King Korvus was exhausted and angry. It was half-past five. He stood up and, in one motion, shoved his large stack of letters, complaints and requests to the other side of the room. The sight of all his papers fluttering around him filled King Korvus with more fury. He punched his emerald desk with pure anger over and over until his knuckles bled. The king stared at his hands in disgust, and in one move, he flicked his hands, splattering the blood over his desk and floor. King Korvus sat back down in his chair, looked at the mess around him, and slumped in defeat.
The door suddenly burst open, and one of his royal servants ran inside the room, nearly slipping on the hundreds of scattered papers and letters on the floor.
“Your highness, the-”
King Korvus promptly stood up and glared at the servant with pure anger and annoyance.
“How dare you run into my study unannounced? I should have you killed! Don’t you realize I am in the middle of something?!” King Korvus shouted.
The servant glanced nervously around the room, taking in the messy floor, scattered papers, dented and bloodied desk and the furious king. If looks could kill, the servant would be dead already.
Despite the detestable glare she received from King Korvus, the servant took a deep breath and continued.
“There's an emergency. Your presence is requested downstairs,” the servant said uncomfortably.
“What is the emergency?! Spit it out!” King Korvus yelled impatiently.
“W-well,” the servant stammered. “H-he's escaped.”
King Korvus's face turned red as rage boiled up inside him. He squeezed his fists to the point they became as pale as snow.
“WHAT?!” King Korvus shouted at the top of his lungs.
He grabbed his emerald cane, kicked open his study doors and walked outside, shoving his servant in the process.
King Korvus walked down the wide hallways, making a clank with every step he took. He was in no rush to see the disaster that awaited him ahead.
After walking down the spiral steps of his castle, he finally made it to the bottom. Instead of continuing down another hallway, King Korvus tapped the floor with his cane three times.
Clank, clank, clank.
King Korvus waited. He heard bustling and gears shifting below him. Soon enough, the platform he was standing on slowly descended until he was underground. He stepped off the platform, which two men lifted back up to the ground floor where King Korvus just stood several moments before.
King Korvus looked around at his men. As soon as they acknowledged their leader's presence, they instantly bowed, then got back to work, patrolling and checking on the prisoners.
King Korvus took a glance at what lay before him. Down the long, narrow stone hallway, tucked away at the very back, was an emerald door that glistened despite its dark surroundings. King Korvus closed his eyes and took a deep breath; he smelled moisture and stone.
There was no doubt; he was in the dungeon.
King Korvus walked past his men and continued down the hallway. He passed row after row of stone doors. Some doors were silent as he passed; others were loud and noisy. King Korvus ignored everything and finally arrived at the emerald door. A guard stepped aside as King Korvus reached into his long, dark green robes and pulled out a small, black key. It had a symbol of a snake slithering around the handles with its head as the tip. He inserted it into the keyhole of the door and turned it counter-clockwise three times. After the third rotation, the door produced a satisfying tick. The guard nodded, and King Korvus gently pushed open the door.
He stepped inside the room and glanced around; it was a tiny and simple room. A small bed and table were the only things occupying the space. A small window in the ceiling was the only light source in the room, casting an orange-like glow in the room, reflecting the evening sun.
King Korvus promptly walked to the bed and took a seat on it, causing an insurmountable amount of dust to fly into the air. King Korvus coughed several times before stopping. The bed creaked and groaned from the weight; whoever occupied this space had an old bed.
He sat there in complete silence for a long time. Around him, chatter and bustling filled the hallways, but he was utterly oblivious. King Korvus could only focus on one thing, and that was catching the man who had escaped from his dungeon. After years of searching, four months before, one of King Korvus's search squads finally found their target. King Korvus imprisoned the captured man into the very room he was sitting in now. There was no way to open the door from the inside or outside; only King Korvus had the key. So how did he escape? King Korvus pondered the question, and the more he tried to think of an answer, the more exhausted he became. After twenty minutes of contemplating, King Korvus decided enough was enough and stood up from the bed. He stepped outside and took one last look at the room before shutting the door and locking it.
King Korvus walked back to the platform, and he ascended towards the ground floor. After walking up the flights of stairs he previously descended, King Korvus returned to his study. He opened the door and took one glance at the chaotic mess before him, and shut the doors. King Korvus sighed and called out to the nearest guard on patrol.
“You! Fetch the servants and tell them to clean up my study,” he ordered. “And tell them to get me a new desk as well.”
The guard nodded, turned around and marched out of sight.
For a while before feeling like moving again, King Korvus stood in place. He turned left and walked down the hallway, past four doors until he arrived at a pair of large, emerald doors with golden doorknobs. He placed his hands on both doorknobs and swung the doors open dramatically, revealing a spacious, grande room. A giant, royal bed with dark green silk sheets shimmered against the sunlight protruding from the large window on the left wall. A big wooden cabinet occupied the right corner of the room. Next to the cabinet was a shockingly small and simple study desk and stool.
King Korvus smiled at the sight of the desk, and he stepped inside the room, closing the doors behind him. He made his way to the desk and sat down on the wooden stool. He ran his fingers against the smooth wood of the table. Not many knew how significant this table was to King Korvus. Hundreds of memories surfaced as his hand glided across the wooden tabletop—memories of pain and sorrow, memories of victory and triumph. The whole king's childhood and success revolved around this one table.
