I take two melatonin gummies before climbing into bed. As usual, it takes a few hours for me to fall asleep, but once I am, I'm suddenly awake again.
Stumbling, I grab at a near tree and stabilize myself. My vision is a little blurry, but it's night again, and I can assume what's coming. Not wanting to face the dark thing, I turn and hurry toward what must be salvation. An owl coos above me, and crickets sing below me, and the distant sound of pounding steps grows from behind. Roots pull up from the ground and tangle around my ankles. I yank my feet free and tread on. When I grab onto trees, the bark sticks to my hands. Dirt is like glue caked on my feet. The air weighs down on me. The pounding steps are louder, closer, just behind me. I fall to the ground and cry out in frustration. Everything is holding me down. Everything is on its side.
Its breathing sounds in my ear. Restless, I try to jerk my limbs free and heave forward, but I'm not strong enough. Just when I expect its teeth to dig into my neck, a hand touches my back.
I wake suddenly, feeling the thing's touch lingering on my skin. It was a human hand. Someone touched me.
Grandma takes one look at me in the morning and shakes her head. "You still look tired, dear."
"I think the melatonin helped a little. Maybe I just have to get used to sleeping here."
She gives me an extra pancake, but I can't eat it. I feel sick.
At school, Vivian asks me to sit with them at lunch again. When the time comes around, I go back and forth in my mind, but ultimately decide to be nice to Vivian. Unlike last time, there's another person there.
I walk up to the table and Vivian turns right away. "Wrenley! Sit, sit."
I settle down and give everyone a small smile—not wanting to look too ambitious. The stranger, a girl with black hair, looks to Vivian then Eli then Elara. "You've got to be kidding me," she says, clearly upset.
"Don't look at us," Eli says.
Vivian matches the girl's stare and mouths something I can't make out. "Wrenley, this is Imogen."
"Hi," I say.
Imogen rolls her eyes and leaves the table. Feeling the anxiety swallow me whole, I turn to Vivian. "Don't worry about her," she says. "She's just in a bad mood. Oh, you know what, you should come with us after school. We're going to the private school just up the way to meet some other people—"
"No, Viv," Eli interrupts. "You're going too far. I'm sorry, Wrenley, you seem like a nice girl, but Viv is over-stepping a boundary."
"It's fine, really," I say before Vivian starts an argument. "I'm actually going somewhere with my mom."
My walk home feels longer today. My feet drag along the sidewalk as my body reaches a new level of exhaustion. I can't help but try to take a nap when I get back, but my mind won't shut off. At this point it's torture. I can't sleep, and when I do, I'm tormented with nightmares. My body can't take it anymore.
I lied. I have no plans with my Mom, and I can't help but wonder what Vivian's plans were. They know people that go to the private school, the school with the wolf crest. I'm sure they were meeting up and going somewhere together. Eli said she was crossing a boundary by inviting me—I wonder what boundary that is. Everyone here is much different than the people back home. Teens my age only cared about their looks and the opposite gender and social media, while teens here are wrapped up in other things, it seems. I shouldn't care what they're doing without me, but I'm no perfect person.
Night time comes again and I can't bare it. I double my dose of melatonin and take a nice bath before bed. Grandma sprays a lavender mist in my room after telling me that it helps her sleep. My mom gets me a glass of water and even tucks me in. "Just don't think about it, Wren. Don't think about anything, okay?" She says softly before shutting my light and leaving the door cracked open.
Don't think about anything? I didn't think my thoughts were the problem. The issue is my body—something is wrong with it.
After hours of restlessness, I spring from my bed and storm out the front door. My bare feet hate the cold ground but continue on toward the trees. The dark thing is in there. Maybe this is what it wants.
Rain sprinkles down as I step over tree roots and around rocks. The frigid air slips up my shirt and rubs its icy hands all over my skin. There's a cozy spot on the ground where moss has grown like a bed just for me. I lay down on it and shut my eyes—finally feeling at peace. As my body winds down and as my eyes are too heavy to open, someone lifts me up and carries me to dreamland. I grip at their warmth and bury myself in their essence.
I wake in my bed as the sun shines through the closed curtains. I stretch out like a cat and roll over. My alarm is set to ring in a few minutes. I slept through the night. Finally, I've slept—and my dream was hardly a nightmare at all.
When my Grandma sees me, she smiles.
