I gripped the straps of my backpack as my classmates and I filed off the bus. As I was stepping onto the sidewalk, I was shoved from behind. I fell forward, unable to catch myself. I hit the concrete, banging my shoulder on the way down. My backpack was ripped off my back as I tried to stand, causing me to fall again.
The familiar snigger of my arch nemesis made my stomach lurch while I looked up. Caleb Smith’s giant frame filled my line of sight. I visibly tensed as I swallowed hard.
“Watch where you’re going, Squirt,” he said with a smirk, holding my backpack just out of reach. I slowly got to my feet, ignoring the pain in my shoulder.
“Give it back, Caleb,” I said, my voice shaking. I reached out for the backpack, but he pulled it away.
“Nah, I think I’ll keep it,” he replied.
“But my lunch is in there!”
“Stinks to be you.”
“Come on, Caleb—”
“Are you back-talking me?” he asked, strengthening his grip on my backpack. I tried to stand a little taller, but I still only reached his shoulder.
“Y-yes,” I squeaked. Caleb towered over me, his eyes burning right through me. “Now give it back,” I said, trying in vain to ignore the pounding of my heart. Caleb’s eyes widened, and my stomach lurched. He gave me a look I knew too well. He raised his fist as Mrs. Thomas called to us.
“Timothy. Caleb. Is there something wrong?” she asked, her heels clicking on the sidewalk as she approached.
“Oh, Mrs. Thomas,” Caleb coughed a little, transforming into a gentle giant. “I was just helping Timmy here. He fell, and I was just giving him his backpack,” he explained, handing me the backpack. I grabbed the top strap while Caleb sent me the Stay-Silent-If-You-Know-What-Is-Good-For-You look. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I pasted on a smile.
“Yup, that’s what happened,” I said, my voice cracking. I could tell Caleb had to suppress the urge to snigger.
“Well, go catch up with the group,” she said. “We’re going to split you all into teams before we send you into the museum.”
“Yes, ma'am,” we said together and hurried after our classmates. Before we reached the doors, Caleb grabbed my elbow and hissed in my ear.
“I’m not finished with you yet, Squirt.”
I ripped my arm out of his grasp and hurried through the doors. As soon as I entered, I found my two best friends and joined them.
“Hi, Timmy,” Renee said, looking me over. “Whoa, what happened?” she asked, attempting to fix my ruffled red hair.
“Was it The Tank again?” Steve asked. I shooed away Renee’s hand and fixed my hair myself as I replied.
“Yeah. He pushed me off the bus again.”
“Come on. We’re all in junior high. You need to stop letting him push you around,” Steve said.
“And do what? I can’t challenge him. I don’t exactly have the muscle to fight him.”
“Yeah, your toothpick arms would snap in two seconds.”
“Hey, you brought it up.”
“Shh, Mrs. Thomas is calling out our teams,” Renee shushed. We all fell silent to listen for our group assignments. I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes, hoping with all my heart that my name would be called with Steve’s.
“Steve Winters, Renee Harrow, and Yulianna Frost,” Mrs. Thomas read the fourth group, and my heart sank. Steve patted me on the back.
“Better luck next time, Tim,” he whispered. I nodded and turned my attention back to Mrs. Thomas, who was reading another group.
“Timothy Nelson and Caleb Smith,” she read, and my eyes snapped open. My stomach lurched as panic rose in my chest.
“Caleb,” I choked out as a beefy arm plopped on my skinny shoulders.
“Looks like we’re a team, Squirt,” Caleb said, gripping me with more force than was necessary. I gulped as Steve and Renee gave me a sympathetic look. I looked away, frowning. I didn’t want their sympathy. I wanted out. I wanted an escape plan! Anything. By the time I got over my shock, Mrs. Thomas was giving instructions.
“Stick with your teams and stay in contact with Mr. Howard and me. I want all of you back here by two o’clock at the latest. Remember to keep your eyes open for potential research topics for your essays that are due at the end of the week,” she said. As soon as she was done, all the groups scattered. Before I could even blink, Caleb and I were the only ones standing in the lobby. I grabbed a map from the welcome desk and opened it up.
“Where do you want to go first?” I asked, looking through the map. “It looks like there’s an exhibit on dinosaurs on this floor and the World Wars on the second—hey!”
Caleb snatched the map from me and crumpled it up. He tossed it into a trash can and pulled me by my backpack straps toward the service elevator.
“Caleb, what gives?” I protested, my tennis shoes slipping on the newly polished floor.
“We don’t need a dumb map. We’re going to some place more interesting,” he replied, tossing me ahead of him. I stumbled into the elevator while he stepped in behind me. He pressed one of the buttons, and the doors closed. I didn’t see which button, but we started to head down.
“Caleb, this is a restricted elevator. We’re not supposed to be in here.”
“Who cares?” he replied. “If they wanted us to stay away, there would have been a sign or something.”
“There was a sign!”
Caleb simply shrugged, and I let out an exasperated sigh. The elevator stopped moving, and the doors opened. I looked up at the screen. We had made it to the basement. Caleb walked out, but I stayed put. I wasn’t about to break the rules. Caleb must have noticed my hesitation because he came back and grabbed me by my arm. I tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong. He pulled me out of the elevator and into the narrow hallway.
“What are we doing down here?” I asked, my voice echoing.
Caleb didn’t answer me. I didn’t really expect him to, but I wanted an answer all the same.
