Noctiluca: The Silent Drowning (Part 1)

This story contains some content which some readers might find disturbing. Discretion is advised.

(Did you come here from a social post? If so, please check out the photo credits on all free images used, at the bottom of the page, after reading. These generous photographers leave authors like me spoiled for choice when it comes to visualizing our stories.)

There are nine parts of varying length. This story is the length of a solid novel, so please enjoy it at whatever pace you prefer.

Without further ado, scroll past the image to begin, and thank you for reading.

hand in shiny blue sparkles on sand

Image via Pixabay by Alvaro_Bejarano.


My mind is kind of like a wide-brimmed hat. All it takes is a gust of wind and it sails away, leaving me lost and staring.

I am sitting on my bed in my underwear, legs crossed. Looking at the window and the view of the cul-de-sac, and the modest camper below, it's bright enough in my dark room to feel like staring into a computer screen. That's the equator sun for you.

"Mellie!"

My dad's voice, behind me, sounds insistent. I'm used to that tone, where the person has called to me a few times already. Finally hearing, I put down my pencil and sketchbook. I had been trying to sketch the RV shoved into our neighbor's parking lot, when the sun's glare got in the way. I hadn't even gotten to the wheels, and it kind of looks like I was trying to sketch a bizarre, 1970's cooler.

I turned to see Dad holding my door open and leaning dramatically off the knob.

"Huh?"

"Breakfast is ready, remember?"

"Oh, sure, yeah!" I fold my sketchbook shut. Its plain black cover is like a conditioned signal to get moving.

His voice carries down the hall. "And put on clothes if you're not gonna lock the door!"

"Who else but you is gonna barge in?" I mumble. His heavy footfalls are already fading down the carpeted stairs. I still need to shower, but I don't mind eating first, so I just slither into the same sweatpants and tank that I slept in.

I'm spoiled when it comes to food. My dad's situation is kind of complicated, but basically, despite being super white and muscled like some stereotypical biker thug, he works as the head chef at this really successful, family-run Indian catering company. Technically, we're both part of that family. I come a lot closer to looking it, though.

Anyway, the catering company is known for regularly changing up their menu to suit the season. Sometimes my breakfast is just tasting all the new dishes he's composing. It fills up the little dining-room table so I have to eat standing up. We're not crazy enough to eat Indian food on the couch.

"First of all, we're entering summer," Dad says, "so I've switched our staple bread to an onion naan. Give that a try by itself before you cloud your palate."

I take a bite from one of the naans in the long row, stacked like fat business cards. "It's great."

"What did we say about generic adjectives?" he teases, snatching it away.

"No, gimme!" I say trying to wrestle it back.

"Why do you want it back, huh?"

"Because the sweetness is just right and it's perfectly charred!"

"Excellent." Dad releases me from his abdominal stretcher lock and he starts eating the naan anyway. He can just take my food like that anytime. It's really mean.

"I don't want you filling up on that alone," he says. "You gotta taste the saucier items with the bread and tell me how it fits. Let's start here."

He directs me to a chunky lamb vindaloo (living with this jerk, I can identify dishes by sight) and I tear a piece off another naan to dip and taste. Then I move to a paneer tikka kebab with green pepper, a personal favorite. I get a mouthful of each dish, giving my impressions. I love everything, but he needs specific details, and I'm not the average customer. For instance, I like food spicier than most, so if I call something just right on the spiciness, he knows to cool it down a notch.

"Well, that's the tour," Dad says after I take another bite of sweet, chilled modak. "Go ahead and eat whatever you want. Thanks."

Since I've had quite a bit of food at once, I decide I'm fine for now and go upstairs to take a shower, then dry my hair and set it in a lazy bun. Dressed in jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt, I grab my black backpack and make sure I'm not missing any books. Thanks to the color scheme and my personality, some people at school call me "The Hornet".

I've already brushed my teeth, so I don't feel like eating again. I confirm this for Dad and announce that I'm heading for the bus stop.

"Hey, Mellie."

"Yeah?" I say, holding the flared door handle.

His tone drops as he sets rinsed dishes in the fridge. "You saw that RV across the street, right?"

"Oh, yeah..." the mention gusts my mind away, back to the sight of it from my window. It looked oddly beat up and old, with a 70's orange and brown color scheme. I had never seen it until this morning, but I never paid much attention to that neighbor.

"Stay away from it," he says. "I think someone might be making drugs in there."

"Oh... okay."

"I'm calling the police later today. Keep upwind of it if you can, just in case."

***

Dad and I live in a pretty alright neighborhood. I feel okay walking around by myself. But what Dad just said makes me realize all the little reasons that contribute to that feeling, like the chain bolt on the front door, the mace and knife I carry with me, my tendency not to go exploring down unfamiliar territory. Not to mention, if someone came after me, my dad would annihilate them.

Our house is kind of strange. Despite being three floors, it's actually quite small in terms of living space. The first level is a garage, laundry room, and storage room, and you have to take a set of wooden stairs to the second floor to reach the front door. The bedrooms are on the third, which is why I have such a great view of that flat, over-developed Florida landscape.

The RV is across the street. I pause on the last of the steps when I notice a figure in the distance. The arms look unnatural, and then I realize that the person's got their left arm folded in a cast and sling. They open the door to the RV and walk inside.

My dad was quite the delinquent when he was around my age. He tells me stories sometimes, honestly really scary ones about making crack as a teenager in the 80s, and all the hideous things people did to each other, with that poison as the center of the whirlpool. He used a Winnebago and stayed on the move, never got caught and had to get set straight through other ways.

Now, he could be overreacting. After all, why would someone cook right in their own driveway? I guess it could be an amateur production. Glancing at the thing from afar, I see no lights on in the blinded windows, no smoke dissipating through the vent. Someone entered only now, though.

Just as I'm passing it, I hear the starter grumpily turn over and the engine rumble to life. I get overly conscious of my shoulders and posture and try to stay walking at the same speed as I take in every sound. The gear popping into neutral, the tires grittily rolling and bumping out into the street, and then the elongated whine that stays behind me for what feels like way too long.

This guy should be passing me, I think, clearly on the yard end of the sidewalk. Right now. Right... now. Seriously?

Surely he isn't following me. It's so transparent if he is. But then again, maybe it doesn't matter to him if I notice. Damn, who is this guy?

I'm mortified when I reach the corner of a T intersection. This is where my bus comes, and I have to just stop. I slide my backpack off and stay cool and innocent, pretending to look through my books.

"Homework, homework..." I mumble, yawning open a folder that hides my other hand, readying the switchblade.

The RV is still bumbling along, incredibly slowly. I have used my mace before, but never the knife, and I really don't want to have to pull it out, let alone hurt someone.

What an unfair derailment of my life, I think, my normally whimsical mind rough and focused as a rifle barrel. Having to stab somebody. Even if it's self-defense, if I kill them I'll probably end up in court with the bastard's family. My dad would spend everything to protect me, the family would pool their hard-earned money too, I bet. What gives you the right?

I realize I'm facing the stopped RV fully, staring, switchblade in my hand. It's not drawn, so it should only look like my hand is balled into a fist. But I think anyone who can read the situation would know what I'm communicating.

Finally, with an infuriating pace, the RV turns and leaves, eventually disappearing down the main state road. It was like he knew the bus would be coming by any minute. I don't get a great view of the driver, aside from one normal, bare arm holding the steering wheel and another arm folded up and wrapped in white.

***

The journey to my first class passes by like scenery on the bus ride. There's the girls who whisper together, going "Ew, it's The Hornet." Boys who aren't my friends get into it too.

"Hey, Lee," some short guy says from his locker. He flies a green bill between his fingers like a flag. "I've got ten dollars..."

"And yet I'm walking away," I say. "Get used to girls doing that."

Oh, and my preferred nickname is Lee. The guys who insult me always go for that, because, you see, even as aggressors, they'd like to schmooze their way closer, while the girls prefer a cold ostracism.

I should make it clear: I don't really mind this stuff anymore, and I realize most people deal with it. But it does make me wonder why I'm one of the bigger targets. Okay, throughout Freshman Year, I may have been a little reluctant toward some of their attempts to be friendly, too shy to handle it. At worst, I was a bit thorny. I didn't outright sting anybody, though!

But then I think back to the incident with the RV. Did I overreact, jump to the worst conclusion? It could have been a coincidence. Maybe the person just had some reason to drive slow and stop for a bit before turning.

I take my seat in the back of my first class, Biology III Honors. First class also serves as homeroom, and I have a few minutes to chat with Sam in the next seat over.

"Well, hello there," he says. His greeting is perfectly identical every time, like a video game character. When he sees that I didn't reply, he folds up his newspaper. He must be the only person of our generation that still reads those, but it gives him this old-world dandy impression. "What's happened? You're looking rather pallid."

"It could be nothing," I say, fixing my backpack at my legs under my desk. "But I need your judgment on this."

As I tell him about the RV, something falls out of my mouth before he can give his verdict.

"Oh my god, how could I be so stupid?" I say. "I didn't even catch the license plate."

"Would taking out your phone to potentially take a video or call 911 not have been a worthy solution, as well?"

To that, I can only hang my head. I really acted like an idiot.

"You were in distress, it's understandable," he says. "Besides, it was a highly distinguishable vehicle that you saw up close, wasn't it? You should be able to describe it to law enforcement, if necessary. If it comes back to your house, all the easier."

"You always see the other side of everything."

"Anyone can do that," he says, opening the newspaper again. "Your problem is that you're like a high-powered camera with a full SD card. You can get very perceptive and focused, but you don't save much information afterward."

"Pretty techy metaphor for an Amish."

He scoffs and tries to bat me with the rolled up newspaper. I laugh and catch it with my hand, pulling. His reflexes are way too slow, but he's got one hell of a grip. We play tug of war, self-conscious enough not to go all out and cause our desk legs to screech against the floor.

"I am as tech-minded as anyone," he says, brow sharpening into a V. "Reading a newspaper does not contradict that."

"Oh?"

"It isn't my fault the world's only trustworthy news outlets are on paper," his strength folds back as he remembers something. "Speaking of, I'm done with that one, if you want to see the cartoons." He lets go completely to show a truce.

"Thanks," I say, taking the rolled up, inky pages. I unroll it and try to press it out with the weight of my textbook, out of respect to my enemy's valor.

I take a look past many heads and hairstyles toward the front of the class. Sam and I talked our way through announcements and our teacher, Ms. Collins, still isn't here. We get down to business and study as much as we can in the chatty atmosphere since there's a section exam imminent.

As Sam produces a neat stack of hand-written flashcards from his side bag, I notice groups of girls glancing at the muscle of his extending arm. Sam's the captain of the wrestling team, and probably the most popular guy in school with no girlfriend. It lends him this mysterious aura.

I don't know how I would stand school without someone like Sam. Being friends with a guy feels more natural to me anyway, but the real thing I love about him is that he doesn't care about trivial stuff. The latest movie that everyone hates, gossip, anything about celebrities, and least of all: other people's opinions of him. As someone who gets carried away and mired in little thoughts, it's inspirational.

"Bioluminescence," he says, holding up the flash card where I can read the word in his impeccable handwriting.

"It's uh... the ability for life to... create light."

"Correct."

I held up a flashcard for him. "Ah-deeno-sin Try-phosphate." I look up and he nods. Sam is much better than most teachers I've ever had, in that he never comes across as belittling and harsh, but doesn't patronize either. I can tell some kids, who probably have worse grades than me, are snickering at me sounding out the word. "Cool, awesome. Adenosine Triphosphate."

It's like he can read my side of the paper, backwards. "Also known as ATP. The organic chemical which is broken down into Adenosine Diphosphate or Adenosine Monophosphate, also known as ADP or AMP. This process occurs in the mitochondria of the cell, generating energy for cell function."

"Word for word perfect," I say. When I look at Sam again, he's watching someone behind me. I turn and everything stops.

It's the guy with his arm in a sling, the RV driver. Now, of course, I know it's a guy, a really pale and lanky one, and yet pudgy in the middle, like a bleached frog. His head is shaved bald and his eyes seem to be sinking back in their sockets, away from the harsh overhead lamps.

The room quiets as this man walks up to the main desk, where Ms. Collins should be. He picks up a marker and starts writing something at the whiteboard. Now that I'm zeroed-in on him, our RV driver is quite young, maybe in his middle thirties. He's wearing a black denim jacket, which to me doesn't say 'professional educator'.

"Good morning," the man says. Turning around, we see his name, and it has even more impact in that he never actually introduces himself.

Mr. Lye

"Ms. Collins was not able to come to school today." His voice upsets me more than it should, precisely because it's friendly and trustworthy. I could see this man narrating an audio-book about taking charge of your career. "You have an exam, I believe? I'll be conducting that. Shall we begin now?"

No one's sure what to say. Normally, some of the more sociable students would chat up Ms. Collins to delay the inevitable and potentially convince her to bump it to next Monday, but trying that with a substitute is risky. Teachers can get inordinately angry about any bad behavior their substitute reports back to them in writing.

A few students help Mr. Lye find where Ms. Collins stores the test materials, and with their help and his, the test packets and answer sheets are delivered. I'm on that middle ground where I can't say for sure how confident I am on my answers, but that's not my main problem now.

I sense Mr. Lye perusing the aisles, like any teacher would to watch for cheating. I shouldn't let it bother me, or show any signs, but I'm right back to that hot morning walk down the sidewalk, only unlike when the RV was behind me, he's walking down toward my position.

I read over the same chemical reaction, just a mess of hieroglyphics, as he passes my left side. My hands moves too suddenly and my pencil flips out of my hand and clatters off my desk. He catches it before it can hit the linoleum, and slowly rises, the eraser snared in his fingertips.

"T-thank you." I take it back.

"Take a deep breath," he says with a serene smile. "I know you can do it."

Some of the students giggle as I nod and go back to the test, my face an inferno. Did he really have to say it so... intimately?

No, think, Lee! What is he really saying? "I know you can do it." Why? It boils down to "I know you." What is the point, though? Just a friendly compliment from a neighbor? After this morning, I think not.

I should just tell another adult about this. My dad might overreact, but perhaps one of my other teachers.

The bell groans, a recorded monastery-style sound effect telling us the test is up. We all hand ours in as we're funneling out. First period is always the long class, and after that, it's lunch and three shorter classes. It balances out by having you take and finish two different classes in the first period time-slot at each half of the year. Our school district based it on some research about students doing better if they focus more on one thing at the start of the day.

"Miss Agnihotri?" Lye asks, stopping me with friendly but tight eye contact.

I cringe at hearing my last name, like an evil witch's incantation.

"Yes?"

"One moment please," he says, waiting for the remaining handful of students to drop their papers in the stack and walk out the stopped door. I can see Sam's face poking out among the tide of students, suspicious. I jokingly mouth "Help me!", but a blond girl in braces touches his arm and starts leading him away. I don't think he noticed.

"Do you prefer a different name?" Lye says, shocking me back to him as he unplugs the doorstop and lets it shut. The feet and voices muffled behind it have never been so enticing.

"I prefer to be called by my nickname: Lee."

"But you reacted quite strongly to your last name, Agnihotri."

If this guy is a substitute, he needs to act like it.

"Agnihotri is technically my last name," I say. "But I greatly dislike it. I would much rather be called Ms. Walsh, if possible."

"But why..." He throws up his hands, brushing his question off like dust from a shirt. "I apologize for prying. It's just that I had a bit of an odd memory stirred up, seeing you react to your name."

My name. Take a hike, buddy.

"Anyway, are you busy during lunch today? I'd like to speak with you about something."

"...what about?"

"It can wait until we have some time alone," he says, sensing my reluctance finally. I smell the exhaust of that RV, my mind leaning back into that animal tension. But I will not admit to myself that I am afraid, not enough to lie.

"No, I'm definitely free during lunch."

"Excellent. Just come back here once you've gotten it. See you in a few." He sits down in the rolling chair and sets his feet on the desk. Did he eat earlier?

"I'd rather just hear what you have to say right now," I reply.

He looks at me with an unjustified impatience, like "Oh, there she goes again." I speak up before I can stop.

"And just to be honest, I'm not certain what you'd have to do with me, if you're a substitute and we just met."

"Ah, forgive me. I should have clarified better. I'm not a substitute. Well, not only. I normally teach advanced art classes."

"Oh." His odd appearance suddenly seems more appropriate. The other art teachers are all easily distinguished, too.

"There are none of those in the morning period," he says, "so I was called to fill in for Ms. Collins."

"Is she alright?"

"I assume she just has a bug, or a surprise family matter came up. She hasn't contacted the faculty to explain yet, from what I hear." He glanced out the window to the courtyard, where I'll have to go to reach the cafeteria. "Ah, did we perhaps have an earlier meeting, right after I got the urgent call to fill this position?"

My intestines are unhappy snakes in a zookeeper's bag. No avoiding it now.

"So... that was you, in the RV?"

"That's right," he says. "Had a little trouble getting the GPS for my phone to work."

"You scared the hell out of me," I snap. His eyes seem to retreat a little further in their sockets.

"I'm very sorry. I assure you, I hardly noticed you until I turned and left the street."

"Why would you need a GPS for going to school?"

"It's a... personal issue. Hearing the directions is very calming." He wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his good arm. The other arm has no sleeve, just that weirdly rolled-up white cloth. Up close, I see that it's not a cast. It's thinner, and it doesn't go over the actual hand, like make-believe bandages. "Anyway, I sincerely apologize if I frightened you... would 'Lee' be acceptable?"

I've never felt defensive about my preferred name before. I wonder if this is like being addressed in an overly informal verb tense in Spanish. Even so, the guy looks legitimately sorry. I realize now that he can't be more than ten years older than me, really surprising considering high school teachers usually spend many years working their way up the grades.

"It's fine. Just a misunderstanding," I say, nodding. "I'm kind of... pointed, sometimes. I know I have a problem. I'm... getting help." It feels like I've just lifted up my shirt to my navel and said "Stab here, please." Why do I have such a problem getting over things? This guy's just weird, not dangerous. "I'll be right back, then."

