Chapter One: Ashlyn
It started with a dare.
Students sat outside of Falcon High School, chattering about everything and nothing all at once. The buses were running late again and it was the perfect day for a challenge.
“Everyone else has a date,” Caleb insisted.
“I don’t,” Simon said.
“Yeah, see? Not everyone. I don’t need a date anyway, it’s just homecoming.” Judah looked up from studying the concrete.
“Just homecoming?” Caleb sounded incredulous. “It’s the first dance of freshman year and you think it’s no big deal. Come on, Judah. You’ve got all of high school to choose from.”
Ben raised an eyebrow, “A senior?”
“Okay, okay, maybe not all of high school,” Caleb admitted. “But a man can dream, can’t he?”
“Well keep dreaming,” Judah said. “There’s no one I’d even want to go with.”
“Oh come on,” Reuben spoke up. “Just admit it. We all know you’d piss your pants asking any girl to a dance. Just imagine when you want to do it for the first time.” He laughed.
“I could ask someone if I wanted to,” Judah insisted. “There’s just no one I want to go with.”
“Fine then,” Caleb smiled. Something in his tone warned Judah there was a plan brewing. “Let’s see if you really could ask a girl out. We’ll start bottom of the totem pole.”
But before Judah could finish, Caleb addressed the rest of the group. “Who do you guys think he should ask out?”
“Catherine Vale,” Simon offered.
“No, Catherine’s just a slut. We need someone like… like Michelle Colson!” Reuben shouted.
The next few minutes were spent thinking of all the girls no one would ever date. Before long, they ran out of ideas. No one had come up with a truly satisfactory option yet. They all sat silent for a moment, trying to think of one last candidate. The one to beat them all.
“Wait, I’ve got it!” Caleb jumped up. “[Shadow’s school nickname].”
“Who?” Judah asked
“[Nickname]!” Caleb repeated. “It’s perfect!”
Reuben laughed out loud. Even Simon smiled a bit despite himself.
“It is a pretty good idea, Judah,” Ben said, trying to hold back his own laugh.
“Ask her to homecoming,” Caleb said. “I dare you.”
“No way,” Judah shook his head. “There is no way you could make me ask her. Unlike you idiots, I value my social life. Besides, I’m going to have to go soon anyway,” Judah protested.
“What social life?” Reuben asked. “As far as I can tell all you do all day is sit around wishing you looked like me so you could get a girlfriend.”
“You’re just scared,” Caleb smirked.
Judah ignored Reuben’s comment. “No, I’d just rather not be labeled Social Outcast of the Year.”
“Yeah, right. It’s not like she’ll say yes anyway.”
“What if she does?” Judah could just imagine the scene. It would be a disaster.
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Then you laugh in her face and walk away.”
“I’m not going to do that!”
“It is a bit rude,” Simon adjusted his glasses and shifted his weight to the other foot.
“It’s not going to be an issue,” Caleb persisted.
“Come on, Judah,” Reuben chimed in. “All you have to do is ask her to the dance.”
“There is no way,” Judah repeated. “I’d rather drag Catherine with me.”
“Ooh, looks like Reuben was right,” Caleb said. “You’re just scared. Can’t even talk to a girl.”
“I can too!” Judah knew it sounded childish as soon as the words left his mouth.
“Then prove it,” Ben smiled. Even he was getting into this.
“Five bucks says you don’t do it,” Reuben said, reaching into his pocket.
“Ten says he’ll embarrass himself trying,” Caleb pulled a five and some ones from his backpack.
“I’ve only got three, but I say he’ll throw up first,” Ben added.
Even Simon chipped in, “I’m with Caleb. Four dollars says he’s going to run away.”
“He’s not going to do it at all,” Reuben repeated. “Or even if he does, I still think he’ll wet his pants.”
“You guys are idiots.” Judah said. They all looked expectantly at him. Finally, he sighed. “At least help me find her."
Reuben gave his lopsided smile. "How hard can it be to find a freak show like her?"
Judah had been stalling for as long as he could. He'd halfheartedly scanned the crowds, but mostly because his friends were watching. He hadn’t meant to agree to any dare in the first place. He had dared Caleb at lunch to [do something stupid], and Caleb had said only if Judah agreed to a dare later. He hadn’t really thought Caleb would do it. Actually, he remembered something that felt like terror rushing through his body as he watched his friend walk across the cafeteria, look a teacher straight in the eyes, and [did whatever]. But he’d done it. Now Judah had to hold up his own end of the deal. Great.
From between the groups of people, Judah saw Ben coming his way. Caleb followed close behind him, grinning. They’d found her. Of course they did.
Before Ben even got a chance to speak, Caleb interjected. “Come on, Judah. You have a girl to ask out.”
All five of the friends gathered back around their previous place. Once they had gathered, Reuben stood up as straight as he could, making himself even taller than usual, and used his best announcer’s voice. “Gentlemen, and Judah, may I have your attention. We have gathered here to observe a ritual as old as time itself. The member of our tribe called Judah has agreed to a dare and must now proceed to follow through. He is to ask… what’s her name again?”
“Ashlyn Tanners,” Simon replied.
“Ashlyn, also called [derogative nickname probably including “shadow” or referring to it], to accompany him to the annual homecoming dance. Anyone objecting had better shut up because it’s too late to turn back now.” Reuben grinned at Judah who only rolled his eyes.
“Let’s get this over with.”
Judah could feel his stomach knotting already as he followed behind Ben. He could just imagine the stories already. They’d go around like wildfire. Ashlyn, if that actually was her name, was a phantom. Nobody could really remember her name, or much of what she looked like. From what Judah had heard she was just some freak kid from out of town and if you valued your social life at all, you’d better stay away from her. Simon had mentioned that he thought she’d fit in with the goth or emo crowds, but according to him, she never did. Never even tried. If it wasn’t for Simon, Judah didn’t think he’d know about Ashlyn at all. Simon seemed to manage somehow to keep track of everyone at the school. At least everyone in their grade. When Judah finally caught sight of her, she was sitting at the base of the school mascot. The bronze lion loomed threateningly above her, looking out beyond the traffic beginning to build up in front of the school.
