Being unattached has its risks.

Noah took out his books from his locker as his best friend, Alex Downs, sidled in next to him. Alex held up a science book in his hands, but it was the unrelated picture the boy had stuffed inside of it that caught Noah’s attention.

“Is that another picture of Ava Winslow?” asked Noah.

“Uh, huh,” smiled Alex.

The young man nodded in eager recognition of Noah’s recognition, but this was not a happy moment. It was just weird.

“Dude, she’s like eighteen,” frowned Noah. “We’re twelve. Give it up.”

“Why?” asked Alex in visible confusion.

“You’re like a stalker with that old camera of your dad’s,” said Noah. “I shouldn’t even have to explain it…She’s never gonna go for a boy. Girls like actual guys, specifically older guys. Everyone knows this…Besides, she’s hot. She’s got to have guys all over her.”

“I heard she likes younger guys,” said Alex with an eyebrow wiggle.

“That’s just idiots talking,” sighed Noah. “Even if she did date you, she’d get arrested…I’m pretty sure that’s illegal or something.”

His best friend shook his head with an adamant “no.”

“I’m going to ask her out,” nodded Alex.

Noah couldn’t help but laugh over this one. This was too funny to pass up.

“She’s never going to go out with a little kid,” he chuckled. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!…Oh, jeez…What a loser.”

“Hey,” scowled Alex. “I’m not a loser!…I’ve got more guts than you. I’m gonna do it.”

Noah rolled his eyes and shook his head. He could already see the problem with this one.

“You?… Have guts?” he asked unhappily. “You faint at the first sight of blood!…Plus, she’s your neighbor, dummy. Once you do this, it’s going to ruin what little relationship you have with her…She’s babysat you before!…Are you nuts?”

“She’s stacked and packed!” argued Alex. “Look at those boobs! Look at that butt!…Are you nuts?”

Noah could see that his friend was not going to back down. It was written all over Alex’s narrow face.

“Okay, okay,” sighed Noah. “You go right ahead and ask her…But you know what? Don’t come crying to me when she turns you down, and she will turn you down. Mark my words.”

“Whatever,” said Alex as he waved off Noah. “I’m gonna do it.”

“This is just some stupid crush,” sighed Noah. “Do you even have a plan?”

“I gotta plan,” nodded Alex. “I’m gonna show her my science project.”

“That model of Jupiter?” asked Noah. “You’re only doing Jupiter because of that stupid cola and that stupid vending machine outside of our apartment complex. That’s dumb, but whatever. You do that.”

Alex shook his head and gave Noah a fat thumbs down.

“Like you could do any better,” frowned the boy.

“I don’t have to do better,” shrugged Noah. “This whole thing is stupid anyway, but since I can’t talk you out of it, let’s just meet up after school and talk some more then. We gotta get to class right now. Just give me the signal like you always do.”

“Works for me,” said Alex. “I know just the place.”

“Cool,” said Noah, and then he slammed his locker shut.


Noah checked his phone after the message signal went off, the dulcet tones of that signal indicating that Alex was notifying him of where to meet. He knew this before actually checking his phone, considering Alex was the only kid in existence that actually texted him. Texting was an “old people” thing, but Alex liked retro stuff, so this did not surprise Noah. Besides, he, himself, had gotten used to texting thanks to his slightly-eccentric best friend.

The text read, “Jupiter is severed.”

Noah rolled his eyes and shook his head over this. He should have known.

“That stupid vending machine again,” he sighed.

He put on his red coat and his grey wool hat in preparation for going outdoors. It was early January, and the weather wasn’t doing him any favors.

He walked out of his bedroom and into the living room. His mom was there, home from work, her fat fingers already on the TV remote, fishing for whatever to watch.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to see Alex,” he shrugged.

“Be careful,” she warned. “They still haven’t found that Jakobs boy.”

“Mom, he disappeared six months ago,” frowned Noah. “Besides, we’re just hanging around the neighborhood. It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”

“I don’t like that new guy that moved in next to Alex,” frowned his mother in return. “That one named Roger. He looks shifty to me.”

“Well, if he just moved in, then he can’t be the one who snatched Olliver Jakobs, can he?” asked Noah.

“Don’t talk back to me, Noah,” warned his mother.

“I’m not,” replied Noah in exasperation. “I’m just saying…Never mind. I’ll be hanging out with Alex, and we’re not going anywhere. We’ll just be hanging around his place.”

“No going to the Busy All,” said his mother. “It’s too far down the street.”

“I know, Mom,” sighed Noah. “We’re not going anywhere. It’s too cold for that anyway.”

“Call me when you’re ready to be picked up,” said his mother. “It’ll be dark soon, and I don’t want you walking home in the dark.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Noah. “I don’t like walking home in the dark, either.”

“No going into the woods,” said his mother.

“Why in the hell would we go into the woods?” asked Noah in even more exasperation.

“Language, Noah,” frowned his mother.

This banter had already gotten old. He needed to go, or he wasn’t going to have any daylight at all.

“Mom, I gotta go,” said Noah. “I’m losing daylight.”

“Give me a kiss first,” ordered his mother.

He gave the portly woman a kiss on the cheek and then took his leave.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother; it was simply the fact that she annoyed him to no end. She could be really irritating.

He shook that thought out of his head as he made his way out the door and down the wooden steps to the concrete walk below. It was a brisk trot over to Alex’s, but he could manage it, even in this awful cold.

He huffed it up the street and then down a hill in order to get to the correct location on Alex’s side of the complex. Alex lived on the north side of their slew of apartment buildings, right next to the north woods, but it wasn’t a long walk. Even so, it was a cold and gloomy day outside, so it wasn’t like a pleasant walk, either. There was no snow as of yet, but there were plenty of browns, dead grass and leafless trees, to mark the sheer depression of a cloudy day.

Honestly, he hated January.

He continued his walk toward Alex’s meeting place, but he did not have to walk for long. He saw Alex shivering in the cold, dressed in his dark-blue parka, standing right next to that “Jupiter Cola” machine the boy so loved.

The vending machine in question was parked next to the maintenance building wall, a slim, obnoxious, green eyesore with the planet Jupiter plastered across it, something, for some reason, Alex was enthralled with.

That boy was just weird sometimes.

“Hey,” said Alex as Noah approached him.

“Hey,” said Noah in return.

His hands were in his coat pockets due to the cold; he really needed gloves, but he hadn’t gotten around to asking for them from his mom. His mom had bought him a pair of mittens, but who in the hell wore mittens at his age?

