Chapter Five

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I HAVE NEVER DRESSED for first day of school. I wasted twenty minutes to find something to wear that wouldn't make me self-conscious all day long.  What was I supposed to look like? Could people tell that I was a new student?

I chose high-waisted jeans and a simple white tee. Comfort was the priority. There wasn't much to fix with my face and unruly hair, though. Miracles didn't happen; it was pointless to try. My hair was a weird combination of brown and blond, resulting in  caramel-ish, disordered waves. If I didn't braid those thick clumps at night, I woke with a shag. Forget brushing that everyday. Tried and failed.

Technically, my eyes were a light blue, but they often teetered on grey in average lighting. Pointy chin, narrow hips and shoulders, I didn't look like a menace. My Dad used to talk to me bending down in order to tease me. Throwing on my favourite beanie, the burgundy one, I gave myself a last glance in the mirror, sighed, and hauled my backpack over my shoulder.

"Ready, kiddo?" Dad asked. He wanted to drop me off for my first day.

"As ready as I can be."

He grinned as he opened the front door. "That's the teen spirit."

We made our way to the SUV and he rolled out of the driveway, driving onto the curvy road slithering down the hill. I watched the landscape zoom through the window, amazed at the wild, mysterious beauty of the woods on either side of the car. I took in the tall pines and leafy maples, the moss-covered boulders and bushes. It was the kind of place people would go over vacation to camp in the wilderness. It was surreal that I lived here now. 

Dad turned on the radio, and we listened to music until neighbourhoods came into view as well as local businesses. I saw kids on the sidewalk with their backpack, an elderly couple holding hands; the mailman stopped to wave at a bus driver. Oakwood seemed sweet and peaceful, and it somehow reassured me. Life couldn't possibly be tough in a land of wholesomeness and farmers. 

My Dad stopped the engine when he reached the parking lot. The school building was a modest size--four floors from what I observed--with a lot of terrain. On one side, there was the football and track field. On the other, tables and benches to sit on, and a pavilion leading to the heavy double doors. I inhaled and smoothed my hands over my pants. Out there was the unknown. I didn't know what to expect.

A large, comforting hand closed over mine.

"You'll do great, Riles." Dad squeezed gently. "You always do."

I smiled, but it probably looked nervous. "I should get going and grab my schedule before I'm late and stick out even more. You know, to rip the band-aid off faster."

He tapped my shoulder. "Go get'em, tiger."

I jumped out of the SUV with a groan. He knew that was lame, but loved to taunt me with it. His car swerved out as he waved behind the windshield, and I turned around. All around the field, kids flocked towards the green double doors I spotted earlier, casually talking among each other. My hold on my backpack strap tightened, and I kept my head down, wading through the crowd incognito.

My goal was to not attract any attention on myself. Before I pushed one door open, I halted abruptly. A boy behind me cursed while walking by, but I felt too absorbed to apologize. My eyes were drawn to the glass panel on the door where several newspaper articles had been hastily taped for everyone to see.

Each article was a photo of a missing student. The latest one dated back to six months ago. It gave me the goose bumps. Kids went missing all around the world, but it seemed that not even a small, innocent town like Oakwood was an exception. I gazed at each face, staring longer at one in particular. Lauren, sixteen years old when she disappeared last year in June.

She was pretty. Expressive, almond-shaped eyes with thick lashes, graceful neck, shiny straight hair and a million-dollar smile would have made for a stunning model. She looked like the nicest person you could find, and to think that she was most likely dead sent chills down my back. Especially because she seemed vaguely familiar...

"None of them ever made it back," someone said beside me as the crowd brisked by.

My head tipped to the red-headed girl in a brown leather jacket studying the display with a pitied expression. Her wide, round glasses took up most of her face, magnifying the size of her warm, brown eyes. She wore bright red lipstick, contrasting against her porcelain skin. I debated on whether nodding or answering back. I chose the boldest option. 

"Did you know some of them?"

Her eyebrows rose. "I know all of them. Well, knew. Everybody did. We live in a small town. Most of us grew up together, and we can easily spot strangers." Her knowing gaze settled on me with a smirk. "It's been a long time since the rest of us stopped staring at the newspaper articles. Only a newbie would fall for it."

I huffed. Classes hadn't begun yet and my cover was blown already. "That bad, huh?"

"It's written all over your forehead." The girl stared back at the articles and pointed at Lauren. Her features became wistful. "Happens to the best, also. Everyone loved her, and I mean everyone. It's like she could be friends with anybody."

I shook my head. That was the problem with missing people. They always seemed to have the brightest futures and sparkling personalities.

She then pointed at others. "Tom was captain of the football team, a senior. Jessica wrote articles for the school newspaper." Her voice lowered. "There is no newspaper anymore since she vanished. People tend to stay more inside their homes now."

"Wow, I'm really sorry..." 

"Anyways." Her voice picked up and she faced me. "Probably not the best way to introduce you to Oakwood. I hope I didn't scare you. My name is Emma--Emma Briggs."

I gave a small nod. "Riley Addison."

We engaged in the corridor among the noisy mass, her studded heels clicking off the floor.

"So where do you come from?"

"Off the coast of California."

Her eyes popped, making them look even more giant. "Wow, that's practically from the other end of the country. That explains your perfect tan. Jeez. I'm envious. You guys are like myths to us locals."

I laughed. "We're human, too. Part fish, maybe, but human."

We stopped at her locker. Upon opening it, dozens of pictures and scraps of sketches had been pinned on a mini-board. Images of skirts, dresses, pants and shirts of all kinds and colours.

"You're into fashion?"

The girl blinked for a moment, then acknowledged the panel on the locker. "Oh. Yeah, you could say that. I make it, in fact."

"You make clothes?" 

"It's a hobby. I could show you someday if you want."

"That is so cool. Most people's talents seem pretty basic compared to yours."

She shook her head and pulled out a textbook. "What's your talent?"

"Me? I can read a hundred pages in record time. I like surfing too, but..." A  ball of longing wrenched my stomach. "Obviously, there's no beach nearby."

"A surfer girl? Oh, I am definitely keeping you as a friend."

"Oh, so we're already friends?" The idea didn't repulse me and I grinned. "That was quick."

She giggled, closed her padlock and walked past me. "See you later, newbie. At lunchtime, maybe I can give you a tour of the school."

She melted into the crowd and disappeared at a turning point, leaving me puzzled and strangely more confident. I had been so nervous before stepping foot on campus. Now, I didn't understand why. This probably sounded lame, but I already had a friend that wasn't my Dad.

High school may not be so bad after all.


First days of school can be stressful and downright scary, but Riley already has someone on her side (Emma). She's probably the coolest and most fabulous character out of them all, and more complex than meets the eye ;).

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