils on my desk in perfect straight lines. And when I read a book, I had to continue reading until I came to a page that was a multiple of three before I could stop.
“Then there’s the insomnia,” Toph added.
“I only get insomnia sometimes.” More like every other day.
“It’s been going on for two years.” Toph pinned me with a glare.
“I’ll get over it,” I said in a tone I hoped would convey I didn’t wish to speak of it anymore, but Toph just didn’t get the idea.
“Do you honestly believe you can live on your own in the state you’re in?” Toph exclaimed. “Believe me, if you live on your own, your neighbors aren’t going to bleach your shirts and wash your fruit three times.”
“Then I’ll do it myself,” I replied stubbornly.
“No way, if you go off to live on your own, I’m telling Gramps.” Toph returned my stubborn look.
I knew I had to resort to begging. “Please Toph, I need to do this. I’ll do anything for you if you’ll just help me. I’ll…I’ll give you the full set of Mutant Lords.” As the heir of Gables Company, I’d already inherited most of the original comics Simon Gables had written.
“Really?” Toph’s face lit up as though Hot Haley had just asked him out. He loved these comics a lot more than me. If only he’d been born eight months and twelve days before me, he could be the heir instead of me.
“Give me half the collection now, and you have a deal,” he said. Bribing Toph was easier than I thought it would be. Usually, he was a little more demanding, not that I was complaining.
We planned out our strategy during breakfast. With Aunt Marisa and Gramps out of the country most of the year, it wouldn’t be too hard for me to live outside. The problem was Gramps wanted me to work in the company starting September. He wouldn’t be there to help me, but his assistant would. And if I wasn’t there, it would be a big problem.
“So we’ll say Rane and Lucy invited me to live with them this year,” I told Toph. Rane and Lucy were our godparents who lived in Los Angeles, which was just a few hours south of Blackberry Hills. Rane, my dad’s best friend, had ironically done more for the company than Dad. He was into designing video games with the Gables’ label, the most popular one being Zombie Shooters, based on the original comic book series. “The story is I’ll be taking some college classes there, while I get over my O…O…”
“OCD, you can say it.” He grinned at my glare. “But we still need someone to fill in your position. Gramps purposely isn’t coming back as much this year because he thought you were going to be there.”
“So you do it then.”
“Me?” He looked doubtful. “But I’m still in high school.”
“So? You have time after school. Just don’t hang out with friends so much.”
He still looked worried. “You really think I can do it? What if I mess up?”
“You won’t. Look, you’re always complaining that Gramps thinks you’re lazy and can’t do anything right. So this is your chance to prove yourself to him.”
He finally nodded, more confidently. “You’re right. I can do this.”
“That’s the spirit.” I slapped him on the back.
“Oh, I thought of another problem,” he groaned. “What if Gramps visits Rane and Lucy to check up on you?”
“I doubt that will happen,” I replied dryly. Gramps was far too busy to visit friends and family, unless he wanted to discuss the company. Since Rane was doing extremely well with the video game sector, there was no need for Gramps to see him. “If it does though, Rane and Lucy will think of something to cover for me. You know they’ll be happy to help.” They were cool people.
“And what about Christmas?” Toph stuffed a bacon strip into his mouth and continued talking. “They’re always home for the holidays.”
“I’ll come home too,” I said. “It would be weird if I didn’t.”
He took a big gulp of orange juice. “One more problem I can think of. Everyone knows who you are. There’s no way you can live among the middle class without someone coming up to you and saying, ‘Hey, you’re Adam Gables, heir to the Gables Empire.’”
“Correction, only the good people of Blackberry Hills know who I am. People are always fascinated with famous people who live close to them. But several cities over, I doubt anyone would recognize me.” I thought for a bit. “Say, Orchid Island.” Orchid Island was a small island, a quarter the size of Blackberry Hills, and it was located fifteen miles offshore from the Pacific coast of central California, just about an hour’s drive from Blackberry Hills. Not too close, and not too far.
Plus, there was another perk. “The heiress of Splash and Spray lives there,” I said.
Orchid Beach City was called the fragrance capitol because it contained not one, but two famous perfume and soap companies—Splash and Spray and The Fragrance Stop. Both companies had started a feud dating back fifty years, and that was why they both had settled on the island, growing their extremely fragrant flowers in luscious gardens that probably filled up half the space of the island. Every time I visited, it never escaped my notice how the air was always perfumed. The natives were desensitized to it, but tourists were fascinated by it. But both natives and tourists alike were captivated by something else. Or someone. Emmaline Lockhart, the heiress of Splash and Spray.
That fact would work to my advantage.
“Oh, Emmaline Lockhart,” Toph perked up. “There’s rumors that she’s a ghost or vampire, or some gothic crap, all because she’s never left her mansion.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Everyone on Orchid Island is too wrapped up in the mystery of her to even notice my existence.”
And that was how two days later, I found myself on a bus, driving across the bridge that connected the mainland to Orchid Island. My new name: Adam Garvey.