here she is! man, gave me so much trouble and anxiety, but finally. I pulled through. Enjoy! ❤
Chapter 1: The Letter
No. Can it really be true? I slip the letter inside a pocket of my favorite leather jacket, shivering with excitement. Nothing cool ever happens in my life. How…? I zip my jacket and close my locker. Scooping up my backpack, I wander down the now vacant halls of my school as my mind drifts back to the earlier events of today.
Six o’clock, Monday morning. I slap at my radio alarm, cutting off the final words of Ed Sheeran’s new hit song. Just another day being me. I sigh inwardly at the dullness of my everyday life. After a quick shower, I scarf down tasty breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast. Before the clock hits six forty-five, I start my car and peel down the driveway, heading to the train station. My daily commute is always the same. Nothing exciting, familiar faces. The only thing that seems to vary is the season, currently mid-winter.
Chicago’s skyline flashes past my window and grows larger as the train speeds along the tracks. Northbrook High School isn’t the best of schools, but it is still better than most of the schools downtown. Despite not being the worst of the schools, endless tall tales float around, and the rumors and gossip are rampant. At least the commute isn’t overly taxing.
By the time I reach Northbrook High, the clock has struck quarter after seven, giving me fifteen minutes before class starts. As I make my way through the overflowing halls, someone bumps into me from behind. Turning around, I’m greeted by a familiar face.
”Xari!” Lucas exclaims. “Didn’t seeya there,” he continues, following up with a goofy grin. With his dirty-blond, shaggy mop of hair and glinting blue eyes, Lucas isn’t a bad looking kid. He’s in his junior year, same as me, and a close friend.
“Hey, Lucas,” I reply, laughing.
“You seen André yet? Haven’t been able to catch up with him. “That kid…”
I shake my head in response, and we walk together to our adjacent lockers. As I dial the combination, I feel my phone buzz in my back pocket. I reach for it as I pull my locker door open. It’s a text from André that reads:
I’m running late. Don’t wait up for me.
“He just texted…” I glance up at Lucas. “He’s running late, I guess.”
“Strange,” Lucas muses sarcastically. “Punctual André, tardy? That’s just not like him.” I giggle at Lucas’ response. We both know that André’s arrival time is always unpredictable. The bell rings, and we part ways until lunch.
Twelve o’clock, I hit up the cafeteria. After snatching some food, I scan the crowded area for Lucas and André.
“I’m starved to death,” someone announces rather loudly, Lucas without a doubt. After spotting him and André, I slip into a seat across their table.
“Hey Xar,” André says, nodding his head my way.
“Hey,” I answer. “What was the hold up this morning?”
“He slept in,” Lucas supplies, winking. André never sleeps in. I turn back to André and take in his neatly gelled spikes and cool gray eyes, his face half contorted in a frown and half-smiling.
“Thanks, Lucas,” he says sarcastically, smiling at me. “I had to stop for gas, and then I realized I left my finished homework on my desk and had to go back home for it. Just one of those days.”
“I see,” I respond, bobbing my head.
“Lucas is just jealous because his mom drops him off twenty minutes early every day,” André teases, much to Lucas’ irritation. We discuss classes and catch up from the weekend before we head off to our afternoon subjects.
André and I have pre-calc together at two-thirty, our last class of the day. As I wait in the classroom, he comes and sits at the desk beside me and I spot a folded slip of paper tucked in the pocket of his backpack. I glance at him quizzically and swipe it, quickly reading the contents.
You and me
Under the stars
Healing the scars
Take my hand
That’s how we’ll stand
Just us two
I love you
After a thoughtful moment, I realize the middle line about scars is referencing the recent events at Northbrook. About two weeks ago, two students died from gas poisoning in the west wing’s boys’ bathroom. However, the gas wasn’t just a normal, benign gas; there was no possible way it could’ve filtered into the bathroom on its own. The entire school was confused, but most of the students, including me, were just trying to forget about our friends’ fate. But that wasn’t the only incident. Three weeks ago, there had been a bout of food poisoning, and nearly every student in the entire school was dismissed from school that day, along with the teachers. We were trying to forget that too.
“Ooooooohh who’s this for?” I prod, waggling my eyebrows at André, yet feeling a tiny pang in my chest.
“Saving it for someone special,” André shrugs, pulling his pre-calc notebook from his bag. While pulling out my own items, I slide it back in its pocket, a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.
After class, I stroll back to my locker with André, where we meet up with Lucas.
“Well, so much for playing ultimate tonight,” Lucas relates. “I just got dumped on by my lovely chem teacher.” I give him a sympathetic glance, about to respond with a complaint or two of my own, but am interrupted by screams that erupt from what sounds like the front hall around several corners from us. We exchange wide-eyed looks and speed off in the direction of the screams.
As we arrive in the lobby, disarray looms and students are shouting and wildly running in every direction. My jaw drops to my stomach: an entire staircase has collapsed. Not a minute later, an ambulance shows up and the medics rush in. They do not delay, and it is mere moments before they wheel out three students on stretchers. Oh no. My heart seems to skip several beats as it seems that our school has been targeted, and someone or something is after our students. That’s ridiculous. I shake my head to myself. Just a couple chance accidents. There is no way that we’re ‘being attacked.’ Once the commotion dies down, we walk silently back to our lockers and I pack up my bag the rest of the way. I don’t feel like talking about the incident we just witnessed, and I figure they feel the same way when they leave without another word. I sling my backpack onto my shoulder, then notice an unfamiliar object tucked behind a rack in my locker. What next… I reach out and tug the slip of paper, no, an envelope, from its spot. Only my name appears on the front of it.
