In the absence of light there are strange things…deadly things wandering the darkness seeking those to devour and destroy.

"But mom I need the light on." The little girl whines with a pout.

"Sweetheart there is nothing to be afraid of."

"But…" her young voice wavers and then she whispers. "What about the black shapes?"

"I think someone has an over active imagination is what I think."


"No more Vanessa. Good night and I love you."

Vanessa hears the door click shut behind her mom and she starts to panic, knowing what she saw and what waits in the darkness. Before she can lose herself to her panic her cat is beside her and she is instantly calmed…and very sleepy. As her heavy eyelids start to close, unable to stay open any longer Vanessa sees a faint glow envelope her and as crazy as it seems the light appears to be coming from her cat. This makes her giggle as she falls fast asleep.

Chapter One

I love summer but not for the reasons most people my age enjoy it. I hate swimming, lying out, hanging with friends. I hate lounging by the pool or hiking in the forest. I hate the heat and humidity that summer brings and as far as seasons go it ranks on the bottom of my list; but I love summer.I love it because it means a break from the misery that is school. It means I can close myself off from everyone—everything and just be me. I don't feel like I am a puppet at the mercy of some sadistic puppeteer who is pulling my strings making me dance to their tune. I don't feel as much like an outcast during the summer because I am not constantly reminded of how different I am from everyone else. It isn't that I just don't fit in or have any friends, though that does add to the feeling of isolation. It just seems that I am a world apart from every other person.

"Ness, you're going to be late for school if you don't get that butt of yours out of bed," my mother called up.

Ugh, why am I being sentenced to my own hell? I am pretty sure that some place in the world this would count as torture and be a punishable offense.

I sit up slowly, trying to prolong the inevitable but I know she's right. I would be late if I didn't start moving.

Mesi was curled up on the end of my bed—her expression, if cats have expressions, looked like she pitied me.

"Great," I grumble, "even my cat knows this is not a great idea."

I stand up; stretching my body like Mesi does after a long nap but unlike my lucky cat I couldn't walk around in a circle and lay back down. I rummage in my closet looking for something to wear—not really caring what it was. I settle on a white t-shirt and faded jeans. I've had the same wardrobe for going on four years. My body decided in middle school that it was done with this whole growing thing and just stopped. I stand a pitiful five foot two inches and top the scale at one hundred and five pounds soaking wet.

I hurry to the bathroom to wash my face and brush the tangled mess that is my hair. My mom has pleaded with me for a few years to cut my hair but it is my shield, my protection; I can hide behind my hair. Actually, my hair is about the only thing I truly like about myself. It hangs straight down my back to my waist and is like the blackest of nights; the kind with no moon or stars and it just seems to go on forever. When the sunlight catches it just right there is a bluish hue that shimmers. As much as I like how my hair looks I love it more because it doesn't make me stand out. There is nothing about it that makes people look twice at me, most of the time they don't even look once. If only other parts of me would cooperate; like my eyes. Everyone notices my eyes…no, notice is too subtle of a term. Everyone stares at my eyes which is probably why I keep them downcast most of the time. Sure they are unique in their own way; a vibrant icy blue that no contact could ever achieve but what sets them apart is the pattern in them. Around my pupils there is a starburst pattern in a violet color. If they were not my own eyes I would never believe that they are real because I have never seen eyes like them—anywhere.

Looking in the mirror I make a face; I am so plain. There are parts of me that celebrate my plainness because it means I can fade into the background but there is a small part that hates it, that longs to be pretty… to stand out, I quickly shut that part of me up.

"Nothing else I can do to help this," I say with a disgusted voice.

I hurry back to my room to grab my bag and as I pass Mesi gave her a quick scratch on the head.

"See you, Mes." She closes her eyes as if everything was perfect in her world at that moment. Lucky cat.

I race down the stairs and almost collide with my mom, Nancy, as she's heading out the door. "Slow down Ness!"

"Sorry mom, you were the one that said I was going to be late."

"That doesn't mean you can run people over young lady—or act rude." She narrows her eyes on the last part.

I look in her eyes for a minute, wishing for the hundredth thousandth time that they were my eyes. They are absolutely average, nothing spectacular about them. They are a dull, muddy green color that's just there; no pattern, no sparkle…they just exist on her face. If you were to really look closely at us you would hardly any similarities between my mother and me. She stands about six inches taller than me and though not heavy defiantly not tiny like I am. Her ash blond hair is cut into a bob that stops at her shoulders. The only resemblance is in our chin, the same dimple that's predominant on her side of the family…everyone seems to have it. It makes me wonder if I favor my dad, if when she looks at me she sees him.

