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There once was a boy named Mateo who lived in a fine house by the sea in a town called Monterey. The house had five bedrooms, a cozy family room full of books and pictures, and a sunny kitchen. There were two cats, Bigfoot and Yeti, and a hyperactive dog named Vortex. There was plenty of good food to eat, too, and Mateo ate plenty, fueling his naturally athletic body at every opportunity. In fact, he could have run around a baseball diamond and thrown a ball faster and farther than any of his friends, if he'd wanted to.
But Mateo was not like the other boys. Nor was he like his hard-driving, well-meaning parents who had lofty ambitions for him. Instead, Mateo liked to sit around and do nothing, or at least what looked like nothing to everyone else but was, in fact, something quite special.
You see, Mateo had Presence, which is a rare and wonderful gift indeed. He didn't brood about the past or plan for the future. Instead, he hung out in the present moment. And what did he do there? Well, I'll tell you. He imagined, which, to him, was much more fun than anything he was supposed to be doing.
Why play baseball for his school team when he could play hyper-baseball on the moon? There, home-runs soared several miles and the members of the opposing team had transparent skin and slithered around like snakes. Why work hard to make top grades (like his younger brother Alex did) when he could ski across Greenland with a pack of friendly wolves? They didn't care whether he could read, write, or do enough math to pass the boring standardized tests his teachers seemed so worried about. Why should he clean his room, help his mother with the dishes, feed the animals, take out the trash, or do any of the other hopelessly dull chores that his parents insisted that he do (and yelled at him when he didn't)? He had invisible friends to play with, up inside his head, who had bicycles with wings.
"You'll never amount to anything! You're just too LAZY and SELF-ABSORBED!" his father often scolded him. "You have so much potential, Mateo, but you're wasting it! If you keep this up you'll turn out just like your Uncle Alonzo, back in Italy, living off the family fat!" His mother was equally concerned, but she tended to cajole rather than yell.
"Come on, Mateo, I know you can solve this math problem," she might say encouragingly. "Just apply yourself a little harder. And stop fiddling with your pencil. It's not a sword, you know."
Of course, to Mateo, the pencil was a sword — or at least it could be! And slaying a dragon with it would be much more exciting than using it to do his math homework.
"What are we going to do about him?" his parents constantly asked each other. "How can we get him motivated to succeed? He'll never get into college, much less a good college. When he's all grown up, he won't be able to get a job. He'll be homeless and lying in a gutter somewhere. There must be a way of making him see sense."
But there was nothing they could do. Not even the little yellow pills prescribed by their physician seemed to help. What bothered other people just didn't bother Mateo. College was years in the future and had no meaning for him. And getting the kind of dreary adult job his parents had in mind? Why would he ever want to do that when he could flip helium burgers on Jupiter or rule a kingdom of mermen in the Caspian Sea? Living in his imagination, he didn't have to lift a finger.
Threats like "Finish your homework or you won't get any dinner!" or "Get dressed for ball practice right now or you'll be grounded for a whole week!" didn't work either. Mateo had stopped listening a long time ago.
"BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, Mateo!" was all he ever heard anymore. He knew his parents wouldn't follow through on their threats; they never did. They always fed him, and even when they banished him to his room, he didn't care. In fact, he liked it. Alex would have been bored to tears and begged his parents to let him out, but Mateo enjoyed being alone. It was easier to fantasize when there were no distractions.
Mateo's teachers were likewise helpless in the face of his lack of ambition.
"If you do well in school this year," Mrs. Hatfield pointed out, "your parents said they'd take you to Disneyland."
This kind of promise would have thrilled most children, but Mateo didn't even blink an eye.
"I have my whole life to go to Disneyland," he answered (while twiddling with his pencil-sword). "I'm in no hurry."
"I wish he would have come with an owner's manual," his mother sighed one Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after Mateo's tenth birthday. "Instead, he came wrapped in a blue blanket with an encouraging smile from a nurse. Our coffee grinder came with more instructions!"
"It's so true, Evelyn," Mateo's father replied, heading out the door to the bank. He'd reluctantly agreed, once again, to send a 100 dollars to his younger brother Alonzo, and he wasn't happy about it. "Thank goodness we have nothing scheduled for Mateo today. I'm worn out from trying to make him cooperate."
Evelyn was a photographer and was working on a big project, so she disappeared into the family room with her camera and computer while Alex cycled over to a friend's house. Meanwhile, Mateo was upstairs in his bedroom, alone, and doing (you guessed it) nothing. In point-of-fact, he was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, and daydreaming that he was living on a star.
"I'd have to wear a fireproof suit, of course," he thought, "or I'd burn up."
And it was just then, as he was fashioning the special-order Kevlar suit in his mind, that he first saw the crack.
It was an ordinary-looking crack that might have gone unnoticed by another boy. But children like Mateo spend many hours staring at their bedroom ceilings because they're so often sent to their rooms as punishment. Thus, they're intimately familiar with their ceilings and notice when something is amiss.
The crack was new, of that he was sure, and though he wasn't normally a curious boy (his vivid imagination kept him plenty busy), he found himself strangely drawn to it.
