Albert was 7 years old when he first discovered what he could do.
He was playing along with a lot of other kids at the playground. Albert was by himself on the swings. As he was swinging a much bigger boy walked past, too close to the swing. Albert accidentally kicked him.
The older boy walked around and shoved Albert off the swing from behind so he would fall flat on his face. Albert was lying on the ground crying, when the other boy said, "You did that on purpose!" He looked up to see the older boy raising his fist to hit him in his dirt-covered face. Albert put up his hands.
The boy swung, but his fist never reached Albert's face.
The air seemed to grow misty around Albert. When the bully tried to punch him, his fist seemed to hit something hard, though there was nothing there. The air was so hard that the boy broke his knuckles, and his hand was bleeding. The boy screamed and went running off crying.
Albert sat up. He had no more idea of what had happened than anybody else who had seen it. He tried holding out his hands again as he had just done, and the air became misty again.
Nobody did any more playing there that day. All the children went home quietly, and a little scared - including Albert.
Albert tried to explain to his parents what had happened. He held up his hands as he had done before, explaining, "All I did was put my hands up like this and hope I could keep him from hitting me, and something happened."
The air grew misty all around him, just as it had at the playground. His parents reached out to him, and they could feel the solid air around him. "I've never seen anything like this!" his father said. They weren't even sure whether or not it was something that they should worry about, but it did seem like something that could be good and useful. It certainly was good for Albert that morning that he was able to do it!
Albert spent the next couple of days doing experiments to see what he could do with his strange shield. Most of the time he did the experiments alone, though his parents were always very interested in what he learned about his strange ability. They didn't understand it any more than Albert did, but since it seemed to be something good, they encouraged him to use it and see what he could do with it.
He found that he could make the shield as big as he wanted it. He could even protect other people or things in it. But he couldn't put it around somebody or something else without being in the middle of it.
The biggest test came the day of the fierce thunderstorm.
"Wait a minute, I want to try something big," Albert said to his parents, just as they went to close all the windows. "I want to see if I can make the shield all around the whole house. Could you leave the windows open, to see if it works?"
His parents had to think about it for a moment, but they also wanted to see how powerful Albert was. They decided it was worth risking some wet furniture and rugs to see if he could do it. So they let him try it.
They kept all the windows wide open during the windy thunderstorm, but not a single drop of water got into the house!
The mysterious explosion had happened so many years ago that Albert's parents never made any connection between that and his new powers.
Even though few people had seen it, the explosion was a popular topic of discussion among everybody in the neighborhood. Once in a while it was even talked about on television, especially when some scientist came up with a new theory about what the explosion was.
Albert's parents didn't even know he had seen the explosion through the open window that night, and that he felt something after it. Even Albert didn't remember having seen it, except in dreams.
Nobody was ever able to come up with a good explanation for that explosion. As time went by, almost everyone forgot all about it.
It took a few weeks before the neighbors accepted Albert's strange new abilities. But soon they began to find ways to take advantage of Albert's shield.
Albert was always in especially high demand during storms! If someone had somewhere to go on a rainy day, Albert would get a call on the phone to come over. He would cheerfully go to their house and accompany the other person, with his shield on so nobody would get wet! The shield was better than having an umbrella. And after winter snowstorms, he would help everybody by walking around the neighborhood with his shield up, clearing away all the snow as he walked.
Once there was a fire in a house a couple blocks away. There was a crowd gathered, and Albert went to see what was going on. There was heavy smoke coming out of the kitchen window. The family was safe, but they were standing outside terrified, waiting for the fire engines, wondering if they were going to lose their entire home. The little boy who lived there, Seth, saw Albert, but was too scared to speak.
Albert set up a shield around himself, and walked into the burning building. The shield not only protected him from the fire, but also protected him from the smoke. But even through the shield it was terribly hot. It was hard to see, but he made his way to the kitchen.
