Nate and Larissa walked towards the huge building that would be their school for the next four years. The red, brick building, or buildings since there were three of them, were huge. Like Greendale Middle School, Greendale High was sat at the top of a gently sloping hill at the end of a long, winding road. The campus was surrounded trees that covered the gentle slopes of the hills around the school. Also like GMS, all of the buildings were connected by enclosed breezeways. Unlike GMS, where both buildings had been just one story, the buildings of Greendale High all had multiple stories. The middle building, which had three floors, was the tallest of the three. A long line of kids stretched in front of that building, spilling out of the glass double doors at its front.
On Larissa’s advice, Nate had nixed the blue shirt in favor of a green one. She was wearing green too. She wore a green and white checked trapeze dress that she cinched just above the waist with a black belt. Under the dress, she wore gray leggings with green ballet flats. On the outside, at least, they looked perfectly in-sync.
However, the silence between them was not comfortable but awkward. At least to Nate. Before, even in silence, he and Larissa had been in constant communication. Her thoughts had always been a soft and, he realized now, comforting hum in the back of his mind. The fact that he could not hear them now pierced him like a tiny rejection with each breath.
Nate scanned the crowds, searching for familiar faces. He saw a few kids from Greendale Middle and waved, but he was looking specifically for Eric. And for Ray.
He had barely seen the other boy since that night in the park almost two months earlier, when he had told him that he was a shifter. He was not sure how to read that silence either. After he had shown Ray what he was, there were a lot of questions. Some of the questions, he answered, finding some strange relief in finally telling his friend the truth, and some he could or did not. But when they parted ways soon after, he really was not sure how Ray had taken the news. The fact that they had not spoken since that night had him feeling like he was walking on eggshells.
It was, if he considered it from a less paranoid perspective, understandable. Finding out that your best friend was not quite human was a lot to adjust to; at least he imagined it would be. Plus, a couple of days later, Ray left with his family on the month-long summer trip abroad that they took each year. He usually did not hear from Ray while he was gone.
This year, though, things were just a tiny bit different. He had expected at least a short email or something, so that he would know whether or not they were still cool. But such a missive never came. He was nervous about what would happen when they saw each other today, and the fact that he could not talk to Larissa about it made him even more anxious.
A sudden squeal broke Nate’s train of thought, and he realized that Larissa was no longer walking by his side. She had broken away and was running forward to meet Miko and Kayla, her best friends from GMS, who were already standing in line. Despite his anxiety, Nate smiled. Her excitement was understandable. It had been a long time since she had seen her friends.
Nate watched Larissa run forward, wild curls bouncing behind her, fluttering on the breeze. Panteria, he realized, really had changed her. He had recognized it almost immediately last night, and more evidence her transformation presented itself with every passing moment.
Her hair was longer, for one. Larissa had always worn her blue-black, tightly curled ringlets to her shoulders. To keep her hair that length, she had to have bi-weekly haircuts because, as shifters, their hair grew at a much faster rate than human beings. Now though, the curls stretched nearly to the small of her back.
There were other, more subtle physical changes. For instance, as she ran, he could see that she had shed some of that human clumsiness that their father had so painstakingly drilled into them before allowing them to interact with human beings. Her movements were more fluid and graceful. Not enough to register to the humans as anything more than an unusual poise, but to his shifter eyes the difference was vast. There were other changes too. Changes that he could not quite define, but that were just as unmistakable.
Again, a shout interrupted his musings. This time someone was yelling his name. He looked around, his eyes landing on Eric, who was jogging up behind him. Eric had returned a couple days earlier from visiting his grandmother in California, where he had been for at least the last month.
Eric wore a huge grin on his face. Even before his trip, they had not seen each other since the beginning of the summer. A broad answering smile spread across Nate’s face. It faltered when he saw looked past Eric and saw Ray. He lagged a little behind Eric and looked decidedly less excited to see Nate. His hazel eyes were wary. Nate held his breath and waited for the two boys to reach him.
Eric got there first, pounding him hard on the shoulders. The blow should have hurt. In the time that Eric had spent with his grandmother, he seemed to have sprouted two more inches and put on ten more pounds. Plus, what had been baby fat appeared to have morphed into solid muscle. Nate feigned pain, though Eric’s hit was little more than a tap to him.
“Geez Nate,” grumbled the boy, who was still both taller and bigger than him, despite his own growth spurt, “it’s like hitting granite.” Then, without pause, “How ya been?” He came to a halt beside him.
