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For the first time since the fourth grade, I found myself obsessed with a boy. Unlike that unfortunate period of time where every inch of my bedroom walls were plastered with posters and hand drawn pictures, likely due to aliens abducting me in my sleep and turning my brain into mush, the boy I was obsessing over was not the handsome, teenage TV star with magical powers, piercing blue eyes, and a wolf sidekick, but Chace Parker.

As riveting as it was to listen to Mrs. Allen talk about the latest addition to her horde of cats, affectionately named Miss Cuddles, with intense fervor, instead of teaching us about art, my mind was elsewhere. I replayed my encounter with Parker during lunch over and over again, recalling every small detail from his lack of grief to his interest in using his best friend’s death to bolster his own social status.

Parker was many things (a womanizer, a lunkhead, an arrogant jerk who cared more about tackling someone into the dirt than passing a test, just to name a few) but I doubted that he was capable of murder. No matter how much I told myself that he was neither cunning nor smart enough to cover up a crime, years of watching crime shows with my father told me to never rule out any suspects.

Though it was not my job to help Belmont any further than helping him understand his new life as a ghost, I felt a personal responsibility to avenge his death. If it were not for me thinking that the danger passed after saving Katie at the party, I may have been able to save him from his own watery fate.

Will waved his hand in front of my face, snapping me out of my daze. While lost in my own thoughts, the bell had rung and students were leaving the classroom, not bothering to wait for Mrs. Allen to give them any homework. A poster, covered in big, bright letters and glitter, was posted on every single locker.

Party of the Year at Casa Parker

$5 fee at the door for guys, girls get in for free

In memory of Fin, let's drink until we blackout

Ripping the poster from his locker, Will mentioned that everyone was gossiping about the advertised party instead of listening to the latest adventures of Miss Cuddles and her scratching post. The party, being thrown by Parker, was planned for this Friday after the memorial, as an alternate outlet to grieve Belmont’s death. Like me, Will thought it was ironic that Parker, who seemed to care the least about the loss of his best friend, was throwing a party in his honor.

“Back to the library to finish up that chemistry assignment?”

“Actually, that might be a bad idea. I overheard some freshman saying that he and his friends were going to play a prank in the library. Something about a stink bomb...”

He rolled his eyes at the idea of such a juvenile prank. “Why does everyone like to mess with the library? Why not be original and do a prank in the teacher’s lounge or something?”

“They lack any imagination. We could sit in the bleachers instead. For once, I want to go home without the back of my book being all sticky from our usual table. Let me just stop by my locker.”

On the way to my locker, I bribed three freshmen who were well known pranksters and would not need much encouragement to cause havoc in the library. After a bit of haggling (the girl, several inches shorter than her friends but twice as feisty, proved to be a tough negotiator) , where the price for risking the wrath of the stern, elderly librarian went up from five dollars to forty dollars each, the three troublemakers headed off to the library, discussing the best plan to guarantee them a spot in the Belmont High prankster hall of fame.

I retrieved my chemistry textbook from my locker and began to text my mother about my plans to stay after school when I noticed that she sent her own text. Her car was getting fixed in the shop and she needed to borrow mine for the day. At the end of her message were multiple 'sorrys' and a sad face emoji.

Changing my text to tell her that I could catch a ride with Will, I walked down to the bleachers. It was much different from our usual spot, with the loud noise from three separate practices for football, cheerleading, and track. Will tapped his pencil against the inside of his textbook, attempting to block out the shouts of the overly competitive football coaches.

“This might not have been my best idea,” I said, listening to the head football coach reprimand one of the new freshman players with personal insults about his ‘chicken legs’.

“No. I don’t mind—always good to get fresh air. No one’s tried to throw a football at my head yet so that’s a plus.”

“Glad to see you’re aiming high.”

As I sat beside Will, my eyes briefly met Parker’s and he flashed me one of his signature smirks. I quickly looked away, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.

It was nearly impossible to focus on balancing a chemical equation when all around us, the football coaches were nearly screaming their heads off at the tiniest mistakes in a play and Hilton was rivaling them with her own insults thrown at her squad. I had almost left the bleachers to comfort Katie who was near tears after Hilton told her to lay off the junk food if she wanted to remain a member of the squad.

Hilton’s increasingly vicious insults were not the only distraction. I repeatedly noticed Parker glancing in my direction during his practice and any time that we made eye contact, I immediately glanced down at my notebook to hide the blush in my cheeks.

