Chapter 1

Sam Messenger stared out the car window at the scenery without really seeing much of anything. They'd been stuck in the car like this for days now, searching for a new place to live. His long, curly brown hair was starting to get out of hand, as he hadn't had many opportunities to wash it or any motivation to spend time brushing it, and his bangs hung down to just the length where they got in his chocolate-colored eyes, which never ceased to bother his mother. It was perhaps this more than anything else that prompted Sam not to let her cut his hair every time she offered; anything he could do to tick off his parents was a success in his mind.

He was built like his father, with long arms and legs and skin that looked as though he spent a lot of time in the sun. In reality, it was more likely a hint of Hispanic or Asian blood somewhere in his family that gave him the look of a natural tan, as he usually spent much of his free time up in his room playing video games or reading. He was shorter and skinnier than his father, and had not yet outgrown the awkward bearing of a preteen, though he hid it by slouching most of the time. And of course he had not yet been able to grow any facial hair to rival his father's mustache, though that would come with time.

His mother, on the other hand, was a tall woman with curly dark blonde hair and a natural sort of grace that made her seem much younger than she really was. At the moment, her watery blue eyes were hidden behind cheap brown sunglasses to keep out the glare of the westering sun. Currently, she looked up to check the road signs and then pull out her wrinkled map to make sure they were still headed in the right direction. She did this from time to time, though she always stowed the map in the glove compartment without a word about their progress.

Sam didn't really care. He'd been moved around so much that every town they stayed in had begun to look the same as every other, and he had no hope that this one would be any different. Only the intermittent appearance of big green signs with such important messages as "Winchester, 37 miles," or "Diesel gas, next exit" on the side of the road gave any indication that they had moved at all; the highway and the trees could just as well have been in another state or even country for all the difference they made.

Now that he came to think of it, his family had never really stayed in any place that looked remotely different from the lower middle class, suburban east-coast neighborhood where he had been born thirteen years ago. He couldn't even remember which one that was. Was it Clarksville? Fairfax? Huntington? He knew it wasn't Hayfield; he had been ten years old when they finally left that overgrown cow-pasture of a town, and he couldn't have been happier to leave. At least Clarksville had had its own shopping mall and a grocery store. The only thing to do in Hayfield was stay inside and watch tv, and the local cable operator had only broadcast about fifteen channels, most of which were taken up by the Spanish soap operas.

Sam wished his dad would change the radio station. If he had to listen to staticy country music for one more hour he was going to get out at the next gas station and not come back. Or maybe if he just had some change he could get new batteries for his cd player; then he'd be able to tune out his parents with his all-time favorite band, the Deftones. He'd gotten that cd for his eleventh birthday and it was now so scratched that some of the tracks skipped too badly to listen to, but that never prevented him from blasting it over and over when he wanted to block out the world.

Thinking about the cd was even a better distraction than merely staring out the window. It was one of those cds that you learned all the words to; even when his beat-up old Walkman skipped over entire sections of his favorite song, he could easily fill in the gaps from memory. In his mind, Sam could almost hear the opening chords of 'Lifestyle Change'; he knew the track so well that he was halfway through the second chorus of the guitar solo when suddenly he realized that they had left the highway.

They pulled into a Shell station with one of those huge neon McDonalds signs over it and Sam gave a sigh of relief. His stomach had been growling for two hours, and he was beginning to wonder if they were going to stop for lunch at all. He silently disentangled himself from the piles of his stuff that littered the backseat, stuck a bookmark in the book he had been supposedly reading all afternoon, stuffed his beat-up Nikes on his feet and was out of the car before his mom had unbuckled her seatbelt.

He looked around with mild disinterest at the shops next to the gas station. On one side there was a convenience store with the usual cigarette ads plastered in the window and a greasy-looking man loafing by the ice cooler to one side of the door. Sam was reminded forcefully of the crippled beggar he had once tripped over in a bus station, who had groaned in a breathy whisper a feeble plea for food or money, Sam wasn't sure which. The encounter had left him uneasy, and he quickly looked away from the dark-eyed man on the sidewalk. On the other side of the station was an old antique bookstore that looked as though it had closed back in the nineties; its windows were full of dusty furniture and cobwebs and no one was inside.

Sam slouched into a booth next to a large potted plant by the window and waited for his parents, who were up at the counter buying food. He noted that the chill of the Air-Conditioning was a welcome change from the heat of the backseat, as his father had refused to waste gas on A/C for the past three days. Glancing up towards the counter, Sam hoped they remembered that he liked the crispy chicken and not the grilled; last time they got him the wrong one and he refused to eat it, which made his dad so mad that he ranted about it until the next pit stop. His growling stomach had finally made him resent his stubbornness, but all the same he hoped his parents might remember this time around.

The smell of the greasy pile of fries preceded his dad to the table and he reached for one before his dad had even sat down.

"Someone's hungry," joked his mom. She had been reading one of her girly 'novels' in the car and was in an especially good mood despite the heat.

"I wanted the crispy chicken," muttered Sam, eyeing the colored wrapper.

"Don't start with me, boy." His dad was already cranky from the traffic. Sam took the chicken sandwich and started to slather it with barbecue sauce. He glanced up at his parents, who were eating in silence, and decided it would be better not to argue. Besides, he was really hungry.

