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It was just my luck that half the jocks in the school, from the football players to even members of the swim team, decided to gather around Parker’s locker like some secret society meeting. Amidst their raucous laughter, Parker was standing in the middle, doing some kind of impression.

The high-pitched, squeaky tone of his voice made me think that he was impersonating Mrs. Kent, the easily excitable AP English Literature teacher who sounded much younger than her thirty five years. I was surprised that he could manage such a spot-on impression when he was usually using his desk as a pillow during that class.

Applying eyeliner to the bottom of her eyes while staring into the ornate mirror in her locker beside his, Hilton bragged to her fellow cheerleaders about her parents planning a vacation to Paris during winter break. As she tossed the eyeliner into her bejeweled makeup bag, she caught sight of me in the mirror, the smug smirk falling from her face faster than the speed of light. She slammed her locker shut, her ginger curls bouncing on her shoulder.

Following her gaze, Parker smiled and waved me over, calling me by my actual name instead of Byrne, sickie, or some other random, mildly offensive nickname. His friends had mixed reactions to my new style: most of the boys, like him, were too busy focusing on my chest while the girls either shared Hilton’s angered disgust or looked me over in stunned silence. The freshman boys were a lot less blatant with their stares, sneaking tiny glances in hopes of not upsetting me.

Parker squeezed my waist, as though challenging his friends to dare to flirt with me in front of him, reminiscent of a dog marking its territory. I detested the idea of being a human fire hydrant for a pack of slobbering idiots who did most of their thinking with the sticks between their legs.

“Told you that you wouldn’t recognize her. Good choice on the skirt, babe. It was my favorite from yesterday.”

“Taylor, you look so great. I really like your boots…” said Amy, her voice faltering as she noticed the harsh glare on Hilton’s face directed towards me.

Hilton scrunched her nose like I was some mangy mutt. “Parker, what the hell is this?”

"Tessa took up my offer for a fresh start," he replied with a shrug. "What, are you jealous?”

“As if I’d be jealous of Make A Wish. You could put her in all the designer clothes you want but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s a loser.”

“You sound really angry over someone you think is just a loser, Claire. Sure you’re not jealous? You’ll need another date to my party. I have to take the sexiest girl and right now, that’s not you.”

I was taken aback by Hilton’s anger, thinking that she might actually turn into a harpy and tear off my head. She was adamantly against the idea of me attending Parker’s post memorial party or even joining their clique, which meant hanging out with them at lunch.

When Parker suggested putting my inclusion up to a vote, she immediately denied it, claiming that it was not a democracy and their school had a specific, rigid social order. He used his power as self-proclaimed ‘king of the school’ to disregard any of her objections, insisting that she could either accept me as the newest member of their clique or plummet from her own high position on the social ladder.

Hilton and I had been enemies from the first day we shared a class but the animosity between us did not mean I approved of Parker’s actions. No matter how much I wanted to yell at him for being an arrogant jackass, I kept my mouth shut, needing to be on his good side for my plan.

My morning classes were incredibly awkward, with everyone more interested in me than the lessons. Some of the teachers were distracted themselves, taken aback by my sudden change in style. Not wanting to lose her queen bee status, Hilton settled for icy stares and disgusted scoffs behind my back, especially when someone complimented my new look.

When the bell rang for lunch, my hopes of joining Will, who was prevented from speaking to me by Parker or one of his jock friends, were dashed by Parker dragging me to the stoner pit. I struggled to feign interest in his constant bragging about his prowess on the field and the many offers from colleges to attend on a football scholarship. My attention drifted to the girls, who were discussing the latest Hollywood gossip and flipping through fashion magazines.

“Have you ever been to a fashion show, Tessa?” asked Amy, detecting the boredom on my face as Parker droned on and on about a difficult catch from a game last year.

“As if she knows anything about fashion," muttered Hilton. "The only reason she’s dressing like this now is because Chace picked out her clothes.”

“Actually, it was a girl named Cindi with an I. She was really specific about that,” I replied, earning a few giggles from the other girls.

“You are such a little fraud. After Chace’s party, when you’re too scared to let him touch your granny panties, he’ll realize that too and you’ll be back where you belong with the other bottom feeders. You’re never going to be me.”

“I’m not trying to be you. I’m just…people can change. Why are you so threatened by that?”

