1. "I Found You…"
The lost boy limped his way across the windy desert, shielding his eyes from the stinging sand. The sun seared down mercilessly, seemingly larger than usual – and much more red. He had no idea how he'd appeared so abruptly in this blistering hell. All he knew was that it had something to do with that thing on his arm... and that eye.
That horrible yellow eye.
"Trey! Stop walkin' so fast!"
A boy of seventeen turned around as the familiar voice reached him. Trey smiled and waved, brushing a few loose strands of wavy black hair from his face. His friend ran towards him, a backpack bouncing against his wide and bony shoulders, and Trey adjusted his own pack as the taller kid caught up with him.
"What's up Demetri?" he asked, turning his deep-blue gaze back towards the school in the distance. Teenagers bustled everywhere as the class bells rang through the fresh spring air. The boys knew from experience that they had a few more minutes to spare, so they kept their pace at a steady and unhurried stroll.
"Nothin' man," the school's star athlete replied, showing no sign of exhaustion from his sprint. "Parents just dropped me off. Almost slept through my alarm again."
Trey raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "You should learn to wake up already," he chuckled. "You're gonna sleep your life away."
"Ugh! Spare me your grand wisdom," Demetri groaned, waving off his advice. "I can't stand seeing you so jolly first thing in the morning."
"You're just jealous, is all."
"Oh, of course!" Demetri scoffed. "I'm so jealous that you stayed home and did nothing all night, while I was winning us the game and getting hit on by cheerleaders. Yeah, you really got the better life, Trey."
The truth behind Demetri's words stung, but Trey hid it with a sly smirk. "You know half those cheerleaders already have boyfriends, right?"
"No," Demetri corrected him. "All of 'em have boyfriends. Some got two or three!"
Their laughter faded as they separated for their classes. Demetri shouted to meet up during lunchtime, and Trey agreed with a smile as his friend jogged down the hall. When he turned away, however, his expression faded back to bland disinterest. Demetri had given him some distraction, but even that was the same. Every morning, Trey would share a brief laugh with his friends, then sit through a dismal day of nothingness, learning what other people wanted him to learn, and doing what other people told him to do.
It's always the same, he thought with a sigh, watching the laughing faces that floated by. Many of them traveled in pairs and groups, animated and bright-eyed. Others walked alone, expressionless, eyes cast to the floor. None of them met Trey's stare as he passed, as if he didn't even exist.
He wondered what would happen if those laughing pairs were suddenly separated, how they would react when surrounded by unfamiliar faces. He wondered how long their momentary distractions would last, then, and if they would ultimately felt as empty and purposeless as he did. Every day...Nothing ever changes, does it?
The boy spun around at the distant voice, but as usual, no one was paying him any attention. Students hustled by as the first bell tolled, ignoring his confusion, and eventually he gave up and joined them in slight embarrassment.
Lunch always seemed to come too late, and Trey could hear his stomach protesting its neglect as he entered the cafeteria. As soon as he passed the double doors into the noisy hall, though, his mood improved. The sea of enthusiastic conversations and peals of laughter washed away the monotony that was his morning classes, while the scents and aromas woke his dozing brain, even if he knew their tastes wouldn't live up to their promises. This small break would be just enough to get him through the rest of the day, until he could get back to his real life.
After waiting in line too long, Trey finally got his meal. Although the sight of it made his stomach protest all over again, he ignored it and made his way to his usual table. Through the crowd, Trey spotted Demetri chatting with some of their other friends, laughing hysterically over some inside joke. When he spotted Trey, a sly grin grew beneath his mop of brown hair.
"Hey, buddy! Guess who?" Confused, Trey followed his friend's finger, and found his gaze settling on a group of girls at the other corner of the hall. One in particular stood out above the others, and his breath caught in his throat.
"Fiona…" he whispered reverently. Her face was framed in perfect profile as she spun and smiled, making his youthful heart skip a beat. Fiona was, in Trey's opinion, the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes upon. Her wavy cinnamon hair sang whenever she moved. Her eyes were as clear as the sky, and the sun itself could not outshine them. Her slender figure moved with such grace that Trey was convinced she practiced in her spare time. She was also a flawless student, brilliant in everything, the top of their class. In short, she was perfect.
