The Secret Hour - By Scott Westerfeld

Chapter 1

8:11 A.M.


The halls of Bixby High School were always hideously bright on the first day of school. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, their white honeycombed plastic shields newly cleaned of dead insect shapes. The freshly shined floors dazzled, glinting in the hard September sunlight that streamed in through the school's open front doors.

Rex Greene walked slowly, wondering how the students jostling past him could run into this place. His every step was a struggle, a fight against the grating radiance of Bixby High, against being trapped here for another year. For Rex summer vacation was a place to hide, and every year this day gave him the sinking feeling of having just been discovered, caught, pinned like an escaping prisoner in a searchlight.

Rex squinted in the brightness and pushed up his glasses with one finger, wishing he could wear dark shades over their thick frames. One more layer between him and Bixby High School.

The same faces were all here. Timmy Hudson, who had beaten him up just about every day in fifth grade, passed by, not giving Rex a second glance. The surging crowd was full of old tormentors and classmates and childhood friends, but no one seemed to recognize him anymore. Rex pulled his long black coat around himself and clung to the row of lockers along the wall, waiting for the crowd to clear, wondering exactly when he had become invisible. And why. Maybe it was because the daylight world meant so little to him now.

He put his head down and edged toward class.

Then he saw the new girl.

She was his age, maybe a year younger. Her hair was deep red, and she was carrying a green book bag over one shoulder. Rex had never seen her before, and in a school as small as Bixby High, that was unusual enough. But novelty wasn't the strangest thing about her.

She was out of focus.

A faint blur clung to her face and hands, as if she were standing behind thick glass. The other faces in the crowded hall were clear in the bright sunlight, but hers wouldn't resolve no matter how hard he stared. She seemed to exist just out of the reach of focus, like music played from a copy of a copy of an old cassette tape.

Rex blinked, trying to clear his eyes, but the blurriness stayed with the girl, tracking her as she slipped further into the crowd. He abandoned his place by the wall and pushed his way after her.

That was a mistake. Now sixteen, he was a lot bigger, his dyed-black hair more obvious than ever, and his invisibility left him as he pushed purposefully through the crowd.

A shove came from behind, and Rex's balance twisted under him. More hands kept him reeling, four or five boys working together until he came to a crashing stop, his shoulder slamming into the row of lockers lining the wall.

"Out of the way, dork!" Rex felt a slap against the side of his face. He blinked as the world went blurry, the hall dissolving into a swirl of colors and moving blobs. The sickening sound of his glasses skittering along the floor reached his ears.

"Rex lost his spex!" came a voice. So Timmy Hudson did remember his name. Laughter trailed away down the hall.

Rex realized that his hands were out in front of him, feeling the air like a blind man's. He might as well be blind. Without his glasses, the world was a blender full of meaningless color.

The bell rang.

Rex slumped against the lockers, waiting for the hall to clear. He'd never catch up with the new girl now. Maybe he'd imagined her.

"Here," came a voice.

As he raised his eyes, Rex's mouth dropped open.

Without glasses Rex's weak eyes could see her perfectly. Behind her the hall was still a mess of blurred shapes, but her face stood out, clear and detailed. He noticed her green eyes now, flecked with gold in the sunlight.

"Your glasses," she said, holding them out. Even this close, the thick frames were still fuzzy, but he could see the girl's outstretched hand with crystal clarity. The Focus clung to her.

Finally willing himself to move, Rex closed his mouth and took the glasses. When he put them on, the rest of the world jumped into focus, and the girl blurred again. Just like the others always did.

"Thanks," he managed.

"That's okay." She smiled, shrugged, and looked around at the almost empty hall. "I guess we're late now. I don't even know where I'm going."

Her accent sounded