"We should be there in about two or three more hours," his mom said matter-of-factly. "I just checked the map over there and it looks like we've just got to stay on this road until we get to Danville and then get onto Milberry Road and we're almost there."

"Where are we going again?" Sam's question was muffled by the chicken sandwich in his mouth. He took a gulp of orange soda and looked up expectantly.

"The town is called Sutherton, and it's just outside of Cauffield. That's the biggest city around here," his mom went on distractedly, as she pulled the tomato off her sandwich and pushed it over onto her husband's tray. "And don't talk with your mouth full."

The names meant nothing to Sam, but all the same he liked to try to keep track. After all, what was the point of looking at a map if you had no idea where you were going or where you'd already been? In his old room in Clarksville Kentucky, he had had a beat-up and ripped old map of the US, on which he had carefully marked all the places he had ever been and places he'd like to go. Remembering now that he had forgotten to take the map with him, he decided that he would have to get a new one whenever they got to Sutherton and look up all the old towns all over again.

He liked to look at maps; it made him feel like he was planning an adventure to someplace new and exciting, like in one of his fantasy books. Unfortunately, the places he went with his family never turned out to be half as interesting as he imagined them to be. The book he had been reading in the car was full of exciting places, magic, dragons and warfare. His friend Trey had given it to him before he left their old house four days ago, and he was already two hundred pages in to it. He hadn't had much else to do for four days, stuck in the car with his parents and their bad music.

Sam wondered where Trey was now. Maybe he was playing Sam's favorite video game without him. Maybe his old group of friends was down at the corner store, riding their skateboards and talking about the latest episode of Space Invaders that Sam had missed when his parents decided to pull an all-nighter rather than springing for a motel and Sam had fallen asleep in the backseat, furious with the pair of them. His musings were interrupted when he realized that it was a Tuesday, and therefore Trey and the rest of his friends were still in school. He smirked to himself and polished off the last of the french fries.

Before they headed back to the car, Sam's dad wanted to get a pack of cigarettes from the convenience store next door and Sam went along to check it out. He wandered up and down the aisles of packaged foods and boxes of cereal and made his way to the magazine rack, where he browsed through a motorcycle catalog and saw an article about a rock concert he had never heard about. Bored, he walked back out to the car and was immersed in his book again by the time his parents came out.

They had been back on the highway for ten minutes before Sam remembered that he had wanted to buy some batteries for his cd player.

"Mom, do we have any batteries?" She rummaged in the glove compartment and came up with one double-A and two triple-A batteries, none of which looked like they would be usable even if they had been the right size (his cd player needed two double-As).

"Will these work?" she asked, holding the batteries over her head so he could see them. When Sam didn't answer, she sighed and dropped them back into the glove compartment, then turned back to her book. Sam rolled his eyes as though it was her fault and buckled his seatbelt.

For the next two and a half hours, no one spoke. Sam's dad listened to his country music and muttered under his breath at the cars in front of him as though the other drivers would hear him and start driving faster. Sam read another 50 pages of his book, took a nap, then went back to staring out the window. His mom was immersed in her book, which had a red and pink shiny cover and appeared to be quite amusing. She would momentarily chuckle quietly to herself, and Sam was amused for awhile watching her form the words silently with her mouth, as she always did when she read.

When Sam was a little boy, his mom used to read stories to him every night to get him to sleep. His grandmother swore that she was 'filling his head with useless information,' but she persisted to read to him from newspapers, magazines, anything to get the little boy to stop crying and go to sleep. The end result was that by the time he entered kindergarten, Sam was the only kid in his class who was already reading whole books by himself, and he devoured the small classroom library before the end of the school year.

The first time Sam remembered switching schools, he had been too shy to speak to anyone for the first week of school and consequently spent every lunch period and recess immersed in one book after another. He knew what the other kids said behind his back, but he didn't really care and eventually he found his own friends to hang out with. But with each successive new school, his parents noted that Sam seemed to spend more and more time alone and less effort trying to make friends.

Sam and his family had stayed in Clarksville for nearly three years, by which time Sam had formed a close-knit gang of boys in the neighborhood, of which he was undoubtedly the ringleader. Perhaps this was why he was more upset than usual at the news of the move. Indeed, his mom had commented to his father while he was sleeping that his moodiness 'had to be more than just all that preteen parent-hating garbage' and that maybe moving around so much wasn't really good for him. However, Mr. Messenger's only reply was to ask sardonically whether Sam's moodiness was going to pay the rent, and Mrs. Messenger remained silent for the remainder of that night's drive.

Sam dozed in the backseat, the heat of the midday sun making him feel sleepy and slightly nauseous after his greasy lunch. His mom was still absorbed in her book, and his father was getting more irritable by the minute. The only respite from the heat and the boredom was a short bathroom break several hours later, during which Sam got out to stretch his legs and was finally able to buy some batteries for his Walkman with change he scrounged up in the backseat of the car.

Sam immediately ripped open the packaging and retreated to the solace of his Deftones cd before his dad returned from the restroom. He was lip-synching along to the wailing chorus of "Love is for the Birds" for the fifth time in a row when the car finally turned off the highway onto a side street, and didn't even bother opening his eyes to look around at what was to be his new hometown until the car pulled up in front of an old brick house surrounded by trees and came to an abrupt stop at the bottom of the driveway.

