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The Hypnotists

Gordon Korman



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  There was something evil about the Third Avenue bus. It stood there, almost taunting, as Jackson Opus came tearing along the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, yelling, “Hey! Hey! Wait!”

  He was no more than six feet away when the door folded shut, the air brakes hissed, and the long accordion-style vehicle eased out into traffic.

  Jax stopped short, utterly defeated. A second later, he was rear-ended by Tommy Cicerelli, who had just enough breath left to shout a few choice words at the zit-cream ad on the back of the disappearing bus.

  “We’ll be late,” Jax predicted. “Coach is so going to kill us.”

  “We can’t be late for the championship game!” Tommy ranted. “Maybe there’ll be another one soon.”

  Sure enough, another M33 crested the rise. The boys rushed to the stop only to watch in despair as the driver went by without so much as a glance at them out of the corner of his eye.

  Tommy slammed his gym bag against the pole. “Hey, man, what about us?”

  “No way another bus is going to come now,” Jax mourned. “Not after two in a row.”

  Yet only a minute or so later, there it was — the route number in the front windshield clearly read M33. Even from down the avenue, Jax and Tommy could tell it was packed to the roof. The driver was concentrating on the horizon, without even looking at the stop where they were waiting.

  “He’s blowing us off!” Tommy wailed.

  In desperation, Jax stepped out into the road, waving madly until he caught the driver’s attention. Standing there in the lane, he had a brief flash of how he must have looked to someone on the bus — a twelve-year-old kid in the path of tons of roaring machinery. It was more vivid than a daydream. For an instant, he actually saw himself through the glass of the windshield, growing larger and larger as the bus bore down on him.

  He held his ground. Not for a regular game; not even for the playoffs. For the championship.

  With a screech of metal on metal, the huge vehicle lurched to a halt. Hefting their duffels, Jax and Tommy squeezed aboard.

  “Opus, you are the man!” Tommy exclaimed in awe.

  “I’m the man, all right. If I can’t get us uptown by seven thirty, I’m the dead man.” As Jax leaned over to swipe his MetroCard, he caught sight of the driver. The man was staring at him, his face expressionless.

  “You freaked the guy out,” Tommy whispered. “Even in New York, it’s not every day some idiot steps out in front of a speeding bus.”

  Jax flushed. “Sorry, mister. We’re just really late. You have to get us to Ninety-Sixth Street as soon as possible.”

  The door hissed shut, and the bus started north, gathering speed. It beat the yellow light at Fourteenth and sailed up the avenue. The stop-request bell rang several times, but the driver kept on going.

  “Hey!” came a voice. “You missed my block!”

  There was no response from the driver, who hunched over the big wheel, weaving through the evening rush, accelerating to the speed limit and far beyond. Horns sounded and tires squealed as frightened motorists swerved to get out of the way. Pedestrians ran for their lives.

  Jax gawked at the driver. Was he nuts? This was an accordion bus, not a race car! City roads were crowded, with stoplights on every corner, and the guy had the pedal to the metal!

  “Dude, this is the best bus in New York!” Tommy exclaimed. “We might just make it after all.”

  Wordlessly, Jax watched out the window as the blocks flashed by. Lights turned red, but the driver plowed straight through. Cross traffic screeched to a halt. There was a crunch as a taxi tried to reverse out of the path of the hurtling M33 and bashed in the front grille of an SUV.

  The passengers’ reactions morphed from surprise to anger to outright panic.

  “Are you crazy, mister?”

  “You caused an accident back there!”

  “You’re a mile and a half past my stop!”

  “You’ll get us all killed!”

  “I’m calling the cops!”

  As they barreled across Fifty-Ninth Street, a slow-moving garbage truck lumbered directly into their path. The driver yanked the wheel so abruptly that his head bumped against the side window. Passengers were tossed from their seats, and standees swayed violently, hanging on for dear life. Screams rang out and cell phones hit the floor. Jax clung to the rail to avoid being thrown down the entrance steps. Tommy was pressed against the door. The whole interior vibrated like a guitar string.

