"...and finally, I'm very excited to announce that the senior class is allowed to go on a surprise field trip to Iris Falls Nature Reserve on May tenth! More information will be given to you by Mr. Grapner. Have a great day!"
"A field trip! Sweet!" Clara Turner exclaimed. "We never get to go anywhere anymore."
"I know, right?" Vivian Aster, Clara's best friend, opened her planner. A very meticulous girl, she wrote everything in that little book. "May tenth, right?"
"Yup. Three weeks from tomorrow."
"Iris… Falls… Nature… Reserve. There." Vivian carefully wrote the location underneath the notification and closed the planner. "Where is Iris Falls, anyway?"
"Not sure. Let me look it up." Clara flipped open her laptop. "Looks like it's about four hours away. I'm surprised at how far it is. Usually, we're never more than like, two hours away, max."
"Yeah. Well, I'm not complaining. But come on, it's lunchtime. I'm starving!"
Clara snickered at her friend, giggling more when Vivian mock-glared at her as she put away her colored pens. "You love me, I know it."
"Sure. That doesn't mean I have to like you, though." Vivian playfully shouldered Clara as she passed her desk on the way out. "Now hurry up!"
As the bus pulled into Iris Falls Nature Reserve, the teenagers couldn't help but gasp as they took in the scenery around them. The only manmade structures they could see were the main entrance building and the parking lot. Everything else was pure nature. They were directly in the mountains, so Clara was expecting something a bit more… mountain-y, like bighorn sheep and mountain lions, and a lot more rocks, for sure.
Instead, the reserve looked like a tropical wonderland. She supposed she should have known, living in a humid climate and being in the foothills, but it was certainly a surprise to see hundreds of colorful birds sitting in the trees and the sheer amount of green surrounding the main building.
"Look at all those birds!" Vivian exclaimed. "Look, that one's blue, and that one's green, and there's a bunch of pink ones over there!"
"And there's another blue one! And a couple red ones!" Clara said excitedly, pointing them out. The birds chirped happily and sang as more kids spilled out of the coach bus. A few even swooped down near the awed teenagers and showed off their vibrant feathers. Then, Mr. Grapner stepped off the bus. Instantly, the singing and cheerful twittering morphed into harsh caws and screams as the avian creatures scattered and flew high into the trees. The tall man looked up and ducked in annoyance as a particularly large, golden one came dangerously close to his head.
"Alright, class! Let's go inside and I'll take attendance quickly, just so I can make sure everyone's off the bus. Then we'll get to the fun part," Mr. Grapner announced. He started motioning toward the doors and filing everyone into the main building.
"Everyone has to stay together, now. If you fall behind, stay in groups of at least three people!" Mr. Grapner yelled, trying to be heard over the chattering seniors. "You guys! Are you listening to me?"
"Yeah, we heard you," a boy towards the front said. "Can we leave now?"
The teacher stared at the boy for a moment. Then he closed his eyes, took a deep, exasperated breath, and opened them again. "Alright," he said. "Let's go. Grab your backpacks; we won't be going back and forth because people keep forgetting things."
The pathway was low and sloped gently, meandering its way slowly up the mountain. The first thing Clara noticed was how much more humid it was once they were inside the rainforest. The air was heavy with moisture and it was getting more difficult to breathe properly. She couldn't seem to get a full breath of air in her lungs, no matter how hard she tried.
The class continued to walk up the path, ooh-ing and ahh-ing and taking as many photos as their phones would let them. The variety of vibrant flora and fauna awed and fascinated everyone. Someone even claimed he had seen a cat lurking in the trees. The sound of a waterfall—Iris Falls—added to the music of the rainforest. As the students traveled higher and higher up the mountain, it started to get a bit drier. By now, the pair had fallen to the back of the group; however, once the girls recovered from the suffocating humidity, they quickly caught up and ended up near the front by the time they stopped.
It was getting progressively later and later, and by the time Mr. Grapner decided to sit down and take a break for a while, the teenagers had been walking for several hours—they'd started the hike at 10:30, and it was now almost five hours later. Clara was sure that the only reason no one had complained earlier was because of the sheer awe they had of the beauty around them. Exhausted from both the exercise and the stifling heat they had endured for the first few hours, Clara, Vivian, and the rest of the senior class settled on the ground and pulled out their packed meals.
Despite being mealtime for the kids, Mr. Grapner did not follow suit. Instead of eating, the teacher paced around in apparent restlessness. He made small talk with the students near him, but otherwise remained mostly silent as he walked around, seemingly aimlessly. Suddenly, about ten minutes after everyone had started eating, the geography teacher pulled out a pile of paper slips from his bag.
"Sorry to interrupt your meals, everyone, but I'd like you all to fill out this ballot. You don't need to put your names on it or anything, just select one and bring it back to me," Mr. Grapner said. He handed the slips to the nearest student. "Take one and pass the rest on. If you need a pen or pencil, let me know."
Clara took a slip and gave the rest to Vivian. She scanned the list. "Hey, I think this is a list of everyone on this field trip. There's your name, and mine's down here."