***

It's a lonely walk, now that everyone's at lunch. I hear only the occasional conversation behind the white cement walls, painted with all sorts of mixed murals by different clubs. An abstract face gaping in a split between the comedy and tragedy. Twirling vines with bulging pumpkins. A spool of purple thread unraveling into the words "Fashion Club! Dress 4 Success! ☺"

First, there's the name business. I'm sure I came off as a psycho, so let me explain.

The woman who could be called my mother was a second-generation immigrant from Maharashtra, India. Her name was Rahil Agnihotri, and she worked as head chef for her family's Indian Catering company. She met my dad while in culinary school, visiting his prison for a project that involved teaching convicts close to parole the skills needed to get work in the food industry. After she graduated, and he got released, they started dating, then lived together for a while, and finally got married.

Now, even in the U.S., Indian families tend to be conservative. But I know my relatives, and they're all fantastic people. My grandma and grandpa, Rahil's parents, looked past their concerns about their daughter marrying outside the culture and their Hindu faith. Even as an ex-con, Dad won them over. 

It was, according to Dad, the most typically American wedding. They did it while on a Vegas trip, after finding out that they were gonna have a kid. None of the family on either side got to attend, obviously. It was cheap, quick, and two years later, the marriage it started died a cruel and selfish demise.

One day, while I was only two years old, Rahil was not in the house they had bought with her family's supportive donations. In her place was a note, explaining all the stress of being married, her regrets, whatnot, basically "I'm sorry, this is goodbye." As if her life was some 1800's feminist novel that she just had to escape. Dad tried to get the police to investigate for foul play, but the note was clearly written by her, and likely not under duress. Some of her belongings and a bunch of their saved money were both missing, but nothing suggested it had been stolen by someone else, or that she had been abducted. She just left.

Despite all the pain in my dad's voice, he never seemed angry or spiteful, or even unwilling to tell stories about the two of them. I guess compared to a divorce, he preferred this outcome.

Pretty soon, as I got older and felt the effects of not having a mom, I had this maelstrom in my chest. I had to see that note, read what my 'mother' had to say to the husband, child, and family that weren't enough. But Dad will never let me see it. He tried to say, for a while, that he threw it away, but I didn't believe him. Finally, when I was ten I got caught turning his room inside out to find it. He had come home early without calling. This was worse than throwing a tantrum, digging around where I didn't belong, and he gave me the spanking of the century. He was crying just as much as I was, which was the part that actually hurt.

After that, I promised that I would forget about her. He wanted me to have a certain positive image of her, one the note might destroy, but even without seeing it, there's no hope of that. So if you can't forgive, forget. Dad accepted it. We haven't talked about her since, for eight years. But she was a great chef, apparently, and watching him work so hard to take her place... I'm not ashamed of who I am, but most teachers know I prefer to be called, if not Lee or Mellie, than by the last name of my father's family: Walsh. Never Ms. Agnihotri.

I've gotten a burger from the cafeteria and I'm nearly back. It feels uncomfortable eating Indian food in the school, sets me apart even further, so on days like today, where that's basically everything in the fridge, I don't pack a lunch.

"I'm back," I say, stepping into the bleach-white science classroom. Lye hasn't moved, still perching his sneakers on the black, chemical-resistant desk, but he lets them down and joins his hands contemplatively at the same spot.

"So..." he starts, as I get in the central front desk and set my backpack down. "I've happened to hear, from a student of mine, that you're very talented in charcoal."

Oh, a conversation about art? "Yes, I do charcoal mostly."

"Would it be too much of a request to see your work?"

"Not at all." I put my burger down and zip open my backpack, taking out the black sketchbook. I've filled most of the pages, so I'll need a new one soon, which is kind of sad.

I let him peruse the pieces by himself while I awkwardly eat across from him. I can tell he wants me to stand there so he can ask me questions or make observations as he flips each page. But I'm hungry, and this is still kind of a stiff connection between us.

This is going to sound really pretentious, but I don't enjoy hearing people's opinions on my sketches, on the whole. I just don't have any interest in the pieces once they're done. I'm busy on the next one. To me, the life, the art, was a temporary thing that came from the making of it. I only look back at my finished sketches for reference purposes, or if someone is curious, like Lye.

There was only one person who asked me questions about the actual process of sketching my pieces.

"Your work is articulate," Lye says, continuing to flip pages. "I'd say you have it in you to exhibit." He says it like I asked if I did.

"Well, thank you very much..." In an instant, I stop chewing and my sight and hearing are magnified. He's not flipping pages anymore. He reached the last page I was working on. The rough sketch of the RV from my bedroom window.

"I imagined we lived near each other," Lye says with a smirk. "But I didn't realize we were direct neighbors."

"Y-yeah, um... I'm really sorry." I've never met the unwilling owner of a subject before. Then I remember Dad saying the RV might be used for drugs. What if he thinks I'm sketching it to show to the police? No, that's crazy. Right?

"Tell you what," he says, leaning forward with an energetic smile. "You know about the Junior Social Dance coming up on the 26th?"

The change in subject slows my math. 26th... it's Friday the 11th now, so basically two weeks away.

"Yeah, what about it?"

"I'm exhibiting the best work of all the junior art students in a little mini gallery, in a section of the auditorium where the Dance is being held. I'd like to feature a fresh piece by you as well," he says, guiding me with his hands to show the size he was thinking of. It was your decent-sized 40-inch square frame, definitely the star piece in a living room. "Fully framed and fixed. Your best work. Ah, just imagine all the students, dressed up and gathered around your work, right before you pull the sheet away!"

Yeah, this guy is trying to kill me.

"I'm really flattered."

"I'm serious now, so don't say no. Think of this as a little practice run for doing a solo exhibit. If I go to one of my friends running a gallery and say 'Buddy, this girl has got what you need for your next big event.' what's the first thing they're going to want to know, you think?"

"Um... whether my work is a good fit for them?"

"Of course, but after that." Well, that's not very fair. "The answer is whether you have experience showing your work in large public events. A newbie is hard to take a chance on. They could fail to produce enough work on time, crack under the pressure of the event and run away, things like that. But this is a serious foothold, something that can work to get you much bigger chances." He paused, realizing I needed a more foundational argument. "If you don't mind me asking, are you intending to go to art school?"

I'm a junior, the year's more than halfway done, and right about now kids start to apply to colleges, or at least work toward the prerequisites, like community service. Honestly, I'm not doing that right now, because I can't picture myself out of this place. I'd love to have some kind of life-long goal. Camden did.

Oh, right, Camden Barry is my boyfriend. Most people say "was" now, even my dad, and he waited six months.

Stop, Mellie. I need to not think about that right now. Think of the future. What do I want to do?

"Yeah," I finally say, nodding at my remaining bite of burger. "More than anything else, I guess sketching more and being able to live just from that would be cool."

He laughs. "Well, there you go. We've got a little under two weeks for you to come up with a knock-out piece. Let's make the deadline, say, the 25th? That gives us time to fix the canvas and get in a glass frame, make a label, all of that. What do you say?"

"Woah, hold on, please," I say. It feels like he's had this conversation many times with me and I've avoided answering, and now he's impatient. But I've just met this guy!

"Of course. Any questions?"

"Why do you want someone's work if they're not a student in your classes? Are you short on work?"

"No, I just think you could make a fine contribution. The gallery is to showcase the junior class's artistic talent, not just those who happen to have chosen art classes."

"...what would I have to draw?"

"Anything at all. Sky's the limit. As long as it doesn't break the conduct code."

"You mean there's not even a theme?"

"None at all! You could even make some grand, detailed overhead shot of my RV, if you so choose."

I have to stifle a laugh into a grimace. The idea is kind of growing on me. Still, it's quite the ask. I had no intention of going to that Dance. Never gone to one in my life. Is this really me? Something I would do? I guess that's my choice, but why does it feel like it's kind of... not?

"Did I mention," he conspicuously whispers, "that students working on the Dance get a free ticket to attend it themselves?"

"I'm really... not a very sociable person, Mr. Lye." I shrug with my hands in my lap. "If this was just going to be hung up in the art room somewhere—"

"Nonsense, girl," he says, "the whole point is that it's you getting out of your shell and making a bold declaration. It's going to cement your future as an artist, a woman, so much!"

Where does he get off, being this familiar? Maybe it's just one of his quirks as a creative. Come to think of it, I barely know any other creative types personally. But then, like a bolt of lightning to Thor's hammer, the final barricade descends to my aid.

"My father... told me to avoid you," I say, causing his face to grow stoic. "I mean, your RV. He said you might be... making drugs in it."

"Lee," he says slowly, "does your father really factor into this?"

He didn't even deny it! And now he's smiling again.

"I'm just reaching out to one of the best talents in the school." He winks. "One that sadly missed a chance to start her art education sooner."

That's it, I'm out of ammunition. I can only fire off a blank. "I've never made anything larger than one of those notebook pages..."

"I'm sure you can. You can work on it in the art classroom after school, and my star pupil can help you if you need it, since he works on his pieces there."

"You sure are passionate about art, Mr. Lye."

"Is that an 'I'll do it, yay?'"

"It's a yes." There's not much homework in this exam-filled month. A little time devoted to making this exhibit piece is time that otherwise would have gone to binging TV shows or something.

He insists we shake hands on it, and I promise to stay after school for an hour in the art classroom each weekday, not including today. This seems like it could be fun, and more importantly, worthwhile to my future. Still, did he have to push so hard? I get that he had to get me to say yes soon enough for me to do it, but then the question would be why he waited this long to ask. Did he just decide on a whim, having heard of me before and seeing me today?

***

The day's wrapped up, but the yellow broiler in the sky isn't letting up so far. I'm riding the bus home, way up in the front-most right seat. I can drive, but our school has a small parking lot, so parking passes are expensive.

Immediately after making that deal and throughout the day, I felt like a ship with a pierced hull, taking on water. I decide to call up Sam and tell him everything.

"So, the creepy next door neighbor is actually a supportive teacher," Sam says. He drives to and from school, and it sounds quiet on his end, except for the distant bark of a dog, so he was probably studying in his room. "If this were some episode in a kid's cartoon, the story would be more or less over. It would turn out he really is a nice guy and you shouldn't make assumptions. But this is real life, and situational irony is not so prevalent."

"Sorry... what is your advice?" Sam wants to be an author someday, and it makes it tricky for me to keep up with him. It's a totally different wavelength.

"If you're uncomfortable around this man, or doing what he says, think about whether it's more due to your own issues, or your concerns about him as a person. If it's the latter, take your own advice and back out, the earlier the better."

"I suppose I could make up something that will take up my time."

"I don't recommend lying. It will put more tension on you when you speak to him. Use something truthful, like you're uncomfortable exhibiting your work."

Am I uncomfortable, though? Nightmares run through my head of the sheet being pulled and people snickering at my piece or calling it creepy. But there's no way people are that awful! So why do I keep seeing it in my head?

"I appreciate the tips," I tell him. "Hey, are you going to this social thing, whatever?"

"Junior Social Dance," Sam says. "Indeed, although I do not yet have a date."

"Huh? You need a date?"

"It's possible to go with friends, but you're expected to go in pairs, generally. The proceedings of the Dance are largely based around couples." I hear him shut a textbook. Judging by the thunderous boom, I'm guessing it's our AP Lit book.

"Beating back the prospects, I'm sure."

He actually sounds upset, a rarity for him. "I was asked by one girl, to whom I foolishly said 'maybe'. I'm not as popular as you think, Lee. You aren't as unpopular, for that matter."

"What does that mean?"

"It means a number of gents attempted to ask you to the Social, through me. Cowards."

"Sam, oh my god! Could you not have at least told me about it sooner?"

"You're getting the wrong idea, trust me. None of those guys are your type."

"You know my type, all of a sudden?"

"They asked me if I would ask you to meet them," Sam says. "I said no, because a confident person does not ask by proxy. If they didn't reach out to you themselves afterward, then you know how little they're worth."

"What if..." I bite my lip as if that will calm my heartbeat. "What if I'm just that sort of girl? Unapproachable—"

"—You're not. I'd approach you."

A little inside joke. He knows because he has. Sam and I first met in Freshman Year when he chatted me up and started flirting, just like that. It weirded me out a little. I got together with Camden soon after, and it's only now, looking back, that I realize there was nothing wrong with it. Sam was really cool, and he opened up this warm side of himself to me, no fears at all. I just wasn't used to it.

We stayed friends, obviously. But now...

"Lee?" he says, nervous. "Is something wrong?"

"No." Something is moving, a momentous force that started rolling when I got up to sketch that RV and has continued to snowball. "Sam... this might be insane, and please don't laugh, but... would you consider... us going together to the Dance?"

"Well, that depends. In what sort of capacity? Friends?"

I take the biggest and most silent breath of my life. "No. As actual dates."

More silence passes. The bus squeals and slows at my stop. I get up and bumble down the two steps to the sidewalk, hand force-feeding the phone speaker to my ear.

"See, was that so hard?" Sam says. "And those little boys couldn't be bothered to try and ask over the phone, just like that."

"Sam... this isn't a joke."

"I know," he says with a laugh. "Pardon me. It's a bit cathartic, making you dangle."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it. I turned you down and now I'm asking. Look, if I'm going to do this art thing, I gotta go to the Dance. That means I need a date, and you're the only person I can imagine having a really good time with. I couldn't even begin to imagine dancing with someone else." And if I'm going with him, I might have a solid reason to stay motivated and produce my best piece ever.

"May I say, your compliments could use some work? You should try saying something exemplary about a person, instead of implying they're the only not-terrible person in the world." He's really pinned me with that. A bad habit, usually from when I'm nervous. "But alright. I'll do it. Telling the truth, I can't judge, because you're the only girl I'd want to dance with."

"R-really?"

"Absolutely. And besides, I get to be the premier artist's date. This is, of course, assuming you really are going to go."

"Yeah," I say, smiling and looking forward. I'm legitimately excited to do this, now. Maybe I just want the bizarre, frightening start to this day to end positively, but what's the harm in really trying something, for once? If I can't step up and try new things in a comfy position like this, what will happen to me if I ever end up like Dad, left behind by the most important person and forced to pick up where they left off?

***

Being Sam's date is unimaginable. It completely changes my prospects for the Dance. Instead of, well, me, I'm Sam's date. It sounds petty, but I'll be envied by a lot of people. That's not the real point, though. I really like Sam, and knowing I'll be there with him when my piece gets shown, I can actually look forward to it.

These thoughts are interrupted as I hear two male voices halfway up the patio stairs. My dad is talking to... Mr. Lye. A teacher is in my house. A barrier has been pulled away that I feel should have stayed down.

I predict what I'm going to encounter, beyond the front door, and walking in proves me right.

"Ah, Mellie," Dad says. He's leaning on the kitchen counter with both palms face down and his shoulders shrugged, gorilla style, with Lye seated across from him. They've each got a beer. "Mr. Lye here was just telling me about your big break into the art scene!"

"Did he?" I say, walking with my backpack hanging at an arm. I'm getting emotional whiplash. Walking into my home and seeing this guy is pulling me back hard to my other set of feelings on all of this. Distrust, anger, annoyance, towards Mr. Lye and myself.

"Any ideas so far?" Dad asks.

"I've just now agreed," I reply, not really an answer.

"You won't see the canvas till Monday evening," Lye says to me, "so just relax and let your mind wander for the weekend. The key is often not to over-think it."

"Right, sure. It's a different size of canvas, so I'll think about what I want to do with it." I head upstairs. "I'll be in my room."

If Dad is happy with what's going on here, he must have gotten some inclination that his drug hypothesis was off, and now he's guilty. Thankful that I'm not called down to help him host, I shut the door and slough away my backpack. Then I change into a summer dress and turn the ceiling fan on to fight back some of the accumulated heat of this third-floor sun-facing room.

"Well, no reneging on the deal now." I am split between excited and terrified.

I get the inkling that I'm the topic of conversation, so I put my ear to my closed door, to see if I can pick up something.

"Poor girl, losing her first love. The uncertainty of it, the lack of closure..."

"Yeah," Dad says, followed by the hiss and clink of a bottle cap.

"What was his name again?"

"Camden."

"Ah, right. Camden. I recall working with the boy. He volunteered for a few school events, always moving around. Really quite special. A thorny wit, but he worked harder than anyone."

"Yeah, he was a good kid," Dad says. "This year, he's officially a man. I hope he's doing well, if he's still... out there."

"And if he's not," Lye says, "let's hope the same."

A silence. Probably them drinking.

"So, you do a lot of cooking, Mr. Lye?"

"Me? Sadly, no, but I have been a fan of making soups to can up in a thermos—"

I withdraw a few steps and stand in my room. I feel so angry and I have absolutely no reason.

Look, I don't want to dwell on it, so let me put it in one sentence. I knew Camden since we were five, fell in love with him at ten, started a relationship with him in Freshman Year, and haven't seen him in 18 months and 23 days. In other words, he disappeared on October 18th, 2016, just as Sophomore Year was picking up.

Going over the hump, halfway through the second year of him being gone... if I come across as bitchy, it's probably that.

***

Monday rolls around with no delay, and Ms. Collins is still sick or something, because it was Mr. Lye teaching again. Now I'm staying after last period, walking away from the buses to Lye's real classroom, to begin work on the canvas. I'm swimming against traffic most of the way, but soon the halls are quiet but for a distant roar behind me, like I'm leaving a baseball game.

"Excuse me?" I say, easing past one of the double doors to the art room. It's easily four times as wide as the science classroom, with similar tables, only with upturned metal stools instead of Bunsen burners and sinks.

"Ah, Mellie?"

I turn to the left end, a shadier spot with a stack of cardboard boxes. In this refuge, free of the glare from the windows, is a guy I've seen a couple of times.

"Drew? Drew Stafford?"

"That's me. You here to get started on your piece for the Dance?" He slips back from his own canvas and easel. He is painting a watercolor of a red cardinal on a branch, with a dark, contrasting swamp in the background. "I always stay after for a few hours to work, so I can get you anything you need."

"Wait, were you the one who told Mr. Lye that I do charcoal?"

"Er, yeah... he asked if there was anyone I knew outside of class who was a great artist. I remembered one time when you let me see your sketches. Should I have not?"

