Read the first chapter of Leaving Wishville by Mel Torrefranca

Chapter One

It would make a tragic story. Benji Marino, fourteen, kills himself on a venture to paradise. A catchy title for the announcements on Wishville News before the morning weather report. On the other hand, he might survive.

Benji emerged around the corner of Wishville Junior High, eyes locked on a hill in the distance. All he had to do was make it to Candy Road and his escape would be a sweet success. He held his breath as he passed the school baseball field.

“Nice one. Back in line.” Benji could recognize the man’s voice from a mile away. Coach Hendrick was notorious for never using a microphone at school events. After fifteen years of coaching baseball and softball teams he’d reached the conclusion that screaming was the only way to gain respect from middle schoolers.

“Mortimer, you’re up next.” There was a pause, and his mustache twitched as if going through a seizure. “Mortimer!”

A clang came from the fence. Benji refused to look.

“Hey.” Chloe Mortimer ran her fingers along the wires, walking at a matched pace. “Where you headed?”

Chloe was the youngest student in his eighth-grade class with a birthday at the end of November, but she didn’t act the part. She was more mature than most kids their age, gave the best advice, and could have a serious conversation despite her energetic, fidgety nature. Chloe was the type of friend Benji could trust with anything, and although he hated lying to her, he would if he had to. Especially today.

He watched the ground as they walked, his shoes tapping the concrete in rhythm with her cleats clicking the dirt. She had outgrown her cleats months ago, and although they were originally white, they were now yellowed from use. She held a strange attachment to them, and he wondered how long it would take her to buy new ones.

Benji tucked his hands into his sweatshirt pocket and held his head straight, knowing that looking at her would be too painful. “Thought I’d take a walk.”

“Oh yeah?” Chloe paused, scooping a softball from the ground. She ran back to his side and tossed it into the sky. “Come on, I know something’s up.” She held her arm out, and the ball dropped into her palm. “You’re planning something crazy, aren’t you?”

“Why would you think—”

“Benji, a seagull could lie better than you.”

He made the mistake of facing her. Their eyes met through the wire fence, and he froze.

“I get that you’re curious, but we’re not gonna let you run off into the wild.” Her smile was gone now. “I mean—come on—you may as well throw your own dead body in a gutter.”

Coach Hendrick shouted for Chloe through cupped palms, but she didn’t turn away. Benji folded his fingers inside his pocket, waiting for the right moment. When a few girls from the team shouted Chloe in unison, she looked over her shoulder, and he ran.

She dropped the softball and shot after him. The gate slammed shut, followed by the hollow steps of her cleats against the sidewalk. It took three weeks of self-preparation for this day, and although Chloe wouldn’t let him get away, he wouldn’t let her stop him either.

“Listen!” Her breathing staggered, barely allowing the words to escape her lips. “You think no one would care? How would your mom react?” She gasped and sprinted with her last bit of energy, a final attempt to catch him.

He saw the tilted sign of Candy Road ahead, and by the time he reached it, Chloe was far behind, hands on her knees, panting.

With a forced grin, he hiked up the hill.

Chloe had been one of his best friends since first grade, and it was unfortunate that the last memory she’d have of him was the moment he disappeared into the trees. Sweat formed at the creases of his floppy hair. He rubbed the mess out of his face with a tense hand. It’s okay, he thought. It’ll be worth it.

Candy Road was close enough to the edge of Wishville that no one dared to breathe its air. Since the bridge was never maintained, neither was the road. Roots of surrounding evergreen trees grew into it, forming cracks for moss to grow and bumps designed to trip. But to Benji it was better this way. The road was steep, so he used the roots to push his feet forward. Candy Road had grown a set of natural stairs.

When he reached the top, he paused at the base of the bridge in nostalgia. The water gently flowing at the horizon, the sour scent of damp dirt, the gray sky looming over him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been here, yet the atmosphere was familiar. Comforting.

He took his first step onto the wide platform of concrete and shut his eyes. Living in Wishville his whole life, he had grown deaf to the ocean, but today the waves thrashed beneath him violently. He opened his eyes to reveal a rusty sign across the bridge, surrounded by a sea of redwood trees. LEAVING WISHVILLE, it read. This marked the end of his journey.