“We’ll stay back here and watch,” Caleb whispered from behind him. “Go.”
Judah hesitated a moment, wanting to protest. But he already knew what they would say. Judah’s just chicken. He can’t even a freak to homecoming. Good luck finding anyone actually hot. Judah sighed. “Just try to be quiet, okay?”
“Of course,” Caleb winked.
Reuben smirked. “We wouldn’t want to miss this.”
Judah was all too aware of the silence. There was practically nobody on this side of the school. He could feel the judgmental glances of the few adventurous students standing a ways off. He glanced behind him and saw his friends standing in a mostly-circle, doing an awful job of pretending not to notice. You shouldn’t be nervous. It’s just a dare. Before he knew it, he found himself standing in front of the statue. In front of the girl. Ashlyn. She looked up from her notebook, closing it a little faster than might have been necessary. Simon had been right. Between her black jacket, black and red t-shirt, and dark jeans, she might fit in with some of the emo kids. Maybe the goth, but almost definitely the emo. She stared at Judah from behind a veil of black hair covering one green-grey eye.
Judah realized he’d been staring at her for at least a minute. He swallowed hard. He tried to take a breath, to say something, but the air refused to come. He was far too aware of his friends standing somewhere in the expanse behind him. Of her eyes piercing him. Of the lion towering above them both. I’m going to throw up. He swallowed again and tried opening his mouth.
“Will you go to the homecoming dance with me?” Even as he spoke them, the syllables felt worlds away.
Ashlyn stared at him, her expression hardly changing. “No.”
For what felt like an eternity, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say. She just kept staring. Finally, she spoke again.
“Is that it?”
Judah hesitated, then gave something like a nod and turned around. He could still feel her eyes on him as he walked away.
“Did you do it?”
“What’d she say?”
“Are you actually going to go out with her?”
“Did you throw up?”
“Quick, check his pants, see if they’re wet!”
Slowly but surely, the sound of the voices brought Judah out of his fog. He looked around him. All of his friends wore eager looks on their faces. He smiled. “I believe you all owe me some money.”
With some reluctance, each of them handed over the amount they’d promised.
“So what happened? What did you say?” Ben pressed.
“Did you at least almost pee your pants?” Reuben asked.
The other two looked at him expectantly. Just then, a commotion in front of the school caught their attention. The buses had finally come. Judah caught himself just before a sigh of relief. He looked at Simon, Caleb, and Reuben. “Looks like you guys have to go.”
“Oh fine,” said Caleb. “But you have to tell us tomorrow.”
“And no telling Ben before us,” Reuben added.
“Deal,” Judah smiled. He’d gotten out of that one for now. He only hoped they would forget by tomorrow.
Not long after, a black truck blasting punk rock music pulled into the school drive and Judah heard a loud honk. He nearly laughed out loud. Only Nathan.
“See ya, Ben,” Judah picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder.
As Judah climbed into the truck, Nathan turned the music down from a bellow to a mere roar. Judah’s older brother smiled at him. “Hey, Ju. How was school?”
“It was alright.” Judah stared out of the window as they drove away. He craned his neck a little as the statue of the bronze lion came into view, hoping to see Ashlyn still sitting there. Why do you care so much? You talked to her on a dare, and even then it’s not like you wanted to. The question kept pounding at him, demanding an answer he simply could not find. Actually, he was almost terrified of what might happen should he see her again. Even imagining that stare made him feel sick with dread all over again. She scared him. But then… why was he looking for her? Because he had to. He had to find her, to talk to her, to say… To say what? What am I going to do?
The voice startled Judah out of his thoughts. “Huh? Oh, no, I’m fine.”
Nathan glanced sideways at him, but seemed content. “Okay. Oh! Hold up, this is my favorite song.”
Nathan turned the music up even louder and started to sing along. Every song was his favorite. And if he kept listening to them all like this, he’d be deaf before graduation. Judah smiled despite himself as he watched his older brother pretend to play the drums.
As soon as they got home, Judah tried his best to seem preoccupied and started up the stairs to his room.
“Judah, come here,” A voice called from the living room.
“Just a minute.”
Judah left his backpack where he was and sighed as he walked back down the stairs. He walked into the living room. His father was sitting in front of the TV, laptop running to his side, and papers scattered about the couch. Two lay on the floor. Judah stood in front of his father, waiting for some sort of acknowledgement. Finally, he stopped perusing the papers and looked up over the rims of his glasses. He gestured to the couch. “Sit down.”
“I saw you had a missing assignment in school today,” He glanced at his laptop. “In your English class.”
Judah didn’t even bother asking which assignment it was. It wouldn’t matter. “I just haven’t turned it in yet.”
“Why?” His father asked. “You know that you have to turn in your work on time. You’ve already dropped to an eighty seven in that class. And you have an eighty five in Biology, too. This is unacceptable. If that assignment isn’t turned in by tomorrow and your grade brought up by the end of the week, you’re going to be grounded.”
“I can’t help the number of assignments we have before Friday,” Judah protested.
“I don’t want to hear about it. You can ask the teacher if they can give you any extra credit. You can make sure you get high grades on assignments you do get. Just because you failed to live up to your responsibilities doesn’t mean I have to change my plans for your mistakes. We both know you could get better grades than this if you actually tried. Now you had better turn that assignment in or else.”
Judah sighed. “Yes sir.”
“That’s all. Go do your homework.”