“That’s the last one. We just have to wait for Katie to finish up with her practice and then I can take you home,” said Will, shutting his textbook.

“Sure but I don’t think it’ll be over until Hilton’s insulted each of them at least a dozen times.”

“I miss when Elena was in charge. It’s like trading in a kitten for a dragon.”

Katie was receiving the worst treatment, being the newest member to the squad. Hilton practically yelled herself hoarse as she mocked Katie’s inability to do a complicated flip perfectly on the first try. I stopped Will from interfering with the practice when Hilton compared her to a hippo, knowing that even though he towered over Hilton, her brutal taunts were able to cut down anyone twice her size and his meddling would only make the subsequent practices much worse for Katie.

The football players ran past them, smelling heavily of cheap cologne and sweat. I nearly jumped out of my skin as my chemistry textbook was lifted from my lap. Turning around, I found Parker standing in the row behind me, flipping through the textbook.

“Only you could be more interested in chemistry when you have a front row seat to a gun show, Byrne.”

“Gun show?”

He flexed his arm, showing off his biceps. I let out the tiniest giggle though on the inside, I was rolling my eyes.

“I’ve got plenty of room in my car. I’ll take you home.”

“Oh, I um…”

“I’m taking her, Parker. We’re just waiting for Katie to finish with practice,” said Will, looking at him like he was a piece of gum on the bottom of his shoe.

Parker scoffed. “Why would she want a ride in that dinosaur you call a car? I’m not taking no for an answer.”

“I don’t want any trouble, Will. It’s fine,” I whispered.

“You can wait by my car. I just need to get changed,” he told her, throwing a smug smirk at Will before leaving the bleachers.

Sensing that Will would rather let me walk home than accept a ride from Parker, I promised to text him the moment I was in my house. I waited in the parking lot, next to Parker’s expensive sports car. I had seen him drive several girls in this very car plenty of times before, always aware that he was not offering the ride out of the goodness of his heart.

Belmont was known for doing the same and among the girls at the school, it was considered an honor to just sit in one of their cars. There were rumors that their ‘charitable’ rides usually included a detour at the Falls that involved more than a walk across the bridge.

Belmont and Elena were reflected in the side mirror. He checked himself out in the mirror, running his fingers through his dark hair.

Elena punched my shoulder. “What the hell are you thinking? Go back to the bleachers and wait for Will to drive you home. You do not get in a car with Chace Parker. Don’t tell me that it’s just to keep him from fighting Will. You’ve been acting weird ever since what happened at lunch.”

“It’s just a ride home, Elena.”

“You know it’s not just—would you stop staring at yourself for one second and tell her that this is a terrible idea? She’s going to be alone with Parker and we both know that he’s not offering to drive her because he’s a decent person. Tessa, you’re not dumb enough to fall for—you’re doing this on purpose. The little looks during practice…”

I shrugged, finding myself suddenly interested in a ladybug on the windshield. “What looks? We just happened to look in the same direction at the same time and it was awkward so I would look down at my book. That’s all.”

“When you’re lying, you look everywhere but at the person you’re talking to and right now, you’re staring at that ladybug.”

“Maybe I just find bugs interesting. Did you ever think that in the future, I want to be an entomologist? I don’t have to share all my future career ideas with you.”

“Gross. Who would want to look at bugs all day? You really have issues, Byrne,” said Belmont, disgusted.

Not believing my supposedly secret passion for bugs, Elena mentioned that another way to catch me in a lie was that I rambled on and quickly changed the subject to a random topic. She was not the stereotypical blonde ditz who could be easily fooled with a flimsy story and after all the time we spent together, she knew me better than anyone, sometimes better than I knew myself.

I confessed to the crazy theory that had been brewing inside my mind since my encounter with Parker in the stoner pit. Expecting the worst, I was unsurprised by Belmont bursting into a fit of hysterical laughter at the idea that his best friend was the murderer.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy—”

“You’re accusing one of my closest friends of killing me. That’s insane.”

“Tell me you don’t think he’s acting weird. Like you said, he was one of your closest friends but he doesn’t care that you’re dead. He’s more interested in being Mr. Popular. He’s planning to throw a party and it hasn’t even been a week since you died. That doesn’t sound strange to you?”

Unable to come up with an explanation, he resorted to shaking his head. “This is Jackson Howler all over again,” said Elena, crossing her arms.