She was the only part of his routine he hoped would never change.
Trey stared longingly at her hands as they drew pictures in the air, illustrating some wonderful story. She tossed her head at a comical part, sending a shimmering ripple down her ponytail, and the whole table giggled along with her. Trey admired her unhindered posture, how her back arched so elegantly, how her legs stood straight and lean like ivory pillars…
His romanticizing was interrupted when his lunch tray abruptly flipped over, pouring its contents down a hulking figure before him. Trey's eyes slowly rose to meet the seething glare of Ron, the notorious bully of their school.
"I-I'm so sorry," Trey spoke cautiously as anger flushed the larger boy's face. "I wasn't looking…"
"I was gonna take that lunch, dipshit," Ron declared loudly. "Now you owe me new clothes and a meal."
"Okay, let me buy you lunch. I'll help find you a change of..."
"Don't act like we're friends!" the bully snorted. "You're paying me eighty cash to buy new clothes. And I'm still taking your lunch."
Trey raised his eyebrows. "Uh, no. I'm not. I'll get you lunch, Ron, but I don't have that much..."
"I'll beat your ass if you don't!"
"No, you won't!" Trey challenged him, surprising them both. "We used to be friends, Ron, before you threw them all away. Remember?" He could see the rage building behind his oppressor's eyes, but for some reason, he didn't care. "I remember. You invited us to your twelfth birthday party, but you didn't like cake, so your mom baked tons of cookies instead. Why'd you change so much?"
The bully's burning glare suddenly froze over. "Don't talk about my mother."
Trey shook his head. "There it is. I can't even mention her. I know you miss her, honestly, anyone here would feel the same. But she only left to get away from your father, it's not like she died, and it's not your fault. What's stopping you from living with her instead? Why do you choose to stay with that…"
A meaty fist clamped around the collar of his shirt. "No one talks about my family like that," he seethed. "You're dead."
He raised an arm, ready to break the smaller boy's nose, but immediately lowered it as a teacher passed by. She noticed Ron just as he released Trey, and stared at them in concern. "Ron, what's going on here?" she inquired sternly.
"Uh, nothing, ma'am. We were just talking, is all." He put his hands in his pocket and tried his best to look convincing, still dripping with cafeteria food.
The teacher raised an eyebrow, thoroughly unconvinced. "Trey? Is this true?"
The meaty bully glanced sideways at Trey in pleading alarm, and the boy wondered why he even bothered. The poor guy was beyond reason. One minute, he would torment someone without mercy, and the next he was shamelessly begging for it. Of course you don't want me to tell the truth. If I do, the school will call your dad again, and you won't be able to sit at your desk, or the lunch tables, or anywhere else for a week. Again. But you won't learn, will you? You won't stop hurting people, only to hurt yourself. You'll never admit the truth. You'll just repeat your mistakes, again and again...
Trey straightened out his shirt and replied, "Yeah. Just messing around. He was just asking to borrow some lunch money." He pulled out a few bills to prove his point. "Nothing to worry about."
The teacher stared suspiciously, but sighed, "If you say so." As she left, Ron let out his breath and turned to Trey, still holding the money. The bully snorted loudly and confidently, his charade already in place. "I don't want your damn money," he muttered before marching off, swinging his arms a bit too wide.
Trey finally breathed too and pocketed his money. The rest of his friends burst into a small cheer for him, and resumed their laughter as the tension eased. As he took a seat, Demetri shook his head in admiration, though he was neither laughing or at ease. He knew how close Trey had come to getting hurt, and his tight-lipped smile said so.
"You really are crazy, man," he finally chuckled. "I'll admit, though, that was pretty cool. It's about time someone put Ron in his place, and you did it without a single punch. You're like some kind of monk, or a little baby Buddha."
Trey smiled weakly. "Not really. I just… I feel sorry for him. Everyone's too afraid to talk straight to him, they just say what he wants to hear. He needed the truth, for once."
