Luke Flynn stared at the teacher as she stood up from her desk, her legs slightly shaky, her eyes darting over all of the children as if inspecting them for every, tiny detail.
Luke watched alongside the other twenty-or-so children, all of them wondering why the woman was in such a state, though, all of them being five or six-years-old, Luke being on the younger side of the spectrum, none of them could even fathom to begin to understand what could have been wrong.
"We're going for an assembly," the woman informed them, clasping her hands in front of her, doing her best to force a smile through the ends of her black hair which curved towards the inside of her face, her bright, green eyes showing no happiness despite what her grin tried to convey.
"But, Miss Walters, we don't have assembly on Tuesday."
That was Sheridan, a girl whom Luke didn't know extremely well other than the obvious fact that she was slightly advanced for her age, smarter than the majority of the class. She was always one of the first children to throw their hand into the air whenever a question would be presented to the classroom. She was one of the first in the group to get her mind around simple multiplication, having come in the next day and boasted the fact that her father had taught her the three-times-table. Though Luke didn’t know every detail about the girl, she was sat at his table alongside two of his friends: Adrian and Benny.
"I know, Sheridan, but something has... come up, and Mister Andrews has something to tell you all," Miss Walters explained, forcing another smile which wasn't fooling many of the young students before she motioned towards the door with her right hand, urging for everyone to get up from their seats and to follow her out of the classroom.
Each student pushed their chair backwards on the worn carpet and clambered to their feet, most of the students slightly apprehensive to move as they'd spent the majority of the ten minutes before entering the building running around in the playground, playing tag or football, clinging to the last chance to have fun before their day of learning.
They began to make their way out of the room, guided by Miss Walters' hand as she told them all to wait in the hallway just outside of the classroom, wanting to make sure that she didn't lose any of the students. Once everyone was out of the class, she stepped into the hall and began to lead everybody towards the gymnasium where each assembly took place.
Luke dawdled slightly, distracted by the thought of what was so urgent that they were having an extra assembly.
"What d'you think this is about?" Came from beside him.
Luke looked up, raising his gaze from the smooth, glossy ground of the hallway, glancing at Adrian.
"I don't know," Luke replied, avoiding the chance to fantasise about an alien or robot invasion, the feeling that the situation was serious playing on his mind and distracting his playful ideas. "It seems... bad."
Adrian didn't say anything, just looked slightly solemn.
"Maybe someone's leaving."
"Mister Patterson?" Adrian suggested, sounding hopeful. "We might be having a party."
Luke rolled his eyes a little just at the thought of the man. He was grouchy and mean. He wasn't exactly someone who should have become a teacher. After Luke had mentioned the man to his mother, having heard horror stories from two of his friends in the man's class, she guessed that teaching had been a second or a third choice for him, that he didn't want to be there. That wouldn't make it impossible for him to have been leaving...
They filed into the gymnasium, most of the other classes already there, sat in their horizontal lines, chatting quietly with their friends. The class quickly formed their own line behind Mister Robert's class, keeping their heads down as they noticed the steely gaze of Mister Patterson on the side-lines, watching over the children. From the way that the man was staring at everyone, Luke guessed that he wasn't leaving.
It took another minute or two for the entire school to be present in the gymnasium, sat on the floor, the oldest year sat on the benches on either side of the room, making all of the other children jealous of their privilege.
Mister Andrews stepped in front of everyone, looking solemn. Everyone noticed and quieted immediately, watching the usually-cheery man as he gazed over everyone. He ran a hand through his greying, styled hair before he spoke.
"I'd like to start by reminding everyone to... keep out of trouble. Don't go anywhere that isn't safe without a guardian. Just... be careful."
The room seemed to buzz slightly, all of the children unanimously becoming scared. They hadn't seen Mister Andrews so serious since one of the older boys had decided to vandalise one of the toilets, having drawn a crude image on the inside wall of one of the cubicles.
Mister Roberts shushed everyone, the giant, echoey room becoming silent until Mister Andrews continued to speak.
"A student... Melanie Peters in Year Two has... gone missing."
The room seemed to jolt as everyone realised what that meant. She'd been classed as absent that morning, but Miss Walters had muttered something about having not received a phone call to say that she wouldn't be in school that day.
"Her parents don't know where she's gone, and if anyone here has any idea, please say."
There was only silence which followed that statement, telling Mister Andrews that no-one knew anything.
