Crisp leaves crunched under my sneakers as I walked along the brick path. I kicked at a pile of maple pods. A startled mouse skittered away and dove into a sewer pipe, which belched a combination of black smoke and acrid stench. A school bus weaved through parked cars as it traveled along the recently paved road.
The fall day was unusually cool, even for Colorado, and my breath ballooned in front of me as I walked. Grey clouds crossed the sky and cast shadows that made patterns on the ground, which were not—if imagination was heavily applied—unlike animal forms. The day, despite the decreasing temperature and lack of sunshine, was quite pleasant. It was a nice break from the odorous, steaming summer hours which had plagued much of Clearwater during the past several weeks.
My walk to school was by far the most enjoyable part of the day. All around the trees boasted vibrant colors of gold yellows, blood reds, and sea greens. As I walked, leaves fluttered in spirals and circles to the ground. I crunched the fallen leaves which lay carpeted before me. The soft music from my earphones made me smile. I was content.
A soft growl rattled me and yanked my mind from thoughts of autumn and plunged it back to reality. The growl intensified, and for a moment I feared a dangerous dog was approaching. The nervousness abated when I saw a small white poodle. The dog peered at a squirrel as it chattered noisily.
So much for that possible mauling. I exhaled, focusing back on my heart and settling it down. Butterflies, my mom always said of fluttering hearts and nervous stomachs, for I had always been an anxious kid.
I used to lie in bed, kept awake by dreams of what the world was turning into. Horrible nightmares of losing those I loved battled the dreamless sleep which rarely came. Some called my attachment to those around me as a blessing, a disguised gift. I considered it a blessing and a curse.
My mind drifted to the recent kidnappings that had rocked the town. A news article published the day before had read:
STUDENT KIDNAPPINGS SHAKE CLEARWATER
Reporter Christosis O’Hare
Thousands across Colorado have been shocked by the sudden kidnappings in Clearwater of two young ladies from their high school campus during their prom. The kidnapper, described by witnesses as a thin, man all in black who forced the two girls into his car. The girls’ prom escorts later told police that they had been getting drinks from the punch line when they heard the girls’ screams. The police department has refused to divulge any information at this time but does encourage anyone with any piece of information that could lead to the arrest of this criminal to either step forward or call the anonymous tip hotline.
Sweat slicked my palms, and I rubbed them against my torn jeans. My backpack felt slightly heavier than before—the bright beautiful morning had an unsettling air of menace to it. The sound of sneaker against concrete caused me to stop dead. I whirled around. My notebook slipped out of my hands and caught onto my earbud cord, yanking it out of my ear. Six boys hurried up. Big Beef followed after them. The school bully, Big Beef, found his enjoyment in torturing girls and boys unfortunate enough to be smarter than him. No one knew his real name, save for teachers, and these he had blackmailed. Most students just call him BB. His face glistened with sweat. His grease-slicked hair was kept back by a tattered ball cap. His goons spread out behind him.
BB had a playful look in his brown eyes. He sized me up and signaled to his followers to encircle me.
“Hey BB,” I said, hoping that my terror was not obvious.
He grinned. “Hey Phoenix.”
My heartrate spiked. BB never used a person’s name. His usual battle plan was to insult you in some particularly harsh way till you burst into tears.
I glanced about frantically, hoping that someone would see what was about to happen, and maybe intervene. Normally, the steady drone of cars and blaring buses that drove up the residential street would have been reassuring—something to be casually drowned out with earbuds and Robert Simon’s “Thousand Spotlights.” Now, however, the noise seemed to diminish altogether, and I could only hear BB’s snarling voice.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The smell of cigar smoke hit me. “School is on the next street over, so me and my buddies here would like to know what you’re doing on my turf!”
I tried not to show fear. Letting a bully like BB sense that his intimidation was succeeding would be like dumping blood in shark infested waters, then hopping in naked. I opened my mouth to spout some defiant retort.
“Oh, uh well… I, uh—”
“You’re so pathetic.” He put his big hands on my chest and shoved me backward. “I could beat you raw with both hands tied behind my back.” His buddies thought this was quite funny.
“Oh come on guys,” I said, for a brief moment exasperation overriding my fear, “is he seriously the best you could come up with?”
My bravery resulted in a punch to the gut. I gasped and dropped to both knees, slammed my fists on the sidewalk, and gagged. BB snorted with laughter. I staggered back to my feet, raising my hands in a weak attempt at a fighting posture. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself laid out flat. A dull throb began in my head, and I tasted blood where I had bitten into the side of my cheek. BB kneed me in the gut.
“What’s the matter?” He snarled, his face an inch from mine. He yanked hard on my shirt collar. “Can’t handle yourself in a fight?” He hoisted me up. I shook my head to clear it. Spots spiraled across my vision, and the previously stationary world began to undulate in dizzying colors. I readied myself to be rendered unconscious.
“I haven’t heard an apology yet.” He turned to his henchmen. “Have you guys heard an apology yet?”
I cried out as he twisted my arm behind my back. The others behind him shook their heads
“I’ve dreamed of destroying you,” I murmured, but he didn’t hear me.
During the brief tussle of silence and pain, I tried to think of a tactic to break his concentration just enough so that his grip would slacken.
I kicked out violently. Big Beef may have been known for being the strongest, cruelest kid in the high school, but he was also by far the slowest. It took him a moment to register where my Converse sneaker was headed. The second of hesitation was all I needed.
He yelped in pain, doubling over, as his hands went to his midriff. I barreled up the sidewalk, his minions hot on my trail. I only hoped the prey could outrun the predators.
“Get him!” BB bellowed. “Get him and drag him back here.”
I was about to give up all hope—the grasping fingers of my pursuers a few inches from fastening on my shirt—when I saw someone across the street. She was engrossed in a book. The girl lifted her head slightly, caught sight of me and frowned.
