I get used to the random looks and the occasional whispers as the day progresses. I keep my head low, my eyes down, my lips pursed, and my attention set on my schoolwork. But not once do I see Easton Wells. Several guys from the football team are also missing from my regular classes, which leads me to wonder if the police have any leads.
They have to, I think. Why else would they be here?
Come time I reach my biology class, I find myself stewing with unease.
Easton Wells is not in his usual spot. What’s worse is that, as I enter, people turn their eyes to look at me—judging, accusing, seemingly even mocking.
By the time the class ends, and the school day is over, I feel ready to burst.
Fortunately, I’m able to rip myself free from my seat in Mrs. Ledger’s class and make my way out the door with J’vonte at my side.
“How do you feel now that your first day back is over?” she asks.
“A little better,” I reply, but shake my head regardless. “I just… couldn’t get over the way people kept looking at me.”
“People are stupid, Oak. You know that.”
“I know, but, still.”
She nods as we approach our lockers.
Instantly, I feel that something is off.
“What?” J’vonte asks, coming to a halt. “What’s wrong?”
“I—“ I start to say, then stop, a frown tugging at my lips. “I—“
“Spit it out already.”
I don’t. Instead, I lean forward to take hold of my locker’s dial—
Only to find that the locker itself has already been pulled open.
A moment of anxiety tugs at me—weighing me down like anchors would a long-lost ship.
Rather than wait for the inevitable, J’vonte leans forward and pulls it open for me.
A note falls out.
I tremble. Stare.
“What is—“ she starts to say.
But before she can lean down to grab it, I crouch down and pick it up from the floor.
The note reads: Don’t tell anyone. I’m watching you.
Watching me? I think. Who could be—
I turn my head—first once, then twice, looking to my sides, then behind me.
When I see no one—not even any of the adult office aids—looking in my direction, I feel a sense of dread creep into my shoulders.
“What is it?” J’vonte asks.
“Nothing,” I reply, balling the note into my fist.
“Oaklynn. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not here. Not now.”
I shove my stuff into my locker and withdraw my backpack in its place.
Come time we are outside, J’vonte is visibly trembling with worry. “Come on,” she says. “Oaklynn, you’re scaring me.”
“I’ll see you around,” I say, before turning and making my way toward the front lawn.
I don’t bother to respond to her.
Instead, I run.
It would probably seem maniacal—for me to be running, for me to be racing—but I know, deep down, that I have to clear the distance of the school’s grounds before I can say anything to anyone. The person who left the note might be watching, might be waiting, might be wondering, and because of that, I must go as fast as I can.
Run is the only word in my mind.
So I do—despite J’vonte’s cries, despite her questioning.
When my phone vibrates in my pocket, I ignore that, too, and instead take off down the road.
I run as far as I can until I can run no more.
Come time I begin to jog along the old dirt road, I feel as though no one—and I mean no one—could possibly be looking out for me. As a result of that, I reach into my pocket and withdraw my phone.
About ten text messages from J’vonte await me.
Why did you run?
I put the phone to my ear as I click on her picture, then cup my hand to the mouthpiece and say, “Don’t say a word.”
“I can’t talk now. I’m fine—at least, for now.”
“I’ll talk more later,” I offer. “Bye.”
I end the call before she can ask further questions.
Maybe it’s my paranoia. Maybe it’s the fact that I feel as though someone could be watching me. Or maybe it’s the fact that I nearly died several days ago. I don’t know. But regardless, I know I can’t let the note get to me—at least, not now, not in the open.
As I approach me and the Meadows’ family home, I instinctively find myself veering to the left side of the street, toward Jackson’s home.
Please, I think, don’t be watching.
I knock on the door.
I tremble. Try not to breathe too heavily.
When the door opens, I don’t bother to see who’s about to greet me. I just shove myself inside.
“Oaklynn?” Jackson asks. “What’s going on?”
I shove the note into his hand. “This,” I say.
He looks at me, then at the crinkled note.
A moment later, he lifts his eyes and says, “What the hell?”
“I’m scared, Jackson,” I offer, inhaling the first deep breath I’ve had since I left the school grounds. “I don’t know what’s going on, or who’s out to get me.”
“You really think—“
“I do,” I say, knowing, instinctively, what it was he was about to say. I tremble—hands shaking, shoulders vibrating. “I think someone knew I was in the flower shop when my mom wasn’t there. I think they tried to hurt me.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes! I mean, no! I mean… I don’t—“
I can’t help it.