"We're going to be keeping a stricter eye on all of you, and I want to emphasise that you should all be very careful. Try not to stay on your own when going home. If you can, arrange for your parents to be able to pick you up," Mister Andrews continued, sounding slightly pained as he said the words. Even though Luke didn't understand his strained tone very much, he could tell that the man was under a decent amount of pressure.
The assembly was wrapped up fairly quickly, not much else being said. Mister Andrews had gone on to explain that all students were welcome to wait in the school for anyone to pick them up if they couldn't be picked up at three when the school day would end, had emphasised safety slightly more and, as a result of everything, had made the minds of all of the students buzz with petrified thoughts.
As the students dispersed, heading back to their classrooms, Adrian and Benny caught up to Luke and initiated a discussion about how Melanie had gone missing.
"Maybe she was taken by aliens," Benny, a slightly slower and more imaginative child stated, the expression on his rounded face showing his expectations that his theorisation was correct.
"Maybe she's moved away and her parents forgot to tell the school," Luke retorted, not wanting to believe that aliens were scouting the school for innocent children to abduct.
"No, the teachers would have called to ask where she is and her parents didn't know," Sheridan chimed in, pushing in-between Luke and Adrian, smirking slightly at the unimpressed look on Benny's face which she could only just see through his thin, blonde fringe.
"Of course you'd know that," Benny grumbled, rolling his brown eyes and staring at the ground, evidently feeling flattened due to his idea of aliens having been stomped on.
"Don't you have friends to geek-out, Sheridan?" Adrian questioned, raising a black eyebrow at her, one which was oddly slightly darker than his dark, brown hair. "Oh, wait, you don't have any friends, do you?"
Sheridan gave a slightly mischievous grin, one which she always seemed to adorn when talking to Adrian, and lightly pushed him. "That's better than who you're friends with, idiot."
And, with that, she pushed past them as they entered their classroom, Luke barely seeing her small figure disappearing into the room, her lengthening-brown hair flowing behind her as if she were an actress in a gorgeous film.
The trio's relationship with Sheridan wasn't as poor as it seemed. Adrian and Sheridan actually got along really well as Luke had discovered by accident one day, having walked onto the playground and seen them holding hands until Sheridan had noticed him and had abruptly pushed Adrian over. She even got on fairly decently with Luke, neither of them really clashing, but she had a distaste for Benny. Maybe it was because he wasn't as smart as she was and that she found how much he'd struggle with their schoolwork annoying. Whenever Benny was in her presence, she'd become more of a stuck-up brat, something which Benny had called her once, startling everyone who'd heard it, having sent Sheridan off to cry. Maybe that was why she didn't like him very much…
Everybody took their seats again, almost all of them much more silent than usual, though it didn't take long for some hushed chatting to begin which quickly evolved into a noisy room. Miss Walters hushed everyone, having taken a moment to stabilise herself before drawing their work on the whiteboard, snatching the attention of everyone in the classroom not long later with a light cough.
The day went excruciatingly slowly. Luke wanted nothing more than for it to end, slightly afraid that he would be snatched away during the day, believing that he would be safe at home. Lunch had come and gone with the entire school buzzing about the news regarding Melanie. Given that they'd all been told that morning, everyone had plenty of time to maul over the few details given, leaving everyone to fill in the blanks via theorisation, resulting in an almost instant rumour that she'd actually decided to run away, something which had gotten back to the teachers and had caused them all to tell the students off, explaining that theorising about such a thing was dangerous as the ideas could be perceived as facts. No-one had uttered a word about the situation after that, fighting through the rest of the day to avoid talking about it, scared of being shouted at but also much more terrified of having the same thing happen to them.
When Luke's mother, Poppy West, picked Luke up at the end of the day, she looked slightly distracted as Luke explained what had been going on, what they’d been told in the assembly that morning. He didn’t have to mention that Mister Andrews had instructed everyone to be picked up from school if it was possible given that his mother would collect him regardless, though Luke had initially wondered if explaining that Mister Andrews had said such a thing would give Poppy a clearer view of the situation.
"Uh-huh," she let out for the umpteenth time as Luke went on and on about various things, recounting that Sheridan and Benny had fought verbally over lunch about what had really happened to Melanie. Benny had somehow gotten it into his mind that Melanie was a secret agent and had disappeared because she was on a mission in America. "Listen," Poppy interrupted, cutting off one of Luke's sentences about aliens. "Your teachers are right. It isn't good to make things up about the situation," she explained. "For a little girl to... it's disrespectful to her."
