Esther Velez

write more. write better

Author: estherv (page 1 of 21)

Stealth Game Project – 2015

Draft 1 (Early March 2015)

Prologue

I’ve never been good at keeping promises.

For all my twenty one years, I’ve lied, cheated, and manipulated more people than I can count.

But when they made me promise to take care of X, when they made me promise to never let anything happen to him, it was a promise I knew I had to keep.

 

Chapter One

Ava: Jade, it’s time to wake up.

Jade wakes up, groggy, and looks out the nearest window. they are set up in an abandoned building.

Jade: what are you doing? we can’t go outside yet, it’s still dark.

Ava: we’re not going out. I just wanted to talk to you.

she looks down at Jordan brother sleeping on floor. they lower their voices.

Jade: I’m all ears.

Ava: it’s been two days since we started our escape. If we continue only traveling by day, we’ll never make it out of here.

Jade: we can’t travel during the night, Ava. You know that.

Ava: what if I could change that? what if I could find a way that we could go out there at night?

Jade: Ava, I’m just trying to do what’s best for Jordan. I made them a promise, Ava, and I’m going to keep it. Right now, traveling only during the days is what’s best for him.

Ava: Why do you think I came back for you two, Jade? Don’t you think that I want what’s best for, not just him, but you as well? If we keep traveling at this pace, the CCC is going to find you us, and there will be nothing you can do to protect him then.

Jade: Isn’t that why you brought me along? To make sure we get out of this town alive? You don’t know a thing about this town. I’ve lived here for most of my life. If anyone is going to get us out of here, it’s going to be me.

Jordan: Jade? Ava? Is it time to go?

Jade: Soon, Jordan. Why don’t you pack up our bags?

Jordan: Okay.

Ava: he’s not dumb, you know. one of these days, he’s going to remember the code and –

Jade: he doesn’t know the code, Ava. we’ve been through this before. he wasn’t around for any of their planning.

Ava: and how do you know that? how do you know anything about what our parents did or didn’t do?

Jade: you’re one to talk. You’ve only been back for a few months. how do you know anything about them, or any of us for that matter?

Ava: we’ll hold on to most of this stuff until it starts to weigh us down. how much longer until we’re out of town?

Jade: it’s not just this town, Ava. we have to pass through the forest as well. You wanted me to bring you to the highway. that’s at least a hundred miles out. We can’t travel more than a few miles of day with Jordan…

Ava: how many days do you think you can hide from them, Jade? last I checked, they were combing this whole area for you.

Jade: You want to help us or not, Ava? You’re the one who claimed to have somewhere to go, you just needed to get onto the highway. Well, I’ll get us there, and it will take as long as it needs to.

Ava: whatever you say. Let’s get out of here, though. We’ll have to find a new place to stay by at least noon.

Jade bends down to help Jordan.

Jordan: I’m all packed up.

Jade: you’re doing a great job, Jordan.

Jade gives the boy a hug. they eventually break the embrace, and the grab their stuff.

Jade: okay, let’s go.

 

Chapter Two

outside.

Ava: alright, Jade, make sure if you see anyone with a white jacket, you stay far away from them.

Jade: those are the people from CC Corporation, right?

Ava: right. you can’t let them see you or Jordan. they’ll capture you in a second, and who knows what they’ll do to you.

Jade: I’ve got it. we need to find a house with shutters. those are the only ones safe around here.

Ava: what? well, this is your town. I won’t ask why. let’s just get to finding one.

 

Chapter Three

they have made it to a house without getting caught.

Jade: this looks like a good place to stop.

Ava: we’re stopping now? we haven’t even traveled very far.

Jordan: my feet are starting to hurt again.

Jade: we’ll take a break here. let Jordan rest his feet. then, we’ll keep moving on.

Ava: well, I’m going out. I’ll be back in a few hours. You should stay here, maybe do some exploring.

Jade: what are you going to be doing out there?

Ava: that’s really not your concern. you’ve got your secrets, I’ve got mine.

Ava leaves the house.

Jade: hey, Jordan, would you like to explore this house a bit with me?

Jordan: does anybody live here?

Jade: not anymore. the people who used to live here locked everything, closed the shutters, and abandoned town.

Jordan: do you think they were afraid of it?

Jade: i think so.

Jordan: are you afraid of it?

Jade: of course not. there’s no reason to fear it. we’ve taken all the necessary precautions. it shouldn’t come anywhere near us.

Jordan: okay.

Jade: what do you say we spend some time looking around this house? maybe we’ll find something interesting.

Jordan: my feet are hurting too bad. I’ll stay here, but you can go exploring.

Jade gives him a hug and a kiss.

Jade: I’ll be back.

 

Chapter Four

after you’ve gone exploring, Ava returns.

Jade: well that was unbelievably quick.

Ava: I found what I needed.

Ava pulls out a flashlight.

Ava: I found this in one of these houses. we can use it to travel during the night.

Jade takes the flashlight and turns it on. It starts to dim.

Ava: i know the batteries are dying, but if we can find some more, then that won’t be a problem.

Jade turns to Jordan. he shakes his head, knowing what she is going to say.

Ava: come on, Jade, we have to at least try it. Jordan can’t travel more than an hour before his feet start hurting. i want to get out of this town, and if we can travel a Jordan bit at night too, we’d be out of here in half the time.

Jade: he’s seven years old, Ava. how much do you think he can travel?

Ava: listen, Jade, this could work. we just need to keep an eye out for more batteries or flashlights.

Jade: I’m not comfortable setting out tonight without at least replacing all of these old batteries.

Ava: it’s going to take at least five batteries, for this flashlight. why don’t you go out, explore some houses? maybe you’ll find something that I missed.

Jade slowly nods.

Jade: I’ll do it.

Ava: remember, don’t let them see you.

 

Chapter Five

it is nightfall.

Ava: did you get enough batteries?

Jade: all five of them.

Ava: great, let’s get going.

Jade: It’s going to be difficult, traveling out there in the dark. We won’t be able to tell where the CCC is. If it’s too difficult, we wait out the rest of the night indoors.

Ava: it sounds like a plan.

Jade sits with Jordan on the ground.

Jade: are you going to be okay, Jordan? I know how you feel about the dark.

Jordan: do you think the flashlights will give us enough light?

Jade: most definitely. but you have to stay close to me, so that we don’t get separated.

Jordan: Jade, I’m going to be afraid.

Jade: no you won’t. you’ll have the flashlight, and I’ll be right next to you.

Ava: are you almost ready? I’ll be waiting for you two outside.

Jade: there goes Ava again, always wanting to be on the move.

Jordan: is that why you don’t like her?

Jade: it’s not that I don’t like her…I guess I just don’t know her. She hasn’t been a part of our lives until the last few months. i don’t really know anything about her, except that our parents… never mind. let’s not get into that right now, okay?

Jordan: okay.

Jade stands up and helps Jordan.

Jade: remember, you’re going to be able to see. and stay close to me at all times.

Jordan: okay.

 

Chapter Six

they end up in a random house with no shutters.

Jade: we can’t go in there, Ava. we don’t know what’s going to be inside!

Ava: well, we can’t stay out here. and we didn’t find anymore batteries for the flashlight.

Jordan: Jade, I’m getting scared.

Jade: let’s go inside. but we have to be careful. if any of them are in there…

Ava: then let’s be careful.

explore the house a bit.

Ava: why do you think mom and dad moved out here? they’ve always been city dwellers. why come out to the middle of nowhere?

Jade: i don’t know.

Ava: so are you gonna tell me what happened?

Jade: to what?

Ava: to this town. why are the houses with shutters safe, and the ones without it have you on edge?

Jade: because the people who put up shutters left the town before the disease settled in. the ones without them thought they could fight it off.

Ava: but they were wrong?

Jade: I don’t know what happened to them, Ava. I don’t know if it reached them or not. but i know that it’s a possibility, which is why we need to continue checking to make sure this place is safe.

Ava: alright, whatever you say.

Jade: it wasn’t their fault, you know.

Ava: excuse me?

Jade: our parents didn’t do this. Don’t forget that they were killed because of this.

Ava: I haven’t forgotten.

the two grow silent, then continue exploring the house.

when you find some more batteries and bring it back to the main area, you find Jordan and Ava sleeping.

Jade: I guess it’s about time for a nap.

 

Chapter Seven

they are getting ready to travel again. Ava grabs a large stick to bring with them.

Jade: what is that for?

Ava: who knows what is lurking out there? we need to protect ourselves, just in case.

Jade: do whatever you want.

Ava: what do you have against me, Jade? why are you always against everything that I want to do?

Jade: I don’t have anything against you. I just want to know why you left us, and why you came back.

Ava: … I left for my own reasons. Things happened. Then Mom and Dad brought me back.

Jade: that’s it?

Ava: what more do you want, Jade? what else do you want to know? do you want to hear about how they kidnapped me, how they tortured me? How if it wasn’t for mom and dad, i would probably be dead in a ditch somewhere? would that satisfy your curiosity?

Jade: I want to know that I can trust you.

Ava: well, I guess you can’t know that, can you?

Ava grabs her stick and points to the door.

Ava: I’m ready to get moving. Are you?

 

Chapter Eight

they have reached the edge of town.

Jade: we’ve made it to the edge of town. Now, it’s into the forest.

Jordan: Jade, do we have enough batteries?

Jade: yes, we do, Jordan. we’ll be alright in there. I promise.

Jordan: okay.

Ava lets the boy walk ahead of them.

Ava: why are you telling him he’s going to be safe? we’re trying as hard as we can, but we don’t know for sure that they won’t find us and kill him.

Jade: before they died, mom and dad made me promise to take care of him. i held them in my arms, Ava, as they were dying, and that’s what they told me. “Keep him safe, Jade. Whatever you do, take good care of him.” I made them a promise, Ava. And even if I’ve never kept a single promise, I am going to keep that one.

Ava: you could just give them the code. then they would leave you alone, and you’d have kept your promise.

Jade: I already told you, Ava, he doesn’t remember the code. and I never knew it, either. so that isn’t an option. And, if I recall, you’re the one who told us that running away was our best bet. that you had somewhere we could stay where we could be safe.

Ava: and that’s true. I was just given you another choice.

Jade: stop asking about the code, Ava. he doesn’t remember it.

 

Chapter Nine

while traveling in the forest, they come across a large facility.

Ava: it’s getting dark.

Jade: what do you think this place is?

Jordan: Jade, I’m starting to get scared.

Jade: here, hold my hand.

Ava: let’s use this as our shelter for the night.

Jade: we don’t even know what it is. we can’t just go in there. what if it isn’t safe?

Ava: isn’t this your town? you claim to know everything about it, and you don’t know if this is safe or not? Well, I see shutters in those windows upstairs. Isn’t that the universal sign of a safe place to stay for the night?

Jade: I’ve never seen this place before, Ava. And I can’t just let us stay there if I don’t know what it is.

Jordan: Jade, it’s getting dark. I’m getting scared.

Jade: okay, Jordan. we’ll go inside. But we’ll have to be extremely careful. if any of them are inside…

Ava: it looks like it’ll be fine. Let’s give it a chance.

 

Chapter Ten

they are inside the place.

Jade: this place is huge.

Ava: why don’t you let me and Jordan rest here for a bit. you go exploring, see if you can find some batteries.

Jade: why does it seem like you’re always sending me on missions to collect the batteries that you talked us into using?

Ava: well, that’s because that’s exactly what’s happening. I’ll stay here with Jordan. you go on exploring this new place.

Jade: Jordan, I’ll be right back, okay?

Jordan: okay.

 

Chapter Eleven

Jade is exploring the place. she finds a whole bunch of information about a strange experiment, people turning into what appears to be zombies. there are lists of dead people, etc. then, she finds an office with weapons experiments. she finds a paper on the desk with information on it.

Jade: in 2005, two researchers dedicated their lives to finishing the NAME DEVICE, a weapon of unimaginable power. their goal was to finish it in fifteen years, and they would have, too. however, the NAME DEVICE was stolen by these very researchers a few months ago, and is no where to be found.

Jade: that’s strange. why would those people steal that device? and what kind of people create a device with unimaginable power?

Jade continues exploring the room, to find a door which leads to a hallway. there are two more rooms, with labels: Mr. Kelmor and Mrs. Kelmor offices.

revelation: her parents are the ones who stole the device.

Jade: what is this? why are my parents names on these doors? what’s going on here?

Jade enters the fathers room and finds information about the zombies, and a Jordan bit about why everyone left. there is an emergency exit at the back of his room. the door has been wedged open and the device above it smashed…it won’t make any noise when opened again.

Jade enters the mothers room and finds more information about the NAME DEVICE, and how it has the power isn’t harnessed, and it can cause a whole lot of problems. there is a note: we did it because we had no choice. how did they even know that we had it? and how could we have known she would be ungrateful? after all we’ve done for her, she still hates us. I will never understand Ava. I don’t think I was meant to.

Jade returns back to the camp with her siblings.

 

Chapter Twelve

Ava jumps up immediately.

Ava: Jade, there’s no time! this place, it’s run by the CC Corporation!

suddenly, all of the lights in the facility turn on. you can hear footsteps…the people are coming!

Jade: we have to go, now! Jordan, take my hand.

they proceed to run from the area. Ava stops and turns back.

Ava: my flashlight!

Jade: there’s no time!

Ava dashes and grabs it anyway. she runs back to where they are.

Ava: we have to find a way out of this place.

Jade: I think I might know a way. stay close.

 

scene fourteen

after you manage to break free from the facility without getting caught, and maybe even hurting some people along the way, you continue to run into the forest. by now, the sun is starting to rise, so you just keep running.

Jordan: please, Jade, can we stop? i can’t go much further.

Jade: yes, Jordan. come here.

she pulls him into a hug.

Jade: don’t worry, Jordan. I’m going to keep you safe.

Ava: Jade…

Jade stands up and pushes Ava.

Jade: you brought us there, Ava. you told us to go inside, that it might be safe. it’s the CC Corporation’s headquarters! You made us walk right into there!

Ava: how on earth could I have known, Jade?

Jade: that room we walked through, it belonged to dad.

Ava: dad? what are you –

Jade: don’t play dumb with me, Ava! mom wrote a note on her desk, in her office right next to it, saying that they’d stolen the device for you. Ava, you knew they worked for the CC Corporation, and you knew that this was their facility. why did you bring us inside?

Ava: you’re right, I knew that they were researchers with the Corporation. and i knew that they stole some device because it was the ransom my kidnappers demanded. but i did not know that this was their headquarters.

Jade: Ava, why didn’t you tell me?

Ava: and why didn’t you tell me? Jordan told me about the code, Jade. you told me that he wasn’t involved with the planning of it, but that was a lie.

Jade: Jordan, what did you do? i told you never to tell anyone. they told you to trust me, to listen to me. why didn’t you listen to them?

Jordan: i’m sorry, Jade. I didn’t think that it was bad for Ava to know. i’m sorry.

Ava: what’s the matter, Jade? You don’t trust me?

Jade: how can I? I don’t know a thing about you.

Ava: isn’t that I’m your Jade, that I’m trying to help you get out of here…isn’t that enough?

Jade: i don’t know, Ava. all i know is that we have to get out of here. the corporation is going to know we fled this way. they’re going to come after us.

 

Chapter Fourteen

they stop running now that they are out of the forest, and rest at what appears to be some sort of river.

Ava: you didn’t say anything about a river.

Jade: I didn’t remember a river.

Ava: I can’t believe this.

Jade: give me moment. get some water for Jordan while I try to figure this out.

Jade sets her pack down and looks around. Ava and Jordan head to the water.

Jade: I don’t remember this place. why don’t I remember there being a river after the forest? i’ve never been this far out, but I’ve seen maps…why is everything so different?

suddenly, there’s screaming. Jade rushes to the river and sees Ava fighting off someone. she sees someone else creeping toward Jordan, who is by the river.

Jade: Jordan, run!

 

Chapter Fifteen

after you fight off the two attackers, you run across the shallow river.

Jade: what happened back there, Ava?

Ava: what do you mean? did you not see for yourself? they waited until you moved away, and they attacked us.

Jade: you left Jordan exposed back there. he was almost taken by one of them.

Ava: i did the best I could, Jade.

Jade: you almost let them take him.

Ava: I didn’t make any promises to our parents, Jade, but I am still doing whatever I can to make sure that both of you are safe.

Jade: it’s all your fault for leading us into their headquarters.

Ava: I didn’t know it was their headquarters, Jade. when are you going to believe me?

Jade gets up and grabs Jordan.

Jade: we have to keep moving. the highway is on its way.

Ava: there’s just one problem, Jade. night is about to fall. we’ll have just enough light to reach the highway, but after that…

Jade: well, that’s your responsibility, isn’t it? I bring us to the highway, you take care of the rest. we’re going to keep moving forward.

Jordan: are we going to be alright, Jade?

Jade: yes, we will, Jordan. we’re almost out of here, and then Ava is going to take us somewhere safe.

Jordan grabs her hand.

Jordan: okay.

 

Chapter Sixteen

after some peril, they manage to make it to the highway. the batteries officially die, and night has only just started.

Jordan: Jade…

Jade: we’ve made it to the highway, Ava. now where are you taking us?

Ava: it’s just a Jordan ways away from here. i should have a car parked somewhere around here.

Jade: what?

Jordan: Jade…I’m getting scared.

Jade reaches into pack.

Jade: i have something I’ve been saving for you, Jordan.

she pulls out a candle and lights it.

Jade: that should give you some light, okay, Jordan?

Jordan: thank you, Jade.

Ava laughs.

Ava: this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. as if that Jordan light is going to help.

Jade: what are you talking about?

Ava: you don’t get it, do you? night has just started, Jade. you won’t be able to make it through the night. Jordan is going to lose his mind from fear of the darkness.

Jade: what is wrong with you, Ava? what’s going on?

Ava: Jordan told me about the code, Jade. he told me that there isn’t any code at all.

Jade: what do you mean? Ava –

Ava: there is no code, because he is the code. how do you not know this?

Jade: Jordan –

Ava: actually, i’m not surprised. you don’t know anything. you don’t know about our parents, you don’t know about me… you don’t know about anything.

Ava stands up.

Ava: i’m turning you in to them. they are going to take Jordan, and use him to activate DEVICE NAME, and they’re going to kill you.

Jade: what…why would you….why would you do this to us? why are you helping the corporation?

Ava: the corporation? they’ve been nothing but trouble since I got here. I’m not helping them. I’m helping the people who saved my life.

Jade: your life?

Ava: it was a great scheme, pretending to have been kidnapped, getting them to give DEVICE NAME to us as a ransom. all we need now is the code, which Jordan has so recklessly given away.

Jade: we’re not going to let you do this, Ava. we’re going to run away from you, we’re never going to let you take him. I’m never going to let you take him.

Ava: and what are you going to do? you can’t go anywhere! Jordan can’t be in the dark for more than ten seconds before he loses his mind. where are you going to go once that Jordan candle runs out?

Jade: how could you do this to me?

Ava: this isn’t about you, Jade. i needed you to get me to the highway. and you did that well. but for now, I need you and Jordan to stay here while i get the car. I hope our parents are proud of how well you’ve kept him alive. just in case you didn’t know, that part was my idea. I didn’t think you’d do such a good job at it.

Jade: your idea? did you do this to them? did you kill them?

Ava: I have nothing more to say to you. Wait here until I get back for you.

Ava leaves them.

Jordan: I’m sorry for telling Ava. I didn’t know…

Jade: I didn’t know either. But how did you know that you were the code? when did they tell you? I thought they said they would keep you out of it?

Jordan I don’t understand any of this, Jade. all I know is that they told me that i was the code. I don’t know what that means. do you know what that means?

Jade: we have to leave from here. we can’t stay here. Ava is coming back, and she’s going to take us to whoever it is that she’s working for.

Jordan: but I can’t go, Jade. It’s dark, and the candle is about to die.

Jade grabs Jordan by the shoulders.

Jade: Jordan, I know this is hard. but sometimes we have to do things that are hard. our parents asked me to do this, they asked me to take care of you, and I said that I would. but I was so afraid, Jordan. I was so afraid that i would lose you, that I would fail them. and I’m afraid right now, Jordan. I’m afraid because Ava turned on us, and I should have noticed something. I shouldn’t have trusted her. but I did, and now I’m scared.

Jordan: Jade…

Jade: Jordan, I’m scared, but we have to go. you’re scared, but we have to do this. mom and dad told you something, they told you to trust me. and i’m telling you that I will keep you safe. we will make it out of this. but we have to go out there.

Jordan: Jade, I can’t do it. I can’t go out there in the dark. If I go out in the dark, it will happen to me. I can’t let it happen to me!

Jade: nothing is going to happen to you, Jordan. I won’t let it happen to you. but we have to go out now. we have to leave before Ava gets back.

Jordan: Jade, the light’s going out! Jade, I’m so scared!

Jade pulls Jordan close to her.

Jade: I’m going to keep you safe, Jordan. I promised that I would. And I will.

Jordan hesitates and slowly hands her the candle.

Jordan: okay, Jade.

Jade stands up and grabs his hand. they walk together from that spot until the candle starts to flicker, then fades away.

the screen goes black.

Jordan: Jade. I’m scared.

Jade: so am I, Jordan. but it’s going to be okay.

Jordan…………okay………………

The end.

NaNoWriMo – 2011 (No Pain At All)

 

Chapter I

Red break lights cut across all four lanes as she pulled her green Ford Explorer onto the highway. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. There was no way she would make it there by daybreak, not if this traffic persisted. The merging lane was about to end, and she couldn’t find enough space for her truck to get in.

Natalie sighed and turned on the radio. Static filled her speakers, and she fumbled with the knobs to find a decent station. There was nothing. She had only recently installed a radio in here, but only used it to connect to her music player. In the rush to get out of the house, she hadn’t brought it with her, and now she was stuck listening to static. Natalie sighed again and turned the radio off.

Now it’s just me and my thoughts.

The GPS on the dash claimed it would only be seven more miles until Carline Island, but she knew she wouldn’t be there any time soon. Kenneth had warned her about traveling in the wee hours of the morning, but she had to take the chance. Getting to Livingston Manor was her highest priority.

I’m finally going to have some work!

The thought of it exhilarated her, and for a moment she forgot she was stuck in the middle of a gridlock zone. Ever since that fateful day a few months ago, she had sat in her apartment bored to death. Sure, it gave her a chance to spend some time with her friends, but it wasn’t the life she had intended to live. Being on the police force had made life exciting. Now, she was finally getting a chance to do something again.

This was the only reason she had agreed with Kenneth’s proposal to come back. Otherwise, she would never have stepped foot on Carline Island again. She had too good of a memory…one that was not so easy in letting go of the past. Her career had started here, and in some ways, it had ended here.

She didn’t want to think of it anymore.

Carline Island, her destination, had been a famous tourist spot in the early twentieth century. Just off the coast of Miami, Florida, it boasted beautiful hotels, beaches, and forests. Nothing quite like it had been experienced before, and after vacationing there, many people began settling in Southern Florida themselves. Massive fairs and carnivals were held there every summer, and the small business that owned the island had exploded with profits and even considered buying up some more islands further south.

Then came the 1950s and the revolutionary ideas of Walt Disney. The resort in California drew thousands of tourists, and Carline Island faced bankruptcy. 20 years later, another resort opened in Central Florida, finally crushing the poor company.

It was then that a wealthy young man by the name of Carline Livingston approached the company. His family had been the first to purchase a home on this island, and two generations had already grown up there. His parents loved the island so much they named their first son after it. Carline told them that he wanted to purchase the island from them at whatever price they named. An undisclosed amount was settled on, and Carline Island moved into the hands of the Livingstons.

Carline immediately set to work on the island, removing any trace of its carnival past, and transforming it to center around his home, Livingston Manor. All bridges connecting the island to the mainland were destroyed, except one, the largest, most elaborate and central one. Carline did not want intruders on his island, but he needed a way out for supplies. When his son took over, he rebuilt that bridge into a smaller and simpler wooden one.

That is the one that stood today. Although she prided herself in knowing much about the Livingston family, she learned most of the island’s history from a brief highlight in the local newspaper. Its young resident, Josiah Livingston, was getting married, and the paper wanted to celebrate the fact by giving a history lesson.

Natalie thoroughly enjoyed history. Without history, there was no understanding. Everyone is guided by the events that shape their past. There was none who knew this more than a detective. Natalie had solved many cases in which it was the criminal’s past – the actions that most overlooked because they occurred when he was still a teenager – it was those actions that turned him into the criminal he was today.

Of course, Natalie never liked thinking about her own past. It was too cloudy, filled with more regret than she cared to understand. There were so many things she wished she could have done differently…but there was no use dwelling on the past. Those events were long forgotten now, and even if it could get her nabbed for being a criminal, she didn’t want to think of them right now.

The green and white signs indicating her exit suddenly appeared to her right. She beamed.

Finally getting off of this highway!

It didn’t matter that the ride to Carline Island was another hour from the exit. She had left at 2 this morning, and she was already halfway there.

She cast a sidelong glance at the passenger seat. Her small red phone sat in the crevice where the seat ends and the back portion begins. Natalie reached for it, and then hesitated.

What am I going to say to him? She asked herself. The only person she wanted to call would never pick up. Kenneth was upset at her again, for reasons she could never understand.

If anyone has a right to be angry, it should be me, she thought to herself. He had never called her in the five years since she last saw him, and he calls last night, asking her to come to Livingston Manor.

“I have a job for you,” he says, all mysterious and excited. Then, he gets upset and hangs the phone up on her.

Natalie could not understand him. Not that she wanted to. They had worked together during that case a few years ago, and Natalie was grateful for his help. It had been her first case on the force, and the one reason she didn’t want to go back to Livingston Manor.

How did I get here again?

Natalie shook her head and picked up the phone. Scrolling down her contacts list, she stopped at a name, selected it, and raised the phone up to her ear. Cradling the phone between her cheek and shoulder, Natalie placed both hands on the steering wheel again. It was three in the morning, but he would be up anyway. She braced herself for his bitter and icy tone, or the possibility that he might not pick up at all.

What have I gotten myself into? (Chapter end)

 

Chapter T

THE WEATHER could not have been any worse. Kenneth stood leaning his forehead against the cold bedroom window, looking out the streaked glass at the muddy grounds beneath. From here, he had a clear view of the center courtyard, or what he called the Square. It was through the Square that you reached the main building of the manor, and it was also the only way to get to the manor’s “back-yard”.

Palm trees lined the Square, slapping their gargantuan fronds against each other and the side of the buildings as they swayed in the wind. The rain fell down at an angle, occasionally being brushed aside by the violent wind.

And I have to go out in all this. 

Kenneth never made a promise that he didn’t keep. He had always believed that being reliable was the only way to build trust, and that was the most important aspect of any relationship. The only problem was that Kenneth made far too many promises. He often wondered if his coworkers and family members purposely asked him to do things for them simply because they knew that once he said ‘yes’ it would actually get done.

Kenneth sighed. That was the only drawback to being reliable.

It had only been raining for an hour before daybreak, and already the grounds were nearly flooded. The Square was pushing a few inches, and Kenneth didn’t even want to think about the main gate. The estate was designed on an incline, with the Manor at the peak, which meant that all of the rain pooled around the main gate.

“Of course, it would be just my luck.” Kenneth knocked his head against the window pane. He had promised to pick up Natalie when she arrived, and she was due any minute now. She hadn’t spoken to him since yesterday, but he was sure she would get into contact with him soon.

The thought of her brought him to his cousin. Kenneth replayed the conversation he had with Josiah over again in his mind. The boy was going through something, and he wasn’t sure what it was. There had been rumors in the past of substance abuse, but when Kenneth confronted him, Josiah was, to say the least, offended.

“Did you think that everything my parents taught me, everything I know to be true for myself – did you think I would throw it away for the sake of an experiment? That I would stoop to such a low that I would find no end?”

“Josiah, I was just asking you to be sure. For some peace of mind on my part. Besides,” Kenneth added, “if you don’t have a problem, why do you need to be upset?”

That was before Kenneth’s discovery in the basement a few months ago. After that, everything changed for him.

A slight tapping at his door drew his attention. He turned.

“Yes, who is it?”

The door opened and one of the maids stepped into his room.

Kenneth smiled.

“Ah, Andrea. What news do you have for me?”

The young woman leaned on the doorpost. She was a small one, a little over five feet, with large brown eyes and her hair neatly pulled back into a bun. Her lips were slightly pouting, giving the appearance that she was trying to hold back a smile. She frequently busted into that very smile, showing off her perfectly white teeth. Kenneth could never understand how she got them to be so straight and white.

Andrea wore a simple black dress with lacy white cuffs and a white head band wrapped around her head – the classic young maid. She smiled then, baring her teeth in a way that made Kenneth’s smile even brighter.

“She called you back, Kenneth,” Andrea said sweetly, her voice a few octaves higher than he was used to hearing. Most of the women working here on the Manor were just that – women. Having a young girl around, even if she was 17, and had been here for a while, was still unnerving for him.

Kenneth asked:

“Well, what did she say?”

Andrea smiled mischievously.

“She has already made it across the bridge. She will be here in a few minutes.” Andrea stepped into the doorway. “You had better get on out there. She isn’t the type to be kept waiting.” With that, Andrea disappeared down the hall.

“The nerve of that girl!” Kenneth exclaimed aloud. He sighed. He was unsure which girl he was talking about, although it could have gone both ways. Natalie was certainly not one he would want to keep waiting.

Kenneth looked around his room. An unmade, twin size bed sat in the far left corner across from the door, running parallel against the wall. Along the back wall was a small couch which faced the room’s only window. It had no curtains, only white blinds, currently drawn all the way up. On the right side of the room was his built in bathroom, and a dresser drawer. The white oak desk, the only piece of furniture in this room that actually belonged to him, ran beside the right wall, next to the bathroom. Stacks of papers were strewn haphazardly across the desk, nearly covering the large laptop in the center. A small gray lamp rested on the table, as well as a few scattered crumbs that the maid had yet to take care of.

Kenneth had half a mind to call Andrea back and have her clean the mess. Of course, the mess was his own fault anyway, so he ignored the idea. He made his way over to the bathroom which also served as a makeshift closet. His bright yellow raincoat (yes, it was bright yellow – they didn’t seem to make them in many other colors) hung on the shower curtain pole.

He was on his way out the other night to fetch something for Josiah when the rain started to pour. It stopped almost as soon as he made it into the Square, but the jacket still got wet. Kenneth tried to remember what Josiah had wanted him to get, but for some reason he couldn’t.

Kenneth slipped the jacket over his white t-shirt and stepped back into his room. He was sure he looked like an overgrown bumble bee. He certainly felt like one. All he needed was a black stripe around the middle, some fake antennae sticking out of his head and a recently sharpened stinger hanging from his rear, and then the transformation would be complete.

Kenneth chuckled.

“These are the good days,” he said. “This is the calm before the storm.”

He hadn’t really meant it when he said it. After all, it was pouring down hard out there.  He was just being dramatic, and maybe a little sentimental. There was no way he could have known that this was, indeed, the calm before the storm. Even further still, he could not have known just how bad that storm would be.

Kenneth made his way into the hallway, and down the stairs, hoping no one would see him and laugh at his expense.

(Chapter end)

 

Chapter M

THE JOURNEY over the bridge was difficult. The old wooden bridge had seen better days, and Natalie wondered how anyone could stand traveling over it. The time she came to this island it had been by helicopter, and she left by boat. Both seemed like better options after what she had experienced. The panels of wood that made up the bridge ran horizontally, but they were raised at different elevations than the ones adjacent to them, which made the whole thing rather difficult.

The only good thing about the journey was that it had finally stopped raining. Several drain grates ran along the front of the gate, forming something similar to a moat.

“I guess that was where all the water went,” Natalie mused to herself. She leaned against the steering wheel and sighed. Kenneth was supposed to be here ten minutes ago. What was taking him so long?

The Manor was part of what newspapers called the Livingston Estate. The manor itself was at least thirty minutes by foot from the main gate, but only ten by car. Without authorization, however, there was no way for her to get in. David Livingston, the manor’s current owner, believed the only way to keep unwanted people out was to force its residents to go to the gate to let a guest in. If an obscure relative showed up at the gate, it was easier to ignore them and never make the trip to open the gate, than it would be if they rang the doorbell or knocked on the door.

Natalie considered calling again. Kenneth didn’t have a cellphone, though, so it would make no difference. She would only get in contact with a maid, who never seemed to stop smiling, even though Natalie couldn’t see her face. It annoyed her, for reasons she was still trying to understand. Being happy was something reserved for youth, and she was no longer a youth.

Although barely pushing twenty five, Natalie had already seen enough of life to consider herself beyond repair. She had seen, and done, far too many things to ever possess that innocence and naiveté that came with youthfulness. Her best friend Daria always argued with her on that point.

“The world isn’t black and white, darling,” she would say, her Southern drawl accentuating every syllable. Daria was a few years older than Natalie,  and slightly overweight with locks of black hair that tumbled onto her forehead and shoulders. Her skin was smooth and light, although that was most likely attributed to the massive amounts of makeup she applied to herself every day.

Daria would shake her head and place a hand on Natalie’s shoulder.

“You don’t really like yourself, do you, Natalie?”

Natalie never argued with her, but she didn’t really agree.

I’m alright with myself.  

Even she wasn’t convinced.

A rumble from the driveway caught her attention as a white and blue golf cart pulled up to the gate. A figure wrapped in bright yellow sat in the driver’s seat, not looking in her direction. The cart stopped and the person climbed out.

“You’re going to have to move your car back,” he said as he drew closer to the gate.

Natalie recognized him at once. She broke into a smile.

“Kenneth! My goodness, I haven’t seen you in ages! What in the world are you wearing?”

Kenneth grimaced.

“Oh, this old thing?” He choked out a nervous laugh. “I’ve had this for a while now, but every time I put it on to go into the rain,” he gestured at the sky, “it suddenly stops raining.”

 

Chapter A

THE RIDE across the wooden bridge was more than a little difficult. Each plank of wood that made up the bridge was stacked at various heights and angles, with some pieces lower than others. It was a wonder her tires didn’t blow out. Whoever was in charge of making sure the bridge was maintained was obviously not doing a very good job. As she neared the end of her journey, the bridge transitioned from wood to concrete, and that was indeed much smoother. The bridge led to a small dirt path, which cut through the forest for a mile.

Livingston Manor was suddenly in plain sight. Her mouth hung slightly open, even though she had seen this place before. The actual manor was off in the distance, but it was still beautiful. The lush landscape boasted rich greens and beautiful reds and yellows. Flowers popped up from bushes carved neatly in the garden, and the top of an elegant marble fountain was just visible above them. Behind all of this was the Manor itself, three stories high and painted in various shades of beige and light brown. The Manor was designed in the shape of an E, with the center stick missing.

Although it had been pouring when she started out from her home, there was not a cloud in sight. A large rainbow stretched into the sky, and it added to the feeling of calm and peace that surrounded her.

She parked her car in front of a large black gate. Its grooves were delicately crafted with swirls and exotic flowers. It stood about ten feet in the air, but only about five in length. A concrete wall, which rose seven feet in the air, ran from both ends of the gate, around the entire perimeter of the manor. It was painted a deep blue, which stood as a stark contrast to the rest of the light, tropical colored manor.

Natalie climbed out of her car and headed for the gate. She gave it a slight push, and then stopped herself. A few years ago, she remembered, the owner of the Manor, David Livingston, had made headlines with his new gate installation. As with every celebrity, there were a group of people dedicated to find every detail about the Livingston’s lives and report it online where there were still more groups of people that seemed to care. Although she paid little attention to whatever the tabloids had to say about them, as most of it was scandalous and entirely fictional, she did remember the controversy over the new gate David was installing.

Supposedly, it was unable to be opened from the outside, and it required someone coming all the way down from the house to manually unlock it and open it form the inside. Why that was so controversial, Natalie didn’t care to know. All she now knew was that she had to call the house and ask someone to come pick her up. The maid had assured her someone would be there for her when she arrived, but looking around, it was obvious that no one was here.

Natalie sighed. She considered getting out her phone and calling the maid again, but she didn’t want to keep bothering her. They were going to be spending quite a bit of time together any way, since Natalie was staying her for nearly a week.

I’m not one to sit around and stare at the scenery all day, she thought to herself. And besides, Kenneth mentioned some thing about a job, so that should keep her busy for a while…

Her train of thought wandered for a bit, until she heard the slight rumbling of an engine. She looked up, and in the near distance, passing between bushes and trees, was a small white golf cart. Its driver was dressed in a bright yellow raincoat, but she couldn’t see who it was from this far away. As the vehicle drew closer, however, recognition dawned upon her.

“Kenneth! My goodness, it has been ages since I’ve seen you!”

The golf cart slowed to a stop, and he shut off the engine. A sheepish, embarrassed grin played across his face as he made his way to the gate where she stood. Natalie smiled and looked him over.

A New Yorker by birth, Kenneth only had a slight hint of an accent left. His skin was light, and his eyes were small and blue. Straight black hair covered his forehead and the tops of his ears and ran down a little of his neck. His jaw was slightly bearded, although it was cut perfectly symmetrical to the other side of his face. Although she couldn’t really tell anything about his body from the ridiculous raincoat he wore, she already knew that he was would be lean and slightly muscular underneath it all. He had always been one for fitness and keeping himself in shape, and she knew that he wouldn’t have changed that anytime soon.

Kenneth stopped in front of her. She crossed her arms.

“What are you wearing?” She teased, and the sheepish grin came back.

“Oh this old thing?” He glanced down at himself. “Every time I put this on, it just suddenly stops raining, making me look like a fool.”

Natalie laughed. “Well, if it makes things any better, I don’t think you look like a fool.”

Kenneth looked away from her. She cleared her throat.

“So, can you get this gate open for me, so we can be on our way?”

Kenneth nodded.

“You are going to have to move your car back a little,” he said, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. “This gate is going to open quickly, and I don’t want your car getting destroyed.”

“No concern about me?” She joked. Kenneth gave her a severe look.

“Of course,” he said. “I would not want you to get hurt either.”

Natalie raised her eyebrows and headed for her car.

Note to self: stop joking around with Kenneth. Twice she had said some thing that was in the realm of funny, and even light hearted teasing, and twice he had responded negatively. She wondered what was going on with him.

Twisting the key in the ignition, her Explorer screamed to life. She switched the gears to reverse, and, leaning on the passenger seat, she brought the car a few dozen feet away from the gate.

Over at the gate, Kenneth gave her a thumbs up sign and did some thing to make the gate move. It took a full minute to open completely, and Natalie spent that minute staring at Kenneth.

They had worked together on a case several years ago, but that was not the first she had heard of him. In fact, when Kenneth first moved to Florida in the late 90s, his family moved into the house right next door to hers. They had not really known each other until high school, but even then, their paths never crossed. He was the popular athlete with all the girls and guys surrounding him. She was the nerd with all the other nerds preparing for a successful future. It was during college that they actually spent some time together.

Her first case as a detective brought her to Livingston Manor. It was here that she met Kenneth again, a few years after college. She was happy to see him, and they worked well together to solve the case. It was that case that vaulted her to national fame and put her on the fast track to success. Of course, things had happened, but she still remembered how vital a role Kenneth had played in solving that case. She often wondered if it was merely coincidence that kept bringing them together here at Livingston Manor, or if it was actually fate.

Natalie was not sure she believed in fate, though. How could a person being slaughtered in a most vicious and brutal way – how could that be fate? Oh, it was his destiny to die this way; this is why he was born. Natalie could never understand people who thought everything happened for a reason. She preferred to think that these bad things just happened – that the victim was just an unlucky soul who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, she knew that not all victims in criminal cases were entirely innocent. In fact, there were many times when she was glad for the person to have been murdered.

However, her sense of justice prevailed over all other feelings, and she worked as hard as she could to bring criminals behind bars. Even if there was a perfectly valid reason for the killer to have acted, as was the case with Adrian Gray, she still felt it her responsibility to bring justice. She thought about that case, and involuntarily shuddered. There were so many things about that case hat were wrong. She didn’t want to think about it right now.

How many things are there that you don’t want to think about, she asked herself. There were far too many more things than she could count. Maybe it was true, what they said about her.

Kenneth started waving, and it drew her away from her thoughts. As the days passed by, she realized that her thoughts were more dangerous than the criminals she worked hard to put behind bars. Even though she was a detective, she had been forced to patrol the streets and work regular police officer duty for a few years before her breakout case. Facing down gunshots and violent, resistant youths was nothing compared to the harsh words she spoke to herself.

Thoroughly convinced that she was messed up inside, Natalie welcomed the thought of some thing else. She started up her car and rambled through the gate, careful not to hit Kenneth’s little golf cart. She rolled down her window and stuck her head out.

“Where am I going with this?” She asked, calling out to Kenneth, who stood behind her watching the gate close. He turned around.

“I am going to take you in this gold cart,” he said. “You have to leave your car on the side over there,” he gestured to a small spot on the grass just off the main dirt road. Natalie gave him a look of disbelief.

“Why can I not bring my car all the way up to the Manor?” She asked. Kenneth shook his head.

“You have to keep your car down here that is what David wants. We don’t have cars near the manor because there is no place to put them. No garages were built, and David does not like to see them around.”

“So there is no valid reason for why a garage was not built up there?”

“Oh no, there is a reason,” Kenneth contested. “A few generations ago, there was a horrible accident in the garage, involving fumes and a dead man. Ever since then, cars have not been allowed near the manor, and neither have any garages been built.”

“But what about that golf cart you have there?” Natalie asked.

Kenneth laughed.

“This baby runs on two things: electricity and the sun. I don’t know how it works exactly, but it stays out back by the mail and trash bins, and we use it whenever we need to traverse the grounds.”

Natalie sighed. “All right, if you say this is fine.” She moved her car off the main road and shut it off. Reaching over to the bench in the back, she gathered her belongings, which included: a large, black purse filled with her cell phone, a few pens and some papers, as well as some personal items. She also had a small duffel bag with clothing and even more personal items, like tooth brushes and other hygienic products. She kept more than one tooth brush with her at all times: using a different on every day, as well as a few different tooth pastes and mouth washes as well. She didn’t want her teeth to get used to one particular product and build up an immunity to it. Natalie was unsure if that was scientifically grounded in any sense of the word, but she did it any way.

That was just one of her many quirks.

“Will my car be safe out here?” Natalie asked, climbing out of the driver’s seat and giving the door a hard push to ensure it closed all the way.

Kenneth laughed.

“Of course it will be safe,” he said, more out of disbelief than anything else. Natalie sighed and climbed into the golf cart. Kenneth sat down on the driver’s side and started its engine. They rode in the car silently, past the bushes, the fountains, the trees and the marble garden decorations.

They didn’t say a word as they made the ten minute journey to the manor, not speaking when they parked by the trash bins and mailbox. As Natalie gathered her belongings from the back seat of the golf cart and Kenneth shut it off, neither of them said a word.

For a person so used to conversing and making small talk to find information, Natalie was, strangely, all right with the silence. She knew she would have some trouble getting words out of Kenneth when the time came for it, but she was ready for the challenge.

 

Chapter K

KENNETH WAS more than upset. He was absolutely furious. The golf cart came to a complete halt and she climbed out to get her things from the back.

Why did I not say anything? He chastised himself for being the one to come and pick her up. He should have delegated that job to someone else, someone who would be able to carry on a normal conversation … His thoughts drifted.

“Where are we going from here?” Natalie called out from behind him. He turned around in his chair and leaned against the headrest. He forced a smile.

“Well, we have to get you inside and unpacked,” he began, “and also, there are a ton of people that have not seen you in a few years.”

Natalie laughed.

“They still want to see me?”

“Of course,” Kenneth said. He watched her as she pulled her bag from the back seat. She wore a pale blue blouse with a collared neck and turned in cuffs. Dark gray slacks coupled with navy blue heels completed her outfit. Her shoulder length dark brown hair was swept back and a significant chunk was tucked under her left ear, revealing a small studded earring perched at the top of her ear. Several strands fell across her forehead, slightly covering her thin eyebrows and light touch of eye shadow. Her lips were a dark red, and her nose, lightly pointed.

“What is it?” Natalie asked, coming over to the passenger side of the golf cart again. Kenneth blushed. He had been staring. He shook his head and climbed out of the driver’s seat.

“No, seriously, what is it?” Natalie pressed. She waited until he came over to her side and picked up her bags before continuing. “You know, I remember when you used to look at me that way all the time.”

Talk about presumptuous. Kenneth bit his tongue before responding to her in that fashion. He thought for a bit, and came up with a less controversial, and slightly made up answer.

“You look a little older, I guess.” He didn’t want to think about how she would take that.

“Come with me,” he said, gesturing toward the house with his head. “Let me show you to your room, and we can get you all settled in. Jennifer is preparing lunch for us and she claims it is going to be amazing.” Kenneth’s voice raised a few decibels with the last words as he imitated Jennifer’s voice.

Natalie laughed. Kenneth smiled to himself. All right, maybe things were not going as badly as they seemed before.

The golf cart was parked in the back of the manor, on the opposite end of the Square. Large green and blue garbage bins lined the side of the wall. At the end of the procession of six alternatively colored cans was a door leading into the kitchen. On the left side of the door was a metal mailbox, which had been painted white and tacked to the wall.

“Why such a small mailbox if so many people live here?” Natalie inquired.

“That box is only for David and Josiah,” he explained. “Every day of the week, a special team drops in from helicopter with their mail and delivers it back here. They also pick up the garbage every Saturday.” Kenneth shook his head. “They managed to work out a deal with the city somehow, but I don’t question it.”

“What about everyone else’s mail? Where do you receive any mail you might receive?”

“David encourages us to make as many transactions as possible on line, so we don’t have to worry about paper,” he began, “but there is a communal mailbox in the local post office that I was charged with going for every Wednesday and Saturday to collect everyone’s mail.”

“How do you do it with such a horrible bridge?” Natalie asked. “I could barely make it over there alive this morning.”

Kenneth glanced over at her.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said, shaking his head. “That bridge is being worked on this week, so they probably already started removing some pieces. I didn’t think they had started that yet, or I would have asked the local ferry to bring you over here.”

Natalie waved the suggestion away. “I made it here in one piece, so I am not going to complain any more.”

Kenneth nodded, and pushed open the door to the kitchen. It was an a rather large kitchen, with several refrigerators that ran along the back wall. An ‘L’ shaped counter cut into the center of the room, and a hexagon shaped wooden table lay on the inside of the counter area. Six chairs lined either side of the table, and there was just enough space for the workers and those seated at the table to move around comfortably. The door was at one end of the counter, while at the other there sat a large garbage receptacle.

The counter was cluttered with items you would expect to find in a kitchen: coffee mugs, bread boxes, recently sharpened knives and a rolling pin. A half eaten apple core rested on the countertop. Kenneth scooped it up quickly and dumped it into the light blue trash can.

Seated at the table was Annabelle and Jennifer, both of them taking a break from cooking duty. In front of them were aluminum containers, covered with foil, along with a few serving spoons and other utensils. They appeared to be almost ready for lunch.

Kenneth’s stomach grumbled, and the two of them turned around.

“Natalie?!” The high pitched squeal came from none other than Jennifer, and she was over the table and into Natalie’s arms in a few seconds. Kenneth emitted a nervous laugh. If she ever did anything similar to that to him, he would absolutely freak out. He was sure that anyone would, and looking at Natalie’s face, it was apparent that she was quite taken aback. She gave him a confused glance and placed her arms slowly across Jennifer’s back.

“Um, it is nice to see you,” she said slowly, and Jennifer pulled back. She was still smiling broadly.

“Wow, you look so beautiful, did you know that?” Jennifer gushed. Annabelle turned around and gave Natalie a nod and a big smile. Kenneth crossed his arms and gave a little cough. Natalie took the hint.

“I have to get going, Jennifer,” she said, “but I will speak with you more a little later, all right?”

Jennifer smiled again, but directed her gaze to Kenneth this time instead. Natalie glanced at him amusedly and he blushed.

Turning away he made his way to the other door which would lead him into the rest of the house.

“Come this way, Natalie,” he said. He didn’t want to turn around, because, once again, his face had turned beet red. When was he ever going to learn how to stop blushing? Was that not some thing that only girls did? Why was it that all he ever seemed to do was blush whenever he was embarrassed?

Inwardly he kicked himself. Why did Jennifer have to be so pretty but at the same time so not? He didn’t like her in the least bit, but she kept showering him with compliments and attention. Kenneth didn’t want to think any more about the troubles that came along with members of the opposite gender. He had spent most of his high school and college days immersed in that lifestyle, and he was ready now for a steady career and financial income.

Of course, he was spending his days scrubbing toilets and travelling for hours to go to town just to pick up some mail which no one read any way. But that didn’t mean that once he finally was able to support himself he would not leave the manor and make a better life for himself.

Please, Kenneth, he said to himself. You already tried leaving here once before, and look where that left you. Broken hearted and all alone in the world. What more could you ask for here?

Kenneth was starting to realize that he had more harsh things to say about himself than most others. But that was all right for him to do, because most people held their tongue when it came to criticizing him any way. He was always too close to the family to mess with, but not close enough to respect the same way. It frustrated him that his father didn’t choose to be raised as a Livingston. If only he had been part of this family, he would never have to worry about finances again. He would be able to accomplish his dreams without anyone telling him he was not good enough, or that he didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

He turned around. Natalie was following behind him as he made his way over to the main staircase. He furrowed his eyebrows.

“Do you think that if someone found the right career, that they would be happy then?”

She frowned, contemplating. He was used to seeing her act this way – whenever she stumbled across some thing she didn’t understand right away, the frown went up and she sunk into thinking mode. Natalie thought for a few seconds then spoke.

“I suppose,” she said, although she didn’t sound very convinced.

Kenneth nodded and turned away, continuing to lead her up the staircase and into her room.

He had not been convinced by her words either. But what did he expect? She was just a detective, and it was not as though she had all the answers.

“You know, I may have some answers,” she began as though she had read his very thoughts, “but I don’t know all of them.”

She spoke with such bitterness that it sent an involuntary shudder down Kenneth’s back.

 

Chapter E

“ALL RIGHT NOW, we’re ready to start.”

Jennifer clanged a fork against her glass, calling for quiet. The staff had gathered together for lunch – well, it was more like brunch, since no one had really eaten breakfast any way. They ate in the dining room, which was normal for Sunday afternoons. The servants were allowed to eat wherever they wanted, but just never when the Livingstons were eating. Only Kenneth occasionally was asked to join them for dinner. It had been a recent push by David to develop some sort of relationship with him, and having dinner with the family was just one of those outlets. Kenneth sat on the end of the table, with his back to the kitchen. All of the servants were gathered here, along with a few guests.

Seated across from him was Dennis Silverado. He was a taller man, with short black hair and steely blue eyes. Dennis was the Manor’s butler, and it was his job to carry out errands, answer doors, pull out chairs, and any other old fashioned functions of butlers in the United Kingdom. This was part of the Manor’s history – every new “master” hired a new staff team. If they were thoroughly satisfied with the ones they had, however, they were not entitled to fire them. However, it was pretty guaranteed that you would have a job as long as the one who hired you was still alive and in control of the household.

Only on one occasion had the staff been fired before the change of households, and that was under Kenneth’s grandfather, Marcus. The staff had been extremely critical of his grandmother, and didn’t like the fact that she was not of high financial standing like the other Livingston wives. To end their bickering and mutterings, Marcus gave them an ultimatum: stay here and live with the wife I chose, or leave and find some where else. Most of the staff chose to stay, but they continued to grumble and cause a difficult time for Marcus’ wife, so he was forced to fire them all and hire new people.

When David gained control of the Manor, he got rid of everyone his father put into place. The very first person he hired after that was Dennis Silverado. He had been impressed with Dennis’s resume: the man had been fired form his previous job as a butler because he was too “old fashioned” for the woman in charge. David was looking for someone just like that, and hired Dennis on the spot. Dennis had served the Manor faithfully for more than twenty years, as he had been hired before Josiah was born.

Kenneth didn’t really have much to do with Dennis, partially because of his stiff nature and inability to carry on a normal conversation. Sure, Kenneth said to himself these same things all the time, but that was only on certain occasions, and even then, he didn’t really believe it to be true. But Dennis on the other hand, needed a few books to teach him how to talk to people. Kenneth never really tried to get past that stumbling block, so he didn’t really know much about who Dennis was as a person.

Seated to Kenneth’s left was Natalie, and on his right was Jennifer. She had considered herself the leader of sorts during lunch time, mainly because she was the cook and Annabelle didn’t make appearances any more.

Next to her sat Andrea, the maid. Kenneth made a mental note to himself, reminding him to schedule some time to talk with that girl. She did little more than giggle and talk in a high pitched voice all the time, Kenneth as unsure what his cousin saw in her.

Moving down the line, Diana sat next to her. She was another one who had been here for several years, and yet Kenneth knew nothing about her. Diana seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around Dennis, though, that he was sure of, but other than that, he didn’t know anything else.

Seated across from her was a young man named Victor. Kenneth was unsure what his actual job was here at the Manor, but he knew that it had some thing to do with locks and doors. This, of course, was very unsettling for Kenneth, considering the fact that he always locked his bedroom door before he went to bed. He didn’t like to think that there could be someone else with the key to unlock his door after he had locked it. But Victor didn’t seem like a creepy kid, so Kenneth was not really worried about it.

The circle was almost complete with the final person seated at the table. Selena Last sat on Natalie’s left. Kenneth smiled when he looked at her. She had been one of his closest friends when he first came to the Manor a few years ago.

Selena used to work here at the Manor, but she left when she got engaged to be married five years ago. There was a whole going away party for her and everything, but then some thing happened to mess the celebration up. Selena went off to get married, and he had not heard from her since then. When Josiah announced his engagement to Andrea, he wanted to invite everyone who knew him, which was severely limited to those who had worked there in the past. Selena was the only one besides Natalie that Kenneth was able to get into contact with.

Selena had been more than excited. The first thing she wanted to know was his age. That was one of the first things everyone thought of when they heard the words “married” and “Josiah” in the same sentence.

“Josiah is getting married?” She gushed over the phone. Her voice held the same raspiness that he was used to from many years ago. “How old is he any way?” She had asked. Kenneth laughed and told her the details and even settled on her travelling arrangements. She would come here alone, on Saturday, the day before Natalie got here. Selena and her husband lived in Ohio some where, and she had little difficulty getting away for a few days.

Josiah wanted them all here until the day of his wedding, on Friday, and then they were free to leave if they wanted to. Selena would stay only until the wedding, as her tickets were set for that afternoon.

She had not said much since she got here, though, which disappointed Kenneth. He wanted to know a little more about her life outside of the Manor. They had been close enough friends to talk about some personal things with each other, and Kenneth had been one of the first people to know of her engagement to her husband, Scott. Of course, he had been the one to introduce her to the young postal worker, but even still, they had been close friends. He didn’t like how quiet she was being, even if it had been a few years since they last saw each other.

Everyone was eating now that Jennifer had sat down. Kenneth glanced down at his plate. He had subconsciously filled it with a scoop of eggs, some bread and assorted fruits. The meat portion of the meal would come out later, although it didn’t consist of anything too hearty or difficult to digest. Kenneth had seen a few chicken breasts in the oven when he and Natalie passed through there earlier. Here at the Manor, they were big on chicken.

David’s shipping company brought a week’s worth of various parts of the chicken to them every week. Kenneth absolutely loved chicken, and used it for everything whenever he cooked for himself. Of course, that didn’t happen often, seeing as they had the two best cooks in the world doing that already. Once again, his thoughts were drawn to Jennifer, and that bothered him.

“So what are you doing with yourself, Natalie?” Jennifer asked, nonchalantly. Kenneth threw her a glance.

You know full well what she does, he wanted to tell her. And that’s Detective Natalie to you.

“Well, I am sure you know this, but I am a Detective.” Natalie smiled and spooned some fruit into her mouth. After chewing and subsequently swallowing, she continued. “I don’t own my own agency or anything like that. I would consider myself a Homicide Detective in the State of Florida Police Department.”

“So you pretty much cover everything in Florida?” Victor chimed in from her left. She glanced over to him.

“Yeah, any homicide cases that come through, or anything that was related to a homicide. I am currently on the trail of a particular group that kills pretty much anyone who gets in their way, or threatens to turn them to the police.”

“Is it really dangerous, your job?” Dennis asked in his deep voice. He looked very much the naive school boy in this case, and Kenneth stifled a laugh. “I mean, do you come into contact with many dangerous criminals?”

“Of course,” she began, sitting straighter in her chair. “I have to face down life or death every time I go out to work.”

Kenneth looked over at Dennis. He didn’t seem as big and strong as before, but that didn’t surprise him. Kenneth had a feeling that there was a lot more about Dennis that he had yet to find out.

“So, when can I meet the lucky woman?” Natalie asked, her eyes sparkling in laughter. Everyone glanced at Andrea, and Natalie turned to her, smiling broadly. Kenneth grunted.

“Here I am,” she said, raising her hand in a half embarrassed wave.

“Whoa, you were seated next to me this whole time,” Natalie shook her head. She looked around at everyone. “You know, I am really glad to have come back here,” she said, nostalgically. “I have not been around this many people that I know in such a long time. When you are constantly dealing with criminals, you always have to crawl into their minds, and it gets lonely in there some times.” Natalie sighed and shook her head. The smile was back again.

Kenneth smiled as well. He liked having her here. But more than the fact that she was here for his cousin’s wedding. He knew that the real reason he was happy to see her was much more important than that.

He cleared his throat and placed his fork on his plate. He stood up and made his way over to the back of Natalie’s chair. He touched it.

“Are we ready to go now?” He asked her. She turned around and nodded. He pulled back her chair and she stood up.

“Josiah should be waiting for us in his office,” Kenneth said. He actually was not sure if Josiah was really there, but he needed to speak with him any way, so it didn’t matter if he was really there. Kenneth just needed to get her out of here before Josiah ran off or some thing like that.

The others stared the two of them down as they left the lunch table.

 

Chapter Q

THEY WALKED quietly down the hall. Kenneth loved walking down this particular hallway in silence. With the massive pictures hanging form the walls, the silence reminded him of just how small he really was. Once he started thinking about his own problems, they seemed to pale in the face of those large portraits. Everyone of them was a testament to the past generations that had gone through everything he had, and made it to their end fine.

Suddenly he was scared. Was that all there was to life? Meeting a desirable end? Making enough money to live out the rest of your days in a mansion? Kenneth was unsure if that was what he really wanted.

He considered asking Natalie about it, but held himself back. She was not some sort of theology master, he didn’t know why he always thought she would have the answers toe very thing.

Behind him, she cleared her throat.

“So what should I expect when I see him?” she asked. Kenneth turned to her and stopped walking. He shook his head.

They had reached the library, and were about to enter it. From here, Natalie looked so calm, almost as though she didn’t have a care in the world. She was merely curious as to the state of her young friend. Kenneth sighed.

“You will find that Josiah has changed significantly.” Those were the only words he could find at the moment.

“What do you mean, changed significantly?” Natalie crossed her arms. “I knew him when he was ten years old, and even then I would not say that I actually knew him. I knew more about him form everyone else, but what did you think I thought? That he would still be a little ten year old boy?”

“No,” Kenneth said, shaking his head. “I just wanted you to know that he is not your average teenaged boy. I am sorry, I meant to call him a young man. He always gets on my case for that.”

“What do you mean?” Natalie asked, genuine concern seeming to lace her voice. Kenneth looked at her.

“Josiah does not trust people,” he began plainly. He does not understand that not everyone in this world is out to get him.”

“So will he not trust me?” She asked, raising her eyebrows. “Is that what you are getting at?”

“No,” Kenneth said, shaking his head. “Look, you will just have to come inside here and see for yourself.”

Kenneth pushed open the library door, and they hurried inside. A strange smell filled his nostrils, and he made a face. It smelled almost like metal burning. That concerned him, especially since he was in a library, where the smell of anything burning was objectionable.

Kenneth knocked on Josiah’s office door. No reply. He looked behind him at Natalie, who was careful not to look him in the eye. Kenneth assumed she was thinking about what he had said about Josiah. There was a lot more truth in what he said than most people understood at first glance. Josiah was a complicated case, and Kenneth hurt for him. He wanted to do more to make the young man feel better about himself and the world, but it was so difficult when he didn’t want to open up and talk to anyone.

Kenneth knocked again, and this time, he heard a soft grunt from inside. Good, he thought to himself, Josiah is inside. He gave Natalie a quick glance, this time she was staring at him. He didn’t let it bother him and pushed open the door.

Josiah sat in his desk, poring over another set if yellow pages. It struck Kenneth as odd that he would be going through those same papers again. Kenneth cleared his throat, and Josiah looked up.

“Oh hello, he said, smiling up at Natalie. He stretched out his hand. “You should know that I am very glad to see you here.” Natalie shook his hand gingerly and sat down. Kenneth gave him a slight nod.

“So, how are things to your liking?” Josiah asked, folding his hands on the desk in front of him.

Natalie titled her head from left to right. “Things look pretty much the same here,” she began. “It has only been what, five years since I was last here?” Natalie leaned back in her chair. “I must say, though, that there is one major change to this household.” She pointed at Josiah.

“You have grown into quite the young man,” she said. Kenneth studied Josiah’s reaction. He smiled nervously and looked away.

Ah, Josiah. You are not used to such compliments, right?

“I have yet to meet this young woman whom you are marrying,” Natalie continued, “but I would very much be honored to do so.”

“You will meet her in due time,” Josiah said calmly. “I wanted to thank you again for coming here. Your presence those many years ago was instrumental to my survival -”

“Oh, Josiah, it was not that important -” Natalie interrupted. Josiah suddenly grew grave. His face contorted and Kenneth watched in silence on the sidelines as Josiah began slipping into that mode of his again. The smile erased from his eyes, Josiah was unable to react the same way that most others would in these situations. He looked away from her and cut back into the conversation.

“It meant a lot more to me. There were many things that happened back then that have helped shape me.” Josiah stood up from his chair. Kenneth could be silent no longer. He tried changing the subject, hoping his cousin would not get started on his troubles again.

“We were hoping to see the demolition together tomorrow,” Kenneth said, crossing his arms. It was not really his idea, more like Jennifer’s, but it would give them a chance to all be together before David came back. Josiah glanced at Kenneth.

“What demolition are you talking about?” Natalie chimed in. Kenneth turned to her.

“That is right, I mentioned it earlier, but I forgot to go into great detail.” He shook his head. “David has hired a rag tag group of construction workers to rebuild that wooden bridge of ours that connects us to the outside world. Quite frankly, you have seen the condition of our current bridge, so it should come to you as no surprise that we would like to have it fixed.”

“But why a complete demolition?” She asked, leaning forward. “Why not rebuild a portion at a time, thus allowing people to still travel over it as they so desire?”

Kenneth had not thought of that.