After a moment of sitting, King Korvus got up and made his way to the large window by his bed. He stared outside and saw a beautiful view of his kingdom. Inside the castle grounds, he could see servants scattering about, watering gardens, feeding the fish in the moat, and doing other chores. He could see knights in their shiny light green armour, chuckling to one another and making jokes as they did their daily patrol around the castle. Outside of the castle grounds, King Korvus could see rows and rows of crops, farms and houses, with people working and playing all around. The glorious sun in the distance illuminated this beautiful, lively kingdom, making a perfect, beautiful view. King Korvus smiled as all his problems temporarily vanished from his mind. For a moment, he felt like he could enjoy life.
But his current circumstances and the universe's current circumstances decided to put a pause on the spectacular view—King Korvus's mind filled with even more troubling thoughts.
King Korvus sighed.
“For a moment, I thought I could achieve peace without suffering,” he said to himself.
He took one last look out the window and then closed the curtains, filling the room with darkness.
“There must be suffering before peace,” he repeated to himself, over and over and over.
His emotions vanished, and the cold, hard and firm king returned. He made up his mind.
King Korvus walked out of the room, more confident, scared, nervous and determined than he had ever been in his entire life.
He trod down the stairs and searched every floor until he finally found the right person. He stepped off onto the fourth floor and walked to a knight wearing dark green armour with four badges pinned to the front and five stars embroidered on his silver shoulder pads. A long, sharp sword with a fancy emerald handle hung from his back, concealed by a sheath. As soon as the knight saw King Korvus approach him, he bowed and stood up straight.
“Sir Craig, I want you to gather the best knights you know for a search party to find the prisoner,” King Korvus ordered.
Sir Craig nodded. “Right away, your majesty.”
King Korvus grabbed Sir Craig before he could leave.
“I also need something else from you,” King Korvus said.
Sir Craig turned around and nodded.
“What else may I help you with, your majesty?” Sir Craig asked.
“Make sure there are enough horses; I'm coming with you,” King Korvus said.
Sir Craig's expression changed.
“Your Highness, with all due respect, are you sure you have thought this through? There are many matters to address right now, especially with the war going on, and outside of that, you have to make sure the kingdom is ready for the winter,” the knight objected.
“I have thought this through. I made up my mind.”
Sir Craig hesitated. After looking into King Korvus's eyes, he could tell there was no stopping him. He couldn't anyway; he was King Korvus.
“Okay, I'll get our best men for the job right away, your majesty,” Sir Craig said and swiftly left.
King Korvus sighed. His decision would impact the kingdom, and possibly the entire realm, but he didn't know for better or worse. He also didn't know whether he would survive the search or get killed by other realms' and kingdoms' knights. Nothing was ever evident in the face of war.
The bell echoed six times throughout the kingdom. A party of eleven men gathered near the front gates of the castle walls.
“Where is King Korvus?” One knight asked.
Everyone in the yard bowed as a man in green robes, a long emerald cane and crown walked out of the castle and into the courtyard. The man slowly made his way to the group of soldiers.
“I apologize for being a bit late,” King Korvus told the search party. They all mumbled indistinct replies.
“Where are the horses?” King Korvus asked.
“The stable boy's fetching them,” Sir Craig replied. “He should be here soon.”
As if he summoned him, the clattering of four dozen hooves filled the courtyard, along with a young man wearing a leather jacket with woollen pants and muddy black boots. He was quite tall and was leading the harras to the search party. The man handed the reins to each knight and bowed when he passed one to King Korvus. He excused himself and walked away after giving all the horses to the knights.
All the knights started getting up on the horses. King Korvus looked back at his large castle before joining them on his horse.
“Where first, your majesty?” Sir Craig asked.
“He couldn't have gotten far from me,” King Korvus replied. “We'll start with the meadows.”
Sir Craig nodded.
“You heard King Korvus! Let's move!”
Sir Craig tugged on his horse's reins, and the horse neighed and galloped away. The other knights quickly followed in pursuit.
King Korvus was the last to ride, his gaze fixated on the horizon ahead of him. The impossibly infinite greens stretched as far as his eyes could see, almost warning him about the long road ahead of him. Yet the farther he looked, the more determined he felt.
There was no going back now.
He snapped on the horse's reins, and it dashed into the distance with vigorous speed.
“You can hide from me, but I will find you,” King Korvus whispered aloud to himself as he rode out of the castle grounds. He could hear the shutting of the gates behind him, but he decided not to look back. He was too far to go back now. Only one thing mattered to him.
“You're not escaping from me again. I will find you if it's the last thing I do.”
It was an unusually cloudy and gloomy day. The wind whistled through the air, breezing past buildings and houses, blowing leaves around the air and twirling them into lawns, open windows, the road, and the sidewalk. One particular leaf found its way into a 13-year-old boy's hair. It rested on his ruffled blond hair for a few seconds before taking flight once more. Not that it mattered. The boy's mind was on something else.