The boys stopped and retreated as she strolled over. I sighed with relief although my insides squirmed with the pain BB had wrought.
“This is not over,” BB roared in the distance. “You hear me?”
My pulse would have quickened at the approach of the girl if I hadn’t already felt like I’d run a marathon. Katherine Chase, my savior, had been my childhood best friend as far back as I could remember. We’d grown up together and shared our dreams for the future. Recently, I’d begun to notice a change in my feelings whenever she was around me. She spent more time with her nose in her books of fantasy than she did anything else. It was one of the many reasons I couldn’t help but feel drawn to her. Today, she had been engrossed in a novel called The Shady Arachnid’s Ruination.
“Hey Phoenix.” Katy smiled, stopping before me. She turned to face where the others had vanished. “BB can be such a jerk. I’ve tried telling the principal, but he just tells me to keep my... Phoenix? Do I have something in my hair?”
I realized I’d been staring at her, mouth slightly open. The sun caught her in a wreath of golden light, and her blonde hair, and the fragrance of her perfume had caught me by surprise.
“Jerk?” I said, shaking my head as though I hadn’t just been caught gaping at her. “Try future inmate at Clearwater County Jail.” I hoped I sounded suave and not like a complete idiot. “How are you?”
Her cheeks were flushed pink from the cold, and she wore a white shirt and a pink skirt. Her hair was slung over her shoulder in a ponytail; the faint whiffs of lilac-scented shampoo still lingering.
I felt my face reddening. Bad enough that I had to be humiliated by the biggest kid in our school, but to have Katy see it just rubbed salt in the wound.
“Come on, you! Walk me to school?” She slipped her book inside her bag and slung it over one arm.
If I hadn’t blushed before, this question really did the trick. For another few seconds I stammered until I could remember who I was.
“Oh, absolutely.” I grinned.
She gave me another huge smile and began to walk toward school, her ponytail bouncing up and down. A glow seemed to surround her. She turned slightly and glanced back. Her lips parted in slow motion…
I love you, Phoenix.
I stumbled into a trashcan and did a full flip onto the ground, landing on my back. Amidst the pencils and books and trash that had scattered on the ground, I found my pride and dignity and stood up.
“Are you coming,” she said, a bemused look on her face, “or would you rather BB got you?’”
Trying to act like flipping over a trashcan was perfectly normal; I brushed the leaves off my shirt.
We began the trek in silence, but it soon became evident that Katy could not hold back a tidal wave of information as she lectured on about the predictability of modern novels.
“… and in every book I read, the main protagonists always come out alive in the end. I think authors need to start formulating new plots where more centralized characters meet their own demise. I mean, sure, there’s George R.R. Martin, but he’s almost the exception that proves the rule, and fantasy has always played by slightly different rules to begin with. What about non-genre works…”
Her words began to flow together in a soup of arguments and counterarguments. I found myself stealing glances at her.
“What about if you were in a book?” I turned her thought around. “You wouldn’t want to die at the hands of some evil villain, would you?”
“I’m happy then that this is not a fictional world.” She giggled. “If it was who knows what might happen?”
Overhead, a flock of Canada geese flew in formation, honking their way past a grove of spruces and out of sight. Nose quivering to the scents of the world, a rabbit lay crouched in the grass of an unkempt lawn, nibbling at green blades. Copses of trees, some still clinging to the last hopes of fall, sported empty nests and the occasional bird. In one house we passed, a boy had his nosed smeared to the glass, eyes glued to a mail truck which had just pulled up.
“My biggest pet peeve is that authors think they are being creative when in reality all they are doing is manipulating original ideas and making them unoriginal. Someone has to write a book where at least one of the important and vital characters die! Death is crucial.”
When I didn’t say anything, she glanced at me out of the corner of her hazelnut-colored eyes.
“What?” I mumbled. “Oh yeah.”
“You’re really distracted today.” Katy tilting her head to the side, observing me closely. “Anything wrong? Don’t tell me Casey has been making fun of you again? I told you when she does that you need to stand up to her.”
Of course, something is wrong, I’m walking with you and I can’t seem to create a sentence without looking like a dork.
I cleared my throat. “Casey has been the least of my worries. I’m still shaky over my encounter with BB. That guy sure knows how to intimidate. Think they have a class for that? If so, it would be the only class he could get an A in.”
She laughed, a sound like chimes tinkling in the wind, and touched my arm. I froze.
“On the serious side though,” she said, “you can’t allow him to keep accosting you like this. One of these days you’ll have to stand up to him.”
“Oh, I’ll stand up to him!” I shook my fist in the air then slowly lowered it. “I’ll stand up to him alright when I’m four feet taller, weigh twice as much as he does, and have my own unicorn.”
“Well so long as you have a plan.” She winked, bounding ahead and twirling.
I checked my watch and was about to tell her that we should hurry as homeroom would begin soon, when a group of girls marched in unison from a side street, their flamboyantly pink hair made them immediately recognizable. Claire Blog, the lead cheerleader and all-around snob, was almost as cruel as BB although her method of torture manifested in the form of words, not brawn. Katy had recently joined the cheerleading squad and Claire considered her teammates to be wasting time if they weren’t practicing every possible hour of the day.
Claire flashed me a look that probably was meant to appear sympathetic, as if she cared, but only carried the message that I shouldn’t be with Katy. Thankfully, I was used to those looks and, in fact, expected them. You don’t spend all of middle school and two years of high school being shunned by most of the girls and not get used to it.
“Hey Katy,” she droned, chewing a piece of gum and squinting her eyes. “You should walk with us. No offense of course, Phoenix.” The way she said ‘Phoenix’ was almost like it was a dirty word. “I heard your dad lost his job. How long before you have to leave the school? It’s only for like, um, kids with a lot of money, you know?”
