Reads: 253

“Tara, wake up.”

“At least he’s getting closer. Maybe by graduation, he’ll get it right.”

I watched Belmont smack my unconscious self repeatedly across the face. He had slapped me at least twenty times in the past five minutes, as if a single hard slap would jolt me awake, and for a moment, I thought he was showing compassion for someone other than himself. That tiny bit of hope was dashed when he muttered about being blamed for my supposed death and not wanting to call his father for help with bailing him out of jail.

I rolled my eyes as he contemplated dragging me into the nearest bathroom, laying me in the bathtub with the water running, and framing my death as a tragic suicide brought on by years of depression. I wished that I was able to touch him, to allow me the glorious opportunity of strangling him with my bare hands. I would be proud to tell my grandchildren that story one day: how I got to kill the infamous Fin Belmont a second time.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Where is this water even coming from? You better wake up right now. I can’t have this happening to me again. If my dad finds out, he’ll take away my car and my credit cards.”

I clutched my chest. “Oh no, how will you ever survive?”

“Don’t you people have a bracelet or something to call your special hospital?” he asked, lifting up the sleeve of my oversized Star Wars t-shirt to search for a medical bracelet.

Belmont reached for my phone beside my pillow. “Hey! Don’t touch my phone!”

“I could text a friend, pretend to be her, ask them to come over, and then they’ll get blamed for this. Wait, does she have any besides that nerd? It doesn’t matter. Where is he? There you are, Nelson. Who the hell texts about books? Can you two get any lamer?”

“I am going to love letting you pass on and rot in the worst part of Hell.”

Reading through their texts, Belmont imitated Will in a mocking, nerdy tone. “I thought your presentation was—what?" If he squeezed my phone any tighter, it would snap in half. "Belmont and his gang of morons probably couldn’t understand that book unless it had a bunch of pictures. It’s not their fault, Will. They have the combined IQ of a goldfish. Look who thinks they’re so funny behind a text.”

“I happen to be hilarious. You just never notice because you’re either ditching class or too busy with your tongue down some girl’s throat,” I replied, trying to wipe the muddy, metallic taste from my lips.

The door creaked open and Ryan sleepily stumbled into the room, rubbing his eyes. He was clutching a teddy bear with its left ear partially torn off, a present that I had given to him when he was born at the hospital. I remembered how I had spent over an hour at the toy store with my father, searching for the perfect gift, and insisted that I pay for it with my own money, a combination of my allowance and money given to me by a group of elderly women at the church.

As a prank, Hilton told the women that I was dying from a dreadful disease and heading to the hospital later that day for surgery, not to visit my newly born brother. The women, feeling sympathetic, gave me about a hundred dollars between them for buying a present after I pulled through the surgery and the speechless expression on Hilton’s face as her plan backfired was worth it enough to play along with her mean-spirited joke. With the money, I decided to buy him a teddy bear that recited a recorded message when a person squeezed its hand and ever since, he had slept with it every night, my recorded lullaby putting him to sleep.

“Tessa, Teddy and I had another nightmare. Can we—Tessa?”

“Shit. Kid, you’re just sleepwalking. Go back to bed,” said Belmont, hiding my phone behind his back.

Ryan’s eyes grew wide with fear and he rushed to my side, checking my wrist for a pulse. I bent down beside him, wishing that I could hug him to prove that there was no reason to worry despite my lack of a pulse and the water dribbling down my chin. It was only last year that he began to learn about the special gift in our family that was passed down from generation to generation and being only five years old, he struggled to understand that when I experienced another person’s death, I was only unconscious for a few minutes to an hour, not actually dead.

Shouting for my mother, he opened the bottom drawer of my dresser to search for my bag of gotu kola, an herb that was used to wake me up from my unconscious state. My mother tended to blend it together with water to dull its bitter taste and kept bottles in multiple spots, such as the kitchen, her car, and her purse, in case I experienced a death in a public place.

Belmont seized his wrist roughly, hissing for him to be quiet. I immediately stood up from the edge of my bed, angered that he put his hands on my little brother. Ryan, knowing that it was a ghost but unable to see them yet, glanced around the room.

“W—who’s there?”

“I’m standing right next to you. Are you blind? What, does your whole family have problems? Be quiet.”

“Let go of my brother!” I shouted, clenching my fists.

My lamp flew across the room at lightning speed, smacking Belmont in the face. He fell to the floor with a loud groan, the broken lamp rolling under the bed. Ryan and I shared the same stunned expression though in his childish imagination, some sort of ghost fight was occurring in front of him. When my mother opened the door, she witnessed four very different sights: Ryan kneeling beside me and waving his hands as if he was trying to catch smoke, my unconscious self on the floor, me staring at the broken lamp, and Belmont muttering a slew of curses while holding a hand against his cheek to stem the bleeding.

“It happened again, mommy. Teddy thinks it’s a ghost fight.”

“Don’t be afraid, sweetie. I’m right here. Let me help your sister.”

My mother twisted open a bottle, the same one she used in the nurse’s office, and poured a few drops down my throat. As the herb took effect, my eyes fluttered open and I sat up, breathing heavily. I wiped the water away from my chin. She rubbed my back comfortingly, ignoring Belmont’s whining about needing stitches. Ryan’s tiny arms wrapped around my neck.