He tried to speak sincerely, but something else nagged at the boy, something he couldn't admit to his friends. Sure, you can pretend you were being brave, but is that really why you did it? Were you trying to help Ron, or were you just egging the poor kid on? Were you trying to get yourself hurt just for a change of pace?
Are you really that bored of this life?
This time, the unfamiliar voice sounded like it was right next to him, and he glanced around in sudden paranoia. He caught the eye of a passing girl, but she only glared at him like he was growing another head. He rubbed his neck and moved on, confused, but no one else was paying attention to him. He tried to shake the dizziness off, and wondered if he was starting to hear things. Someone's probably just screwing with me again...
"TREY," came another voice, booming from all directions at once. "PLEASE COME TO THE PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE IMMEDIATELY. TREY, TO THE PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE."
He stifled a groan as the air around him thickened with shame, and the knowing gazes of the nearby students were drawn to him like magnets. The boy avoided eye contact and spun hurriedly in the opposite direction, towards his impending torment. This was not something he wanted to deal with today, but there was no escaping it.
The Principal's office was down three flights of stairs, then up one smaller, pointless set of stairs. Trey climbed them as slowly as possible, until the frizzled hair of a secretary loomed into view over the tiled horizon. She caught the boy's wary eyes, and gave him a flat-lipped smile before resuming her slow typing.
"He's waiting to see you," she drawled, tilting her head towards the closed door behind her, marked 'Principal Boucher'. Trey sighed and stepped past the secretary, becoming caught in a gust of terribly strong perfume before gripping the doorknob in preparation. He wondered what excuse Boucher had to berate him this time.
He stepped quietly into the room, and left the door slightly ajar, a habit he had formed after his first few visits to the Principal's office. Adults were braver behind closed doors, and even though Boucher's voice could carry through any wall, he was less likely to yell with his door open. It also aggravated him more than anything when Trey did that.
When the Principal noticed the student, though, he gave him a deviously welcoming grin. "Ah, Trey! Have a seat." He motioned to the only other chair in the room, directly in front of him. As the boy dubiously accepted the offer, wondering why Boucher was in such a good mood, he heard a squeaking noise behind him. The secretary, still in her computer chair, wheeled herself over and pulled the heavy door shut with a condemning click. They aren't playing games today, he realized in despair.
"Trey," Boucher began, shifting his deflated body for comfort, "I was looking over your recent grades, and discovered something most unsettling. Can you tell me what's wrong with this picture?" He held up a complete copy of Trey's reports, and the kid stared past the paper with glossy eyes.
"Yes," he admitted reluctantly. "I'm not reaching my full potential..."
"In what way? Give me specifics."
The boy sighed, "I'm not doing my homework."
Boucher nodded solemnly. "Indeed. You're not doing any of your homework, Trey. It's obvious this isn't some small oversight. You are completely neglecting your assignments! I just cannot understand why you would do such a thing."
Trey stared at the floor as the silence built, and realized he was expected to explain. "I don't like homework, that's all. If I can pass my classes without doing it, I'm not gonna do it."
The Principal rubbed his wrinkled forehead in a show of concern. "Trey, Trey. Do you really want another repeat of last term? You remember what your grades were then?" Before the boy could answer, Boucher whipped up another paper and shoved it in his face. Last year's report card listed all six of his classes, each one ending in a uniform 'C'.
"You mean my grades aren't acceptable?" Trey raised an eyebrow.
Principal Boucher carelessly shoved the report into a pile of papers. "They are acceptable, but only just acceptable! They aren't outstanding, or great, or even good. They're mediocre. Is that the kind of person you want to be, Trey? A mediocre person?"
Look who's talking, the boy thought to himself, as he felt another headache growing. "Am I in danger of failing anything?" he inquired. "Or is my attendance too low?"
The Principal's mock concern vanished. "Don't play dumb with me. You know the answers to both those questions. And we both know you're going to end up with the same grades as last year, and the year before that. You show up every day, without one single absence or excusal, just so you can get away with doing the bare minimum! That is not why this school was built!"
