Chapter 14:

A Hidden Promise

Galaktika Gamble: Stolen Light

There's something very odd about growing up. Each year seems to pass by faster than the year before it. Suddenly, you're looking back on your childhood wondering where it went and how it disappeared so fast. I never thought too much of it until my senior year of high school. Once my last year started though, I quickly realized how close I was to being considered a legal adult...and it felt strange. At the same time though, I also felt somewhat accomplished. Somehow, I made it to that point without dying around Neil, and I was determined to at least make it to adulthood.

The thought of becoming an adult actually seemed a little exciting to me. Ela had already graduated, so if the year could pass by quickly, I could spend even more time with her. We had even talked about her possibly moving in with us, despite Neil's fears and protests about it. The thought of her being there with me and having a future together was enough to keep me motivated every day, even when life seemed to suck.

However, senior year didn't seem to treat Neil very well. The very first day of school seemed to start out bad. We had just walked to school when she spotted us.

Jill: Neil! I missed you so much! Why does the summer break have to be so long?

Jill started to run towards us with excitement. Neil tightened his grip on the straps of his backpack before taking off in a sprint.

Jill: Wait! Why are you running?!

Ivan: Jill, you need to leave Neil alone! He doesn't want people near him!

Jill: First, call me Kitty. Second, that is such bullshit and you know it! If he didn't want anyone near him, why do you force him to be around you all the time? Hm? Stop being so selfish!

Ivan: We have already discussed this. Please just give it a rest. Neil is already stressed enough as it is.

Jill: I'll only stop if you stop! If you get to be his friend, then I should be allowed to be his friend too!

I sighed in frustration.

Ivan: Stop it. This is childish. Neil will choose to be around whoever he wants to be around.

Jill glared at me before grabbing my shirt and whispering in my ear.

Jill: If he refuses to talk with me by the end of this school year, I'll kill myself. Wouldn't you prefer I die happily near Neil as his friend instead of committing suicide all alone?

Neil: You'll what?

Jill let go of my shirt, smiled, and turned around quickly. Speaking louder, she stuttered with her reply. I don't think she expected Neil to come back.

Jill: I...I'll be a really sad Kitty!

Neil: Don't lie to me. It's not cute.

Jill: Lie? What are you talking about?

Neil: I could hear what you said. If you really feel that way, we need to find you some help.

I wondered how Neil could hear so well, but I didn't think too much into it at the time.

Jill: Or you could just talk to me for once. Is it really that hard? People always die around you. You hate everyone and treat people terribly because you're an asshole. Can't you at least do one thing right by making me happy for a day or two? Give me a chance? Maybe people could actually see you're not a killer or cursed like they assume you are if they see you with friends.

Neil frowned and looked away. He appeared to be deep in thought. After a moment of silence, he spoke up.

Neil: Listen. I act like an asshole to everyone because it keeps them away from me. It keeps them safe. If people hate me..they won't get too close to me. If they keep their distance, the deadly situations that happen around me won't affect them. I don't hate people. It's the opposite. I want everyone to be okay. They just...won't be okay around me.

Jill: Awwwwww you're so adorable pretending to care. If you really do care so much, then at least hang out with me at lunch today and prove it.

Jill walked away with a smug look on her face.

Neil: What the hell..?

Ivan: I don't think she even understood a word you said..


Suddenly Neil's phone got a text from an unknown number.

"I ᴍᴇᴀɴ ɪᴛ. I'ʟʟ ʙᴇ ᴡᴀɪᴛɪɴɢ ғᴏʀ ʏᴏᴜ ᴏᴜᴛsɪᴅᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ᴄᴀғᴇᴛᴇʀɪᴀ!~ =^ᴡ^="

Neil looked at me in shock.

Neil: How the fuck did she get my number?

Ivan: I have no idea..I didn't give it to her. I don't trust her.

Suddenly the bell rang. As we rushed to our class, we realized that we had the same first class together.

Neil: You should probably sit away from me if you want your other friends to sit near you.

Ivan: Are you sure?

Neil: Yeah.

