‘Today's forecast is for a chilly yet bright September morning. The sunshine should continue throughout the day, giving those of you returning to school a warm welcome back. Now back to you in the studio where we’ve reports of further natural disasters wreaking havoc across the world.’
Could it be over already? Surely not. What about all of his plans? Such hopes and dreams crushed in one cruel blow by the morning news reporter whose voice filtered through the house and into Leo’s ears as he slept, awakening him to the worst news a teenager could have. No, he was not focused on the natural disasters, he was concerned by the fact that today was the day that he went back to school. Today marked the end of summer.
As he began to stir, the birds’ melodic songs greeted his ears via the cool September breeze that snuck through his broken window, and he found himself oddly envious of their freedom.
How would it feel to be free? He wondered, as he found himself getting lost in spiralling thoughts about all that was to come.
This year was the one everyone had told him would be “the most important so far” – something teachers said every year – but this year it felt different. It was as though everything up until this point had been for practise, and now the real work would begin. Year ten meant GCSEs, possibly learning how to shave, seeing less of his friends who did not take the same subjects as he did, and dare he think about it, relationships. At least he hoped.
‘That’s right, Graham. Floods have been sweeping across South America, whilst avalanches and blizzards have descended upon the small mountain-based villages in the Alps, the likes of which we have not seen for many years. Thankfully, the bush fires that have been raging through Australia are at last starting to die down. After the break, we are going to be looking deeper into the increasingly adverse weather worldwide, as well as the rise in alleged sightings of mythical creatures on social media...’
‘Sam, you’d better be getting up!’ Leo’s mum yelled, breaking the morning’s tranquillity.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a little over-the-top given the bus did not leave until ten past eight, and Leo’s seven-thirty alarm was yet to ring. But, knowing his brother, Leo knew that his mum had a battle on her hands. As she did every morning.
‘Did you hear me Samuel Wyman?’
‘I’m up, I’m up! Calm down!’ Came Sam’s response from down the hall.
Leo rubbed the sleep from his amber eyes before allowing them to adjust to the rows of light that trickled in through his blinds. Footsteps thudded down the hall towards his room, and so he hastily wrapped his duvet around himself and covered his modesty in case of an intrusion.
‘Leo, you’d better be up too!’
‘I’m getting dressed!’ he replied, resisting the urge to sink back into his pillow, ‘did you hear the news? More people are saying that mermaids and yetis exist! How can people still believe that?’
‘Yes, I heard. I suppose there’s enough bad news as it is. Maybe people want to believe in something magical. I know I do. I want to believe that one day your brother will get out of bed!’
Leo gave a sympathetic laugh as his thoughts turned to his brother. Besides their mother (and probably their father as well, though neither of them knew him), they could not be more different. Leo’s hair was golden-blonde and shaggy, resembling a tatty hay bale, whilst Sam’s was short, jet black and always kept slicked to the left.
As Leo finished getting ready, he heard his mother banging on his brother’s door again, and she was greeted by more shouting from the other side. Something about already being ready. Like she had never heard that before!
Leo pulled on his black blazer before tightening his tie which he had left in a knot since the end of term, showing just the three stripes. Leo’s school was called The Orchard, and each form was named after a season, each of which was distinguished by the colour of their tie. Leo’s tie, being orange and brown, represented autumn.
‘I’ve put some toast in the toaster for you boys!’ Leo’s mum called from the kitchen as Leo made his way downstairs.
‘You mean bread?’
‘Our resident comedian approaches. You won’t have bread or toast if you keep up the cheek!’ she retorted as she prepared their lunch.
‘What happens if you let toast go cold? Does it become bread again?’ asked Leo.
‘You can save that question for your teachers, Leo. But then again, I’m sure your brother will be able to tell you the answer whenever he makes it downstairs,’ she smiled a tired smile.
Leo’s mum had light brown hair that flowed down to her shoulders, and if you knew her well enough, you could use it to tell what mood she was in. If it was unbrushed, as it was today, you would need to tread lightly as it meant she was in need of a good night’s sleep. The second sign from the patent pending mother mood meter, were the dark shadows which were currently making an appearance underneath her light green eyes.
‘You’re still sticking with the three stripes then?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow at his tie.
