The editing process is an unforgiving mistress. Following the publication of I Am Phantom, and seeing how it was my first published work, it was clear something wasn't quite working with the beginning. That meant it needed to be changed.
And change it did. I hope you enjoy the original beginning of I Am Phantom, back when Drake Sinclair lived in Bhutan, and had a terrible relationship with the airline industry.
Part 1: Rising Shadow
My day really began when I jumped off the cliff.
To set the record straight, it wasn’t my idea.
I just happened to be out on a morning trail run, some sheer cliffs to my left, when the cart ahead of me filled with a family of four busted a wheel and threw the driver over the edge. Without thinking, I leapt after him and with one hand grabbed him in midair and with the other dug my fingers into the side of the rock wall and managed to stop our fall. He would definitely die if I let go. So, like anybody else would’ve done, I gripped him tighter.
The wind pounded me against the cliff and I heard the man yell in fright. I had no fear of heights. I climbed without safety equipment all the time, but there was still a thousand feet of air between me and ker-splatting on the canyon floor.
Just another day for me in Bhutan.
I readjusted my hold on his arm and gently tossed him the twenty or so feet back to the top. To any normal person that may have seemed amazing.
But I wasn’t normal.
I heard gravel crunch as the man scrambled away from the edge and back to his family.
The monastery bells in town rang as one of the rocks I held on to crumbled and I slid farther down the cliff.
I was so late.
My foot caught the lip of a rock. I braced myself, and in one move leapt straight back up the cliff and onto the path.
The man I saved hurriedly pushed his family away from me, muttering something in Dzongkha, the main language in Bhutan. I didn’t need to hear him to guess what he was saying. They all said the same thing behind my back: Monster. Demon. Phantom.
My life for the past four years.
They were fine now so I continued running down the narrow rocky path. I vaulted over a boulder and leapt across a small ravine, ignoring the perfectly good footpath just beside me. Some called it Parkour. Free running. Finding the most efficient way to move, envisioning new ways to use space. Fun, I called it.
For those not geographically inclined, Bhutan’s a country stuck right below Tibet. I’m not originally from Bhutan. I’m far too white for that. And tall. And my hair is too curly, even for me.
My parents met in the UK, moved to America, had yours truly, Drake Sinclair, and then promptly moved to Bhutan for missionary work. That was eighteen years ago. If you ask me, I don’t belong anywhere. I speak two languages and don’t have much of an accent, which sucks because I heard girls love accents.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst was some people’s fear of me. And frankly, sometimes I was scared too.
When I was fourteen…things started happening. And I don’t mean puberty, geez. No, something far stranger. And having gone through puberty that’s saying a lot.
One day I woke up and my world had changed. My vision was sharper, colors more vibrant than they’d ever been before. Walking had almost become difficult because my muscles were so strong. I could leap farther, jump higher, move things that normal humans would find impossible. And my speed…that was probably the main reason everyone was so afraid. It must have been unnerving seeing only a blur and then having me appear by their side. By the time I learned to keep that in check it was too late, and some of the people in the town we lived near had already grown fearful of me. That’s when they began calling me a spirit…a phantom.
Had I questioned why I had my abilities? Heck yes. Who wouldn’t? My parents didn’t have them. What little time I’d had on the Internet hadn’t come up with anything either. So I had been forced to sit and come up with explanations on my own. Which led me from thinking I was adopted, to some kind of alien. Really encouraging stuff for a fourteen-year-old who’s trying to figure out hormonal changes without freaking out the general populace with his crazy powers he can barely control. Maybe there was something in the water. Or the air. The village I lived in was a little more secluded than others, but then, nobody else had anything like this. I probably would have continued coming up with crazy theories if the note hadn’t arrived.
The cliffs I wasn’t supposed to be running beside (sorry Mom and Dad) faded away and dense trees and a dusty led the way to the town and the monastery.
I hurtled through the open-air market, deftly dodging stalls and tossed fruit, sliding between carts scraping by each other in the street. A few vendors shot me furtive glances but I avoided them, as they did me. A couple of men in front of me stepped WAY out of their way to go around. I tried to ignore them too.
My parents waited outside the monastery doors. My mom had one of her finer dresses on. She looked very pretty with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. There weren’t many events to wear nice clothes for so she was making the most of my “graduation”.
My stocky dad had not dressed up. The work shirt he wore when he helped the villagers showed off his muscles and tan.