“This is not—it’s different. Maybe nine year old me thought he was the greatest thing ever and the creators of the show gave him the coolest name but seventeen year old me thinks the name was either too on the nose or just a really lame joke. I’m not saying that Parker is the murderer but he knows something. He knows it wasn’t an accident. I have this bad feeling. If I can just find out what he knows, I can—”

“Can what? Get him arrested? Good luck with that when his dad is in charge of the police department. This isn’t your problem. Let’s say Fin was murdered. Do you know how many people are killed every day? You can’t save all of them. I can see that you’re beating yourself up that you couldn’t stop your vision from happening but don’t risk your own life, especially for this jackass who doesn’t give a damn about you,” she pleaded, pointing towards Belmont who was oddly silent.

Elena begged me to return to the bleachers and wait for Will to give me a ride home. I found myself torn between following her advice and my own stubborn determination. The front doors swung open and Parker left the school, carrying a duffel bag. With each second, he was getting closer to the car and I was stuck between two choices: forget all about my suspicions and go on with my life or attempt to make a difference and find out the truth about Belmont’s death. I could practically see Elena’s heart sink as I sat inside the car. Dragging Belmont along with her, she moved into the backseat, nearly getting smacked in the face by Parker’s bag.

“Admit it. My car’s a lot better than that piece of junk your boyfriend drives.”

“How many times do I have to say that Will’s not my boyfriend?”

“I like hearing you say it. It’s a good reminder that you’re available.”

“It’s just a ride home, Parker.”

“Is it? I’ve never seen you anywhere near those bleachers except when we have gym. Don’t tell me you were sitting there because it’s nice outside.”

I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Y—you’re right. I um thought what you said in the stoner pit. You know, about having a clean slate now that Belmont’s dead. This could be my chance to get a fresh start but that’s easier said than done. I thought if anyone could help me, it’s you.”

Parker smirked. “You made the right choice. If you’re serious, then we have to make a couple stops before I take you home.”

On the way to wherever he planned on taking me, I texted Will that I was safely home and then texted my mother that I was visiting the cemetery with Elena. Parker eventually parked the car outside the mall. In his mind, if I wanted a fresh start, that meant more than speaking up in class or hanging out with a different crowd. I followed him to a high-end boutique, one with a price range that was far above my allowance. If I was lucky, I would be able to afford a pair of socks and a headband.

When I voiced my concerns about the expensive prices, seeing that a pair of ripped shorts cost the same as a plane ticket, he simply laughed it off, telling me that money was not a problem. I never felt more uncomfortable than when he called over one of the salesgirl and offered her two hundred dollars to help me pick out clothes. The girl, who looked like she was still in college, agreed with a sweet smile though I detected a hint of disdain in her eyes, suggesting that I was not the boutique’s usual clientele.

The girl, introducing herself as ‘Cindi with an I’, led me around the boutique, asking thousands of questions ranging from my personal style to my favorite designers. Elena walked with me, resisting every urge to smack Cindi for her backhanded insults, while Belmont followed two girls towards the dressing rooms. After what felt like hours of being interrogated on my fashion sense (or according to Cindi, my lack of one), I ended up with enough clothes to dress the population of a small town.

Parker sat on the couches outside the dressing rooms, wanting to see each outfit to give his stamp of approval. I was never one to care if someone cared about my style but if my plan was going to work, I needed to at least pretend that his opinion mattered to me. I had already taken care of the problem of him seeing the marks that covered my body, dabbing concealer all over myself in the bathroom before the end of lunch.

Slipping out of my hoodie and jeans, I tried on the first outfit: a skintight dark blue dress that barely covered my backside, similar to the dress Hilton wore to the party at the Falls. I tugged on the bottom of the dress, hoping to get it a few inches closer to my knees, but the material was too tight, as if it was made of glue. I replaced my worn converse sneakers, white roses painted on the sides by me, with a pair of black ankle boots.

If I lived in any other town, people would never consider this dress suitable to wear at school but at Belmont High, it was typical for the students to get away with wearing all kinds of clothes. Principal Hilton claimed that it was part of a so-called ‘progressive feminist movement’ where girls should not be ashamed to dress how they wished to express themselves but in reality, it was just an excuse for the school board.

Allowing the members of the school board to believe that she was abolishing the dress code to end old, sexist ideas, she was able to maintain her impeccable reputation as an amazing principal while giving special treatment to her precious daughter and her friends.