As the adult's face grew red and his words heated, Trey prepared for the imminent verbal assault. He winced as that merciless migraine gripped his temples like an invisible vice. Please, just shut up. Someone make him shut up. Anybody. Anything. Just make him go away.
"It was brilliant minds that founded this school sixty years ago, and it has produced brilliant minds ever since! You weren't even born when those men were accomplishing great things! Greater things than you'll ever accomplis, that's for sure! Perhaps if you actually applied yourself, but you don't care enough for that, do you? Well, I got news for you, boy. This school has withstood worse delinquents than you, and it will continue to do so! You can cry and pout and bide your time all you like, but your responsibility, this school, isn't going to just disappear!"
I wish he would just disappear.
"I honestly can't understand your lack of effort, Trey. You will cut every corner possible to shirk your duties. I mean, what in the world were you thinking when you wrote this essay!?" Trey groaned as another paper was thrust before him. It was a quiz he had taken only hours ago. How'd he get a hold of this? The day isn't even over yet!
"This isn't even a paragraph long, maybe a hundred words tops! It's supposed to be an essay, Trey, not a short answer. Did you think that a thousand words or less meant you could get away with writing barely anything? Not to mention you practically copied your answer verbatim from your textbook. I could have you expelled for cheating! Why would you risk your education over such trivial matters?"
"You already said we both know the answers," Trey muttered, tired of this game. "How come you get to play dumb when I can't?"
"What!?" Boucher roared, his bloated frame rising from his desk. "How dare you! We do not tolerate that kind of disrespect here! You just earned yourself a detention, young man!" Of course, Trey thought sarcastically. He's the only one allowed to be disrespectful, and towards children, no less. What a joke. Go away, already.
No... Don't go... Come back...
Trey glanced around the room, startled. He could have sworn that foreign voice just spoke again, but there was nobody else with them. He winced and clutched his skull again, as the headache suddenly intensified. What is this? What's wrong with me? This isn't right...
It is right... Accept it... Accept me...
"There is something very wrong with your generation, honestly," Boucher was still ranting. He began pacing behind the desk, his balding head silhouetted by the large window behind him. "I don't know what it is, but you... you punks just don't have the any respect for the opportunities you've been given! You have the chance to truly be someone, and instead you sit there, wallowing in shame! Or do you even feel shame?"
Let go... Let me in... Trey shook his head and tried to rid himself of that pounding echo. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
"Well, you should!" the Principal misread the student's reaction. "You should be ashamed of your performance here! There's no excuse for your kind of slacker-attitude, whether it's A.D.D. or autism or whatever! We didn't have those terms back in my day, you know. We just called it plain laziness!"
"Shut up!" Trey screamed, the noise in his head reached an unbearable volume.
"Excuse me!?" the Principal shot back, then noticed how Trey was quivering. "What in the world is wrong with you? Are you on drugs? Is that what this is about? You'd better answer me, Trey, because I've half a mind to call the police and..."
Suddenly, Boucher stopped talking. He glanced around the room in confusion, as if he too could hear the rising crescendo. The unshapely man furrowed his brow at the ceiling, then peered through the expansive window behind him. What ever he saw made him leap back instantly, and he spun to Trey with an expression the boy had never seen on the Principal's face before.
It was pure, unadulterated fear.
There you are...
Boucher only took one step towards the door when everything went white. The window behind him exploded in a blizzard of glass shards, and a deafening blast shook the school's foundations. Trey was thrown clear across the room by the force of the eruption, and as the walls collapsed, a lone brick collided with his forehead. Then, everything went black.
When consciousness finally returned, the chaos was over. Stunned, Trey lifted his head and was shocked to find himself in one piece. Debris spilled from his shoulders as he rolled over, and light blinded him momentarily. It took him a few seconds to realize that the roof of the Principal's office was gone, exposing the bright and sunny afternoon sky. The boy stared up at the oddly peaceful view, while bricks toppled over and fire alarms resounded endlessly. In the distance, he could hear a contrasting mixture of terrified screams, wailing sirens, and chirping birds.
