The next morning, Brock woke up to the seven o’clock bell. He groggily rolled out of bed and tried to slap the sleepiness out of his system. He jumped up to his feet and began to slowly make his way to the bathroom. As he walked, he noticed Atticus had already up and left for the day. Brock could never understand how Atticus, and anybody else for that matter, could wake up and get moving so early. Bed was such a cozy and warm sanctuary. Why would anyone ever want to leave that, he thought.
After he’d finished his daily cleaning regimen, Brock got himself dressed in his Fortuna Prep uniform, picked up his school bag and started to make way for class. But, he felt like something was all wrong. He made one last check around the room and noticed Atticus’ school bag still on his bed. It wasn’t like him to forget that.
Brock wasn’t the smartest of all the psychology students, but he recognized abnormal behavior It didn’t take a genius to know how badly Atticus was hurting. Brock decided the best thing to do would be to get Atticus to talk. Even if it’s just something small, anything would help him right now.
He picked up the bag and made his way out. Brock knew Atticus well enough to know he didn’t forget his bag on accident.
Atticus sat silently on a bench at the campus’ western park staring at Mike’s tree. As other students walked by, he overheard them talking about Mike’s supposed suicide. The police apparently didn’t listen to McCloud’s reasoning, as news was spread that Mike just had too much stress on his shoulders and decided to take his own life. Some students nicknamed it the “Hangman’s Tree” almost as if it was some sort of sight to see; as if Mike’s death was just some urban legend or ghost story kids would tell around Halloween.
Riddles littered Atticus’ head. He still had so many that he wanted to share, but he knew the rules: he had to solve Mike’s before it was his turn, and Mike had left him with a doozy this time around. Not that it mattered anyway. Atticus would never get a chance to tell him any that he’d thought up or kept on backlog:
“What word becomes shorter when you add to letters to it? Short!”
“What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never once in a thousand years? The letter M!”
“A man leaves his house and turns left three times only to come back greeted by two men wearing masks. Who are these men? A catcher and an umpire!”
Despite being taken away; Atticus could still see Mike’s body dangling from the tree. The image wouldn’t go away. His stomach churned and a lump formed in his throat, but Atticus was going to stop. Now, more than ever, he had to be focused. If he really wanted to be a detective one day, he knew he’d have to face situations just like this if not worse. Atticus couldn’t let his emotions and fears get the better of him. He had to be strong.
Brock’s voice broke the silence.
“Hey, you forgot something.”
Atticus jumped for a second before turning around and seeing his friend standing behind him, Atticus’ school bag in his hand. He smiled and took it, placing it gently by his side on the bench.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
Brock could feel that Atticus wanted to be alone. He knew that he wanted to skip class, but Brock wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch his best friend beat himself up.
Brock sat down on the bench next to him.
“Atticus,” he said, “why do you want to be a detective?”
Atticus shook his head. “I want to help people. I want to help when it seems like there aren’t any answers.”
“Like with Mike,” Brock said. “Or your parents?”
“I believe in you,” Brock said. “Together, we can solve this mystery.”
Brock smiled and said, “Of course! I’ll help you any way I can.”
Atticus smiled back. It felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He looked up at the tree and it finally seemed that he could see it without Mike’s body.
Brock got up and prepared to leave for class, but before he could get anywhere, Atticus stopped him.
“You asked me, so now I get to ask you,” he said, “Why do you study psychology?”
Brock was silent for a moment.
“I guess,” he said, “the same reason as you.”
His smile faded into a grim look of despair and Atticus could see, for just a second, a tinge of sorrow in Brock’s eyes.
“My mom,” he said. “She went off the deep end a few years ago. No one could help her. But, I’d like to help others like her before it’s too late.”
Atticus smiled. “I understand.”
Brock smiled back and continued his way off to class.
Atticus sat, staring at the tree for a while longer before hearing the eight o’clock bell. Class was now starting, but he wouldn’t be attending today. He needed to clear his head and listening to teachers’ lecture wouldn’t help him at all. However, sitting around wouldn’t help at all either. Atticus picked up his school bag and decided to go on a little walk around campus.
By the time the nine o’clock bell rang, Atticus had made his way from the western park all the way to the eastern side of campus where all the tech labs were. Walking in their shadow, Atticus felt envious of the students who understood all of the technical mumbo jumbo they were taught. He had no idea how clockwork automatons functioned nor did he have any clue on the laws of plasma conductivity. To him, it was all Greek. Both of his parents were brilliant minds in their fields, but sadly he didn’t inherit any of their brains.