“Teddy and I were really scared.”

“You know I’d never leave you behind. You should get to bed. It’s late.”

He squeezed me as hard as he could and returned to his room, talking to his teddy bear. “So your little brother’s not blind. He’s just messed up in the head.”

My mother gripped my shoulder, stopping me from throwing the broken lamp at Belmont. “I will not have you insulting any of my children in my own home.”

“Oh, now you notice me? Before you think of calling the cops, I didn’t hurt your daughter. She fainted on her own. Maybe you should keep her in the hospital or something. You can take me to get stitches.”

“That’s quite a nasty cut on your head, dear. Are you a friend of Tessa’s?”

“I’m Fin Belmont. Do I look like someone who would hang out with your daughter? Take me to the hospital already.”

“There’s no need for that, Fin.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me. My last name is Belmont…as in the family who owns this entire town. If you don’t take me to the hospital, my dad will sue you until you’re left with no choice but to live on the streets. Judging by this place, it wouldn’t take much for that to happen.”

“Tessa will explain everything.”

“Mom, wait—”

“After he’s decided and I’ve put Ryan to bed, we’ll talk,” she whispered in my ear.

I found myself dreading this conversation even more than usual. Belmont, clueless as to why my mother left the room without offering to drive him to the hospital, looked to me for an explanation. I simply stared at him, knowing that our conversation would only end in disaster. He began to insult my mother, calling her stupid for not caring that my family was about to be bankrupt and kicked out of the town. Fed up with just listening to his voice, I grabbed a squirt bottle on my nightstand, used to train our cat, and sprayed him in the face with water.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, brushing away the droplets of water on his nose in a similar manner to the cat.

“You’re done talking. Now it’s my turn. You got hurt at the party.”

“Probably from you hitting me with a tree branch.”

“No, something else. You don’t remember but in time, it’ll probably start coming back to you. The reason my brother acted like that before is because he couldn’t see you. He’s not blind. It’s…I’ll just say that it’s complicated but only my mother and I can see you right now.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“You died at the party. I don’t know how but that’s why you ended up in my room without any memory of coming here. What happens next is all up to you. I can’t force you to choose one way or the other. You can choose to pass on and wherever you end up, you end up…or you can stay behind. The second option is if you’re not ready to leave behind people you care about or to accept what’s happened. If you choose to stay, you can still see everybody and interact with things in this world but to everyone but me, my mother, and other people like you, you’ll be invisible. The choice is final. There’s no taking it back days or even years later. I can give you a few minutes to think about it.”

Belmont sniggered. “I get it. You and your nerdy boyfriend are playing a prank. You’re trying to get back at me for being mean to him. Nice try.”

“It’s not a joke. You’re dead. I know how hard it can be to accept but—”

“Shut up.”

“This is never easy. I’ve dealt with it for years and you’re not the first to—”

“I said shut up! I'm not dead!”

“With people like you, it’s just better to pass on to get some peace. Just take my hands.”

He angrily smacked my hands away and stormed out of the room. I chased after him, finding him in the kitchen where he snatched my mother’s car keys from a basket on the counter.

“You can’t drive a car. If someone sees it moving without a person behind the wheel, it’ll lead to a lot of questions that even my mother can’t answer. Give me the keys.”

“Then you can drive, Byrne.”

“Drive where?”

“To the Falls. I’m sure everyone is still at the party. You’re taking me back there and depending on my mood, I’ll consider not destroying your reputation to the point that you’ll want to transfer to a school in another country.”

“Fine. Let me at least tell my mother that I’m going out again. Wait for me in the car.”

As he left the house, slamming the front door behind him, I dialed 911.

“Belmont Police Department. This is Isabelle speaking.”

“Hi. I was at a party by the Falls tonight and I just went back there to find my wallet. I uh was walking on the bridge and I thought I saw something in the water. I—it might’ve been a person.”

“By the bridge, you said?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll send someone to check it out. Could I have your name, please? The police may need to question you further about what you witnessed.”

“I’d like to remain anonymous.”

“I understand. Thank you for the tip, miss.”

I scribbled a quick note for my mother, telling her the truth about being forced to take Belmont to the Falls. Any other teenager likely would have lied about meeting with friends but my mother was never that easily fooled and considering my only real friends were Will and Elena, a cover story like that would never be convincing.

Slipping on a pair of jeans and sneakers, I left the house. Belmont was impatiently tapping his fingers on the arm rest and as he spotted me by the door, he honked the horn three times and soon, a series of barks rang up and down the street. I swallowed hard, holding onto the tiniest bit of sanity left in me, and walked over to the car. The drive back to the Falls was filled with silence and awkward tension. Giving him the dying speech again would only set off another argument so I settled for turning on the radio to make the ride a little more bearable.

“At least your taste in music isn’t awful," he muttered, slouching in his seat like a disgruntled child.

“Can we please talk about this? It usually doesn't happen this way but I think it’s a bad idea if you see—”

“Enough with the act, Byrne. Nice try but to be honest, the prank was a little pathetic. I’ll give you credit for sneaking me out of the party without anyone noticing that I was gone.”

