A/n: Briixzyanaa thanks again for reviewing, good luck on writing your fic. btw I added Jiggy Pepper to the story and took out my OC character Alex.

Chapter 3

As we walked, I looked overhead from my position at the back of the line in search of the sun but couldn't find it. Tall trees full of green needles crowded the sky. We walked through deep forest, and a pair of crows cawed angrily, following us at a distance.

The path was wide enough for two people to walk side by side, and when we'd begun, it was Sunny and Connor at the front. Zazie had fallen into step with Lag Seeing, the two of them already acting as if they'd known each other a long time. Sylvette was the quietest of us all, the one I'd been most curious about, the one named Jiggy. he'd been in a bunch of foster homes during the past few years, and wasn't doing so well when we departed, either. Sylvette drifted back and fell into step at my side as I took a deep breath, the smell of pine and dirt kicked up on the path filling my lungs.

"Wow, he's quiet," Sylvette whispered in my direction. "Kind of like you."

I imagined Jiggy and me in a room, the blistering two-word conversation that would occur.

Hi, he would say.

Hi, I would say back.

A morbid silence would settle in, and we'd awkwardly stare at our shoes after that.

"It's the same for you, right?" Sylvette said after a while of me not listening to her. "You've never met any of them?"

"I don't know them," I said. Strictly speaking, this was a lie, I knew Jiggy. A long time ago we shared the same foster home, we never really talked much but he was a really cool person.

"Lag is cute," she said. "Too bad he's gay."

"Really?" I said, the word out of my mouth so quickly I couldn't take it back. I was having a conversation with her, or something like one.

"Sure he is. He spent the last five or six hours hitting on Zazie."

I didn't exactly see how this added up to Lag being gay, he could just want to be friendly with Zazie.

"Where do you go to school?" she asked me. "What grade are you in? Let me guess: junior, private school, very exclusive."

Wrong on all three counts, but I nodded yes. The truth? Home schooled, technically a Senior, but I'd been to so many foster homes it was kind of hard to keep up with my education, but it really didn't matter soon I would leave everything behind and become a letter bee.

"Whatever," she said after a while; and, just like that, the distance between us growing by the second.

"Wait," I said before she caught up to the rest. She turned her head

"What is it, Rinny? What do you want?"

I wanted to make a conversation with her. But I didn't. The closer I got, the more nervous I felt. My mind drew a blank, and I stared off into the trees.

Sylvette shook her head and started up the path until she caught up with Jiggy, where the two of them walked in silence. I hooked my thumbs behind the straps of my backpack and followed, watching the heels of their shoes kick up dust.

Everyone arrived at the fork in the path, gathering like a flock of ducklings behind Sunny and Connor.

"Come on, hurry up," Zazie yelled back at me, and the pack of six moved on toward the right. I coasted farther back because I knew we were getting close.

They were all gone, and I was alone at the fork, listening as their voices mingled with the wind in the trees and grew softer.

After a time, I couldn't hear them at all.

The path to the left could hardly be called a trail at all. Everything in the wild of the forest seemed to cave in on itself the deeper I went, leaving little more than a bead of dirt running a line through thick underbrush. The trees remained, swaying ominously over my head; and there were crows, more of them now, watching my every move like sentries on a castle wall. I sensed a clearing to my right and left the trail altogether, hoping to catch a glimpse of the other six and their dingo's. I looked at my dingo, Berserker had long fallen asleep on my back.. After a while I notice I was getting closer to the institute.

The place sent a chill of dread down my spine from the moment I saw it. Low slung to the ground, made entirely of concrete slabs crawling with moss and vines. My first impression was of a massive casket left alone in the woods for years and years, overrun by a menacing forest of gloom, the place looked like it was left over after the fall of mankind. The woods were still woods, but they were wild and tangled and dark. There were no perfect days here, no laughing people.

I saw them all—the six—standing in front of the institute with worried looks on their faces. Even confident Zazie was rattled.

"This can't be right," Conner said.