Neil sat in the back corner of the room and moved his desk away from the others. Suddenly Jill walked in.

Jill: Oh, what a surprise! Looks like we have the same first hour class!

Neil gave me a look of regret as Jill sat in the desk next to his, scooting it closer to his desk. Just as I was thinking about whether or not I should do something about it, Kyle walked into the classroom. I almost questioned if I was in some weird nightmare, because having all of us in the same class seemed like a perfect recipe for chaos.

Kyle: Well, well, well! Looks like Pure Boy is in my class!

Kyle set his bag in the desk next to mine and shoved my shoulder.

Kyle: Or has that nickname changed? I heard you started dating that crazy bitch, Ela. Has your status evolved from "Pure Boy" to "Sex Toy" yet?

My eye twitched at as Kyle called Ela a "crazy bitch", but I took a deep breath and did my best to reply calmly.

Ivan: What I have or haven't done with my girlfriend is none of your business. You're probably too stupid to realize what is and isn't your business though, seeing that you apparently didn't graduate last year.

Kyle: I could've passed last year if I wanted to. The homework and assignments for some of my classes were boring though and I thought it would be fun to stick around for another year. At least I'm not stupid enough to follow Neil around like you do though. With how many people have died around him, you'll probably be next.

I rolled my eyes and decided to ignore him. Arguing with Kyle would just waste my time.

Kyle: What, are you too scared to talk back to me now? You're quiet because you know I'm right. You'll die a pointless death, just like your mother.

Neil got up from his seat and walked over to Kyle, punching him in the face. Everyone except Jill started to get up from their seats to distance themselves from them, just in case a full-blown fight were to break out. Jill looked at Neil as if she were starstruck.

Neil: Say shit all you want about me, but don't you DARE talk about his mother like that.

Kyle: What a surprise, Neil actually does give a shit about someone. Did I hit a sensitive spot? It's surprising you'll defend Ivan's mother so willingly when you probably killed your own family.

As Neil punched Kyle in the face a second time, the teacher walked in to start class. Seeing what was happening, he separated the two and dragged them into the hallway. Though I couldn't hear what was being said, I could tell they were getting a very angry lecture from the teacher as he took them to the principal's office.

The classroom was quiet for a moment as everyone returned to their seats. As they waited for the teacher to return, a few of them started to whisper to each other about their thoughts on Neil being in their class. Most of their thoughts weren't good. Some of them said really harsh things, while others seemed to be more concerned for their own safety.

Jill: Don't listen to them, Ivan. They're just jealous that no one would stand up for them like he did for you. He was so cool though! I never knew Neil had such a strong punch!

I ignored Jill and sent Ela a quick text to tell her what happened. When they returned, Neil and Kyle grabbed their stuff and left the room. As they left, the teacher spoke up.

Mr. Blankenship: Does anyone else want to get suspended on the first day of school or are we good now?

Jill pouted and whispered across the room to me.

Jill: Suspended?! This is so unfair! We were supposed to hang out at lunch!

I tried to ignore her and continued to listen to the teacher as he explained the class and the syllabus. It seemed like the class went on forever. Once we finally got out of class, Zack stopped me in the hallway.

Zack: I heard a fight happened in your class! Are you okay?

Ivan: My day could be better, but it's not my worst so I'm okay haha.

John: Was Kyle being an ass again? I heard he was involved.

I jumped as John seemed to appear out of nowhere. I laughed nervously.

Ivan: Yeah. He made a couple comments and Neil couldn't keep his cool.

John: I quit football just to get away from him. That guy seems cool, but once you stand up to him he's the worst. It's hard to believe I wasted the past few years hanging out with him. I noticed something was definitely wrong when his girlfriend seemed so afraid of him.

Ivan: Abby?

John: Yeah. I can't confirm any rumors but they have a pretty messed up history by the sound of it.

Zack: That's really sad...I hope she gets help.

John glanced at me nervously as he realized he was having a conversation with Zack included. Trying to laugh away his nervous feelings, he pat Zack on the shoulder.