"Weird," Vivian replied, examining her own paper. "Well, should I just pick you? It doesn't say what it's for, and Grapner didn't say anything."
Clara raised her hand. "Mr. Grapner, what are these for? What happens with the person who got the most votes?"
"Don't worry about it, Clara. It's important, though, so please fill it out," Mr. Grapner called back.
Clara stared at her teacher. He was looking back at her, acknowledging her question, but Clara swore she saw a strange glint in his eye. He wasn't smiling; he seemed to be deadly serious about the significance of the vote. "Do you see that?" she leaned over and asked, still maintaining eye contact with Mr. Grapner. Now, he had a slight tilt to his head, as if examining her.
"Yeah, that's weird," Vivian agreed. "Never mind, I won't vote you. I feel kinda weird about this ballot. I'm surprised no one else has asked about it."
"Yeah, that's weird, too. Ummm…" Clara looked over the list again. Nearly every senior had gone on this trip. Then, she spotted a name she hadn't thought about in a long time, much less expected to see on a field trip. "Hey, what about him?"
"Sure, why not? I didn't even think he was on this trip. He doesn't really have friends; it's sad, but, like, he's weird."
"Yeah, that's true. Let's just vote him; no one really likes him, anyway."
It turned out that most of the kids had the same idea. Mr. Grapner spent the next several minutes counting the ballots; he sorted names into piles, discarded piles that had few votes than others, and rearranged the bigger stacks before counting them again. When he was done, he didn't announce who had the most votes, but everyone knew who it was as they watched Mr. Grapner speak quietly to the unofficial "most friendless" kid in the grade, James Plinter. It wasn't that he was hated or anything; he was just an odd kid, by everyone else's standards. He was very socially awkward, and that made it hard to be friends with him.
James quickly packed up his lunch, grabbed his bag, and followed Mr. Grapner off the path and into the woods. Grapner didn't give any instructions to the rest of the students before he left with James, which was surprising as he normally was fairly strict. As he walked away, he looked behind his shoulder repeatedly, nervously, as if he was afraid they would follow him. No one did; they merely watched him and James in interest and curiosity.
"I wonder what they're doing," Vivian whispered.
"Same," Clara replied. "This is all really strange."
They strained their ears to see if they could hear anyone talking, but the birds drowned out whatever potential voices there were. Clara watched as the birds started to settle around the students, in the trees, on the ground, and even closer to the kids, picking up crumbs and leftover chips. The further Mr. Grapner walked from the group, the more birds appeared. Soon, the area was filled with a rainbow of feathers and bright, happy song as the birds whistled and called to each other. The music almost, almost—but not quite—covered up the faint scream in the distance.
"What was that?" students began whispering to each other. "Did you hear that?"
There was a low rumble, nearly indistinguishable by ear. The teens could barely feel it, but it was noticeable enough to cause the birds to scatter and fly into the trees. The birdsong no longer felt carefree and sunny. It felt like a warning. Suddenly, the birds stopped singing. A large, golden one gave a high-pitched cry; they all scattered in a flurry of colours and wings, and Mr. Grapner emerged from the trees. With a start, Clara realized that the birds hung around and sang when Grapner wasn't there, but stayed away when he was.
The seniors started whispering again. "Where's James?" they were asking now. "What happened?"
"I'm very sorry to say that James is unfortunately gone. We'll have to go back right away," Mr. Grapner announced. He moved his feet shiftily and glanced uneasily around the group. Clara thought he was hiding something. The teacher cleared his throat awkwardly in response to the silence and the stares, but he plowed on. "What are you waiting for? Come on, pick up, now. We should hurry back."
Everyone sprang into action. In no time at all, everything was picked up. The students were nervous, too. "...getting some bad vibes," Clara overheard a boy say. "...don't like this," said another. "Let's get out of here."
Everyone shared the sentiment. They were back down the mountain in half the time it took to get up.
The bus ride was exploding with hushed conversation and sneaky glances at Mr. Grapner, who sat stiffly in the front, but with a slightly relieved look on his face. What was going through his mind? Clara thought to herself.
When the bus arrived back at school, the students were off in record time. No one felt comfortable anymore. Those with vehicles gave rides to those who didn't. Friends made arrangements to stay at each other's houses that night. Cars left the parking lot in groups. Less than ten minutes after the bus first pulled up to the school doors, the parking lot was barren.
Mr. Grapner watched as the bus pulled away from the curb. He stood there for a long time, following the bus with his eyes down the road and shivering. His entire body quaked, not from the cold, but with relief. As the bus turned into the garage, he turned around and walked into the building.
As Clara drove home, Vivian in the passenger seat, two others in the back, and surrounded by at least four other vehicles, she heard something. It sounded like the warning call the golden bird had given in the woods. But there are no birds like that here, she thought. So what could it be? She thought she might've been imagining things, but it was clear the others had heard it, too. They drove down a quiet road, lit by a single lamp at the corner. They heard it again. It was louder, now, and Clara realized she was driving down James's street. The students looked at each other, and they knew what that sound was. It was the sound of a distraught mother, grieving for her son.