Great artist? Wow. I don't think I've ever heard those words used to describe me before, besides from Dad.

"It's okay," I say with a shrug. "I said yes, after all."

"Okay, cool." He walks over to the other side of the box barricade and comes back holding an easel in one hand and a blank, 40-inch white rectangle. He sets it up for me in a spot across from him. As I carry an upturned stool and set it down before my easel, an amusing thought strikes me: some bystander walking in might think we're doing portraits of each other.

"I'm sure you've got your own stuff," Drew says, coming out of the shaded, musty supply closet with a huge box. "But you're welcome to use any of this."

It looks like a tackle-box, especially on the inside with its dozen stacked sections. There are varying widths and consistencies of charcoal sticks, kneaded erasers, some natural vine charcoal, powders, whites, all sorts of organized pencils and sharpeners, even a tray of colored sticks.

"This is awesome," I say. "Thank you very much."

"No problem." He smiles. "You ever done charcoal on canvas before?"

"Can't say I have."

"The texture is great for making things that are really beautiful, or really scary."

"Why not both?" I ask with a smirk.

"You can pull off both." He goes back to his piece with a curious grin. I get this twinge in my gut, like he's implying that I am both beautiful and scary. Not sure how I feel about that, but it's positive, whatever it is. I've lost all the nerves I had when walking in.

I look at my canvas, as if it's going to guide me to the right idea. The tiny grid of its texture is intimidating, like the bars of a cage. I'm going to have to get used to working with this. Feeling lost, I drift over to Drew's side and watch him deepen the greenish-white at the center of his sunset.

"Is this the piece you're doing, for the Dance?" I ask. He doesn't answer, too focused to notice me. I step back to be respectful.

Drew's long copper hair curls into waves at the ends. He's also wearing just gym shorts and a wife-beater, which is definitely against the dress code, but it's after hours and he's unlikely to get caught. I don't expect Mr. Lye is the type to enforce it either. Drew is also thin, but healthy if the impression under the wife-beater is accurate.

"Did you ask me something?" he says, withdrawing to look over his touch-up.

"Is this your piece for the Dance?"

"Yeah, but it's far from done. I'm gonna need those two weeks." He laughs. I must be years behind this guy in development because I see an already finished painting. There's way more detail that remains in his head, waiting to be summoned.

"So, where's Mr. Lye?" I ask.

"He's usually here," Drew says, swishing the brush in a mason jar of cloudy water, "but I think he's too busy doing stuff to prepare for the exhibit. It'll be that way for almost every day until the Dance is done with."

"For two weeks? What is he doing?"

"Getting as many important artists and media people involved or aware of the exhibit as possible."

"This sounds like it's gonna be... big."

"It'll be massive. I'm glad you joined, by the way. I feel like I have someone to judge myself off of."

"What do you mean?"

"A standard to try and beat. I wanna make something better than whatever you make."

"You're a brash one, aren't you?"

"I aim to stand out. In the world of artists, that's all you can do to survive."

"Is that right...?" The world of art is incredibly intimidating. One of the things that kept me from taking the idea of being a professional artist seriously was the thought of being defeated by society, of not being able to handle the rejection and the sense of frivolity and just getting some random job.

But when I express these concerns to Drew, because I feel like I actually can, he assuages them. "You can get all kinds of work as a skilled artist. Character design, commissions, doing art for other creative types, police sketching. The world needs art. You just have to find who specifically will ask for yours."

"You really know where you're going in life, huh?"

That was too forward. My face is flushing. He seems taken aback as well.

"I wouldn't say that much. But I have goals, stuff I want to do, long-term. I'd like to be a concept artist for something big, like blockbuster fantasy movies or something. That's an amazing level of influence you can have on a creative work, the concept stage. I want to watch a movie where what I made is brought to life with the talents I don't have. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah. That'd be incredible." I see how much of a drifter I am, when even that, the future this guy has envisioned for himself, is sounding like what I want to do now. Maybe if I keep this up, I'll get an idea of what I want to do that really suits me, that I can be sure about.

***

I am ashamed to admit that I have nothing to show after my first after-school composition. Drew assures me that it's okay not to have an idea yet, that just showing up will contribute, and that it's better to figure out exactly what I want to do, so I don't have a change of heart halfway through. To help me, he guides me into the supply room and beyond it to a much cooler and darker space. He flips the light-switch and there, like bizarre alien graves, stand rows of easels bearing pieces by the other students participating, all in various stages of completion. Some, like me, have not started, with only a tiny name marked in pencil at the corner. I better make sure to do that with mine before I leave. That'll be me starting! Truly professional.

The range of styles, tones, experience levels, and intentions is like a feast of visual information. Why haven't I taken more interest in other people's art before? I'm getting all sorts of ideas now. Some people did still-lifes, and as a kind of roguish answer to that, one student made a still-life of his own cartoony severed body parts. I can tell because the hand leaning out of the bowl holds a paintbrush. He still needs to perfect his own head in the center of the bowl, but it's a really interesting idea.

"I think you should probably end it here," Drew says, leading me out to the main room. The feeling of being a visitor in an expert's domain crashes like a wave. Have I been distracting him from his work, with my inane questions? My lack of output digs that idea deeper into me. He must want me out of here.

"Hey, relax," he says with a laughing smile. Is what I'm thinking that clear on my face? He hugs me. A guy, a boy, is touching me. He smells like the impenetrable bark of an old oak. "You'll do fine." He breaks the hug, unfettered by how stunned I am. "I'm incredibly excited to see what you come up with, so if there's anything to make you more comfortable or help with the work, just let me know."

"You'll... be here every time, right?"

"That's right." He didn't add any of the polite caveats I would've, like "Unless I'm sick." His confidence is a lot more earthen and natural compared to Sam's, which feels like it was crafted painstakingly by an etiquette tutor.

"Well, okay." I lift my chin and give him an actual, intentioned smile, something I pretty much only do for picture day. I'm sure I could ask to take my canvas with me and work at it from home, but there's so many more materials here. And the right atmosphere. "See you tomorrow."

"See ya."

I turn on a heel and walk out. By the time the door booms shut in the echoing hallways, I realize Sam is standing a few yards ahead, not approaching, with a gym bag in our school's blue, black, and dark green color scheme.

"What're you so cheery about, pray tell?" Sam asks. "Getting a good start on your piece?"

"Pretty slow going," I admit, "but I'm excited. I think I can make something incredible." When have I ever thought that before? Never. "What're you doing here, though?"

"Just finished practice." He's freshly showered, judging by his hair, and in fresh clothes. In the background, I see no one else with a gym bag leaving the school, probably since Sam's always last out. I don't know why, but Sam's very cautious about nudity. I've overheard other boys in gym or his teammates mention how shy he is about changing or showering, always unseen.

"I need to ask you for a little favor," he says, "if you'd be so kind."

"What sort of favor?"

"I have had a very poor series of encounters with one Mr. Lye in the past. Now I was asked by another teacher to deliver some papers to him in person. Would you mind just stepping back in there for a moment, to hand him these?" In his hand, he's holding several unmarked manila folders packed with crisp white pages. Probably worksheets. "Just tell him a teacher asked you to, if necessary."

"This doesn't seem like you," I say. "What happened between you and Mr. Lye?"

"There was a time where the wrestling club and the art club were campaigning to use some extra space in the newer building. It became a clash between myself and the man, each of us representing our clubs. He may have some unfortunate stereotypical impressions of me as a "jock meatball", and I suspect that he had the mistaken notion that as a student standing against a teacher, that I was automatically out of line. The principal eventually sided with the wrestling club and the matter was resolved professionally, but we are still not comfortable around each other, unfortunately."

I am startled by Sam's maturity. It sounds like Mr. Lye was in the wrong, and Sam's experience could easily have been mentioned to steer me away from agreeing to do a piece for the exhibit. Instead, he let me maintain my own impression of the man. He must have known that for me specifically, Lye had a better chance of being a positive influence.

"Mr. Lye's not in there," I tell him. "He should be doing stuff to help plan for the exhibit."

"Is he off school grounds, then?"

"I'm not sure. The only place I'd think to try is Ms. Collins's class. He might work from there since he has her exams to grade and whatnot."

"A fine deduction. Well, then, would you mind if we went looking there together?"

"I could take the papers and go by myself."

"Nonsense. If you're going across the school for my sake I can at least come along. But to be clear, if we see him from the window, you're the one who goes inside. Is that amenable?"

"Highly amenable, sir knight," I say with a chuckle. "Let's go."

We walk together. It's gotten to about six in the afternoon, and everyone besides approved faculty has to leave school grounds before nightfall, so we walk quickly.

"So," I say, "looking forward to the Dance?"

"Very much. Although, I had to turn down a certain young lady who bequeathed me earlier."

"And did you explain that you were going with... me, instead?"

"That I did. The look on her face confirmed ever further that I made the right decision."

Sam has never been a touchy sort of guy, but now I want to try holding his arm and walking together. Even with the school mostly empty, though, PDA is not allowed. Besides, we aren't actually dating yet. On a date, I mean. God, these terms.

Once we round the corner, I stop Sam and sneak my way to the door of Ms. Collins's class. The little rectangular, crosshatched window lets me see if anyone's at the teacher's desk. But what I see sets my teeth together. Sam reacts, but I hold up a hand slightly, telling him not to make any noise. He slips beside me to also get a view.

Mr. Lye is indeed at the desk, with a view perpendicular to us, and is unraveling the white strip of cloth around his arm. It's half removed now, the ribbon gathered on the contrasting table like the world's cleanest mummy. It's not the sort of thing that would splint a broken bone, and if none of the bandages have any blood or pus either, then what exactly are they for? I am starting to get an answer, or something cosmically, tangentially related to one.

At first, I think that the last few yards of cloth are dyed sky-blue for some reason, but they're not. I see it as he winds them away from the arm, which can move quite comfortably after all. It's not that the cloth is colored, it's that the arm is glowing.

The final layer comes off, and I swallow and crush a scream. His arm is... hollow, like a very old log that has rotted away at the top. Where the hair of his forearm should be, from just past the wrist to the elbow, there's nothing. A canyon where the skin stops. I don't see muscle underneath. The glow of whatever's in there is too bright.

My gaze creaks to his face, which shows peace, comfort, and a sense of urgency. But what is he doing? It feels like leeches are crawling up the inside of my throat. I shouldn't be watching this.

Lye takes a tea kettle, one of the ones that Ms. Collins uses to make hot chocolate for us in the winter, and pulls the tab to flip it open. He tilts it carefully, holding his glowing arm up. Whatever fluid is inside that kettle now, I cannot discern its color, but it spills something, I suppose, into the hollowed-out arm at the wrist for a second, then three, then five. Finally, after the longest 15 seconds I think I've ever felt, he's drained a full kettle's worth of fluid into his arm.

He sets the kettle down and begins the long process of wrapping up the appendage and sealing away that confusing, otherworldly glow once again.

***

Thirty minutes later, Sam and I sit across from each other in a McDonald's. I called my dad and told him Sam would drive me home, and that we were just stopping to get a snack. He appreciated not having to come to the school, so he had no complaints, only insisting that I don't eat too much before dinner.

Neither of us came up with the idea to get food. In fact, we haven't spoken a word to each other during the drive in his 90's sedan. But I think on an unspoken level, he and I wanted to convene somewhere colorful, bright, familiar, and most of all: away from our homes. I could not bring what we just witnessed into my father's life, and he felt the same about his parents.

Every time I see someone's forearm, even his or my own, I imagine it melted away in the upper side and hollow, like a chocolate Easter bunny put in the microwave, and my whole skin crawls with these little bobbing pinpricks that even a shudder won't take away.

"Maybe..." I start, "we should just say what we both want to say, out loud, in unison."

Sam's eyes lift away from his untouched fries. He sighs. "Okay, yes. That sounds like the best thing to do."

"Okay, on three. One, two three. What the fuck was that?"

However, that's not what Sam says. I hear it perfectly well, over-top my own words. "This never happened."

I blink. "What do you mean, 'this never happened'?"

"This never happened," he says again, shaking his head. "That's all we can do. We just pretend it never happened and go on with our lives."

"Well, do you have any idea of what that even was, or what it means?"

"I have neither seen nor heard of any medical condition that comes close to that."

"No one has ever mentioned this sort of thing about Lye," I ask, "right?"

"Don't ask or tell anyone about this." His eyes narrow.

"Of course I wouldn't do that! A little faith, please." I cross my arms. "It could have been an illusion. Something put on his arm to make it look hollow, something that glows. The glow blocked the view of whatever he was pouring out of that kettle, so maybe it was empty?"

"If that's really what he did, then it was very well acted," Sam says, "because he lifted it as if the kettle was completely full. And besides that, what would he stand to gain from showing that 'illusion' off to us? Because the only other alternative was that he was showing it off to no one."

"He's a guy who drives to the same place of work every day with a GPS. Who knows what kind of weird fetishes and interests he might have? And maybe there was a camera out of view in the room. Maybe he was filming himself for some kind of weird alien short film."

The explanations are getting more and more ridiculous, but I can't help it. This isn't like discovering your teacher transforming into a werewolf. There's no easy label with centuries of meaning behind what we saw.

"Did you ever hear him explain why his arm was bandaged?" I ask. "Or someone else mentioning it? Did he claim it's broken or anything like that?"

He shakes his head. "Like I said, I have nothing to do with him, if I can help it."

I straighten my back and focus. "Okay. Whatever's going on with his arm, he's hiding it from others, and we have no way to know how he'll react to someone knowing, right?"

Sam nods.

"I definitely agree that we should pretend we don't know, and go on with our lives. Part of that, however, would mean me continuing with the exhibit piece. Suddenly dropping out, even making up an excuse, could easily backfire. Like you said."

"No, no, Mellie," he almost never says my full name, "forget what I said, that was to avoid a slightly awkward conversation. This man is an unknown entity. We should assume that he's dangerous and cease all contact in the most inconspicuous way. I'll help you—"

"—No. If you want to be safe and out of this, then stay out. You may be all about chivalry, but I'm not having my friend put himself at risk for me."

"Mellie... come on..."

"I'm connected to this guy, Sam. I'm going to be meeting him again, spending time with him, all for the exhibit." The word exhibit feels caked in filth now. It only means to show, but now I have been shown something that makes me want to cry. I don't even understand why, either. I never imagined that seeing a ghost or any other kind of inexplicable, outrageous phenomena would do this to me, but when you think about it, it's breaking a wall that protects your perception of reality. If what I just saw was real—and why would it be a trick—what else is real? What do I have yet to find out?

No, this is wrong. I'm letting my mind get lost again. Why should I just throw away my grip on reality? So you saw something weird, what does it matter? There's weird stuff in the world, Mellie Walsh! What would a scientist do? Assume it's supernatural? Of course not. A scientist would gather more information, test, and learn how things work. This right here is just lightning in the Benjamin Franklin era. We've discovered something new, something that maybe only exists in one in every ten billion people born, but it can be explained, if you expose it to science.

"You can't be serious," Sam says, shaking his head. "No, absolutely not. Mellie, you're too important of a friend. You're not chasing after this insanity."

"Even if I found a way to quit without raising suspicion, he lives next door to me. I can't not know the truth about something that could walk through my front door."

"...are you going to tell your father about this?"

"No," I say firmly. "Definitely not. He wouldn't know what to do anyway. It would blow up if he knew, for sure. Trust me, I'm going to stay normal, I won't give anything away. But if I see a chance to figure this out safely, I'm going to take it. I hope you can respect that."

"I only want you to be safe."

I stand up, out of my end of the booth, and slide in next to him. He wraps an arm around my shoulders, links it with his other going across my breasts, and we stay like that, my arms curled up to hold his arms tighter

My emotions are settling, at last. I'm no longer merely dumbfounded and frightened. I'm being saved by a vague anger. To think that the first time the distant Sam and I would be this close was defined not by a context of passion, or even friendship, but in this wretched moment. How dare you, Lye, take the first embrace with Sam and spend it on fear of you?

***

For the first day afterward, it wasn't that bad. I took the folders meant for Lye and intended to drop them on the desk before either he or Ms. Collins showed up. If I wasn't that lucky, I'd just hand them in and apologize for forgetting to hand them over yesterday.

I ended up leaving the folders there before Lye showed up. Ms. Collins was still gone, and that day Lye did a more involved lecture.

It didn't help that the class was warming up to him. When he handed back our tests and got to Sam and me, we both handled it as best we could. He grinned and told me I did well, and he was right, I got a B. Normally I'd be ecstatic. Lye dropped Sam's on his desk without a word and moved on. Considering how poor their connection was, I can't blame Sam for wanting this to all go away. If a man already hates you, don't reveal that you know his secret.

Ironically, relief only comes now that I'm back in the art room, Lye's domain, for the second time. He's not here, once again, but Drew is, and working on my piece with him feels like a reward for surviving the day. I enjoy it, maybe a little too much.

But that's not so bad, is it? I should be spending time away from Sam anyway. He hasn't reached out and spoken to me, and that's good. By the time the Dance rolls around, this will be resolved, I'm sure. Talking or hanging out now, we wouldn't be able to avoid a certain looming topic.

Drew's work has inspired me, and I decide that I will be going with a nature and avian theme as well. I can see it now, in this big white square before me: a bird's nest, up close, in the stripped and dead branch of a large tree, unseen but implied from the height of the background. Instead of a lovely red cardinal, however, I'm going to have the nest full of cardinal eggs. The nest will be invaded by a blue jay, with one of the eggs already pecked into and consumed, drained of life, as the invader is in mid-strike on the next one. Drew is making a peaceful, celebratory depiction of nature, and he was pretty competitive last time, so if this is a contest, why don't I present nature from another angle?

I'm not going to be using color, so the challenge of making the star subject unmistakably a blue jay has gotten me fired up. I think it'd be rude to hide what I'm doing from such a skilled artist, and Drew's smile ratchets into laughter as I tell him.

"That's great!" he says, wiping a tear. "I can just see the students looking at yours and mine, side by side, and like, dot dot dot, forming over-top their heads."

"Like, what is going on between with these two?!" I say, cackling.

