Claiming a window table in the dining hall, the three students find that they have no appetite after getting very little sleep. Wearing the same clothes from the night before, they look disheveled and those sitting next to them quietly move to the next open space. Dark circles are under all of their eyes, Aurora looking the worst due to her previous late nights. Thomas can only stomach a glass of water while Apollo stares at a bagel like he has made the biggest mistake of his life. The trio yawn in unison, which earns chuckles from some of the nearby diners, who happily go back to their meals. Smacking lips and muffled burps sound like thunderclaps to the exhausted and stressed group until their ears mysteriously pop. Ignoring the strange event, Thomas and Aurora stare at the gloomy outdoors while Apollo continues picking seeds off the bagel.
“Why are we the only three who get the day off?” he finally asks the others. Keeping his voice low, the black-haired student looks around to see if anyone is watching them. “If this was about the hockey team and the sorority then shouldn’t the entire school take the day off? So far, it looks like everyone else is going about their business. All of those students had friends here, but we’re the only ones told to skip classes. This has nothing to do with Bryce or Harvey either because them leaving had to be a secret. Nobody has mentioned them at all on social media and I’ve been looking. Doesn’t that seem weird to you?”
“Weird is an understatement,” Thomas replies while he looks around the room. Feeling like the coast is clear, he takes a quick sip from his flask, which is filled with a strong coffee instead of alcohol. “Why do you think I got us out of there so quickly? Professor Soleman was acting strange from the beginning. I mean, he just walked out in front of the car and beckoned us to follow. None of us saw him coming and he would have had to be walking that way before we reached the corner. Too unnerving. Even worse, he hinted that he’s not the only one involved in . . . whatever this is. We need to keep our heads down until we know more.”
“No, we stay out of their way,” Aurora hisses in a hoarse voice. Taking Thomas’s water, she finishes the drink and hacks until her throat is clear. “Have you considered that we’ve been given this day off to calm down? This is a warning that we’re poking around something that we have no business going near. I don’t care what they’re up to. You shouldn’t either since we got in trouble after only two days of investigating. Take today to study and accept that we have more important things to worry about.”
After waiting for a janitor to walk by and out of earshot, Thomas slowly leans forward to whisper, “I refuse to be a victim. Chris and Jennifer are dead. Harvey and Bryce are missing. I don’t know why the first two were taken out, but the others were helping us. Professor Soleman, Charlene, and everyone else in their group won’t let us walk away so easily. They’ll come for us eventually.”
“And paranoia rears its ugly head.”
“I’d rather be cautious than ambushed.”
“Nobody is going to attack you.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you’re just a student who can’t even focus on a major.”
“That has nothing to do with this.”
“Please talk some sense into him, brother.”
Snapped out of his trance, Apollo looks from Aurora to Thomas and tries to figure out what they are fighting about. All he can do is shrug helplessly before going back to the design he is making with poppy seeds. He is mildly surprised that he has had enough to make a unicorn, which is rearing up. Hearing his sister tapping on the table, Apollo glances at her and opens his mouth to speak. His jaws snaps shut at the sight of hundreds of ravens soaring over the trees and buildings. Their wings silently flap and none of the animals make a noise as they threaten to block the sun. Nobody else pays attention to the flock, making him fear that he has fallen asleep and is dreaming. He relaxes a bit when Thomas finally turns around and nearly jumps out of his seat, his roommate’s knuckles crack as he grips the table. Following their gaze, Aurora is less impressed by the birds, but watches them pass.
The instant his companions turn away, Apollo spots a white form within the flying mass of black. It takes him a second to realize that there is an albino raven hiding among the others, its beak only slightly darker than the rest of its body. Focusing on the rare bird, he watches it veer away from the flock and head toward the lake. As its black-feathered brethren disappear around one of the dorms, the solitary animal continues soaring over the water. The sun begins to pierce the clouds, casting blinding beams that make it impossible to track the raven. The last Apollo sees of it is a flicker of movement near the lake’s surface, which has become choppy and dark green.
“I have no idea what that’s about,” Aurora states before anyone can ask. Leaning back and crossing her arms, she takes a final glance out the window to see if any ravens are still in the area. “Birds aren’t my specialty, so I can only take a guess. They sensed something to eat over there, which could be an open dumpster or a dead deer. Although, there were a lot of them in that flock. Surprised the population is so big considering there are hawks and owls here. Those should keep the ravens under control. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen either of those animals around in the last month.”