“What’s up?” asked Noah.

“I’m gonna do it,” grinned Alex. “I’m gonna ask out Ava.”

“You’re an idiot,” said Noah with a roll of his eyes. “But whatever. Just don’t drag me into it when you get squished like a bug.”

“Nah, nah,” said Alex as he waved him off. “It’s all good. I’m gonna show her my Jupiter project, and that will break the ice.”

“You’ll be lucky if she doesn’t break your face,” said Noah.

“Why would she do that?” asked Alex. “It’s not like I’m going to be a jerk or anything. Besides, she’s cool. She likes hanging out with younger guys.”

“Think about what you just said,” said Noah with a shake of his head. “We’re not guys, Alex, not yet. She’s not gonna go for a boy.”

“Whatever,” shrugged Alex. “I’m gonna do it anyway.”

“Okay,” sighed Noah.

“Anyway…” smiled Alex. “Anyway, show me what you got. Let me see your Jupiter roll.”

“This again?” asked Noah. “We’re not space explorers, man. That’s baby stuff. We did that when we were like…eleven. It’s been a whole year since then.”

“So?” asked Alex. “I think it’s cool. Nobody else can pull it off in a winter coat. Show me you still got it…If you don’t, I’m going to tell everyone you’re a weenie.”

Noah sighed yet again and rolled his eyes one more time.

Alex was the kind of kid that just didn’t want to grow up…Well, considering what he thought about Ava, maybe he wanted to grow up too fast.

Whatever the case, Noah wasn’t going to back down from a challenge, especially from Alex.

“Okay, okay,” he breathed out. “Here goes…Hold my phone.”

He took his smartphone out of his inner coat pocket and handed it to his best friend.

Alex held the expensive slab in his chilly hands, breathed out a trail of steam, and eagerly awaited the show Noah was about to pull off.

“Give me a double,” said the young man holding his phone. “No, wait…Give me a triple.”

“Okay,” shrugged Noah.

He tucked his head in and rolled over his shoulder upon the hard concrete walk, popping up on his feet a moment later. He turned and did it again, the chill of the hardened walk edging into his bones, and then he did it one more time, this time with a loud “HIYAH!” as he popped up in front of Alex.

The young man in front of him backed up into the Jupiter Cola machine, and the slender vending machine wobbled for a second before settling back into place. Both of them backed away from that dangerous instability, if only a few feet.

“Man, that machine is too slim,” said Noah in breathless alarm. “That thing isn’t even bolted down. It’s going to kill someone.”

“Nah,” said Alex. “It’s not like one of the big machines. I don’t think it’s got enough weight to actually crush anyone…Funny story, but…that’s how I came up with ‘Jupiter is severed’. It’s because of this machine…It’s not held down, you know? I don’t wanna be held down either, you know? I wanna live my life the way I wanna live it…I mean, you’re right, it’s not bolted down, but I don’t think it will kill anyone if it tips over.”

“It could kill one of us,” said Noah. “It’s got more than enough weight to do that.”

“Maybe,” said Alex. “Still, it’s slim because the cans are smaller than normal.”

“Yeah, because they’re packed full of sugar and caffeine and ginseng and God knows what else,” said Noah. “That stuff is full-body cancer, man. I wouldn’t drink it.”

“It’s the nectar of the gods,” grinned Alex.

“It’s something, all right,” said Noah. “I’m telling you, drinking that stuff will melt your—”

He cut his sentence short as a man walked up to them. They had been jibber jabbering away and having fun and simply hadn’t noticed him.

“Hey, boys,” said the man. “Loitering out here in the cold?”

This man was tall, around six-foot, broad-shouldered, and he was dressed in a tan overcoat with nice black slacks on him. This guy was around thirty years of age, ancient in Noah’s mind, an age he couldn’t even imagine. The man’s face had the black ring of a beard and mustache to match his shaggy black hair, and he wore those big dorky black glasses that were popular nowadays.

Noah recognized him immediately. It was that “Roger” guy his mom was always going on about. For some reason, the woman just didn’t like him, and Noah was beginning to see why. This guy gave off a vibe that spelled “creep.” Plus, Noah didn’t know what “loitering” was, but he was pretty sure it was an insult.

“We weren’t doing nothin’,” said Noah quickly.

“Oh, I don’t care if you boys play out here,” said the man. “Just be careful around that machine. I saw it wobble there for a second. You don’t want it to fall on you.”

“Yeah,” said Alex nervously.

This man, this “Roger,” moved past them, pulled out some quarters from his left coat pocket, and dropped them into the machine.

“Hey, you’re Alex, right?” asked Roger as he gave Alex a strange smile.

“Y…Yeah,” said Alex again, this time in a shakier voice.

“I talked to your mom yesterday,” said Roger. “We came to a little understanding. She said you can hang out at my place whenever she’s late from work. You don’t have to be a latchkey kid vegging out on Tik Tok or anything. We can always watch TV or something; I don’t mind…What do kids watch nowadays anyway?”

The man pressed the Diet Jupiter Cola button, and all three of them watched as the slim can of Jupiter Cola dropped into the delivery slot. Roger reached down, opened the plastic hatch, and picked up his can of Jupiter Cola.

Noah studied Alex’s face. The young man looked cornered, as if he were a deer caught in the headlights.

“I…I usually hang out with Noah after school,” said Alex.

“Well, I’ll be around when you need me,” smiled Roger. “I remember what it was like at your age…Ahh, I miss those days…I can understand all of the confusion with the hormones and changing bodies and body hair…Yep, I remember those days quite well. I never had a mentor with those things, so feel free to talk to me about any of that…Yes, I think we’ll get along just fine…Anyway, your mom has my number. She’ll let you know when to come on over.”

“Umm, thanks,” said Alex.

The man walked off after that, whistling some tune Noah had never heard before.

They watched him go, and then Noah shook his head as he turned and gave Alex a wide grin.

“What a freak, man!” he chuckled. “Changing bodies? Hormones?…That guy is a pedo if I’ve ever seen one! He’s got ‘stranger danger’ written all over him. You go over there, and the next thing you know, you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”

Alex’s face twisted from panic to instant anger.

“It’s not funny!” he hissed.

“Did your mom even talk to that guy?” chuckled Noah. “What the hell, man?”