“Good,” Nate responded with a smile, glad for Eric’s uncomplicated and infectious good humor.
“Good,” the boy responded, playfully mocking. “Is that all? Have you been anywhere? Done anything…besides trying to catch up with me in height?”
Nate laughed and shook his head. He had not really done anything since he last saw his friend. Nothing he could tell him about anyway. In that moment, Ray reached them.
Ray, too, had changed, even though it had been less than six weeks since Nate had seen him last. The boy wore new glasses with dark frames that only seemed to amplify his serious hazel eyes. He was also taller, but only by a smidge. He and Nate were almost the same height now.
The two boys eyed each other and, for a long moment, neither spoke. In Ray’s eyes, Nate read both unease and some bit of fear, which he could even smell beneath the cologne of slightly burnt coffee that Ray permanently wore. Finally, Nate stuck out his hand. Ray looked at the appendage for several seconds before reaching out his own.
“We cool?” Nate asked, relieved when Ray gripped his hand. A beat passed and Ray nodded as he looked Nate straight in the eye.
“As long as you don’t try to eat me,” he mumbled under his breath, releasing Nate’s hand. Nate gave a shout of laughter, which Ray answered with a small smile.
“You’ve got a deal,” Nate said.
“Did you see that girl,” Eric broke in, completely oblivious to the showdown that had just transpired. “She’s got talent.” Eric’s words seemed to dissolve the tension that remained. Apparently, he was up to the same old girl-crazy ways. Given his new physique, he might actually have a little more luck this year.
“Which one?” Ray asked. He glanced around in a way that was not at all subtle. Nate could not help but laugh. Same old Ray. So much had changed, and, yet, somehow it was just like old times. With all that had happened just in the last few months, he had not known whether it would ever feel that again.
“Black hair. Front of the line,” Eric directed in a stage whisper. Both Nate and Ray turned toward, just in time to see a girl with long, straight black hair walking away from the school. Though he could only see her back, something about the girl immediately caught Nate’s attention. She was tiny; several inches shorter than the students that she passed. He watched her lift her hand to her head to tuck her hair behind her ear. The tip of her ear was slightly pointed.
“What do you mean by talent,” he asked absentmindedly, watching the girl take a seat on the brick wall that ran along the front of the school property.
“You know,” Eric said, the tone of his voice making both Nate and Ray turn to look at him. “Talent,” he raised his eyebrows several times in quick succession, a comical leer on his face.
Nate chuckled and turned away from his friends back towards where the girl was seated. She was gone. Probably picked up by whatever parent had dropped her off. Lucky her, being done already. Nate glanced at the line in front of them. It was starting to look like they would be there longer than an hour.
Just as quickly as his fascination for the girl developed, it melted away. Soon Nate was distracted by his friends, who were busy detailing their summer travels. He, however, remained quiet.
The one journey that he had taken was not really one that he could share with his friends. As much as Ray knew, Nate had not and would not tell him about Panteria. First of all, his friend probably would not believe him. Second, given what he had seen in Panteria that summer, he knew that it was imperative that the world remain unknown to humans. Finally, given what Larissa told him last night, to reveal anything more would get him in a lot of trouble.
As his friends chattered on about surfing and hiking excursions, Nate scanned the crowd, adrenaline racing through him. There was something exciting, but scary, about being at a new school. So many new faces. So many new sights, sounds, smells. He had thought GMS was big. Compared to GHS, it was nothing. There had to be at least two times as many students in the freshman class as there had been in his entire school.
All of those new bodies were wreaking havoc on his shifter senses. It was just like his first days at GMS, where the newness and the multitude had almost overwhelmed him. He was going to have to adjust all over again to these new surroundings.
If he had been paying one mite less attention, he would have missed the boy. In fact, he almost did not recognize him because he looked different from before. His hair was bright, crayon-colored blue rather than grass green. Beast rather than the Incredible Hulk. But there was no mistaking the menacing look in the pale tea-colored eyes that were trained on him. From across the yard, Nate could see the boy’s nostrils flair, as though he had caught a scent. Even from that distance, Nate could see the strange fire in the boy’s eyes that marked him for what he was. A shifter.
The boy stood with a crowd of other boys, all of whom were laughing, talking, and jostling each other. But he gave those boys about as much attention as Nate gave to his friends in that moment. For all intents and purposes, they were not there. It was just him and Nate, with nothing but air and opportunity in between.