Kodi sat, alone in the dark, trying not to hyperventilate out of sheer panic. It would not do to waste air in a time like this. Trying not to think of all the different ways he could die down here, being buried alive.Lack of food and, more importantly, water.  But most of all…Lack of oxygen. He’d tried pry his way out of the branches continually to reach the surface, to try and claw his way out, but it was all futile. He was officially trapped. He felt stupid, for falling for– literally– such an obvious trap. Of course, he hadn’t known it was a trap at the time, it had seemed innocent enough at the time. Little had he known.

He should have gone with his gut. He should have tried to whip out some drawing to fight the two characters cloaked with suspicion. But no, he’d just froze, waiting for it to all go down. And he was still mentally kicking himself for it. Once. Twice. Thrice.

He pressed his forehead into what felt like a nearby branch, closing his eyes and recalling the retreating footsteps of Twilight and Dusk up above, and their conversation:

Twilight’s arrogant voice: “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Dusk apparently remained silent enough for his voice to gain a brand-new tone, one that shocked Kodi just as much as being swallowed alive by the earth did: concern. “Look, if he finds out you’re going and fraternizing with one of THEM, we’re BOTH gonna get it. D’ya understand?” More silence. A sudden thump right above Kodi’s left, and he heard her give a slight gasp of surprise and pain. “Sorry, but it was either that, or… you know…”

“I– I know,” he heard Dusk finally say. Kodi listened to the rest before he could detect no more: “Anyways, he’s where Night wanted him, now– out of the way. We can’t afford any more liabilities, you know that. It’s better this way.” No reply, but he did hear a sudden gush of wind, then the two voices simply were gone. With no explanation with how or why they had co–

Kodi stopped, suddenly horror-stricken. Dusk? Twilight? His heart hammered even more, so much it hurt his chest, his rib cage. All references to dark, evening, and nighttime and  names he suspected to be actually code names, not real ones. The unusual behavior, showing up out of the blue like that. The cat in the tree brambles. The underground, tree branch-lined prison suddenly gave the impression of an underground icebox; Kodi couldn’t stop shaking. And it wasn’t just because of the environment. The question was, why? Why had they wanted him out of their way, when he had only been trying to aid the girl in rescuing her kitten? What had he ever done to the likes of them? Unless…

Unless they already knew something about him that he did not know about himself. Or that he was a Junk Collector. Something in that that threatened them enough to make them want to kill him. It chilled his blood now; it was bad enough that he knew nothing about his past, did he have to play guessing games with the little psychos Mikey had warned them about? But then, why did the girl seem to sympathize, reluctant to do away with him? It was a complete mystery; from what Mikey had told them, all of the Shadow Six were dangerous. Perhaps she had been faking it in order to lure him into a false sense of security? But then, on the other hand… fraternizing? 

Why?

His mental analysis process was interrupted by a pinprick of light from above, and unexpectedly the girl’s voice echoed softly in his head’s cavern: “You know what to do. I know you do.”  What had she meant?

Perhaps she thought it was a bizarre, cruel sort of kindness in letting him live, only to slowly suffocate under the earth’s prison. Or…

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the smallest pinprick on light on the tree branches beneath him. He started, then eagerly twisted, eyes following the tiny trail of hope heavenward, to the earthen ceiling. He gasped. The morning light had filtered through a small gap; the faintest flicker of hope, as small as the few millimeters large crevice, grew in him. It could be the only reason he hadn’t suffocated. Yet.

Suddenly, he knew. He knew what she’d meant.

Feeling around in his backpack, he fished out his sketchpad and a pencil, and, edging towards the speck of light, found it suitable enough for his purposes. When his eyes adjusted to the extraordinarily dim lighting, he began to draw as though his life depended on it.

Because it very well did.

*************

Guy could hardly believe what he was becoming. He had always received good grades in class, but this was completely ludicrous. Being the academic type was far from his style. He did not normally stay awake, deep beyond homework hours, to crack the codes of light re-fragmentation, the laws of physics, etc. But then, he was no longer a normal student. His responsibilities had at least doubled in the past week or so, ever since that Junk Collector incident at the creepy, almost-abandoned house. Between school and his leadership duties as the Junk Collecting squad’s leader…

But still, even if it WAS tiring, it wasn’t a total waste of his time. He’d never learned so much in so little time, and how each piece of material, every sheet of metal, every cord or spare shard of glass could contain so much potential. Glass shards, for instance, could be pieced together in such a way to reflect light, and, if positioned closely enough and at the right angle, could fry away like a laser– like a giant magnifying glass. Springs could be used in a variety of ways– launching things, propellants, adhered to a pair of older boots and you could leap great distances, depending on the spring and its size, capabilities…

And don’t even get me started on what sheet metal and small, broken pipes can do, he mentally added. He had learned a good bit, indeed.

He sighed, finally looking up from his textbook-pillow, and groaned a little when he realized he’d been drooling in his sleep. Oh joy…. He mustered the strength out of drowsiness to wipe off any remaining saliva with his sleeve, and peered sleepily but hopefully at the text, praying it wasn’t soiled. The last thing he needed at this point was more tension from more people. Fortunately, only a sentence or two was a bit smudged; he could probably touch it up with his pen, no problem.