“The only reason that comes to mind, and granted, your reason is a valid one, is that David acts in strange manners. He does things that are unconventional at best, and no one can question him about it because he owns this place.”

“He owns more than just this place,” Josiah suddenly cut in. Kenneth sighed.

Not now, Josiah. Please, don’t get started on this subject again.

“What do you mean by that?” Natalie asked. She was slipping into investigative mode, he could tell. She was such an expert in the art of questioning and interrogation. She made it feel like there was nothing really to fear when answering her questions.

Josiah fell for the bait.

“He likes to think that he owns all of us in here, dictating where we can go, and who we can be with. It is not that we are able to act as we so desire.”

“But you are getting married, right? Is this marriage all right with your father David?”

“Of course it is all right,” Kenneth chimed in. he looked over at Josiah. The young man was not saying anything. He didn’t agree with the way Josiah was trying to paint his father, but he was not to easily blame everything on Josiah’s fractured state of mind. It would be easier to say that he was just not feeling good, that was why he said such strange things, but that would be sugar coating the problem. And there was nothing Kenneth didn’t like more than to sugar coat the problem.

“Josiah, are you all right?” Kenneth wished she would not ask. It was better for no one to know.

But is that not why you brought her here? Kenneth asked himself. Was it not out of concern for him that you asked her to help you out?

I guess I thought she would have all the answers.

Josiah sat back down. He was dressed in the same shirt as yesterday, and his hair was slightly more ruffled. He looked like he had not eaten in a few days, and he definitely didn’t get much sleep.

“I have always lived in this house,” he began somberly. He didn’t make eye contact with either of them. “There were many days when I wished nothing more than to leave this house hold and everything, everyone, in it. I was not brought up like other children in the world. As you can tell by the condition of the Manor, my father raised me in an old fashioned style of living, almost like the great olden days where people lived in large houses and had tons of servants. My father’s wish was to keep the tradition the same.

“But I was not content to live that way. I was allowed to watch the television only occasionally, and I saw a world that I didn’t understand. Technology is some thing that I have never fully been able to embrace. I saw you a few hours ago trying to use your phone – it is useless. Those kinds of things don’t work on this island. We have our own way of communicating with the outside world.”

Natalie leaned forward. “Let me guess – letters?”

“Yes,” Josiah said, nodding slowly. “If there is nothing better in the world, it is receiving a letter in the mail.”

“Josiah, I don’t mean to cut you off, but we have business to discuss.” Kenneth looked carefully at his cousin. Josiah was not eager to talk about this yet, Kenneth knew, but he had to move things along. There would only be a few more minutes of this discussion before Josiah would touch a nerve and then collapse into a pool of tears on the floor. And then, Kenneth would follow, and there was no way he was going to start crying in front of Natalie. That is to say, not again.

“Yes, yes, we do have some things to discuss,” he waved his hands, “but we are not ready to talk about them now.” He looked at Natalie. “There are a few things I need to take care of first before I let anyone get in here.” He tapped his forehead. Kenneth sighed and shook his head.

“Josiah, you don’t have to be so mysterious. We really care about you, Natalie and I, and we want help you in any way we can.”

“Kenneth, I already spoke to you about this before.” Josiah threw him a glance that said: no more discussion about this. He then turned to Natalie and offered her a pained smile.

“I appreciate you coming out here for my wedding, and I realize that Kenneth misled you into believing I had some sort of job for you to complete.” Josiah shook his head. “However, I don’t have anything to tell you right now, except for you to find the letters when I am gone. That is the only thing I can ask of you.”

Kenneth sat up, alarmed.

“When you are gone? Josiah, what is this kind of talk?” Kenneth and Natalie shared a glance, both thinking the same thing. Surely he cannot be thinking suicide? Josiah scrunched his mouth tightly.

“I mean what I say. I don’t have much more time left on this earth, I can feel it. But I have had a relatively good albeit difficult life. I want you all to know that I am at peace with the fact that I will die.”

“Josiah, I don’t want to hear you speak this way any more -”

“Please, Kenneth,” Josiah raised his hands. “There is nothing you can do to change this fact. We all will die one day, it is just that my day to die comes a lot sooner than most.”

“Josiah, has some one said they are going to kill you?” Natalie asked, the professional in her coming out. Kenneth turned on her.

“Are you suggesting that some one here might be trying to kill him? That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard!”

“I didn’t say that,” Natalie retorted. “There are other people in this world beside those who live in this Manor, Kenneth.” Her words were biting and hit their mark where they were supposed to. She was taking out some of her anger on him, he could tell. What she was angry at, though, he couldn’t be sure. But this was taking his focus away from the true crisis at hand – that is these strange remarks from his cousin Josiah.

“Is this some thing we should take as a threat to commit suicide? Should I call the doctor?”

Josiah waved their suggestions away. “Pardon me if I got carried away,” he said.

“Carried away?” Kenneth stood from his chair. This kid was really serious? He said all that and he didn’t even mean it? “Josiah, what is going on here, I need you to tell me. How can you go from one moment saying you are ready to die and at peace with the fact, and then you say you got carried away?”

Josiah said nothing. Kenneth resisted the urge to hit him over the head.

“Josiah, answer me!”

“I believe in justice.”

Those were his only words. Kenneth shook his head, resigned. He turned to Natalie. She was sitting there, staring at Josiah. He wondered what was going through her mind. What kind of people must she think they all were to allow him to get to such strange a state? Kenneth had his suspicions, and had spent many days trying to understand what was going on in his young cousin’s mind. If only there were some thing like a journal or whatever that he wrote his thoughts in. would even that provide enough insight into the young man’s mind? Kenneth was unsure.

“Natalie, I think it is time for the both of us to get a move on.” He didn’t know how that phrase came to mind, but it made him sound like some one from the late 1980s or early 90s. of course, he had been born then, and even lived many years in those time periods, but he considered himself a slightly dwarfed millennial. Sure, he didn’t know how to use the most modern technology, but he knew how to get on a computer and use the internet once in a while. He never really had a need for much beyond the four, or rather dozens, of walls in the Manor. He would very much like to change that, though, he told himself on many occasions. There was just some thing about being back in the world that appealed to him. He had been so long here in isolation, that he felt it was almost time to get back into the mix of things.

Natalie rose from her chair, scraping it along the wooden floor as she did so. Kenneth’s thoughts were brought back to the here and now. This was the only room in the entire house that didn’t have any carpeting, except for the kitchen and that was linoleum. When David had it built, he wanted the wooden flooring because he thought it added to the mysteriousness of the Manor. David was all about the aesthetics. In Kenneth’s opinion, he wanted some thing that would easily burn if it caught fire and continue to spread until it reached the library. Kenneth was unsure why he thought of this, but he got the vague impression that David was not so fond of books, and lit up whenever talk arrived of books and fire. It was slightly disturbing, but David was a good man with very few quirks, so Kenneth forgave him that.

“Kenneth, I want to go to my room, but first I want to ask Josiah a question.”

Kenneth nodded. It was not as though she really had to ask him permission. He was not her father or anything like that. But it was still nice to know that she respected his opinion and what she was going to do. She turned to Josiah.

“Did you mean what you said about believing in justice?”

Josiah looked at her curiously. “Yes, I did. Why do you ask?”

“Because I am a solemn believer in justice. In fact,” she said, reaching out to rest her hand on his desk, “I swore my life to bring justice to the law breakers and criminals in this world. Rest assured, my young friend, that I will do whatever it takes to bring justice to this world, because I too believe there is such a thing. Granted, I don’t have as much faith in our system as I should have, but I do believe that it works for the most part. I will make sure that justice is brought, wherever it may appear to be being overlooked.”

“Thank you, Detective,” he said, addressing her for the first time. Kenneth didn’t like how this conversation was going. Natalie was just fanning the flames and feeding his internal fire. She was giving him some thing more to imagine, and he didn’t appreciate it. It was one thing to suggest that the young man’s life might be in danger from himself, but another all together to start this talk of justice, almost as though some one was actually going to do some harm to him.

“Josiah, thank you for your time,” Kenneth said, lips pulled into a tight grin. He couldn’t give any more, mainly because he felt there was little happiness left inside to show.

“Kenneth, you know I am always delighted to see you. And Detective Natalie, you don’t know how happy it makes me to see you.”

Suddenly, Josiah was all smiles again. He stood up, crossed form behind his desk and wrapped Natalie in a hug. She didn’t look confused or frightened by it like she had with Jennifer and Kenneth liked that.

Josiah next came over to his cousin.

What are you thinking? Kenneth wondered. There was little way he could actually get Josiah to respond to him with real feelings. Josiah was such a drama queen, or rather a drama king. He liked to act, even if it gave him a little attention. Kenneth didn’t like that about his cousin, but he had to remind himself that Josiah was, after all, still only a young boy. He had a lot more learning to do, and much more maturing to do as well.

Which was why Kenneth so disagreed with him getting married so young, Josiah didn’t have much of what it took to take care of himself, how did he expect to be able to provide for a wife?

It was useless thinking about this now. Josiah was reaching out to him, trying to get him into an embrace. Kenneth obliged him, but he was surprised by what happened next.

Josiah clings to him, like a child to its mother’s leg, afraid to let go and go tumbling to the ground. The embrace was more than a fleeting expression of ‘glad to see you’ or even ‘I love you’.

As Josiah clung to Kenneth’s body, he reached up and rubbed the back of the young man’s head. His embrace was more akin to an ‘I need you’ embrace, and Kenneth was afraid that if he let Josiah go, there would be no way to protect him.

Protect him from what? Kenneth asked himself. How can I protect him from the demons inside his head if I don’t even know what they are or if they even exist? How can I know if he is just playing around or if he is truly serious when he talks about death and justice and being all right if it is his time?

The two of them left the office, but Kenneth couldn’t move further. He shut the door behind Natalie and leaned against the wall. She stood quietly beside him, not saying anything. He was grateful for his silence, yet again in the same day. He ran a hand through his hair, brushing it back from his forehead as he did so. It quickly fell back into place. It had become a habit of his, so he didn’t care that his actions were really useless. He turned to her.

“Now do you see what I have to deal with?” it was more of a rhetorical question than anything else. “It is always so hard to go in and speak with him because his mind,” Kenneth raised his hand, his fingers curled as though they were grabbing onto some thing invisible. “Because his mind is so messed up. I cannot understand anything that goes on in there, and quite frankly, I am scared.”

There. He said it. He was scared. Scared of the way his cousin was talking. Scared to think that he was losing his mind. Scared to think he might lose his cousin. Scared to think that he might slip back into depression.

Where did that come from? The last bit was a bout himself, and he didn’t even realize it. True, Kenneth was afraid of going back there. Images of him lying on the floor next to his bed early in the morning came flashing back. Holding his mother’s blanket in his hand, long after everyone else in his family had moved on, he was still holding on. His father had chastised him and told him he needed to start living again, but Kenneth would not have it. Some how, it gave him strength to wallow in his weakness. It made no sense, but that was how he felt now.

Kenneth felt entirely out of control and powerless. Weak. Those were the only words to describe himself right now, and he loathed it. Why did this always happen when he came into contact with his cousin? He loved his cousin. They had had so many good times together. They had grown up here in the Manor. Kenneth had learned most of what he knew about himself while he was here, and even though he didn’t know as much about the real world, he knew a lot about people and the way they acted. He knew that Josiah was reacting negatively to some thing, and Kenneth wanted to take that away from him. He wanted to make everything better, but he didn’t know how. And that was how he came back to feeling weak and powerless.

“I feel like I am about to throw a pity party with Josiah in there,” Kenneth choked out. He could feel the tightening of the throat as he spoke, and he knew it was all down hill from here. Natalie was at his side in an instant. She touched his arm.

“What Josiah is going through, there is little you can do yourself. Most of that is in his mind, so I don’t want you to think that you are some how responsible for it, or that you must find a way to make everything right. Those things com with time.”

“How do you know all of this?” Kenneth asked. Tears were beginning to stream down, so he kept his face turned away from her. He knew she could still see them any way, but he had to try some thing.
“I didn’t expect to come here and find you all like this, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. I want to help you, I really do. So if there is anything I can do, please, let me know. I consider you to be my friend, even if you are angry with me, so I want you to know that you can tell me what is bothering you and I won’t judge you or hold it against you later on.”

Kenneth choked out a laugh. Why would I be mad at you? What was there possibly to be mad at?

But all of this was too much for Kenneth, and he didn’t want to wallow in this any more.

“Would you like me to show you to your room again?” Kenneth offered. He was unsure of how that sounded, coming from a half crying full grown man. Natalie smiled and nodded her head.

“I would like that,” she said.

Kenneth was unsure why she thought he was mad at her, seeing that they had not seen each other in years, and they had been such good friends back then. He often wondered if…he didn’t allow his thoughts to travel into those uncharted waters. Many a day had been wasted day dreaming on crushes when he was younger, on girls that talked to him but were not really interested. It was strange, he had been such a ladies man and a flirtatious character when he was a teen, but he never seemed to be able to get the girl that he wanted. When he lost some of that character when he went to college, it had bothered him even more. He often felt that when he did find a woman that was right for him, it was going to happen in some sort of unconventional way and he would be able to tell the story to his grand children one day, just like his grand mother told him hers.

Kenneth walked with Natalie to her room, not talking, but once again, he was all right with it. It seemed that there was some sort of bonding going on in the silence, if that even made any sense at all. Kenneth was glad that Natalie was back here again, even if only for a little while. At least they would have a chance to become friends again. After what happened when she left the first time, Kenneth was unsure she would even consider herself to be a friend of his.

I guess that is what she means when she says she thought I was angry with her. She thinks that I am still holding on to that case.

Kenneth was all right with letting things go. He just wanted to help others, which was why it hurt him that he couldn’t help Josiah. Natalie entered her room, without saying so much as a good bye. But Kenneth was all right with that, again. He only wanted to make sure that Josiah was going to be all right. If that meant he was going to hurt himself, Kenneth vowed he would be there to keep anything like that from happening.

Of course, there was no way he could know how terribly wrong things were going to go from here, and how he would be unable to help anyone, regardless of Josiah. Fate had its way of coming around at you like that.

 

Chapter R

DINNER WAS in a few more minutes. It may seem like all I ever think about is food, and you would be only partially right in assuming that. Most of my days were spent scrubbing toilets and fixing clogged sinks, so it is sort of strange that I would want to even think of food in association with those images. But there has always been this underlying desire for food I guess in full grown men, so I am excused.

I sat in my bedroom, waiting. Waiting for the call down to come for dinner. Waiting for someone to explain to me what life was about. The last one was wishful thinking. I often wondered what the purpose of life was, but never really cared enough to find out what other people thought of it. I guess, if other people had more of an opinion than I did, maybe they were closer to the truth.

My stomach rumbled. Dinner needed to get here soon.

The meeting with Josiah earlier today still bothered me. I didn’t like to think that he might try to hurt himself, but this was not the first time we had heard some thing like this, so I was unsure whether or not to take it seriously. I wanted to believe him when the threat was real, but how would I know when it was real?

Questions plagued my mind. I decided to head over to my desk. Maybe there would be some thing there to take my mind away from my troubles. It made me feel like a wimp, searching for distractions, but I sure needed it. The desk was covered in papers, and I rummaged through them to find some thing interesting. A few folded newspapers from weeks ago were thrown to the floor. I used to care a lot about what was going on in the world, so I would always pick up a newspaper or two when I went into town every week. The feeling of joy that came with opening a fresh paper, reading article after article of a world I had not experienced, that quickly faded as the years wore on. It was out of habit that I still picked one up when I went into town, but they did little more than line the floor by my desk nowadays. I didn’t have much interest in the world outside. There was no way it came into contact with me, and I didn’t come into contact with it. I kept to my personal affairs and dreamt about leaving the island, while everyone else in the world kept to their affairs and were already off the island.

Thus was my menial existence. I was glad to have a change of pace around the manor: two guests, plus a recently engaged couple always made things exciting. Call me an old romantic, but I liked the idea of two people falling in love and making the best of their lives together. Granted, I didn’t like the idea of these two people in particular getting married, but even still, it made for more interesting table side conversation. When David was not here, they all ate together, Nicole and Josiah included, and they felt like a real family then.

I thought of Nicole. I had not seen her in a few days, and I kicked myself for that. She had been sort of a mother to me here in the Manor, and even though she was only my aunt through marriage, I felt her close enough to be blood related. It pained me to go up there and see her though. Her room was more hospital room than anything else, and it unnerved me to go in there. The pain from my mother’s death was still too fresh. Going in there would reopen the wound again, and there was no way I could be of any service to Nicole then. Reduced to a shivering pile of weeping flesh on the floor, what good could I possibly provide to her? What sense of comfort and acceptance could she glean form that image? I knew there was absolutely none, so for now, until I got myself together, I would have to stay away from there.

When David gets back, though I will go in there, I told myself. There was no one she wanted to see more than David, so I figured I could go in then, hopefully I could keep myself together.

The dinner bell sounded, however so softly. I had already been trained, like Pavlov’s dog, so I knew exactly when to start getting hungry and salivating. I bolted form the room like an impatient five year old, ignoring the others exiting their rooms slowly as the slight bell reached their ears. I was determined to be the first one into the kitchen, even though it mattered little. We followed a policy here at the Manor, at least among the servants, that no one ate until all were seated at the table. Except Annabelle. She didn’t eat with them any more. She blamed it on her aging and sagging flesh, but I didn’t think they were a problem. I liked Annabelle, and she was a grand motherly figure to all of the servants here at the Manor, including myself. It seemed that the older ones at the Manor, Annabelle, Nicole and David filled all the roles a child wanted to have placed over them, and ones that I never could see filled. Maybe that was why I had so much trouble dealing with things. I wanted so badly to go back and do growing up all over again, but it was not as though my growing up had been all that bad. I guess, in isolation, there are a lot of things you make up, partially because you are so bored, you have to do that in order to survive.

The dining room was empty of people, except for Annabelle and Jennifer, who busily filled glass containers with water, and set dishes in their proper order around the table. Neither of them noticed me as I slipped over to the fireplace on the left. There had been a huge debate over whether to use the fire place, or to rely solely on the central heating systems put in place a few dozen years ago. I personally loved to use fireplaces. It lent further to the feel of the Manor as an old fashioned estate, straight out of Victorian novels like Jane Eyre or equally grand stories.

I had only read that book once, but its content stuck with me. Maybe because I had expected it to be dry and old fashioned. Granted, I had read the abridged version, but the simple story of two ordinary, plain, broken people falling in love with each other made a huge impact on me. Once again, you can call me an old romantic, but I liked that kind of stuff. Of course, that was not some thing I would readily tell others, but it was true none the less. I liked people to think that I was a manly man, that I still liked the outdoors and sports and chasing after women, or rather, having them chase after me. I used to be that way, but I found myself repulsed by chasing after women, since it was mostly the women who chased after me nowadays.

Jennifer was the prime example. She stopped what she was doing and let out a soft gasp as she saw me. I tried to pretend I had not noticed her notice me, but there was no faking it. She went about her business, but I could tell she was slightly flustered by the many times she clanged the utensils against the plates. Jennifer was usually very careful, but not when she was nervous.

I felt bad for her. At first, the attention she gave me was flattering, but after a while it grew into pure embarrassing. I didn’t like the looks she gave me, but it did make me feel good to think she was flustered in my presence. I smiled to myself as others filed into the room.

Dennis and Diana were the first inside. They laughed together at an inside joke and found their seats at the table. Annabelle cast them a knowing glance. I wondered if there was more to the two of them than most people assumed at first. Could they be soft on each other? I didn’t want to think of that right now. Hunger was calling and nature was just beginning to strike. His stomach rumbled yet another time and he made his way over to the table.

Natalie came in next, Andrea and Josiah at her side. Josiah’s eyes looked sad, but he smiled any way. Natalie cast a partial glance my way and I nodded in return. She was occupied in a deep discussion, it seemed, with Andrea, and I respected her decision not to talk to me.

They sat next to me and continued their conversation.

“There are some times when I think they apply too much and it makes everything look unnatural,” Andrea was saying. Natalie nodded appreciatively.

“Yes, I understand what you mean. There always has to be this kind of balance, otherwise, it will come out looking like a zoo animal that discovered face paint.”

They had to have been talking about makeup. Only someone with my powers of observation could have figured that out. I knew it was no real topic for me to get in on, although I had engaged in many my share of makeup conversations, many more than I cared to recall. Josiah sat uncomfortably on Andrea’s side and he looked over at me.

I smiled at him knowingly. He didn’t seem to know at all what they were saying, and it was thoroughly amusing. Everyone was here, so I reached over and started filling my plate.

The menu was freshly mashed potatoes and beef stew. Gravy had been whipped together, and the delicious aroma hung in the air. A container of cranberry sauce – actual cranberries mashed into a sauce, not the canned variety – sat in the middle of the table next to the pot of beef stew. A plate of corn on the cob sat next to a tub of butter and table salt dispensers. Drinks at dinner were limited to water and ice, although I never considered ice to be a drink. The Livingstons didn’t believe in getting drunk during meal times, not that they really believed in getting drunk at all, but especially not when everyone was gathered for dinner.

David was known for occasionally drinking once in a while, but the only one that seemed to ever get drunk was Dennis, and that was only a few times. It had been Christmas, and Dennis was feeling a little too holiday spirit and he drank at least four beers, plus more alcoholic beverages whipped together with eggnog and other holiday drinks. They had all been having a good time, except for me, of course. I had never touched anything alcoholic, but I guess I still had a good time any way. On e didn’t always need alcohol to have a good time, I knew this for a fact.

Any way, the supply of alcohol on the island was limited any way, so it didn’t really matter how much of a good time it brought on – once it was done, it was done and everyone had to drink water if they wanted to drink anything at all.

The smell of the beef stew marinated in the gravy sauce caused me to salivate, even though I was already in the process of eating. I kept all of the side dishes separate, but poured the gravy, beef stew and cranberry sauce straight onto the mashed potatoes. I used to mix them together, but the result was an oddly colored creamy mixture, and it grossed many people out. I didn’t want to see people gag over my food, so it was easy to pour it all together and leave it unmixed. The collection of colors still weirded people out, but I was hoping today they would be too hungry to pay much mind.

“So what do you all do around here for fun after dark?” Natalie asked. I was surprised by the straightforwardness of her question. I didn’t think she was one for having  a lot of fun, especially since she was now a detective, and they had to be hard if they wanted to stand up to criminals. At least, that was what my ignorant mind thought of them. I am sure they have some sort of life, even if there is no way I cold imagine Natalie going to a party and dancing or anything liker that. Of course, I couldn’t imagine myself doing any of those things either, so it didn’t really matter much.

“We usually get together in the living room to play some cards,” Diana chimed in.

“Oh, that would be fun,” Selena said, swallowing a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “That is sort of what we used to do back when I was here on Friday nights. When you were still just a kid,” she said, gesturing to Josiah, “you always wanted us to make Friday night, game night, and I would have to recruit as many of you as I could to play some games with the two of us.”

Everyone laughed. I remembered those days. She always had a monopoly board or life I think it was, and she would bribe us all to come play with her.

“Please, it will only be for an hour,” she said to me once so many years ago, grabbing onto my arm. I had wanted to place a call to my father that day – we had not talked in many months. But I decided, with much pleading, and even a promise that she would help me get the mail that week, to go play with her and Josiah. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had. I didn’t think I could have so much fun playing a simple board game, but I did that day. I think it was then that Josiah and I started getting closer to each other.

“Yeah, I remember those days,” Josiah said. He was smiling, which automatically made me feel happy. I wanted him to feel better than he did this morning, and I knew that being around other people would help bring about that change.

“Are you all going to be there tonight?” Natalie asked, finishing off her corn on the cob. Everything she did was clean and perfect, every bite calculated to leave not one smudge on her face or teeth. I liked that – cleanliness. Most people I knew had such trouble eating a piece of corn without getting anything on their faces, and a new feeling of admiration for Natalie swept over me.

It made me feel really dumb.

“Well, I can only stay until 11,” Josiah said, crossing his arms. “You don’t know this I am sure, but every night at eleven o’clock, I go outside for a little walk. It helps me clear me head.”

“You go by yourself?” Natalie was not playing. She was the no nonsense type that would ask those kinds of questions.

“Yeah, I go by myself. I like to be alone to think.”

I knew where she was going with this before she looked at me and gave me that pleading glance. Of course I will go with him tonight, I responded to her mentally. Turning to Josiah, I put down my fork   – food and I were done, and I would not even think about anything to eat again until tomorrow when I got hungry – and raised my hand above the table.

“I will go with you tonight, I think.” He started to object, but I shook my head. “No, there is no getting out of it, Josiah, you and I are going to spend some time together. There are a few things we need to talk about before,” I glanced halfway at Andrea. Josiah smiled, embarrassed.

Good, I thought. At least he was getting embarrassed. I didn’t know what he thought I meant by that, but it kept him smiling. Josiah looked at me with a sad smile on his face, and I felt like an old man – one who gets the younger kids to look at him with their faces like, you are the craziest person I have ever known, but I still love you any way. I some times thought of myself as strange, but very rarely. I often thought of myself as a relatively friendly person, although some might object to that, I didn’t purposely try to make enemies. Those people that I didn’t like, knew right from the beginning that I didn’t like them. There was no love lost between me and anyone, that was for sure.

Except Jennifer. The voice nagged at the back of my head, but I pushed it away. That didn’t count, I reminded myself. There was nothing I had done to indicate that I had any feelings for her, so it was not my fault that she fawned over me.

“Kenneth, can I speak to you for a bit, when you are finished?” Natalie asked, reaching over and laying a hand on my left arm. I looked down at it. Her fingers were white, although one finger in particular had a small sliver of ultra white skin. I pulled my arm away from her slowly so as not to offend her too much.

“I am finished now,” I said, scraping the chair back noisily. The others didn’t seem to notice. Natalie stood up as well, and without looking at me, she led the way out of the dining room.

(Later)

We stopped in the living room.

The entire room was decorated with creepy fat cherubim, holding arrows and scrolls in their hand as they flew in their marble place. The color scheme of the room was the same dark blues, dark greens silk curtains and velvet cushions. The room held a few couches, a love seat, and a large table with a few more pulled up beside it. That was where we played cards every other night, when enough people could be roped in to join in.

The new season of Tres Leches, a horror series, had started last week, and everyone seemed obsessed with it. I personally loved horror movies, but the television series’ were all for the cheap scares and fake graphics. If I wanted to be scared, I went to the Hollywood blockbusters and watched them in the dark. I was not one for the cheap indie films that everyone thought was so scary.

But here was my mind, wandering again. I looked over at Natalie. She was still dressed in the same clothing as this morning, so I assumed she was still getting used to everything here. She sat uncomfortably in one of the couches, so I parked myself in the one opposite her.

“So,” I began, resting my hands on my knees. “What did you want to talk with me about?”

“Nothing specifically,” she said, turning to me. “I just wanted to talk for a bit, seeing as how we haven’t done so in so many years.” She smiled sheepishly, and I was compelled to do the same.

“How has everything been for you since then?” I asked. She had given a little information to Jennifer earlier, but I wondered if she would say anything different when it was just the two of us.

“Well, it has been going pretty well for now,” Natalie crossed her arms. “I have been doing some pretty hard cases lately.”

“What is the most recent case you are working on?”

“I am currently on the trail of this drug ring,” she began cautiously. “We have been after them for a few months now, and I am starting to get discouraged.”

“Why is that?” I prodded. She looked away.

“Well, for starters, we have not been able to find much about them, except that they operate with a few shipping companies here in the US.”

“So they are a largely international ring?”

“Yes,” she acknowledged. “A few weeks ago, we managed to find one of their warehouses, but,” she suddenly grew quiet. I knew there was no need to press on, so I switched the subject. I didn’t want to reopen a wound when she was not ready to speak of it.

“How is your friend, what was his name, Jim, I think?”

I knew full well what his name was, but, of course, no one could know that.

“Joe.” Natalie said the word quietly and without much feeling. This time, I had to restrain myself from reopening the wound. It was one I felt that I had a right to open, but I couldn’t do that to poor Natalie. She looked scared suddenly, and lost. I felt bad for her. I usually held her in such high regards, that it was hard to see her not have all the answers. I wanted to help her out of this, so I figured the best way to do so would be to change the subject. Again.

“And Dana, your cousin. How is she doing, is she doing all right?”

Dana and I had known each other in high school – she was one of the type who hung around me for my looks, and I never gave her much of a second glance because she was not my type of girl, too overweight for my liking at the time – all of it terribly shallow stuff, now that I thought of it. I often wondered about all the people I didn’t care about when I was younger   because they didn’t look the part that I liked. If I could go back and change that, I am so sure that would be the first thing I made better.

“Dana, she’s doing pretty well. She got a job in one of the old newspaper agencies, she spends all of her days typing up old papers to put into the archives and online databases. She was the one who initiated that, you know.”

I didn’t know, but it was best to keep her talking. She suddenly sat straighter, as though the conversation from earlier didn’t happen.

“So what about you, Kenneth? How has life been treating you, my friend?”

I sighed. “Well, I am afraid it’s not a very long or interesting story. I live here, I work here, and these people are my life. I have brothers and sisters here, even though a few of them are rather young, and ones like Josiah are hard headed and terrifying at times.” I chuckled. “I don’t have a girlfriend, in fact, I have not had one since -”

I stopped myself. No need to get into that right now.

“Other than that, I think life is dealing me a fair hand. Maybe not a winning hand, but it is fair to say the least.”

Natalie smiled at him and gave a small chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I often feel the same way, when I get to see the criminals I chase after every day locked safely behind bars. It makes me feel like justice has been served. Even though these people were terrible all of their lives, in the end, justice was served, so it makes it fair in the end.”

“You chase criminals often?” I asked, tilting my head. “I thought you were a detective, one they called out only on special occasions, like Colombo or some thing like that. Why do I hear you talking about chasing criminals?”

“My job extends to more than just solving crimes. I have to be out there on the street because if not, how do you think I will be able to solve those crimes? I have to run the streets, otherwise some one else will do it for me, and I won’t be able to be at the top of my game.”

“So what is the top of the game for detectives?” I put in. “Being known throughout the world as like the next Poirot or some thing?” I put on a fake French accent.

“Hullo, my name ees Natahlie Cahmbell. Mon Cheri something or other.”

Natalie burst into laughter, and I followed suit. It was good to laugh together like this. We had been such good friends then, it hurt me when I thought of how fractured our relationship was now.

“Thank you for coming down here,” I said, quite unlike myself. I was surprised by the words, but they were how I truly felt.

Natalie looked at me fondly. “Thank you for having me. I have been enjoying myself, getting to know all of you again. It had been very fun for me and I wished I had not taken so long to get back here.”

Noise from the front of the living room caught our attention. The others had finished their dinner and were getting ready for their game. I stood up and placed my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me.

“You go on and have some fun tonight,” I said, like I was her father and she was asking permission. She gave me a funny smile. I continued talking. “I have to go out there and make sure Josiah is doing all right.” She nodded and the rest of the servants and Selena filed into the room.

I ignored Jennifer as I rushed out of the room and back into the kitchen. I was sure she was upset by that, along with the fact that there was a huge smile on my face that I couldn’t wipe off for the life of me. You will have to forgive me. I was a very happy man at that moment.

Of course, I could never know this, but all of that was about to change (It just seems like the best way to end chapters, does it not?).

 

Chapter F

“SO YOU are about to get married, Josiah. How does it feel to be getting married before this old man?”

Josiah and I walked along the cobblestone path that led to the fountain. Lampposts had been installed every few yards or so to keep the path slightly lit. This path ran alongside a hedge of bushes along the right, and open grass along the left. I knew Josiah liked walking this way, but I usually took the shorter rout from the Square. I figured he must have wanted to take the longer journey. He had told me earlier that these walks of his took forty five minutes exactly.

“It takes fifteen minutes to get to the fountain, fifteen spent looking into the fountain and thinking for a bit, and then it will take me another fifteen minutes to get back.” Josiah was convinced of this, even after I told him it didn’t take that long to do the trip. He brought along a stop watch with him to prove it to me.

He was looking at it now as I started talking to him.

“Do you ever want to get married, Kenneth?”

I scrunched my lips tightly.

“Well, I always imagined myself settling down, raising a family. I don’t see how it could happen now, though,” I admitted.

Josiah turned to me.

“What do you mean? Why not?” I looked over at him.

“Well, for starters, when you are around, no one seems to notice any of the other guys around here,” I joked. Josiah chuckled. “No, on a serious note, I don’t think that there are many opportunities for me to get involved in that kind of way.”

“You are being cryptic again, Kenneth,” Josiah warned me. I laughed.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I just feel that there are not that many women out there, at least, since I don’t travel any where besides the Manor. In here, there is only Jennifer, and you know how that is.”

“NO, actually, I don’t.” Josiah said. I looked at him, and he had on the most serious of faces.

“Jennifer is in love with me for my looks,” I admitted to him. “There is no substance to any of it, and it really bothers me.”

“But what about Natalie.”

I kept myself calm.

“What about her?”

“Well, did you and her not have a thing going a few years ago?”

“I don’t know what you mean by thing, nor do I want to know,” I snapped. I knew I was being a little harsh on the guy, but I continued. “We were just friends, all right. There was nothing more, and there never will be.”

I hoped that would put it to rest. It did. Josiah sighed and was just shoving his hands into his pockets when I glanced over at him.

“So how are you feeling about Andrea?”

“About marrying her?” Josiah looked at me.

“Yeah, about her as a person, about marrying her, about everything.” I had to get him talking.

“Well,” he let out a half chuckle, high sigh. “Aside from the fact that I am totally in love with her? I find myself lying in bed, stomach torn to pieces, just thinking about her. I am imagining things that we would say to each other, how we would react in different situations, what kind of life we would have together.” Josiah turned all dreamy and I laughed. He looked at me funnily and pushed me gently away from him.

“It is not funny, Kenneth!” he said, laughing.

“Oh yes it is!” I burst out laughing harder than him, pushing him back. “You sound like a normal man would a few days before his wedding.”

Not that I knew many men before they got married, I thought to myself, but that was beside the point. We were both laughing, so that was a good sign.

“I know you think that this marriage is a bad idea,” Josiah said, suddenly not laughing and his face serious. He continued, “But do you think that I will really be a bad husband?”

I ran my hand through my hair.

“I know you are a good person, Joey, and I have enough faith in you to continue being a good person, but,” I hesitated. I didn’t want to get into the same argument again, but I did want him to know how I felt.

“But,” I continued, “I am not so sure how you will be able to provide for someone else -”

“When I cannot even provide for myself. Is that what you were going to say, Kenneth?” Josiah’s voice turned into ice. I shook my head fervently.

“No,” I said. “A million times, no! I only wanted to say that you might know how to treat her when she is your best friend or girlfriend, but you might not know how to treat her when she is your wife.”

“And you think you know how to?”

“Of course not!” I scoffed. “That was why I told you earlier, there was no real reason I would be getting married soon. I am not the kind of guy who knows how to handle any of that.” I shook my head. “Of course, for the right woman I would learn really quickly, but she has yet to appear before me.”

“You say that like she will show up in thin air.”

“I wish. No, I was only being figurative. I know that there are two parts to every equation, and she has to be just as ready as I am.”

“But how will you know if you are ready if you never try?”

They had reached the fountain, and Josiah perched himself on the side of it. I looked over at it.

The fountain was circular, about three or four feet deep. A tall, marble statue of a woman reaching toward the east stood in the center. I had always been creeped out by the statue of her, simply because her back was facing us when we approached from this direction. This was the only way to reach the fountain, and you had to walk all the way around to get to the benches. I never understood why she was not facing us from the front, but David claimed it had some thing to do with her facing the sun as it rose. It had a symbolic meaning, I guess, but I didn’t really care for it that much.

I thought about Josiah’s question as we made our way around the fountain. A small bench sat in front of the fountain, facing a large hedge which led into what I liked to call the woods. I often wondered if there were people or wild beasts hiding in there, because it was so thick and dense that I would not have been able to tell even if there were.

“Well,” I began, sighing deeply as I sat down next to Josiah on the bench. “I have never tried, so I will never know. That is your assumption, is it not?”

Josiah looked at me. I continued on.

“Do you think knowledge is only garnered from personal experience? Or can I not also learn from the experience of others? Sure, I won’t be able to talk from personal experience, but does that detract from the validity of my statement?”

I knew Josiah liked talking like that, which is the only reason I construed my sentences that way.

“I see your point of view,” he said, leaning back in his chair. Splashes from the fountain hit our necks as we sat in silence for the next few minutes. I turned to him. His eyes were closed and he was just resting, thinking about whatever what on his brain, I didn’t have a clue.

“Josiah,” I began carefully. He opened his eyes and turned to me. A thin smile played on his lips, and he seemed so calm and at peace.

“Josiah,” I continued, “I am happy to see you happy. It hurts me when I see you hurt, and I cannot bear the thought of you going through needless suffering.” I paused, hoping I was not making the lad a little too uncomfortable. He made no sign to show that it was, instead he merely looked at me. I rambled on.

“I know I have said this before, but I want you to know that I am here for you no matter what. Regardless of the girl you choose to marry, regardless of the age you choose to marry her. I want to be there for you when you need someone to talk to. And if there is anything I may have done to upset you, I want to apologize fervently for it. I want you to know that I am sorry and I don’t want anything to stand between our friendship.” I paused. The tears were already starting to form, but I held them back. “I love you, my little cousin. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Please, let me know how I can help you.”

That was all it took. Josiah’s face contorted and he collapsed into a heap of sobs. I looked around, not out of shame, but out of concern. I reached over and wrapped my arms around him, pulling him closer to me. I never thought there would come a time when I would get into a man hug like this, but it was well worth it.

“I just don’t understand,” he choked out. “I don’t understand why I feel this way when everything is going right. Why do I feel so sad and depressed when there is really nothing wrong?”

I sighed.

“Josiah, I don’t understand either. Some times, you feel like you can never do anything right, even when no one has told you that or made you feel that way. Other times, you feel that you are somehow not good enough for them.” I shook my head. “All of this comes down to how you feel about yourself. How do you see yourself, Josiah? What kind of person do you think you are?”

I knew I was giving him a lot to go on, considering the fact that he was still sobbing, so I was not sure how much of it he actually understood. But I had never done this kind of thing before, so I was inexperienced.

“I feel like they will never understand me. That there is no way for them to accept me because I am the most horrible person in the world.” He choked out some more words. I knew this was good for him, to let out all these feelings. I had been hoping to draw some thing out of him, and I was finally getting some where.

“I feel like no one cares. If I died, I don’t think that anyone would notice.”

“That is absurd!” I pushed Josiah away from me. He looked horrible, face puffy, nose red. I waved my pointer finger. “I don’t want to hear you say that again. EVER! There are tons of people that would care if you died, and by that I mean really care, so much so that they would not be able to get any sleep at night, that is how much agony you will cause them. And what about your mother and father? What would they think when there son is dead? They will have more than just a little care for you! And what about me? Do you not value my love for you, in that you think that if you died I would somehow not notice? That I would not be torn apart? That I would not spend countless moments of every day wondering how I could have kept you alive?”

The tears were beyond tears at this point. I was sobbing uncontrollably by now. I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. He was probably crying as well, but I couldn’t tell. Everything was blurry, and the back of my throat was hurting.

We stayed that way for at least five minutes. It felt good to cry like that, together. I wanted him to know that I would always be there for him, so here I was, being there for him.

But there was some thing else at work here. I found myself being plagued by some of the thoughts that had come up when my mother first died. When I sunk into a depression so deep that I never thought I would come out of it. It was those horrible months of feeling so worthless that was coming back now. I tried to push it away, but the wound was resurfacing. I guess it never really healed.

Josiah stood up.

“It has been fifteen minutes,” he stated matter of factly. “We have to go back.”

“Why?” I asked, wiping my eyes with my hands. I wore a short sleeve polo, so there was no way I could wipe any of that onto my sleeves like a normal persona would, so I rubbed it onto my pants.

“Because I have people waiting for me.” His face was serious. “Namely, Andrea. I cannot take longer than forty five minutes on my walk, otherwise, she will get worried.”

“Well, we cannot have the poor girl worried about her future husband, now, can we?” I asked sarcastically. I selfishly felt that he would consider our relationship more important than Andrea’s worrying, but I let it go. He was the one about to get married, and according to him, I would not be able to understand any of it until I went through it myself.

He didn’t seem to hear what I had said and waited patiently for me to arouse myself and get on two feet. We walked down the path slowly. Even though he wanted to get back, I guess he knew that he needed to clear up his face before getting back there. I felt the same way. I didn’t mind crying and showing emotion, but I didn’t want to show nay of that to Natalie.

Why do my thoughts keep coming back to her? It is because we were so close growing up. And because I admired her. I liked to leave the explanation at that. Going any further, I might embarrass myself, her, and whoever might be present when I said whatever I said. If I ever said anything. It was giving me a headache, and I was already busted from all that sobbing.

As we walked along the path, I wondered what good crying really did for you? It felt like a pity party to me: we just cried our hearts out because we felt bad about the situations we had been in in the past. That was pretty pitiful if you ask me. But then again, I felt a little better after all the tears. I felt that maybe some thing I had burdening me was suddenly lifted. It was a good feeling, and I realized that it was beneficial to cry.

While I was busy getting philosophical about crying, Josiah stood beside me, not saying anything. I assumed he was taking some time to think about what I had said. He still had yet to make a comment, and I resisted the urge to feel hurt. He understood how much I cared for him, that much was true. It was just some times, you listened to the nasty little lies your heart told you, even though you know it is not true. I have experienced that many times before, so I knew how it felt.

We reached the end of the path and the house in less than fifteen minutes. I found that strange because we had been walking slower than normal. But I guess we picked up speed toward the end a bit.

Josiah went up to his room and I went up to mine. Neither of us said anything to the other as we retired to bed.

We didn’t have to. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter J

THE MORNING came sooner than I wanted it to. Daylight savings time had recently set in, but I was still having a hard time getting used to it. I always forgot to draw my curtains before I went to bed, because then in the morning, like right now, the sun would be beaming in my eyes.

I lay on my side, facing the alarm clock on the night stand beside my bed. It read seven fifteen a.m., which was fine with me, even if it was rather early. I had not managed to get to sleep until at least midnight because I couldn’t find suitable pajamas to wear when I got out of the shower. For some reason, the ones I always wore – white with blue stripes running down vertically, almost like prison garb – were no where to be found. I searched my drawers, the bathroom laundry bucket, and every place that might have been mistaken for a place to put clothing – I checked those places, but couldn’t find anything.

I wore a simple white tee shirt and a pair of cut off shorts. My sheets were red, although there was a huge quilt I had found some where that was light purple. The color was hideous, but it was so warm that I absolutely adored it. And by that, I mean, absolutely adored. I used it every night, even when it was not that cold, simply because I loved the soft, feathery feel against my body. Although most of the time I wore long sleeves and long pants to go to sleep, I could still feel the quilt against my face, neck, hands, and feet, and I loved it.

Maybe I am gushing too much about a blanket for a guy.

I threw back the quilt and jumped out of bed. I really had to go to the bathroom. After I was done, I changed into a different polo shirt, although it was the same dark blue color as yesterday, and slipped into a pair of black jeans. I had never been a fan of skinny jeans, but the style was interesting, so I conformed with straight legs. Many people tried to argue that they were both the same thing, but there was no way I would squeeze into some thing that clung to my skin. There was just no ‘breathing room’ as I had heard it put once.

On my feet went an old pair of classic converse chuck Taylors. I loved high tops, but I never got much of a chance to use them because of work. Everything was always boots or slippers, depending on whether I would be scrubbing toilets or working in the sewage thing that I don’t know the name of. That is sad, seeing as I am the official plumber in this house, but whatever. I blame the author.

I finished brushing my teeth and passed a brush through my hair. My hair was interesting, because it never needed me to do much to it. All I had to do was wet it, pass a brush through it, and it stayed the way it was supposed to. A nice chunk fell over my forehead, and I liked flicking it out of my eyes with my head. Everything else was rather short, so I didn’t need to put much of anything on it.

I left the room, making sure to shut it all the way behind me. I was not hungry, much to my surprise. It was usually around dinner, I supposed that I got really hungry. I made my way down the stairs. I passed Dennis on the way, and I stopped to say good morning. He had a tray in his hands, so I assumed he was going to bring Nicole her breakfast. Poor Nicole.

David was coming home today, so that was when I would go see her again.

I found Annabelle in the kitchen with Jennifer, which was no surprise. Unlike me, they spent all of their time in their area of operation. If I spent too much time in any of the five bathrooms and sewage compartment downstairs, I would literally die of some form of poisoning or other.

“Good morning, Kenneth,” Annabelle said politely. I responded in kind, and then turned to Jennifer. She had not said anything, but I felt it wrong not to say good morning to her at least.

“Good morning, Jennifer,” I said nicely. She looked at me for a second, then looked away embarrassed.

“Morning, Kenneth.”

Two words. That is all they were. But they seemed so hard for her to squeeze out.

I reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bowl and a package of cereal. Annabelle was all about order, and even though she was initiating the transition out from head cook and giving that position to Jennifer, I could still see where her influence lay. Even in the smallest details, Annabelle sought order. Now, Jennifer was picking up on those same habits. She had placed several bowls in the cereal compartment, because everyone knows you need a bowl to have cereal. It seems like the most simplest thing ever, but it made all the sense when you were really hungry. Which was not the case now.

I poured myself some peanut butter captain crunch cereal, stopping about three quarters of the way in. I didn’t want to have an overflow when it can time to put in the milk. I found the milk in one of the many refrigerators lined up against the wall. Everything was labeled on a huge sheet of dry erase paper on the door, so there was no real need for me to scour everyone until I found what I needed. I poured the milk inside the bowl until it nearly overflowed. Perfect. I returned it and brought my plate, and a recently acquired spoon to the kitchen table.

Annabelle wiped a few crumbs from the table in front of him as I spooned some cereal into my mouth.

“Everyone else is up?” I asked, my words garbled because there was still plenty of food inside. Annabelle cast a glance at me that mothers usually give their kids when they are resisting the urge to tell them not to speak with their mouth full. I swallowed to avoid hearing her tell me that and repeated my question.

“As usual, you are the last one up.”

“At what is it?” I checked my watch. “Seven forty five in the morning?”

“Everyone is getting ready for David to come back home,” Jennifer chimed in from the other counter. I looked over at her. She was still focused on her work, but she was saying some thing to say the least. Even though I didn’t appreciate her advances on me, that didn’t mean that I felt any ill will toward her. There had seemed to be some thing seriously wrong earlier, and it was nice to see that some of it was gone.

“Oh, that is right,” I said, even though there had never been a second in the last few weeks that I had not thought about my Uncle David’s return. He pretty much ran the whole thing, gave me a home and a job, so I had a lot to be thankful for from him.

“And what about Selena?” I asked. “Is she awake?”

“By everyone, I mean everyone,” Annabelle said, “I mean everyone.”

“Okay, okay,” I responded defensively. “I was only asking to make sure.”

I hoped they would not know that I meant I was making sure that Natalie was awake, but I was sure they probably knew that. Annabelle gave me another one of those glances and I raised my eyebrows.

What did I do this time?

She gestured with her head at Jennifer and I sighed. She wanted me to go and find out what was wrong with her, what was bothering her. I didn’t want to get into that with Jennifer right now, because it just might turn out that she was doing this all so we could spend some time together. Not tat I was unappreciative of her as my friend. I just didn’t like the way she liked to act.

I finished my bowl of cereal and deposited it into the sink. I let the cool water splash against my fingers and I rinsed it off. I was never a big fan of dishwashers, and I liked to clean up after myself whenever I could, so that meant I resorted to soap and water. I reached for the two of them now and transformed my plate from unclean to clean in a manner of seconds.

When I was younger, I used to believe that rinsing a plate or cup automatically made it clean. The same thought carried over into taking baths and all that good stuff. When I got older, however, and the health classes started teaching on hygiene, those habits of my childhood changed instantly.

I placed my dish in the appropriate rack on the side of the sink. Since there was so much cooking done in this kitchen, there were two sinks: one was large and was for the pots and major dishes, while the other was smaller and was only for the quick dishes like breakfast or dessert plates, along with utensils that only needed a quick rinse before dipping into another pot. Jennifer stood by the large dishes sink, cleaning a few pots and a baking rolling pin. I don’t understand how many times I have to see the rolling pin in that very sink before it gets clean.

I sidled up to Jennifer, careful not to get too close.

“Do you guys ever clean that rolling pin?” I asked bluntly. Jennifer gave a forced laugh.

“Not really. I think it fell in there by accident, but we never really use it.”

“Ah, okay,” I said. I leaned against the counter and watched as she rinsed off a particular misshapen pot. I ventured to ask.

“So, how did you sleep last night?”

I figured out that the best ways to get people talking is to talk about sleep. That is the easiest topic to talk about, because most people either don’t get enough of it, or they have the strangest habits that it makes it down right hilarious. I have always felt it safe to talk about these things, because no one could really tell you whether you were right or wrong. And when you asked a person how well they slept, it was easy for them to feel like you cared about them enough to ask. And I did care enough, so it was not like I was faking any of this.

“Well, I went in at around eleven thirty, which is unusual for me on Sundays because we always have large dinners then and it takes many hours to clean up after we relax.” She was referring again to the “game time” as I liked to call it where we basically just sat around and relaxed for an hour and talked about whatever we wanted to talk about.

“But what happened last night? I mean, why did you go in early?”

“I was tired,” she said plainly. “I wanted to get some extra sleep, but when I went to my room, at around eleven forty fire, after I had been in bed for a few minutes, someone started making a lot of noise in the room beside me.”

I blushed.

My room was next to hers, and she had to be referring to my crazy search for my favorite pajamas. I started to explain.

“Yeah, about that, I am really sorry, you see, I was looking for, um, well I was looking for my,” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I was looking for my favorite pajamas, and I cannot sleep without them, so that makes me akin to a wimpy little baby. Not that I have anything against babies.

“it is perfectly fine, Kenneth,” she said, laughing at my expense. I gave her a light push out of frustration.

“That is okay, laugh it up because I lost some thing dear to me.”

“Hey, you and I both know how much those pajamas mean to you. Now, don’t look at me like you don’t know what I am talking about. I can clearly hear you from my room mumbling to yourself: oh where can those pjs be?” she convulsed with laughter, and I joined in, except more guarded than she. After all, it was my frustration we were talking about here.

“You actually called them pjs, I find that so hilarious!”

“Okay, okay, I think we have had enough fun on my account,” I said, ending my laughter and trying to pull a serious face for her. She smiled and poured some more soap onto the dishwashing rag.

“So aside from my nighttime perils,” I chose my next few words carefully, “everything is going all right with you.”

I braced myself, but she did nothing. Her smile slowly faded, and she looked kind of grim.

“Jennifer?”

“Yeah, I am okay,” she said, tossing her head back, causing the hair to follow suit. Jennifer looked at me for a moment, regarding what appeared to be everything on my face. It was unnerving but I was determined to stick it through. I needed to know if she was all right. Not that I could necessarily help her, but I wanted to know if there was anything I could do. What could I say? Helping people made me feel happy. It made me feel like I was able to accomplish some thing in this dark world. Which I knew very little about, comparatively.

She continued.

“I just was unsure about, you know,” she hesitated. I moved closer.

“About what?” I asked. She looked away.

“Never mind,” she responded. I was upset.

“Are you sure?” I didn’t like to hear those two words: never mind, simply because that meant she had some thing to say and she was either afraid to tell me, or it was some thing that she felt she had no business saying. Or maybe she made a mistake, and slipped on a few words, and realized now that she does not want to share with me. Which was okay. At least she told me some thing.

“Yeah, I am sure. It was nothing.”

I nodded. There was no more words I could get out of her.

A familiar sound echoed from down the hall. I groaned. The bathroom was located there, and that could only mean one thing.

It was time to get to work. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter B

I FOUND Natalie just before lunch time. She was sitting in the Square, looking at all the different hedges and flowers gathered there. She sat on one of the two benches there, my favorite one. It was wooden, unlike the other one, which was metal, and it had one thing about it that I particularly like: a small plaque near the back where you leaned against that dedicated it to Marcus and (Grandma) Livingston. Of course, I loved it because it was my grandmother’s name on it, but more than that, I felt it was extremely comfortable.

I sat down next to Natalie, and at first I don’t think she noticed me.

She was dressed in a knee length black skirt, with a white blouse with the sleeves cut off. On her feet were small shoes, flats I think they were called, and she wore no stockings or socks with that. She looked very comfortable, but out of place. I think it would be better to say that she looked in place for the manor, as everyone here ran on a different time frame than everyone else. It was one of those old fashioned feels you get when you watch an old movie or visit a museum. I think she was trying to fit in here, but I would know from experience that there is no fitting in here at the manor.

She looked over at me, finally, and I ventured a smile. She smiled back, which was always a good sign.

“How has your day been going so far?” I asked. She looked away, back at the bushes in front of her.

“Well, I have been sitting here for the past half an hour, soaking in nature and the wonderful work your Aunt Nicole has been doing in this place.”

I beamed.

I was proud of Nicole’s work here too. She had taken the formerly empty Square and breathed life into it over the course of ten years. Kenneth had never seen the actual Square without any of its trees and gardens, but he had seen pictures, and heard tell of it a few decades ago. It always made him proud when other people appreciated his aunt’s work.

“What about you?” she asked, throwing the ball into my court. I sighed.

“The main floor bathroom was clogged again.”

“You need not say any more,” she said, turning back to me.

I laughed.

“Other than that, I have really just been looking for you,” I stopped myself. No need to say anything more. She smiled.

“I must have giving you a run for your money.” Natalie laughed. “Andrea and I had a little chat this morning over breakfast about a group of hedges right over there.”

She pointed across from them. Hedges had been planted to run directly under two sets of windows. I did a quick run through of the blueprint for the manor.

“Ah, so that is Victor’s room on the first floor, and above that, it is David’s room.”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, we figured that out the hard way. No one seems to have a blueprint or schematic handy nowadays.”

“What about them caused her to want to talk to you? Not that she cannot talk to you without a valid reason,” I clarified. “I just want to know what that reason might have been.”

Natalie crossed her arms.

“Andrea told me that those hedges had been moved.”

I glanced at her curiously.

She continued.

“They had previously been over to the left, but now they are lined directly under the windows.”

“Is that a problem?” I inquired. Natalie looked at me and shook her head.

“No, not really. It got both of us to wander around the grounds for a bit, noticing the different ways Nicole had set this garden up. We also walked to the fountain, which was not as difficult as Josiah made it seem the other day.”

I quietly held my tongue. I didn’t want to bring up the fountain excursion last night. Sure, it had been bonding time between Josiah and I, and I would like to keep it that way: between Josiah and I.

“And so you ended up alone, here in the garden, with nothing but your thoughts to pass the time.” I sighed dramatically.

Natalie let out a little chuckle.

“Your day has been pretty stressful so far, huh?”

I nodded.

“Cleaning bathrooms is getting to be one of the most annoying things about my life here,” I confessed.

“But is this not the place where you work? I mean, I don’t expect everyone to like their job, but you of all people, do you not have to like your job?”

“Because my uncle owns the place?” I scoffed lightheartedly. “There is nothing my uncle could find out about me to fire me from here. Nothing I could say, nothing I could do will get me fired. He sees me as his family, so he keeps me here.”

I continued before she could get the wrong idea.

“Granted, I do appreciate what he has done for me, and I would never wish to appear ungrateful for the home and source of income that he provides me. It just gets annoying after you have unclogged the same two toilets every other day for the past five years.”

I was complaining, I knew, but I had to get it out. It seemed I did little more these days than let out my frustrations. She was sympathetic to say the least: she didn’t mention it again.

“Your uncle, David, he is coming back today, right?”

I nodded.

“We are having a whole “welcome home” party for him outside on the West Hill, if it does not rain today.” I said that in contrast to the horrible weather of the past few days. Yesterday had been no exception, even though it had cleared up pretty quickly. I was still surprised by the fact that the gate was not flooded when I went to pick Natalie up from there. I figured that the construction group fixing the bridge might have done some thing to it, but it would have been nice to know, seeing as I was the Manor’s number one source of all things related to a pipe, water, and anything else you might happen to shove down a toilet or sink. And I mean literally shove.

“I stopped by the kitchen before coming back here,” Natalie said, tucking some of her hair behind her ear. It looked soft, and I resisted the urge to stroke it. That would have seemed only a little bit creepy. She went on.

“Jennifer was shouting at the kitchen staff, and Annabelle was just watching calmly from the side.” Natalie grinned. “They were whipping up some thing in there that smelled amazing. I had wondered what the special occasion was, but I never got the courage to ask.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, usually, it is Annabelle who is the scary one in the kitchen, but on occasions like this, Jennifer turns into some thing else. I would have been afraid of her to.”

“What is going on between you and Jennifer?” Natalie asked. I loved her bluntness. She never ceased to make me squirm in my seat. I looked away.

“In my opinion, there is nothing. We are, the two of us, great friends, and I always do what I can to make sure she is comfortable and happy here at the manor. But,” I hesitated. Natalie turned to me.

“But?”

“But,” I continued, taking a breath, “she seems to think that the two of us are some sort of couple.”

“She has told you that?”

“She has … inferred it.”

“How can you infer some thing like that?”

“Well, I don’t really know, by saying things about feelings and acting like we are together.” I let out an anguished sigh. Natalie gave me a pat on the shoulder.

“I think you are inventing some thing where it is not.”

“Can you invent some thing you don’t like? I mean, I don’t like her to look at me certain ways, to comment on my appearance, to call me in for these mysterious ‘talks’.”

“Kenneth,” she said, giving me a look like a wise old professor would to a young ignorant kid. “You might be misinterpreting these actions of Jennifer because you secretly wish them to be true. Your first instinct is to push them off, and,” I didn’t let her continue.

“That is absurd.” I would not talk about it any more.

“Look, Jennifer just has a schoolgirl crush on me, no different from all the other girls in high school that felt the same way.”

I made sure to throw in the whole ‘high school’ bit. I wanted to see if she would bite and get angry. As usual, she didn’t.

“Did Josiah ever talk to you about the investigation?”

“It is a no go,” I responded. “There is no way we are getting anything out of this kid.”

“Well, I don’t want to give up on him just yet.”

“We don’t have to,” I responded, “but if he gives us nothing to go on, how can we do any kind of investigation?”

“I guess you are right,” she conceded. This was a first. I blamed it on the exposure to too much pollen from staring at flowers all day. I thought of some thing.

“Are you going to see the demolition?” I asked. She looked at me curiously.

“What demolition?” she replied. I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, so you don’t know about the demolition.” I leaned forward. “David and his construction worker friends got into a huge debate last year over when to destroy the bridge and build a new one. David wanted it to happen over a weekend, that way none of us were likely to cross over, but they would not have it. They told him that the only days they could do it were today, Tuesday and Wednesday. After that, the bridge would be done, and they would get paid and move on with life.”

“So that is why the bridge was hard to cross over yesterday?”

“It was hard simply because it was hard. That is one of the reasons why the bridge is being destroyed,” I explained. “It has been years since anyone carefully examined the bridge or provided any kind of maintenance for it. David decided that enough was enough, and he found a group of contractors that would destroy and rebuild his bridge in record time.”

“That sounds kind of incredible,” Natalie said. “To think that in three days they could have a working bridge, one that is better than the, excuse me if this offends you, but the old bridge was horrifying!”

I was not offended.

“So,” I continued, “do you want to go watch the bridge get demolished?’ I barreled on before she could interject. “I have found a really incredible spot on the West Hill, a little further from where we are eating lunch, that gives us an amazing view of the bridge.”

“Why did I not see any construction workers when I crossed the bridge?”

“Because it was ridiculously early in the morning,” I explained matter of factly. “And because they are not allowed to come onto the manor. They have a little hut by the bridge that has all their supplies. I think they are already there now.” I wondered why that mattered to her.

She stood up.

“When are we going?”

I took that as a yes.

(Later)

“So are we going to wait for David before we start eating?”

I was the only soul brave enough to ask what we were all thinking.

Victor cleared his throat.

“Mr. Livingston did tell us we could eat without him,” he recalled, raising his hand as he spoke. I looked over at him. The tall, thin young man sat on a folding chair. He wore a black leather jacket with a black tee shirt underneath. He wore black fitted jeans, and a pair of pointed black alligator shoes. Around his neck hung a thin gold chain, resting just above his collar bone. His jacket was open, and his stylish sunglasses sat perched on his head. His short hair was brushed to the front and a small cowlick was formed.

Victor had a very clean look about him, and unlike me, he never dreamed of having a beard. He always seemed to be the one who got everyone to make their final decisions. Like now. Here he was, backing me up on a decision that was purely motivated by my own selfish desires. I was starving. I know I talk about my hunger like I never eat any food during the day, but this time I was serious. The only thing I had eaten since this morning was the bowl of cereal, and that was long gone. I had drank a few bottles of water, and that did keep me going for a while, but now I was getting really hungry.

I don’t even know if David actually said that, but everyone seemed to be nodding and agreeing as if they had remembered. Victor gave me a quick, concerned glance and lowered his sunglasses. He covered clear blue eyes that seemed to make every girl’s heart melt. At least, that is what I was told. I had never believed that blue eyes looked good on anyone, considering the fact that this was the color of my eyes and I didn’t like thinking too much about my looks. But I could tell why the girls acted the way they did, because there was some thing different about blue eyes. I didn’t like the way Victor looked with his eyes, almost as though they were clear enough to see right through me. I was grateful when he put the glasses back on, so I would not have to feel that way any more.

Everyone was here, except for Annabelle, and Nicole, of course. I didn’t think I would see Annabelle again for a while now. She had already made enough public appearances, what with both Selena and Natalie here as visitors. She was still transitioning from main cook to assistant, and that was a hard thing for her to do. But I knew it was only because she was getting along in years and David didn’t want her to push herself too hard and then suddenly collapse and die. He didn’t like the thought of a person working to death, which was why he called these infrequent holidays, such as this event, where we could all relax and enjoy ourselves without thinking about work.

I won’t describe what we ate that day, because in all honesty, I cannot remember. The only thing that I can recall came a few minutes after we had all finished eating.

Andrea, who was not outside with us – for some reason, I didn’t notice this earlier – came running from the house. She had not used the tram for some odd reason, and I was surprised that she was not really out of breath or red like she usually is when she runs long distances.

Josiah was the first one at her side.

“What is wrong?” he demanded in that gentle tone of his. He made it sound like he was more concerned with her safety, than he was if it had nothing to do with her.

“Your father, Mr. Livingston,” she took in a short breath, “he is coming here.”

Talk about anti climatic! We all breathed sighs of relief and went back to our conversations. Natalie was engaged in a heated discussion with Diana about the concept of treasure.

“So you really think that there is some merit in being a treasure hunter?” Natalie asked Diana curiously. I had no idea what they were talking about, so as was the custom here at the manor, I moved closer to the two of them and started listening to what they were saying.