I start crying.
Within a moment, Jackson is stepping forward—first setting a hand on my arm, then pulling me into a one-armed hug.
Regardless of how awkward this whole thing feels, I don’t refuse him. Instead, I allow him to hold me for several long moments, struggling not to sob my brains out.
When I’m finally able to speak, I blubber out, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he whispers, tilting my chin up to look at me. “You have a right to be scared. I think I would be, too.”
“It’s just… Easton wasn’t there… and… well… I… don’t know who exactly could have been there.”
“Watching you, you mean?”
“It could’ve been anyone,” Jackson offers after a moment’s consideration. “But just because someone says they are watching you doesn’t mean that they are.”
“Do you not believe—“
He lifts a hand to stop me. “I do believe you,” he says. “I just don’t think they’re as all-knowing as you believe they are.”
I’m just about to open my mouth when I stop and frown.
He’s right, I think. They can’t possibly be watching me at all times. That’s ridiculous to even think about.
They’re just trying to scare you, I then add, and nod, content with that logic.
Sighing, I take a step back and lean against the door, only to say, “Thank you for letting me barge in here. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d manage,” Jackson says.
“I’d probably be dead,” I then add.
Jackson doesn’t respond. Instead, he frowns, then says, “Do you need anything? Tea? Coffee? Something to settle you down?”
“No,” I say, and shake my head. “I’ll be fine. I just… think I need to go home.”
“Just be careful with what you say over Social Messenger,” he says. “Change your password when you get home. Okay?”
I turn, open the door, then stop and tilt my head to the side to look at the young man. “Jackson?”
“No problem, Oak.”
I leave the house without looking back.
“Is something wrong?” my dad asks.
The urge to tell him is overwhelming. The urge to show him the note is even greater. But, I know that, with everything going on in their lives right now—not including the loss of his job or even my mother’s store—I can’t say anything. So, for that reason, I simply shake my head and say, “No. Why?”
My father frowns as he considers me. “You seem… off, somehow.”
“I ran home,” I offer.
“Oh.” He straightens his posture. “How was school?”
“Fine. Same old stuff. Other than the stares I got from the other kids.”
“It was bound to happen, considering what happened a few days ago,” he says, and sighs. He presses a hand to my shoulder and walks along the counter before turning to face me. “Oaklynn.”
“Did you see the Wells kid at school today?”
“No,” I say, not exactly sure where this is going. “Why?”
“The police arrested him today,” my mother says as she steps out from the living room.
I turn to face her, both surprised and not at the same time. The only words that can come out of my mouth are: “How do you know?”
“Missus Wells came over here today. She’d absolutely lost her mind.”
“Wait. She came over here?”
“Yeah,” my mom says, her shoulders low, her hands slack at her sides. “She started ranting and raving about how she was going to sue me for this and your dad for that. She said it wasn’t right that her son had been unfairly targeted and that her lawyers were going to be contacting us, but your dad scared her off by saying that he was going to call the police and report that she was trespassing on our property if she didn’t leave.”
“And? What did she say?”
“She didn’t say anything. Apparently that was enough.”
“She left not long after,” my dad adds.
I frown as I consider the gravity of this situation.
So, I think. They do think he’s responsible.
That would explain his absence at school then, and the looks I was getting from everyone, including people in biology class. They thought—or at least assumed—that I had something to do with his disappearance.
A sigh escapes me as I consider this reality. I’m not exactly sure I should know this, but at the same time, it seems like it’s imperative to my safety—or, at the very least, my wellbeing.
“What are we gonna do?” I ask, turning my head first to my mom, then my dad.
“You’re not going to do anything,” my dad says. “This isn’t something for you to worry about.”
“The police have this taken care of,” my mother adds. “All you need to do is just go on with your life and not worry about a thing.”
“But—your shop—and dad’s job—“
“Are both being handled,” my dad says. He places his hands flat on the kitchen island and leans forward to look at me. “Like I said: this is none of your concern. Understand?”
“I—“ I start, then stop before I can continue.
While they’re right on one hand, they’re dead wrong on another.
While I don’t have to worry about Easton coming after me, apparently, I do have to worry about whoever left the note.
Could it have been someone from the football team? I wonder. Or someone from the cheerleading squad?
Either way, I know dwelling on this will give me no peace of mind.
As I turn my head to look out the kitchen window—and as I see Jackson’s house standing plain and sentinel—I realize something.
What’s going on with Easton Wells is small stuff compared to what’s coming next.