The page on winter fashion trends was jaggedly torn from the magazine. Her icy blue eyes pierced through me, sending a shiver down my spine.

“No one is a threat to me. I’m at the top and I will stay there for the rest of my life but you? You can try to be like us but at the end of the day, you’re a nobody. You’re as worthless and pathetic as the rest of your family.”

My fists clenched. “Insult my family again and I’ll give you a free nose job, Hilton.”

“Why don’t your parents just save themselves the trouble and send you to the loony bin like that freak you call a—”

Hilton's taunt was cut off by my fist colliding with her face. She cried out in pain, falling on her back, as I shook my hand to relieve the stinging pain in my knuckles. Two of her minions rushed to her aid, helping her up from the stairs and holding a tissue under her nose to stem the bleeding. Parker and the other boys were laughing hysterically, some of them clapping me on the back for my impressive punch.

“MOM!!!!” screeched Hilton, her voice echoing across the crowded courtyard.

A dark skinned hand gripped my shoulder. Without saying a word, Dr. Baxter led both me and a sobbing Hilton towards the principal’s office and I kept my eyes on the tiled floor, not daring to make eye contact with him. I had only been in the principal’s office a few times over the past four years to drop off papers from teachers and my parents or to receive an academic award. It was the first time that I was in the office for being in trouble.

Considering I punched the daughter of the principal, I was facing a lot worse than a verbal warning. Principal Hilton was a spitting image of her daughter, even dressing in a similar manner except that it was toeing the line between risqué and professional.

Seeing her daughter in tears and holding a bloody tissue to her nose, she jumped up from her chair and moved around the polished wooden desk to comfort her. Dr. Baxter pulled out one of the chairs and I quickly sat down, awaiting my inevitable expulsion. Hilton was struggling to speak through her sobs and the throbbing pain in her nose.

“Sweetheart, what happened? Do I need to call the hospital?” asked Principal Hilton, frantically grabbing more tissues from her desk.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her daughter point a thin, shaking finger at me. “She boke by nose!”

“Claire, sweetie, just sit and I’ll get Nurse Simpson to take a look.”

After telling the elderly secretary to call the nurse, Principal Hilton returned to her desk. Her eyes rested on me but instead of the cold, harsh gaze that I was currently receiving from her daughter, she looked puzzled. It was as if she had never seen me before in her life.

“I’m so sorry, dear. All these students to watch over and I can’t keep track of every name. Are you a recent transfer?”

“Cecile, this is Tessa Byrne,” replied Dr. Baxter, keeping his hand on the back of my chair.

She let out a derisive giggle. “Of course it’s not. I know Teresa. She’s…oh goodness, it is you. Don’t you look lovely? I didn’t recognize you out of your…usual attire.”

“Mom, by nose!” exclaimed Hilton, angered by her mother finding herself more interested in my appearance than her daughter’s injury.

“Yes, yes. Now, why don’t you tell me what this is about? Claire, sweetheart, don’t speak. You’ll make the injury worse. Brendon, I assume you saw what happened.”

Dr. Baxter explained that he had been reprimanding a trio of freshman pranksters, the same ones who played a prank in the library the previous day, when he heard Hilton scream in pain. He had not seen what caused the fight, only witnessing Hilton with her hands over her nose and me rubbing my sore knuckles. His assumption was that I was angered over something that Hilton said, a complete understatement.

“I see. Well, you’ve always been a good student, Teresa and—”

“Tessa,” I corrected.

“Right. There’s no need for this to become a giant mess. It was one little incident that got out of hand. All you need to do is apologize to Claire and we can forget it ever happened.”

“No," I stated plainly, no longer caring if it meant expulsion.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not going to apologize to your daughter. She deserved it. She was making fun of my family…my—I told her that if she didn’t shut up, I’d break her nose and that’s why I punched her. I’m not sorry for that.”

“We do not tolerate violence at this school, Tessa. I don’t wish to suspend you for injuring a fellow student and I’m sure you don’t want that on your permanent record. Simply apologize.”

“Then tell your daughter to apologize too. She’s not an innocent victim. If she hadn’t opened that giant hole she calls a mouth, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Cecile, can I speak with you privately? Girls, wait outside, please,” said Dr. Baxter, intervening to diffuse the tension between myself and Principal Hilton, who pursed her plump lips at my blunt honesty.