“Well, I never said that I was a treasure hunter,” Diana defended calmly. “I merely suggested that being a treasure hunter could indeed be beneficial, if you hit gold, that is.”

“So you feel that the only valuable commodity to found in the ground is gold?”

“No, no, of course not,” Diana waved the suggestion away. She looked flustered. “I am sorry, it is hard to explain, I am basing most of this off of a few books that I read on the subject. I don’t really know much about the subject of treasure hunting myself.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said as I cut in. of course, I was not sorry in the slightest because their conversation was bordering on painful, but I had to say some thing to get away with it. I tapped Natalie on the shoulder.

“If David is going to be here soon, we will have to get a move on to the part of the hill I was telling you about.”

“Oh yes, I remember now,” Natalie said, picking herself from off of the picnic blanket. A huge blanket, red and white checkerboard, of course, had been laid out on the grass. Everyone sat on it, except for Victor.

“My pants are too tight for me to bend,” he said, as he pulled out his chair. “No one here wants to see my pants split, I can assure you.”

No one really cared that much, but he had to explain what he was doing for the sake of Natalie and Selena. I felt like he was trying too desperately to get their attention, but hat was Victor, so what could I say?

Natalie and I walked away from the picnic blanket and headed over to the hill. From here, we could see the entire manor and the estate as a whole. Turning west, we could see the fountain and the bridge in the background. I turned to her.

“This could happen any minute now,” I warned. “But of course, it won’t be some thing truly amazing, just a bridge getting blown up, so don’t expect special effects.”

Secretly, I was hoping there would be some form of special effects. I was big on seeing things get blown up, unless they were children and human bodies. Other than that, I wanted to see a huge explosion, but I think I was getting my hopes up to high.

A few minutes of silence later, the bridge suddenly burst in to flames. My mouth hung open in shock. Beams started to collapse and the bridge fell on top of itself in a manner of seconds. I looked over at Natalie. I was not surprised to find her equally taken aback by what had just happened.

“I thought there would be some sort of explosion,” I said, shaking my head. “Instead, the bridge died a slow and painful death, each timber pushed until there was no more left inside of it.” I was dramatizing it all, I know, but Natalie didn’t seem to notice.

Once again, she seemed too absorbed in her thoughts to realize why I had brought her over here away from all the rest. We sat there quietly for a while, then she broke the silence.

“It is so peaceful up here.”

Indeed it was. The grass was carefully cut – this was Victor’s doing. He was responsible for all of the wild life, also known as the gardens and lawns, that stretched for a one mile radius. He didn’t touch the woods, although he did fix up the land immediately surrounding the main road and the front gate. I thought he did a good job. He never touched the Square’s garden though. That was and forever would be off limits for him. That was Nicole’s thing, and no one would let him take it away, even if he tried.

“I wonder if my car is safe from those construction workers,” Natalie said. I looked at her.

“What would any of them want with a beat up, old fashioned ford explorer?” I asked, laughing. “Who would want one of those in the first place any way?”

She gave me a look, but I could tell that she understood I was joking.

“Do you want to head back?” I asked, looking over at her. Her hair was tossed wildly because of the wind, and she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small blue hair tie. I watched as she carefully put it in her mouth, scooped all of her hair into a ponytail, and shoved it under the hair tie. She looked over at me.

“Yeah, I think that would be all right.”

We headed down the hill. About halfway back to the picnic camp, however, Natalie stopped walking.

I turned to her.

“What is the matter?”

“I don’t think I want to go back there for now,” she said hesitantly. “I would like to go back inside the house, if that is all right with you?”

“Of course,” I said slowly. I had no real desire to get back to everyone else, so I gladly accepted her offer to go back inside the manor. But what bothered me was the way she asked me, like I had some sort of authority over her. I didn’t like when she seemed to be asking me permission to do some thing. I guess she was just getting used to being here with other people. Maybe, like me, she had a more difficult time getting used to us.

We made it all the way to the house without much problems. We walked the whole way. Natalie brought up an old case from the past, one that ended rather horribly and left the both of us depressed. But I had pressured her into telling me about it, so I couldn’t complain. We talked a bit about a particular movie we both liked, then our favorite holidays. We got into a deep discussion on the topic of sleep, but we had just reached the manor then. The two of us went inside and stood in the main hall for  a bit, neither of us unsure how to end our conversation.

I sighed.

“Well, I guess I should get going.”

Natalie nodded and crossed her arms.

“Yeah, I have to go as well.”

We reluctantly went our separate ways. I headed to my room on the second floor, while she continued up to the third floor.

I unlocked my door and closed it softly behind me. I leaned against the door and sighed. What had just happened there?

I didn’t think I would ever know. But I was fine with that. (Chapter End).

Chapter N

THE BEDROOM had only one window, and its curtains were drawn to let in a soft stream of light. Nicole had always been one for conserving energy, even if she lived in a mansion and her husband came from one of the wealthiest families in America.

Everything from the overstuffed leather chair by the bed to the walk-in wardrobe on the left wall was hued in various shades of red and gray. This was another one of Nicole’s signature touches that she managed to pass through, with much deliberation, to the interior designers.

Resting atop the bedside table was a lamp and a pitcher of what appeared to be water. There was only enough light in the room to make out a thin figure covered in sheets lying on the bed, and a taller figure, seated erect on the chair next to it.

Kenneth cleared his throat, careful to alert the room’s occupants of his presence without startling them. The man seated at Nicole’s bedside turned and searched the newcomer’s face until finally a spark of recognition flashed in his eyes.

“Kenneth, my boy, come inside,” he said softly. The man stood and spread his arms out, as if for an embrace. Kenneth shuffled across the burgundy carpet to him, kicking up layers of old dust. A familiar mixture of cologne and medicine washed over him as he folded into the older gentleman’s embrace.

He had been staying with the Livingston family for almost ten years now, and David had become somewhat of a second father to him. Not that he had any problems with his own father when he was growing up. There had been a few bumps in the road along the way to be sure, but the two of them were still close, probably closer now, ever since his mother passed away three years ago.

Things had gotten a little rough between them when Kenneth decided that college wasn’t the right thing for him. His father did not support his decision to drop out, considering the amount of money he had already spent to get Kenneth through two years of schooling. To make matters worse, Kenneth was offered a job as a high school janitor, a position that his father claimed “would besmirch the Andrews name forever.”

In an effort to patch things up between the two of them, his uncle David had interceded on Kenneth’s behalf, offering the young man a paid position on Livingston Manor’s staff. His father was pleased with the thought of his son putting his skills to better use, and Kenneth was happy not to have to take the janitorial job. Besmirching his family name had never been on his ‘to-do’ list.

From the moment he handed Kenneth his first check to the time when Kenneth decided he was ready to pursue a different career, David had been alongside him, giving him guidance and keeping him out of trouble. He had done the same for all his employees, even after they moved beyond Carline Island and Livingston Manor, and each felt they owed him much more than they could ever repay.

But things had changed once Nicole’s cancer kicked in. As she slipped further and further, and the doctor’s visits became more frequent, David too had started to slip. No longer the cheerful businessman who hadn’t let the power corrupt him, he withdrew from society, from his family. He often forgot faces, even the faces of those who he loved the most.

Dr. Haines, the live in physician, had assured Kenneth that his uncle was merely going through a light bout of depression. The doctor moved into Livingston Manor shortly after it became evident that Nicole did not have much time left. It was his job to help ease her passing, but he insisted on giving the Manor’s residents regular check-ups as well.

“He doesn’t have as much control over things as he wants to,” Dr. Haines told Kenneth on his most recent visit. The bearded old man smiled warmly and removed his wire framed glasses from his nose. He twirled it in his hand, continuing in his soft, gentle voice. “He just needs some time to clear his mind, but he’ll be alright.”

Kenneth knew how fragile life was, and he wanted to make sure his aunt experienced the best with whatever time she had left. He broke off from his uncle’s embrace, turning his attention to her thin figure covered in blankets on the bed.

He lowered himself onto the bed slowly, careful not to sit on any of her thin limbs. Nicole’s eyes moved under her eyelids as he sat down. Kenneth brushed a stray lock of blond hair from her forehead.

“She hasn’t moved in hours,” David said, sitting down on the chair beside the bed. Kenneth turned to him. David’s brown hair, now flecked with gray, reached barely below his ears. It was parted down the left side and kept neatly in place by a thick layer of hair gel. This was only because he had just returned from a business trip, though. Kenneth knew his uncle despised gel, and preferred to keep his short hair wild and messy, simply because “it was easier that way.”

“How was your trip, David?”

Kenneth had met this side of the family far too late to start using titles like ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. Neither of them minded, however, and he stuck to calling them by their first names.

“It was fine,” David said, leaning back in his chair. Kenneth nodded. Work was never something David liked to discuss with him, or anyone else for that matter. He flew out on business trips often, but kept them short and less frequent now that Nicole’s condition was getting worse.

“So what’s this about that girl, Detective something or other.” David was already on another subject, which was somewhat of a trademark of his. Steamrolling through difficult topics didn’t make anything better, but he still tried it anyway.

Kenneth turned away from his uncle and returned his attention to his aunt. Her face was pale, but her lips were shockingly red. Even in her sickly state, she retained that beauty that had defined her in her youth. She had a sense of strength that shone out, even as she slept and the sickness took over her body.

“Detective Campbell,” Kenneth responded, not taking his eyes off his aunt.

“Yes, yes, I know her name,” David said impatiently, “but what is she doing here?”

Kenneth hesitated. He was unsure whether Josiah wanted others to know the actual reasons he had for bringing Natalie to Livingston Manor. Kenneth himself had ulterior motives, but he wouldn’t bring those up, of course. He decided to play it safe.

“She’s here for his wedding,” he said, turning to look at his weary uncle. “The detective was instrumental in the case involving your son all those years ago. He felt it necessary for her to be here.”

“Hmm,” David said, pursing his lips. “And you are sure you had nothing to do with her being here?”

Kenneth furrowed his brow.

“What are you talking about?”

David laughed – the first real sign of joy Kenneth had seen from him in weeks.

“You know very well what I am speaking of,” he said. “I remember how you used to look at her all those years ago.” David leaned closer to his nephew, a mischievous spreading across his face. “The two of you used to have a thing for each other, am I right?”

Kenneth turned away from his uncle, certain his face was turning the deepest shades of red.

David was right. So many years ago, the two of them had shared something that was now confined to long forgotten memories. Kenneth did not like to think about it much, especially since it had not ended favorably. Yet, when Josiah asked him to recommend a detective, she was the only one who came to mind. It was then that Kenneth realized that he still dared to hope; to hope that there was a chance.

Unfortunately, he was sure she did not feel the same. (Chapter end)

Chapter Z

I couldn’t concentrate throughout dinner. My thoughts were entirely on the conversation I had with my uncle before I came down here to eat.

Had he been right? Were there some kind of feelings that I still wanted to express for Natalie? Sure, the two of us had been a little more than friends a few years ago, but that was now long behind us. I was not ready to admit that there might be some remnants of those years I only allowed myself to describe as pure bliss. It sounded sad, that I had felt this way once, but now I was trying not to feel that way ever again. It confused me, so I tried not to think of it. I realized how ridiculous that was as well, but there was nothing I could do about it now.

Since David was home, I ate with him and Josiah. Because they were guests for the week, David invited Natalie and Selena to sit with us as well. Both of them eagerly accepted the invitation. Natalie spoke with David now, which made things even harder for me. Every so often he gave me a knowing glance, and I kept having to avert my eyes to prevent myself from blushing. That was one of the downfalls of being white. You could never hide your face if it turned red. Which was all mine ever wanted to do.

“I wish I could eat a lot of chips,” David said in response to some thing Natalie had said. “But,” he continued, “it is not allowed in my diet. As you can tell, I seem to have a problem with food.” He laughed robustly and rubbed his stomach.

I would never have described his fat, but he was round around the belly, although only slightly so. The rest of his body was average for normal human beings, so I never considered the fact that he might have a problem with his weight. I could understand why he found food distracting form doing his work. I always felt his stomach was round that way because of his alcohol drinking days in the past few years. He had cut down the beers and wine, and even the straight hard liquor over the years, but he still turned to them when he had a rough day.

“Well, I would never have thought you had to deal with that kind of a problem,” Natalie said, laughing along with him. Selena sat quietly eating her food. The table was made to hold eight, but there were only five, so she sat on the end opposite David, furthest form the rest of us. I knew she was still taking some time to get used to being here again. There were so many memories attached to the walls that it made it had to concentrate some times.

I knew all about that, but it had nothing to do with memories stuck to walls, merely hands stuck together. I brushed aside the pleasant thought. I couldn’t allow myself such fantasies. Not when she was clearly sitting in front of me.

David sat to my left at the head of the table, while Josiah sat on my left. I glanced over to him. He didn’t appear to be enjoying his food much. ON his plate were a few green beans, a pile of white mushy rice and a piece of medium rare steak. He pushed around the green beans with his fork, and he had not even touched the piece of steak or the rice. It was his favorite food, made just the way he liked it, so I found it strange that he was not enjoying it.

David must have noticed it too. He cleared his throat and turned form his conversation with Natalie to his son. He furrowed his eyebrows.

“What is the matter, son?” he asked. Josiah looked up at him slowly.

“Huh?” Josiah blinked. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I asked you what was the matter,” David replied, scooping some rice into his mouth. Josiah waited until his father had swallowed his food before answering him.

“I guess it has to do with my getting married. I am just so nervous about it. I want to make sure that everything goes right, and that it goes exactly how we planned it.”

David nodded.

“Are you sure there is nothing else?” He looked at him carefully, and I found myself doing the same. Josiah’s eyes were sad, and his mouth turned in a small frown, but he merely shook his head. “Nothing you want to tell us?”

“I don’t have anything to say,” Josiah replied firmly. He pushed his plate away from him. I looked down at my own plate. It was empty, much to my surprise. I had not remembered eating anything at all, but apparently I had done so. Too much distraction on my part I guess. I looked across at Natalie and then at Selena. Both had also finished their plates and pushed them forward. We were all waiting for David to finish so we could go into the living room.

David placed his fork on his plate, reached for his napkin and wiped his face slowly. He rose, and we all followed suit.

“Natalie, I presume you are going to join the others in their games tonight?” he asked casually. She glanced at her watch.

“Oh goodness, it is already ten o’clock.” She shook her head. “I am going up to my room,” she said. “I have a few things that I need to take care of.” She nodded at everyone in the room before walking out. She turned at the door and gave me a slight smile. I smiled back, careful not to misinterpret whatever the smile meant. I decided to take it as a friendly smile, and that is how it would remain in my mind.

“Well, then,” David said cheerfully, “the rest of us can go into the dining room and have some fun, am I right?”

He led the way for us to the dining room. It was just across the hall, and most of the others were already inside.

Dennis and Diana sat huddle over a book in the center. Jennifer sat with a  photo album in her hand. Victor stood over the main card table, a deck in his hands. He was attempting to shuffle the deck, but he kept getting it wrong and ended up with a sloppy mess of cards in his hands.

“Well, Victor, are you getting the cards ready for us?” David joked, moving closer to the young man. Victor smiled sheepishly and handed the cards to David.

“I was getting them ready for you, sir,” he said respectfully, “but you already knew that. So why did you ask?”

I sighed. They always went through this whole: you already knew so why did you ask routine. It was starting to get on my nerves. Victor liked to make people happy though, so what can I say? It made my uncle David really happy to have someone respond that way to him, for some odd reason.

I parked myself down on the couch and looked around. Josiah sat next to me, arms crossed. I motioned at him.

“Where is Andrea?” I asked. He looked at me curiously.

“I am not so sure,” he responded, looking around the room. I shrugged.

“She has probably gone to her room to get some extra sleep,” I suggested. Josiah seemed concerned, but he did little more than nod and lean back in the couch.

David cleared his throat.

“Are we already to start this game?”

I stood up slowly. The others had started to move toward the table.

I made my way behind Selena. She turned to look at me. I smiled and sat next to her.

“Have you had any kids yet?” I asked rather intrusively. Selena smiled.

“Sadly, no,” she responded. “We both wanted to have a child, Scott and I, but we are still trying.”

“There is nothing wrong, right?” I asked fearfully. I remembered how Selena treated kids, especially Josiah growing up, and I knew how much they meant to her. She shook her head.

“No, we are both fine,” she said, “but it is just not the right time, I guess.”

I nodded.

“So, will it be Rummy five hundred?” David asked, shuffling the cards in his hands. “Or will it be Go Fish, for the young one?” He nodded his head at Josiah. He wore a large smile, indicating that he was only joking. I was unsure if Josiah even noticed.

“Let us play rummy five hundred,” Jennifer chimed in. she sat across from me and I regarded her with a glance. She smiled at me, but I looked away quickly.

“Rummy five hundred it is,” David said, distributing the cards. “Let us increase the pressure, though,” he continued. “We will make it a three round elimination game, for ten dollars, the entire prize will come from me. The first game will remove all but three players, second round will leave us with two players, the final round will leave us with a champion.”

That sounded interesting. I was always in the mood to win money. I completely forgot the fact that I was a horrible rummy player.

Round one was over in less than fifteen minutes. Josiah, David, Selena, Dennis, and Diana were eliminated from the game. Only Victor, Jennifer, and I managed to stay in the game. I am unsure how that happened, but I figured it must have only been because the others were not feeling so well tonight.

Josiah stood up from his chair.

“If you will excuse me, I have to go.” He pushed back his chair just as Victor was handing out the next set of cards. I turned to Josiah.

“Good night, Joey.” He looked at me.

“Good night Kenneth.”

I smiled and turned back to my game.

The others followed with similar wishes of good night and Josiah left the room.

“So how do you all feel about this detective showing up?” Victor asked, picking up a card from the deck. He rearranged a group of cards in his hand and threw some down. I looked closer at these cards.

“Why would there be anything to it other than the fact that she was invited to my boy’s wedding?” David asked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.

Victor shrugged.

“How does she know him any way?” he asked. “I have never seen nor heard about her in all the years I have been here.”

“And that has been how long again?” Dennis asked in his deep voice. Victor smiled.

“A little more than four years, thank you very much for noticing,” Victor responded sarcastically. He looked around. “Still. I want to know why she is here, or in the very least, why Josiah likes her so much.”

“You have not thrown any card back into the pile,” Jennifer remarked. She was next to go, and it looked like she might have some thing good.

“She is here strictly on family business,” I told him. Victor chuckled. “That is what she told me to tell anyone who asked,” I said in my defense. He laughed further still.

“So you, Kenneth, you are her spokesperson?” He placed a card in the main pile. “I find that to be quite amusing.”

I was upset.

“I will forgive you for that, Victor, because I know you are still young and prone to thinking you have all the answers.” I barreled on, even though he was starting to protest. “I have been here for many more years than you, and I was one of the only staff or family here that was able to assist the Detective in the famous case involving Josiah.”

I purposely said it like that because he would have no idea what I was talking about. I was going to tell him, but I needed him to ask me first. Some of that pride of his needed stepping on. Jennifer made some menial action on the field, but neither of us was looking. Victor swallowed.

“What happened with Josiah?” He asked reluctantly. Selena jumped in.

“He was kidnapped. Right after I had tucked him in for the night.” She spoke softly, looking at the wall behind us, as though watching the scene unfold in front of her eyes again. “I had gone upstairs after dinner, and when I opened the door to his room, I found it unlocked, which was strange. Turning on the light and going in, I found the bed empty. Josiah was gone.”

Selena stopped speaking. I looked around. Everyone had stopped moving about, remembering the account and the events that had transpired because of it. I noticed that David was gone. He had probably slipped out a few minutes ago. Diana cleared her throat.

“It was Mr. Livingston that called in the detectives,” she said, getting nods and murmurs of affirmation from everyone in the room. “Detective Campbell was amazing. She found the young boy in a few days. It turned out he was still on the island.”

“Still on the island?” Victor asked.

I joined the conversation.

“Yes. Detective Campbell requested my help on that case, and I led her around the grounds. After a careful investigation, we found that the kidnapper was none other than Josiah’s babysitter, an older woman named Winona Curell.” I paused, remembering the event. “She was in league with her boyfriend, Joseph Winters, but I cannot remember what he did here at the Manor.”

“I am not sure if he did anything,” Dennis said. “I would always see him around, but I assumed he was just here to see Winona.”

“It was creepy because they were both old,” Jennifer mused. “It always seemed creepy to me, that old people could fall in love with each other. I mean, I can understand being in love with someone until you turn old, but not falling in love once you have already turned old.”

“Ah, leave it to you, Jennifer, to bring this all back to romance,” Selena sighed. I nodded.

“Well, I am a girl, after all,” Jennifer defended. Her lips turned pouty. “And besides, you are married and in love, so you should know what I am talking about better than most.”

“Are you saying that I am old?” Selena asked in mock anger, “I feel quite young at thirty one years old, thank you very much. How old do I have to be until I lose that youngness?”

I looked at my cards. A pair of aces, and three sevens. I looked over at the others cards on the table. A cascading group of two , three, and four hearts lay in front of Victor. I could hit that and win this game, I thought to myself.

I proudly carried out that action.

“I won!”

The feeling was gone in a few seconds. After counting up the points, it became plainly obvious that I only had thirty points. That was nothing in comparison to the triple digit numbers that both Jennifer and Victor had. I sighed. Obviously, I knew nothing about this game, or the way to win it, even though I had done all right the first round.

I stood up from the table.

“So you are going to leave now?” Victor asked as he passed the deck of cards to Jennifer to shuffle. “You lose your game and you just leave instead of watching me victoriously destroy your girlfriend?”

“She is not my girlfriend, and I don’t care if you win or lose.”

I stated matter of factly. I stormed out of the room. The watch on my wrist said it was only ten thirty. I had wanted to get some extra sleep in, but there was no way to do that tonight. I thought it might have been eleven or later. I made my way over to my bedroom and sat at my desk.

The talk on Josiah’s old kidnapping case had brought back memories. That was the first case Natalie and I worked together, and I think that was the first time I felt some thing other than friendliness towards her. I sighed and out my hands behind my head.

There was no use going back to those old times, I told myself. What is done is done.

So why did I want it to come back again? Why did I want to revive a relationship in a way that was already dead?

I could never understand myself. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TL

THE KNOCK on the door startled me. I was already lying in bed, although fully clothed. I stumbled to the door, bleary eyed. The alarm clock read eleven fifty. It had only been twenty minutes? It felt like I had been sleeping for hours.

“Hello?” I asked, reaching for the doorknob. I twisted it open. Natalie was standing there, her arms behind her back. I moved quickly.

“Come inside,” I told her, stepping aside form the door. She came inside.

“I am sorry to bother you late like this, Kenneth,” she said. I shut the door and pulled up my chair from the desk. She sat down at my request. I parked myself on the bed.

“Hey, you don’t have to worry about it,” I responded. “But tell me, what is the matter?”

Natalie looked down.

“I just came from a visit with your aunt.”

I looked away.

“It was tough, was it not?”

“It hurt to see her that way.”

I had no words to say. Natalie shook her head.

“Why do things like that have to happen to people? I mean, what has she ever done to deserve that?” Natalie started to cry. It caught me off guard. I had never seen her cry before, not even when she decided to leave me. I guess, she would have had no real reason to cry then, seeing as she was the one who made that decision.

I turned to Natalie. She covered her face in her hands. I didn’t know what to do. I had comforted other people before, but never Natalie. That was just not some thing you did. Natalie was the strong, unmovable rock. She was the one that had it all together. No one had to comfort her. I sat in silence for a few minutes.

“We can never know why things like this happen,” I began. “When people we love, people we feel are almost perfect, when they are hurt, it does not make any sense to us. But does their health rest on the fact that they are good? Does their body care if they have never stolen anything or done any really bad acts?” I shook my head.

“I don’t understand why my aunt Nicole is sick. I don’t understand why she is dying. But I cannot say it is unfair. Everyone on this earth has been dying, for centuries. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but she is going to die as well. I can only hope to make her last memories the best ones she has experienced.”

Natalie wiped her eyes and looked up at me.

“I have never heard anyone comfort anyone else that way before,” she admitted, “but I fell better, for what it is worth.”

I smiled.

Natalie looked down at her wrist.

“I have to go,” she said, standing up. Her face was red, but there remained no traces of tears or puffiness. She seemed awfully good at hiding her emotions, even when she was in the middle of showing them to me. “I need to speak with Andrea but I cannot seem to find her in her room. She may be there now, though.”

I stood up.

“Thanks for coming to talk to me,” I said, quietly. We stood by the door for a full minute, not saying anything. Natalie turned around and reached for the doorknob.

“Thank you, Kenneth. For helping me.” She smiled and slipped out of the room.

I sighed. She was making things so difficult!

I shut the door and climbed onto my bed. I looked over at the alarm clock. It was not even eleven fifteen yet. Somehow, that small conversation with Natalie had taken all of the sleep out of me. I sat up.

What if everything goes back to the way it was before? I wondered. Could we ever go back to being … I didn’t dare to think about it yet.

There was some thing I had to do. A decision I had to make if I wanted to make things right.

I was convinced that I could od some thing about it. If there was a way to get back together with Natalie, I was going to jump for the chance. Of course, there was still one thing standing in between us. I had always felt it was either Jennifer, or even Natalie herself, but I was starting to see my error. There was some thing I had to do, some thing I had to bring into the light if I wanted to make things whole again.

I used to love the dark. No one can see you, no one can judge you. Whatever you do under the blanket of darkness, no one can bring back to haunt, shame, or humiliate you. But the only problem with the dark, is that it is so easy to turn on the light and expose what is hidden. Or maybe that was the good thing about it. Maybe there was a reason why I needed to expose this dark area of my life.

I jumped out of bed and slipped my shoes on. A huge smile was plastered across my face as I slammed the door closed behind me and sped down the hall.

(Later)

“Kenneth! My goodness, you scared me!”

I had turned the corner by the main stairway and walked straight into Andrea.

I stepped back sheepishly.

“Sorry about that,” I sad. She chuckled nervously.

“Hey, don’t worry about it.” She wrung her hands. I looked at her curiously.

“Is everything all right?” I asked. Andrea shook her head.

“No, actually. I cannot seem to find Josiah any where.”

I tilted my head.

“You remember, he goes out side every evening for his nightly walk.” I glanced at my watch. “It is not even eleven thirty,” I said, showing her my watch. “He will be back in at least fifteen more minutes.”

She didn’t seem to notice what I had said.

“I will go check in his office,” Andrea said, moving in that direction. She walked with short steps. She looked like some thing at scared her to death. I hit myself on the forehead.

Of course! I had just slammed into her from no where. That was bound to give her a little scare, I guess. I continued on my journey.

It brought me to the basement. I got what I needed form there and returned to my bedroom.

“All right,” I said to no one in particular. “It is time to end this.”

I lit the match and watched the paper burn over the fire place. It was a satisfying feeling. I tossed the match onto the timbers and crawled into bed.

The soft glow of the tiny fire was comforting, even though it was very small. I smiled. In the morning, I would finally be able to tell Natalie how I felt. Now that this was out of the way, there was absolutely nothing that could keep us apart.

I fell asleep to the thought of Natalie and I on the West Hill, just talking, laughing, having a good time. What good friends did. It was a nice thought to fall asleep on. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter G

ONCE AGAIN my sleep was interrupted by banging on my door. I rose quickly from my bed this time, though. I had only been laying here for a few minutes, but it felt like hours. This felt like it was happening all over again. Maybe I am still dreaming, I told myself. It does not really feel real.

“Hello?” I called out, reaching for the door knob. Everything was blurry and I was having trouble locating the door knob. I pulled it open.

“Kenneth? Oh my goodness, I need to speak to you!”

“Andrea?” I pulled her into the room. “Tell me, what is the matter?”

She was sobbing now.

“Kenneth, I,” she gulped. “I told Natalie already, and she told me to get you.”

“Why did she tell you that, Andrea? What happened?”

Andrea shook.

“It is Josiah,” she managed to get out. “He is missing!”

“Andrea, I told you already, he should be back by eleven forty – ” I glanced at the watch on my wrist. My mouth fell open.

“Twelve fifteen?!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. “You told Natalie already, right?”

“That is what I told you when I first came in.”

“All right, now I want you to go tell everyone and get them to come downstairs.” She started to move. “Wait, don’t wake up Nicole.” I shook my head. “Sorry, you already knew that. You can go, please, hurry up.”

She ran from the room. I quickly put my shoes on.

Images from five years ago came flooding back. The feeling of panic was starting to set in. I remember when we first heard he was missing when he was a boy. The thought that he might be kidnapped again hit me like a ton of bricks. There was no way I would let that happen to him again. I rushed out of the room.

I had to find Natalie. Together we would be able to find my cousin and bring him back home safely. This would be just like before. I sucked up the tears that were threatening to fall as I ran down the steps and into the kitchen. Everything would be all right. Just like before.

 

Chapter SCV_2000

THE KITCHEN was already crowded by the time I got there. Everyone stood there in various states of sleepiness and sleep wear. I seemed to be the only one dressed.

“What is going on?” Diana asked me. I shook my head.

“Josiah seems to be missing,” I told her. “We are waiting for Natalie, I think.”

As if on cue, Natalie walked through the door. Everyone turned to her expectantly. She looked around.

“Is everyone here?” she asked. I looked around.

“Dennis went to go get David and Victor,” Diana said. As though they had heard her speak, the three of them walked in. David came over to me, as did Natalie.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked. “NO one has been able to tell me.”

“Josiah has gone missing,” she explained to his father. David frowned.

“That is absurd! Is this some sort of game, meant to repeat the horrors of that night long ago?”

“No, sir, I assure you, it is not,” Natalie said calmly. I turned to her. How could she be so sure?

“Mr. Livingston, I need you to help me with the staff.”

“What is it you need me to do?”

“I am going to search for Josiah now. But I need to ensure that everyone stays here and is calm.” She crossed her arms. “Can you do that for me, MR. Livingston?”

“David,” he said, nodding his head. “Yes, I can do that.”

Natalie headed for the back door.

“Wait!” I said, pushing my way towards her. She looked at me.

“Natalie, I have to go with you.”

“Kenneth, I”

“No!” I shouted. She reached for the door and I slammed it shut on her. my eyes were wild and she looked concerned, but I didn’t care in the least bit. This was some thing I cared very much about.

“there is no way you are going out there to look for my cousin and not letting me help you.” I shook my head. “Do you not remember the first time this happened, how I was able to help you find him because I knew the grounds? Well, the same thing applies here.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t like this, but all right.” She yanked open the door. “Grab that flashlight and let us go.”

I did as she said and followed her out of the door. As I closed it behind me, I glanced back. Through the small window, I could see Diana and Jennifer praying. Hopefully, their prayers would do us some good.

{LATER}

“HOW FAR have we gone?” Natalie asked. Neither of us had said anything for a few minutes. I was trying to retrace Josiah’s steps as accurately as possible. He usually didn’t leave from the back of the kitchen, so it was difficult to find his path from here, but we did find it. I turned to her.

“We have been going at it for a while now,” I replied. “The fountain should be just up ahead.”

“And you think he will be here at this fountain?”

“This is where he goes every night,” I said. “He has to be here.” I turned away from her.

“Maybe he fell asleep or some thing.” I wanted to believe it as I said it, but I was having trouble convincing myself.

“Is that it?” Natalie asked, flashing the light up ahead. I felt my stomach jump in my chest. I recognized the statue sticking out of the fountain. It was dimly lit, which meant that no one had passed for a while now, but that someone had been there within the last thirty minutes or so. That was how long it took the light to automatically shut off.

“Yes, that is it,” I said, picking up speed. Everything was quiet except for the sound of my footfalls, and now Natalie’s beside me. The fountain had stopped running a while ago, and as we drew closer, the light shut off.

“What happened?” Natalie said. I turned to her.

“It will turn on once we get over there,” I reassured her. “It shuts off like that because it runs on a sensor. We were within a few feet from it now.

Light flooded the fountain area. We faced the back of the fountain. All we had to do was go around to the other side, with the benches.

“Come on,” I said, looking behind me. “It is just this way.”

I rounded the corner. My foot hit some thing. I looked down. My heart turned violently inside me and I let out the most horrified scream ever known to man.

“Josiah!” I collapsed on the floor.

His body lay on the ground, arms flat on his sides. I grabbed his face. He was not breathing.

Natalie pulled up beside me.

“He is not breathing!” I shouted, reaching for his arms to take his pulse. I screamed again.

They were bloody, both of them, marked with slices across the wrists.

No! It cannot be!

“No!” I turned to Natalie. “This is not true! This, no!”

I let out a sob. No! he couldn’t be … I couldn’t even think about it. Natalie rubbed my back, but I couldn’t feel anything.

I picked up Josiah’s limp body in my arms, my body shaking from the sobs. I let out a wail.

“No, Josiah, please, don’t do this to yourself!” I pressed his body against mine and rocked him, hoping that would make some thing happen. Nothing happened.

“Natalie, what do I do? What has he done?”

She kneeled next to me and wrapped her arm across me chest.

“Josiah!” I hit his face, I shook him, but I couldn’t get him awake. “Joey, wake up!”

“Kenneth, I am sorry,”

“No! He is still here,” I said, shaking my head. the sobs were getting worse and it was hard for me to speak.

He cannot be dead. There is no way this is even real.

I stood up and backed away from the body.

“This is all fake,” I said, pointing at the body. “I am still asleep. None of this is really happening.”

Natalie walked over to me. I fell to the floor.

It was real. And it was crushing me. I was reduced to a heap of sobbing flesh on the ground. How could he do this? Why did he choose to leave us like this?

The pain was intense. I couldn’t look at his body like that. It was making me sick. My stomach turned in my chest. There was no way this was real. Whatever was inside me emptied out onto the ground next to me. I was choking out sobs, shaking in pain. This was not real. None of it was. I just needed to wake up from this dream.

“Kenneth.” Natalie pulled me up from the ground and held me close to her. She turned me away from the body.

“How am I supposed to go on like this?” I asked. “How can I live knowing I couldn’t save him?”

“Kenneth, he was not yours to save.”

“But I wanted to save him! I didn’t want him to take his own life!”

“We cannot do anything about that now,” she said, leaning against me.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The anger inside of me started to grow. Was I not good enough to save him? Why could I not see that he was going to do this to himself? Why could I not stop him? Too many questions plagued my mind.

Sobbing hurt. I pulled away from Natalie and went over to his body.

He looked at peace. Which freaked me out. How could he be more at peace with death than with life? There was nothing worse than death. Why would he look happy now that he chose it? Why did it hurt so much?

I dropped to the ground next to him and pulled his body to myself. I was covered in blood and stomach acid by now, but I didn’t care. I held the body of my young cousin close to me and closed my eyes.

This was all a dream, I told myself. When I fall asleep, I will wake up, and I will be in my room and all of this will go away.

I felt the sob coming on again. I was convincing no one.

I laid like that, next to Josiah, next to Joey, sobbing my heart out. Natalie bent down next to me.

“What is this?” She asked curiously, picking some thing off the ground. I didn’t even care what she said. The only thing I could think about was Josiah.

He was really gone. And there was not a thing in the world I could do about it. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter 001

NATALIE WENT back to the Manor for help. I stayed with my cousin’s body. It was hard to believe that it was actually really his body, but as the minutes passed, the reality of it all was setting on me. I couldn’t look at his face any more, I could only hold him close to me and think.

Oh what a terrible thing the mind is! It is just you and your thoughts in there, the dark cavernous regions that are willing to tell lies, willing to seduce and manipulate with bitterness and hatred. And anger. That was one I knew very well.

The rumbling of the golf cart interrupted my mourning. I stood up. Only Natalie and the doctor came during this trip. I was extremely grateful. The less people that had to see Josiah like this, the better. Once they got him cleaned up for the funeral, he would be more presentable than right now.

Dr. Haines climbed out of the vehicle before Natalie brought it to a complete stop. He rushed over to me and I grabbed his arms.

“Kenneth, you have to let me see him,” he said, removing my hands gently from his arms. I didn’t know why I tried to cling to him, so I let go. He went over to the body and began his examination.

Natalie shut off the golf cart’s engine and called me softly over to her. I made my way over to the golf cart and plunked myself down on the passenger’s side. I kept my gaze straight ahead, at Dr. Haines and he work he was doing on Josiah. It looked more like a physical examination, but I was sure he would bring him to the lab later for an autopsy. It was strange how we had almost a mini hospital here at the Manor. It was all for my aunt Nicole though. David had poured every bit of resources into making her get better, and nothing short of a hospital lab had been built here. Dr. Haines didn’t require a staff – he was a hands on, live in doctor, who loved what he did. I had much respect for the man, but I admit I never saw much of him, aside from when I went in for physical examinations or things related to that.

I could see Natalie cross her arms out of the corner of my eye. She sighed.

“Kenneth,” she said slowly, “how are you taking all of this?”

That was one thing I liked about Natalie. She was always to the point, never beating around bushes or scared to say what she really meant. I turned to her and replied honestly.

“I have no idea how I am going to make it through.” I willed myself not to cry, but getting choked up was never going to be avoided. I continued speaking. “I still cannot believe that he did this to himself.” That was the only way I could bring myself to describe it: as some thing he did to himself. There was no way I could say that he … even thinking about it brought the sickness back into my stomach.

“How could he do this?” I asked. “How could he leave me like this, not knowing why he did this, or whether I could have stopped it or not?”

“Kenneth, you must not blame yourself for what has happened,” Natalie replied. She leaned forward. “Neither of us knew he would do some thing like this, and neither of us were prepared for it. Granted, you knew Josiah better than I did, but we both talked to him and we both felt that he needed help. Okay, we were a little naïve to think that he was starting to get better, or that getting married would be the best thing for him. But aside from that, there is nothing we could have done to stop this. It was his decision to make, not ours. And as harsh as it may sound, his act today was a selfish one. We could spend as much time crying about it and fretting over it, but in reality, Josiah would not have cared what you felt. He wanted his own comfort or his own relief apart from yours. If he killed himself, then he must not have cared about any of us at all.”

“Stop it!” I shouted, covering my ears. It was childish, but it was getting to me. “Please, stop saying things like that!”

“Kenneth, I am only speaking the truth,”

“Well I don’t want your truth!” I snapped back angrily. “I want my cousin Josiah back. I want him to be happy. I want him to enjoy life. I want him to grow up and have kids and do all the things he wanted to do with his life.” The tears came now, along with the body racking sobs. “I want him to be here with me again,” I choked out. I covered my face with my hands and let it all out. Natalie reached over and rubbed my shoulder. I was unsure how that would provide comfort, but it did, in the strangest of ways.

“I just don’t understand.”

Dr. Haines cleared his throat. I looked up, wiping the tears from my eyes as quickly as possible. He offered me a bleak smile and rested a hand on my shoulder.

“He is dead, as I am sure you already knew, but I have to say it myself. I put the time of death as between eleven thirty and eleven forty five.” Dr. Haines turned to Natalie.

“Detective, I would like to speak with you privately for a moment, before we go back to the Manor.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Natalie turned to me. “I will be back shortly, okay, Kenneth?”

I nodded, and she and the doctor walked back to the body. I was not concerned with what they were talking about. I assumed it had some thing to do with the actual details of how it happened. I wondered how doctors were able to tell the time of death of a person through a simple examination. I found myself not wanting to really know. I didn’t want to know how much blood he loss, or whether he experienced much pain, or anything else related to the incident. I wanted to think that he was in a better place, but I was unsure where that better place could possibly be. I didn’t want to think of anything, so instead I watched the two of them talk.

Natalie mostly listened, while Dr. Haines did most of the talking. She occasionally gestured to the body and looked around the woods like she expected someone to be there. She bent down on the ground and picked some thing up to show it to Dr. Haines. I couldn’t see it from here, but she then put it into a plastic bag and gave it to him. He pocketed the bag and resumed his speech.

This ended a few minutes later, and the two of them turned back to me. They walked in my direction. Natalie approached me first.

“Kenneth, I am going to leave the doctor here while I take you back to the Manor.” She paused, but I made no objections. “He will stay with the body until we can move it to the laboratory.”

“He will stay with Josiah,” I corrected. “Not the body, but Josiah.”

“Okay, he will stay with Josiah,” Natalie corrected herself. She looked at me sadly, but I shook my head. none of this left me in my right mind, so I was liable to say the strangest things. But I meant it, which was the strange part.

Natalie climbed into the driver’s seat. Dr. Haines came over to my side once again.

“Kenneth, don’t let this tear you down,” he said. “We all will mourn his passing, but be careful not to let the weight of guilt bear on you.”

I nodded, but I was not really listening. I think the only thing I felt at that moment was numbness, even though that supposedly means you cannot feel anything. Natalie turned the golf cart on and backed up, careful not to bring me within eye sight of the body again. We drove on, taking about five or ten minutes to get back to the Manor.

Natalie stopped the cart and got out, but I couldn’t move. She came over to my side and slipped her arm under mine and helped me out. She looked at me.

“You have to pull yourself together now,” she said. “You have to go in there and they already know what has happened, so you don’t need to say a word. Just get in there and be there for your uncle and aunt,” she told me. I nodded and let her lead me to the back of the kitchen. I opened the door on my own and stepped inside.

I could hear the sounds of the golf cart rushing away as I closed the door softly behind me. Everyone was already there in the kitchen, watching and waiting. I didn’t look at nay of them. I didn’t hear any of them. My thoughts were focused only on my aunt. I wanted to get up there as fast as I could and be with her. David could handle this better than I could. He was a strong man, and he had experienced death before. It would hurt him to be sure, but he didn’t need my comfort. My aunt Nicole, on the other hand, was already more sensitive due to the fact that she was sick. Add that to the fact that she bore Josiah, and raised him, would be even more crushing and difficult to handle.

I pushed my way through the kitchen, up the stairs and into my aunt Nicole’s bedroom. The light was off, as she was sleeping and it had been decided that she would not be disturbed until the morning. I shut the door behind me, fully enveloping the room in darkness. I made my way over to her bed and climbed inside it. It was a queen size, so there was enough room for the both of us. I didn’t go near her body, I simply laid in the empty space next to her. She was asleep but I knew that I needed to be here. I needed to be close to my family, to the ones that were still alive. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter 237

I FOUND myself awake in my own bed the next morning. I had no idea how I had gotten there, although there was some thing about David waking me up that felt hazy, so I figured it was a dream. He must have woken me up and sent me to my room, like a good parent would when their child comes running to them scared in the middle of the night.

I was still full clothed, although my shoes were suspiciously and neatly placed under my bed. I was notorious for kicking my shoes and socks off at random angles, leaving them to fall wherever they so desired, so I was surprised to see them neat like that. I made my way over to the shower, peeled back dirty and smelly clothing and let the water run over me for five whole minutes. I just stood there, feeling cleanliness wash over me, before I even started washing myself.

After my shower, I gathered all of my clothes and shoved them into a plastic shopping bag I had lying around under my bed. I left the bag with the clothing near my laundry hamper, knowing that someone would come to take it later. That someone would have been Andrea, the maid.

Andrea!

I had not even thought about her at all! She was probably suffering just as much as I did last night. I hurriedly slipped into some decent clothes: a blue tee shirt with the words “Look at me still talking when there’s science to do” scrawled across the middle in faded yellow lettering. I had on some pale blue jeans and a pair of all white canvas sneakers. I looked in the mirror of the bathroom.

My face looked horrible. Dark circles ran along my eyes, and the distinct traces of five o clock shadow showed on my chin and cheeks. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy. How could they still be puffy after so many hours of not crying? I figured I must have cried in my sleep. Was that even possible? I wondered.

I made my way out of my room and down the hall in a few minutes. Andrea’s room was right down the hall, and I knocked on it softly. I heard a muffled voice and opened the door slowly. Her room was organized much like mine, except way neater and more pink. She even laid a pink carpet on top of the regular carpet. That sickened me, but that is not what I was here for. Andrea lay in a heap on her pink and gray bed, which sat under an enormous digital clock. I must confess, I had never seen the inside of Andrea’s room before, and I had never seen a clock that huge any where but on gas station signs or banks.

It read seven forty five. Wow. I was up rather early. Considering the fact that I had barely gotten any sleep before they called me out …

Andrea sat up. She looked like a mess. But of course, that is how I expected to find her. Her hair was undone and out of place. Her eyes stained black, with streaks running down her cheeks. I wondered why she would have been wearing mascara last night, but then I realized that she had probably not gone to bed yet, so there was no time for her to clean it off. She was dressed in sleep clothing, but she looked slightly dirty.

I walked up to her and sat on the edge of her bed.

“You held him, didn’t you?”

Andrea looked at me, tears welling in her eyes.

“Yes,” she said, letting out a deep breath. “They tried to not let me go to him, but I would not let them take him away before I could touch him.”

Neither of us said anything for a while.

I ventured to break the silence.

“It was hard, I know. But we will be able to move on.”

She looked away from me. For a second, it looked like she was guilty, or had a guilty conscience. I smiled.

“Andrea, don’t fret. There is no need for you to feel guilty about this.”

I resisted the urge to tell her that I was the only one to blame, but I knew it would do more harm than good. When she didn’t look at me again, I stood up. I knew that my stay was no longer welcome. I cleared my throat.

“I will speak with you later, Andrea.”

I don’t think she heard me. It was all right.

I closed the door behind me softly and stood in the hall.

What should I do? I asked myself.

Of course. Natalie. There was no way I would be able to get all the details from Dr. Haines. He was just too nice. He would not tell me what I wanted to know about Josiah’s … my heart beat quickened.

Natalie would be able to help me though. She understood that there were just some things I needed to hear. I had to find her as quickly as possible.

I figured she would be at the kitchen. Yesterday morning, by the time I got there everyone had already eaten and gone, including Natalie. If I wanted to find her at this hour, my best bet would be in the kitchen. If she was eating there, we could talk then. If not, some one may have seen her, and that would be more of a lead than just looking around the whole house and manor grounds.

I headed down the stairs as quickly and quietly as possible. No one else seemed to be up, or at least, they were doing a good job at keeping quiet. I was unsure how everyone was taking this. It seemed like avoidance would be the number one thing this time around.

I pushed open the kitchen door. Much o my surprise, I found both Natalie and my uncle David sitting at the table. They looked up when I walked in, and I offered them a grim smile.

“I see you are up,” David said, standing up from his seat. He looked tired, as though he had not gotten any sleep. I walked over to him, and welcomed his embrace. We stood that way for a while, neither of us saying anything. We didn’t need to say anything. It just felt right. After a while, I heard him let out a little sniffle, and I started to pull away. David looked me in the eye.

“Are you going to be able to hold up, kid?” he asked, running a hand along my shoulder. I smiled.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice choking up. He liked to talk to me like I was a little kid, but never in a demeaning way. It always felt like he absolutely cared about me and had my best interests in mind. I realized how little time I spent thinking about my uncle, and I wondered how much of him I really knew about.

I turned to Natalie.

“Good morning,” I said with a nod. I went over to the table and stood next to her.

“Thanks,” I began, “for last night. It was a real help.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said quietly, pulling her lips into a tight smile. I went over to the cabinet and proceeded to serve myself cereal. I brought my plate, complete with milk and spoon, over to the table where the others were sitting. Natalie had an empty bowl in front of her and played with her spoon. David still had food in his bowl. I struggled to see what it was, without looking like I was really trying. I was unsure if it was peanut butter captain crunch, or reses puffs cereal. Both had graced our cabinets before, and I could only see light brown puff balls. I myself chomped into some luck charms, and from the color of the milk in Natalie’s bowl, it looked like she had eaten some thing chocolaty. The only thing I remember seeing in the cabinet with chocolate was cocoa pebbles. I never thought of Natalie as a cocoa pebbles type of girl.

“So how did everything go last night, with the body and everything?” I addressed my question to the air, but it was mainly directed at Natalie. She turned away from me, and David sighed.

“What did I say?” I asked sarcastically. I knew that some would think it too soon to think about these kinds of things, but I truly wanted to know.

“Kenneth, both your uncle David and I were with Dr. Haines when he examined the body.” Natalie began slowly. I turned to her and made a face. Well? 

She continued.

“Your uncle has an interesting idea about this whole thing that he wants to share with you.”

I looked over at David, curiously. He looked frustrated and sighed.

“I didn’t want to tell him, Detective,” he said, shaking his head, “but now it seems as though you have forced me to.” He leveled his gaze with mine and dropped his spoon into his bowl.

“There were some things about the scene of the accident, okay I will call it an accident, and there were some things about it that just didn’t settle right with me. Now, you may call me an over analyst, but there were some things that didn’t seem like it had been suicide.”

I dropped my spoon in my plate.

“What are you trying to say?”

David looked at me.

“I am trying to say that maybe, and mind you this is only a hypothetical, maybe Josiah really didn’t kill himself.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks. The first thought that came into my mind was relief. But why should I be relieved to find that he had not killed himself, but that someone else had killed him? It felt almost better to think that he had not done this to himself, even though the fact is that it was already done, so there was no going back. He was forever gone, but at least someone did him in instead of him doing it himself. What kind of sad idea was that? At this moment, that was the only thought I had.

The next thought was, of course, more rational and made more sense.

“Wait, so if he was killed, then, I have to ask, who killed him?”

I found myself not wanting to know the answer after I had just said it. Did I really want to know who the murderer was?

David cleared his throat.

“Uh, we are, uh, unsure about that.” He turned to Natalie for words. She stepped in quickly.

“Kenneth, your uncle has hired me to investigate this matter.” Natalie reached across the table and touched my hand. I stared at her hand on top of mine. “I will work as hard as I can to find out who did this to your cousin,” she glanced at David, “and your son.” He nodded somberly. She turned back to me.

“But there is more,” she said. I looked up. “I want you to work with me, Kenneth. Just like before.”

“Of course,” I said, without even thinking about it.

My demeanor changed then. All emotion was gone, or rather, all my feelings of guilt and mourning were gone. I felt that this new responsibility of mine would help end this grief, and I was willing to do whatever it took to end it. If I could help Natalie find the murderer, than we could see them brought to justice, and Josiah would have been avenged. The thought of that felt good.

David stood up.

“Is there anything I can do to assist you further?” he asked. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, please, don’t tell anyone else of what has transpired here. I will schedule appointments with them, in which I will reveal to them what needs to be revealed.”

David nodded.

“All right, I will do that. I give all control of this investigation over to you,” he said, “but if I see that it is going nowhere, I have the right to take back my money and hire a real team, or just bring in the police, and they will do it for free.” He left the room on that somber note.

I chuckled.

“You will have to forgive my uncle. He likes to say strange things some times.”

“I have noticed,” Natalie said, joining me in my chuckling. “I have been in here with him all morning, negotiating everything for the past few hours.”

I frowned.

“So this is about money?”

Natalie shook her head.

“Of course not,” she began. “I was negotiating with David to see the lowest price I was willing to accept. I wanted to do this for free, but David has pride, and he wanted to give me some money. I managed to get away with only a few thousand dollars, and even those I am trying to figure a way to put back into the Manor.”

I looked at her.

“You know, not many people would do some thing like that.”

“I know, Kenneth.” She stood.

“Come, let us go into the living room. We will set up our headquarters there, using it to think and talk to people.”

I placed my dish in the sink and followed her out of the room.

Finally, things were starting to happen. Natalie was getting into the Detective mode, and I was playing Watson. After my cousin’s death, what more could I ask? (Chapter End)

 

Chapter O

I LED her to the living room. It was empty, which was what I expected. We pushed together some chairs around one of the taller glass coffee tables. Natalie produced a briefcase from her side that I had not noticed until now. She started sifting through it and pulled out a few sheets of paper and two pens. She handed me a sheet and a pen, which I accepted quickly. I uncapped the blue ballpoint pen and picked up the paper.

“All right, let us start this the right way,” she said, stacking her papers neatly. She tucked a clump of hair behind her ear and adjusted the pen in her grip. She glanced at me.

“We have to first think this through.” She paused. “We know that we have to find the murderer. So, who is the murderer?”

“Like do you want to know their name, or?” I left it up to her to fill in the blank. She shook her head.

“I mean to say is the murderer someone here in the Manor, or are they a random lunatic that is running around the woods without anyone knowing?”

“Well,” I cleared my throat. “It would be easy to say that it was a ‘random lunatic’ as you so eloquently put it. However, I don’t think it is possible for some thing like that to happen. If this truly was a murder, then it was made to look like a suicide at first glance. This couldn’t have been done by some crazy person who wanted a few thrills.” It sounded harsh to think about it that way. But it was true. Some people got thrills out of killing people. I shuddered.

“That is good thinking,” Natalie said, scribbling a few notes onto her paper. I had a nagging suspicion that she already knew that, but was just testing me. She continued speaking. “So this narrows it down to someone inside the Manor.”

I froze.

The reality of her statement hit me again.

Someone here at Manor. That terrified me.

“Someone inside the manor?” I repeated, swallowing a huge lump in my throat. Natalie nodded.

“Now that we have narrowed it down, everything will be so much easier.”

“Easier?” I asked incredulously. “You are going to pin this on one of these people here? Natalie, I know all of them, there is no way any of them would have killed Josiah!”

She leveled her gaze at me.

“Kenneth, I know these people too, or at least, I think I know them.” She looked at me curiously. “Can you say that you really know them, Kenneth?”

I was silent. She had a point. I didn’t know much about any of them, aside from some of the basics you can glean from everyday conversation. I had never taken an interest in learning about them any way, so I was not surprised.

“So you think one of them could have done it?” I asked slowly. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, in fact, that is exactly what I believe. One of them had to have done it, and set the whole thing up to make it look like Josiah had killed himself.”

“And we are going to find that person?” I felt like a little child.

“We are going to find them, but more than that, we are going to bring them to justice.” Natalie said, confidently. She returned her attention back to her paper and drew a huge box in the center of it under some of her notes from earlier. She drew a line separating the box in half. She looked up.

“Each of these squares represents one of the floors in this house. I want to be able to see just exactly where everyone’s room is.” She twirled her pen in her hands. “For organization purposes, of course.”

I nodded. I had the blue print memorized.

I reached over to her paper and quickly scrawled this crude blueprint in the boxes she had provided. Natalie turned the paper toward her and examined it. She nodded, satisfied.

“This looks about right,” she said. “Ok now to start with the suspect list. From there we can figure out who was where, alibis can be established; people will lie to us, et cetera, et cetera. But we will find the culprit in the end, so don’t worry.”

I frowned.

“So we are all suspects?” I asked. “Including you and me?”

“I must admit that I don’t seriously consider either myself or you as the killer,” Natalie said, setting down her pen. She crossed her arms and continued. “However, I am willing to go through my actions and you can dot he same and we will both of us be on the same level.”

I picked up my pen.

“Let us do this then.”

Natalie cleared her throat.

“After dinner, I went immediately upstairs to see your aunt Nicole. Let us say that was eleven thirty. We talked for about twenty minutes then I came down and talked to you. We were done a little after eleven, say eleven oh seven or eight. When I got to my room it was eleven ten that much I remember. I got into bed before eleven thirty; I set my alarm then that is why it had to be before eleven thirty. Andrea came in at like 12 o’clock. I sent her to you, and then rushed downstairs. I passed victor on the way and asked him to go upstairs for whoever else didn’t hear (I heard you tell Andrea to tell everyone else). Well, you know what happened when everyone got there.”

Natalie leaned forward.

All throughout her speech, I had written little snippets of what I had heard, trying toy construct some kind of time sheet for easy cross referencing. I looked up as I finished writing. I slid the paper over to her side.

“Now you can fill it in as I dictate,” I said, capping my pen and setting it on the desk in front of me.

Natalie smiled and stifled a chuckle. I grinned and began walking through the events of that night with her.

“I played with the others a few hands of Rummy Five Hundred,” I began. “After about twenty minutes I decided to leave. The game had gotten a little out of hand,” I said, looking away. “Any way, I went to my room, and then you showed up and we talked for a bit.” I picked up the pen and twirled it in my hands. “I went out of my room and ran into Andrea. I had to use the bathroom, but I needed to get the plunger form the basement, so I went there first. I used the downstairs bathroom since I was already there. I came back upstairs, got ready for bed and went to sleep almost immediately afterwards. Next thing you know, Andrea is tearing down my door, telling me she cannot find Josiah.”

I paused as she filled out the time sheet I had written up.

“Andrea never told me she had spoken to you already,” I said.

Natalie looked up at me a few seconds later, totally detached.

“What did you say?”

“I said that when Andrea came to me, I sent her to you, but she had already been there. She never mentioned that when she left my room. She showed up a little later o the kitchen, and I just assumed she had been going to get you.”

Natalie shook her head.

“It seems we have our second strange piece of evidence in this case.”

“Our second piece?” I repeated inquisitively. Natalie returned my paper back to me. She took out another sheet from the bottom of her pile and labeled it EVIDENCE. She underlined it.

“Yes,” she finally responded. “Last night when you lifted Josiah’s body off the ground, I found some thing strange on the ground beneath him.”

She pulled out her phone and sifted through its photo application until she found what she was looking for. She turned the phone towards.

“What is that a syringe?” I asked. Natalie nodded.

“Yes, that is exactly what it is.” I squinted at the tiny photo. “I cannot tell.”

“It did have some liquid in it,” she replied, reaching for the phone. I handed it back to her. “Dr. Haines will start work on testing it later. First, he has to do an autopsy, and he is having concerns about doing it himself.”

“Where has he put Josiah?” I said abruptly. “Surely he is not in the lab all this time?”

Natalie gave me a look.

“I am surprised, Kenneth. You live here and you don’t remember the freezer in the basement?”

“Oh yes, I had forgotten about that.” I ran a hand through my hair. “But I consider it to be more of a Freeze Room than just a simple freezer. I guess it would make sense to put him in there.”

“I find that room fascination,” Natalie said, leaning forward. “To think, it reaches below zero degrees and it is almost the size of this room.”

“Yes it is pretty cool,” I admitted, “although I am not sure who will go in there for meat with him in there.”

“You don’t keep some meat in the upstairs freezers?” she asked. I found it odd, the question, but I answered.

“Of course we do, but never in huge amounts. We take out whatever it needed I guess – I cannot really tell you that.” I shrugged. “Maybe Jennifer or Annabelle knows,” I suggested.

“SO you are never sent down there to get meat?”

I shook my head.

“No, but what does this have to do with the investigation?” I asked. She turned her palms upward.

“Curiosity,” she replied.

Natalie was a strange one that much I knew. But she was good at what she did. Her record – or at least what she told us any way – was pretty amazing. I trusted her with this investigation, even if she asked weird questions.

“Any way,” she said, continuing to write on her evidence sheet. “We can list Andrea’s late arrival here. It is definitely some thing worth looking into.”

“So, are we going to investigate or interrogate first?” I asked humorously.

Natalie smiled and stood up.

“Come with me,” she said. “We can do both at the same time.”

I gathered my papers and followed her into the hallway. She turned to me.

“We will go to Josiah’s office, the kitchen, then over to the fountain,” Natalie said.

“Together?” I knew I sounded like a little kid, but I didn’t want to go any where by myself for a few moments. Not when we had just acknowledged that a killer might be loose.

Natalie smiled.

“Yes,” she said. “Together. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter H

JOSIAH’S OFFICE was not locked. I pushed open the door and allowed Natalie to enter first. She immediately went after his desk, pulling open drawers and surveying their contents.

I set Natalie’s briefcase on the chair I had sat on the other day. I made my way over to her.

“What are you looking for?”

She pulled a large stack of paper and deposited it on the desk. She gave me a quick glance out of the side of her eye.

“I don’t know if you remember our meeting with Josiah a few days ago,”

“Yes, I do remember but,”

“Josiah spoke to us about finding a letter,” she interrupted as though I had not said anything.”

It came back to me.

“Yes, he did say that. He said that if anything happened to him it would all be in that letter.” I watched her sift through the papers on his desk.

“But I thought he was talking about a suicide note,” I said, running a hand through my hair. It felt messy, so I tried to fix it. Natalie calmly looked away from her work.

“Yes, I did think it was a suicide note initially. However, since we are assuming his death was not a suicide, this note couldn’t have been for suicide.”

“What do you think it was?”

Natalie resumed her search in another drawer. She waited a few seconds before answering.

“I am not so sure,” she finally responded.

I turned to the bookshelf. Although his office was in the library, Josiah still kept a few books for himself in here. By a few, I really meant at least two hundred books. Some of them looked technical or political. A few leadership titles by John C. Maxwell were thrown in there. I scanned the lower shelves, and they turned into paperbacks and fiction titles. Most names I didn’t recognize, although I had seen the name Dekker before. I pulled out one book from the shelf. It was yellow and orange, called The Assignment  by Mark Andrew Olsen. The slightly yellowing pages called my attention. It brought me a strange sense of comfort, and as I opened to the front page, I could tell that it had been read a few dozen times already. I loved the feel of a broken in book.

I turned the pages carefully to the start of the first chapter.

“Silently, ceaselessly, seven priests shoveled beside the death camp fence line,” I read aloud the first sentence.

“Whoa.” Sounded kind of interesting. I flipped forward a few chapters. The book stopped in the middle, for a yellow sheet of paper was wedged inside.

“What is this?” I asked, pulling it out.

Natalie let out a small noise next to me. I looked over at her.

“Well, I seem to have found some thing,” she said, holding some thing triumphantly in her hands. I squinted and pushed my glasses further up my nose.

“What is that thing?’ I asked. Natalie smiled.

“Do you need to get your eyes checked?” she asked jokingly. “You seem to be having trouble seeing things lately.”

“I am not so sure when the last time I was checked, to be honest.” I shook my head. “But either way, what is it?”

“It is a floppy disk.”

“A floppy disk?” I asked incredulously. “Who has a floppy disk lying around nowadays?”

Natalie shook her head.

“This was found on the side of the desk, right in front of the bookshelf. Someone dropped it down there and forgot about it.” She dropped it on the desk. “However, nothing is safe from the eyes of Natalie Campbell.”

“Wait, it is just a floppy disk,” I cut in. “What is so special about it?”

“There is a little note on it that could be of some importance later,” she said mysteriously. I sighed and looked at the paper in the book. Let her keep her mysteries for a while. I wanted to find out what was on this paper. It was folded in half, so I reached in and opened it.

“I think we have found all we can here,” she said, scooping up the floppy disk. I shook my head.

“Uh, Natalie, I think you would like to see this.”

She came over to me.

“What are you talking about?”

I lifted the paper from the inside of the book and handed it her.

“To Josiah. You know who is writing this, and you already know what message I have to tell you,” she read aloud from the paper. “But here it is once again,” her voice faltered as she read the next few words.

“You have exactly 360 days left to live. Use them wisely.”

Natalie looked up at me.

“So this makes it absolutely clear. Josiah didn’t in fact commit suicide. He was murdered, and whoever has committed this crime has done so willingly.” She turned the note over. “Does this say when this letter was written?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“I didn’t see any indication of date, only the number of days he had left to live.”