The boy sat on a small steel bench on the sidewalk of Crescent Lane. He wore his usual blue scarf, navy jeans, and lucky sweater, covered by a black trench coat. A dark brown briefcase sat on the ground next to him.
His light blue eyes were fixated on the leaves around him, swirling about and flying around. Many people might have looked at the leaves and thought, Wow, this is amazing! Look at all these leaves!
Not this boy, though. Instead of sitting back and taking in the marvellous sight, he counted the thousands of leaves flying in the air while waiting for the bus.
After consciously noticing he was subconsciously counting the leaves, he quickly stopped and checked the time. He didn't have to, though. He already knew the bus was late.
Great. Real convenient, the boy thought. The bus is late. Again.
It was 8:37 am. The school would start its classes at 8:40. There was no way he would make it to school on time, even if the bus had rocket boosters and nuclear-powered engines.
Two minutes passed, and there was still no sign of the bus.
The boy was about to give up and walk to school when the leaves suddenly stopped flying. The wind died down as a large yellow vehicle pulled onto the street.
The boy sighed. He had been looking forward to walking to school.
The bus came to a screeching halt in front of the boy, showering him with hundreds of leaves. The doors swung open, revealing a plump woman in her 40s with a large bright smile and auburn hair.
“Good morning, Oliver!” She exclaimed to the boy.
The boy did not share her enthusiasm.
“Good morning, Mrs. Julian,” Oliver sighed.
“What's wrong, you under the weather or something? Isn't your birthday in two weeks or so? October the seventeenth, am I right?” Mrs. Julian asked.
“Yes, in eleven days,” Oliver replied glumly. “A step closer to death. Not much to look forward to.”
Mrs. Julian smiled sadly.
“It's fine. Come on in,” she said and gestured to the back.
Oliver nodded and stepped onto the bus, making his way to the very back of the bus; it was his favourite spot.
Some of the students sneered and snickered as he passed them; others pretended he didn't even exist.
Oliver took a deep breath and pressed on forward. He finally reached the backseat. It was a small, cramped area next to one of the emergency doors. There wasn't even space for a backpack. Luckily, Oliver was never a big fan of them. He sat down and slid his briefcase underneath the seat, where it barely fit.
The bus started with a jolt just as Oliver was about to sit, causing him to slam back against the chair. He smiled as the bus started moving again, causing the back to go up and down, occasionally quaking as it hit a speedbump. This was the very reason why Oliver chose the backseat: it was one genuinely bumpy ride.
As the bus rounded the corner, something small and white flew through the air and hit Oliver's eye. He closed his eyes as tight as possible and started rubbing his eyes to get rid of the pain. He could hear snickers and chuckles coming from in front of him. It didn't take a detective to realize the kids on the bus were responsible for this.
After a while of opening and shutting his eyes, Oliver decided to take the risk and open his eyes as wide as possible to regain his surroundings' full consciousness.
Everything was as before; the snickers have died down, and the bus was bumpy once more. Oliver sighed and stared down at his lap. He found the tiny object next to him on the seat, covered in a small, almost unnoticeable puddle of water. When he decided to pick up the item, the liquid stuck to it like goop and slowly dripped off as it dangled in the air. It wasn't water—it was saliva.
A spitball thought Oliver. How cliché.
Oliver unbuttoned his trenchcoat and reached into it, pulling out a tissue from inside one of the coat's many pockets. He started wiping the spitball and unravelling it. The spitball undid into a message.
You filthy scumbag. Be a nerd somewhere else, the paper read.
Oliver rolled his eyes and sighed as he crumpled up the paper, opened the window a sliver and tossed it out of sight. He then pulled the window back up.
Oliver reached back into his trenchcoat, pulled out his hand sanitizer, and cleaned his hands. He then pocketed the sanitizer and pulled out his pocket watch, which silently ticked until Oliver opened it.
He slumped in his seat. Memorizing the street and route they took, Oliver deduced there was still one child left to pick up, leaving around 12 minutes stranded. Oliver accurately estimated the distance, time, and people left before the bus came to a stop with a little help from his pocket watch and memory.
He took this as a sign to doze off into a quick nap, making up for hours and hours of sleep lost (and desperately needed).
Oliver's eyes stretched open so wide he had to close them again from the pain. His lungs gasped for air—he hadn't realized stopped breathing. After a few moments of recollecting his breath, he looked out the window. A large, dull, two-floored school rolled into view. Large black letters sprawled over the brownish-red bricks read:
Cherrybrook Middle School
He had woken up just in time.
The bus pulled up into the bus parking zone and came to a halt.
“Alright, everybody off!” Mrs. Julian announced, but people were already moving before she finished her sentence. Oliver sighed.
Just another lovely day at school, he thought.
He remained seated until everyone had left the bus, and then he grabbed his briefcase and walked to the front, thanking Mrs. Julian as he stepped off the bus.
Oliver ran as soon as he got off the bus, sprinting as fast as he could towards the front door. He was already late enough.
Oliver ran past other late students who seemed to be rushing as well; he continued running. Other students hurrying was a sign he was very, very late. Oliver almost slammed into the door, stopping just in time and yanking it open and then continuing his dash from earlier. He made his way up the stairs, skipping three at a time and nearly tripping when he attempted four at a time.
