I. The Others
"Wesley! Time to get up for school!"
Wesley groaned as his mom turned on his bedroom light. His eyes hurt and he shoved his head under his pillow. He heard his mother sigh. "Wesley, come on. You can't be late for school again."
"It'll be fine, Mom," Wesley responded, his voice muffled.
"No, it won't be fine, Wes. You can't be late for your first day back."
Wesley squeezed his pillow around his head, trying to drown out his mother's voice. His mom sighed again, and the blankets were yanked off of Wesley and his pillow was thrown on the floor. "No playing around. Shower then breakfast, okay?"
Wesley grumbled and got out of bed and shuffled out of his room to the bathroom. Today was his first day back from winter break, and while he was excited about seeing his best friend, Zack, he wasn't excited about the idea of going back to his classes and listening to the teachers drone on and on about things he didn't care about.
Wesley showered and dug through the laundry basket in his room until he found a pair of clean-ish clothes. He threw them on and trudged downstairs and into the kitchen, where his mom was throwing her laptop and binder into a large leather bag. He reached into the cabinet and pulled out a package of blueberry pop tarts.
"I don't know how late I'll be at the office," his mom said, "so just do what you normally do and walk home after school, okay?"
"Will do," Wesley said, taking a large bite out of his pop tart. He preferred walking home anyway, he always hated riding the bus.
"Now come on, don't want to be late," his mom said.
Wesley led the way out of the house into the cool morning air. That was the nice thing about Louisiana: even in the middle of winter, it'll be at least seventy degrees by the end of the day. And it never got that cold, minus the rare occasion that it got down to thirty degrees. Wesley had lived in the little town of Redwater his entire life, a small town several miles away from New Orleans and mostly surrounded by a dense forest. He loved the woods, during the summer he and Zack would go playing in them, pretending to be knights in a faraway realm or warriors in the middle of a fierce battle.
Wesley had lived in the little town of Redwater his entire life, a small town several miles away from New Orleans and mostly surrounded by a dense forest. He loved the woods, during the summer he and Zack would go playing in them, pretending to be knights in a faraway realm or warriors in the middle of a fierce battle. During the winter, when it got colder and the leaves fell from the trees, they would climb up high and hang from the branches and jump in large piles of dead leaves.
Wesley was excited to see Zack again. The winter break had been long and boring without him.
Wesley's mom pulled up to Redwater Middle School, a large two story building built from maroon-colored bricks with a large flagpole out front. The tall front doors were ajar, the school sucking in the refreshing morning air. Wesley grinned when he saw Zack sitting on the front steps, waiting for him.
"Have a good day, sweetie," his mom said.
"Will do. Love you, Mom!"
"Love you too, Wes. See you-"
Wesley had the car door shut before she finished. He ran up to Zack, who beamed and jumped off the stairs.
"You're not allowed to go see your family for Christmas ever again," Wesley said.
Zack rolled his eyes. "Me too, dude. I swear if my grandma pinches my cheeks the next time I see her I swear I'll lose it." Zack started pinching his own cheeks. "Oh, Zack, you get bigger and bigger every time I see you! Oh, I'll have to put a stack of books on top of your head to stop you from growing!" Zack shuddered.
Wesley laughed. "Just hide out at my house next year. Deal?"
The pair stepped into the cavernous student center of their school. The office was to their left, and to the right was the auditorium. Students were scattered around the hall, chatting away about their breaks and what they had received for Christmas. Wesley and Zack made a beeline for their usual before school hangout spot, the bench just outside the library. After they plopped down, Zack pulled out his PSP and started playing Dissidia, one of his and Wesley's favorite game. It only seemed like they had just started when the first bell rang.
The boys groaned, Zack shoving his PSP back into front pocket of his backpack. They joined the sea of children in the hallways, and soon arrived at their first class of the day, English. Their teacher, a plump woman named Miss Evers, was sitting at her desk at the front of the room. Her round glasses were far too big, her eyes beady behind the large lens, and a tuft of short red hair sat atop her large head.