“I wonder,” she said, closing the book but taking out the yellow note. “Do you think that this note is the one Josiah was talking about?” she asked me.

“Well, I am not so sure,” I began. “We do know that Josiah was killed, and it seems that whoever sent this note wanted it to serve as some sort of calling card. If that is true, then Josiah’s death must have been on the three hundred and sixtieth day from when this letter was written.”

“That does seem to make sense,” Natalie said, tucking her hair behind her ear. She made her way over to the bookshelf, crossing on the other side of me. She pulled out a book and flipped it open. After a few seconds, she returned it to the shelf and picked out another one. I watched her do this for at least fifteen books.

“What are looking for?” I asked, finally. She didn’t stop her search when she responded to me.

“I am looking for other notes.”

I immediately understood. I crossed over to the other side of the room, where the second bookshelf lay against the wall. It was over here that Natalie found the floppy disk, but she seemed content on searching my shelf so I came over here.

I pulled a book from the shelf and fanned it open over the ground. A single yellow sheet fell out. I stooped to pick it up.

“To Josiah,” it began. “You know who is writing this,” I skipped to the bottom of the note. There it was: “You have exactly 231 days left to live. Use them wisely.”

“I found another one,” I said, turning around to Natalie with the note in my hand. I stifled a gasp.

“What in the world!?”

A pile of yellow papers rested on the desk. Natalie picked up a book from the shelf and systematically dumped its contents onto the table. Several yellow sheets fell out from this book. She looked up at me.

“I see we have a pattern here.”

Seriously. I grabbed a few more books from the shelf and fanned them over the pile. Only a few more books in that shelf had any notes in them, but Natalie was still going long after I had already finished.

“Can you start organizing them,” she asked.

“Organizing them?” I asked, reaching for a few sheets. “There are hundreds of them here, how am I supposed to organize them?”

“In cascading order,” she replied. “Start with the highest number of days left to live and keep going down until we reach zero.”

Indeed, there were countless yellow sheets of paper, each with a different number of days left for Josiah to live. Each note that I placed in order cut into my heart. If he had been getting one of these every day, how must that have made him feel? Maybe that could explain why he was always on the edge and seemed nervous all the time. But why did he not tell me about it? I wondered to myself. We had been such good friends, he was supposed to be able to trust me with everything, and he couldn’t even share this, and it was some thing so important and life threatening. I couldn’t believe it, and I had to stop myself from getting angry at the poor kid. He was dead, after all. What good would any anger do? Either way, it still felt much better than crying myself to sleep.

After a while, Natalie joined me in my organization venture. A few minutes later, we had successfully stacked and organized the yellow sheets into a thick pile on the desk. Natalie picked up the last note and stared at it.

“To Josiah,” she read aloud. “You know who is writing this, and you already know what message I have to tell you but here it is once again. You have exactly five days left to live. Use them wisely.”

She flipped the note over.

“Look, there is some thing written here on this side,” she said, turning it toward me. I reached for it and read it out loud.

“October 6.” I looked up at her. “October 6? Why, that was just yesterday!”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, it was.” She took the note form my hands and examined it again. “This tells us quite a few things,” she began, “all of them pointing us closer to where we need to be.”

“What does this mean?” I asked, crossing my arms. Natalie looked at me.

“Well, what do you think?”

When I didn’t respond quickly, Natalie smiled.

“The most important thing it shows me is that the person writing the note got the date wrong.”

I frowned and she handed me the paper again.

“It says on here that Josiah had five days left to live, but he died that night. That can either mean that the person writing this note had no idea when he would actually die and was just writing these notes to scare him, or,” she cleared her throat and stopped speaking. I looked over to her. She was staring behind me, probably realizing what she was about to say was difficult. I cleared my throat and she continued.

“Either they got it wrong,” she said, “or they killed him early.”

“But why would they do that?” I asked. Natalie shook her head sadly.

“What is the one thing that changed in the last two days?” she asked. I thought about it for a second, and then shook my head.

“I still don’t see what you mean, Natalie. What changed?”

Natalie looked away.

“Whoever did this to him killed him early because one person was here that was not here before during all the times Josiah had been receiving these notes.”

My mouth fell open.

“You!” I shouted, finally realizing it. “They killed him early because you showed up and they got scared!”

Natalie nodded somberly.

“Whoever did this knows exactly what they are doing. They are going to be on their absolute best behavior during this investigation,” she said. “That means it is going to be that much harder to catch them.”

Natalie sighed and replaced the paper on the desk.

“Why cannot all murders be simple and murderers easy to catch?”

I smiled.

“Your optimism is very contagious.” (Chapter end)

 

Chapter PH

OUR NEXT area to investigate was the kitchen. I didn’t think there would be much to find there, but Natalie was insistent.

“I made sure that none of the garbage was thrown away from last night and this morning,” she said proudly. I looked at her curiously as I held open the kitchen door for her.

“Are you sure you are a famous detective?” I asked. She laughed.

“I never said I was famous. I have solved several high profile cases in the past, so I would say that my credentials are there.”

I scoffed.

“Where can I find said credentials?” I teased playfully. Natalie gave me an odd smile.

“There is a whole website dedicated to my accomplishments posted up by the Florida State Police Department. If you guys had any internet here, you would be able to look it up.”

“Ha ha very funny,” I mumbled. She knew it was a sore spot of mine that there was no internet or any connection with the outside world. She knew I liked to be plugged in and connected like some would say. I ignored her and entered the kitchen.

“So, what are we looking for?” I asked.

“Anything that looks out of place,” she said, making her way over to the main table used for the servants during meal times. I went over to the counter.

“But they make food here and are bound to clean it up,” I said. Indeed, the counter was in decent order, and the sink was empty, even though I had left my dishes in there and had not cleaned them.

“Yes, I understand that,” she said. Her voice was slightly muffled.  I turned around to her, but she was bending behind one of the counters.

“What are you looking at?” I asked. She laughed.

“You sure ask a ton of questions Kenneth, did you know that?”

I didn’t reply to her, but instead turned my attention back to the counter. Several dried plates were stacked next to the sink. A rolling pin sat next to them. That must have been the one that I spoke to Jennifer about yesterday, I surmised. Next to that was a bread box and … I moved closer to the table.

A package of unopened batteries? What were they doing here? I was the over all maintenance guy here at the manor, and things like this had a place, and they were downstairs, not here. I grabbed them and made my way over to Natalie.

She was digging through the trash can. That was honestly the last thing I expected to see from her.

“Natalie?”

She pulled herself upright, her hand still in the bin. Her face was flustered and her hair out of place. She looked like she had just been in a serious scuffle, even though she had done little more than stick her head in the garbage can. Natalie quickly fixed her hair with one hand and smiled sheepishly.

“Heh heh,” she laughed nervously. I shook my head.

“Did you manage to find anything?” I asked. She looked at my hand.

“You seem to have found some thing yourself,” she remarked. I looked down at the batteries in my hand.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “They were on the counter, so I am just bringing them back to the basement later.”

Natalie sighed.

“Kenneth, that is part of our evidence now,” she said. I scrunched my brow.

“What are you talking about? It is just a pack of unopened batteries that don’t -”

“They don’t belong here,” Natalie said, nodding. “But you see, that is precisely it. The fact that they don’t belong here makes it that much more interesting, and important, for us.”

I gave a soft grunt in acceptance.

She continued her speech.

“Take what I have here in my hand, for instance.” She pulled out a thick stack of papers, bound together by a single huge paper clip. It was ripped in half, so she held only the top half in her hands. The pages were wrinkled and wet. With her other hand, Natalie reached in and grabbed the other half of the pages, although they were less bound and stacked messily.

“What in the world is this?” I asked, reaching for the first half. She passed them over to me.

“Take a look at the first page,” she said, shuffling through the messy stack in her hands. I looked down at the pages in my hands. It looked like a manuscript, with the words typed out in type writer font. It was difficult to read, because it had been soaked in water, and all the ink was starting to run. I held it closer to my face and lifted my glasses to get in with the pages from the beginning. I widened my eyes.

“The History of my Company,” I began, “by David Livingston?” I turned to Natalie.

“My uncle wrote this manuscript?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Take a look at the date along the bottom there. You will see that is was written over several years ago.”

“This is so strange,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t know my uncle had written some thing like this.”

“It is fascinating, is it not?” Natalie said, coming over to my side. I gave her a strange look.

“Fascinating is not the word I would use to describe this, no.”

Natalie chuckled.

“NO, I don’t mean the contents of the book,” she said, shaking her head slowly, like one would when speaking to a disobedient child. “I mean instead the condition that we found the book in. it was torn in half, dunked in water, tossed into this garbage bin, all within a few hours. Whoever destroyed this book wanted to keep us from some thing.”

“So all we have to do is ask David what was in this book,” I said.

Natalie shook her head.

“No, I don’t think David is connected with this book,” she said. I looked at her strangely, and she continued slowly. “David informed me this morning that several items involving his business were missing. He didn’t know where they had gone off too, but he was sure that he had either misplaced them, or someone had either stolen them or inadvertently took them.”

“Wait, so this was used by the murderer?” I asked. Natalie shook her head again patiently.

“No, not necessarily. This book was left here by accident. Whoever wanted to destroy it didn’t succeed, and it would seem that they hastily deposited it here either this morning or last night. I don’t think this has anything to do with the murder,” she stated confidently, “however, neither do I think that a package of unopened batteries or a floppy disk has anything to do with it either. It is our responsibility to collect everything we find out of place here. The things we can use as evidence to build our case – those things we keep. Anything else, we throw away when we are done here.”

I liked her motto.

“So where are we off to next?” I asked. I had already forgotten where she wanted to go earlier, but I was sure she didn’t mind telling me again. I was right in my assumption.

“The fountain, Kenneth. Let us get one of the golf carts to save us some time.”

“I agree with you that would be a good idea.”

I opened the back door which led to the back of the kitchen. That is where we parked all of the golf carts. By all, of course, I only meant mine and Victor’s. Because he was the gardener for the grounds, it was only natural that he should own one. And because it was my job to run all of the outside the island errands, it only made sense that I would have one as well. I found only one cart parked out there, and of course it was mine.

Natalie followed me into the cart and I started the engine. We pulled away from the Manor and headed over to the fountain.

I was unsure how I would react when I got there again. It would be the first time I went there since I found Josiah … I didn’t want to think about it too much right now. I had a job to do, and there was no way I could risk getting emotional and messing things up in the heat of it all. That is just not how professionals worked. (Chapter End)

 

Chapter Forty

THE FOUNTAIN was undisturbed. The blood stain on the ground in front of the fountain was unmistakable in broad day light. I turned away from it, otherwise, I was sure I would get sick again. Suddenly, the emotions I was trying to hold in earlier came rushing forth. I made my way over to the bench on the opposite side of where his body was and sat down slowly. Natalie followed me there.

“I cannot do this,” I said softly, barely choking out a whisper. “I cannot do this any more.”

Natalie shook her head.

“Kenneth, I need you to pull yourself together. What has happened to Josiah IS a TRAGEDY: HE WAS MURDERED, and before that, he had been threatened and feared for his life for almost a year. Josiah had to go through so much at the hands of this person, and it is our responsibility – no, it is our right, to find and bring them to justice.” She paused and touched my arm. “Kenneth, there is no way I can do this by myself. I am here on this island alone, with no real equipment, no teams at my dispatch to examine the evidence or perform any forensic tests. I have to do all of this on my own, and there is no way I can bring justice to Josiah on my own. I need your help. I need you to bring some thing more to the table. Because I value what you have to offer. You know the grounds, you know the people, and you know Josiah. That makes you more than qualified to help me bring justice to this case that is so horrifying for the both of us. I need you to help me, Kenneth, more than you can know.”

She grew silent, and I sat reflecting on what she had said. Everything was true, I could tell. She was not one to lie or make up fancy words to try to comfort others. Every word that came from her mouth was truth, and I felt like I could trust her – really trust her. I knew there were bound to be some things she kept to herself, and I in no way thought she was perfect, but I knew that she meant what she said. She really did need my help, and I was determined to provide that help to her.

I stood up.

“All right,” I said, turning to Natalie. “I am sorry for getting a little overwhelmed earlier. I am now ready to help you, and help Josiah in finding and bringing the bad guy in.”

Natalie smiled and stood up as well.

“Good,” she said, taking a deep breath. “We have to search this area around the fountain. I will let you go a little further from the bench, if you want.”

“Yes,” I replied gratefully. “That would be the best thing for me.”

Natalie made her way over to the fountain and the bench where Josiah’s body was found. I walked a little ways away from there, combing the floor. The fountain area consisted of the fountain, the two benches and a few yards of cobble stone arranged in a circle around the fountain. Just beyond the cobble stone lay the woods in one direction, and in the other, lay a path that would lead back to the path that brought us here form the house.

I combed the outer edge of the cobble stone circle while Natalie did some thing over by the fountain. There was nothing much to find, except for a few fallen palm fronds, which I kicked off the cobble stone and onto the dirt and grass. Just as I completed the circle across from the bench where Natalie was near, my attention was drawn to something hidden underneath another palm frond. It looked yellow, and slightly shiny. I went over to it, curious.

I used my foot to gently kick the palm frond away. Underneath it sat a small yellow flash light. I picked it up carefully. The bottom hatch, where the batteries should have been, was hanging open, and when I looked inside, there were no batteries in there.

That is strange, I thought to myself. What if the batteries on the counter were supposed to go in here and no one ever got to it? I thought that might be the case. Last night, or rather, this morning, Natalie and I had taken flashlights, but the one I took was much smaller than this one, so I knew it couldn’t have been mine that was here. I figured I could ask Natalie if it could possibly be hers. If not, I was sure that this would constitute evidence. I turned toward her and carried the flash light toward her.

Natalie was leaning over the fountain, her knees on the bench, and her entire torso practically inside of the fountain. Her back side was sticking in the air, and I heard splashing and she looked like she was about to fall in completely by the time I got there. I stepped over to her side. She pulled herself out of the fountain. Her arms up to her sleeves were soaking wet. Although her torso was dry, her head had been submerged in the water.

“Wow, Natalie, if you wanted to swim we could have gone over to the shore,” I said jokingly.

Natalie turned to me and smiled.

“I was looking for some thing, Kenneth,” she said, catching her breath in short bursts of gasps, “and I found it here.”

“Well, what is it that you have found?” I asked, looking into the fountain.

“This.”

Natalie pulled out a clump of white cloth, that was all I could tell about it form here.

“What is it?” I asked, reaching for it. Natalie separated the cloths and handed one to me so I could look at it. I unraveled it and it became what looked like a white glove. However, there was some noticeable staining on the finger tips: it was stained red – blood red. I looked over at Natalie. The glove she held in her hand was the same. I shoved the flash light in the crook between my under arm and chest and looked at the glove further.

“This pair of gloves,” Natalie began slowly, “it tells us a lot about the crime.”

“Well, I would hope so,” I said sarcastically. “You practically had to go swimming for this. What made you think it would be inside there?” I asked. Natalie reached for and grabbed the other gloves from my hand. She removed a Ziploc from her briefcase, which she had laid on the bench beside her. She carefully placed the gloves inside the bag before answering my question.

“Take a look over at the blood stain,” she said. I felt my face turn green.

“Natalie, I told you, I don’t want to look at that, it makes me sick.”

“Kenneth,” she said, “you can trust me on this. Just take a look at it.”

Slowly, and after what seemed like an hour of telling myself it was perfectly all right, I turned to the spot where I had found his body.’

“What in the world?” I exclaimed incredulously. The blood stain that I had been so afraid of was little more than a small streak of blood and an oil stain. I turned to Natalie.

“Why is there so little bit of blood there?” I asked. “When we got here I could have sworn there was tons of blood there!”

Natalie shook her head.

“No, there was not. I figured this is what would have happened. You saw the dark stain, and since you knew Josiah had been there, you assumed it had to be blood.” She shook her head. “You were feeling sick, but I was not. I had a good look at this area, and it only made me think of one things: some one had cleaned up all of this blood – or they had done so before any of it came out of his body.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The lack of blood in the crime scene leads me to believe that some one was trying to mask the cause of death.”

“What was the cause of death any way?” I asked. No one had actually told me, and I didn’t have a chance to go see Dr. Haines yet.

As though reading my mind, Natalie smiled.

“Let us go see the doctor,” she said, brushing clumps of wet hair out of her face. “He will be able to tell us what we need to know about that.”

I shook my head. Leave it to Natalie to be sensitive to me like that. I knew very well that she knew very well what the cause of death was. She just wanted to let me get a chance to learn it with out feeling like a mentally handicapped person. That was one of the things I liked about her.

I realized now how many things about her I was starting to realized that I liked. Maybe there was some thing to it. I held back the feeling of elation that was bringing me. I stared at Natalie’s face as she finished pulling the wet hair into a hair tie. She looked at me curiously, and I forced myself to look away.

Man, what am I going to do about this? I asked myself. When am I going to bring myself to tell her …? I couldn’t think about it now. I climbed into the golf cart after her and drove back to the manor, hoping that I could drive fast enough to leave the strange feelings I had about her back at the fountain.

Who was I kidding? (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TP

“AH, IT IS SO GOOD to see the both of you.”

Dr. Haines stood at the door of his laboratory on the fourth floor. It was the only room up here, and it extended the width of the entire bedroom wing. I had never really been inside of the lab, although I had seen part of it when coming to check on my aunt. A few months ago, she had been forced to stay up here and get several operations done. They had to call in a few doctors to help Dr. Haines out because he was unable to do it on his own. Nicole couldn’t move, and he didn’t want to risk travelling with her out to a hospital on the main land.

Right now, the doctor was dressed in a lab coat, and I couldn’t tell what he had underneath there though. He had a pair of gloves on his hands, and he quickly reached into his pockets and pulled out a few more for the two of us.

“Here, you have to put these on if you are going to come in here with me.”

“Yes, thank you, Dr. Haines,” Natalie said, accepting the gloves and handing a few more over to me. I slipped them onto my hands and helped Natalie put hers on. The doctor watched us, and then excitedly hurried us into the room. I had never seen the man this jittery before, and I was starting to get concerned.

“Dr. Haines, we came here to day to talk about some things,” Natalie began. He cut her off.

“Yes, yes, I know that is why you wanted to see me.” He looked at her with a wild look in his eyes. “You want to know the cause of death, no?”

“Yes,” I chimed in from the back. Dr. Haines looked over at me, his eyes watering slightly.

“Well, I am glad to report to you that this is some thing I will be able to provide for you.” he turned around. “Come follow me, I must bring you to the area where I am operating on him.”

The laboratory was huge. It was divided by glass panels and windows. In each of the rooms, there were several groups of sinks, tables, test tubes and beakers, all lined up and filled with various different colored liquids, all different shapes and sizes. Outside of the rooms, however, the laboratory was dark, and it was difficult to keep up with the others.

Several large pieces of equipment lay in haphazard arrangements all over the room. It caused me to question the ability of Dr. Haines to work well. It struck me as strange that I didn’t come up here before. I had lived here in this house with the good doctor for many years and I never thought to find out more about his occupation. It made me feel slightly sick to think of how I had treated the poor man. I always came to him when I had health problems, or when I needed some one to talk to about my aunt Nicole’s failing health, but I realized that I never thought about him as a person.

I hurried up to catch up to them. They had come to a small room in the back. It was brightly lit. In the center was a metal table, with some thing covered under a sheet. I held myself together and continued examining the rest of the room. All along the walls ran a series of metal counters and cabinets. Each of them held scissors, metal tools and other test tubes filled with strange colored liquid lay on the table.

Dr. Haines closed the door behind us. Natalie gave me a glance, her eyebrows raised as she looked around the room. The doctor picked up a clipboard from the counter.

“Detective, I have been busy all morning, working on a few tests and conducting the autopsy on Josiah.” He looked uncomfortable for a second, and then glanced at me. “Is it all right if I call him the victim? It seems so strange to me, to think of Josiah as being dead. You know, I was the one who delivered him for Mrs. Livingston. When they asked me to come work for them, I was overjoyed. I love to see the smiling faces of the children I helped deliver, all grown up. We have been through much, Josiah and I. we have talked for many hours, and I have tried to pick apart his mind, but that had been so difficult and nearly impossible. It is a shame that he had to die. He was such a good young man, so full of potential.”

Dr. Haines shook his head, and then continued.

“But I digress. You can here to find out the results of the autopsy, and I have them here to give you.” He walked over to the other side of the table. He lifted a small corner of it and beckoned us closer.

“Come over here, my friends. There is some thing I have to show you.”

Natalie rushed over there quickly, but I took my time.

“You are not going to take the rest of the sheet off, right?” I asked. DR. Haines shook his head.

“Of course not,” he responded. “He is no condition to be seen right now, and until I fix him up, I would not dare show him to you like this. It was difficult enough for me to do this to him, and I have performed autopsy hundreds, if not thousands of times.”

“You were a coroner once, right?” Natalie asked, perking up slightly.

“Yes, indeed, I was. Involved in several high profile cases too when I was younger.” He beamed proudly, reminiscing of the olden days. I smiled. Dr. Haines would have been convinced that any case he was involved in would have been high profile. He was a doctor, though, and a professional, and I was sure that he would know what he was talking about.

Some people say I am too trusting, that my policy of trust first ask questions later is impulsive and will only lead to danger. In my opinion, it is the lack of trust that leads to danger. It is fearing that those around you are only out to destroy you, that they are not simply people moving with their own lives, with their own problems. Of course, I don’t trust everyone I meet, but I can tell when one deserves it and when one does not. There is a huge difference between a slightly prideful old man boosting his creds, and a disgruntled man standing in the shadows with some thing that appears to be a sledge hammer. Yes, I know when to trust and when not to trust.

“It brings me great comfort to find there are other professionals here,” Natalie said, breathing a deep sigh of relief. I was not hurt by her statement, which insinuated that I was not a professional myself. Instead, I allowed myself to be comforted by the thought as well.

Dr. Haines smiled grimly.

“What can you tell us about Josiah?” Natalie asked, bringing the conversation back around to the main reason we came here. Dr. Haines nodded.

“Yes, what I have found is very strange indeed.” He crossed his arms.

“I had initially assumed that this was a suicide. Everything seemed to point in that direction, taking into account his state of mind, as well as the cuts on his wrists that seemed to prove he had taken his own life.” Dr. Haines shook his head. “However, there was no doubt about it when I performed to tests on his body.” Dr. Haines looked up, his face dark.

“Josiah didn’t die because of loss of blood.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, tilting my head. Dr. Haines looked at me.

“Yes, it is as I say. There was some thing else present in what ever blood he had left that is extremely disturbing for me.”

“You found some thing in his blood?” Natalie asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Haines replied. “I found a drug, one more toxic than any other I have seen before at such high a dosage. I found a sample of this drug once when I was still in college, even before I went on to medical school, and I had honestly never expected to see it again.” He looked away. Natalie crossed her arms.

“You experimented with it when you were younger, am I right?” she asked. Dr. Haines didn’t meet her eyes, nor did he answer her. I threw a curious glance at her. Was she serious?

Natalie pressed on.

“Yes, and more than that, you were addicted to it for a short time.” Natalie shook her head. “Tell me, Dr. Haines, what was it that you thought of when you saw this in Josiah’s blood?”

“That he was either an addict, or some one had deliberately put this into his system to kill him.”

“How could it have worked if he was an addict?” I asked. Natalie turned to me and answered my question.

“If he was an addict, the amount of this drug in his veins would be significant – it would be obvious to tell that the toxicity level had been reached, and he had died of an over dose. However, if he was an addict or not, that we cannot tell. How could we know that what is inside of him came from years of drug use, or simply an over dose at one point in time?”

Natalie shook her head.

“No, that cannot be determined. However, we do know that this was not a suicide, as there are several things that stand out and point in that direction. Our only bet is to say that this was the work of a third party, and that hey deliberately poisoned him with this drug.”

Natalie turned to the doctor.

“You used this before, have you not?”

He nodded his head slowly.

“Yes, I did use it for a time,” he said slowly, embarrassed. “I was involved with a few experiments during that time and it became a bit unbearable to deal with all of that stress. A friend of mine introduced me to some of it, and I accidentally took it one day, and eventually, it came to take over me. I could do nothing with out it, and even with it, I still couldn’t do anything. It was not until a few months later, when I was part of a control group in a university wide experiment, that I was forced to submit to several humiliating drug tests. It was then that I realized the addictive power of this drug and that I was, indeed, addicted to it. I immediately with drew from it, cold turkey, and I have been free from it for over fifty years.”

I was shocked. How old was this man anyway? And why did I not know this before? How could I have known this man for several years, but not know these little things about him? All right, I will admit, saying that you were addicted to a drug in your college days is not some thing one would readily say is little, but it was still some thing I would have liked to have known before hand, and not through an investigation.

Natalie nodded her head as he spoke, not judging him, or saying anything while he spoke. It seemed to me like she already knew what he was going to say before he said it: she just wanted to hear him say it himself. He didn’t look upset at what he just finished saying, nor did he look embarrassed. Instead, he looked relieved, as though a burden had suddenly been lifted from his chest.

“So we have determined that it was this drug that killed him,” Natalie summarized. Dr. Haines and I nodded in agreement. “Can you tell me anything about the cuts on his arms and the blood loss?” she asked.

Dr. Haines cleared his throat.

“Actually, that is what I have been working on all morning,” he confessed. “I had already figured out what was the actual cause of death, but I was having trouble understanding where the cut wrists came in.”

“But you managed to figure it out?” I asked impatiently. Dr. Haines nodded enthusiastically.

“Yes, yes, I did, just a few minutes before the two of you came knocking on my door, actually.” He rubbed his graying beard with his hands and sighed. “Yes, I did find that those cuts were made a few minutes after the drug had already killed him. It is difficult to explain this in every day layman’s terms, so I won’t bore you with medical talk. However, I can assure you that he had been dead for several minutes before these cuts were made.”

“That can only mean that who ever did this to him wanted us to think that Josiah had done this to himself, that is was indeed a suicide.” Natalie said. I shook my head.

“Why the emphasis on a suicide?” I asked. “Why is everything trying to point in that direction, when we know now that it is not?”

Natalie frowned and shook her head.

“I am unsure why,” she said, “but I do know that this gives the killer more time to set up their alibi and destroy evidence. Because that is what we have been finding all morning, form the messed up manuscript in the kitchen, to the gloves hidden in the fountain – all of these are attempts to destroy evidence, and it makes me upset. This killer has had a lot of time on their hands to plan and set everything up. This only makes things that much harder for us.”

“Why is it that everything is making things harder for us to catch this criminal?” I complained.

As if on cue, the sound of rolling thunder crashed into our ears. Natalie and I exchanged glances. The first thing that came into my mind was that some one had been shot. I was sure Natalie thought some one was hurt as well, as the two of us bolted for the front door. However, when we got outside, I headed toward the stairs, but she made her way over to the window.

I turned back and looked at her curiously.

“What are you doing, Natalie?”

She turned to me.

“It has only just started,” she said mysteriously. I gave her a look which read seriously? I walked over to the window. She looked back out of it.

“The storm has only just begun.”

I slapped my forehead.

“Of course!” I said dumbly. “Andrea had been warning me about the weather a few days ago, that she had heard on the news that there would be some storm or other, and I totally forgot about it.”

Indeed, the sky was dark with clouds, and in the distance I could see the torrents of rain making their way along the estate like a tidal wave. It would only take a few more minutes before the rains would make it to the manor.

“Wow,” Natalie said, staring at the sky. She cringed when lightning lit up the dark sky, closely followed by another peal of thunder. She grabbed my arm instinctively and I looked down at it.

Hmm, I thought to myself.

“Is it going to get very bad out there?” She asked, looking up at me. I nodded gravely.

“Yes,” I responded. “This is not the first time a storm like this has come upon us. Andrea was watching the news and they said that all of the water ways will be upheaved, and it will make both boat travel and air travel next to impossible.” I sighed and shook my head.

“I don’t know how those guys are going to get much work done on that bridge.”

“Surely they will take a break until the storm dies down?” Natalie asked. I shook my head again.

“NO, I don’t think so. They entered into a strict contract with my uncle David, that they would have the entire thing destroyed and rebuilt in three days – no longer, no shorter. They agreed to work rain or shine, and I trust them to do it.”

“But will they not be in danger working out there during the storm?” she asked sensibly. I shrugged.

“That is their job,” I said, “they will do what they have to, and we will wait and see when they are finished, or the storm dies down.”

“I must admit, that sounds rather crazy, but this is what they were hired for, so how can I expect anything less?”

I groaned suddenly.

“What is the matter?” Natalie asked.

“I just remembered, I have to close all of the shutters,” I started heading to the stair case.

“Wait for me, please, Kenneth.”

“You want to go out there before it starts raining?” I asked. “You know, by the time we get down there, it will already have started?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Natalie replied. She looked uneasily about her. “I just don’t want to be here by myself for a while.”

I smiled.

“Okay,” I responded. “Grab one of the raincoats from the bathroom over there, and I will get mine and meet you in the Square.”

She seemed to already know what the Square was, even though I was sure I had never told her. I ran down the stairs to my room and grabbed my ugly yellow rain coat. I made sure to lead her to a rain coat that would be much uglier than the one I had on. There was no way I could let myself get into that horrifying thing, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would ruin what had just happened there.

She said she wanted to go with me because she didn’t want to be by herself here. That was not the Natalie I was used to hearing. When we were conducting our investigation, it was obvious that she wanted me there because of what I could bring to the team, but not because she didn’t want to be by herself. I would have sworn she liked to work alone, that she didn’t want anyone to try to help her out or be a part of her life.

That is what had been such a stumbling block between us. We had easily transitioned from the friend stage to some thing more, but we could never get any further because she always wanted to ride things solo. She never wanted to let me carry some of those burdens for her.

Ah, I thought to myself. This is so cool! There might be some thing here after all!

I had to stop myself though. Wishful thinking never got me any where productive.

But it did bring a smile to my face, which is why I was pleased to see Natalie smiling when I got downstairs. Neither of us had anything to smile about, really, so it had to be only one thing.

Wishful thinking. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter TOW

“WHAT DID I TELL YOU?”

The two of us were outside in the Square, and sure enough, the rains had begun. The palm trees swung their branches, the rain was blown by the wind in short bursts. It felt like we were in a movie, and the crew was dousing us with waves of fake water made to look like rain.

Natalie stood beside me, dressed in a white rain coat with pink circles dotting the surface of it. I laughed at her when I saw it, and she appropriately punched me in the arm.

“Why did you give me this ridiculous thing to wear?” she asked. I laughed again, and she pretended to pout. This, of course, made me laugh even harder because it looked so unnatural and just plain funny to see the great detective pouting like that.

I led us out into the middle of the courtyard where the benches were that we had sat on earlier this morning. I pointed at the row of windows visible from this side.

“Those are the ones we need to close,” I said. I more like shouted though because it was raining so hard and the wind made things impossible to hear.

“Why only those?” Natalie asked. I shook my head.

“Those were the only ones that cannot be closed from the inside. Don’t ask me why, but that is what I have to give you. I can close them both if I stand on that second window and close the top one. Then, I can come back and close the second and first windows in no time at all.”

I picked up the huge gardener’s pole and leaned it against the wall. I beckoned Natalie closer.

“What can I do?” she asked. I pointed to the hedge that sat directly underneath the windows.

“We need to move this,” I said, “if I want to get up there on that window.”

“All right,” she said.

“Grab that end, and I will grab this end. When I say move, we move, all right?”

“Yes,” she shouted, grabbing the end I asked her to grab. I picked up my own edge.

“Okay, in three, two, one, lift!”

We lifted the hedge in unison and moved it over to the side. I hurried over to the spot we just vacated.

“Wait!” Natalie shouted. I stopped in my tracks.

“What is the matter?” I asked. She didn’t look at me. Instead, she reached for some thing at my feet.

“I saw some thing here that I am sure you would rather me pick up before you step on and hurt yourself.”

I looked down, but could see nothing. Natalie tore at the wet ground furiously for a few seconds, then stood up straight, holding a dirty object in her hand.

“What is it?” I asked, straining to see it.

She held it up to me, and I was almost sick.

It was a knife, a small kitchen one, but it was stained with what appeared to be mud and dirt. It was honestly the last thing I expected for her to pick up and show me, so quite frankly, I was terrified. She quickly placed it in a Ziploc bag. I wondered briefly how many Ziploc bags she had in there before she closed her briefcase and looked up at me.

“Okay, I took care of that. What next?”

I looked up at the windows, then back down at her.

“All right, I am going to need to use you as leverage to get up there.”

She nodded and leaned against the wall, cupping her hands in a manner in which I cold step on them and use them to climb up. I stepped into her hands and pulled myself up. I was surprised by her strength, or at least, her ability to hold me up with out dropping me on my face. That would have been most unpleasant, and I honestly only thought about the possibility a long time after it had already taken place.

I reached up and placed my foot on the second floor window. I used my height from here to close the shutters on the third floor window. Then, I jumped back down when I was sure she was out of my way. I closed the second floor window, and I was just about to go for the first floor window, when I noticed that I was not really getting wet that much. I looked up and there was, sure enough, a small awning it appear sticking out from above the third floor. I had not even noticed it before, and it made sense how I was not getting wet.

I turned back to the wall only to find some thing a little more shocking.

There was a small trail of blood along side the wall, as though some one had dropped the knife from one of the windows above and it leaned against and stained the wall. I turned to Natalie. She was not looking in my direction, so I called out to her.

“Natalie!” I shouted. She turned to me. I pointed to the wall.

“So you see this?” I asked. “it looks like a streak of blood. Like some one took this knife and dropped it form one of the two rooms up there and it hit the wall before tumbling into the dirt.”

Natalie looked up at the two windows. She nodded.

“Yes, that does seem to make a lot of sense. It would also explain why these hedges were moved over this morning. Whoever did this intended to cover up the blood stain and the knife, which can only mean that they didn’t drop it there during the day. It was only in the heat of the decision – or can I say, in the middle of the night – that they dropped it here. This morning, when they woke up, it was obvious what had transpired here, so they sought to clean it up.”

Natalie shrugged.

“At least, that is what I think.”

“Come on,” I suggested, shaking my head. “let us go back inside where it is warm.”

Sure enough, it was freezing cold out there, with the rain, the winds and the ever increasing thunder and lightning flashes. I wanted nothing more than to get inside, to not feel the water pummeling me. We made it inside rather quickly.

“Now,” Natalie said confidently, “it is time to start investigating bedrooms and asking people questions.”

She had taken charge now, I could tell. Our brief stint outside gave me the opportunity to be the leader, and I enjoyed it. However, I had to remind myself that she was still the one leading this investigation, and it was not in my place to tell her anything.

It felt good to have been in charge for a little bit. I wondered to myself if there was a way for Natalie to ever get used to being in the passenger’s seat. I would love to find out. (Chapter End).

 

Chapter Waiting

WE DECIDED TO VISIT DIANA’S room first, simply because she was standing in the hall way when we got up to the second floor. She looked troubled, but let us in quickly.

“You guys can sit where ever you like,” she said, waving her hands wildly about her room.

It was, in all due respect, a very filthy room.

Her bed lay in the center, a twin bed with head boards and foot posts. Clothing hung from them haphazardly. More clothing was strewn all over the floors. Posters of deserts and old Egyptian tombs hung all along the walls. On her desk was a computer and piles and piles of yellowing paper and note books.

“Oh, goodness, I am so sorry for the mess in here,” Diana said, embarrassed. I looked over at her. It seemed like this was the first time she had noticed that this room was a disgrace. Natalie smiled politely and sat on the chair by the desk. I decided to stand underneath an old Indiana Jones poster she had on her wall. I was surprised. Diana likes Indy? I thought to myself. That would have been cool to know, seeing as how I had watched the famed treasure hunter for years when I was a kid, even though my parents probably would not have approved. They had always allowed me to see what ever I wanted, including all the graphic and bloody stuff that I some times wished I had not seen. But they still insisted that I not watch any of the Indiana jones movies. They were convinced that I would throw my life away by trying to become a treasure hunter of sorts. I thought that was preposterous, and reserved only for little fan boys and other actors like Nicholas Cage.

Trash littered the floor. An apple core rolled in the center of the room. No one had touched it or even gone near it, but it just rolled. It was starting to freak me out. I went over to it and scooped it up and tossed it in the bathroom garbage can.

Of course, there was no bathroom in her room, which meant that I threw it in the closet. I didn’t say anything, and neither did any of the other two.

“Sorry,” I finally said. “I had to get rid of it because it was totally messing with my mind.

Natalie looked amused, like she was trying really hard not to start laughing. I resumed my post underneath the poster. Diana looked sad, like she was about to cry. Natalie cleared her throat.

“Diana,” she began. “We wanted to come and talk with you for a little bit about Josiah.”

Diana suddenly burst into tears. Did I say tears? I meant wailing and shrieking and sobbing. Natalie acted quickly and pulled the crying woman into her shoulder and allowed her to take out her emotions on their.

I caught Natalie’s gaze and rolled my eyes. She shook her head slowly, almost as though she was a mother and she was gently telling me not to make fun of my sister or what ever. I found it odd that she wanted to comfort Diana, but I let her at it.

I knew little about Diana, which didn’t surprise me any more. I knew she was in her mid twenties. She had been rather young when she started working here five or seven years ago. She had always been a maid, all though I don’t know what her job actually was. I knew she was on charge of Andrea, and that she liked to spend some time with Dennis, but aside from that, I was unsure about her.

Natalie let her cry for a few minutes, then set in with the calming down actions. Those included rubbing of the back, gentle whisperings for her to shh that it would be all right. Then the big guns came out and she pushed away from her and told her that she needed to speak with her.

Knowing what little bit I did know about Diana, I knew that she was a stickler for more information. If some thing even sounded remotely like gossip, it belonged to her. She wanted to have anything that might even be construed as gossip, which meant that anything that she was going through paled in comparison to that. I shook my head. That was so sad.

“What do you have to tell me?”

She asked, wiping her eyes with her sleeves. She wore a long sleeved tee shirt and some jeans. She was barefoot, but her toes were painted pink. I guess David must have given all of the servants a day off, because no one seemed to be working or doing anything today. That was just as well. It was obvious that we needed to have some time to grieve, even those who were not his family.

“He was like my family,” Diana suddenly said, turning to me. I was taken aback. Did this girl just read my mind? That whole business with the apple core earlier totally creeped me out, and I was hoping she would not turn out to be a witch or some thing like that.

“What makes you think this information is about Josiah?” Natalie inquired. Diana blushed and looked away from me.

Ooo, Natalie was good!

She leaned closer.

“What do you know about Josiah?” Natalie asked. Is there anything about him that I should know?”

“Not about him,” Diana said. She shook her head. “But no, I cannot tell you about it. At least, not now. Not until you tell me what you wanted to tell me first.”

I wanted to call her a mean name, but I stopped myself. There was no use in getting the people angry. After all, she could turn out to be a murderer, and then I world find myself dead in a corner some where, and that would be the most frightening thing I could even imagine. I decided to keep quiet for as long as I could stand it, and just let Natalie and Diana do all of the talking together. Indeed, they had a lot to talk about.

“Diana, I am sure you have already heard this, but Josiah is dead and we believe it to have been a suicide.”

“Yes, yes, I know that you don’t believe it was a suicide, but what I want to know –”

“Wait, how do you know that?” I cut in. “Natalie didn’t even say that!”

Diana gave me a bored look.

“Seriously, Kenneth, did you forget who you were talking to? I am the queen of gossip here at this manor,”

“Don’t you call my Cousin Josiah’s death anything to do with gossip, do you hear me,” I tried to cut in.

“And there is not one thing that happens here that I am not acutely aware of.” Diana rambled on as though she had not heard a word I said. I was furious and looked at Natalie. I hoped she would do some thing to put this insolent girl in her place, but she just watched us gravely. Suddenly she turned to Diana.

“I understand that you know all of this, but I need you to be prepared for what I am about to tell you. We do believe that Josiah was not dead because of suicide, but that he was rather murdered while he went over to the fountain. The details of the actual murder are not to be discussed, and I have so instructed Dr. Haines, so don’t even think about going up there and trying to get information from him. I know what kind of a person you are, Diana, and I want to ensure that you don’t ruin this family’s piece with your tales and your mouth, do you understand me?”

Diana nodded. I looked at Natalie, a new kind of respect dawning on me. She would be a good mother, I thought to myself. But not in the way that most might first assume. I meant that she would be a good mother, just as much as you would say that some one would be a good lawyer. Any way, why am I explaining this to myself? Maybe it is because of this guilty conscious of mine. It makes me feel like I am convicting myself when no one has even committed a crime.

The two of them continued, forcing me to abandon my thoughts.

“All right then,” Natalie said, straightening in her chair and clearing her throat. “We have determined that Josiah was murdered, which means that the murderer is still at large here, and we need to find them as soon as possible.”

Diana let that sink in for a while before answering Natalie.

“What are you saying? Do you mean to tell me that the murderer is one of us?”

“Yes,” Natalie said confidently. “I don’t believe it to be me, but I do believe that it is one of the house hold members.”

“Why do you think that?’ Diana asked. “Why could it not be some raving lunatic who just chose poor Josiah as his target because he wanted to have some fun?”

This girl was getting on my nerves with her little words like that. I wanted to strangle her, I really did, but that would make me a murderer just as much as it made who ever did this to Josiah one, and I didn’t want to be in league with them in any sense of the word. I held myself back and let Natalie handle her.

“Diana, I cannot get into the details, those are confidential things that don’t help you help me in any way.”

“What can I do to help you then?” she asked. Natalie smiled and took some paper from her pocket. I did the same. Natalie had told me earlier that she wanted to have two people taking notes because we both saw different things about people and would find different things to be important. Together we would be able to reconstruct the most important aspects of this conversation and we would be one step closer to understanding who this woman was.

“I need you to answer some questions for me,” Natalie said. Diana nodded slowly. I pulled out my sheet of paper with the time log on it.

“Can you go through the events of last night with me, starting from after we all finished eating dinner?”

Diana crossed her arms and sank down on her bed. I was sure I heard some thing crack underneath her, but I didn’t say anything. Natalie must not have noticed because she just waited patiently for Diana to start speaking.

“Well, let us see, I don’t know when you all finished eating, after all, you were no where near the rest of us. You guys were in the dining room, while we were in the kitchen.”

Natalie nodded.

“Yes, that is indeed true.”

Diana continued.

“After those of us in the kitchen had finished eating, we went over to the game room. I stayed there until eleven thirty, talking to Dennis and the others.”

Diana shook her head. She had obviously given this much thought. But her words meant a lot more to me, simply because the same thing had happened with Natalie and I. or at least, that is how I took it. When she told me that she was leaving and moving on, I took it to mean that we could never be friends again. In fact, more than that, I was unsure how we could ever be friends again. But here we were and at least we were talking to each other so that was a good sign. Of course, once she found out exactly what I had done, she would not be so accepting. I had to count on the fact that I had gotten rid of everything, so she would never find out. Besides, when compared to the murder of my cousin, she would not care about any little thing I had done to ruin our friendship in the past. Yes, I decided. It was better that I had gotten rid of it, and if anything, I could just tell her about it. She would understand, and maybe she would only be a little hurt.

Diana and Natalie looked at me, waiting for me to respond. I realized now, and again, that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. Once again I said random things that had nothing to do with the investigation. I shook my head.

“I am so sorry,” I said. “Go on with your questions, detective.” I had gotten used to calling her detective in front of other people, simply because everyone else called her that too and it felt weird to be the only one going around calling her Natalie. Heaven forbid I bring out the old nickname I used to call her, nat. that would be ultra embarrassing and would end in both her and me being shunned from the rest of society. Oh well, I thought to myself. As long as they shun us together, I will be perfectly all right.

What are you thinking? I asked myself. I was getting way ahead of myself and taking my mind off of what was most important here. And that was finding my cousin’s killer.

“What did you do after you finished talking to Dennis, and the others?” Natalie asked tactfully. Diana looked up at the ceiling.

“Hmm, let us see, I went over to my room, Dennis walked me there, we said our good nights, and he went up to his room, and I went down to my own. I stayed in my room from eleven forty I think until I was awoken by Andrea going into Kenneth’s room to find him. I came out of the room just as Andrea was about to tell me to go downstairs.”

“So you have been in your room the whole night?” Natalie asked. “You didn’t go any where ever since eleven forty when you went into your room?”

Diana shook her head furiously.

“No, I didn’t go any where else, I swear.”

“It is all right,” Natalie said, lifting up her hand. “No one is accusing you of anything.”

At least not yet, I felt like she would say at the end, but she held it in. surely, the next questions to come would deal with motive as opposed to opportunity. We had already covered the means, and although opportunity was still up in the air, there was still more we needed to learn in the way of motivation.

Natalie cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ear. I pushed my glasses further up my nose. For reasons I could never explain, my glasses were all ways falling down my nose. I was starting to seriously consider getting some contact lenses, even if I felt that they were kind of annoying and I really liked my glasses. I turned my sheet of paper over and thought better of it and found another sheet some where in my pocket. I wanted to do like Natalie said and write at the same time as her to catch some discrepancies.

“How can you say your relationship was with Josiah?” Natalie asked casually.

Diana looked rather shocked. She furrowed her brow, opened and closed her mouth a few times, then leaned forward.

“My relationship with Josiah?” she asked.

“Yes,” Natalie said, nodding. “How did you two get along with each other?”

“Good ness, Detective, he was a kid! How well do you suppose I would get along with a kid?”

“Josiah was seventeen years old and on his way to be married. I have it on good authority that he acted much older than his age, so I would hardly consider him to be just a kid as you are asserting.”

“All right, I will concede, I didn’t see him as just a kid. I thought he was more of a miniature man, if that makes any sense. He wanted so badly to be a man, but I was unsure if he knew much about what it meant to be a man. Josiah and I, we didn’t have many run-ins. After he got kidnapped and brought back, he sort of changed.” She stopped speaking. I nodded my head.

“Of course he changed,” I put in. “he was ten years old when that happened, and he eventually had to grow up. Did you expect him to be the same little kid he was back then?”

Diana shook her head.

“Of course not! I understand how much of a toll being kidnapped took on him. I know how it hurt him that he had caused so much pain for all of us.” She paused and I looked at her curiously. What was she trying to say? She continued before I had the chance to speak. Yes, I know that I kept saying I would not say anything, but I couldn’t help myself.

“After Josiah came back, he started paying attention to things more. He started listening in on conversations, started making little comments that were not necessary. He started causing some trouble between people.”

“Namely between you and Dennis,” Natalie said. It sounded like it should have been a question, but she said it like it was a statement. “Josiah found out that you had some feelings for Dennis and he did some thing to you, did he not? Some thing that caused Dennis to question whether or not to be with you?”

Diana didn’t say anything. After a few seconds, Natalie let out a half amused, some what sarcastic laugh.

“You and Dennis were a couple, were you not? And Josiah did some thing to you tow that drove Dennis further away from you. That is why you were so concerned that people would think you two were back together again. Because then that would mean that you were starting to become friends again, and you didn’t want anyone to mess that up. Good ness, I am right.”

Sure enough, Diana was nodding the entire time Natalie was speaking. Natalie leaned forward.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

“Oh but you must, Diana. Anything you hide will only make things harder for us, and for yourself. Do you want that to happen?” Natalie asked her softly. I watched as Diana’s expression changed. She looked up.

“Yes, it is true, Dennis and I were a couple. Josiah was upset at that fact because he wanted so badly for us to be as miserable as he was. He listened in at my door knob so many times when I was speaking to my parents, and he told Dennis about my job here, about what I did outside of the manor.” Diana hung her head in shame. “When Dennis found out about it, he was upset. He didn’t want to speak to me and avoided me for months. I was so miserable! But we made things better again, I swear! That is how we are able to deal with each other now, because we are making things better.”

“I don’t doubt this,” Natalie said. “How did you react to Josiah after you found out what he had done?”

Diana’s face grew grave.

“I got him in trouble.”

She stood up.

“I have to leave from here,” she stated matter of factly. “You two can stay in here and do your little investigation thing, but I have some where to be. You are wrong if you think that I did this to Josiah. Yes, we had some problems with him, but I have nothing against the boy. I would never do anything to hurt him, and I would have you know that.”

She stormed out of the room. I whistled and moved over to Natalie.

“Wow, so that went pretty well.”

Natalie gave me a dirty look. I was upset.

“What was that for?”

Natalie shook her head and started digging through the papers on Diana’s desk. She reached for something that had fallen and went under the table.

“Oh come on!” I whined. “Can you not tell me what is bothering you, and why you look like you are so mad at me?”

Natalie turned to me.

“Of course you all ways have to open that big mouth of yours,”

This was the first time I ever recall seeing Natalie angry, not even when I did all of those things to her. I was quite taken aback.

She continued with her rebuke.

“Instead of letting me handle the questioning when it is obvious that I have it under control, you want to lead her off topic and waste as much time as possible.”

“Me? Waste time?” I was incredulous. “Sure, I opened my mouth, and we had to let her go early, but what I got her to say was more important then any of that. You pieced it all together, and you couldn’t have done so if I had not gotten her to talk about her love life!”

“There was no love life to speak of, Kenneth! And that is what I am so upset about!” she shook her head. “Do you not understand that this woman was hurting, that she had been hurt by some thing your cousin has done to her? That the man that she loves was angry with her because of some thing she had done? Some thing that some one else revealed to him, not even when she did it herself? Do you know how that feels Kenneth?”

She shook her head, and I could feel the tremor in her voice.

“No you know nothing about that, do you Kenneth? You just sit here in this beautiful mansion, running away from the real world and leave everyone else to crash and burn in your wake.”

Natalie stood up.

“I found some thing in here that you might want to take a look at. For now, I am going to my room, to get myself together. I would have liked to go outside, but you see how bad it is out there.”

She turned and left after placing some thing on her chair.

I waited for a few minutes, shocked. All that she had said hit me like a ton of bricks. Natalie was more honest with me than I ever remember her being before, and I didn’t know how to take it. I stood up and went over to her chair.

What I found momentarily shocked me.

It was a map, of the Livingston Manor Estate. On the top, the title read: TREASURE MAP. It was signed, Diana . [CHAPTER END]

 

NaNoWriMo – 2012 (Dead Man)

Chapter One

He had lived in this house his entire life, but it never bothered him until now. Oak paneling lined the walls, framed by slabs of drywall painted a hideous shade of beige. ‘Moon Dance’, the man standing behind the paint counter had called it, holding up a paint swatch with the not-quite-quite-brown-not-quite-white color printed on it. His mother had decided in all of two seconds that this was the new color of their home and purchased several cans of the stuff with a wave of the finger. He had not been around on the day the workers painted, but he was sure it’d been a tough experience, what with his mother around. Despite everything his mother had put him through, though, he stood here, waiting for her to walk through the front door.

A clock chimed from the living room and his eye twitched, begging him to turn his head and investigate the noise. He willed himself to remain straight, to remain focused. There was nothing worse than involuntary movement, and he had worked hard to control his reflexes. If nothing else, he would at least control his body.

Freshly baked bread sat on the kitchen next to a few covered plates with strong ethnic flavors stinging his nose. The food had been coming in all week, but it usually sat on the table for hours until he had the sense to trash it. He had not noticed the food when he woke up this morning, but, lately, he had not been noticing anything.

“Alex, are you awake, honey?” His mother’s voice floated in from the front door, as sweet as ever. Her voice was plastered with a smile, something he would not have believed in the present circumstances had he not experienced it himself. She drifted into the kitchen, the black dress swishing around her ankles.

“It’s so good to see you,” she said, stepping in front of him. He kept his eyes on the ground before him, studying the red and beige patterns that he had never noticed before. They twisted into loops and circles that crossed his eyes so he closed them, wondering who had been dumb enough to bring that into his house.

“Are you ready for this afternoon?” She reached for the narrow black tie around his neck, adjusting the cloth straps to press against his collar. He swallowed and opened his eyes as she rested her hands on his shoulders. Her soft brown eyes held his, and he wondered to himself if he had ever looked into her eyes before. “You never seemed to be able to do that right,” she said, a soft, sad smile crossing her lips. “Just like your – ”

Her eyes misted suddenly and she turned away. He wanted to reach out to her, to touch her, to comfort her, but he stopped himself. There was no room for any of that anymore, and as he watched a few tears spring from beneath her dark eyes, he knew there would never again be room for comfort between them.

“I have to go, Alex,” she said, reaching for her eyes and turning away. He watched her walk again through the front door, knowing that she would enter the car and drive away, leaving him behind if he didn’t join her. Sometimes she just didn’t pay any attention to him, but he had grown used to that about her.

He took a few steps forward, his eyes still fixed straight ahead. The long hallway in front of the door was decorated with picture frames lined in wood, an impression of the history he desired to leave behind. From the corner of his eye he could see the wedding pictures, the baseball pictures, the graduation pictures, and then more wedding pictures. He tried not to focus on the single face that tried to shove itself onto the forefront of his mind. The door was made of oak, just like the rest of the house, and his mother had had it carved for them in their garage. The carpenter had spent a good portion of the weekend cutting through the wood to form the strange two headed dog design that stared at him from the door. The dog was large and imposing, but only one of the faces looked frightening. The other face was kind and gentle, sort of like a loving parent. He had always envisioned his mother as the meaner, terrifying dog, with the twisted face and commanding presence. She did not look like a dog by any means, but when she put her mind to it, she could be a terrible person to be around.

His mother’s car door slammed with a soft thud, which could only mean that she had crawled into the passenger’s seat. The driver’s side of the car was notorious for it’s loud thunk every time you closed it, no matter how gently. He pushed open the elaborate door and stared at his mother’s car. It was red, with a few white streaks on the side where an immature teenager had keyed it, and fit the two of them perfectly. If he had been in his right mind, they would have repainted it a long time ago, but when there is so much going on, the least important is politely shoved aside, never to return to it again.

His mother smiled at him from within the car, reaching across to unlock the door for him. It was a new car – they had only had it for a few weeks – and he was still getting the hang of driving. He had never had a reason to drive before, but now, with things as crazy as they were, everyone advised him that he might as well get it over with. “You never know when that skill might come in handy,” they would say to him, holding up their driver’s licenses. “You can’t always expect to rely on your parents, you know?”

He pulled open the driver’s door and turned to look one more time at his home. He had lived here for his whole life, but he had never noticed the balcony on the second floor. It jutted out of the building like a sore thumb, its metal gates painted white and gray. The metal twisted into the shape of a swan and a duck, the two animals facing away from each other. He closed one eye and lifted his finger, tracing the air in front of him in accordance with their shapes. He had always been interested in art, but it was the lines and curves that drew his eye. He smiled, suddenly remembering the night he had stayed up really late, drawing with crayons on the ground, waiting for the door to open so he could share his masterpiece. He had been so excited to share it, and he was greatly encouraged by the response his drawing received.

He slid into the car, glancing at his mother. She dabbed at the corner of her eye with a white handkerchief, careful not to soak up the black eye makeup she had so painstakingly applied this morning. She looked away, hiding her face from him. He twisted the key in the ignition and listening as the engine fired to life.

“We need to hurry,” she begged, her face covered with the cloth. He ignored her and applied pressure to the gas petal, twisting the wheel and pulling out of the front driveway.

The ride to the church was long and uneventful. He had not even noticed the time pass, nor had he noticed his mother speaking to him without any encouragement the entire time. Pushing open his door, he looked at the small gathering of people in front of the church. They were here to support him, but he did not want to see their faces. He did not want to answer any of their questions, take any of their food, or sit through awkward conversations as they tried to say encouraging words. He turned to his mother and forced a smile. She was not looking at him, but focused on the crowd in front of the church.

“Robert is here.”

He looked at her.

“Who is Robert?”

She looked at him suddenly, fear lighting her eyes. “I am sorry, I did not mean to say Robert, I meant to say Robin is here, my friend.”

He turned away and searched the crowd for the short woman who visited them every week, Bible in hand. She was supposed to be his mother’s spiritual leader, but he had never seen anything spiritual about his mother. Then again, he had not noticed anything about his family until only recently.

Robin’s head faced his, her eyes meeting his. He resisted the urge to look away, to protect himself, but instead deadened his eyes to achieve the same effect. She never looked away, though, but instead walked closer to him. The large brown leather Bible was there in her hand, clutched to her chest as though it would bring her some warmth on this dark and cold day. A shiver threatened to crawl through his body but he forced it back, clenching his teeth and squeezing his hands. Robin’s blond hair was long and flowing, though graying at the temples,  swishing against her back like a pendulum. Her eyes were swatches of light blue and were the only things remarkable about her face. A thousand sunrises had seen Robin’s face, and they left evidence of their presence by carving straight lines near her eyes and cheeks. She drew near to their car and smiled brightly at him.

“Good afternoon, Alex,” she said politely, reaching up to peck him on the cheek. He did not return the smile. He did not return the kiss. Instead, he watched her walk around the car and open the passenger door. His mother climbed out and collapsed in Robin’s arms.

“Oh, Robin, I do not know how I will be able to make it today,” she sobbed quietly into the older woman’s shoulder. He looked away from their scene, focusing on the keys in his palm. They were normally shaped keys attached to a key chain shaped like a ‘V’. He had not noticed this key chain before. The metal ‘V’ had left an imprint on his palm where he had applied pressure. He slipped the keys into his pocket and rubbed his hand, trying to smooth out the skill and dull the slight pain that he suddenly felt.

“It will be all right, Sandy. Trust me.”

He stepped away from the car.

“Alex!” A voice he did not recognize called for him. He looked around, trying to locate the speaker. The small gathering in front of the church doors had disappeared, leaving a dim trail of voices in their wake. A few latecomers straggled in the parking lot, but they neither looked at him nor spoke.

“Alex!” The voice called again, this time from behind. He whirled around. Standing in front of him was a young girl, no more than eleven years of age. She wore a plaid skirt and a thin sweater across her chest. Words danced on the black sweater in faded white letters. He made out the word ‘class’, but no more. Her straight black hair was parted down the middle and spilled over her shoulders. She smelled oddly, almost like pumpkins, which was odd because there were no farms around here.

“Hey, Alex, why are you looking at me like that?” She smiled and shook her head.

“Silly Alex, you do not like talking, right?”

She did not wait for his answer. “Well, you remember me, right?” Again, she did not wait for his answer. “Mother does not like when I talk to people at funerals. She calls it a time of mourning, and you are not supposed to talk when you are mourning.” The young girl straightened her back and pressed her chin against her neck, imitating her mother. ” ‘You must have respect for the dead, otherwise, they will climb out of their graves and eat you alive!’ ”

With her fingers splayed out she lunged at his face, squeezing his cheeks and scratching at his forehead with her fingers. He gently pushed her fingers aside and grabbed them, looking into her eyes. She squealed and tried pulling her fingers out from his grip.

“Mother does not know anything, though, so I do not listen to what she says.”

“You should listen to your parents.” The words slipped out. He had been trying so hard to stay quiet but the words had come nonetheless. She smiled mischievously and let her fingers go limp.

“I told Mother that I could get you to talk!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “They say that you almost killed your mother when you found out what happened. Is that true?”

He looked into the eyes of this young girl that he had never seen before. He noticed a small bump on her forehead, slightly red. Suddenly, her name returned to him. He released her fingers.

“Jamie?”

“Yes! You remember your cousin! The world has not come to an end!” She grabbed his middle and pulled him close to her, squeezing much tighter than any other little girl he had come in contact with. Jamie leaned back and looked into his eyes. “You do not seem as sad as your mother,” she observed, gesturing behind her with her eyes.

Alex looked up at the car where his mother and Robin stood, still huddled together in their tears and despair.

“I am sad,” he said, putting his hand on Jamie’s head. “I just know how to control it better.”

“Yeah, a lot of people are in there crying like it is the end of the world, but I know that if you can keep from crying, then anyone could.”

Alex smiled. The logic of a preteen was so refreshingly simple. Her trust in him may have been misguided, but she genuinely believed in her conclusions. Alex was not sure if any of the conclusions he had arrived at were believable. He had searched and searched for the answers, but everyone kept telling him the same things, and he was not satisfied with their ideas. That was the only reason why he came here today, to this silly little church, with its silly blue chairs, and its silly people thinking the world ran by truths he was not sure he believed in anymore.

But he came here today for answers, and as he held his little cousin, whom he had not seen in ages, he wondered if all of the answers were actually here, like everyone claimed.

Alex turned his body and led Jamie into the church, not bothering to see if his mother would join them any time soon. The stepped into the foyer and he had barely a second to look around at all the pictures laid out on the tables before his world was engulfed in flames.

 

Chapter Two

Dyrk had been twelve years old when he got his first tattoo. None of the other kids in school had one, and it had gained him instant popularity. All of the girls had crowded over to see him flex the muscle under the tattoo. The guys had crowded over because it was cool to be bad, and having ink meant you were totally bad. Dyrk’s fascination with this wearable art had grown as he went through high school and he had added to his great collection of dragons and names every month, except the month before graduation. His mother had made him promise to do his schoolwork that month instead of slacking off as usual, and she would reward him with a few hundred dollars for a new tattoo. With his friends, a few hundred dollars could mean a world of difference. As soon as Dyrk walked off the platform with his hard earned diploma, and dashed to an appointment he had made with Rodney, the best tattoo artist in the small town of Riverside. A few hours later, he had emerged with his right arm dripping with Vaseline, designs of a dragon eating a man gleaming in the sun. He had named it ‘The Passage of Man From Predator to Prey’ and loved it more than all the others.

He had not thought of his past history in a long time. Dyrk liked to live in the present, to focus on the things ahead, and to never look back on regrets or accomplishments. He was competitive by nature, his mother had told him, and he always assumed that the best competitors look forward for the next competition, never satisfied with their past failures, or even their successes.

But today was different. He was standing in the front of a church, arms crossed, nervously looking at the double doors for someone to walk through. The tall man who preferred to be called “Reverend” above anything else crossed over to where he stood. He placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You doing okay?”

Dyrk smiled slowly and uncrossed his arms. He nodded, then crossed his arms again, a frown playing on his lips.

“I mean, everyone is nervous on their wedding day, even the lady, although she will never admit it to anyone.” Reverend smiled as he spoke, patting him on the shoulder. Dyrk looked away. He had more  reason than anyone else to be nervous, and yet here he was on his wedding day thinking about tattoos instead

“You know, I never thought I would get to this place in my life.” Dyrk turned away from the reverend and watched the streams of supporters flood the sanctuary. They had all come out to support him on his big day, and he was grateful. There was Mrs. O’Keefe, the grocery store owner who still managed to remember his orders from when he was a small boy running around Riverside like a hoodlum. He recognized several family members who had flown down from upstate just to see him tie the knot. There were dozens of faces that he did not recognize, faces that he had just met, and faces that he had never seen in ages.

A young man stepped through the aisle and stuck out his hand to Dyrk. A big smile lit the dark man’s face and his shook his hand vigourously.

