Excerpt from "Darker Than" - 2 of 3
“I don't want to be here, Erik...!”
     Winter Banos pouted as she leaned on the passenger-side window frame of her brother's pick-up truck. The last thing she wanted to do was sit inside a high school classroom in July. She was about to repeat American History so she could graduate with the rest of her senior classmates.
     “Can't be helped, Sis,” replied Erik. He was a tall, good-looking young man of twenty-two, with thick wavy brown hair and a short goatee. He was wearing his usual work clothes; a bright yellow t-shirt, complete with a design which read BANOS CONSTRUCTION, blue jeans, and construction boots. Erik had what Winter believed were the coolest eyes she had ever seen; his right eye was sky-blue, while his left eye was a stormy-grey colour. “I told you that skipping class would land you here. It's your own fault; you'll just have to accept your fate.”
     “Oh puh-leeze, Erik,” moaned Winter as she rolled her eyes at him. “You know I don't believe in things like fate or destiny; they're stupid. I control my own destiny, thank you.”
     “And yet here you are,” teased her brother.
     “Oh shut up,” huffed Winter. “And why did you have to drive me into school anyway? Were you afraid I'd skip again?”
     “Well, the thought did cross my mind,” said Erik. “But you heard Dad this morning—I'm to look out for you while they're away.”
     “Whatever, Erik. I'm seventeen; you know I can look after myself.”
     “I know that, and you know that, Sis,” said Erik with a grim tone. “Bad things are happening out there. Therefore, as per Dad's instructions, you get a lift in to school as I head to work.”
     Winter knew what Erik meant. A rash of violent robberies had been committed in the Greater Toronto Area. Four occurred last month alone, the most recent one at a small nightclub in Richmond Hill. Thankfully, no one had been killed as yet, although several people had been hospitalized. One person was still recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound to the stomach. So far, the newspapers all reported that the police had no current suspects and the investigation was still ongoing.
     Winter also remembered a story she read in the paper yesterday, about a couple found dead near Halton Region. The article detailed that the couple appeared to have been attacked by a wild animal. Local police were still investigating and hadn't ruled out foul play.
     “OK, OK—fine,” Winter conceded. “You can drive me into school every morning. Beats taking the bus, I guess.”
     “Now you're thinking,” said Erik with a sharp grin. “Make sure you do some of that in class, too.”
     “Oh shut up,” Winter said playfully. “This is so stupid—why do I have to learn about American History anyway...don't we live in Canada?”
     “True...but you still gotta retake the class, Sis. And you gotta learn it this time—if you expect to graduate. Don't forget; you wouldn't be here at all if you hadn't skipped school so much. And I told you to stop texting your friends from class, didn't I...?”
     “I know...”
     “OK, then—here's your very first history lesson: those who don't learn from their mistakes aredestined to repeat them.”
     “Cripes, Erik...you sound like Dad...”
     “Hey, Dad went easy on you,” retorted her brother. “He's still willing to pay for your university this fall—if you pass the summer class. You still want to work at the zoo, right?”
     Winter knew Erik was right—she was turning eighteen this October, and she wanted to begin university that fall. She intended to work towards a degree in Animal Sciences, and she didn't want to wait another year to graduate.
     Winter adored animals; she loved the idea of being around them all the time, and she wanted the necessary skills to care for them. Deciding against the idea of becoming a veterinarian, she learned there was a special enrolment programme at the University of Toronto. Graduating the programme would allow her to apply for a position at the Metro Toronto Zoo, and it was all Winter could think about for the past year.
     During the last week of regular school, her guidance counsellor, Miss Ives, pulled a few strings to get Winter into the summer school course. Miss Ives could tell Winter wasn't content to drift through her senior year, like a lot of her classmates. Winter knew what she wanted to do with her life, and all she needed to graduate high school was this one last particular credit.
     Winter looked humbly at her brother. “You know I do, Erik.”
     “Then get cracking, Sis, or you'll end up working in Dad's office at the construction site.” Erik started up the truck's engine. “We all believe in you. You can do this; even Lydia says so.”
     “She's twelve, Erik,” said Winter, laughing. “She just wants to get in to see the animals for free!”
     “Hey, so do I,” said Erik with a smile. “I'll see you at home, Sis. Have fun...and learn something this time...!”
     Erik Banos pulled away from the curb and set off for work. Winter threw her knapsack over her shoulder and walked up towards the school entrance.
     Caledon Secondary was a modest-sized high school, just on the edge of town. They had the best high school football team in the region, the CS Cougars, but the school also had many academic awards under its belt. Winter and her family had lived in Caledon for as long as she could remember, and she had enjoyed her high school senior years as the best ones yet.
     At least until now.