Peeking through a crack in the door, I watched Parker texting on his phone while he flirted with Cindi, offering her an invite to his party. Elena and Belmont were sitting on the same couch, bickering over his recklessness and taking advantage of his new ghostly nature by sneaking into a girl’s dressing room. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and immediately, four pairs of eyes fell on me. Parker sat up straighter, his mouth agape.

“I uh think it’s too small. It’s kind of short," I said, still struggling to pull down the dress.

“The dress is supposed to look like that, sweetie,” replied Cindi, scrunching her nose at Parker who had still not taken his eyes off of me or my chest, which was pushed up even more by the tight dress.

“I guess I just—maybe one size bigger or…”

“She knows what she’s talking about and trust me, it’s perfect,” said Parker, getting up from the couch.

Standing behind me, he placed his hands on my hips and turned me towards a full-length mirror near the dressing rooms. I knew that the girl staring back at me, in the skintight dress and four inch heels, was me but deep down, it just felt wrong. All Parker saw was another notch in his belt, a new girl to add to his long list of hookups. The lust in his eyes blinded him to the obvious fact that it was merely an act.

“I—I’m not sure about this. I look—”

“Sexy.”

“Heh, good joke.”

“I’m serious. You think I’m the only one who notices how sexy you are under those baggy sweaters? Every guy sees it but they never say anything because you dress like that as some kind of feminist statement and they don’t want to get lectured about how men are evil.”

“That’s not—I don’t dress like that to make a statement. I’m just comfortable that way.”

He rested his chin on my shoulder. “Think of how much better it would be if you dressed like you should? With Fin gone, I’m not the only one who gets a step up. You’d shoot right up to the top of the social ladder. Stick with me and senior year will be our year. No one will remember Fin. He’ll be nothing…just a few lines at the end of the yearbook.”

I was startled by the sound of glass breaking and whipped my head around, seeing a broken vase shattered to pieces. Cindi hurried over to the counter to call for someone to clean up the mess, her heels clicking on the floor. She was in a panic, worried that her boss would fire her for the property damage, and quietly muttered to herself about mothers bringing their misbehaving children into the boutique. Parker ushered me back into the dressing room to try on more clothes and a second later, Elena joined me, pulling Belmont by his ear.

“Did you throw that vase?”

“No. It was Casper the Friendly Ghost,” he replied, sarcastically.

“You were trying to hit Parker.”

“Are you going to keep saying really obvious things? Yeah, I was trying to hit that moron. Did you hear him? He thinks he can replace me?”

“That doesn’t mean you try to bash his head in with a vase. We talked about how you have to be discrete. What if someone saw that vase moving by itself?” I hissed, struggling to lower my voice.

“That’s your problem, not mine.”

“Look, the only reason I’m here is to find out what your best friend knows about what happened to you that night. Do you think I want to dress like a Hilton wannabe? I can’t get any answers from him if you’re trying to make him the newest member of your ghost clique.”

Around six o’clock, after spending thousands of dollars on clothes, jewelry, and shoes, Parker dropped me off at my house. I decided to stash my shopping bags in my father’s abandoned shed in the backyard. A year after my parents were married, my father had bought the shed from the local hardware store, eager to begin several projects but at forty, he had never once set foot inside, always claiming to be busy with his archaeological work.

It was the perfect hiding place for my new clothes but with my luck, my mother would suddenly find an overwhelming desire to convert the shed into an art studio. I had no intention of explaining my admittedly poorly thought out plan, knowing that she would react similarly to Elena.

“Tessa?”

At the sound of my mother’s voice, I shut the cardboard box that was concealing my bags. She was standing outside the shed, her jeans stained with a dirt and a trowel in her hand.

“Byrne, you can’t let her know what you’re doing. Just act natural,” whispered Belmont, nudging my side.

“M—mom, you’re um…you’re home. Don’t you have to pick up Ryan from soccer practice?”

“The practice was cancelled. He wanted to have a play date with his friend Tommy so I dropped him off and thought I’d get some gardening done.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Tommy’s—he’s such a nice kid. He might be a little too obsessed with dinosaurs but who am I to judge what someone likes, right?”

Listening to my rambling, Belmont looked at me like I had grown a second head and muttered, “What the hell are you doing? You’re terrible at this. Have you never lied to her before? Just say you have homework and run to your room.”