"Wake up Sam honey, we're here," his mom intoned as she rifled through her purse for the keys and unbuckled her seat belt. Sam yawned, hopped out of the car, and began to stretch his legs, looking up at the house with mingled apprehensiveness and curiosity. Without waiting for his dad's inevitable nagging about unpacking the car, he took off across the tiny lawn towards the front door to have a look around.

Chapter 2

The house was just as Sam had imagined it would be, which is to say that it was more or less the same as the last three houses he had lived in, with one big exception: it had trees. Trees of every shape and size separated the house from those on either side, which were a good distance away and could not be described through the thick foliage. The woods also filled the tiny backyard and stretched away into the distance as far as the eye could see.

It was more of a forest, really, Sam thought to himself as he peered around the sides and back of the house, waiting for his mom to come open the door. He had just decided to go out exploring now and unpack later when his dad's booming voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Now just where do you think you're going, young man? Get your butt over here right this minute and help me unload this car. Your poor mother's about to fall over carrying that thing…" And indeed his mother was teetering precariously on the front stoop with two overweight boxes, one on top of the other. Sam rushed to help her, taking hold of the box on the top and setting it gently back on the ground.

Grudgingly, Sam dragged his feet back in the direction of the car and resolved to go out exploring as soon as they were done. With one last longing gaze towards the cool shade of the trees, he started to pull odds and ends out of the car and carry them into the house. He didn't bother sorting anything, but just grabbed armfuls of his stuff and carted it off into the house, hoping in this fashion to finish sooner and be able to go out exploring, but the sky was already darkening by the time he carried the oversized laundry tub (full of blankets and towels) into the kitchen.

His mother made him go back through all the boxes and sort everything into the proper rooms before she would let him go. It took them nearly two hours to unload everything from the car into the house, and by the time their belongings were all piled haphazardly into the correct rooms it was dark and beginning to drizzle. The clanking of dishes coming from the direction of the kitchen told Sam that his mom had decided to unpack and cook dinner, so he headed back up to his new room to start unpacking his things.

His room was the first door on the left at the top of the landing, and it had a window that looked out on the backyard. Raindrops were pattering against the dirty glass panes as Sam methodically unpacked his clothes and divided them among the three working drawers of his new dresser (the fourth was broken and wouldn't open). Sam had managed to hook up his tiny old TV and his Nintendo, and was in the middle of ambushing a pack of zombies by the time his mom called up the stairs to let him know that dinner was ready.

Dinner consisted of instant macaroni and cheese, which was the easiest thing Mrs. Messenger had been able to cook without unpacking the entire kitchen. It was a bit on the crunchy side, and she apologized as she set it out on the table, muttering that there must be a problem with the stove. Sam took his plate without a word and started eating as fast as possible so as not to have to spend time making forced conversation with his parents.

Sam's dad had apparently gone off to talk to the landlord and sign some last-minute paperwork, so the only sounds were the rain hitting the windows and Sam's fork scraping the last of the macaroni out of the bowl. Before his mom had even sat down to eat, he dumped his empty bowl in the sink and ran back up to his room, shouting over his shoulder that he needed to finish unpacking.

Three hours later, Sam lay stretched out on his back on top of his new bed, which sagged under his back and squeaked at the slightest movement. He hadn't bothered to find the sheets to make up his bed properly, and was lying on an old blanket that had been his makeshift bed in the backseat of the car for the past week. It was bright blue and patched in places; he thought his mom had made it when he was little but couldn't really remember.

The rhythmical patter of rain on the window provided a backdrop for the thoughts whirling around in his head. As the next day was Monday, he was busily imagining what his first day of school would be like. He considered himself to be somewhat of an expert at first days of school by now, having attended more schools than anyone he knew over the course of the past decade. Yet that didn't stop him from being apprehensive about the first day.

The last time he had moved was during the summer, so he had been able to start school at the same time as everyone else. For the first time, he wasn't singled out in every class as "the new kid." It had been a relief not to have to get up and answer questions about where he came from and what he liked to do for fun. Sam thought these ridiculous introductions to the class were just a way for the teachers to make sure that no one would ever want to be friends with the new kid.

As far back as he could remember, Sam had always been The New Kid. As he got older, he would sometimes play a little game with himself where he would pretend to be someone different at each new school, watching the other kids' reactions. In Roanoke he had worn glasses to school on the first day, and chatted nervously about being the captain of his old school's chess team.

Later that day, while tending to the bruises from being slammed up against a locker by three huge football players during lunch, he had come up with the alter ego for his next school. This time, he was going to be a little more daring. Sam remembered vividly the look on his father's face when he had come home with detention on the first day at Wakefield Middle School after he locked his teacher out of the classroom and climbed out the window.

In Clarksville, he had managed to keep somewhat of a low profile and finally started to form his own gang of friends. They would hang out in the hallways during lunch, playing poker or talking about sports. Sometimes on weekends they would hang out at the arcade downtown or get together at the park for a game of pick-up basketball. Things had really settled down for Sam and his family, and he was finally starting to feel like he had a real home when his mom announced out of the blue that they were moving again.

Snap out of it, Sam, he told himself silently, and forced his mind back to the present dilemma. Who was he going to be at his new school? To tell the truth, he was tired of getting in trouble all the time at school. Maybe he would take an oath of silence and see if he could get through the whole day without saying a word. He amused himself for awhile picturing the reactions of his teachers, unable to tell whether he was mute or just pulling a prank on them.

