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In the dark: In Principio

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It was strange to walk into school again. Ethan likened it to his first day of school, because it was. He was nervous, wondered about the new teachers, wondered who changed in his absence and who hadn't.

The difference between Ethan and the other was that everyone had gone through these feelings in September. Ethan felt out of place in the crowds. He could tell they recognized him. He could tell they remembered what happened in June - they all had an opinion on him, based on what his father had done. They surely would walk up to him and ask questions he didn't want to answer.

The students just passed him by, maybe glanced at him and whispered among friends - nothing more. Something else must be on their minds.

It came into view when Ethan walked onto the playground. It was hard to miss - about fifteen posters, unevenly spread on the wall. They all bore the same picture of Deb Harrington, her name written under the large MISSING header, with more information about her under the picture. A girl was putting up more posters still, and a pile lay at her feet. It looked like she wanted to cover all the outside walls.

“Pathetic, right?” a familiar voice said behind him. “You’d think she’d spread them out a little more, maybe all over town instead of on one tiny wall.”

River Monroe came up behind him and shook his head at the girl. He was the oldest and least irritable Monroe brother and – unlike the others – not an outright asshole, though he did have his moments. Ethan wouldn’t call River a good friend, but he was a friend nonetheless.

“Can’t blame her,” Ethan responded. “She lost her girlfriend. What would you do?”

“I wouldn’t have up all the posters in one place, for a start,” River commented. He glanced up and down the wall and shook his head at the result.

Ethan wished he kept in touch with River. He didn’t have that contact. The only contact he was allowed were handwritten letters from his mom. Even then, Ethan did not write – his mother did not bother to send him letters, so why should he write back?

River smiled at him and patted him on the back. “It’s good to see you, man. How was California?”

“Good,” Ethan said. “It helped.”

River nodded. “Yeah. Nothing like soaking up some sun to get the positive vibes going. And you’re feeling okay?”

Ethan nodded though he wasn't sure. Deep down, it didn't feel like it. But the more he faked being okay, the more he should be okay. That’s what they always said. Fake it ‘till you make it. But instead of making it, he’s feeling fine.

“That’s great,” River said and they walked into the main school building, past Alice Woodward. Ethan looked at her until she disappeared out of view, reaching down for another poster to put on the wall. 

“What happened to her?” Ethan asked once Alice was out of earshot. River gave him a funny look, one that said ‘poor boy doesn’t know yet’. Ethan had been away, but this had happened the day he returned home. How had he not heard the rumors yet?

“She disappeared four days ago,” River said. “Police still don’t know shit, so it’s gonna take a while until we know what really happened. Some think she ran away again, others say she was kidnapped, or even murdered.”

“In Hatchetfield?” Ethan said in a deadpan voice. People don’t get murdered in Hatchetfield. The most exciting news over the summer was how Peanuts the squirrel found a home and a weekly update on how he grew. It didn’t get any more exciting, or disturbing.

River shrugged casually. “Just because nothing ever happens, doesn’t mean nothing ever happens here. Didn't a kid in the eighties once disappear, too?”

Ethan shrugged. He had no clue.

Ethan followed River to his locker. Ethan hadn't had the chance to get one and this late in the year, he probably wouldn't get one. So he trailed behind River, who took his books for the first classes of the day from his locker. Ethan carried everything with him in a backpack that was too heavy. Great start of the day.

When the first period was about to start, Ethan caught a glimpse of her. Lex Houston, on her way to class. A smile came to his face – she still looked beautiful, even when she was annoyed by her next class. In that moment, he realized just how much he missed her, and his heart started to ache. How had he survived these past months without her? 

She turned her head and spotted Ethan. He tried to wipe that silly smile off his face to keep a little of his dignity. It was too late for that now. Lex immediately came over - she, too, smiled.