Oliver made it up the flight of stairs, ran to his classroom, put his briefcase in his locker only to sigh and go back down, this time skipping seven at a time.
It's Wednesday, which means there's PE for the first period, he thought. How could I have forgotten something as simple as that?
After finishing the flight of stairs, Oliver ran as fast as he could down the hallway, skidding to a stop just a few centimetres away from the gym door. He took a deep breath and pushed it wide open.
The first thing he saw was all his classmates playing a very violent game of dodgeball, with the gym teacher, Mr. Lee, blowing the whistle so hard his face had turned purple. The second thing he was was a green sphere-shaped object darting towards his face. The third thing Oliver saw was nothing because Oliver had closed his eyes. Despite this, pain seared through his head, and he could feel something ticklish trickling in his nose.
“Geez, Oliver, you okay?” he heard a familiar voice call out.
Oliver painfully forced his eyes wide open, taking in the now blinding light. He could see people staring at him, a few of them snickering. He also saw his best friend running towards him with worry evident on his face. The boy was wearing blue shorts and a green T-shirt with a picture of a chicken on it. His short, hazel-brown hair reflected the shining light, forcing Oliver to squint.
“You okay, man?” the boy repeated, now in front of Oliver and examining his face for any injury.
“Yes, Henry, I can take a foam ball to the face,” Oliver replied while rubbing his sore eye.
“Your nose is bleeding, for goodness' sake! Let's go to the office,” Henry pressed.
Oliver opened his mouth to argue but shut it immediately when blood flowed down into it. He pinched his nose shut and spat out the repugnant red drops of ooze out of his mouth.
Henry sighed and walked out of the gym with Oliver trailing behind.
They walked in awkward silence for a long time before Henry said something.
“Hey, do you ever wonder why the school chose chickens as the mascot?” he asked.
Oliver shrugged and mumbled an indecipherable reply, but either Henry ignored it or couldn't hear it.
“Like, why chickens? Like, you could pick very cool animals like cougars or kangaroos or—”
“Kangaroos start with a K,” Oliver corrected.
“Same difference,” Henry replied and then continued listing. “Cats or cheetahs or chipmunks or crabs.”
Exceedingly bored and having no solution to the problem, Oliver decided to join.
“Chameleons,” Oliver offered blankly.
Henry stopped walking and stared at Oliver, then shrugged and continued.
“Weird choice but okay,” Henry remarked.
“Caterpillars, capybaras, caimans, centipedes, camelopards, cassowaries, cobras—”
“Awesome!” Henry blurted. “Cobras rock. Good idea.”
Oliver rolled his eyes.
“Anyway, we're here,“ Henry said and stopped in front of the door to the office.
“I don't have a nose bleed anymore,” Oliver replied blankly.
Henry blinked twice.
“I said, ‘I don't have a nose bleed anymore.’”
“How do you know?”
“Because I removed my hand from my nose a minute ago, and blood didn't stream out of my nostrils.”
“So we walked here for nothing? Why didn't you tell me?”
“You didn't ask.”
Henry slumped against the wall and sighed.
“Hooray,“ he said sarcastically. “We wasted 3 minutes of our lives.”
Henry suddenly energetically sprung up and flashed a large grin.
“At least we skipped gym! I hate that subject!” he exclaimed.
As much as he disagreed with Henry, Oliver couldn't help but smile under his friend's constant radiant energy, but the smile soon faded, and his usual half-frown and empty eyes returned. They stayed put for a long time, possibly the longest three minutes of their life, until Henry broke the silence.
“Oliver,” Henry started in a shockingly unexpected severe and dark tone. The sudden change of emotion in his friend's voice sent chills down Oliver's spine and caught his attention.
“I know no one will say anything about it, so I will,” Henry continued.
Oliver closed his eyes and took a deep breath; he knew what was coming.
“You have been sad and unhappy lately, and I know this time of year is close to—” Henry paused and looked at Oliver. When Oliver avoided his gaze, Henry sighed and continued.
“I know you say you're okay, but I have my doubts. You could be suffering from depression for all I know and keeping it a secret from—”
“I don't want to talk about it,” Oliver said sharply.
“I can't help you,” Henry replied slowly. “If you keep hiding things from me. I'm your friend.”
Oliver sighed. “It's just been bugging me, you know?”
Oliver looked at Henry for the first time since the conversation.
“I don't think he would just leave mom and me,” Oliver said. “Dad was very happy with us, always laughing and smiling, just to go missing and disappear all of a sudden....”
“You just have to accept that he’s gone and he's not coming back. I know how you feel, and it's normal to—”
“No!” Oliver shouted, his anger boiling up. “Everyone says the same thing! ‘It's okay to feel these emotions. It's normal. You have to accept the truth and just let it go.’ The reality is that something was very, very wrong that day! My house was messed up, and no note! Nothing at all! I've contacted authorities, the police, anyone who could help me, and that's all they say! Even my mom doesn’t want to talk about it. My dad is still alive, and I will prove it whether you believe me or not!”
Oliver looked at his best friend, tears forming in his eyes and voice breaking.
“Please, Henry. You have to understand that, okay? You have to believe me. Something, very, very wrong happened that day. I don't know what, but I know.”