Miss Xari Preth
I frown, tearing it open and hurriedly skim the content.
The Shadows Academy of Espionage has chosen you to be recruited into its program. Certain events at your school have lead us to believe that someone, or something, is maliciously after you and your fellow students. You are making a serious commitment by accepting this, something not to be taken lightly. This letter will self-destruct by 10:00 tonight if you have not signed your signature, which indicates total commitment.
The Director of the Shadows Academy of Espionage
Signature: ______________________________________________________ Date: __/__/__
Clutching the letter firmly in my hand, I close my locker and begin to walk down the empty hall. What. On earth. Is this for real?!
Chapter 2: The Shadows Academy of Espionage
As soon as I get home, I rush to my room and fly onto my bed, grabbing for my laptop and opening a web browser. Mom and Dad are away in Hawaii for the winter months, and my older sister Amy is still enrolled at Chicago State University so I have the house to myself. Should I tell them? But I remember that the letter noted this was a top secret organization and must remain unknown, even to my family. I’ll have to come up with an alibi when they came home. Curious to find out what this academy is all about, I browse swiftly, scanning various pages. After a good half hour of fruitless searching, I sit, staring hopelessly at the wall. This place is incredibly hush-hush. I weigh my options. Help save the school? Bring some action into my life? What is there to not like about this? Without further hesitation, I scrawl my signature at the bottom of the form that was enclosed in the letter: Xari Preth
Immediately, my name flickers on the form, which I had thought was paper and had every appearance of paper, though clearly isn’t. A robotic voice comes from the form:
“Xari Preth registered. Initiation begins in three hours.”
Three hours? Wha-I have no idea—almost as if on cue, the words on the form melt away and new words materialize into place with further instructions. Oh boy. This is gonna be interesting.
I finish my homework, chow down a quesadilla, and pack a duffle. According to the letter, a craft is going to pick me up at my house at seven o’clock on the dot. At 6:55, I rush into my dimly lit back yard and await the arrival of my transport. The second the clock strikes seven, a transparent rectangular box materializes before my very eyes, several paces away. The front panel slides open, and it looks like a glass elevator on the inside. I hesitantly enter, and the outside once again vanishes. As soon as I am safely on board, the door slides shut and the box shoots into the sky, soaring over trees and lakes, buildings and houses. I gape, unable to believe what I am witnessing.
Within minutes, miles away from civilization, I pass over a large, dark facility. There are several lights around the perimeter, but no windows or doors as far as I can tell. The “elevator” touches down several feet away from a large silver slab of metal, which must be the academy door. Well, this is happening. I step up to the large, steel door, heart racing. My palms break out in a sweat, and my breath catches. Can this be the beginning of an entirely new chapter of my life? I press what looks like a glowing doorbell to my right, and immediately a laser net scans my face.
“State your name and business,” an electronic voice sounds.
“Uh, Xari Preth, Shadow Initiation,” I recite, as the letter had instructed me to do so.
“Xari Preth, welcome.” The door slides open in one swift motion, and I swallow, proceeding to enter.
I take in my surroundings, noting the smallness of the entryway compared to how large the academy looked on the outside. The walls are a plain beige, with only celling lights. No windows, sconces, pictures, or any other furnishings besides a leather couch, several leather chairs, and two coffee tables in the room. The smell of leather and fresh paint tells me that this room has just been re-done. At the far end there is a desk, and a young woman, though older than me, is stationed at it. She motions for me to approach as she rises to greet me.
“Hello, I’m Anya Morell,” she says, extending her hand. Her poker straight blond hair is swept up into a long, tight ponytail, and her green eyes size me up.
“Xari Preth,” I respond, giving her hand a firm shake and realizing she must already know who I am.
“So you have committed to the program. I assume you understand that this is a serious organization, and you cannot just abandon ship any time you so wish,” she continues, eyeing me questioningly.
“Yes, I do.”
“Wonderful. I assume you read why we recruited you, as well as all your instructions?”
“Anya, please,” she says in a business-like manner. “I’ll notify Kai that you’re ready for the grand tour and further instructions,” she says, smiling and turning to sit back down.
“Okay,” I answer. I think I’m ready. Yeah. My brain swirls, trying to take in what is happening. Wow. This doesn’t just happen to people. I have the sudden urge to pinch my arm, a classic reality check, and accidentally pinch much harder than I mean to – I stifle a yelp. A red welt appears on my arm. It’s real.
“Hey, I’m Kai,” says a voice. I glance up, and a tall Asian boy with darker skin and a shock of back spikes is walking toward me.
“I’m…Xari,” I answer. He has a training suit on, with slim sweat pants and an intricate vest, showing off his muscular arms. His face is focused, but friendly, and also quite handsome.
“Great! I’ll show you around,” he says, sweeping his arm out to direct me. I fall into step beside him, and we enter a long, windowless corridor. I hear Kai chuckle.
“What?” I ask, frowning. I don’t find anything funny. In fact, the entire situation is incredibly serious.
“You look as concerned as I did the first time I came here,” he laughs, and I look up to see him grinning at me. “We don’t bite.” I smile back hesitantly. We approach the door at the end of the windowless tunnel. I realize there is no door knob, handle, or anything. It is a blank slate, just like the front entrance. Kai centers himself in front of the door, and recites “Jabberwocky Metaphorica.” The door instantly slides open. Wow, hi-tech place. I curiously peer through, to see a balcony overlooking an enormous room. We walk to the edge, and I peer over. Nothing could have prepared me for what I am about to behold.
