Owen sat patiently while the doctor rummaged through some files in a folder. Eventually the doctor pulled out a picture of a dog—a spotted dalmatian—and showed it to him. “Now close your eyes and try to picture this dog in your head,” he instructed Owen.
Owen nodded. But once his eyes closed, he frowned, realizing he couldn’t bring an image of the dog into his mind. It was like there was a complete blank. He could remember words describing the dog, like “dalmatian,” “spotted,” “tail,” and “paws,” but for whatever reason, he couldn’t build an image using those words. He opened his eyes again, a bit confused, and stared harder at the photo. This shouldn’t be that difficult. He could see it clearly, right there in front of him. This wasn’t complicated.
Owen shut his eyes again, knowing he could do this . . . and came up blank.
“I can’t picture it,” he said, wondering why he didn’t feel more frustrated.
“The technical term for what’s happening to you is aphantasia,” the doctor said. “You’ve lost the ability to visualize anything in your head. Basically, your imagination doesn’t exist anymore. But don’t let it worry you. I can’t imagine it’ll affect your life too much.”
“That’s odd,” Owen’s mother said, raising one eyebrow. “He’s always had an active imagination. But ever since he disappeared for a few days and then turned up in London, he’s been acting different.”
“It’s not just him,” the doctor said. “I’ve seen it in people all over town, from kids to adults to the elderly. It happened to me, even.” He showed Owen’s mother the picture. “Most likely you, too.”
As his mom went through the same test, Owen stared off into space, feeling strangely calm. Losing his imagination seemed like it should worry him. But it didn’t really feel that bad, like the doctor said. So he couldn’t picture a dog in his head. It wasn’t like that came up too often. And really, what was he using his imagination for anyway? Wasting time in school? Making up things that didn’t exist? Nothing important, in other words.
“I can’t picture it either, you’re right,” his mother said, opening her eyes. “So is there a cure?”
“Cure?” the doctor said, blinking in confusion. “Of course not. This is just how things are now. I can’t imagine us ever coming up with a fix.”
“Well, as long as it’s healthy and normal,” his mother said, smiling at the doctor. “If Owen’s okay, we should be going. My shift starts soon at the library.”
The doctor wrinkled his nose. “Does anyone even come in anymore?”
“No, but we’re bringing in more nonfiction,” his mother said. “That’s all anyone’s been checking out lately anyway.”
On the way to the library, Owen went over the assignments he would have turned in that day in school. Everything seemed correct to him, but he went over them a second time, just to be sure. Math was a subject to be taken very seriously, according to adults, and he trusted their judgment.
They arrived at the library a few minutes after Owen started his math assignment over, so he sadly placed his papers in the textbook, marking his spot. “Why don’t you get your London punishment out of the way first?” his mother said. “That way you can enjoy your schoolwork as a reward.”
That seemed logical. After Owen had spent a few days away from home, first in Jupiter City and then trapped with Kara Dox in a time prison, his mother had gone a bit insane, contacting every police station and hospital within four states. But as soon as Owen called her from London, she immediately calmed down and arranged for him to fly back.
He hadn’t expected that, honestly, but now knowing that she had no imagination helped explain things: She literally couldn’t imagine him ever returning while he was missing, so had completely lost it. But now that he was back, she couldn’t picture him leaving again, so his punishment was more about the principle.
She did ask where he’d been, though, and he obviously told the truth: He’d been helping Bethany, who was half-fictional, find her missing father in a superhero comic, only to be thrown into a Pick the Plot book by a fictional man named Nobody, who had then separated the fictional and nonfictional worlds and sent Owen and Bethany back to the nonfictional world through the last open portal between their worlds, the one that led to Neverland. And since that portal connected to London, that’s where they emerged.
She seemed a bit confused by some of the explanation,
but couldn’t imagine any other way he could have gotten to London, so accepted his story. Logic dictated that he should be punished for his actions, so in spite of not being able to picture him ever repeating his crimes, she and Bethany’s mother had agreed on a punishment: Bethany and Owen would help Owen’s mother in her library every night for a year.
That didn’t seem that bad to Owen, since that’s what he did most nights anyway. And now he had an excuse to hang out with Bethany every evening, doing homework or quizzing each other on facts they could memorize. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant punishment.
What wasn’t pleasant, though, was having to deal with the books at the library. As his mother had said, almost no one came in anymore, so Owen and Bethany ended up spending most of their time clearing fiction books off the shelves to make room for more nonfiction.
Not that Owen could blame them: Though he’d once spent most of his time reading, now whenever Owen tried to read his old favorite books, he couldn’t picture the stories in his head. Without an imagination, he was just reading words, not seeing any characters or situations.
But like the doctor had said, was that really a bad thing?
Now he had so much more time for the nonfictional world, and for performing tasks that he was given to the best of his abilities. What better way to get ahead in life than that? Owen couldn’t imagine anything.
And making room for nonfictional books in the library was easy enough. Spike, his fictional cat, sat in the empty spaces in the bookshelves, periodically jumping up to a higher one just to get a better look. Every so often Spike would meow, and Owen would pet him, which always made him miss his fictional friends for some reason, and he’d wonder what they were doing and where they were now. Were they fighting back against Nobody still? Or had they given up, since things weren’t really that bad with the worlds separated?
Weirdly, he only seemed to think about them while petting Spike. That made sense, though, since Spike was fictional himself, and logically he’d remind Owen of other fictionals.
“Hey,” said a voice from behind him as Owen scratched Spike’s head. He turned around to find Bethany standing there with a worried look on her face as all thoughts of his fictional friends seemed to drain from his mind. “Are you okay? I felt so bad that you missed school today!”