“Fin, you are aware that I can hear you, yes?” she asked, her eyes directly on him.

He stopped giving me advice on how to tell a convincing lie at the realization that, like me, my mother was able to see ghosts. Elena was leaning against the walls, amused by the scene unraveling in front of her. When my mother asked what Parker was doing at the cemetery, having seen him drop me off, I knew it was pointless to come up with a cover story. My mother had a special talent of her own, one that she called her ‘sixth sense’. She was able to see through any lie without even seeing the person’s face.

“I went to the mall with him.”

“With the best friend of your new friend?”

“Whoa, wait a minute. First of all, we are not friends. She’s…this is not a friendship. We are just working together towards a common goal. Second of all, he’s my ex-best friend who she thinks could’ve killed me,” said Belmont.

“What is he talking about, Tessa? Why you were at the mall with that boy?”

I traced small circles on the floor with my foot, keeping my eyes on the wooden floor.

“Because I kind of do think that he did kill him or maybe knows who did…and I wanted to find out what he knew. He was acting weird at lunch and he said with Belmont gone, it was a fresh start for me and I pretended to want that so he took me to the mall to buy new clothes,” I admitted in one breath, mentally preparing myself for a lecture.

“You two will stay here while I speak to Tessa alone.”

Elena looked at my mother, confused. “You two? Wait, Kala, I did nothing wrong. He was the one who put this idea in her head. Don’t leave me alone with him. I’ll just follow you anyway. It’s not like you can send me away.”

My mother removed a small leather pouch from her jeans pocket and poured its contents, a dark grey powder, across the doorway. As Elena followed me out of the shed, she was repelled back by some sort of invisible shield, forcing her to remain in the shed with Belmont. When he attempted to leave the shed himself by running towards the door, the same happened to him though the force of the blow sent him flying into the wall.

My mother apologized for using the powder, which I had only ever seen her use once before, explaining that the conversation needed to be in private. I hesitated to leave Elena behind, especially with Belmont, but my curiosity got the better of me and I walked back towards the house.

Sitting in the kitchen, I watched my mother boil water on the stove and waited for her to lecture me about my reckless plan. She had her back turned as she placed tea bags into two cups, the tension slowly killing me. The agonizing silence was finally broken by the whistling of the kettle.

"Did you really need to use that powder? Belmont's a jerk but I don't think he'd hurt either of us. When you used it against that ghost who was stalking you, you said it was for emergencies only."

"As I said, this is a private conversation," she said, handing me a cup. "I don't know Fin well but he seems like the type that rarely stays quiet."

“Can we get started with the lecture already? I’d rather get it over with than watch you make tea."

“I’m not going to lecture, Tessa. We’ve needed to have this conversation for a while and I know you have many questions. Using the powder seems harsh to you but some things need to stay between us and our kind.”

“Our kind? We’re still people, Mom. It’s not like we’re animals.”

“No, but we are different. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s the truth. We never spoke about what happened the night Fin died…what you did with the lamp. It’s a sign of your abilities growing. You’re almost eighteen and we’ve briefly discussed the importance of that special day. When you are in that state between life and death, you are like a ghost but you can cause much more damage.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat at the mention of my eighteenth birthday. In my bedroom, a calendar was hanging by my closet and the date was circled in bright red marker. I had been dreading that day since I first learned about my abilities as a reaper.

“What does that mean?”

“Elena, Fin, and others like them have their limits. Yes, they can interact with the physical world but—let’s save that discussion for another time. Why are you so invested in Fin’s death? All these years of guiding people to the other side…what makes him different?”

“Because I could have stopped it from happening.”

I recounted my dream about Fin’s death at the Falls and how my sudden epiphany of being able to prevent the deaths led to me saving Katie. Though my mother dismissed such an idea, claiming that death was part of life and fate would always find a way, I could not help noticing her nails anxiously tapping on the counter.

The tapping quickened its pace when I mentioned the strange creature that had attacked Katie on the bridge and the shadow attached to Casey’s back when she chose to pass on to the other side. I was not as skilled at seeing through lies as my mother but with her odd behavior, a blind person could tell that she was hiding something from me.

“I think there’s more to Fin’s death than falling off the bridge. I went back there with him and Elena and I found—”

“You trespassed on a crime scene? Tessa, have you lost your mind?”