It’s like a gym, a dojo, and a school, and other rooms all mixed and put into one. In one corner, there are students sparring, all about my age. Nearby, there are punching bags and other karate and fighting equipment. Another corner of the room has computers and electronic devices and gadgets. Still another part of the room holds weights and treadmills, bars and other weight machines. Many doors line the walls. This place is incredible.
“Pretty sweet, isn’t it?” Kai’s voice jars me out of my stupor.
“Yeah…wow.” I feel breathless, excited, amazed. Kai directs me through different cat-walk-like platforms and explains all of the different training components, giving me a full low down and leaving my head buzzing from all of the information. Some students live here full time; some are still in school like me. Others work back-to-back missions and still others train the initiates. Finally, I find myself back in the entry hall.
“You ready to start, then?” Kai asks. My heart skips a beat. This is it, the beginning of countless adventures, helping my school, doing something useful. I look up and stare into his black eyes, which stare at me intently.
Chapter 3: Training
“Harder!” Kai yells across the dojo. Each agent-in-training, called a shadow, is stationed at his or her own punching bag hanging from a horizontal bar about ten feet above the ground. Sweat drips down my forehead, and every muscle in my body aches from the strain. My knuckles are red and blistered, on the brink of splitting open.
“Yah!” I shout, simultaneously throwing punches. For what seems like hours, we train in intervals. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? Of course training wouldn’t be easy. Well, there’s no quitting. I clench my teeth.
“C’mon, Xari!” Kai’s stern training voice breaks my thoughts, and I punch faster, focusing in on my target. He had seemed like a laid back dude, but definitely put on a tough, game face for training. “Alright! Down for planking!” I almost let out the world’s biggest groan, but quickly realize that everyone else simply moves into position. I guess they won’t tolerate that stuff. Serious business. My abs scream, and I can no longer think of anything but my task at hand.
After two one minute full planks, we move back to our punching bags. It will be worth it, in the end. I hope.
For school the next week, I wear long sleeves to shield my horrendous blistered knuckles. Everything aches. I can barely move, and groans escape me constantly. Lucas is away on a mission trip, so I only see André. Friday, André and I stand by our lockers together. The night before, at the Academy, we had been doing sprints and rope climbing, plus another round of punching intervals. Without thinking, I let out a long, pained moan.
“Wow, you alright?” André inquires, his grey eyes searching me. Oops. But it’s so sweet of him to be concerned.
“Yeah. I’m fine, I—“ as I reach up to my locker, my sleeve drops, exposing my hand.
“Dude, you are not fine,” he says, eyeing my reddened knuckles. “What gives, Xar? C’mon, talk to me.” How does he not get that I don’t want to talk about it?
“Nothing, okay?” I snap, catching his gaze with my own acid stare. I am suddenly frustrated, angry. “I’m fine. Everything is fine.” André glances downward. I can tell I’ve been harsher than I should have. “Look, I’m sorry,” I amend, resting my hand on his arm. He looks up at me.
“Yeah, okay,” André says, nodding. “I’m here if you need anything, alright?” I smile and nod back. So many emotions flood my head in that second, almost as if my mind has been thrown into a tornado.
I rush out of school, and head to the train stop. Why am I so confused, all of the sudden? Does André actually, maybe, perhaps…like me? I can’t even process it, for some reason. All of the recent events of the week come back…the way André looked at me during lunch on Tuesday. The way Kai steadied my arms during the club fighting Wednesday. The caring, gentleness in André’s voice today. The encouragement and playful shoves from Kai yesterday. Oh boy. Oh no. I can feel something stir inside me. The familiar butterflies that come when I have a crush on someone. Only this time, I don’t know whom I like. I barely know Kai, but he’s so daring and fun… André has always been there for me. I feel torn, as I ride the train home. The skyline flashes through the windows once more, and I sigh. I doubt either of them see me that way. There. Nothing to worry about. But I do worry.
That night, at the academy, we do stealth training, suicides, and barbell lifting. Kai and I remain in the training room after the other shadows beeline to the showers. I dab my face with a gym towel, taking deep breaths to slow my heart rate, and Kai slumps down next to me with one hanging over his shoulder.
“Hey, good work,” he says, holding out his palm. I oblige, slapping his hand in response.
“Thanks,” I answer. “It’s pretty rough out there.” Kai grins and nudges me, all traces of the harsh trainer once again gone.
“Still, you work hard. Hey, I was wondering, why did the academy recruit you?” He looks at me curiously. “I never got around to reading your information file, which I usually do with each shadow.”
“Oh. Well, there’s been weird stuff going on at my school lately, and I guess since I’m an insider if I receive some training I might be able to do some surveillance and stuff around the school, and figure out what the heck is going on.”
“I see,” Kai nods. “Which school?”
“Northbrook High.” I respond.
“Aha,” Kai says, standing. “I see. Well, best of luck with that. I better go get ready, the level two shadows are going to be here in a minute,” Kai sighs. I also rise, and offers a fist bump. “I’ll seeya tomorrow, then.” I punch his fist.
“Alright,” I answer, turning and heading toward the girls locker room, heart once again fluttering.
The weekend passes more quickly normal, and I grab some Chinese dinner downtown with André and Lucas on Sunday. We received a long anatomy project from our professors, and had decided to mull over it together over eggrolls.
When I arrive at home that night and pull up to my garage door, there is a note taped to it. I frown, put my car in park so I can grab it. I walk closer, but my breath catches when I read the five words scrawled on the parchment.