John: You're so short I barely noticed you there! How was your summer break, Zack?

Zack: It went okay. The astronomy club went camping, it was a lot of fun.

As Zack and John started to talk about how they spent their summer, I carefully snuck away to my next class. Though I enjoyed talking with them both, I figured it would be best to let them talk to each other.

The rest of the school day was fairly uneventful compared to that morning. When school ended for the day, I ran home quickly to see how Neil was doing. As I opened the door, I was unexpectedly greeted by Ela.

Ela: Welcome home, Ivan!

Ivan: Oh, hey! What are you doing here?

Ela: You texted me earlier about what happened so I figured I would come over and make dinner for you guys tonight. I thought maybe it might help relieve some stress.

I set my backpack down on the couch and gave her a big hug and a kiss on her forehead.

Ivan: Thanks Ela, I really appreciate it.

Ela: No problem!

Ivan: How is Neil? He was suspended so he should be home.

Ela: I haven't heard anything since I got here.

I walked to Neil's room and knocked on the door. There was no reply.

Ivan: If you're in here I'm going to open the door. Just giving a warning!

Being met with silence again, I opened the door. The room was empty. I sighed as I wondered if I should go look for him.

Ela: He didn't come home?

Ivan: Looks like he didn't. Maybe I'll give him a call.

Finding Neil in my phone contacts, I pressed the call button. After a moment of ringing, the phone went to voicemail. Just when I started to get worried, I received a text from him.

"Bᴇ ʜᴏᴍᴇ sᴏᴍᴇᴛɪᴍᴇ ᴀʀᴏᴜɴᴅ 7 ᴏʀ 8.

Dᴏɴ'ᴛ ᴡᴏʀʀʏ, I'ᴍ ғɪɴᴇ."

I sighed with relief. I returned to the kitchen to help try and help Ela with cooking. I grabbed a cutting board and a knife to help her cut vegetables.

Ela: Oh, you don't have to help me! Go relax, you've had a long day.

Ivan: It's fine. Besides, I asked my mom to teach me how to cook once and she told me she wouldn't teach me until I was older, but that chance never came up. I want to learn.

Ela: Alright then, but only if you really want to! I don't want to make you feel like you have to.

I smiled as I thought about how thoughtful Ela was. After we cut the vegetables and put them to the side, she gave me a high five.

Ela: Congratulations on not cutting your fingers off!

I laughed as I thought about how weird of a compliment that was, but I accepted it anyway. We grabbed another cutting board and knife to cut up the meat, but this time, something about it made me very uncomfortable. The bloody juices of the meat started to trickle across the cutting board as I cut it. For some reason, all I could see in my mind at that moment were flashes of my mother on the floor with knives in her stomach. I could see her face as vivid as that day, looking at me as if she wanted to say something before her focus became unfixed again.

Ela: Ivan? Are you okay?

I snapped out of my thoughts and looked at Ela as she spoke to me, placing her hand on my shoulder. Coming back to reality, I noticed my cheeks felt wet. I had started crying sometime during that flashback. I looked back down at the meat on the cutting board for a moment, unsure of how to handle this situation. Cutting meat made me cry? Why? That seemed so...stupid. I didn't want to cry in front of Ela, especially over something that seemed like nothing. It was embarrassing.

Ela: Ivan.. if you want I can finish cutting this. Do you think you could set the table for me?

I didn't want to seem like a crybaby, but I knew I should probably let her handle it. As long as I could still be useful somehow, it wouldn't be as embarrassing. I nodded to her quietly and washed my hands before getting a few plates and some silverware. As I started placing them in their spots at the table, I thought about my mother again.

Ivan: When I was a little kid, I used to set the table for my mom when she cooked dinner. To be honest, I'm kinda surprised she let me. The plates were fragile. If I had dropped one of those, it could've shattered everywhere.

Ela: I think it's important to let kids have some form of responsibility at a young age. I think it teaches them to be a bit more careful with things like that.

Ivan: Do you think that's why she let me?

Ela: Possibly. She seems like a good mother, and from how you treat others, I believe she raised a good man.