Judah walked back up the stairs, picking up his backpack along the way. He threw it, then himself, onto his bed. He glanced at the clock. Four thirty two. It was going to be a long day. After a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, he sat up and looked out of the window next to his nightstand. He watched kids playing the park across the street. Most of the little ones were running around on the playground, a few of them playing some variation of a game that was probably tag. He watched some of the adults standing and talking or walking around the park. A few older boys were playing basketball on the court. He wished he could be out there with them. Judah stood up and opened the window, allowing all the sounds from outside to rush into his room like the wind itself. That would have to do. He stared at his desk for what felt like a long time, halfheartedly willing himself to sit down and apply himself to the all-important god that was school work. There was no way he’d be able to focus. Still, he sat down anyway, and tried his best to understand the difference between compound and complex sentences. Some time around six that night, he stood up from his desk and stretched. The light streaming in from outside had just started to color itself with pink and golden hues, folding over itself in the cool, sweet air. Judah walked over to it and stared out for a few moments more before reluctantly sliding the glass panes between the immensity of the glorious outside world and the white padded cell that was his room. Just then, Nathan opened the door a bit and poked his head in.
“Dinner time, Ju. Come on downstairs.”
Judah followed his brother down the stairs and into the kitchen. As the two of them sat down at the table, Nathan started air drumming again to a song no one but him could hear.
“Hey rock star,” Judah laughed, “Where’s dad?”
Nathan shrugged. “I think he went into his room. He said he’d be back out in a minute and to get you down here. So I did.”
Seconds after he had finished speaking, their father emerged from his room, shut the door behind him, and walked over to the table. He looked back and forth between his two boys, then at the food. “Let’s eat.”
Over the course of the meal, [hamburgers and once frozen French fries], Nathan and their dad talked about how band practice was going and which colleges he had heard back from. Judah sat and ate, contributing any time he had something to say, which wasn’t very often. Eventually, the discussion shifted to him. The three of them discussed freshman year and then high school in general, Nathan sharing some of the stories he’d collected over the years.
After finishing dinner and cleaning the dishes, Judah went back up to his room and shut the door. He pulled an acoustic guitar from his closet and sat down on his bed, opening his laptop and clicking directly to YouTube. He pulled up a tutorial video and began to play. Slowly, he picked out each note to no song in particular, satisfied just to be making a sound that sounded halfway decent. He strummed the strings gently, hoping not to make much noise lest his father come up the stairs to investigate. Judah hadn’t finished his homework yet. He still had an Algebra worksheet to go through. Still, the notes he was playing were far more enchanting, far more relaxing. It was like a whole new world.
The sun burned red outside the window and a few crows called back and forth to each other. The sky was painted all yellows, oranges, and reds, just like the leaves on the trees reaching up to greet it. Judah closed his eyes as he fingered the strings, getting a better feel for the instrument as his hands relearned their positions. His tranquility was broken by the sound of his door opening. He froze. It was only Nathan. Judah released his breath. Nathan closed the door behind him and walked over to Judah’s desk chair. He spun it around and sat in it backwards, facing Judah. He sat there for a moment, looking at Judah with a sort of curious sadness in his eyes.
Finally, he asked, “What’s going on with you, Ju?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean at dinner. Earlier today a little too, you’ve been all spacey. It’s not just today, either. It’s been happening a lot recently. Is something wrong?”
“No, like I said earlier, I’m fine.”
“It just seems like there’s something else going on.”
“Seriously, Nate, I’m alright. Whatever you’re seeing is probably just some stuff with Dad.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he expects me to be perfect. He wants me to raise my English grade by the end of the week. That’s only three days and I can’t control the amount of work our teacher gives us.”
Nathan shrugged a little. “True. But he just wants you to do well in school. He wants you to get to go to a good college, whichever one you want to. You’re a smart kid. You could definitely do it.”
“Well, he doesn’t have to be so harsh.”
Nathan paused, and then lowered his voice a little. “Judah, you have to remember that he still has as much going on inside him as you do. You can’t expect him to just live on.”
“I was three when Mom and Dad got divorced, so it was more than ten years ago. It shouldn’t have bothered him so much.”
“You know that’s not what I mean. You remember when Mom passed away, right?” Judah nodded. “Well do you remember how Dad acted after hearing about it? Even though they were already divorced?”
“Some of it. I remember him crying at the funeral. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. I don’t think I really understood why back then though.”
“Well when things like that happen, when people get into crashes like that or whatever it is, people who love them can start to close themselves off. It’s kind of a way of self-preservation. It’s so they don’t have to hurt like that again.”
“Oh, so Dad just loves me so much that he closes himself off to me entirely. Nathan, you’re not helping.”
“Ju, that’s not what I’m saying. Dad is still coping with what happened to Mom. He still cared about her, that’s the way real love works. You love someone even after they’re gone. Even if you thought you hated them. He’s just still hurting and you have to be patient. Maybe you just don’t understand it as well because you were so little when it happened.”
Judah sighed. “It’s been eight years now. And besides, I don’t see exactly how this affects my English grade.”
Nathan smiled a little. “Alright, well you got me there. I don’t know why he’s got a vendetta against low English grades. But hey, Ju, just be patient with him, alright?”
“Good enough,” Nathan smiled. He stood up and started toward the door. Just before he left, he turned back around. “Hey Ju?”
The two both smiled and Nathan left. Judah played with the guitar for just a little longer before putting it away in the closet, finishing his Algebra worksheet, and collapsing into bed.
The next day at school, Judah found his forgotten fear looming like a giant over him. From the moment he walked in the door, he could feel all eyes on him, the crows parting before him like Moses and the Red Sea. What’s going on?
Judah found Ben standing at his locker, rummaging around for some long-lost item.
“Ben, what’s going on with people? Everyone’s staring at me.”
Ben smiled. “Think, Judah. What could it possibly be?”
“Just tell me.”
Caleb came up behind them. “So, Judah, you let word slip out. I told you not to tell anyone.” He heightened his voice a bit and placed a hand on his chest in mock [hurt]. “I can’t believe you would tell everybody without me.”
“What are you guys talking about?”
Caleb stopped his charade and stared. “You really don’t know?”
“Wait, Caleb, let him figure it out.” Ben grinned.
Caleb hesitated for a moment, and then smiled. “You heard the boy, Sherlock. Figure it out.”
Judah sighed and slammed Ben’s locker shut. “You two are impossible.”
