Some of the characters in this story are the property of ABC TV, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended. All other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first. This story is rated PG.

Thaw is a prequel--or should that be preyquel? And it's very short. Feedback is most welcome.


It still hurts, Junie being gone. I miss her. She'd know what to do now, or at least she'd have some kind of idea.

I mean, it's not like we were dating or anything, but we've been pals since we were little kids. We didn't hang out so much once we hit ninth grade, but when we did we could still talk to each other about anything. We'd get so silly, cracking jokes; I could still make her laugh so hard she couldn't breathe. And when I'd gripe about being too short, she'd look me in the eye and say, "Zach, some day you'll be taller than me."

Easy for her to say--like she wasn't two inches taller anyway.

You know, the grownups tell us these stories all our lives, about kids who vanish, and they always tell us not to take candy from strangers and stupid stuff like that. I mean, it's not like we're that dumb. Junie sure wasn't. And she was kinda shy around strangers, which is why it was so weird that she disappeared.

At first they thought she got into an accident. It's not like she'd run away or anything like that--she has, like, the PERFECT family. Mom, dad, little sisters, and the dog. Okay, so maybe the sisters aren't perfect, but you know what I mean. Me, it's just me and my mom, and things get kinda hard sometimes. But Junie never had to worry about anything, not about money or her dad hitting her or those kinds of stuff.

So when her parents got worried, they started calling up her friends, and they got to me after a while, but I hadn't seen her since school on Friday. And they didn't call me until Sunday night, and she'd gone missing the day before. I know, it's not very long, but for Junie it was, 'cause her parents always made her say where she was going and when she'd be back. By then they'd started calling the hospitals too.

It gave me a funny feeling. So I started going around to the places that Junie and I used to hang out, looking for her. I knew it probably wasn't any good, but I had to do something. Usually on Mondays I stay in after school to work on my science project, but I couldn't that day.

Junie was real proud when I won the science fair last year, and she says I could win it again this year, easy. Computers and math, those are my things. Junie's a scientist. She keeps telling me I could win a scholarship to college, and I'm probably going to try--Mom sure can't pay for it.

Junie believes in me. Always has.

So, okay, I was going around on my bike to all these different places, but she wasn't there and nobody'd seen her. I even checked a couple of the private places we played in when we were little, places no one else knows about. We don't go there much anymore 'cause we don't have time, but it's not like we forgot 'em.

I didn't find anything. I checked again the next day, just in case, but nothing. By then, the newspapers had stories about her, and the principal gave a dumb speech about trying to find her and being careful. Like, duh, we don't know that already? Two kids disappeared last year, and one over the summer. It's just, like, I didn't know them.

They never found her body, or anything like that. And eventually the noise died down and people got on with their lives, except for Junie's family. I used to go down another aisle in the supermarket so I wouldn't have to talk to her mom, 'cause I never knew what to say. They moved away about a month ago--I think they went to Oregon.

I couldn't stop thinking about it, you know? It was so weird, Junie not being there anymore. We always went to see the new movies the day they opened, even when we didn't have time to get together otherwise. The first time one opened I went with a couple of buddies, but partway through I had to pretend to be sick and go home. The guys didn't get half the jokes anyway.

I started messing around with the computers at school, seeing if I could find out something about the missing kids. Started looking up stories from the news sites, and the papers online. It got scary. Lots of kids go missing each year, sure, but the numbers have gone way up over the last couple of years, and not as many are being found. At all, I mean. No bodies, no evidence, no nothing. But it looked like I was the only one to put all the stories together. I started keeping this big file of stories, and just for the heck of it I put together some graphs. Wish I had a computer at home.

A couple of months after Junie vanished, another kid disappeared, some senior. Track star. Another big fuss. The FBI came back again--they send out a couple of guys for each missing kid, and the suits ask lots of questions, but they never catch anybody. This time one of 'em came to our school to ask about Junie and the other kid that disappeared over the summer. He talked to me 'cause people said Junie and me were friends; he was really nice, even if he didn't know how to talk to kids. I mean, it was pretty obvious.