His grip on the straps of his backpack tightened as he peeked over the bridge railing. His school by the shore, the town park a few blocks to the east, everything was there. Further north were the brick buildings of the town square, Main Street running past it. He lifted his head until his nose leveled with a hill on the opposite end of town, of which yielded a single secluded home. Everything he knew, and he was ready to leave it all behind.

“Goodbye, Wishville.” Benji waved at the view. Facing the mission before him, he engaged in a staring contest with the sign. After a long blink, a new spark brewed in his eyes.

He took long and speedy strides across the bridge, reaching closer to the end than ever before. The tree branches by the sign reached forward, calling for him to continue. To finally break through Wishville into a new world. His right foot stretched for the border, and the other side of the bridge illuminated with extravagant colors. The vomit green trees, the musty blue sky, the overpowering browns. He could hear the chirping of distant birds suppressing the screaming seagulls that flew over his head. The colors and sounds were so immersing that he couldn’t hear the rustling of bushes behind him, the hammering footsteps.

It wasn’t until his foot retracted against its will that Benji broke from his daze. He stumbled backwards, the sky fading gray, the trees losing their animation, the dirt as bland and cold as ever. The only colors available were the few familiar wisps of brick-red hair that flashed his vision. “Boo!”

A hand released his backpack with a sturdy throw, and Benji crashed into the railing by the waist. The hungry waves jumped beneath the bridge, trying to reach him. He turned around, head spinning.

To his left was James Koi. He wore a white collared shirt underneath his sweater vest and the latest designer shoes. James had always been a natural at fashion, which was odd since no one could imagine him standing in front of a mirror. Perhaps his elegant style was simply an accident every morning. He completed the outfit with an expressionless mask, not a single fold on his forehead or a tilt of his lips either up or down. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

To Benji’s right was Samantha Perkins, who went exclusively by Sam. Benji almost smiled at the sight of her wearing last year’s school jogathon shirt, which she didn’t participate in. She tucked her hands into the pockets of her fluffy jacket, and a few chuckles escaped her lips. “You should’ve seen the look on your face.” She paused her laughter to imitate the exact moment. “Boo!” Leaning over, she broke into hysteria until her cheeks were as red as her knotted hair.

Benji could never understand her. Sometimes everything was funny and other times everything was somehow meant to insult her. Sam’s emotions were as predictable as flipping a coin.

When Sam extinguished her humor, James repositioned himself next to Benji. “It’s illogical to leave.” He gave Benji’s head a shove from above, taking advantage of his height. “You’re smarter than this.”

The idea of staying in Wishville sickened him. “I know it doesn’t make sense.” He pointed to the end of the bridge. “But don’t you guys ever wonder what’s out there?”

“Couldn’t care less.” Sam crossed her arms, and her raspy voice smoothened. “Although I guess it’s different when your dad goes missing.”

James glared at her, and she pursed her lips with raised brows.

Benji spun around and set his arms on the bridge railing. “There’s a lot I wish I knew.” He watched the seagulls zoom across the horizon. Left and right. Up and down. Wherever they wanted to.

“By the way, we were Plan B.” Sam chuckled. “I can’t believe Chloe couldn’t talk you out of it. You’re such a pain.”

Benji shot for the end of the bridge, but James formed a wall in front of him.

Sam stepped away, and a twig snapped beneath her sneaker. “Let’s go back.”

Knowing James wouldn’t move, Benji tucked his frozen hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt and walked back the way he came. As he took his first step down Candy Road, he peeked over his shoulder to spot the LEAVING WISHVILLE sign one last time. He held his head low, the glow in his eyes gone.

“You know, we’re only doing this because we care,” Sam said.

He scanned the ground for the next root to step on. “How did you know?”

She looked to James, asking permission to tell. He nodded.

“Well you were acting all suspicious. Took way more notes during class than usual.”

“You searched my binder, didn’t you?”

“You weren’t taking notes on prepositional phrases, that’s the thing.” Sam’s sneaker chipped against a root, but she caught her balance and recovered. “You literally wrote your entire escape plan. Date, time, everything.”

James ran a hand through his hair. “Not smart.”

“Well,” Benji said. “I guess I’ll have to be smarter next time.” He smiled, and Sam jabbed him in the side.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay for dinner?” Mr. Koi asked.

“I’ve got a violin lesson, and my dad has another meeting tonight.” Sam zipped her jacket with a stiff arm. “I can’t.”