“She did talk to him,” said Alex unhappily. “She wants me to go over to his place tomorrow after school, but he doesn’t know that. That’s why it’s imperative, imperative, that I ask out Ava tomorrow. If I’m hanging out with her, my mom won’t ‘need’ Mr. Braccio to watch me. She’ll think Ava is babysitting me, even though we’ll be out on a date.”

“Living in your own little world there?” asked Noah. “The only way Ava Winslow is going to hang around you is if she’s getting paid…Hope you like sausage, man. You might be getting a mouthful.”

“Shut up!” hissed Alex.

Noah only laughed in reply.

Noah stopped his torment of his best friend and stood up straight and proper as someone else walked toward them, and he did so with good reason…The young lady walking toward them was Ava Winslow.

Ava Winslow was eighteen, five-foot-eight, with piercing brown eyes set within her round, pretty face. She had long, light-brown hair that flowed down around her long brown scarf and down to the shoulders of her black winter coat, that look finished by blue-jeans tucked into the white-fluffed tops of her black winter boots.

She came walking up to them from the west, walking along their side of the street from the direction of Alex’s apartment, but that was no surprise, as the young lady lived right next door to Alex.

Noah nudged Alex in the side and gave him a low whisper.

“Now’s your chance, man!” he said eagerly. “If you’re gonna do it, do it!”

Alex said nothing, but the look on his young face betrayed his nervousness. He was as pale as a ghost, and he shook a little, a slight tremble that Noah picked up on, something unrelated to the bitter cold out here.

“Hey, boys,” said Ava as she walked up to them.

They parted to allow her access to the vending machine, and she took a moment to dig some change out of her right coat pocket. She inserted her change into the machine, pressed the Cherry Jupiter Cola button, and all three of them watched as the purchased can dropped into the vending slot.

She bent down and opened up the plastic hatch to retrieve her can. Her wide bottom filled out her jeans quite nicely, a beautiful and full heart that was impossible to miss.

Noah could see Alex’s eyeline and where it was pointed, so he grinned, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. There was no way Ava was going to go for a boy. That was just ridiculous.

Ava picked up her can of cola, turned, popped the top on it, and took a short sip of it. She cocked her head to her right and gave them both a strange look.

“Were you boys staring at my butt just now?” she asked.

Either she was psychic, or she just knew guys. Whatever the case, Noah had developed a sudden case of laryngitis, because he had nothing to say in response to that. No, it was Alex who spoke for the both of them.

“N…No,” said the boy nervously. “I was just…uhhh…just waiting to talk to you.”

Ava took another sip of her cola and gave them both a flat stare.

“What about, little man?” she asked.

“I…uhhh…have been working on a science project about Jupiter,” said Alex with a nervous grin.

“You have?” asked Ava. “Are you in the seventh grade?”

“Y…Yeah,” smiled Alex.

“I did mine on the entire solar system,” said Ava. “I made all the little models myself.”

“Yeah,” grinned Alex. “I’ve finished mine. It’s a big model of Jupiter. Do you wanna see it?”

“You wanna show me your big model of Jupiter, little man?” said Ava as she took another sip of cola.

She rested her left hand upon her left hip and stuck that hip out a little, and Noah’s eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to that strangely seductive shift in posture. He could not fathom why she would show off for a couple of kids, but then it occurred to him that she was probably just used to doing it.

But his attention was snapped back to the painful reality of witnessing his best friend’s awkward attempts to fawn over the older girl.

“Yeah,” nodded Alex. “My mom’s gonna be late from work tomorrow night, and I was wondering if…uhhh…if I could come over to your place instead of…of…”

This time Noah did interject. It was better than letting Alex drown in his own nervousness.

“His mom wants him to go over to that guy, Roger’s, house,” said Noah.

“Mr. Braccio?” asked Ava. “I’ve met him. He’s…ummm…a little…Are you sure that’s what she wants?”

“Y…Yeah,” stammered Alex. “That’s why I’d rather hang out with you tomorrow after school. Is…Is that okay?”

She gave him a strange smile right before she took another sip of cola, that smile something indefinable, two reddish-pink lines of unknown territory that deemed caution, if only because of its unfamiliarity.

“And you say your mom has already made plans with Mr. Braccio?” asked Ava.

“Yeah,” frowned Alex.

There was a glimmer in her brown eyes, a spark of something, but Noah could not put his finger on what the older girl was thinking. There were gears turning in there, but what for, Noah did not know.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Ava in a cautious tone. “Mr. Braccio is…I’ve seen him talking with the other kids before they get on the bus in the morning. I’d watch yourself around him…Going over to his place alone is a really bad idea…Hmmm…You know…you should definitely come over to my place. You can show me your big model of Jupiter, little man. I’d love to see it.”

Alex grinned from ear to ear.

“I’d like that!” he said excitedly as he nodded emphatically in reply.

“Cool,” said Ava as she took another sip of her cola. “Unfortunately, I have to go, boys. Why don’t we talk about this after you come home from school tomorrow, Alex? We can meet up outside.”

“Yeah, okay,” grinned Alex.

“Bye, Alex. Bye Noah,” said the older girl, and then she left them there.

She sauntered past them, and Noah raised one eyebrow at the young lady as her hips swayed slightly, right to left, left to right, sauntering on her way past, something he had not noticed her do before, something he had not noticed in any girl for that matter. It looked a little…deliberate…but that was weird, so he didn’t know what to think about it.

He stewed over this new development, but his conclusion was, in fact, inconclusive.

Still, she had a great butt. He couldn’t argue with that.

Of course, they didn’t talk again until she was out of earshot.

“This is awesome, man!” said Alex in visible excitement. “I get to spend my time with Ava tomorrow night! Isn’t that incredible! It’s a date!”

Noah shook his head and rolled his eyes yet again.

“It’s not a date, ding dong,” he replied. “She’s just babysitting you. It’s not like she’s going to let you touch her boobs. She just thinks she’s babysitting you.”

“You call it whatever you want,” grinned Alex. “I am in heaven right now…Did you see her butt! Oh, my God!”

“Dude…” grinned Noah. “Those apples were some squeezies, man…It was impossible to miss…You know, it’s weird, but I think she made sure of that. I think she was showing her stuff for us.”

“Nah,” waved off Alex. “That’s just the way she is.”

Noah thought about this and nodded once in agreement, reverting back to his original theory about her.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said after a second. “Still, I’m glad she’s that way…Hoo, buddy.”

“No kidding,” smirked Alex.


Noah sat down on his bed.