The weekend is slow but my nights have been filled with the best nights of sleep I've ever had. The rest our things are delivered a few days early, so I help bring it all inside. Some stuff is stored in the garage, but I take what I need to my bedroom to unpack. All of my little nothings are organized around my room. My mom helps me carry in my desk—there's just enough room for it. I set up my desk lamp and my books are slid into the shelves. My computer is placed right in the center of the table, and I drop my bean bag chair in the corner of the room. It's finally starting to feel like my own space.
I fill my suitcases with summer clothes and push them under the bed, but feel something in the way. Pulling it back out, I lift the bed skirt and see an article of clothing. I reach under and grab it. Holding it up, the first thing my eyes notice is the wolf crest on the upper left. It's a shirt—part of the uniform for that private school. I smell it and smell it again.
It drops to the floor as my hands cover my face. Something isn't right. Why is it here?
Before leaving my bedroom, I hide it under my pillow, not willing to get rid of it.
At school on Monday, I sit with Vivian and her friends again. The conversation feels more regulated than usual as she asks about my interests and where I'm from. I don't hear much about her, though, and even less about her friends.
Instead of walking straight home, I walk up the street, past the drugstore, and to the private school. This is my attempt at sleuthing. I'm not sure how that shirt got under my bed, and I'm not sure what I'm going to figure out by being here, but there's no point in turning back now. Walking through the parking lot, I avoid students as they leave for the day. No one seems to notice me as they talk to one another in their polo shirts and navy sweaters. I sneak around the building and find a track surrounding a field along with tennis courts. So far, the only thing I've discovered is that this place is officially called Waindale Academy. It isn't anything groundbreaking.
On my way out, I catch a hint of something in the air—that smell. The one from the shirt. I wonder if they all smell like this.
As I walk by the diner, I notice Vivian going inside with Eli, Elara, and Imogen. They must be meeting with their private school friends again. No wonder the conversation was so structured today. Maybe Vivian got in trouble for inviting me.
The house is empty when I get home. Mom and Grandma must have left to get groceries as they mentioned this morning. I don't like being here alone—the eeriness of the woods lately has my mind wandering. Waindale isn't the same. It's changed since I was a child and I'm not sure why. There must be a difference between visiting this town and living in it. Things lurk in the darkness and the people aren't normal. Why does Vivian reach out to me then keep me behind a wall? Something is going on with her and her friends and those private-school students. I can't help but think it's drugs. Maybe they all meet up and go into the woods and do whatever drugs they do. It would explain why I'm not supposed to know.
I drop my school bag on my bed and lift up my pillow. The white polo shirt and its school crest is still there—the scent diffusing off of it. The inside of Waindale Academy might smell like this; a dark and woodsy scent that reminds me of mens cologne. I need to get inside that school. The only issue is how. Everyone wears the same thing, and I may be able to disguise myself with this shirt, but that's only half of the uniform. Looking at the tag, I learn that it's a mens large. That won't help my disguise, but tells me more about its owner. There's no reason Grandma would have this shirt, so someone must have left it here, someone who wears a men's large.
I swallow. Was some guy in my bedroom?
I catch Vivian at school the next day as she makes her way down the hall. She seems surprised to see me.
"Wrenley, hi, how are you?"
"I'm fine. I was just wondering about the private school. I found—"
Vivian stops me. "Sorry, really, but I wouldn't know. Find me at lunch, though. You know our table."
She turns and walks away, her head falling down as her eyes watch the floor.
I walk to the diner after school and sit in the same booth as last time. When the familiar woman comes by with a menu for me, I ask, "Um, is there a chance that you're hiring?"
Her eyebrows rise. "You looking for a job?"
I nod and she shrugs. "I can ask Paul. He's just in the back."
When I get home, I find my mom as she's going through boxed things in her bedroom. Before she can ask about school, I say, "I got a job."
"A job? Where?"
"At the diner across from the drugstore."
She sits down on her bed. "I mean, okay. I didn't know you wanted to get a job. It doesn't conflict with school, right?"
"No. They were very accommodating to my schedule. You know, weekends, after school some days, nothing excessive."
"Okay. And what will you be doing?"
I smile. "I'm a waitress—and before you say it, Laura's going to train me."
"Laura?" She questions.
"Laura is the waitress there. She said she's happy to have more help around since Pat left."
My mom nods and clasps her hands together. "It's alright with me, just remember that school's your priority, okay?"
Feeling more devious than I ever have, I promise to keep school as my number one. Many things will hopefully be uncovered through my new job—it seems the diner is somewhat of a town favorite. Between the private school students and Vivian and her friends, Waindale is about to have its secrets revealed.