Chapter 1: Investigators

            Thump. Roman’s wad of quiz paper hit the bottom of the trash can.
            “Ha!” Roman laughed, turning to Hal, who looked stunned. “Alright, that’ll be five bucks.”
            “You hassled me.” Hal crossed his arms. “Don’t make me tell Mrs. Anderson that you’re gambling in school.”
            “I could easily argue with the fact that you stole some of her index cards,” Roman hissed, smiling.
            “What?” Hal turned around, trying to see if anyone else in first period math had heard, but Reece and Colby were busy with their homework, and the remainder of the class had either been talking or playing their own trasketball games. “How did you know about that?”
            “You’re the only one in the class with a paper cut,” Roman retorted, holding out his hand to collect his money.
            “How did you know about that? I’ve got a band-aid over it! I was alone in the room! How did you know?
            Roman searched for an answer, as he always had when something like this happened. He could find none, instead deciding to torture Hal. “I have ways. Now, unless you want some more super-natural stunts from me, you’ll cough up the five dollars.”
            “I don’t have it today; I’ll get it to you tomorrow.”
            “Tomorrow’s Saturday. And yes, you do have it. That one new kid, what’s his name? Clover? I saw him give you ten dollars today during line-up. Stop trying to weasel outta it.”
            Hal brought out his lanyard and gave Roman the five dollars. Roman counted and checked to make sure that they were each worth their name. The room was brightly lit, though the only window was built into the hallway door. Mrs. Anderson’s desk was off to Roman’s right, lavishly decorated with the ungraded quizzes and exotically shaped erasers. There were two computer monitors behind Roman at the back of the classroom. The desks were in rows, twelve across and four back. Reece and Colby were the only two, besides Roman and Hal, who remained in their desks. The rest of the class was crowded around the second waste basket in the far corner. The beige walls and spotted ceiling had marks from pencils being flung at them. Posters along the walls had statements about believing in your dreams, how math was important, and how you should turn your homework in on time. The over-head projector had been pushed into the closet because some of the other kids had been vandalizing it. The chalkboard had that day’s homework listed underneath the announcement of the quiz that they had just taken. Roman glanced at the plain, black and white analog clock with his deep blue eyes. They had over ten minutes left in class.
            “Speakin’ of which, why’d that Clover guy pay you ten dollars?” he asked Hal.
            “His name’s Cole, blondie. Believe it or not, he actually gave me the money to get you to walk home from school today. But you walk home every day, right? Easy money.”
            “Yeah…” Roman stopped counting. “Hope he won’t be waiting for me then? I might just stay late after school just to tick him off.”
            “Yeah, but it’s weird. I mean, these guys showed up at the same time as you did.” Hal rubbed his chin. Thinking seemed like a very rare thing for him.
            “Really? Then why do you guys call them the new kids? I’ve been here for two years, in case you don’t remember,” Roman snorted.
            “I remember. But I didn’t know his name until just today. They’re always really quiet, and they’re in academic everything. Not in any extracurricular stuff.”
            “Isn’t there a girl that he hangs out with?”
            “Yeah, there’s like, four of them.”
            “That Cole kid’s in my Spanish class, now that I think about it. The only time he talks is when Mr. Sapling calls on him. And, of course, during the presentations,” he added. “But who are the girls that he hangs with? I remember a ginger and some other.”
            “Dunno. I think that the redhead sits with the other girls at the window seats during lunch, but Cole sits by himself.” Hal paused. “I know!”
            “What?” Roman inquired.
            “I figured out why they’re all sullen an’ stuff! They’re all from the same orphanage place.”
            “I’ve never seen them at St. Jefferson’s before. You mean a foster home?”
            “No, they got sorta adopted or something.” Roman gave him an incredulous look. “We should ask them sometime. Well, you should,” Hal defended himself as Roman stared daggers at him.
            “You know, some people don’t like it when you ask them how their parents died,” Roman growled at him, narrowing his eyes.
            “Uh…yeah…so did you hear that Mr. Ferris got remarried?”
