Wren dumped out the contents of her messenger bag into a cluttered heap at the foot of her bed and began to sort through them. School junk in one pile, writing materials in another, leads on her friends’ disappearances in a third. Naturally, since it had been three years since the incident occurred, there had been no new leads, and the pile had remained rather stagnant in size. But Wren obstinately refused to give up hope. One day, they WOULD be found. She would even pretend like it had never even happened, if it meant spending even a few more minutes with either of them. Her heart ached just thinking about it, and she squeezed her eyes shut to prevent tears from seeping out. They just had to be alive. Just HAD to…
A knock on her door shook her out of the reverie.
She stood, and opened it, to see her lanky, nineteen year old older brother Jake lounging lazily in an oversized t-shirt and jeans, hand in short, scruffy, dirty blonde hair. “Hey,” said Jake, “Some kids are on our front porch. Say they wanna talk to ya. I don’t know if they’re friend or foe of yours, but–” He cracked his knuckles, “if they’re giving you any trouble…” Wren scowled. “Hilbert and his henchgoons?”
“Nope. Actually, never seen ’em before. I think they must be new ’round these parts.” Wren groaned, deliberately banging her forehead off the doorpost in frustration. Why wouldn’t these people just leave her alone? “Is Mom home yet?”
“Wren, you know the drill. You know she works late on weekends. Heaven knows why.” He tipped his head back to finish imbibing his soda pop, liquid drizzling down though his short scruff of a beard. “You know I find that gross, right?”
He ignore her, crumpled the empty can, and shot it over her head. “He shoots–” It just barely made her plastic trash can. “And he scores. OK, you’ve had your fun, now scram.” She batted him away. “I have a new lead on Char and Phoeb’s possible location anyways, and I need to go to confirm it–”
“What makes you think they’re even in the same location?” a new but painfully familiar voice asked her. Jake whirled about, arms spread almost protectively in front of Wren. Wren rolled her eyes. “It’s OK, I know him. Unfortunately.” Jake hesitatingly lowered his guard. Wren noticed that the new kid, Guy, was accompanied by a scrawny little kid with chocolate skin, equally brown eyes, and short black dreads. Under each of his armpits were rolled up parchments… drawings or paintings, perhaps? Seeing them together somehow made her relax a bit. If this guy was nice enough to short stuff like this kid, there was probably a good chance he’d be genuinely decent to her. On the other hand, she wasn’t about to just drop her guard like that, either. Speaking of which…
Jake stole the words out of her mouth. “How the heck did you get in?”
Mr. Scrawny calmly twirled a small, thin piece of metal around in his fingers; when Wren squinted she realized it was an untwisted paper clip. They’d picked the lock. “You can’t just pick somebody’s lock and break in like that. We could call the cops in a heartbeat.”
“Well, we didn’t figure you’d let us in, otherwise,” retorted Guy. “Besides, Kodi knows you better than you might think. He knew you might just need our help, and we weren’t just gonna stand by and let the possibility of you refusing weigh us down.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” said Wren, “because the moment you broke in, my trust level of the likes of you went from a six to a two.”
“At least it’s not a one or a zero,” said Scrawny. “But you’re right, we didn’t come here just to break in. And I doubt you’d have anything we’d want, anyway.” He squatted, unraveling each parchment slowly and with care, trying not to tear it. “I brought these for you, to help cheer you up,” he told her, ” because when we first moved here, I was angry. Angry and heartbroken. Angry because people knew nothing about me where I used to live, then, after they got to actually know me a bit better, we all picked up and left that life behind. I left all my new-found friends behind, and was uprooted like a tree, and re-planted in completely different, unsuitable soil.” She saw him clench his fist and jaw simultaneously. “And I was heartbroken. Not just because I had to leave it all behind, but because it was like drawing a blank,” he nearly snarled like a cat, ” all over again. You see, I’m an amnesiac. I already had no memory of who I was back where I used to live. When we moved, I had to try and recreate my whole identity, practically.”
Wren stared at him, half wondering if he was making it all up just to garner her sympathy– and half feeling almost sympathetic towards him. Oh, the sickeningly sweet taste of irony.