"If I stand on my bed and stretch all the way up," he thought, "I might be able to reach it."
And when he attempted this, like a moth drawn to a flame, the tips of his fingers tingled and turned a magnificent shade of light purple that closely resembled the color of the "Lush Lavender" crayon in his 64-color KidzArt Craft Set. His fingers hadn't quite reached the crack. He was too short for that. But his fingers changed color nonetheless, and it was obvious that the crack was responsible. What else could have caused it?
Many ten-year-olds faced with such an alarming situation might have screamed and raced off to tell their parents. But we must remember that Mateo had Presence. So instead, he just stared at his fingers, with great interest, and kept staring at them, waiting to see if they would turn back to their normal, buttery light brown.
Meanwhile, he noticed (and not for the first time) the funny shape that all hands have, and how you can't stack the left hand on top of the right hand and make them fit. This made for fun shadow play. Mateo made the "shadow thumb" of one hand joust with the "shadow hand" of the other, a game that might normally have kept him entertained all the way to dinner.
But as the minutes passed, and Mateo realized that the lavender color on his fingers was not going to vanish all by itself, he wandered into the kitchen. He was starving and ready for his eighth enormous snack of the day, and hunger was one of the few things that made Mateo snap to attention and take action.
As Mateo opened the refrigerator and considered its contents, it occurred to him that his mother would be very angry if he showed up to dinner with lavender fingers. She was picky about cleanliness, as well as a host of other things. She would likely accuse him of being up to some kind of mischief when he should have been doing something useful with his free time (like retirement planning). So Mateo decided that he would lie. He would lie because it was the easiest way to cover his tracks when he was being present instead of being productive. And with his rich imagination, Mateo could dream up some real whoppers.
"I'll say that Alex painted them while I was sleeping," he thought with a devilish grin. "That will get me off the hook and him into trouble!"
Now I want to assure you that Mateo was not a mean child; not at all. But his parents were always holding up Alex as a model for the kind of kid they wanted him to be, and it hurt his feelings.
"Why can't you be more like Alex? He doesn't muck around! Watch him at batting practice. Watch him whiz through his homework. Watch and learn!"
These comparisons made Mateo feel very small indeed, and we can't blame him for having revenge fantasies against Alex on a fairly regular basis: Alex failing out of second grade, Alex getting booted off the baseball team, Alex in jail. If a bully had tried to beat up Alex after school, though, Mateo would have rushed to his brother's aid. Down deep inside, where it mattered, Mateo loved him.
Fortunately, for it is never a good idea to tell a lie (you almost always get found out), Mateo discovered how to remove the lavender stain from his fingers. After attempting to wash it off with soap and water, ketchup, olive oil, orange juice, and Happy Cow Organic Meatless Beef-Flavored Barbeque Sauce (his parents were vegetarians and strictly enforced their diet on him), he finally discovered that soda worked. And when his mother came into the kitchen later and found all these items lying about (along with Mateo's unwashed silverware, which I'm sorry to report he left in the sink), she simply put them away without another thought.
After he was finished eating, Mateo was eager to get back to the crack and do some more exploring. If almost touching the crack had made his fingers tingle and turn lavender, what would happen if he actually did touch it?"
His fingers would turn lavender again (that much was obvious) but he knew how to remove the color now. And perhaps something much more spectacular would happen that would get him out of school the next day. This idea was appealing to Mateo because the Academic Awards Ceremony was scheduled for lunch time and all the kids would be getting a plaque of one kind or another, except him.
Mrs. Hatfield had told his mother at the last parent-teacher conference that she "simply couldn't justify" giving him an award, "even for participation." After hearing that, his mother had yanked him into the car and driven away from the school at high speed, almost hitting one of his classmates in the crosswalk. He'd gotten a lecture from his father that evening too, but, as usual, he'd blocked out the words.
"BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, Mateo. Why didn't you get a BLAH, BLAH, BLAH?"
Mateo had to place his rarely used desk chair on the mattress to reach the crack, and it was a difficult maneuver. The chair rocked unsteadily and threatened to topple over as he climbed onto it. And it did fall over (three times to be exact), but Mateo was so drawn to the crack that he kept on trying. Finally, on his fourth attempt, he was successful. He actually touched the crack. And the moment he did, he felt a jolt of electricity shoot from his fingers through his body and out his toes before the room disappeared from view and he was somewhere else altogether.
I would be remiss to lead you into the next few minutes of Mateo's unusual day without advising you to bring along some peanut butter sandwiches and a sword, for Mateo had neither and would soon regret it. But you have been forewarned and can run off and get them now. Then perhaps you'll be willing to share them with Mateo when we all get to where we're going, in Chapter Two.CHAPTER 2
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
First off, I must apologize for the teaser about the sword. It's true that Mateo will wield one before this story is done, but he won't be doing it right away and it won't be the King Arthur's type found in most children's adventure stories. Sometimes writers get a little ahead of themselves, especially at the end of the first chapter of an exciting book.
