"Dalton, those are not push-ups. Cameron, you're next on the rope."
Blake's friend approached the thick twine hanging from the low gym ceiling, and opened his hands to grab it but did not yet begin the climb.
"Been practicing all semester," said Cameron with a grin. "I'll definitely beat my record this time."
"You've been saying that for the last two weeks," grumbled a nearby Amelia, who gasped a little for air. Movement in the corner of his eye caught Blake's attention immediately afterward. A number of students, with June among them, ran around the perimeter of the gym over and over again. Amelia, Cameron, and a few others stood near the rope, breathless. Blake, however, was not.
A couple of seconds later June approached the group at the rope, heaving for air. She still carried a smile on her face. "I'd like to...hear you say...you'll beat Blake's record!"
Cameron simply glared at her, but then put his focus back on the rope. A few feet away, the gym teacher held a stopwatch.
He climbed the rope by pulling up with his arms, and with his feet he grabbed and pushed downward. Blake raised his eyebrows, surprised by the speed at which the teen ascended. His gaze rose above his friend. At the top of the rope, at the low-rise rafters, was a bell.
Cameron smacked it as he reached the top.
"18.34 seconds!" the teacher shouted.
With one hand's hold on the rafters, Cameron pumped his open fist into the air. "Yes! Record beat!"
"By just over 0.4 seconds," said the teacher after a quick look at her clipboard. "Nice job. Come on down."
While Cameron slid down the rope in careful and short bursts, Blake's mind wandered. Over the course of the school day, he'd thought about todays' morning. During his and June's walk to school, he had sensed two more spectres, and a possible third. He even thought he'd caught sight of a shadow creature again, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The increasing frequency of these occurrences was already an unsettling concern.
Despite the loud shout, he did not jump. Though, he realized the teacher must have called his name a few times already.
"Sorry," he apologized. "I spaced out."
"Well now your attention needs to come back to class," said the teacher. "You're up on the rope."
Blake inhaled and stepped up onto the mat beneath the rope. He reached out a little for the rope but did not grab it just yet. He waited.
He grabbed the rope with one hand, and began to climb. But unlike Cameron's methods, Blake did not use his legs at all. He used only the sheer strength in his arms to pull himself, with ease, right to the top of the rafters. He smacked the bell once he reached the top.
The teacher sounded mildly impressed, but Blake knew he hadn't beaten his record. He barely loosened his grip on the rope, and grabbed it again quickly to prevent an accelerated descent. He repeated the process a few more times; at about a third of the distance to go, Blake released the cord entirely and dropped. He landed on the mat with a loud thud, his knees having braced the impact. But then he brushed off his pants with a short swipe.
Nearby, Cameron snorted. "Showoff."
Blake shrugged, but could not help adding in a little smile as well. He then approached June, Amelia, and another girl beside them.
"Seriously, how do you do that?" Amelia shook her head though her eyes were wide with awe. "You don't look muscled enough for that kind of nonsense."
"No idea," he simply replied.
"Those kinds of things just comes naturally to him," said June as she stepped forward a little. "Athleticism can be a talent."
Blake shrugged again, not knowing. It didn't matter if it was dodgeball or soccer, testing his endurance or strength or speed, he was considered to be an asset in any team activity, and he often excelled at any physical task.
"Dean, you're up," the teacher called out. "Those that are finished, you can get changed. Those that are still running, hurry it up! You all got lunch next, which I'm sure you don't want to miss!"
Blake, Cameron, and a few other boys went to the locker room, changing out of the ragged shirts and shorts back into regular clothes. As Blake pulled his own shirt over his head, a sensation ran up his spine. An unsettling burn. Out of sight of the others, Blake looked around with narrowed eyes. There was a burn all right, but a slight one. Did that mean what he thought it meant?
He turned his head right as Cameron leaned over and waved at him. "Lunchtime. You coming?"
Blake nodded, and after he grabbed his things with Cameron out of the locker room.
The path from the gym to the cafeteria was a short one. There were many long tables, but only half were filled with students, most of them middle schoolers like him. Then there was the cafeteria line, with about a dozen students lined up, and he spotted June and Amelia in that line. Cameron joined them, but Blake took a seat at an open end of one of the tables before pulling out the lunchbox from his backpack. He opened it up: there was a half sandwich, an apple, and some broccoli....small but easy.