“So you find it more believable that Will and I staged an elaborate prank to explain how you somehow ended up in my house, which you’ve never been to, in the middle of the night?”

“Yep. You wanted to get back at me for teasing your little boyfriend.”

“Will isn’t my boyfriend. He’s my friend. Guys and girls can be just friends without it turning into a relationship.”

“You’re really that naïve? He may be a geek but he’s like any other guy. He’s being nice to get laid.”

“Maybe with your friends, that’s common but thankfully, not every guy is like you.”

“Dress like an actual girl for once and you get a backbone?”

“Just because I don’t dress like Claire and her robots, it doesn’t mean I’m not a girl. Clothes don’t define a person.”

“You sound like a fortune cookie.”

Upon arriving at the Falls, we discovered that the entrance gate was locked, a No Trespassing sign hung in the middle. The only cars that remained were three police cars but when I pointed that out to Belmont, he brushed it off, claiming that everyone hid their cars in a different spot to avoid the cops. He was very adamant that his friends were still partying at the Falls, even at two in the morning, and suggested that we climb over the gate.

“The sign says no trespassing. I know you have a limited vocabulary but you should at least know what that word means.”

“The sign says no trespassing,” he said in a mocking tone.

“I don’t talk like that.”

“Stop being a baby. We do this all the time when the cops try to break up a party.”

“It’s like ten feet high.”

“I want you to be there when I embarrass you so you’re climbing that fence. Let’s go.”

The first few steps were easy as I followed him up the chain link fence. Towards the top, I made the mistake of glancing down and it felt like I had climbed thousands of feet into the air. My heart was practically beating out of my chest and I gripped the fence, keeping my eyes shut. I began to count backwards from a hundred, taking deep, shaky breaths. Hearing Belmont shout for me to move faster, I continued to climb up the fence, my fingers digging so deeply into the metal that they were turning red, and once I swung my legs over to the other side, I quickened my pace to get down to the ground. While I cupped my trembling hands over my mouth, breathing in through my nose, Belmont searched, through squinted eyes, for his friends in the darkness but it was impossible to see past the trees. Several bright lights were shining in the distance.

“That must be them. Bet they’re playing manhunt. What’s up with you?”

“N—nothing.”

“You’re that winded from climbing a fence? Someone needs to work out more during gym. Don’t give them any more reasons to make fun of you, Byrne. I mean, I don’t think your social status could plummet any lower after I get through with you but you might prove me wrong if they see you like this.”

“I just don’t like climbing fences at two in the morning. Midnight is fine but two is pushing it a little.”

We walked in the direction of the bright lights and I slowly realized that we were headed towards the bridge. Belmont merely laughed at any of my attempts to convince him to return to my mother’s car, thinking that I wanted to avoid being humiliated by his friends. He stopped at the entrance to the path that led directly to the bridge, which was now blocked off by yellow tape with the words Crime Scene - Do Not Cross written in large black letters. The tape extended on both sides to two wooden signs that indicated different trails.

“You can’t do that,” I said as Belmont tore down the tape across the path.

“It’s a gag. Parker always steals this kind of stuff from his dad’s office.”

“Why would he put up crime scene tape?”

“Because it’s funny. You wouldn’t know what that is if it bit you in the ass.”

Any sane person would put two and two together when they saw the police cars and crime scene tape. I found his level of denial simultaneously impressive and depressing. He seemed more determined to prove that his friends had never left the party at the Falls to himself than to me, though he masked it by teasing how Hilton would not let me forget my failure of a prank for weeks. We stopped at a hill overlooking the bridge where instead of his friends; we spotted half a dozen cops and several German Shepherds.

One of the cops, a young man in his early twenties with swept-back golden blonde hair, was drenched from head to toe and holding a Belmont High varsity jacket. It was impossible to hear their conversation from the top of the hill but judging by their grim expressions, they did not drive out to the Falls for a late night swim. I looked at Belmont like he was insane when he sniggered quietly.

“Parker probably got a little too drunk again. He never can handle his liquor too well.”

“We need to leave.”

“Relax. This isn’t the first time he’s gotten this drunk. He fell into the lake, one of those loser sophomores panicked and called the cops, and they’re just waiting for his drunk ass to wake up. That’s weird that he’s got my jacket.”

“Can you please just listen to me? We shouldn’t be here. If the cops see us—”

His smile faltered as one of the cops stepped aside, revealing the body sprawled on the ground. Belmont was staring at his own body, sporting the same, deep gash on the side of his head, his lips pale blue, and his lifeless jade green eyes gazing up at the pitch black sky. His face bore a blank expression but the longer he stared at his dead body, the stoic façade faded away, a fearful gleam in his eyes. Out of instinct, I hugged him to give him some sort of comfort. He tensed up, his arms hanging stiffly at his side, and shoved me, nearly making me fall over the hill.

“What was that?”

“It’s called a hug. I—I know this can’t be easy. You’re upset and—”

“I’m not upset and I don’t do hugs. Is this another part of your prank? You and Nelson made some lifelike doll of me and hired some guys to play cops? You two really went all out.”