My dad was never in my life; actually I don't even think he knows I exist. Nancy rarely, if ever, talks about him. All that I know is that they met her senior year in high school and I arrived six months after graduation. Graduation was the last time she saw him; it was like he just vanished. There are no pictures, no videos, no memories, just the bits that I have gleaned from my mom over the years. I don't think she ever recovered from the memories of her time with my dad. No matter what those memories hold though she has made it clear that the best thing that ever came from it was me.

"Sorry mom," I say, "Just nervous about today." That is the understatement of the century I think as I groan inwardly wishing today was already over with.

She pulls me into a hug, "I know honey but it will be okay—it always is."

I sigh, yah it's easy for you to say but it's still a torment that I have to endure for a couple more years.

She steps back, smiling as if she knows what I am thinking. "Maybe you will meet someone new this year." Always the eternal optimistic.

"Yeah mom," I scoff, "because after eleven years of going to the same school with the same kids I am just going to randomly bump into someone new."

"Stranger things have happened." She says quietly ignoring my obvious sarcasm; her eyes are focused on something far away as if recalling a sad memory. She pulls herself back from whatever she was remembering and smiles at me again. "Just try to have a good day, 'k?"

I roll my eyes. "Sure mom, whatever you say."

"Ok dear." She kisses my forehead; an amused smile dances on her lips. "I'll be late today; I'm working a double shift."

What's new, Nancy's always working. I feel a twinge of guilt, she works too much actually. She never shows that she minds but it bothers me none the less. If only she would let me work to contribute to the expenses but that is a fight I was not ready to have again this morning.

I nod my head. "I'll have dinner waiting mom." I reply as nicely as I could manage.

She gives me one last smile as she turns to the door and heads out to her car.

I stand there for a moment watching her before I reel myself back in. I turn around and head to the kitchen to grab a quick bowl of cereal before I have to leave. Standing by the sink I eat slowly, trying as hard as I can to stretch every minute. When my spoon scraps the bottom of my empty bowl I can't help but sigh, I've stalled as long as I possibly can. I rinse my bowl and set it in the rack to dry. Turning around I grab my bag and head out the back door to where I keep my bike.

Even though I was a junior and have my license there's just not enough extra income for me to have my own car. I actually don't mind much—well until there's snow, then I'm less than wild about not having one but I make due. I push my bike around front before swinging my leg over to settle myself on the seat. I know exactly how long it takes to get to school, thirteen minutes. That will give me just enough time to lock my bike up and head to my first class.

My schedule had come in the mail a few weeks ago and as expected I have Honors English, Algebra II, Physics and Latin III. About the only thing remotely interesting to me is Latin and maybe English but Algebra and Physics are a different story. At least my day starts off with English and ends with Latin, maybe I can just block out the time in between.

The school comes into view sooner than I like and as I lock my bike up by the parking lot I can't help but feel anxiety building up in the pit of my stomach. I've felt this way every year since kindergarten and as much as I want to jump back on my bike and head home I know that isn't an option. I halfheartedly climb the steps to the school keeping my head and eyes downcast. I hear bits of conversations as I trudge through the hall to class, no one stopping to converse with me which I am perfectly fine with.

I turn the corner to head down the hall towards my English class still wrapped in my thoughts and fears regarding the day I have ahead of me I've failed to notice the foot that one of the students stick out in front of me, my speed's propelling me too fast— I lost my balance as I trip over my assailant's foot; my bag flies in one directions and I go in the other. It seemed my torment for the year has begun before my first class has had a chance to start. Crashing down I land hard on my hands and knees—I am all too aware of the laughter that surrounds me.

I know that I didn't trip on my own; I'm not clumsy and this isn't a first. My knees hurt as the beginning of bruises start to form and there's a scrap on the palm of my left hand. I slowly push myself up off the ground and search for my bag, keeping my head down—not meeting the cruel stares of the students that are surrounding me. I can hear their comments—they make sure of it.

"Way to fly…freak!"

"Watch where you are going loser."

"Where'd you get your clothes? Dorks-R-Us?"

"Do the world a favor and disappear."

"You dad was the lucky one…he got to leave."

My vision's blurry as I find my bag and grab it; pushing my way through the crowd which brings on another onslaught of laughter. All I want to do is run—as fast and as far away as I possibly can. I hate those kids...detest them…loath their very existence. There's not a strong enough word to describe the contempt I fell for them.

I sigh because I know that isn't true; they are sheep following the leader, not caring where they're going as long as they stay with the flock. I'm not part of that flock…I'm the black sheep. Unfortunately I seem to be easy prey for their leader. I could distinguish that one voice from anyone's and the sound of it is enough to make me cower in fear. That voice…that person has picked on me from the day I started school…Autumn Conley.

I was the child in kindergarten that cried the entire first week of school. I begged, pleaded and tried to coerce my mom into letting me stay home—nothing worked. Autumn seemed to hate me from the moment she first saw me. Since that day it has been her own personal mission to make sure everyone hates me as much as she does.