He’d just come home from seeing Alex, so now was the time to kick back and relax, maybe play a game on his phone or on his Xbox. He wasn’t about to do any homework yet.

He picked up his smartphone just as the text notification went off, so he swiped up to see what he had. It was from Alex, of course, because Alex was the only one that ever texted him…Nobody texted anymore. They used literally anything else.

My mom won’t let me go,” said the text.

Noah sighed and texted him back.

She’d rather stick you with that pedo than Ava?” he asked.

She said she’s already made plans with Roger, and she doesn’t want to change them,” texted Alex. “She says she can’t afford a babysitter.

That sucks, man,” texted Noah. “I don’t know what to say.

I’m going anyway,” texted Alex. “I want to live my own life. I don’t want to be held down.

It’s your funeral, man,” texted Noah. “You’ll be retired by the time you’re ungrounded.

It’s worth it,” texted Alex.

Noah shook his head a couple of times and frowned. This whole thing was going to end badly, and then Alex was going to get grounded, and then Noah was the one who was going to suffer for it, because with no one to see after school, he was going to be stuck at home, too.

“Great,” he scowled. “Thanks a lot, buddy.”


It was Wednesday, two days later from when Noah had last met up with Alex outside of a school setting. Alex was supposed to have met up with Roger yesterday, and if he had or had not, Noah did not know. The boy had been absent the entire school day, so there was no way Noah could have talked to him about what had happened, if anything.

Noah had just put his backpack down in the living room when his mother walked out of their small kitchen. The portly woman’s ear was to her own phone, and she was nodding to herself, though who she was talking to was anybody’s guess.

“Uhh, huh, uhh, huh,” nodded his mother. “I’ll tell him.”

She gave Noah a concerned stare and then frowned.

“Noah, I have Mrs. Downs on the phone,” said his mother. “It’s about Alex.”

Noah groaned and silently cursed under his breath. He braced himself for the inevitable news that he was not going to get to see Alex for a while on account of the boy being grounded forever. Alex’s mother was not forgiving when it came to this kind of thing.

“Hit me with it,” sighed Noah.

“Have you seen Alex at all?” asked his mother.

“What?” asked Noah.

He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right.

“He wasn’t at home when his mom came home last night,” explained his mother. “That ‘Roger’ fellow says he never showed up at his place, and he was supposed to watch him.”

“What?” asked Noah again, this time in genuine surprise.

“Alex is missing, Noah,” said his mother. “Ava Winslow called Mrs. Downs last night and said that she was supposed to watch Alex, but he never met up with her, either. That’s two people who claim they were supposed to watch Alex, but he’s just disappeared. Now, I don’t know what’s going on, but Mrs. Downs is in tears, so if you know anything, then you’d better say something right now.”

Noah’s breath caught in his throat. He had a terrible feeling sink into him, something he did not want to believe, but it was there inside him, and it was there in force. He didn’t want to say it, and he hoped to God it wasn’t true, but he needed to say something, or it was going to eat at him.

“Mom, I need to tell you something,” he said as he swallowed hard. “It’s about Mr. Braccio, that ‘Roger’ guy.”

His mom turned pale as she lowered her phone and put her hand over the brightly lit screen as if to muffle it. That’s what the mute button was for, but she didn’t know that.

“What about him, Noah?” she asked forcefully.

“There are some things people have said,” replied Noah. “He talks to the kids around here…He’s…He talked to me and Alex on Monday after school, and…it was the way he talked to us…”

It did not take the shadow of a second for his mother to figure out where Noah was going with this line of thought.

“That’s it,” scowled his mother. “We’re going down to the police station right now and filing a report. I want you to tell them everything you know about this ‘Roger’ guy. I knew there was something wrong with him…I knew it.”

“Y…Yeah,” stammered Noah.

It was good that they were doing something about this, but Alex had already been missing for an entire night and an entire day, so deep down, Noah had the sinking feeling that he was never going to see his best friend again, and that was a pill that was tough to swallow.


Noah tossed and turned in his bed. He tried to sleep, but he simply couldn’t. Alex was never far from his mind, and to make matters worse, there was nothing he could do about his best friend’s disappearance. Even if he wanted to investigate it, he didn’t even know where to start.

“Where are you, Alex?” he whispered in the dark.

He turned over to his left upon his small bed and sucked in his breath at the sight of the shadow on the other side of his room, right next to his bedroom door. The streetlamps from outside were shining a bit through his window, so he could make out the form of someone there, a shadow of a figure in that dim lighting.

“Who’s there!” called Noah out of reflex.

He had not wanted to say that, but it had come out anyway, and it was too late to take it back now.

The dark figure in the distance raised one hand and pointed it toward Noah’s window, that window parked upon the north wall. That dirt-smudged hand held a dark-brown twig, a root twig pointing north, the simple direction of north, right toward Alex’s place.

Noah could see the narrow fingers and the pale, dirt-smudged, peach-brushed arm of a boy his age, and this disturbed him to no end.

Of course, his first thought over this eerie display was only natural, and he voiced as much.

“Alex?” he asked.

The boy stepped out of the darkness, and nothing but horror filled Noah at the sight of him.

The boy was not Alex, no, but Olliver Jakobs, Noah and Alex’s classmate that had gone missing six months ago.

This was not what horrified Noah, however.

The boy was naked and dirty, his pale skin flecked with specks of earth here and there, and though this was disturbing, it was the fact that his eyes were a dead-white, an off-white that stared at nothing, an unseeing, unliving alabaster that stared into whatever void they were envisioning. Around his neck was wrapped a black cord, like a cord cut from an appliance such as a toaster or a TV, and there was an ugly purple and black bruising around the pale flesh of the neck where that black line hung.

Olliver Jakobs opened his mouth but said nothing, mainly because he couldn’t. His mouth opened wide as his jaw dropped open, and nothing but dirt and dead leaves and large black beetles crawled out of that widened maw to spill upon the beige carpet of Noah’s bedroom floor.

Noah woke up after that, but he was shaken to the core. It was Thursday morning, so he still had school, and though that was something he never looked forward to, he was only looking forward to it now in order to wipe the grisly vision of this nightmare from his brain.

He did not know what was going on, but he sensed that if ghosts were real, then one had just visited him in his dreams, and that ghost was trying to tell him something, something he really didn’t want to know.