The thunder of the rain seemed to drift in and out of Sam's thoughts as he slowly nodded off into an uneasy sleep. In his dreams, it was the first day of school and everyone he met was speaking a language that Sam didn't understand. He couldn't find his classes and everyone kept getting angry at him for not understanding what they were saying, but they only laughed when he tried to explain himself.

Sam tossed and turned all night on the squeaky mattress and awoke several times. When he woke to the sight of a dim grey cloud-filled sky outside his bedroom window, he decided to give up on sleep and get up for school. He hadn't bothered to ask his mom whether she was going to drive him in for his first day or if he would have to walk, so he pulled on some jeans and his sneakers and headed downstairs to ask her.

Chapter 3

His mom wasn't in the kitchen, or the living room, though Sam noticed that she appeared to have unpacked all the dishes in the kitchen after he went up to bed. He looked around for a clock, thinking that he didn't even know what time school started here and that he would have no idea how to get to his new school if his mom wasn't going to take him. He was just pulling a box of stale cereal out of a tub of food on the counter and pouring himself a bowl when he noticed a little pink piece of paper on the table.

It was a note from his mom, which said in her large graceful script: "Gone to see about a job in town. There's a sandwich in the fridge for your lunch. Please help unpack some of your things. I will be back around 2. Love, Mom." There was a key lying next to the note, which Sam thought must unlock the front door.

He reread the note several times, puzzled. It didn't say anything about going to school. Did that mean he didn't have to go today? Maybe she forgot that it was Monday. Or maybe she just hadn't had time to register him for classes yet. Either way, it seemed as though Sam had just lucked into a day off from school. And not only that, but he had the house to himself for the whole day!

He resolved to go exploring in the woods after lunch, and spent the rest of the morning playing video games and eating popcorn. The sandwich his mom had made was the only thing in the fridge other than a bottle of water and some flat Coke from the car. He ate it while rummaging through the other boxes on the table and counter, looking for snacks. He found a bag of chips that wasn't too stale, and polished it off in front of the TV.

Glancing out the window, he noted with relief that the rain seemed to be taking a break. He pulled on his ratty old sneakers and a new pair of jeans. Without bothering to brush his hair and leaving the dishes from his lunch on the table, he slipped the house key into his back pocket and left through the back door, checking to be sure it locked after him. He would finish cleaning up later, before his mom came back.

It was a little on the chilly side, but Sam was too interested in looking around to bother going back inside for a coat. The wet leaves squelched underfoot as he threaded his way through the trees, taking note of the direction the house was in. I wouldn't want to get lost in here, he thought gloomily, glancing around at the grey trunks of the trees, which stretched away in all directions. The melancholy trill of a lark and the occasional drip of water off the trees were the only sounds besides Sam's rustling footsteps.

He made off in more or less of a straight line from the house, so as to be able to find it again more easily. The sun was probably directly overhead by now, but the thick cloud cover obscured the light, making it appear to be nearly dinnertime. As he went on he took note of the various types of trees: oak and maple he knew, but there were several other kinds he didn't know, including one covered in thick vines which Sam knew to be poison ivy; he didn't touch them.

After a half hour or so, Sam noticed that he seemed to be on a steady incline. He looked around to gauge in which direction the hilltop would be and decided to veer from his course and make towards the top, where maybe he would be able to get a good view of the land. The roots of the trees were gnarled and twisted here, and he had to watch his feet to avoid tripping, which slowed him down considerably, though the ground was mercifully drier here and he didn't have to worry about slipping on the wet leaves.

The hill appeared to be further away than he thought, as he plodded on in more or less the same direction, stopping to look around and alter his course slightly every few minutes. He had lost sight of the house a good while ago, but was sure that from the top of that hill he'd be able to find it again, even if he had to climb a tree to look out over the sea of leaves. He'd spent plenty of time in the woods before, and wasn't in the least bit worried about losing his way, though he did wish he had thought to bring a water bottle.

He began looking for signs of a stream, as his mouth was dry from thirst. After what seemed like hours he finally came up on a muddy trickle of water in the dirt, which he had to follow for some distance out of his way before it turned into a tiny stream just large enough to cut a track through the dirt. On the opposite side of a large boulder, he knelt down and eagerly drank a few mouthfuls through his cupped hands. The water was cold and tasted like dirt, but it slaked his thirst.

It was only when he stood up again and was wiping the mud off his knees that he realized he had lost all sense of direction. He had been so intent on following the stream that he could no longer tell which direction he had been headed or which way he had come from. Remembering that he had been headed towards a distant hilltop, he began turning slowly around, trying to gauge which way the ground was sloping.

He was a little concerned when he realized that no direction now appeared to be higher than the other. He had either wandered so far from the distant hilltop that the ground no longer sloped towards it, or he was in fact standing on top of the hill, which was really just a slight rise in the ground. Either way, he now had no marking to head towards and no way of seeing over the treetops to find his house.

Turning back towards the stream, he began to follow it in what looked to be the direction he had been coming from, but he soon lost its tiny trickle in the leaves without making any sort of progress. He wondered suddenly whether his mom would be back from her job search yet, and wondering where he was. Judging by the color of the sky, it was way past two o'clock. Maybe she was even making dinner by now, he thought, realizing that he was extremely hungry.