I'm the first one in the room, even the teacher isn't here yet. I seek out a seat in the back right corner of the room. As silly as it sounds I fell more comfortable on the right side, sitting on the left makes me feel vulnerable for some strange reason and after the incident on the way to class I'm feeling vulnerable enough. I settle into the chair and fight to stop the onslaught of tears that are cascading down my cheeks. Why can't I be homeschooled I wonder for the millionth time? I hate everything about school, no I take that back, I just hate being around others.

I sit, staring at a piece of my hair that my hands are playing with in my lap. I can hear people slowly meandering into class some with the same level of enthusiasm I fell and others seem actually happy to be here. The minutes tick slowly by as the room continues to fill. The seat to my left stays empty, no one wanting to sit next to the freak I sarcastically think. A small sigh of relief passes my lips; I prefer it this way.

I can hear some of the whispered conversations of those around me and the laughter than goes with it.

"Did you see it?"

"I heard she went flying."

"It was hil-a-rious!"

"What a loser."

I fight the pain once again. Why can't they just ignore me—leave me alone? This is agony—unequivocally hell. All I can do was wish for solace, for the day to be over but time seems to be standing still. I lower my head even more and I try my hardest to hide behind my hair—keeping the world at bay while the events of my morning kept replaying in the conversations of the students surrounding me.

I hear the sharp tap, tap, tap of Mrs. Watson's shoes as she enters the room and am grateful for her arrival; I want this class to hurry up and be over with.

I had her last year for Honors English and she was a decent teacher. She had tried to pull me into the discussion as nicely as possible last year but by the second month she had given up. I am pretty sure that by the end of the semester she had forgotten I was there.

She rustles the papers on her desk. "Good morning class. Welcome back" she sounds lighthearted.

A few students say hi back but most of us sit there, waiting for her to start.

Mrs. Watson starts with attendance, same as last year.

"Billy Adams."

"Here," he says in a flat monotone voice.

"Jennifer Blake."

"Here," her voice a little too high pitched to sound pretty.

"Stephanie Brahman."

The list goes on; her calling names and various levels of enthusiasm answering her. I can feel dread start to wind its way of up my chest and constrict my throat. She'll be calling my name soon and that means I have to answer her; to draw attention to myself. After this morning the last thing I want is to remind people that I exist; even if it was just saying here.

"John Huntington."

"Here," a gruff voice answers her.

"Vanessa Irvin." My head spins and I clutch the edge of the desk to keep from falling out of my chair. Fear had taken full control of my body now, panic racks through me. It takes me a couple seconds longer to answer than everyone else; I'm trying to find my voice with little success. "Vanessa Irvin?" She asks again.

"Here" I choke out, a little more than a whisper. A couple students turn to look at me and more than a couple giggle at my apparent unease.

"Robin Jenkins." She continues on, not stopping to comment on my response.

I slide farther down into my chair counting the minutes…no the seconds until this class would be over.

I'm lost in thought when the door opens and footsteps shuffle into the room. Mrs. Watson stops attendance to address the newcomer. "Yes, may I help you?" She asks politely with slight irritation in her voice for being interrupted.

A sweet firm voice answers her quickly with no trace of unease or fear. "Hi, I'm Dawn Hartmann. I am a new student here."

"Welcome Dawn," Mrs. Watson responds with about as much feeling as a dead fish. "Why don't you find a seat? We are almost ready to get started."

Dawn's footsteps seem loud as she starts down the row I'm sitting in. There are just two seats left and I am praying she'll pick the other seat but my luck never works like that. I hear her stop and softly plunk down into the seat next to me. I groan to myself. Hopefully she'll be too shy to talk to me the confidence that filled her voice as she walked into a room full of strangers and announced herself makes me think otherwise.

I try to pull myself in more, making me seem as tiny as possible. My eyes never leave my fingers as they twist and pull the same piece of hair.

"Here is the syllabus for the semester. As you will see our focus is not going to be grammar and writing like you've done up until this point but instead we are going to be exploring some of the more well-known classics and the influence they have had on people and society." She stops for a moment making sure everyone had a copy. "The majority of the work will revolve around these books and the discussions we will have about them."

Discussion—great I cringe at the word as if it were a snake that was coiled ready to strike out and bite me. Maybe I'd be fortunate and she would remember my reluctance from last year and just not call on me. I hope anyways but so far my luck didn't seem to be working.

"I am going to divide you up into pairs; these will be your reading partners for the entire semester."

Hysteria burst in my body…partners! Was she kidding me? My breathing quickens and it feels like my heart's going to pound its way through my chest.

"Row one and two, row three and four, partner up with the person directly across from you."