Ela smiled at me and continued to cut the rest of the meat. She started to cook the meal as we continued our conversation.

Ela: Thinking of you being a man, you'll be 18 in March! That's only about half a year away. Do you feel like you're almost an adult?

Ivan: Kinda, but also kinda not? It's a complicated answer.

Suddenly we heard the front door open and close.

Ivan: Welcome back, Neil!

Neil walked into the kitchen and dining area and sat down at the table quietly. He didn't look at us, he just stared at the plate in front of him with an irritated expression.

Ela: Are you okay? You look upset.

Neil glanced at Ela for a moment before sighing in frustration. He then made a motion with his hand for me to come over to him. I walked over to the table and looked at him, wondering what he had to say, but instead, he got up from his seat and whispered.

Neil: Outside.

I followed Neil to the front yard. He closed the door.

Ivan: What happened?

Neil: Nothing serious. I just don't feel comfortable talking about this around Ela. My life has nothing to do with her so she needs to stay out of it. Anyway...

Neil looked as if he wasn't sure how to tell me what he was about to say. After a short moment of silence, he spoke up.

Neil: I took a small visit to my old house.

Ivan: What? Why?

Neil: I was curious to see if it had been sold to anyone after everything happened. It seems to be abandoned. It makes sense. I doubt anyone would want to buy a house where a child was murdered.

Ivan: Yeah..I think I've heard somewhere that it can decrease a value of a home..but for it to be completely abandoned seems a bit extreme.

Neil: I guess no one wants to live where I have. But I'm okay with that. I know it's been years, but after I noticed it was abandoned, I thought maybe I could find some clues. Or at least...find something that might help my memory a little. There's just one problem.

Ivan: What?

Neil: The doors are locked. I could probably break a window, but I don't want to go in there by myself. Can you go with me?

Ivan: That sounds risky..but if you think it might help, I'll join you. We should plan for it to be on a day when Ela is at work. I think she'll worry if I tell her we are going.

Neil: Alright. Thank you. How about next Tuesday? You can just tell the school you're sick. They won't care what I'm up to, since I'm suspended.

Ivan: Alright. I'll just call and tell them I'm sick.

I thought about Neil's old house as we went back inside. The last time I had been there, Neil's mother was outside with us, teaching us how to play basketball in the driveway. I wondered how much had changed in that house, and if there would actually be any clues.

Though the time seemed to pass by slowly, eventually the time came to carry out our plan. Though I felt so much anxiety about what I might see there, another part of me was determined to find something—anything—to help figure out the mystery behind Sally's death and Kyna's disappearance. I couldn't allow my anxiety to hold me back, no matter how bad I felt. As we walked closer to the house, I noticed Neil was right. It looked completely untouched. The paint looked dirty and partially chipped away. Cobwebs connected to the gutters and outside walls looked old and dusty. Empty spider egg sacs were hidden behind the gutters, safe from weather damage. Some of the wood railings of the porch looked as if it were rotting, eaten away by termites. I grabbed the doorknob and twisted it. It was locked, just as Neil claimed.

Neil: If we can find a rock we can break a window.

Ivan: It's alright, I brought this just in case.

Flinging my backpack off of my shoulders onto the ground in front of me, I dug into the biggest pocket and grabbed a hammer.

Ivan: We should probably be careful with this though. If we hit the glass too hard, it might cut us when we break it.

As we circled around the house, I noticed the window to Neil and Sally's old bedroom had wooden boards nailed over it.

Ivan: Hey, that's perfect! I can just use the other end of the hammer to pull the nails out!

Neil nodded quietly and stood to the side as I started to yank the nails out of the wooden boards, placing the nails in my pocket. I wondered what he was thinking. Usually Neil was the kind of person to act quickly with his anger, but he seemed timid and hesitant. After pulling off the first board, I looked back at him.

Ivan: Are you alright?

Neil: Yeah. I'm just nervous.

Ivan: Me too. I'm afraid of what I might see..but I'm trying to remain hopeful that this will help us.