Chapter 4; Threats
LEAVE THE ACADEMY OR ELSE
I do a double take. What? I read the letter again, confused. I…can’t leave. Is this some sort of joke? I haven’t the slightest clue of who sent the letter, or how they found out about the Academy in the first place. Maybe someone inside the Academy? I pinch the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache. I can’t make anything of the situation.
Monday morning arrives all too soon. I barely have my thoughts together about the note, but it seems silly. Who would be threatening me, and why would they want me to leave the academy? I at least have to tell Kai or Anya. I make my way through the sea of people, once again headed toward my locker. Lucas and André are already gone by the time I get to it, and I trudge off to my first class.
My chemistry class ends several minutes early, and I head to the cafeteria. After grabbing some PB&J and a milk carton, I sit down at a window table. My mind zones out, thinking about André, Kai, the academy, and the note that was on my garage door.
“Yo!” Lucas startles me out of my thoughts, and his and Andrés’ faces come into focus infront of me.
“Oh, hey guys,” I say, peeling at the crust of my sandwich.
“What might be on the mind of Xari Preth today?” Lucas inquires as he and André dig into their food.
“Hmm, wouldn’t happen to be a guy, would it?” Lucas interrupts, flashing a devilish grin.
“What makes you say that?” I respond slowly, not daring to look at André.
“You’ve been preoccupied with something, which I might add couldn’t be more obvious seeing as even I noticed,” Lucas continues, “and André and I have made it our mission to figure out what.” I frown, and André shoots Lucas a confused look.
“We have?” André asks. “I know of no such ‘mission.’” My mind catches at the word mission, and my thoughts return to the Academy and the note. Even though I long for their help, reassurance, and counsel.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lie. I feel a rock form in the pit of my stomach.
“Yeah, yeah, sureee,” Lucas says, followed by a wink. “We get it. You just won’t tell us, then.”
“What else is new?” I hear André mumble under his breath. Wow, okay.
“Hey, we’ve all got stuff we need to figure out. I really don’t want to talk about it,” I manage to say.
“I hear you,” Lucas acknowledges.
“Well, your ‘stuff’ clearly isn’t ‘nothing,’” André says, almost in a biting tone. “No need to lie.” My brows crease. Ouch.
“Thanks for understanding,” I say abruptly, and promptly scoop up my tray and walk away from the table. That went well.
At the Academy that night, my fellow shadows and I practice knife defense, followed by receiving our tracker devices. This signifies our half-way point through the Shadow Level One. Kai teaches us how to use them and I can’t help but notice that he stands near me the entire time. The small gadgets come in the form of a bracelet, each one unique to the person. Mine is a leather band with decorative studs and knots. After the class ends, I finally catch Kai alone.
“Kai, wiat!” I call after him, as he heads off to the front hall.
“Yeah?” he responds, turning around to face me. I take several steps to close the gap between us, pulling the letter out of my pocket where I had stashed it before class.
“I don’t know how to explain this, but I found a letter at my house. Here,” I hand him the letter, watching his expression as he examines it. His brow furrows, and he flips the note over several times.
“We better check this for fingerprints,” he says shortly. “Come with me.” We head to the office behind the front desk, and Kai pulls out a fingerprinting kit. After the necessary procedures, the results are negative. No fingerprints, aside from my own and the new ones from Kai. “This is really strange,” he says.
“Well, I’m not sure whether I should take it seriously or not,” I respond. “I can’t just leave the Academy, right?”
“Yeah, I see where you’re coming from.” He passes me the note, resting a firm hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, but I don’t think you need to worry about it for now.” He squeezes my shoulder, and I smile at his reassurance.
“Okay,” I answer. Well, I guess he knows better than I do about this sort of stuff. I decide to trust Kai and not worry about the note for now. After showering, I head home and crash, falling into a gloriously relaxing slumber. Little do I know that the very next day, my life will be turned upside down and backwards.
Chapter 5: The Accident
I drag myself out of bed promptly at six the next morning, and prepare for the school day. I go over the events of yesterday in my head and admire my new bracelet. Kai’s reassurance yesterday makes me feel like he really does care about me, and I feel giddy as I ride the train to school. Things are finally falling into place.
Lucas and André are nowhere to be seen when I reach my locker at school. The halls are flooded, as usual. I collect my notebook and binder from their shelf and turn around, closing my locker. As I do this, my phone buzzes from my pocket and I slide it into my hand. It’s a text from Lucas. It only reads one sentence: Come to the parking lot. Now. I practically drop my books as I rush out the doors to the parking lot, and look wildly around. Where is he? What’s going on?
I glance through the parking lot and finally spot Lucas as he pulls up to the sidewalk in his small red Mazda.
“Lucas! What’s going on?” I call to him. Lucas shakes his head, a worried look on his usually grinning face.
Time seems to slow down and my heart drops to my shoes. No.
“Get in the car,” he orders, and I oblige. Lucas speeds away from the school, and I hold on to the sides of the car to keep from being choked by my seat belt.
“What happened?” I inquire tensely. “Where’s André?”
“His breaks went out on the highway, and something exploded. He…” Lucas abruptly stops talking, and I realize he is on the verge of breaking down. “He’s at the hospital.” A lump forms in my throat, and my eyes widen. Not André. Tears stream, and neither of us speak as we sit in the car. We arrive at the hospital, and Lucas drops me off at the entrance so he can park his car.
After speaking with the workers at the front desk, I finally receive clearance to visit André. Lucas still hasn’t made an appearance in the lobby, but I cannot delay for another minute. As I wait inside the elevator, I nervously anticipate the next moment of my life. “I can’t believe it,” I whisper. The second I reach the seventh floor I sprint to where André is situated, room 1111.