  The bus shot the gap between the truck and a row of taxis, rattled over some construction plates, and rocketed on. They were now the undisputed kings of the road. Pedestrians and cars scattered to get out of their way. It took no more than a peek in the rearview mirror to convince a motorist that he or she wanted no quarrel with this speeding juggernaut plowing up the avenue, its accordion-attached back oscillating like the tail of a shark.

  Inside was pandemonium — angry shouts, terrified screams, and even prayers. One man was out of his seat, trying to wrestle the wheel away from the driver, who was holding him off with a stiff arm.

  Jax’s wide eyes met Tommy’s. At this point, basketball was the last thing on their minds. What was going on here? Exactly how scared should they be? Both were city kids, tough to impress. Yet they’d heard stories of people snapping and doing crazy things. Was that what was happening to the driver? And was it just bad luck that had put them on this bus the very day he chose to flash out in a blaze of demented glory?

  The shrieking of brakes was earsplitting. Pocketbooks and loose objects were airborne. Businessmen went down like dominoes. Jax was slammed into a bulkhead. Tommy was tossed on top of him. At the last moment, Jax held up his gym bag, preventing a head-to-head collision that would have knocked both of them unconscious. In a few devastating seconds, the bus had jolted from speeding missile to a shattering, complete stop.

  The door hissed open. “Ninety-Sixth Street,” the driver announced pleasantly.

  Cries of pain and whimpers of fear filled the long vehicle. Buried under Tommy, his heart pounding in his throat, all Jax could manage was “Huh?”

  “Ninety-Sixth,” the man repeated. “Have a nice day.”

  Jax and Tommy disembarked, and they weren’t the only ones. Passengers, gasping and wheezing with relief, joined the stampede to the safety of the sidewalk. The fact that most were far from their destinations didn’t bother them anymore. They had fully expected to be dead. Being alive was a definite plus for the day.

  His bus completely empty, the driver moved on with a friendly wave. It prompted a chorus of angry shouts from his former riders.

  Jax could hear sirens in the distance. He labored to get his breathing under control. “How weird was that?”

  But Tommy was looking past him at the clock tower on the corner. “We can still make it! Let’s run!”

  “Cutting it a little close, don’t you think?” barked Coach Knapp
of the Westside Automotive Chargers when Jax and Tommy arrived in the locker room of the community center.

  “Third Avenue was a mess,” supplied Tommy, beginning to pull off his street clothes.

  “We’re heading out for the shootaround,” Knapp told them. “Suit up and meet us on the floor.”

  Jax shrugged out of his shirt and pulled his jersey over his head. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was blue-eyed again, on his way back to pale green. On the bus, for sure, his ever-changing eyes must have been close to violet. Stress brought out the purple hues. It was embarrassing sometimes, like a mood ring you couldn’t hide. Most people never noticed the changing color. Yet they sensed something was different. Often they asked, “Did you get a haircut?” or “Have you lost weight?” or even “Didn’t you used to wear glasses?” Being stared at was hard to get used to. Maybe that was why Tommy was an ideal best friend. He was color-blind, and didn’t see it.

  One guy who definitely saw something as the latecomers jogged out to the court was Rodney Steadman, leading scorer on the opposing team, the Sure-Shot Pest Control Sharpshooters. As a small forward, it was Jax’s assignment to cover the Gotham League MVP. They hadn’t even had the tip-off yet, and already Rodney was staring at him. Surely Number Double-Zero wasn’t afraid of skinny Jackson Opus. Rodney was probably going to run rings around him. Coach Knapp definitely thought he would. He’d spent the entire week of practice encouraging Jax with such pep talks as, “If you can hold Steadman under thirty, we’ve got a chance” and “Whatever you do, don’t let him see you’re scared. That kind of kid smells fear like a shark smells blood in the water.”