Henry stood there, surprised at the sudden escalation of the conversation.
“I, I, uh—”
Henry took a deep breath and nodded. “I understand, and I am, and always will be on your side. You have my word.”
Oliver wiped his tears with his sleeve, and a slight smile appeared on his face.
“I'm glad we got that out the way,” he said.
They stood for about twenty seconds, no one saying a single word before Oliver decided to break the tension.
“Let's go up to class early and just move on,” Oliver suggested.
Henry nodded. “Good that.”
Oliver sighed. “Don’t reference The Maze Runner, Henry.”
“Whatever,” Henry replied with a smile.
Henry ran to the stairs, with Oliver following behind once more. They continued up the stairs, each step echoing off the empty walls. They were almost to the top floor when voices bounced off the walls, coming from under them.
Henry stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Oliver with a mixed expression of terror and confusion on his face.
It's Peter, Henry mouthed.
Oliver gestured to the top of the stairs and was gone before Henry knew what Oliver was saying. Instinct took over his brain, and he pursued behind.
The two made it to the top and pushed open the double doors waiting for them, and without hesitation, the two ran through the doors and dashed down the hallway and didn't stop until they reached their classroom door.
After a moment of catching their breath, Oliver looked towards Henry with a look of relief.
“We did it,” Oliver said between gasps of air.
“Yeah,” Henry replied. “No way am I getting my backpack dumped in the trash can by that guy again.”
They stood there in silence for a long time, waiting for their class to come up. Eventually, after two minutes, they heard footsteps and chatter bounce off the walls around them.
Their classmates slowly filled up the hall and made their way to Oliver and Henry, lining up behind them to wait for their teacher once they got there. Oliver could hear unintelligible whispers and snickers behind him and the occasional calling out of his name, but he tried his best to ignore it. Being remarkably intelligent had its prices.
A minute passed, and the class continued waiting until a short lady in her late 30s with a dark green turtleneck dress appeared in the hallway. The students became quiet as she approached, her long coal-black hair swaying and her black shoes tip-tapping against the tiled floor. She stopped quickly in front of the door, turned around and looked at her students.
“Good morning, class,” she said in her usual cheerful but serious voice. She was the type of person you could get along very well with if you don't get on her bad side.
“Good morning, Mrs. Parker,” the class greeted in unison.
Mrs. Parker unlocked the door with her keys and pushed it open, gesturing for the class to get inside. One by one, the line walked through the doorway and into the classroom.
Once everyone was inside and sat down at their assigned desks, Mrs. Parker shut the door and walked up to the front of the class, where a large whiteboard hung against the wall.
She started to write their schedule for that day on the board, so the class had some time to settle in.
Henry leaned to the left so he could reach Oliver's desk.
“Oliver,” he whispered. “I don't think I ever asked you this before, but why do you carry around a briefcase?”
“Henry,” Oliver said without looking up from the book he had pulled out from his desk and was now reading. “In the two years, four months, one week and five days you've known me, only now you decide to address my peculiar preference?”
Oliver closed his book, set it aside, and looked at Henry.
“It's simplistic,” Oliver answered. “A briefcase hardly has any vacancy, limiting you only to put in what you require, making it more useful than a backpack. Because you only have what you necessitate, it will be clear to remember what you put in there. So whenever you demand something, you can reach in and extract what you need without fumbling around, unlike a backpack. It's also in-hand, so you could use it as an armament in case you ever need one.”
Henry smiled and shook his head, quietly chuckling.
“And here I thought you were just trying to look cool, trenchcoat and all,” Henry admitted.
Oliver stared blankly at Henry and smiled.
“That’s also part of it,” Oliver said.
A silence ensued.
“Why are you so gifted?” Henry finally asked. “No offence, but—”
“No, I get it,” Oliver interrupted, waving off the question like a pesky mosquito. “I don't even know. I mean, geniuses are born every day, so honestly, it's no big deal. Just some dumb luck, I guess. Oh, and about being gifted and all. Henry, I have to tell you something. I'm—”
“Quiet, class,” Mrs. Parker called from the front of the room. “All eyes, on the board.”
Later, Oliver mouthed. Henry nodded, and they both sat up straight, now facing the teacher.
“Today, we will begin with science,” She announced.
Oliver took a deep breath; it was a long time until lunch.
Oliver looked at Henry with repugnance as Henry devoured his egg salad sandwich in 4 bites. The sound of the school cafeteria and constant chattering filled the room.
“Are you done yet?” Oliver asked, looking away. He could scarcely hear his voice over the hundreds of other conversations.
There was a short silence, followed by the sound of swallowing, the sound of gagging, and then the answer.
“I am now.”
Oliver looked back at Henry, who was now tucking away his sandwich container into his lunch pack.
“Good, because I wanted to talk about something important.”
Henry looked at Oliver with a look of curiosity.
“Henry, I'm moving away,” Oliver informed.
Henry said nothing.
“I know this is hard for you to hear, but please listen. There's this other school offering gifted lessons, and my mom thinks I should take them. She says it's a huge opportunity, too big to pass up. It's also really close to my mom's new workplace, which she got a job at three weeks ago.”
For a long time, Henry said nothing.
