Chapter 8

MONDAY, MAY 16th

When I finally woke up, I woke up suddenly – as in sat-up-straight, eyes wide open, mind crystal clear.

I instantly realized something was wrong. My room was dark, way too dark considering how long I thought I’d been asleep. On top of that, the house was silent. That never happened.

And I had the weirdest taste in the back of my throat. It tasted like a little like grass, a little like cough syrup, and a lot like crap. Why?

I climbed quickly out of bed and glanced out the window. It was pitch black outside, the moon and stars covered by a murky layer of clouds. The only usable light came from a street lamp down the block, which shone like a lighthouse in the otherwise bleak setting.

None of this made any sense. Why was everything so dark? What time was it?

I stumbled across my room to the light switch and flicked it on.

Nothing happened.

I jiggled the switch back and forth (don’t ask me why – as if that ever fixes the problem), but still the room lay covered in darkness. What had happened to the power?

A sudden memory of the hospital flashed into my mind: the power had also gone out there just moments before we were attacked.

Could it be happening again?

I slunk downward, rapidly try to think of something I could use for light. There were no flashlights in my room, but what else gave off light? The computer (needed power), my lamp (needed power), what else…

…my cellphone. Thank goodness for cellphones.

I quietly slid out my phone and flipped it open. The light from its screen was dim, but it was enough to shed some cursory illumination on things.

Like a concert-goer, I lifted the phone over my head and waved it slowly back and forth. My room looked intact; nothing was torn apart or damaged, but things looked unnaturally hazy – like some kind of smoke or cloud had taken over the room.

That’s when I made the connection. There wasn’t a strange taste in my mouth – there was a strange smell permeating everything. I’d never smelled anything like it.

I turned sideways, examining my bed, and instantly I noticed the source of the problem: a small pile of dust sat atop a metal plate on my nightstand. The dust was black and smoldering, as if it were only the remains of a larger pile that had slowly burned away.

What was that doing here? Who put it there? Mom? Someone else? Someone bad?

I leaned in to take a closer whiff and instantly regretted it. The moment I inhaled, my head began to spin and my legs went wobbly. I dropped to my knees and fought unconsciousness as I dragged a pillow over the intoxicating powder.

It took a moment, but eventually the stupor passed. That stupid little powder pile was some kind of narcotic, and it must have been what knocked me out for so long.

Speaking of which, just how long had I been asleep? I pulled the phone in close and took a look at the time and date.

5:15am, May 16th.

…5:15am? Whoa. That meant I had been out for–

Wait.

May 16th?

As in Monday, May 16th?

What?!

I double-checked the clock, then turned the phone off and back on again. Once it loaded up, the clock read “5:16am, May 16th.”

No fricking way.

I had fallen asleep around 10:00am Saturday morning, and now it was 5:16am Monday morning. I’d been out for almost two days.

As that recognition set in, a bunch of other feelings overwhelmed me. I suddenly noticed my stomach burning with hunger (not surprising, considering when I’d last eaten). I couldn’t believe I’d missed all day Sunday. Mom had talked about leaving town on Saturday night.

Had she actually left with Emmary and Jackson?

No. They couldn’t have. I had to have been knocked out before Saturday evening, because mom certainly would have notified me before she left. In fact, since I wasn’t that tired when I originally went to sleep, there was no way I slept for more than an hour or two on my own.

That meant I must have been drugged some time between 10:00am and noon on Saturday, which in turn meant the bad guys had been in my house during those same hours.

But why drug me? Why not just kill me? And where was mom during all this? Why hadn’t I heard anything?

A sudden creak echoed from the main staircase, followed soon after by a second one.

Something was coming up the stairs. Figuring out the specifics of my drugging would have to wait.

My room sits at the end of the upstairs hallway. Our top floor has a simple layout: a set of hardwood stairs climb up the western wall of the house, terminating at the start of the hallway. The carpeted hallway runs down the centerline of the house, and as you walk down it you first pass the master bedroom on your left, immediately followed by a bathroom on the right. At the end of the hallway there are two doors – one leading to Jackson and Emmary’s room, the other leading to my room. There are 14 stairs, and the hallway is approximately 20 feet long.

Which didn’t leave me much time.

As another creak rang out, I considered the two possible exits from my room. Neither was ideal. Way 1 was out the door and down the hallway – not great when someone’s coming up the stairs. Way 2 was leaping out my bedroom window, which wouldn’t be too bad except for the three massive (and I mean massive) rosebushes directly below. Even those might be survivable, except no one in the family enjoyed yard work so these particular rosebushes had grown totally out of control. If I leapt out my window I just might tear myself to pieces.

Another creak, followed by another.

I needed a better way out.