He didn’t have long before he had to report to his Earth Sciences class. There was no time to find Simon or Reuben. Wherever they were, they’d have some explaining to do later. After Judah maneuvered his way to his locker, he opened it up. Inside, among a mass of torn and crumpled papers, he saw one that hadn’t been there before. He picked it up. A photoshopped version of himself stared back. The mirror version wore a black leather jacket and silver-studded collar. He wore a torn black shirt and suggestively tight black skinny jeans. Judah tilted the paper a bit. Eyeliner and probably some other makeup covered his face. What the… Whoever had made it had done a very poor job. Although, come to think of it, that was probably intentional. Judah picked it up and turned it over. Nothing on the back. This is just great. He grabbed his books and shut his locker, leaving the picture inside.
“I said no.”
Judah jumped at the voice. He turned around. It was Ashlyn. “What?”
She held up another photoshopped picture, this one much more graphic.
“I don’t care what you did or didn’t do. You know what I’ve been hearing all morning? Questions about how I’m going to homecoming with you.”
Judah pressed himself against the locker. “I didn’t say anything. I don’t know what’s going on either.”
Just then, Reuben walked up. “Hey look, it’s the two lovebirds.”
Ashlyn shot a glare at him and the smile fell from his face. “No need to be so cagey.” The frown didn’t last for long. “Hey Judah, the whole school knows about you asking her to homecoming.”
“So I noticed.”
“Oh come on, it’s great. If nobody knew, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
“You told them?” Ashlyn’s voice was cold.
Reuben huffed and turned to her. “Yeah, but that’s no reason to be so harsh. Would you stop staring at me?”
“You what?” Judah was nearly shouting. Ashlyn looked as if she wanted to punch him. I wouldn’t mind so much myself.
“We’re not going together, Reuben! You know I only asked her on a dare!”
“Hm. Well that sucks. Ah well, it made for a great story,” Reuben grinned again.
“Can you even be serious for just one minute?”
Reuben paused. “Nope.”
“Fix this,” Judah said. “Today.”
“No promises, compadre. Word travels fast, you know.”
“That’s not a question.” If anything, Ashlyn’s tone had become even more chilling.
“Jeez, guys, you don’t have to take it so personally. Lighten up a little,” They both continued to stare at him. “Fine,” he grumbled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
After he’d left, Judah turned to Ashlyn. “Look, I’m really sorry about this. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen.”
Before Judah could say anything else, she walked away, disappearing into the crowd.
The rest of Judah’s day consisted mostly of dodging questions and eye contact. After school, he tried to find Ashlyn again. He wanted to explain that what had happened wasn’t really his fault. He hadn’t wanted it any more than she had. Judah scanned the mass of people loading the buses. No Ashlyn. He looked near the lion statue. Still no Ashlyn. He nearly began asking people if they’d seen her, but realized what they might think and decided to keep quiet. He sighed and sat down against the wall. He didn’t feel like laughing with his friends. Actually, he didn’t feel like being around Reuben much at all. What did he think he was doing?
Footsteps approached from his left and Judah looked up. Ben was standing before him, glancing back at where Judah was sure the rest of their friends were watching.
“Hey Judah,” Ben said. Judah mumbled a response. “Why are you over here?”
“Just leave me alone.”
Ben looked behind him again. “Look, I don’t think Reuben meant to make you mad.”
“Ben. You don’t have to be over here.”
“Simon wouldn’t leave me alone,” Ben offered a half smile. “But seriously, Judah, people are going to forget about it soon anyway. It’s not like they can stay fixed on something forever.”
“No, just the next few months.”
Ben sat down on the grass beside him. “Come on. The next bombshell will drop soon enough and everyone will be talking about it instead. You looking for her now―”he gestured to the lion statue “―doesn’t help your case at all.”
“I wasn’t looking for her.” Ben only raised an eyebrow. Judah rolled his eyes. “I was going to try to apologize for Reuben being an idiot.”
“Mhmm, sure,” Ben smiled. “Maybe there really is more to this than we thought.”
Judah couldn’t help but smile back. “Oh shut up.”
Throughout dinner that night and as he lay awake in bed Judah could not erase Ashlyn’s image from his mind. She was pretty, sure, but nothing he felt seemed like affection. If anything, it might have been affection’s second cousin’s ex-uncle twice removed. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw her staring. He felt fear, just as he had before. But even more so, he felt sadness. Snap out of it, Judah. Before yesterday, you hardly knew she existed. And she definitely doesn’t want anything to do with you anyway. He turned over on to his side. She made him uneasy. Fear and sorrow from her stare. Fear and sorrow from those chilling grey-blue eyes. Judah wrestled with his self-analysis until he finally fell asleep.
People still stared, but he tried not to notice. As Judah made his way through the hallways, he tried only to focus on his destination. He heard the conversations. Some were whispered, some practically shouted.
“Hey Judah! How’s your girlfriend?” Someone called to him.
“I hear they’ve been hooking up every night,” a girl and her friend spoke in hushed tones.
Somebody else pushed him in the hallway a bit too hard and he slammed into the lockers. When will this end?
He walked into his English class and sat down in the seat nearest the door. Most of his classmates had not yet come in the door. It’s Thursday and my grade is still way too low. He sighed and stood up, walking over to the teacher. Of all the teachers he had, Mr. Freedman was by far his least favorite. His face reminded Judah of a bulldog, full of wrinkles and bordered by jowls that shook when he was shouting. He was, in all respects, a passionate teacher. Throughout the years, he had found that most students did not share the same passion as he for traditional literature and had thus come to despise both his job and the ones who made his job necessary. His bushy eyebrows and bushier hair had begun premature whitening in what was probably a related event. His voice, now raspy from years of yelling at students, droned on and on in Judah’s head, even outside of the classroom. Never once had his expectations been less than professional and never once had Judah managed, despite his efforts, to fulfill them. He happened to be sitting at his desk at the moment, [eyeing] the black ink carrion he was preparing to shred.
“Mr. Freedman?” Judah stood a few feet from the desk.