“How far?” Henry eventually asked. His voice sounded like he was on the verge of breaking down.
“How far?!” Henry demanded, shouting.
Oliver was taken aback, confused and scared at his friend's sudden rage.
“It's on the other side of the city,” he subsequently answered. “Fifty kilometres away.”
Henry looked at Oliver with sad eyes before shifting his gaze elsewhere, not saying a word. They did not speak for the rest of the school day.
“I don't know what to say,” Henry said as the two walked home that day.
“Me neither,” Oliver replied blankly. Hundreds of things to say and ask were forming in his mind, but he couldn't find the strength to act.
The two walked in silence for a while before Henry turned to Oliver and asked him a question.
Oliver stopped walking and looked Henry in the eyes.
“In twelve days, the day after my birthday.”
Henry said nothing, and they continued walking the rest of the way home without saying a word to each other, each thinking about their troubles and problems.
Henry and Oliver lived on Crescent Lane, each right across from each other, located in a small suburban area existing in a large urban city. Henry lived in a reddish-brown bricked house with three floors and no basement. Oliver lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a slightly yellow building that looked like it was about to crumble as soon as someone leaned against it.
They said goodbye, and the two separated, each walking on a different path. Oliver stepped into the building, walked past the concierge, into the elevator, and went up to the 5th floor. As soon as the elevator doors opened, he briskly walked out and went to his suite. He pulled out the key to his apartment room—a bright golden brown brass that matched with the colour of the beautiful autumn leaves that still clung to the branches of every deciduous tree—which he kept in his pocket and smoothly unlocked the front door made out of dark oak.
The door let out a low creak as it was pushed open. Oliver removed the key and stepped inside the suite.
“Home sweet home,” he muttered as he closed the door behind him. He kicked off his shoes and walked into his bedroom to get changed.
The hard pasta made a clanking sound as it collided with the bottom of the pot and then continued bouncing around. Oliver tossed the bag into the recycling bin as soon as it was empty, missing the box by three meters.
He sighed and went back to cooking the pasta by pouring water into the pot, turned on the stove, and waited for it to start boiling. The crackling and sizzling sound soon became large enough to hear, and the steam rose higher and higher with every crackle. Oliver turned the stove off and put the lid on quickly, not wanting to get burned.
After the pot cooled down, he drained the water into the sink and set the pot back onto the stove.
Oliver looked at the clock.
Four thirty-five. Mom won't be home for another five hours.
Oliver groaned and left the kitchen, picking up the bag and finally tossing it into the recycling. He continued walking and made his way into his bedroom, which sat at the suite's very back at the corridor's end. Oliver pushed open the door, revealing a tiny and simple room. The walls were yellowish-white, with a small twin bed tucked in the left corner of the room and a small nightstand with two drawers resting beside it. A built-in closet opened with sliding mirrors was positioned on the right corner of the bedroom, where Oliver kept his clothes.
He walked to the nightstand and pulled out the bottom drawer, revealing a pile of books tidily tucked in and organized inside. Oliver reached down and pulled out a thick, hard-cover book. The image on the front was a golden deerstalker hat.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the cover read.
Oliver pushed the drawer back and flopped onto his bed. Once he was in a comfy position leaning back against the headboard, Oliver flipped the book open and carefully turned the pages until he landed on the seventy-ninth page. Stuck in the middle of the book, between the pages, was a small folded piece of paper. Oliver cautiously picked up the slip with two fingers and gently unfolded it, revealing a mess of indecipherable writing scribbled on it. It was a note.
Oliver shut the book closed and set it aside on the nightstand hastily, nearly pushing his lamp off the surface, remaining a few centimetres over the edge.
Oliver was oblivious to that and instead was busy lifting the mattress off the skeleton of the bed. He pulled as hard as he could, and the cushion slowly moved upward, a little at a time. When it was halfway up, Oliver used his remaining strength (which was very little) and pushed very hard. The mattress finally relented and moved back, leaning against the wall opposite Oliver was facing.
On the bed's skeleton, under where the mattress once was, were dozens of items. There were maps tucked in one corner of the frame and two books opposing. Papers with messy handwriting were scattered all over the surface. Oliver grabbed a red book and two pieces of paper from the mess and sat on the floor, laying out the items and the unfolded letter out in front of him.
The first sheet of paper had exquisite cursive handwriting, but it was hard to read, and if you looked even closer, you would find out that the page was complete nonsense.
Khoor, Rolyhu. Li brx kdyhq'w douhdgb iljxuhg lw rxw, wklv lv iurp brxu gdg. Brx duh suredeob vdg, xsvhw ru frqixvhg, dqg L xqghuvwdqg wkdw, exw brx kdyh wr xqghuvwdqg pb sduw ri wklv. Duh brx sdblqj dwwhqwlrq? Uhdglqj wklv zloo qrw eh hdvb, exw sohdvh, iru ph, uhdg wklv ohwwhu dqg xqghuvwdqg. Wklv ohwwhu zdv suhsduhg dqg sodqqhg. Sohdvh xqghuvwdqg wkdw uljkw qrz, wklqjv duh qrw jrlqj zhoo iru ph, dqg L dp diudlg wkdw wklqjv zloo rqob zruvhq wkh orqjhu L vwdb zlwk brx dqg brxu prp. Gr qrw wub wr orrn iru ph. Qrw rqob wkdw, grq'w hyhq wklqn pxfk derxw wklv. Vhdufk iru vrphwklqj wkdw zloo rffxsb brxu plqg. Khuh, brx fdq vroyh wkhvh ulggohv:
L dp qhyhu dzdnh, qhyhu dvohhs, exw vwloo dolyh. Dp L d sodqw?