     As she got to the top of the front steps, Winter looked up, surprised. Kendra Joy, her best friend, was waiting by the entrance.
     “So...you really are doing the summer class. Good for you, girlfriend.”
     “What are you doing here?” asked Winter as they hugged. The two teen girls had seen each other only briefly over the past two weeks. Winter's parents had grounded her for having to repeat American History, and their final exams kept them both busy with studying.
     “Shopping, of course! I also wanted to see if you were free later for lunch. You said last night that your cellphone gets confiscated when the class begins...?”
     “Yeah, I have to turn it in—all the students do,” sighed Winter. “So, what are you shopping for now? Clothes? Equipment?”
     “A little of both,” replied Kendra. “I don't want to be scrambling at the last minute for my athletic supplies, and all the good deals are on now.”
     Winter believed Kendra to be one of the best female athletes in their high school, if not the school's best athlete period. She had won many awards for the school this past year, and had even gotten into U-of-T on a prized athletic scholarship. Winter enjoyed athletics as well, but Kendra excelled at them. In fact, the only thing Kendra couldn't best Winter at was a flat-out, one-on-one race. No one in their high school was faster than Winter at the one hundred metre dash.
     Kendra Joy had a build tailor-made for athletics; toned, petite, and slim. She was of Jamaican and Asian descent, and it showed in her long black hair and exotic brown eyes. Like Winter, Kendra loved animals but not quite to the same degree. The two girls became best friends three years ago after Kendra's family had moved into the Caledon area.
     “So, girlfriend...we're on for lunch after your class?” asked Kendra.
     “You know it,” replied Winter. “Then I want to hit the bookstore, or the public library...or both.”
     “Geez, Winter...don't you have enough books now...?”
     “You can never have too many books,” Winter said as she shot Kendra a serious look. Winter adored books, almost as much as she loved animals. In fact, her favourite place to be other than the zoo had always been the library—any library. She owned a book collection herself back at home, in a spare room her parents allowed her to use. She'd filled it with hundreds of books, mostly about animals, but Winter also had thriller novels and many assorted books about strange-but-true facts. Her father had also given her several books on various mythologies, which was the only history Winter enjoyed.
     Winter loved how a book could draw her in with its story and take her places as far as her imagination could go.
     “I swear,” laughed Kendra as they entered the school together, “you should have chosen to be a librarian, instead of a zookeeper. I've never met anyone more crazy about books than you...!”
     “I can't help it,” said Winter, smiling. “Books have been a huge part of my life, ever since I was a kid. Most of the books I own came from my grandmother, before she passed away last year...” Winter paused before continuing. “And my mother read to me every night for as long as I can remember.”
     “Does your mom still do that now?” asked Kendra jokingly.
     “No!” laughed Winter. “Now, she just rolls her eyes when my dad goes off on one of his speeches.” Winter deepened her voice and tried her best to look stern without laughing. “Winter...it's not just what people are that's important—”
     “—it's who they were meant to become...!” finished Kendra, trying her best to mimic Winter's antics.
The two girls broke into peals of laughter as they headed for the cafeteria to pass the time before Winter's class began.
     “Y'know,” said Winter as she sat at an empty table, “I kid my dad a lot about the stuff he says to me but I know he just wants me to do well.”
     “Of course he does,” said Kendra. “My parents are the same way. And I can see how proud your folks are of you—you're gonna make a great zookeeper!”
     “Or an animal scientist,” interjected Winter. “I have a few options when it comes to my majors...”
     “As long as it involves animals, of course!” exclaimed Kendra.
     “Of course!”
     The two girls laughed and shared a muffin which Kendra had bought in the cafeteria.
     “Sometimes, Winter,” began Kendra, sounding serious, “I envy your smarts; I wish I had them...”
     “Shut up,” said Winter. “If I'm so smart, then how did I end up in summer school...?”
     “OK, so you made one mistake,” said Kendra. “You're here trying to fix it, after all...”
     “I'd better,” said Winter, also serious now, “or I can kiss university good-bye, and I'll end up filing papers for my dad for a year. I've planned for this for so long, Kendra...I can't blow it now...”
     “You won't, girlfriend,” Kendra said as she gave her friend a reassuring hug. “I have faith in you.”
     “Thanks,” said Winter. “You're probably the only friend I've had all throughout high school.”
     “Nah...I'm just the one who understands you best,” said Kendra.
     Just then, the first bell rang for the summer session to start.
     “That's my cue,” said Winter as she got up from the table. “Time to face the music.”
     “At least it's not just you,” remarked Kendra as they left the cafeteria to walk to Winter's history class. “I hear there's about a dozen other students who have to retake the same class.”