“My friend, Dyrk! How good it is to see you again!”

Dyrk stared at the young man, his face not registering in his mind. Who could this possibly be? A dozen faces flashed through his mind, until it rested on one final figure.

“Danny? NO! It can not be you, Danny!” Dyrk threw himself against the young man, grabbing him and wrapping him an embrace. He had not seen the young man since he was a small child, barely old enough to hang out with them as they played in the streets with his older brother. It had been strange for him to see him again, this old friend of his, but he wondered why his brother was not here to support him. Dyrk pushed back from their embrace and studied Danny.

“Danny, I have not seen you in forever!” Dyrk laughed and pulled him close in an embrace again. “Where is your brother?” He asked. “Where is Michael?”

Danny pushed away and looked away from Dyrk, all the excitement from their meeting gone from his face. He shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Dyrk, my brother has been in prison for seven years now. They say he is never getting out.”

“No. No, that is ridiculous,” Dyrk said, shaking his head. “You can not tell me that Michael, the greatest man to ever walk the face of the earth, that he is in jail? What did he do, Danny?”

The wedding disappeared from his mind as he looked at Danny, expecting an answer. Blackness clouded his eyes and he felt himself slipping further and further into his memories. The only thing that he could remember was the sound of a blast, and a handful of glass cutting through his cheek before completely surrendering to the blackness of unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Three

The hospital was quiet. Alex sat upright in his bed, covering his nose. The stench of flowers filled the room, left behind by well wishers from the church. He hated the smell of flowers. They smelled green and fresh and left little flakes everywhere. His mother had left some candles around to purge the sterile hospital smell, but he blew them out as soon as she had gone home. He loved the smell of cleanliness, and nothing was more clean than that of a hospital. A handful of cards lay on the small table next to him. Alex picked one up.

It was a construction paper card, with small skateboarding boys drawn on the cover. He opened it up and traced the straight handwritten lines with his fingers.

“Hey, cousin, you are going to be okay, right? Signed, Jamie.”

Alex smiled and replaced the card onto the side table. His hands, bound together with tubes and tape, banged into the table and he winced in pain, dropping the card onto the ground. He watched it flutter to the floor, saw the little skateboarding dudes flip in their places and settle on the floor. Someone would pick that up for him. He reached for his hand with his free hand and listened. Alex looked at his throbbing hand. His arms were covered in bruises, but aside from that, he had not been damaged in the blast. He did not remember much from the blast, but he had heard from his mother and other visitors that the reverend had suffered third degree burns and would need skin grafts if he was ever to be able to move his body again. Aside from him, though, no one else had gotten hurt.

Alex’s thoughts returned to Jamie. He had thrown himself over the young girl immediately, taking the brunt of the damage for her. His backed ached as he recalled the door fallen on him just before he blacked out. No one seemed to know what had happened, but the police were supposedly onto it. His mother had told him that the homicide detective, Harold Wendell, would stop by sometime to give him some more information. In all honesty, he did not want to hear any more about this incident. He wanted to bury it under the distractions he had worked so hard to put onto the forefront of his mind. He did not want to be reminded, yet again, that he had absolutely no control over his own life.

A nurse slammed open the door with her back, pulling a long metal cart into the room. She wore a simple green pair of scrubs, smiling at him as she turned around.

“You are awake.”

“Just barely,” Alex replied, returning her smile. Her name was Andrea, and she had been in one of his classes in high school. She was a very intelligent young woman, but he had never been able to see past her appearance until now. Until she showed up in his room, he had only seen her as a beautiful woman, with the perfect body, the perfect hair, the perfect smile, the perfect life. Alex could never have been with her, not because he was not handsome, but because of his father. Alex suddenly stiffened and closed his eyes. His father. Not the person he wanted to be thinking of at the moment.

Andrea cleared her throat and he opened his eyes again, warmed by her smile and genuine care for him.

“We have a good lunch for you today, Alex, and you have me to thank for that.”

“Thank high school and Photography class,” he said, straining to see what was inside the cart. A few slices of bread were spread on a platter, with various different meats laid out next to them. Andrea smiled and lifted the platter onto his lap

“Yes, our teacher was a really nice man. He never forced us to do any work, though, so I wonder how good he really was.” Andrea reached into the cart and began digging through it. Alex looked at the pieces of turkey, ham, and bologna, and rearranged them into a semi circle, symmetrical with each other. He lined up the slices of bread beneath this semi circle, forming a horizon line. It looked like the sun was about to set, and he ran his finger along the horizon line.

“Oh, would you look at that, the sun is about to rise,” Andrea remarked, setting down a tub of mayonnaise and a packet of mustard. “You should consider yourself lucky, Alex.”

“I am grateful for you bringing me this food,” he said. She sighed and sat on the edge of his bed. Her long black hair was tied up neatly in a bun on the back of her head, and her dark brown eyes were covered by a pair of black, wire framed glasses. She looked so much older than when they were in high school, but her beauty had taken on a dignified manner that surpassed any of the other teenagers at Riverside High. She looked into his eyes and smiled sadly.

“I am not talking about the food, Alex, although that was a very hard thing to get in here. I was talking about the different ways that this could have gone down. how many people could have gotten hurt and how you only walked away with a few bruises. I mean, the re

“Alex, I am not talking to you about the food. I am talking about the fire. I have treated dozens of emergencies at the emergency room, but I have never dealt with anything like this before.”

“But no one was injured,” Alex said, furrowing his brow. She shook her head, her voice growing grave.

“This was an attack, Alex. It was not an accident, it was not a mistake. Someone wanted to do this, and they are an unspeakably evil person for that.” Andrea stood and pushed the cart out the room, not speaking to him any more. He closed his eyes and thought back to the event. No one else beside the reverend and himself had gotten hurt, which he was grateful for, but he wondered how it may have turned out differently.

The door squeaked as it was pushed away from the hinge, and his eyes jerked wide open.

“The hero has finally awakened!” The lanky brown haired detective strolled into the room, laptop open in hand. He stood nearly six feet tall, with close cropped hair and dark brown eyes. His brow slanted slightly, and his mouth formed a permanent scowl. Alex studied Harold Wendell with a careful eye. The detective wore a brown suit, tailored to fit his slender frame. The man was not athletic in build, although Alex had seen the infamous video of Wendell chasing a pack of thugs outside of Starfield Theater, and Alex would not want to race against the detective if his life depended on it.

“Alex, I really am glad to see you in your right mind,” he said, gesturing to the platter on Alex’s lap. He looked down at the setting sun – or was it rising? He was not sure. He wanted to ask the detective what he meant by his comment, but let it slide. Whatever had brought the good detective here was more important than any digs on Alex’s personality.

“Your mother was just in the station,” Wendell said, making for the small plastic chair next to the side table. He bent to retrieve the card that Alex had dropped and turned it over in his hands. “Jamie is the young girl you saved. She is a really brave girl, if you ask me. My own daughter, Christa, she is seven, and she would never have been able to handle any of this.”

“Why was my mother at the station?” Alex asked, closing his eyes. He pictured his mother in his mind, her pale face twisted in confusion as she tried to make sense of what was going on. First, his father, now him. It was all too much for her to handle. It was all too much for him to handle, but until he got out of the hospital, he was not really handling it.

Detective Wendell cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, the plastic squeaking under his weight. “Alex, your mother was there because I called her there myself. We have reason to believe that this attack on the church was directed at one of your family members.”

“That is absurd.” Alex’s eyes flew open and he drilled the detective with a hard stare. “You are trying to say that someone wanted to kill either my mother or myself, so they bombed a church?”

“I am only doing my job, Alex,” Wendell replied, his eyes gone cold, his voice, stiff. “I wanted to break this to you slowly, but your mother insisted I tell you now.”

His mother had always tried to protect him from everything. Here she was, trying it again. It did not matter that he was a full grown man, capable of handling himself. She insisted on taking control of his life, and he was grateful at first, but now, it was overdone. Why she had decided that it was now time to tell him something intrigued him. He was offended that the detective needed his mother’s permission before speaking to him.

“What did she tell you to tell me?” Alex demanded. The detective looked away. “Honestly, just tell me already. Were they going after me, or my mother?”

“They were not going after either of you,” Wendell said, crossing his arms. Alex blinked. If they were not going after his mother or him, who were they going after? The next logical conclusion horrified him.

“But, Detective Wendell, that just does not make any sense. Why would anyone want to kill my father if he is already dead?”

(“Alex, you know your father, the kind of man that he was. A man like that makes enemies throughout his lifetime, enemies that just do not forget the pain he caused them)

 

Chapter Four

The house had been empty for almost three weeks after the attack at his father, (Dyrk Chamberlain’s), funeral. His mother had refused to enter the two floor home, insisting on spending her nights over at Robin’s house, and her mornings with him at the hospital. He had enjoyed his stay at the hospital during recovery, especially the frequent conversations with Andrea and the assortment of special foods that he had received because of their friendship. But, in all honesty, he was tired of sitting around in his hospital bed, waiting to be checked by doctors, waiting for reports of the incident that put him there to come to him. Alex hated this situation, where he had absolutely no control over anything, and he wanted nothing more than to come into his own home where he would not have to worry about any of that.

Detective Wendell’s news had not left his mind since he spoke them.

“The attacker was not going after either of you.”

He had not replied to any of Alex’s questions, refused to hear any of his demands, and simply walked out of the hospital room and did not return. His mother did not speak to him about the information the police had gathered, and the news itself was ignoring the tragedy altogether. Jamie had visited him twice in the hospital, but she was too young to have heard anything. The world was brushing this incident under the carpet; no one cared about the injured reverend or the poor, grieving young man.

“The attacker was not going after either of you.”

Again, Detective Wendell’s words ran through his mind. What had he meant by this? Alex wondered. He had searched his father’s name on the Internet, but had only come up with information he already knew. Why anyone would want to harm his father was beyond him, and why they would have resorted to his funeral instead of speaking to him face to face baffled him even further. His father was known for speaking with people in order to resolve problems, never settling until everyone had come to an agreement, however difficult it may have been. Anyone that had a problem with anything his father did had always approached him to his face, and everything had been settled.

This time, however, it was different. Whoever wanted to take revenge on his father had attacked his dead body on a day when all of his family and friends were gathered together. On a day when the only people that truly loved him in the world would be gathered in one place, this phantom attacker would strike, defaming his name and casting a poor shadow over their family for the ages to come.

Alex glanced at the outside of his home. The grass had reached record heights, never before going this long without a trimming. He sighed and slung the tattered back pack over his shoulder. He had had this back pack for a few years now, and he insisted on using it, even though his mother had offered to replace it several times since then. It reminded him of a better time in his life, a time when he was not confused about what he was supposed to do with his life. He wanted to return to that time in his life, but he knew it was impossible. Wearing the bag and looking at the visual reminder was a daily reminder of something he longed to attain again.

It did not surprise him to find all the lights off in the house and the window shutters drawn. His mother did not believe in the safety of the neighborhood, insisting that all of their neighbors were vicious creatures at heart, waiting for the moment to pounce and destroy. She had the shutters installed, despite the fact that hurricanes or tornadoes of any kind were not common in Riverside at all.

He twisted a thin key into the door and wiggled it to the left. The giant oak door popped open and he stepped through it carefully. The burns on his body had healed well during his recovery period in the hospital, and he did not hurt as much as he had expected to hurt. Alex thought of the reverend, with his badly burned body, and wondered if he would ever be able to move without intense pain ever again.

As he expected, the house was dark, too dark to see. Alex felt along the left wall just inside the door, flailing with his palm until he touched the plastic switch and flicked it upwards.

Nothing was out of place. Everything looked exactly as it had looked when he left the house three weeks ago. A half empty bottle of soda sat opened on the marble kitchen counter. Packages of cereal stood next to the bottle, although his mother would never have allowed them into the house under different circumstances. The air was still and deathly quiet. He could only hear the sound of his breathing.

Alex shut the door behind him and took a few steps forward. The wood creaked under his weight as he made his way to the living room. Ticking from the many grandfather clocks which lined the living room wall reached his ears as he drew near to it. He paused in the doorway of the living room, peering into the cozy area. Shadowy lumps rose from the ground and threw shadows onto the wall. It was too far away from the front door to be reached by the hallway light. He searched for a separate source of light, and noticed a thin stream of yellow pouring out from under the attic door.

Why is that light on? He wondered, turning into the living room. Alex was not sure when the last time anyone had entered the attic. Probably after Dad died. His mother had made a point to haul all of his father’s effects into the attic. She would rather hide away memories of her dead husband than keep them in her room where she would see them every day. Alex could understand. He would not want to have a constant reminder of his father’s death. Just one more thing in this life that he had no control over.

The door loomed ahead, and he knew that he would never be able to rest until he investigated it. Dozens of scenarios flashed through his mind, all of them ending in either his own death or that of his mother. Alex stepped through the living room, eyes fixed on the attic door before him. His toe caught the leg of a table and he grunted to cover the pain.

It was an oak door, much like the one in the front, except that it had no special designs. A simple sign reading “Attic: do not enter” was taped onto it, scrawled in marker on a white sheet of paper. Alex touched the sign with his hand, running his finger along the long sticks of the t’ and i. His father had asked him to write that sign before a family reunion a few years ago.

“I would not want any of our noisy relatives going through that door,” he had said, crossing his arms as he always did when he was thinking of his family. “They do not like heights,” he continued, “and I would not want any of them climbing up those stairs only to find out that they were going high, high up.”

Alex had laughed at his father’s explanation. Surely, he did not expect Alex to believe that this was the real reason for marking off the attic. Although he had been in it himself numerous times, he had never entered it without adult supervision. If there was anything to hide, though, Alex was sure he would know about it. Regardless, the sign had worked, and none of his family members had tried to enter it. That evening, after everyone had finished dinner and was talking upstairs, Alex tip toed into the attic and searched every corner, opened every box, but did not find anything that was out of the ordinary or suspicious.

As he climbed up the narrow staircase, he remembered how his father had reacted when he discovered the young teenager huddled over a stack of boxes.

“You will not find anything up here, Alex,” his father had said, smiling slightly at him. “Anything you would ever want to know, I can tell you.” They had sat together for the next few hours, asking each other questions, his father sharing dozens of funny stories from a time before Alex was born. It had been a bonding experience. He missed his father.

A single light bulb swung at the top of the stairs. Shadows stretched with each swing of the light source, and he reached up to steady the warm bulb. He stared at his hand. It had not been as hot as he expected. Alex glanced around the attic. Dozens of boxes stood stacked along the walls, with a few couches and chairs scattered in the middle. He climbed over a few fallen lamps and sat on an old rocking chair. Straining to see the back of the attic, Alex tried to remember if he had heard anything from his mother recently. After the incident with the detective, she had made herself scarce around him, keeping to safe topics, such as the weather and something happening in the news. But she had never mentioned coming home, or whether or not anyone else had come into their home. Things did not look tampered with, but he would have had to have taken inventory of everything before he knew whether or not anything was missing.

Wind howled and whipped around his ankles and traveled up his pant leg. He had not closed the downstairs door, but that was only wise. Alex’s eyes drifted to a large metal chest shoved under a table.

I am almost sure that I have never seen that before. He stood up and squatted near the table. Reaching forward, he tugged at the chest. It did not budge. He dropped onto his knees and rested one hand on the table, while he pulled at the chest with the other. Nothing. He grabbed the chest with both hands and yanked. It wedged free and slid across the attic floor with a loud scrape.

It was not locked. He lifted the lid and let it lean against the table. A dozen manila folders filled the chest, along with a few other books and loose papers. Alex reached inside and pulled out a small, clay elephant. He smiled as he turned it over in his fingers. He had carved that elephant in his third grade pottery class for Father’s Day. Alex felt along the bottom for the indentation where he had placed his initials, A.C. His friends had made fun of him, calling him Air Conditioner for the rest of the year, and asking him if he was broken because his body was always warm. Alex’s father had loved it, though, and had even come into school to speak to the teacher about the bullying. The boys had continued talking about him and calling him an electrical appliance, but his father had stood up for him, he had liked Alex’s clay elephant, and that was all that really mattered in the long run.

Alex set aside the clay elephant and pulled out a single folder. A yellow sticky note was stuck on the manila folder with the markings “copy #1347558” scrawled on the paper. He touched the sticky note, his brows knitting together.

What is this?

He opened the folder . . . ( filler: He still kept paper records, which was strange for the second half of the 23rd century. As a member of the Morland Order, I had a lot of dealings with books and physical libraries, but the rest of the population had moved into the digital realm a great many years earlier. As I thumbed through folders and folders of thin, yellowing paper, I couldn’t help but wonder if this man was anything to be afraid of. My mission was simple: kill the New England Regional Director. The reasons, however, were not. Even still, I wasn’t sure how anyone so behind on the times could interfere with our plans.

A bright flash of pink caught my eye and my fingers froze. There it was. Director Killy Hanrue’s expansion plans for Manhattan, printed on neon pink paper, just as my research had indicated. I didn’t know what the Morland leaders wanted with these architectural designs, but it was none of my concern. This request had come in a few days before I left Kentucky for New York, and the only thing they would tell me was that I had better not return without them.

Shoving the plans into my light gray satchel, I closed the file cabinets and surveyed my surroundings. I had managed to get inside with little to no hassle, although the welt on the security guard’s eye would beg to differ. The office was large and neat, with a cluster of bookshelves to one side and the Director’s desk to another.

I stepped over to the mahogany desk, which looked fairly new, despite the fact that mahogany, or any kind of wood for that matter, was extremely rare. On the wall behind the desk was a huge screen, with a dozen different news channels running at the same time. I reached out and gently touched a portion of the screen, and one of the channels enlarged and covered the entire screen. We didn’t have much technology in the Morland Temple, although we knew of its existence, and it still fascinated me. The woman on the screen began to speak, her voice shrill and loud.

“Director Killy Hanrue delivered a speech last night in Old Times Square, with thousands of supporters flocking just to see him.”

The image suddenly shifted to my target, standing on a podium a few blocks from Altin Hall, where his office presided. His bright blue eyes gazed directly into the camera, every short black hair neatly in place. He opened his mouth to speak, revealing straight white teeth.

“My goal is to bring peace to our world, to create a New American Society in which we are not afraid to let our children play in the streets. A New American Society where we don’t

have to worry about being robbed or even murdered )

 

Chapter Five

Riverside was a quiet town, never seeing any excitement, never having any murders or big thefts like some of the other small towns in the Midwest. Some would say that the town was blessed, protected by God from any real danger. Others would say it was too poor and backwoods for anyone to care about it. The adults of the town would disagree, citing the movie theater, the night club, the town’s historical museum / library, as fine tourist attractions. The teenagers of the town would disagree with the adults, citing the old movies, strictly enforced age limits, and stuffy old museum curator / librarian, as tourist revulsions.

Dyrk Chamberlain considered himself neither teenager nor adult. He had just finished high school and part of him could identify with the youth who sneered at the sloppy camera work of movies churned out in the 1980’s. And then there was that part of him that enjoyed the abstract local art and the artists that gave speeches and taught classes to the elderly. Dyrk was entering his prime years, and he wanted to grow up and enjoy life as his new adult friends did, but he also wanted to enjoy the youthful pleasures that his younger friends indulged in.

“Too bad I can’t have both,” he whispered to himself as he trudged through the thin layer of snow covering Second Lane, his suede boots changing color as the white flakes melted on the brown fabric. It hadn’t been wise to come into town wearing his favorite boots, but it had been an emergency, and he never used his head during an emergency. Even now, when he was supposed to be investigating the potential robbery of his father’s business, his mind was wandering to the disadvantages of being a 19 year old – simply because he had the word ‘teen’ in his name, neither the teens nor the adults fully accepted him.

“Do well with this business, Dyrk, and you’ve got yourself something to show for.” This time, he said the words aloud. It always sounded better to talk to himself with actual words rather than keep them in his head. As his father always said, “Your thoughts aren’t real until you speak ’em.”

He thought about the potential robbery. Someone had called him on his house phone and left a message before he got home from running errands for the business. Dyrk had barely dropped the groceries onto the counter before he noticed the red light and the bleeping of his answering machine. A voice he didn’t recognize warned him to get back out to the shop because it looked like a bunch of kids were swinging bats and trying to get inside. When he turned back for the door, the snow began to fall, small flakes at first. The old ladies had been predicting this for weeks, clutching their knees and wrists, bundling up when it was still nice and warm out. They had been ready, and they had been right. His shoes had taken a beating for his carelessness and they would need to be replaced, but if he didn’t check out the shop before anything bad happened, he wouldn’t have enough money for any shoes, much less replacements.

A silent wind swirled the air around him, blowing wet flakes into his face, stinging his exposed, reddening cheeks. The sun had begun to set behind the mountains a few hours before he set out on his errands, and now only a faint reminder of the gas giant filled the sky. Dyrk searched the streets for any sign of life, but he knew that very few remained in town after the sun went down on a weekday. He would be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of fifteen, although a few did manage to sneak out with their older brothers and sisters. Mick’s Pharmacy was open all night, but that was because Mick’s good for nothing son lived in the apartment upstairs and got paid for watching television behind the counter and ringing up the occasional customer. The two of them had gone to elementary school together, and had been great friends, but Dyrk had chosen athletics in middle school, while Mick Jr. had elected to stay at home and stare at screens all day, milking his dad’s resources.

Little had changed, Dirk realized as he drew near the dimly lit pharmacy along Second Lane. Mickey was still a slob and a half, and although Dyrk wasn’t officially part of any teams, he was in greater shape now than in his entire high school basketball career. Nothing ever changed in Riverside, he thought to himself, smiling. Everything was so predictable. Everything, that is, except for this.

A fresh set of footprints snaked on the sidewalk before him. There was only one main street in Riverside; it was called Second Lane, which no one understood, because it implied that there had to be a First Lane, although there was no evidence for this. Along Second were the commercial businesses and at the end, the town hall / police station / fire station, all housed in one large, two story building. Scattered on the opposite side of Second were a few residential areas and a small factory and warehouse zone. A bus depot sat wedged between both areas, right in front of Riverside High School. The elementary and middle schools were tucked on the far side of town, behind a row of dentist and doctor’s offices. No one trusted the Riverside High kids with any of the littler ones. Up until a few years ago, the current high school was jumbled with the middle school, but after the incident with the smoke bombs, the PTA rallied for a change in location. Dyrk remembered watching the high school boys in the third floor bathroom during lunch light up the bombs and throw them into the yard filled with kids. He hadn’t been part of the group; he had merely been using the bathroom, and he was still a seventh grader, but the principal didn’t believe him and he was suspended for three days. Dyrk had never been suspended before, and the excitement that it brought surprised him. A few weeks later, he pulled a fire alarm and felt the same rush of excitement. His father had whipped him good, though, forcing him to choose the branch that would administer the punishment. Dyrk had searched for a thin branch, hoping it would hurt less, but that a mistake. By the time he graduated middle school, though, the high school was in the bus depot, and he had ceased to be a troublemaker. (Apparently, the teenagers of a few generations ago were corrupting his grandfather’s young generation, and something needed to be done about it. With a legacy of corrupting the younger ones behind them, every generation of Riverside High students set out to live up to that expectation.)

Dyrk loved his town, but he couldn’t help but feel uneasy as he watched the footsteps crawl forward slowly along Second. He followed them, his head to the ground, not daring to see where they would lead him. Suddenly, the black prints turned to the left. Dyrk blinked and looked up. He staggered backwards.

Chamberlain Appliances. Est. 1923. It had been in his family for decades, but he never considered it anyone’s but his father’s. And it was here that the footprints had led.

“What is the meaning of this?” Dyrk asked under his breath, confused. He hadn’t seen anyone walking ahead of him, and the snow was falling way too fast for the prints to be very old.

He glanced at the storefront, looking for signs that anything was amiss. The two story building had undergone renovation earlier this year and had a new facade. Bright neon signs flashed in the windows, screaming “Open”, “Get your appliances here”, and “Trusted since 1923”. They didn’t need the signs for the customers, who knew their open and closed schedules by heart. His father had wanted them, and so they tore down the old entrance and built a new one.

The windows were intact, and the red bricks forming the building weren’t chipped or broken. Dyrk touched the front door, his fingers leaving a warm circle on the glass. It was still securely locked. So then, why did the prints lead here? He turned the question over and over in his mind.

A white face stared back at him from the window. Dyrk frowned at the lightly bearded face, the short, messy brown hair on top of his head. His dark brown eyes were buried beneath his brow, compliments of his father.  a long slender nose peeked out from above his facial hair, compliments of his mother.

“You look like a mess,” he said to the man standing in the door, his breath blasting against the glass. The man disappeared. Dyrk grunted and pulled out a ring of keys from his blue jeans pocket. He fit the golden key into the lock and jiggled it to the left. It had always taken a little more than a simple twist to open the lock. Dyrk had intended to have it changed, and even though he sold dozens of different locks himself, he never seemed to have enough time.

The door jingled as he pushed it open. A few bells hung above it, echoing as the door settled in place. Dyrk groped along the wall for the light switch and flicked it on. Yellow light illuminated the shop. He glanced around, at the cashier’s table, the clearance bins along the center and the rows of appliances behind them. Everything was quiet as the bells settled into place. Dyrk breathed deeply. He smelled plastic and rubber. His father had suggested lighting scented candles, and he remembered the day that he had tried it. The strawberry scent did little to help with the odor, but he recalled the flickering light in his mind and the warmth it had emitted. He had been fascinated with matches and candles when he was a kid, but he had accidentally burned himself when he was five and all interest in flames left him. He looked at the counter, which still had a few wax marks from the melted candles. One of these days, he would have to get clean that off.  (but there was little to be done against the overwhelming odor. He stepped toward the cashier’s counter.)

If anything was stolen, it would have to be in the cash drawer. Dyrk never left more than a hundred dollars in there, but even that he did not want to lose.

A great crash filled the store and he jumped. Muted voices followed and he whirled around. The sound came from behind the rows. The only thing back there was his father’s office.

“No one should be back there,” he mumbled under his breath. The appliance store had not opened today; he always took Wednesdays off because it was the slowest day of the week. But there were days when his father would come in and do some work in his office. His father didn’t work here anymore, but sometimes he liked to come back, to relive memories of the past.

“Dad? Is that you?” Dyrk raised his voice as he stepped toward the back office. Rows of untouched washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners, toasters and ovens strolled past him out of the corner of his eye. He kept his gaze focused on the office door in front of him. The door was open a jar, and his father’s desk lamp was on, that bright fluorescent bulb shining. Dyrk stepped on something, but didn’t pause to see what it was. Instead, he repeated his question.

“Dad? Is that you?” No answer. This was not good. Dyrk placed a hand on the office door and it creaked as he eased it forward. “Dad?” Still no response. The office in its entirety was suddenly exposed to Dyrk and he gasped. Crumpled under a set of bookshelves was the shivering body of his father, hands extended, (reaching for his desk phone. Dyrk ran over to his side, fumbling for the phone that had fallen off the desk.)

“Dad? Dad, what happened to you?” His father mumbled and clutched at his stomach. Dyrk touched the spot and his hands came away wet. With blood. He lifted his father onto his backside, leaning his torso against the bookshelves.

“Dad, can you speak to me? I need to know what happened!”

“You can’t, you can’t win ’em all, son,” his father sputtered out, wincing with each word. Dyrk felt the tears come to him, but he sucked them back. No need to cry just yet. Nothing bad was going to happen. His father was going to be okay.

“You can’t win, son,” his father repeated, eyes glazing over. Dyrk’s hands closed around the plastic phone he had been searching for and he held it in front of him. Dialing the three emergency digits, he shoved it against his ear.

“Come on, come on, pick up, pick up,” he chanted, touching his father’s forehead. He was growing cold. “Come on, Dad, hold on, I know you can do it.”

“Good evening, how can I help you?” A cheery voice filled his ear, and he nearly fainted.

“My father is hurt! He is bleeding! We need an ambulance right away!” Dyrk shouted, patting his father’s shoulder.

“Okay, can you give me your address, please?”

“We’re on Second Lane, in Chamberlain’s.” He paused as she repeated his words. “It’s Dyrk,” he added, hoping it would mean something to her. He had very little to do with the police station, but he assumed that everyone in Riverside had come into his store at least once in the three years he had been doing this.

“Son, you, you can’t win. Don’t, don’t try,” his father gasped, taking huge breaths between words.

“No, Dad, no! The ambulance is gonna be here any minute now and you are gonna be all right!” Dyrk shouted the words until he believed them. His father smiled and coughed, clutching his throat. Blood splattered Dyrk’s shoes and the tears began flowing freely.

“Dyrk, son, I want you to know that this is for the good . . . ” The man grew cold and still, his eyes staring straight ahead, his mouth spread wide. Dyrk screamed and threw himself on the body. No, no, no, not his father! Not his father! He was the only family Dyrk had left. He couldn’t die.

“You can’t die, Dad! You can’t die!”

The front door jingled and footsteps pounded through the store. A young man, Tommy his badge said, rushed through with a stretcher.

“Dyrk, you have to help me get him on this!” Tommy said, pulling him off of his father. Dyrk pushed the paramedic away, staring at him viciously.

“You weren’t quick enough! He’d dead!” Dyrk stood up and ran out of the store, pushing past the other paramedic, ignoring the shouts of Karen, the police officer, and the stares of the crowd that had suddenly appeared on the sidewalk. Dyrk ducked his head and tried to slip away. He glanced down the street, to Mick’s Pharmacy, and saw the body of Mick Jr. turned away from the crowd by the back door.

“Junior!” Dyrk shouted, using a nickname he had called the man when they were younger. If Mick would let him in his house, he would have a good viewpoint of the store, but he wouldn’t have to deal with the crowd. More than anything, he wanted to sit down and cry.

“Junior!” He called out again. The chubby young man turned around at the sound of his name. He wore a leather jacket, open at the zipper. Underneath he wore a white t-shirt. It was covered in red. Covered in blood.

 

Chapter Six

He hadn’t gone outside for over a month. The police officers stopped calling him after the first week, and the well wishers and acquaintances stopped visiting the week after that. Someone still left a package of food for him, wrapped in a white blanket and placed in a wicker basket. Every morning, Dyrk took the food and replaced the basket, and every morning, there was new food for him.

At first he didn’t care who it was that brought the food, but as the quality of food increased, from cereal boxes to homemade bread rolls, his curiosity increased as well and on the third Monday he stood in the front door all morning, waiting to catch a glimpse of the anonymous food bringer. Something had crashed in the kitchen and he had jumped out of his skin, remembering the last time he had heard a crash and what it had brought with it. When he turned back to the door, the basket had been filled and the person who filled it was gone.

Four weeks had come and gone in the wake of his father’s death, and Dyrk knew he wouldn’t last another day in this daze. He closed his eyes and remembered that night, when he saw his father crumpled on his office floor, his stomach cut open. He saw, in his mind’s eye, the blood staining Mick Jr’s t-shirt. He saw himself lung after the man, only to be hauled away by the police and dragged out here. He saw the wooden casket lowered into the ground, pictures of his father tacked on among the flowers. He saw himself laid out on the couch, trying to block out all memories of his father, his mother, and his brother, all of whom were gone. Gone.

“Gone.” He opened his mouth to whisper the words. They caught in his throat. He hadn’t spoken since the funeral, not that he had seen any reason to. Who was there to talk to? He didn’t have an animal, and none of his friends, neither the teens nor the adults, saw fit to visit him anymore. It was well with him. He coughed and swallowed.

“They’re all gone.” This time, the words came out loud and strong. He stood up from the couch, knocking over the wicker basket at his feet. He had showered this morning, which was a first for this week. Dyrk’s mind was slowly regrouping, and he knew that in a few more days, he would be fine to open the appliance store again.

“You’re going back in there?” It felt good to talk aloud again. Dyrk stretched his legs and walked into the kitchen. “You think you’ll be fine,” he continued, “knowing your father was murdered in cold blood?”

Cold blood. His father had been killed in cold blood. His father’s office had a back entrance, which only a few people knew about. Mick Jr. was one of those people. Dyrk had caught the slob with blood on his shirt, blood covering his hands.

The answering machine blinked red and pushed the button. He glanced around the counter, with a brown bag filled with warm bottles of juice that he had never been able to unpack. Dyrk lifted one out of the bag and twisted the cap with a soft pop. He tilted the warm, deep purple liquid to his lips and winced as it stung his tongue. Grape juice had always been his favorite drink since he was a child, but he hadn’t had it in years. As he swallowed the tangy drink, he hoped it would remind him of a better time, a time when he was happy and had no cares or worries. It settled in his stomach and rested there.

“You have thirty seven unheard messages.”

He was not reminded of a better time.

“Mr. Chamberlain, I am sorry to tell you that we still don’t have any leads on your dad’s case.” It was the police officer, Karen. She had been a few grades older than him and left to become a cop before graduating high school. They always said that Riverside was desperate for cops, no matter their age or gender. Some might say Karen got her job because she was pretty, but everyone knew she hated her looks. Even back in high school, she would hit anyone who said anything about her being pretty. Dyrk had been tempted to say something one day during a particularly flirtatious exchange they were having, but remembered seeing his friend Gary sporting a black eye and thought it best to merely end the conversation.

He pushed the “delete” button and waited for the next message to begin playing.

“Hey, Dyrk, buddy, you know, we should get together sometime, you know, catch up on old times.” He didn’t recognize the voice, and pressed the “delete” button. He scrolled through thirty of the messages this way, listening for a bit, but ultimately deleting it and ejecting it from his mind.

“We are all terribly sorry for what happened to your father, Dyrk. He was a good man, one of the best.” Dyrk straightened. It was Mick Sr., the owner of the store across the street. The man’s voice cracked with emotion as he cleared his throat and continued. “If there is anything we can do, anything at all, just let us know. My son is willing to help with anything, running the shop, doing errands, anything.”

“That no good, good for nothing slob!” Dyrk shouted, sliding the answering machine off the counter and onto the floor. The phone clattered on the linoleum a few seconds afterwards, and he kicked it. That no good, good for nothing slob! Mickey was offering to help run the shop? Do errands? Why did he think he could show his face anywhere after what he did?

Of course, they didn’t have any evidence of his involvement, but then again, they had no evidence that his father had been murdered, and he knew it to be true.

“But why would Mick want to kill my father?” The question played itself over and over in his mind and he voiced it in hopes that it would help answer the question. It didn’t help at all. “Why would Mick want to kill my father?” He repeated for good measure.

“My son is willing to help with anything,” Mick Sr. had offered in the message. “Running the shop, doing errands, anything.”

Was Mick trying to gain access into Chamberlain Appliances? But why would he have to commit murder? Couldn’t he have just asked for a job? None of this made any sense to Dyrk. He had seen Mick covered in blood, and yet the police had never managed to connect the blood to that of his father’s. They couldn’t say whose blood it was, but it sure wasn’t Jeremiah Chamberlain’s.

The thought occurred to Dyrk that there might be something in C.A. that Mick wanted, something that he couldn’t get if either the son or the father was around. But why would he resort to murder? Dyrk couldn’t answer that question, and it bothered him.

RING!!

He bent over and picked up the white cordless phone from the ground, pressing the green button on the left. Dyrk held it up to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Chamberlain, is this you?” He recognized the voice as Karen’s. He trudged into the living room.

“Yes, it is.”

She took a deep breath. “Mr. – ” She paused and started over again. “Dyrk, I know you wanted to hear from us if we found anything.”

They have my father’s killer! They have my father’s killer!

“Did you find – ”

“Dyrk, we didn’t find the killer. We still don’t know if there was a killer.” Her voice was low, and her speech slow. Something was wrong.

“So then why did you call me?” He asked, angrily.

“We found a knife, covered in blood.”

Dyrk sat straight on the couch. “Any finger prints?”

“No finger prints,” she began, “although there was a boot print on it. The prints are consistent with bloody prints all over the store.”

“Well, this is great, isn’t it? I mean, you have those prints, all you need to do is – ”

“They were your prints, Dyrk.” Karen cut him off, her voice shaking. “The knife and the blood prints match your boots, the ones we collected a few weeks ago.”

But what were they saying? That I killed him because I stepped on a knife?

“Karen, I remember stepping on something when I walked into the shop, and it could’ve been the knife.” Dyrk swallowed. “But that doesn’t mean that you guys suspect me or anything?”

She didn’t reply.

“Karen, they do know that the shop is mine and my boot prints should be all over it.”

The receiver was silent. Dyrk stood up, hands clenched at his side. The silence was too much for him.

“Karen, can you say something?” He begged. She cleared her throat on the other end.

“Dyrk, I simply wanted you to know what we found. No one is inferring anything at this point. We’re still trying to piece it all together.” She hung up, leaving him holding the phone, speechless. Despite her calm assurance, Dyrk would’ve sworn she suspected him. Granted, his response had sounded a little paranoid, but that didn’t automatically label him as guilty.

“Something has to be done,” he said, dropping the phone onto the couch. He looked around the small living room, trying to get his bearings. His mind had been in sleep mode for the past month, and he couldn’t even remember how to get from the living room to the bath room. The living room was a mess, with empty containers, cartons, and packages thrown about haphazardly. A poster for an old band was taped onto the wall above the television. The band had survived the 60’s and 70’s, but hadn’t made it to the 80’s. Everything seemed to go downhill from their for the band, which was a shame, because Dyrk had grown up listening to their old records, dreaming of the day when they would get back together again. He stared at the poster, with thin, shirtless men sporting long hair and holding acoustic guitars. It reminded him of his father.

My father.

A great pain crushed his chest. He pressed a hand to his heart, trying to massage the pain away, but it came back in full force. His father was really gone. Never to come back again.

No, it’s not true, my father will come walking through the door any minute now.

Dyrk dropped to his knees right where he stood, eyes falling closed before he reached the ground. Tears pushed their way through his eyelids and a sob clutched at his throat. He let it out, heaving and shivering, whimpering and shaking.

“My father,” he struggled to speak, but knew he must. He must say the words if he was ever to believe it.

“My father, my father is,” he tried again, then covered his face. He slumped forward and screamed, tears and snot wetting his shirt. His father was really dead, never to come back again.

“My father is dead.” He forced the words out, then collapsed onto his face. The carpet fibers played against his cheek, but he didn’t notice. The tears suddenly stopped flowing, and he breathed deeply, shaking as he did so. His eyes hurt. He closed them and rolled onto his back.

Get your act together, Dyrk, he commanded himself. Your brother and your mother died, and you didn’t even shed a tear. You’re better than this.

His chest heaved as he sucked in breath, his mouth dipped in a frown. Dyrk lifted his body and rested a hand on the couch. It was time to move on. His father was gone, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Unless . . . a thought came to him. What if I found out who did this? What if I avenged his death?

Dyrk didn’t know how an investigation would help his grief, but it would at least distract him.

 

Chapter Eight – A New Fire

 

(Darkness had settled over Riverside earlier than usual. Although it was winter)

(He stood in front of Chamberlain Appliances)

This time, he had come prepared. With a hat pulled over his ears, face wrapped in a wool scarf, body bundled up in a leather coat and sweater, he was ready for anything the weather threw at him. Trudging through town unnoticed was much easier now, as everyone was buried under swaddles of clothing like babies. He didn’t have to duck his head every time he passed someone on the street, which was better for him. People still said hello as they passed him by, but it was more out of courtesy than recognition.

He breathed out deeply, watching thin streams of fog pour out from under his scarf. His fingers were shoved into his pockets and he wiggled them, trying to warm them up. It hadn’t snowed for a week, but (the) piles of the stuff still lined the streets, turning gray like a dirty Slurpee from 7 – Eleven. It would take forever before any of that melted, and Riverside didn’t have any plans for hauling it away. That was the downside of living in a small town.

That, and people get away with murder much easier. The thought bothered Dyrk, and he tried to shake it. What about the big cities, where hundreds of crimes happen every night? Don’t you think they have tons of people getting away with things worse than murder? What was worse than murder? What was worse than taking away the life of another, robbing them of their only chance of happiness, their only chance to get anything done?

Dyrk’s thoughts wandered to death. He had always assumed that people went to a better place when they died, but the truth was that he didn’t have a clue where they went. During his mother’s funeral, someone had said something about heaven, but he had always believed you had to be a Christian or Catholic to get into heaven, and, knowing his mother, she was neither of those. But it had helped the grieving process, thinking she was somewhere he might get a chance to see her again.

When his brother died, no one said anything about heaven. It was easier not to say anything at all, and so he had simply learned to live without his brother until the pain of separation disappeared. Dyrk had never had a close relationship with Orlando anyway, so there wasn’t much to miss. His indifference to his brother’s death never bothered him. Maybe that made him cold, inhuman. He couldn’t explain it at all.

But with his father dead, he did care. It hurt him, and he felt an emptiness inside his chest that he had never felt before. But for Jeremiah Chamberlain, there were no thoughts of heaven to comfort him, no indifference to numb the pain. Dyrk felt the brunt of it, and he knew that it was very real. Something needed to be done, though. His feelings wouldn’t just disappear overnight. He needed to do something about it, or else it would eat him up alive.

That was why he was here today, at Chamberlain Appliances, even though it was the last place he wanted to be.

The police were no help, which was to expected. They hadn’t had to deal with a murder since the establishment of the town in the beginning of the 20th century. (Dyrk didn’t think they’d get any experience overnight, even if they watched crime shows.) Dyrk had read dozens of crime novels, and it was always the incompetent police officers that let murderers walk free. He had no intention of letting anyone get away with this.

Dyrk pushed open the door, listening for the jingle of bells above him. They didn’t ring. He looked up.

“The door was unlocked.”

The voice was slightly familiar. He closed his eyes, trying to place it. Mick.

“Nice job, cutting off the bells. I’m sure it bothered you, making all that noise.”

Dyrk opened his eyes and searched the dark for a face. A dark body hovered by the counter, but his features were obscured. He took a step forward.

“Why didn’t you lock the doors?” Mick asked. Dyrk didn’t answer. “It’s so easy to get in and out if you don’t lock the door.”

“You killed him, didn’t you?” Dyrk spat out, fist clenching.

Mick’s body shook in the dark as he burst into deep laughter. “Nothing gets around you, Dirt, does it?”

He used a nickname from the past, a name Dyrk hadn’t heard in ages. Dirt. They called him that in second grade, after a group of middle schoolers shoved him into the ground.

Mick had never called him that, though. It bothered him.

“You killed my father,” Dyrk repeated, drawing closer to the counter.

“That’s interesting of you to say, Dirt, because you need proof – evidence – before an accusation can stick.” Mick chuckled as Dyrk reached the counter across from him. “You won’t find any at all, my friend, but I’d really get a kick out of seeing you try.”

Dyrk rested his hands on the counter, straining to make out Mick’s face in the dark. Suddenly, the overhead light flicked on and Mick was gone. Dyrk shielded his eyes and spun around.

“Where did you go?” He raised his voice to a shout. ”

Junior! Where did you go?” Dyrk listened for footsteps, but heard none. He ran for his father’s office, screaming, “Mick! Mick!”

There was no Mick in the office. It was entirely bare – with nothing but carpeting.

What is going on here? he asked himself, circling around the now empty room. He stood to the spot where his father’s desk should have been, but saw nothing. It came back to him right then, the order he had given to clear out the area. He couldn’t recall why he had done so, why he would get rid of the only memory of his father. it hadn’t been himself, but Karen who had suggested it. Yes, the police officer had requested the items down at the precinct and he’d told her to take the whole lot. Apparently, she had followed his orders.

He flipped on the desk lamp, fingers sweating. No one was in the office. It hadn’t changed, even with the police and paramedics supposedly crawling all over it, looking for clues. Maybe that was why they hadn’t found anything in his father case.

Look at you, man! you just let his killer run free! Dyrk bolted from the office…

 

Chapter Eight: A New Fire (v.2)

Dyrk stood in front of Mick’s Pharmacy, face covered in a blue plaid scarf, eyes peeking out from under a matching navy ski cap. Snow covered the sidewalks, although the streets had been cleared over the weekend. He wore a pair of leather snow boots and two pairs of socks underneath. This time, he was prepared for whatever the weather threw at him. The trip into town had taken over an hour on foot because of the snow, and, although it was Monday morning, no cars drove past him. It was strange to not see anyone driving on a Monday morning, no matter how bad the weather was. Everyone in Riverside loved money more than comfort, and they got up and went to work everyday, without fail.

Except for him. He had taken a whole month off to mourn his father’s death, and he hadn’t even been conscious for the first three weeks of it. Many people had died during his lifetime, but he didn’t remember anyone missing more than a week, if that, due to a loved one’s death. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. They just didn’t see the need to prolong the grief and wanted to get on with their lives. Dyrk knew, though, the truth. They didn’t know how to handle their grief, so they worked hard and stayed busy so they wouldn’t have to admit that they were incapable of bringing back their loved one from the dead. He knew. He had done the same thing when his mother died, and repeated the process with his brother.

But not with his father. Something was different about this time, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

It’s because he was murdered. A small voice found its way from the back of his head. He shoved his hands into his pockets. Maybe. His mother had died of cancer, his brother, leukemia. Both had illnesses, both had spent days and days in the hospital only to learn that there was little anyone could do about it. They were both too far along in their sicknesses. No one had noticed their symptoms, no one thought anything about anything until it was too late.

But not with dad, Dyrk thought. With dad, I know what happened. He was murdered.

It made all the difference to have been murdered. If he was murdered, then that meant someone was responsible, someone that he could physically see. With his mother and brother, it had been an illness, but you can’t do anything about that, can you? Ask his mother, and it had something to do with God. Well, he wasn’t too sure if he believed in God, but from what he heard, there was nothing he could do about that either. However, he could do something about a murderer.

The police were incompetent. They were wasting their time looking at bootprints when they should have at least some other form of DNA. There were less than ten thousand people in Riverside, and it couldn’t take that long to find out who did it. Unless, of course, it were a serial killer, or the killer had fled. But Dyrk didn’t think this had been a random accident. As much as he wanted it to be, he wanted to know that someone had done this on purpose. If they had, he would be able to take revenge. It was as simple as that.

Dyrk brought his walk to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk. He looked to his left, and across the street. There stood his store, Chamberlain Appliances, lights off, door locked. He hadn’t taken Mick Sr. up on his offer to run the shop, and he had found the offer by Mick Jr. a little more than troubling. Dyrk turned to his right.

“Mick’s Pharmacy,” the bright, neon pink colors read. No one could understand why he had chosen pink for his sign, but no one questioned Mick Sr. He was known for his eccentric style, his outlandish color schemes, and his big heart. It was rumored that when a customer started  going into labor in the middle of his store, he carried her on his back all the way to Riverside Hospital. When all was said and done, he paid for the child’s first year of diapers, food, and clothing. Of course, other rumors put the woman as a secret lover, but everyone knew it was wrong. Mick Sr. would never cheat on his wife, Esmeralda, the self proclaimed South – American beauty, whom he had rescued from a prison during a visit to Columbia over thirty years ago.

Dyrk pushed the front door, opening it gently. There were no bells or wind chimes to alert anyone of his entrance. Mick Sr. wouldn’t stand for it. He’d wear the craziest clothes, say the craziest things, but he’d never put bells over his door.

“Too weird,” he’d said, when Dyrk asked a few years ago. “I’m trying to stay away from anything that’s strange or stands out.”

Dyrk laughed at the understatement.

The Pharmacy was dark, which was strange, considering the fact that it was the middle of the day. Monday at noon was usually the busiest time for Mick’s Pharmacy. He remembered because it alternated every day with the busyness of Chamberlain’s Appliances. Tuesdays, Dyrk expected more customers at lunch, Wednesdays it was Mick, and vice versa. No one worked on Sundays, not because of any religious affiliations, but because customers just didn’t like coming all the way into town on Sundays. Dyrk didn’t mind himself, and he often came down to the shop with his father just to think. His mother had gone to church, taking his younger brother with her, but he and his father had never gone with her.

Dyrk remembered the day when his father had started going, leaving him all alone at the shop. It had been a few months before . . .

Say it. Say “before he died.”

“Before he died,” Dyrk breathed out heavily. He could almost see the words escape from his mouth like the smoke racing out of the lungs of a smoker. Like cigarette smoke, though, the words hung in the air, waiting for him to breath in again, to suck them back into his system. That part of him that refused to believe his father was dead was persistent.

You’ve always been a smart one, Dyrk. Why change that now? You witnessed the poor man slip from this world with your own eyes. What makes you think he isn’t really dead?

“Before who died?”

The unexpected voice startled him, and he jumped, throwing his hands up to protect himself. Mick Jr.’s rotund body appeared in front of him, and he took a step back toward the door.

“I, uh, I was talking about,” Dyrk stammered, trying to catch his breath. He didn’t know if he should admit anything to Mick. They weren’t close or anything like that. The memory of the blood covered t-shirt rushed into the forefront of his mind, setting his eyes ablaze.

Mick must have noticed something, because he stepped around Dyrk and reached for the light switch near the front of the door. The messy Pharmacy suddenly came into full view before Dyrk. Everything from tiny plastic earrings to Tylenol tablets lay haphazardly in shelves that formed five rows in the center of the Pharmacy. One end of the shop, furthest from the door, had a counter dedicated to prescription drugs, while the other, closer to the door, was for the cash register, cigarettes, candy, and phone cards.

Dyrk stopped himself. Why was he looking at the shop when he had a possible killer standing in front of him? He grabbed Mick by the arm.

“Hey, man, what’s wrong?” The chubby man said, trying to wrench free from his grip. Dyrk tightened his grasp.

“Mick, what were you doing with that blood on you?”

“What blood, man? I don’t know what you’re – ”

Dyrk pulled Mick closer to him, breathing on his face. “Don’t play that with me. I’m talking about that day, the one when you killed my father.”

Mick shuddered and closed his eyes. He opened them slowly and shook his head.

“You think I had something to do with that, man? You don’t know, I loved your dad. He was more of a dad to me than my old man, you know?”

“No, I do not know!” Dyrk shouted, shaking the man in his hands. “I don’t know anything about you and my father, nor do I want to! I just wanna know why you walked out of my store covered in blood.”

“I wasn’t in your store, man, not anywhere near it.” Mick raised his hands in surrender as he shook under Dyrk’s hands.

Dyrk looked into his face. It was hard to tell if Mick was lying or telling the truth. How can you tell if a killer is being honest? After all, he had the courage – no, the inhumanity – to take a person’s life. Would he have any qualms about lying? Dyrk didn’t think so.

“Where, then, were you?”

Mick flushed and looked away from Dyrk. He shook him, and the man snapped to attention.

“Uh, I was, uh, at the, at the butcher’s shop!” He stammered. Dyrk pushed him up against the wall, nearly hitting the light switch with Mick’s body.

“Yeah, you were butchering my father, that’s what you were doing!”

“Hey, you want me to call the police, man? Because I will.” Suddenly, Mick had a backbone. Dyrk snickered and let him go.

“Yes, call the police. Tell them that I am accusing you of murdering my father and they’ll just chalk it up to me being out of my mind because of grief. No one will take you seriously.”

“They won’t take you seriously, either, man.” Mick stood up straighter, which wasn’t much to his five four frame. “You know that, though, don’t you. You went to the police and they turned you away, didn’t they.” It wasn’t a question. Dyrk looked away. There was no way Mick was turning the table on this one. He wasn’t winning this.

“Everything doesn’t have to go through the law.”

“Get out of my store.” Mick shoved something black in Dyrk’s face. He tried to focus his eyes on it, but his eyes crossed and blurred. He took a step back, and the small object suddenly came into focus. A gun.

Dyrk threw up his hands. He hadn’t expected this.

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving,” he said, carefully stepping toward the door. Mick stared at him, gun following his moving body like it was connected by a string. Dyrk quietly pushed open the door with his foot.

“You stay away from me, do you hear me, man?” Mick shouted, holding the door open with one hand, the other still pointing the gun at Dyrk. “You stay away from me until you get better. Your dad was a good man, Dyrk, a really good man. I miss him too.”

A rage he hadn’t expected possible for him filled his stomach. His nostrils flared as a scream threatened to escape from his lips.

How dare he say that he misses my father! He wanted to shout. How dare you say you miss my father!

But no words escaped him. Instead, he clenched his fists and ran across the street and into his own store, Chamberlain Appliances. He slammed the door behind him, barely heard the bells chiming, didn’t give more than a second thought as to why the door hadn’t been locked and stormed into his father’s office at the back.

NaNoWriMo – 2018 (The Disconnect)

It’s on a Tuesday, the tenth week of school, that I officially decide that I want to disappear. Mr. Alvarez is passing out the study guide for our first vocab test. The volume level is going up as students receive the stapled stack of papers and realize that we have more words to study for than they remembered. I don’t hear them, though. I just feel my phone vibrate in my pocket three times in a row, and I suddenly wish that I didn’t exist. Eloisa is sitting next to me but she doesn’t notice that I’m just staring at the paper and not doing anything.

She’s rambling on about something. “But then I asked him if he wanted to talk about it more, we could FaceTime, but then he got all weird and said he had to go to sleep, but then in the morning he texted me but I haven’t responded because I don’t wanna deal with that are you even listening to me Emma?”

I blinked and looked at her. “Yeah, Eloisa, why do you even talk to this guy?”

“You know it’s not that easy to stop talking to him,” Eloisa continued, lowering her voice so Mr. Alvarez wouldn’t notice.

That was enough to convince her I was listening and she plunged headfirst into a discussion on all the boys that were attracted to her and which ones she could and could not stop talking to. I made sure to nod every once in a while, just to have something else to do. My mind was doing all it could to keep me from pulling out my phone and reading the texts I’d received. But I couldn’t get my phone taken away from me.

Normal parents would be angry and would go get their child’s phone because it was really their phone and how could the school have the audacity to take their property? Not my Mom. Or at least, not anymore. Back three years ago, when Amanda went to Evergreen, Mom would come get her phone all the time. But then during Amanda’s senior year, when everything happened, Mom refused to get it anymore. One by one, Amanda got all of her friends to lend them her phones, and one by one, teachers would confiscate the phones. Mom called Amanda’s friends cowards because they couldn’t stand up to a five foot four and a half girl with just enough meat on her bones to keep her from being underweight.

But I knew what it really was to be under Amanda’s spell. When she wanted something, you couldn’t say no to her. She knew the right words to say to get you to do what she wanted. And none of it was inherently bad. It was just a bit inconveniencing, and besides, if you didn’t do what she asked, you felt like such a selfish, terrible person.

Maybe that was why I ended up hanging out with Eloisa. She and Amanda were so alike, it’s almost unbelievable. I mean, here I was, listening to a story about one of her many annoying guy friends and telling her all the things she wanted to hear, which is exactly what I used to do with Amanda.

Mr. Alvarez’s voice cut through the thoughts in my head. He was trying to get our attention to explain the study guide. Eloisa dropped her voice to a mumble and kept droning on and on. I tried not to listen to her. I didn’t want to get in trouble for talking with her again. One detention that I didn’t deserve was enough to know I never wanted to get one that I deserved, either.

“I want you to use the study guide,” Mr. Alvarez was saying, “because you guys have been doing pretty poorly on the quizzes. It’s almost like you’re not even looking at the words that I’m giving you each week.”

A couple of kids laughed knowingly. I scribbled my name on the top of my study guide. This is how it was going to go: I would do my study guide in the gaps between Mr. Alvarez’s sentences before class was over. Eloisa would ask me for help on every single word and basically copy me by getting me to give her all the answers. Then, I’d give the study guide to Alexander because he asked, and then he’d give it to David and then the day before it was due, it’d get back to me. I would be nervous the whole entire time because then I’d have to get it back from David and even though we talked a bit over the summer, he pretty much acts like he has no idea who I am. Eloisa thinks it’s because online, I look and act differently than in real life. I just don’t know if David is really smart enough to make that distinction.

“If you need any help with this assignment,” Mr. Alvarez continued, oblivious to the real conversation going on in my head, “I have a study club that meets here every Thursday during lunch.”

I’d heard about that club. Ethan used to go there. He would leave me every Thursday during lunch to go hang out with his friends over there. I don’t know why I never went with him. Maybe because I didn’t want to seem like an annoying fan girl who follows him around everywhere he went. I mean, what would that look like if I was always going wherever he went? We were friends, but we weren’t any more than that, even if everyone was always whispering stuff behind our backs.

Like when I first moved to Miami, Ethan had just moved there, too. We weren’t the only two new kids in all of our classes, but we gravitated toward each other. Maybe it was the fact that his parents used to take him to church and mine still did, so we understood what it was like to not be able to do everything that everyone else did.

Or maybe it was because he wasn’t particularly good looking compared to what everyone thought was good looking nowadays, and I can say with certainty that I wasn’t, either. In a school as shallow as Evergreen High, that was all that mattered. Honestly, I don’t even know why Eloisa still hangs around me. I mean, she’s probably the prettiest girl in our entire grade – that’s why she has all those guys texting her and confessing their undying love to her.

And that brings me back to the reason why I wanted to disappear. I had never done anything like that before, but I honestly had no other choice. I texted Ethan before school started, because I knew it would take him a long time to respond. He never checks his phone in morning because he’s too busy fixing his hair or whatever else he spends his time on. I know pretty much everything about him, but I don’t think I know why he doesn’t get to his text messages until we get to school. Unless it’s because I text him too much and he just doesn’t want to respond to my texts until a little later.

Next thing you know, my study guide is filling with answers, and I’m helping Eloisa by telling her all the answers. And then Alexander is hovering near and I know he wants my book because why would someone like him deign to talk to someone like me? I’m thinking about not giving him the answers, just because I feel tired of being the same way, of being bowled over and giving in just because he’s supposed to be cute and he’s an athlete and he flirts with all the girls.

But then I get the brilliant idea to ask to use the bathroom so I can check my phone. Mr. Alvarez suspects that I’m not going to the toilet because I never ask to use the bathroom. But he lets me go anyway, and I try to avoid Eloisa’s eyes because now she’s suspecting something too. I make my way down the hallway and duck into the nearest bathroom. I hope that no girls – or guys – are using it or selling drugs or whatever so I can have some privacy. I don’t feel good about what I’m doing, because I know that if Mom hears about this, then she’s going to say I’m being just like Amanda, and don’t I know what a terrible example Amanda is for her sisters anyway? I swallow that last moment of regret and hide in a stall and take out my phone.

I’m sorry.

We’re moving to Orlando.

Next week.

Three text messages in a row. If I wanted to disappear earlier, now I wish I didn’t exist. Ethan’s response was not what I expected. In fact, it was even worse. I hadn’t asked him anything much, just if he wanted to go hang out at my house and maybe play some games or something. I was never really the one to reach out and try to make plans, though, so maybe that’s why he responded like that. It was usually him who decided if we hung out after school or not. It was very rare, and we usually just played games online or did our homework together, but it was never really anything out in public or whatever.

So I guess when I asked him last night it kinda freaked him out. I don’t know. But his response was not what I expected, and it was worse than I wanted it to be. If he was really moving, then that what would that mean to us being friends? I mean, I had a few friends that I never met in real life. Until David transferred to this school in September, he had been one of those friends. So why did I think it would be different with Ethan?

So they gave your dad the job?

Ethan had art for first period, and Ms. Carter never cared whether they used their phones or not.

Yeah they told him this morning. We’ve already got our house and my dad’s going up to see it today.

I thought for a moment.

It’s so far away.

The three gray bubbles popped up, indicating that he was typing a response. Those bubbles were good to know he had read and was responding, but they were bad because you never knew if he was writing an essay or if the bubbles were going to disappear and he was going to leave you on “Read”.

I know, it sucks. But my dad has been trying to get this job all year, so he’s not gonna stay for me.

What about soccer? Aren’t you guys like about to finish the season?

He’s not gonna wait for me, remember?

I don’t respond immediately. I check the time. I’ve been in here for five minutes already, and Mr. Alvarez is going to know what’s up and he’s going to write me a second detention, this time one that I totally deserve. Orlando is really far away for your best friend to move from one week to the next.

And that’s when I get the bright idea to go visit him when our family goes to Disney for Thanksgiving. It won’t be that much of a big deal. I would just go for a few hours in the morning, and as long as I can pay for the Uber, my dad wouldn’t care. And then maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be as bad, since I can get to see him in about another two weeks.

I decide that I’m not going to say anything about it, so instead, I send a generic “man, that’s so messed up, but I gotta go to class” in response. I flush the toilet for the sake of the people listening, and I basically run back to Mr. Alvarez’s class.

He’s currently discussing Beowulf and the qualities of the epic hero. Eyes are glazing over as people drift into the realm of the unknown. We have block schedule, so that means four classes on A days, and four different ones on B days. It also means that we’re in the same class for an hour and a half each day, and our attention spans can’t last that long. I’m surprised that more kids don’t have their phones taken away, seeing as everyone says our generation is supposed to be addicted to our phones.

I don’t know about that. I mean, I use my phone pretty much every day, but I don’t think I need it. If the vice principal took my phone, I would totally be able to survive. I would just use my iPad instead. Besides, I know that social media is all fake and all the guys are creepy and always try to talk to you and ask you weird questions. I think I’m smart enough to avoid all that weirdness. I look around and there are only two kids trying to use their phones, but they’re so obvious that when Mr. Alvarez tells them to put it away, they have to give up and listen. Most of the kids fight teachers when they tell them to put the phones away, because they know that the teachers will take them and they’ll never see them again. It’s not that their parents are cool with the school taking the phone. It’s that the parents don’t really want to be bothered to come into the vice principal’s office to get the phone back.

Mr. Alvarez doesn’t really care like that, though, and usually gives them a chance, as long as they’re getting their work done and doing something productive. I just think that it’s kind of annoying, to be in a place, and then to have no one to talk to because they’re all on their phones. Like, I get when you’re there and there’s like a lull, or you want to look something up. But when we’re just sitting on Eloisa’s bed and she’s texting her dude and I’m just scrolling through Instagram, it can feel kind of sad, like we’re here but we can’t even talk to each other.

Sometimes I feel that way whenever I see Amanda’s stories on Instagram. I know that she’s all right, living life, doing whatever. I see her at work. I see her hanging out with her friends. I see her with her boyfriend, Rick or whatever his name is. I see her listening and dancing to music. I see her having fun all the time. But I feel like she’s so far away, even though I know where she works, who she hangs with and what she does for fun. I feel like I know everything about her life now that she’s not living with us, but then I feel like I have no idea who she is. She rarely ever shows her face in videos. It’s only in selfies or pictures that Rick takes for her. But whenever I see her eyes and I see her life, I know that there’s something else back there. There’s a sadness behind the eyes that I couldn’t describe if you asked me to write it down. But it’s there and it reminds me of how far we are from each other.