            “If I did, I didn’t care.” Roman took out his binder, pointedly slammed it on his desk, and took out his homework. He refused to look at Hal for the rest of the class.

            It was snowing outside. Roman knew this because he’d done nothing but stare out of the window since fourth period gym class was let out. Glittering flakes dazzled his eyes, taunting him.
            Why can’t they just have one day as a bad weather day? he thought miserably. He had just sat through the longest science class that he remembered, along with an assembly during reading class on the book that they were annotating. He felt like sleeping, but if they were let out, he would go straight to the park for a snowball fight. This was the first snow the town of Katy had seen in almost three years, unless you would count hail or roads freezing over-night, although those were more inconvenient than fun.
            “Oh, come on, Roman! Stop pouting!” came his friend, Caleb Haldrige’s, cracking twelve-year-old voice. “There’s no way they can keep us locked in!” he boasted, as if able to read Roman’s mind. “Remember that they can’t control us completely. What are they gonna do?”
            Roman turned his gaze down towards the end of the hallway to see Caleb walking towards him, only veering slightly away from the rest of the crowd heading to lunch. Caleb had short, mouse-brown hair and brown eyes. He wore a red t-shirt with horizontal, white stripes along with jeans. He had a buoyant look at first glance, with a round face and eyebrows that were always raised matter-of-factly. They were raised now as he swaggered over to Roman.
            “It’s not if they’ll let us out that I’m worried about,” Roman replied. “It’s when they’ll let us out. I’ve got a vocabulary test for seventh period. Plus, the snow might not even last that long.” He sighed, imagining himself running out of the school only to find wet streets and mud.
            “Well, think about the elementary kids. They must be crying from the fact that they get let out an hour after us,” Caleb pointed out. “Now let’s get to lunch before the snack lines fill up. TJ won’t hold off setting the blackjack cards for long.”
            “TJ’s absent today.”
            “Darn! Did you bring any cards?”
            “No. Do you honestly think that I’d even own a deck?” Roman bit back a sarcastic remark. “Where would I get one?”
            He followed Caleb into the high-ceilinged lunchroom. As usual, just like any other average day, it was already packed with people when the bell had only just rung. The only difference today was that through the windows behind the stage he could see the snow accumulating on the ground. He could barely see the white floor tiles through all of the other sixth graders sprinting around. The seven rows of mahogany tables were a quarter full, twice going for the snack lines.
            “Times like this, I’m glad that I brought my own lunch.” He patted Caleb on the shoulder and smiled. “Good luck, buddy.”
            Caleb narrowed his eyes at him, eyebrows still somehow raised, then raced to the rapidly-filling lunch lines. Roman made his way over to their usual table, next to the stage, which was decorated for that weekend’s “St. Patrick’s performance of Guys and Dolls.”
            Once he sat down in his round, scarlet, creaking seat, he noticed Alan walking his way. With his shoulder-length black hair waving side to side, his brown eyes beaming, and his gray jacket zippers swinging, he pushed easily through the stampede of kids.
            “Hey, Roman!” he called once in ear shot. “What’s up?”
            “Nothin’ much,” Roman answered. “You’ve probably noticed the snow. But TJ’s absent today, so we need to find something to do today instead of blackjack.”
            “And do you have any suggestions, as usual?”
            “We could always wait until Chrith and her friends get here, and then try to count how many times they say ‘like’ or ‘um’.”
            “We’re eating lunch today, not daring the impossible,” Alan sneered sardonically.
            “All too true, but unless you have another idea we get stuck with talking all of lunch. Oh, and nice new pants.” He noticed that Alan normally wore sweat pants in winter, but now he was wearing shorts that were so short, they looked barely allowed by dress code.
            “My mom made me wear them; she doesn’t think it can get cold in Texas,” he moaned. “And typically, she chose the day it snowed.”
            “Your gym shorts would be better than those.”
            “Your lunchbox would be better than these,” Alan said, sitting down next to Roman. “Anything new packed?”
            “Nope. Just another cold cheese-sandwich with a bag of grapes. I’m just worried that Ms. Smith will never decide that buying lunch is cheaper than packing it. It’s like she doesn’t trust me. And she’s known me for two years!”