What... Trey could barely find his internal voice. What in the world just happened?
One scream rose above the rest. Trey twisted his neck and saw the secretary standing in the ruined doorframe, screaming the Principal's name in hysterics. "Mr. Boucher! Oh dear Lord, Henry!" The boy lifted a pleading hand towards her, but the elderly woman fled from the scene and into the flashing hallways.
Trey looked back towards his Principal, but the old man had vanished. His desk lay on either side of the room, still smoldering, and the floor beneath them had sunken into a small crater. The boy fearfully searched for any sign of his Principal, and soon his stomach began to twist into knots. The only other thing he found besides shattered glass and fractured architecture was one unrecognizable splotch of colorless ash.
He barely swallowed back a sudden and violent sickness. No. I didn't want this. I didn't mean it... not like that...
He turned away, horrified, as an unshakeable guilt gripped his insides. Tears welled up against his will, but through them, he noticed something else amidst the destruction. Directly in the middle of the sunken floor was a small hole, less than a foot in diameter, with smoke trailing from inside.
A creeping curiousness overtook his terror. Trey waved away the vapors and peered into the opening, trying to see what had caused such a catastrophe. The tunnel was lined with some sort of moist tissue, with tiny white fibers protruding from its folds like fine hairs. The sun reflected of a protrusion jutting from the debris, and the boy reached out and touched its sharp point, testing how hot it was. To his surprise, it was the exact opposite, and the tip of his finger went numb from the icy metal. He began to clear away the rubble as he attempted to lift the bizarre object, ignoring the chilling cold that seeped from the crater.
Before he could react, the tiny fibers snaked out and darted into his right hand. He cried out – more from shock than pain – as his entire forearm was dragged down into the hole. The tissue swelled and contracted around his muscles, and he screamed as he tried to pull his arm free, nearly popping his shoulder out of its socket. Then, with a terrified howl and a surge of adrenaline, Trey finally tore the thing from the ground.
The device fastened to his hand appeared to be an armored gauntlet, crafted from an ivory material somewhere between metal and bone. It twisted in sinewy shapes, and each end extended into sharp spikes. The fingers were similarly jagged, fierce claws with overlapping joints. A deep blue gem lay embedded in the back of the hand, and as Trey struggled with the sturdy glove, it flashed a brilliant gold.
The boy stared, hopelessly transfixed, as a multifaceted yellow sphere appeared within the gem. Without warning, it split vertically down the middle, and a black, bottomless slit yawned into existence. Suddenly, an alien eye was staring straight back at him.
Trey's screams were drowned out by that deafening vibration as it returned with a vengeance. He couldn't hear himself cry. There was only that haunting voice, and this time, it spoke from within his own skull.
I found you...
Trey went silent as he was torn apart, one atom at a time.
After an eternity, the boy's eyes fluttered open again. He instantly shut them as sand scratched against his eyelids. He raised himself on one elbow and looked down in puzzlement. Sand? he wondered, furiously rubbing at his eyes. Why am I in sand? As he raised his right hand to his face, he nearly fell back in shock. He had forgotten about the gauntlet attached to him. The gem was once again a vacant blue, and there was no sign of that horrible yellow eye. For a moment, the boy struggled between the two mysteries, then finally raised his head to look around.
As far as the horizon, barren desert and bleached rocks stretched out like an ocean of monotone dirt. He was in the middle of nowhere.
Trey stared around frantically. There was not a single building or person in sight. He felt a rising panic, and spared no time to question what had just happened. He tried to stand, but instantly dropped to the ground again with a surprised cry, discovering that his ankle had been sprained during the explosion. Trey tried to ignore the painful throbbing as he searched the area, looking for anyone or anything.
"Hello?" he cried out. "Is anybody there?" Shrieking gales of wind were the only response. Tears crested around his eyelids, but dried up before they could even reach his cheeks, and an emptiness he had never experienced before took over.
"Hello!?" he screamed to no one. "Anyone? Mom! Dad! Anybody!"
"Where am I!?"