‘It’s how everyone else has it,’ Leo argued, ‘it’s cool.’
‘Just because others do it, doesn’t mean it looks good.’
‘And what would you know about fashion?’
‘In my day, the fashion was to have a mullet … all I’m saying is that sometimes it’s best not to follow what everyone else is doing.’
Leo shrugged and she took the window of opportunity to pull his tie down before resting her hands on his shoulders.
‘I'm so proud of the man you're becoming,’ she said, her eyes glistening slightly.
‘Um, thanks?’ Leo said sheepishly.
‘Don’t let anything worry you this year, Leo. Everything will be alright in the end, and if it isn’t alright …’
‘Then it’s not the end,’ Leo finished.
‘That’s right. Now give me a hug before I go and kick your brother out behind you!’
As they broke apart, Leo’s mum ran upstairs and left Leo to pick up his bag and see himself out. As he went to call out goodbye he was interrupted by-
‘You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re still in bed?’
So, Leo gently eased open their slightly cracked, plastic front door and made a break for it, hearing his mum shouting at Sam about getting something into gear as he closed the door behind him. As he re-adjusted his tie, he immediately joined the steady stream of students heading up the street towards the bus stop, walking quickly so that none of them realised he lived in the house that was home to all the commotion.
The Wyman family lived in a small village in the heart of Essex where each neighbour was as nosy as the next. Following suit, as Leo walked by each house, he tried to remember who lived there and thought about what they might do for a living. It was a game he and his friends played to pass the time since there was little else to do in a village without a shop or much else except fields. To make it a bit more exciting, each of his friends would make up a story about the people they saw and would then dare each other to test out their theories.
Leo walked past one house just as ordinary as any other that belonged to the retired Mrs Tiffany Featherstone. His friend, Bailey, had imagined her taking on missions abroad whilst fulfilling her secret service duties. Mrs Featherstone, code name – Insect Repellent (due to her walking frame giving her an extra four legs), would oversee the protection of high-profile targets whilst undercover as a fragile, elderly woman.
As Leo thought back to the day he had pretended to ask her about her history, a dog’s bark brought Leo’s attention back to the present. He found cool water droplets resting in his hand from running his fingers through the dew-soaked hedge that ran parallel to the path. As he turned his hand over, he spotted something written on the pavement in what looked like faded chalk.
L I B B R A?
Leo tried to make out the letters as he picked a dandelion head from the side of the path.
L I B E R A?
Whoever had written the letters had clearly hurried their work before anyone saw them writing on the pavement.
‘BOO,’ came a loud voice accompanied by a push in Leo’s back.
‘Ouch! It’s far too early for any of that,’ Leo moaned, turning around to be greeted by a grinning Kaira.
‘Oh, get over it you bore! Today’s the first day of the rest of our lives! You should be running towards the bus,’ she said, pulling her long sleeves down from beneath her blazer to cover her wrists.
‘Not likely,’ he mumbled, ‘here, I got you this.’
Leo handed Kaira the dandelion, and she beamed at him before taking a deep breath and unleashing her best attempt to dislodge the seeds.
‘I swear these things never work,’ she said, picking off the seeds which had held firm.
‘Better luck next time.’
‘You say that every time,’ she laughed as she linked her arm in his and bounded along the path, almost dragging Leo with her and causing him to break into a smile.
Kaira was remarkably tall, her eyes almost level with Leo’s, and he was one of the tallest in the year. This meant Leo was always in danger of being whipped by her hair which flew through the air as she skipped, seemingly changing colour between a dark orange in the light, and black in the shade.
Number five to Vikaring town arriving in four minutes, read the sign above the bus shelter where Leo and Kaira met their other two close friends, Dorian, and Bailey. The girls hugged each other as though they had not seen each other for years, while Leo and Dorian simply exchanged a knowing nod.
‘Here we go again, another year,’ Leo said.
‘But this one's not like the others, Leo. This is year ten,’ Dorian spoke in his usual matter-of-fact tone, ‘this year we study only the subjects we have chosen to. No more studying nonsense subjects like music and art.’
‘Oi, what’s wrong with them? They're what I’m taking!’ remarked Kaira, narrowing her green eyes at Dorian.