Zack and Wesley headed towards their seats at the back of the classroom, but the student occupying the desk next to Zack's caught Wesley's attention. Wesley had never seen him before. He was a lanky kid, smaller than Zack who was the skinniest kid in the entire school. He had large blue eyes and brown hair styled into a pompadour. He seemed lost in thought, just staring into space, but as soon as Wesley and Zack approached him he looked up at smiled from ear to ear at them.
"Hey, dude," Zack said, returning the smile. "Are you new here?"
The kid nodded. "Yeah, moved here a couple days ago."
"Where from?" Zack asked.
The kid didn't immediately answer, he just stared at Zack, holding the smile, before uttering "Uh, Mississippi."
"Hey, my aunt lives there. What's your name?"
"Alright, Daniel. I'm Zack, and this is Wesley."
He waved shyly at Wesley, who nodded once in response.
The bell rang again and Wesley and Zack took their seats. Miss Evers introduced the class to Bridge to Terabithia, the book they'd be reading that week. Zack and Daniel were whispering back and forth to one another for almost the entire class. Wesley peeked over and Daniel smiled at him. Wesley half smiled back. What is with this kid, he thought to himself. Aren't new kids supposed to be super shy?
It seemed like an eternity had passed when the next bell rang. The students shot up from their seats and rushed to the door.
"What's your next class?" Zack asked Daniel as they headed out into the hallway.
Daniel looked down at his paper schedule. "Science with Mr. Hayes."
"Hey, me too!" Zack said excitedly. "Come on, I'll show you the way! Catch you at lunch, Wes?"
Wesley nodded. "Yep. See you later."
Zack and Daniel went off in one direction and Wesley went the other. He had History next, his least favorite subject. Then after that was Speech and Debate, and then lunch. Once the lunch bell rung, Wesley headed to the cafeteria, a long room with round tables scattered around it. One wall had several doors that led to the school halls, and the other wall had a line of windows that overlooked the football field. Wesley joined the line of kids waiting for their food, looking around for Zack but couldn't spot him anywhere. That's weird, Wesley said to himself. He usually always beats me here.
After he paid for his food, which consisted of pizza that looked slightly burnt and macaroni and cheese, he made a beeline for the usual table he sat at with Zack, and again saw that he wasn't there. Wesley plopped down and took a bite of the pizza, which tasted like cardboard. About ten minutes later, Zack and Daniel showed up.
"You mean you've never owned a PSP? Or an Xbox? Or anything?"
Daniel shook his head.
"Not even a GameBoy?"
Daniel shook his head again.
"Have you been living under a rock or something?" Zack asked jokingly.
Daniel chuckled. "Something like that."
"Hey, Wes!" Zack said.
"What's up?" Wesley asked, grimacing as he took another bite of the pizza.
"You've got bigger balls than I do eating that," Zack said, looking disgusted.
"It looks fine to me," Daniel said kindly.
"You kidding?" Wesley scoffed. "School food sucks. I'd kill for them to serve McDonald's or Sonic or something."
"I've been saying that for years, dude!" Zack chimed in.
Daniel just sat there, politely looking between Wes and Zack.
"Hey, do you live close to school?" Zack asked Daniel.
"Uh, yeah," Daniel responded. "About a fifteen minute walk."
"Wanna walk with us after school? We walk home pretty much every day."
Wesley rolled his eyes. He wasn't sure what it was, but he just didn't like this new kid. Something about him was giving Wesley a really weird vibe. The kid himself was pretty weird. Wesley had never met a new student who was overly nice and brave enough to speak to the other students. They're normally quiet and freaked out at a new place.
"I'd love that!" Daniel said eagerly.
Once the final bell rang, the trio ran out the front doors of the school and across the freshly mowed lawn. The weather was nice, the sky a cloudless blue and it was in the upper sixties. Zack and Daniel ran ahead of Wesley, who jogged behind them. They cut through part of the woods, which was faster than going through town. Daniel slowed and looked around, before staring blankly to the west. Wesley stopped and followed his glance, but it seemed like he was staring at nothing.
"What are you looking at?" Wesley asked.
Daniel shrugged. "Don't know. Thought I saw something."
Zack had stopped far ahead of them and turned around impatiently. "Come on, slowpokes!"