Neil: I hope I'll be able to remember something.

I continued to pull out the nails to the remaining boards over the window. As I tossed the boards to the side to get a better look at the window, I remembered what Officer Langston had told me during one of our talks.

"The glass wasn't broken. Instead, it looked more like..a large hole was melted into it."

Neil's eyes became wide as he looked at the melted glass. It reminded me of the appearance of cooled down wax that once dripped down a hot candle.

Neil: What the hell..? How is that even possible?

Judging by his reaction, I figured that Neil never knew how the killer got inside the house. Afraid of what he may think if he knew I already knew about it, I kept quiet about what Langston told me. Instead of replying, I ran my fingers along the cooled down puddle of glass on the window sill. Sticking my head through the large hole, I noticed hard, once melted glass trickled down the wall on the other side as well. Though I could feel myself becoming more anxious at the thought of what could have caused this, I took a deep breath and looked back at Neil.

Ivan: Are you ready?

Though Neil also looked anxious, he gave me a nod. I could see a small glimmer of determination in his eyes.

Neil: Let's go inside.

I nodded back before climbing into the window. As I took my first step into what used to be Neil and Sally's bedroom, I heard a soft crunch under my shoe. I looked down curiously, but couldn't see anything. The only light in the room was coming from the window, and Neil was currently blocking it as he was climbing through it. Once he made it through and the little bit of light from the window returned, I noticed a large, dark brown spot on the carpet. It was so dark, it almost looked black. When Neil saw it, he froze in shock.

Neil: ..They didn't even try to clean it up?!

Looking back down at my feet, I realized what I was standing on. Below my feet was an old, dried out puddle of blood that had soaked into the carpet. I became nauseous as I started clicking the clues together in my mind. It was Sally's blood. After I backed away from the dark spot on the floor, I turned around and started digging into my backpack for a flashlight.

Neil: I don't understand. All I ever remember is

I looked at Neil as I pressed the button to turn the flashlight on. As I directed the flashlight around the room, I noticed old, dried out blood on the walls as well.

Ivan: Can you describe the red? Is the red you remember all this blood?

Neil remained silent for a moment. Instead of answering my question, he walked into the hallway and shut the bedroom door. After a moment, he opened the door again, still standing in the hallway.

Neil: I was working on homework in the living room when I heard her scream. I ran to the door and opened it like this. The light was off...but I could see her clearly. Blood is a dark red liquid. The red I's blinding. Red that...glows.

Ivan: Glows?

Neil: Yeah. I think the red I saw was the light source in the dark room.

Ivan: Was it a red lamp? Or a red flashlight?

Neil: I don't know. I can't remember.

He sighed with frustration.

Neil: Let me retrace all my steps again and see if anything new comes to mind. Since you have the flashlight, you look for anything abnormal in the rest of the house. It looks like they took all our stuff out of the house so there's probably nothing, but it doesn't hurt to look. If you find anymore melted windows or things like that, let me know.

Ivan: Alright. I'll take a look around.

I looked back at Neil for a moment before walking to the living room. I could only imagine how upset he must feel being back in his old house, but if he felt it was necessary to be here, I supported his decision. As I directed the light around the living room, I wondered what made Neil think of returning to this place to begin with. What was going on in his head? I wished for a moment that he would talk to me more about it, but I knew he probably wouldn't open up.

Unable to find anything abnormal in the living room, I started to move on to other rooms. The kitchen appeared normal as well. The bathroom appeared to have a few scratch marks on one of the walls.

Ivan: Hey Neil, come in here a second!

As he walked into the room, I pointed at the marks on the wall with the flashlight.

Ivan: Do you think this is anything to be concerned about?

Neil: No, it's not related. Those were there before. When Sally and I played, I would pretend I made those claw marks as some sort of beast, but my mom told me it was from a lost dog she found one day. She said she tried to give it a bath but it didn't like it and clawed at the wall while trying to get out.

I sighed with relief.

Ivan: Alright, I just wanted to make sure.

Neil: No problem.

