(*I split chapter three into two.)
The movers came sooner than Oliver anticipated. Everything seemed to be set into high gear over the next few days, and Oliver, though desperate to know what his grandma had been up to that day at the cafe, didn’t dare bring it up. If she wanted him to know, she’d tell him. At least that’s what he convinced himself to believe. He tried ignoring the gnawing in his stomach that told him he’d find out anyway. But for now, he busied himself with the move.
The new house was even better than Oliver imagined. He had spent so much time lingering on past memories of his parents’ home that he had forgotten how brilliant their new place was: surrounded by a thicket of trees, the three-story house was the biggest on the block. The living area felt larger than his entire parents’ house; the morning light streamed through his bedroom’s three huge windows; and an unfinished attic had the potential of a game room. But mostly, he loved the backyard. It was practically backed up to a forest–lush, expansive and holding so many adventures. Total freedom to roam a secluded forest at nine, however, was rare. In fact, most days Grandma Pamp insisted on Oliver spending time indoors, and every time it rained she seemed to be in an extra chipper mood.
“Why don’t we play a game?” she asked one day while baking. The smell of chocolate had wafted through the house, up to Oliver’s room on the second floor, and enticed him to join her in the kitchen.
He plopped down on one of the stools at the large dark island, eyeing the cookies cooling on the rack. “I don’t really feel like playing a game.”
“Alright,” said Grandma Pamp, with a smile; however, Oliver detected a hint of disappointment in her voice.
He sat up straight. He wasn’t being fair. All she really did was keep him inside a house that had more space than he knew what to do with. Not exactly holding him captive. “Okay, but you know I’ll say chess.”
“Fine? Last time I wanted to play, you told me you hated the fact that a nine-year-old could beat you.”
“Well, I’m feeling lucky today,” she said, sliding a plate of cookies in front of him. “Bring it down. We can play.” Oliver grinned, snagged a cookie and hurried to the attic where several boxes, still packed with odds and ends, sat collecting dust.
The attic smelled of must and moth balls and felt large enough to fit an entire apartment upstairs. However, along with their’ boxes, the room only contained a single lightbulb, which hung by a string in the middle of the room. Slowly, Oliver felt his way through the boxes, reaching his hand out for the string. He clicked it on. His body jumped.
Someone had been standing in the corner.
Instinctively, he clicked the light off, dousing himself in darkness. He froze, immobilized by fear, hand clutching the string. Seconds went by. No footsteps sounded. Good thing. But as doubt crept over him, Oliver yanked the light back on. He swiveled the bulb, casting a dim glow in every corner. No one. He swiveled again, slower this time, eyes alert for any sign of movement. Nothing. He caught sight of a box labeled “games” and, snatching the chess board from the top, he darted down the stairs, peaking one last time as he shut the door behind him.
That night, Oliver lay awake in bed. The feeling that someone had been in their attic had given him a stomachache all night. He hadn’t even been up for his signature victory dance. Instead, he said goodnight to his grandma and slipped off to his room, where he hadn’t moved for at least an hour, lost in thought. He had to get back to the attic, just to check. But he was forced to wait until Grandma Pamp went to bed. Unlike him, she often stayed up well into the night, and seeing as it was only ten o’clock, he braced himself for a lengthy wait. Regardless of all the activity, he felt his eyelids droop. He sat up and stretched then studied his mark.
It was washed over in red and purple hues, as if he had spread watered-down paint over his palm. For what felt like the hundredth time, he went over the conversation he heard that day in the cafe. How his grandma had pleaded for answers. How the man on the bus had used her first name. Oliver was so certain they were talking about him, but just like before, no amount of cajoling provided him with any proof, and soon he gave up trying.
He stared at his mark, hoping it would do what Marks: A Beginner’s Guide, described in chapter one: concentrate on yielding your mark’s skill, wait for the mark’s outline to glow, then guide your mark to act. He practically pulled a muscle concentrating so hard. As always, the glowing emblem appeared. But then nothing. He punched his bed with his fist and sighed then pulled the book out from under his bed and flipped through each description.
The Gift Mark would produce multiples of something.
The Fire Mark would cause flames to ignite.
The Joy Mark would alter someone’s emotions.
And so on, each description displaying the image of its mark.
Except for his.
He flipped, like always, to the section of the book where three pages were missing. And like always, struggled to understand why. Without a reference, forcing his mark to work was like trying to construct a building with missing blueprints.
He checked the clock.
He groaned. Time was inching by. Obsessing over his mark for the umpteenth time wasn’t helping, so he plopped down next to several unopened boxes and began to unpack.
Ten boxes later, Oliver was surrounded by stuff he forgot he had. Clothes and old toys were pilled to his right, while his rock and plant collections sat on his left. He folded, stacked, organized, and shelved more than half the items he’d dug out, which considering how tightly he’d packed those boxes was saying something.