He decided that heading in any direction was better than standing in the middle of the forest, so he closed his eyes and spun around. When he opened his eyes, he was facing a tall oak tree whose trunk was indistinguishable from those of all the other trees. Taking a deep breath, he skirted the large tree's twisted roots and began to walk in a straight line, ignoring the worry that he was going in circles. He was feeling distinctly less confident now, and he quickened his pace as he noticed that the sky seemed to be getting noticeably darker by the minute.

Some time later, he began to make out a sort of clearing up ahead. There was definitely a space between the trees, and the sky seemed lighter up ahead. Altering his course slightly (there was no longer any sense in maintaining a straight line if he didn't know where he was headed), he broke into a run and had nearly reached the clearing when his foot caught an overlarge root sticking up out of the leaves.

He fell hard, twisting his ankle and scraping up his hands and knees, which were already covered in mud. He rolled over on his back, clutching his ankle and uttering a little moan of pain. It was then that he heard it: far off but unmistakable: the sound of a car or truck going down the street. He sat up suddenly and turned his head towards the direction of the noise. It was definitely coming from his right, and squinting in the dim light he thought he could almost make out the twinkle of lights in the distance.

Curious though he was about the clearing in the woods, he resolved at once to make for the lights and find his way back home. It was beginning to get dark, after all. He was sure his parents would be upset with him by now, and as he got to his feet he winced at the pain in his ankle. No, he would definitely have to think about exploring the clearing some other day.

By the time he got close enough to make out the lights, it was dark and beginning to rain again. Sam's sopping wet curls dripped cold water down his neck and back, and he began to shiver from the cold. The lights turned out to be street lamps, and he hobbled quickly down the street, hoping he'd be able to recognize his street when he got there.

He was in luck; the minute he reached the street corner, he heard his mom's shrill voice calling his name, and saw the house in the distance. He seemed to have gone around in a huge loop, coming out on the other end of the side street that curled away from his house. He limped up the road towards the house, relieved yet feeling quite embarrassed. He had never gotten lost in the woods before, and it bothered him that he couldn't find his way home.

When he reached the front door, he found both his parents waiting for him. His dad looked angry; his mom, worried. Before his dad could start yelling, however, his mom threw a towel around his back and told him to get straight in the shower while she fixed him some hot soup. He grimaced weakly and went inside, leaving his muddy shoes on the stoop.

Chapter 4

Sunday morning dawned cloudy and cool. Sam was roused by his mom before the rain of the night before had had a chance to dry out, and his knee twinged painfully as he slid out of bed onto the cold wooden floor.

The rest of his unpacking would have to be postponed, as Mrs. Messenger wanted to drive Sam over to the middle school to register him for classes. For once he would be starting his new school on the same day as everyone else. The thought dawned on him that not being singled out as "the new kid" meant a chance to really fit in – for the first time in his life.

His mom's stern glare broke into a look of concern as Sam hobbled down the steep stairs, wincing at every other step.

"Oh, Sammy, honey," she crooned, and motioned for him to have a seat on one of the wooden chairs in the kitchen. "Roll up your pants so I can have a look."

The gash had scabbed over, and his leg was marked with a huge purple bruise on one side of his knee and spreading down to his shin. Sam's mom refrained from saying anything while she cleaned him up and wrapped a bandage carefully around his knee, but her pursed lips told Sam that the conversation was far from finished – merely postponed until his leg healed.

She poured him a bowl of Fruit Loops and went back to organizing the kitchen cabinets. This had become a hobby of hers, and she delighted at the opportunity to rearrange all the dishes and utensils at every new house they moved in to. Sam let her work in silence as he stirred his cereal, watching the milk turn slightly blue from the artificial coloring.

They had an appointment with one of the counselors at the school that morning, she informed him as he climbed back up the stairs to his room to change, his knee now stiff with the bandage. Oh great, he thought, another counselor. Every counselor he'd ever been to had continually told him the same thing: that he was smart but lazy. They couldn't understand why there was such a great disparity between his standardized test scores and grades.

Sam knew he wasn't lazy. He just had more important things to do than homework. Things like making friends, gaining people's respect, being cool. That's what was really important to a thirteen-year-old boy. It was fine for the dorks to spend their afternoons studying, but Sam had a reputation to uphold. Or rather, a reputation to build, since he was starting from scratch yet again. Ah, the beauty of moving from town to town every few years.

He threw on a pair of jeans, ran a comb through his hair until it looked relatively normal, then grabbed his sneakers. No need to worry about his appearance to meet some counselor. Still, he didn't want to look like a total doofus if other kids might be there. He was halfway down the hallway before he remembered his walkman. Wouldn't want to forget the cds for when his mom and the counselor started jabbering on and on about his "adjustment period" in the new school.

He'd heard that speech so many times he could recite it from memory. He had to make friends in his classes, so that he could be sure to get the homework assignments and have people to study with; he had to introduce himself to the teachers in case he ever had to go to them with a problem. And as always, don't hesitate to come and see me if you have any problems. This was usually followed by some sort of "my door is always open" policy, which he knew from experience was never true.

They were halfway down the driveway before he remembered that his batteries were dead.

"Mom, can we stop at the store first? I need some new stuff for school." It was only a little lie; he didn't really need school supplies, but he could use a new binder and some pens, and he couldn't go another day without fresh batteries for his cd player.