"Yeah." He sighs. "Do you have a laptop? If not, there's a computer over there. You can get some reference images for blue jays and cardinal nests."

"Sweet, that'll be a big help. I'm not used to sketching something from imagination. Or animals, for that matter."

"You have the talent to pull it off, I'm sure," he says.

By the end, I've gotten a good initial sketch of the contours, and I look forward to coming in tomorrow.

Saying goodbye to Drew and walking outside, though, my mood plummets back to the way it was, only worse. The fact that the painting is so relieving makes me suspect that it's all a plan, some way for Lye to keep me connected to him and visiting a reliable location. For all I know, Drew could be involved, too.

Stop it. Stop all of these stupid thoughts, Mellie Walsh. You saw something bizarre, inexplicable, terrifying, even. Does that automatically mean you should suspect everyone?

But then my mind keeps drifting to that RV incident, my first experience with Lye. His explanation is still not sitting right with me. Then again, who cares? It's just as possible he was being a creeper, but just wanted to ask me about joining the exhibit, and decided to wait and try again later at another chance. People can be awkward. I should know.

***

Then, the next day comes. Tuesday the 15th. Mr. Lye is still here in our first class, and this time, he's got this cold, serious aura. He killed off all the persistent banter in the room with a firm, scary tone, and then he told us to listen very carefully to the announcements.

Now I'm hearing them, and every muscle in my body is tightening and curling me into a smaller, less noticeable silhouette.

"Attention, students and faculty," the principal's voice says. "Since the Friday of last week our sophomore and junior science teacher, Ms. Collins, has not arrived at our school to teach her students. We did not receive any word from her on her status, but our policy is to not intervene until after the third continuous day of absence without contact."

I forget where I am, and start to mumble "What is going on—" when Sam shushes me. I look at him and his eyes are fixed on Lye, who is looking sternly up at the speaker.

"As this is the third day of absence, we have taken appropriate measures, starting with contacting every possible member of Ms. Collins' family. They were unable to confirm her status or her location and had not heard from her in the past three days. We informed the police of this matter yesterday, and they were ready ahead of time to visit her home. I have Mr. Fox, the Sergeant Major of the Doctor's Grove Police Department involved in this matter, here with me, and I will pass the report of this situation off to him, along with his instructions. Please pay close attention."

What is this?

After a delay, a bored and older-sounding man with a deep voice picks up where the principal left off. He speaks in a more contained and experienced way than the principal, where every word and phrase is unmistakable.

"Good afternoon, students and faculty. My name is Desmond Fox. First, allow me to recall the situation. At 800 hours this morning, my division completed processing for a search warrant of Ms. Collins's home, under exigent circumstances, specifically concern for her safety. We entered Ms. Collins's home after receiving no response to multiple contact attempts, and in our search of the home, we did not find her. She also lives alone, and from the most thorough search we could legally perform, we found no evidence of others either living in or breaking and entering into the property."

This isn't real. I'm having a nightmare. In a few minutes, I'll hear Dad over that intercom, saying breakfast is ready. I start to quake my cheeks into a tiny smile, which crumbles over the next few moments. The awful words won't stop.

"Ms. Collins's cell phone was inside her home. Her car was parked in her driveway, and thus far, we have received no reports of suspicious activity or movement noticed by her neighbors. Her social media accounts give no obvious clues as to her potential whereabouts or status, either. As of now, I regret to inform you that your teacher is considered a missing person."

He's suddenly switched his way of talking, like he's now directing this at just the students, no, just her students. This class.

Mr. Fox takes his time explaining a lot of things. Basically, other teachers and students who had the time would be participating with neighbors in searching the wilderness of the area, and there would be a table for sign-ups on shifts for this activity in the courtyard until after lunch.

He insists that we remain calm, especially if we were close to Ms. Collins. He says that the vast majority of missing person cases are simply the result of a person choosing to run away from their life for a little while, and that while the concern we feel for her might make her seem selfish, this outcome will be one that gives us relief.

But I can't approach this as some case of Ms. Collins getting stressed and vacationing in the Keys. The idea of her leaving behind her work during an important time, where exams are at their peak, is too hard to swallow. More than that, I can't accept the things I've seen so far as disconnected coincidences. Sam and I can't help but pour our gaze onto Lye, a man who looks far too cool, too composed, with too precise a sprinkle of concern and sadness.

***

Three more days pass of Ms. Collins being hunted for all over the tree farms, swamps, and urban graveyards in the area. Students who knew her better than I did, mostly from the young scientists club, are handing out fliers all through downtown and posting alerts on local Internet communities.

It's like a perverse way for the world to show how appreciated and loved Ms. Collins is. Other teachers involved in the search are irritable and detached from their lectures, and some of the more sensitive teachers can't help but spend swaths of time talking to their classes and trying to assuage concerns. Exams are getting moved around to later dates after the Dance, in the hopes that by then, this will all be a funny story.

They say she's a religious woman, with no known controversial activities or sides to her personality that could get her into trouble with anyone. She wasn't dating, as far as they knew, but she is a beautiful woman for her age, so we're all painfully trying to dodge the most natural suspicion.

I never thought something like this would happen to someone I knew. I realize, now, how naive that is. What's special about Ms. Collins that would prevent this from happening? Nothing. She's not some secret superhero on a quest to save the world.

The funny thing is, though, that I want to believe something outrageous like that. Now that I saw Lye's arm, it feels as if anything could be possible. Maybe she's out there, doing something important, kicking ass and solving problems outside the scope of us puny mortals.

Yeah, right, she's just chilling out with Wonder Woman on the mythical island of Themycira. I smack myself across the face. How irresponsible can you get, Mellie Walsh? A woman is missing. Do you have the nerve to come up to her family, who must be deranged with worry by now, and tell them that theory? Of course not. Just shut the fuck up and live your life. There's nothing you can do.

Unless... there is. But telling the police what I saw could backfire in many ways. Not to mention, Sam would never agree to it, and I'd be roping him into it against his will. I can't do a half measure and tell a version of the story where Sam wasn't there, because the police could figure me out. Damn it, why isn't there a clear answer?

First class is finally over, and students are filing out to lunch. No one saw me smack myself. No one cares, and that's good. I should just wait and keep my delusions to myself.

But once I put my backpack on and turn toward the front end of the class, I see Sam talking with Lye. This can't be good.

"If you have anything that you believe could contribute," Lye says rather loudly, "I implore you, tell the police. But if all you have are suppositions and implications that someone else knows something, I'm afraid you should keep out of this. Stick to your physical education and let the law do its job."

"Sam?" I say rushing up to him. I can't see his face, with his head tilted down like this.

"It's too suspicious," Sam says, sneering and getting in Lye's face. "You haven't contributed to the search, and you are profiting off the fact that she's missing right now."

"If simply not helping with the search is cause to be labeled suspect, then that also places you under scrutiny and hundreds more. Regardless, I would offer my assistance, and already have, but I am busy."

"What do you mean?" I say. "You offered your assistance—"

Lye uses my name like a dark swear, "Mellie Agnihotri, this is a private conversation."

"Not anymore," Sam says quickly, "I'm inviting her."

Lye has no reason to go along with that, and yet he looks to me, softens his expression, and steps back to look out the window to the courtyard, and the little table of organizers below. "I was asked to answer some questions with Mr. Fox, the day Ms. Collins was announced missing. Sam is not wrong. Being a person who gains more work opportunity from her absence, it is not entirely illogical to suspect me." He turns around. "But beyond that, they also spoke with me because I have been in her place. I have been teaching and watching her students for her. They asked me questions related to that."

"I don't believe you," Sam says.

Lye's speech is getting unpolished, and I'm afraid this will turn into a fight. "Oh, really? Why's that?"

"I know you lied," Sam says. "You told people the principal called you and asked you to fill in for Ms. Collins at the last minute. But you neglected to mention something. I asked the principal myself. He said that two days before the first absence, you very clearly requested to be allowed to take up any substitute positions in that period."

Lye's normally sunken eyes are bulging out with exposed iris. His voice feels like it's heating up the room. "So what are you proposing, young man? That I made an innocent woman disappear so I could temporarily take her job? I would tread lightly with such accusations."

"Sam, please," I say, holding his arm with both of mine and pulling. He acquiesces to being moved, but doesn't break eye contact until it's no longer possible.

"Is that true, what you said?" I ask him, once were a good twenty steps down the hall. "That Lye was looking for that sort of work?"

"Yes. The principal made it very clear that taking this job was something Lye asked for. That is why he got called. He insisted they call him, even if it seemed like overly short notice."

I suppose that would explain why Lye came out of his house around the same time I, a student, left mine. What I don't get is why he showed up after me. He drove directly, and while I am one of the last stops for the bus I ride to school, there's still a minute or so of added time compared to just driving there. There's no excuse such as doing errands because he was called to urgently fill in for Ms. Collins.

Then a much simpler and darker idea clouds over all of that.

"But if... he..."

"What? If he what?"

"In the case that he really is responsible for this," I say, "he's been in school or meeting with art people. He doesn't spend much time alone or without an alibi, from what I hear."

"So?"

"That means Ms. Collins... must be in a state where it's fine to just leave her where she can't be found."

"You don't know that," Sam says, like I'm an idiot.

"Of course not, but I only see two possibilities. Number one: it's someone who is hiding out somewhere, keeping her captive. Number two: it's someone we know and who keeps up a busy public life. If it's the latter then... Ms. Collins is probably dead."

"There's nothing concrete about that." He shakes his head. "And it's based off the foregone conclusion that this is foul play. All I know right now is that if it is foul play, Lye's my number one suspect. It wouldn't surprise me if the police felt the same." He takes a deep breath. "Don't worry, I don't intend on revealing what we saw. Whether it's relevant or not, we should be able to find the truth."

Sam looks tired. I probably do as well. My nights have been all chopped up by what's happened.

"I'm just really worried about you," Sam adds. "You live across the street from the man."

"I know." I hug him, and he returns it. I want to stay like this all day and night. I could sleep on top of him, like a giant teddy bear, and wake up when this is all fixed.

But Sam has to check with the captain of the wrestling team with something over lunch. I have nothing to do with that, so I reluctantly let him go down the stairs to the courtyard. But this is unsatisfying. I can't stop myself, after learning what Lye hid, that subtle detail about wanting substitution work.

I walk back into the classroom, and once again he's alone in that space, shoes up on the desk. It was okay for a little while, but he clearly doesn't belong here.

"Mr. Lye?" I say. He's cold, looking over without turning, just waiting without pleasantries.

"Hello, Lee. I got a glimpse of your piece earlier. I'm intrigued."

I can't talk about something so inane right now, so I bowl over that topic. "Do you mind if I ask you something? Please don't take it the wrong way, but... what is wrong with your arm?"

He looks down at the wrapped appendage as if he forgot it existed, flexing the hand a little. His tone is quiet and throaty. "Why do you ask?"

"Well..." I have come up with a way to ask that doesn't bring suspicion that Sam or I saw anything. At least, it shouldn't. "Just based on what I'm hearing, Ms. Collins may have gone missing around the first day that she didn't show up. If there was foul play involved, I can imagine that she may have gotten in a scuffle, perhaps tried to defend herself. And, well, here you are, with your arm wrapped up. If it's not injured, and you wrap it for another reason, though, please tell me. I don't want to suspect you, or anything."

Can he feel that I'm lying? Those dilating pupils don't tell me much. After far too long of a wait, he answers.

"I am not injured, so don't worry." When he says this, I actually take a step back. It's so caustic, so bitter, I can't muster any flimsy attempt to assure him that I'm only asking. "I have a rather unattractive skin condition on this arm."

I'm no pre-med student, but if you have a skin condition, don't you want to keep it uncovered and treat it regularly? Though I'm sure he'll claim that's what he does.

He sighs, and I see he's regretful, now. I am as well. He must have been suspected by many others, the police not the least of which. His condition, the real one, that confusing glowing hollowness, must be something he hides, and how much stress must it have been to lie to the police, in order to avoid unraveling that cloth? In a way, that's kind of horrible, isn't it? To maybe have done nothing wrong, but still having something important to hide, something no one could understand, and that innocent, vital requirement for your life adds to your suspicion.

The atmosphere has calmed and become a medium of understanding. We realize our perspectives are changing, without having to share these words directly.

"Are you familiar," he asks, "with a condition called ichthyosis?" I shake my head. "Well, it's an umbrella of skin disorders characterized by the skin drying, thickening, hardening into plates, and other similar unpleasant things. I recommend not looking it up in Google. Anyway, it's a genetic condition, something I've dealt with since birth, but lucky for me, I am a rare case. I have it not on my entire body or even the majority, but on a single arm. The condition is linked with several others, however. My fingers are malformed and barely usable."

"I'm sorry if this is too personal, but... if you want to hide your condition, wouldn't you use a long sleeve jacket? Something less conspicuous than a cloth wrapping?"

"The cloth holds in my moisturizing treatment," he says, holding up the arm a little. "Besides, I find that it functions as a little freak flag. People know something's wrong with me, and if they're polite, that's all they need. They don't ask. I don't have to have unkind and thoughtless cashiers shrieking if my jacket sleeve rides up a little, or feel their hand shake as they accept my credit card. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean for you to pity me." He smiles. "Telling the truth, I'm happy you are asking the logical thing. Your thick-headed friend could learn from you."

***

Later that day, I breathe in the warm, waxy-odor of the art room. It's Friday, so I won't get to be here for the two following days.

Drew and I are so used to each other that we don't even say hello to interrupt each other's work. I walk up behind him and disappear from this godawful world, into the fantasy of his painting.

The lush jungle has a lot more tiny, foreshortened details compared to the first time I saw it. Vines I could imagine a monkey climbing on, decorated with stark white flowers like magnolias, sparkling in the near night of the shaded wood. It's like nature's attempt at Christmas lights.

"You're so good," I tell him, voice cracking.

He withdraws and looks back at me, brow furrowed in concern as he drops the brush in the water.

"Hey, what are you doing?" I say. "You're not done with that color yet, are you?"

"Lee, did something happen?"

"What? Please. Everything's fine."

"No, it's not."

"But in here, everything's fine," I say, moving past him to my stool. I nod in thanks for him setting up my canvas, yet again. Everything he does is considerate.

"I don't think it's a good idea to hold in what you're feeling," Drew says, reluctantly sitting down again.

I sigh. These days, it's practically how I breathe. Maybe I can work my way into relaxing by asking a question while I work. He's known Lye for a long time, so I decide to ask about his skin condition, to get a little more background on it. Even learning nothing new, but hearing him back it, would be wonderful.

"Drew, what do you know about Mr. Lye's skin condition? The thing he wraps up?"

"Skin condition?" Drew asks, peeking around his canvas. "I don't know about that. He told me he burned his arm in a cooking accident."

Like a period to cap his sentence, my charcoal pencil clicks and rolls on the speckled linoleum floor.

"Lee? Seriously, what's the matter?"

Of course he lied, that much I knew from the start. But he's got different stories. That's about as suspicious as you can get.

"Hey, Drew," I say. "How long has Lye had that wrapping over his arm?"

"I'd say around the start of the month."

"And before then?"

"Before then? It was just, you know, an arm, same as his right one."

"There was nothing unusual about it?"

"Nope. Not that I noticed, anyway."

"His fingers?"

"Uh, normal?"

He lied in an incredibly obvious way. I can't do it anymore. I crack into hundreds of tiny pieces like a popadum. The unexplained horror of what I saw, what his arm really is, makes me tear up as I explain everything to Drew. This poor, innocent guy with no involvement in this. I got barely an hour of sleep last night, and I just don't care anymore. My brain is in survival mode, and it will unload some of its burden, no matter who has to pay.

"I'm sorry, Drew," I tell him, fighting sobs and hiccuping.

"You have nothing to be sorry for." He holds his arms open and I thankfully walk into his embrace. I can tell he doesn't fully understand. How could anyone? But he knows I'm not exaggerating with how it affected me and continues to spread. Now it's reached this part of my school days, a bastion of art, talent, growth, and happy futures. "Breathe. That's it. You know, I did hear talk about Sam getting unusually serious and irritable lately. I don't really know the guy, so I didn't think anything of it." I nod against his shoulder. "I wish I could help."

"You are. I'm so glad that I met you." I grimace. "But I also regret getting involved with Lye. It's so confusing!"

He nods, but doesn't try to offer any wisdom or suggestions. He doesn't ask if I want to back out of the exhibit, for which I'm tremendously thankful, because I just don't know.

Are there really people like this? People who not only share my talent, but care about me? It's a good thing to know, but I wish I could have found out sooner.

***

Two days later, I'm thinking about nothing, practically asleep while sitting up at the dining table. Dad's making breakfast, so I study his broad back at work stirring egg scramble. It's my favorite, so I should muster up some excitement.

Ever since... you know, Dad has been more attentive, and he even drives me to school. The added work of having to go and pick me up after working on my piece was one thing, but now he's taking me there and back on his own. I offered to just work on my piece here, in the house, but he seems to know I've made a friend there.

This morning breakfast is another example of how things are changing, even at home. He now wakes me up first, then makes breakfast, and we eat it together. I'm not complaining. It's the only thing that gets me out of bed now. Even though I barely sleep, my bed is still the place of unquestionable solitude. It's just me and my thoughts collecting and suffocating me under the blanket, and yet, I'd rather suffer through that than face what awaits each new day.

I feel so pathetic.

Today is Sunday, the 20th. Six days from now will be the Junior Social Dance, and the once healthy prospect of this all being finished by then is rotting on the vine. I now dread the event and am only continuing to work on the piece to spend time with Drew. Sam, while my best friend, has not been a source of strength, and how could he be one? You lend your support to a friend when they have a problem that you don't. You say "It'll be fine. What can I do? I'm ready." But when two friends are both suffering from the same thing, it just doesn't work out like that. Not in this case. Drew, however, has been the separated stranger I can bring in and confess to. I hope I didn't make a mistake on Friday.

"Aalllright, here we go." Dad takes the sourdough toast off the wire tray and onto the plates, easing the mixed, creamy eggs onto the bread. The little bits of egg are tiny and clustered together, like caviar, and he sprinkles fresh diced green onions to complete the dish.