Finally, he braved another glance at the clock.
He stepped over the piles, threw his jacket on, and stuck his head out the door. The hallway that held his bedroom and his grandma’s was dark and quiet, and Oliver could see that the sliver under his grandma’s door was black. Quietly, he crept across the hall to the attic. A floor board let out a loud creak. He froze, waiting for his grandma to throw back her door; but seconds later, nothing happened. He took a deep breath, turned the knob to the attic, and headed upstairs.
He fumbled around for the light, heart pounding in anticipation of what he might see. But when he clicked the light on, his heart sank. Nothing unusual appeared. He swiveled the the lightbulb like he had before, casting a dim glow onto everything in the attic, but no one was there. What had he been expecting anyway? It didn’t matter. He was being stupid, trying to conjure up adventure in this place. He shivered in his jacket and suddenly missing the warmth of his bed, turned to leave.
A hand came crashing down on his shoulder.
“Don’t yell,” said a low voice.
Oliver’s whole body went numb. He recognized that voice.
“So, we meet again,” said the man and strolled in front of Oliver. The man from the bus. The man from the cafe.
“He knows my name. Impressive,” said Aaron. He was wearing the same pristine black suite, as . His black hair was cut short and came together at a perfect widow’s peak high on his forehead, causing a continuous frown to appear on his face. His face. Cold, stiff, emotionless. His steel grey eyes looked like they lead down empty tunnels and his jawline so sharp it could cut metal.
Slowly Oliver gained feeling back in his body. He squared his shoulders. “What do you want?”
“You’ve got dozes of boxes up here,” said Aaron, glancing around. “Moved? I hope not on my account.”
“What do you want?” asked Oliver again, forcing his voice to remain calm.
A tiny, cunning grin inched up Aaron’s face before returning to its perpetual frown. “Your grandma and I had a very interesting conversation the other day,” he said.
“She hasn’t told you?
Oliver shrugged, trying not to give away his desperate curiosity.
“It was about you.”
“What about me?”
“Oh, you know, how she begged me not to kill you.”
Numbness spread through Oliver’s body like a disease, and all he could think of was his useless mark lying at his side. Defenseless.
Aaron scanned Oliver’s face and as if reading his mind, raised his hand and displayed his glowing Healer’s Mark. Jealousy shot through Oliver like a knife.
“How ironic,” said Aaron with a low chuckle. “The boy with the Destructor Mark can’t defend himself.”
Oliver felt his heart race. What did he say?
“Come on. Give it a try. Or is there some reason you can’t?”
“Shut up,” said Oliver through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, the attic’s light vanished, plunging him into darkness. Before fear could overtake him, however, the light sprang back to life and Aaron was so close to Oliver’s face he could smell coffee on his breath. “You don’t call the shots here. I do. Got it?”
Lightheaded, Oliver nodded. He needed a plan. He scanned the attic, desperate for help and faintly remembered that one of the boxes held old irons. If he could chuck one at Aaron that would buy him some time to grab his grandma and escape. As Aaron paced the attic, Oliver crept towards the closest box, praying it was the right one. He glanced at the label, heart racing.
His heart plummeted to his stomach. His eyes darted to the next.
Aaron glanced up and Oliver froze. Had Aaron’s eyes flickered to the box?
Oliver’s last chance sat inches away from Aaron: a large, unlabeled brown box. He risked being seen and darted towards it, threw back the flaps and practically yelled when he saw the iron. The moment he grabbed it, however, a searing pain shot down his spine, forcing him to drop to his knees.
“I’d advise you not to escape,” said Aaron in his low, even cadence. Oliver was now writing on the floor, struggling not to throw up. Several seconds later and the pain disappeared.
Oliver lay limp on the ground, his breathing coming in heavy gasps. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t move. And when he saw his grandma coming up the stairs, he suddenly felt like he was floating above his own body. He tried yelling but it was like attempting to communicate under water. Everything that happened next seemed to move in slow motion.
Grandma Pamp screamed when she locked eyes with Oliver; Aaron shifted his attention to her scream, lifted his mark and appeared to cast the same pain into her body, because within seconds, she had dropped to the ground. Oliver forced himself to stand, to make it to where she was, but his legs were useless.
“Get up,” yelled Aaron at Oliver. “We’re leaving.”
“No! She’s hurt!”
Aaron yanked Oliver to his feet and forced him towards the stairs. Horrified, Oliver watched his grandma tremble on the ground, her eyes shut tight like she was enduring a wrenching pain. He felt helpless and sick. He tried jerking his arm free, but Aaron’s grip was like a vice. Before he knew it, he was out in the chilly night’s air. His body now sore, trembling, close to collapsing. He threw up. Then again. Too weak to stand, he toppled over onto the sopping grass. The last thing he remembered as his eyes clouded over was Aaron pouring something over him, muttering words he couldn’t understand.
And then everything went black.