It starts with Eloisa and I sitting on the same bed but we can’t talk about how I think that she’s so much better than me and I can never be her. It continues with Ethan moving four hours away and me knowing that we can talk but we’ll never have what we had before. And it continues with David who I met over the summer and who was cool and funny and we really connected, but then once he saw me in real life, once he saw how I really was, he suddenly decided that he didn’t want anything to do with them and pretended like he didn’t know me. And then it continues with Amanda disappearing off the face of the earth and then suddenly reappearing but refusing to answer any of my texts or reply to me when I comment on her stories or anything like that. It finishes when I try to talk to mom about all of this, but she acts like she can’t hear me, or more likely doesn’t want to.

Class is over in what feels like a moment and then I have teacher’s aide, which is halfway across the building. It’s right next to the art wing, so if I hurry over there, then maybe I can see Ethan before he gets sent to his teacher for teacher’s aide. He works with the nurse teacher in the nursing wing, and I stay in the main office with the teacher who runs teacher’s aide. Eloisa is kinda absorbed in checking her phone in the minutes between this class and the next, so I say goodbye and make a mad dash across the school building. I try not to bump into anyone on purpose, and I try not to be offended when someone bumps into me. I used to think they were doing it on purpose, but then I realized that no one is really even noticing. That’s the thing you don’t really understand, or that you forget all the time – that no one actually cares about you.

I pushed through a crowd that decided to congregate at the bottom of the stairs. And then I could almost feel as though someone was watching me, even though I knew it wasn’t true. I’m in a crowd of at least five hundred people. How could anyone actually be looking at my specifically? But then again, you know when someone is staring at you, you can totally feel it, and their gaze pierces into your soul. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder, but there was no one. I guess I was just imagining it this time.

After a few more minutes, I wedged into the hallway in front of the teacher’s aide office. It was a mess. Students were leaning against the walls, standing in the middle of the walkway, shouting at the top of their lungs. Someone with a loud voice was trying to get our attention, but no one was listening to her. I found Ethan standing to the left and went over to him.

“Hey Emma,” he said, giving me a fist bump.

“What’s going on over here?”

He shook his head. “Mr. Brown’s not here today, so we’re all gonna just go to our teachers.”

“So why are they still here?”

“Because they haven’t figured it out yet.”

I looked at the gathering of students. Most of them were eleventh graders, and they were too preoccupied with their conversations to realize that they were about to be late to class.

“Why haven’t you left?” I asked Ethan.

He looked down the hallway. “Mrs. Russell isn’t here today either.”

“So what are you gonna do?”

“I was just going to sit in her classroom. Wanna come with me?”

I thought about it. Mr. Brown wasn’t here today, so that meant I technically had no teacher. All the other kids were starting to trickle to their other classes now that Loud Mouth had informed them of the situation. I could stay here and look like a dummy once everyone disappeared. Or I could go with Ethan to the nursing room now.

“Let’s go,” I said. We headed down the hallway toward Mrs. Russell’s room.

“They’re all out doing clinicals,” Ethan said, as we settled into her classroom. All of the lights were off and it took me a minute to find all of the light switches. I sat down toward the front of the class, away from all the vents. Ethan sat next to me and took out his sketch book.

“I low key wish I had been part of an academy,” I said. My family moved here during tenth grade, so I jumped right into the year and didn’t get a chance to join any of their actual academies. Instead, I floated somewhere between regular student and as many History AP classes as I could get.

Ethan held the pencil above the paper, lightly stroking back and forth, drawing the thin lines of a face. “Emma, I think you would’ve been good for hospitality,” he said, and then flinched because he knew I was going to swat at him.

“For the last time, I’m not going to be in Miami forever!” I said, hitting him on the back of his head. “As soon as I graduate, I’m going to move out and then I’ll be somewhere else and everything will be fine.”

As soon as I said it, I remembered this morning, and how he was moving away, and how everything was now most definitely not fine.

“Yeah, where are you gonna go?” Ethan tried to keep the conversation going, but I realized that I had hit a touchy spot.

“Ethan, why do you guys have to go?”

“I told you, my dad just got his job -”

“But can’t you stay with your aunt? Why do you have to go all the way to Orlando?”

“I asked them if I could stay with her, and they said that I’m too young. Can you believe that? I’m eighteen years old, and they say I’m too young to go live with my aunt!” Ethan’s strokes grew thicker. I took out a book I’d been reading, just to have something else to look at other than his art.

“So you guys leave next week? Next week when?”

“We leave on Saturday.”

“Ethan, that’s not next week! That’s in like five days.”

He frowned, “well, that’s what they said this morning, but then Dad changed his mind on the drive up. He doesn’t think we should wait too long so that we can get settled. He’s going to enroll me in this random school later today.”

I opened the book in front of me. “Maybe it won’t be so bad, Ethan. Is it a good school?”

“What does it matter what kind of school it is, Emma?” He set the pencil down. “Look, I don’t want to leave this place. I have too many friends here. It’s just not right. Why do we have to leave just because he can’t get a job down here?”

In that moment, I felt kinda bad for him. I mean, he didn’t want to leave his home, but he had to because of his dad. And I wasn’t making it any easier, because I was one of the friends he was afraid of losing.

I gave him a light pat on the shoulder. “Hey, Ethan, we can still try to be friends, like whenever you go off to your grandmother’s house for two months in the summer.”

“Yeah, but you know that’s never the same,” he said, looking over at me. “You can’t really be friends when you’re going to be four hours away from the other person. And he’s not even thinking that maybe I have some people who are better than just friends.”

We sat there in silence for about a minute and a half. Then, I opened the book I was reading. I felt kinda bad about it at first, but I think that doing something was better than just sitting there in silence moping about his situation. After another minute or so, he opened up his sketch book again and continued drawing the face. This time, his strokes were soft like earlier.

“What’s the book you’re reading again?” He asked after a few more silent minutes. I looked up briefly.

“It’s Nightfall, Isaac Asimov. Where they always have sunlight, and then one day in a thousand, the sun sets and everyone goes crazy.”  I was at the part where the stars come out and then everyone literally goes insane. It was actually a fun book to read, especially if you were kinda new into the whole science fiction genre.

“Yeah.”

“Sunset is something so normal though, for us, but when it happens to them, all of a sudden, it’s like the end of the world.”

“Like moving, or getting a new job is for my dad,” Ethan said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

There was a thought in the air that both of us had, but neither of us were going to say. Or, at least, I wasn’t going to say it. I know that when I texted Ethan this morning, I wasn’t asking just as regular buddies if he wanted to hang out. But I also didn’t want to make the whole situation weird by asking him what he meant by “I’m sorry”. Was he sorry because he understood what I meant? And even if he did, would I want him to know about it, even though we’re going to be physically separated in a matter of five days? Also, would you want to ruin a friendship by trying to turn it into something that it isn’t, just as soon as it was about to die a natural death anyway? What was my deal? Why was I so caught up in this friendship that I was feeling terrible, even though life still moved on. I mean, he was just one friend that I had, a really good friend, but a friend none the less. Could I afford to lose it and all these terrible, embarrassing words that I’m writing right now? I think so.

I didn’t know what to do, or even what to say. So I put my head down on the desk and continued reading, hoping to get lost in the story of a world that’s literally collapsing, while mine did something similar at the same time. If and when Ethan decided he wanted to talk, then I guess we would talk. My guess it would be more like never.

 

School’s out forever. Nope, that’s just a song, that will literally never be true, not even when you’re an adult. I mean, yeah, sure, you can choose to literally never go again, and then it’ll be true. But if you’re trying to have a career, or be a good person in your job, then school can go on forever.

But for me, it was done for the day, and I gladly empty everything from my backpack into my locker. My locker was on the ground, so I had to crouch in order to let the guy who was using the locker above me get his stuff. He wasn’t here yet, which was a surprise. Usually, he was here before me and stayed here until after I’d gotten all of my stuff. I wondered for a brief moment where he was, then tried to chase the thought away. I didn’t really like that kid. He had a certain vibe to him that I didn’t think was very good. He gave me the actual creeps, and I tried to stay away from him as much as possible. Kinda hard to do when his locker is right above yours.

He wasn’t here today, though, so I would be able to get all of my stuff without any worries. The only worries are this absolute trash that I am writing. I gathered my things then booked it out of the nearest exit and into the bus line. Here, we waited for about two minutes for our bus to make its way down the line. I guess I had gotten out of my last class early because the buses were only now pulling up. I waited about a minute, and then I walked down the line to find my bus. 4201. That was the name of my bus. I inserted myself in the line for the bus, trying to ignore the shouting and the roughhousing. The students at Evergreen High were out of control today. There was bound to be at least one fight on the field today, so I tried to get on the bus as quickly as possible. I gave the bus driver a nod and made my way to the back of the bus. That was where you sat if you didn’t want to be part of any trouble. It doesn’t make sense, from a logical perspective, but the people on the back were there first, and that meant they weren’t still on the school grounds causing general mayhem.

I took my seat and then fished my headphones out of my pocket. They were a tangled mess, as always, so I worked to get them out while I waited to see James get on the bus. He was my little brother, which I only remembered existed at this very moment, and must be sure to include earlier when I give this a second go. Once I knew he was on the bus, then I could rest easy knowing Mom wouldn’t get mad at me for losing my brother. And then, of course, there was Mark, the only other kid on this bus that I could talk to without actually getting a heart attack and dying because of sheer idiocy. He was nice and he lived in our neighborhood. Mark usually sat next to me so that no random creep ever could, and he was always very nice about everything.

Neither of them had made it to the bus though, when I noticed a large crowd of students gathering in the middle of the field. I tried not to roll my eyes visibly. It was probably a fight. There was always a fight on the bus line every now and again. I didn’t find fights to be particularly interesting, only a little dangerous. Hopefully, James would stay far away from the fight.

I didn’t get to think about it for too long, when I noticed that Ethan was walking away from the fight, surrounded by a group of kids. They were from the study club he started going to last year. He’s mentioned them a few times, and I see them hanging out a lot on his Instagram stories. I’ve never really met them, though. Which I guess is weird since he and I are supposed to be close friends or whatever. I’ve never asked him about it, so maybe it’s on me. I don’t know.

I recognize a few of them only because I’ve been in this school for a while now, and I pretty much know everyone, even if they have no clue who I am. Which is cool, of course. Sally and Jim have been dating for an eternity, so it’s no wonder that if one is in the club, then they will both in the club. Rick is basically twenty-five, so I have no idea why he’s even in school still. It makes sense that he’d go to a study club, since he probably needs it more than anyone else.

But there’s one girl that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. She’s got short brown hair that’s pulled back from her face. Glasses are perched on her nose, but she keeps readjusting them, almost like they’re too big or too small – they’re kinda far, so I can’t tell which it is. She’s standing next to Rick, but I can tell by the way she’s moving that she’s trying to reposition herself to be next to Ethan.

I feel a breath catch in my chest as I realize what she’s doing. And then she’s next to him and they start talking. When they get close enough, I can see her eyes, and the catching breath turns into a sinking feeling inside my chest. From the way she’s looking at him, I can tell that she’s totally got a crush on him. And if I can read the look in her eyes right, she’s probably had this crush for a long time. In fact, she’s probably convinced herself that she’s in love with this guy.

It feels horrible to think these things. Especially since I know the end to whatever she’s feeling. She’ll learn soon enough that he’s going to be leaving, and as good as she thinks they have it, he’ll be gone and absolutely nothing will come of it. I’m not angry at her, or jealous, or anything like that, simply because I have no real claim on Ethan except that he’s my best friend. But seeing him walk and talk and joke around with her, I can tell that I’ve made a grave error in my thinking.

For some reason, I never really considered that maybe he’d have someone else as his best friend. Just because he was the only one I ever really talked to didn’t mean it was the same for him. And I realized that he had no idea that this girl felt any type of way, just like I quickly figured out that he didn’t know about how I felt – or rather, how I used to feel. Maybe it was for like a fleeting second, when I first met him. But then I realized that something like this didn’t have room for “feelings” or whatever else you want to call it. Or you can say that he just never saw it like that, so I moved on. Whatever you want to call it, we ended up being friends and that was all and that was enough.

The group passed in front of my bus and slowly began to splinter as people found their own buses. I wished I would’ve taken a picture of them. Then I could’ve shown it to him later and tried to figure out who the girl was. Or I could just ask Eloisa. I suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be my best friend, as the author has written herself into this tiny hole. But maybe she’s not my best friend. I don’t even know what that means anymore.

I opened Instagram just because there was nothing else to do. I wasn’t really going to post anything, and I don’t think anyone had posted anything new yet. People usually posted stuff throughout the day, even though we weren’t really supposed to have our phones out. People will always find a way, though. I clicked through a few of my friends’ stories. They were just silly little moments throughout the day, people making jokes in the hallways, making fun of teachers. Someone had recorded Mr. Alvarez as he was sitting at his desk and they made high-pitched noises every time he lifted a paper. It was a little funny, but not enough to laugh aloud to.

And then there was a story from David. I clicked into it last, only because I didn’t want it to be like I was just checking his stories all the time. He had posted a screen shot of the song he was listening to during lunch. It was a Taylor Swift song, although I didn’t recognize the title. I replied to his story: “You’re turning back into that little girl I met over the summer lol”

Even though David acted like he didn’t know me in school, he would always reply to my stories. He was just as fake as me, I guess. I saw that he was typing.

“Yeah, girl, I was just feeling it, you know?”

David isn’t the most eloquent, but he was fun to get to know. He is really interested in music, and to his credit, he’ll listen to anything, even if it’s not rap or pop or whatever everyone is listening to these days. I know a lot of people say that they listen to everything, but then you put on heavy metal, and they can’t stand it.

But not David. He’d go from pop to screamo to hip hop to country, all in the span of half an hour. Because of that, he and I were able to talk about all the music I listen to, except for the Christian music. I mean, he knew it existed, and he knew enough to know the ones that everyone knows, but that was about it. Although I don’t think Christian music is really a genre, because it’s made up of a bunch of different styles but whatever.

He started typing again… “Hey are you doing anything tonight? Wanna FaceTime later?”

Here we go again. David always liked to talk online but never in real life. Was it enough for me though? Was I going to be cool with this forever?

I decided that I was going to be cool with it for at least tonight.

“Sure thing bro” I said, then added “hey you wanna play call of duty too?”

It was actually kind of fun to play with David, and I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to hang out with Ethan tonight like I wanted.

I wasn’t sure if David was going to say yes, though, so I copied the text and sent it to Ethan as well.

He replied back quicker than David.

“Sorry Emma I’m gonna be packing tonight”

I looked back at the message with David, but he hadn’t replied yet. I clicked through my photos and found the one I’d been wanting to post this morning. It was a simple selfie, but Eloisa said it looked nice and that I should post it. I put it in my stories instead, and then said something generic about being happy school was over for the day or whatever.

I clicked on the explore page and tried to find a funny Star Wars meme. It was kinda hard to find anything funny, though, and I was starting to get bored. The bus was slowly filling up, and I had yet to see my brother James or even Mark. I checked my story to see if anyone had seen it yet. I know I posted it literally seconds ago, but I was curious.

I’m not an avid poster or anything like that, but I usually post about once every other day or so. Ever since they introduced stories, I don’t really post regular pictures or videos anymore. I saw that David had seen the picture. I clicked back into our message. He had also read the message, but still hadn’t responded to it.

Some random kid that I didn’t even know said something about me being pretty or something like that. I was kinda annoyed at him. He’d made some comments on previous pictures, but I didn’t even know him, so why was he making those comments? It’s not like I was encouraging it or whatever. I deleted the DM and blocked him because I was annoyed.

And then I noticed that the guy who has his locker above me had seen the picture. His name was Douglas – but they called him Dougie for short. I had heard some of his friends call his name as they passed him while we were using the lockers.

I don’t know why I suddenly felt creeped out. It’s not like he was a bad dude or anything. Actually, I have no idea what this guy is like, but I think I was bothered that he was even looking at my story in the first place.

But that’s the price of having a public profile, and I wasn’t really interested in the whole making it private and having to choose to follow people back, so instead, I just left it public and let the whole world see into my life. I mean, they weren’t really seeing much. And I wanted it to be open so that Amanda could check in on me every now and then without having to commit to following me.

She’s seen a few of my stories this way, and that’s probably why I keep posting on there, so that she can see my stuff. Or maybe it’s so that David could see it. I honestly don’t know. Ethan doesn’t use Instagram, so it’s not like it’s for him. And no, I’m not out here in love triangles or whatever. I don’t even like these guys like that or anything like that. Maybe I just like that they look at it, and maybe even leave a comment. I mean, in real life, people don’t really seem to even see me when I’m standing next to them. But when they look at my story, then it’s like they’re actually seeing me. If that makes any sense, and doesn’t make me sound like a whiny emo girl or whatever.

 

 

Chapter One

 

I waited until the clock read 4:37 before I got out of bed, careful not to trip over the boxes that crowded the room. I would have to make it through the hallway and down the stairs by memory alone. Any light would wake Dad up, even if that light was upstairs and around a corner.

The house was so loud, though, that I’m not sure Dad wasn’t already awake. The air conditioner and the refrigerator seemed to hum at the same frequency. The whir of the fan in my brother’s room waxed and waned with each turn, back and forth, louder and quieter. Then there were my footfalls and that annoying creak on the fourth step which I could never manage to avoid.

I reached the bottom of the stairs and a new sound joined the twilight din: Dad’s breathing. He lay on the futon, his new makeshift bed. The glow of the Internet box next to the couch gave off enough light for me to see his chest rise and fall with each loud breath. I watched him for a moment, slowing down my breathing to match his. Every once in a while his breath would catch and I could almost feel him wince in pain. I knew he wasn’t in any pain right now, though. Mom had given him more than enough drugs to knock him out and told us all to go upstairs and leave him alone.

He looked so peaceful while he slept. I don’t think I’d seen him like this for a while, without a constant furrow in his brow and his mouth a tight, straight line. I wished that he would go back to saying the worst dad jokes that made James and I cringe and flee from his presence in embarrassment.

I turned from him and went into the kitchen. I had come down here to get a bottle of water and three chocolate cookies. It had been a long time since dinner, and since I’d been awake staring at the ceiling for hours, my body decided that I was hungry enough to get something to eat. Of course, it did not call for real food, only the cookies Mom had made right before banishing us upstairs so we couldn’t eat them. I retrieved my bounty and returned to my bedroom. I shut the door behind me, and the world instantly grew quieter.

The clock read 4:40. I didn’t realize how long I’d been watching Dad. I wondered if I should go back down there. I wasn’t going to get any sleep up here anyway. Besides, watching Dad sleep like that reminded me of days gone by, when he was nice and peaceful and happy all the time. But is it getting back the glory days when it’s only happening in your mind? I didn’t want to just pretend that things were back to how they were – I wanted it to be real. Sitting and watching Dad sleep wasn’t going to make that happen, and if he suddenly woke up it would just make things weird again.

I ate through the cookies and gulped down the water bottle in all of two and a half minutes. I didn’t want to be awake anymore. The clock was drawing near 5AM. It was about to be the three week anniversary of the time I tried to make it so I didn’t wake up ever again. Knowing that Dad got injured because of that makes me wish it had actually worked. Does that make me a terrible person who is probably going to wake up in hell one day?

Yeah. I’m almost certain it does.

 

<!– I forced myself to get out of bed a few hours later. We still had another week or so of summer vacation when I was still allowed to wake up whenever I wanted. That was all going to change very soon, if Mom was to be believed. Forget the fact that I’m going to be a senior and James is in ninth grade now. She was going to lay down some laws so that she wouldn’t have the same problem she’d had with Amanda.

“No more staying out past ten,” she had said one day, unprovoked and with absolutely no context. “No more using phones in the room after eleven, either.”

“How are you gonna check that?” Dad had quietly asked. I could picture Mom standing just outside of our doors, looking for the soft blue light, trying to determine if it was the alarm clock, a phone, or the light from outside. She would be the one to bust open the door and catch you doing something wrong. If you were doing something wrong, of course. I tried to stay away from the kind of trouble you can get grounded for. I had grown up with Amanda, queen of rule breakers, and I had officially learned my lesson.

Yeah, the only trouble you get in now is the “ruin your family’s life” kind of trouble.

The thoughts in my head are more cruel to me than anyone else’s. What makes it worse is that the thoughts are always right.

I remembered the conversation about nightly routine enforcement that Mom was threatening. What I wanted to know more than anything else was how was she going to do said enforcement with her new job. I mean, Dad definitely wasn’t going to be enforcing anything outside the sound of his voice.

After a few more minutes, I went downstairs. Dad was seated upright, eating some oatmeal. There was the furrowed brow again. I didn’t say anything to him, but proceeded into the kitchen. James was there, serving himself some oatmeal as well. He held up the serving spoon.

“No thanks,” I said, taking a box of Life cereal from on top of the refrigerator. He nodded and then proceeded to put the serving spoon in his mouth.

“Is Mom gone?” I took a seat on the dining room table. We had only recently gotten a new table. This one was big enough for just the four of us. It’s weird going from being a family of five to being one of four. It was too early to think about these things, I told myself. Gotta try to think positively. That’s what everyone always says anyway.

James sat down across from me with his plate. “Yeah, she left about an hour ago I think.”

This was probably the most we had said to each other all summer. Which was just as good. James and I were on the verge of hating each other every other moment. I guess this was just one of those other moments.

I took out my phone. Even though I’d been awake all night, my mind was filled with replaying the accident over and over again, so I didn’t really look online or watch any videos like I usually did. I checked my subscriptions on YouTube and added a few interesting videos to my Watch Later playlist. James thinks all I ever watch are dumb vlogs. But he doesn’t understand just how entertaining it is to each other people’s highly polished, edited lives. Sometimes I think about making my own vlog, but I just don’t do enough interesting things.

“I’m going to hang out with Ethan today,” James said with his mouth full. I tried not to look interested.

“Oh, that sounds cool.”

He took another bite. “Yeah. I know that you two were like friends or whatever. You want to come with me? We’re just going to be playing some video games or whatever.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like he invited me or anything like that.” It would be weird to go over your former best friend’s house with your little brother unless he’d invited you, too.

“I just thought you’d want to see him before he moves away forever.” James didn’t push it any further. He licked his plate while I tried no to gag, and then proceeded to disappear into his room. I heard Dad calling his name, but I’m sure James would pull the “I didn’t hear you” card which literally could not be disputed by a man who was confined to a couch and who’s voice didn’t project past the top step.

 

I wasn’t sure if I should go with James. He was right – Ethan hadn’t invited me. In fact, he hadn’t really talked to me since he told me that his family was moving to Brickell. They were just going to be an hour an a half away, and we were still supposed to be able to hang out and do whatever best friends do. Ethan said we could still play together online and we were always connected by text or the Internet in general.

 

My phone suddenly started buzzing on the table. Speak of the devil. It was Ethan, and he was trying to FaceTime me. I took another bite of cereal and then decided to pick it up.

“Hey!” I said, trying to sound happy and not at all nervous because we hadn’t really talked in a while.

“Morning.” He looked like he had just woken up. His eyes were puffy and his face was red. I was surprised he’d choose to FaceTime, especially with his acne flaring up like that. He was usually a little self-conscious about that.

“What’s up?” I continued eating because I was still hungry from this morning. Those three cookies did absolutely nothing other than leave a gross taste in my mouth when I woke up.

Ethan rubbed his eyes. “James just texted me. He’s a liar, you know, because I told him to tell you that we were going to hang out today.”

“Let me guess,” I interjected, “he told you that he had had told me so you didn’t mention it again.”

“And then he just texted me like ‘oh she’s probably gonna say no’ and I told him that I would just call you and ask for myself.”

“You’re right. He is a liar and he’s also a bum.” I glanced at my own face in the corner. I think my eyes were probably just as puffy, if no more so, than his. A whole night of lamenting your existence will do that to you. I know, I know – I’m too dramatic. That’s another thing my thoughts tell me that is totally true and impossible to do anything about.

“Listen, so do you want to come hang out with us?” Ethan continued. “We’re just going to be watching some movies, maybe play some games.”

“Your parents are cool with that? I mean, you guys are about to leave, right?”

He looked away. “Uh, yeah, but they said that I can still have people over as long as I’m packing. And besides,” he lowered his voice, “they’re literally beating themselves up over the fact that they’re moving my entire life just before it gets started. So they’re like bending over backward giving me things because they feel bad.”

I laughed. “Yeah, and you’re exactly the type to milk that until the actual cows come home.”

“What does that even mean?” He shook his head and ran his hands through his hair, making it messier, if that was even possible.

 

“I don’t know. I got it from that movie about the cows that had their brains taken out randomly.”

Ethan laughed, one of those laughs that sue the whole entire body and face and leave you looking like you are going to keel over and die. It was infectious. I started laughing, too, even though I didn’t really think it was funny. In fact, the movie was really about alien invasions and the idea that aliens could exist was terrifying to me.

“Come on, Ethan, it’s not that funny!” I shifted to pretending like I was annoyed by his laughter.

“Oh yes it is, Emma, especially since there’s no way that reference comes from that movie,” he said, shaking the laugh out of his throat. “But you’re right, that movie is definitely not a comedy.”

I looked at him. It was weird to stare at someone through a screen like that. I mean, in that instant, it was like we were together in the same room. But this time, there wasn’t anything else distracting you from our conversation. At least, there was nothing that you could see.

His face got a little serious. “You okay there?” He sat up in his bed. “All of a sudden you were just staring at me.”

I flipped the camera to the other side so that he wouldn’t see my face turning red. I had no acne to pretend like I wasn’t actually about to die of embarrassment. I tried to think about something else, and then I switched the camera back to my face.

“Sorry about that. I just…”

He sighed.” Yeah, I know what you mean.”

I thought about the man who had gone crazy once his mother died. They said that he went and killed two people in his town, although I don’t really think it was true. None of the evidence seemed to stack up when you read it all in the middle of the night. But there was one thing I would never forget from that story. He had been so torn up by his mother’s death that he couldn’t be consoled. And he thought it was his fault, even though it wasn’t.

I knew that Ethan’s moving away had absolutely nothing to do with me. I don’t even know his dad and I think I’ve seen his mom a total of three times in my life. But for some reason, every single time something seems to be going good in my life, whether that’s at school, home, or church, all of a sudden, it just turns into the worst thing ever. People move away or teachers suddenly decide they don’t like me. Parents get hurt and sisters run away. Sometimes I think that if I had never become Ethan’s friend, then none of those things would’ve happened to him.

So that’s why it kinda makes sense for me to think that maybe these things wouldn’t have happened to anyone else if I was either different or not here in the first place. But that’s not the way you’re supposed to think. That’s what they say in church. They say you’re supposed to believe in God or whatever, but what does that even mean in real life?

Now it’s Ethan’s turn to stare. “Why haven’t you talked to me in like three whole weeks?”

I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to tell him the reason. Not that he wouldn’t understand. He would probably understand all too well, and he’d feel even more terrible now that he was leaving. When I said he was my former best friend is not that we’re not friends anymore. It’s that we can’t be best friends anymore now that he’s leaving. So why even continue being friends in the first place? That’s the first thought I had that I didn’t really want to follow.

“You think you want to run the study club when I’m gone?”

“That’s really what you’re worried about right now?” I shook my head. “I don’t think I will ever understand you, Ethan. Why do you even care about that club?”

He sighed again, this time trying hard not to roll his eyes. We had had this conversation several times in the past year since we’ve been friends. “I like that I get to help people in our school, especially since most people – including you – would rather they went somewhere else.” Ethan closed his eyes. “Why is it that I’m the only one in the whole school who doesn’t mind being there, and I’m the one who has to leave?”

“Is it because you’re leaving that girl?” It was a bad question, I know. But I figured this was probably the last time we would ever be able to have a decent conversation. Ethan has always been very forthcoming with things, so I knew he wouldn’t hide it.

“What girl?” He looked confused. I didn’t push it. This was the first time he had actually lied to me. I guess that said something. “But you’re talking to me about girls, what about you and David? What’s the whole deal with that?”

“What do you mean?” I said in a fake girly voice, twirling my hair in my hands. “We’re just talking right now, so it’s not like there’s anything special or whatever.”

“Nothing special my foot.”

I was suddenly aware of how quiet the room had gotten. That meant that Dad was somewhere in the living room listening to my conversation. Not that I was saying anything bad, but he and I didn’t really talk about those kinds of things. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know.

But then again, there wasn’t really anything there to know. –>

 

 

By the time my body decided to fall asleep for real, it was already time to leave for school. James and I take a crowded bus down to Evergreen High, and if I missed it, Mom would be in a bad mood with me for an entire month. She would drive me there, of course, but then she’d be late to work, and it was her first week, and did I know what kind of impression that would leave with her new boss?

Of course, I was very rarely late, so I don’t know who she was telling this to. I found myself out of the door a full thirty seconds before James. He and I had a secret thing where we would try to be the first ones out the door. It was the only thing he and I did together anymore. And even that we did without talking to one another. James was just starting ninth grade, so we would be see more of each other now. I wondered if maybe that would mean we could go back to being rival siblings. We used to fight all the time about who got to sit shotgun, or who got the last Oreo, or who got to use the bathroom first. It was petty, sure, but it was something we did together.

Now, he’s just trailing behind me as I hurry to the bus stop. He and I won’t say another word to each other all day. Mom will be happy because then the house is quiet for Dad. I don’t think Dad will even notice.

I didn’t want to think about those things anymore, though. Today was a new day, and I had to do well in school because there wasn’t anything else. If I didn’t at least try to do well in school, there’d be one more thing I lost and I wanted to start having some wins.

The bus was even more crowded than I imagined. It nearly burst with the weight of Evergreen High students, half of them tired, half of them fully awake, all wishing they could stay home and not have to deal with school. I don’t think anyone liked school. You found ways to make it manageable. There were friends, of course. Occasionally, there might be a teacher you thought was funny or who you liked hanging around. It was very rare, but there might even be a subject that you enjoyed. But for the most part, you would rather be doing something else with your time.

I moved past the front of the bus where all of the sober minded people were, and looked for a seat in the back, with the sleepers. My plan was to put headphones in and drown out the world for the next half hour. Then I saw an empty seat next to Ethan.

As silly as it sounds, I felt something weird when I saw him. It wasn’t butterflies or anything silly like that. I think I’m past that stage in my life where guys can do that to me. I was definitely interested in him as a friend. Although I don’t think that his interest in me extended beyond that.

He was texting someone. The glow from the giant screen lit up his shirt.

“Hey, Ethan,” I said, announcing my presence. As expected, he clicked his phone shut and slid over closer to the window. Not that I would ever look at his texts, but he always seemed to be just finishing his conversations whenever I was around.

“Morning,” he mumbled. I’m pretty sure those were among the first words he had said all day. Ethan didn’t have any siblings, like me, and his dad would already be gone before he woke up. I think he said his dad was a construction worker or something like that. I couldn’t remember.

“Did you do your English homework?”

Of course he would ask that. I resisted the urge to tell him to ask his friends in the study club. Or to tell him that he should’ve just texted me yesterday afternoon when he realized that he needed help. But I know that Ethan would just say “yeah, you’re right”, and then totally forget to do it next time. He was probably my closest friend in this school, but he had the absolute worst memory of life.

I emailed him the essay questions that we were supposed to work on. I was a big believer in helping people, but never in letting them straight copy my stuff. Mr. Alvarez – especially – was smarter than that. I watched as Ethan downloaded the document and started answering the questions.

Should I tell him now? I wondered.

It was never the right time to tell him. How do you just tell your best friend that you tried to end your own life three weeks ago? How do you even explain it someone? Do you have to sit them down and make sure that they’re emotionally equipped to handle it? Of course, you could never prepare someone for something like that. Especially not someone who has been there for you on the darkest of days without even knowing it. How could you just let them down like that?

“You should totally come with me to the study club, Emma.” He had honestly invited me to the club at least three times a week since he joined last year. My mind was still on: How do I tell him? Should I even say anything?

Ethan must have noticed that I was so quiet. He nudged me with his elbow. “Earth to space cadet Emma.”

I smiled. “You’re so lame.”

“Yeah, but now you’re talking to me again,” Ethan laughed. His eyes fell back onto the phone, where he continued typing out his answers to last night’s homework. “So what’s the deal? Your sister just up and disappeared, so now you’re acting like you don’t remember any of your friends?”

“I don’t have any friends, first of all,” I corrected, making sure to lower my voice. “And secondly, yes my sister disappeared, but that’s not why I’ve been kinda distant.”

Now is the perfect time! I thought, but then realized that my thoughts were betraying me. You can’t tell him now! You’re sitting in the back of a smelly, crowded bus, with rude schoolmates who will overhear you and tell the whole world. Besides, what if it’s too loud and he can’t hear you and you have to repeat it again? You can’t tell him. You better not tell him.

So I didn’t tell him. I shrugged. “What about you? I haven’t heard from you either.”

It was Ethan’s turn to get quiet. For a moment, I thought he was going to actually start crying. “I didn’t want to tell you here,” he said after a few quiet seconds. “I wanted to tell you during lunch on the way to the study club.”

“Bro, did you actually think I was going to go?” I smirked. “I never go with you. I— ”

“Yeah, I know that you don’t like my other friends, but they’re actually not that bad, once you get to know them.”

Ethan and I had had this conversation several times before. I was just not interested in hanging out with random people who I didn’t know. Of course, Ethan would remind me that there was a time when I didn’t know him, but my reasons were illogical and would ignore all shred of logic even if it was staring at me in the face.

“But Emma, you’re gonna have to learn how to make new friends,” he started, and I suddenly had a sinking feeling that he was going to tell me that he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. Or that he and that girl from the study club were actually going to start dating.

He didn’t say any of those things. In fact, he didn’t speak any more to me at all. Instead, he focused on finishing his assignment, and I stared at the back of the seat in front of me. Why couldn’t we talk to each other? We obviously had so many things to say, but why couldn’t we just come right out and say it? Why did we have to hold on to things that were better put out in the open, where we could actually deal with it?

The bus came to a full stop a lot sooner than I wanted it to. I was hoping to finish listening to at least two songs on my playlist, but alas. We were here, at school, in a land where phones were allowed at all times – except during class time. Of course, give kids that much freedom, and they’ll use their phones all the time anyway. I was just worried about listening to music and not being able to hear if someone was trying to talk to me. If I didn’t hear them, then they might think I was ignoring them, and that wouldn’t do any favors to how everyone already viewed me around here.

 

<!– I was still waiting for my dad to ask me why I had driven the car into the ditch. The official story that we told the insurance companies was that I hadn’t noticed an oncoming car and swerved into the ditch to avoid it. I called Dad and he came to my rescue like an actual madman, choosing to climb into a crushed vehicle instead of waiting for people with the proper tools to show up and do their job. Now, he had a broken back and I had to live with the fact that there was no oncoming car, and that this was not an accident at all. Since I hadn’t told my parents, though, they thought everything was fine, so there was really nothing I could do except keep going to school and pretending like everything was as fine as they thought. –>

 

<!– Our school wasn’t that bad when you compared it to other schools. I had been to more than enough schools to know. The people who went here hated it and thought it was the absolute worst, even though I had been to more than enough schools to know that Evergreen High was only mildly horrible. The worst part about the school was the people, even if everyone tried to complain about the rules or whatever. It felt horrible to think that, but it was true. –>

 

When you’re in a place for as long as I’ve been here, you can tell what people think about you. They try to act a certain way when they think you’re listening, but it’s when their back is turned and they think you’re not around that you find out the truth. Sometimes, it’s in their eyes, staring as you walk down the sidewalk and into the cafeteria.

Ethan walked next to me, but he was on his phone still, so I started to pick up my pace. I suddenly wanted to leave him behind and disappear into the crowd, just like my sister used to do to me during my freshman year. She had been gone for long enough that I didn’t even think about her as Amanda anymore. She’d been relegated to “my sister”. Someone else. An other. An outsider. I hated to think of her this way, but it’d been so long since I had seen her. Mom and Dad hadn’t forgotten her yet, though, so there was still hope.

I didn’t think that Ethan would notice, but he did and started speed walking to catch up. “Where’s the fire, Emma?” He asked. I tried not to laugh. I wasn’t in the mood for laughter, but the way he said it reminded me of whenever Mom was driving and someone was racing past her. She would lean out the window and yell “Where’s the fire?!” as though that was the most clever comeback in the history of the world.

But I honestly didn’t want to laugh or remember silly stories form the past. I just wanted to get inside the cafeteria, to get my food, and then eat in the hallway in front of History. I didn’t want to be in the cafeteria, or the adjacent outside pavilion where two thirds of the school congregated. I was already tired of this whole school thing, and we were only three weeks into the my final school year.

But, like everyone else in Evergreen High, what I was really tired of was the people here. Everyone here belonged somewhere. They all had groups and clubs and sports and friends. I was the only one who hadn’t found anything. I had been going to this school for three years now – this was my fourth and final year (thank God) – but I still hadn’t found that place. Sure, I had Ethan, but even he had found a place to belong. He was always with his precious study club with his friends that he always talked about and always had in stories like they were the most interesting people on the face of the earth.

Did I want to belong here, though? If I really asked myself, and if I was really honest, could I say that I had actually tried to belong? Or was I just waiting for someone to come to me, like Ethan had? Was I just expecting people to befriend me when I didn’t do anything that would make anyone want to be my friend?

The thoughts in my head were really questions that Amanda used to ask me, back when she and I used to stay up all night just talking. She and I had shared a room for our entire lives. Since she was so much older, she had all the wisdom, and since I was so young, I was the perfect student, ready to listen and learn from every word she said.

Amanda didn’t have any more words for me, though. Whenever I texted her or sent her a DM, she read it and completely ignored it. Scratch that – she completely ignored me.

I was feeling fed up with it all, and I hadn’t even gotten my breakfast yet. I stood on the line, staring ahead, my mind racing a million miles per hour. I wondered what Ethan would think if he could read my thoughts. What would he say about how quickly I change subjects from this school to Amanda, then to whatever else might have caught my attention and then back to Amanda. How could I help it, though? Aside from Ethan, Amanda had been my best friend.

He was standing behind me in line, his phone out in his hands again. I felt a slight vibration in my pocket. I checked my phone.

What’s wrong, Emma? He asked. I was not sure how to respond. I didn’t have to. He sent another message.

Can we talk outside once we get our breakfast?

I replied: sure

After I chose my free breakfast (box of Life cereal, Canadian bacon, scrambled eggs, milk), I made my way to the hallway in front of History. Ethan’s footsteps were not far behind. We sat down against the wall, not caring that the floors were probably still filthy from yesterdays shenanigans.

I took a bite of the Canadian bacon. Ethan drew in a breath. It seemed like he was debating whether or not he should start first. If he asked me what was wrong, I would have to tell him the truth. I just wasn’t sure if I was ready to tell him. Was sitting on the floor in the hallway eating crap food the best time to tell someone about your deep seated mental and emotional traumas?

But then he suddenly said:

“I’m moving next week.”

There’s no right way to respond to news like that. You’re not supposed to say “congratulations” because he hasn’t been planning a move. You’re also not supposed to say “no, please don’t leave” because you know it’s not their choice. So instead I swallowed my food.

“That’s crazy, man.” I wanted to follow it up with a “why didn’t you tell me until just now”, but it was like he read my mind.

“Emma, I wanted to tell you earlier, but it’s not easy finding the right time.”

“Is that why you haven’t been talking to me? How long have you known?”

“Since before school started.”

So we both had end of summer secrets. He had shared his. How on earth was I going to share mine? Especially not with a bombshell revelation like that.

“My dad got a job working for a different construction company,” Ethan started. “It’s based in the city of Miami, though, so that means we have to move closer.”

“Did he ask you?”

Ethan laughed. “Do your parents ask you before they do anything? We’re not really close like that. Besides,” he looked away, “it’s not like my dad would ever listen to anything I say.”

I knew that Ethan and his dad had their issues, but his father would never be as bad as his mom, who he wasn’t allowed to live with. I knew that I was sounding like a whiny brat. But at that moment, I realized that my only friend was going to physically slip away. Just like that, the number of friends I had in this world had dwindled down from one to zero. What was I supposed to say?

“Does this mean we can’t be friends anymore?” I was afraid to ask, but I knew that someone had to. Besides, I wanted to talk so my mind wouldn’t have a chance to run at a brisk pace of one hundred miles per hour.

“No, no, of course we can be friends,” Ethan said. “It’s only like an hour away from here, so we can still hang out on the weekends or whatever.”

“Ethan, neither of us have a car. And it’s not like we really hang out when we’re not in school anyway.”

“Well, we could play games online, then.”

“Dad says I can’t play in my room anymore, because James got caught doing stuff online so we can’t use the Internet in our rooms.”

I knew I was being difficult. I saw it on Ethan’s face.

“We can still FaceTime every now and then.”

I took another bite of the Canadian bacon. It did not taste so good anymore.

“It was good knowing you, Ethan,” I said, at probably the worst joke timing since the dawn of man.

“Emma…” He dragged out the syllables in my name so it sounded like a whine. I knew that I was the one being whiny, but I was literally the one who was about to lose the only friend they’d had in this place for years.

Now, there was no way on earth that I could tell him about the accident or why I had really done it.

 

Chapter Two

It was suddenly two hours later and I was standing in the middle of a moving bus wondering how I had gotten here. James had already found a seat in the front with one of his many fan girls. I can’t remember a time when girls didn’t fawn over my littler brother. He didn’t actually like any of them, though – he just liked the attention. Or at least, that’s what Amanda used to say.

I wished she were here. She and I would always sit together on the bus during the years we went to Evergreen High together. Amanda was one of those who knew everyone in the school and was friends with three fourths and enemies with the remainder. If ever she had a seat and I couldn’t find one, she would convince someone to scoot over and let me sit next to them. She had a charisma, a magnetism, that drew people to her every word. That’s why, even now, a few months since she had left, people still remembered her. It helped that she had a very active social media presence. But Amanda was gone, now, gone from our lives, so the only hope I had of acquiring a seat was to find someone who wouldn’t mind seating three to a seat.

I held onto the seat next to me as the bus lurched under my feet. My body swayed as it tried to keep balance all the while searching the dark bus for a place to sit. I scoured the tired eyes for a sympathetic face, but everyone kept their gaze forward, knowing that they couldn’t refuse if we made eye contact.

“Find a seat!” The bus driver suddenly yelled. The entire bus turned on me, and I felt overwhelmed by their dark stares. Even James turned around, which was dumb, because he already knew it was me. It was always me. Singled out. Alone.

I turned to the girl sitting down in the seat directly to my left. “Can I sit here?” I mumbled. She gave me an exasperated look and slid closer to the guy I had assumed was her boyfriend. Somehow, there was enough space for half of my bottom. I held on to the seat in front of me for dear life. There was a turn at the end of the turnpike that would require every single muscle in my body to keep me from falling onto the ground. With one hand, I plugged in my headphones and attempted to drown out the noises of the world.

It wasn’t like anyone was saying anything to me. They probably didn’t even know that I existed. The problem was that I was convinced they were watching my every move. I felt like they were analyzing every twitch, listening to every word, judging every single action. The truth was that they didn’t actually care enough to notice.

I opened Instagram with my free hand and clicked on Amanda’s story. I had already seen it twice, but it was more interesting than anything else on here, so I watched it again. She was just making jokes with her friends at the mall – nothing special – but it was another chance to see her having fun. Amanda hadn’t laughed this much in the last few months I had seen her. She and Dad were more alike than either of them wanted to admit.

The stories scrolled from one to another. Now I was watching David recording his dog, then his little brother. Next I watched Harry Harris and his band hide CDs throughout Memphis, Tennessee where they were having a show. Then I watched Alexa displaying the photos that she was going to enter into the Photography Exhibition in the Spring.

The bus hit a rough bump. My hand clicked off the stories by accident. I felt relieved. I had been sucked into a vortex of events and lives that seemed to be filled with so much happiness. Why was it always like that on Instagram? It was like no one ever had a bad day. Or it they did, they only posted about it after they had just gotten over it. Why wasn’t there an acceptable way to post about how horrible you felt without sounding like you were just trying to get attention?

That’s what they always say: “she’s just trying to get attention”. I always wanted to say back: “well, if you just gave me attention in the first place, then maybe this wouldn’t happen!” Instead, I just hang my head and feel that horrible pit in my throat as I hold back the tears. I save the crying for the middle of the night, now that Amanda’s not there to hear it.

The infamous end of turnpike turn was fast approaching. I put my phone in my pocket and held on to the back of the seat with both hands. The girl I was sitting next to shifted uncomfortably. I had probably gotten too close to her. At least I didn’t smell. I made sure that I was always clean and used the perfume that Aunt Mackenzie gave me for my birthday earlier this year. I had overheard some girls in the locker room in freshman year saying that guys liked when girls smelled good. It was a stretch to think it’d work, but I had worn some kind of perfume every day since then.

You wouldn’t have to guess hard to figure out that it hadn’t worked so far. I had never even gotten close enough to calling a guy a “friend”, much less a “boyfriend”. But that was okay. Amanda had had her share of boyfriends for the both of us. To hear her talk about guys, I don’t even know why you’d want to be in a relationship with one anyway.

Mom was happy about it. For now. She said I’d eventually have to grow out of my disinterest in guys, but she was cool with me not caring about that right now. The memory of Amanda and her endless trail of boys was still too raw, even if it had been several months. I wasn’t sure if she had a new boyfriend. She didn’t seem to have him in any stories, so it was safe to assume “he” didn’t exist.

My train of thought carried me through the rest of the bus ride and left me at the edge of the sidewalk with an impatient girl and her boyfriend behind me. I made a hard right to head to the cafeteria for the gross free lunch they provided here at Evergreen High. I wondered why I had bothered with that accident when I could’ve just kept eating the food here and died naturally.

It was a gross, morbid thought, I know. I just couldn’t seem to get it out of my mind. I kept telling myself that I didn’t want to die anymore. That was totally true. I had seen what happened when I took matters into my own hands. The problem was that I just didn’t really want to live, either. I was just thinking that I should probably ask Mom to take me to a therapist when someone stopped right in front of me.

“Hey, Emma!” It was Mark, from English. He had his hand up, waiting for a high-five. I obliged with a soft palm, and then I continued to the cafeteria. The back entrance was easiest to get to from the bus line. I tried not to think about how Mark never really even talked to me in English. I guess he just felt bad because he had asked me for help on his Beowulf assignment and afterward, he ended up with a really good grade. It made the whole high-five thing kind of weird. I’m actually kind of surprised that I gave him a high-five in return. I’m the kind of person who would just walk right past him because I didn’t like drawing attention to myself. If I didn’t give him the high-five, though, it would probably draw even more attention to myself because it was weird not to accept a high-five.

From his perspective, the high-five was just one random moment in his day and he probably hadn’t even thought about it again in the ten seconds since it happened. Here I was analyzing it to death. Again. My mind just wouldn’t take a break. I tried to get into the cafeteria without thinking about the dumb high-five anymore.

Evergreen High enrolled about 1500 students, but some days it felt like over 2000. I wasn’t sure how they managed to fill that many kids into the building, but they did it every day. The lunchrooms were always a bit crowded, and the hallways were a sea of bodies, but at the very least 1500 kids were educated each day. Let me rephrase. 1500 kids were attempted to be educated. I’d say that only about half of those actually learned something useful. Some learned how to smoke for the first time. If Ms. Georgia, the health teacher, were to be believed, about half of the school was learning what STDs were every month when they tested positive for them. The rest figured that you couldn’t listen to Ms. Georgia’s fear mongering and have fun, so they made their choice.

I tried to at least pay attention in class. Maybe I didn’t learn anything “useful” or anything that I’d remember once I graduated, but at least I knew enough to pass the weekly tests, which was more than a lot of people could say.

Amanda claimed it was this precise attitude that made it so difficult for me to make friends. “If you think you’re above everyone, then of course people aren’t going to like you.” She just didn’t understand, though. I didn’t think I was above everyone – I thought that everyone was better than me. That’s why it was so hard to talk to them. What if I said the wrong thing? They would tear me to shreds and I’d be right back where I started. I couldn’t deal with that sort of pressure, so I just stayed away from the world.

It was actually pretty easy to just blend into the crowd at a school like Evergreen. There were so many people that if you never opened your mouth, no one would even notice. In my sophomore year, a classmate had died, and no one even remembered his name a month later. I wondered if that would’ve happened to me, if when I drove my car into a ditch I had never made it out of them. Would they all have forgotten me in a month? Or would they have just remembered me as Amanda’s little sister? I wasn’t sure which was worse.

There were too many thoughts for this early in the morning. I wanted to get my breakfast and stop them from filling my mind. I couldn’t just leave my mind behind. Put it in my pocket with my phone and keep it there until school was over. Maybe once I got into class, I could stop thinking. Try to focus on European history and the crazy medieval knights. Maybe that would do the trick.

I stood awkwardly in the breakfast line. I felt like my clothes didn’t fit correctly. I hated the colors (navy blue and forest green – duh). I hated the way my shirt was loose against my body but constricted exclusively in the armpits. I hated how my pants were normal sized, but ran straight down instead of clinging a bit to the ankles like everyone else’s.

I especially hated my hair, which was tied up today in a messy bun that didn’t look anything like the “messy” buns that pretty girls had. I could never understand why supposedly attractive girls were allowed to wear bummy clothes and messy hair and everyone thought it was cute. But if I tried it, I felt like an actual slob. As I stood there on the line, inching forward every so often, I felt like the entire cafeteria was staring at me, whispering the same comments about my clothing that I was thinking to myself.

The sad part was that I knew it wasn’t true. My clothes probably looked fine. People weren’t even looking. I reminded myself that they didn’t even know that I was here. I desperately wanted to take my phone out and text Amanda. She would always let me text her whenever I felt uncomfortable, and she would respond with nice little comments ( “you have nothing to fear”, “you’re awesome”, or other things like that). Sometimes she would text me a hilarious GIF which would make me completely forget what I was bothered by.

But then I remembered that even if I texted her, she wouldn’t respond. I honestly think she blocked me, because none of my texts get through to her anymore. Either that, or she is completely ignoring my texts. I don’t know which option hurts more.

A boy standing in front of me turned around and was saying something to me. I looked at him.

“Is your hair like wet or something?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer him.

He glanced over at his friend, and the girl tried to hide a giggle. I could feel my face growing hot. The guy reached out and put his hand on my head. I was honestly so stunned, I didn’t know what to do. If Amanda were here, she would’ve turned around and pushed the guy away. Instead, I just stood there quietly, not moving, hoping he would stop.

“It is wet,” he said, pulling his hand away. I turned to see him, and he was giving the girl a nervous laugh. He didn’t make eye contact with me, so I just stepped forward in line. I was beyond embarrassed, but how did you say anything about that? How did you tell some random kid that you’ve never seen to never do that again? I could possibly go another four years in this place and I still would never see this guy again. Was there something about me made it seem like you could just come over and touch my head?

I was still wondering about this as I filled my plate with a box of Life cereal, a small bag with apple juice, and a mini sandwich with Canadian bacon. I scanned my ID card and then grabbed a carton of milk on the way out.

As I made my way out of the cafeteria and into the hallway, I heard someone call my name.

“Emma!” The female voice was loud, clear, and slightly familiar. I wasn’t used to hearing people call my name at school so I stopped and tried to locate the voice. It was coming from the left and it was getting closer.

“Hey, Emma,” the voice had officially turned a corner and it was Eloisa. I honestly had no idea how she had seen me from around the corner, but Eloisa is a special case. I had met her in Human Geography, and she was surprisingly interested in being my friend. She would always say hi to me when I walked in, and she would try to get me to help her whenever she could. But unlike everyone else who was just using me for my help, she would also try to talk to me, something that was totally different from normal.

I stopped and waited for her to officially turn the corner. She was walking alone with a tray in her hand. My guess was the she, too, didn’t want to sit around in a crowded cafeteria or try to find an available seat somewhere outside.

“Good morning, Emma,” she said, coming over to me and giving me one of those air kisses in greeting. I pointed up the stairs.

“I was just headed to sit near history,” I said. She nodded.

“Let’s go.”

We walked up the stairs. I was careful to keep a good balance of my food. It wouldn’t do to drop your tray in the school’s main stairway. That place was in prime position to be noticed and ridiculed about for the rest of the day. I didn’t need any more attention for at least an entire day.

We reached the top of the stairs without any such incidents and started down the hallway.

“What are you up to?”

I tried not to say the obvious “eating breakfast and trying to hide from the world”. So instead I shrugged.

“Nothing much. How about you?”

Eloisa let out a deep sigh like she’d been waiting for someone to ask her this all morning.

“Well, my boyfriend – I mean ex boyfriend – suddenly decided that he wanted to be a jerk, so now we’re not talking anymore. And then Ethan and I texted all last night, but I’m totally not even interested in him so I don’t know how to break it off. And now my life is ruined because I checked online and it looks like I failed my math test.”

There was so much information, I was just trying to process it all. I was still on the “texting Ethan all night” thing when she barreled on.

“My dad is getting remarried which I don’t understand because what woman would want to be with him? And he didn’t even invite me or my mom to go the wedding. That’s because he’s a jerk. My mom is so furious with him, but I know she wanted to go the wedding just to talk to his new wife and set the woman straight.”

As she spoke, I was making a beeline for the seats in front of history class. Eloisa didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t say much to respond to her. She was perfectly fine speaking as many words as possible without even taking a moment to breathe. I sat down on one of the seats and she followed suit. I wasn’t sure which of the four subjects she was going to rant about right now.

It looks like the ex boyfriend one won out.

“I just don’t understand Jorge, like why couldn’t he just tell me outright that was interested in someone else? I saw them together yesterday, so does that mean he’s been talking to her for a while, and now they just decided to make it public?” Eloisa took the briefest of moments to take a bite of her sandwich, and then she was back at it again.

I kinda lost track of her story right about there. She was very interested in talking about her own personal life and she never really asked me anything about mine. Which worked for me perfectly well. I didn’t need to say anything, and she didn’t have to stop and listen. I could understand why she kept me around, not that her friends Jasmine and Sara didn’t really want to hang out with her anymore.

Eloisa was an interesting character because she was one hundred percent genuine. What you saw when you looked at her is exactly what you got. There was nothing else going on behind the scenes, no grand plot to do anything more than next moment. If she was in a relationship, she cared about them in that moment. She tried not to worry about the future.

Believe me, I had tried to do the same. I tried to be a bit more carefree and not think about whatever was coming next. Maybe I should’ve been a time traveler because I could never sit still in the present. I always wished I could be in the future already – graduated from high school, working on my degree, getting a job, being in a relationship, maybe even getting married and having a kid. I wanted to move out already. That’s why I worked so hard to get my license. I just hadn’t expected them to take it away after the accident. They were right to think that I couldn’t be trusted with it. I just don’t think they realized the extent of how right they actually were.

I was always interested in the past, too, though. There were so many moments that I wished I could take back, the accident being one of them, of course. But there were others, moments in time that I wished I could undo. There were places I wished we could get back to, like when we used to live in Orlando. I would’ve liked to live there now. Or even times when our family was different – not perfect, but definitely different. When Dad wasn’t so stressed and Mom used to still talk to me. Back when James and I could barely stand each other and back when I used to always drive Amanda crazy. I wished she was here so I could bother her again.

I wondered if she would feel the same way. Did she think back to those times and miss them? Or was she so content with her life right now that she never even thought about us? I don’t think she ever thought about me anymore. I guess it was a little ironic, since she was practically in every other thought I had. Maybe I thought about what our relationship used to be enough for the both of us.

Eloisa was still talking and I was afraid she would catch wind that I hadn’t been listening to her this whole time. I don’t know why my mind liked to run away like that, almost as though I weren’t here trying to pay attention to the people in front of me.

I tried to find where she was in the conversation: “…I told him that we were only friends and it wasn’t right of him to try to change things on me so suddenly.”

Ah. She was talking about Ethan, the guy who had texted her last night. I remembered him. He used to be in my English class. During the last month of school his father had gotten a new job. They moved to Orlando sometime in the summer. I had talked to him a few times because of class assignments, but that was about it. I thought it was weird that he would try to talk to Eloisa of all people. She was probably the most beautiful girl in our entire grade. Most guys didn’t even try to talk to her unless they were absolutely certain that they had a chance. So why was this Ethan kid trying to talk to her?

“How should I tell him -”

“That you never want to speak to him ever again in your life?” I took a drink from my carton of milk. Eloisa must’ve found that very humorous because she burst into a fit of laughter.

“Yes, I’ll tell him that! It would be so perfect because it’s so unexpected.” And then she filled her mouth with food and didn’t talk again for another three minutes.

I was baffled by the silence. I mean, I was used to it coming from me. I had a reputation for never opening my mouth in class. One of my teachers always used to mark me absent because she could never hear me saying “present” whenever she called roll. But not Eloisa. She was about as loudmouth loquacious as you could get. I guess even a talkative girl like her had some kind of manners and wouldn’t talk and eat at the same time.

“Did you do your essay?” I asked, once I had finished eating my food. She nodded.

“Yeah. Surprisingly. It was right before Ethan started texting me.”

Again with the texting. I didn’t want to get her on that train of thought again, so I tried something else.

“Are you going to get a ring?”

“Of course!” Eloisa smiled a little. “Jasmine, Sara, and I were supposed to get our rings together, but now I’m not so sure.”

“What kind of ring were you guys going to get?”

Eloisa thought for a second. “It was emerald and it had flowers on it.” She looked down at her food. “I think Jasmine was just jealous because I had CCC and she didn’t have anyone. And then as soon as Jasmine was done with me, then Sara just followed her. I don’t think that Sara really has much brains left.”

“Isn’t she supposed to be like your friend?” I was nervous around people who talked about their friends like that behind their back. Not because I was concerned with them being good or bad friends. I was just terrified that they would do the same thing to me. What kind of mean things would they say once my back was turned from them if we weren’t even THROWAWAY friends?

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Eloisa said, lowering her voice. “If I found out that she was talking to CCC at any point during this time I would not be surprised in the slightest. That’s the kind of girl that she is.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more of this gossip. I didn’t really want to be that kind of girl, who would just listen to the gossip and not do anything about it. I just wished they wouldn’t tell me so I could say that I didn’t know. And besides, wasn’t gossip a sin or something? All the girls in youth group would talk about how they were struggling with gossip and they waned God to forgive them for it. But if that’s what all girls wanted to talk about, then could I just tell her no, I can’t listen to this because it’s a sin? Isn’t that kind of weird?

I sat there unsure of what to do for a total of thirty five seconds before the bell rung. Suddenly, there was a mad rush through the halls as everyone tried to get to their class on time. Thankfully, Eloisa and I were sitting right outside of history and there was no need for a rush. She and I picked up our trash. I reached out to take care of hers.

“Oh, thanks, Emma.” She finished off her juice. “You’re so nice.” Eloisa paused as I piled the trash into the trash can right next to us.

“Hey, do you want to sit next to me today?”

I knew what was going on. I knew that she was lonely because her friends weren’t talking to her, her boyfriend – sorry, ex boyfriend – had made up a bogus reason for why he left her. I knew she was upset because her dad was getting remarried and didn’t want any of his old life to be a part of it. I knew she was feeling a touch of pity because some guy she was uninterested in texted her all night and she probably felt bad that she had used him for company. I knew that she was just using me for company, too. But it didn’t bother me as much as it should have if I was a normal person with a normal amount of friends.

I said, “Sure.”

 

The rest of the day was completely uneventful. We had a pop quiz in history, then worked on a project. It was cool to sit next to Eloisa, but all she did was talk about drama. After a while, I started to find it tolerable, but then it was time to move on. I didn’t really have many people I talked to in any of the other classes. It was weird. I didn’t really do anything to make people dislike me like some of the other supposedly outcast kids, but I also didn’t do anything to attract people to me, if that made sense.

That was something about Amanda that I really admired. She was always able to get people to notice her when she walked into a room. Dad called it charisma, and he said that was what people like Hitler had and that’s why they got people to be okay with him running their country. I thought it was a bit harsh to compare Amanda to Hitler, but she was off being rebellious and leading all of her church friends into trouble.

I didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Amanda. I saw her every where, in random hallways where I had a conversation with her. I saw her in the many kids who were always hanging out with her and were in her stories. I saw her in the textbooks that had been assigned to her last year that I now had in my possession.

How can you escape someone who is such an important part of your life? I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it. I had managed to resist the urge to check my phone all day in school. As soon as the ending bell rang, though, I found a corner and took it out. I had exactly zero new messages. I felt a little disappointed, although I shouldn’t have. Why would anyone have sent me a text message? Mom and Dad never had anything to say. James didn’t even like texting me when he needed any information. Amanda refused to answer my messages, even though I texted her good morning and good night every single day. Maybe that was a bit excessive, now that I thought about it.

The bus line was already starting to form. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Here we were repeating yet another day of our lives. I had done the same thing for the past two and a half years of my life. Stood in this bus line. Got on my bus. Went home. Did my homework. Went to sleep. Woke up. Continued the cycle. There was nothing to change the monotony, even when Amanda was around. She was always off doing her own thing. It was just another thing in my daily routine. I just didn’t know exactly what crazy thing she was going to do – I just knew she was going to do something.

I picked my way through the crowd right outside of the school and found my way to my bus. It was early enough in the bus formation that no one had gotten on our bus yet. I hoped I would be one of the first. If you got there first, then you could sit in the back, far away from trouble. That didn’t make sense, for conventional wisdom, but there was a trick to it. If you were the first one there, you had your pick of the seats. Everyone knew the seats at the back were the best. But the troublemakers weren’t too keen on getting to the bus on time. They were too busy making trouble out there in the random world. By the time they got to the bus, it was about to pull out and the only seats available were in the front.

There were about five people on the bus by the time I managed to get inside. I picked a seat on the left, three rows from the back bench, and put my headphones in. I was hoping to get some good sleep on this bus. I didn’t want anyone to bother me, so I took off my jacket and draped it across my chest. I leaned against the window and closed my eyes. Hopefully, anyone trying to get a seat alone would choose to sit next to me and we could stay out of nonsense together.

I chose a song and let the music fill my mind. It had been running one hundred miles per hour, what with school and everything else going on in my mind, that it was good to let it relax for a moment.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. I was slightly annoyed. Here I was, trying to remain calm, and someone was texting me. Or sending me some kind of notification. As much as I wanted to hear from people, I honestly didn’t want to deal with that right now. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I was going to want to deal with it for the rest of today.

But what if it’s James or Mom or Dad? What if they need something? There was the sensible side of me.

What if it’s Amanda? What if she is finally replying back? There was the hopeful part of me.

The unknown was going to kill me. What if James was asking a question about something important? What if he needed me? Could I just let him down like that? But what if it was something else? What if it wasn’t important? And now here I was getting uncomfortable for something that didn’t even really matter.

After thinking about it for three whole minutes (the song finished playing and moved on to the next), I decided to check it.

It was Ethan – definitely not who I expected.