“Another mystery or is it connected to the one we already have?” Thomas asks with a proud smile. Scratching his head, he tries to think of a story that would explain everything and happily snaps his fingers when he gets an idea. “Professor Soleman, Coach Warner, and Charlene made a deal with a big company. They get rich while toxic waste is dumped somewhere on or near campus. Just so happens this stuff killed off the hawk and owl populations, which they’re now trying to hide.”
“And you said I need to look into creative writing,” Apollo jokes, his stomach rumbling slightly. He is about to take a bite of his bagel when a foul smell makes his guts twist. “Just when I almost had an appetite. Does anybody else smell that? Can’t put my finger on what it reminds me of.”
“Like rotting meat,” Thomas says while sniffing the air. He freezes when a chorus of faint clicks echoes throughout the dining hall. “I’m starting to worry here. Not sure about what, but I just have a bad feeling.”
“Is that gas?” Aurora asks as she backs away from the heating vent. Wisps of white mist stream out of the slits, the vapor fading away as it touches the light. “Maybe they’re cleaning the ducts with water. Not sure if that’s a thing, but it makes more sense than everyone here getting poisoned. I feel dizzy.”
Apollo is the only one who manages to cover his nose and mouth before a flood of gas pours from the vents. He scrambles away from the table as Aurora and Thomas slump over, their loud snores shaking the windows. None of the other students act like they see the cloud that is flowing across the floor. Grotesque faces appear beneath all of the seats and remain, the open mouths pumping gas into the air. Reaching for their victims, the twisting tendrils are inhaled with every breath, bite, and uttered word. Feeling cornered and desperate, Apollo grabs an abandoned handkerchief from a table and presses it to his face. He climbs onto a chair, but jumps off immediately when one of the faces materializes on the floor. The bug-eyed apparition pouts and spits a stream of mist before stretching back into a shapeless form.
Once he gets to the stairs, Apollo sees that the gas is staying on the upper floor and only the first step has been covered. Determined to escape, he runs for the doors and tries to use his shoulder to open them. With a grunt, he puts all of his strength into the blow and tries not to yell at the pain that rockets down his arm. For a brief moment, he feels blood flowing under his sleeve, but he ignores out of self-preservation. Bracing his back foot against the bottom step, Apollo gets the doors to give an inch and feels a delicious rush of cool air come in from the empty lobby. With the creak of straining metal, the exit slams back together and knocks him to the ground. Looking up, he sees that the gas is flowing towards him, so he rushes back upstairs to avoid getting trapped in the narrow stairwell.
Apollo is about to grab a chair and charge the distant windows when he realizes that the students are no longer sitting still. While Thomas and Aurora are exactly as he left them, the others have broken out into a mad frenzy. He can only guess that in the short time he has been gone, they have raided the kitchen and salad bar. Food is on every flat surface and nearly all of it has been partially eaten, some pieces even showing signs that they were swallowed and spit back up. Famished students are everywhere gorging themselves on whatever they can greedily get their teeth into. Many are missing fingers, which they failed to get out of the way of their own mouths while eating. Apollo jumps back when a young woman rolls out from behind the drink dispenser and falls down the stairs. Her arms have already been devoured up to the elbows and she continues working on her legs even though she has broken her spine during the bouncing fall. As the real food runs out, more of the students settle for self-cannibalization or merely pouncing on the nearest person.
Unable to get to the windows or save his friends, Apollo carefully makes his way to the kitchen entrance. He looks around the corner to see if there is anyone there, but only the gutted staff are in view. Shocked by the violence, he tries not to throw up, but fails when he finds a cook with her head still stuck in the deep fryer. The sound of clanging pots and pans come from the back, so he grabs a carving knife in case he runs into a hungry student. Apollo stops when he realizes that he has not been covering his mouth since he got back upstairs. No longer afraid, he is about to return to the dining hall and make another attempt to rescue Aurora and Thomas when a metal colander hits him in the head. The impact is enough to knock him out, the last thing he sees being a short, hazy form standing on the counter.