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Looks can be deceiving.

As soon as the bell rings, Nate grabs his backpack and rushes out of the classroom. He runs through the narrow hallways, expertly dodging every student and faculty member in his way, as if Satan himself is nipping at his heels.

It’s just another Friday.

His heart feels as if it’s two seconds away from bursting out of his chest. His lungs ache. His feet seem to be moving on their own. His vision is locked on the front double doors as soon as he sees them. They’re a mere two feet away when a frantic figure comes out of nowhere and rams right into him.

Nate crumbles to the ground like dead weight, banging his head against the floor in the process. Papers are flying everywhere and witnesses to the collision are either gasping or giggling. No one attempts to help.

“Jesus Christ,” Nate groans, resting a hand against his throbbing head.

He sits up, cursing under his breath as the pain worsens, and looks at who he crashed into, a seemingly skittish boy with dyed red hair and green eyes the size of dinner plates. He’s hastily picking up the scattered papers and placing them in his folder.

Nate knows he can still make it home unharmed if he leaves now, but his absurd amount of empathy keeps him where he is. With a heavy sigh, he begins to pick up some papers. The boy's features are colored with bewilderment.

When Nate collects a good share of the papers, he looks down at one and lets his eyes scan over it. “Doused in blood and riddled with thorns, roses grew from my lungs and wrapped around my ribcage, choking me with its life,” He looks up at the boy and gives him a small smile. “You wrote this?”

The boy just nods, still in awe of this minuscule act of kindness. He takes his poetry from Nate’s hands and places it in the folder.

“It’s good,” Nate says, getting up from the ground before extending a hand towards the boy. “A little morbid, but good.”

The boy grins as he takes the hand and allows Nate to help him up. “Thank you. That, uh, means a lot coming from you.”

Nate raises an eyebrow. “Why?”

The boy’s grin fades into a neutral expression as he looks down, observing his foot as it taps incessantly on the floor.

“We have the same Creative Writing class,” he eventually says. “I’ve read some of your stuff. You’re amazing.”

Nate’s eyebrows knit together as he tries to place the boy’s face with a name. He combs through his mind for a moment before realization finally hits him.

“We do have the same class!” he exclaims. “Your name is Jasper, right?”

Jasper’s entire face lights up. “Right! And you’re Nate.”

Nate nods before he remembers why he and Jasper ran into each other in the first place. He curses under his breath as he approaches the double doors and exits the building, sparing Jasper a quick “See you Monday!” as he goes.

He runs across the busy street, paying no mind to the honks and insults thrown at him, and begins his journey back home with only one thought housing his mind: Please, for the love of God, don’t let me be too late.

Within thirty minutes, he’s one street away from the entrance to his neighborhood. He stops right before he’s about to turn the corner, his heart dropping as he hears a disturbingly familiar laugh. He peeks around the corner and nearly screams. There, standing by the entrance, is Francis and his cronies, Blake and Sandy. They look like innocent teenagers immersed in light conversation, but Nate knows better.

He steps away from the corner, willing his breathing to grow steady. It feels like a century has passed before the streets are empty and eerily quiet.

Francis’ voice, low and raspy, pierces the silence. “Natalia, I know you’re there.”

Nate doesn’t move an inch.

“Na-tal-i-a,” Francis emphasizes each syllable as his footsteps grow closer and closer to Nate’s spot. “Don't be a bitch."

Nate’s hands are balled up into fists as he rounds the corner, revealing himself to the devil and his hounds. A sickly sweet smile brightens Francis’ rough features.

“There he is!” he cheers, stepping into Nate’s space. “My dear Natalia! How was your day?”

Nate doesn’t meet his eyes as he replies with a small, “Good.”

Francis’ smile morphs into a harsh sneer as his hand shoots up to grip Nate’s jaw. His nails dig into the already bruised skin as he forces Nate to look up.

“You’re so rude,” he says. “When a person is talking to you, you have to look at them."

Sandy shakes his head, feigning disappointment. “You’re displaying very poor manners, Natalia.”

"Yeah, Natalia," Blake tacks on.

Nate has to fight the urge to roll his eyes. How eloquent.

“Stop calling me that,” he spits, his words incoherent due to the way Francis is gripping his face.

Francis scoffs as he lets go of Nate’s face and takes a step back, briefly glancing back at his minions with a knowing look. “Then what should we call you?”

Nate speaks without a second thought. “The name my mother gave me, Francine.”

Francis is still smiling, but his teeth are clenched. Blake and Sandy are wound up and ready to fight, looking less than amused.

“Nice one…” Francis kicks Nate’s shin, causing him to drop to the ground. “Nate.”

Nate is harshly breathing in and out through his nose as he grips his aching shin. Whatever pain he felt in his head is long forgotten.

“Lift him,” Francis orders.

Instantly, Blake and Sandy are on either side of Nate and lifting him off the ground. With Francis taking the lead, they drag him away from the neighborhood and into the wooded area across the street. Nate recognizes every tree, every fallen branch, and every patch of poison ivy as they stray further away from the rest of the world. When they finally stop at the clearing, Francis faces him with vacant eyes.

The first punch, right on Nate's jaw, is expected, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. The second punch is also expected. The same also applies to the third, fourth, and fifth. He feels dizzy. He can already taste blood. The hits keep coming and coming. They’re ceaseless. They ravage his body. Soon, Blake and Sandy drop him and join Francis in his brutal assault. He doesn’t try to defend himself or cover his body, knowing the assault will only get worse if he does either of those things. He just lays there, squeezing his eyes shut and cursing every Francis, Blake, and Sandy in the world to a place worse than hell.

His world nearly fades to black when the beating stops. He doesn’t notice instantly because he’s so out of it, but he finally does when ear-splitting screams shock him out of his stupor. The desperate cries for help, the tearing apart of flesh, and the crunching of bones strike his eardrums, and beneath all of it, he swears he can hear an animalistic growl.

When the horrid noises finally stop, Nate uses all of his energy to turn over and open his eyes. He nearly vomits at the scene in front of him. The clearing is painted red. Blake’s body is laying just a few feet away from him, missing large chunks of flesh. His eyes are wide open and looking straight up at the sky. Sandy isn’t too far from him. His mangled body is hanging from a tree branch by his shoelaces. Francis is unrecognizable. He received the absolute worst of it. His body, stripped of its flesh, no longer has eyes, ears, hands, or feet. The scene is grotesque, horrific, and not a sight for even the most hardened of individuals.

“Are you ok, Nate?”

Nate rolls over on his back and loses his breath at who he sees. Standing above him, with wary pitch black eyes and blood soaking his clothes, is Jasper.

“You’re ok!” Jasper shouts, his body trembling with joy. “Oh, thank goodness! I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.”

Nate’s entire body is shaking as he begins to inch away from him. “Did… did you do this?”

Jasper cocks his head to the side, resembling a confused child. “Of course. They were hurting you and I had to feed.”

Nate swallows the growing lump in his throat. “Feed?”

Jasper shows off a set of razor sharp teeth as he gives Nate a huge grin. “Yes… feed.”

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