I closed the cellphone and quickly slid my door open. The smell of that smoldering powder still permeated everything, but I had to quit noticing it – every time I did I felt like I’d either vomit or pass out, neither of which would help my escape.

So I took a deep breath and slipped into the hallway, then sideways through the open doorway of Jack and Emmary’s room.

Another creak.

A quick flip of the cellphone revealed that this bedroom looked the exact opposite of mine. Whereas my room had been almost completely untouched, this room looked like every piece of furniture had exploded. Drawers were torn open, mattresses piled against the wall, and strewn clothes covered everything.

Another creak.

No time to waste.

I quickly picked my way across the debris and found the bedroom window already open. It took at least five seconds to get the bottom edge of the screen out, then three more to quietly pull the screen inside.

Then the creaking stopped, which could only mean one thing: my pursuer was off the hardwood stairs and onto the carpeted hallway.

I slid behind one of the overturned mattresses and waited, watching the hallway closely. A bright beam of light flickered across the doorway. A different, shallower creak echoed across the room.

The beam flickered past the doorway again. Fortunately, this bedroom door had been left completely open, so the hallway couldn’t have looked too different from when my pursuer had seen it last. Maybe he’d go back downstairs.

Another shallow creak, then another.

…Maybe he wouldn’t.

I slipped my phone into my pocket as a shadowy figure drifted past the open doorway and into my bedroom – the room I had just left.

Now was my chance.

I placed a hand on the window ledge and vaulted cleanly over and out. I’d like to say that my life flashed before my eyes as I fell, but really it was totally blank as I endured the most terrifying three seconds of my life.

When I finally hit the ground my legs gave way and I fell into an awkward roll. It wasn’t pleasant.

But nothing felt broken, so I leapt to my feet and ran like hell for the end of the street opposite my bedroom window.

I’d never in my life ran like this. I didn’t think about breathing, didn’t think about pacing myself. My legs just pumped as fast as they possibly could and my arms swung to match. I didn’t turn around, didn’t look back. I just ran and ran and ran.

After several streets, I realized that if I continued this direction I would eventually reach Eddie’s house. That seemed as safe a place as any, and without missing a beat I continued on my way.

Five minutes later I flopped, wheezing, over the enormous stone wall surrounding Eddie’s house. My arms and legs shook and my aching stomach had been replaced by the mother of all side aches – but at least I was a good mile from my house. I was pretty certain no one had followed me, and hopefully the bad guys wouldn’t know enough to track me to Eddie’s house when they realized I was gone.

Once my breathing slowed to the point I could talk, I took out my phone and dialed Eddie.

The phone rang only once before he picked up.

“Teal!” he yelled. “What’s going on? Where are you?”

“Why don’t you sound tired at all? Were you already awake?”

“It’s 5:30am, man! We’ve got to get to school for our meeting!”

“Meeting? What mee– oh yeah. It’s Monday. THAT meeting.”

“Of course it’s Monday! Did you forget? And where have you been?”

“Just come outside. I’m in your front yard by the teak trees.”

“You’re already here? So you did remember! Man, you’ve got me all confused.”

“Join the club.”

“…Huh? Wait there. I’ll be out in a minute.”

The end-of-call beep sounded and I barely had the presence of mind to flip the phone shut and slide it back into my pocket.

I slumped onto my back and stared skyward through dense layers of teak leaves. Eddie’s parents had shipped the trees all the way from India (at an unbelievable cost) with hopes they could someday harvest the wood for the second Jacuzzi they were planning. I never really understood why they didn’t just buy the lumber outright – growing your own trees for lumber seemed a little odd.

But when you’re worth a half-billion dollars, I guess you’re allowed to do strange things with your money.

I lay there silently, watching the stars and trying to avoid thinking until I heard the mansion’s front door slam shut. By then I had recovered enough energy to raise myself to a sitting position.

Man, I was hungry. I needed food.

My stomach growled as Eddie bounded across the lawn to meet me.

“Teal, Teal, Teal. I could kill you. Why didn’t you call me this weekend? Where have you been? And why are you lying down?”

“Stop asking so many questions, and keep it down! There’s no need to yell.”

“Don’t worry. My parents are out of town – as usual – so they won’t hear us.”

“They’re not the ones I’m worried about. You’ll never believe what’s happened to me.”

“Tell me on the way to school. I don’t want to be late to our meeting.”

“Can you get me something to eat first? I’m starving.”

“No! We need to go! We’re gonna be late!”

“No, we won’t. Please, man – anything! I haven’t eaten in two days!”

“…Really? Why not?”

“I’ll tell you on the way. Now hurry!”

Eddie couldn’t have looked more confused if he’d tried, but he diligently dropped his backpack and scampered back inside. A minute later he re-emerged carrying a full box of Pop-Tarts.