I dart through the doorway and stop abruptly, quite unprepared for the sight I am about to behold. André is sitting propped up in a hospital bed, various bumps and scrapes visible on his arms, face, and neck.
“Wha…what happened…?” I say breathlessly, and André turns his head in my direction. I can barely speak, because suddenly I know; André’s once beautiful gray eyes are clouded, empty. He is blind.
Chapter 6: Listless
My hand flutters to my mouth, and new tears leak down to my chin, dripping onto the floor.
“André,” I whisper, barely audible.
“Xar? Is that you?” his voice shakes. I run over to his bed and throw my arms around him, sobbing into his shoulder. He doesn’t speak, running his hand through my hair and holding me tightly. My thoughts fly through a spinning vortex. Not André.
“Hey, hey, it’s gonna be okay,” André begins to say, but is promptly cut off by my razor sharp voice.
“NO. This is not okay,” I sniffle. “How can you even-“ I stop speaking and begin bawling all over again. André had been targeted by our school’s elusive enemy, I was sure of it. His life would never be the same again. Ever.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Scalero?” A nurse bustles in, and checks various charts before striding to stand by André’s bedside.
“I’m alright,” André answers in his ever gentle tone as I slide off the bed. How can he be so calm? He literally can’t see anymore, and he’s ’alright’?! I gape at his serenity, still trying to blink away the tears. Lucas rushes in, and I slip outside, making a dash for the nearest restroom. I blow my nose several times and try to compose myself. It will be okay. It’s alright. We’re going to make it through this. I can hardly look myself in the eye. Finally, I manage to gather my bearings enough to make my way back to André’s room. Lucas is sitting on a chair beside the bed, and as I walk closer Lucas puts an arm around me and gives me a small squeeze. I look into his eyes, and he gazes back, obviously holding back what he’s feeling.
“Great,” the nurse says softly. “I’m going to have to ask your friends leave the room while we run some final diagnostics,” she continues, shooting us a sympathetic glance.
“Okay,” André answers. I walk back to his side and give him a final embrace, my hands on his shoulders. I press my forehead to his, move to the side to kiss his cheek, and exit the room without a word, Lucas trailing behind me. He drive me home, even though my car is still at school, because neither of us feel like dealing with the administration or other students. As he peels into my driveway, I glance at my garage door. What is…oh no. There is a piece of paper taped to it, and I feel my palms break out in a cold sweat.
“What’s that…?” I hear Lucas ask, but I am already half way out of the car. I rush to the note and rip it away, quickly reading the new set of words scrawled for me to see.
WE WARNED YOU
Lucas walks up behind me and peers over my shoulder. I quickly crumple up the paper, but he has already seen it. “Um, Xari? What’s going on?”
“Nothing! I just need to…uh, yeah don’t worry about it.” I bite my lip, feeling a sudden urge to be left alone. “Please, just go. Don’t worry about it.” Lucas gives me a sidelong glance, and slowly nods his head.
“Alright,” he says. “But call me if you need anything, alright? I’ll contact the school and let them know what’s up.”
“Thanks,” I smile for the first time in hours, even though it is a weak smile. The rest of the day is a blur, full of running mascara and endless Kleenexes.
When I reach the academy that night, Kai is waiting for me in the doorway.
“You’re late, Xari!” he says, calling out before I can even greet him. “You missed the entire session!” I can tell he is exasperated with me.
“Yeah, well I have my reasons,” I spit out. “I just found this on my garage, and I’m not laughing. This isn’t funny, and I will find whoever is behind this.” I slap the note into Kai’s hand, and he gives it a once over.
“What happened?” Kai demands, taking my arm and pulling me inside. I explain the entire incident from this morning, and he seems to be surprised.
“Whoa. I didn’t realize that the first note was…”
“Yeah. Well it’s too late now,” I snap. I know it’s just as much my fault as his for not seriously considering the threat, but I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that I am mostly responsible. “Look…I’m done.”
“…done?” he inquires, clearly baffled.
“I can’t do this anymore,, not after what just happened,” I respond.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t just…up and leave!” Kai hands back the letter. “It’s not that simple.” Doesn’t he get it? André is hurt, and I can’t just go fix that like I can fix my form or sparring techniques. I glare ferociously into his dark eyes, and he softens slightly. “Look, I can see you’re upset. I understand that,” he sighs. “I don’t know how Anya will feel about this, but I can try and talk to her,” Kai adds, running a hand through his hair. I look at him sharply. What?
“Wait, you’re agreeing that I should leave?”
“Not agreeing, but hey, if this is what you need to do,” he answers. “It’s not worth the risk of anyone else getting hurt.” Relief washes over me, and let out a long sigh. He reaches over and gives me a hug, holding me tightly. “Hey, come back when you figure things out,” Kai tells me.
“I will,” I say, resolved to find out who or what is behind the injuries and murders at my school once and for all.
The next day, after school, Lucas stops by my house so we can do a bit of studying. When he comes into my room, I stand up and we hug for a few minutes, releasing the stress of the past few days.
“Hey. You alright?” Lucas inquires. It is nice for him to be so concerned about me when we’re going through the same thing.
“Eh, been better,” he responds, that old glint coming back into his eye. “I visited André this morning, and he was talking about how strange you were acting when I was away. He sounded really concerned,” Lucas bites his lip and looks at me, questioningly.
“Oh. Uh, long story short, I signed up for this program that ended up ruining my life!” My voice drips with faux enthusiasm. A bitter taste fills my mouth, and my brow contorts into a frown. “I got a letter that said ‘leave the academy or else’…well, as you see, André was part of the ‘or else.’”