Luke went quiet and nodded meekly as Poppy turned on the indicators to make a right-turn.
They turned into their driveway after five minutes of being in the car, Poppy parking the vehicle and turning the engine off before pushing the door open, Luke doing the same in the back seat.
They both clambered out, standing on the gravel of their driveway, stood in front of their small home.
Luke pulled his bag and his coat from the back seat and pushed the door closed awkwardly while Poppy unlocked the front door of the house, standing in the doorway and watching Luke as he made his way to the building.
"Don't worry about Melanie," Poppy assured, smiling at Luke, taking his coat from his hands and hanging it on the coat rack. She leaned over and rubbed his shoulders comfortingly, her shoulder-length, brown hair bouncing slightly as she did so. "She'll turn up."
Luke nodded lightly before he was pulled into a tight hug.
The relationship between Luke and his mother was a close one. Luke's father, Gregory Flynn- being where Luke had gotten his last name- hadn't been in Luke's life since he was a very young baby. Poppy hadn't explained why, had only said that he had to leave to live somewhere else for work and that neither she nor Luke could go to visit him. Luke hadn't questioned that but had questioned his mother as to why there would occasionally be another man in the house. The man hadn't interacted with Luke very much, but Luke had heard him rushing out of the house as he’d walked down the stairs to get breakfast one morning. Poppy only ever said that he was a friend.
Luke walked right to his room once his mother had broken the embrace, wanting to play on the gaming console which he loved so much, the memories of the day playing on his mind, frightening him slightly, but Luke quickly found himself distracted.
Luke stared across the classroom in disbelief. She was there. Melanie Peters, the girl who’d gone missing two weeks before, was sitting there. Everyone else in the classroom stared at her, too, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by it, something which was slightly surprising to Luke and, most likely, everybody else, too, given that she had always been a little short-tempered. She’d see someone looking at her and would expect that they were going to make fun of her, so she’d snap at them before they’d have a chance to say or do anything. Now, however, she looked content while having so many other children looking at her, watching her.
He made his way towards his seat next to Adrian, not taking his eyes off of the girl.
“She’s just… back?” Luke questioned, glancing at Adrian as he sat down. His friend looked mesmerised while gazing at Melanie.
“Apparently,” Adrian replied, not taking his eyes away from her until he grew slightly bored, glanced at the table and then looked at Luke. “It’s been two weeks and she’s just… back.”
Luke didn’t understand it. The teachers had made such a big deal out of the situation, had squashed any rumours about what had happened to her, showing all of the children that it was a serious matter. So why was she back? It was an unprecedented return, completely random, it seemed. No-one in the classroom seemed to have had any inclination that she’d be coming back, so it must have been abrupt, spontaneous. How come she’d just returned?
Miss Walters sat behind her desk, looking slightly perplexed. She was talking on the phone, her hand raised very slightly, ready to tell the children to hush if they’d start making noise. Luke could hear the faint voice of what sounded like a distressed woman on the other end of the line. He guessed that Miss Walters was talking to Mrs Peters.
The classroom was quiet for a few moments before Sheridan, sat on the opposite side of the table to Luke and Adrian, beside Benny who sat just opposite Adrian, decided to put her hand in the air, catching the attention of Miss Walters.
She said something quickly into the phone before lowering it, hesitating slightly and then hanging up, placing it onto her desk again. She looked at Sheridan. “Yes?” She asked, seeming slightly relieved that the phone call had been interrupted. Luke didn’t know why, but guessed that Melanie’s return was making Miss Walters feel just as uneasy as it was making him feel.
“Why is Melanie back?”
Miss Walters stared at Sheridan, clearly contemplating the same, slightly impolite question. She looked at Melanie as if asking her to explain before shrugging. “She just is,” Miss Walters stated, clearly not knowing the correct answer, either, and clearly not wanting to barrage the girl with questions regarding her return.
The entire classroom was about to say something- or various things- in unison, Luke knowing that he wanted to ask Melanie about what had happened, before Miss Walters stood up and walked to the cabinet where their workbooks were kept, pulling out the box for their English work and placing it at the edge of her desk which faced the classroom of students. “Come and collect your books,” she said before moving to the whiteboard to write their work out.