“Then I was in “my” new room, looking out the window,” he said, “and I spy, with my little eyes, a girl in the distance. A girl trying to stay dry under a tree and trying to tack a poster onto the same tree at the same time. A girl who looks gloomy but is also full of determination. Hope, even. I saw that she was going to keep going about it, no matter how badly her circumstances were twisted or warped. Yes, you. I saw you, and, in that moment, I had never wanted to help you or draw you so badly as I did then, and as I do now.” He held up one hand-painted watercolor poster, and Wren gasped. It was her, face tilted downward, but hazel eyes alight with that spark, smothering that poor tree trunk with a poster of Phoebe. She felt her eyes beginning to glaze over with moisture, and had to look away.
“We’ll do anything you ask to help,” she heard Guy finally chip in. “And if we’re any kind of hindrance instead, just tell us.”
Jake tossed his kid sister a glance. “You sure you still wanna trust ’em?”
She finally nodded. “Get a better lock on that door, though– we’ll need it.” Jake managed a weak half-smile, and slowly made his way past the other two, down the old, carpeted hallway. He suddenly gripped Guy’s arm, and whispered something in a low, inaudible tone in Guy’s ear. Guy swallowed visibly, and bobbed his head. Jake released his arm and walked downstairs.
“C’mon in,” said Wren, with hesitation, “and I’ll show you what leads I have on my their disappearances. That is, unless, of course, you believe I had something to do with it?” Her wall was back in place, metaphorical archers ready, willing, and able to fire at will. This was the duo’s final test. If they failed, she’d have Jake haul their rears out the grassy driveway so fast they’d think they were Sonic the Hedgehog in hyperdrive mode.
This time, it wasn’t Scrawny who responded, but Guy. “Of course not. You genuinely care about your friends, otherwise it’s plain you wouldn’t go to all this trouble of hunting for them. Those horrible rumors utterly contradict your actions; it’s clear as a bell that you care.” Her wall’s defenses finally breached, at least a bit, and she found herself relaxing. “OK…” she said, slowly letting out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding in. “Follow me.” Wren didn’t like having people help her,let alone people she barely knew; it interfered with her sense of pride and dignity. But then, desperate times called for desperate measures. And she was desperate to get Phoebe and Charlotte back, safe and sound.
She led the way back into her cluttered room, books and resources scattered everywhere. Guy was looking around, appearing slightly bewildered at the sight. She ignored him, pulling up her laptop, scrolling through her images of newspaper clippings, articles, photos, etc. She felt Scrawny gazing over her shoulder at them. “I’m Kodi, by the way.”
“Wren. In case your backup failed to introduce you previously.” She moved the cursor onto one particular image, then double clicked to enlarge it. Kodi craned his neck even more, and Guy leaned over him. Wren worried briefly that they were all going to collapse on top of her, but still held the screen within their viewing range. “That,” she said, pointing at the screen, ” is who we’re going to be investigating first.”
” “The Junk Collector?” ” read Guy. “He doesn’t sound too bad. Just like an enigmatic old hermit that holes up inside his house all day and never comes out to see the light of day. That’s what the article says. So?”
“I know what the article says,” snapped Wren. “You don’t think that that’s… weird? Creepy? Unnatural, even?”
“Well, it’s not unnatural for more elderly people,” Kodi surmised, “they can’t get around like they used to. That’s why we have nursing homes and stuff dedicated to helping people like that.”
“Then why isn’t he in a nursing home? Keep reading,” she said, scrolling further down and clicking again. Guy’s eyes widened. “It says that no one has seen him in years, and that people occasionally hear unusual noises from his attic…” He turned to Wren. “But, wait, what does this have to do with finding your friends, at all?”
Wren let out another sigh. Time for a bit of backstory, on her part. “Growing up, the three of us called ourselves, “The Adventurers;” we were all different in personality, but all had goals to seek out adventure, risk, and classic camaraderie. We were a different version of the “PowerPuff Girls,” I guess you could say… Phoebe was the girly girl, though pretty adventurous still. Charlotte was the athletic semi-tomboy, was on track meets and all kinds of sports. I was… the nerd. Only difference was, Charlotte was kind of the leader, not me. Out of all The Adventurers, they said I was the quietest.”
Guy stifled a chuckle. “What?”
“I-I just find it difficult to picture you as the nerdy type, is all.” Wren rolled her eyes. “I got straight A’s all throughout Elementary and middle school, y’know,” she said. “It wasn’t until after they up and vanished that I lost my focus, and well… ” she twirled her hair, half embarrassed. “Your grades started going downhill as a result,” Kodi finished for her. She shot him a quick glare. “Yes, well, that’s besides the point.” She pointed at the screen again. “The last time we were together, we were figuring out our next plan for adventure, perhaps out last one, since we were just about to enter high school. We were planning on checking out the ever-elusive Junk Collector, since no one’s seen him or heard from him in so long, but then…” she bit her lip.