I easily caught my breath but continued panting to make it seem like I was winded. When all of the weirdness first started happening I tried talking with my parents, but they chalked it up to “My body’s natural changes” and left it at that. When I subtly hinted that maybe being able to jump ten feet straight up wasn’t how normal kids went through puberty, they only seemed more confused. They loved me, but I hadn’t brought it up since, choosing instead to disguise any instances of abnormality.
“Being late isn’t the best first impression for your final test,” my dad said, clapping a meaty hand on my shoulder. But he was smiling, sadly though. My mom was too.
“Are you ready?” she asked. I rolled my eyes.
“It’s not like it’s an official thing,” I said. “It was Sonam’s idea for a going away test, not mine.”
“It’s symbolic, Drake, and very important to Sonam. Remember to thank him.”
“Yeah, I know.”
They both hugged me, my dad holding on a little longer than necessary (how would he cope with tomorrow?) and I walked past them, through the doors and into the monastery courtyard.
Memories hit me. I had run through, laughed in, played around this place a hundred times before. Now it would be the last time for a long while. Maybe forever.
Sonam, the head monk and our family’s closest friend, stood waiting in the middle. I removed my shoes and stepped across the cold cobblestones. The courtyard was so quiet I could hear the muffled pad of my bare feet off the high, discolored walls and rosy red doors leading to the rest of the monastery. Nothing seemed quite as big as it once had. Even still, the mystery and wonder was not quite gone. It just waited for me elsewhere. I saw a couple of the younger monks poking their shaved heads out from the windows.
I stepped in front of Sonam and bowed. He returned it, brushing aside his deep red monk’s robe as he stood again.
“Barely late, as usual, Drake.”
“Consistency is my best quality,” I said.
Sonam’s worn lines on his face crinkled into a smile that seemed to light up his whole body. He hugged me and I awkwardly returned it. It wasn’t that I minded hugging him—he was like a second father to me—but because I was so much taller than him I had to stoop way over. Sonam took a step back. He beckoned me with one robed arm. “Come, walk with me. We will talk before your test.”
I slowed my long strides to match his. Sonam held his arms out in front. I snuck a glance at him. His eyes were closed.
The urge to fidget tempted me. “So the test…”
“Eighteen years, Drake. That’s when your parents arrived. And not too long after a hyperactive child burst into our courtyard and demanded that he, too, be allowed to learn the art of Shaolin Kung Fu.”
My face grew hot. Sonam had a lovely way of embarrassing me without trying. He was almost as good as my mom.
“Ah…such enthusiasm. Now we are on your final test. But I feel that this test, though only ceremonial, is not the greatest press on your mind.”
“No,” I admitted.
“They’re letting you go?”
“They were never going to stop me. They were only concerned.”
“As is natural. You are their only son. College in America is a big step. Are you as worried as they are?”
“Pssh! No way! It’s not a big deal. Really.”
Sonam didn’t even have to look at me to make me feel silly. I ran my hand along the wall we walked beside. Each brick was solid and stable. Each brick had its place. I did not.
“I need to go,” I said. Sonam finally opened his eyes.
“Why is that?”
My hand dropped to my side. “I don’t know, Sonam. It’s like…not that I don’t fit in here, this place is my home, and yet it’s not. These are my people, and yet they’re not. I need to find something that’s me. Or at least try to find out where I should be. Make something for myself.”
Sonam eyed me. I suspected he had noticed the way the villagers and children in the monastery had started acting around me. But it was Sonam. He didn’t care about any of that. Outcast or not, I was still Drake Sinclair to him. “You’re eighteen. Of course you feel that way. You are closer to your parents than many children. Now you learn to leave.” I frowned at him.
“Would it kill you to not talk so sagely all the time?”
“Yes,” Sonam said.
I shrugged. “Anyway, there’s that. I’m excited. And nervous.”
“What have you decided to study?”
“Psychology,” I said. “At Queensbury University in North Carolina.”
Sonam laughed warmly. The monks were the few people I knew that could laugh and truly look and sound like it was the funniest thing in the universe. He readjusted his sleeve.
“A subject of the mind. Wherever did you get your interest for that? Surely not our teachings?”
“Could have been,” I said, laughing with him.
We turned at the next wall, almost completing our circle around the courtyard.
Sonam spoke again, and this time his tone had suddenly dulled.
“You are wise to seek knowledge, for knowledge leads to wisdom and wisdom is the source of goodness.” He paused for a heavy beat. “But all your life you have lived in Bhutan and though you have learned many things, you still have much to learn. There is darkness in the world, and hate. Many things we try to remove ourselves from here.”
Yeah, I’d only ever lived in Bhutan, yeah you could even call me sheltered, but I wasn’t blind and I wasn’t stupid. I knew how the world worked.