            “That’s why she doesn’t trust you.” Caleb was walking toward the table with one of the school’s small, foam plates in his hands. It was full with an ice-cream bar, mozzarella cheese-sticks, milk, a loaf of corn-bread, and an apple. He sat down in his normal seat across from Roman.
            “Can I have your corn-bread?” Roman begged.
            “No,” Caleb dismissed passively. Then he suddenly put down his mozzarella stick and pointed.
            “Look! Everyone’s watching the snow fall outside!” he said in awe.
            Roman turned to the windows behind him, on the far side of the room. Sure enough, the windows were overrun with excited sixth graders.
            “Big deal,” Roman yawned. “It’s not like looking at it will make it blast through the roof and fall in. Do you really expect anything else?” Roman wasn’t in the mood for Caleb’s optimistic attitude.
            As he kept on watching some boys trying to sneak out onto the patio-deck, Roman noticed Chrith along with her best friend, Victoria, walking up to the counselor.
            Victoria was tall and had long, black hair and plain dark eyes. Both she and Chrith, who had curly ginger hair, were wearing sparkling, silver jackets. Chrith wore pink Bermuda shorts, while Victoria had on the same kind, but a color that matched the jacket. They both held their Coach purses at their right hips, looking like they were in a badly-coordinated fashion show.
            Roman watched the narcissists curiously, wondering what they could possibly want with an authority figure. They said something, but the counselor, obviously not taking whatever they had said seriously, turned away.
            Victoria and Chrith sulked over to their table right behind Roman’s to sit with Arnold and Sadie. They talked in hushed voices, their eyes gleaming maliciously.
            “That can’t end well,” Caleb guessed.
            “All the more fun.”
            Before Roman could wonder what they intended, Arnold stood up and yelled, “FOOD FIGHT!”
            A brilliant plan…
            Arnold threw his stuffed potato-slices at the counselor, who was now talking to the school principal, Mr. Spided. The slices splattered as they hit an empty section of the table in front of them. Once a few words were shared among the window-watchers, the cafeteria fell completely silent. All eyes were on Arnold.
            Arnold crawled down and hid underneath the table.
            Mr. Spided strode over to the platform next to the windows, picked the microphone up off its stand and summoned Arnold to the stage. Arnold crawled in Roman, Allan, and Caleb’s direction. Allan kicked him under the table. The previously silent cafeteria started calling out insults to Arnold, forcing him out. He walked regretfully over to the principal.
            When he was standing before the principal, Mr. Spided motioned with his finger to the people who had been sitting with him to follow.
            He marched with them out of the cafeteria, the other sixth graders still calling out at them.
            “Well at least something entertaining came along!” Caleb beamed.
            “Hey, guys!”
            They turned their heads to see someone that Roman didn’t recognize. It was a girl with long, curly brown hair and deep-hazel eyes that hid behind thin glasses. She wore a brown shirt with a design of a dancing monkey, along with a gray GAP jacket. She also had speckled gray and white shorts. The girl smiled at them as if they were old friends.
            Roman looked from Alan to Caleb, who both shook their heads and turned back to the girl, each with a questioning look in their eyes.
            “Hi! I’m Rachel. New here,” she explained. “I just wanted to know where the teacher’s lounge is. I can’t find the teacher I was supposed to get a tour from and I lost my map in the mob.” She indicated to the crowd of their classmates, who were still trying to force their way outside.
            “Uh, sure,” Roman replied uncertainly. “You know, the counselor’s in charge of schedules, and he’s right over there.” He indicated towards the stage.
            “Okay, thanks!” She grinned more broadly, then disappeared in the crowd again.
            “Wow.” Caleb was trying to stare after her through the crowd. Then he turned to Roman, “Do you think saying “you have a GAP in your jacket” is a good joke?” he demanded.
            “What? Someone’s got a GAP in his brain,” Roman answered, thinking that Caleb was in over his head.
            Caleb hunched back and crossed his arms and muttered, barely audible, “You’re not funny you know.”