Lq dqrwkhu errn, wkh ira vohhsv lq wkh qhvw. Dqrwkhu ira lv bhw wr frph, exw zkhq?
Uhdop ri wkh juhdw dqg wkh zruog ri wkh vhoilvk, zkhq zloo wkh wzr frhalvw?
Orrn ehklqg dqg dkhdg, bhw brx fdqqrw vhh ph. Ehklqg ru dkhdg?
Wkh zruog lv frplqj wr d forvh, bhw dqrwkhu grru rshqv wkh rssruwxqlwb ri wkh srvvlelolwb. Errnvkhoyhv ru oleudulhv?
Dqg djdlq, wkh ehg idoov wzhoyh irrwvwhsv vkruw ri wkh ilqdo glvwdqfh. Odvwob, wkh zdyhv sxvk wkh wlghv wrzdugv wkh vhd. L zloo uhyhdo wr pbvhoi zkhq dqg zkhuh?
Vkdoo wkh ilvk vzlp dzdb bhw djdlq? Phhw wzr qhwv dqg rqh vsrro lq d eduq.
Brx duh orfnhg lq d urrp zlwk qr zlqgrzv, grruv, ru halw. Wkhuh duh rqob d ehqfk dqg d vdz, exw brx kdyh wr xvh wkhp wr ilqg d zdb rxw.
The second page had sloppier, more rushed and sharp handwriting, but its message was clear. Oliver picked up the red book and flipped it open. Inside were hundreds of pages containing information about codes, cryptic messages, encrypted notes and decipherable cryptograms. He then grabbed the second sheet of paper, placed it next to the book, and started comparing them.
Hello, Oliver. If you haven't already figured it out, this is from your dad. You are probably sad, upset or confused, and I understand that, but you have to understand my part of this. Are you paying attention? Reading this will not be easy, but please, for me, read this letter and understand. This letter was prepared and planned. Please understand that right now, things are not going well for me, and I am afraid that things will only worsen the longer I stay with you and your mom. Do not try to look for me. Not only that, don't even think much about this. Search for something that will occupy your mind. Here, you can solve these riddles:
I am never awake, never asleep, but still alive. Am I a plant?
In another book, the fox sleeps in the nest. Another fox is yet to come, but when?
Realm of the great and the world of the selfish, when will the two coexist?
Look behind and ahead, yet you cannot see me. Behind or ahead?
The world is coming to a close, yet another door opens the opportunity of the possibility. Bookshelves or libraries?
And again, the bed falls twelve footsteps short of the final distance. Lastly, the waves push the tides towards the sea. I will reveal to myself when and where?
Shall the fish swim away yet again? Meet two nets and one spool in a barn.
You are locked in a room with no windows, doors, or exit. There are only a bench and a saw, but you have to use them to find a way out.
“Give me a clue, give me a clue, please, give me a clue,” Oliver muttered while he worked, glancing between the handwritten paper and the pages of the book, turning to a new page every three glances. His eyes were reading as fast as they could, darting around so quickly that Oliver's eyes hurt, but he would blink rapidly and return to reading and comparing. After thirty minutes passed, Oliver couldn't handle a second more and slammed the book shut and got up and sat on the bed frame.
“There has to be a code,” he said aloud. Despite stopping physical work, Oliver's brain never stopped turning its gears.
“Why would you leave behind this note? It's nonsense!” Oliver punched his pillow angrily.
“Where is the code?” he shouted in frustration.
Oliver quickly got off the bed, grabbed his things and rushed to his mom's bedroom.
Oliver's mom's bedroom was almost entirely identical to his, with the addition of a small desk and large bookshelf. It was Oliver's favourite place to work, to clear his mind.
He pushed open the door with his shoulder and stepped into the bedroom, throwing his things onto the desk. Oliver grabbed the chair, pulled it back, took a seat, and then resumed his work from the bedroom.
It all started seven years ago, four days after Oliver's seventh birthday. Oliver and his mom Charlotte woke up in the middle of the night, startled by a strange low-frequency vibration noise that echoed throughout the house. They could hear sounds coming from the basement, bizarre, unnerving, disturbing sounds.
They got up and pushed their way around their house, surprised they could not find Oliver's dad. Mrs. Sandal called out and searched for her husband, grasping Oliver's hand tightly as they went. Everywhere they looked, it was a mess. Trays and broken dishes littered the kitchen, and scattered in the living room were flipped tables, knocked bookshelves, trashed books and dirty decor.
They finally made their way to the basement, and upon opening the door, the low humming vibration suddenly increased pitch, and a high whining sound filled the air, piercing Oliver's ears.