“There never was a prank. I think you know the truth but you don’t want to believe it so you’ll say anything to avoid it.”

“I can’t be down there. I’m right here, next to you. This is…no, I’m not…”

“Let’s go back to my house," I said, gently. "We can talk about it there.”

During the drive back to my house, Belmont was completely silent, flicking his lighter on and off and tugging on a frayed string on his seat belt. I was surprised to see several plates of cookies, both sugar and chocolate chip, on the kitchen counter, along with three glasses of milk. My mother, taking another tray of cookies out of the oven, greeted Belmont with a warm smile. Seventeen years of experience taught me that whenever she was anxious, she baked to calm her nerves.

“Tessa, you’re back.”

“And you’re baking.”

“Well, I was already up and I had a sudden urge to bake some cookies. Would you like one, Fin? I wasn’t sure if you liked chocolate chip or sugar.”

“How can you see me?”

She placed the tray on the counter. “If you’re not sure, you can try both. There is plenty to—”

“I just saw my dead body being pulled out of a lake! How can you see me?!”

“I know this must be very difficult for you. It’s tragic to have one’s life cut so short but we can’t fight these things. We can try to escape our fate but in the end, it catches up with us, one way or the other. It’s rather complicated to explain why Tessa and I can see you. Call it our gift. It’s our job to guide souls to the other side.”

“More like mine,” I muttered, biting into a sugar cookie.

“I’m sure Tessa has already explained your choices. Most people don’t wish to see their bodies that were left behind but perhaps it helps the truth sink in better. Both choices have their appeal. It is very common for someone your age to choose to stay behind because they’re not ready to leave their loved ones. You know what is best for yourself. Have you decided yet?”

“I’m not choosing anything.”

“It doesn’t work like that, idiot," I said, grabbing another cookie to stop myself from calling him something much worse.

“You’re telling me no one has ever decided that they don’t want to be a ghost or move on to whatever is on that other side?”

“No, they haven’t. You have to choose one or the other, right, Mom?”

My mother bit her lip, busying herself with placing the tray in the dishwasher. She confessed that it was possible to choose neither option but it was a choice that people rarely made after death. If Belmont made that decision, he would remain a ghost but as time passed, his ghostly existence would become permanent and he could never choose to move on to the other side. She warned him against choosing this third option that she never mentioned to me, knowing that even those much older and wiser than him regretted it when they realized that they wanted to be with their loved ones years later.

“I made my decision. I’m picking neither.”

“Well, as I said, it is your choice. I do hope you don’t regret it,” she said, scratching the back of her ear.

With a pensive smile, she left the kitchen to check on my little brother. Belmont picked up a plate of chocolate chip cookies and began stuffing his face.

“Is your mom always that paranoid?”

“She just doesn’t want you to regret your decision,” I replied, bothered by the nagging feeling that my mother was hiding something from me.

“So do you do those séance things for money?”

“We’re not mediums," I said, scowling at him. "We’re...she calls us reapers. Like she said, we guide souls over to the other side. Let me explain how this ghost thing works. My mother and I are the only ones who can see you. Well, other ghosts can too but I doubt you’ll see many. They like to keep to themselves. You can interact with things in the physical world but you need to be careful. You can’t make it obvious.”

“You were drowning because of me? That water came out of nowhere.”

“Yeah, if someone I’ve seen or know personally dies, I feel that same experience. I don’t faint in the middle of class because I’ve got some medical problem. It’s from that death experience. It only lasts an hour, at most. It's sort of like an out of body thing but I'm not in the same place as ghosts. I don't really understand much of it myself. I’m going to bed.”

“Well, what do I do?” he asked as I jumped down from the stool.

“Anything you want. Have fun being a ghost.”

When I woke up the next morning, I was praying that last night was all a bad dream. I was pouring cereal and milk into two bowls when I heard the television switch on in the living room. Carrying one of the bowls, I found Belmont in the living room, watching a news report. His lips were no longer pale blue and the blood had been cleaned from the side of his head, the wound covered with multiple bandages.

The television screen showed the bridge at the Falls and Angela Starr, a field reporter and notorious gossip commonly referred to as a soulless woman by my own mother, was giving an update on the police finding his body. He grabbed the bowl from me, not taking his eyes off the screen, High School Football Star, 17, Found Dead flashing along the bottom.

“Aw, you’re sweet, Byrne. Thanks for making me this.”

“I didn’t.”

“Then make yourself another one. Why are you up so early? School doesn’t start for another two hours.”

“I like to run ten miles before school. Doesn’t everybody?” I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

“They’ve been talking about me all morning. I visited my house last night. I saw the cops with my parents. They think it was an accident…that I got drunk and fell off the bridge.”

“Accidents happen.”

“Only it wasn’t an accident. I’ve been drunk plenty of times on that bridge and I’ve never fallen.”

“First time for everything." I pushed his feet off a pillow that my grandmother had embroidered herself and lowered the volume on the television, not wanting to wake my brother. "Is there a reason you’re in my house?”