It wasn't long before his friends joined him.
"Only you would bring vegetables for lunch," sighed an exasperated Amelia.
"I'm not picky," said Blake.
"At least he eats healthy," June laughed. "Unlike someone I know."
It wasn't clear if she addressed Cameron or Amelia, but they both clearly took some mild offense to that.
"Change the subject, please." Amelia stretched her arms up for a moment. "Summer plans, anyone? We got two weeks."
"How often do we need to talk about this?" said June.
"Until we've got a solid plan."
"Solid plan? For three whole months?"
"We got a lot of time. Now, about that trip to the lake......."
Once again Blake zoned out. But, he wasn't bored. He just had an...uneasy feeling. He thought that burning sensation had returned, but his senses felt so overloaded with smells and noises right now that he wasn't entirely sure.
Everyone in the lunchroom had already grabbed their food and sat down. Some students headed outside through the cafeteria door for some sun. Others ate and cackled. His own friends talked plans, but he only half-listened to their words. Blake took a bite of his apple as he watched the cafeteria staff clean up the kitchen.
He stopped himself from taking a second bite. There, in the kitchen. It was a wisp of some kind, a tiny shadow floating around the room in there. Blake knew he saw it, and he squinted his eyes for a brief moment. The shadowy wisp fluttered about, mostly hanging around the three staff back there. And for a moment, he thought he locked gazes with it-
"Are you even listening?"
As if broken from a trance, Blake blinked and looked at his friends. June in particular had quite the quizzical expression on her face, with very furrowed brows and curled lips. Cameron looked a bit confused also, though Amelia just rolled her eyes.
"No, sorry. I zoned out."
"You've been zoning out a lot today." More than anything, June sounded concerned. "Are you sure you've been feeling alright lately? Maybe someone needs better sleep?"
Blake gave her a curt nod, then a shake of his head. He suddenly realized he just confused himself. "Yeah, no. I'm all good. Just, um...thinking about school ending. And summer."
"Oh really?" said Amelia. "Well if you're thinking so hard on it, why not share your thoughts?"
Of course. Now he had to come up with a good excuse for his 'daydreaming'. But what could he mention?
"The lake," he blurted.
"The idea is nothing new," said Cameron. "But if you'd like to add something-"
"We should maybe rethink going there at all."
Cameron and June exchanged a confused glance for a good few seconds. "Really?" then piped Amelia as she stared at him with narrowed eyes. "Why do you say that?"
"Because......" He swallowed, unable to come up with an explanation. He rested his hand on the back of his neck, and not a moment later the burning sensation returned. He couldn't focus on the conversation, especially now that his spine almost stung. There was definitely something nearby. But did he try to figure out why, or distract the others with a response?
"Hey, put that out! Now!"
The shouting of some adults caught the attention of most students in the cafeteria. Neither Blake nor his friends knew what was going on, but then Blake noticed a little flare go off in the kitchen. And then another.
"Put that out!"
Blake suddenly watched a huge flame burst from one of the appliances. The staff yelped, and a large crowd of students had noticed. Once they'd caught sight of the fire, they chattered with fear, yet remained in place.
The fire alarm sounded off moments later.
"Shoot, we gotta go!"
His friends did not hesitate to stand and head straight for the exit like everyone else. Blake reached for his backpack first, even though he knew he shouldn't, and prepared to follow his friends.
A wave of nausea hit him suddenly, and his vision felt fuzzy. His head began to throb terribly and he grabbed his hair with a groan, unable to stand for a moment.
June was at his side in seconds, and helped him stand on his feet. "Blake are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah," he grumbled. "I just-"
"Save it, you're not. Come on!"
Her decisive and commanding tone convinced Blake not to argue or talk with her any further. He just let her lead him out of the cafeteria.
But he cast one last glance back at the kitchen. He ignored the presence of the remaining students in the room, and instead set all focus on the flames in the back. They grew, slowly. But something else caught his eye. A little shadow. And a second one. Both made eye contact with him, and for another moment his head throbbed. They looked at one another, and then both bounded towards another kitchen appliance. It was as if they disappeared into the mechanism. And moments later a flame burst from that appliance, which increased the size and strength of the fire surrounding it. Blake's eyes widened, but he said nothing as June carried him outside.