“I’m fine,” Owen said, shrugging. “Apparently something’s
going around. I’ll be there tomorrow and can catch up on anything I missed.”
Bethany’s face lit up as she dropped a bag of textbooks into his lap. “Oh, don’t worry! I brought you everything we went over today. I can help you catch up right now.” She beamed at him.
He returned her smile. “You’re way too nice to me, you know that?”
“There’s no such thing,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “You’re my best friend. I’m just looking out for you. Besides, after everything the fictional me put you through, I owe you for years.”
Owen nodded, not wanting to argue the point again. Ever since they’d returned, Bethany had decided that her fictional self had been the part of her that had caused all of her problems, from jumping her father into a book in the first place, to getting them kidnapped by Fowen—Owen’s fictional self—to losing Owen to Nobody in Jupiter City. Owen didn’t really see how that made sense, but arguing with her about it didn’t seem to help, so he’d just let it go.
“That wasn’t your fault, you know,” he said. “I could have said no each time.”
“I shouldn’t have put you in that position. If I just hadn’t
given in to my fictional half over and over, none of it would have happened. It makes me so angry . . . !” She paused and took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “Sorry, I need to stop blaming her. Every time I do, I try to remember Gwen, EarthGirl. She never thought one bad thing about me, no matter how many mistakes I made. Thinking of her helps remind me not to judge myself so harshly.”
“She was pretty great,” Owen agreed. “You know who I miss the most?”
Bethany shrugged. “I can’t even imagine.”
Owen started to say a name, then stopped. “It doesn’t really matter. We should get back to work. Mom wants us to finish the kids’ section tonight before we study.” He nodded at the books piled behind him. “Do you want to start at the back of the alphabet, and I’ll take the front?”
“Hold up just a moment there, you two,” said a deep, booming voice. A man easily seven feet tall strode over to them carrying a box full of books. The man’s muscles bulged out of his tailored black suit, and he walked strangely, stopping every few feet to strike a pose. He also wore sunglasses inside, which seemed a bit odd to Owen, given that the lights in the library weren’t that bright.
The man’s sudden appearance sent Spike scrambling to hide elsewhere in the library, which wasn’t unusual. The man watched him go with a strange look on his face. “Cute cat,” he said, turning back to Owen.
“Can I help you?” Owen asked him.
“There was no one at the counter, so I came back here,” the man said, dropping the box at Owen’s feet. He glanced around and made a disgusted face. “Wow, you’ve really let this place go, haven’t you? Yikes.”
Bethany gave Owen a confused look that told him she had no idea who the man was either. “Did you want to . . . donate these books?” she asked.
“That’s what I like about you, Bethany,” the man said, grinning at her. “You always cut to the chase. Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. It’s all Kiel Gnomenfoot books, straight from Jonathan Porterhouse.” The man took a book out of the box and handed it to Owen. “The author said he was tired of having them around. Something about them being really badly written, and the main character is obnoxious and really terrible at magic and deserved to lose?”
Owen and Bethany shared another odd look. “You can definitely donate the books,” Owen said to the man, “but we’ll
probably just end up adding them to our book sale. Not many people are checking these books out anymore.”
“Oh, I have a feeling these copies will jump off the shelves . . . eventually,” the man said, then winked in an exaggerated way. “Just give them time. Now, I really should be going. Have another old friend to see, a long way from here. I’ll tell her you both said hi. In the meantime, give that copy a close look, Owen. You’ll definitely find it interesting reading!” He waved and strode back toward the front of the library as Owen and Bethany just stared at each other.
“How did he know our names?” Bethany asked.
“And who could be an old friend of his that we would know?”
Bethany glanced at the book Owen was holding. “Are you going to look at that one, like he said to?”
Owen looked down at the cover, then brought it in close to his face, not sure what else to do. It was Kiel Gnomenfoot and the Infinite Reality, the fourth book, where Kiel and Charm tracked down one of the keys to the Source of Magic through parallel universes. He shrugged. “It looks like any other book.”
Bethany took it out of his hands to drop it in the box. “His voice sounded a little familiar, but I’ve never seen his face. Maybe he’s someone we met in a book or something?”
Owen shook his head. “That’s impossible. No one can travel between this world and the fictional one anymore.”
She sighed happily. “I know, I’m the least worried I’ve been in my life. Without my fictional self, I don’t break rules or jump into books. My mom knows everything about me, and . . .” She trailed off, looking away. “I know I don’t have Dad still, and that makes me sad. But you said he was okay when you last saw him, and I can’t imagine anything happened to him after that, not since Nobody got his way. What would be the point of fighting anymore?” She brightened up a bit. “So really, everything worked out okay in the end, and now we’re safe from my fictional self and her craziness. And there’s no way that’s going to change!”
Owen opened his mouth to agree, only to pause as the air between them began to spark, little electric fireworks exploding out of nowhere. Owen backed away in surprise, just as a person appeared out of thin air and crashed into Bethany. They both hit the floor hard, but the newcomer was the first one to stand, and Owen’s eyes widened as he found himself staring at someone he never expected to see again.
“Owen!” Kara Dox shouted, hugging him tightly. Instantly, a thousand questions filled his mind and a torrent of emotions
flooded over him. “I made it, finally! You wouldn’t believe what I’ve gone through to get here!” She pulled away and took hold of his hand. “You need to come with me right away. I’ve seen your future, Owen. If we don’t reconnect your world with the fictional one, you’re going to die?!”