The bus suddenly filled up with a loud crowd and I put the phone away in my pocket. I was definitely not going to have this conversation here in the bus. I was intrigued, but I was also terrified. Wasn’t this the guy who had spent all of last night texting Eloisa? What if she found out? I know that she was claiming he was just a friend, but she had also just been talking to him. Would she feel some type of way toward me if she thought I was trying to swoop in like that? But I wasn’t even doing anything of the sort. I wasn’t doing any “swooping in” or anything like that. I used to tell Amanda all the time that I couldn’t talk to guys regularly, how could I convince them to go out with me?

But what if he was just trying to talk to me so that he could talk to Eloisa again? Did I want to be use as a pawn again? I was a pawn when it came to talking to Eloisa and even Amanda all the time. Did I want to be a pawn once again?

I skipped the next song and closed my eyes. There was no way I was going to fall asleep, not with this new development, but at least I could close my eyes. When I got home, I’d have to deal with that. For now, I was just going to try to control my rolling stomach.

 

Mom wasn’t home when James and I got there. She was in week one of her second job and was spending as much time as possible getting the hang of things. I wasn’t really sure what her job was, to be honest. All I knew was that she was a manager of something and it had to do with retail. Or it was a restaurant. I couldn’t remember. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know. Her normal job was as a phone salesperson and I knew that she hated it. I also knew that she hated her new job and tried not to talk or think about it as much as possible. I told her that I would give fifty percent of my income from my job at Publix, but she wasn’t interested. She thought that I should keep my money and let her figure it out on her own.

Dad was sprawled out on the couch as usual. He was asleep again, so we made sure not to make any noise. Or at least, I tried not to make noise. James didn’t seem to notice or care. He slammed the front door and threw his backpack on the floor by the shoe rack. I don’t think Dad could even hear it. That’s why I felt like mom was just stepping on fake eggshells around dad whenever she told us to be quiet and to keep our voices down.

Of course, they had all kinds of conversations that sounded loud but were indiscernible from upstairs. I’m sure something in there had to do with us being too loud for him. But he pretended that everything was okay when he was in front of us, so I didn’t mind. If he had a problem with it, he should tell us to our faces. That’s what I always believed, anyway.

I grabbed a water bottle and ran upstairs. I wanted to get back to the conversation on my phone. He had messaged me on Instagram, which made sense because I didn’t have his phone number. In fact, he and I weren’t even friends on Instagram. I guess it worked because I had a public profile.

The room was still full of boxes. They were stuffed with Amanda’s belongings. The day before my accident, Dad had come into my room and put everything in there. It had taken him three hours to tear down her bed and stack the boards in the hallway. He had folded every single article of clothing she left behind and put them in a box. He had taken all of her collectibles and cards and random little toys she had from childhood and shoved them into a bin. And then he had gone downstairs to eat dinner. It didn’t bother him that he was packing up the last reminders I had of Amanda away, never to be seen again.

Maybe he was ready to forget her, but I surely wasn’t. I still don’t even know why he came in and put all of her stuff away. It’s not like he was up here seeing it all the time. It’s not like it was in my way, either. He just packed her away like he was trying to move on, like he was trying to erase her existence from our family.

Of course, the next morning was the accident and then the injury, so he never had a chance to put everything away. I don’t know if he even remembered that everything was still up here. If he had, I wondered if he would have had James take it down and put it in the garage for him. Or maybe even drive it to the dump. But I guess we would have a few more weeks to find out, while his back healed.

I stepped around the boxes. One of the flaps was almost open and I resisted the urge to search through it. This wasn’t the time to go digging into the past. For once, I wanted to stay here in the present. I wanted to check my phone and figure out why Ethan had sent me a message. I threw myself onto my bed, still fully clothed in my school uniform. I did kick off my shoes, though – I’m not a total savage.

The message wasn’t very long (Hi Emma how’s it going?). I quickly typed back a simple response and waited. A few new images had been uploaded since I checked Instagram earlier this morning. I didn’t recognize the girl in the first photograph. I knew that she used to go to middle school with me, but I couldn’t remember her for the life of me. I don’t know if we had class together. I don’t remember if we were friends or if we knew someone who knew one of their friends. I just remember her name and I knew that we had gone to middle school together so I accepted her follow request.

The rest of the pictures were about as great as you could expect from annoying high school kids who didn’t really know how to use Instagram. Of course, the app had changed in the past few years since I had first started using it. This was back before stories made things so much easier to share stuff, since they disappeared after a few moments anyway. Back then, pictures were full of annoying filters, but at least people tried to take pictures that were pretentious and possibly good.

Now, it was all half blurring images that no one was posing for, and if they did pose, they either tried to hide their face and accentuate their body, or they hid their body and highlighted their face.

Or, they could be like me, who never posted a selfie or portrait or whatever you call a photograph of your regular self. If my Instagram profile was what you needed to find me in a crowd, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Sure, you’d know the things I was doing and my different hobbies, but you would have absolutely no idea what I looked like. It was the opposite of everyone else.

I knew it was impatient of me to expect him to have replied already, but this was Instagram we were talking about. I knew he had an iPhone from when I saw it fall out of his pocket during a test last year. He had no real reason for not replying back.

Unless, of course, he’s on the bus and now he’s waiting to get to house to keep talking.

Maybe. Sometimes, I didn’t believe the voice in my head. If I had said this to Amanda she would laugh and say that I needed to get myself checked out. I would agree with her sullenly, and then we would laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

I clicked through a few more silly, blurry stories. I wondered why people were almost unable to record a story steadily. Was that like the method for recording stories? Wild, crazy, and almost unwatchable? Why was I wasting my time actually formulating a good shot for mine when I could make more acceptable stories with almost half the amount of effort?

And then his reply came in. It was simple (Nothing much, I’m gonna do some hw later hbu?), but it was clearly the start of a conversation.

I decided that I was going to let Eloisa know right from the beginning. I wasn’t going to have her mad at me randomly over a guy that she didn’t even think was her friend, all because I didn’t tell her immediately.

If nothing else, she would find it funny.

When I sent her the screen shot of his message, she totally did.

hahahah this kid! He couldn’t get to me, so now he’s trying with you!

Should I talk to him?

Just know he’s gonna try to talk to you for a long time. If your cool with that…

Uh, I don’t know.

Eloisa was typing. I clicked into his message. He was also formulating a response to whatever I had said.

I clicked back into Eloisa’s message.

Hahahah you’ve probably never talked to anyone for more than a few minutes, right?

Hey! I’ve talked to you for a while before.

Yeah, you never reply fast enough for me, so I don’t try to have really long conversations with you too much. Sorry lol

I wasn’t offended. It was true. I usually didn’t have many conversations through text. If anyone needed anything from me, they asked, I answered. This little exchange between Eloisa and I was more than we had done for a really long time. In fact, I don’t think I had ever talked to anyone like this, except for maybe Amanda. If James and I were friends then maybe we would send each other funny memes or maybe just complain about whatever was going on in our family.

I just didn’t really know how to keep up a conversation, regardless of whether it was on a phone or if it was in person. I sent her a laughing face emoji and clicked back into Ethan’s message.

She was right. He was actually trying to talk. I had asked him about his new school.

It’s like an art school, he started saying and then continued for what felt like an eternity. I don’t even think he realized that he was talking to an actual person. I mean, I was responding back to him, but it wasn’t really about anything else other than him. I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do when you talk to someone. Supposedly, if you get them talking about themselves then they will be okay with your existence. Maybe they won’t want to be your best friend ever, but at least they’ll like talking to you. Because they will feel like you’re actually listening to them. Meanwhile, everyone is like them and just talks all the time and never stops to listen. When you come along and you don’t say much about yourself, you’re a rare breed. But if you keep it up, then you are an enigma wrapped in a mystery. And people don’t like enigmas for very long. After a while they get bored and move on to someone else who will lap up their every word, except this person gives them something to work with.

It was a never ending cycle of which I did not know how to break from. So I kept texting this kid about absolutely nothing of importance.

Every now and then, I’d send Eloisa a screen shot just so she could see the nonsense that he was saying. I didn’t really feel bad. It was honestly just entertaining. I didn’t really have very much homework to do, so it’s not like I was wasting useful time. I only worked on the weekends, so that was still a few days away. We were reading a book for English (Jane Eyre), but I read through the whole thing the first day that he gave us the book, so now I was just going at a snails pace with the packet, acting like I had no idea what was coming next. And besides, it was a good break to this monotonous week. It also felt nice to get to talk to Eloisa a little more. I knew that they were both using me to talk to someone because their friends wouldn’t talk to them anymore. I also knew that Eloisa was getting her fill of this kid without having to actually commit to talking to him. If that was something that worked for her, then I was all right with filing in that gap. It was just good to actually be talking to two people at the same time. I had actually seen a two hundred percent increase in my “friends” in the course of an hour and a half. I think that was the best improvement I’d had in at least the three years that I went to Evergreen High.

Hey do you want to FaceTime? He asked, suddenly breaking my train of thought.

Now this I wasn’t too sure about. The texting was perfectly fine, because it was low impact. I could think about whatever he was saying and then I could decide what was the best response. I could send Eloisa a recap of whatever he had just said, we could laugh about it, then I could send him another reply. But if we FaceTimed, then that meant that I would have to stop talking to Eloisa. It would bring my circle down one hundred percent. Actually, it would be by fifty percent, but my math skills were not the greatest during moments of stress.

I texted Eloisa, asking her what I should do.

Her reply was swift. Yes, girl. Talk to that kid. Who knows? You’ll have him wrapped around your finger by hour two.

Hour two?! How long you think I’ll be talking to him?

For at least twice that long. Girl, you never talked to someone on the phone before?

Uh no. Can’t you tell?

Stop talking to me!

I sent her a tongue sticking out emoji and then obliged her request. I didn’t even reply to Ethan. Instead, I just ran a hand through my hair and sat on my bed, propped up against the wall. Then, I hit the FaceTime button and all of a sudden, I was dialing him.

It was weird seeing his face. His forehead was red with acne, although he tried to cover it with hair pulled across his forehead. His eyes had darker circles around them than I remember. I don’t think anyone had ever said that he was handsome or anything like that. He wasn’t horrible to look at, though, but I didn’t think he was anything special. Maybe that’s a rude thought to have about someone when they’re asking you to talk on the phone. But those are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind. If it’s a person of medium attractiveness, then I can talk to them without feeling any type of way. But if it’s someone who would be considered on a higher point of that scale, then all of a sudden I get nervous and I can’t think straight. It was one of those pathetic things that people like me experienced, whereas I’m sure that none of the people we feel that way towards think that about anyone. Except maybe movie stars or something like that. I don’t know.

“What’s up, Emma?”

“Uh, nothing much,” I said. It was a little nerve wracking once we actually started talking. I don’t think he and I ever had a real conversation when were in class together in real life. It felt kinda weird that he’d be talking to me now. I reminded myself that it was only because he was lonely and Eloisa didn’t want to talk to him anymore. I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t because there was anything special about me or anything like that. I didn’t want to start getting delusions of grandeur or anything like that. Eloisa said I’d have him wrapped around my finger before hour two. I was just terrified that if I wasn’t careful then it would be the other way around.

“Listen, I wanted to ask you about your friend, Eloisa.”

Here we were, literally three sentences into the conversation, and he already brought her up. “What about her?” I tried not to sound defensive or aggressive or whatever.

“I think she thinks that I like her or something but I totally don’t. Do you think you could let her know for me?”

I tried not to burst out into laughter. “Sure thing, man,” I said. I didn’t want to tell him that she totally did think that. I would have to wait for a while later to tell Eloisa, if her prediction was correct.

“So you were telling me about an art project that you had to do?” I may not have been good with face to face interactions in real life, but I was finding a bit of confidence because of this screen. If he was done talking, he could just accidentally hang up and then text me saying he had to go or whatever. In real life, if you didn’t want to talk to someone, you had to either physically get out of there, or you had to stand there awkwardly until they got the hint.

Ethan took the bait and ran with it. “Yes, it’s like about something important that has happened in your life. You’re supposed to represent a moment when you went from not knowing something to knowing it.”

“What are you making it about?”

“Honestly, I don’t really know.” He frowned and rubbed his eyes. “Other kids are making it about traumatic things, but I don’t really have anything like that.”

“Your life has been smooth sailing.”

He laughed. “Well, no, not exactly. But nothing big like everyone else, you know?”

Up until a few months ago, yeah, I had known exactly what he meant.

“Do you have any ideas for what you’re going to use for your project, though?”

“Oh, yeah, I got that,” he said. Ethan pulled himself up from the reclining position and went over to his desk. He turned the camera to a sketch he had been working on. It was in colored pencils, and half a page was colored in black and the other colored in white. “I thought it would be cool to go with the idea of going from darkness to light. Like, from having no knowledge, to having all of it.”

“Like Adam and Eve.”

“Yeah, like that.” He was quiet for a moment while he settled back onto his bed. “So you’re religious or something like that? I never knew.”

“I’m a Christian, if that’s what you mean by religious,” I said, “but it’s nothing crazy like those people you see in the news.”

“So you’re one of those ‘I love Jesus but not religion’ or something like that?”

I shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I’m not perfect or anything like that, but we go to church every Sunday. And there are a bunch of movies and stuff that I can’t watch because they’re bad.”

Ethan nodded. “Yeah, my parents used to take us to church sometimes, like maybe on holidays. My mom is very much into whatever her new boyfriend is into.”

“Your parents are divorced?” I asked. I didn’t realize that he only lived with his dad.

“No, actually, they’re not.” Ethan sighed. “Mom is just having a side hustle and dad is totally cool with it for some gross reason. They’re gonna get divorced very soon though.”

“I’m sorry.”

He laughed. “Don’t be sorry. They’re both totally gross to be honest and they know I think this. They make fun of me all the time because I say that I’m gonna be one of those guys who marries his high school sweet heart and stays with her for his entire life. They say it’s impossible and I should just not get married.”

I swallowed. I had heard that part about high school sweet heart. Is Ethan the kind of guy who would currently have a girlfriend and talk to someone else? I honestly couldn’t say. I didn’t really know much about him from the past, and from today, we had only really talked about his art. Which was totally cool. And not at all what I remembered about him. I didn’t think he was doing anything that you wouldn’t do with a friend.

So why did he talk to Eloisa for so many hours last night? And why was he still talking to me if he had a girlfriend? I was completely confused, but I was highly entertained, so I didn’t hang up the call.

We talked about things like that for a total of nine and a half hours until we both fell asleep sometime in the middle of the night. I think it was around hour five that it happened. Not that he had gotten wrapped around my finger, like Eloisa predicted. This time, it was the other way around. And as I drifted off to sleep, I had a feeling that I shouldn’t have let it get that far. I should have hung up at 8, when Mom called out that dinner was ready. I should’ve said good night when it hit 10. Instead, I kept it going until at least 1am. I knew that it wasn’t right, especially since we had literally never talked before this moment.

But, honestly, there was nothing I could do about it now. The last though I had before my mind fell to the blackness was whether or not he was having the same thoughts over on his side of the universe.

 

The next day was murderous. I don’t even know how I opened my eyes. My body felt achy from sitting/lying down for that long. Plus, I was super hungry since I had totally skipped dinner to talk to some kid. I felt slightly embarrassed, now that I thought about it. What kind of person was I turning into? I didn’t even know who this kid was. Had I really just spent that many hours talking? I checked the phone log for yesterday. Sure enough, there it was. Thankfully, we had an unlimited plan, otherwise my parents would have been furious. Especially dad. He hated the idea of me talking to anyone for that long, especially in the middle of the night. That was when Amanda used to talk to all of her boyfriends. He hated to know that she had been conferring with those lowlifes while she was under his roof. I wondered if Dad would consider Ethan a lowlife. I thought he was very nice and interesting. He was a high school kid with aspirations for the future. What more would Dad want?

I sent Eloisa a text. I knew she would be disappointed in me. I did not tell her what I had discovered. I decided that I would keep that to myself for at least another day or two. After that, if it was all still there, then I would reveal that to her.

As I was brushing my teeth, I saw that Ethan had said something. Even though my hands were wet, I tapped on the screen.

Sorry I fell asleep. Anyway, it was good talking to you, maybe we can talk later today?

I didn’t reply because I was sure that Eloisa would say it was bad form.

Instead, I finished brushing my teeth and getting ready for school. This whole thing was a good distraction from the Amanda thing. How long could you keep waiting for someone to come back? She was obviously gone, living her exciting life somewhere around here. I knew she was still in Miami, but I wasn’t sure exactly where she was living. Probably with her current boyfriend or maybe someone from her job. I thought it was best to do like Dad had tried to do. It was best to move on. If she didn’t want to be part of my life, why did I insist on trying to bring her into mine?

I didn’t send her a good morning text like usual. Instead, once I was standing outside, waiting for the bus, I replied to Ethan with a similar sentiment. I hoped that we wouldn’t talk for as long this time, as I didn’t want mom to get suspicious of me. That was the only thing that made me nervous. Why was I here trying to talk to some kid in a way that would totally get me in trouble? Was that good in any way?

I didn’t think so, but I was also kinda too deep into it to do anything about it. Besides, I was finally feeling okay with myself and the world. Why did I have to come in with logic and reason and morals and try to ruin it? My mind was always going against whatever was happening. If I was happy, it tried to make me sad. If I was certain, it tried to make me confuse. I couldn’t trust it.

I think it was then that I decided I wouldn’t go all crazy about the situation, but I would be open to it. How did I even know that he had a similar reaction? What if he just didn’t know how to hang up because he felt bad for me? I mean, I started talking to him because of that exact same reason. Who was to say that he hadn’t talked to me for the same reason?

All throughout the bus ride, I had the same thought. I was making a bigger deal out of it than it was. I should just chill out and not think about it anymore. My mind, on the other hand, could only think of one thing: we were going to Disney for Thanksgiving this year, which meant that we would be in Orlando. If I saved up enough money, I could actually call an Uber and hang out with him in person. Maybe that was a bit much for the first time you talked to someone. But it was the only thing I could think of. And any thoughts that kept me from thinking about Amanda and everything else that was going wrong in my life was a thought worth pursuing. Even if it was some random kid who wasn’t even my friend but was just interesting to talk to. What had I gotten myself into? How could I get out? Did I even want to get out? Why is this all just such lame trash? Maybe one day I can clean it up and it might sound decent. But there’s the initial meeting. Now we have to move on to the next problem.

I somehow made it through the rest of the day in one piece. Eloisa and I did not have any classes together on “B” days, which meant that I would have to text her all the developments. We couldn’t even see each other during lunch, which was the only time I could’ve talked to her. It was weird, because we were not even friends, and yet I was looking forward to talking to her about a guy later. What on earth had I turned into? If I thought about it for too long, I don’t think I would have recognized myself – this change will always happen, but it happens much sooner than others. Was I honestly turning into Amanda? I tried to go through the rest of the school day without thinking about her.

NaNoWriMo – 2016 (The Study Club)

The room was darker than it should’ve been this time of year. We had drawn the shutters when the hurricane started making its way up the Caribbean, but once it blew past the Florida coast, we didn’t think about taking them down. That was six weeks ago, before the accident.

5:32 AM. It was always this time. I turned away from the giant green numbers glowing from my desk. My eyes needed a moment to adjust. Then, it was downstairs for a glass of water, same as always.

The hallway turned into a staircase which turned into sixteen steps. I counted them in the dark, to make sure I hadn’t missed one. There’s nothing like missing that final step. You probably won’t trip or hit the floor, but you’ll feel your heart drop for a split second for fear of what could be. And then you’ll regain your footing and it’ll pass. But it was that one second – that one second of fear – that I was most afraid of.

I reached the bottom of the stairs without a problem. A shadow turned over on the couch. Or at least it tried to turn over. It was Dad. He thought it’d be better to sleep there than to try climbing the stairs every night.

“Kinda hard to do when your back is shot,” he joked, propping himself up with a cushion. The doctor said Dad only had a few more weeks to go before he should be all right. Every day, Dad was able to move a little more and he seemed to be making progress, but…

He stirred again. I sat on the ground next to the couch. The stove lamp was on, giving off just enough light from the next room. I could barely make the outline of his face, but it didn’t matter. I knew it well enough. Long, thin nose. Eyes set deep beneath his brow. That silly mustache.

I smiled. None of us could convince him that the facial hair didn’t look right on him. Dad had already convinced himself that it was the look he was born to wear. He had actually said that.

I watched him take a quick breath. I could tell that it hurt. The doctors weren’t worried about it. They’d prescribed some stronger medication to help him through the nights. Mom didn’t like all those pills lying around our house – “That’s an accident waiting to happen.” – and tried to get Dad to throw them away.

But he didn’t. Dad kept taking them so that way he could keep breathing.

I watched him breathe for a few minutes. His chest expanded with each breath, caught a little on the way down, held there for a second, and then started again. The doctors said he was going to be fine.

The glass of water didn’t wash down the lump stuck in my throat. I climbed up the stairs – one…seven, eight…thirteen…sixteen – and wrapped myself in the green light covering my bed.

5:47 AM. Same as always. I never timed it, but that was about as long as I could stand seeing him. It was bad enough to see your father laid out for weeks with a broken back. It was worse when the accident that put him there was all your fault.

 

James poked his head into my room at 8 o’clock.

“Mom says it’s time to wake up.”

I kept my eyes closed – I wasn’t asleep, I hadn’t been since earlier – but I didn’t want James to know.

“Come on, Emma,” he said. “We need to get ready before the movers get here.”

My breath remained steady while he stood in the doorway for a few more seconds. Once he thought it was long enough to tell Mom, “Well, I told her, but she didn’t get up,” James disappeared.

I stumbled down the stairs for the second time that morning and found the couch empty. Voices came from the kitchen and I followed the sounds to find Dad in his wheelchair at the table.

“Hey, Crash. You made it,” he said, reaching up for a hug.

That was the nickname he’d given me when I was a clumsy, accident-prone child, but it didn’t seem so appropriate now. I couldn’t tell him, of course. The accident was something that we didn’t talk about.

“How’d you sleep?” Dad asked. He poked at the eggs on his plate.

“Fine, I guess.” I never talked to him about waking up at five thirty every morning. It’d make him worry, and he didn’t need any more of those.

“Well, you should get something to eat. The movers will be here soon.”

I fished out a bowl from a box on the counter and poured Frosted Mini Wheats into it. Mom was standing at the stove, whisking eggs and staring at me.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the plastic container holding utensils in front of her.

She stepped back without breaking her gaze.

“Good morning,” she said hurriedly, as though she wanted to chase the words from her tongue.

“Morning.”

I sat down at the table with my cereal.

“Do you remember what time the movers get here?” Mom called from the kitchen.

Dad swallowed a bite of eggs. “They’re supposed to be here at 9.”

“What about the beds?”

“What about them?”

“When are we going to bring them to your sister’s house?”

“Sometime today.”

“But we only have the movers until 12. James and I can’t move the beds by ourselves.”

“We’ll get the beds out before they leave.”

“Can we do them first? I just want to make sure that we get everything.”

“I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t we get everything? Isn’t that part of moving? We have to take everything from our house and put it into Mackenzie’s house.”

“That’s not fair, Carlos. I’m only asking because I want to be sure.”

“What do you mean it’s not fair? I’m only answering your questions. It’s always like this in this house. You can’t say anything without it -”

I couldn’t eat anymore. The smell of the eggs sizzling on the stove was stirring up my stomach. I cleaned my bowl and darted up the steps to my room.

A shadow pushed away from the wall. His face was lit from the cellphone he was tapping with his thumbs.

“Isn’t it a bit early for you to be texting her?”

“No, she’s awake, she’s with her grandmother.” James looked up. “Hey, you haven’t told them about her, have you, Emma?”

“I don’t care about your little girlfriends, James.” I pushed past him to my room. I tried to close the door, but he blocked me.

“Come on, just tell me, Emma.”

“Seriously, James, I don’t care enough to tell them.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“You know, when you see her in school next month, she’s going to hate you.” James smiled. “I’ve told her all the horrible things you say about her and she already thinks you’re -”

“I already told you, James, we’re not going to see each other. You’re a freshman. You won’t even be in the same building as me.”

He started to say something but stopped. He turned his head slightly – there were footsteps behind him.

“The movers are here,” Mom said, appearing suddenly. She looked at James. “I need you downstairs, now.” Mom paused, as though she were considering what to say to me. And then she was gone.

James looked at me. I shook my head.

She didn’t hear anything, I said with my eyes.

He nodded and then turned to follow her down the stairs.

My brother and I used to be able to do that, talk without saying anything. We were close like that. But then he became Mom’s messenger boy and now we only talked when she wanted something. That or to find out if I had revealed his secret girlfriend to our parents. I wondered if we’d ever get that back.

James didn’t have to worry about me telling them. He should’ve already known that. If they couldn’t see what was going on with their son on their own, there was no way I was going to show them. That was their responsibility – not mine.

About an hour later, the movers came into my room for my bed. I followed them downstairs with the box carrying all of my possessions.

The couch was already gone. There were a few boxes stacked against the wall where the TV used to be. I set my box down with the others and went to find Dad.

He had wheeled himself into the backyard. I sat on the high grass beside him.

“You all done helping out, Crash?”

“Have you seen the muscles on those guys, Dad? I don’t think I could really do much.”

He laughed. I could tell that it hurt. He took a sharp breath and then gripped the armrest. I pulled a weed from the ground and began folding it.

“Well, you could at least do a bit more than me.”

We sat there in silence for a few minutes. Voices carried with the wind – Mom yelling at James to get off his phone, the movers mumbling to each other in Spanish.

I tore the green weed into pieces. I wanted to talk about the accident, I wanted to tell Dad that I was sorry, that I hadn’t meant for him to get hurt. I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t meant for him to be stuck in this wheelchair, unable to help his family move into their new life.

He must’ve known what I was thinking because he reached down and tried to grab my hand. I pulled another weed out of the dirt.

“It’s okay, Emma,” he said.

But it wasn’t. He didn’t want to talk about it because he didn’t want to admit the truth, but the truth was that it was far from okay.

The truth was that it wasn’t an accident that I drove his car into the ditch when summer started. It wasn’t an accident that he had broken his back to save me from.

And as long as he didn’t let me apologize for it, as long as he didn’t let me make it up to him, as long as he kept saying he was okay, it was never going to be okay.

 

Aunt Mackenzie had always been my favorite aunt. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t as crazy as the rest of her family and I had never met any of Mom’s relatives. Either way, if I had to pick one person to move in with when Dad lost his job, it would be Aunt Mackenzie.

She was standing in her driveway with a big smile when we arrived. Mom wanted to discuss where the movers would park the truck, but Aunt Mackenzie wouldn’t talk until she’d given her a hug.

“Love first, business later,” she said, kissing Mom. Aunt Mackenzie practically lifted Dad onto the wheelchair herself. She ruffled James’ hair – “Is that a new hairstyle?” – and squeezed the air out of my lungs.

Why we even hired movers, I’ll never know. Aunt Mackenzie could’ve done it all herself!

It took a little directing from Dad and a little bit of shouting, but our entire life successfully moved into Aunt Mackenzie’s at a quarter to noon.

We sat around her dining room table, eating the pizza she’d ordered for lunch. I looked around the large house that I’d visited so many times growing up. It was weird to think about it as my home now – at least, until Dad figured out what he was going to do once he recovered.

“You’ve taken real good care of this place,” Dad said when he’d finished his third slice of pepperoni. “If I hadn’t grown up here, I couldn’t tell this place is ancient.”

“Well, you’re not the only one who inherited Dad’s gift for handiness.” Aunt Mackenzie turned to the end of the table where James and I sat.

“So, are you two ready for school?”

“Come on, Aunt Mackenzie, summer vacation just started!” James said, mouth full.

“We’re already halfway through August, James,” Mom said. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Dad looked at her but didn’t say anything.

“What about you, Em?” Aunt Mackenzie didn’t seem to notice. She turned her gaze to me.

I shrugged. “Ready as ever, I guess.”

“But it’s your last year. Aren’t you a little bit excited to have it over and done with?”

I took a bite of pizza.

“What was it you said? ‘The only good thing about high school is that it ends.’”

“Wow, that sounds really cheesy when I hear you say it.”

Aunt Mackenzie laughed. “It sounds cheesy when we hear you say it, too, Em.”

The rest of the day passed without any issues. I think it was because of Aunt Mackenzie. Dad didn’t like arguing in front of her. He didn’t want her thinking he was a harsh father because they had both known what it was like to have one.

Of course, they hadn’t told me any of that. It was one of those things you pick up when they think you can’t hear them. When they lower their voices and go into the next room. But I had somehow managed to find out about Grandpa and then everything suddenly made sense.

The room that Aunt Mackenzie had given me used to be Dad’s room. It was small and close to the bathroom, so that was good enough for me. The window looked over the backyard, which was also nice. I sat inside Dad’s old room and wondered what it had been like to be him growing up.

Did he run into the closet and hide there when Grandpa was in one of his moods and wanted to teach him what it meant to be a man? Did he close the heavy door to block out the sounds of Grandpa yelling at Grandma? Or did he only come in here to sleep, the rest of the time spent as far away from this house as possible?

I went downstairs. This house had fourteen stairs between floors – a little less than I was used to, but after a while, I’d remember that there weren’t two more to go.

Dad was helping James unload a few boxes in the living room. I’m not sure where Mom was. I found Aunt Mackenzie putting away dishes in the kitchen.

She smiled when she noticed me.

“Hey, Em. You all settled in?”

“Getting there. Oh, and the room is perfect – not too big, not too small.”

“You know, that used to be your Dad’s room,” she said, opening a cabinet. “He and I used to play with LEGOs in the closet. I guess growing up in a house this big, you kinda crave the smaller places.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

Aunt Mackenzie looked at me. “No, I think I’m fine. You must be tired from working all day.”

“I didn’t really do too much,” I said.

“Your mom still not talking to you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“It’s not always going to be like this, Em,” she said. “Elizabeth – I mean, your mom – is just trying to get through this, same as you.”

“Aunt Mackenzie -” I wanted to tell her. I really did. I wanted to tell her that Mom and I weren’t trying to get through this the same. But I couldn’t.

It was like walking down the steps and then missing the last one. It was that split second of fear – would she hate me if she found out what I did? – that caused me to hold my tongue. Of course, she could understand, and she could forgive me, but it was the thought that she wouldn’t that terrified me.

What if she never forgave me for hurting her brother?

“You can’t keep going like this, Em,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Have you talked to any of your friends from last year?”

I tried not to laugh. “There aren’t any to talk to.”

“Not even one? Not even anyone from Lighthouse Church?”

Especially not there. “I don’t need friends, Aunt Mackenzie. I’m doing fine. Besides, even if I did have friends, what are they going to do?”

“I don’t know, maybe help you get out of this, whatever it is that you’re in right now.” Aunt Mackenzie stopped putting away dishes and put her hand on mine. “You’re not yourself, Em, and I want to help get you back.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Aunt Mackenzie,” I said, “but thanks.” Whatever had been wrong with me was gone, crumpled up in my father’s car on the side of back road. I had already determined that I was going to be different, that I wasn’t going to go back to that dark place.

As much as I appreciated it, I didn’t need Aunt Mackenzie’s help.

 

The next few weeks passed slowly. Within the first week, all of our stuff had been unpacked and by the third week, it was as though we had lived in that house our entire lives.

I spent as much time in my room as possible. In a house that large, it was easy to remain hidden. James checked in a few times to make sure that his secret was safe and to say that Mom wanted me to finish the laundry.

Aunt Mackenzie and I hadn’t really talked that much, either. We watched a movie together every night after dinner, but once the movie was over, there wasn’t anything to say. Maybe things would change once school started again. Maybe by then we would’ve gotten over this awkwardness.

One day, about a week before school started, Dad decided that he wanted to go to Publix.

“Come on, Crash, we’re going to get some food.”

I had been sitting in the living room, trying to decide what I wanted to watch on Netflix. James was nowhere to be found.

“Dad, Mom’s not home and Aunt Mackenzie’s out. We can’t go anywhere.”

“Of course we can,” he said, wheeling himself in front of the TV. “We’ll walk. Or you’ll walk and I’ll roll.”

“Dad…”

And the next thing I knew, we were outside, moving down the sidewalk. I didn’t really want to walk, but it’d been at least a week since I had done any exercise other than climbing fourteen stairs down to the kitchen and then back up to my room, so I agreed.

Dad had figured out how to get around with the wheelchair the first day back from the hospital. He zoomed ahead of me, and I had to walk briskly just to keep up.

“School’s starting soon,” Dad called out. “Do you have everything you need?”

“I need another white shirt,” I said.

“Well, you can ask Mom to take you to K-Mart on Saturday.”

“She’s working on Saturday.”

“On Sunday, then.”

We didn’t talk for a few minutes.

“Does James need anything?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you ask him? If he needs anything, he can go with you and Mom on Sunday.”

“Okay.”

Dad went quiet. If Mom wasn’t talking to me, then Dad definitely wasn’t talking to James. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t figure out what it was. James was acting like just about every other teenager in the universe, but Dad seemed to be perplexed by his behavior.

“What do you want to get in the store?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

Dad took the bait. “Mackenzie’s all out of Cheerios. Doctor said if I don’t have Cheerios as a midnight snack, I might never recover.”

I laughed. Just like Dad to break up the mood like that.

 

Summer was over. The first day of school was upon me. I don’t think I’ve ever dreaded a day as much as I dreaded that day. It was my last year, it was supposed to be exciting. I was finally finishing high school and, in a few months,, I’d be off at college, starting my real life. I should be longing for this day. Instead, I didn’t want it to start.

5:32 AM. I found my way to Dad’s side for the last time. He was going to move into the room he shared with Mom tonight. I wanted to get one last look at him before he would be gone forever. It sounded so dramatic. But I needed to come down here. Some days I felt like if I didn’t come down here, then there wouldn’t be anyone to make sure he made it past 5:30 and into 6. It sounded silly, but it was the only thing I could think to do.

“I want to get a job,” I whispered to his sleeping figure. “I want to make some money to help you and Mom.”

But I already knew his answer. If I got a job, I’d have to find my own way there. Driving was out of the question. My parents would never trust me behind the wheel of their car ever again. And they were right to.

If I couldn’t drive, then I’d have to either take public transportation or get someone to take me, and that person would have to be someone who my father could trust. And if I was taking public transportation, I would have to be home by 9pm.

Right now, it just wouldn’t make any sense, Crash. That’s what Dad would say.

Dad murmured. I sat up straight. For a second, I thought he had said my name. If he noticed that I was here, he’d be completely freaked out.

I suddenly felt weird, like I was doing something wrong. I fled up the stairs.

5:39 AM. Earlier than I’d ever gotten back to my room. It was our last night together, and I hadn’t even noticed if he had felt any pain. Maybe that was just as well. I needed to worry about school starting in less than two hours. I didn’t need to worry about my father struggling to breathe. Dad was perfectly fine with the medication. The doctors said he wasn’t feeling any of it.

James and I walked out to the bus stop in front of Aunt Mackenzie’s development at 6. A few other kids stood around, eyes barely open, totally not ready for school to start.

Glad I’m not the only one.

On the other hand, James was ready. He didn’t want any of the other kids to know – he stared at his phone and scrolled through Instagram – but I could see him bursting. He was ready to see what this high school thing was all about.

The bus pulled up to the curb. I lined up behind a few other freshmen and waited to enter the bus. I recognized some faces from last year’s bus route – there must be some overlap between neighborhoods – and found a seat near a sleeping shadow.

I guess I’m drawn to those kinds of people – asleep and obscured by the night.

James disappeared in the arms of his girlfriend. I didn’t know she rode this bus, and I don’t think he knew it, either. I looked away. I didn’t want to know. When Dad eventually found out, I didn’t want to be an accessory to this.

The bus rumbled away from Aunt Mackenzie’s development and I settled into my seat.

So, this was it. The last first day of high school I would ever have. Even though I was dreading it, I had to admit I was a bit excited. I mean, this was my third year in this school, but it didn’t mean things couldn’t be different. I didn’t have to be the same as I’d always been. I could decide, like I had decided after the accident, that I wanted to be better.

As I sat there in the dark, I decided that this year would be different than the rest.

 

“All right, class, I’d like to get started.” Mr. Alvarez stood in the center of the room, hands on the wooden pulpit he’d purchased halfway through last year. I sat in the chair I’d sat in last time and waited for everyone to settled down.

I should’ve known better. I wasn’t the only one who’d taken Mr. Alvarez last year who was taking him for English 4. If they weren’t ready to sit down, it didn’t really matter what Mr. Alvarez had to say.

“I’m going to take roll and then I’m going to hand out your first assignment,” Mr. Alvarez said. I looked around. One girl I recognized, Caroline, was sitting on a desk with her back turned to him. She was talking to a group of friends about what happened on the last day of summer.

Super riveting stuff.

Across the room, near the swiveling bookshelf was another group of friends catching up from the summer. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t already texted each other this information. And didn’t they all have Instagram? Why didn’t they already know what their friends had done over the summer?

I had been so consumed with looking around the room that I almost didn’t hear Mr. Alvarez call my name for roll. When I raised my hand, he looked up and smiled. I had probably been the only student who acknowledged his presence that day.

When he finished roll call, Mr. Alvarez started handing out assignments. And then everything got quiet.

“I’m sure you all remember my policy from last year,” he said, weaving between the rows. “If you miss an assignment, if you fail a test, there is no second chance. There’s no such thing as extra credit in this class.”

That was it. His famous phrase. “There’s no such thing as extra credit in this class.” I had almost missed hearing him say it after hearing it a thousand times last year.

Students who had taken him before knew enough not to miss an assignment. This was our senior year – you couldn’t just fail English 4 without any real trouble next year.

I smiled a little when I watched everyone settle down. They thought they could disrespect Mr. Alvarez, but the truth was that he held all of the cards in this relationship. They had absolutely nothing on him, other than a few unruly minutes before he got started.

“Now that we’re all ready,” Mr. Alvarez began, “I’d like to tell you all about a club that I’m starting.”

Most of the students had already begun filling out the paper he’d given us. But I was interested, even if just to let Mr. Alvarez talk about his club.

“It’s a club for students that might need some extra help with their schoolwork.” He paused and looked around the room. “And if you think you can’t use any help, remember that I’m the one who graded your work last year. I know that each of you can use all of the help you can get.”

Mr. Alvarez wasn’t saying it to insult us. Coming from any another teacher, it might have been. But Mr. Alvarez always looked out for us.

“So, if any of you are interested in joining the club, please see me after class.”

The room was silent for five full seconds before Mr. Alvarez cleared his throat.

“Well, if you’ll take a look at the paper I handed you, we can get this year off to a nice start.”

Several hours later, I wandered into the large, very full cafeteria. I could feel my body tense up. This was usually the worst part of my day, but this time it was supposed to be different. After today, I would be one lunch period closer to finishing high school forever. It was that thought that pushed me onto the lunch line – not the hungry kids trying to get past me to the generic, terrible food they served here.

I grabbed a platter of an unappetizing orange mass and turned toward the lunch tables. Most of the students at Homestead High ate their lunch outside, but there were a good number of us who preferred to remain indoors. I found an empty table somewhere along the back wall and settled into it. A few other kids soon perched on the table, but I had never seen them before. Sitting by myself during lunch wasn’t the worst that could happen to me.

Somewhere across America, there was a kid being tortured by bullies. He was currently getting his underwear pulled over his head, his books were crashing onto the floor, and his lunch money was being stolen. He was the one who should’ve felt terrible today – not me. No one had done any of those things to me. In fact, no one did anything to me. No one said anything to me. By all accounts, I wasn’t even present in half of my classes. I guess I should’ve been grateful not to have the attention of kids with self-esteem issues that tried to alleviate their own feelings of powerlessness by making others feel powerless. That was what all the books I read about bullies made them out to be.

But as I sat there trying not to gag over the smell of the macaroni – as I had deduced the orange mass to be – I wondered if that was really what life was like. Or was it more like right now, when people just didn’t notice you. They didn’t go out of their way to make fun of you or to make your life hell. They didn’t think your existence was worth that much. Was life really sitting here wishing someone would say something to you, even if it was to hurt you, just to remind you that you were still here?

Stop it, Emma. That kind of thinking got you into this mess in the first place.

I pushed away the plate of food. I couldn’t do this anymore. Those dark thoughts, the ones where I questioned life and wanted pain if it meant I felt something – that’s not what I meant when I said I wanted this year to be different.

In the bottom of my backpack, I found a small slip of paper where I had scribbled information about the Study Club Mr. Alvarez was starting. I overheard one of the other students in English asking him about it and jotted it down before anyone else noticed. If I wasn’t going to eat lunch, I might as well do something productive with my time.

Study Club. Room 203. Lunch.

My handwriting had miraculously improved over the summer. Not sure how it happened, considering that I hadn’t picked up a pen in months. One of the grand mysteries of life, I guess.

The lunch hour had only just begun, so that meant I had at least forty-five minutes to spend in Mr. Alvarez’s Study Club. I hadn’t considered until I got to the door that I might be the only one who showed up. But when I peered into the small window on Mr. Alvarez’s classroom door, I was surprised. There were at least ten kids in there, all seated in little groups, huddled over notes and textbooks.

“So, are you gonna go in?”

I turned around to see a somewhat familiar face. He pointed to the door.

“Are you gonna open it, or are you one of those old-fashioned types that won’t go through a door unless a man holds it open?”

He was wearing the blue color scheme of our uniform – there are three schemes: blue, orange, and white (Go Broncos!) – and his hair was a mess.

“Or are you one of those feminist types that don’t want a guy doing anything for her?”

And then I remembered him. He was in English 4 this morning, and he had been in AP American History with me last year. I remember him getting into an argument with the self-proclaimed feminists in our class, arguing that maybe women’s suffrage wasn’t the right idea all along.

“You’re Ethan,” I said, suddenly recalling his name. I felt my face grow hot and hoped it wasn’t turning red. I’d never had the chance to study my face during embarrassing times, but I could hope, couldn’t I?

“And you can talk.” He smiled. “You know, I’ve been waiting three whole years to find out if you had a voice.”

I swallowed.

Ethan stepped around me to the door. “Well, if you’re not going to go in, then I’ll just have to say goodbye here.”

“I’m going in,” I said, following him through the open door. I was glad I had come in so soon behind him. The other students looked up when the door opened and started greeting Ethan. They hadn’t even noticed me slip into a seat in the back.

“So glad you could make it, Emma,” Mr. Alvarez said, suddenly appearing next to me. I smiled. I hadn’t noticed him through the window, but I should’ve expected to see him sooner or later.

“You know, you don’t really need any help, but you could be a great help to some of the kids in here.” He paused and looked around at them. “You never know how much you can learn when you’re teaching people.”

Mr. Alvarez smiled. “I’ve got a few things to do before the period ends, but you can sit tight for a bit. Michael’s about to get everyone up to speed.” He disappeared through the front door carrying a brown box.

I looked around the room, trying to figure out which one of them was Michael. There were about five boys and five girls in the room – I made six girls – but none of them seemed to be dominating any of the conversations. They all seemed to be sharing together in one fluid conversation. For a split second, I wondered what that was like, to not have to worry if you said the wrong thing, or if you talked for too long or didn’t talk long enough. There was no pressure in that conversation – it was just a simple conversation.

After a few minutes, I didn’t have to guess which one was Michael. He stood on a chair and waved his hands, motioning for everyone to get quiet.

“So glad you all could make it for another year of the Study Club.”

Someone started an applause and it circled the room for a full minute before dying down.

“I just want to thank anyone who joined us for the first time this year – now it won’t just be me, Ethan, and Mr. Alvarez in here. Now, we’ll have a bunch of other nerds who have nothing better to do with their lives to keep us company.”

He got a few laughs from that comment. I had to admit, he was pretty good. I mean, I didn’t think I was a nerd, but I could understand what he was doing from a humor perspective.

Most of the other kids seemed to enjoy it, too.

“I won’t scare any of you with an icebreaker, so we’ll just get right to work and if you have any questions, please don’t be afraid to ask.”

The room began to fill with conversation as students resumed work on their day one assignments. I pulled out my own work from my bookbag. It wasn’t like teachers in Homestead to go easy the first week. What was it Ms. Hartford said this morning?

“You had the whole summer to take it easy. Now, it’s time to work.”

Yeah, not many of us liked Ms. Hartford.

“So, you’re new here?” Michael had drifted over to my seat without my noticing. Ethan trailed behind him, looking thoroughly amused with himself. “Ethan said that you were a freshman in Mr. A’s English 1?”

“I’m in English 4,” I said, giving Ethan a confused look. “I’ve been in this school for three years now.”

Michael laughed. “Yeah, that’s Ethan for you. Don’t worry – you’ll like him once you get to know him.”

“That’s not fair, Michael. You’re making me look bad in front of Emma.”

I looked at him. How had he known my name?

“We’ve had a few classes together,” he said, as though he had heard my silent question. “I’m actually pretty good at names.”

“So, Emma, are you here because you need help with work,” Michael asked, “or because you didn’t have anything better to do at lunch?”

His conclusion took me by surprise. “Is it that obvious?”

“Not much different than the rest of us,” Michael said, “although none of us would readily admit it.”

“Hey, speak for yourself, Michael,” Ethan said. “I’ve got loads of friends putting up Missing Person posters around the lunchroom because they can’t find me today.” He sat down in the seat next to me. “But I thought I’d mingle with a different crowd this year. See if the grass is as green on this side as you say it is, Michael.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to pasture then,” Michael said. He reached out a hand to me. “So glad to have met you, Emma. Welcome to the Study Club.”

After Michael walked away, I tried working on my assignments. But I noticed that Ethan was still sitting there, looking at me. I suddenly felt self-conscious and looked up at him.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry. I’m not looking at you,” he said, his eyes shifting to meet mine. Ethan pointed to the giant wooden cabinet to the right of me. “I was just trying to figure out what is in that thing.”

I turned to look at it. Mr. Alvarez’s large wooden cabinet was a staple of this room. It held textbooks, student work, the answers to the midterm and final. I wasn’t sure why Ethan was so interested in it, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I returned to my work.

“So, is this how it’s gonna be?”

“Huh?”

Ethan crossed his arms. “You’re just going to ignore me like you ignore everyone else?”

“I ignore -”

“You can’t leave me here, Emma. We’re the same, you and I,” Ethan said, leaning closer. “We’re the only seniors in here, other than Michael, of course. We need to stick together if we’re going to survive this freshman hive.”

But I didn’t want to talk to him. I wanted to finish my homework before I got home so I could watch something on Netflix before going to bed.

It took a few moments, but Ethan eventually go the hint. He took out his own notebook and started working on his own assignments. I wasn’t sure why I acted like I did, but it came so naturally. When you spend as much time keeping your distance as I do, it just becomes a part of you.

But if I wanted things to change, if I wanted to get to a place where they could trust me with a car again, if I wanted to stay as far away from the darkness that had put Dad in a wheelchair, then I was going to have to change those parts of me. Those instincts were just gonna have to go.

 

The inevitable “so how was your first day of school” talk was going to come at dinner today. I just wasn’t sure if Aunt Mackenzie was going to start it, or if it would be Dad. But it was going to come. As the bus ride drew to its own inevitable end, I wondered what I would talk about. I knew that I had to get in first before James – he would probably end up saying something that was fishy or that resembled a lie, and the conversation would turn into an hour-long examination on the inner workings of his heart. If I answered first, I could excuse myself without many repercussions.

I decided that I was going to tell them about the Study Club. It seemed the neatest thing. Besides, it would satisfy all parties: Dad would be glad I was trying something new. Mom would think it was good for my studies. Aunt Mackenzie would be happy to see me trying to get better. And James would have something to make fun of me for.

It’s a win-win situation.

When the bus made it to Aunt Mackenzie’s development, I pushed my way through the aisle from the back of the bus. James had already disembarked. I could see his head through the window where he was blowing kisses at his girlfriend. Still hadn’t figured out her name.

As I was about to pass the first few rows, I recognized the back of someone’s head. I felt my stomach tighten. It was Ethan. What was he doing on my bus?

The first thought that came into my mind was that it was happening again. When I was in seventh grade, a classmate had taken to following me around. Was Ethan doing the same thing? Was he upset that I didn’t really talk to him much in the Study Club today? Was he going to follow me off the bus?

I felt myself slow down. I couldn’t just not get off the bus. I had no idea how to get to Aunt Mackenzie’s house from anywhere, so I couldn’t walk back.

There’s nothing you can do, Emma, I told myself. You’re just going to have to get off the bus.

I held my breath as I dashed down the aisle and out of the bus. I wanted to believe it was my imagination, but as I passed Ethan’s row, I could’ve sworn that someone reached out and touched my bookbag.

I ran down the sidewalk to Aunt Mackenzie’s house faster than the bus could roll away from the sidewalk.

This was not happening again. I had completely imagined it.

 

That night at dinner, it was Mom who asked the question. I knew she was addressing James, but I also knew that I had a plan. If I didn’t jump in now, a conversation was about to start that wouldn’t end until midnight.

“I joined a club today,” I said, swirling my fork in the spaghettis Aunt Mackenzie had made for dinner. “It’s a study club,” I continued hurriedly.

“That’s really cool, Em. You’re taking the first steps to changing your life.” Aunt Mackenzie reached over and touched my hand.

“It’s definitely something very different for you, Crash, but it’s great to be trying something new.” That was Dad. He didn’t like to eat spaghettis anymore, but he still hadn’t told Aunt Mackenzie. This was the third time she’d made spaghettis since we moved in. I guess his comment about trying something new was really extending to him.

“You know, it’ll help you keep your grades up,” Mom said. It was the most she had said to me in weeks.

James laughed. “Is it filled with a bunch of nerds like you?”

There it was. I had successfully predicted every single one’s reactions. Now, it was time to see if the other part of my prediction, the part where James launches us into an hour-long discussion, came to pass.

I didn’t have to wait long.

“Your behavior is unacceptable, James.” I wasn’t even sure who was saying it or what they were saying it about. But this whole thing was going down.

“What do you mean it’s not acceptable? I’m doing like you ask, I’m coming home before midnight. What more do you want from me?”

“Do not speak to me in that tone. You think you’re a man now? You think you can just talk to me however you want?”

This is the part where I tune out. I was never the troublemaking child, but I was always the one to hear it all. I had to sit around while James argued with Dad, while Mom begged James to do simple things like clean his room and not leave his stuff around the house. I had to listen as Dad pulled me aside and explained his side of the situation, as though telling me made it any more justified.

Right now, though, I didn’t want to hear any more of it. I had fulfilled my part of the evening – it was now time for me to go. Without asking to be excused, I cleared away my dishes and made the trip upstairs for the night. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet, but I was done. I had a whole school day ahead of me to worry about.

School.

Just thinking about it reminded me of what happened on the bus. My heart started beating faster. I was almost sure that Ethan had grabbed my bookbag. But why would he have done that? Is it possible that I could’ve just felt it because I was expecting it?

I stretched out on my bed and closed my eyes. Even after all these years, I could still see the face of that boy from seventh grade. I could still feel the weight of his hands yanking on my bookbag. And that’s only where it started.

I hadn’t told anyone about what had happened back in seventh grade, but there was one thing I knew for sure: there was no way I was letting it happen again. With that thought, I drifted into a restless sleep, dreading the next morning’s bus ride, while simultaneously excited with the possibility that I could change this.

 

Aunt Mackenzie was waiting for me at the dining room table. I don’t think she had moved since the conversation over dinner that night. The table was cleared, but she was still in the same chair and she looked like she hadn’t slept.

“Morning, Em,” she said, giving me a kiss. “Did you sleep well?”

“Oh, yeah, I didn’t even wake up once.”

But Aunt Mackenzie didn’t believe me for a second.

“You know, I’m really proud of you, Em,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“I’m serious. I think you’re well on your way to getting better.”

So that means she knows, I thought to myself. We had kinda hinted that things weren’t right with me, and she seemed to know that I wasn’t feeling like myself since the accident. But I didn’t expect the proposal that came a few seconds later.

“Em, I want to do something for you, but I’ll need you to do something for me.”

I raised my eyebrows. What was she talking about? Were they going to send me away to some mental hospital? Is that what they thought I needed to get better? Did they even know what was so wrong with me that had led me to drive their car into the ditch?

“That sounds scary, Aunt Mackenzie.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.” She paused and set her hands on the table. “Em, I’ve talked with your parents and they say this is fine.”

I was intrigued.

“If you make one friend by graduation, I will buy you a car.”

Her words hung in the air for a second. It didn’t seem to make any sense. She would buy me a car if I made a friend? What kind of proposal was that?

Aunt Mackenzie leaned forward to explain. “Now, I’m not saying that you need a friend to fix you or that you’re not capable on your own. But sometimes we need to surround ourselves with peers and I think you could use that.”

“But…” I couldn’t continue. I thought back to my time at the Study Club this afternoon. I had barely made it out of there alive. Making friends was hard.

“You can take it slow,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “One day at a time until graduation.”

I closed my eyes and thought. This was exactly what I needed: a little incentive, and I would be well on my way to breaking out of this rut I was stuck in.

I stuck out my hand to Aunt Mackenzie.

“Deal.”

 

Ms. Hartford wasn’t happy with us.

“Did none of you complete the packets I handed out yesterday?”

The room was silent.

“We’re off to a bad start this year,” Ms. Hartford said, shaking her head. “If this is the attitude you guys want, then I’m afraid you’ll have a hard time passing this class this year.”

I had the packet in my bookbag, completed, but I couldn’t get up. Too much time had passed. If I got up now, then Ms. Hartford would wonder why I had taken so long. Everyone would see me and they would probably hate me for making them look lazy.

So, I didn’t say anything. I stayed in my seat and listened to Ms. Hartford ramble on and on about how all of the students in this school won’t amount to anything.

“It’s already the second month of school, and you can’t complete simple homework assignments.”

By the time lunch rolled around, I was starting to wonder about Aunt Mackenzie’s deal. I mean, I couldn’t even get up in front of class to hand in an assignment that would affect my grade. How was I going to make a friend?

“One day at a time until graduation.” Aunt Mackenzie’s words came back to me. She was right. It had been a couple of weeks since we made our deal. I only had to make a few moves at a time, a small smile here, a thank you there, and by the time graduation came around, I was sure to have at least one friend.

And then I would have a car and I could get a job and I could help get us back on our feet financially. Then, we wouldn’t have to live with Aunt Mackenzie. Not that I didn’t love her and appreciate everything she was doing for us.

Far from it. I loved Aunt Mackenzie but living in someone else’s house – even if that person was your favorite in the world and the house was as awesome as them – wasn’t the same as living in your own house. For one thing, the light switches felt weird, the floor was a little colder, and there were only fourteen steps instead of sixteen, giving you trust issues.

If I had a car, then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job. I would be able to help Mom save money so she wouldn’t have to work two jobs. And I would even offer to drive James to work somewhere if he felt like it.

And, most importantly, I didn’t have to wait for Mom and Dad to trust me behind the wheel again. I already knew that that was never going to happen. Aunt Mackenzie was paving the way for me – I just had to uphold my end of the bargain.

I didn’t even bother going into the lunchroom. It was straight to the Study Club for me. I didn’t have any classes with Mr. Alvarez today, so we hadn’t had a chance to talk about how it went, but I hoped to see him again today.

Even if none of the other kids took him seriously, I felt a connection with Mr. Alvarez. He had encouraged me last year when I failed the midterm. He hadn’t let me take it again, but he showed me how I could pull my overall grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’ in the two semesters we had left.

Unlike most of the teachers I had at Homestead, Mr. Alvarez actually seemed to care about us.

I worked my way up to his classroom. There were several students crowded around the doorway, but no one was going inside.

Ethan spotted me and waved. I looked away instinctively. He wasn’t on the bus in the mornings nor in the afternoons – I checked. Maybe I had made a mistake thinking it was him that day.

When I looked back, though, Ethan wasn’t smiling like he had been most of the time I’d seen him since the school year started. Something was different.

“Hey,” he said, making his way over to me.

“Hello.”

That was usually the extent of our conversations. But today he took it a step further.

“So, I guess you’ve heard, too,” he said. He sighed and leaned against the wall.

I was confused. “What have I heard?”

“You don’t know?” Ethan’s eyes went wide. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that everyone already knew.” He paused and looked away. I could tell that something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

Mr. Alvarez suddenly appeared in the middle of the hall. “All right, coming through.” He waded through the Study Club members and unlocked his door. Students spilled into the room like a glass of water falling to the floor. I tried to catch Ethan’s eye as we walked in together, but he wasn’t looking up.

“All right, everyone, settle down.” Mr. Alvarez had said the same words dozens of times in the year that I’d known him, but this time, everyone listened immediately. He stood at the pulpit and folded his hands.

“I’m sure you’ve all heard the news by now,” he began. “Early this morning the school was informed that Michael had committed suicide.

My heart dropped into my stomach. My head suddenly grew light.

Wait, what?

Did he just say what I thought he said?

I looked over at Ethan. He still had his eyes to the ground. He wasn’t blinking.

Are we talking about the same Michael? Like, the leader of the Study Club Michael? But why would he kill himself? What was so wrong that he decided he didn’t want to live anymore? He had friends. He had Ethan. He was well liked by mostly everyone who came in contact with him. What reason did he have to do something like this?

It’s funny how the first thing you want to know is the reason. If there was something wrong, if this made sense, then there wouldn’t be the wondering if you could’ve done anything. But did it make it hurt any less to know the reason? Could any reason justify it?

Ethan sat still in his chair.

Some of the students started talking, in low voices at first, but then the conversation grew louder.

I couldn’t think. I hadn’t even known Michael – I think I talked to him once since the school year started. I hadn’t even thought much about anything since that first day. I was just trying to finish my schoolwork and make it out of the day in one piece. Yeah, I had Aunt Mackenzie’s offer to think about, but just saying ‘Hello’ to Ethan a few minutes ago had drained the life out of me.

But I hadn’t even said something as simple as ‘Hello’ to Michael since that day. I remember him and Ethan coming up to me, welcoming me to the Study Club. It seemed like it had just happened.

And now he was gone.

I couldn’t explain the knot in my stomach right now. Maybe it was because I was remembering my own accident. I had tried to reason myself out of doing it, but when the time came, I didn’t need any reason. It was the only solution, and I drove the car into the ditch.

But Dad had found me. He had pulled me out of the crumpled car, and he had hurt himself in the process. Michael didn’t have that story. Michael had tried to kill himself and he had succeeded.

Mr. Alvarez had been looking through his phone, but now he looked up.

“If anyone wants the details for the funeral, you can come up and ask me.”

But no one else was really listening. The chatter was growing into full blown cafeteria noise. Not sure how ten kids could talk louder than an entire school. But I understood why they were trying. It was the same reason Dad never talked to me about the accident, and why Mom never talked to me at all. If you could ignore the pain, then maybe it’d just give up and go away.

Yeah, that never seems to work.

I watched Ethan staring at the floor in his chair a few seats ahead of me. I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I hardly even knew him. We said hi a few times, but that was about it. Our conversations never lasted more than a few seconds. I couldn’t exactly reach over and comfort him. It just wouldn’t be right.

Mr. Alvarez seemed to have noticed Ethan, too. He stepped away from the pulpit and sat down in the seat next to Ethan.

“Are you all right, Ethan?” He asked.

Ethan blinked. “I just don’t understand why he did it. Everything was just fine last time I talked to him.”

“Sometimes we can’t see the pain of those around us, especially those who are closest to us.”

“But Michael and I practically grew up together. If something was wrong, shouldn’t I have known?”

Mr. Alvarez shook his head. “You can’t beat yourself up over what you didn’t do, Ethan. You have to think about what you’re going to do now.”

“Yeah, but I’m so angry right now. I’m angry and I’m confused, and I don’t know what to think about anything.” Ethan looked like he was about to burst into tears.

I felt bad watching this exchange from my seat. But I couldn’t get any closer. I wasn’t part of this. I had only just met Michael, and I didn’t know Ethan any better.

That feeling of helplessness, when you see that person hurting, and you just want to jump in there and get them out of there – that feeling was going to tear my stomach to pieces.

I needed to get out of there. Without saying anything to Mr. Alvarez, I bolted out of the room. I’d been tempted to look back at Ethan, but I couldn’t see him like this. That look on his face was enough to make me cry, and I wasn’t even involved.

 

“Do you want to talk about it, Em?”

Aunt Mackenzie and I sat in her driveway – not the best place to have a serious conversation, but it was the furthest I could get into the house that afternoon before breaking down. I hadn’t been able to get it out of my mind since the moment I heard it.

Michael was dead.

“A kid in the Study Club killed himself,” I said. I wanted to say it as quickly as possible. If I could get it out, then Aunt Mackenzie could make it better. She always did.

Instead, she stiffened. Those were keywords and they could potentially be triggers, and she was worried about me. All of that from a sharp intake of breath and a sudden lack of movement. I could be Sherlock Holmes with the way I could read her.

“How are you taking this?”

“Fine.”

Aunt Mackenzie wasn’t convinced. I don’t think I’d ever be able to lie to that woman. She could read me better than I could read her.

“Did you know him?” She asked.

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, he was the leader, but I didn’t really talk to him. I didn’t really talk to anyone in the club, actually.” Exchanging a few hellos with Ethan didn’t count – at least, not right now.

“How does hearing about that make you feel?”

I took a deep breath. “Confused. Like, I know why I had my accident, I know why I did what I did, and I know how much I hurt everyone here. But I don’t know why Michael did it, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Aunt Mackenzie put her arm around me. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”

I tried not to let her feel me stiffen. I had never told her why I had tried to end my own life earlier this summer. I hadn’t told anyone. There were some suspicions, but none that were anywhere near accurate. But whatever reason I had wasn’t enough to compel me to try to finish the job. I just wanted to know what had driven Michael to that point. Maybe then I would be okay with it.

I don’t know when I started crying. Maybe when Aunt Mackenzie pulled my head into her chest, not caring if I spread tears and snot all over her shirt. But all I know is that once the crying started, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Dad called me into his room before bed that night. He and Aunt Mackenzie had discussed what happened, and he wanted to see if I was okay.

“Crash, if you want to talk about anything, know that I’m here.” He smiled when he said it and I could tell that he was sincere. But he was wrong to think that talking would really do anything. I just needed to sleep, to get this out of my mind. The further away I got from the fact that Michael was dead – some guy I barely knew – the closer I’d be to beating this darkness.

 

The next few days at school were about as memorable as the two months prior. I completed assignments and took notes in class, but I didn’t remember one second of it. Everyone who knew Michael sat around in a daze like me, and those who didn’t know him overcompensated in the noise and disruption department.

Ethan was about somber as the rest of them. It was weird to see him like that, especially considering the fact that I didn’t even really know him, but I could tell that he was acting differently.

During Study Club one day, I decided that I was going to talk to him. A few of the other Study Club members had stopped showing up, so it was eight of us now. I sat down next to Ethan.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hello.” He looked up and gave me a sad smile. “That’s usually your line.”

“How are you feeling?”

He shrugged. “As good as I’ll ever be. Getting better. Maybe once the funeral…”

I nodded.