“Hey!” she said. Ethan's mind took him back to that summer night. End of June, at the beach, and the wonderful night that followed. Notwithstanding that was the same night his father left this world. Other than that, Ethan thought it had been perfect and he always assumed Lex did, too.

“Lex,” he said. She was the first good thing of the day. Seeing Lex Houston made his day ten times better already.

“Ethan,” she responded with a grin. She glanced at River, but then looked at Ethan again. “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Ethan said, nodding. “And you?”

“I’m fine.”

A million things ran through Ethan’s mind – a million things he wanted to say. Somehow, he couldn’t think of a single one. Of course, the bell rang before he could find one. 

“Gotta go,” Lex said in a feigned enthusiastic, more sarcastic voice. Before she left, she gave River a kiss on the cheek. “Later.”

What just happened?

Ethan was too astonished. It took a while before his mind formulated even one proper thought. By then, Lex had already walked out of view, hidden between the students swarming around to get to their classes. Yet now, one thought was clear in his mind.

River had been kind enough to wait and walk Ethan to his first class. He did not expect Ethan to space out. He also didn’t expect Ethan to grab his vest and push him violently against the wall.

“Wow!” River reacted, shocked. “What the hell?”

“What was that?” Ethan asked in a raised voice. River frowned.

“What, me and Lex?”

“When did that happen?” Ethan asked, speaking louder and louder. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I was going to,” River spat back. He glanced at the hands that pressed him against the wall. 

Ethan calmed down a little and loosened his grip. River took a couple of steps away. Ethan looked puzzled, like he couldn't believe what had happened, and he shook his head.  

“Look, man,” River began, still angry with what happened. “She tried to reach you. Multiple times. But you didn’t get back to her, like, at all. Four months! When she got no reply, she came to me. She came to me, not the other way around.”

Ethan wished he could have seen the texts, calls, maybe even mails and letters, if she attempted to write those. But his mother refused any communication, so Ethan had nothing.

“You shouldn’t have gone to an asylum if you wanted her,” River continued. He placed a sarcastic hand before his mouth. “I mean, California. Shouldn’t have gone to California.”

Ethan shook his head. “You’re an ass.”

“And you need to realize things change,” River responded. He already walked away to his first class of the day. “That missing girl? She’s just the tip of the iceberg. I'll bet a lot will change soon.”

River turned around the corner and disappeared, leaving a distraught Ethan in the hallway, wondering where his classroom was.

Hatchetfield prides itself on the island's nature. The Witchwood Forest, a large natural forest, is one of the island's biggest prides, along with the beach. Still, people so easily forgot they lived on an island when they didn't need to leave it. But these people did appreciate the unique fauna and flora that existed in Hatchetfield.

That is why so many were against the nuclear power plant when it was first proposed. It was built in the middle of Witchwood forest, far away from the Hatchetfield city center. A concrete state road connected the power plant to the town, but so did some smaller forest roads, which provided a quicker way to Hatchetfield. Most people were content to be energy-independent from Clivesdale (fuck Clivesdale) and the power plant became a staple of the city as well as a big employer in Hatchetfield. 

 The power plant also claimed parts of the Hatchetfield caves, some of which ran underneath the power plant. It was an intricate cave system with many tunnels and caverns, sprawling for miles in every direction. It was hard to tell how much of it has already been mapped and how much was yet unexplored. Either way, the power plant had built a doorway to indicate where their portion of the caves started. Nobody knows what lies inside.

The main entrance lay further away, in the side of a hill. Some people did not respect nature, and thus someone had recently dumped old furniture near the entrance. A couch, a chair, an empty fridge. The fridge had been taken away because it worked with electricity, but nobody had come back to clean up the couch or chair yet. For now, it had become part of the unique surroundings near the caves' entrance.

Around noon of November 4, a stranger in a weathered raincoat who carried a pristine suitcase walked out of the caves. He briefly stopped to take a breath, to look at the furniture, and moved on.

There was no time to lose. Yet, he had all the time in the world.