“You heard wrong. My dad hasn’t lost his job, so yes, Claire, I am still going to this school.”
“Katy, come on!” She glared at me and tossed her braided hair back over her shoulder.
Katy gave me a shy, apologetic smile before she hurried off, book bag clutched in one hand. Once again, I was left alone.
The rest of the walk to school was monotonous. Not even the smiles as a group of young toddlers toddled past could make me feel better. I held my breath and felt a heavy weight settle back into place.
The buzzer for homeroom sounded right as I strolled into the long hallway that housed our lockers. I pulled out my history book and raced off to class. Mr. Grizwald had been in the process of closing the door. He stared at me and opened the door just wide enough for me to squeeze past.
“Thank you for showing up, Mr. Rather,” he drawled, his speech thick with the accent of a native-born Southerner. “In the future, may I advise you to arrive ten minutes prior to homeroom or I shall be forced to give you a detention slip.”
I removed my backpack and stuffed myself behind my desk. Snorting, BB sprawled in his chair half in and half out.
This was going to be a really long and really tedious morning.
The school buzzer sounded three hours later, and pandemonium erupted as kids leapt out of their stupors, clashing together, their backpacks and hands a blur as they all tried to be the first out of the room.
“Do not forget that tomorrow we will be covering algebraic functions!” Mr. Stark, our math teacher, called after them. “Your exam will follow that half-day lecture.” His voice grew lost in the excited babble of teens pushing for the lunchroom.
I stood and shoved my schoolbooks into the black hole of my backpack, pausing to gaze at the black widow spider etched into the fabric. I reached out and ran a finger over the coarse stitches.
“Hey Dog, you seem down.” The smooth voice broke me out of my reverie.
I turned and smiled as one of my best friends sauntered up, his phone in one hand and his backpack in the other.
Tim Brestdon was roughly six feet tall, broad shouldered, with thick dreadlocks draped around his shoulders. He was one of those guys destined to be either a heavy weight champion or a linebacker.
He pulled his ever-present earbuds out and waggled his fingers. Sporting a football jersey, Tim pulled his hat down. Winking at a passing girl and dodging the pencil eraser she threw at him, he slouched against the wall.
The room emptied within the next minute, and we shuffled off to the cafeteria. The halls rang with the loud chattering of kids gossiping. Locker doors slammed shut as textbooks were tossed in and phones were brought out.
“What’s good, fam?” Tim nodded as he draped his earbuds around his neck.
“Trying to get over the fact that I almost failed the history exam. Dude, Christopher gave me a C. I studied for this exam forever. I even got Katy to help me.”
“Hey man, Chris goes hard on everyone. I got an A on that exam but only because it was multiple choice. When in doubt, chose C. Anyways, Simon and the guys are going to play basketball after lunch,” he said. “Wanna chance your luck in there too? I hear the competition is going to be tough.”
I wanted to give an emphatic “yes” as the basketball courts in our gym tended to be overly crowded. However, Will had already asked me to go over homework with him on my lunch period.
“Maybe.” I shrugged.
“Cool!” Tim chuckled, his locks swinging side to side. “See ya there. Don’t chicken out on me, man!”
And with that, he was away.
“Where are you going?” I called back, surprised. Tim was like that sometimes.
He melted into the mob of students streaming toward the cafeteria. Only his dreadlocks could be seen floating along. I shrugged and picked up my backpack and cast it over one arm. Weighed down, I stumbled out the classroom door.
When I finally made it into the noisy lunchroom, I halted. One thing I always appreciated was the careful inspection and dedication to duty that the staff had. Not a floor went ignored, not a food stain untouched, not a table nor window was left dirty. The result was a clean environment to eat my lunch in. I checked for the unwanted presence of bullies—surprisingly they were absent. Maybe today wouldn’t be that bad.
I eyed the entire room and saw Katy sitting with Claire and her entourage of girls at a corner table. Katy nibbled a carrot; a depressed look clouded her eyes.
I dropped my bag onto the floor next to a plastic table and slid in. The loud drone of students soon became background noise, and I breathed in slowly, once again practicing my calming routine. I shoved an earbud in, closed both eyes, and was beginning to jam out when I felt another presence next to me.
“Hey Phoenix.” Will’s voice.
I opened my eyes. If Tim was destined to be a football player, Will was destined to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. His knack for coding and hacking at blinding speed had come in handy on more than one occasion. He was dressed in his Stand Strong and Be the Nerd shirt. His buzz-cut hair and wide glasses often earned him derogatory nicknames.
“Hey dude. You didn’t happen to get a C on Christopher’s exam too, did you?” I asked hopefully, dumping a handful of chips into my mouth.
“I got a hundred percent. Catch the action at the tether ball courts?”
He slid across from me and opened the brown lunch sack which his mom had packed. I often envied what he was given. My lunch consisted of an apple, peanut butter and banana sandwich, and bag of chips. Where my mom went for practicality, Will’s mom went for over the top emphasis. Will dumped out a bag of cookies, two lettuce and ham sandwiches with cheese and tomato, and a large bottle of colored liquid.
“Nah,” I said. “Christopher had me cleaning the blackboards, so my morning was booked. Did you catch Tim’s invitation to the courts?”
“Yeah.” Will shrugged. He opened his bag and crammed two Oreos in simultaneously. “I told him no way. I’m busy with computer science.”
My eyes strayed over to Katy’s corner. She seemed so unhappy as she pushed her food around with a carrot stick. Behind her table, and chatting to the janitor, was a figure with a low cap over his face.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“New security guard, I think,” Will muttered, his eyes glued to his textbook. “After the abductions, people are unsafe, and when they are unsafe, they turned to hired muscle.”