“Listen, if you need any help with that homework of yours, you just let me know.”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was serious, but the words kinda just came out of my mouth. Ethan smiled sadly again and nodded.

“Thanks,” he said, and then resumed staring at the floor.

Mr. Alvarez was even a bit more subdued. He spent most of the Study Club hour drawing absently on his paper gradebook. I think he was the only person in the world who still carried one of those.

The rest of the day passed by in slow motion. I was ready for all of this to end. I didn’t like feeling like this – all of this confusion and despair – this is what it had felt like for me at the beginning of summer. I wanted to change things, so I needed to get out of this. If not for me, then I had to do it for Ethan.

I tried to locate him on the bus that afternoon, but I had no luck. I don’t even think he rode our bus. I think that I had just imagined it. He hadn’t been on the bus and he hadn’t reached out and grabbed my bookbag. That had all been a trick of my imagination.

As the bus bumped along the road toward Aunt Mackenzie’s house, I closed my eyes and leaned against the window.

Was it possible that all of this was my imagination, too? Some kid that I barely knew wasn’t dead and taking up every inch of my brain. This was all just one big mistake. Michael’s going to walk into the Study Club tomorrow and he’s going to be the first person that I try to befriend in order to win this car from Aunt Mackenzie.

But even as I thought it, I knew that it was ridiculous. Michael was gone, and he was never coming back. I had been a few minutes from being in his position, but Dad had given me a second chance. Well, I wasn’t going to waste it. Whatever I did, I was going to make sure that even if Michael was gone, I wasn’t going to let his friends go through this alone.

Ethan, I thought to myself. Ethan will be my one friend.

 

Loud voices woke me up in the middle of the night. I looked over at the green glare of the alarm clock. 3:25am. I hadn’t woken up this early since the day of the move in the summer. I listened for a few minutes to try to figure out what was going on.

The noise was coming from downstairs. I walked through the dark hallway as quietly as possible. By the time I reached the staircase, I could hear everything clearly – James was at it again. It had taken a few days, but things were just going back to normal at school. For some reason, James decided that this was a perfect time to start up this nonsense again.

“Where were you, James?” I heard Dad saying, his voice carrying up the staircase. “I’m not going to ask you again.”

“It doesn’t matter where I was. You only said that I had to be home, so why do you care?”

“We want to make sure you’re safe, James. We don’t want anything to happen to you.” That was Mom.

“I’m not doing anything wrong, Mom. I’m fine. Why can’t you guys trust me?”

“Because you’re a kid, James! And if you keep acting like one, we’ll keep treating you like one!”

Dad was upset now. His voice had increased a few pitches and was getting louder.

“You know what it is? You’re selfish, James, and you don’t care about anyone. You’re living in rebellion – not against me, but against God.”

“I have nothing against God,” James said. “I’m not rebelling against him.”

That was about as much as I could stand. I hurried down the hallway to my room. James and Dad were going to be there for a while. If I was lucky, I might actually get some more sleep before school started in a couple of hours.

Who was I kidding?

 

Sitting in the club at lunch that day was awkward, to say the least. There weren’t that many students left – just Ethan and two other kids: the girl looked like a tenth grader, and the boy looked like he was nineteen. I sat down in my usual seat and Ethan wandered over to me.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. That’s how every conversation with him started. I could tell that Michael was still on his mind. I wanted to talk to him about it, tell him about me and how I had come through a situation like that in one piece. But I wondered if that would discourage him.

“He was my best friend,” Ethan said. I was surprised. I hadn’t even asked him anything. I guess just sitting there quietly was enough for him to think he could say something. “I’m just confused, you know?”

I nodded. There wasn’t anything more that I could say. And I think that Ethan understood that.

When I had been in the darkness at the beginning of the summer, there wasn’t anything that anyone could say to make it better. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can say. Sometimes, you’ve just got to sit there in the silence and sometimes it hurts. But you need that time.

Mr. Alvarez suddenly appeared – as he always did – and seemed surprised to see all of us in his classroom.

“Good afternoon,” he said slowly. He kept glancing over in my direction, and I felt my face grow red. He knew that I didn’t really talk much to people. I don’t really know why my talking to Ethan made me feel embarrassed. But then Mr. Alvarez hurried out the door.

“What’s his deal?” Ethan said. I shrugged. But before I pulled out my work to get an early start, I noticed that Ethan had wiped his eyes. He tried to be discreet, but I’d seen it. Again, I wanted to tell him that it was okay, he should just let the tears out, but I couldn’t say that.

I didn’t even really know this guy. You can’t say things like that to people that you don’t know.

The rest of the day passed and then the next week. Life was moving so slowly. It wasn’t that I was mourning Michael – I think I was mourning the death of life as a concept. I was thinking about what I had tried doing to myself so many months ago. I was thinking how if it wasn’t for my Dad jumping in when he did, Michael wouldn’t be the only student from our graduating class not to make it. And that thought was starting to weigh me down.

 

I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly.

Mr. Alvarez was standing over my desk, stack of papers in his hands, big smile on his face.

“So, what do you think?” He didn’t seem to notice my hesitation. Maybe he took it for serious contemplation.

“Um, I’m sorry, Mr. Alvarez, but I don’t know.”

Not the answer he was looking for. Mr. Alvarez sat down in the seat beside me. “Listen, Emma, I think this is a great opportunity. And I can’t think of anyone better to do this than you.”

The rest of the class worked noisily on the group assignments he’d handed out this morning. I had been working by myself – as I usually did for group work – and Mr. Alvarez had caught me off guard.

“I just don’t think I can do something like that,” I said, not looking at him. If I looked into his eyes anymore – those begging, almost desperate eyes – there was no way I could say anything but “Of course, Mr. Alvarez. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.” Well, not everything, of course.

“What if you just try it out?” He asked. “Come for a week and see if you like how it goes. If not, then you can back out and I won’t ask you again.”

I considered. He wanted me to take over leadership of the Study Club now that Michael was gone. But I couldn’t do anything like that. I mean, it took a lot of work for me to just show up to the Study Club every single day at lunch – I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it would be to lead it.

“Mr. Alvarez, I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “It’s just too much right now.” I didn’t have to explain. Things were starting to get back to normal, but for a few of us, it was taking a bit longer. Mr. Alvarez understood that.

He nodded and stood up from the seat. “You think about it, Emma. I’m sorry to put so much pressure on you right now. You can give me an answer when you’ve had some time to think it over.”

I wondered if I had made the right decision.

That day, I couldn’t eat lunch. As I wandered through the emptying hallways to Mr. Alvarez’s class, I wondered if I should at least give it a try. I mean, how hard could it really be? I had seen Michael lead the Study Club for a few months already. He didn’t really have to do much other than show up and be willing to help if someone needed it. How hard could that really be?

When I reached Mr. Alvarez’s class, he was standing outside with Ethan and two other students. He smiled when I walked up.

“Good afternoon, Emma,” he said. “We were just talking about you.”

Me? I wanted to ask. But instead I just waited for him to continue.

“The Study Club’s attendance has taken a serious hit,” he explained. “In the past week, we’ve gone from fifteen members to -” he pointed at the kids standing next to Ethan – “a total of four students, including you.”

“I don’t understand why they just disappeared,” Ethan said, crossing his arms. “They were all fine before Michael died, it’s like now that he’s gone, they don’t want anything to do with the place.”

“Well, you can’t blame them,” one of the other students standing there said. “Michael didn’t just die – he killed himself. That’s pretty dark, and I’m not sure those other kids have the strength to deal with it.”

“Your insight into people is just spot on, Karen, did you know that?” Ethan said, shaking his head.

But the silence that followed her statement seemed to confirm that we all thought it was true. Why else would everyone else suddenly disappear? If they were just coming for Michael, then they would’ve connected over his loss, not scattered like pieces of a shattered glass. They would have stuck together.

“I was just telling them what I told you this morning,” Mr. Alvarez said to me. “If you decide that you want to lead the Study Club, they’ve agreed that this is a good decision.”

Karen nodded. “I don’t think you’ve said two words since I’ve met you, but I have a feeling that you’ll do a good job helping us.”

Wait, what was this? Was he getting them to gang up on me to get me to change my mind? Is this what he meant by giving me time to think about it? I had half a mind to say no and walk away from this forever. The pressure that he was putting me under right now was ridiculous.

But what about Aunt Mackenzie? What about our deal? I couldn’t just walk away from an opportunity like this. This was the closest I’d gotten in the three years that I’d gone to this school. If I walked away from this, I might as well be walking away from the car, from a job, and from giving back to Dad the things that I had taken from him. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t right to these other kids. It wasn’t right to Ethan, but it wasn’t right to Dad.

I couldn’t do that to him.

I swallowed and looked at Mr. Alvarez. “I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll lead the Study Club.”

He smiled and the Ethan slapped me on my back. Karen nodded confidently and the other student – a guy that looked like he could be nineteen – congratulated me.

We walked into the classroom together – well, all except for Mr. Alvarez, who had other things to take care of.

As I sat in the front of the classroom, in the seat that had previously been reserved for Michael, I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.

 

“Do you remember learning any of this with Ms. Faraday last year?” The boy that I thought looked like he was nineteen – Seth, as I learned – was, indeed nineteen. He was in eleventh grade and for some reason, absolutely nothing he learned during the day seemed to stick in his brain.

“Well, it has been a while since I did any Algebra,” I admitted, “but let’s see what you’ve got so far.”

Elsewhere in Mr. Alvarez’s classroom, Ethan and Karen were arguing over the book that Ms. Hartford had assigned for them to read.

“You don’t understand, Karen, it’s not historical – it’s historical fiction; that’s a huge difference.”

“But it’s still based on reality, Ethan, so that means it still could’ve been real.”

“It could’ve been real, but the historical record clearly shows that it isn’t real.”

I tried not to laugh. They liked to get into things like this. But from the way that they talked comfortably outside of the argument showed that none of the animosity ran deep. The four of us got along pretty well. I mean, Ethan spent most of his time either pretending like he didn’t know what he was doing or arguing about the historical record – he and Karen got into this debate a lot.

Karen and Seth were either flirting with each other or trying to remember things that they learned just that day. It was a little frustrating, but it’d been about two weeks, and I hadn’t told Mr. Alvarez that I was stepping down. For better or for worse, I was now the leader of the Study Club.

 

After dinner, Aunt Mackenzie pulled me through the front door. My first thought was that this conversation was going to be about James.

The yelling was just starting to subside.

“Do you have anything you’d like to tell me?” Dad had said as we all sat around the dinner table. We were eating rice, beans and fried chicken today – a welcome change from the spaghettis Aunt Mackenzie had grown used to making every other night.

“There’s nothing,” James had said, digging into his food.

My father pulled out his phone and replayed a message he’d saved.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Alfaro. How are you? It’s been a while since we last spoke. I wanted to let you know that James didn’t show up to any of classes today. I saw his sister around lunchtime, so I was wondering if everything was okay. Let me know if I can do anything. Goodbye.”

The voice had been vaguely familiar – probably one of my teachers from a few years ago. That’s probably when the man had spoken to my father last.

James seemed to recognize it, too. He had stiffened and wasn’t eating anymore. He didn’t look up at anyone, and he didn’t seem to hear anything, either.

“Where were you, James?” Dad asked. That was always the question. And James never wanted to give it up.

But that wasn’t ultimately what Aunt Mackenzie had called me outside for.

“You still running that Study Club?” She asked. We sat on the driveway, backs to the house and the noise that was still audible albeit barely.

“Yep. I think it’s going well.”

A pause.

“What about the whole friend thing?”

“Uh, that’s going fine, I guess.”

Not the answer she was hoping for, I was sure. Aunt Mackenzie smiled. “Well, it’s not going to happen overnight, Em,” she said. “You’re taking steps, and that’s what counts.”

She grew silent again.

“What about…” I knew what she wanted to ask. I could almost hear it on her lips.

“Oh, I’m fine, really.” She wanted to ask about the darkness, she wanted to know if I was still thinking that driving into a ditch was my only option. “I think that this whole helping other people thing is paying off.”

“Well, you’re not finished yet,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, but don’t go too fast, either.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time at that Study Club, with that boy – what was his name again? The one who was friends with the boy who killed himself?”

For some reason, it sounded so insensitive when Aunt Mackenzie talked about it. I wanted to say that his name was Ethan and the boy’s name was Michael. It’d been ages since I’d heard anyone talk about him, and I was starting to wonder if that was a good thing.

“Uh, I his name is Ethan,” I said finally.

“Ethan, huh?” Aunt Mackenzie leaned back on her palms. “Well, I had better not hear about you skipping the friend part and going straight to the boyfriend/girlfriend part.”

I looked at her, incredulous. “Never! It’s not like that, Aunt Mackenzie.” And that was true. It wasn’t like that. Sure, I could talk easily to Ethan – even if I never really said much – but there wasn’t anything like that. There wouldn’t ever be. I didn’t really have the time for something like that right now, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t emotionally ready to have a friend, much less a boyfriend.

“I was only kidding, Em,” Aunt Mackenzie said, laughing. “You’re getting all defensive and I’m just joking.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, laughing a little, too. When neither of said anything, the sound of another argument from within the house filled up the empty spaces.

“What do you think about all that?” I asked Aunt Mackenzie.

She sighed. “I wish it didn’t have to happen in my house,” she said. “But you’re father’s his own man. I can’t try to control him – I wouldn’t want to. James is doing what James has always done – it’s time your father gets a handle on it.”

I hadn’t heard anyone talk like this about James – except for me. Mom usually said to give the boy space, that he was trying to become a man, and he was just making mistakes. Dad usually said that he was taking advantage of their kindness and he was making them worry for nothing.

I just thought James was being James. He’d never really been that obedient as a kid and he was always pushing the boundaries. I remember when we were younger and we shared a room together. James was the one to ruin the room and I was the one to fix it up.

But despite all of that, I never had any anger toward my brother. It was annoying to have to hear all of this, but I had long since given up getting angry with his behavior. I guess now that his disrespect was spilling over onto my parents, things were starting to hype up.

“Things will get better here,” Aunt Mackenzie said. “Your dad is just having trouble because he can’t do what he’s used to doing.”

“Yeah.”

Aunt Mackenzie put her hand on my shoulder. It felt warm through the fabric of my shirt. “You can’t hold this on your own, Em. You may have started this, but you don’t have to be the one to end it.”

I didn’t say anything. What did Aunt Mackenzie know about any of this, anyway? What did she know of seeing your dad locked in a wheelchair, unable to get up and work with his hands like he had worked his entire life? He was in construction, and now he couldn’t even do that. His business was going out of it, and he wasn’t able to make any money. Not only did I start this, and not only would I end it, but with every moment that I sat here doing nothing, I was letting it continue.

I needed to make that one friend – I needed that car. And I would do whatever I had to do to get it. I felt bad for a single second – Aunt Mackenzie was doing this to help me, and I wasn’t doing it with the right motives. Could you still make a friend if you weren’t doing it for the right motives?

Aunt Mackenzie cleared her throat.

“I’m starting to serve with the nursery at church this week,” she said.

“Yeah?” This was the first I had heard of it. As far as I was concerned, I thought that all thirty-somethings who weren’t married couldn’t stand kids. But I guess not Aunt Mackenzie.

“I think it’d be good to try something different, get to know some more of the people at Lighthouse Church.”

I shrugged. I didn’t much care for the people at Aunt Mackenzie’s church. We had been going there ever since I started high school, but I still felt like I didn’t know anyone there. Which was weird because my Dad was like the director of the missions department. I should know at least someone.

“Anyway, I was hoping that you might consider serving somewhere.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t have to be the nursery – you could serve anywhere,” Aunt Mackenzie said, trying to speak quickly. “I think you’re experiencing something good at the Study Club, but I think if you serve at church, it’ll help you on the spiritual side.”

“I’m fine spiritually,” I said. “I am a Christian, I pray, I read the Bible. I don’t need to serve at Lighthouse for any of my spiritual growth.”

Aunt Mackenzie looked at me. “Well, then, you can serve there for community service hours. You still need them, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer her. She knew that I still had to complete them – a whole 100 hours, if I wanted to get the Florida Bright Futures scholarship. And I hadn’t done any community service in the past three years. If I didn’t start getting those hours soon, I would have to take that scholarship off the table.

“I’ll think about it,” I said to Aunt Mackenzie. She gave me a hug and we went back inside.

But as I started getting ready for bed, I knew that I had lied to her. I wasn’t going to think about it – I had already made up my mind. There was no way I was going to serve at Lighthouse Church. Absolutely no way.

 

Ethan found me in the lunchroom. He stood behind me in line and waited for me to finish collecting my food before he said anything.

“Are you coming to the Study Club today?” He asked.

“Not sure,” I said, taking a bite of the pizza they had served today instead of the usual secondary colored lumps.

“I can’t make it today,” he said, watching me eat. “I’m supposed to hang out with my brother today.”

“You have a brother?” I asked.

“Yeah, he thinks I’m really cool, so I can’t let him down, you know what I mean?”

“I have a brother, too,” I said, “but he doesn’t really hang around with me.”

Ethan sighed and shook his head. “If only I could be so lucky.” He suddenly sat up. “There he is,” Ethan said, pointing discreetly at a freshman making his way over to their table. “He’s a little squid, though, so be careful.”

“What’s a squid?” I asked, but I don’t think Ethan heard me. His brother had arrived.

“Hey, Ethan, thank you so much for hanging with me today I know how hard it is to get away from your friend and I know you spend all of lunch with them but thanks for hanging with me today.” The boy said it all in one long run-on sentence before taking a deep breath.

“Kyle, this is Emma. Emma, this is Kyle.” I waved to his brother.

“Emma’s the one who is currently saving your life, isn’t she?” Kyle asked, eyes widening as he looked at me.

“I’m not saving anyone’s life,” I said matter of factly. “I’m just facilitating the completion of homework on a daily basis.”

“In other words, yes,” Ethan said, looking at Kyle. “If Emma wasn’t helping me, I’d be just like Dad – uneducated, unemployed, undeveloped.”

That sounded a bit harsh. But I didn’t say anything. Family squabbles were always the worst to step into – they were especially worse when they didn’t have anything to do with your family.

But Kyle either didn’t notice or he didn’t care. “Look, Ethan, I’ll be right back I want to get something to eat so please don’t go anywhere!” Kyle blurted this out in another long sentence and then dashed to the food line.

Ethan and I watched him go.

“That kid is something else,” I said cautiously.

“Just wait until he gets back, and then you’ll really get to see how crazy he is.” Ethan smiled. “Kyle’s a good kid, though. I think that of all my siblings, I’m the most proud of him.”

“You have other siblings?” I asked.

“Mostly older ones. You know the kinds – the ones that you look up to like Kyle looks up to me. But they’re not cool like me. They’re just jerks.”

I didn’t know the kind, but I didn’t say that, of course. It was just me and James growing up – no one else. I couldn’t imagine if I had an older sibling, or even worse, a sibling even younger than James. What would have happened to them when Dad stopped working?

“Listen, I wanted to ask you something.”

“What, you didn’t just want me to meet your adorable brother?”

Ethan winced. “First of all, Kyle is not adorable, so please don’t ever say that again. And second, no, that’s not it at all. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

“What is it?” I assumed it had something to do with the Study Club, so I was open to it.

“I need some help getting community service hours. Is there anything you can do to help me?”

Absolutely no way.

Something immediately came to mind, but I couldn’t say it. I mean, he wasn’t even a Christian. Why would he want to do his community service at a church – and Lighthouse Church, of all churches? That place wasn’t exactly the friendliest to non-believers. I mean, they were getting there, but they weren’t here yet. I wouldn’t want Ethan to be eaten alive by them. That just wouldn’t be fair.

But it seemed like God had heard me last night. He was currently in the process of calling my bluff. If it weren’t so annoying, I probably would’ve burst into laughter.

Instead, I swallowed the fear growing in my stomach and opened my mouth. “You can volunteer at my Aunt’s church on Sundays and Fridays,” I said. “They have a bunch of different areas to serve – I mean, volunteer – so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

Ethan nodded. “That sounds good. But I have one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His brother, Kyle, was heading back to the table.

Ethan leaned over until his shoulder was nearly touching mine. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. This had happened before and it was happening again, and I had to get out of here before –

But nothing happened. Ethan just said: “I’ll only go if you go with me.”

That was it? That was his condition?

“Sure,” I said, without even thinking. I seemed to be doing a lot of that, lately.

 

I found Dad in the living room, watching TV. His leg was propped up and he was doing some exercises. The doctors seemed to think he was well on his way to recovery, and Dad seemed to believe them. He was committing to these exercises, which was good. I sat down on the couch next to him.

“You finally decided to keep your old man company, Crash?” He gently shoved me with his elbow. “How long has it been?”

I looked at him. “What do you mean?”

Dad sighed and leaned back against the couch. “You used to come downstairs every night, sometimes in the middle of the morning when you thought I was asleep.”

I stiffened. So, he knew about that, did he? “I can explain -” I started, but Dad put up a hand.

“I understood why you did it, Crash, and I wanted to give you some space. You felt responsible for what happened and staying up with me was a way to feel better about it.”

“It didn’t help,” I said quietly. “I still feel bad about what happened.”

“But that’s just the thing, Crash. You have nothing to feel bad about. I did what I was supposed to do. My daughter was in danger and I rescued her.” Dad smiled. “I don’t care what caused you to drive yourself into that ditch – even if I had to break my back to get you out of there, I would do it.”

I sat next to him in silence. That was just the thing, wasn’t it? Neither him nor Mom seemed to care about what had caused me to do what I did. We just never talked about. They didn’t try to get me a counselor at school. They didn’t check me into a hospital. They never did anything about it. To be honest, I don’t think they even realized that if I wasn’t careful, it could happen again.

“So, what was it that you wanted to tell me?”

“I can’t spend some time with my dad without wanting anything?” I swallowed. How had he known? How did he always know?

“Come on, Crash. I’ve lived with you for seventeen years. What is it that you need?”

“Well, one of the kids from the Study Club – Ethan – needs community service hours. I invited him to serve at Lighthouse on Sundays and Fridays.” I paused, trying to read Dad’s emotions, but he was doing a bang-up job of hiding them. His jaw had tightened, and he wasn’t looking at me. I continued. “I wouldn’t leave him alone, of course. I’d volunteer with him, so that there wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“And you’d get some hours for yourself, as well,” Dad finished. He nodded. “Sounds fine. Why did you want to tell me?”

“Well, just in case there were any things I hadn’t thought about, you’d tell me.”

“Like I said, it sounds fine. Just let the youth pastor know – he’ll figure out a good place for you two to serve.”

“The youth pastor?” I asked. “You mean they’re finally giving us one?”

Dad laughed. “You act like Jerry wasn’t a youth pastor.”

“He was nineteen, Dad. That guy was barely out of high school.” I looked away, thinking about him. “You know, I heard some of the girls say he tries flirting with them.”

“This new guy is a bit older, so you shouldn’t have that to worry about. Plus, he’s married and he has a kid, I think.” Dad crossed his arms. “Now, about this Ethan guy – is he a Christian?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “We never really talked about God.”

“You know that’s our mission, right?”

“Dad, just because you’re director of missions -”

“It’s not because of my job, Crash. It’s because as Christians we’re supposed to be discipling people and helping them grow in relationship with Christ.”

“Yes, I know that.” Of course I know that. I’d been hearing that my entire life. But I wasn’t there right now. I was just trying to keep afloat. The Study Club was helping a bit, but it was still there, the guilt. I traded one guilt for another, and it was going to kill me if I didn’t do something about it. God? He wasn’t doing anything. Maybe he’d do it for someone else, but he wasn’t doing anything for me.

How am I supposed to tell people about a God I’m not even sure I believe in?

But I couldn’t say that to Dad. I was supposed to be the good Christian girl, while James was the one who rebelled and turned his back on God. James was the prodigal son.

So, did that mean I was the older brother? The one who didn’t run away but who had a terrible attitude and was probably just as sinful as the one who ran away?

Right now, I wasn’t so sure.

 

When we pulled up to Lighthouse Church on Friday night, I saw that Ethan was already there. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of a red car, pounding at the steering wheel as he sang along to an inaudible song. When he noticed us get out of our car, he smiled and came out to join us.

“Good evening, Mr. Alfaro. My name is Ethan.”

Names were traded and hands were shaken. Well, except for Aunt Mackenzie – instead of a handshake, she gave Ethan one of her famous crushing hugs. After they had gone into the main sanctuary, I led Ethan to the back where the youth gathered.

He rubbed his shoulder. “That aunt of yours has a serious grip,” he said.

“And here I thought you were a tough guy.” I gestured to his arms. “I guess those muscles are just for show, then?”

Ethan covered his arms. “Hey, don’t judge my physical fitness. We’re in church aren’t we? I think I saw a sign in the parking lot saying, ‘No Judging Allowed.’”

I laughed. “You’re going to need that rule,” I said. “Once they find out the truth about you, they’ll be forced to keep you.”

Ethan looked at me curiously. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen you laugh before.”

My face instantly turned red. Thankfully, night had already started to fall, so it wasn’t like anyone could see. Why did I react like this? Maybe it was because I didn’t like people pointing out things like that. It bothered me that I hadn’t laughed in someone’s presence before so they had to point it out.

“I laugh sometimes, you know,” I said, trying to cover my embarrassment.

Ethan shrugged. “I guess.”

A tall young man approached us from the darkness. “Welcome to Lighthouse,” he said, reaching out to give us both hugs. I stiffened when he put his arm around me. Old habit, I guess.

“They really need to fix those lights,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh! I never introduced myself. My name is Alex, and I’m going to be the new youth pastor here.”

“If you’re new, then that makes two of us.” Ethan pointed to me. “I’m only tagging along with Emma because she’s helping me get some community service hours.”

“Otherwise, you’d have nothing to do with church, yes, I understand.” Alex didn’t seem to notice Ethan’s squirm. “And you’re here because your dad is the missions director and he forces you to come to keep up appearances. Or is it you that’s keeping up appearances? I can’t tell.”

I didn’t reply. Who did this guy think he was? And why was he so infuriatingly correct in his analyses?

“Look, not trying to get off on the wrong foot, but I figure if you know that I know, then we can steamroll into the deep parts.” Alex pointed up the stairs. “You two want to come inside? I can tell you everything you need to know about me to break the ice, if you want.”

“You’re very good, you know,” Ethan said. “I suddenly feel like I can spill all of my dark secrets to you.”

Alex laughed. “If your sarcasm was a knife, it’d be cutting me right now.” He turned and headed up the stairs. “Ya’ll coming or not?”

Not sure that was really a question. So, we followed him up the stairs.

“Are all Christians like this?” Ethan asked.

“I don’t think this is a ‘Christian’ thing. I think Alex is unique.” I wondered what his wife was going to be like – either the complete opposite, or the spitting image. I wasn’t sure which one was more frightening.

The youth room was pretty empty, which was surprising.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from parents,” Alex said when they passed through the door. “They all want to meet with me this week to see if I’m going to be a good fit for their kids.” He led them to a round table in the center of the room.

“Where’s your brother?” He asked me.

I shrugged.

“Not your brother’s keeper, huh?” Alex turned to Ethan. “So, what about you? You ever thought about becoming a Christian?”

“Uh, no, I haven’t.” Ethan crossed his arms. “I’m just here to get some community service hours, remember?”

“Oh, we’ll get to that. Just have to go through these questions – obligations of working at a church, you know?”

The door opened and a young woman walked through the door. When she saw us, she smiled, and she looked like the female version of Alex.

“Hey,” she said, sitting down next to him.

“Beth, this is Emma and Ethan. Emma is Carlos’ daughter and Ethan’s a school friend trying to get some community service hours.”

“It’s nice to meet you both,” she said, giving us both hugs. This time, I was more prepared, so it wasn’t as uncomfortable. “You’re the first students we’ve actually met today, so that’s exciting. Are there usually more kids here?”

And that’s when I realized that Beth was exclusively addressing me. Ethan had no idea what the Friday group was usually like – he didn’t know what the Sunday group was like, either. This was something that only I knew, and they were waiting for my answer.

I felt the fear start to rise. This was the last step and I was about to miss it.

“Um, yes, there are more kids. But I don’t really…” My voice trailed off.

“How long have you been coming here?” Alex asked.

“A few years,” I said. “But I don’t really spend much time with the kids. They’re all a bit younger, and so it’s hard to, you know…” This was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. I was sure they’d figure out that I didn’t have a clue about any of these kids. And, if they kept digging, they would see that I secretly hated every last one of those kids.

“Well, that’s going to change soon,” Alex said. “We’re going to start putting the word out that there’s a new youth pastor, and all of the kids will be back.”

I shook my head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Beth asked. Coming from anyone else, it would’ve seemed defensive, or even annoyed. But I could tell that Beth meant no harm. She just wanted to know. So, it was my obligation to tell her.

“You’ll be the fifth youth pastor in the three years I’ve been coming here,” I said, pointing to Alex. “The last guy they had here, Jerry, he kinda made sure that no one would ever give anyone else a chance.”

“He was that bad, huh.” Alex sighed. “I can’t compete against a ghost, so I won’t try. We’ll just have to show them that we’re different, right, Beth?”

I didn’t really hear much else of what Alex said that night. I was stuck on that one phrase: I can’t compete with a ghost, so I won’t try. There is always a ghost in your life – that one person who leaves but never really leaves your life.

I wondered about my ghost. I had already tried getting rid of it – that’s what the whole driving into the ditch thing had been about. But I couldn’t compete with it. So why was I continuing to try? Could I decide, like Alex, that I wasn’t going to try?

The night eventually drew to a close. Ethan filled out his community service forms and talked with Alex for most of the time. Beth sat with me and tried to pick my brain, but I was lost in thought, so I didn’t say much. I was thinking about my ghost and wondering if he was doing anything right now.

And even though it was highly unlikely, I wondered if maybe for a second, he was thinking about me.

 

I think it was a Wednesday. I hadn’t slept well that night – too much tossing and turning thinking about things – so I didn’t have enough time for breakfast before getting on the bus. When lunchtime eventually rolled around, I knew that I had to eat. The Study Club would have to wait. Besides, it’d be all right. There wasn’t really much for me to do, anyway, beside showing up. That seemed to do the trick. One day gone wouldn’t hurt.

But when I stepped into the cafeteria, I realized that I was wrong. The cafeteria was very crowded that day, and something about the amount of people brought back a terrible memory.

I was in seventh grade, and the final bell had just rung. Everyone was pushing out of the classroom door and someone had wormed their way behind me. I could feel them breathing behind me, and I knew that it was him, the ghost. But when I turned around, no one was there. He had come and gone.

When I stepped into the cafeteria that day, I could feel his breath – but then I turned around, and he wasn’t there. I didn’t eat anything that day. I didn’t show up to the Study Club. In fact, I didn’t show up to any of my other classes. I found a bathroom in a far-off hallway and hid in it until the final bell rang.

Funny how something that happened when you were in seventh grade could still terrify you now as much as it had all those years ago.

 

It wasn’t until a few days later – Saturday, actually – that Dad found out about my ditching classes. He called me into his room that morning after Mom had gone to work. I suspected what it was all about, but I had to act dumb. You’ve gotta let them think they have the first move, because then you won’t say anything you’re not supposed to say.

“Do you want to tell me what this is about, Crash?”

“What, can’t a father talk to his daughter without it being trouble?” I asked, repeating a sentiment he had shared with me earlier. But Dad wasn’t seeing the humor in it.

“Crash, can you just tell me what you did?”

“I’m not five anymore, Dad,” I said. “If I’m going to get in trouble, can you tell me?” It probably wasn’t nice, but I was getting tired of this.

“You didn’t show up to half of your classes yesterday.”

Hmm. Now how did he figure that one out?

“Who told you?” I actually didn’t care, but I wondered which of the teachers had chosen to snitch on me. When I found out, I wasn’t going to do their homework this weekend. It was the lousiest kind of revenge, because it wouldn’t touch them, but it’d hurt me. I guess that’s what all revenge is like, though, isn’t it?

“Your teacher Mr. Alvarez is the one who called me. He told me that he was the one who got you involved in the Study Club.”

And just like that, all of my anger was gone. Mr. Alvarez hadn’t meant any harm. He had probably just checked up with the other teachers to see if I was all right. He was the only one who actually seemed to care about any of us. If he had called Dad, then I didn’t care.

“Yeah, he is. Um, I didn’t go to class because I couldn’t.”

“That’s pretty vague, Crash.”

“Well, it had to do with…” I trailed off. I had the choice. I could lie right now or I could tell him the truth. Dad deserved to know, didn’t he? He was the one who had broken his back trying to save me. If I could just tell him why I had done it, then maybe things would get better around here.

But I couldn’t say it. Instead, I told him the first lie that came to mind.

“It was, uh, girl stuff,” I said slowly. I hoped that was enough to sway him. Turned out, it was.

“Oh,” he said. “Why didn’t you say so from the start?”

Dad smiled and shook his head. “Don’t go turning into that brother of yours,” he said. “That boy is going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”

“Starting to wonder why you even had kids, huh? Who knew they’d be such a safety hazard?”

“I’ve always known about you, Emma. You’ve always been Crash to me, even before you took your first step – or should I say, stumble.” He laughed and I laughed with him. It felt good to be laughing with him again.

 

I saw Ethan on Sunday. He was coming regularly now, to volunteer. Alex had put us with the five-year olds.

“I didn’t know I had signed up for torture,” Ethan said to me under his breath as we walked to the elementary school building.

“So not only do you want nothing to do with God, you also hate kids.” I raised my eyebrows. “I’m starting to think that bringing you here was a mistake.”

“Oh, there’s a lot more where that came from,” Ethan said. “What was it you said before? If they found out everything about me, they’d throw me out.”

“Yeah, I didn’t say that, but I think I agree.”

“Does your aunt work with the kids in that building?” He asked suddenly. I looked at him. Why did he want to know? Did he want another crushing hug?

“Look, I just want to ask her a question, that’s all,” he said quickly.

“That’s all, huh?” I said. Putting the pressure on him was fun.

“You got something to say? You’re lucky I’m not asking you about this week, and why you ditched us.”

I didn’t say anything. There was that word again, coming back to haunt me. An image of Dad’s mangled body flashed in my mind. They let me see him in the hospital, although now I think they shouldn’t have.

But I didn’t want to talk about this, especially not now. We were about to go help some little kids learn about Noah – I didn’t want to think about why I hadn’t shown up to the Study Club for the past few days.

“Don’t think I don’t appreciate you helping me out here,” Ethan continued, “but your duty is to the Study Club. You took an oath, Emma, and you’ve gotta uphold your end of the deal.”

“I didn’t make any oaths,” I said. “I told Mr. Alvarez I’d try it, and I’m trying it.”

“Yes, you’re trying it for several months,” Ethan said. “Well, you may have Mr. A fooled, but I’m not. You’re in this thing until it gets hard, and then you’re gone.”

I looked away from him. Why is it that everyone else seemed to know me and my motivations better than I knew them myself?

“I’m not going to just let you leave,” he said when we reached the children’s building. “You’re helping me now, so I’m going to help you in return. Whatever you need to keep showing up to the Study Club, I’ll make sure you have it.”

“Why?” I asked abruptly. It just didn’t make any sense. I mean, I didn’t even really spend much time with Ethan. Our conversations were so surface, they were practically a desert.

“Because I see Michael in you,” he said, lowering his voice. “And I made a mistake with Michael that I won’t make with you. Besides, that’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know we were friends,” I said.

Ethan grabbed the door of the children’s building and started banging his head against it.

 

It took all of my strength to wrestle a pair of scissors from Jimmy, this little five-year-old with all the energy of an over caffeinated teenager. Ethan was busy collecting up all the glue – Sophie had decided that she wanted to cover every inch of her skin with the white stuff.

“It’ll peel off when it’s dry!” She was showing the other kids the wonder of science and starting a movement.

“This is a madhouse,” I said when I caught Ethan’s eye. “Did you get all of the glue?”

He held up two boxes filled with bottles. “Noah’s gonna have to get on his boat without those animals,” Ethan said, pointing to the craft project we’d been working on. The kids had to cut out and glue three pairs of animals that they wanted to go on the boat.

“Whoever designed this lesson had never met Jimmy,” I said.

“Or Sophie,” Ethan said, setting the box of glue on a high shelf. “Now, you want to help me wrangle these kids, or is that gonna have to be my job?”

Alex wandered into the classroom as all of the kids were leaving. Ethan and I had already cleaned up the room – not one piece of evidence remained of Sophie’s scientific revolution.

“How’s it going, you two?” He asked, smiling at parents as they checked out their kids.

“We survived,” I said, “if that’s what you mean.”

“Just you wait,” Ethan said to Alex. “In a few years, Grace will be old enough to use glue and then the world will come to an end.”

I looked at Ethan. “Who is Grace?”

“Oh, Grace is my daughter,” Alex said. “She’s about a year and a half now.”

“You’ve never met the little one?” Ethan asked. “Oh, that’s right, I saw her when I went to talk to your aunt today.”

He had spoken to Aunt Mackenzie? I wondered what they could possibly have to talk about. I mean, they had only seen each other once.

But I didn’t really have to wonder for very long. Aunt Mackenzie came into my room that evening as I was preparing for school.

“Hey there, Em,” she said, throwing herself on my bed. “Did you have a nice weekend?”

“Well, if you call getting into a wrestling match with a five-year-old ‘nice’, then I guess so.”

“Things have kinda quieted down around here,” Aunt Mackenzie observed. “Your dad and James haven’t fought in, what, two whole hours?”

“Shocking, isn’t it?” I sat down on the bed next to her. “Do you think James is coming to his senses? Or is he just buying his time?”

“Staying out of the spotlight is definitely his best bet. You just be careful with that kid – he might just turn the spotlight off of himself by turning it to something else.”

“Something like me?” I asked.

Aunt Mackenzie didn’t answer. Instead, she changed the subject. “Your friend Ethan talked to me today.”

Now it was my turn not to answer.

“He told me that he was a bit concerned about you.”

“Concerned about me? Aunt Mackenzie, Ethan doesn’t know anything about me.”

“Ethan spoke to me about his friend, the one that killed himself -”

“Michael.”

“Yes, he spoke to me about Michael. And he told me that he was worried about you.” Aunt Mackenzie took a deep breath. “He thinks you might be depressed.”

“I’m not,” I said quickly.

“You know, when I found out about your accident, when I figured out that it wasn’t really an accident, I was supportive. I wanted to help you get back on your feet. But your parents insisted that nothing was wrong. They said they were praying for you, and that was enough.”

“Dad’s wrong, you know.”

“He’s not wrong that prayer is enough,” Aunt Mackenzie said, “but he was wrong when he said that there wasn’t anything wrong with you.”

I wouldn’t look at her. What was she doing to me? Was this her idea of an intervention? Is that what she and Ethan were playing at?

“Look, I know that you’ve changed, Em, and I know that things are looking up, but it’s not all gone. You can’t just move on from something like a suicide attempt without any lingering side effects.”

“I’m not depressed, Aunt Mackenzie. I might be a little lonely, but that’s nothing new. I’m not gonna try it again, if that’s what you think.”

“That’s not what this is about. This is about making sure that my niece is okay.”

“Well, you’ve made sure. I’m okay. And I’m making progress. Can’t that just be enough for you?”

I wished I hadn’t said it. But the look on Aunt Mackenzie’s face as she left my room said that she was hurt. In times like this, I wish I could cut out my own tongue – knowing me, though, I’d just figure out another way to ruin everything.

 

It seemed like my life was split into three parts: home, school, and church. I didn’t really do much else, but for now, that was okay. At school, I was spending more time with the Study Club.

Karen wasn’t very interested in schoolwork, but she showed up for Seth.

I don’t think he was very interested in her, though. Whenever she tried flirting with him, he seemed to be totally clueless. And then, he’d suddenly decide that he wanted to play around when she was least expecting it.

So, it was a little annoying, to say the least.

Ethan seemed to be doing all right. He never really needed my help with schoolwork – it was mostly the community service thing. And the fact that he seemed to have made me into a little project.

“Are you all right today?” He would ask when I saw him.

It would’ve been sweet if I hadn’t been so annoyed with it by now. Whatever Aunt Mackenzie had told him, he seemed to believe it. I think he genuinely thought I was in trouble and needed his help. So, I let him think that, but I knew it’d grow old fast. He’d forget, just like he had gotten over Michael, and things would go back to normal.

What was normal though? Not so sure I ever had a normal. Normal for me was spending lunch alone in a cafeteria, wishing some randoms would come over, and when they did, wishing that they would stay away.

Now, normal was helping people with their homework. It sounded incredibly mundane, and by rights, it was mundane. But it was what I needed. Every day, slowly by slowly, I could feel it slightly getting better.

With every movement that Dad regained back, with every step he was almost ready to take, I knew that things were changing for me. It would take a while, but things would get better. I knew they would.

 

I usually slept in on Saturdays, but this morning, Aunt Mackenzie opened my door at around 8:15 am.

“You have a call,” she said, “from Elizabeth.”

I covered my eyes to shield the light from the day. “Elizabeth?”

“You know, the youth pastor’s wife.”

Oh. Beth. I should’ve known her real name was Elizabeth.

I pushed back my blanket. “She doesn’t have my number yet,” I said. I hadn’t been in the habit of giving out my phone number, although I do remember her asking. I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Aunt Mackenzie handed me her cell phone. “Bring it to the kitchen when you’re done,” she said, and then she left the room.

I put the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Good morning, Emma!” Yep. That was Beth. Way too cheerful for a Saturday morning.

“Hi,” I said again.

“Did I wake you? I’m sorry if I did, I didn’t have your number or I would’ve texted you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. And you did wake me, but that’s fine.”

I waited for a second for her to start.

“Well, I was calling because I wanted to see if you wanted to come with me around town. I’m doing a few errands today while Alex watches Grace, and I thought I could use some company.”

Hmm, did that sound like something I wanted to do? I wasn’t even sure. I mean, Beth was fine, but if I went with her alone, then we’d have to talk, and that might get a little bit much after a while. But if it was just Beth, then I wouldn’t have to worry if I was making anyone else uncomfortable by not talking – Beth already knew and accepted my non-communicative ways.

“Yes,” I said before I could think better if it.

“I can get to your aunt’s house in ten minutes.”

Beth was there in five.

She drove a blue minivan, which I should have guessed. I’m not sure I’ve sat in the front of a minivan before.

“Hey, Emma,” she said when I climbed into the vehicle. “You ready to run some errands?”

“I guess.”

A pause.

“Can you drive?” Beth asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

So, no one had told her, I thought.

Beth did most of the talking at first.

“I need to go to the bank first and then to BJ’s to pick up a few things for Sunday.” She waved a passing car forward. “Then, we can go get something to eat, so think about what you want.”

Yep, that was Beth. She was about as guarded as her husband Alex, which meant not guarded at all.

“Okay,” I said. A comfortable silence fell over the car. It smelled of baby poop. I didn’t say it, though. From all the tree air fresheners open and hanging from the rearview mirror, I could tell that Beth had tried to cover it up.

“What are your plans for today?” Beth asked.

“Nothing much, I replied. “Maybe help Dad with some things around the house.”

“How’s it going with him?”

“Dad? Oh, he’s getting better.”

“What’s it like having him around all the time?”

“A little weird, to be honest. I think he’s getting cabin fever.”

Beth steered the car into the Chase parking lot.

“Actually, I’m gonna do the drive through, so we don’t have to get out.” Beth glanced at me.

“What about your brother James? We met him last Friday. How’s he doing?”

“Okay, I guess.” I didn’t really know how James was doing. He and I had as little conversations together possible. But I was sure he wasn’t okay.

“He’s staying out late,” I said. “I know he has a girlfriend, but my parents still don’t know.”

“When are you going to tell them?” Beth reached out of the window to work the ATM. When I didn’t answer, she said: “You are going to tell them, right?”

“I don’t know. James is a pain, but I’m not their messenger.” I swallowed. “If they haven’t found out by now, then I’m not gonna say anything.”

“Isn’t that wrong, Emma?” Beth had finished her transaction and was waiting for a receipt. I didn’t look at her, instead focusing on my hands. They wiggled, intertwined, then unfurled.

“You don’t understand,” I said, finally. “If they can’t see it then there’s no pointing it out.” Maybe it was a bad attitude and maybe it was a bit more about me and less about James. Was I still upset that they hadn’t figured out what was wrong with me when they were the ones who were supposed to care?

Beth didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either. We sat like that, choking on the sickly-sweet combination of lemon air freshener and the baby poop it was supposed to be covering. It wasn’t doing a good job.

“Right over there,” Beth said, pointing out the window. I looked to where she was indicating. We were on the highway now, and she was pointing to a string of houses along a small body of water.

“That’s where I used to live,” she said, turning back to the road. She sighed. “It just reminds me how fast time moves, you know?”

I didn’t respond.

“So, let me tell you why Alex and I took this job.”

When I didn’t protest, she continued.

“I don’t like teenagers,” Beth said matter of factly. “They’re very selfish, complain all the time, and they hate responsibility. At first, I used to think it was just them, but then I had a baby and I saw that Grace was just like them. And then I started hanging around adults my age and I noticed that a lot of them were like that, too.

“That’s when I realized, Emma, that it wasn’t teenagers that I hated – it was people. They were messy and irresponsible and they ruined everything they came in contact with.”

“But why would that make you want to work with them?” A realization like that would drive me about as far away as I already was.

“Well because then I saw that I was the same way. I only cared about myself and getting my own way. But God saved me.”

Oh. I’d almost forgotten she was telling me why Alex became a youth pastor. Of course God had saved her.

Beth must’ve noticed something because she looked at me. And then she summed up my life perfectly in one ominous sentence: “You say you’re a Christian, but God doesn’t have anything to do with your life, does he?”

I wanted to let silence take over – it was my normal defense mechanism – but Beth didn’t let me.

“Tell me the truth – you just show up because of your parents, but you don’t actually want to be here.”

“I don’t want to be here,” I said, “but I don’t come because they make me.”

“So why do you come then?” We were in the BJ’s parking lot now, but we weren’t getting out. Was now the time? I asked myself. Was Beth the person that I tell?

“The accident that put my Dad in that wheelchair was my fault,” I said. “I think that by coming to church, maybe I can get to know God and then maybe I can ask him to forgive me.”

Beth put her hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to wait, you know,” she said. “You’ve heard all of this before: you can just ask God to forgive you now and he will.”

Of course she would say it. That’s what everyone would say. But that’s just not the way it worked. I had already asked God to forgive me – I’d asked him a billion times. But the guilt was still there, so I was sure it hadn’t worked.

But I would keep trying. I wouldn’t stop until I figured out a way to convince him that I had changed and that I was worth forgiving.

 

I tried avoiding Beth the next day, which was kinda hard considering her kid was staying in the nursery. That and the fact that she and her husband were the ones in charge of me and Ethan. But when I finally did managed to see her after dodging from the car to the building and then hiding whenever she came around, she wasn’t upset.

“Good morning, Emma,” said Beth, pulling me into a hug. She was doing that more often, and it was slowly starting to become a little less uncomfortable. I guess that’s what happens with exposure.

Ethan playfully pulled me away from her. “What’s this, Beth? Don’t I get a hug?”

“Not so fast, son,” Alex said, pulling Ethan away from his wife. “Only one man gets a hug from Beth – and that man is me.” He stepped into Beth’s arms and gave Ethan a pretend menacing look.

“You can’t have all the girls in here, Ethan,” he said.

“Man, you figured me out,” said Ethan. “Thanks for the help, but it’s time for me to get moving.”

“You came here to pick up girls?” Beth asked. “Couldn’t you do that at school? Or are there no good-looking girls at school?”

“Oh no, I’ve already picked up all the girls at school,” Ethan said, leaning against the wall. “I’ve decided that I needed to check out greener pastures.”

“Wow, Ethan, you’re so gross,” I said, trying to hold back a laugh.

“Yeah, you think so?” He gave me a light shove. “You think I don’t see the way you look at Seth? What is it about him that’s got you hooked? Is it his height? His dreamy eyes?”

“No, it’s definitely not any of those,” I said. “And I don’t have eyes for that guy. Karen has enough for the both of us.”

A wad of tissue flew through the hallway and hit me in the face.

“What on earth?”

I looked up – it was Jimmy, the boy who had been messing with the scissors a few weeks ago.

“I made a paper plane, Ms. Emma,” he said, picking up the tissue he’d launched at me. When I saw his bright smile of pride as he lifted the paper and held it up to my face, I couldn’t say what was on my mind: that thing was something, but it definitely wasn’t a paper plane.

But instead, I stooped down to his height and touched the airplane. “Man, Jimmy, that’s a really nice airplane. Can I look at it?”

He thrust it into my hands and smiled up at Ethan. “Did you see my plane, Mr. Ethan?”

“Oh, yeah, that plane is amazing. You are thinking of becoming a pilot when you get older?”

“A pilot?” Jimmy turned the question over in his mind about as many times as I turned the plane over in my hands before handing it back to him. “No, I think I want to be an astronaut.”

“Well, this plane is really top-notch stuff,” said Ethan. He turned to me. “What do you think, Ms. Emma? Do you think NASA will accept someone with this much talent?”

I stood up. “Definitely.” Jimmy smiled and hurried into the classroom, showing all the other kids – and anyone who would listen – that he was going to be an astronaut.

Later that afternoon, when I was waiting with Ethan for his mom to pick him up, I thanked him.

“You know, for what you said to Jimmy.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“No, I mean it. Jimmy hasn’t really listened to me much since the whole scissor incident. But today, thanks to you, he was the most attentive in that whole class.”

“Don’t sweat it,” said Ethan. “You know, when Kyle was little, he used to want to be a pilot. I thought that maybe Jimmy did, too.”

“Well, you were close. Unless, of course, NASA shuts down space travel before he gets through college.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you knew about conspiracy theories!”

“And I didn’t know that you believed them.”

“What’s the phrase? The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Why should I be surprised if the government is helping it along?”

I laughed.

“Anyway, I wanted to say thank you for helping me do these community service hours,” said Ethan. “If I hadn’t asked, then I probably wouldn’t have found another way to complete them. And then I wouldn’t have been able to get any scholarships for college.”

“Oh, I’m sure you would’ve been able to figure out some way.”

“So, what are you studying in college?”

“Not so sure,  to be honest. Actually, I don’t think much about college.”

“That’s not surprising. I don’t think anyone in this school will go to college. They’ll just end up going to Dade with all the rest of their friends.”

“What did you want to be, growing up?”

“Um, I’m not so sure, I said. I didn’t really spend too much time thinking about the future.”

“That’s cool, I guess. Not everyone has their lives planned out, but sometimes it’s nice to have an idea.”

“What about you, then? What are your plans for the future?”

“Well, I’d really like to be a studio musician. The whole touring thing is just not appealing to me.”

“I didn’t know you were an instrument.”

“Oh, I’m like a musical prodigy. O play almost every single instrument this school has.”

“When we come on Friday, you should bring one of your instruments. I’m sure Alex will be very pleased.”

“Yeah, that guy will be pleased with pretty much anything I do. I’ve got that guy wrapped around my finger.”

“Hey, Alex is actually a pretty nice guy.”

“You know, I was surprised, too.  I thought that all church people just wanted to judge me and try to fix my life. Turns out, there are at least three people who aren’t like that.”

“Let me guess – I’m not one of them.”

“You know yourself too well, Emma.”

 

Mr. Alvarez was in the room when I entered the Study Club one afternoon. I guess I was a bit early. He was fiddling with the lock on the wooden cabinet. I cleared my throat so he knew that I was inside.

“Oh!” He said, startled.

“I had hoped to avoid startling you, but it didn’t work,” I said.

“Well, you’re just here a little early. I was, uh, putting away some things,” he said. And then he started to dash off, but I stopped him.

“Mr. Alvarez, I just wanted to thank you.”

“Uh, thank me?”

“Yes, for inviting me to the Study Club. I’ve learned a lot so far, and I wanted to say thank you.”

“I’ve seen a change in you, Emma, and it’s a good change. If I helped that along one bit, you are most welcome.”

Ethan and Karen came in, and Mr. Alvarez made his escape.

“What’s his deal?” Ethan asked.

“Not so sure,” I said. “He was messing with the cabinet when I came in.”

“Why is he always working on that thing?” Karen asked. “And why does it have a lock? If it was so important, then why even keep it in this classroom?”

“Yeah, because Homestead High is full of criminals that’ll clean you of house and home if you let them.”

“Come on, Ethan, let’s see what’s inside.”

I took a seat. “Shouldn’t we be getting to work? Don’t you have a science project coming up, Karen?”

“Oh, schoolwork can wait until tonight,” Karen said, brushing my comment aside. She turned to Ethan. “Come on, Ethan, you know you want to find out what’s inside.”

“Of course I do, but we can’t just break into Mr. A’s cabinet. That’s not right.”

“What’s not right?” Seth said, entering the room.

Karen was instantly all over him. “Oh, you’re here Seth, you can help us. We want to find out what’s inside of that cabinet.”

“You want me to break into Alvarez’s cabinet.” Seth glanced at me. “What does Ms. Alfaro think?”

“We should leave him alone.”

“You heard the woman,” Seth said.

“But come on, Seth, don’t you want a challenge?” Karen touched his arm. “You said you were the best lock pick in this entire school. Why don’t you show me if you’re really any good.”

A fire seemed to light in Seth’s eyes. He immediately strode over to the cabinet and began examining the lock. He turned to them.

“This one will be no challenge,” he said. “Alvarez must’ve forgotten to lock the cabinet on his hurry out of here.”

Karen reached for the door.

Seth held up a hand. “I’ll only let you if you promise that whatever you find in there…” He lowered his voice and leaned close to her. “…promise me that whatever you see, you won’t scream.”

Ethan clapped his hands. “And the Oscar goes to…”

Karen didn’t need any other persuasion. She yanked the lock and pulled open the doors.

“That’s it?”

“It’s just got a bunch of junk in it.”

I looked up. The cabinet was filled with electronic parts. They seemed to be part of a larger device, though, because lights were blinking here and there. This wasn’t just a bunch of junk. But I couldn’t figure out what it was, either.

Ethan reached for something that looked vaguely like a remote.

“This thing was probably a remote for a drone,” he said.

“I didn’t know that Mr. Alvarez was an engineer,” I said, turning back to my work. I was desperately afraid that Mr. Alvarez would come into the room and he would see me looking in his cabinet and he’d be disappointed in me. I didn’t need anyone else disappointed in me.

But he didn’t come in. Karen eventually closed the cabinet and we all went back to our work. No one else thought of the cabinet again. But I wondered about what we had just seen. What if that device in Mr. Alvarez’s cabinet was dangerous? It was hiding there in plain sight, and no one would’ve known if he hadn’t made a small mistake.

It reminded me of me. I had been hiding the ghost for so long, and then I had made a mistake and it had gotten out. And then it had done some damage, damage that I couldn’t repair. Although, that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. I wanted to ask Mr. Alvarez about the device in his cabinet, but when he came back at the end of the Study Club, his eyes were red, like he’d been crying. He rushed to the cabinet and checked the lock – Seth had been smart enough to click the lock back into place and wipe it down before they had gone back to work.

Mr. Alvarez didn’t suspect a thing. He wouldn’t look at us but focused on his computer instead.

I didn’t like seeing him like that, so I left without saying a word.

 

The bus was crowded today, which was a surprise. Every single seat was taken and a few kids were sitting three to a seat. It was ridiculous.

“The bus to Naranja broke down in the parking lot,” I overheard someone say. “All those kids are gonna have to fit in here.”

“There’s no way I’m sitting three to a seat, though,” said a girl behind me. “They’re just gonna have to sit with someone else.”

I was sitting next to a sleeping figure. If the kids from the other bus tried to sit here, I’d just try to wake him up. If he didn’t wake – which I knew he wouldn’t – then the person would have to try to convince someone else to let them sit.

I know, I know. Terrible. But I didn’t really feel like having anyone sit next to me today.

After a few minutes of boarding, I noticed James get on the bus with a girl – a different girl. I wondered what happened to the other one. What was her name again? I don’t think I ever got it, now that I thought about it.

“Three to a seat!” The bus driver was yelling from the front. I was far back enough that people weren’t even trying to make me move over.

“Hey, Ms. Alfaro. I didn’t know you rode this bus.” It was Seth and his six foot something self toward over my chair.

“Hi,” I managed. I didn’t want anyone to see me talking to him – I had spent the last three years convincing my fellow bus passengers that I couldn’t speak. If Seth kept it up, my lie would be revealed.

“Can I sit here?” Seth asked.

I didn’t even ask the sleeping guy – I just slid over. The guy was either actually sleeping or he was a superb actor – he didn’t even stir.

Seth wedged half a leg onto the seat and put his arm on the seat to hold himself up.

“Your bus always this packed?” He asked. Most of the kids from his bus had found a seat. Those girls who said they wouldn’t let anyone sit with them had apparently forgotten their many friends from Naranja.

“So, your bus broke down?”

“No, our bus driver is just really dumb,” Seth said. “He just forgot to put gas and no one wants to help him out.”

The bus lurched forward. Seth gripped the seat in front of him and I fought to keep from flying out of the seat myself. The sleeping guy stirred and for a second, I thought he would wake up, but he went right on sleeping.

“Hey, listen, Ms. Alfaro, I think you helping Ethan is really cool. After the whole thing with Michael, Ethan hasn’t been himself. The stuff you’re doing with him at that church seems to be helping.”

“Have you known Ethan for a while?”

Seth nodded. “I’m a veteran in this school, remember. I know everyone and if they know what’s right for them, everyone knows me.”

“I’ve been in this school for three years,” I countered, “and I’ve never seen you once.”

“That’s because you fly under the radar, Ms. Alfaro. There are a few of you in that school – some good, some up to no good – that remain undetected.”

“I guess I have you to thank for putting me on the radar, then.”

“Blame Mr. A. He’s the one that got you to take over once Michael kicked the bucket.”

I felt my face go cold. It’s weird how your body reacts like that.

“Oh no I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” Seth said hurriedly. “That’s just me and my careless mouth. I’m real sorry that Michael died – I really am – and I wish I could’ve done something, you know?”

“Don’t we all,” I said. It was okay, I wanted to say. I know you weren’t trying to be insensitive.

Seth looked at me curiously. “Why did you say that?”

“Why did I say what?”

“You said: ‘Don’t we all’.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“No, it’s just…” Seth trailed off.

I tried to wrack my brain to see if I had ever heard anyone say that phrase but I came up blank.

“Oh yes, I remember.” Seth snapped his fingers. “I remember who I heard say it.”

I waited for him to tell me, but he didn’t. Instead, Seth gave me a weird look when he guessed what I was thinking.

“Oh, no,” he said, “it wasn’t anyone that you would know. One of those under the radar types.”

We rode the rest of the bus ride in silence. It wasn’t a bad silence, but it definitely wasn’t a comfortable one. It wasn’t anything on my end, though – Seth was lost in thought for what appeared to be the first time in his entire life.

The bus pulled up to a Naranja neighborhood. Seth stood up.

“Thanks for the seat, Ms. Alfaro,” he said, sliding his bookbag onto his back. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

That night, I went to bed early. Our conversation on the bus was normal. We both talked and it wasn’t weird at all. But something about it hadn’t felt right.

As I turned the conversation over in my mind, I tried to figure out what it was. A cold feeling was settling in my stomach. The night was starting to spread in front of me, stretching on and on, never ending, mirroring the darkness filling my soul.

But why? It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t anything wrong. I was doing well in school. The Study Club was going well. I was getting along pretty well with Ethan and Karen and now even Seth.

And that’s when I remembered.

“Don’t we all.” It was a saying I’d heard many times before, somewhere deep in my past. But the voice that I heard saying it was one that I’d never forgotten.

And to hear that it belonged to someone who haunted the outskirts of Homestead High didn’t surprise me.

After all, the voice belonged to my ghost. That’s why I was feeling this way. I subconsciously was reacting to the knowledge of his proximity.

I closed my eyes and tried to quiet my mind. I needed to go to sleep – stay asleep – I couldn’t think about this.

But even as I wished myself to sleep, it wouldn’t come. When I finally did drift off, it was to the sound of a ghost passing through my body, asking me if I had forgotten him already.

 

Loud voices broke through the darkness, same as they always did. Except this time, I didn’t wake up the same as usual. This time, I woke up with a dread I hadn’t felt in ages. It was the feeling of knowing something horrible was on its way, but not knowing what it was. The knowledge that the ghost was anywhere near me – that he was currently in my school – brought that fear right up to my throat.

The only thing that could chase it down were the words drifting up the stairs. I crept to the hallway to hear better, but I should’ve already known what was happening.

James had come in late again. I think that this was the last straw for Dad. The voices from the living room were taking over the house. And they weren’t the usual voices – these were angry and hurt and they were escalating quickly. I didn’t want anything to do with them. I fled to my room, but that wasn’t enough. A few minutes later, James was in my room, face red with anger.

“Isn’t it so ridiculous? Dad is bugging out.”

“Stop, James,” I said. “I don’t want to hear any of it.”

“Emma, I’m just trying to talk about this -”

“I don’t care what you do anymore, James. I don’t care that you keep staying out late or whatever it is that you’re doing all the time. You want to ruin your life, then ruin it.”

“Well, I’m not the one who didn’t want to live anymore,” James said. “It’s not my fault that Dad’s like this: it’s yours, Emma. At least I’m trying to do something about this nonsense – you were just too busy creating it.”

“Why do you think I drove off that night? Or can’t you remember?” I could feel the heat rising with my voice as I formulated a lie. “You and Dad were in the middle of a fight and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What? I don’t remember -”

“I did it because of you, James. So, I don’t care right now, if you stay or if you leave. You’ve ruined my life once already, James. I’m not going to let you do it again.”

His face fell. Whatever anger he may have had toward Dad and this whole situation was gone – now he was just hurt and confused, and it was against me. I had turned this thing about me again, same as always. I tried to take it back.

“James, I’m sorry, that was wrong, I didn’t mean that -”

But James was gone. I felt the tears coming, but I held them back. I didn’t have a right to cry. If anyone did, it was James. I had said those things, but they weren’t true. He and Dad hadn’t gotten into an argument, but it had felt good to lie. I regretted it instantly, but it’s one of those things that you just can’t take back.

I went to his room to try to apologize again, but he was gone.

“James?” I called out as I ran down the stairs. I had barely made it to the bottom when I heard Dad’s voice from the living room.

“Don’t go, James,” he was saying. “You don’t have to do this. You can stay here. We can make this work.”

“I’m leaving,” James said, “and you can’t stop me.”

Dad froze. “James…”

“I told you, I’m leaving! I can’t stand it here. How am I supposed to live like this?”

“James, you’re just a kid -”

“You think that because I’m a kid then you can just treat me however you want, but that’s not true.” James put his hand on the door. “I’m leaving.”

“Please don’t leave, James.”

“I’ll never have peace if I stay here. I’m done with this place.”

And then, he was gone.

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