"We could go back," Zazie aid, which is when everyone seemed to notice all at once that I wasn't there. Words pinged sharply against my ears, as if they were fired from the barrel of a pellet gun.

Zazie: Aren't we missing someone?

Connor: Rinny! Hey, come out, man.

Lag: Should we go back and look for her?

Sunny: I'm just saying, if they think we're living in that thing for a week, they can forget it.

Sylvette: Seriously, Sunny?

Jiggy: (Sullen, voiceless).

I glanced from side to side, taking in the whole of the clearing, sizing up my options. There was the institute, a rectangle slab of hard corners with one giant door at the front and barred windows along its sides. A hundred feet to the left sat a smaller building, squared off at its sides and just as ghoulishly unappealing as the institute. I knew that was like a Bunker, whatever that meant. A huge, fallen tree lay against the Bunker where the trunk had snapped in two, the top half resting like a dead animal on the flat roof. The pinecones and needles of the tree were long since gone, replaced by a swarm of brown mushrooms and clumps of stringy green moss. On the other side of the institute, a pathway lead into the woods.

Before the others could make up their minds about whether they should go looking for me or climb the front steps and knock on the door to a menacing concrete institute, a person came out of the smaller building. I saw her first, because I'd been looking at the Bunker already. She was young, dressed as a person of the woods: a dark flannel shirt, work pants, boots. The woman walked morosely down the cobblestone path, slow and steady.

"Who feels like running?" asked Conner, too loudly, I thought. But then, he would be feeling the terror start to rise at the back of his throat. The deeper we'd gone on the path, the quieter he'd become. He was beginning to sense the presence of things he wanted no part of.

At the midway point of her journey between the Bunker and institute, the woman stopped. She was standing directly across from where I hid in the underbrush and was smelling the air like a dog catching a scent. Her gaze settled in my direction, and I had an uneasy feeling in my bones.

Did she see me.?

Later I would conclude that it had been a trick of the light through the trees. But at the time, hidden as I was and frozen in place, I was convinced that she'd searched the whole of the forest and settled her cobalt eyes directly on my face. Whoever she was, she had a severe face, emotionless and cold. Her hair was short and silver. She grew tired of staring off into the trees, and soon she was stomping up the concrete steps of the institute.

She seemed to take almost no notice of the bewildered group of teenagers until she'd cleared the last stair and turned on them.

"I'm Roda, the cook," she said sternly. Her voice was papery but strong. "Not your maid or your mother. Act like grown-ups and I won't spit in your food."

I got the feeling she was taking this opportunity to make her feelings known before the owner of the place could warn her to leave the guests alone. She hooked her thumbs into the pocket of her jeans. "I'm also the entire maintenance crew: plumber, fix-it woman—the works. If you see something in here you think might break, don't touch it."

Lag Seeing raised his hand.

"I don't remember saying I was a tour guide," Roda said. "But I'll take one question. Fire when ready."

"One of us is missing."

Roda appeared to be counting heads, as if Lag was either playing games or was just plain stupid.

"So I see," she offered. "Where did they go?"

Lag opened his mouth, but not fast enough to overcome Zazie's team captain persona.

"We think he might have tried to go back home," said Zazie, which was news to me.

"Speak for yourself," said Sylvette.

Roda waved off the entire thing as if it wasn't her problem and, with significant she pushed open the door of the institute.

"Remember what I said," she concluded. "I'm not a maid. And don't touch stuff."

For some unimaginable reason, Sunny walked up the stairs and past Roda. This seemed to spur an exodus from the grounds as Connor followed, then Zazie and Sylvette. Jiggy shrugged and climbed the concrete steps. Lag gave me one last try, turning to the path and raising his voice to the trees.

"We're going in, Rinny. If you're out there, we want you to come with us."

I wanted to yell back, You could come out here with me instead. You don't have to go inside.

But I couldn't do it. They'd all come running. They'd make me go with them, which was something that just couldn't happen.

Lag walked up the stairs, and Connor pushed the door closed behind him. Leaving me with my sleeping dingo, in a Gaichuu invested forest...