He sets mine down and then digs in across from me. I enjoy the food for its warmth and the flavors of egg, sour cream, diced turkey, and other flavors I normally love. None of it's coming together, though.

"Fantastic as always," I say with a smile, taking another bite. It's only polite to compliment the food before the chef has to ask for your input. And he really did do a good job, like always. Having a cold or flu tends to make food taste like nothing. I don't know if I have a fever or anything, but my sense of taste is akin to being legally blind right now.

Just then, I hear footfalls from the steps below the door, and someone rings the bell. Dad is up and opening the door too soon for me to process it, so I just stay in this secluded area.

"Mellie," Dad shouts back. "Someone's here for you."

"Huh." I ease out of the chair, wipe my lips with my napkin, and start heading for the door, but pause from shock. Not only is it someone I'd never expect, but Dad is letting them walk inside.

It's a policeman. His steps jingle a little from holstered objects and a walkie-talkie clipped to his breast pocket. "Excuse me for intruding on your morning. Mellie Agnihotri?"

"T-that's me," I say, feeling very low in my pajama pants and tank top, compared to his crisp uniform. Dad stays by my side, and it really helps.

"My name is Desmond Fox. I'm in charge of Ms. Collins' case."

"Right, sure. I heard you on the announcements." The fact that I recognize this man is helping Dad relax, but not by much.

"We're contacting everyone connected to those involved, to try and get some information." He inhaled. "You see, at the moment, it appears that both Mitchel Lye and Samuel Edwards have not been seen since about eight o'clock last night. You are a student of Lye and a friend of Edwards, from what I understand."

He's asking other things that I'm not hearing. Sam and Lye... "I-I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"We found Mr. Edward's vehicle left on a county road, not far from here. There was some blood inside the vehicle, and forensics has confirmed it to be his. There is DNA evidence that Mr. Lye was there, and that there was a struggle."

"No, no!" I'm shrieking at the top of my lungs as images brand my mind. Dad is holding me as my feet go in random directions, trying to run fast enough to escape this moment.

Ms. Collins was my favorite teacher, but Sam is the best friend I've ever known.

"It's that fucking monster, Lye!" I say to the officer. He handles my proximity and noise very well. He probably expected this. Probably used to it. That pisses me off a little. Remain calm, Mellie! Speak, communicate, figure out how to fix this! Don't blame the person who can help you, you stupid girl!

"We suspect the same, miss, I assure you," Mr. Fox says in monotone. Before, with the announcement, I couldn't see his face, and it's a trustworthy sort. He's sort of like an older, pudgy Drew with buzzed hair and a sharper nose. He looks dedicated to a happy future, just like Drew, only on a shorter, more urgent term. "It's still very much possible that Sam is alive. We are thoroughly searching your neighbor's home and property, but there's no sign of either of them. We believe, for now, that Mr. Lye has planned the disappearance of Ms. Collins, and for some reason saw fit to make your friend disappear as well. His RV is gone, and chances are he's been using that as the base of operations for his crimes."

"I should have followed my gut," Dad says, fist tightening. "Something about the way he was using that RV instead of a car was suspicious. To think I let that man in here."

"You spoke with Mr. Lye?" Mr. Fox asked.

"Yes, but not about anything important, really."

"There could be clues in that conversation, all the same. I'd like to go over it with you in a moment."

"Sure. Anything to help catch him."

"So you're saying Sam and Ms. Collins could be tied up in that RV?" I say.

"That or he transported them somewhere with it, and is keeping them there. We haven't gotten any reports of people seeing the RV around the time of the disappearances."

***

We sit down with Mr. Fox and talked for over an hour about every little detail. The only thing I don't talk about is seeing Lye's arm, but I do explain that he gave me a phony story about it being ichthyosis. He confirms that they checked his medical records and found nothing of the sort, but the mere fact that his students all were told he had injured himself was evidence enough.

"If he gave a justification that can be easily disproved," Mr. Fox says, "then it's very likely he intended to go on the run at the earliest opportunity, so that whatever he said wouldn't matter. Although it sounds like Mr. Edwards was giving him a hard time, I don't see any particularly logical reasons to kidnap him or deal with him in some other way. This may be a crime of passion, unlike the case with Ms. Collins, which has a better chance of being premeditated. We need to act fast and be careful."

"What are you saying?" I ask.

"Putting it bluntly, your friend has a better chance of still being alive than your teacher."

That sounds reasonable, and even though it tears at my insides, I'm thankful to hear that he might make it through this.

"We're a bit spread out on resources, searching for so many people," Mr. Fox says. "It isn't really practical to keep up a 24/7 watch on the house. Would you mind trying to keep an eye on Mr. Lye's home?"

Dad and I look at each other.

"You don't have to obsess, but if you, say, hear the sound of his RV's engine one night, call us immediately. I'll give you my personal number, it'll be faster than transferring through 911."

***

After another night of butchered sleep, I've reached a new level. I'm not feeling tired anymore, that's been replaced with a sense of purpose charging up my spine. I get out of bed and wait for breakfast without Dad having to make me do it. I'm even willing to take the bus again, but he insists I ride with him.

I need this resolve, wherever it came from, because this is the first day of school where Mr. Lye is not teaching class. No one says a word to each other, and the normally rambunctious pre-announcement atmosphere has been replaced with the silence of a eulogy audience.

I share in the disturbed silence between my classmates. The man we got to know, to a degree, and started to like, is now a wanted man, and a series of blanks. Killer? Kidnapper? Something worse? Something unheard of? No telling what time will use to fill them in.

It's the first day of school since Sam went missing as well. The emptiness of the seat next to me feels illogical, a greater space than the entire classroom. A different teacher I don't recognize is substituting now, but she isn't prepared to handle this. Some girls stand up and walk out ten minutes into the lecture, crying. Whether they are afraid for Ms. Collins, Sam, or both, keeping us in their domain like this is too much.

Every moment between classes I have to guard myself against a bombardment of questions, mostly from friends of Sam. Everyone knows I was close to him, most know I was going to be his date for the Dance, and that makes me a person who can parse this horrible joke out to them, break it down so they understand. There's nothing, though. What Mr. Fox explained to me was made clear this morning to everyone else in an announcement.

I'm afraid for Sam, too, but I also know how capable and strong he is. The idea of some tubby, weak man like Lye overpowering him, even with the element of surprise, is absurd to me. What other explanation could there be, though? Unless, maybe, Sam is choosing to go with Lye somewhere, albeit unwillingly, like he threatened his family unless he helped him with something. That doesn't sound much better, but I want to believe it. It's hard to swallow that theory, though, when you consider that Sam may have been wounded in his car with something sharp.

I'm in the middle of lunch in the emptiest corner of the cafeteria when a girl with large breasts in a provocatively tight blouse approaches me, sans any food of her own. Her hair is blond, and kind of reminds me of uncooked ramen noodles.

"Hey," she says in a lowered tone. "You were going to the Dance with Sam, right?"

"Uh, yes..." I put my fork and its pierced chunk of potato back in my curry. Like I said, I don't eat Indian food at lunch if I can help it, but now I need to pack a lunch with whatever's in the fridge at home. It saves me from going into the lunch line.

"And you were pretty friendly with that freak, Mr. Lye, weren't you?"

Oh, this is new. I haven't seen people construe a way to suspect me.

"Maybe," she says, "you know more than you're letting on, huh?"

The problem is that she's not completely wrong. I am hiding something, to everyone but Drew, who promised to keep it a secret. 'Mr. Lye had a glowing arm, Sam and I both saw it!' It's just so outrageous that I would be seen as crazy or desperate for attention. And now that Lye's gone, there's no easy way to prove that what Sam and I saw was real. If it would have been smarter to explain what we found earlier, then that's just a lesson learned. But now it's too late.

"Well?"

"Well, what? Can't you see I'm eating?" Even though my tone is calm, I'm too scared and filled with violent tension to look at her. If my eyes actually make contact with hers, I think I'll lose control. Wouldn't anyone, when they're being accused of aiding such a terrible crime?

She sneers, and I catch a glimpse of pink braces. "You know what your problem is, Hornet?"

"Do you want me to guess your problem with me, specifically? I'm gonna guess it's that you wish Sam would go to the Dance with you instead of me."

I think I guessed right who this person is, because that makes her pause and buffer her insults for a moment.

"You're unpleasant to be around. Well, your smell doesn't help. But the main thing is your shit attitude. And I've figured it out. I don't care that Sam doesn't like me enough to go out with me. I couldn't care less. But the fact that it's you is really dragging down my opinion of him. See, you think the rest of us girls are the fake ones, but we all know it's you. I can tell you don't care about making friends with anyone other than the very top. It's either Sam or no one else. That's why you're not even friends with the losers of this school."

So I'm glued to the most popular kid in school? You're one to talk, I want to fire back, but that's not going to make this better. I should just get up and leave. If people see her following me and harassing me as I try to eat somewhere else, she's going to get in trouble. But as I start to pick up my lunch-box and stand, she yanks it away, making the fork clink on the table.

"You can eat your moo-goo shit later. We're talking."

"No, we're not, because I'm leaving." Lately, I've been keeping my mace on hand in my pocket, for safety, even in school. I have my hand in that pocket, with that side of my body turned from her so she can't see. When I stand up once again and she buries her hand in my hair, the pain sets me in motion.

"Because of you, Sam—" My spray interrupts her. It's off and hits her ear and hair, but I correct quickly after she ducks back since she's still grabbing my hair and pulling me with her. The yellow fluid reeks like paint thinner and burns my eyes, even as the user, so I can't imagine the pain of having it splashed over the bridge of your nose and into both corneas.

Then again, I don't have to imagine it. She's let go of my hair now and her knees thump, one then the other, with her full weight to the floor. She's screaming her throat raw and some students are running away, to get an authority or because they're afraid, I'm not sure.

"You're wrong about me, by the way," I tell her. "Sam isn't my only friend."

"Fuck you, Hornet, fucking curry cunt brownie bitch."

While she's saying this, my hand is moving on its own, aiming in the crevice between her hands and her eyes and spraying again. She shrieks and rolls up into a ball, hiding her face from me.

***

Meeting the principal and having him talk to my dad while I sit there, I realize that I've changed. I was sheepish and never confident enough to defend myself before, but now I've incapacitated an attacker.

This should come as no surprise, but the dog I sprayed, real name Cassie Urd, comes from a rather wealthy and influential family. Still, there was a cafeteria loaded with witnesses that can corroborate that she approached me, harassed me, and put her hands on me before I sprayed. Of course, there's also the little detail of me spraying a second time, but I chalk that up to fear and confusion. I have never been in a fight before, so they're willing to cut me some slack, on top of my connection to Sam.

"Can you promise it won't happen again?" the principal asks me. I hold a cautious hand out to Dad because he's about ready to get in a fight of his own. This is zero-tolerance at work. Attacker and victim are treated nearly the same.

"That what won't happen again?" I ask. "Getting attacked? Defending myself?"

"Using excessive force to defend yourself, when you are already safe."

I sink in my chair. He's got a point. "Yes. I promise." It's stupid, but at least I'm not suspended for a week like Cassie.

"I think it's best you go home for the day," the principal says, adjusting his thick glasses and giving back the mace.

"W-what? But..." I stop myself. I want to work on my piece and hang out with Drew, but that's not going to fly as a reason to stick around. Besides, they'd just suggest I do my art at home from now on. I can not have that happen. Drew is the only person who makes school tolerable.

"Let's have tomorrow be a better day," the principal says. It's time for us to go, then, but as I'm following Dad out the door of the cold office, he calls out to me again. "Oh, Mellie?"

"Yeah?"

"Get a good night's sleep, alright? Go to bed earlier if you have to. You look like you need more rest."

"Okay, I'll do that." I can't muster a smile, even though it's a legitimately caring thing to say. That makes me kind of sad.

***

Normally, when anything has gotten in my way, Dad is there to bat for me long after the matter is resolved. But the ride home is a silent tour of the orderly tree farms and housing developments. A fight, having to use pepper spray on someone, is too serious. I'm not talking about it, not complaining, because all it takes is one push and Dad could go as far as suggesting we move and I transfer somewhere else.

As the truck's AC blows on my chest, it brings me back to the principal, and the cafeteria, and the school in general.

This all happened, ignoring the responsibility of Lye, because I asked Sam to go to the Dance with me. I get a flicker, no, a tiny spark of guilt, the thought that I shouldn't have, but then it combusts into anger. Why should I be sorry? Why hasn't anyone come to me and said "I'm so sorry, you were Sam's friend and you were going to get so much closer, and now he's in jeopardy. Do you need any help with anything?"

Not one fucking person. I hate that what Cassie said has a shred of credibility. Am I that unapproachable, that toxic? No, that can't be it. I can make friends with people, if I try. When I took chances and tried to do something more with myself, I became friends with Drew. I could do more of that, expand my horizons and meet more people. Nothing Cassie said, if it's even true, is a permanent inscription on who I am.

You're a liar, Mellie Walsh. Drew is a special case. Your work is interesting to him, in the context of his own development. If you had no talent or less ambition, you would be nothing to him. No one likes you for your personality.

My face hurts. It's burning and tightening. Oh, I'm crying. It's weird, because it's completely silent, and I don't feel sad. Tears are pouring out, and even that is not a solace. Crying isn't supposed to hurt, is it? It's a release of hurt. But not this time. I have earned pain even in release. They barrel out like angry pearls, so intense I have to keep my eyes open. Dad hasn't noticed.

All I can think about is Sam, trapped somewhere, or lost. People looking for him in sweeping lines cutting over grass fields and following bloodhounds track the scent of his belongings, and somehow just barely missing him. Could he survive by himself, in the wilderness? There's not that much wide, empty wilderness here, but if you're wounded and weak...

What was it I thought to myself, back in that McDonald's, wrapped in Sam's arms?

How dare you, Lye, take the first embrace with Sam and spend it on fear of you?

Lye, if you're out there, if you can hear this somehow, I'm sorry, okay? I'm really, truly sorry. If you took Sam away because of me... please, let him go. Why not take me instead?

Sam is brilliant. He has a future that could lift up other people, because he's important and confident. I probably couldn't even lift up myself. I was just getting carried away with Drew, another talented and dedicated person. That was my sin. I forgot my station, and now I understand. If I promise to never strive for anything significant, to live a life of mediocrity, then would that be enough?

Let him go. Even if you have to kill me, leave him out of it. Please.

I'm left with these thoughts for a while, but then Dad's phone rings in the cup holder, playing the first few seconds of TV Dinners by ZZ Top. I check it for him, and wipe my face, blinking out the last of the tears.

"It's Mr. Fox," I say, already hitting answer and speaker phone.

"Hello again, Sergeant," Dad says, slowing to a stop at a red light.

"Hello. Please listen closely, we've just had a major development." He's talking fast. I'm equal parts thankful, scared, and queasy.

"What happened?" I ask.

"Ah, you're here as well? That should be fine." Though Fox says that, it seems like having to also say this to me is making him apprehensive. "We've found Mr. Lye, and his RV, in a small clearing of land in an estuary."

Without thinking I blurt out "Did you find Sam? Is he okay?"

"Mellie, let him finish," Dad patiently says.

"I'm sorry, but we couldn't find Mr. Edwards in the area, though we're investigating for clues as I tell you this. There are several things about this case that are exceedingly unusual."

The word 'unusual' takes me back to the sight of Lye's glowing, hollow arm.

Fox continues. "First off, Mr. Lye is deceased. We found his body inside the RV, in the bathroom. He was... extremely decomposed. He had no clothes and was unrecognizable by sight. It doesn't make sense, because even if he died immediately after he was last seen, his body wouldn't break down this quickly."

"Did he have anything unusual on his body, besides that?" I ask. I've got to know what an independent party says after seeing his arm uncovered.

"Mellie!" Dad snaps.

"No, that's a good question," Fox says. "Actually, most of his limbs were... gone. As if the decay started there instead of in the body's core. This goes completely against the process of death and decomposition, however, so we're very confused by this. We're currently testing for any chemicals in the remains."

The hollow arm. Maybe it went more hollow? Maybe all of his limbs did? Maybe his entire body? But what was it?

"Anyway," Fox continues, "we discovered this a few hours ago, and around the same time, we have been having a team investigate Mr. Lye's home much more thoroughly. That is, unfortunately, where we found Ms. Collins."

This must be what it's like when you get in a car crash. One or two seconds extended to literally a minute or more in your tortured, hyperactive state.

"To be honest, this isn't entirely conclusive, but when we searched the bathroom in Mr. Lye's house, we found some signs of chemical body disposal in the bathtub. An excess of bleach, as if it were poured in. Now normally, bleach is a very slow and weak substance to try and dissolve a human cadaver. But despite that, we did find tiny traces of what we thought was flesh, and a DNA test confirmed it to be Ms. Collins'. We are working on a theory that somehow Ms. Collins was given the same treatment that Mr. Lye was, and that the treatment Lye received was a sort of powerful, unfamiliar "pre-disposal" stage. From there, Ms. Collins' body could be conveniently dissolved with something as mundane and inconspicuous as bleach, and that perhaps the same thing was intended for Lye."

I can't believe this. The images coming to me are awful enough, but it's heightened by the fact that whatever happened to poor Ms. Collins was done literally across the street from us.

"We're confused by the location of the RV, as well," Fox says, as the light blinks to green and Dad accelerates into a turn. "We didn't think to try such a place because, frankly, it was thought to be impossible. It is more or less like seeing a very dense trail in a swampy area, and instead of chopping through it with machetes to explore, you drove an RV through it. Driving back would definitely have been impossible, so it may have been a desperate, final act or a mistake. And that's all that we've got so far. Since you are close to this matter, I thought it would be best to inform you directly, instead of letting you see it in our media update."

"Thank you very much, Sergeant," Dad says. "Do you have any clues as to Sam's whereabouts?"

"I'm afraid not," he says. "Considering the circumstances, we are going to have to prioritize finding Sam as the potential suspect in these cases."

"Wait, wait! You're not seriously thinking Sam killed those people, are you?" I say.