After yawning and stretching, Guy dragged himself upward and to his feet, feeling and probably looking about as intelligent as a caveman, combing his mussed dark brown hair with equally lazy fingers. Ooka Ooka. He continued the drag-slump-drag process until he reached his dresser, and exchanged one shirt for the next, throwing the previous in a nearby laundry bin. He shot a glance in the mirror, and let out another sigh. Even if it WAS Saturday, he’d still have to get cleaned up. He’d promised himself he’d try to get Kodi and Wren to meet in secret, even if he himself could not. Even if it WAS against Dad’s wishes.He got dressed, then grabbed a few things he thought he could tweak into a new metal-based project. Maybe Wren would cheer up if he built her something nice– and not just something duty-based.

Lumbering out of his room, he almost ran into Dad on the way to Kodi’s. “Hey, sport,” said Dad. “You’re usually not up this early.” He glanced past Guy’s shoulder. “Burning the midnight oil, I see. Good. I can only hope that your attitude toward your academics is rubbing off on your attitude towards your elders.” Guy bit back a caustic reply. “Good morning to you, too,” he said through clenched teeth.

Dad looked at him for a moment. “You know, I was thinking last night, hoping to work something out… but, if you’re going to be surly…”

“Work what out?”

“I know you’re mad at me,” Dad said almost gently. “And I know you’re trying to get to know people and make friends. I get that, I do.” He paused, running a calloused hand through bed-mussed dark brown hair. “Which is why I’ve started looking around for job opportunities for you– part time, of course. I think the more you get involved in the community, and spend more time with the right kinds of people,” here Guy bristled a little, “the more likely you are to make better, lasting friendships and get experience with a trade. That’ll really help you after you graduate.” Dad’s eyes seemed to scan him, trying to gauge his reaction, and, upon receiving no negative one, went on. “So… I’ve noticed you’ve been unusually committed to all your classes, but physics in particular. And you’ve been out at the machine shed with your tools a lot, so… I asked Mr. Haney, who runs the auto-parts store downtown, if he could use any help.”

Guy stared. Mixed emotions welled up in him. On one hand, how was he going to have the time to go over Junk Collecting things with their team and try to reach Wren (albeit in secret) if things just kept cropping up? On the other hand…

I can use this to my advantage, too. It’s perfect. Being around the stuff, and figuring out how it works, along with getting ideas… The idea made him nearly nauseous with excitement.

“Dad, I don’t know… what to say…”

“Guy!” He spun a little at Kodi’s voice. Kodi was at the top of the stair, grimed from head to toe in what looked like fine dirt.

“Kodi!” Dad’s face was a mask of surprise and anger. “What do you think you’re doing, tracking dirt through the house like that?! What have you been doing?! Go clean up, and then get the vacuum. Now.”

“I will, I will!” Kodi stumbled, evidently trying to gain proper footing while catching his breath. “I… just… need to talk to… Guy… for a moment.” Still panting, he waved a hand dismissively. “Ya mind, old man?”

Dad raised his eyebrows. “You had better get this mess cleaned up,” he warned, as he descended the stairs. “And afterwards I want an explanation.”

“Kodi, what’s going on?” said Guy in a hushed tone. Kodi held a finger to his lips, and, when Dad was about halfway down, he grabbed Guy’s wrist, yanked him into his room, slammed and locked the door. “KODI!” Dad’s voice resounded.

“WHAT did you DO?” hissed Guy.

“I  might’ve kind of drew a beanstalk with my special drawing paper and pencil, and kind of accidentally uprooted our mailbox in the process.”

“WHAT the HECK? Are you TRYING to get us killed, again?”

“No, but after this week, Dad may not have the privilege of doing that.” Kodi exhaled.

Guy’s eyes narrowed. “What the crap are you talking about?”

Kodi took another breath. “Obviously, you two don’t know what happened this morning. I went out to practice drawing some… less dangerous things… but then…”

Guy felt his eyes grow larger and larger still as Kodi related to him the whole thing– until they felt like they were practically popping out of his skull. “So, you think that those two random kids…?”

“Weren’t just some random kids,” said Kodi grimly, wiping off his arms with a moist paint cloth. “I wonder what they’re up to though, aside from trying to kill us. My main question is why? Why do they want us dead, if we’re not even bugging them, let alone fighting them?”

“Maybe they think it’d be better if they just wiped us out from square one, so they don’t have to deal with that possible threat to begin with? You know, cut off the problem at the roots.” It made Guy shudder to think it, let alone say it, but he couldn’t deny the possibility.

“Probably. But we still don’t know who exactly they are, or what they want… what they’re trying to achieve.”

“Sounds to me like they want us dead in a hole. Or any other way.”

“But I kinda got the gist the girl was pretty conflicted… like she was torn between helping or at least feeling sorry for me, and… you know, her loyalties with… them.”

“And how do you know they are some other Junk Collecting team that’re rivals? Mikey never said there weren’t others, or that we couldn’t kill each other. Although I would assume the latter is naturally a given, you never know.”

“Naturally.”Kodi rolled his eyes as he finished wiping off his neck as well as he could manage. “They might not have been WEARING black, but they used code names. Twilight and Dusk. Specifically related to nighttime. I wouldn’t exactly call that “normal,” would you?”

“Maybe they’re a part of some sadistic cult?”

“Dude, the Shadows basically ARE a cult. Mikey himself warned us about them.” He shook his dreads, spraying dirt. “We just don’t know what their goals are. What or who they’re targeting next–” Suddenly, he froze, mid-shake.He slowly raised his head, looking Guy in the eyes, face a mask of shock and horror.

“What?”

“If YOU were a villain and wanted to pick off your enemies one by one, you wouldn’t go for the strongest threat, right? You’d pick off the most vulnerable, most compromised of the pack, wouldn’t you?”

The metal scraps tumbled from Guy’s fingers to the floor.

________________________

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