  Well, if there was fear to smell, Rodney already had a whiff of it, thanks to Jax’s eyes, which were probably the color of grape Tootsie Pops. All at once, Jax had a sudden flash of seeing himself in his basketball uniform, standing at the edge of the circle, awaiting the tip-off.

  It was just like when he’d stepped into the road to flag down the bus — a brief image of himself as he must have appeared to somebody else. Of course, with the bus, it was triggered by the fact that he was terrified of being run over. But he wasn’t that frightened now, was he? Okay, he was leery of being embarrassed by Rodney in the game, but surely that didn’t compare to the prospect of being squashed.

  Jax had been having these strange visions for several months now — too long for him to ignore as daydreams. Was he hallucinating? Maybe, but wasn’t hallucination when you saw things that weren’t there? He was seeing himself, exactly where he was, doing exactly what he was doing. It was almost like his own eyes were receiving input from remote cameras looking back at him.

  Jax had heard of something called an out-of-body experience. Was that what was going on here? It was still pretty weird, but according to the research he’d done on the Internet, one person in every ten had them. Most often, people reported seeing their own bodies as if they were floating above themselves, and Jax had never witnessed that. Out-of-body experiences were sometimes triggered by near-death events. Being hit by a bus, for example.

  But pregame jitters? Definitely lame.

  Jax scowled back at Rodney to pretend he wasn’t intimidated, and said, “What are you looking at, man? You’re scared — that’s what you are.”

  The ploy backfired. Rodney didn’t look away. The league MVP understood he had very little to fear from the likes of Jackson Opus.

  A sharp whistle blast jarred him back to the court. The opening tip-off was airborne, the two centers leaping for the ball. The Sharpshooters controlled the tip and, sure enough, the pass went to Rodney. Jax positioned himself in front of his opponent, bouncing lightly on the soles of his feet. Strangely, though, Number Double-Zero had more of his attention on the defender than on the ball. He seemed distracted, dribbling slowly and too high, well above the waistband of his shorts.

  Jax sliced in and slapped the ball away. He was so amazed at this accomplishment that he stubbed his toe on the hardwood and went down. Luckily, Tommy snatched up the ball and passed it crosscourt to Dante Marsh, the Chargers’ captain, who laid it in for the game’s opening score.

  The Chargers were huge underdogs against the heavily favored Sharpshooters, yet the game turned into a seesaw battle, evenly matched, with several lead changes. It wasn’t that Westside Automotive was playing so well, or even that the Sharpshooters were playing so badly — with one exception: Rodney Steadman. It was as if he were in slow motion, clearly distracted. He’d hit a couple of shots. But by halftime, when the league MVP was normally well into double digits, he had a mere four points, and his team was clinging to a 32−31 lead.

  “What’s up with Steadman?” Dante panted, gulping Gatorade. “He’s playing like his feet are stuck in quicksand!”

  “Yeah,” point guard Gus Mayo added. “We’re lucky we caught him on an off day.”

  “Luck’s got nothing to do with it,” Tommy countered. “It’s my man Jax, shutting him down.”

  “Yeah, great job, Opus,” Coach Knapp chimed in. “You’re really getting into his head.”

  And Jax agreed. The question was: How? How was he neutralizing the player who had been making mincemeat out of defenses all season?

  As the players got set to return for the third quarter, Tommy put his arm around Jax. “Four points! Steadman usually scores that while lacing up his sneakers. Did someone slip a four-leaf clover into your Corn Flakes or something?”

  Jax was offended. “You just said I was shutting him down!”

  “I’ve got to stick up for my man,” Tommy reasoned. “But you and I both know you’re not that good. He’s checking you out like he’s facing LeBron.”

  “I don’t get it,” Jax confessed. “He should be chewing me up and spitting me out. Instead, he’s making me look good.”

  “He’s kind of staring at you,” Tommy observed. “I guess he’s into ugly.”