It was Thursday after school, but the last time Noah had talked to Alex was on Tuesday during class. After that, he hadn’t heard a peep from him. Now Alex was nowhere to be found, as the eccentric young man had never showed up for school that entire time. The last time he’d hung out with the boy was on Monday, out in front of that stupid Jupiter Cola machine.

The police had questioned Noah on Wednesday…His mom had dragged him down to the station as promised. A police detective had grilled Noah in a private room about Alex’s whereabouts, and Noah had given the man all of the information he had known, especially everything he could remember about Roger Braccio.

Noah was kicking himself over the jokes he had made at Alex’s expense. Mr. Braccio had been brought in by the police as a “person of interest,” but that didn’t make Noah feel any better.

He was afraid he would never see his best friend again…He should have just warned Alex’s mother about the man…but he was twelve, and nobody listened to a twelve-year-old.

He shed a couple of tears over this as he picked up his smartphone in order to send a text to his best friend. He knew it wouldn’t do any good, but he needed to do something, or this guilt wouldn’t go away.

He had the terrible feeling that his guilt would never go away. It didn’t make sense that he had guilt over something he couldn’t have changed while there were plenty of people in the world who had no guilt at all regardless of what they did. It would take the hammer of God to get those people to change, something divine or supernatural to set them straight, and this ate at him, because he was kind of jealous of that, mainly because he did not want to feel like this, not over something he had no control over.

Sometimes, he just wanted to stare at the bad guy and watch in real time as they realized the error of their ways. It was a moment he’d been waiting for, because he wanted to believe that people could change, even the worst of people. Most boys his age just wanted to blow away the creeps and freaks, but Noah was different in that respect. He really wanted people to straighten up, or at the very least, feel some kind of remorse…Guilt was a pretty powerful weapon when it needed to be.

He tried unsuccessfully to ignore his anguish by texting his missing best friend, even though, as previously stated, he knew it would do no good.

Where are you, man?” texted Noah.

He sent the text and then set the phone down. He knew in his heart he was never going to see Alex again, but he had sent the text anyway. He’d needed to.

It was not thirty seconds before the chime of his phone indicated he had received a reply.

Noah picked up his phone and stared down at the text reply in incredulous surprise.

Jupiter is severed,” read the text.

This, of course, riled him up.

“I’m gonna kill him!” hissed Noah as he set his phone back down.

He was overjoyed that Alex was alive, but he was also furious that the boy had just up and vanished for a few days. That was not cool. For one thing, that meant an innocent man had just been fingered for a crime that had never happened…Oh, yeah…Alex had some explaining to do.

But first…Noah had to escape the confines of this apartment. His mom had him on lockdown due to the disappearance of his idiot best friend, so it was time for some ninja work to get out of this little place. The window in his bedroom was his best bet…but he had to get ready first.

He quickly dressed in his winter coat and boots, stuffed his phone in his inner coat pocket, locked his bedroom door, and escaped his bedroom via the only window in it. He quietly shut the window behind him and then made his way down toward Alex’s side of the complex. It hadn’t been that long since he’d come home from school anyway, so there was still daylight to burn, but it wouldn’t be long before the sun went down, so he was going to have to hurry.

He walked down to the maintenance building and saw Alex standing in front of that stupid vending machine, standing there in the cold in that same dark-blue parka the boy always wore.

“What the hell, man!” hissed Noah. “Where in the hell have you been!”

“Shhh!” said Alex quickly. “Keep it down!…I have to show you something.”

“Well, it had better be good, because you are in deep now,” scowled Noah. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, especially to the police. Your mom is gonna have a fit when she…Wait…Does anybody even know you’re back?”

“No,” said Alex, “but that doesn’t matt—”

“Of course, it matters, you monkey turd!” cursed Noah. “What in the hell is wrong with you!”

“I told you, I have something to show you,” said Alex. “You have to come with me now, or you won’t get to see it. The sun’s going to go down.”

“This is some bullshi—” began Noah, but Alex cut him short.

“There’s no time to explain,” said Alex. “You’ll know when you see it, but we’ve got to go now. It’ll make sense once you see it.”

Noah jammed his hands into his pockets and shook his head no.

“And what am I supposed to see?” he asked.

“It’s important,” frowned Alex. “But we’ve gotta go. No more jibber jabbering. We’re losing daylight.”

“Whatever,” frowned Noah. “Where are we going?”

“To the woods,” nodded Alex.

“To the woods?” asked Noah. “Why in the hell are we going into the woods?”

“Just shut up and follow me,” said Alex.

The boy took off after that, walking in a brisk trot, making a beeline past the houses across the street to head down into the gully that started the entrance to the woods behind their complex.

Noah had no choice but to follow. In fact, Alex traveled at such a good pace that Noah had trouble keeping up with him.

“Wait up, you dork!” yelled Noah.

They traveled for about five minutes, and Noah knew approximately where they were, but the sun would be going down soon, so whatever Alex was going to show him had to be quick, or they could get lost in the dark, even with such a short trek back.

He finally caught up to Alex after the boy had hiked down into a tiny ravine. In that ravine was the opening to a small cave, a little cave Noah was not familiar with. He was more than familiar with this ravine, but the cave…? He had never seen that before.

“What the hell, man?” huffed Noah. “Why are we all the way out here? What is this?”

“This cave opened up,” nodded Alex. “It must have opened up when we had that huge thunderstorm, but that was months ago. I figure we never saw it because of some overgrowth. Anyway, it’s winter now, so it’s in plain sight.”

“Uh, huh,” frowned Noah. “This is stupid, Alex. We need to go back and tell everybody you’re alive. Your mom is pulling out her hair right now.”

“Just go inside the cave,” urged Alex. “There’s something in there you need to see…You have to see it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was that important. It will explain why I disappeared…Just trust me on this, Noah. You know me. You know what I’m like. Why would I lie to you?”

“Whatever, man,” said Noah with a shake of his head. “This is a terrible idea, but whatever. I’ll go in there, but after that, I’m dragging your sorry butt back to your mom’s whether you like it or not.”

“Just go look,” urged Alex. “I…can’t go back in there…I just can’t…Besides, it’s not a very big cave…You have to see what’s inside.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Noah. “Go in the cave, blah, blah, blah. If this is a trick, I’m going to kick your butt. I should already kick your butt over disappearing anyway.”

“Just go in,” said Alex. “You’ll understand once you see it.”

“Right, right,” frowned Noah. “I’m going.”