“Don’t you have better cereal?" he said, spitting the partially chewed cereal back into the bowl. "This healthy crap is gross. You never asked me why I never made a choice last night.”

“I figured it’s because you’re a stubborn jackass. Was I wrong?”

“Like I said, my death wasn’t an accident. You’re going to help me find out the truth.”

“That’s a job for the cops, not me.”

Belmont insisted that most of the cops in town were lazy, incompetent oafs who would rather do nothing than any actual work. Parker’s father, the chief of police, was known for taking bribes to keep certain incidents quiet and used his position of power to keep his son and his friends, including Belmont, out of any trouble.

I had no doubts that the police department was awful, remembering how they ruled an incident that severely injured my grandmother as an accident and refused to look into the case for more than a week. He suggested that his alleged murderer likely paid off Parker’s father mere hours after they discovered his body at the lake.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Prove me wrong. Let’s go back to that bridge.”

“When it's crawling with cops? I’d rather not get arrested for trespassing on a crime scene.”

“It’s five thirty in the morning. They’re all at Dottie’s Diner.”

“I don’t care if they all decided to go to Disney World for an entire year. I am not going near that bridge. Why is it so hard to accept that you, drunk and possibly high at the same time, fell and probably hit your head?”

“Because I didn’t. We’re going there right now or I’ll pull all kinds of ghost pranks at school then pin it on you so you get expelled. It’s up to you.”

Elena walked into the living room, eating from the other bowl of cereal. “You were right that it’s a waste of time to visit my grandmother. Those retirement homes are really boring. She just sits in front of the TV all day and—why is Belmont on your couch?"

She stiffened at the sight of him, her usually tanned face now white as a sheet. Her reaction was one of the reasons why I hoped that last night was a dream. I stepped towards her, unsure of how to explain his sudden presence in my living room. 

"You were drinking water all night so you didn’t get drunk. Did he follow you home after I hit him? Tessa, don’t tell me you felt bad and let him stay the night.”

“Elena,” I whispered.

“You can’t be this nice. Who knows what could’ve happened while he was drunk? Wait, did he try something? I know his tricks.”

Belmont was no longer interested in the news, his mouth hanging open. He stared at Elena as if she was a three-headed dragon and his eyes searched every inch of her for a sign that she was a figment of his imagination.

“E—Ellie?” he said, sounding both surprised and ecstatic.

Elena lowered her spoon and looked between me and him in confusion. “He said my name. Can he—why can he see me?”

No words coming to mind, I simply pointed at the news report. “The vision wasn’t about Katie. It was about…him. We had a long night.”

“He’s like me?”

“Sort of. He refused to make a decision so for now, he’s a ghost.”

“You stayed behind too? Byrne can see you?” he asked, standing up from the couch.

With every step he took towards her, she matched it with her own step backwards until she was using me as a human shield, though that was difficult when she was several inches taller. She did not share one ounce of Belmont's eagerness and averted her crystal blue eyes to the matching carpet.

“Tessa, we should get going,” 

“We need to stop at the Falls first. He wants to prove that his death wasn’t an accident. It won’t take long. Just indulge his little fantasies for an hour and then we can go,” I assured her, knowing that she would rather be drowned in acid than spend another minute with him.

The drive to the Falls was ten times more awkward, if possible, than last night. Belmont was struggling to comprehend how he was seeing Elena, despite my explanation that both of them were ghosts. A small part of me knew that this was like a miracle to him, since Elena had been dead for nearly two years and now suddenly, he was able to see her again as though she was never in a car accident.

I remembered he and Elena were the closest of his friends, rarely spending time apart, and how she always cheered him on at his games. It was a stark contrast to now, with Elena pretending that he was invisible.

The police cars were gone from the entrance to the Falls and most of the crime scene tape was already torn down, a sign that Belmont was telling the truth about the police department’s incompetence. All of the tension in the car followed us as we walked towards the bridge and I was trapped in the middle. I expected the bridge to at least be sealed off from visitors but there was no sign of an ongoing investigation. If a tourist was passing through, they would have no idea that someone died on that very bridge the night before.

“This is a waste of time. There’s nothing here. Can we go now?” Elena asked, impatiently.

“She’s right. It’s—”

Out of the corner of the eye, I noticed a series of scratches on the railing. When I pointed at the markings, Elena argued that the scratches could have been from Katie’s nails to stop herself from falling during the party. I would have readily agreed with her if I had not noticed a second set of markings further down the railing, chipped red nail polish around the edges.

“Tessa, those scratches mean nothing. It could’ve been a squirrel.”

“It looks like Katie's nail polish but these are different," I said, looking at the markings further down from where Katie had been dangling off the bridge. "Someone else scratched the railing. Maybe he was trying to hold on and—”

“Or he’s an idiot who fell over, tried to pull himself back up, and couldn’t hold on any longer. Just because he’s being a giant baby, it doesn’t mean you have to listen to his delusions. What are you doing?”

I walked over to a nearby shed where the beautification committee, a group of people dedicated to maintaining the land all year round, stored gardening tools and other equipment. Grabbing a coil of rope, I returned to the bridge and tied one end around the railing and the other end around my waist.