As Neil left the room, I thought about what he said. It didn't surprise me that his mother would try to care for someone's lost dog. Through the 8 years I grew up around her, his mother always seemed genuinely kind. Thinking about her disappearance, I decided to check her room next to see if I could find any clues in there.

As I walked into the room, I was met by another empty space. Something about the room drew me in though. I set my backpack down, deciding to spend extra time examining this room for clues. As the light in my hand trailed along the walls, I started to get this gut feeling to check the closet. Opening the closet door, I revealed another empty space. Yet for some reason, I had a strong feeling that told me to search the closet thoroughly. Something wasn't right.

Neil: What the fuck are you doing here?!

I broke from my thoughts as I heard his yell. As I ran to his old bedroom, I noticed Jill was looking through the melted window at Neil.

Jill: After school last week I found you walking around and saw you come here. Since Ivan wasn't in class today, I figured I would skip school and see if you guys were here. I guess I was right!

Neil: Get the fuck out of here.

Jill: Oh please, I can help! What are you looking for? What is this place? It looks old and abandoned.

Jill climbed through the window and ran over to Neil, grabbing the sleeve of his jacket. Though it was a little dark, I could see the expression of pure anger on his face.

Neil: Don't touch my jacket.

She rolled her eyes and continued to look around the room, ignoring Neil's comment.

Jill: Did someone die in this house?

Neil: Get out.

Jill: Or what? You'll call the cops? From the looks of it, it looks like you were the people breaking in. I didn't commit any crimes. You'll be the one that gets in trouble.

Though he remained silent, his golden eyes seemed to glow with rage. He started walking towards her.

Neil: Why do you follow me? What is it that makes you so obsessed with being in my business?

I watched anxiously, waiting for her reply. She chuckled to herself for a moment before looking up at Neil and smiling.

Jill: You're constantly followed by death, yet you seem more afraid of me following you instead. Why is that?

Neil: I asked you questions first. Answer them.

Jill: I want to figure out what's so different about you that causes all of these deaths around you. Do you even realize how many people would love to have a superpower like that? Serial killers could get away with so much if everyone appeared to die from an accident. Imagine how many wrongful people you could punish if you befriended them, knowing they would die being around you! You wouldn't even have to lift a finger, and it would be doing the whole world a favor!

Neil: You disgust me. This isn't a superpower. This is a curse.

Neil walked to the melted window and looked back at me.

Neil: Come on. We are done here.

Ivan: One second, I left my bag in the other room.

Neil: Alright.

As I left his old bedroom, I could hear Neil and Jill arguing with each other outside the house. Though she seemed to be nosy, I was relieved that she seemed more interested in following Neil than staying behind. Last thing we needed was her ruining the house further.

My intuition told me to check the closet again as I returned to Kyna's old bedroom. Though I knew we were in a hurry to leave, I decided to give it a quick but thorough look. Though I was too short to see the top of the shelf in the closet, I ran my hand along it to see if anything was there. I cringed as I felt the years of dust cake onto my fingers. Suddenly I felt my hand hit something thin, like paper. I grabbed it quickly and took a look at it. It was an old photo from an instant camera, completely covered in dust. The dust was so thick, I couldn't see what was on it.

Neil: Did you lose your bag? Come on!

Hearing Neil outside, I stuffed the photo in a small pocket of my backpack and ran to his bedroom. After climbing through the window, I got the hammer out of my bag again and started to hammer the wooden boards over the melted window with the nails I kept in my pocket. I didn't think anyone would return to this house, however if someone did, we wouldn't want them finding it had been broken into.

Jill: You still didn't answer why you guys were here to begin with.

Ivan: It's really none of your business.

Jill: And what if I tell someone?

Neil: It was my old house. Happy?

Jill looked at Neil and smiled.

Jill: Awwww! Were you homesick? That's so cute!

Neil ignored her and started to walk away. Once I finished hammering the last nail, I ran to catch up to them. They seemed to argue for quite a while, but I didn't hear what they were arguing about. Instead, my mind was focused on the photo I found in Kyna's old closet. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I could somehow break off from them to get a good look at the photo without distractions.