            As Roman left the frenzy that now enveloped the school, light snow fell from a heavy gray sky.
            The school board had agreed that the kids should be sent home around mid-seventh period before the roads froze over, granting them their long-desired snow day. Roman was walking down the street that led to Caleb’s house, feeling satisfied about missing his vocabulary test. Caleb was trekking alongside him to his right. His hair was soaked from the snow that had melted on top of it, and his eyes were vibrating from the cold. The trees around them were stripped of leaves and replaced by snowy flecks. The streets were damp and wet and had a cold slur to them, like the smoky fumes that could be seen from the passing cars. The boys’ breath showed clearly in front of them, even when they breathed through their noses. Caleb’s cheeks and nose were red, and both boys sniffled every few seconds. Judging from how cold his nose was compared to the rest of his face, Roman guessed that his was red, as well. Caleb had gotten his thick, green jacket before leaving school. He had zipped it, so there was no sign of his red-striped shirt. Roman had kept on his red coat throughout the day, but had zipped it when leaving. Caleb had left his backpack at school, as they had no homework that they hadn’t already finished. The cold wind whipped Roman’s eyes and hair. He narrowed his eyes.
            “You know, I thought snow wasn’t supposed to melt until it warmed up. My mom’s going to kill me if I get any mud on my new shoes!” Caleb complained.
            “Well maybe the mud wants your shoes too. Or if you stopped using your hot dragon-breath to complain it might cool down.”
            “You know you’re not funny,” Caleb snorted theatrically.
            The crossing guard smiled half-heartedly as they passed by on the crosswalk.
            They reached the bayou, the half-forest, half-swamp part of town, which was adjacent to the school.
            “So, how’s Kayla?” Roman wondered. “Is she out of school, too?”
            “Not as of this morning, so there’s still hope that she won’t be home.”
            “But has she told your mom about the Nerf gun thing? I mean, unless you’re doing something for her…”
            “Oh, I gave her bragging rights for having better grades,” Caleb dismissed. “Mom’ll never find out, and if she does, then I tell her about Kayla’s makeup stash,” he purred.
            “As if she’d believe you. I mean, she’s only eight. She may be the most evil sibling ever, but Spencer has kept her on top.”
            “Oh yeah, and I found out Spencer’s address,” Caleb whispered as they were heading down the road through the bayou. Caleb’s mom didn’t enjoy them using this way, because a lot of highschoolers were rumored to smoke just a couple dozen yards within the forest. But Roman and Caleb wanted to make sure that they hid the Nerf gun in just the right place in the park before reaching Caleb’s house, and Mrs. Haldrige would wonder where they were if they were late. This way was quicker, since it ran right by the fence to the park, and one jump over would get them settling the secret weapon safely out of sight and home on time.
            “Ah, but did you snag the eggs?”
            “Yup.”
            “How did you keep your mom from noticing?” Roman inquired curiously, thinking that he smelled cigarettes.
            “Oh, I redid the expiration label, kindly pointed it out to her—”
            “You mean complained like a toddler.”
            “—and they were in the trash on the second. At least ten are crack-free.”
            “Sweet, one for every window,” Roman commented. “Let’s not forget the tennis shoes, though.”
            “Uncle Greg will never notice they’re missing,” Caleb boasted.
            “Your uncle’s visiting?” Roman groaned.
            “Oh, he—” Caleb stopped as he noticed the shadow on the gravel pathway.
            Silently, two figures emerged from the thick trees. Roman had no idea how they could’ve concealed themselves, and how they could’ve been soundless on the gravel, but they were, and a pang of fear pierced him.
            Half of his fear turned to confusion. These weren’t the types who would be underage smoking, although they were definitely underage. The first was a highschool-aged boy; tall, with spiky, ruffled brown hair. He had a sort of swagger to his steps, sending a clear message that he didn’t want trouble, and would make sure that he got none. He had on a black t-shirt with no design and black jeans. The jeans were long, but, despite the cold, he had no jacket. His short sleeves revealed prominent biceps. Roman was struck by his unnaturally purple eyes; deep-set, rimmed with black, and electric. He had a half-bored expression to his face, but he raised his eyebrows when he saw Roman and Caleb. His eyes seemed to linger on Roman for a moment, before he signaled for the second figure to come out of its hiding place.