“I wouldn’t call a security guard hired muscle exactly.,” I rolled my eyes. “Also, how do you know who I even pointed to?” I raised an eyebrow. “Why does he look like he came out of some fantasy book?”
“The guy has been the talk of the day. Apparently, he arrived a while ago at the principal’s office. A lot of meaningless speculation that will no doubt evolve into a story void of factual basis.”
I had lost Will to some higher plane. The hooded figure turned and stared at me—a pair of sunglasses masked his eyes. He hurried out of the cafeteria.
“Will, don’t you think there is something off about him?”
“Would you relax? You sound like everyone else.” Will grumbled, taking his attention off his book. “It’s just your paranoia. I knew I should have stolen your newspaper before you could read that abduction article. The odds of someone abducting you specifically are next to none. Maybe your life is just so dull and monotonous that you create these scenarios to escape. It’s sort of like my fascination with the effects of the moon on the tide. You could look it up as a better outlet.”
“Moon’s effect on the tide… are you serious? Dude, you know I don’t do that boring stuff!”
For a moment I could see the hurt look on Will’s face and immediately felt regret. His face had flushed, eyes averted to the floor.
“Dude, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
BB and his company of ruffians entered the cafeteria. Massive bulk a hindrance to the exiting flow of students, BB stared down anyone who made eye contact. In doing so, a circle began to form around him.
“I am so dead!” I hissed, scrunching down.
“Well, while it is true the moon’s tide could have big impacts on our sea if it somehow went away, the odds of that happening are—”
“Dude, stop talking about tides and odds. BB just tried to wipe the concrete with my brains this morning on the way to school. Last thing I want is for the lunch staff to have to clean me off the floor too!”
The school bully yanked a passing freshman out of the flow of bodies. He began to snarl at the boy until he received a few dollar bills. The freshman slunk out of the room, casting shamed looks at anyone who looked at him.
“I’m booking it,” I whispered, sliding out from the bench. I reached for my backpack but didn’t make it far when BB’s ugly mug swiveled. I froze.
“I have some homework to catch up on. Mrs. Mop assigned an exorbitant amount of calculus,” Will muttered.
“Will, please don’t leave,” I croaked as BB drew within earshot. “You don’t even need to study for calculus!”
“Hey,” BB said as if he was merely concocting a conversation and not planning how to spread my guts over the cafeteria floor, “I’ve got a problem to settle. My fist wants a date with your face. Now!”
“I uh don’t think they are right for each other,” I stammered, forcing a weak grin. “Besides, I like my face, and I can be the jealous type.”
“Quit yammering,” he said. “Your pretty little girlfriend isn’t going to rescue you now. When I’m done with you, you’ll wish you’d been knocked senseless back before school started.”
I tried to slip past him in a desperate bid for freedom, but his hand snagged my collar, stopping me cold. Gagging, I felt the blood rush to my face. Faces turned and the cafeteria quieted as everyone realized what was about to happen. Claire and her gals had stopped and were smirking. Only Katy seems to stare at me with compassion and worry. I tried a weak smile.
“Hey, did I say you could leave?” BB twisted my arm behind my back.
A second before I became the next cafeteria floor stain, Mr. Grizwald walked into the room, calculating the toxicity of the scene. BB released my arm. He leaned in and I felt his rank tobacco breath on my neck.
“I will find you someday soon, Phoenix. When I do, you’ll regret everything.”
I tried my best to look nonchalant. “Say what you will,” I said adjusting my shirt, “but you’re nothing but words.”
I didn’t like the look of the smile he gave me in return.
Mr. Grizwald broke the tension in the room. “I never received your report, BB. It was due yesterday, and you keep putting it off. I want it on my desk now. I am done with your excuses!”
I had found my escape path. While the dumb brute was being chastised, I made a beeline and left the lunchroom, my mind tired. Two interactions with BB had left me exhausted. Will had long since slipped out, but I knew where to find him. When in doubt, think it out.
The brisk stroll to Will’s calculus class gave me the much-needed time I desired to calm down. Students milled around me, sharing the latest gossip and wondering who had a crush on who. I pushed open the lab door and walked in. The classroom slowly filled with returning students, so I had to make this quick. Will was working at a computer. He looked up as I entered.
“How did the interaction go?” he asked. “I haven’t heard the ambulance sirens going and, based on the fact that you’re not covered in blood, gather you didn’t die.”
“He’s nothing but hot breath. He talked himself into a corner until Grizwald found him. He won’t be seeing the light outside this school until he turns in some homework assignment.”
There was a short musical tone, then the crackly voice of Mrs. Shade, the school secretary came over the PS system.
phoenix rather, report to the principal’s office right away please
“Oh man,” Will chuckled, leaning back in his seat, “who did you terrorize this time?”
I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder and walked out of the lab. My footfalls echoed in the corridors. I turned a corner and found myself facing two doors. One led to the principal’s office. The other led to the janitor’s closet. My soft knock on the closed door of the principal’s office sent a deep hum inward. The door slowly opened, and Mrs. Shade stood over me, glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. She looked me over twice without saying a word.
She wrinkled her nose and gestured for me to enter. “Come, on. Hurry!”
I tried for a winning smile, failed, and walked into the outer office area. Principle Laroche’s office door was cracked open, and I could hear the faint sounds of someone’s worried voice inside. My stomach clenched.
I followed the secretary as she walked across the room and knocked softly on the door. The voices inside ceased, and a chair squeaked as someone rose.
Mrs. Laroche opened the door fully and nodded to the secretary before she smiled kindly at me. I entered the tidy office and immediately felt claustrophobic. I had never been sent to the principal’s office before, but as the saying goes there was a first for everything.
That’s when I looked past Mrs. Laroche’s shoulder and noticed the other person in the office.
“Mom?” What was she doing here?