“Caleb,” I tried again, but he clamped a hand over my mouth and pulled us into a small custodial closet. We waited for a second, and a security guard walked by with a flashlight. His footsteps matched the pounding of my heart as I struggled to stay silent. As soon as he was gone, Caleb let go of me, and I pushed myself away from him. “We need to get out of here. There’s probably cameras everywhere, and I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Caleb continued to ignore me as he walked further down the hall. I had no choice but to follow him. We reached the end of the hall, coming to a locked door. A keypad was positioned on the wall by the door, but we didn’t need it. The door was already open. We entered a large room, and we stared in awe at the tall shelves of artifacts. I looked above the door and saw a security camera. I gulped, quickly looking away. I tried to back toward the door again, but Caleb kept a firm hold on my jacket sleeve.
“Loosen up, Squirt,” he said. “We’re not going to take anything.”
“But we’re still breaking the rules,” I countered.
“Then how was it so easy to get down here?”
“I don’t know. There should have been more guards, and an alarm should have sounded by now,” I thought out loud as the strangeness of the situation hit me. “Something’s not right.”
“Just relax,” Caleb said, leading us further in. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Apparently back on the bus, along with your common sense,” I snorted. Caleb frowned, but I was surprised when he didn’t attempt to punch me. As he walked in further, I noticed he was walking a little more carefully. I could tell that he was starting to sense the weirdness of the situation too. Suddenly, something near the back of the room dropped, and we froze. We looked at each other, not daring to breathe. I thought I heard footsteps and quickly looked at Caleb. He hadn’t moved. I could feel the color drain from my face as my heart thundered in my ears.
We weren’t alone.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled while my stomach lurched. I held my breath, deciding to get a better look. I started to tiptoe toward the back of the room, and Caleb followed. We passed several tall shelves where several large artifacts had been recently cataloged. We were just tiptoeing past the sixth of eleven cases when I heard a scuffle and hushed whispers. I stopped and shared a scared look with Caleb. As I was turning back around, a loud cocking noise made my heart drop into my stomach. I slowly looked up as a tall, muscular man towered over me. He wore a black mask, but I could see his dark eyes clearly as they cut right through me. I started to step back when I noticed the gun in his hand. I glanced back at Caleb, noting his petrified state.
I swallowed my fear and clenched my sweaty palms into fists. Before I could even think, I lunged at the man’s arm, forcing the gun to the side as it discharged.
“RUN!” I screamed to Caleb. The man threw me off with an irritated snarl, cocking the gun again. He aimed it at Caleb, who was sprinting down the aisle, but I jumped up and grabbed his arm again, throwing off his aim. The bullet whizzed past Caleb and hit an old vase instead. The thief threw me off again, tossing me into one of the wooden shelves. I hit the shelf, the wind completely knocked out of me as my vision blurred. My head swam as pain clouded my mind. The shelf I had been thrown into swayed to and fro before falling forward into the next shelf. Boxes and old artifacts rained down around me, but I barley realized what was happening.
I tried to crawl to safety, but the fallen shelf was inches from my head. The chaotic crashes of the shelves and artifacts filled my senses as I tried inching toward the aisle on my stomach, but boxes blocked my way. I tried to shove them aside, but I couldn’t get them to move. I shimmied out of my backpack, coughing as dust filled my nose. Suddenly, someone reached through the wooden shelving, grabbing my collar. I was pulled from the pile and put into a loose choke hold, the barrel of the gun digging into my side.
“If you cooperate, then I’ll let you go free,” the man hissed in my ear. “Thanks to you, I’ve got to use a hostage to get by security.”
I wasn’t about to talk back. He kept the gun in my side as he dragged me along. Two security guards were running in as the thief dragged me toward the exit.
“Freeze!” one of them shouted, pointing his gun at the thief.
I gripped my captor’s arm that was around my neck, struggling to breathe. I blinked a few times to get the dust out of my eyes, my heart pounding in my ears again.
“Let the kid go. This doesn't have to get messy,” the other guard said, keeping the only exit blocked. The gun barrel dug deeper into my side with each step the guards took.
“Just let me through, and he won’t get hurt,” my captor said in a deep voice.
“You know we can’t let you do that.”
“I will shoot him.”
“Not if I can help it!” a familiar voice yelled. Caleb slammed into my captor, hitting the gun from his hand. I was pushed to the floor as the thief lunged for his gun. I looked up as his fingers closed around the weapon, and several shots rang out. I was pulled to my feet and into a run as more shots were fired. I ran, not daring to look back. I lunged for the exit with Caleb on my heels. We ran through as more guards appeared on the scene. They hurried in to help restrain the thief, and I sank to the floor in the hall, my heart still pounding. Caleb sat next to me, his eyes still wide in shock. We sat in silence as the mayhem in the storeroom finally died down. I looked over at Caleb, who was staring at the floor.
“Thanks,” I managed to say. He looked up, giving me a ghost of a smile.
“I figured I owed you one,” he replied. “I wasn’t expecting you to just jump on him like that. That was kind of stupid,” he added, nudging me with his shoulder.
“You weren’t exactly bright either. You could have gotten me shot!”
We both fell silent. We looked at each other and broke out in nervous laughter.
“If anyone asks, we were looking for the bathroom,” Caleb said, and I shook my head at him.
“Yeah, the bathroom,” I agreed.