            The second was even younger than Roman, and much shorter. He was paler than the first, with a black, zipped jacket and deep-blue jeans. He had no smoothness to his step, and seemed to actually fidget. He stayed behind the first boy, his frozen breath lingering only up to his chest. He looked much like a smaller version of him, but with lighter hair and skin, and darker eyes. His eyes had no ring around the iris, and were more of an indigo color. His hair was a mouse brown in some parts, but as dark as the first kid’s hair around the areas where the snow had fallen, and it was smoothed over instead of spiked. His pale cheeks were turned red by the cold, and he sniffled once. He looked Roman over, just as the first boy had. Neither said anything. Roman and Caleb were still frozen, both literally and with shock. As quickly and silently as they had come, they burst back into the tree-cover, and were gone within seconds.
            Without needing to speak to one another, Caleb and Roman broke into a run. When they jumped the fence, they headed straight for Caleb’s house, the whole time cold air was stinging their throats.

            “What’s the matter with you two?” Mrs. Haldrige demanded at the front door of Caleb’s white-bricked house, while fussing over them and inviting Roman in as a guest. Her lime-colored, silk dress dragged on the floor. She had unruly, streaming black hair and smooth, tan skin. She had eastern eyes, and resembled her kids in almost no way. Her lip gloss covered only half of her mouth and there was glitter splattered on her forehead, flashing against her green eyes. Roman guessed that she had been getting ready for the day when they had been dismissed. She probably would’ve been ready for them if Roman and Caleb hadn’t taken the short-cut and ran half of the way. Roman and Caleb were panting uncontrollably, mouths dry and cold. Roman was aware that the back of his hand had red splotches.
            “Oh, Roman, you look horrible! What happened? Are you hurt? Have you been in the water? You’re shivering, you have to sit down. Caleb! You have mud on your new cleats! If your father were home, what would he think?”
            “He’d ask you to buy a door mat,” Caleb muttered.
            “WHAT WAS THAT, MISTER?”
            “That I should pay for new ones and be more careful next time,” Caleb groaned robotically.
            “Good. Now I’ll get you two some blankets.”
            “And some water, please,” Roman said in his politest voice, the one he always used around Mrs. Haldrige.
            “Do you want some ice with it?”
            “Erm, no thanks. I’m cold enough.”
            “All right. Caleb! What are you doing just standing there? Show Roman to the couch!” She disappeared from sight.
            Roman knew where to go without his friend’s help. In the living room, the only thing that had changed since his previous visit yesterday was that the Christmas decorations weren’t up anymore. The shelf above the stone fireplace was still cluttered with small figures of buffalos in different outfits. One that had a space helmet was being ridden by a cowboy in overalls, and another one was wearing a blue-green tuxedo, performing a waltz with a black and white bovine wearing a red dress.
            The rest of the walls were decorated with paintings of landscapes and pictures of the Haldrige family. One was of Caleb’s father, a man that had been in the military for the past six years. The picture was in black and white, so it was nearly impossible to tell what color his hair and eyes were, though Caleb had mentioned that he had blue-dyed hair and unnaturally bright eyes. It was easy to tell that he was Kayla and Caleb’s father. His eyes were compelling, as if they followed Roman around the room. The thought made Roman feel awkward as Caleb led him to the purple couch.
            The floor was covered with a beige rug which clashed against the green wall paint. The sofa was set facing a snack table and an old-fashioned Sony television. A leather armchair stood near the couch. The remainder of the room seemed vacant without any holiday decorations up. Roman was sure that the Groundhog Day decorations would be up a week in advance, followed by the Valentine dressings. Caleb sat down beside him, making himself comfortable, propping his feet on the small table. Caleb turned on Nickelodeon. A minute later, Mrs. Haldrige came in with the last slice of Caleb’s leftover birthday cake and Roman’s water on a plastic tray.