Mr. Koi nodded as she turned away. “Next time,” he said, but they all knew it wouldn’t happen. Sam was one of the busiest kids in school, always attending fancy dinners, meetings, important events. She despised her tight schedule, yet Benji considered it a bargain for a family like hers.

Mr. Koi waited until Sam was out of sight before shutting the door. That’s when the investigation began. He straightened his tie and glanced between them. “You three were out late today.”

Benji was too focused on the room to notice him. The Koi household was located on Main Street, which ran along the town square. The houses on Main ranged from all different sizes, each designed with its own unique architecture. James’s home was one of the larger ones. His parents owned and managed Sequoia Bank and the town’s department store, Wishville Depot. Benji knew such a wealthy family deserved a fitting home, but he couldn’t keep the jealousy from pouring in. Every time he’d come home with James he’d always stop to admire the raised ceilings, floors of soft wood, and sunlight showering from windows that were only covered at dark.

“Rebecca phoned me. She’s been worried sick.” Mr. Koi added. This time, Benji heard him.


The man smiled, and his teeth glimmered in the light. “I’ll let her know you’ve made it back.” Before Mr. Koi could proceed to the rest of his questioning, the two boys hid upstairs to get some peace before the meal.

Benji appreciated James’s room simply because it was the opposite of his. There wasn’t one speck of dust, and everything was placed elegantly where it belonged. Shelves along the wall were trickled with strange puzzles, all of which Benji gave up on solving years ago. Even the wooden trinkets James called beginner level were enough to braid his mind into twists.

Then there were the books. Those were the main attraction of James’s room. Benji tried placing his head in a position where he couldn’t see a book and found that the only place possible was the ceiling. He respected his friend’s love for literature, as much as a non-reader possibly could.

“Hey.” Benji sat on James’s bed and watched his feet dangle over the floor. If only he had been a few inches taller. “Sorry about—you know—trying to leave town and all.”

James opened his favorite book, Sharpner’s Peak. He read it so often that if someone were to spout a random page number, he could recite the page’s first paragraph from memory. He leaned back in his desk chair and brought the pages closer to his eyes, his lips glued together.

“I guess part of me wants to know what happened to my dad.” Benji folded his fingers together, watching them turn red. “And the other half is just dreading the spring festival.”

“Shh…” James looked up from the pages and smiled. “You’ve wasted enough of my reading time already.” That was his way of saying, I forgive you.

Benji’s fingers relaxed. He hauled his backpack off the floor and slipped out his sketchbook and a charcoal pencil. Of all things to pack for his escape, he chose to bring his drawings. A stupid choice, considering he didn’t know what might be out there. A knife, spare clothes, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would have been a smarter move. But when Benji had stood in the center of his room, searching for something that mattered, his sketchbook was all that caught his eye.

It was a silent moment. Benji appreciated that about his friendship with James. They didn’t need to talk all the time. His friendship wasn’t like Sam’s, where he’d have to constantly tune out her complaining, or Chloe, where they spoke a lot about nothing. James and he would often sit in silence. Reading, drawing. Flipping, erasing. Silence was all they had in common, and that was enough.

Benji continued a drawing from last week. A stretch of land without trees, sprinkled with buildings resembling diamonds more than homes. Something about drawing landscapes and strange buildings had always caught his attention.

Mr. Koi knocked on the door half an hour later before peeking his head inside. “You should get seated,” he said. “I’ll wake Nina.”

The two nodded, sliding downstairs and into the dining room. Although Benji had stuffed his sketchbook into his backpack, James didn’t have the strength to leave his book upstairs. While he sat at the table reading, Benji watched the steam billow from the serving plates. The fresh broccoli coupled with the sour aroma of lemony shrimp made his mouth water. On the far end of the table was a giant bowl from Chowdies. That was the best place in town to buy clam chowder. It was also the only place.

“Mom’s not here?” James spoke behind the pages. Even without a book Benji hadn’t noticed Mr. Koi enter the room. Some would argue the Kois’ intuition was strong enough to call a superpower.

“Visiting some friends.” Mr. Koi sat and scooped a generous helping of shrimp onto his plate. He paused and gave his son a stern look in the eye. “Put the book down.”

James frowned and stuck a penny between the pages to hold his place.