  “Thanks a lot!”

  “Hey, I’m down with it,” Tommy added quickly. “If it keeps Steadman off the board, you could be Miss America for all I care.”

  The Sharpshooters’ coach exhorted his star to get involved in the offense. And Rodney responded, shooting more and driving to the hoop. When he did, it seemed so natural and effortless that Jax couldn’t help wondering why the leading scorer wasn’t doing it on every possession. Jax couldn’t stop Rodney Steadman at full speed. No one could — not in the Gotham League, anyway.

  “Maybe you’re not as scared as I thought,” Jax said with a chagrined smile.

  Rodney peered back in perplexity, as if trying to solve an especially baffling puzzle.

  Whether the MVP was frightened or not, something was slowing him down. He didn’t break double figures until well into the fourth quarter. By then the Chargers’ confidence in their ability to compete could not have been higher. Avoiding a blowout was no longer their prime concern. Winning was a real possibility.

  “Okay, you guys,” Coach Knapp urged as they entered the last two minutes with a 63−62 lead. “Just play our game, and we’ll leave this building champions.”

  But in basketball, a one-point advantage is a paper-thin cushion. Rodney scored on a ten-foot jumper to retake the lead. The Chargers responded, but Number Double-Zero struck again, upping his point total to fourteen. The Sharpshooters were ahead by one and, maybe even worse, the MVP finally seemed to be heating up.

  “What’re you doing, man?” Tommy hissed. “Why’d you let him score?”

  “That’s the way I always play,” Jax panted. “It’s before that didn’t make sense!”

  Coach Knapp’s face was crimson. “Somebody do something!”

  Sure-Shot’s defense tightened, and for a moment it seemed as if the clock was going to run out as the Chargers passed the ball in a circle in search of an open look at the hoop.

  “Shooooooot!!” howled the coach.

  The scream startled Gus into action. He put up a desperation shot that ricocheted off the hand in his face, wobbled in a graceless arc, kissed the bac
kboard, and dropped through the hoop. 67−66, Chargers. Exactly five seconds remained on the clock.

  With no time-outs remaining, Rodney Steadman took the inbounds pass and headed up the court, the winning score in his hands. In an instant, Jax knew there would be no pass. All season, the Sharpshooters had succeeded by putting their fate in the hands of Number Double-Zero, and that’s exactly what they were doing tonight.

  The clock ticked down. 4 … 3 … 2 …

  A step past the foul line, Rodney pulled up for the shot. Left in the dust a half step behind his man, Jax knew there was only one way to stop him. He left his feet and hurled himself into the shooter just as the time went to zero. If this had been football, it would have been a textbook tackle.

  This was not football. Foul.

  The scorekeeper put 0.1 seconds back on the clock, and Rodney was awarded two free throws. The Chargers were devastated. It had been the only possible move, but it was doomed to failure. Not only was Rodney the league MVP, but he was also the free-throw king. The first foul shot would tie the game; the second would win it.

  Number Double-Zero took his place at the stripe and prepared to crown his team champions. There was nothing Jax could do but take his place and watch the world end. Rodney cast him a glance as if to say You gave it a good try, but it’s over.

  And at that instant, of all times, the vision came. He saw himself standing in the lane next to the Sharpshooters’ center.

  Now? Why now? Was the prospect of losing so genuinely terrible?

  He shook his head to clear it, and did the only thing left to him in this situation.

  “Miss!” he mumbled under his breath. “Miss!”

  The shot went up. There was a loud clunk as it struck the iron and bounced away.

  The gasp that came from both teams sucked all the air out of the community center. This changed everything! Now the best the Sharpshooters could hope for was overtime. And Rodney still had to hit a free throw for that to happen.

  “Come on! Miss!” Jax whispered again. “Miss, miss, miss!”

  The last word came out so emphatically that everyone on the court, including Rodney, looked over at him.

  He flushed and mumbled, “Sorry.”