Read the first chapter of Capsule by Mel Torrefranca


This one’s for a boy I’ve chosen not to name. The anonymous student annoys me to the core, but I can’t get him off my mind (and neither can you, judging by the fact that you’re reading this). He strives for perfection when he knows he’ll never get there, climbing and fighting but never reaching the top—never even seeing it. This obsession destroys him. His friends are gone, his family’s more dysfunctional than they are in those cringey television dramas, and now he has no clue how to escape the deep hole he’s dug himself into.

Sometimes I look at him and think, My god, what a mess. He’s got nothing to live for. He keeps going and he has no idea why.


8:20 AM

“Ready for another day behind bars?”

Jackie Mendoza ignored the boy seated to her left. Somehow it’d become a running gag that Mr. Berkshire’s class was a prison, students even coordinating days to show up in matching orange t-shirts, but they were exaggerating. Sure, the windows were covered in blackout curtains and the class had an eerie yellow glow from the dying LED lights, but it wasn’t at all a torturous environment. Mr. Berkshire simply didn’t bother plastering his walls with funny posters or setting stupid knick-knacks on his desk for kids to point out in the middle of an important lecture.

“Really?” The boy leaned over the aisle, catching a glimpse of Jackie’s screen. “Clash of Clans? That game’s ancient.”

Jackie set her phone onto the wooden desk and faced him with her lips pursed. She’d been cursed to arrive ten minutes early on the same day as the most relentless boy in class. He was always testing creative ways to get Jackie to talk as though breaking past her social barrier were a video game level he was dying to beat, and it made her blood boil.

The only interesting element about the boy’s appearance was his odd-colored eyes, and he seemed to know it too. He framed them with these ridiculously oversized round glasses, two golden rings resting on his cheeks. Every time she made the effort to face him—which was only occasionally—she’d find herself lost in his eyes, struggling to distinguish their color. The hue was trapped between a dull blue and a grayish green. If only I had a picture, she thought, envisioning a color picker in Photoshop extracting the exact hex code of his irises.

“What are you staring at?” He leaned further over the aisle, widening his eyes. Flaunting their color.

Jackie broke free from his trap, lifting her phone from the desk and suppressing the echo of blue or green or gray or blue running in the back of her mind. Less than two months until the end of the school year and she still hadn’t learned his name, but odds were he didn’t know hers either. The only times he’d ever spark a conversation with her was when he was bored, and judging by the janky arrangement of empty desks around them, his only shot to squeeze in maximum social interaction before class was to converse with the intentionally quiet Jackie Mendoza.

“Well someone’s awfully moody this morning. I don’t blame you though. It’s a lot to take in.” His own phone unlocked with a click. “So what do you think happened to him?”

Jackie opened Clash of Clans and tapped her barracks, deciding which troops to train. She knew the boy would only grow more annoying if she didn’t feed into his conversation, so she asked, “Who?”

“You know, that Peter kid.”

Jackie’s thumb paused after tapping the dragon icon only once.

“You seriously haven’t heard?” He raised his voice to a near shout. “You know, Peter Moon? The kid-who-sits-right-next-to-you-this-period Peter Moon?”

Two girls entered the room with their hands wrapped around hot Starbucks drinks. Their chattering stopped, eyes crashing onto the empty desk to Jackie’s right.

Peter’s plastic seat sparked Jackie’s memory. Pale skin, wavy brown hair—Peter was the only student who used free time during class to work on homework instead of mindlessly scrolling through a screen like everyone else.

Jackie turned to ask the boy with the golden glasses why he’d brought up Peter but was greeted with nothing but the back of his t-shirt. The two girls jumped onto the wooden desks in front of him, swinging their legs as they talked over each other.

Never mind.

Jackie’s fingers grew numb against her phone screen as she surveyed her Clash of Clans base, gusts of morning air poisoning the room as the door swung open and closed. Students filled the empty seats until only Peter’s remained abandoned, thirty three of thirty four teenagers occupying the room—a normal class size for Brookwood High. Although every bordering city and town in Northern California was at least an hour away, Brookwood had outgrown its small community years ago. The school district, however, had yet to keep up with the ever-growing high school student body of now nearly three thousand.

Jackie swiped out from Clash of Clans, about to unpack her textbook and notes, but a new app resting in the third row of her home screen distracted her. The icon featured a red and black gel capsule glowing under a starry night sky. She brought the screen to her face and squinted. Don’t remember installing you.

The bell rang. Mr. Berkshire dragged his feet to the front of the room, a clipboard trapped in his sturdy grip. As the teacher’s eyes bounced between the desks and his roll sheet, Jackie held her thumb on the Capsule icon and tapped Remove App.

Jackie had never considered math her favorite subject, but she preferred Mr. Berkshire’s class over her others simply because she found him relatable. He marked attendance from a seating chart made of boxes that represented desks so he wouldn’t have to learn anyone’s name and even chose raised hands by pointing out physical characteristics such as hair color or clothing. She heard he was unmarried, childless, and had no interest in pets, so he didn’t seem like the type of man to choose a career that involved talking to snarky teens all day. And although she’d never shared a private conversation with him before, she had a feeling they would get along well.

“Hey, girls in the back.” Mr. Berkshire raised his chin from the clipboard. “You have chairs for a reason.”

The girls chatting with the boy to Jackie’s left hopped from the desks onto the crumb-infested carpet, ending their conversation with him. Now that the boy with the golden glasses wasn’t smiling, his eye bags popped against his creamy skin.