"Don't worry, we're still aware and working off a possibility that the perpetrator is someone we haven't yet seen," he says, very calmly, like I had forgotten or misread a rule in a board game we were all playing. "But to tell the truth, there is a greater chance that Sam is a key participant in what is happening here. Nothing is confirmed, this is circumstantial, but I don't want to gloss over the facts. If it helps, consider the added suspicion on your friend something that will help him be found and saved, if he is innocent, because that is what matters."

***

It's late at night, now. I'm lucid dreaming. I can tell that I am in my bed, but this feeling is too strange and fragmented for me to not be at least dozing off. Far in the distance, I hear the TV, which Dad is watching to get a drip-feed of the borderline constant news updates. Two bodies are dead, one person is suspiciously missing.

Sam was the one who insisted we remain silent about Mr. Lye's arm. It physically hurts in my chest, these suspicions directed at him. Dad won't say anything about it, because he knows Sam. He's the one other person who came to hang out and play games on my birthdays. My one and only friend for year after year.

"Mellie."

I hear his voice now. Him calling me by my actual name is a little awkward, but I smile at the seriousness of it.

"Mellie, wake up."

I open my eyes slowly. Through the gate of my eyelashes, a fit young man in a torn shit, dotted with mud, stands watch over me. The moonlight through my window reveals his features and gentlemanly patience.

I should be screaming 'Sam! What's going on? Where have you been?' but I'm too exhausted and overwhelmed. Also, in some bizarre part of my deeper self, I half expected this to happen. I don't know why, but Sam is just that reliable.

"Are you okay?" I ask. Starting to wake up more, I sit up against the bedpost and pull my covers away, tapping the space next to me as I slide over. He sits down and the bed complains as he gets into a similar position. If Sam really is a killer, then I'm compromised, sandwiched between the wall and his large frame. Then again, the window's right above.

He finally answers. "Yeah. Been better, but being able to see you again really helps." It's now that I realize he's wearing an unzipped nylon jacket. Its wool cuffs and collar are fraying. I wonder if he found it in a dumpster or something.

"Sam, what happened to Lye and Ms. Collins?"

"I'm sorry. They're dead. Something killed them. I can't say more than that. It would put you in danger."

"N-no, wait... something killed them? Meaning, not a person?"

He doesn't respond in any way, to where I couldn't even take it as 'yes'.

"If I don't answer a question," he says, after a moment, "it's for your own good. You trust me on things like that, right?"

"Yeah, I mean, you've always been way smarter than me. But you really can't explain what's happening?"

He shakes his head with a pained frown. "Nor what will happen."

"Well, let's try this: what are you doing here?"

That earns a grin. "Taking a break from the madness to see you. And also... there are some things we need to figure out."

"Like what?"

"The Dance. I'm very sorry, Lee. I probably won't be able to go after all."

I laugh softly, careful not to catch my dad's hearing. The risk of being caught is monumental. Come to think of it, I don't even know how he got in my room, and yet I'm calmer than I've been in months. "Just to be clear, you're not a hallucination, right?"

"No."

"I see. Regarding the Dance... that's okay. I'm still glad I asked you. I can take pride in doing something bold."

"Absolutely," he says. "No matter what, though, you better still go."

"Huh? Well, I guess I'll have to, if I'm sticking with the piece. But it'll be really awkward, going alone."

"...I don't mind you going with Drew, if you want. You like that guy, right?"

Despite Sam clearly having been on the run and looking worse than I've ever seen him, he actually smells fantastic. He smells a little sweaty, but there's also this complicated, salty, dockside and beach odor to him, mixed with something invigorated and healthy.

Sam is illogically appealing right now. But he asked me a question.

"Yes, I like Drew a lot. If he's open to it, I'd like that. But is it really okay with you?"

"Of course. What matters is that you're happy."

"I don't understand," I say, heart pounding. "Why do you care about my happiness so much? I didn't do anything to deserve it."

"Do you know why your father is watching the TV so much?" Sam asks. I shake my head. "Because he wants to know if you're going to be mentioned or featured in it. He wants to protect you in case anyone looking to dig more attention out of this travesty finds out about you. The best friend of the supposed killer. Tell me, does your dad need a reason to protect you like that?"

"Well, I assume it's because he loves me. Isn't that how it is with every parent?"

Sam smiles. "Well, I love you, too, Mellie. More than anyone."

I get this anemic feeling, as my limbs fall flat to the bedsheets. This doesn't make sense. Sure, he's my friend, and loving me is a wonderful surprise expansion of those feelings. But more than anyone?

"It's the truth," he says. "I love you enough to do what I am doing. That is all you need to know."

"Sam, what do I do? If you've got the directions out of this, tell me. I'll do anything."

"You just have to keep quiet about what's been happening. Don't tell anyone about what we saw with Lye, and don't tell anyone I was here. That's important."

"No... no, why? Why does it have to be this way?" I whisper, looking him in the eye. "Sam, I'm sorry."

I tell him the truth. Drew knows everything. He takes me to his side and I lay against him, almost exactly like how I wanted before, with him as my teddy bear.

"It's okay. Shh. It'll all be okay."

"It will?"

"Yes. Just keep Drew away from all of this from now on. He'll be safe."

A spike catches in my throat, like swallowing a needle.

"Everything will be fine," he says, pulling me closer. "Go to the Dance with Drew, have a good time, and forget about all of this. It'll be over soon."

"What's going to happen?"

"Like I said, I can't tell you. But it'll be fine. Promise me you'll enjoy the Dance, okay?"

"I wish you could trust me to help you."

"You're misunderstanding. The best way to help me is to be happy. Do you promise?"

He's being really insistent, which is not like him. But these are no ordinary circumstances. "Yeah, I promise. The Dance is going to be fun. I'll ask Drew tomorrow."

"That's good," he says. "Telling the truth, what matters to me is that you move on and don't let the past chain you."

"What's that got to do with it?"

"You know... Camden."

Being reminded of my 'boyfriend', someone I was actually starting to forget in these past two weeks, is like the drop in one of those tower rides at amusement parks.

"What are you saying, Sam? Does Camden's disappearance have something to do with all this?"

"I just want you to move on," Sam says again. "Please, just have a good time. I'm not insisting that you forget him or anything, but don't let it interfere with this chance."

"Sam, seriously. Answer my question."

"Oh dear, it appears I've said the wrong thing."

"Do you know anything about what happened to Camden?"

He holds me a lot tighter. The once-pleasant smell is getting a lot stronger, like being drowned in a sea, stained red with rotten chum.

"Sam, that hurts!" I shout this, and yet he doesn't tell me to be quiet.

Suddenly, the worst possible theory detonates inside me. What if it doesn't matter how much noise I make because my dad isn't able to help me right now? All I've heard so far is the TV. No clinking of dishes, toilet flushes, pauses in audio from changing the channel, nothing.

"Let me go!" I scream, as his grip pops my back and other joints and bruises my skin. "Help me! Help!" I hate how weak I am compared to him. He moves my limbs like I'm his puppet, and fighting against it only brings pain. He directs me into a sleeper hold, my legs frantically pounding against the wall.

"Lesson learned I guess," he says. "Don't mention Camden."

***

Imagine the feeling of putting a roast in the oven, then sitting down to watch some TV while it cooks, only to fall asleep and completely miss the beep of it going off, as it repeats over and over again, a lullaby for your negligent sleep.

The upbeat chatter of a news reporter on the TV downstairs is that multiplied a million-fold. I cough and sputter, my throat still sore from being crushed by Sam's forearm. That was not a dream.

"Dad!" I shriek, tearing open my door. "Dad! Dad!"

"What, what?" he shouts, coming up the stairs. "Did something—hey!"

I've gone hysterical in the truest sense, down on the floor and clinging to his shin. "You're here you're here you're here you're here—"

"Honey, yes, I'm here and I'm fine. Tell me what happened."

***

Well, it was about a week too late, but I finally tell the police everything.

Even now, going against what Sam told me to do feels like a betrayal.

Don't tell anyone about what we saw with Lye, and don't tell anyone I was here. That's important.

Going over the whole conversation, Mr. Fox doesn't have much to work with. The most he can assume is something I'm already thinking, that perhaps Sam was responsible for Camden disappearing. The thought makes me want to vomit. I don't understand. The Sam I knew would never hurt anyone.

Then again, a part of me finds this oddly fitting. Me, an overall unpleasant person, being friends with one of the most popular boys in school was too freakish for many students. People had to assume there was something wrong with either me, and that I was blackmailing him or something, or that there was something wrong with him. I guess I should be relieved. People will know that it was the latter.

But do I want to go with that sort of narrative? Despite what happened, I still want to believe this is a misunderstanding. I need to be able to forgive Sam and trust that he's doing the right thing, always has. But I can't ignore what I experienced. For the sake of other potential victims, I have to explain everything to Mr. Fox.

Dad is really beating himself up over not hearing me screaming and pounding the wall with my foot while Sam was hurting me. His only guess is that he was asleep, since he nodded off for a little. But not hearing your child in danger is like getting an exam back with a big fat zero percent. Apparently, though, dad was shocked awake the second I was screaming for him later, and he had been in a deep sleep, but instantly reacted to the sound of my door opening harder than usual.

It really doesn't make sense. It's as if for just that little stretch of time, while Sam had me trapped up there, it was only us, and we were separated from reality.

"We're... going to keep the thing you saw with Mr. Lye out of the media's earshot, for now," Mr. Fox assures me. "There's not really anything good to come of that. But I appreciate you taking the risk of explaining it. Heck, I think if I ever experienced anything like that, I'd only question my own sanity."

Dad glares at him, and he nods lightly in apology.

I'm not naive. I know that I was lucid dreaming around when Sam appeared in my room, and I haven't been in the greatest mental condition lately. They probably think I was seeing things, or dreaming, confused. I'll take that explanation, honestly. Even if I have to go back to the sessions with the doctor again.

***

The remaining days of the week are mercifully quiet and ordinary. I hate to say it, but people seem to get used to it. But nobody can figure out what to say about Sam. There's an air of "He was such a sociable, positive guy. I'd never expect it."

Now it's time for the Dance. Several days ago I asked Drew to the Dance if he wasn't going with anyone else, and to my relief, he wasn't. He had still planned to go, only by himself, which frankly stunned me. It seemed like inviting ridicule, to go to such a thing alone, but then again, he's a brilliant artist, probably the best in the school, getting his work exhibited at the event. He has a good reason. Technically, I could have the exact same reason. I'm an artist being exhibited. But I just know it wouldn't work for someone like me.

Anyway, enough moping. Drew said yes. He didn't hesitate, and he didn't even tease me when I said "Thank you." Yesterday, a substitute art teacher picking up after Lye fixed the charcoal in my finished piece, while also framing it and taking down my title and information for the artwork label.

Now it's about time for Drew to pick me up, and I'm poised in the sofa chair, not paying any real attention to the cartoons on TV.

"Honey," Dad says from the bathroom, "are you sure you don't want to take a picture here?"

"Yes, dad, I most certainly am," I say for the third time.

"I ask because I know you're not going to take pictures there. Don't you want one pic of the two of you, at least?"

"Maybe afterward. I might feel better about it then."

He shrugs but doesn't put away the tripod and camera he got set up. He really wants a shot of me and Drew together, before we head out. This is technically my first formal date, ever, so he has a reason to be excited.

Then I hear the light squeal of truck brakes. Drew arrives in his burgundy pickup, which is dressed in chrome and faded paint that doesn't match the young man stepping out of it. He looks like a whole other person, fitted into his jet-black suit with a slimming Italian cut. I watch him, so cute, tentatively approaching the patio stairs, unsure if this is the right place. My heart is in double-time, but it should calm down once we're actually in this together.

My dress is a gentle blue column of chiffon with rhinestones at the chest. Searching for dresses is something you do with girlfriends, I guess, but even doing it by myself was quick and painless. It took me about fifteen minutes to find this one at the town center, and when I tried it on, I was amazed at how well it hid my lack of curves. I had to buy my first ever strapless bra to go with it, but I kind of like the feel of it.

The doorbell rings. I smooth the dress out one more time and answer it before Dad can. Drew gives me the actual up-and-down with his eyes.

"Evening," he says casually.

"Hey."

"You are gonna turn the place upside down," he says, holding out the corsage, a band of black lace and clustered evening primrose, each one shining more yellow than a nugget of gold.

"Oh my god..." I hold out my hand and he slides it over my wrist.

"Do you... like it?"

"Drew, I love it!"

"Well, you did say you were wearing blue. And any idiot could see that black and yellow are your favorite colors."

It feels way more special than that. The bright and vivacious yellow, accentuated by the ribbons of lace, is like the sun to the sky that is this dress.

"We better head out soon if we want a good parking space," Drew says with a grin. He's right, too. Only the junior class can come to this event, obviously, so there's enough room, but coming later would force you to fit in the dirt expansion to the lot, and I cannot walk in dirt with my shoes.

"Let's take a picture, real quick!" I say, pulling him inside.

***

We're at that special time right after sunset, where I can see all the inner workings and customers of the shop windows we pass, but their glowing neon signs stand out as beacons. As Drew drives through the rapidly descending night and we make brief eye contact, I suddenly feel wonderful. All the events of the past month, for as awful as they've been, haven't stopped this night from happening.

I'm really sorry, Lye, for suspecting you. In the end, you were right. I developed my skills and am about to have a great time on my first ever date, and it all came about even in the swamp of tragedy that we've ambled our way into.

"Hey, Drew?"

"Yeah?"

"How are things going to change for your schooling, now that Mr. Lye has passed?" I don't have the guts to ask my real questions: 'Who was Lye to you? What is your opinion of him? How do you feel about his loss?' But I think he gets it.

"It's tough," he says, tensing in his seat and returning his other hand to the wheel. "Lye was always singing my praises with other people in the art scene here. I'm sure a lot of them will remember me, and—don't take this the wrong way—the fact that he passed will add sympathy and interest in me and my work. But he basically got me into doing my art as a career. I'm gonna miss him a lot, probably until I've graduated."

"I see."

"He talked about me a lot to his family, and now they've invited me to the funeral. I think I'm gonna go."

"Maybe you can meet some other great people, through his family," I offer. "You know, even though it was more recent, I think I owe him, too. Thanks to him, I'm really going to try the whole being an artist thing."

He smiles and clicks his turn signal on. "I'm sure he'd be really proud that you went through with it. It's a great piece."

I feel my eyes water a little, so I try to lighten the mood back up. "Better than yours?"

"Not this time, I'm afraid."

"You've seen me get better fast, so watch out!"

There are so many other things I want to ask, and yet I know I shouldn't. We both need to forget about Lye, Ms. Collins, and Sam. What matters is this night.

"Any music?" I ask, looking to the center console.

"Oh, actually no. The CD player was broken when I got this. Radio works, though."

"That's okay. I don't like what's on the radio, usually."

"Me neither. If I'm not connecting my iPod for podcasts, I'm usually searching the radio for talk shows."

"I'll see if there's anything on." I click to FM and scroll past anything rhythmic. All I can catch of the spoken word channels are preachers, so I give up and leave one at zero volume, keeping my hands to the little blue purse at my lap.

"And that's why I prefer podcasts," Drew says. "We're here anyway." Just like that, full darkness has taken over. There aren't many red taillight pairs slowing us down as he turns toward the parking zone of our school.

"Hardly any traffic," I remark.

"Yeah, we're a bit late." He drives slowly, cautiously, past the pairs of suits and dresses heading the opposite way. Every space is filled, so he moves forward through the narrow gap of the chain-link fence-posts and into the much smaller lot of dirt and unkempt dandelions. We're some of the first who have to park here, at least.

I don't want to nag him about parking farther than he could've, but my heels are really not suited to dirt. "Um," I say, "can I hold onto your arm when we get out? I'm gonna have to walk on my toes."

"I got a better idea," he says, popping out and walking around to my side before I can ask, so I undo my seatbelt. He opens the door for me like a gentleman, and then makes a request that destroys the impression. "Here, lay into my arms. I'll carry you over the dirt."

"Are you insane?"

"I don't know. Never been tested."

"Drew, if someone sees us, my life is over."

"Oh, stop. It's not like I'm carrying you over a shoulder. If you're really that worried, hurry up. No one's coming in yet..."

"Ugh, would it really bankrupt the school to pour a few dozen bags of gravel here?"

"Clock's ticking, Lee."

Mortifying as this is, I really don't want to get any dirt on my only formal pair of shoes. Walking barefoot is unspeakable, as well.

"You have to be really careful with how you hold the dress," I say. "This top could pop loose."

"Yes, I'll be careful." He's losing his good humor, damn it! Mellie Walsh, this is your fault for wanting a picture after all. This is the boy who said yes on short notice and got you this corsage. He's clearly nervous about it, too. Just go.

If we had just gotten married, this would be beautiful. Instead, I'm laying limp like a hunter's kill, bouncing with each of his steps.

"You're really light."

I guess I should feel happy about that, but I've always been thin. I'm a small girl and I don't have too much in the way of 'assets'.

"Almost there," he says. You know, it is kind of exhilarating, being carried around like it's nothing. He's fairly strong. The rigid support of his biceps against my folded left arm is pretty—"And there, back on safe ground." Oh, it's over. I brush my dress smooth.

"Do I look okay?" I ask. There are giggles behind me, distant but intimidating, like seeing a large, indistinct fin while swimming at the beach.

"More than okay." It's hard to trust that when other girls we pass have their hair in dazzling arrangements to match their corsages, or an attitude of confidence that suits their more assertive dresses.

He offers me his arm. This is the real "I have arrived" moment. Not the first sight of Drew in the suit, or taking the picture. Even walking through together will probably not be as breathtaking as the sight of him offering that little diamond of space between his arm and shapely torso.

I smile as best I can and vine my arm around his, my splayed fingers enjoying the texture of his suit. I should compliment him, too.

"This is a really great suit."

"I... had to rent it," he says, as if I should expect a high-school boy to own a thousand-dollar suit.

"You look like a young Corleone."

He makes a pleased sound, tasting the compliment thoroughly. That's when I realize something amazing. I do have something that the other girls don't. None of the others, for all their supposed confidence, are arm-in-arm with their dates yet. Some look like they want to, but the man is too shy, and those who do it only have the nerve when we reach the double doors and noise of the auditorium entrance, like it's only for appearance that they'll touch each other this early. Maybe getting carried out of the car should be a tradition for girls.