Guy placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “What happened?”
Wren brushed away a stray strand of mousy brown hair, tucking it behind her left ear. “I… I don’t know, exactly,” she confessed in a whisper. “The night before they vanished I got a call from Charlotte, saying that she was going to investigate something. That she needed to… confirm… that some plans were in place. That’s all she would say to me, then just abruptly hung up. I got suspicious and worried, it not being like her at all, and I ran over to her place, in the middle of a thunderstorm. But when I got there, she… was already gone.” Wren lowered her head subconsciously, ponytail dangling by her neck. “I can still remember just sitting, sitting, sitting there on her porch steps, waiting for hours into the night for her to return, up to midnight I think, but she never came back… her mom saw me sitting there by myself, and got worried. Called my mom to come pick me up, then called the police when Charlotte didn’t call her back. Phoebe’s dad called in about two hours later, to report her missing, too.” Wren fought another sob. “And that was the last I heard of either of them.”
She was vaguely aware that Guy had wrapped an arm around her shoulders, as she peered over the laptop screen at Kodi, who was pacing like a detective. “So your conclusion is that this Junk Collector, whom you were last going to investigate, had a hand in their sudden disappearances?”
“I would stake my life on it.”
“That’s a good bit to stake. How ’bout your former rep as a nerd, then?”
Wren shook her head miserably. “That rep’s been long demolished, not much to stake on. But yeah, I would stake just about anything that he’s the one.” Her eyes narrowed. “I just need to find him, capture him, and turn him in.” She thought she sounded more courageous than she actually felt.
Guy gave voice to some unspoken concerns. “But wait, let’s think about this rationally. Even if you DO hold something personal against the guy, he could be a dangerous criminal for all we know. Wouldn’t it be better if we contacted the police first?”
“You don’t think I’ve tried that?” She made a mocking imitation of an officer, ” “Sorry, honey, he may be eccentric, but we’ve cleared him long time ago; the guy’s cleaner than a plate just put through a dishwasher. Why don’t you run along now, and go out with your boyfriend or something?” ”
“Well, that’s certainly no help.”
“Which is exactly why I want to investigate him personally. But thanks to you two, I now might have both witnesses and back up. You guys free tomorrow?”
“Wait, wait, hold up– tomorrow?” sputtered Guy. “You want to drag us into it tom–” Kodi elbowed him. “Don’t mind him– we’re all too happy to help.”
“Good.” She handed Kodi, aka the More Reliable One, a small stack of papers. “Here are some files on the case, the ones that the police DID manage to scarf up. And that I scarfed from them, in return.” She turned back to her laptop, shutting it. “Now if you’ll excuse me, gents, I have great need of some beauty rest. Do take care. I assume you already know the exit and show yourselves out, since you broke through that way.”
As Wren readied herself for bed, she couldn’t help feeling, for the first time in a coon’s age, perfectly content. Glad-hearted, even. This is it. I’m going to find them. I’m going to bring them home. And I’m going to make the Junk Collector, or whoever tried to do this to them, pay dearly.
She sat down in her opened window seat, not bothering to shut it, and let her hair fly loose from being up all day. She closed her eyes, enjoying the wind’s light, cool caress, when she heard a light, fluttering noise and something hit her– smack!– in the face. Annoyed and surprised, she realized it was a scrap of paper– a note. Yet, the handwriting was not hers, so it couldn’t have been one of her own papers flying out of whack. The handwriting was neat, elegant cursive, reading clearly, ” I know what your goals are. I too, would like to help. And unlike those boys, I understand you entirely. If they ever get in your way or try to hinder you, or even if you would like someone, anyone, to talk to about those holed up feelings you so often cage inside your weary heart, I am willing to aid you, to listen to you, to comfort you in any way I can. If you wish for my help, you may simply say so aloud. Wherever you may be, I will hear.” The note was left mysteriously unsigned. She stared at it, then out into the cold, distant, dark night– and wondered what to make of it all.
The plot thickens…
Image Credit: http://dani-the-naiad.deviantart.com/art/Old-Country-Farmhouse-216776934