Mom raised her head, her eyes were full of sadness, her face pale. She opened her mouth to say something but closed it again. I squirmed awkwardly, wondering whether I was expected to stand or sit in the only available chair.
Mrs. Laroche eased back down in her giant office chair, motioning for me to sit. Mom breathed in deeply and turned to me. Her sweater was unbuttoned, and the pockets had been crammed full of tissues.
“Hello, dear,” she attempted a weak smile. Her voice was hoarse. “I’m sorry to pull you from your classes today.”
Mom broke off and blew her nose on a used tissue. Mrs. Laroche peered at me, her gold rimmed glasses focused her laser like stare.
“Mister Rather, I have brought you here to take you out of school for an indefinite period of time.”
Her voice lacked sympathy and struck me as ominous, as if she were issuing a prophecy that wouldn’t bode well for me.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s happening? If this is about my grade on the previous exam, I can explain.”
Mom rose and grasped my shoulder. Her skin felt ice cold.
“Mom?” It was like I was expected to know the answers without knowing the question.
“There have been some... complications with your dad’s work. I need you to come with me. Mrs. Laroche has kindly agreed to let me remove you from classes until at least the end of the semester.”
“Complications?” More questions than answers bubbled up, urging to be the first out. “I don’t understand. What happened?”
“If you need to tell your friends goodbye, I’ll let you do that.” She stopped to hiccup.
“You’re not answering my question, Mom.” I shook my head as if to clear away some unseen fog. “What has—”
“If you don’t mind,” Mrs. Laroche said, “I have some office meetings scheduled, and I don’t wish to fall behind here. I appreciate the talk, Mrs. Rather.” Her eyes darted between the two of us, an unmistakable invitation to vacate her office.
“Phoenix, we are leaving, now!” Mom’s voice had turned crisp.
The abrupt change stopped me in my tracks. Outside the open window, the distant wail of a siren wafted in. Mom picked up her purse. I rose as well. We ran into Will and Tim who were chatting next to their lockers. I paused, glancing uncertainly between them and my mother. She nodded slightly and walked out the front doors.
I turned to face Will and Tim. “Where’s Katy?”
As I spoke, footsteps rushed up behind me. Katy had changed out of her outfit she’d been wearing earlier and now wore her pink and gold cheerleader skirt and top. Cheerleader practice happened after lunch period. She looked concerned.
“Phoenix? Is everything okay?”
“Um,” I fumbled for the right words, “I’m leaving school. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Tim looked gravely at me, a look I’ll never forget. I shook his hand and turned to Katy. She had her arms folded and gave me a hopeful smile.
“I’ll see you back home, I guess.” I tried to cough out a shaky laugh.
Mom and I pushed through the doors of school and stepped out into the bright parking lot. I slipped into the passenger side of our jeep, barely registering the new-car smell. Dad had just bought it for their anniversary. I shut the door with a weak pull and glanced out my window. My friends gathered on the school steps, Katy with one hand above her eyes to shield from the sun, while Will gave me an encouraging thumbs up.
Mom took out her keys and turned it over in the ignition. The car rumbled to life, and I waved to my friends. They turned and entered the school. We pulled out of the school lot and began cruising up to speed along a stretch of gravel road.
A beautiful day bloomed around me as I inhaled the smell of fall. Trees bordered the road as if they had parted to allow us through. The anxiety which coursed through my veins seemed like lead, weighing me down.
“I was called in to your father’s work this morning,” Mom broke the silence as she turned onto the main highway. A semi barreled past and the driver hit the horn—we swerved.
“I had no reason to think anything had happened.” She drove in continued silence for a mile. “When I received the call, I got into the car and drove over to his work. The gate guard gave me some hassle. You know, I never liked your father’s work very much.”
“What actually happened?” I said. “Why have I just been removed from school?”
But she continued as though I hadn’t said anything.
“I parked the car and got out only to be accosted by police.” Her voice cracked as she forced herself to speak. “They asked me who I was, so I told them. They proceeded to inform me that your father was unaccounted for and that there had been a level five security breach, which is what they call it when an employee steals information from the company with intent to sell or distribute to competitors. They interrogated me for details all this morning until I told them I needed to leave and pick you up.”
“What did you do next?” I sat on the edge of my seat, like I was a worried six-year-old waiting in earnest to hear the next chapter of their favorite book. “How did you find out about what was going on?”
“I persuaded them to tell me,” she said. “Apparently, an employee, who they refused to name, had tried to gain access. He was turned away at the door. Ten minutes later, your father’s window was shattered, and an alarm went off. The first person into his office claimed your father was nowhere to be seen. He’s been missing since. They let me into the office, and before I left, I noticed a letter on his desk, fluttering in the breeze.”
She handed me a small rolled piece of paper, yellowed with age. A coiled string kept the paper from unravelling. I slowly twisted it away, letting the faded edge fall as gravity claimed it. The words were scrawled in a dark ink, pressed firmly into the page.
The Hourglass, servants of Mordën, were here!
“Hourglass? Mordën?” My throat was parched. “I don’t understand, Mom what’s does—”
“We should have told you,” she said. “When you were older, I mean. But at the time, well, we just shrugged it off as a freak coincidence.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was a long time ago,” she said softly, “right after you were born. We’d just put you down and you were asleep, or what passed as sleep with a newborn in the home, and there was a terrible storm. I remember the rain drumming against the windows. We were trying to grab some sleep ourselves, and there was a pounding on the front door. Your father and I went to answer it. The storm was still raging, and your father thought someone had gone off the road or something. When we opened the door there was this… dark form. He was just standing there the wind at his back and rain pouring off of him. Your father asked what was wrong, and we’d have invited him in, but what he said, well, it stopped us dead in our tracks.”
“Why? What did he say?”
She was quiet for a moment as though reliving the scene in her head.
She glanced over at me with a strange almost giddy smile.