Wesley and Daniel jogged to catch up to Zack, but Daniel kept cutting his eyes in the western direction of the forest. What did he see?
Over the course of the next week, Daniel had gotten closer to Zack, much to Wesley's annoyance. Daniel and Wesley weren't very friendly to each other anymore. Wesley had even tried on their first day back but Daniel shrugged it off. On top of getting close to Zack, Daniel had made friends with two other kids, one of them was named Matthew and he was the oddball who didn't talk to anyone and had really bad acne, and the other was Ashley, who was a very pretty girl who was obsessed with Mean Girls and Lady Gaga. Looking at the four of them together, it seemed like a very odd clique. None of them would have associated with each other if Daniel hadn't been there. They just weren't the type of kids you'd see hanging out together.
But Wesley didn't really care that they were all hanging out together. At least he didn't until Zack blew him off.
"Hey man. Diablo this week?" Wesley asked Zack on their lunch.
Zack turned away from Daniel, who had learned how to play Dissidia on their PSP, and stared at Wesley hesitantly. "Uh, I don't know dude."
Wesley blinked, confused. "But we do it every week."
"Yeah, but I thought maybe we should hang out with Daniel. He is new after all. Maybe we could get him in on our game?"
Wesley rolled his eyes. "Are you serious? It's our thing dude!"
"Stop being dumb, Wes."
"Whatever," Wesley huffed, getting up and storming away from the table.
Maybe he was being a little bit unreasonable. Maybe he was being unfair. But he didn't like that this new kid had just swooped in and taken his best friend. Zack had never blown off a Diablo game day with him, ever, in the four months that they had been playing. Whatever, if Zack wanted to go off with Daniel and hang out with him, then fine. Wesley was determined to have a good weekend without him.
The weekend arrived and it was absolutely lame.
Wesley sat on the swing on his front porch, his nose in Bride to Terabithia. The essay for it was due Monday and Wesley hadn't read a single page before today, but he had to admit, it was pretty good. Before he knew it, he was already halfway through it.
A soft breeze made the trees of the woods sway gently from side to side. Wesley looked up at the sky, a clear blue with little cotton ball clouds dotted here and there. He was enjoying the breeze and the cool air until a large black lightning bolt struck in the middle of the woods.
It took a minute for Wesley to actually process what he had just been.
On a clear day. No rain or storms or anything in the forecast.
The sun was even out.
And the bolt itself had been black.
Or at least it had looked black. It almost seemed like a shadow.
Wesley asked his mom if she had seen it, but she just shrugged it off, blaming it on his "overactive imagination."
What the hell had happened?
Zack wasn't at school Monday. Neither was Daniel.
Wesley was worried now. It wasn't like Zack to cut school. His mom was insanely strict, and if she found out Zack wasn't here she would ground him until his high school graduation.
Then again, maybe he was sick. But Wesley couldn't bring himself to believe it. It just felt way too convenient. Wesley noticed throughout the day that Matthew and Ashley weren't at school either, which only made him worry even more.
Wesley walked home that afternoon, absolutely freaked out at this point. He was going to drop by his house and see if it was okay to go to Zack's and check on him.
Wesley reached his driveway and saw Zack's mom's van sitting in his driveway behind his mother's car. Wesley hoped that Zack was here as he ran up the driveway and through his front door.
His heart dropped. Wesley had never liked to see his mom cry, it made him sad too. The very few times she had were really bad times, like when his grandmother died and when his dad left them. Wesley's mom wasn't a crier, so whatever this was, it was bad.
Zack's mother and father were sitting next to Wesley's mom, both of them had been crying too. They looked up at him when he walked in, and looked at him comfortingly.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Wes, sit down sweetheart," his mom said.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Just sit down, sweetie," Zack's mom said, wiping away a tear.
Wesley sat down in the recliner across from the couch they were sitting on. Zack's mom inhaled deeply. "Have you seen Zack?"
Wesley shook his head slowly.
"You haven't heard from him? He hasn't called you?"
Wesley shook his head again.
"Oh, no," his mom mumbled, more tears streaming down her face.
"What is it?!" Wesley demanded.
His mom stood up and walked over to him, placing her hands gently on his shoulders. "Zack's missing."