“Tessa, you can’t just—you’re not a cop. This isn’t a TV show where you suddenly become an amazing detective. Don’t climb over that railing.”

“What if the police missed something? There might be a clue…something that can explain how he fell.”

“He was drunk. That’s all the explanation we need.”

“Are you listening to her at all?” asked Belmont.

Elena scoffed. “Oh please, don’t act like you actually give a damn what she thinks. The only reason you’re siding with her is because she’s playing into your stupid theory.”

“So now you’re talking to me?

“I can barely say one word to you without puking but I’ll risk that to stop Tessa from dying too.”

“What’s your problem, Ellie?”

“It’s Elena to you! No, you know what? Don’t even talk to me anymore. Tessa and I are leaving right now. You can—Tessa, wait!”

I swung one leg over the railing and carefully descended down the side of the bridge. Though I was determined to not glance down, my mind was aware of the very far drop if the thin rope broke and my heart raced, the same feeling I had when climbing the gate. I breathed in and out slowly and focused on the bridge, searching for any clues.

Within minutes, I discovered a trail of dried blood traveling down the wooden railing and doubted that the police were able to miss such an obvious sight. Something shiny gleamed from the underside of one of the wooden boards. Jiggling it loose, I pulled out a sterling silver ring with a brownish red stone, Celtic symbols carved into the silver. The ring was covered in a light grey powder that smelled heavily like smoke.

“Tessa!” shouted Elena, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I dropped the ring into my back pocket. “Tessa?”

“Oh no, not him. Not now,” I whispered.

“Tessa.”

Dr. Baxter, dressed in a muscle tee, sweatpants, and sneakers, was leaning over the railing, peering down at me. As he removed his earbuds, I tried to think of a good explanation for why I was hanging on the other side of the bridge. Pulling myself back up, I spotted Elena and Belmont standing behind the arrogant teacher, his forehead glistening with beads of sweat. Elena looked prepared to knock out Dr. Baxter with a rock while Belmont was shaking his head, acting like it was my fault that I was caught.

“Dr. Baxter, hi," I said, trying to sound normal. "What are you doing out here so early in the morning?”

“I go for a run through here three times a day.”

“No kidding. That is—you must really like running.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “The better question is why are you out here, hanging from a rope?”

“I was uh practicing this workout that my dad learned while he was in China. They hold onto the rope and—you know what? It’s complicated and weird. No reason to go into detail. I’ll see you at school.”

“I’m sure you heard what happened to Fin Belmont last night.”

“Y—yeah, it’s um such a tragedy.”

“I think it’s best if you stay away from here. We don’t need two students dying in the same week.”

“Nope, don't want that. I’ll let you get back to your running.”

I practically raced back to my car, not daring to glance back at the bridge. If Dr. Baxter was not one of my teachers, I would have avoided him for the rest of the day or even better, my life. Belmont mocked my, what he called, pathetic attempts at lying and wondered how long it would take before Dr. Baxter reported my suspicious behavior to the police. His taunts led to a vicious argument between him and Elena, who blamed him for the incident on the bridge.

“Can you two stop bickering? Baxter won’t say anything. By now, he’s forgotten that I was even there because he’s too busy staring at himself in the mirror,” I said, driving into the local cemetery.

“Did you find anything?” asked Belmont, leaning his shoes on the back of Elena’s seat to purposely annoy her.

Scrunching her nose in disgust, she left the car. “Well, there was a lot of blood. I’m guessing it’s yours…maybe from the cut on your head. The cops didn’t even bother taking any for a sample. It’s dried up by now so I doubt they can do anything with it but I found a ring. It looks like it’s covered in gun powder. Maybe you were shot and whoever did it lost their ring when they ran away.”

“Great,” he muttered.

“You’re the one who wanted to prove that it wasn’t an accident and now I believe you. Ready to make that decision now?”

“Not even close. We still haven’t caught the guy.”

“Are you—Elena’s right. I’m not a detective. Look, I’m sorry that the cops aren’t doing their best but it’s not my problem.”

Glancing out the window, I watched Elena sit in front of three tombstones, replacing the dead flowers with new ones. Belmont blocked my view by moving into the passenger seat.

“You said to Elena that you had some kind of vision about my death. You thought it was Nelson’s stepsister. Didn’t you try to save her? Something tells me that you do care about what happened to me.”

“Not when you’re already dead. Even if I could somehow find out how you died, it won’t bring you back to life.”

“Maybe it would stop them from killing someone else in town and if you caught them, you wouldn’t have to suffer another painful death experience. I drowned. What if the next person gets their throat slit or they’re buried alive? That must be tough.”

“Don’t do that," I said, seeing through his feigned tone of concern. "You’re trying to bait me into—don’t act like you know what I go through every time that happens, Belmont. You know nothing.”

“I wasn’t trying to bait you into anything, Byrne. What are we doing here?”

“Elena and I come here every morning to visit her family. We’ve done it ever since their funeral. They all passed on but she likes to talk to them. She thinks they can hear everything she’s saying.”

“You come here every day?” he asked, dumbfounded.