Jackie’s phone buzzed with a Discord message from Eugene, the only online friend she bothered keeping in touch with daily. You down for Mystery Bullets later?

Jackie peeked at Mr. Berkshire, who was still focused on attendance. She faced her screen once again and responded with Always.

“I’m sure many of you have heard the news.”

At the sound of Mr. Berkshire’s raspy voice, Jackie tossed her phone back into the leather rucksack that rested on the floor. The man’s gaze paused on Peter’s empty desk, and the entire class went silent at once for the first time this school year. He cleared his throat as he lowered the clipboard to his side.

“Two students from Brookwood High, Peter Moon and Kat Pike, were reported missing on Friday night.” He walked to his spotless desk and took a seat, setting the clipboard by his laptop. “If you have any information about them, please go to the school office—not your friends, not your parents, and definitely not me. Only a few people at the office are directly involved with the case.”

The boy to Jackie’s left raised his hand.

Mr. Berkshire took a deep breath, knowing to expect trouble. “Yes, kid with the glasses.”

“Do you think they ran away together?”

The class erupted with darting heads, eyes meeting, breaking apart, and meeting again. Students were restless, some with deep dimples from their grins and others with jaws hanging wide open. Jackie leaned back in her seat, watching the chaos unfold from the back row. For the entire school year, she’d never seen anyone in Mr. Berkshire’s class talk to Peter—yet now that he was gone, they cared.

The teacher shook his head as he opened the textbook in front of him. “Let’s turn to page 332. I have a review assignment for you.”

Jackie stared at Peter’s empty desk as the other students pulled their seats together, gathering into groups to collaborate on the review assignment—another word for goof off. Mr. Berkshire knew the students weren’t getting any work done, but he didn’t care. He shut his laptop and scrolled through his phone.

Jackie had never paid attention to anyone in math class before, but considering how this was the first time someone from Brookwood had gone missing, she couldn’t deny her curiosity about Peter’s absence. Now that she thought about it, she and Peter were the only students to ever choose to work on review assignments alone. Peter Moon, a boy who never used his phone in class, who always turned his homework in on time—surely he wasn’t the type to rebel and run away.

Friday night. Jackie had shared geometry class with Peter on Friday morning, exactly three days ago, which meant everyone in this room had seen Peter the same day he’d disappeared. She frowned at the shapes on her textbook page, trying to recall how he’d spent his time during first period. All she remembered was that Peter had shown up half an hour late, and everyone laughed at how flustered he was from interrupting Mr. Berkshire’s lecture.

The two girls to Jackie’s left tossed their empty coffee cups into the nearest trash bin, one missing but not bothering to pick it up. They were sitting in front of the boy with the golden glasses again, this time with their desks pushed together. Jackie leaned forward at the sound of Peter’s and Kat’s names, her silky black hair falling over the sides of her face as a natural shield.

“I heard it was Peter’s birthday on Friday,” the boy said. “Now tell me, why would he go missing on his birthday? Kind of a weird coincidence if you ask me.”

Jackie watched the girls between the strands of her hair. They tossed statements back and forth until it started to sound like the only possible truth.

“I don’t get it.” One of the girls had her arms crossed and her back hunched over as though anyone in the room could have murderous intentions. “I know Kat’s a K-pop fan, so it wouldn’t be hard to believe she has a thing for Korean guys, but Peter? There’s no way she’d go anywhere with him. Doesn’t she hate his guts?”

“Would make for an interesting story though.” The second girl’s tight grin left her voice strained. “Popular girl elopes with the nerdy bad-boy. A perfect Wattpad plot.”

“You read Wattpad?”

“But let’s focus on what we do know. Peter and Kat went missing after school, and on his birthday too.” She pointed a finger around the air to emphasize her point. “Obviously Peter’s the one behind this.”

The first girl’s stiff posture loosened. “Maybe Kat was some kind of sick birthday present.”

“Exactly, and I heard Peter sometimes goes to that restaurant she works at.”

“Wow, okay.” She nodded, processing the information. “He really is obsessed with her.”

“Guys, shut up. That doesn’t make any sense.” The boy with the golden glasses raised his voice, ensuring the entire class could hear. “I was joking when I asked about them running away. We all know Peter hates everyone. He’s not the type to waste time on romance.”

The room fell silent, everyone too afraid to acknowledge what he’d said. It was much more fun to spread rumors about Peter and Kat being responsible for their disappearances. It was safer. But the fear of a third party being involved left the students with goosebumps on their arms. What if whoever was behind their disappearances would find themselves a new pair of targets?

Jackie tucked the strands of hair behind her ear, refocusing on the textbook page in front of her. Well, trying to. The diagrams and numbers blurred until Jackie could only see a strange fuzz of black lines. This was the most interesting event she’d witnessed at Brookwood High, even more than when her PE class had found the gym windows smashed out her freshman year.

Jackie’s eyes twisted to Peter’s desk. She didn’t know him personally, but she couldn’t help but wonder where he’d gone.

And this Kat Pike girl—who was she?

Mel Torrefranca

Mel Torrefranca is a novelist from the San Francisco Bay Area, now residing in the jungly mountains of Northern Thailand. Her books feature morally gray characters, bold endings, and a pinch of awkward humor. Mel discovered her passion for writing at the age of seven and published her debut novel Leaving Wishville during high school. She also drinks way too many lattes.