“He said, ‘I’ve come to see the bairn.’ And of course, I didn’t know what he meant and was about to invite him in when he said, ‘The boy. Your boy, I want you to bring me to him.’”
“Me?” I felt a chill run down my left arm, my fingers tingled.
“Well, we told him to leave or we’d call the police. Ted even threatened him with physical harm. The guy only cackled and dashed back out into the night, and shouted, ‘The Hourglass never forgets. Beware he who never sleeps.’ or something like that anyway.”
“How come I was never told about this?” I said, feeling inexplicable anger course through my veins.
“We thought he was… I don’t know, some drunk homeless guy. A crazy man passing through town or something. Someone off his meds. We were so tired back then that I remember joking that you were the one who never sleeps. We never even called the police though I suppose we—”
Tires screeched and horns blared. Something hit us hard, shoving me into the side door and breaking the glass. I felt blood trickling down my face and neck. A hard object pinned my leg between the dash and my seat. Dust filled my lungs, and I began coughing. The next thing I noted was the feeling of weightlessness for a few seconds and then the weight of gravity pulling me into my seat. Metal twisted in horrific squeals.
The motion and noise suddenly ceased, or maybe I had blacked out for a moment and then come to. All was quiet. For a few moments, all I could do was inhale shakily. I opened my eyes, slowly at first, until I put together what had happened. Trapped inside the car, we’d rolled down an embankment into a roadside ditch. Feeling hazy and nauseous, I tried weakly to push at the door. It groaned as the hinges buckled and snapped. With a final heave, I kicked with my free leg and the door popped off, clanging onto the ground. Cool air flowed in. In the distance I heard the sounds of approaching sirens. Then a voice nearby.
“Is she alive?” It was rough and nasal.
I groaned and attempted to turn my head and glance over. Mom had slumped forward against her seatbelt, hair covered her face. My injuries, albeit painful, seemed only superficial. Feeling had returned to my body, and I reached for my seatbelt clip. A gloved hand appeared in my peripheral.
“This here is a child, Gragchot.” This voice was reedier, higher pitched. “We were told she’d be alone. Do we kill the creature?”
Gragchot. Was that a name? What’s going on?
“We follow orders, filthy scum,” the first voice snapped. “We are to obtain the woman and no one else. Now move it and keep your trap shut, or else there’ll be no blood meat for you!”
I squinted in the dust-filled air. The driver’s side door was yanked open. I lay motionless as a hot breath tingled the hairs in my ear. I heard rather then saw my mother being pulled from her seat. Feebly, I reached to grab my mom’s sweater sleeve.
“He’s awake!” A third voice. “Bash his brains out.”
“No, wait,” I said. “Help, I need—”
I felt a sharp blow to my neck and the world began to darken at an alarming rate. I let out a groan as the darkness enveloped me, sang to me, and nursed me into a quiet slumber.
I tried to open my eyes, and a shaft of intense light bombarded them. I blinked rapidly. A man dressed in white spoke with a pretty young woman. They argued in soft murmurs.
“It came from the very top?” the man murmured in hushed tones. “You ask me to place my morals aside for a cause that goes against the code I swore to…”
I let out a groan, and the man stopped talking. When I tried to move, a sharp pain shot through ribs. I gasped for breath and collapsed back down.
“Just take it easy,” the man’s voice urged reassuringly. “Please rest. You’re in good hands. Nurse, go secure some more, uh, of those pain meds.”
I raised my head and groaned. The lights had dimmed, and I could see better. I lay on a soft bed. My legs were exposed while the rest of me was covered in a soft green blanket. I suddenly felt nauseous. My breathing became labored and then without warning my back arched, and I began to tremble on the bed. The man leaned over me his hands on my shoulders
“Blast! Stay with us now. Haylee, get down here on the double! We’re losing him!”
My peripheral vision was contracting. I was getting lightheaded.
“Where is she?” I moaned. “My mother… Gragchot…”
When I awoke again, my whole body was damp with sweat. A woman’s calming voice brought me back to my senses.
“Hello, young man, you’re finally awake.”
I opened my eyes and saw a hazy view of a woman’s face, framed with black hair. Her skin was tanned.
“You’ve been unconscious in a medically induced coma for three days. I’m your personal attendant. My name is Carroll. You wouldn’t happen to remember your name, would you?”
“My name is Phoenix,” I shook the spots away. “My mother. My mother was driving. Where is she? I think someone…”
I realized with alarm that I couldn’t remember what had happened.
“Steady,” Carroll said. “You haven’t eaten solids in days, and you’re in no shape to get all worked up. You were the only one found in the car. Authorities are searching for your parents, but so far nothing. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“She was driving,” I said. “My mother, she picked me up from school. Dad was already missing.” The words spilled out in a jumbled heap as I tried sorting through my memories. “I need to find them. The Hourglass will kill them if I don’t.”
“You may have some uncomfortable side effects including confusion. It’s common for people in severe vehicle accidents to dream up a fantasy world of fear and paranoia. Voices can seem to be speaking to you. We had to put you on a high dose of pain medication to stabilize you. Dr. Chade prescribed you the dose himself. He’s a foremost expert in the field of head trauma.”
“You don’t understand,” I groaned, sitting up as a peppering of pain sprinkled all across my body. “The Hourglass, it’s out there, and he or she or it has my parents.”
“The Hourglass? After your collision, first responders found you unconscious in the driver’s seat,” Carroll soothed, lightly pushing on my shoulders in a nurse’s way of laying me back down. “Please, do not put any more physical exertion on yourself.” She stopped, and a slight frown crossed her face as she began pressing buttons on a console. “You were brought into Emergency and treated immediately. They think you’ve suffered a serious concussion as well as fractured ribs and possible internal bleeding.”