Nina hovered into the room after her father. She sat, flung her thick, chocolate braids behind her shoulders, and waited for Mr. Koi to serve her. She blinked slowly, and Benji could tell by the way she stared into space that she had been sleeping all day. She took a lot of naps for an eleven-year-old. Nina coughed as she choked down a bite of broccoli.

Mr. Koi set his hand on the table. “Don’t force yourself.”

Nina glanced at Benji for a moment, then nodded at her plate.

Although Nina and James were only two years apart, they may as well have been six. For starters, James was tall for his age, and his doctor expected him to exceed six feet and surpass his father. Nina, on the other hand, hardly looked older than eight. She had a strange gravitation to dresses, even though most kids her age made the quick transition to jeans and plaid shirts. Benji wasn’t sure if Nina was short because she was sick, or if it had to do with genetics. It seemed the one thing they did have in common, however, was their perfect skin. Their tone was stuck somewhere between Mr. Koi’s smooth cocoa skin, and Mrs. Koi’s pale tan. A creamy butterscotch tone, complimented with their honey brown eyes. Every time Benji noticed their skin he was instantly ashamed of his freckles. He tilted his head downward, hoping they might be less prominent that way.

“It’s been awhile since you’ve joined us for dinner,” Mr. Koi straightened the collar of his shirt. “How are you?”

“I’m doing great, actually.” Benji smiled, keeping his head low.

“And your mother? Everything going well with her?”

“You know,” Benji said, “everything’s always the same.”

“Good.” Mr. Koi pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “That’s good.”

A silence fell over the table. Benji was plating his food when Mr. Koi continued his investigation. “I hate to pry,” he said, shoveling a spoonful of chowder into his mouth, “but what were you three doing today?”

Benji’s hands fumbled, and the serving spoon splattered on the table, spilling broccoli across the wood. “Sorry.” He grimaced and transferred the pieces to his plate one at a time.

James cleared his throat. “Sam suggested we see the ocean.”

Mr. Koi nodded, although they both knew he wasn’t convinced. Out of all the parents in Wishville, most considered him the least easygoing. Like James and Nina, Mr. Koi was an expert at puzzles, but not the wooden kind in particular. He set down his spoon, humored eyes staring through his rectangular glasses. “You all must really like waves.”

James stopped chewing, stuck in thought.

Benji was always mesmerized by the Kois’ conversations. The family wasn’t known for talking much, but they always got their point across. It was almost a competition for who could talk the least.

While James picked his words carefully, Benji’s brain went into a state of panic. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “We were—you know—” Benji gulped. “Counting the seagulls.”

Counting the seagulls,” Mr. Koi repeated. He chuckled and took another bite. “And how many did you count?”

James’s answer was instantaneous. “One-hundred-and-seventeen.” He shot Benji a disappointed look.

“How did you make sure you didn’t count one twice?”

Mr. Koi was nothing more than a rock on a smooth path, waiting for James to trip as he ran. The pattern would continue until either James messed up, or Mr. Koi gave in and nodded at his persuasive son with pride. Benji switched focus between the two as questions were spouted and logically answered. He folded his fingers in anticipation of who would win the game.

That’s when Nina pushed her plate of food in front of her and gulped a monstrous sip of water, forcing another bite. She stared at Benji deep in the eyes, and at that moment they were two pits of black fire. He found himself lost in them, and his hands began to shake.

“Benji,” Mr. Koi said. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh—uh, no.” He peeled his eyes from Nina and prepared another bite with his spoon. “I’m fine.”

“What did you do today?” It was Nina asking the question this time.

Benji hesitated, not sure why she’d ask. When he opened his mouth to spout the same lie they repeated throughout the meal, the words clotted in his throat. “I—well—”

“What did you do today?” she repeated. Her tone of voice reminded Benji of a teacher during a verbal quiz, testing with the answer in mind.

Benji’s hands went stiff. “Like I said, we were counting seagulls.” He tried to sound as natural as possible, but his voice was a tad higher than normal, and he could tell by the way her fingers tightened around her fork that she wasn’t convinced.

“I’m not hungry.” She slammed her fork onto her plate and stood so fast that the chair legs squealed against the bamboo floor.

“Are you okay?” Mr. Koi was by her side immediately. “Feeling dizzy?”

Nina looked back at Benji. Something in her eyes was different this time, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m feeling sick.”

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.