Besides, how much more could Sonam know than me? He’d spent most of his life living in one monastery.
I opened my mouth to say that, but Sonam spoke again.
“It is not the change I worry about, for change is a part of life.” At this he turned and looked right at me. “Your morals are strong, and though you stumble as we all do, your intentions are good. Not everyone is like that. Not everyone views the gift of life as you do. Are you ready to be tested?”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Kung Fu test or…college? School tests? How was meeting people unlike me a test?
“I’m ready,” I said. “It’s all a part of moving away, right? All this learning and defining who I am and whatnot. No worries, I’ll get it.”
Sonam didn’t stop looking at me for a little while, in that gentle, kind way he always did. Then he returned to the center of the courtyard. I followed.
I crouched in my first stance.
“Start with your basic forms,” Sonam said.
I flowed into the movements that were second nature to me. That had been at least one perk of my…gifts. One morning I woke up and had mastered Kung Fu. Beginning moves or advanced, it didn’t matter. I could do all of them flawlessly. Not a bad side effect.
Tiger, Crane, Dragon, Mantis, knife strike, cannon punch, smashing punch.
Sonam circled around me as I moved. He made no sound except to call out a new form or pose for me to perform. Minutes passed. I wasn’t tired at all.
“Stop,” Sonam said. I curled my arms in and returned to the start. Sonam turned to face me.
I held my breath for what he would say. His head was down, his eyes closed. Finally, he looked me in the eye.
“Now, you will fight me.”
I lost my focus and stepped back. “What?”
Sonam crouched and brought his hands up. He took a deep breath. “Fight me.”
“No way. I am not fighting you, Sonam.”
“You will fight. You will fight or you will fail.”
I took another nervous step back. I heard the brush of cloth and ducked into a defensive pose as Sonam’s fist missed.
“No one is here but us and a few students. Not your friends. Not your parents. They will not always be by your side when you are in trouble. It must be you, and only you, that defends yourself and what you love.”
I had no choice but to fight as his attacks continued.
Sonam’s movements were perfect, his strikes fast, his face a mask of serenity. My brain kicked into overdrive as I blocked.
I caught his arm in a cross block and spun away. He followed, sweeping my legs. I leapt, flipped, just out of reach of his next attack. My Parkour was naturally working its way into my movements.
“Good. Adapt!” Sonam encouraged. “Do not think. Let what is natural take over.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw some more monks appear. Most of them had confused, somewhat excited looks. They had probably never seen an actual fight before, and especially not between Sonam and me.
Sonam shoved me back. My eyes followed each of his movements, adjusting my body accordingly, finding the best way to block, strike, to close the space between us and counter. Dust kicked up into the air as our feet slid around one another.
I counted the times I could have won, edging my way in and getting a strike off. There were too many openings. But I wasn’t about to do that to Sonam. Not to the man who still saw me as normal instead of some freak. Not even if it meant failing in his eyes.
Sonam’s arms were a whirlwind as I dodged right. Back and forth we went. Upper block, snake technique, lean back and strike. It was almost like a dance. I concentrated on breathing, hearing only the slap of fists and the snap of cloth against the backdrop of the high monastery walls.
Suddenly I surged forward. Sonam bent backwards to dodge my punch until his back almost touched the floor. He struck my stomach and I fell on my back, my breath coming in short gasps.
What a pretty sky.
Sonam’s wise face appeared over me. Not the serious Sonam that had just destroyed me, but the aged, kind and patient one who had put up with my antics and talked with me and counseled me almost as much as my parents.
“I lost,” I said. Sonam pulled me up. I saw a little disappointment in his eyes. He knew I hadn’t tried my hardest.
“You have triumphed,” he finally said.
“But I lost.”
“But you stood strong under the circumstances. How could you foresee that a peaceful monk wanted to fight? You cannot always see the true intentions of others. You didn’t have a choice. You won’t always have a choice. Sometimes you see an injustice and you must do something about it, though you don’t always know why you feel that way. You may face an opponent you cannot beat. But still, you stand strong. That is all a man can do, physically or not, he can stand his ground.”
He closed his eyes and stood like a statue.
I rubbed my stomach. “So…” I said. “Did I pass?”
The smile crept back on Sonam’s stoic face. “What do you think?”
“Yes. Now go finish packing.”
What few things I actually wanted to take to college were all packed. I double and triple checked my room to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. It wasn’t like I could drive on back and get it if I did.