So he keeps asking questions, and after a while I tell him about the stuff I found out about the missing kids. He was real interested, and I showed him my big file, and told him something else I found out. Lots of the missing kids were smart. Not just good students, but really smart. Some of 'em had won prizes, or they were school champions, or stuff like that.

And I told him how Junie was like that. She always said I was a genius, but she was really smart too, only different. She was brilliant with animals, so she was going to be a vet, and she was nice to everybody--you know, one of those people who almost always has the right answer, but won't raise her hand so other people have a chance.

It was weird--I was telling him about all this stuff, and I guess I was kind of running off at the mouth, since nobody else was interested. And I looked at his face. He was staring off into the distance, like he was thinking hard, and all of a sudden his eyes got really cold. Just for a second, but it gave me the willies. I mean, he had strange eyes anyway, sort of dark gray, but then they were like ice.

It made me stop talking. He turned back to me and was all nice again, but now I was kinda freaked. He left a few minutes later.

Then things got quiet again. I was still working on my projects, the science one and the missing-kids one, though I didn't feel like it much. The FBI guy came back to talk to me a few times, and he was nice like before. We always started out talking about Junie--the agents weren't finding out anything more than the police had--but then he'd ask me about other stuff, and we'd just talk for a while. He was interested in what I was doing--not just in school, but what I was thinking of doing with my life. He always treated me like a real human being, not some dumb kid, and I really liked it.

Christmas came, and it was the first year I didn't have a present from Junie. She always found me something real silly. And Mom was working all the time. So it wasn't a real good Christmas.

I spent most of the break out with my bike. That's the nice part of living in L.A.; the weather's almost always great. Being out was better than staying in the apartment, anyway; the druggies and the dealers are always getting into fights. Usually the dealers leave me alone, but there was some new guy who kept getting on my case when I came home in the afternoons, trying to get me to buy something. He scared me too, but I never let on. You don't, if you want to survive.

The last Friday before school started. Today--maybe yesterday. I don't know what time it is now.

I came home when it started to get dark. Mom wasn't home yet, she was still at work. I locked all the locks behind me, like she always tells me to; it's annoying, but in our neighborhood you have to. I grabbed some chips and turned on the TV, but then I decided I wanted Star Wars instead, so I went to my room to get it. Director's cut, wide-screen, remastered edition. Oh yeah.

I flipped on the light and almost dropped the chips. The FBI guy was sitting on my bed.

I don't know how he got in. There's, like, six locks on our door and the windows have these heavy-duty bolts on them. I guess if you're FBI you can do these things.

For a second I just stared at him. He stared back, and his eyes gave me the cold chills. Then I ran.

It was stupid--there was no way I was going to get all the locks open before he caught up to me. But I didn't even get halfway to the door before he was right in front of me. If I hadn't been so scared, I would've been, like, totally freaked anyway. Nobody moves that fast. I threw the bag of chips at him, which was dumb too, and backed away as fast as I could. But he followed, and I ended up back in my room, with him between me and the door.

For a minute we just looked at each other. I don't know what he was thinking, but I looked at his face and knew that this guy with ice for eyes was going to kill me. He had something to do with those kids disappearing, and now I was going to disappear too.

I had to swallow twice before I could get my voice to work, and then all I could say was something stupid. "What do you want?"

He just looked at me. "You know what I want, Zach," he said.

I felt like I was going to cry. All I could think of was how not fair this was. I was going to die, Junie was dead, I couldn't even pretend to myself that she was safe, or was coming back.

"Why?" I asked, and my voice squeaked.

"You know too much," he told me. My brain was having all these crazy thoughts, like, how was I supposed to know I couldn't trust an FBI agent? Real life isn't supposed to be like the X-Files.

And then I wondered why the FBI wanted to cover up the stuff about the kidnapping. And I thought, either there really is a conspiracy, or this guy isn't really an agent.