“Eat these. I don’t like this flavor anyway.”

“Thanks,” I replied, ripping open the box and handing him his backpack. “Now we can head out.”

I spent the rest of the walk to school gorging myself on Pop-Tarts and relating the details of my weekend. I did my best to omit no detail, however small, because I wanted the two of us on the same page before this strange meeting with the man from the closet.

More than once Eddie tried to interrupt, but I made him save all his questions until the end of my story.

As we walked onto the front lawn of the high school, I swallowed the last bite of Pop-Tart and finished the story by describing my jog to Eddie’s house just 30 minutes earlier.

“So that’s when you called me? After you sprinted to my house?”

“Yeah,” I replied, rubbing my now-stiff thighs. “I really did sprint the entire way.”

“If you were anybody else, I wouldn’t believe a word of your story. But I can’t imagine why you’d make this up.”

“Every word is true.”

“And your family? They’re really gone?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t seen them since I fell asleep on Saturday.”

“Have you tried calling your dad?”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Good idea. Maybe I can track down the hospital phone number and try to reach him. Maybe he knows where mom, Em, and Jack are. Good thinking!”

Eddie smiled.

“Anyway, dude – I’m sorry. You just gotta keep your hopes up. It sounds like your mom knew they were coming, so maybe she was able to escape before they got her and the kids.”

“But why would they drug me? Why not kidnap me too? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Eddie shrugged.

“Who knows? All I know is we’ve got this creepy meeting, and I’m really having trouble concentrating after all the bombshells you’ve dropped.”

“Tell me about it. I just hope this mystery man will shed some light on things. Maybe he knows more about my family – or at least more about the bad guys.”

“Let’s hope so,” Eddie said.

I took out my phone and checked the time.

“It’s 5:57. We’d better hurry. He said our life could depend on us getting there on time. I don’t think he was serious…but I don’t want to take any chances.”

We hurried through the front doors of the school. As we jogged down the empty hallways toward our lockers, I couldn’t help but notice how surreal everything felt. It seemed like weeks had passed since the last time I’d been at school.

But wow, everything sure looked nice and clean. The janitorial crew had done a bang-up job. If I didn’t know better, it looked like just another normal school hallway – not one that was covered in dust and debris less than 72 hours ago.

At last we reached the hall with our lockers, the fateful hallway where my life first started falling apart. Even here things looked remarkably new. The ceiling had been completely repaired, and a glance down the hallway showed the damaged door as repaired or replaced.

I hadn’t expected things to look so good. Someone had worked hard to erase every vestige of damage and debris – almost too hard.

“Hey Teal – do you have anything on you?”

“Just my phone and the clothes on my back. Why?”

Eddie popped open his locker.

“Why don’t you take this,” he said, reaching to the bottom of his locker and pulling out a second backpack.

“What is it?” I asked, taking the pack. “It looks exactly like the pack you’re wearing. Why do you have two identical backpacks?”

Eddie grinned.

“Emergency preparedness, dude. I always keep a pack of emergency supplies in the bottom of my locker in case I’m ever stranded at school – you know, earthquake or something.”

A week ago I would have laughed in his face upon hearing this. Today, it sounded absolutely brilliant.

“What’s in it?”

“Some food, water, matches, ponchos, a flashlight, etc. Basic survival stuff.”

“You, my friend, are a genius. What’s in the pack on your back?”

“My school stuff, along with a couple surprises in case things with the mystery man don’t go well.”

I didn’t ask for details. Frankly I didn’t want details, though the way Eddie said ‘surprises’ made me nervous.

He closed his locker and gave me a skittish look.

“Well? Shall we head?”

I checked my phone.

“5:59. Let’s go.”

We moved quickly down the hallway, climbing the half-flight of stairs and closing the remaining distance to the unmarked door just as the time rolled over to 6:00am. There was no sign of the mystery man.

Upon reaching the door, I took a moment to check the repairs. It looked like a very heavy-looking steel slab had been installed in place of the old wood one. The hinges had been moved to the inside of the door and a deadbolt now sat above the silver handle.

Apparently the school was serious about keeping people out of this room – which made me wonder if it really was a janitor’s closet, since major security precautions seemed overkill for protecting mops and cleaning supplies.

Hmm.

Eddie raised a fist.

“Should I knock?”

I shrugged, and he rapped the heavy metal door twice.

The weighty thunk of a released deadbolt sounded, followed by the swift opening of the door.

“Get in here and do it quickly,” a deep, scratchy voice commanded. Looked like the mystery man hadn’t forgotten we were coming.

Eddie and I traded nervous glances.

“Go ahead,” I whispered.

Eddie closed his eyes and quickly entered.

I took a deep breath, then followed close behind him.



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