Neil: Listen, we are going home so you should leave us alone now.

Jill: You mean I can't hang out for a bit? We never got to hang out during lunch break because you got suspended!

Neil: I would prefer you don't know where I live.

Jill: Oh, you're too late for that! I already know where you live. But I guess if you REALLY don't want me to hang out, I'll go find something else to do. I'll see you when you come back to school!

Jill started to walk away, leaving us in shock. After a moment of silence, Neil mumbled under his breath.

Neil: I want to move.

Ivan: But it probably wouldn't change anything. She'd just find us again wherever we go, since we can't move far.

Neil: True.

The rest of the walk home was filled with silence. When we finally made it back home, I locked all the doors, just in case we were being followed. Neil sighed with relief and retreated to his room. Knowing he probably wouldn't come out for a while, I decided it would be the perfect time to check out what I found in his mother's old closet. I grabbed a washcloth out of the bathroom and went to my own room. Setting my backpack on my bed, I opened the small pocket where I placed the photo. Getting a good look at the thick layer of dust over it with the better lighting of my bedroom, I chuckled to myself.

Ivan: Holy shit, the dust is so thick...I guess this is why mom always told me to clean my room.

I could see Kyna's face in the picture as I started to wipe the dust off it with the washcloth. Once I had completely wiped off all the dust, I took a closer look at the old instant photo. In her arms were Neil and Sally as newborn babies. Though she was smiling in the picture, she also appeared to be crying at the same time. The moment appeared to be bittersweet. Though the photo itself didn't seem like anything too abnormal, I noticed something interesting. Under the picture was a variety of strange symbols, made up of triangles and lines. It looked like some language I had never seen before. Under that was another written line, this time in English.

"I'ʟʟ ɴᴇᴠᴇʀ ғᴏʀɢᴇᴛ."

I flipped the photo over to see if there was anything else written on the back, but that was it. Flipping it over again to look at the picture, I had two questions come to mind. First, I wanted to know what Kyna's handwriting looked like, to see if she had written it or not. Second, I wanted to know what those strange symbols were, and if they had any sort of meaning to them. Though I originally didn't want Ela to know about our trip to the house, I knew that she was probably my only hope in possibly figuring out if those symbols were from an actual language system. With how much she studied into different cultures and mythology, she was the only person I could think of that might have any sort of idea. I sighed in defeat as I started to send Ela a text message, asking her if I could come over to her house when she got off work. While I waited for the time to pass, I tried looking up "weird language with triangles" in a search engine to see what I could find, but I was unable to find much. All of the results seemed randomized or math-related. Eventually I gave up trying to find anything.

After a few hours passed, I got a text back from Ela saying I could come over. I placed the photo in my backpack again carefully and told Neil I would be leaving to visit Ela for a bit before heading out the door. Once I made it to Ela's house, I was greeted with a happy smile and an orange soda.

Ela: They were selling them half price today, so I figured I would buy some since you told me one time that it's your favorite kind of soda.

I smiled at the pleasant surprise. Ela always remembered the little things, and her actions were always so sweet.

Ivan: Thank you.

I walked into the house and sat down on the couch as I enjoyed my soda. Though I wanted to get straight to the point and tell her what happened, I wasn't sure how to bring it up. The soda gave me a good excuse to take my time to think of how to tell her about our visit to Neil's old house.

Ela: Anything crazy happen at school today? You look like you have a lot on your mind.

I laughed nervously.

Ivan: Actually...I skipped school today.

Ela: You skipped? That doesn't really seem like you. The last time you did that was when you almost got ran over. Did something happen?

Ivan: I'm okay, nothing bad happened. Neil asked me to help him with something so I did. But..

Ela looked at me with concern. I really didn't mean to cause her any worry, but at the same time I really needed to find some answers.

Ivan: I found something, and you're the only person I know that may be able to help me figure this out.

I reached into my backpack and carefully grabbed the photo, holding it out for her. As she took the photo in my hand, she looked as if she were deep in thought.

Ela: What is this?