"We'll have to stop on the way home; we have an appointment, remember? I don't want you to be late."

Sam rolled his eyes at his reflection in the window and decided he might as well figure out where this school was, in case he ever needed to walk home. It was important to know your way around in a new town if you ever wanted to get out. He didn't want to have a repeat of that night in the woods…

His thoughts went suddenly back to that sunny clearing in the woods. He wondered what was beyond the edge of the trees. Was it merely another street, with houses and rows of hedges and mailboxes? Somehow he doubted there were houses that deep in the woods. Besides, he would have seen lights or heard something if there were houses that nearby. It was probably no more than a break in the trees and a bit of sunlight. Still, he couldn't help wondering…

They were pulling up to what was unmistakably the middle school, and Sam realized with a start that he had no idea how to get home. He silently reprimanded himself for daydreaming and made a mental note to pay closer attention on the way home. While his mom circled the parking lot looking for a good place, he took a quick look around at the school.

It was a one-story brick building, spread outwards rather than up, as his last school had been. There were a couple of trailers off to one side, and he could make out a basketball court around the corner. There were two fields within eyesight, one with soccer goals and another that was probably used for football practice. In front of the building was an ugly statue of the mascot, which looked like some sort of raccoon.

His mom finally picked a parking spot, and Sam unbuckled his seatbelt and hopped out, squinting in the sun, which had finally come out from behind the clouds. Mrs. Messenger fussed over his shirt collar for a minute, then started towards the main entrance at a very fast pace, her heels clip-clopping on the pavement. They must be late, Sam thought, watching her get steadily further and further ahead of him as he continued to examine his surroundings. He wasn't concerned in the least.

Last year he had been able to choose two elective classes for free period – he'd taken Spanish and woodshop with his best friend Trey, but had never really paid attention in those classes. He wondered what sort of classes he'd have to choose from now that he was in middle school. He thought he'd probably just let his mom decide, provided she didn't pick anything totally lame like art class. He hated art classes.

The inside of the school looked pretty much as he'd expected: off-white plaster walls and a dingy bluish carpet stretched down the main hallway, which branched off here and there towards different parts of the school. Mrs. Messenger headed straight for the main office, where she got directions to the counselor's office from a smiling lady with three pencils sticking out of the bun on top of her head.

They hurried back out into the main hallway, his mom speedwalking again, and every now and then murmuring to Sam to keep up. They went down the long hallway, which ended in three sets of stairs: the two long flights of stairs on either side led up to a second floor, while a short downward flight entered right into the school library. On the left and right were big open spaces surrounded by classrooms. His mom looked around for a moment and then headed into the hall on the left, looking around at the classroom numbers.

She found the right room in a matter of seconds, and practically dragged him towards it. A clock on the wall read 10:38. Pausing momentarily to smooth down her hair and adjust the hem of her blouse, Mrs. Messenger rapped smartly on the open door with her knuckles and peeked around the doorframe without waiting for a response.

"Hi, I'm Elanor Messenger. We spoke on the phone?"

"Oh, of course," came the sound of a young woman's voice through the open door. "Do come in."

Mrs. Messenger gave Sam a look that clearly said behave yourself and then entered the office, taking a seat in a large red-upholstered armchair on one side of the tiny office. Sam came in behind her, looking around at the walls, which were covered with newspaper clippings, comic strips, and pictures of her family. Incredibly, though one whole wall was taken up by the overlarge desk and chair where the counselor was sitting, there was room for a tiny couch on the opposite wall. It was scratchy and brown, but Sam took a seat anyway.

The counselor, whose name (according to the sign on the door) was Doris Delaney, was a rather pretty blonde woman in a bright red suit and heels. She was a bit on the plump side, but smiled as they came in and seemed at first glance to be an easy woman to get along with.

"Ah, so this must be Samuel," she continued, taking a good hard look at him as he slouched on the scratchy sofa.

"It's Sam," he murmured, out of reflex more than anything else. He generally didn't care what teachers called him, preferring to let them get his name wrong than be continually correcting them. It gave him one more thing to complain about to his friends.

"Of course, dear," she grinned, as though he had said something incredibly witty. He smirked; this was going to be a piece of cake. Doris started shuffling papers, and Sam thought longingly of his cd player, which he'd left in the car.

An hour later, Sam was nearly drooling from boredom on the scratchy couch as his mom filled out yet another parental consent form for something or other and attempted to engage him in conversation. They had attempted to get him to look through a course catalog, but at his complete disinterest had begun "suggesting" classes for him to take. In the end, they had signed him up for all the regular classes: math, science, English, and history. For his 'electives', they'd picked Spanish ("Oh, but you're so good at it honey" his mom protested) and tech ed (a more advanced form of woodshop).

At long last the paperwork was done, and Ms. Doris was going off on how much fun Sam was going to have here and feel free to stop by my office anytime; she even concluded with the "my door is always open line," winking at Sam as they shook hands and left the office. What a phony, Sam thought to himself. She's not going to give me any trouble.

Glad to be out of the office, Sam followed his mother back down the carpeted hallway, this time paying attention to the rooms on either side. There was a music room on this hall, and another small hallway branching off to the left towards what appeared to be the gymnasium. They sauntered back out to the car. The sun was now shining brightly overhead, and Sam realized that it must be nearly lunchtime. He'd already missed all his favorite cartoons, and his stomach was starting to grumble.