The teacher’s head snapped to attention. “Ah. Yes Judah?”
“I was wondering if there was anything I could do to bring my grade up. My dad―”
“Well turn in your assignments, for one. As I recall, you turned in your last assignment a day late. And there was another before that, wasn’t there? No, no. That one was incomplete. Yes. Two incomplete assignments this month, one late assignment, and a low quiz grade. You really should have done better on that. If you find the uses of semicolons and commas are confusing, you should steer clear of mid to high level English classes later in high school.”
“At any rate, you want something to raise your grade?”
“Then do better on the next test.”
“But I need my grade up by the end of the week.”
“Well then you should have kept that in mind when you decided not to value your school work.”
“I do, though. I studied for it and everything, I just―”
“Are you arguing with me?”
Judah paused. “No, sir.”
“You’d better not be. I was already planning on emailing your father about a parent teacher meeting for your lack of responsibility. You wouldn’t want to add disrespect to my list.”
“Then go sit down. Class is about to start.”
Judah sighed and returned to his seat. He fished around in his backpack until he found the handout Mr. Freedman had given the class about punctuation. Just before the bell rang to begin the period, a black form moved past his peripheral vision. Immediately, he looked up. Ashlyn. We’re in the same English class? She made her way to the very back corner of the room and sat down. She got out a paper of some sort and began writing on it. Or maybe she was drawing. When she looked up and saw Judah staring at her, she glared at him, and then returned to her work. Judah tried his best to pay attention during class, but he could feel her eyes on him. Boring into him. Distance was no match for that steady gaze. The class finally ended and as students began to leave the classroom, Judah stood by his desk. He waited for her to pass by.
She walked on, taking no notice of him. He followed her into the hallway.
Still no response. If anything, she walked a little faster. Judah struggled to keep up as she weaved effortlessly through the sea of students.
He finally managed to get close enough to grab her shoulder. She spun around. “What?!”
Her tone, her eyes, left Judah speechless for a minute. She looked at him with pure hatred. “I just... I wanted to say sorry for what Reuben did and…”
“Yeah, you already tried that.”
“No, I mean really, I―”
“Let me guess. You didn’t mean for it to happen. Yeah. No one ever does. Now leave me alone.” She turned to go.
“Ashlyn, I wasn’t trying to upset you or anything.”
She froze there for a moment, and then turned around. Again, Judah found himself backing up until he was against the wall. “Everything was fine until you came along,” she hissed. “I had everything under control. I’m only going to say this one more time, so listen up Judah. Leave. Me. Alone.”
With that, she turned and walked away. Judah stood there wide-eyed for a few minutes. The sound of the bell finally broke him from his trance. He rushed to his locker, switched out his books, and practically ran to his next class. By the time he arrived, he was already four minutes late.
The rest of his day wasn’t much better. As it turned out, he’d forgotten his lunch at home and Nathan would be late picking him up. He shivered a bit in the wind as he waited outside the school. He looked back inside, wishing there was somewhere he was allowed to stay until Nathan arrived. He walked to the side of the building, hoping to shield himself from the wind. As he stood there, backed up against the wall, a small flash of light caught his eye. Something metallic sat just behind one of the lion statue’s massive paws. Filled with curiosity and having nothing better to do but huddle against the stone wall, he decided to investigate. It was actually a collection of items. A folded piece of paper had been left tucked under the paw tightly enough that it wouldn’t blow away. A necklace lay on top of it as well, a thin silver chain and a small black heart outlined with the same silver. That must have been what I saw. He reached for the paper. There was something inside, another paper maybe, bright white through the college ruled lines. Before he could open it, he heard the long honk of a horn. Nathan had finally arrived. Quickly, Judah put the papers back, picked up his backpack, and went to join his brother.
“”What were you looking at over there, Ju?”
“ Nothing. There was just some paper and stuff. I was wondering what is was.”
“ Ash,” said Nathan. “Find anything interesting?”
“Not really,” But Judah couldn’t help but wonder what had been written there. Was it Ashlyn’s? It had to be.
As they drove home, Judah stared out of the window. He watched the world slip by beyond him and shatter into memory as soon as it was out of sight.
A few weeks passed by without much incident. The rumors about Judah and Ashlyn were still circulating, but had finally begun to lose traction. Homecoming had come and gone. Judah and his friends sat around the table at lunch the following Monday talking about it.
“So then we went to the after party,” Caleb was saying. “It was pretty awesome.”
“It probably would have been better if [name]’s parents hadn’t been home,” Ben added.
“Well, sure, but for what it was…” Caleb said. He gestured to Judah and Simon. “Why weren’t you two there?”
Simon averted his eyes as soon as the question had begun. Judah spoke up instead. “My dad wouldn’t let me go. He was mad I hadn’t finished writing my history paper yet.”
“It’s not due for another three weeks!”
Judah just shrugged. “I know.”
“How about you, Simon?” Ben asked. “Why weren’t you there?”
Simon hesitated, and then shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“He was probably just embarrassed that no one would go with him,” Reuben said.
“Yeah,” Caleb laughed. “You know, you don’t have to hook up with your date at the party,” he joked. “It’s not like we’re [in college] or anything.”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway,” Ben said. “Even if we were, he still couldn’t pay someone to go out with him.”
Caleb laughed harder. “What are you talking about? We’ve got a total jock, right here. I mean, just look at that muscle.”
Judah laughed too until he saw the look on Simon’s face. A mixture of fear, anger, and [sorrow] rested there. It was as close as he had ever come to seeing his friend cry.
“Guys,” Judah said. “Quit it.”
They were laughing too much, going on too loudly to hear him.
“Guys, cut it out,” Judah said again.
They still paid no attention. Simon stood up and walked out of the cafeteria. At that, finally, the other three quieted their joking.
“Simon, where are you going?” Caleb stood up.
Judah sighed. “I’ll go get him, just stay here.”
“We weren’t trying to―”
Nobody ever does. Judah thought. Ashlyn’s voice rang clear in his mind. He left before anyone could say another word. As he entered the hallway, he could just see Simon’s small form rounding the corner. Judah rushed after him.