He reached under his jacket and came up with a pistol, one of the wicked-looking kind like you see in the movies. Part of my mind was saying that this wasn't real, that it was all, like, some kind of dream, but another part of me knew that gun was real.

"You're just going to shoot me here?" I said. "It'll look kind of funny. Or are you going to rob the place too?"

He hesitated a second. "Drug dealers," he said finally. "It will look like you've been killed by drug dealers."

I got all cold again. The new guy, the new dealer--he'd been setting me up, to make it look like I got involved in dealing. Like I'd touch the stuff with a stick. But that meant something else, too--this guy wasn't alone. He had helpers. Which meant that something was going on, something big. Had to be, if what I had found out made me dangerous.

I knew I didn't have much time, so I took a chance. I aimed a kick at his leg and tried to push past him in the doorway.

So much for that idea. I got him pretty good on the shin, but he didn't even flinch, and he grabbed my shoulder and gave me a shove. The next thing I know I'm falling onto my bed.

I push myself up so I'm sitting, but he has the gun aimed at me and I know that this is it.

And then Mom is there. I guess the TV covered the sound of her unlocking the door; the way the guy's head whips around, I don't think he heard her coming either. She takes one look at what's going on, and her eyes get real big. And she steps in front of the gun.

I know I should do something, say something, but it's like I'm frozen. Mom's so little and round, but she pulls herself up straight and looks him right in the eye. "Please," she says quietly. "Please. Don't kill him."

The guy's head tilts, and his face...I've never seen anybody look so dangerous in my life. He'd totally scare the pants off the dealers downstairs. But Mom doesn't move. "I'll do anything," she says, and she's still real quiet, but it makes me shiver 'cause I can hear that she means it. "Anything. Kill me if you want, but let him go."

I want to scream at her to stop. It's not going to do any good anyway, she shouldn't do this to herself. Nothing is going to stop this guy.

He still doesn't move, and Mom starts to shake, but she won't look away. "Please," she whispers, and something in me hurts like crazy at the...the...hopelessness, I guess, in her voice. "Kill me instead."

I chance a look at the guy's face again. His eyes are, like, huge, and he's staring at her like he's never seen anything like her. And I see his hands have gone so tight around the gun that the knuckles are white.

And then his eyes flick away from her and meet mine. All the ice is gone, and it's almost like he's confused or something, or hurt, even though it still feels like he could burn holes in steel with his stare. It doesn't make sense. We look at each other for I don't know how long; then he takes a breath.

"Go," he says, almost too quiet for me to hear.

I bolt. I don't even turn around to look at Mom. I just run, like I don't have any control over my legs. Past the noisy TV, out the door, down the stairs. I don't stop for my bike or my jacket, I just run.

When I finally stop, it's 'cause my legs won't go any more, not 'cause I'm not still scared. I'm close to one of the parks where Junie and I used to play. I make it as far as the big bush that used to be our hideout, and I crawl through to the space in the middle. I don't fit too well anymore, but it's a place to hide in the dark. The guy must not have chased me, 'cause if he did he would have caught me real easy.

I gulp air and listen to my heart pounding and try to figure out what happened. Did he decide to shoot Mom instead of me? Or did he let her go too, or what? I feel worse than I ever have in my life for leaving her there, even though the back of my mind tells me that's what she wanted. I should have tried to protect her.

And now I'm afraid to go back. He might still be there, and that same part of my brain says that it would be really stupid to walk back into the apartment and have him change his mind, after Mom got him not to kill me. And I'm afraid that even if he's gone...I don't...I don't want to find her there if he decided to kill her instead. I really really don't.

What's going on, anyway? Who was that guy, and what is he trying to hide? He's got friends, and it looks like they're the ones who've been disappearing kids. How come they're taking the smart ones? And how do I know that the kids are dead, that Junie's dead?

I shiver in the dark. It's chilly. I don't know how I know, but I'm sure. They're killing us for some reason. I just don't know why.

But I'm going to find out.