As promised, they stopped at a school supply store on the way home. This time, Sam paid close attention to the directions, and he was pretty confident he could find his way to school on his own now. He got his batteries and pens, and also some spiral notebooks that his counselor had suggested. His mom also bought him a combination lock for his PE locker, and Sam amused himself on the car ride home by practicing opening and closing the lock. By the time they got home he had already memorized the combination and it was nearly dinnertime.

Sam ran upstairs to drop off his new stuff in his room, noting that his knee didn't hurt nearly as much anymore, then headed back down to the kitchen to ask about dinner. Mrs. Messenger was already putting a pot of water on the stove; it looked like spaghetti for dinner—Sam's favorite. He sat at the table to wait and started looking over his class schedule and the map of the school his mom had gotten from the counselor. He didn't want to be wandering around looking lost on his first day.

Considering how many schools Sam had been to in his lifetime, it surprised him that he still felt a bit nervous about the first day. He didn't know who he'd meet or who his new friends would be. He didn't know if he'd be playing sports or getting detention, skateboarding or playing soccer, answering questions or being a troublemaker in class. The first day was crucial-every possibility was open to him. After that first day, people would start to form their opinions of him and his options would be limited. It was exhilarating to think about.

Mrs. Messenger called Mr. Messenger to come down for dinner, and they sat around the small kitchen table together for the first time since the move. Sam's parents chatted about the school and the counselor, and Sam even piped in once or twice as he ate his spaghetti. It was a pleasant family meal, and his parents seemed to have forgiven him for his transgressions of the previous night.

After dinner, Sam rinsed his plate and put it in the dishwasher before retreating to the sanctuary of his room once more. He spent an hour killing zombies on his Nintendo before flopping in bed and passing into a deep sleep, where he dreamed about endless forests full of mysterious clearings. He didn't remember any of it in the morning.

Chapter 5

Sam was roused by his mom while the sky was still dim. It was 5:15 in the morning, according to his alarm clock, and he stared blearily up at her as she chattered on about school and breakfast and not wanting to miss the bus on the first day. It took a moment before he registered that it really was time to get up; he'd never been up this early before in his life that he could think of, and he was surprised that there was a school system that got started this early in the morning.

Grumbling, he got up and into the shower while his mom made him some toast and scrambled eggs. Before he knew it, he was dressed and fed and standing on the curb with his backpack full of paper and pencils and a copy of his class schedule. He was too tired to think about the day ahead, and barely looked around as he climbed the steps into the school bus and slumped into one of the seats towards the back.

first day of school – I will finish writing this chapter later,

but I'd like to get more into the main plotline of the story now

so I'll skip ahead to the next chapter

Chapter 6

As soon as he got off the school bus he knew what he had to do. He ran into the house, dropping off his backpack and grabbing a drink from the fridge. Tossing his jean jacket over the back of a chair, he checked to make sure no one was home and was out the back door within five minutes. He was going back to explore that clearing.

He was confident that he'd be able to find it this time. He found a trickling stream within ten minutes and, convinced it was the same one from before, began to trace it on what he hoped was a slight uphill slope. It took him half an hour before he thought he recognized where he was. He lost the stream from time to time, and was very muddy from crouching in the damp leaves searching for a trail to follow. He was careful not to trip, however, as his knee was still very sore from the day before yesterday.

Finally he thought he saw a patch of lighter sky up ahead, and abandoning the tiny stream he head off in the direction of the light, making sure he still knew in which direction his house lay. It was much easier in the broad daylight, and Sam chastised himself for getting so nervous the other night. He was excited about the clearing the woods without knowing why; all he wanted was to see what was in that clearing, to satisfy his curiosity if nothing else.

He reached the clearing without too much difficulty, though at a different point than before. He was sure it was the same one, and he looked out from the edge of the trees with nervous expectancy. It was a very large clear pasture that was mostly overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, some of which looked as though they would reach up to his neck. It was a strange place for an old empty field, and Sam wondered why there were no trees here. Maybe it was the site of an ancient forest fire…

With a start, Sam realized that the field was not, in fact, empty at all. In the middle of the field, a dozen or more wild horses stood munching on the lush green grass, their faces hidden from the bright sun. This fact startled him so much that he took a step back into the shade of the trees, shielding his eyes from the bright sun and squinting as though to make sure the animals were no mere hallucination.

As he watched the beautiful horses from the edge of the field, he realized that a massive white stallion was walking straight towards him. Squinting in the bright sunlight, he noticed, to his utter amazement, that the horse was not alone. On its massive back sat a young girl in faded overalls. The girl, who looked nearly as wild and untamed as the horse she rode, was about Sam's age and very skinny.

The girl patted her horse's neck, and it began to run. Gathering speed, they flew in a wide arch across the field and right towards the spot where he stood, gaping and unable to move. Slowly, he came to his senses and began to inch backwards, away from the strange girl and her horse. I must be dreaming, he thought.

The girl stopped and slid down off her horse, and the two of them gaped at each other, neither one saying a word. He wondered where she came from and why she was here, of all places. He wondered if she went to his school, but from the looks of her she had never seen the inside of a school, let alone the town. Her hair was dirty and unbrushed, and parts of it stuck out at odd angles. He was willing to bet those overalls of hers hadn't been washed in a few months, and she wore no shoes or socks.