“Why didn’t you just quit, then?” Lucas prods. “Why continue with something if you were putting others at stake?” Of course, I hadn’t mentioned Kai, and exactly what the ‘program’ was. It just wasn’t as simple as it seemed. I can’t tell him everything. That’d be stupid. The academy would probably come and kill me or brainwash me or something.
“It’s…complicated,” I answer, keeping the haze around my situation.
“You let André get hurt because of some ‘program’?” Lucas says, raising his voice slightly. It was as if he thought I didn’t care, and this misunderstanding made my blood boil. I cared more than anyone, I felt guilty, ashamed, regretful. How was I supposed to know the future?
“Look, I didn’t mean for anything to happen to anyone. It’s all a big mistake. I got out of the program, everything is okay now,” I spit out. I can’t process the situation in the slightest, because every time I think of it I break down into a heap of emotions, which leads to irrational actions. I had been emotional about the academy, and I irrationally ignored the note. Now here was my other best friend, making me feel even worse than I ever thought I could. “I didn’t know the threat was to be taken seriously, and I didn’t give it enough consideration.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” Lucas tries to amend, but I turn and leave the room. I rush to the bathroom, and wait several moments to compose myself. I can’t deal with this much longer.
Finally, I walk back into my room, ready to begin studying. However, Lucas is standing by my dresser with several letters in his hands, and I realize I had left open the letter from the Academy and the threat. Oh no! How could I be so careless?
Chapter 7: From Dark To Light
“Xar…” Lucas starts. “There anything you wanna tell me?” His eyes never leave the letters in his hands.
“I-I don’t…why are you looking through my stuff?” I suddenly feel betrayed, as if Lucas had seen the corners of my heart and everything concealed in its chambers.
“I’m just trying to put two and two together here. I looked over and saw them, laying open. With how secretive this sounds, you might’ve tried to be a little more careful,” he looks up to meet my gaze. I stare back, and feel a twinge in my gut. I know. Of course, it is my fault. Can’t do a single thing right, can I? “We’re going to see André. He deserves to know.” My heart plummets, but Lucas is already striding down the hallway to the stairs. Make my day.
As we sit in the car, rain drops pummel us from all sides. Lucas drives, staring straight ahead. He doesn’t speak, and I don’t try to stir a conversation. I don’t want to talk about the academy, the letters, or anything else. And now André…I shake my head and try to think of something else, but André’s empty eyes keep coming back to me. Shivers go up and down my spine, and I pull my jacket tighter around myself.
We arrive at the hospital all too soon. Lucas walks in to talk to André, leaving me out side. I pace up and down the hall for several minutes before Lucas comes back out, and looks at me. It is a kind look, but a solemn one. He nods, and I take a deep breath. Just what I never wanted. I step through the doorway and hear the door click behind me. I approach André’s bed, right where he was before, and stop several feet away, inhaling deeply.
“Yeah,” I bite my lip. “What do you make of it all?” André takes a deep breath of his own and runs a hand through his hair.
“I don’t even know what to think,” he sighs, propping his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands. “I thought the three of us were really tight. I thought we talked to each other when there was trouble. Then suddenly you start being weird and secretive…and mean. I would ask you if you were okay and you’d snap back that you were, even though you weren’t.” André shakes his head slowly. I can feel the tears trying to get loose, and desperately hold them back. Just the image of André in my mind is enough to break me down, but being in the same room?
“Okay, so maybe I didn’t do the right thing,” I sink into the nearest chair, wringing my hands. “I didn’t know what to take seriously and what to ignore, what was real and what wasn’t. And there was this guy…” I look to see if André reacts.
“A guy?” he cocks an eyebrow.
“I dunno know—I have no idea what I was thinking,” A rogue tear finally breaks through, rolling down my cheek. I know André can’t see that I’m crying, so I do not wipe away it away. André simply nods.
“Yeah, okay.” His tone of voice says it all. I can only imagine what he is thinking. He probably thinks I’m dating some guy from the academy, didn’t leave for that reason, and then he got targeted because I acted irrationally…
“No. No, it wasn’t like that!” I reach over and grab André’s hand, holding it tightly. I lean forward and rest my head against the side of his bed.
“Then what was it like?” He isn’t having it. I have never seen the jealous side of André so strongly. I open my mouth to speak, try and say everything at once, a million words all jumbled together, but a fresh round of tears take my breath away. André grips my hand and pulls me close. For the second day in a row, I find myself crying into his shoulder. He holds me, and I feel safe, secure. After several minutes, André pulls away. I stare into his eyes, and take the tissue he offers me. “It’s okay,” André says, slowly. “I just wanted to let you know tha—“ The door suddenly flies open, and I jerk off the bed to face the person who has just entered. It’s Kai.
Chapter 8: Revealed
“Wha-what are you doing here, Kai?” My mind reels.
“Allow me to explain,” Kai answers, holding up his hands defensively. I don’t answer, but narrow my eyes. Something feels very wrong. Suddenly, I feel myself falling forward, unable to catch myself. I sense that I am on the ground a moment later, but am unable to move. Blackness consumes me, and I become no longer aware of my surroundings.
Ow. My wrists. Wha…I blink several times, trying to clear the blurriness out of my eyes. A wave of confusion crashes on me. Where in the world am I? I attempt to move, but cannot budge from where I am situated. The chair must be bolted to the floor or something. Are these zip ties on my arms and legs? I hear the footsteps of someone approaching. Still unable to see clearly, I comb the room with my blurred eyes. I can only tell it is dimly lit, and fairly large in size. The temperature is moderate, not warm, but not cold, and the air is rather dank.
