I walked across the schoolyard, clutching my bag.
The textbooks banged against my hip with every step.
oakwood high school
Had the building looked this big online?
I needed to stay calm—they can smell fear.
I put a toffee in my mouth.
The sweetness made me feel a little calmer.
“Hey, it’s your first day, right?”
The man coming toward me looked like he was in his early thirties.
He was dressed neatly, but his sneakers were all scuffed up.
“I’m Reid Hunter, the head of the biology department here. Come with me, and I can introduce you to your new class.”
My new class . . .
Any minute now, I’d be seeing the real-life versions of the online profile pics I’d studied so closely this summer.
“Mr. Hunter!” A boy gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder.
Even before Reid Hunter said the boy’s name, I already knew who he was.
“Vin! Good to see you here on time, man.”
It was like Reid Hunter and I were parting the waters. All the students stepped aside for us.
As long as this man was here, clearly nothing bad could happen to me.
But what about later, when I had to do it all on my own?
The streetlights cast patches of yellow on the path through the trees. Spot drags me along, as if he hasn’t been outside for weeks. As he pulls the leash tight for the umpteenth time, I burst out laughing.
“Hey, take it easy, Spot!”
I’m following my usual route, through the woods, and then across the bridge and back home. The place is deserted, as it always is around this time. I love going out late at night. Feels like I’m all alone in the world for a while.
Something rustles in the bushes. Spot tugs at the leash, but in the opposite direction this time, which is weird. He usually runs after every bird or squirrel, so it must be something else.
I pause for a moment and hear it again.
“Hello?” My voice sounds unnaturally loud in the darkness.
There’s no answer. Of course not. Nothing ever happens here.
I walk with Spot toward the big clearing and take my phone from my pocket. Even this prehistoric cell phone, which belongs to my dad, is going to be forbidden soon. Nova came up with the idea of having a complete lockdown so we can focus on our exams. So typical of her, coming up with something like that. And renting a remote farmhouse for a week.
I have no idea where we’re going because Nova refuses to tell us. She wants it to be a surprise.
Just the thought of the next week is making me nervous. If it were only the two of us, it’d be cool, but now that Vin’s coming, everything’s different. He might be great at lying to Nova, but that doesn’t mean I am too.
Maybe I should have said I didn’t want to go, but then Nova would have started asking questions. And my best friend does not take no for an answer.
I flip open the cell. This isn’t my usual phone; it’s an extra phone, especially for him. It was my idea, just to be on the safe side. If Nova ever goes snooping around in my messages, she won’t find anything.
Nova . . . I feel nauseous again at the thought of her ever finding out.
Some days it’s like Nova can see everything that’s going on inside of me. Like my skin is made of Saran wrap and she can look all the way through me.
My thumb hovers over the send button. I know what I need to say. The sentence is ready.
How’s he going to react?
Do I really want to do this?
Spot barks impatiently, as if he’s trying to tell me I have to go through with it.
“You’re right,” I say quietly, and I press send.
We need to stop doing this. It’s getting too dangerous. x
When we reach the clearing, Spot squats down. I dig around in my pocket for a plastic bag.
“What do you think?” I ask Spot. “Did I make a dumb decision?”
Nova hates when I talk to Spot like he’s a person, but it’s automatic. Maybe because I can’t talk to anyone else about this.
“Think he’s going to be mad at me?”
I bend down to pick up the poop. When I stand up, I see something on the other side of the clearing. Someone’s standing in front of the bridge, exactly where I need to go.
In the five years I’ve been walking Spot here at this time of night, I’ve never met another dog owner.
But then I realize there’s no dog. It’s someone on their own.
Am I seeing this right? Or are they just standing still?
A shock goes through me. Are they watching me?
Yes, I can see it clearly now. They’re looking my way.
Spot has noticed them, too, and he starts growling quietly. He never does that. He’s always happy to see people.
What’s going on? What do they want from me?
“What a creep,” I whisper as, for the first time in five years, I turn around and change my route. “Come on, Spot. Let’s go this way.”
I don’t see anything out of the ordinary outside my house—the street is as quiet as ever.
Why did that person freak me out so much? It was just someone out for a late-night walk, someone like me who can’t get to sleep before midnight.
As I put my key in the lock, there’s a buzz in my pocket. Has he already sent a reply?
Leaving the key in the front door, I take out my phone. I don’t recognize the number on the screen.
That’s strange. . . . There’s only one person who knows this number.
When I click on the envelope symbol, the text message appears.
I stare at the words on the screen:
I know what you’re up to.
Don’t forget: buy dog treats.
Or that animal could cause problems.
Copyright © 2023 by Maren Stoffels. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.