He pulled out his phone, switched on its light, and used it to shine his way forth into the dark of the small hole. He crawled through that narrow tunnel and looked about as the dirt around him slowly expanded into a larger hollow.

“What in the hell is this place?” he muttered. “That boy wants me to crawl in the dirt after he up and ran away from home…I’m gonna kick his butt when I get out of here…I swear.”

Noah crawled deeper in until he could see the dirt wall of the back of this small hollow. The small cave was not large enough for an adult to stand, but it was just big enough to sit up in.

“What’s so special about this…” he started.

His voice trailed off as he stared at the shattered pieces of something in the east part of this rounded hollow. He could make out the various colors of orange and brown in this broken mess, but it was the large red dot on one particular piece that called out to him.

He picked up the pieces of papier-mâché and immediately realized what it was.

“This is your science project of Jupiter, you idiot,” he whispered, though he knew Alex couldn’t hear him.

No, the eccentric boy was still waiting for him outside.

“Why in the hell did you break this, Alex?” he asked himself.

His right boot kicked back and hit something, so he turned to see what he had jostled loose from the dirt.

He picked up Alex’s dad’s old instant camera and held it up for further inspection. The old tan camera looked slightly damaged, and turning it round revealed it to be open, the film removed.

“What the hell?” asked Noah.

This was getting even weirder. It was not like Alex to just up and break his own stuff. He was the kind of kid that treated his own things like gold. If you wanted to borrow something of his, you had to put it in three forms of writing.

Noah turned around in order to leave, because none of this made sense, so he was definitely going to have to question Alex about it, but his light shone upon something sticking out of the loose dirt in here, and that something stopped him cold.

There was a finger sticking out of the dirt. There was a pale-peach, slightly-bluish-from-the-cold finger sticking out of the dirt.

Noah sucked in his breath as the world grew very narrow in his vision…Alex had found a body…He must have. The boy had found a body and had dropped his stuff in here out of panic…

Oh, he knew his friend quite well…It did not surprise him in the slightest that Alex had run off and hid for a few days because of this. Where he had hidden, Noah did not know, but this was the most logical conclusion his mind could make over the discovery of something as morbid as this.

The nightmare he’d had, Alex disappearing, all of it together, it was all making sense now, so of course, only one name came to mind.

“Olliver Jakobs,” whispered Noah.

Olliver had disappeared in July of last year, and no one had ever found him, so this…Alex must have come out here for some reason—why, Noah did not know—but the eccentric young man must have stumbled upon Olliver’s body…Hoo, boy.

Alex was right, Noah knew him quite well. Noah knew that Alex had probably shrieked like a little girl and run like the wind…Of course, that didn’t explain why the boy had abandoned his camera and taken the film out of it, but Alex was weird that way.

Point was, the boy had probably panicked.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t about Alex; this was about Olliver.

It was really the dream of Olliver that sunk it for Noah. Maybe Alex had come out here because Olliver had visited him, too. Noah had never really believed in ghosts, but after that nightmare…he was a believer now. In fact, he was guessing Alex had been led out here by Olliver, and when Alex had run like the chicken he is, Olliver had turned to Noah.

Still, Noah had to know if this body really was Olliver Jakobs, and that meant…seeing the face.

He did not particularly want to do what he was about to do, but he had to know. The finger in the dirt was about the right size for Olliver’s, though Noah had not known him all that well. The boy would have been in the seventh grade just like him and Alex, but they really hadn’t known him all that well.

Noah propped up his phone against the rounded west wall of the hollow in order to have some working light, and then he began to dig around the finger, scooping out the loose dirt as fast as he could, picking up speed as the entirety of the body began to form in his morbidly curious vision. His unprotected hands were cold, nearly freezing, but something inside him drove him to see the remains under the loose earth…He needed to confirm his suspicions.

The corpse in the dirt was naked, face down, definitely a boy—that much he could tell—but it was still in good condition, even after being buried in a shallow grave for six months. Whatever had happened to Olliver Jakobs had been terrible, and Noah really didn’t want to think about it, but at least the whole world would soon know what had happened to Noah and Alex’s classmate, and then maybe the boy’s ghost could finally rest in peace.

“Sorry about this, Ollie,” he said in tremulous anticipation. “I’m sorry, but I gotta know. I’m pretty sure it’s you, so I’m just gonna turn you over and confirm it now, buddy.”

He touched the cold stiff flesh with his bare hands and then gently turned over the body of the boy in order to look at his face. He was afraid he was going to see a mouth full of dirt, leaves, and bugs like in his dream, so he steeled himself and braced for the worst.

What he saw made him suck in his breath and crawl backwards in sheer horror. No amount of preparation could have prepared him for this.

The body of the boy was not that of the missing Olliver Jakobs…The body of the boy buried in a shallow grave under loose earth in a small cave in a tiny ravine in the woods outside their apartment complex was none other than his best friend, Alex Downs.

His best friend’s sightless gaze stared up at nothing in the dim light of Noah’s smartphone, the eyes dulled with death, the stiff and cold lips slightly parted, the tongue partially hanging out. There was a distinct line of bruising around Alex’s neck, a black and red line that was impossible to miss.

Noah squeezed his eyes shut as tears came to them…This was not what he had been expecting…Not at all.

Alex’s right arm was up above his own head, that arm laid out in the shallow earth, that dead finger pointing somewhere, that pale, bluish-from-the-cold finger that Noah had seen first, that ghoulish digit pointing toward the west wall of the hollow where Noah had propped up his phone.

Noah wiped his eyes clear, but he was still having trouble seeing, as his tears would not quite stop. He reached over and grabbed his phone, but he saw the white flash of something in the dirt nearby, a spot right where Alex’s finger was pointing, so he pushed aside loose dirt to pull forth an instant photo out of the earth, one he was sure Alex had snapped at the last possible moment.

That’s why the film in the camera was gone…The killer must have taken it.

Noah shook the photo free of dirt and then shone his light down upon it. His eyes widened in shock at what he saw, and then it all made sense, one giant epiphany of pure torment that suddenly rained down upon his twelve-year-old-brain. Oh, there was a pedophile involved all right, a terrible child murderer at that, and now he had evidence, one last gift from his best friend.

“Oh, no…” he rasped out. “Oh, my God, no…So that’s what happened to Olliver. That’s what he was trying to tell me. He was pointing towards this place, but it took Alex to lead me here.”

He had to get out of this cave…He had to get the hell out of this cave. It was a good bet Olliver was buried in here too, so he needed to call the police right away. He needed to dial 911 as soon as he could.