Ivan: It's a picture of Neil's mother with Neil and Sally. Neil and I went back to his old house today..and I found that in his mother's old closet. I want to figure out what those weird symbols are. It looks structured enough to be some sort of language, doesn't it?

Ela: Yes..this is definitely some form of writing. I don't know what language though. I'm sorry.

Ela gave the photo back to me.

Ela: There is one more person we could ask though. The librarian at the library near the school speaks 5 languages fluently and loves studying into other languages as well. She might be able to help us.

Ivan: It's better to try asking her than to give up here. Let's go.

When we made it to the library, I internally reminded myself not to speak too loud like the last time I went there with Ela. As we opened the door, the librarian quietly waved at Ela. Ela walked over to the counter and whispered.

Ela: Hey Sarah, I have a question.

Sarah: What's up? Do you need another book recommendation?

Ela: We need help figuring out what language this is written in, if it is even a real language at all. And if possible...we need a translation.

I gave the woman the photo and looked at Ela nervously, unsure if I should add anything to this conversation or not. After a moment of looking at the photo, the librarian spoke up.

Sarah: This looks like Cuneiform.

Ela: What's that?

Sarah: It's one of the earliest known writing systems, made by the Sumerians. Though I recognize this writing, I have no idea what it says. Learning an ancient writing system for a language that died thousands of years ago may not be impossible, as there are people who specifically specialize in doing that, but it would be extremely difficult. Do you know who wrote this?

Ivan: I'm not sure.

Though it was interesting to know that it really was a language, it was also very frustrating to know that I probably wouldn't be able to find an answer or a translation. I sighed with defeat. Ela looked at me sympathetically as the librarian gave the photo back to me.

Ela: Do you have any books on Cuneiform? I would like to check them out.

Sarah: I do think we might have a couple. Let me see.

She turned to her computer and started typing. After a moment, she smiled and told Ela which books they had. As they went to find the books, I looked down at the photo in my hand. I thought about the times my mom had mentioned Neil's mother grew up in a foster home. Apparently, Kyna didn't have any friends growing up until my mom, and she didn't have any family until she had Neil and Sally. Just who was Kyna? Why did she go missing? Why was there a dead language written on a photo of her and her children? Did she write it? Or was it someone else? And what did the writing mean? I had so many questions that filled my mind as I started to realize that not only were the deadly situations that happened around Neil mysterious, but his mother seemed mysterious as well. Not only was her background pretty much unknown, but my mom never told us many details about what Kyna's life was like before we were all born. All I really knew about Neil's mother was from my own memories I had of her.

I glanced at the English words written on the photo. Though it was such a short sentence, it gave me a feeling that the meaning behind it was deep.

Ela: You ready to go?

Ivan: Huh?

I looked up at Ela as she spoke to me.

Ela: I got a couple books. I'll see if I can try to figure it out. Can I take a picture of the photo so I can have a copy when I research?

Ivan: Yeah.

I held out the photo as Ela took a picture of it with her cell phone.

Ela: Thank you. I promise I'll let you know if I figure out anything.

We left the library with newfound hope. Ela seemed determined to help me figure it out, and I had faith that she could. That day started her search, and she did everything she could to try and figure it out. She read multiple books on Cuneiform, she researched as much as she could online. I also tried to help with what I could, doing some online research myself and asking history teachers in our school if they knew anything about Cuneiform as well. Our search continued for weeks. Even though we both became absorbed in trying to figure it out, we did our best to keep our search a secret, so Neil wouldn't figure it out. He already had plenty of stress, and I didn't want to give him even more stress by telling him about the photo unless I could confirm what it said.

For the first time in my life, I felt like there was some hope in figuring out some sort of information that would make all the mysteries surrounding Neil click together. I felt ready to figure out any clue and analyze any possible hint that would solve everything. I was young and dumb, thinking things could be solved so easily. Though I felt like everything was finally starting to come to a close, I was very wrong. It was only the beginning. It was the first spark in causing a chain reaction of chaotic events.

Nothing would be the same ever again.