They walked and joined the rest of the students. The entire way, Blake's head pounded, making him both dizzy and unbalanced. Though, the further away he walked from the school, the less it hurt. But it did not vanish entirely. He still needed a moment, and so sat down the first chance he got. June stood by him the entire time, and eventually rested her hand on his shoulder.
Cameron and Amelia joined them before long.
"Oh, crap, what happened?" asked the former. "Are you hurt?"
One of the teachers approached the group just as Blake responded with a shake of his head. "No, no. I just got dizzy for a moment. Came out of nowhere. But it's already going away."
After the teacher ensured he had no injuries, Blake looked up and around at his friends. Every one of them had crinkled mouths and furrowed brows that conveyed their worry.
"Couldn't have been the fire," said Cameron. "Did you get the headache before it started?"
Blake shook his head. "No, no, it started after."
"Doesn't it seem weird though?" June's question confused everyone, so she further explained. "I mean....you never get headaches."
"It's not that weird," Amelia said. "He probably gets them but just doesn't say anything because he's stubborn like that. He's alright now, yeah, so what does it matter?"
"I don't know......"
It was a strange situation: both Amelia and June were right. He didn't often let others know if he was having problems. But he also knew he'd never really had a headache before, at least, nothing that would give him this much vertigo. And he had the sneaking suspicion that those shadowy creatures had something to do with it. But knowing he could not explain this to his friends, he simply groaned.
Trying to make sense of all this is almost giving me another headache.
He saw that Amelia turned her head, and without warning she ran off into the crowd of students. Blake and the others exchanged glances and shrugged their shoulders. He looked around at the other students and listened to their conversations. Most of them chattered about the fire, the cafeteria, and classes. But he heard no mention of any monsters or shadowy creatures. No one had seen anything, at least not anything unusual.
Those things must be like the spirits I talk to, he thought. But, they're not the same. They don't give me the same feeling. So then what are they?
He must have been lost in thought for a little while, because Amelia was already jogging back towards them.
"The fire department should be here soon," she informed. "The faculty says we should probably call our parents, or just head on home. They don't think we should come in tomorrow while they do repairs and stuff, so..."
"Does that mean we get a three-day weekend?" Cameron perked up before he even asked that.
A teacher neared them and many other students before long, and relayed to all of them the same information that Amelia already had. The students seemed content with the news, and many of them readied for departure from school grounds. Some of them didn't have any bags with them, but few looked worried about that.
Blake looked at June.
"Can I borrow your phone?"
"Sure." She handed her device, a little flip phone, into Blake's reach. He accepted it with gratitude and opened up the phone, dialed a number, and let it ring. And ring. And ring.
No answer. But there was a ringtone at the end.
"Hey, Mom. So, there was a fire at school. But I'm fine! I'm fine. Everyone is, no one got hurt. But school got shut down, probably for tomorrow too....anyways, I'm heading home early, so I thought I'd let you know. Love you, and see you later. Bye."
With that he hung up. And then he handed the phone back to June with a soft, "Thanks," as he did so.
"Cam and I need to wait for Dad," said Amelia. "We'll be about twenty minutes though."
"Too bad we're not within walking distance like you two." Cameron indicated Blake and June with his pointer finger.
"I can wait with you, to keep you company," June offered.
"Aww, thanks." Amelia gave her friend a quick hug. "Thank goodness for best friends, because I can't always stand a certain brother." She shot Cameron a squinty-eyed look, but he simply rolled his eyes in response.
Blake already had different plans. After a few more moments of rest, he reached for his backpack and stood, albeit carefully.
"Are you going home already?" asked a concerned June. "What about your head?"
"My head's doing better, so I'll be fine," he said. "Home's not that far away, and I could really use some water."
June tilted her head to one side, and Blake responded by setting a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be fine," he told her with the most matter-of-fact tone he could give her.
She looked convinced enough, and nodded to him. Blake waved to his friends and then set off for home. His pace was a tad slower than usual as he walked, then turned, towards his house.
But as soon as he was out of sight of the school, he stopped, then reached for his head as the slight throbbing sensation returned. With no hesitation, he jumped forward in a burst of speed and ran straight home.