“I’ll pass them out,” Melanie interjected, jumping up from her seat and rushing to the box, startling everyone including Miss Walters who simply watched her, stunned.
“Um, Jamie? Alex? Joshua?” Melanie recited, pulling book after book from the box and placing them on the closest table for the respective owners to collect, though no-one moved. Melanie wouldn’t have done anything like that before. She would have expected somebody else to pass her book to her, so what was going on?
It took a moment before Jamie, Alex, Joshua, Courtney, Philip and Stephanie stood up to collect their books, Melanie having progressed through the box more and more while everyone had processed just how strange she was acting.
As soon as their breaktime came, everyone in the school knew about Melanie's return. Many of the children from different classes crowded around her, asking about what had happened, Luke included, though she only remained quiet about it, not saying much though answering the occasional question which was posed to her.
"Were you taken by aliens?" Benny pushed, Luke able to see Sheridan rolling her eyes from the other side of the crowd.
Melanie shook her head and giggled lightly.
"How come you're so different?" Sheridan inquired, making the buzzing of the crowd dissipate.
Melanie looked at Sheridan, almost seeming perplexed. "What do you mean 'different?'" She asked. "This is how I've always been."
The people who knew her glanced at each other, confused.
"You handed the books out this morning," Joshua stated, giving the squinty-look which he did when contemplating something. "You've never done anything like that before."
Melanie remained quiet, looking fairly stunned by the statement. "I don't..." her voice trailed off. She looked very strained while trying to think. Then she pushed through the crowd and rushed away, everyone watching her waiting for something to happen, the crowd so silent that Luke couldn’t even tell if any of the children who were stood behind him were still alive or not judging from the level of noise.
"She's weird," Luke heard from behind him, making him spin around and look at the girl who'd said it. He didn't want to admit it, he felt mean for doing so, but he had to agree. Melanie had disappeared for two weeks, had been a troublesome girl when she’d gone missing, then had returned as what seemed to be the total opposite. She’d become well-mannered. During their lesson-time before their break, Melanie had made much more of an effort to take part in the lesson than she ever would have considered making two weeks prior. It was as if she’d been taken away to have been fixed, as if her parents had taken her out of school to change her for the better.
“What if her parents took her out of school?” Luke asked Adrian, though more children than only him heard the question.
“What do you mean?” Sheridan questioned, to which Luke paused, unsure about whether posing the thought would be a bad idea while so many other people were listening. What if, like Miss Walters had told them two weeks before, his idea would be perceived as a fact instead of a theory as to why Melanie had disappeared?
“Well, she was bad before,” Luke stated, trying to think of the best way to word the explanation. “Maybe her parents sent her somewhere to be made into a good kid?”
Everyone processed the idea, then a few people nodded lightly, the thought adding up in their minds. It didn’t matter to any of them that Melanie’s parents had reported her as missing when they’d found out from Miss Walters that she hadn’t been in school.
The crowd disbanded, all of them unanimously thinking about how strange they found Melanie. If she really had been taken out of school to go through some sort of behavioural-corrective-therapy, they didn’t like the idea of it. It just felt strange to them, weird to think about being around a girl who wasn’t being herself, either by choice or something else which was forcing her to act differently. Luke could only imagine how it would feel to be walking around, forced to act in a different way to how he wanted to act. It would be a struggle. He knew that, but it didn’t make him feel any empathy towards Melanie. Instead, it almost made him feel afraid of her. What if the situation was making her angrier and angrier? Hanging around her would only risk being in the blast-radius if she’d explode in rage, and he definitely didn’t want to take the chance of being the outlet for her anger.
When breaktime ended, everyone filed into queues, lining up outside so that they could take attendance and make sure that everyone was there. There was a gap purposefully left around Melanie, at least two children able to fit in front of her and behind her, but no-one moved to fill the gap. The teachers took notice and most likely assumed, Luke guessed, that they were giving her space in case that she was anxious after having been returned to her home. In reality, however, they were avoiding her, scared of her, unable to understand why she’d changed and, honestly, some of the children were scared that they’d change, too, if they’d stand too close to her.
It took a few minutes for everyone to funnel into the building, one queue at a time, heading to their classes. Luke’s class was one of the first to go, being the second-youngest year-group in the school who were allowed to go outside for breaktime.