Albert stopped in the room just outside the kitchen. He shaped the shield so it covered the whole house except for the kitchen. It was hard to get it into the right shape. It was also hard to get it just the right size. He couldn't make it too close to the fire, or the heat might pass through it and set fire to the area inside the shield. He held it there just like that until the firemen arrived.
As soon as the firemen were at the house, Albert opened up the window that was next to him. He then removed the shield so the firemen could get through and get inside the house. There were a few people outside the window, and they helped Albert climb out the window and get out of the house, while the firemen inside were putting out the fire. As soon as he was out, they all cheered for him and his heroism in having saved the family's home.
Albert also discovered that the shield could protect him in a fall. One afternoon one of the neighborhood children, who was only 4 years old, climbed a bit too high up into a tree, and she couldn't get down. When her mother saw Albert walking down the sidewalk, she ran to him. "Rachel's up in a tree," she told him, "And can't get down. Can you use your shield to help her?"
Albert went into the backyard with her. The little girl had managed to get herself very high into the tree! Albert knew he would have to climb up and get her. There were low branches and it wasn't hard to get up into the tree, but it would have been very difficult to climb back down.
The girl smiled when Albert reached her. She knew about his shield and how he could help people. She had even watched him save Seth's house around the corner.
Albert threw the shield around her so it covered both of them. He held her around her waist, and said. "O.K., I've got you. Let go of the branch and we can get down." She let go, and Albert held onto her and leaned back and let himself fall off the branch with her.
They hit the ground completely unhurt, thanks to the shield. Albert got rid of the shield as he stood up with her. She hugged Albert and then ran over to her mother, who kept thanking Albert until he waved and continued on his way.
Albert frequently helped with cats in trees, and a couple times he rescued some kid's kite from a tree.
Only once was there an accident involving his shield.
Albert always loved birds. He thought it might be fun to catch a bird by putting up his shield around himself and a bird in a tree, to hold it in. Then he could pull the shield in smaller and smaller, until he could get to the bird, and catch and hold and pet it.
One beautiful Spring day, Albert went out and found a tree with a bird singing in it. He put up his shield, and waited for the bird to leave the branch. He was just about to start pulling in the shield, when the bird flew right into it! The bird died when it slammed into the shield, and fell to the ground.
Albert dropped the shield and ran as fast as he could to where the bird fell. When he saw what he had done to the little bird, he ran home crying.
Even though his parents tried to convince him it was just an accident and he shouldn't feel that terrible about it, he never wanted to use his shield again after that. He felt that way for over a week. He never used his shield to trap anything ever again, but he finally did go back to using his shield again.
The dreams of the explosion came less and less often. But another dream was coming more and more often. It was a dream about a man trapped underground. Albert wanted to help the poor trapped person, but couldn't do anything about it. Albert had never seen the place before, and didn't know who the person was. But the dream was getting more vivid and urgent all the time.
Sometimes the dream was so strong and awful, Albert ran to his parents in the middle of the night and woke them up. He had to find that trapped man and help him out!
All he knew about it was that he was under a high hill with lots of grass and trees. They went on many picnics, to every place with hills and trees they could find, so Albert could look for his trapped man. His parents weren't convinced that the trapped man of Albert's dreams was real, but they helped him look anyway. But it was no use. The trees in Albert's dreams were not like any trees any of them had ever seen anywhere. Most of them had long, vine-like leaves that curled up in all directions. Albert was certain that there really was a man trapped under a hill somewhere, and that the hill and those trees were real.
Albert's father started checking books out of the library on different kinds of trees, and bought books about trees if he saw one in a bookstore that wasn't in the library. He got books with pictures of trees from all parts of the world. Not one of them had trees that looked anything like the ones Albert saw in his dreams; it seemed they were unlike any trees anywhere in the world.
Even though it eventually looked hopeless, Albert never gave up trying to find the place where the man was trapped under the hill. He knew that the hill was a real place, and nothing could stop him from finding it.
End Chapter 1
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