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Someone was watching him; two eyes tucked in the darkness. Jered never had nightmares before—his brain was not wired to feel fear. Then his father’s death changed that concept entirely, crumpled it up, and tossed it into his face. Sometimes a face would appear, a knowing smile on its distorted features, and eyes sharpened with hunger. Was it all in his head? He didn’t know. He hardly knew anymore. The smile twisted into a frown, a pout, a snarl, and then into a grin. Its lips slowly parted, and rolling off its forked tongue…
‘Darkness is like the window through your worst fears, a mirror of things you don’t want, and refuse, to see…‘
… a whisper, wearing John’s deep voice, padded his ears. The warped face bubbled, stretched, and rearranged itself into a familiar visage. It was so close, yet so far away.
‘Wake up, son… you have nothing to fear,‘
Jered bolted wake, sweaty, panting, his eyes wide open. He pursed his lips inward, a hand moving up to rub the sleep off his face. It had been a few days since his last nightmare, and irritatingly enough, there was nothing he could do about it. He didn’t mind them, as they were harmless. However, this time the voice was more pronounced, more lifelike. It was not a figment of his imagination.
The sun’s harsh glares sneaked through the curtains, swathing his face. Jered took a few seconds to compose himself, John’s memory climbing up to the forefront of his mind. Something was wrong, and his hunch was pointing towards his father; the unknown variable next to his race could testify to that. Jered sprung up to his feet, washed up, got dressed, and hurried downstairs. The TV’s BBC news was broadcasting the rising death toll and overall damage left by hurricane Layla. Jasmine was sprawled on the couch, munching on a buttered toast as she listened attentively to the report.
Jered hopped next to her, jumpscaring the s*** out of her. “Morning sis.”
She squealed, almost dropping her breakfast, “Jered!” she slumped back, a sigh wheezing out of her nose as she held her heart, “You son of a… why did you do that?!”
He blinked innocently, a chuckle backing up his amused voice, “You’re so dramatic…”
“It’s you! You’re dramatic!”
“The way you jumped in fright was quite cute, not gonna lie.”
Jasmine wrinkled her nose, whipping her hair around with an arrogant snort, “I’m always cute.” she said in a tone reminiscent of their mother.
He wanted to get another jab in, however, a sudden transition on the news caught their attention.
“Yesterday evening, at 11:30 P.M, the authorities have been reported of an explosion at the side of St. Carrey Ln. Three bodies, belonging to the teenagers: Carter Miller, Victor Wilson, and Lloyd Mitchell, were found dead inside what initially looked like a car crash. However, upon a more detailed inspection, Alabama’s police department has declared this case as vehicular homicide. The teenagers’ car, a black SUV, sported various dents and abrasions caused by another vehicle prior to the accident.”
Jasmine gasped, “St. Carrey lane is not that far from us!”
The news anchor went on, “The bodies were charred from the fire, yet after a post-mortem analysis, Carter Miller, who was at the wheel, was proclaimed dead due to the repeated bashing of a blunt weapon on his face. Investigations are currently underway. So far, we don’t have a suspect, but a possible witness is being questioned.“
“W-Wait… aren’t these guys your schoolmates?”
Jered grunted in approval, “Yes, they’re seniors.”
“Did you know them well?”
“Ehh, not particularly. We were on good terms, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we were friends.” he shook his head mournfully, “Such a pity.”
Jasmine alternated a look between him and the television, chewing on her bottom lip in restless concern, “Still… that’s crazy… they were murdered, so close to us too. Who would do such a thing?”
“Ah, I don’t know… what a crazy world, right?”
“Right…” she peered at him from the corner of her eyes, “Be careful out there…”
He met her stare head-on, his lips tugging up. “It feels good to know you’re worried about me, sis.”
“Of course I am!” Jasmine frowned, “Why wouldn’t I be?” she said with a sharp edge, genuinely irritated.
Jered let the silence hang on for a bit more, “Hm, is there something you’re not telling us? Me, perhaps?”
That question pierced right through where it hurt the most, “W-What do you mean?” she fidgeted.
“I’m just curious, I guess…”
She avoided eye-contact.
“It feels like you’re hiding something,” he pressed on with a knowing look, “Even now, you’re keeping your distance from me…” he pointed at the huge gap between them on the couch, courtesy of his sister’s constant withdrawal.
Jasmine was stunned. She gaped, fumbling for words, but none of them came out. It was such an unconscious action that she hadn’t even realized. How was she even supposed to explain? She pinched her forehead, begging him with her eyes—begging him not to pursue the topic.
“Hmm, do you hate me?”
“W-What?! NO! Jered, that’s absurd! Why d—”
“Is it mom, then? Do you hate her?”
Jasmine’s shoulders slumped, her eyes pooling with bitter tears. She held them back, her tone narrowing into a growl, “Jered… don’t even think about it! I don’t hate either you or mom! Y-You… why are you saying such things? Huh?! Maybe it’s you who hates me!”
“I wasn’t the one who left for long periods of time.”