I was finally going, and who knew how long it would be before I saw my old home again. This time tomorrow I would be out of the country, almost eight thousand miles away.
The letter from Queensbury University sat on my desk and I grabbed it. I hadn’t lied to Sonam: I was going to Queensbury University.
But I had never sent for the pamphlet. I had never even applied. But I had gotten in anyway, on a scholarship no less.
I remember at first thinking it was a joke when I read the letter explaining about moving in and campus activities. There was no way I had gotten a scholarship. They must have gotten the wrong kid.
Then the note had fluttered out. I had picked it up. It was handwritten. I remember my hands shaking as I read it.
You think you’re a freak. You are going through things that your friends and family could never understand. But I do. I am like you. I am different.
If you want answers, come to Queensbury.
A soft tap on my door snapped me back to the present. I tossed the pamphlet on my bed and answered it. Nobody was there. I looked left and right. The hollow halls were empty.
I went to close the door and my foot bumped something. A folded robe had been left for me. I took it inside.
It was a robe just like Sonam wore. Beautifully woven and intricate, a deep crimson. The fabric was tough and yet almost silky. It had no sleeves. A note fluttered out from one of the folds.
To Drake, for whatever the future may bring. May this remind you of where you will always have a home, and where you will always be welcome. Never forget who you are.
Sonam had always been uplifting. He was a monk, they were kind of expected to be like that. But his fixation with losing my way was making me paranoid. I put the note down and, checking that nobody was watching, held the robe close. It felt of home and everything I loved here. I was sure everything would turn out fine, and I hoped it would, more than anything else in the world.
I’ll spare you the sentimental details of how I said goodbye to my parents. How my dad was crying and my mom wouldn’t stop hugging me. Yes I was going to keep in touch and yes I would stay healthy and of course I would study hard. Sonam wasn’t there to see me off. The other monks told my parents that he was deep in fasting and prayer and couldn’t be disturbed. That sucked. He was the only one besides my parents who was supposed to be there.
A man from the village had a car and agreed to drop me off at Paro airport.
I cannot see myself having a lifelong relationship with airplanes. I was as prepared as I could be for something that massive. And metal. And loud.
I’d seen plenty of airplanes, but never been inside one. I’m not going to be all tough and pretend like it didn’t faze me. This thing was nice. I took my seat near the back and waited until everybody else filed in and the doors closed.
Then we took off…and the ground shrank until I could barely see it under us, which shouldn’t have been a problem but for some reason it was here…That’s when I started to kind of panic. My chest got all tight and my head felt light and dizzy. Were my ears supposed to feel this pressured? Were the wings supposed to shake that much?
I leaned forward and put my head between my legs to feel better. The man sitting next to me shot me a concerned glance from behind his magazine.
“You okay, son?” I was in no state to answer. “Here, use one of these.” He grabbed a small bag in the back of the seat in front of us and handed it to me. I could only stare at it in my mind-numbed state.
“What—what is this for—?” And then I found out. My stomach churned and the man’s eyes widened.
“Open the bag! Quick!” He scooted as far over in his seat as he could as I fumbled with the bag and people turned and stared at us.
I hate flying.
We stopped once in Beijing and honestly, I don’t remember most of it. After I finished splashing water on my face in the bathroom, a flight attendant gave me some medicine she said would help and I passed out. Thankfully, my transfer was on the same plane or I wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t come around until an hour before we landed in North Carolina and by then I stared at the back of the seat in front of me until we touched down.
The minute the plane came to a stop at the gate I practically shoved past everyone to get off. I almost wished I hadn’t. I’m not completely oblivious to technology. Living in a village a little more secluded from the bigger cities did make it difficult to stay up to date on the latest advances, but it wasn’t like I was a caveman being exposed to the marvels of electricity for the first time.
People scurried like ants all over the place, grabbing bags and drinking coffee and rolling suitcases. That wasn’t anything new, but this was…different than what I was used to. A different flavor of chaos. The noise never stopped. The air was chilly and my legs stiff and sore from the plane. I stood at the exit ramp of the plane with my mouth wide open until some guy behind me bumped my shoulder and said, “Move it.”
I did just that and made my way out. My overloaded brain began to process everything and I had the sense to read the signs hanging above the walkway. I followed the one that pointed to the baggage claim.
Everything became a little simpler after that. I found my bag on a rotating circus ride looking thing and grabbed it before it could disappear again. I made sure nothing was missing and wandered my way out onto the street where there was supposed to be a shuttle from Queensbury picking me up. I must have stood on the side of the road looking like an idiot for twenty minutes.
Finally the shuttle arrived.