***

Our school auditorium's seats fold up out of the floor and can be fully retracted to reveal a smooth, dark, even surface. Tonight, the seats are all down and out of the way. A dance floor has been assembled in the middle, where boys and girls hold each other to pop radio hits from last year. It's made of some sort of glowing material that changes color from the pressure of a person's steps. The stage above, meanwhile, is cluttered with giant, flashing boxes of canvas in sky and cloud patterns: the photography zone.

This is it: 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, the 26th. Being at school on the weekend is a first, but no one's here to learn. This is a celebration of the junior class and their accomplishments. That's something that Lye failed to explain to me. It's not just a pointless social gathering for couples with an artwork exhibit attached. All along the walls are collages of photos and subjects from different clubs. Far in the corner, I think I spot a collection of easels, tented with gray sheets.

"What do you think?" he asks.

"It's... nice." I'm way too introverted to be excited by all this activity, but a lot of people put time and effort into this night. I'm going to respect that and have a good time.

"We don't have to dance if you don't want to," he says, suddenly, and with a prickle of nerves. "I was only coming here for the unveiling, so..."

"Do you want to dance?" I ask, looking into his eyes.

"Maybe later?"

I nod, and we take the tension as a chance to break our embrace. We go together to get some punch and refreshments, and the mingling begins.

Drew introduces me to a lot of people, guys and girls, who in turn introduce their dates. I try to chime in as best I can while they talk about this and that. The conversations are very fast, with little space to contribute, and full of inside jokes, except for mentions of art and the unveiling, where I have a chance to talk freely. A couple of nice girls compliment my dress, and I thank them and return the favor. A couple of really brazen guys jokingly compliment me as well, but they get laser-eyed into submission by Drew and their own dates. Drew being jealous and possessive, now that's something I could really get used to.

"Sorry about that," Drew says, once we're free of the sixth or seventh couple. "I wanted to get the introductions and such all done as early as possible."

"Really?" I ask, a grin forming. "So you can have me all to yourself, you mean?"

"Mellie Walsh, you are one fascinating specimen."

"Huh? How so?"

"One minute you're shy and reserved, and the next you're downright sassy and flirting. I never know what to expect."

"I guess I have my moments." I shrug. He's probably right, but I would prefer to be consistently confident, like how most people are.

"Oh, Ms. Kimball's waving us over!" Drew says. That's the art teacher who stepped in to handle the exhibit in Lye's place. He takes my hand by surprise and nearly drags me after him like an excited little boy with his mom.

***

The unveiling isn't an announced event that interrupts the proceedings of the Dance. Still, not counting the artists themselves, a decent crowd of forty or so students has gathered, and some oddly-dressed adults who stay together in small groups. Those must be people involved in the art and culture scene of Doctor's Grove. To them, this highlight of my life is just another Saturday. These are people who could get my piece or Drew's on a wall in some public building, or connect us to a small publication for an interview. What possibilities await? I'm shaking with energy. I am an artist in an exhibit!

Finally, each of the artists gets called up to hold the veils of their respective easels.

"On three, everyone," Ms. Kimball shouts over a louder song. "One, two, and three!"

My veil coasts away and my art is rendered nude. I actually did it. But I don't feel better than I did when Lye first pushed me into this idea, not yet. In fact, I think I might throw up.

I can't look anybody in the face, and mine is heating up like a stove. Right, of course, look at the others! I step back and get a view of Drew's finished painting.

The detail is not just fine, but also made to incorporate with everything around it. I see lily-pads in the distant water at the horizon, and Spanish moss clumps on the tree branch in the foreground, correctly shadowed by the cardinal at the center of the frame.

I was thinking at first that my piece, using only the white and black of charcoal, would have an advantage based on the dark lighting of this venue. But Drew's evocative, precise use of color hooks and pulls you closer, forces you to investigate every detail. Mine, while also detailed, simply isn't as interesting. Most of the students and art folk are looking for their chance to squeeze up close to his.

What's... going on here? I casually walk from one piece to another, already familiar with all of them, peeking back toward mine. People look at it, but... what the hell? They're barely giving it a chance. I even notice a guy look at my label first and then pass at looking over the drawing at all.

Because a piece by Mellie Agnihotri is not worth consideration.

"Who made this one?" A heavy man in a pink suit asks at mine as he bends to read the label card. "Spoils of War, by Mellie Agnihotri?"

"Hi! Yes, that's me!" I approach, hands massaging the false leather of my purse. I half expect him to ask for an explanation of the piece's content: a blue jay eating another bird's eggs.

"Your depiction of an animal in mid-action is simple fabulous," he says. "How long have you been doing animal sketches?"

"This is my first try..."

"Really? That's very impressive. I would love to see your approach to a falcon swiping a wood-mouse from the forest floor."

"No one has ever suggested something specific for me to draw before..." I'm saying that aloud, not thinking it. The man doesn't seem affected.

"What have we here?" an extremely large-breasted woman in a kimono says, cooling herself with a straw fan and walking up behind the man. "Find something?"

"Indeed, I have." The man straightens then and turns to me. "Have you ever made any other pieces like this, Ms. Agnihotri?"

"Mellie is fine, or Lee. And, er, no, until this one I've only ever done smaller ones, in my sketchbook.

"Do you have that with you?"

"Yes, one moment." Lye had told me early on to bring my sketchbook to the Dance, as I'd be able to show off more of my work. As I pull it out and open it up for him, I smile at how naive I was, and for so long. I thought I didn't like hearing people talk about my art, but that's because they didn't really know what to say. Instead of just making singular, static observations, this guy talks about my techniques, which bring me back to the time spent making them. He talks about the future a lot, too, using what he sees to envision new pieces so clearly that I want to get started on them tonight.

"My name is Kirk, I run a small gallery downtown." He hands me a flamboyant business card with his name in silver glitter. "We are looking for a younger artist to serve for an exhibit, something we can keep open for a good six months, maybe forty or fifty pieces. Perhaps we could meet sometime, and talk about it?"

"Easy there," the woman says, rolling her eyes and fanning Kirk. I kind of feel like she should be fanning me, because the room is spinning. "Let's not forget the key question. Dear, are you eighteen or older?"

"Oh, uh, yeah. I turned eighteen three months ago."

"Then it's all good, isn't it?" Kirk says. "Give me a call sometime soon if you're interested."

"I will! Oh, thank you very much!"

"Now listen, dear," the woman says, zipping the fan shut and pointing at me. "Kirk here tends to forget details you youngsters need to be told more than once. You do realize that you're not going to be paid for the pieces, right?"

"Um..." I actually did kind of think that until now. Of course it's not that simple. But how does it really work? Got to think! I'm crashing!

"Are you bullying my date, Louise?" Drew suddenly says, wrapping an arm around my waist that drains all the tension. He knows these people, of course! My knight!

"Date?" Louise says, stepping back and no longer pointing her fan like a knife. "Well, well, I didn't realize this was the talented young lady."

"You... mentioned me?" I ask, looking up at him.

"At her last dinner party, yes," Drew says. "Don't let anything she says stick on you, okay? She just likes to scrutinize."

"Amen!" Kirk says, with a laugh I can feel in the floor. "She hosts so many parties, her 'scrutinizing host' switch is stuck permanently on."

"Are you quite finished?" Louise snaps, giving Drew and Kirk each a hard gust of wind from her fan. It's actually really cute, seeing a middle-aged woman acting like that. It helps me gather my thoughts.

"Anyway, Miss Louise?"

She locks her sights on me. She seems relieved that I still respect her enough to use 'Miss'. "Call me Ms. Urbank, dear."

"Of course. Well, Ms. Urbank, I did figure I wouldn't be selling my paintings to a gallery. But the visibility would be fantastic for my career. And someone who saw a piece they wanted in the gallery could buy it. Then I'd get paid, right? I do own any works that I make."

"See? She may be fresh, but she's a savvy one," Kirk says.

"Perhaps she has the potential to earn an invite," Ms. Urbank says.

"That's very high praise," Drew says seriously. "Louise basically organizes every upstanding art soiree in the county. You meet a lot of influential and talented people at her parties."

"I would be honored," I say to her, "but please, don't make an exception on my account. I want to know that I've earned such a thing."

"Where are all the other artists like this in your generation, Drew?" Kirk says. "She's after my heart."

Just then, I can feel my phone vibrating in my purse. I pull it out, and it's from a number I don't have listed as a contact, but with a Florida area code. "I'm sorry, I'm getting a call."

"No problem." Kirk hands back my sketchbook and mimes for me to call him. I give him a huge grin and bow like we're in Japan. Louise just analyzes my work, not acknowledging me.

I'm so thrilled by what's happened that I don't realize whose voice it is, at first, when I answer the phone.

"Well, hello there," Sam says. "Got a minute?"

My good mood is waning fast out of confusion and dread. It was a great ride, but hearing Sam's voice has just blown all four tires.

"Mellie, answer me," he says, impatient after I stand by an unused spare table near the refreshments.

"S-sam... what do you want?"

"Are you having a good time?" he asks. "How did the unveiling go?"

"Why the fuck do you care?" I whisper.

"I explained that I love you, didn't I? I wish I could explain it, but that would ruin what I'm doing."

"So that time in my room, where you choked me," I say. "That was real?"

"You left me no choice. You wouldn't calm down and I needed you to be asleep when I left, or else you'd find out how I get in and out of your house."

The chill in my back is painful.

"Look, I'll be to the point. I need you to cut the Dance a little bit early, because we need to talk, tonight."

"Sam you are wanted for murder. I should report this call right now."

"You don't want to do that."

"Oh, really? Why?"

"How is Drew doing right now?" Sam asks without a hint of malice, though the intent is clear. "How about your dad? Looks like you told him and the police about how I got in your room. I'm sure that hurt his pride as a father, not being able to protect you. He should worry about himself, though."

"I get it." I didn't know what nausea felt like, when I unveiled my artwork. This is hot, molten lead stuck between my stomach and throat, and I want to scream it out.

"They're going to announce the Dance king and queen soon, and then the final dance will be after," Sam says. "Enjoy it. Then have Drew drive you home, get in your car, and go to the location I send to your phone. Get there before midnight. It's a whole two hours from now."

"Why are you—" The call ends, and I throw my head up to the auditorium's high ceiling and squeeze my eyes shut until colors rush over them.

"Mellie?" An arm touches mine and I wave the hand out in a defensive strike without wanting to. Fortunately Drew could tell I was bothered, and evaded in time. "What's wrong?"

I explain the phone call to Drew. He's shaking his head and keeping very close to me. I'm sure we look like we're having a memorable moment together. "We've got to tell the police."

"There are probably some security guards here, right?" I ask, looking around.

"I wouldn't rely on the guards at this school. Let's call 911."

Drew starts to pull out his phone, but stops. "Maybe you should do it. You got the call."

"Sure, yeah." I have only called 911 once before, back when Camden was all I ever thought about. Despite this, it feels bizarrely familiar.

The call rings for half a tone and then it peaks and distorts in pitch, like feedback from a microphone. "Gah!"

"What's happening?" Drew asks.

"It's getting really loud and unpleasant."

"Try again," he says, and I already am. This time it starts before the first tone should even come up. The second I hit call, there's an instant barrage of ear-piercing noise.

"Probably just your phone." Drew is calling now, but he pulls his phone away and winces. I can now hear that awful sound in stereo, quiet but no less upsetting, from our two calls.

I try calling a different number, like Dad, so I can tell him to call the police, but the results are the same. I'm starting to get really scared. This feeling is just like when Sam and I found Lye unwrapping his arm, a sense that reality and I had mixed up our rendezvous points.

Drew and I rush up to the security guard outside the double doors, the night air getting progressively more humid.

"Excuse me," I say. "We need—"

"We have reached the bottleneck."

The bald officer isn't even looking at me. He stares ahead, face calm and bored as if the two of us don't exist.

"What does that mean?" Drew asks. His fear froths into anger. "Hey asshole, no more kidding around. This is an emergency."

"We have reached the bottleneck."

"Drew..." I say. "I think we should go."

He backs up and looks at me, then at the dance floor inside, with pain. He must have decided he wanted to dance after all. I wouldn't have minded it, either, if I wasn't afraid I was losing my sanity right now.

Drew grabs a student who just finished having a cigarette by the shoulder as he passes us to go back inside, but he just walks on like the two of us really aren't here. I hear the smoker say the same words in monotone. "We have reached the bottleneck."

"Drew, take me home, please. I'm scared."

He backs away from the blue-green festivities waiting past the double doors. It's not that this has all turned into something threatening. I'm not afraid of what's going to happen, but that something already has, and neither of us could possibly save ourselves now.

My phone's vibration hurts the knuckles of my overly-tight grip. A text message, from the number that called. From Sam.

Mellie, stop. You are just speeding up the process, and now your two hours are almost up. Get here now.

He just now sent this. It must be a warning after knowing what I did. Could he be watching from somewhere nearby?

Drew looks at the message from over my shoulder in my shaking hand. Another call from the number makes me gasp and drop my phone on the concrete. Drew picks it up as I take deliberate breaths of the swampy air. In and out, neither doing much good.

"Who is this?" Drew asks, setting the phone to speaker.

"I guess you're going to be involved, too, then?"

The voice is completely different, higher than Sam's, but more mellow, belonging to a mature man.

No, I recognize that upbeat way of asking questions. It's Mr. Lye.

I fall to my knees as the students we can no longer reach all go about their business. Five girls run out carrying a bunch of long ribbons on sticks, some unexplained tradition that catches the security guard's attention, and he chases after them. So many people are right here, in obvious earshot of Mr. Lye's voice. But it's like we're in a parallel reality, incapable of ever intersecting no matter how long they travel together.

"What is the meaning of this?" Drew says.

"If you really care so much, then come along," Lye says. "Her phone has the coordinates now."

"That doesn't—hey!" Drew's statement is severed by the call ending. He looks to me and sees in my face that I need to leave. No argument from him.

***

Somewhere during the dazed walk back from the Dance, I had lost my shoes, so I felt the dirt and tickling grass by the time we got back to the second parking lot. That convinced me to try looking back. That's when I screamed and collapsed against the ground, even though there should have been a car parked right behind me.

We've left the night of the Dance, or rather, it has left us. Not a single other person is in sight besides Drew. The auditorium's doors are shut. Even when I should be able to hear the radio beats rumbling beyond it from here, all I hear instead are long, rising, gasping songs of the crickets from the nearby woods, one giving rise to dozens in retaliation. All the temporary signs denoting the different parking zones are still here, and I see the decorations plastered around the entrance, but it's just devoid of life now, like time zoomed forward to well after the Dance finished.

I look around the dirt lot, and only Drew's truck remains. Both lots are empty and barren.

"Come on," Drew says, pulling me to my feet and handing me my phone. "I plugged the coordinates into your GPS. It'll guide us."

"But... where?"

He walks with an arm around me, like I'm wasted. Did I get drugged, somehow? From something I can't remember? It would be an acceptable way to write off all of this as not real.

"It's a thirty-minute drive," Drew says, "to the beach."

"They want to meet me at the beach? Why?"

"My guess, it's secluded. Not a good sign. But I'm going with you to fix this, whatever it is."

"Drew, you've done way too much for me already," I say, clinging as he opens my door and tries to get me into my seat. "You can't put yourself at risk."

"I'll put it this way," he says. "Do you want to try going home to your dad?"

The thought sends electricity through my spine. Dad. What's happening to him right now, in this melting of all that is logical and understood? Does he still even exist? I'm too scared of us parking in front of a quiet home, devoid of a single light or vehicle, and shrieking for him to come out as I turn every room upside down.

I shake my head, and he smiles. "Well, I feel the same about my parents. I can't just go home either. I don't think that would work out. But if we're together, maybe we can beat this. Two heads better than one, and all that. You know?"

Sniffling, I nod. Please be safe, Dad.

***

I'm coasting along in Drew's truck. Considering how no one seemed aware of us before they disappeared, I was afraid we'd be invisible to anyone on the roads as well, and at risk of getting in an accident, but it's much worse than that. The roads are as drained of life as the school grounds. We don't see another vehicle anywhere.

I can't stop shaking, so I hold out my hand between the two of us, resting on the glove compartment's cracked simu-leather. He lays his warm hand on mine and I try to fathom what he's thinking right now. Does he consider me responsible, after telling him about the bizarre things I experienced? Anyone would blame me now. I was too curious and too weak. Despite feeling this sinful, thoughtless curiosity, I couldn't handle seeing something that didn't fit my worldview and had to dump my terror onto a wonderful, innocent person.

"Hey, Lee."

"Y-yeah?"

"I like you a lot, you know."

Dumbfounded, I listen.

"I've always really, really liked you. I thought you deserved better than Camden. Sometimes I just got so angry about it... to be honest, after you were left alone, you must have been in an unthinkable state. I couldn't imagine surviving something like that."

I don't really like his tone when talking about Camden, but it's rooted in genuine care.

"And while you were so worried about Camden, trying to hunt him down, being forced to give in by so many people... I gave up on you. You were a victim, who did nothing to deserve that, and I just got frustrated that you cared so much about a guy that I felt was beneath you. So I basically decided 'Whatever, she's just a dumb slut. I was wrong to like her. Serves me right for getting my hopes up.'" The roads were so empty that Drew had no reason to care what lane he drifted into.

"Drew, you're not driving carefully."

"Sorry." He slowly corrects to not jerk us in our seats. "This is a hard thing to admit to you."

"So you didn't like me for a while? Wrote me off as a slut?"

"Yep." He sighs. "Can't be with me, so she's not worth having. What a shitty attitude, huh? And yet, look what happened. I normally paint alone, Lee. Talking together, working on each other's pieces together, seeing yours come to life and watching your eyes shift and zoom over mine... those are the best moments I've ever had in school. And then, when I didn't have the courage, you ended up asking me to the Dance. I'm sure I didn't show it, but I was basically floating in the stratosphere from that."

I had no idea he was this self-conscious regarding me. He's always come across as deeply, unshakably masculine and mature.