“It makes her feel better. If you tell her that they can’t hear her, I’ll guarantee that you get sent straight to Hell. It shouldn’t be too hard, considering your reputation. Unless you have a real reason to stay, take my advice and pass on. There’s no reason to bother yourself with trying to find out how you died. Sometimes, it’s better to not know the truth.”

The police may have wanted to quickly forget about Belmont’s death, not bothering to launch an official investigation, but the rest of the town could not as easily put aside their grief. His locker was adorned with flowers, posters, and candles and before first period, most of the school’s female population was gathered around it, sobbing.

There were plans to host a memorial for him later in the week on the football field and all exams were cancelled to allow the students time to mourn. The school had not been in such a somber mood since the news of Elena’s death spread like wildfire only an hour after the accident.

In every class, the first ten minutes were spent remembering him and my eyes almost rolled out of my head as each teacher called him a special and amazing boy with a bright future. Belmont was soaking up the attention but among the grieving students, I noticed a few who were apathetic or pleased that he was no longer around and even behind the tears of those who were grieving, there were hints of a smile or a relieved sigh, proof that some of them were merely putting on acts. His ego the size of a football stadium made him oblivious to the truth that deep down, they would not miss him.

AP Biology was the toughest class of the day, mostly because of my own anxiety that Dr. Baxter remembered our morning encounter. He appeared to have no memory of the conversation, going back to calling me every other name except my real one, but as he played one of his usual videos, I was unable to shake this uncomfortable feeling, like thousands of bees swarming inside me. I was never happier to hear the bell ring, signaling the end of class.

“I’ll meet you in the courtyard, Tessa. I just need to drop off some papers for Mrs. Kent,” said Will, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.

“Go ahead. I’ll save our usual spot and start working on the chemistry assignment.”

I stifled a laugh when he hurried past the students, knocking over a stack of papers on Dr. Baxter’s desk. He repeatedly apologized and Dr. Baxter simply shook his head with an exasperated sigh. The other students casually strolled out of the classroom, laughing at Will’s clumsiness or having their own side conversations.

“Tessa,” I heard as I reached the door.

Reluctantly, I turned around to see Dr. Baxter picking up the fallen papers. “Y—yes?”

“Are you feeling alright? You seemed a little…distracted during class.”

“I didn’t get much sleep last night. It won’t happen again.”

He chuckled. “You’re not in any trouble. You and Will are the only ones who actually pay attention in this class. I think you’re allowed to be distracted every once in a while. I hope it doesn’t have to do with what happened this morning.”

I gripped the strap of my backpack. “Nope, not at all. Actually, it completely slipped my mind until you brought it up. I never knew that you went running by the Falls. I mean, a lot of people do but three times a day…that’s intense.”

“I like to keep fit. You know, you don’t strike me as the type of person that’s into exercise. Crunches and a treadmill maybe but dangling from a thin little rope? Not really.”

“My dad wanted me to try it out. He’s always pushing me to try new and exciting things but I’m not as much of a thrill seeker as him. I think I’ll stick to the crunches instead to stay in shape.”

“Well, if you ask me, I can tell that your body is just fine, even under those baggy sweaters. It’s a shame you hide it. You should have more confidence in yourself.”

That uncomfortable feeling intensified when I noticed his eyes lingering on my chest. Alarm bells sounded in my head, bringing up memories of those stranger danger videos in elementary school.

“Heh, well I will definitely work on that," I said, backing away towards the door. "I should get going. I promised to meet Will in the courtyard.”

Before I could make it past the door, his fingers curled around my wrist. The hallways were mostly empty except for a few students at their lockers, putting away their books or retrieving money for lunch.

“You could start by wearing that little red jacket more often,” he whispered in my ear, his other hand hovering dangerously close to my waist.

“I—I really need to leave.”

Wrenching my wrist from his grasp, I hurried down the hallway, not daring to turn around for even a second though I could feel his eyes all over me. I sat down at a rickety, graffiti stained round table in the back of the courtyard and covered several vulgar drawings and Need some good weed? Bleachers, 3:00 with my chemistry textbook. Elena joined me at the table, taking a tupperware container filled with strawberries out of the paper bag in my backpack.

“Do you always have to eat my lunch?”

“I just spent all day avoiding a certain someone. Besides, sharing is caring. Why do you look like you just had a heart attack? Did something happen in Bio?”

“No, I lied, deciding against telling her about Dr. Baxter's amped up creepiness. "You were right. I was nervous about nothing.”

“You haven’t smiled once since the jackass showed up.”

“Is that what we’re calling him now?”

“I have much better nicknames for him but I don’t want to taint your little virgin ears,” she said, licking a strawberry.

The tiniest smile graced my lips before the memory of Dr. Baxter's hand near my waist flashed in the back of my mind. I distracted myself by opening the textbook.

“I saw that smile. You know you like it," she teased.

“I remember how good you are at licking stuff,” said Belmont, leaning against the nearby staircase.

Disgusted, Elena threw another strawberry at him. “Why are you here? Go bother someone else.”

“Sure. Let me get my phone and call up all my ghost buddies. Oh wait, the only one I know is you.”

“Go to Vegas or something. I’m sure there are plenty of douchebag ghosts hanging out there. You’d fit right in. You can have a contest to see who has the most STDs."