“No that’s not right. I wasn’t driving it was… I’m leaving.” I tried to throw the covers off. The weight of the hospital blankets and my weak limbs made the feat nearly impossible.
Carroll placed a gentle arm on my back, supporting me as I sat. Her motherly care and soft hand brought tears to my eyes. She handed me a glass of transparent liquid. The warm liquid settled into my empty stomach, and before long a welcoming sense of drowsiness enveloped my every thought. The urge to leave began to fade off as the comfortable mattress and warm blankets soothed me. Without warning, I bolted up. Carroll, who had been working at a computer in the next room, dashed in, chattering away about my love of danger.
“Honestly, Phoenix,” she grumbled, “you won’t be doing anyone any favors, your parents or yourself if you suffer a setback. Now get back in bed.”
I was on my feet. How had that happened?
I staggered to the doorway, IV and all. Something was wrong. Both my parents had known about the Hourglass long before Dad had been kidnapped and Mom had found the message in his office. What had Mom said? I stumbled into the hallway. Patients and staff alike looked at me like I was a crazed psychopath. Mom had said something about telling me.
“Phoenix,” Carroll’s voice cracked from my room, her voice suddenly frigid, “return before I resort to tactics I’d rather not.”
Bleary eyed, I turned around. For a split second, a horrid creature with the head of a spider and the body of a deformed man stood in the doorway. Pounding my fists against my skull, I looked again. The monster was replaced by a furious Carroll. Her eyes glowed with anger. Stomping over, Carroll took me be the arm, directing me back to the room. Her hand was freezing to the touch.
“What is in this medicine you gave me?” I mumbled, feeling my tongue grow three sizes and adopt the fur of a small animal.
“Get into bed,” Carroll replied curtly. She pushed her hair out of her face and placed my IV stand next to the bedside. “You will be discharged from the ward by this time tomorrow provided you don’t go around giving heart attacks to the staff.”
I gave her a befuddled look, as my brain shut down. Eyes heavy with the mysterious drug, I slipped away into an inky blackness, complete with utter isolation.
I awoke to Carroll shaking my arm. Her rage-induced demeanor had since been replaced with a calm exterior.
“Wake up sleepyhead,” she said softly. “You’re going home.”
I sat up groggily and rubbed my eyes. The sound of the machines that had, up until this point, been my only companions became quiet. The room was bathed in a warm glow, and the flow of people outside my room had thinned to only staff.
I stood up, brushing the blankets away and glancing down. I gawked at my scrawny, pale legs. I’d clearly lost weight since my admittance into the emergency ward.
“You can dress in the bathroom,” Carroll said with a smile. “Mrs. Chase will sign you out. Her documents are in order, but should you feel uncomfortable or ever in danger from her while you are in her care, you are more than welcome to return and report her. If you need any help dressing just knock on the door.”
I changed into jeans and a polo shirt and slipped my aching feet back into my faded red sneakers. I let out a sigh of relief at feeling something that was mine. I checked myself in the mirror and noted my scrawny body and frazzled hair. Black splotches had formed under my eyes.
I threw the green robe onto the bed and walked out of the room, closing the door behind me. Carroll showed me the way to the front desk, admiring my choice of shoes in a distant manner. Glancing up, I stopped mid-stride. Katy Chase watched me as I slowly descended the stairs from the second floor, where the patient wing was situated, to the lobby. I felt my face flush as I smiled awkwardly.
“Oh Phoenix dear, how good to see you!” Katy’s mom. I hadn’t noticed her standing there. “Did they treat you well? I have nothing but confidence in the staff here.”
I smiled and embraced Mrs. Chase. The simple act brought a welcome feeling of relief as my pent-up emotions began to melt away. The nurse at the front desk handed Mrs. Chase a clipboard, which she promptly began to fill out.
Carroll offer a dim smile. “It’s just a form saying that Mrs. Chase has signed you out of the ward and has adopted the role of guardian until your parents are found.”
“How are you feeling, Phoenix?” Mrs. Chase queried in a concerned mother’s voice. She handed the clipboard back to Carroll. The nurse turned and ascended the staircase.
“Fine, Mrs. Chase.” A lie. “I’m just glad to get out of here. The last several of days have been, well…”
I glanced back and saw Carroll standing at the top of the stairs, watching me. She waved and gave me a big smile. I smiled back. As we turned a corner, her smile abruptly vanished.
“I was simply horrified to hear about your parents,” Mrs. Chase began, as she hustled us toward the lobby exit. “I knew then you would need a place to stay so I offered my services. Did you know that last year I took in three foster children?” Of course, I did. I was friends with Katy. “Adorable little chubby bunnies they were but grew out of my ability to care for them. I’m still registered as a foster mother in the system.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Chase. I really appreciate you bringing me into your house all of the sudden like this.” Guilt began to form as I realized how much time she had invested into my safety.
She patted my shoulder. “It’s the least I could do for you and your parents. This is a distressing time for all.”
We arrived at a dusty white minivan. I climbed into the backseat with Katy. The seat was frayed. Katy sat in the spot next to me and gave me a small smile.
“I heard what happened,” Katy whispered softly. “I’m so sorry, Phoenix. It seems so strange. I mean I just talked to your mom a couple days ago, and now she’s missing? I have a plan for finding your mom and dad. I know this is going to seem unbelievable but hear me out. Do you know Temper?”
I frowned as Mrs. Chase started the car. “Of course, I know him,” I said, “or know of him at least. The old guy who lives on the end of Larry’s block. Katy, he’s a known criminal and gang member, or at least that’s what he tells anyone who’ll listen.”
Katy cleared her throat, awkwardly. “Right, but you need to go visit him. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve been talking to him for a while now, and well, he seems to be in a better place. I told with him yesterday about what happened, and it seemed to deeply disturb him. I’ve never seen him so fired up. He wants to discuss matters with you.”