The ten o’clock bell rang and Atticus had travelled from the tech labs down to the fine arts and language buildings. He wasn’t a very artsy guy, but Atticus was always impressed listening to the school band and choirs. He figured he might be good in the arts, but he just didn’t know what he’d want to do. Too many choices and not enough time to find out what. Plus, he didn’t want to fill his schedule with a bunch of extracurriculars.
By the eleven o’clock bell, Atticus made his way all the way to the physical education building on the southeast side of campus. The Fortuna Prep sports program was very limited. The Zebulon Corporation insisted on keeping it small, only allowing intramural and club sports, as they didn’t students to be distracted from their studies. Back when Atticus was just a freshman there was a petition going around to grant the school a competitive football team: The Fortuna Prep Starmen. Atticus didn’t think to sign it, mainly because at the time he didn’t think it was such a big deal, but apparently to a lot of other students it was.
By noon, the students were excused for lunch. Atticus felt his stomach rumble and he figured getting some lunch wouldn’t be a bad idea. Besides, he figured he could meet up with Brock and pitch some thoughts to him. Atticus hadn’t realized just how important talking with someone helped him stay focused.
As he made his way to the cafeteria, Atticus could hear some of his classmates talking about him. He wasn’t sure what they were saying, but he knew it wasn’t anything bad. It was usually something about him being so quiet, or how he too good at exams, or about him being a wannabe detective all the time. Perhaps that last one did bug him whenever he overheard it, but he never let it get to him.
He continued to walk through the crowd of students, not really paying attention to where he was going. He was just going with the flow, but because of that he accidentally bumped into a girl, knocking both of them to the ground.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” the girl shouted. She had a bit of a Spanish accident, or if not an accent she had the Spanish attitude.
Instantly she bolted up to her feet, but Atticus was a bit dazed. He staggered around for a moment before finally standing back up.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I wasn’t paying-”
“Oh, sorry,” she cut off, “but you’re Atticus Whaelord, aren’t you?”
Atticus wasn’t exactly sure what to say. He thought he was the one who was supposed to apologize, but now this girl looked at him like he was a celebrity. Not that he didn’t mind. The girl was extremely cute. She had long wavy chocolate brown hair tied into a pony tail and big brown eyes behind big oval glasses. She wore the traditional Fortuna Prep uniform: an indigo vest with golden trim, a white short sleeved shirt and a long purple and black plaid skirt. Her look alone made Atticus blush.
“Y-yes,” he said. “I’m the Atticus Whaelord.”
The girl smiled and held out her hand.
“I’m Camila Valencia,” she said. “We’re in professor Varnum’s history class together.”
“Really? I can’t believe I’ve never noticed you before.”
Instantly, Atticus realized what he’d said and tensed up. He didn’t think beforehand and just let his mouth spew out whatever it wanted.
Luckily enough, Camila just laughed it off. Either she was flattered by it or just didn’t care.
“You know,” she said, “that was really awesome yesterday when you turned your exam way earlier than Varnum expected.”
Atticus smiled awkwardly. “I didn’t think it was that hard of an exam.”
“Not only that, but you aced the test as well,” she said laughing. “I wish I had that kind of confidence.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” Atticus said blushing.
“You’re too humble.” Camila smiled. Her smile was contagious and forced Atticus to smile right back.
“So, I was wondering,” she said, “Are you busy today after class?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. His heart was beating violently, though he wasn’t sure why. He’d never been so baffled around a girl before. Maybe it was because this was the first time a girl had actually confronted him over something.
Camila smiled and said, “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to get together and study sometime?”
Atticus felt like he got punched in the gut.
“Y-yeah, sure,” he muttered. “I’d love to. We could tonight sometime if you’d like?”
Camila’s face beamed with delight. “Yes, that’d be wonderful. Say five o’clock?”
“That’d be perfect!” Atticus gave a weak smile. He couldn’t let his mind rush too far ahead. He had to stay focused. Now is not the time to go brain dead. But, when a popular and pretty girl actually wanted his help, it was hard to keep it together.
“Hey, why don’t we-” Atticus froze.
“Why don’t we what?”