“The cops called it an accident barely a day after it happened and they’re not investigating anymore. I haven’t seen anyone from the party being questioned, not even his friends. Everything’s all tied up too nicely. I found two sets of scratches on the railing. One was Katie’s because I recognized her nail polish but the other was someone else’s. There was dried up blood and a ring wedged under the bridge too. I think the ring was covered in gun powder. I can show it to you. When dad gets back, he can take a look at it too. I mean, maybe all those things have nothing to do with Belmont but it’s a possibility.”

“You are not a cop. If you truly think that Fin was murdered, you need to bring this evidence to the police. Tomorrow morning, we can drop off the ring and any other information you have at the station. We can do it anonymously.”

“Did you not hear me before? The cops don’t care. He’s the son of the family whose ancestors founded this damn town. Wouldn’t everyone be panicking over his death? How can his parents accept that it was an accident when there are no witnesses and the only evidence is that he was drinking at the party?”

“Tessa, listen to me. I understand that you regret not being able to save him but this isn’t your concern. I went through this myself when I was your age. I had my own Fin Belmont.”

My mother opened up about an incident from her past, one that she kept from my own father. When she was around my age, she had the same optimism as me: that reapers could change fate and prevent deaths. Her optimism led to her wanting to save the life of a boy who was very much like Belmont, the popular, handsome jock. They were never in the same social circles but they spoke often during their shared classes, growing up together in their hometown not far from Belmont Falls. Despite her saving him from a terrible car accident that claimed twenty other lives, all that effort was a waste. The boy had died hours after the accident, struck by a car while out with his friends.

“How is that anything like—”

“Because after he died, I asked a lot of questions too. Things weren’t adding up in my mind. He was hardly a genius but he was never dumb enough to run into the street without looking both ways. The police never arrested anyone for his death even though all of his friends had plenty of information on the car and the driver. I blamed myself for weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I saw the day I saved him. When I stopped him from driving down the road right before the accident, I saw a shadow clinging to his back. His eyes turned milky white and it was as if he was possessed…being forced to drive the car.”

“That happened to Katie too. It was trying to pull her off the bridge. Did you ever tell grandma about it?”

“Yes and I will tell you the same thing that she told me. Stop digging into this incident. Pretend it never happened.”

I shook my head. “That is the worst advice ever. If anything, we should be—”

“You are going to stop trying to find the truth about Fin. I understand that he wants justice but it can’t come at the cost of your life. I will not have you putting yourself in danger. I had never seen your grandmother truly frightened until the moment I told her what happened at the scene of the accident. She never went into great detail but she told me that if I kept searching for answers, it would lead me to a very dark place. As your mother, I am telling you to let this go and just live your life as you have…focus on getting through senior year," she begged. "That is all that matters. Do you understand me?”

I was at a loss for words at her insistence to forget about Belmont’s murder. If she never told me that story from her past, I would have been more willing to convince Belmont that finding his murderer was a lost cause but genuinely hearing the tremble in her voice made me that more determined to discover the truth.

I had a gut feeling that the two incidents were somehow related and though my grandmother had remained tightlipped, she knew about these creatures and their presence was not mere coincidence. Keeping my thoughts to myself, I agreed to push aside my suspicions for my mother’s sake.

Elena and Belmont were equally curious about the conversation and, in his words, my mother’s witchy voodoo powder. She was relieved to hear that my mother was siding with her with not wanting me to investigate the possible murder.

I left out the more pressing part of the conversation: how my mother once encountered the creature that attacked Katie. All three were convinced that I gave up on my plan, something Belmont openly did not agree with and he spent half the night calling me a slew of insults, such as a goody two-shoes who would never disobey her parents.

His insults continued into breakfast and around my mother, he lowered his voice though it was just loud enough for her to overhear him. He threatened to expose himself as a ghost to get her to reconsider but my mother called his bluff, pointing out that proving his new existence to anyone outside my family or other ghosts was impossible.

Ryan, who was unable to see Belmont but knew of him through his youngest brother Bradley, tried to distract him with talk about sports, having Belmont write down his responses in his notebook. More impossible than exposing a ghost was resisting my brother’s puppy dog eyes. For a short while, my brother seemed to be keeping Belmont’s mind off of possible murder suspects.

I waved at my mother as she drove away from the empty school parking lot. “Okay, now that I’m done pretending to care what a five year old thinks about soccer, let’s get back to you, Miss Squeaky Clean.”

“Are you done?” I asked, putting my backpack down on the curb.