I buried my face in my hands as her scathing remark sparked another argument. Everyone else in the courtyard was able to have a normal lunch but I was forced to listen to two ghost teenagers arguing like kids on a playground. Will saved me from listening to their argument that soon dissolved into a back and forth of rude insults, mostly from Elena, when he sat down at
our table.

“Sorry it took me so long. Mrs. Kent was going on and on about our trip to the Saenger Theatre in January. She’s really excited about it. I wouldn’t blame you if you started without me.”

“No, I didn’t mind waiting. Can I ask you something? It might sound weird. It’s about the party.”

“That’s all everyone’s been talking about today. They’re trying to figure out how no one saw Fin fall off that bridge. I mean, I know he was drunk but he didn’t seem that bad when we were there.”

“Did you see Dr. Baxter at the party?”

He looked at me, strangely. “Baxter? Why would he be at a high school party? I know he thinks he’s like a teenager in an adult’s body but I doubt he’d actually go there. Why?”

“I thought I saw him when you were getting us beer. It was probably just my mind playing tricks on me. Hilton’s always hinting at him to go to those parties but you’re right.”

Both Will and I were having trouble concentrating on the chemistry assignment, due to the loud laughter from the stoner pit. It was a common hangout for the popular kids, especially Belmont and his friends, during lunch, where they smoked and passed around bottles stolen from their parents’ liquor cabinets. As I balanced a chemical equation, something soft struck the back of my head. I glanced from the paper ball on the ground to Belmont, who was covering Elena’s mouth to silence her. She scratched at him with her freshly manicured nails.

“Listen to what they’re saying,” he said, nodding towards the stoner pit.

“Why?” I mouthed.

“To piss off Ellie that they cared more about me than her.”

Rolling my eyes at his pettiness, I said, “Will, do you want to move to a different spot? They’re kind of loud.”

“It’s not that bad. I’m—”

Just then, a beer can flew over the wall and crashed onto the table, spilling all over our textbooks. Irritated by the high-pitched giggles that followed, I shut my book and picked up the can.

“Tessa, wait.”

I walked into the stoner pit, overcome with the smell of cigarette smoke. Hilton, Parker, and several other jocks and cheerleaders were sitting on the benches and staircase, laughing amongst themselves.

“Oh look, Make A Wish and Nerd King are here. Is this where you have steamy make out sessions?” teased Hilton.

“Anna, you’re a tease. You looked all sexy last night and now you’re back to that?” asked Parker, taking a sip from a bottle of whiskey.

I squeezed the beer can in my hand. “I don’t care if you want to act like a pack of drunken idiots but can you at least watch where you throw—”

“Can you smoke? Would that mess up your meds or something? You can celebrate with us.”

“Uh sorry, what are you celebrating?” asked Will, trying not to breathe in any smoke.

“The end of Fin Belmont and the beginning of my reign as king of this school.”

“That’s not funny, Chace. He just died,” chided Amy as she read the latest gossip about a new pop star on her phone.

“Good riddance to the jackass. He thought he was such tough shit but his time was going to come, sooner or later. Don’t act like he was the greatest guy that ever lived. The only reason half of us hung out with him was because he was a Belmont. I wish I could’ve been there to record the whole thing. Maybe hear him beg a little...I bet he was crying like the little bitch he’s always been.”

“He fell off the bridge by accident. Why would he be begging?” I asked, sensing something off about Parker.

Parker jumped down from the top of the staircase and put his arm around my shoulders. It was not just his words that were strange, but his mannerisms. Many of his friends, even Hilton, seemed uneasy by his indifference towards Belmont’s death. Belmont and Elena were standing together by the wall, listening to the entire conversation. For a brief second, he looked visibly hurt by Parker’s words but it was swiftly replaced with gritted teeth and clenched fists.

“Don’t be a downer, Jemma," he said, taking another swig of whiskey. "Fin treated you like crap but now that I’m in charge, I’m willing to give you a clean slate. Imagine that body in a cheerleading outfit.”

“Can you not make me gag?” said Hilton, lighting up a cigarette.

Will pulled me towards him, throwing a dirty look at Parker. “Leave her alone."

“Ooh, are you going to make me?” he challenged.

“Some friend you are, already making plans to take over as head of your stupid clique barely a day after your best friend died. Let’s go, Tessa. We can finish the assignment in the library.”

As I walked to the library with Will, I was more concerned with Belmont than my chemistry assignment. I already had plenty of suspicions that his death was not an accident but I had been willing to accept that it was at the hand of some random stranger that he likely provoked while immensely drunk.

To an outsider, Belmont Falls was a picturesque town but its residents knew that there was a dark underbelly, where people struggled with plenty of problems like alcoholism and drug addiction. Most of those 'problematic citizens' were kicked out or forced to live in the woods, to maintain the town's perfect image.

By the time the bell rang, I was certain that there was much more to the story of Belmont's death and the murderer was someone close to him, possibly even one of his best friends.


Submitted: June 10, 2016

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

Chapters

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments

Other Content by skv

Book / Fantasy

Book / Fantasy