Okay, that hurt her. “Jered…”
“Sorry,” he threw her an apologetic smile, “Jasmine, when you left for the first time… when you started coming back less and less… when you found happiness somewhere else… when you abandoned us, mom was broken inside. The only reason she didn’t lose her head was that I was still there, holding her up. She never wanted you to go away, but she didn’t say anything. Why? Hmm? Because she wants the best for you, just as she wants the best for me. And she knew that the best for you was not here… but even knowing so, she was hurt. She cried buckets for you. And where were you? Polishing your nails with Alison, hugging her mom, cutting ties with us.”
Jasmine tried to blink away the tears, but they came out so fast, so laced with pain. He misunderstood her. He misunderstood everything. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth. A wet giggle burst forth, “You know nothing…” she started, sniffing, her eyes ablaze, “You know nothing!!” she spat out through clenched teeth.
He just stared at her.
“You don’t know how I f****** feel! Jered! You don’t know ANYTHING!” her voice was thick with resentment—not towards her brother, or her mother. It was towards herself. She was the root of all problems. She hated herself. She hated what she felt. “T-That was mean of you, Jered… I didn’t leave because I wanted to, I left because I had to.” Jasmine stood back up, knuckling her tears away. She heaved a deep, soothing breath. “Gotta go to school…”
And then she disappeared from his sight.
The principal’s announcement came with a melancholic undertone, a soft sigh, and a minute of silence before his eyes swept through the throng of students. “Carter Miller, Victor Wilson, Lloyd Mitchell… three exemplary students with a bright future ahead have been taken away from us. What happened is incredibly disheartening, and their families have my heartfelt condolences. We shall pray for them, and hope they find peace in God’s arms.”
Another minute of funereal silence ensued.
Jered had tuned out the principal’s latter half of his speech—it was ironic. He was not supposed to be there, he didn’t even want to. A murderer didn’t pray for his victims. He sneaked a glimpse at Kenny, who had been uncharacteristically silent since lessons started. He was dazed, more withdrawn than usual, and was steering clear of Jered. Kirby, David, and Sandro showed the same symptoms. The seeds of doubt made them feel guilty and sick.
Did they pay for the jocks’ deaths? They probably didn’t even want to know either. Better live with the suspicion than with the truth.
And thus, among hushed whispers, school resumed.
Jered flipped through the pages of his schoolbook, lazily glancing at the ever so slowly moving clock hands. He was bored, and it seemed like the end of his captivity was not coming anytime soon. If his work for Rainey fetched him good cash, then dropping out of school was something to consider. He rested an elbow on the desk, propping his chin up. From the corner of his eyes, he chuckled at the sight of Billy—the class’ buffoon—who was ignoring the assignment they were given, and instead opted to openly ogle at their teacher, whom, if he could say so himself, was not putting in any effort to prevent such cases with her blatant disregard of the school clothes ethic.
At least it was good eye-candy.
“Jered?” Evelyn’s soft voice tinkled out, “Even if you’re done with the assignment, could you at least not put on such a bored face?”
He looked up at his teacher’s angelic face. Evelyn was the school’s cherub, though her wardrobe taste came straight from hell. They were too skimpy to be allowed. Then again, the principal might have made a concession for her. Welp, no complaint from him.
“Sorry, Miss Smith.” he said as sincerely as he could, “It won’t happen again.”
“You said the same thing last week, and the week before that…”
He leaned back with an apologetic chuckle, “This is really the last time, I promise.”
There was a weird look in her eyes, as if for a moment she didn’t recognize him. A breeze stroked his face, yet the windows were not even open. Jered frowned, his Mana Pool stirring up as a result. The slight breeze met his defensive flare of mana, and as a consequence, it boomed into a sudden wave of air that sent Jered’s books tumbling down onto the floor. Evelyn gulped back a gasp of surprise—it was written on her face. Something that shouldn’t have happened, happened. Her face was rigid with tension, her stance guarded. She considered saying something, but under the startled attention of her students, she turned around, and stalked back behind her desk.
Throughout the rest of the lesson, not once did she look at him.
Jered’s bored face was fixed back in place. However, this time it was different. It was a facade. His nose wrinkled as he sniffed, and the tang was unmistakable. Mana. His head was a swirl of thoughts as he pondered how to approach the unexpected development.
The bell rang out, and everyone began filing out eagerly. Kenny paused at the threshold, hurling a tentative glance at Jered. He figured his effeminate friend’s head was also a swirl of thoughts, but for a different reason. Jered was not in the mood to deal with his s***. He stood up, collected his stuff, and ambled towards the door.
“Umh… Jered… we need to t—” Kenny started, his face a veil of anxiety, however…
“Jered, please stay here for a minute. We need to talk.” Evelyn’s voice cut through his, giving no room for him to interfere. She smiled amiably, a fake curl of her lips that would have made Rainey proud. “Kenny, sorry, you go ahead… Jered will follow you in a minute.”
“Uhh… sure, Miss Smith.” Kenny demurred for a second. “See you later, Jered.” with a disappointed sigh, he left. Once the sounds of his steps faded, the door closed on its own.
Evelyn’s indifference was only topped by her confusion. “How… did it happen?” her eyebrows were pointing down, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. “This is not good… not good at all… how… just how, a few days ago you were… you were normal.”
Synopsis: The online game <