He stuffed the picture into his right coat pocket.

He crawled his way through the dirt back to the entrance of the cave, crawling back out and into the dying daylight as his tears nearly blinded him. He wiped those tears from his face, smudging his cheeks with cold dirt as he did, but he needed to see, because he needed to get back home ASAP. He also needed to tell the police about this right away.

Alex was nowhere to be seen, nor would he be, but Noah had already known this, though he did not want to think on it. There would be time to deal with that otherworldly trauma once he was back in the safety of his own home.

He switched off the light on his smartphone and stuck the expensive slab back into his inner coat pocket. He couldn’t call the police from here; he needed better reception, and that meant getting up and out of this tiny ravine. He could try a call once he was back up on higher land.

He climbed out of that pit, walked a few feet forward, and then sucked in a few breaths, his exhales steaming in the dimming light and the cold of January. He took out the picture and stared down at it for a moment, but this was a mistake, because it hit him all at once, the horror of it, and that left him reeling, but even that terrible sensation had to be put on hiatus…

He had a visitor.

He straightened up, wiped his face, and watched her walk out of the trees in front of him.

Ava Winslow appeared out of the tree line, the young woman dressed exactly as she had been on Monday, right down to the long brown scarf around her neck.

She took one look at Noah and stopped to stare at him just as he was doing at her.

Neither one of them said anything for a moment.

Her face twisted from surprise to confusion, and then it went from that look of perplexity to a calm and cold gaze of comprehension. She opened her lips to speak a moment later, but her voice was not kind.

“What are you doing out here, Noah?” she asked.

“N…Nothin’,” said Noah in a shaky voice. “I…I…I was just taking a walk, that’s all.”

He was at a loss right now. He truly did not know what to do.

He realized too late that he was still holding the picture he had discovered in the cave. He still had it in his right hand, that picture that his murdered dead friend had pointed him to, the clue that had sealed everything, the clue that Alex had given him from beyond the grave.

Ava’s piercing gaze slowly moved down to stare at the picture Noah was still clutching in his right hand.

“What’s that in your hand, Noah?” she asked.

He did not like the way she kept using his first name. Her tone had a sharp edge to it, a brutal edge, and he did not like it.

Noah subconsciously looked down at the picture in his right hand; he couldn’t help it.

It was a picture of Ava, her top half anyway, her bare and ample breasts in full glory within the photo, her off-brown nipples pert and erect as if from the cold, her brown eyes flashing, her smile a weird grin of strange inclination, the dark earth of the top of the small cave hollow just above her.

“It’s j…just something I found,” he stammered.

“Oh, really?” asked the girl in an accusing tone. “You just found a picture out here? It looks like a photograph to me. It looks like an instant camera picture, like one of those Kodak cameras.”

“Y…Yeah,” said Noah shakily.

She took two steps forward, and Noah took two steps back in response. He switched the picture to his left hand…He was going to need his right to reach for his phone.

“I think you found something, Noah,” said Ava. “I think you found something important because I can tell you were crying. Why were you crying, Noah?”

Noah shook his head. This wasn’t good…This wasn’t good at all.

“I did find something,” he said, but this time he felt his courage coming back.

It was an anger building up inside him, an anger over the fate of Alex and Olliver, and he could not contain that anger any longer. Still, he wasn’t stupid, so he readied himself to run, but he needed to ask one question first, and this time, he was going to use her first name.

“I did find something, but now it’s my turn to ask a question,” he said.

“Oh?” smirked the young woman. “And what’s that, Noah?”

“Where’s Alex, Ava?” asked Noah. “I think you know where he is.”

The young woman pulled off her long brown scarf and twisted the article of winter clothing in her hands, first in her right fist, then in her left. She pulled the scarf taught after that, a line of cloth that held no good intent.

“That’s my picture, Noah,” she said firmly, but there was a tinge of anger in her voice. “I came out here to get it, so give it to me.”

But he was not backing down; not this time.

“Where is Alex, Ava?” asked Noah again.

She took another step forward, but Noah held his ground.

Her pretty face looked calm, but that face was nothing more than a mask, a mask hiding a demon behind it, a boiling pool of rage that was about to spill over.

“Don’t you know?” she asked as she took two more steps forward. “Don’t act like you don’t know, Noah…You see, I gave him what he’d always wanted…I made a man out of him, Noah. I showed him what it was like to be a man.”

Noah swallowed hard as his eyes flitted for an escape route. Yeah, he was angry, but he wasn’t an idiot. He could literally run anywhere out here, but he needed to get past her in order to go in the right direction, and she was between him and the way home.

First though, he needed to ask another question, though he already knew the answer.

“What does that mean?” he replied. “How did you make a man out of him?”

The girl twisted the scarf until her knuckles turned white, and then she stepped even closer to him, but Noah’s eyes did not leave the narrow line of cloth stretched tightly between her hands.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know,” she said in a dark tone. “Don’t lie to me, Noah. You already know what I’m talking about…You’re twelve. You have the internet. Don’t tell me you don’t know.”

“I…I don’t,” lied Noah.

Oh, he and Alex had definitely explored that territory online. That had only been possible, though, because Alex had figured out his mother’s PC password in order to overcome the child lock on it. That, and Alex knew how to delete a search history. It wouldn’t have been good if Alex’s mom had caught wind of any spread legs and bare breasts they’d witnessed.

But that didn’t matter right know.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied again.

“Oh, really?” asked Ava with a wicked smile. “Well, Ollie knew…Didn’t anyone tell you?…I like younger guys, Noah…I can make a man out of you too, you know, just like I did Alex…just like I did Ollie…It excites me, Noah. It makes me feel alive…It’s those cute little bodies and the looks on their faces as they go…Cutting off their air supply makes them detonate; it doesn’t matter that they’re twelve…They go with a smile…

“That’s what sex is all about, Noah…It’s about giving up a little piece of yourself each time…In the Middle Ages, they believed every wonderful explosion you had edged you closer to death…That’s what I’m doing, Noah…I’m racking up a count…Doing it alone just wasn’t enough for me, and older guys are soooo boring…I needed something more…and let me tell you, Alex and Ollie were sublime

“Can’t you see? I’m reaching for Heaven, Noah…So why don’t you help me climb that ladder, huh?…It’ll only hurt a little. You won’t really feel the pain…You’ll be too busy having your first real pleasure in life…Alex did…Ollie did…It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before, nothing at all…I can’t explain it, no. You have to feel it. You have to experience it. Come on, Noah…Let’s go make Heaven together. I’ll send you there, and I promise you’ll go there with a smile on your face…Come on…Let’s go down to the cave.”