Judah turned the same corner that Simon had a few moments before. There, in the middle of the hallway, stood a[n alien] version of his friend. It was Simon, certainly, but his face was stone cold and every muscle in his body seemed tense.
“Judah, just leave me alone.”
Again, Ashlyn’s words flew back at him like a punch to the stomach. “Simon, come back in there. They were just messing around.”
“They need to know their limits.”
Judah almost smiled at that. Oh, don’t I know it. “I’ll talk to them. Or you can. Usually you’re okay with them messing around like that. Why is it so bad this time?”
Simon paused for a moment, looking torn. Finally, he said, “I’m weak enough as it is. I know I’m small. I can hardly lift my own weight. I don’t need them to remind me.”
“But they weren’t talking about that. Not at first.”
“Yes they were. I’m too weak, too [sissy] to go to homecoming. Yeah, I didn’t go because I had no one to go with. I even asked a girl, but she said no.”
“Well so did I. That’s not something to be scared of.”
“You’re different. You asked Ashlyn on a dare. You wanted her to say no. I really asked someone and she laughed at me and said no.” He was shaking by now. “I don’t need them to remind me how pathetic I am.”
“Simon, you’re not pathetic. You know more than anyone else in―”
“Knowing things doesn’t get you anywhere! Don’t you get that? Friends get you places. Popularity gets you places. Being cool or funny or even stupid if you do it right. That’s what gets people to look at you. Then they see those things as strengths. Just being smart means nothing. Showing that you’re smart means people pick on you. Nothing that I have counts for anything. Nothing at all.”
“You have friends, Simon. Walking away won’t do anything. Where would you go anyway?
Simon paused for a moment. “Home. I’m going home. See you tomorrow, Judah.”
Judah watched as his friend walked past the classrooms, past the staircase, and past the glass double doors at the end of the hall, leaving everything. He had left everything, even his books behind. What now? Judah raised his hands in frustration. There was nothing he could do. No. There was one thing. Judah could feel the anger welling up inside him. He turned around and went back into the cafeteria. Caleb, Ben, and Reuben were all talking and laughing about something again, but they quieted a bit as Judah approached.
“What the hell was that for?” he demanded.
“Where’s Simon?” Ben asked.
“He went home.”
“He lives three miles away and it’s freezing outside! Is he walking?”
Judah slammed his hands down on the table. “Yes, and guess whose fault that is. Yours. All of yours.” By this time, people were staring at him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ashlyn, sitting alone, watching in semi-astonishment.
“What did we do?” Ben asked.
“Do you guys seriously not know?”
“What?!” Caleb seemed exasperated.
“You completely just tore him down. You don’t mess with people like that. You don’t talk about people like that. How many people do you have to hurt before you realize that?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Reuben asked. Caleb and Ben’s expressions asked the same.
“I can’t believe you guys.” Judah shook his head. “Seriously.”
The bell rang, dismissing lunch.
*Some of the students hung around a bit longer than usual, probably wondering whether or not something more was going to come of the scene. Judah walked out of the room first, but the others followed close behind. Judah’s intense anger had receeded at least slightly and although he still didn’t like what they’d done to Simon, he wasn’t so passionate about it any more. This paragraph is awful, by the way. Just pointing that out now. Ummm I’m supposed to be raising my wordcount and now I sound like Holly. Does this even count? I don’t know. Anyway.
Just after school had ended, Judah stood at his locker, pulling out the books he needed for his homework.
“Why’d you do that?”
Judah jumped. He sighed and turned around, already certain who he would face. Sure enough, it was Ashlyn.
“You know, you have a habit of sneaking up on people. It freaks me out.”
She smiled a bit to herself. “Sorry. I think.”
He couldn’t help himself. He smiled too, but only for a moment. Suddenly, all the fear came rushing back. “What were you asking?”
“Why’d you do that at lunch today?”
“You mean why did I stand up for Simon?”
She stared upwards for a moment, thinking. “Yeah. That’s not part of who you are.”
Now it was Judah’s turn to pause. “What do you mean?”
“People like you watch out for themselves. So either you had an ulterior motive of some sort, you owe Simon for something, or you’re not who I thought you were. I want to know which it is.”
“Well, I guess Simon’s just always been here for me. Or something like that.” Judah looked up and down the hallway, suddenly realizing what this might look like.
“So you owe him for what he’s done for you. An I watch your back and you watch mine thing.”
“Not exactly…” People were definitely staring. Judah saw one girl halfway down the hall already whispering to her friends. “But yeah, close enough.”
“Great.” Her voice had turned cold again. She started to walk away, but turned around before she went far. “You’re no different from them at all, you know. It was your fault too. You laughed right along with them.”
Then, she was gone. “You have a habit of disappearing, too. And that just gets annoying.” Judah mumbled. He didn’t remember until later that he should have asked her about the papers by the lion’s paw. But then he wondered whether he should have or not. If she knew he’d almost looked at her papers, she might be even more upset with him. The last thing he needed was a bitter girl on his tail.
It was months before he spoke to Ashlyn again. Even so, he couldn't help but be hyperaware of her presence. He noticed every time she walked into the room. He noticed her going by in the hallway. He noticed her sitting at lunch, staring out at all the other students with eyes like ice. He noticed her watching him, too. Never did a day go by that he didn't see her and feel her boring holes into the back of his skull as soon as he'd turned around. He noticed, too, her disappearing. It wasn't just after school, although he never could seem to find her. There were times he wouldn't see her for days on end, no matter how alert he tried to be. Something about those days never quite sat right with Judah. Although he couldn't place his finger on exactly what it was, he knew something had to be wrong. She may not have been the most social of people, but she certainly didn't seem the type just to skip school. Every time she came back, she seemed a little more retracted than usual, a little more guarded. Judah tried not to notice, tried to pretend it didn’t matter to him. Despite his most valiant efforts, he could never truly make himself believe his own words. You don’t really care about her, you’re just paranoid about having her confront you again. You don’t want the rumors to start back up and you don’t want to deal with some psycho chick chasing you down every day.