     “I guess so—but I wish you were stuck in here with me...” said Winter as they reached the classroom.
     “Not a chance,” Kendra winked. “I've got shopping to do!”
     “Fine...have fun without me,” laughed Winter. “And thanks for meeting me this morning.”
     “Anytime, girlfriend.”
     Winter's smile faded as she saw her new classmates filing into the classroom. Each one placed their cellphones into a plastic tray held by Mr. Levins, the vice-principal. Winter often wondered where the stocky man bought all those ugly ties he often wore.
     The two girls said good-bye, then Winter handed in her phone to Mr. Levins, who nodded for her to take a seat. She chose a window seat with a clear view of the street outside the school. The sun was shining and it already felt warm inside the stuffy classroom despite the air-conditioning. Winter looked up at the clock and saw it was almost eight; she'd be stuck here until noon. She already missed Kendra.
     It was going to be a long summer.
* * *
     By eleven o'clock, Winter was trying her best to stay awake. The teacher conducting the class kept droning on about an American president whose name Winter couldn't remember. She looked around and noted that the other dozen students in the class appeared restless as well.
     Winter looked down and stared at her history textbook. Over the past three hours, she had already skimmed through it several times, but she couldn't bring herself to read any of the text. The book was like an encyclopedia, and Winter detested encyclopedias; she felt there was no life in them. In between sporadic note-taking, Winter had doodled a fair amount in her work-book, and now she was even bored with that. Winter wished she had her cellphone with her just to chat with someone...
     She sighed and stole a glance out the window, just in time to glimpse a tall thin man, acting suspiciously. He appeared to be observing her school from across the road. Strangely, Winter almost thought the man was watching her in particular, but that was crazy.
     She saw he had dark shoulder length hair, and he wore a tailored suit of solid black, which Winter found very odd, considering how hot it was today. For a second, Winter thought he had caught her watching him.
     “Winter...are you paying attention?” asked the teacher loudly.
     Winter jolted about at the sound of her name.“Um, yes...I mean no...sorry, Ms. Cornber.”
     “Please dear, try to concentrate,” said Ms. Cornber. “You're here so you can graduate with your class this year, remember?”
     “Yes, Ms. Cornber,” said Winter, feeling embarrassed.
     Winter had never met Ms. Cornber before until today. She was a short, young substitute teacher conducting the class for the first time. Winter thought that perhaps Ms. Cornber was a student teacher, and was teaching summer school courses for the extra credit.
     Embarrassed as she was, Winter had to admit Ms. Cornber was right; this really was her last hope of graduating this year and she needed to focus.
     Winter stole a peek back out the window only to see the man in the black suit had vanished. He was nowhere to be seen up or down the street. Winter shrugged and forgot all about him while she concentrated on Ms. Cornber's lecture.
     That was when a loud knock sounded sharply at the classroom door.
     When Ms. Cornber opened the door, Winter saw it was Mr. Levins again. He motioned for Ms. Cornber to come closer, and he spoke to her in hoarse whispers while pointing in Winter's direction. At once, Winter knew something was wrong.
     “Winter, you need to go with Mr. Levins right away,” said Ms. Cornber. “Gather your belongings, please.”
     A low murmur sounded throughout the classroom, as all the students looked at Winter. A few students even looked envious.
     “OK. Um...am I in some kind of trouble...?” asked Winter pensively.
     “No, dear,” said Mr. Levins, “but your brother is waiting for you in the principal's office. He says it's urgent he sees you.”
     “Erik...what's he doing here?” Winter knew her brother ought to be working now. He must have come to the school when she didn't answer her cellphone. Whatever it was he had to see her about, it obviously couldn't wait.
     “Just follow me, Winter.” Mr. Levins appeared impatient, almost as if, he too, wished to be somewhere else other than a high school in the summertime.
     Winter quickly gathered up her school books, stuffed them into her knapsack, and followed Mr. Levins out of the classroom and down the hall to the principal's office. A few minutes later, they arrived at the main office doors.
     The principal of Caledon Secondary for the last three years was Mrs. Banyon, an older woman with greying blonde hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Winter had met her only once before, when Mrs. Banyon presented Winter with an award for first place in track at last years academic assembly. Before that, Winter never had a reason to be called to the principal's office for anything, even with her delinquency with American History. She had seen Mr. Levins for that.
     Mrs. Banyon stood waiting at the door to her office and said a pleasant hello to Winter. Sitting in a chair by the principal's desk was Erik, still wearing his work clothes. He looked upset, which was unusual for Winter to see; it often took a lot to faze her brother.
     “Erik?” Winter asked. “What's wrong?”
     “It's our house, Winter,” replied the young man, his voice shaking slightly. “Our parent's house—its been destroyed...!”