Noah swallowed hard and shook his head no. He said the first thing that came to his mind, though he had not intended to.

“You’re sick, Ava,” he gulped. “You’re sick…You need help.”

“Don’t you understand, Noah?” replied Ava with a weird grin. “Because I don’t think you do…You’re a cute little boy, and I loooove cute little boys to death.”

She pulled the scarf in her hands until it was a brown, super-taught line of finality, something Noah could not take his eyes off of, but he had to, because now was the time to snap out of that snake’s deadly hypnotic gaze.

So, he did.

He scrambled to pull his phone from his inner coat pocket, but she rushed him.

“Oh, shi—!” he started to say, but there was no time to complete even that short expletive.

Noah chucked his smartphone like a ninja star, throwing it out of sheer panic and reflex, and the expensive slab tagged the charging Ava Winslow right between her sinister brown eyes. She shrieked and fell to her knees in the dead leaves around them, her right hand clutching her forehead, but Noah was already running for his life.

He didn’t have his phone anymore, but hopefully, its sudden departure had bought him some time.

He ran at top speed, his lungs burning from the cold in some weird paradoxical travesty of thermodynamics, and even though he was only five minutes from the complex, he knew this run was going to be the longest five minutes of his short life.

“NOOOOOAAAAAH!” screamed Ava from behind him.

She was as mad as a hornet now, and he knew this, so if she caught him…he seriously doubted she would take him to heaven in any sense of the word.

There was no time to cry at this point, no; he was past the event horizon, and there was no turning back now. He had to make it back before she got to him, so he booked it as fast as his twelve-year-old legs could carry him.

He scrambled up the gulley and hit the ridgeline that made it back towards people’s backyards and back fences. It occurred to him that he could try to hop a fence or run around to the street to knock on someone’s door, but Ava was right behind him, so there was no time for any of that.

The last of the daylight was fading, but he could see the green glow of the Jupiter Cola machine outside the maintenance office, and an idea formed in his young mind. It was a stupid idea, a very crazy idea, but it was the only thing swimming in his brain at that singular moment…Besides, he was sure Alex—wherever he may be—approved of what he was about to do.

“Come back here, Noah!” huffed Ava from behind.

Noah hit the street running, making a beeline for the vending machine. He knew what he was going to do, and he had one shot to do it right, but Ava was nearly upon him, her right hand reaching out for the back of his coat, her eyes flaming pinpoints that burned a distinct malice into his spine…He didn’t have to turn to see her face, no. He could just feel that hateful gaze boring through him.

He jumped at the last second as he came upon the vending machine, Ava’s fingers brushing the back top of his coat, her rage so palpable it enveloped him like a terrible heat, and then…

“You little shi—!” started Ava.

“Jupiter roll!” cried Noah.

He slammed into the top of the Jupiter Cola machine with a full running jump, slamming into it with his left shoulder, and that hurt, but that was only the first part of his plan. He rolled as soon as his boots struck pavement, rolling over his right shoulder to pop up again on his feet, deliberately out of line with the machine he’d just struck at full speed.

Ava cried out once as the Jupiter Cola machine pitched forward after it had rocked backwards from the hit, the slender machine pitching forward off its base, the bright green of its lights sparking off as the whole thing toppled over upon her.

There came a loud crash as glass and plastic pinned the eighteen-year-old girl beneath it.

Noah turned to view the damage he had done.

The pretty young woman that his best friend, Alex, had crushed upon was now ironically crushed beneath the machine that Alex had so loved. Ava struggled from beneath that machine, only her arms and head visible beneath it, and the young woman had blood leaking from her reddish-pink lips, her dark eyes squeezed shut in what had to be terrible pain, her teeth bloody and gritted from whatever internal injuries she had suffered.

Ava cried out and held onto the top of the machine pinning her to the concrete walk.

“Noah! Noah!” she cried out. “Help me! Don’t leave me here! I’m hurt! I’m hurt really bad!”

He stared down at her for a moment, unsure of what to do.

“Get help, Noah!” choked out Ava. “We can just put all of this behind us, right? You won’t tell anyone; I know you won’t, and I won’t tell everybody you just tried to kill me, okay?…Nnng!…I need help, Noah! Don’t just stand there! Do something!”

It hit him right then…She wasn’t repentant. She was sick in the head, so sick, so very, very sick, and that sickness had already killed two kids, one of them his best friend, so…there was only one solution to this supposed quandary.

She had to be turned in…He had the evidence…

Noah realized at that moment that the picture he needed, the evidence he had found, was no longer in his left hand. He panicked and patted down his pockets in a desperate search for the instant photograph, but he spied the white borders of it on the walk a few feet from him. He must have dropped it when he’d jumped into the machine.

He ignored Ava’s cries of pain and help as he stepped forward to pick up the picture, but as he reached down to pick it up, a new hand in his vision picked up the photo before he could.

Noah stood up in silent shock as his best friend, Alex, held up the photo in the dying light of day. The boy was still dressed in his winter clothes, still dressed in that dark-blue parka he liked to wear.

Alex smiled once, handed the photo to Noah, and Noah took it, though he was shaking as he did.

Alex then stared down at the stunned and silent, bloodied face of Ava Winslow, and Noah knew right then that she could see him, too.

Alex turned and walked away after that, and with him was another boy, a boy that Noah instantly recognized as Olliver Jakobs.

Olliver was still dressed in the same forest-green T-shirt and white shorts he’d been dressed in the day he had disappeared, and he smiled at Noah as he walked away as well, and then they were gone, both of them disappearing, both boys vanishing like so much steam from a breath in the frigid air.

Noah held the photo in his hands, turned, and stared down at Ava.

The young woman’s pained expression collapsed even further into a pool of despair and misery, and then she was crying, a loud and awful wail that cut straight through Noah like a stiff winter wind. It was the look on her face that got to him, that look of realization, that poignant and terrible realization that would live with her for the rest of her life.

What she had done had finally sunk in.

“There it is, the moment I’ve been waiting for,” said Noah quietly as people from around the neighborhood opened their doors to see what all of the commotion was about.

Jupiter is Severed Copyright © 2023 bloodytwine.com Matthew L. Marlott

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