On one day in particular, he had noticed that she was missing again. It was the sixth in a series of school days, longer than most other strings he could remember. As he and his friends stood outside of the school that day, he just barely managed to catch a glimpse of something moving behind the school. The dark figure moved quickly along the line of trees bordering the school property’s back edge. At first, the shape was only a flickering shadow. When Judah saw it the second time, though, he could tell it was definitely human. Reuben had spotted the telltale signs of a fight beginning on the other side of the school and he along with the rest of the group had decided to view the spectacle.
“You coming, Judah?”
He hesitated, but only for a moment. “You guys go ahead. I have to go get something.”
“What is it?” Ben asked.
“Nothing, it won’t take me long.”
“Your loss,” Caleb replied. “Come on, guys. If we keep standing around, it’s going to be over before we see anything.”
As soon as Judah was sure that they weren’t going to turn around, he pushed his backpack against the wall and ran to the forest.
Everything was relatively silent among the trees. Judah strained to hear any sign of motion but between the wind and the twittering of birds, it was hard to discern what was movement and what was not. Judah paused for a moment where he stood. Why do you even care? Why do you have to find her? He searched among the trees, walking quickly back and forth. She has to be here. I saw her. Finally, he spotted a dark hooded figure crouching by the small creek that ran through the forest. Cautiously, Judah approached. As he did so, he could see the figure freeze. Every muscle in its body was tense. Every instinct on high alert.
The figure didn’t respond. It only sat there, frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. After a long minute, it stood and turned. It was her. Ashlyn. She kept her face angled downward, her hair completely covering one side.
“Hey,” Judah said. He paused. Why did you even come over here? “Uh… I just saw you walk over here and I thought I’d ask you why you weren’t at school today. I mean, it’s not like it really matters, I was just curious and you know, you don’t seem like someone who would skip school and you don’t seem sick, so…”
“You’re rambling, you know?”
“Sorry, I just― are you okay?”
“It was just a family issue. I’m fine.” She paused. “Thanks.” Then she turned and began to walk away. Judah followed her.
“Wait,” he reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. Before he’d even completed the gesture, she had grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t touch me.”
Judah stuttered for a moment. “I― I just wanted to― what happened?”
“My dog died. Now leave me alone.”
Her tone left no room for argument. As she walked away, Judah called after her, “Will you be there tomorrow?”
The answer was faint, but he could still hear it. “Since when have you cared?”
Judah must have seemed even more agitated than usual when his brother picked him up. Nathan asked again on their way home if something was wrong.
“No, I already told you, I’m fine.”
“You can’t just be fine. There’s something going on. Why won’t you tell me? We’ve always been pretty close.”
“Nathan, if there was something going on, I would tell you.” He smiled. “Trust me, everything’s okay.”
“You just don’t seem quite like yourself.”
It’s not part of who you are. “Nothing’s wrong. I promise.”
“Whatever you say, little bro.”
Everything that Ashlyn had said to him, every word she had ever spoken, hovered in Judah’s mind that night somewhere between the land of sleep and reality. Why had he gone after her? Why did he care what happened to her? He tried to convince himself it was only the hyperawareness. Only paranoia because of the rumors. I just don’t want to risk it again, that’s all. I don’t want to go through that again.
As Judah drifted off to sleep that night, images of Ashlyn filled his mind. He saw her by the creek, one minute human and the next a dog. The dog lay on its side, panting out blood. Scars were etched into its muzzle and its fur was matted beyond repair. Judah tried to touch it, to smooth out some of the tangled hair, and it snapped. Then it was back to Ashlyn again. She had his wrist and he was against a tree. No, a wall. “Leave. Me. Alone.” And away she ran into a cloud of darkness. Judah tried to follow her, but he couldn’t see. There was a bird calling from somewhere in the inky blackness. Somewhere in the night. The raven’s call, at least he thought it was a raven, rang out consistently. Actually, it started to become rather annoying. Judah searched and searched. He couldn’t find the source. He couldn’t kill it. He wanted to. He wanted to kill the screeching bird, to make it all end, to get rid of the annoyance forever. But no. Judah finally woke up to the sound of his alarm clock screaming at him from across the room. Groggilly, he looked at the time. 7:43. He sat straight up, there was no more time for tiredness. Judah rushed through his morning routine, climbing into Nathan’s truck just before they had to leave at 8:00.
He was late to his first class, Algebra 1. His teacher hardly looked up as he slipped through the doorway and into his seat.
“So when you hand in the homework, be sure you’ve memorized all of your formulas,” she was saying.
Judah pulled his mostly-finished homework out of his backpack. It would have to do. He set it on his desk and looked up at the board, where his teacher, Mrs. McCallihay had begun scribbling about x’s and y’s. She wrote down an equation on the board and began explaining yet again how to solve for x. Judah tuned out the lesson for the most part. He already knew most of it anyway. They’d been on the same lesson for the past two weeks.Instead, he started doodling in the margins of the page on which he was allegedly taking notes. Somehow, he found himself going back to the figure of a dog. Vague details of his dream began coming back to him as he drew. In his mind he saw a very fuzzy image of Ashlyn. She was in the forest, wasn’t she? Or maybe that was the dog? Had there been a dog? A wolf maybe? Judah struggled to remember the dream.
“But you have to remember, what you do to one side you have to do to both."
The paper suddenly disappeared from Judah's desk, snatched up by the red tinted claws of Mrs. McCallihay. She didn't even falter in her lesson, only crumpled up the paper, threw it in the trash can, and returned to the board.
"If you don't, the two sides won't be equal. Judah, I need you to stay after class. So what would you do in this situation, class, to solve for y?" She wrote out another equation on the board and looked out at the faces of her prey. [throughout the scene with her, keep describing her in predetorial terms.]
No one answered.
"Judah, what do you do?"