Once they’d arrived in their classroom, sat down, Luke turned his attention to the whiteboard, Miss Walters writing what they were going to be doing on it when Adrian tapped him on his right arm.
“Look,” Adrian whispered, having moved uncomfortably close to Luke to breathe the word without anyone else hearing.
Luke glanced at Adrian, confused until he saw the finger which Adrian was subtly pointing towards Melanie. Luke’s gaze shifted towards the girl until he noticed what Adrian was referring to: she was sat alone. Well, as alone as she could be while sat at a square table, other children surrounding it. The two who sat close to her usually- Ralph and Thomas- had shifted their seats, having sidled them away from Melanie.
And the look on Melanie’s face proved that she’d noticed.
Luke looked away, feeling slightly bad for the girl but also understanding why Ralph and Thomas had moved as far away as possible; they were scared of her. They didn’t want to change as well, so they were keeping as far away from her as possible. Just as everybody had in the queue outside.
Miss Walters was too busy with writing the work on the whiteboard to notice the alteration at the table, though once she’d turned around and scanned the class, telling them to write the title which she’d put on the whiteboard into their books, she noticed the change.
“Thomas, Ralph,” she almost called, her tone loud though her voice quiet, not wanting to shout at the boys. “Scoot closer to Melanie. You can’t write properly on the corners of the table.”
“But she’s weird,” Thomas retorted, making Miss Walters pause and stare at him, evidently taken aback by the insult which was aimed at the young girl a foot away from him. “She left and came back and is different now.”
“Well, I’m sure she’s just anxious, aren’t you, Melanie?” Miss Walters countered, clearly trying to stay calm, the expression on her young face showing just how upset the situation was making her despite it not being herself nor anyone whom she knew personally in Melanie’s position. “You’re scared about what happened and that’s making you act differently, right?”
Melanie stared at Miss Walters, light tears in her eyes. “No,” she whimpered. “This is how I’ve always been.”
There was a moment of silence in the classroom, all of the students either finding the situation slightly funny for whatever reason or annoying because they didn’t like Melanie.
Miss Walters looked at the girl, her eyes seeming pained as she tried to empathise with Melanie’s feelings. Melanie simply looked hurt as she sat there, looking at the teacher, alone.
Melanie stood and rushed out of the classroom, letting out a light “excuse me” as she did so before running in the direction of the bathroom.
Miss Walters hesitated for a moment, unsure as to what to do, scared that she’d spurred the reaction within the girl, before she placed the whiteboard marker on her desk and followed Melanie out of the room, telling the class to behave while she was gone, the door closing behind her.
Everyone was silent for a moment until one of the girls started talking to the boy next to her about something. Then more and more children broke out into small conversations, barely considering what had just happened except for the fact that they deemed it to have been very strange and, in some cases, slightly amusing.
Once Miss Walters had returned to the room with Melanie- the young girl’s blue eyes puffed and bloodshot due to the tears which had been leaking from them- she led Melanie to her seat, motioned for Thomas and Ralph to scoot closer to her, then continued with the lesson, making sure to single-out Melanie occasionally, asking her for the answer to the occasional question, something which Luke could tell annoyed Sheridan as she always threw her hand into the air yet was sometimes ignored for the suddenly-favoured girl.
When the day had finally ended, Luke hopped into his mother’s car and immediately informed her that Melanie was back, how everyone was treating her, what had happened in the lesson following their breaktime.
“Really?” Poppy questioned, an eyebrow raised as she pulled out of the school’s carpark. “How come she’s back?”
Luke shrugged. “She didn’t say what happened, but she’d acting different.”
Poppy paused. “She’s probably… scared because of what she went through,” she murmured, her face growing slightly paler, her eyes getting a little wider as she considered the possibilities of what the poor girl had experienced.
Luke couldn’t see the look of horror on Poppy’s face from the back seat, instead turning his attention to the sights out of the window, resting his chin on the palm of his left hand, gazing at the houses which they passed.
“She isn’t naughty anymore,” Luke continued after a moment. “But that scares everyone.”
“We’re just confused,” Luke said. “I think her parents took her somewhere to be changed.”
Poppy processed the idea but almost immediately shrugged it off, knowing that a lot of things didn’t add-up with that explanation. Still, though, why would she act so different? Was it really just trauma?
Poppy kept the questions to herself. “Yeah,” she said, almost too quietly for Luke to hear. “That’s probably what happened.”