            “Caleb, get your feet off of the table! I raised you better than that! Where did you put your shoes?”
            “By the door,” Caleb moaned as he was letting down his feet. This was obviously the wrong thing to say.
            “And put you them on paper towels, yes?” Mrs. Haldrige narrowed her eyes suspiciously, setting down the tray. Before Caleb could answer, she looked back at the mahogany door. The entrance hall had Japanese decorations covering the walls, and the marble floor had one Japanese-styled rug. The black and white shoes lay next to the door, a few mud tracks leading up to where they sat.
            Roman covered his ears, but it didn’t help much. Mrs. Haldrige started out with, “If you had a girlfriend,” and “If your father were here,”, but afterwards he had no idea what she was saying. Caleb’s red face turned green as he obviously understood. His mother stopped yelling when the doorbell rang.
            Kayla, Caleb’s little eight year-old sister, could be seen from behind the glass. She wore a pink jacket over a purple shirt with a picture of a yellow flower on it. She had black hair, startling blue eyes and an attitude that could take the Godfather down a notch. Mrs. Haldrige opened the door and started fretting over Kayla’s cheeks, which had turned a purplish-red. Like Caleb, she resembled her father more than her mother. She started talking excitedly about making flower pots in art class as Mrs. Haldrige lost all hint of ever having fumed at Caleb in her life. Mrs. Haldrige looked at the clock and seemed to decide that she was running late for something. She disappeared up the stairs to get ready, leaving Roman, Caleb, and Kayla alone in the room.
            “Saved by the bell,” Roman commented.
            “Good thing Uncle Greg’s gone,” Caleb mumbled.
            Very good thing.”
            “If I saved your butt, then Caleb owes me an Icee at the movies tomorrow,” Kayla decided in her squeaky third-grade voice, losing all excitement over flower pots. She sat down in the armchair. “That reminds me, Roman, are you coming with us? We’re going to see Exploding Cows: The Next Generation.”
            “What do you want?” Roman cut her schmoozing short.
            “Spanish tutoring. Mom wants me focusing on my current schoolwork, but I’ll give you an Icee and a hotdog and a movie ticket tomorrow if you give me lessons,” she said in a business-like way, with one leg folded over the other, hands in her lap.
            “Two things; not worth it. Especially not worth that movie. Also, you don’t want me to try to teach you. You really don’t. And why do you want to learn Spanish? You already know Japanese.”
            “That was three things,” Kayla sneered. “And three languages are better than two. Plus, the kids in my grade are going to start Spanish eventually. And some kids already make jokes in different languages! I want to know what they’re saying.”
            “There’s a thing called “Google Translator,” Caleb said smugly.
            “Caleb, if you’re going to stick with English, at least say something intelligent in it.”
            “At least I don’t make mom dominate my life,” Caleb hissed. “Oh, look at me! I’m in the advanced class! I’m going to be a doctor before I get out of highschool! I’m a total kiss-up!” Why don’t you go get some friends, Kayla?”
            Roman groaned, knowing what would happen next.
            “Mommy!” Kayla sobbed, fake tears beginning to swell her eyes. “Caleb said that I don’t have any friends!” She wailed for some time after that, until Mrs. Haldrige had taken away Caleb’s allowance for a month. Mrs. Haldrige led Kayla upstairs. Kayla turned her head halfway to the landing and smiled viciously. Caleb wrinkled his nose at her.
            “Don’t worry sweetie, he’s going to buy everyone a hotdog tomorrow,” Mrs. Haldrige promised.
            “How am I supposed to pay for her hotdog without any allowance?” Caleb growled once they were out of earshot.
            “Well…” Roman started, as if he was about to tell Caleb something secret. Caleb immediately took the bait.
            “Well what?”
            “Well…good luck, buddy.” Roman patted Caleb on the back. “Next time don’t spend all of your money on arcade games.”
            “Hey, you took the second gun.”
            “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have made it to level four.”
            “Just shut up.”
            Roman laughed and changed the TV to the Cinema channel. He decided to forget entirely about the two boys that had walked out in their path.
            But that wasn’t an option.


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