“W-we could,” Atticus stuttered. “We could, y’know, perhaps grab something to eat beforehand? Maybe?”
Camila was silent. Atticus was sure he’d blew it. “This wasn’t a “date” date, just a study date. He wasn’t sure why he thought it’d be okay to ask. He lowered his head in shame.
“That sounds wonderful,” Camila said.
Atticus wasn’t sure if he’d heard her or just imagined it. He looked up and saw her smiling and giggling as if he’d said something charming.
“How about we meet at the Turtle Dragon,” she asked. Atticus nodded. “Alright, so I’ll see you at the Turtle Dragon at five o’clock.” He nodded again.
Camila smiled and said goodbye to Atticus, who was still trying to recover from what had just happened. As she walked off, he looked down to make sure his zipper wasn’t down or something horribly embarrassing. Much to his delight, it wasn’t.
Atticus decided against going to history class. Instead, he decided to do the smart thing and return to his dorm for a nap. There was nothing grouchy old Varnum could teach him that he couldn’t just read out of the textbook. Atticus figured if he couldn’t take the book’s word, how could he take his professor’s? Besides, Professor Varnum just took his lessons straight from the book itself. He didn’t paraphrase or make it interesting; he just quoted it verbatim.
As his head hit the pillow, Atticus found his mind already drifting to lala land. His heart was slowing down and he was beginning to relax. Atticus closed his eyes and instantly he passed out.
And instantly, he wished he hadn’t. In his dream, Atticus found himself trapped within a dark empty void. Atticus was not fond of the dark. It terrified him more than anything else. It was one thing not to know the answer, but it was another thing to be completely lost without ever giving hope of an answer.
There was nothingness as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t cold nor was it hot. It was like there was no temperature. Atticus began to fear if this is what death was like. Absolutely nothing, not even hot or cold.
He wasn’t standing on anything, but he wasn’t floating either. There was no light, but if he looked down at his hands, he could see them clear as day. There was no air to breath, but he wasn’t suffocating. Atticus was literally in an abyss of nothingness.
That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad except for the squeak. The squeak a bicycle chain made after having not been oiled for a few years. It was faint and not very frequent, but every time he heard it, Atticus squirmed.
He looked all around in a desperate attempt to find the source of the squeaking, but nothing but darkness surrounded him. It was then, at the height of his panic, he heard the terrible laugh. A laugh of sadistic delight. It was so much worse than any squeak or any darkness; the laugh rang in his ears, sent shivers down his spine, and caused his knees to buckle. It overwhelmed him like a powerful wave and Atticus felt himself getting tugged deeper and deeper into the darkness all around.
Everything in his body screamed at him to wake up, but Atticus wasn’t in control.
Then, a flash of light blinded him and his dream changed. No longer was he drowning in an ocean of nothing, thank goodness, but instead he was standing in the lobby of the Las Vegas Police Department. At the far end of the room, Atticus saw Detective McCloud speaking with a man and a woman.
The two were an older couple, maybe in their mid to late forties. They were obviously a married couple. Well, maybe obvious wasn’t the right word, but that’s what Atticus figured when he saw the two had matching wedding rings.
The man wore a dark green suit and a bright orange tie. His hair was an untamed dirty blond mess and he wore a pair of large brass goggles. The woman wore a long elegant golden dress, patterned with little silver diamonds around the frills and long silk black hair.
The couple was obviously not happy. The woman’s eyes were red and puffy from sobbing. The man’s jaw was tightly clenched. Atticus didn’t know these people, but they seemed awfully familiar. But then, before he got time to think about it, his dream shifted again and he heard the terrible laughter. For just a second, Atticus caught a glimpse of his locket dangling in the nothing before his eyes shot open to Brock shaking him awake.
“Atticus,” he shouted, “what’s wrong? You were wiggin’ out in your sleep. I thought you were having a seizure or something.”
Atticus rubbed his eyes and looked over at the clock on his nightstand: 3:07.
“What? No way, I was only asleep for a minute!”
“Are you okay?”
He shook his head. Atticus felt his heart racing all over again. His hope that a nap would relax him was sadly all for naught. But, if there was one thing he got from his nap, Atticus knew what he had to do to help Mike’s case.
“Hey Brock, how would you like to help me run some errands?”
“What do you mean?”
Atticus smiled and said, “I need to grab myself another locket.”