He paused, staring at the numbers. 3x+5y=18x-25. He hadn't been paying attention and didn't know what to do. He squirmed in his seat, floundering for the words. Simon, from across the classroom, came to his rescue.
"You subtract 3x from both sides and divide what's left on each side by 5."
"Your name isn't Judah," Mrs. McCallihay said, "But yes, Simon, you do."
She wrote out the steps and continued in her low growl to drone on about the importance of showing how they got the answer that they did. Judah tried to pay attention for the rest of the class, hoping that if he tried hard enough, she would let him leave just like everyone else. It didn't work. Judah tried to slip out of the class when the bell rang, Judah tried to slip out of the class when the bell rang, but before he could even get through the doorway, he heard the Beast [that's her nickname. Have the students use it.] call from behind him.
"Judah, I hope you didn't forget to stay after class like I told you to."
He grimaced and turned around. Mrs. McCallihay sat at her desk, staring at the students homework [which you need to have them turn in]. She didn't even look up. "No, ma'am."
She didn't say anything. Slowly, Judah walked the mile to the desk of judgment. He stood there in front of it for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the Beast [be sure to have consistency with the name] peered up at him over the yellow rims of her thick glasses. "Do you know why you're here?"
/Is this philosophy class?/ "Because I was drawing?"
"Because you refuse to pay attention in my class."
Judah waited through a long, awkward pause. Wasn't she going to say anything else? She just kept [watching] him. Finally, he spoke. "I'm sorry."
"What would make you pay attention?"
/Not being in math class./ "I don't know. I was taking notes, too, I wasn't just drawing."
"You weren't listening. Don't bother lying to me and say you were."
/Well I kind of was./
"Do I need to sit you at the front of the class?" [mention that he sat near the middle of the room. Not only was she watching him, she intentionally walked OVER there and took the paper. and she ripped it in half before crumpling it, I think.]
"Well then the only option left is to call your parents."
"You don't have to do that," he began.
"If I catch you drawing again, you /and/ your parents are going to have a long talk with the principal. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes ma'am." Judah shifted the weight of his backpack as best he could.
"Then go to your next class. Unless you want to be late to that too."
"Thank you," he began to walk away as quickly as he could.
He considered pretending he hadn't heard her, but decided against it. No use in making things worse than they already were. "Yes ma'am?"
"You have detention at lunch today."
Judah sighed and walked out the door. /What a perfect morning./
[stuff here about the rest of that day]
The next week, Reuben practically ran up to him before the start of school. "Judah! You know what movie comes out this weekend?"
"[Some sort of war related title]!"
"Are you serious? Where have you been living for the past year?"
"Just tell me, Reuben."
"It's the one about World War Two and the Nazis and where the guy goes across enemy lines and kills everyone."
"Oh, you mean the one where he goes into the enemy bunker with that flamethrower?"
"Yeah! You have to come see it. Me, Caleb, and Simon are going to the midnight showing.”
“What about Ben?”
“He said he might but he might have to do something at [somewhere] the next day.”
"I really want to see it, but I don't know if my dad will let me go..."
"So? Just sneak out? I do it all the time."
"Yeah, well you're an idiot. My dad would kill me."
"Then don't let him find out. You can go out your window, right? You've got the tree right by your room. You can just climb onto it and go down."
"Those branches are way too thin, Reuben. There's no way it would work. Besides, how am I supposed to get back in?"
Reuben smiled. "Jump."
Judah shook his head. "Unlike you, I value my life, Reuben. I'll ask my dad if I can go."
"If he says no, you know what to do."
Friday came more slowly than a turtle wading through molasses. Judah had put off asking his dad about the movie as long as he could, waiting for a day his dad would be in a good mood. That day never came. After school that day, he finally asked.
"Is it okay if I go see a movie tonight with my friends?"
"What movie, when, where, and which friends?"
Judah hesitated. "It's the midnight showing of [name]. I'm going with Simon, Reuben, and Caleb. Ben might be there. It's at the regular theater."
"What? Why not?"
"One, it's a midnight showing and I don't want you going out that late. Two, that movie is rated R. Three, there's not going to be an adult there to watch you boys and I don't want you there on your own."
"I won't be on my own. All my friends are going. We'd be fine."
"I said no."
Judah sighed in frustration. "But--"
"No. Go do your homework."
/I don't even have homework this weekend./ Judah climbed up the stairs and went into his room. He shut the door behind him, pulling his guitar and tuner out of the closet. As he began tuning the strings, he heard Reuben's voice in his mind. /Just sneak out./ He shook his head. It was stupid. He'd never done anything like that before. There wasn't a reason to start now. /Except that I really want to see this movie. There's not a good reason I shouldn't go. It's safe enough and I don't have any homework to do. I don't have anything to do. Besides, it's only one time./ He stared at the window and idly began to play. The tree branches outside stretched out to him, calling him into their embrace. /It's stupid. I'm not going to do it./ Judah did his best to stop thinking about it. Still, as the hours passed by, he couldn't help but think about the wooden hands waiting outside his window. He opened it, just to let in the cool evening air. As soon as it hit his face, he knew it was too much. The night was calling.
The red car stopped at the end of the street. Judah climbed into the back seat behind Simon.[Was Reuben held back a grade? That might mean he can drive.] Caleb was already restless with anticipation beside him.
Rueben turned around from the driver's seat, grinning. "Nice to see you could join us."
Judah smiled back, trying to ignore the adrenaline rush colliding head on with the nauseousness in his stomach. As they roared away, Judah could almost hear his dad's voice in his head. /I told you no./ He took a deep breath and tightened his resolve. /I said I want to go./
The sickness he felt faded as they got further and further from the house. He laughed along with the others. When they got to the theater, Reuben parked the car and went up to the ticket counter.
"Four tickets for [chick flic title]."
The man behind the desk eyed them curiously. "That'll be [price]."
"Hey, don't ask me," Reuben gestured at Caleb and Simon behind him. "They're the ones that chose it."
The man just smiled, shook his head, and handed Caleb the tickets. "Enjoy the show."