Paige had been missing for more than three weeks. She’d been there for the first two days of school, then suddenly she vanished. No one, including Drew, knew where she had gone.
Out of nearly four hundred kids that lived on the campus of Winston School, Paige had been Drew’s favorite. He’d kept in touch with her over the summer break. Nothing big deal. There had been a few emails and texts, and a bunch of likes on the things he’d added to his social media accounts. Paige had been quite a bit more adventurous than he had been, though. She’d spent part of the holiday back at home with her family near Raleigh but, according to Instagram, she’d done some traveling, too. She’d spent a lot of time at the beach and visited every single lighthouse residing along the Outer Banks.
Drew hadn’t done much outside of Asheville over the summer. G-Ma was getting up in years and hadn’t been feeling well since falling ill earlier in the spring. Pneumonia is a hard thing to bounce back from when you’re in your seventies. It seemed to Drew that G-Ma had always been old, but age was a strange concept to a kid still too young to drive. She’d been sixty-three when he was born and not quite sixty-seven when she’d legally adopted him. His parents hadn’t been around for a long time. He’d never met his dad and had no idea where the man had ended up. His mom? She was a different story. He knew exactly where to find her. She was buried near a marble angel statue in the Asheville cemetery and had been since Drew was four. His memories of her were hazy at best. At least none of them were bad.
At the beginning of sixth grade, Drew had become a boarder at Winston. The drive between G-Ma’s house and the front gates took less than fifteen minutes, but it felt like a whole different world there at the school. G-Ma was great. She was funny and kind. The two of them had a good relationship. When she mentioned one day at breakfast the fact that she’d been doing some research on the school, Drew knew it wasn’t because she didn’t want him around. She wanted him to have a life, one beyond hiking and camping with Uncle Jack four or five times a year. He liked it on campus. Life was good at Winston School. At least it had been until Paige disappeared.
Drew walked along one of the many outside paths that snaked around the more than three hundred acres that comprised the campus. He’d been walking around in a daze since Paige went missing. It had always felt safe here at the school until that day.
He looked up to see a group of boys, most of them in the upper grades, engaged in a spirited game of basketball. His pace slowed as he walked past. He knew several of the players. One of them gave him a lazy wave and Drew swallowed as he studied Henry Wills, or Hank as he liked to be called.
Hank was a sophomore and three years older than Drew. They’d met last year when they wound up in the same art class together. Drew had no business taking art. Stick figures were a stretch for him, but Hank? He had real talent, although his creations were a bit dark for Drew’s taste.
There were other things about Hank that set him apart from the other kids Drew hung out with. Hank was different. Drew sent Hank a tentative wave back and turned. Truth be known, Hank was more than different. He was scary.
Drew spotted Mrs. Dunleavy, his biology teacher, sitting on a bench outside Mitchell Hall. He didn’t think that she was part of the faculty that lived on campus, so he was surprised to see her on the grounds on a Saturday afternoon. She called to someone and Drew moved his eyes to see a small girl running across the lawn. She had blonde pigtails and held a large butterfly net in one tight fist.
Mrs. Dunleavy leaned forward. “There’s one!” she said, raising her hand and pointing up into the air. The grassy area was surrounded by dogwood trees, the largest of them standing twenty-five feet tall against the brilliant, blue sky. The little girl swung her net trying to catch some of the red leaves that had fallen from the branches above her. Swipe, swipe, swipe. “Did you get it?”
The child brought the net close to her face and grinned. “Look, Mommy! I caught three of them! Three butterflies. Aren’t they pretty?”
Drew watched her for a moment. The leaves did sort of resemble butterflies, he thought. A Lacewing, perhaps, or maybe an Atlas Moth. The kid had an imagination. He liked that in a person. He smiled—something he hadn’t done in a while—and made his way to his dorm.
His shoes thudded on the stairs as he climbed to the second floor. He could hear music coming from an open door down the hall and knew his roommate, Brice, was inside. He stepped in to the room and saw clothes draped over every surface.
“Really, dude?” Drew asked, the momentary lift in his mood taking another downward turn. He walked over to his desk, his eyebrows drawn together as he noticed a pair of Captain America boxers flung over the back of his chair.
“All the dryers were being used,” Brice said in way of explanation. He was lying on his bed tossing a baseball up into the air. He caught it, then threw it again. “I have some rope somewhere. I thought about using it as a clothesline.”
“That would have saved me from having to do my history homework with wet underwear at my back.”
“Eh,” Brice shrugged him off. “That sounds like a lot of work. Besides, they’re almost dry.”
Drew sighed. This school year was off to an awful start.
“Hey,” Brice said as Drew unzipped his backpack. “What’s up with that Henry Wills kid?”
Drew dropped his history book on his desk. “Met him already, have you?” He dug around and gathered two pencils and a pen.
“In the office this morning. He ran into me as he was walking out. Pissed me off ‘cause he had plenty of room.”
“That sounds like Henry, alright. I wouldn’t call him that if I was you, though.”
“He doesn’t like it. The last kid who called him that got popped a good one in the eye.” He slapped a spiral notebook next to the history text and tossed his backpack on his bed. “Okay, maybe that wasn’t the last kid, but it was the one I saw. Anyway, it’s just safer to call him Hank.”
“He doesn’t look that tough.”