“Ah, Xari! You’re awake,” the voice belongs to Kai, but I cannot see him.
“Kai! Help! What’s going on? Where are Lucas and André?” I demand, but Kai merely laughs in response.
“Oh Xari,” the shuffling of his feet halts, and I realize he is standing directly in front of me. “You really have no idea, do you?” I shiver at the tone of his voice. “Allow me to enlighten you. When you first entered the academy, I thought you were one of the academy’s finest picks,” he starts, as he circles around the chair I am bound to. My eyes begin to focus slightly, and I blink furiously, desperately trying to clear them. “You seemed committed to your training, and I’ll admit I gave you more attention than any other Shadow.” I purse my lips, but say nothing. “But that was before I realized what I was training you for.”
The realization hit me like a baseball bat to the gut. Kai sent the note?!
“You-you’re the one who threatened me?!” I can’t keep the disbelief out of my voice. “And here I am, thinking you’re my friend!?” Frustration boils up inside of me, spilling out in an overabundance. “I don’t believe this!” Hundreds of emotions crowd me: hatred, confusion, hurt, betrayal, grief.
“Let me finish!” Kai shouts, silencing me. Such sharpness coming from him is unusual. “The academy has been recruiting for years, and you were an exceptional choice. Anya and I both knew this. You have good grades, work hard, and learn quickly.” My eyes finally come back into focus, and I look up to see Kai frowning at me, quite close in proximity, also noting that the room is very large, and the rock walls seem to mean we are underground. No windows, only dim lights scattered about. “I didn’t want you to fail,” he continues. “But I couldn’t let you get in my way.” Kai’s voice has a sinister edge, and my heart feels as if it is jumping hurdles. I can’t process what he has just revealed. The threat, André…
“You hurt André?” My blood is practically scalding at his point. I trusted Kai! And this is what he does?! “How could you?!” My voice shakes with a deeper resentment than I have ever felt.
“I did what I had to,” Kai responds abrasively. “I couldn’t convince you to leave the Academy without following up the threat, and your friends were the easiest options,” he states, matter of factly, as if the whole ordeal is unimportant. If he actually cared about me, wouldn’t he care about my happiness, and how my friends play into that? Does he even care?
“It’s not worth it!” I scream savagely. “If you could hurt my friends without a batting an eye, how should I believe you care about me, and how I feel?” Before I can shout another syllable, I am hit from behind and once again slip into darkness.
Chapter 9: Dark to Light
My eyes slowly open, and I shake my head to remove the remaining wooziness. Darkness. Everywhere. I can’t see a single thing, and I realize I am laying on the floor. André. Kai. The academy. All of the recent events come barreling back into my brain. “Uuuuuuhhhg,” my head spins as I try to lift my head off the concrete ground. I stand shakily and reach my arms out, feeling for anything besides the floor. I shuffle forward, and then to the right where I touch another cold, hard surface. A wall. Great. I explore the perimeter of the cell, and strangely cannot even find a door. The room isn’t large – a mere twelve or fifteen square feet. I slump against a wall, disoriented and despairing. I bury my head in my arms. I hear Kai reprimanding me in my mind. “C’mon, Xari! Shadows are tough! Get up, go! Harder!” but the thought of how life used to be weighs down and seems to make the cell even darker.
“Xari,” I awake with a start, lurching forward. The voice I heard…
“André?” I call out, and feel a hand on my arm. I reach out, and touch a strong, familiar shoulder. “Oh my gosh, how did you get here?” I whisper as André pulls me into a tight embrace, kissing my forehead.
“I don’t know,” he answers, and I realize I don’t care. He’s here, safe, with me. We hold each other, not moving. Once again, I am safe, shielded from the world, and all of the problems I currently face. I just need to tell him, explain everything. He’ll understand. “Look, André, about Kai,” I start, ready to reveal the rest of my side of the story.
“Yeah?” he responds, not letting me go. I cringe, planning out my next words carefully.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but just know that I never cared for him as much as I do for you.” I wait silently for him to respond.
“Xari,” I hear him whisper in my ear. “Don’t move.” What does that mean? Before I can respond, our lips connect. The most wonderful feeling fills me from head to toe, and I feel as if an Independence Day firework display is going off inside my heart. I comb my fingers through Andrés hair, his arms tightly around me. I realize, in the moment, how much I truly do care for André, deeply and lovingly. A groan from the other side of the cell shatters the moment, and I habitually jolt my head in the direction of the noise. ”Lucas,” I breathe, as André releases me and we slowly crawl across the room, side by side, my lips still tingling.
“It must be dark,” André states, thinking out loud. I suddenly realize that, of course, André doesn’t know we were in a pitch black room. I nod, but quickly realize he can’t see that either.
“Yeah. I can’t see a single thing,” I acknowledge, suddenly jamming my finger into a third human form. André must find him the same moment because he stops moving beside me. Another groan escapes Lucas, and I find his shoulders, giving them a gentle shake.
“Lucas! Lucas, wake up!”
“Wha-, where…am I?” Lucas props himself up woozily. “Xar, is that you?” André and I chuckle hesitantly, and I feel relieved that the boys are alright. I throw my arms around Lucas’ neck, and André hugs me from behind, placing me in a Lucas-André-sandwich-hug. After the happy moment of reunion, we break apart. My conscious is nagging at me, and I decide to speak my mind.