‘Nothing, Kaira. They are just not subjects that I would have picked. I am sure you will learn plenty in them. It’s Geography, History and Chemistry that I cannot wait for,’ Dorian said, unable to change his monotone voice to make it seem a sincere apology.
‘You’re just excited to be back with Mrs Ash,’ said Bailey, laughing as Dorian’s usually olive face became scarlet.
‘Perhaps I am. She is a brilliant teacher who happens to know how to get the best from her pupils,’ Dorian said, looking hopefully down the road to see if the bus was about to save him, ‘It’s not my fault that you can’t see past her, um, aesthetics.’
The others laughed as they watched their friend squirm, as he did whenever his favourite teacher was mentioned.
‘It’s ok, Dors. We believe you bud,’ Leo said, patting him on the back.
When the number five finally arrived, its brakes screeched as they brought the double decker to a stop a little further down the tree-lined street. As everyone picked up their bags and began boarding, Leo glanced around for his brother who was yet to make an appearance.
‘I haven’t seen him either,’ said Bailey, following his anxious look, ‘but you’d better hurry up. There's no point both of you being late.’
Creaks and whines echoed around the bus as it swayed slightly in the wind, making it even more daunting to climb the already intimidating stairs.
Having made it to the top deck unscathed, Leo and his friends ignored the natural order and sat in their usual spot behind the stairwell to watch everyone else stumble on up. At the back of the bus, the year elevens kept a watchful eye over proceedings, whilst the other year tens begged for their attention just ahead of them. The front of the bus was left for the fresh meat, aka the year sevens, who sat looking over their shoulders at everyone else, no longer the biggest fish in their primary ponds, but little fingerlings in their huge new secondary sea.
Still no sign of Sam.
Leo glanced back along the path he and Kaira had walked earlier, which was separated from the woods on the other side by the bush he had run his hand through, and a sigh of relief escaped him as at last he saw his brother dawdling down the top of the road. Sam had clearly seen the bus, but that did not stop him from taking all the time in the world to get to it. His slicked-back hair glistened as he took each painfully slow step towards the soon-to-depart bus. In Sam’s head, the world waited for him. He did not rush for anyone.
Pistons hissed as the bus awaited the go ahead from its driver, and Leo wished his brother would show some sort of intention of hurrying. Thankfully, it appeared that the bus driver was waiting for him, either recognising the uniform, or recognising Sam from having done this nigh-on every morning since his first year.
As Leo watched his brother’s slow progress, something in the trees caught his eye. About twenty feet behind his brother were a pair of glowing yellow eyes that darted between each branch as their owner appeared to stalk Sam. It was gaining speed. Leo wondered how his brother had not noticed or heard whatever was approaching him, until he saw white earphones dangling from his ears.
Sam's stalker drew nearer, its gaze fixed as it closed in on him. A glance around the bus told Leo that he was the only one paying any attention to what was going on, everyone else either too busy on their phones or deep in conversation. Even his friends had lost themselves in their own little chat.
Having himself tried, and failed, to jump from one tree to another, Leo could not understand how the stalker was moving so swiftly along the branches without slowing.
Leo banged his fists against the window just as the creature was about to reach his brother.
He opened the top part of the window and shouted.
He did both at the same time.
And still, nothing.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Leo heard Bailey ask, but he was too concerned with getting Sam’s attention to answer, ‘the bus is waiting for him. You can chill out.’
A gap in the trees allowed sunlight in, giving Leo a brief glimpse of his brother’s stalker. Brown fur. Or was it feathers? Before he had a chance to see properly, the shadows had engulfed the creature once more.
Finally, Sam reached the end of the path and his hidden follower stayed exactly that, hidden, but for those piercing yellow eyes, which burnt as clearly as two fires in the night. The eyes remained fixed on Sam as he crossed the road, but as Leo watched, they suddenly moved to look directly at him.
He immediately felt as though the creature was reading him. His every fear, emotion and thought. Leo felt like the creature could see it all.
‘Really Leo, what's going on with you?’ Kaira said, looking concerned as she pulled Leo from the creature’s unrelenting gaze. Her pale green eyes were like two still lakes amongst a forest of chaos, and they brought Leo out of his momentary panic.
‘Nothing, I’m fine,’ Leo forced a smile, before looking back out the window to find that whatever it was had now gone, leaving just the shadows in its wake.