"I don't get it," he says. "I don't get why I'm the one who gets to be close to you. It's like a convicted killer in prison somehow winning the lottery. It shouldn't be possible."

I squeeze his hand. "Drew, you're so silly."

"Huh?"

"You were the one who told Lye that I'd be a good fit for the exhibit, remember? You told me."

"That's true, yeah."

"You wanted to try and get to know me better, and help me in my art along the way, am I right?"

"Yeah, exactly."

"You gave up on being angry or focused on yourself, and decided to try and help me move on instead," I say to him. "Thanks to you, I have an ambition and the confidence to really try it. I no longer miss Camden, or feel like waiting for him to come back. If he never does... that's okay. I can move on. I know that now, because of you."

His eyes gleam with wetness, painted red and yellow from the dash lights. "Anyway, felt like a good time to say that."

"Thank you so much," I tell him, "for trying to like me again. You're my inspiration." I want to be as talented and successful as him, and I want to gain his ability to let go of grudges. I know, in my heart, that much of my dead social life will only return if I'm willing to go through the shock of resuscitation. I have to let go of all my feelings from before, ones I've blocked for 18 months. Ever since Camden left, no, even before, I haven't spared a thought to who I was in Freshman and Sophomore Year. I need to take it seriously, change, and approach people in good faith from now on.

After we survive this, that's exactly what I'll do.

I am starting to put myself back together as Drew drives through dark, empty roads. Even the streetlights are not functioning. I had no idea how dark the world is. Hell, I had no idea how closely I associated my world with cars. Take that single omnipresent element away, and you might as well be on a new planet.

Curious, I turn the volume knob, and a sermon in mid-sentence barrels out at us. I turn it back down immediately. What's gone and what isn't doesn't seem consistent or logical. Not that any of this does.

"Won't be much longer, now," he says, turning onto a road that may as well go on forever. We pass the wooden sign for Stacie Wildlife Reserve. If anyone wants to go to a quieter beach, they go here. It's basically a long stretch of Atlantic Florida coastline and the untouched intra-coastal waterways of the mainland. Some sections of the shore, however, are decorated in rich homes, now devoid of all lights and looking more like ruins as we pass them. The bulk of the beachside, though, is a wild sand dune jungle, the sea and sky completely blocked. We're going south, and to the right is a much lower, visible expanse of estuaries, hammocks, and watchtowers. The moon, at least, still provides some light.

"Lee," Drew says loudly. It snaps my attention back to him.

"Yes?"

"I'm going to show you something and I don't want you to freak out. Can you keep calm?"

"Um..." I gulp. "Yeah. I trust you."

He reaches back behind his seat and pulls some kind of survivalist lockbox with a plastic handle at the top. It's locked by combination. He tosses it to me. "Zero, seven, zero, three, six."

It takes a while to get the numbers right, and I have to use the light of my phone screen, but I get a satisfying click when I turn the last one to six. When I pull it open, I gasp. It's a gun, cased in foam made to perfectly house it and its various parts. It's a pistol, that much I know, and several magazines are stacked together. They look a little long for the gun.

"That's an LC380 with an extended magazine," Drew says. "Fifteen rounds. It has very low recoil, so you should be able to fire it accurately on a first try. Have you ever fired a gun?"

"N..." I almost lie and say no. I would have for sure if Drew's confession hadn't brought Camden back in my mind. "Once. I wasn't really... aiming at someone though."

He can sense I don't want to talk about it, and that it doesn't matter right now. "When we get out, I'm going to set it up for you. We'll have it all ready when we get to the shore, chamber, safety, all that. I want you to keep it hidden in the back of your dress."

"Shouldn't you be using it?"

"They'll suspect me to be the one who tries to use force. I know what I'm asking, but this is what I think is going to work. I have a feeling that just walking down the sand with my gun in my pants like it's a rap video won't work."

"So, you're... into guns?"

"With my upbringing, I didn't really have a choice," he says. "Not saying we lived in a bad neighborhood or anything. My dad and mom are both really into shooting, so it was something to bond over. I do target practice once a month or so."

"When this is all over... would you teach me to shoot?"

"Hell yeah. Seeing you with a gun would be hot."

The comment leaves me warm, but tense. This kind of protection, and planning, is great, and I'm thankful. But I also get a nonsensical, overwhelming doom, like everything we do to try and stop whatever's coming is only going to make it worse when it inevitably arrives.

Stop that, Mellie Walsh. You're both going to survive, and things are going to get much better from here.

"Even though it's all locked up and legal, if people at school found out I keep a gun in my car, it would be really bad," he says. "So don't go telling people, alright?"

I love that he's also looking ahead, confident that we have a future after whatever this is. I nod and laugh.

He slows to a stop on the sandy shoulder. We're here. To the left is a little, shaded trail of sand, fallen leaves, and shattered moonlight spearing the treetops. We get out and unlike most of Doctor's Grove this time of year, the air is salty and cool. In fact, it's downright chilly without the sun to warm my skin.

He shows me how to stand when shooting a gun, the right way to hold it, aiming and such. One magazine, fifteen bullets, should be enough, and covertly hiding another isn't really possible. He puts the gun in my hand and bends my arm back to show me where and how he's planting it in, held by the tight chest band of my column dress. I do a practice run of reaching to pull it out. It takes me an extra second, but it'll have to do.

"What if I accidentally shoot myself when reaching back for it?" I ask.

"Don't worry, there's two safeties on it, remember?" Ah, right. He did show me how they worked. I need to keep that in mind in case I need to pull it out and shoot as quickly as possible.

My phone vibrates. It's a message from Sam's unfamiliar number: if you're here, then hurry up.

"Guess we should go," Drew says.

"One last thing," I say, carefully fixing the gun back into my dress. "You say you've liked me for a long time? Show me." I cup his jawline and he lowers his head. Our lips stay peacefully bound to each other, every light touch or push from me or him magnified a million-fold.

It's not making out. If this had been a simple kiss with a guy I really liked at the end of a nice night out, maybe it would have been more active, passionate, and sexual. I'd like nothing better, but now's not the time. It'll feel even better after we've defeated this monstrosity.

***

The beach sand and leaves are cold on my feet, and the walk up the dune is no picnic. Once we reach the top, however, we're at the end of the short trail and officially on the beach.

This section of Stacie Wildlife Reserve's beach is the steepest I've ever seen. It'd be hard to sprint down to the shore without falling over. Here the sand is a white powder that makes a 'skirt' sound as my bare feet drag over it, but the remaining half is constantly lapped at by the waves. They crash especially hard when the beach is so angled, leading to a slam of salty whitewater reaching as far as it can go, then retracting as the sound of the next wave building reaches its own crest, crash, slam, and rushes up the shore. Again and again.

I see someone, but I don't have it in me to speak up, so I point.

A figure, just barely lit by the moonlight reflecting on the white foam in the water. But I don't understand how that's possible. They're literally in the crash zone of each shoreline wave, and the crest should be hammering their back and tackling them to the sand, dragging them up the shore to boot.

Then I see it in action as a wave hits their back, water rocketing up in globules and falling over the area like rain. But they aren't knocked forward. They aren't even staggered. If I didn't know better, I'd say it's some watery version of a scarecrow, a figure planted in the sand via deep spikes to hold it in place. But then the figure starts walking up, toward us.

"Stay here," Drew says. It's odd, being so terrified of getting found out and yet not having to whisper, from the roaring waves.

The figure is wearing a thick, buttoned coat. Now that he's only twenty yards away, I realize who it is: Lye.

"Come on down, kids," he calls out.

"I guess we'll have to move a little," I say. We walk side by side, and once we're only ten feet apart Drew steps in front to stop us both.

"That's close enough," Drew says. "Now it's time. Whatever you want, explain it now."

"There's nothing to explain. I'm just a bad man who wants to kill you both."

He starts to undo the buttons of his waterlogged coat and Drew makes a hectic motion to me. From my position farther up the beach, the highest point of us three, I have a great shot at his head, and I'm already fully aimed and ready to go after only the second button.

"Freeze!" I shout.

Lye's gaze cranes up at me in amusement. It pisses me off, and I press down on the trigger to get it ready, only to miscalculate the force and fire a shot. The sound and backward shove in my shoulders are surprisingly minimal, but I shriek and fall back with the gun pointed at the sky. Lye is on his back now and gradually being fed into the sea. "Oh my god oh my god oh my god why? Why wouldn't you stop? I told him to stop!"

"It's okay! Easy, now," Drew says, putting both hands on the gun and lowering it to keep it trained on our art teacher. None of this makes any sense. There are no answers, no explanations. It's like he was mocking us for even wanting such things. But I don't care what made him or Sam do this, I only want things to go back, for us to be free of the nightmare.

Wait, Sam!

"Drew, don't forget about Sam!" I shout, going after him. I can't just sit here, and if I want him to be safe, we need to stay together. He heads down the beach to check the body floating and bobbing in two-foot water, holding out a hand to tell me to not get too close.

While the beach itself is steep, you have to go out quite a ways, it seems, before you're in deep enough water to swim, and Drew easily grabs Lye's shoe to start pulling him back. Even if it's risky, it's best to have the body here, as a clue on what to do next.

What to do next. I was eager at such an idea, for a couple of weeks in my life. But now I've killed a human being.

Before I can process any of this, however, I notice the water around Drew... sparkling. I look up at the sky, thinking a large cloud passing over the moon has finally left, but there's not a cloud in the sky tonight that I can see. It's the sea itself, and now it's spreading down the entire length of the tide as far as I can look left or right. It's glowing... blue. Almost like ten thousand blue laser pointers are aimed down at us. But only in the water.

Back bursting into chills, I lower myself on a knee and dig my free, shaking hand down into the wet sand. It's filled with little glowing dots the size of sprinkles, an identical blue color as the inside of Lye's arm.

That's when I notice Drew has his hands on Lye and is... struggling. As if he's alive. No, he really is. I see the two of them. In the glowing tide, I see Drew holding Lye down and keeping him from getting up, but that's harder on Drew than it is for him, and the crash of a wave batters him off. Lye, apparently immune to the water's force, gets up as if it's not there. His head shows no sign of a bullet wound.

Lye manages to undo the last of his coat buttons and drops the garment. It falls over and darkens a section of the glowing water, but then I see his body, naked but for his shoes, and panic, falling back against the incline of the sand and firing round after round into the thing.

What once applied to only his arm now describes his entire body. It shouldn't even be possible for him to stand. His form is like an old piece of driftwood hollowed out and rinsed empty by the sea. He has no chest, it's just an interior consisting of his back and sides. There are no organs to speak of, but all lined on the inside of whatever he's made of are fleshy cysts packed with those glowing dots, the same thing I saw inside his arm that day. There's nothing but that inside him, on the other side of his empty skin, with none of what makes a living body function. When a wave crashes against him, without the cloak to block it, the water rockets out in all sorts of directions, pouring in through a cheek and draining out an elbow or shin.

Why am I seeing this? How do I stop it? I've fired six or seven bullets and I couldn't even tell if they did anything. My hands ache but I can't stop my grip on the gun as it is, so I amble up against my dress.

"Drew!" I scream. "Run away!" We need to get away from this thing. Whatever it is, we're in its domain.

I can't see him. I don't know where he's gone. Looking out to the waves, something contrasts against the blue, a concentrated island of crimson foam. He's been pulled into the water, only as deep as his waist, and all I can see is the occasional bump and splash under that foam, a child being strangled in a bubble bath. When a wave picks him up and flips him over, all I see is brownish-red where his skin should be, while his suit remains unharmed.

"No!" I aim and shoot at the dangling hollow thing watching Drew writhe. It rotates without steps towards me. I've never been so powerless. How am I supposed to save Drew? How do I shoot or argue my way out of this? I can only think to aim at the other figure remaining. Every shot blows a little hole through the skin, I can see it well from here, but then it just seals up in the following few seconds. Then it drifts up toward me, rushing closer in sync with the blood-toned wave's momentum. "Get back!"

"There's no point in running away," Lye says, somehow, with no vocal cords or tongue. From a few feet away, I see a lack of teeth, or a nasal bone, making his face too flat. But I've been careless, and feel water kiss around and under my bare feet. In the glowing, I see two lanes of blood as the tide withdraws. The worst part is that it doesn't hurt, only tickles. But when I take a step back on the dryer sand, gritty pain sends me crashing down.

The tide comes again. I feel its numbing chemical presence run up my ankles. It marks them with blue lights and making them 'not there' according to my sense of touch.

"Drew..." Tears stream down my face, the only water that will not destroy me.

I stare up at the stars as Lye's incomplete fingers pull me by the shins. The tide runs up my back all the way to my head and splashes on my front in dots, bloody spots underneath the blue of my dress. My hair falls away like ink. At this point, both my arms are spread flat and suffering the same slow consumption, asleep, the fingers of my right hand permanently wrapped around the gun, not that it matters.

The glow of Lye's inner side as it lays over me is indescribable. I am ready to die if it will free me from this burning violation of every cell. Throw me in with Drew so it can end faster.

Then, it withdraws, holding something it pulled off of my shoulder. It took my purse. Why? It's opening it with the few remaining fingers it has, rummaging through... I would rather die than see this, but I'll have to accept both. It spills the contents on my chest, which I only feel in the vaguest of senses. My sketchbook is folded open and protecting my chest. Its black cardboard cover, that which defies all light, is the last good thing I can look at.

It picks up the book and starts to flip through the pages, admiration clear on its face.

Put that back, monster. It's not yours.

He stops on the last page, the beginning sketch of his RV. "Yes, this was quite the surprise."

The fact that my art pleases the thing incinerates every feeling I have until rage stands alone. I bob and tug at my head, trying to move, but most of my body has lost its feeling, and my neck may as well be turning to stone.

Please, don't let this be how it ends. Drew and I made a promise.

I have to stop this.

Mellie Walsh is not a victim anymore.

With the last bit of energy I can muster, I tilt the hand clutching Drew's pistol toward the skin floating over me, and pull the trigger.

The gun flies out of my hand, but it was a hit. The blood of Lye's wound, two holes through that damn arm that started all this, drips in a little stream against my sketchbook and drains through its plastic ring binding, wetting my face and fizzing the skin away. Then the wound in its back is sealed. Lye tosses my notebook into the sea and pulls me around, by the remaining hair in the front of my scalp, after it.

I can now only control my eyelids so I shut them with the speed and sluggishness of closing a garage door.

"It'll be over soon, dear," Lye says. "Don't worry. We'll get to try again."

Then water in my ears blocks and mutes all sound. There are none of the whooshes and deep churning I'd expect from all the times I went swimming with Dad. The luminous presence all around me presses at my eyelids, so that I am not even granted darkness in death, but a growing white. There is no pain. That's when you realize that pain is necessary to distract you from the other things.

***

I wake up dry and screaming so loud that I'm distracted by the scraping in my throat and have to stop. Instead, I'm wailing as Dad barges in and looms over me, just like the creature at the beach.

"Mellie! Calm down!" Dad says, fighting with all his strength to keep me in place and from hurting him with my nails. "Mellie, stop! What's the matter? Tell Daddy!" He presses hard on my shoulders, sinking me into—

A bed. My bed. I'm in my room. The window, my movie posters, they're all here.

"Lye! It—Drew!" I had felt nothing, endured the dissolution and had been freed from it almost entirely, and now I have no idea what's happening.

"Easy, Daddy's here. You're okay. You're safe."

I clamp my arms around his broad back. He takes that as a sign to carry me into the bathroom and he sets me on the toilet, tearing the bathroom cabinet door open as he hunts for my old medication. He pops the cap, shakes out one of the benign white tablets, and fills my rinsing cup with water. Hearing these noises from my place in the bathroom grounds me to my current reality, somewhat.

"It's okay, I don't need it," I say, starting to calm down. "It's not that."

He doesn't want me back on that shit any more than I do, but he needs answers. "What is it, then?"

"Just... a dream," I decide, not believing it for an instant. No dream is that long and detailed, so thoroughly remembered after waking up. For how nightmarish it got toward the end, it was also a sequence of events that felt like they belonged together. There is no way a human mind left to wander, even my twisted one, would dream up that much. But what other explanation is there?

"A dream, huh? Was it... about Camden?"

A good guess, so I nod and lie. He sighs and puts both hands on the sink, feeling the scratches and little bits of calcified metal. It hurts to tell him that. He worked so hard to help me move on. But ever the awesome parent, he sucks in a deep breath that lifts his chest and he turns to me.

"Okay, we'll go without the pills," he says.

"Thank you, Daddy. It'll be fine, I promise."

"I'm still setting up an appointment with Dr. Montague."

"No, come on. I just had a bad dream."

"Then let's try a psychologist. Just one visit. Would that be okay?"

"Look, it was just an unusually strong dream."

"You didn't see your face two minutes ago," Dad says. I realize he's still breathing too rapidly. For his own sake, I need to go along with this.

"Okay. One session."

"You gonna be okay to get ready for school? You can stay in if you want."

"I'm fine, really." Normally I'm not self-conscious around Dad at all. But here, in my underwear, propped on the toilet, I feel like I've regressed to a five-year-old.

"Call me if you need anything. And if anything changes, you tell me. That's a promise." After confirming a promise he made in my stead, he backs slowly out and I sag on the toilet seat. The pill is still resting on the top of the sink by the cup of water, but he has set the bottle back.

Legs waking up, I put the pill away and get back to my room, hot from the morning sun in the window. There's the RV in the driveway across from ours.

Wait. The RV is here. Not in a swamp. Just how much of what happened was a dream?

Then I see my phone on my wicker nightstand. I reach for it, hand blurring into five different copies. I focus my sight on the phone, dip a finger down to wake up the home screen, and then I see the time. My hand falls limp.

7:52 a.m.

Friday, May 11

"Hope you're hungry!" Dad calls from downstairs, mood lightening. Now that I sniff the air, the tantalizing mix of spices from a menu test awaits me.

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Photography credits:

distant night shot of RV glowing with green light

Image via Unsplash by Rob Hayman.

creepy rusted underground passageway

Image via Unsplash by Denny Müller.

spiraling plankton microscopic image

Image via Pixabay by FotoshopTofs.