Mrs. Sandal pressed on into the pitch-black room, but as soon as her foot touched the first step of the stair, the high-pitched whining stopped. Everything went silent immediately, making an eerie quiet commence that made Mrs. Sandal hesitate.
But not Oliver.
Oliver let go of his mother and dashed down the stairs and into the darkness, ignoring the cries of his mom. Then the blinding lights switched on, and Oliver covered his eyes. Mrs. Sandal rushed down into the basement after her son and hugged him tightly.
“Don't ever run off again,” she said in a shaky voice.
Oliver just nodded.
“Where's daddy?” he asked.
Mrs. Sandal hugged Oliver tighter and then let go.
“I-I don't know. Stay right here, okay? I have to make a call.”
She kissed Oliver on the cheek and then rushed up the stairs, leaving him alone. Oliver could hear the phone dialling shortly after and his mother speaking on the phone.
Oliver looked around and took in his environment: around him was a near-empty basement, with only one small, folded piece of paper lying on the floor. Oliver ran towards it, picked it up, and unfolded it. Inside was a message he could not read and was sure that nobody could read it. He folded it and tucked it into the pocket of his oversized, dark blue sweater he had received from his dad for his birthday. The sweater shone in the dark, emitting a very faint blue aura. A waxing crescent moon and a star embroidered on the back glowed faintly as well.
His mother had finished making the call and was now rushing down the steps. She embraced her son and hugged him as much as she could. Tears flowed down her eyes.
“Don't worry, Oliver,” she assured with a sad smile."The police are coming. They'll find him."
But they never did.
For days, Oliver tried to make out what the letter said. He never shared it with his mother; she was already suffering enough. Oliver would sit at his desk for hours at a time, just looking at the paper, trying to make sense of it all.
Even after Mrs. Sandal couldn't afford their home and moved to an apartment, Oliver did not stop searching for answers. Days of deciphering turned into weeks, months and then years. It was only three months ago did Oliver finally crack the code, but he did not stop. He was not satisfied with his answer.
"Why would he talk about riddles? His disappearance has nothing to do with riddles!" Oliver would tell himself again, and again, and again.
After another hour of working, Oliver finally shut the book and gave up. He returned to his bedroom, hid the book and papers back under the mattress, and pulled it down. Oliver flopped down onto the bed with a disappointed, frustrated sigh and tried his best to sleep.
“Can Henry come over tomorrow?” Oliver asked at dinner.
“I don't know, Oliver. I have to work late tomorrow,” his mother answered.
Mrs. Sandal was a beautiful woman in her late thirties with long flowing blonde hair often tied up into a ponytail. She worked at a bank on the other side of the city and worked until seven in the afternoon, meaning she had to wake up early and come home late.
“Please, mom, I can take care of myself, and I can babysit Henry if I have to,” Oliver pleaded.
Mrs. Sandal chuckled.
“I know you can do both very well,” she replied.
Mrs. Sandal continued eating as Oliver watched in silence, waiting for an answer.
“So? Can he come or not?” he repeated.
“Alright, Henry can come,” Mrs. Sandal said with a smile.
“Yes! Thank you so much, mom!”
“It's no problem. Just don't get into any trouble, okay?”
“Okay!” Oliver answered.
Oliver finished his pasta, excused himself, washed his dish in the sink, and then went to his bedroom. He picked another book and settled in his bed, and began to read. Oliver could not wait for tomorrow.
The final bell of the day rang, and everyone in the class got up and walked out of the classroom. The hallway was bustling with lively chatter and students. A lot of students.
“Do you wanna play D&D today?” Henry asked excitedly.
“Sure thing,” Oliver replied.
“Great! We can start from last time when the giant rat monster appeared from the sky on a floating chicken!”
“What?” Oliver asked in disbelief.
“Oh,” Henry responded. “Then I guess we go with your game then? The one with the mechanical monsters that threatened villages every night, and we have to defend the people?”
“You don't have to say it like it's the flu,” Oliver sighed.
“Alright, alright, just saying that I prefer mine.”
Oliver looked at Henry with a smile.
“Of course you do.”
The two made their way down the stairs and stepped out of the school, talking about mythical creatures and terrifying beasts they could use for their campaign.
“Maybe we can combine the monsters,” Oliver suggested.
“Woah. I have never thought of that before. That is both awesome and haunting. I feel if we went with that idea, I would have nightmares for more than a month,” Henry justly replied.
“I'm just saying,” Oliver continued. “We could make an army of mechanical chickens that shoot potatoes from their nose.”
Henry and Oliver both laughed out loud.
“Totally!” Henry exclaimed. “That actually might work. We can make it so like only the first ones of each division could shoot potatoes, and the rest shoot fire or something. A deadly mutant army.”
“Yeah!” Oliver laughed. “We could—”
Oliver stopped walking. He stopped talking. Everything in his whole body seemed to freeze, everything but his brain. Gears were spinning. Bolts were turning. Pieces were fitting. Thoughts were zooming. And then, almost magically, all of it came together.
“That's it,” Oliver whispered.
“What?” Henry asked.
“That's it! I solved it! I solved it!” Oliver shouted gleefully.
And with that, Oliver clutched his briefcase tighter than ever before and sprinted towards his house, oblivious to everything but the mysterious message from his father.