Drew plopped down in his chair, mindful not to lean back against the Cap. “Whatever, man,” he said, opening his book. “I don’t know him all that well. Just remember to duck if you decide to use his given name. Matty looked pretty cool with his shiner, but it probably hurt like hell when Hank gave it to him.”
Brice didn’t seem to have any more thoughts on the subject. “So, did you know the girl that disappeared? What’s her name, Pamela? Peggy?”
“Paige,” Drew said, turning quickly in his seat. His voice was harsher than he’d meant it to be, but he wasn’t sorry for it. “Her name is Paige Carson, and yes, I know her.”
Brice sat up and swung his feet to the floor. “Sorry, man. I didn’t realize y’all were friends.”
“Whatever.” Drew turned around again, feeling tears sting the backs of his eyes.
“What do you think happened to her?”
Drew bit the inside of his cheek. He’d talked to Paige not two hours before the police suspected she’d gone missing. She’d shown him the two new charms she’d gotten for her bracelet over the summer. One second she was gushing about her new jewelry and the next she was telling him about how excited she was that she and a bunch of her friends had managed to gather enough girls to start an unofficial flag football league. They were set to have their first practice that afternoon. He loved that about Paige. She was feminine and girly, but bad ass and tough all at the same time.
“I don’t know,” Drew answered, his eyes closed and his back still facing Brice. It was true. Nothing about Paige’s disappearance made sense to him. The only thing he knew for certain was that she hadn’t gone anywhere on her own. If she’d left the campus, it was because someone had taken her.
He came out of sleep slowly, not knowing what it was that had pulled him from his dreams. He kept his eyes closed and listened. What was that sound?
He rolled over, trying to ignore it. It was faint, but oddly familiar. He gave up and tried to blink away the darkness, but it was so black it felt as though he wore a blindfold over his eyes.
Drew could hear the other boy snoring softly from his side of the room. The noise was obviously not bothering him.
What was that? Drew knew he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep again and climbed out of bed. He’d get in trouble if he was found roaming the grounds in the middle of the night, but now that he was awake he felt restless. He stuffed his feet into his sneakers and quietly left the room.
Patches of clouds moved across the sky, the moon playing hide and seek behind them. It was chilly, somewhat breezy, and Drew could smell the change of the seasons as the air softly moved his over long bangs across his forehead. There it was again. Drew squinted as if that would make it easier to listen. That was the sound of a shovel. Someone was digging.
Drew followed the noise, mindful of alerting any of the faculty to his nighttime activities. The sound grew louder as he walked through the main courtyard and around the science building. In another few minutes, he spotted a figure moving beneath a copse of trees. Drew squinted again, this time trying to separate the movements of human and shadow.
Was that Hank?
Yes, Drew decided. It was Hank and he was standing beside a large hole. The blade of the shovel glinted momentarily in the silvery moonlight. There was something else resting by the edge of the hole. Something long. Something covered by a light covered fabric. A sheet? Drew wasn’t sure.
He watched as Hank tried to move the covered object. When the older boy gave it a hearty nudge with his booted foot, it rolled and part of the sheet fell to the ground revealing something pale. Drew’s stomach clenched when he realized what it was.
It was an arm. And around the wrist shone a hint of gold. A charm bracelet. Paige’s charm bracelet.
“Oh, my god …” Drew breathed, immediately reaching up to cover his mouth with the palm of his hand. The world closed in around him and he thought he might pass out. No. This couldn’t be happening. This had to be a nightmare. He was still upstairs in the dark, nestled in the warmth of his bed listening to Brice snort in his sleep. This was unreal. This was Stephen King crap, and Drew really hated horror fiction.
He turned and ran around the corner of the building, hitting full speed as he reached the courtyard. The soles of his shoes slipped on the grass, his arms flailing to keep him upright as he thundered up the steps of Clay Hall.
“No,” he whispered to himself as bile built up in the back of his throat. “No, no, no …”
He slipped into his room, the latch engaging as he fell against the door. He slid down, landing hard on his butt. He cried then, his sobs quiet at first then growing louder. Time passed. Thirty minutes? An hour? He wasn’t sure, but eventually he woke Brice who sat up in his bed.
“What the hell, man? What’s goin’ on?” He reached over and turned on his bedside lamp. “Dude, are you crying?”
Drew heard another noise, this time right outside the door. The breath caught in his throat and he stilled, his heart beating hard inside the cage of his chest. He felt something move against his hand and quickly looked down to see a sheet of paper as it was pushed beneath the door.
“Drew?” Brice asked.
“Shhh!” Drew shushed him. He screwed his eyes shut and listened as footsteps sounded in the hall once more, this time retreating. He swallowed, then opened his eyes very slowly. If there had been a doubt in his mind about whether or not it was Hank he’d seen outside, what he was looking at now wiped it completely away.
It was a drawing done in pencil. He didn’t know many people who could render the human face with such precision and expertise as this. No, the person who had drawn this had taken his time, studied his subject long and hard and had come up with a perfect replica of the real thing. It was Paige staring back at him from the rough, white sketch paper. Her eyes were wide and full of fear. Her lips were slightly parted and she looked utterly terrified.
“Hank,” Drew whispered, his fingertips running across the black lines that had been drawn so carefully. “Hank killed Paige.”
Brice’s eyes fluttered in surprise before he fell back against his pillows again. He threw his arm over his face and sighed. “Unbelievable.” Drew saw him shake his head. “If I’d wanted to live with these kinds of freak show antics, I’d a just stayed at home.”