"My n-name is Sam," he stammered awkwardly. He waited for her reply, but she just continued to stare at him. "What's your name?" he asked tentatively. Still no answer. "Hello? Do you speak English?" He didn't know what to do. He wondered momentarily whether he ought to try Spanish, but she didn't look as though that would make any difference.

The girl cocked her head as though she didn't quite understand what was going on. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. Kneeling, he brushed off a small patch of dirt with his left hand and scratched the letters of his name in the loosely packed earth.

"S-A-M. Sam," he read, pointing his index finger at his chest. "That's me." He held the twig out to her so she could write her name. There was plenty of room. Even if she didn't speak English, surely she could understand what he meant. She looked at the letters in the ground, and for a moment Sam thought he saw understanding in her face, but she just shook her head again and pointed towards the other end of the field, where a huge old apple tree stood.

She headed back towards the horse, who was contentedly munching on a patch of dandelions the size of Sam's fist and paying no attention to the newcomer. Sam's bewilderment was beginning to turn to frustration, and he watched her go with mingled confusion and curiosity. Who was she? Where did she come from? Why was she out in the woods riding horses instead of at home with her family? Did she even have a family?

The girl turned around and looked at Sam as though expecting him to follow her. Cautiously, he took a few uncertain steps towards the horse. She patted its side, and the horse obediently knelt down so she could climb on. Then she held out her hand to him.

"You've gotta be kidding me," he murmured, looking first at her and then at the horse. He took back the thought that the girl was "as wild as the horses;" the horse and the girl both seemed to have good manners. Too surprised to wonder where the girl was taking him, Sam took her hand and let her pull him up behind her on the horse. Her hand was rough and calloused to the touch, like the hands of a gardener or someone who constantly has to work with his hands.

Sam was reminded of the last time he had ridden a horse. His mom had taken him to the pony rides at the state fair, and he had cried and refused to let them lead him around in circles. He wanted to gallop around like a cowboy, but the trainer kept insisting that it was not permitted. He had probably been about six years old at the time. This horse was admittedly about twice the size of that sad old pony, and much better-looking.

Before he had a chance to protest, the girl nudged the horse softly with her toe, and he was forced to grab hold of her waist as the horse rose and began to run swiftly towards the trees at the far end of the field. As the wind whipped their hair back from their faces, Sam closed his eyes and held on tightly to the horse's back with his legs. He was pretty sure he wouldn't fall, but all the same he didn't want to hurt his leg again.

When they came to a stop at the other side of the field, the girl slid off the horse and helped Sam to the ground. While he retied his shoelace, he realized that his legs were trembling. Hoping the girl hadn't noticed, he took a few deep breaths to steady himself and looked around. Walking around to the back of the huge tree, Sam realized that it was a sort of tree-house, built out of the trunk of the tree, which appeared to be hollow. Coming around to the other side, he realized that the girl had already disappeared inside it.

There was a large hole at the base of the trunk, big enough to crawl through. It was covered by a piece of bark propped up against the side of the tree, but it was slightly askew. Seeing no place else big enough for the girl to hide, he knelt down and somewhat reluctantly crawled into the trunk of the tree.

As she helped Sam to his feet inside the tree, he gasped. The whole inside of the hollow tree trunk was decorated with beautiful paintings and drawings of horses. Small, windowlike holes in the tree let the pale sunlight filter in, causing the place to have a hazy, dreamlike effect. The tree trunk was connected to the rest of the "house" by another small crawl-space, through which Sam thought he could make out a table and chair. At the present moment, however, he was distracted by the drawings.

"Who made these?" he asked, more to himself than to the girl, who still hadn't spoken. She pointed to a place on the wall near the ground beside the door-hole. Sam bent down and peered carefully at the wall of the tree-house, not knowing what he was expected to see there. Scratched deeply into the wood, he could barely make out some letters in an uneven line.

"The first letter is an 'm'," he read. The girl nodded and pointed back at the wall. "Then there's a... a 'y', I think, and an 'r'..." She nodded and pointed again. "I don't see any more," he said, confused. She moved nearer and brushed off the wood with her small, dirty hand. Sam peered closely at it for a moment.

"The last letter is an 'a'...," he stated slowly. She nodded emphatically and pointed at the nearest painting, then at herself. He thought for a moment.

"The paintings are by Myra, right?" he asked slowly, sounding out the name. She looked like her head might fall off her neck from all that nodding. "But who...?" he started to ask. Suddenly it dawned on him.

"You're Myra!" he exclaimed. She nodded and smiled. "Wow... You made these?" he asked, amazed. She beamed back at him, still not saying a word

"Sam!" came the bellow from deep in the forest. "Sam! Where the devil is that boy? He's going to miss dinner!"

Sam glanced quickly at Myra. "Sorry, but I have to go. My dad's calling me," Sam apologized, hoping she would understand. He still didn't know if she understood English at all. Myra nodded her head, then turned to look out the window-like hole in the wall of the tree-house. Sam crawled out of the door (if you could really call a hole in a tree trunk a "door") and began to run in the direction where the yelling had come from. Had he looked back, he might have seen Myra's face watching him from behind the tree.

Myra sighed and went to tend her vegetable garden by the woods. She brought water from the stream and watered the vegetables, then began collecting carrots, broccoli, and potatoes for her supper.