As for the peanut butter sandwiches, Mateo's need for them will be rather immediate, but will also involve an important decision on your part. So hold onto them for now. If you like, you can draw them in the space below, dog-ear the page, and come back and pick them up later. Or, you can draw them out on a separate piece of paper and tuck the drawing into a secret place that only you know about, so you can pull it out later, when the time comes.
But let's return to Mateo. What happened to him next is difficult for me to describe because nothing remotely like it has ever happened to me. However, since I'm the narrator of this extraordinary tale and it's my job to explain it, I'll do my best.
The moment the violent jolt of electricity exited his toes, Mateo was sucked up through the crack, which opened just wide enough to let him through before snapping shut behind him.
For one brief (but creepy) moment, Mateo found himself crouching in the cramped crawl space between his bedroom ceiling and the roof, staring into the eyes of a resident rat. But it was a short-lived encounter, for suddenly, he was siphoned upward again, so fast that his body thinned and distorted into a long, flexible noodle, slender enough to thread through a small hole in the roof and into the blue sky beyond.
Up, up, up he went, soaring through layer after layer of Earth's atmosphere, the sky growing darker and darker with each passing second until it was blacker than black and exploded with millions of twinkling stars.
But the stars didn't twinkle for very long; they morphed into streaks. By then, you see, Mateo was traveling faster than the speed of light through a space-time tunnel that only a few brilliant physicists believe exists. And this, it turns out, was lucky for him, for outer space is a very inhospitable place and it's best to cross it as quickly as possible.
Mateo was chilled to the bone, for the space between stars is very, very cold. And he was suffocating too, from lack of air. But worst of all, the sudden change in air pressure forced the nitrogen bubbles in his blood to expand in a most uncomfortable way until he swelled up to twice his size. (Divers experience something similar when they surface from the deep ocean too quickly; it's a condition called "the bends.")
No one wants to die as a monstrous ice cube gasping for air, so I'm pleased to tell you that Mateo was spared this fate. Instead, all he really suffered was a nasty sunburn from being exposed to ultraviolet light with no space suit for protection, and he arrived at his final destination unscathed and back to his normal human-boy shape again, standing upright and alert in the middle of a forest, surrounded by trees bearing purple fruit.
The forest was eerily quiet, and after his adventure through space, Mateo instinctively knew he was no longer on Earth. But while you and I might have been a little nervous, and maybe even scuffled our feet to make some noise to keep us company, Mateo just stood there for more than a minute, feeling, more than anything else, that he'd arrived home. If you've ever come back from a long vacation, even one that was lots of fun, and felt an overwhelming sense of peace and safety when you walked in your front door, you'll know how Mateo felt. It was odd and unexpected, but he'd never felt so good in his entire life.
Mateo tried to hold onto the feeling, but it slipped away, and soon he was examining himself to make sure he wasn't injured. He seemed okay; no bones were broken at least. But the lavender color on his fingers had returned with a vengeance. No amount of soda, he was sure, could get rid of it now. If he ever got back home, his mother would be furious. But maybe some good could come from it.
"Perhaps Mrs. Hatfield will kick me out of school!" he thought, in sudden delight. "She'll tell my parents that my purple fingers are distracting the other students and I'm suspended forever!"
It was a fun fantasy, and Mateo could have spent many hours enjoying it. But, in the otherworldly forest, there were more interesting opportunities. So he walked over to the nearest tree and climbed into its dark branches, wondering if the purple fruit tasted sweet and juicy, like oranges, or bitter and chewy, like the curly mustard greens his mother so often served for dinner.
As it turned out, it was neither. It tasted like stale bread.
"Oh well," he told himself, "a boy can't be picky when he's starving."
He dug in and finished off an entire fruit, which was about the size of a mango but without the large seed, and then swung about for a while, pretending he was a monkey.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mateo and the Gift of Presence"
Copyright © 2017 Ruth Ballard.
Excerpted by permission of Spinning Wheel Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Crack,
Chapter 2: What Happened Next,
Chapter 3: Where Mateo Was,
Chapter 4: Five Things You Need to Know,
Chapter 5: What's Been Happening In Monterey,
Chapter 6: Uppy Surfing and Ducky Sacks,
Chapter 7: Out to the Beach,
Chapter 8: Laup,
Chapter 9: Paddling with Ideth,
Chapter 10: A Berth at the East Ender,
Chapter 11: Shum,
Chapter 12: Mateo's Renaming,
Chapter 13: On Krog Pad Island,
Chapter 14: Meato on the Bluffs,
Chapter 15: A Break in the Case,
Chapter 16: Iktae,
Chapter 17: Neap Tides,
Chapter 18: The Trial of J. O. Albini,
Chapter 19: An Innocent Man,
Chapter 20: The Storm,
Chapter 21: Search and Recovery,
Chapter 22: Elvia,
Chapter 23: The Returning,
Chapter 24: Homecoming,
Chapter 25: J. O. Albini Writes a Book,
Chapter 26: The Forgetting,
Synopsis of Elvia and the Gift of Feeling Deeply,
Future Books in the Tales by Moons-Light Series,
About the Author,