Chad woke with a start. He stared around, blinking the sleep away and trying to sort his thoughts in his tired brain. He tried to recall the events of the previous evening, but he couldn’t remember anything from the moment he began walking home from school the previous day: not dinner with his parents, not putting on his pajamas or going to bed—so how did all those things happen? He glanced at his nightstand, where a small marble of grey, discolored clay sat upon the wood surface. Everything from the previous week came rushing back, and Chad jumped out of bed. Throwing on his robe and slippers, he raced down the hall and up the attic stairs.
“Zandor!” he called. “Voxx!”
The echo of his voice died in the musty, dusty stillness of the attic. Nothing moved within; were they hiding?
“It’s okay, guys!” he moved further into the middle of the room. “It’s just me! You can come ou—“ He stopped.
Six figurines lay scattered in the middle of the floor: six inches high, and made of lifeless clay. There was also a smashed lump of all of the colors of clay mixed together. Chad knelt and placed his fingers on the clay. It was stiff and cold, as if it had not been touched for a week.
He heard a floorboard creak behind him, and turned to see his mother watching him from the doorway. Her face was lined with pity, and only then did Chad realize there were tears running down his face.
She came and stood next to him, surveying the simple figurines in the light of the morning sun streaming through the skylight.
“Are these the things you made that you wanted to surprise me with?” she asked, picking up Marquiam and Chariostes.
Chad nodded. All of the adventures he’d gone through tumbled through his mind—but if the figurines had never been alive, had he dreamt it all? What if there had been no Ferristral, no Zandor—no big showdown at the parking garage? What would he do then?
His mom gave him a few more moments to wait in silence, and then said softly, “Chad, it’s time to get ready for school, buddy.” She rubbed his shoulder comfortingly. “We can talk about it afterwards, okay?”
Chad took a deep breath to regain his composure. “Okay,” he mumbled, heading back down the stairs to his room.
The rest of the day was lost in a blur—much like the blur the last few days had become. During the morning class periods, Chad became acquainted with the kid sitting next to him—a boy with dark hair and glasses named Ian. As it turned out, Ian loved drawing pictures to make up stories, so the two of them got along famously all the way through lunchtime. Chad was so busy chatting with Ian and his friends that he didn’t even realize until the recess bell rang that he never even saw Justice or any of the other bullies. As a matter of fact, he did see Justice out on the playground at recess—but the beefy fifth-grader didn’t seem to notice Chad anymore. He was picking on another kid.
Smoothly, Chad sidled up to the teacher supervising the ball games.
“How’s it going, Chad?” she asked, grinning at him.
Chad nearly froze. He had never done this sort of thing before—but whatever weird dream had brought him out of the quiet, mousy stupor he had been in till now had also made him more aware of right and wrong things happening.
He looked right up at the teacher and informed her, “There’s bullying going on.” He pointed to where Justice had the kid on the ground and was pushing on him.
The teacher nodded very seriously to Chad. “All right, I’ll watch him; thank you for reporting this.”
Chad didn’t hesitate to veer off in the opposite direction. When he was safely concealed in a crowd of other third-graders, he heard the teacher blow her whistle and gesture to Justice. A distinct lightness washed over Chad.
That evening, Chad walked back to the school and entered the big auditorium, where the fifth graders and staff members bustled about, setting up chairs and banners for the talent show.
Ms. Desser met him in front of the stage and showed him where the extra programs were and how to stand. It seemed only a few minutes before the parents began to arrive.
Chad’s heart flip-flopped when he saw his mom and dad walk through the doors of the auditorium, but he remembered what he had learned about believing in himself. Passing out programs, he reminded himself, was every bit as important as performing onstage. He stood straight, and looked his parents in the eye as they stopped to accept a program.
“Chad?” His mom cried, “What are you doing out here? I thought you were in the talent show.”
Chad shrugged, “Well, I kind of am,” he said shyly. He finally confessed, “Actually, when they were having the kids sign up, I didn’t really think I had any talent, so I asked to be an usher instead.”
“Oh, Chad!” His mom sighed and shook her head with a smile.
“Chad? Chad!” Ms. Desser swept toward him on her high-heeled boots. “Oh, thank goodness I found you!” She stopped and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve just been informed that one of tonight’s performers just came down with a bad fever and won’t be able to come. We have an open spot, and I know you’re just the person to fill it; do you want to?”
Chad glanced back toward his parents, who watched him with excited faces.
“I don’t have anything to perform—“ he said in a small voice.
His dad stepped forward, “I think I can help with that.” He held up his hands, and hanging from one wrist was the old red backpack. Chad grabbed it and peeked inside. The heroes were all there!
“I brought these because I thought you’d want to show your teacher what you’ve made, but you could also tell a story with these figurines,” his dad suggested.
“Oh, that would be fantastic!” Ms. Desser gushed. “I know you’re really good at stories. It won’t be till the second half, so you’ll have time to come up with something.”
Chad gripped the straps of the backpack and smiled. “I know just the story I want to tell,” he said.