“You want me to go talk about my missing parents to a crazy old man?” I gazed at her, bewildered. “Katy, I thought I was the one with the head injury.”
Trepidation crossed her face, like dark clouds over the sun. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable. The smells of gasoline wafted in from the car window. Cars honked, and muffled shouts carried across the pavement as the wind whistled past.
“Katy, look, I appreciate that you’re concerned for me, but how is Temper going to be able to help? The guy supposedly has a rap sheet longer than I am tall. What good will visiting him do?”
“Trust me!” Katy gave me a long stare, her eyes pools of determination. Clutching at her seatbelt, she seemed to be willing herself to move forward, as if the act would force me into compliance. “Phoenix, if you never trusted me before, give me this one shot. I know it may seem like a strange move, but the police are not going to be able to help you. Even if they managed to find your parents, it could take years.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” I snapped back, heat rising to my face. “What if tomorrow my parents are escorted home, and the person responsible for their abduction is cast into the darkest cell imaginable? How do you know what is going to happen? The police and FBI have safely rescued all sort of people before. What’s to say this is any different?” I clenched my hands into fists and kneaded the seat fabric.
The car bounced over the gravel road, tiny pebbles smacking the underside of the van like fingers tapping in haunted torment. Katy raised her head and parted her hair so she could see me clearly. Her eyes had become wells of tears. Mrs. Chase, who had up until this point been silent, cleared her throat. We turned to face her.
“If I may interject, Phoenix dear,” she said sweetly, her head turned away from us, watching the road. “I don’t mean to make a dark matter blacker, but I wouldn’t…” –her voice caught– “It’s just that my husband vanished when Katy was only three years old. The last time I had seen him he had been furiously scrambling through his desk at home, frantically searching for something. I returned to the kitchen and heard a crash. I rushed back and the room’s window had been smashed in and my husband was nowhere to be seen. If you attempt anything dangerous, you yourself may face the same result that your parents are now facing. Let the authorities handle this. It isn’t easy sitting back and allowing someone else to have control over how your parents return home, but it is safe and responsible. Don’t go rushing into this.”
I watched the buildings lumbering by. I waited for Mrs. Chase to continue, but the car remained silent as the three of us withdrew into our respective thoughts. We bounced over a speed bump and drove on leaving a schoolyard behind. We turned off the main road and rumbled down a small street. Mrs. Chase pulled into their driveway, shutting off the engine, and Katy opened her door. I hopped out behind her, feeling satisfied to be at a place of familiarity. The white picket house was set away from the main road. Several tall spruces blocked most of the home from view and the freshly cut lawn gave a relaxing scent of the outdoors. The gravel walkway to the home was wet, as if it had just endured a short rainfall. Bushes and flowers decorated both sides of the path. Flowers with pinks, reds, and blues brought a homey feeling to the abode.
“Promise me, Phoenix,” Mrs. Chase said into the uncomfortable silence, “that whatever you do, you do not act rashly. Let the authorities handle this. Katy means well, but you should put your trust in the law because if there is any hope of rescuing your parents, the authorities will handle it.”
She walked around the car and unlocked the front door. The house was clean and spacious. I ogled the arched ceilings and spacious rooms. A cat slunk off a burgundy couch and disappeared into a hallway. The walls were laden with paintings and various depictions of the mountains. Wooden floors gave way to carpeted rooms and hanging from the ceiling were several fans.
“You’re dead meat!”
A throaty screech from another room. I jumped, feeling a spike of fear, but Katy placed a hand on my shoulder. Her hand brought a sense of comfort. I offered a small smile of gratitude.
“It’s just our parrot, Galactic,” she said. “We may have taught him some phrases in the past that he, unfortunately, hasn’t forgotten.” She waited for Mrs. Chase to bustle into the kitchen through an ornate doorway. “The police never found Dad. If they couldn’t find him after these years, I doubt they can find your parents. We never found out what happened to him, but the way my mom doesn’t talk about it, it must have been devastating. She still won’t tell me everything.”
“Gee,” I said attempting a smile, “you sure cheered me up.”
“I’m trying to appeal to your rational side,” she shook her head.
“I just lost both my parents and you think my rational side is what needs to be appealed? Katy, I lost my entire family, I’m alone in this world, and I am terrified. This Hourglass has taken both of my parents! What am I supposed to do against such evil?”
“You’re supposed to fight until you find them. You don’t back down until they are back with you. I’m sorry I came across as cold. I am trying to help you. Please just visit Temper. He’s turned a new leaf, and lately he’s had some really good advice. He served overseas, you know. He’s seen some pretty gruesome scenes, the kind most of us only see in our worst nightmares. He knows what it is like to lose people he loves. If nothing beneficial comes from this, I will wholeheartedly support you however you want to approach it.”
“Why do you want me to talk to him so much?” I asked as we walked into the dining area. “What makes you so sure he can help me? I barely know the guy!”
“Because he helped me,” she responded, softly.
“Does your mom know you’re talking to him?”
“No,” she said and gave me a look that clearly stated I was to say nothing to anyone about this conversation. “I grew up without my dad, and Temper stepped in to fill the role. He may be a bit crazy, but his intentions are good.”
I raised my hands in surrender. “Alright, I’ll visit him tomorrow. At this point, I’d do just about anything if it meant finding what happened to both of our parents.”
Katy smiled, and her cheeks flushed in the dull light filtering through the curtains. She gazed at me for a second.
“Will and Tim are coming over after school to see how you’re coping. They’ve been texting and calling me since you’ve been in the hospital. I told them you finally were discharged today, and they want to check in on you.
I watched her bustle into the kitchen to help Mrs. Chase with dinner and thought about the day’s events. It was all too much to take in. I thought about Temper. I would go and visit him. I prayed I’d come out of all this with more answers than I had questions.