“Guys, I promise I’ll make things right,” I start. “But first things first, we need to get out this room.”
“Yeah…got any ideas?” André answers. “Because we’re stuck in a cell with no doors.” Apparently André had been exploring before he found me in the cell.
“And no lights,” Lucas says, stating the obvious.
“Furthermore, none of us even know how we got in here…” André adds.
“All I know is that I blacked out and hit the floor, got interrogated by some Asian jerk, and now I’m here,” says Lucas.
“You and me both,” responds André.
“I guess that makes three of us,” I inject, breaking my silence. “Guys…I’m sorry,” my voice is on the verge of breaking, but I persist. “This is all my fault, and I can’t believe…any of this.” Lucas and André give me their full attention, not making a single sound. “I admit I’ve messed up pretty badly. I almost lost your friendships, which are irreplaceable.” I laugh hesitantly before saying, “I’ve also been kind of a jerk.” I swipe away a tear hanging in the corner of my eye and take a deep, rattling breath.
“Hey, it’s alright,” André starts. “We might not get it, but that’s…life. Everyone has crap to deal with.” André’s calm acceptance is unnerving. How can he not be distraught? But, then again, this is André. Of course he isn’t losing his mind, especially at a time like this.
“Yeah, what he said,” Lucas says. I grin, but before any of us can speak another word, sirens and alarms begin blaring throughout the tiny cell, and red lights begin to flash.
Chapter 10: The Rescue
My hands fly to my ears, and through the flashing red lights in the cell, I see André and Lucas have done the same thing. I try to shout something to the boys, but I can’t even hear my own voice. The siren wails for about two minutes, accompanied by the rhythmic pulse of red. When it stops abruptly, my ears continue to ring. A familiar voice comes over a loudspeaker.
“Xari, this is Anya Morell from the Academy. We’ve apprehended Kai, and we’re coming down to cell 311 to help you.”
“Kai? That the jerk?” Lucas inquires. Before waiting for an answer, he continues. “Great, because I’m starved to death.” Oh Lucas. No sooner have opened my mouth to respond when the cell wall to our right slides straight into the floor, and the light from the other side momentarily blinds me. I feel strong arms help me onto my feet and steady me: André. He doesn’t seem nearly as disoriented as me, just going with the flow, tranquil. A guard leads us out and down a cleared hallway toward what looks like an elevator. A hazy feeling washes over me, and I zone out. When I snap back to the present, I am standing in an office without Lucas and André, in front of Anya. I open my mouth to ask where they’ve been taken, but, as if on cue, Anya speaks.
“Hello, Xari. Oh, don’t worry about your friends: they’ve been sent to the van that will take you three home,” she says, reading my mind. “We’ve been wondering what happened to you and Kai.” She gives me a strange look, and I realize she is waiting for an explanation.
“Oh! Uh, yeah…well, he kidnapped me,” I reply, gesturing randomly. “And my friends,” I add hastily, as if hoping to increase Kai’s sentence or something along those lines.
“I see. Strange things have been going on at the Academy, and I finally realized it. Our insiders picked up some strange readings on Kai’s secondary tracker card, and thought it had gone haywire. He never leaves the Academy, as he works full time and lives with us as well,” Miss Anya begins to pace slowly. I nod along as she continues. “When I found out he was nowhere in the academy, and his destroyed regular tracker, I knew for sure something was wrong.” Duh. The tracker cards. I realize at that moment that my bracelet is missing, and it dawns on me that the “mini-tracker cards” must be given to the shadows without their knowledge.
“Wait. So you found us with the mini-tracker cards?” I ask.
“Yes, which we initially give out once the shadows reach level two. You were an exception, however, because of the urgency of your situation. We made sure to implant yours sooner,” Anya responds.
“Oh,” I answer, pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Either way, we found you, and Kai. We’re trying to make him talk, but haven’t been successful so far. All this time he was under our very own roof, and yet…” Anya trails off, and I see she is confused, but understandably so; one of her top agent and trainers had turned against her.
“So he’s a double agent, then?” I voice my thoughts, and Anya nods.
“We suspect there is another organization he is working for, but again, are unsure of the particulars.”
“Interesting,” I respond, but Anya must see the tiredness and exhaustion plastered all over my face.
“We can talk more later, but for now, you’re going home to rest.”
“What about Lucas and André?” I ask, as she leads me towards the office door. “They found out about the Academy.”
“We’ll deal with that when we need, to but I wouldn’t worry about it for now. They seem like a decent pair.”
My body aches as the van bumps up and down, and I rest my head on André’s shoulder to my left.
“Hey, Xar,” he says gently. We haven’t talked since the darkness of the cell, and I feel a shiver go through my body.
“Hey,” I respond shortly.
“So, I’ve been thinking and stuff, and believe me when I say I know you have a lot going on and things are crazy for you, but…” I don’t speak, but my eyes widen and my heart beats slightly faster. “…you wanna go get dinner sometime?” Wait. He’s not talking about the threesome homework dinners. I feel a smile creeping over my lips.
“The answer is definitely,” I say, excitedly.
“Here, I have something for you,” André says slowly. “It was always meant for you, and I wish I gave it to you sooner, but…” He reaches into his project and hands me a folded piece of paper. The poem! The very same one that had me fighting pangs of jealousy, it was meant for me all the time. I scooch up and plant a kiss on his cheek, linking our arms. Even though the world seems to be crashing in, I still have my rock, my André. And Lucas, of course, but he is fast asleep in front of the van, snoring and, of course, ‘starved to death.’ Can these crazy past few weeks really end like this? Resolved, happily? Yes.