“Nope. I can come up with names for you all day, Byrne. It’s pathetic that you’re scared to go behind your mom’s back. She’s wrong.”

“I agree.”

“What?” he chorused with Elena.

“This time, my mom is wrong. I just told her that I was going to give up so she’s not suspicious. Operation: Reaper is a go. I thought having a code name would make it sound cooler.”

“It does sound—no, you’re not distracting me. You’re listening to your mom, not this idiot who’s like a devil on your shoulder. If she thinks this is a bad idea, it’s a bad idea,” said Elena.

“Well, life is full of making bad choices and learning from them. Step one? Walk into school.”

“That’s your first step? It should be more than—”

I interrupted Elena by lifting my sweatshirt over my head, revealing the low-cut, short-sleeved black crop top underneath and my red leather jacket, and slipping off my sweatpants, which were hiding my black mini skirt. As I switched out my sneakers for ankle boots, I glanced up at Belmont and Elena, who stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions.

“I just condensed it to make it sound simpler. Step one is to actually change into new clothes that I was hiding from my mom and walk into school.”

“Good first step. Listen to that devil on your shoulder, babe.”

I stopped his hand from touching my lower back. “Do not ever call me babe. I might be dressed differently but I’m still me.”

“Can’t stop me from looking,” he whispered in my ear.

Throwing him a disgusted glare, I walked into the school. I thought I was prepared for any reactions from my peers but imagining and living the actual experience were very different. Listening to the stunned whispers, I could not help the smile tugging at my lips. For once, no one was talking about my latest fainting incident or calling me names like Make A Wish behind my back. I reminded myself that the change in my personal style was for nothing more than getting information out of Parker, but their reactions were an added bonus.

My new look had drawn attention away from the loud argument between Will and Katie at his locker. He was pleading with her to quit the cheerleading squad instead of having to endure Hilton’s torment for the sake of popularity. I knew that introducing Will to my new look would be difficult and confusing. He was the type of person who disliked any sort of changes, even one as small as sitting in a different seat during classes. I tapped his shoulder as he listed all the reasons to not be a cheerleader. He glanced back at me before shaking his head at Katie.

“What, did you text one of your cheerleader clones to come here and convince me that all that torture Hilton puts you through is going to make you a better member of the squad?”

“I don’t think I’d be much of a cheerleader. I’m not peppy enough.”

Recognizing my voice, he turned around and stared at me like I was a monster out of a sci-fi movie. Katie’s face was similar to the night of the party and she blinked several times as if expecting me to change back to my usual clothes.

“Katie, I’m sure this argument isn’t over anytime soon but can I talk to your brother for a minute?”

“Um…yeah, okay.”

Grabbing Will by his sleeve, I dragged him into the nearest janitor's closet. I held my breath until I was used to the pungent smell of cleaning products. Will continued to stare at me, the silence making me slightly uncomfortable.

“Tessa?” he squeaked.

“Of course it’s me. Who else would I be?”

“Some kind of shapeshifting monster. How—why…did Parker do this to you? I knew I shouldn’t have let him drive you home. Did he give you something to drink? Did it smell funny? Maybe it brainwashed you. We’ve seen enough movies to know how to—”

“Will, I’m not brainwashed and before you say it, I know that’s what a person who is possibly brainwashed would say but I swear I’m not. Remember when Parker was talking about a fresh start?”

“Even if he was serious, I think it meant wearing less baggy shirts every once in a while, not dressing like…this.”

“I know it’s weird but you have to trust me. Whatever I wear, however I talk, whatever I do…I don’t mean it. I’m doing this for—reasons that I can’t tell you right now. You just need to trust me. I’m going to be acting a little differently but you’re my friend so I didn’t want you to freak out.”

“Oh, I’m way past freaking out.”

“Just please trust me. Hopefully, this only lasts for about a week and then I don’t have to dress like a Hilton wannabe.”

A tiny voice in the back of my head was screaming for me to tell Will the truth. With our smarts put together, we could solve Fin’s murder twice as quickly but if he could barely handle me wearing a skirt instead of jeans, finding out that I was a reaper capable of seeing ghosts would send him to the hospital.

I settled for telling him about the act I was putting on for Parker though I refused to give him an actual reason. Leaving a confused Will in the closet, I headed towards Parker’s locker, readying myself for the worst: seeing Hilton and her minions for the first time since my makeover.

 


Submitted: June 23, 2016

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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