He ushered Hilton and me out of the office to have a ‘private discussion’ with her mother. I leaned against the wall, expecting to hear sounds straight out of a sex tape at any minute. Pressing my ear against the door, I attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation, wondering if Dr. Baxter was going to defend me or suggest expulsion as a chance to pursue my mother without the obstacle of being my teacher.

I dodged Hilton’s hand and her freshly manicured nails brushed against the door. Keeping one hand over her nose, dried blood now caked under both nostrils, she continued to swipe at me like a cat, angrily muttering under her breath. Her impaired speech made it difficult to understand her but I was able to get the basic gist of what she was saying while struggling to scratch out my eyes.

She lowered her hand when the door swung open. Dr. Baxter stepped out of the office, telling Hilton to wait inside until the nurse arrived to check on her nose.

“You can get back to lunch, Tessa,” he said as Hilton flipped me off and slammed the door.

“What’s my punishment? Detention? Do I have to do Hilton’s homework for a month?”

“I convinced Principal Hilton to let you off with a warning this time. We both know that you’re not a bad kid and you would never have hit Claire unless she provoked you.”

If any other teacher had defended me, I would have given them a simple thank you but Dr. Baxter was a different story. He struck me as the type of person who always had an ulterior motive. I trusted him about as much as Hilton, possibly even less since I had suspicions about him from the night of Belmont’s party.

“What do you want? Don’t say you helped me out because you’re a good person. You’ve watched her and her little minions bully me for years and now you step in...so what do you want? I’ll tell you right now that my mother is off limits.”

“This had nothing to do with her. I’m just a teacher looking out for one of his students. I see you took my advice about the jacket. The skirt’s a nice touch,” he said, a trace of a smirk on his lips.

I was unsure what I found more unnerving: that he was openly flirting or that he was practically admitting that he attended Belmont’s party. I had not seen him among the guests that night but there was no other way for him to know about my jacket.

It was strange that no one mentioned seeing him at the party when his mere presence would have caused more than half the girls to lose their minds and crowd around him, hoping for a dance. I could think of fifty reasons why he would attend a high school party, each more troubling than the last, but while I was willing to pursue my suspicions that Parker had a hand in Belmont’s death, I was not as comfortable with pointing the finger at a man who could make teenage girls and grown women wet themselves with just a smile.

By Friday afternoon, I realized that I had overly ambitious expectations for my plan. I had hoped to get at least some information from Parker about the night of the party but all I had was a long list of highlights from his football career that began at the age of five.

My only accomplishment over the past two days was getting a new nickname: Knockout, for nearly breaking Hilton’s nose. Though all of his friends became morose at the mention of Belmont, none of them were willing to discuss that night. The only one I had a little success with was Amy, who opened up more outside of Hilton’s presence.

During gym on Friday morning, while Hilton was getting her nose checked (“I’m going to kick your ass, Byrne!” she reminded me whenever we were within a foot of each other), Amy told me that Parker and Belmont had gotten into a fight, after the latter muttered a few drunken insults. She had been waiting for Hilton to return with more beers when she saw Parker shove Belmont to the ground.

From the slurred words exchanged between them, all she heard was Parker threaten that Belmont was not going to rule the school forever. Noticing her legs shaking as she worried over Parker knowing that she witnessed the fight, I promised to keep it a secret between us.

I was lying on my bed with Elena, as Belmont drew on my whiteboard with several markers. The memorial had been moved to his home to allow more than just the high school students to mourn his death and he wanted me to be prepared to meet with all sorts of people from the town. I had not yet brought up the fight between him and Parker, thinking it was best for a private conversation.

He taped pictures, printed out from my laptop, alongside each name written on the whiteboard. Tapping the red marker on the whiteboard, he snapped me out of my daze. The tip of the marker was pointing at a picture of a man in his early fifties with well-coiffed ebony hair, graying on the sides, and piercing dark brown eyes. Dressed in a crisp black suit, he looked like the very definition of an imposing businessman. Charles Belmont was written underneath the picture in giant red letters.

He had written the names of his other family members: Katrina Belmont, a woman in her early forties who could be described as nothing less than a classic beauty with her cat-like green eyes, button nose, high cheekbones, and shiny ash blonde locks that fell into loose curls at the middle of her back; Rosalie Belmont, a young woman in her early twenties who looked like her mother in miniature yet had her father’s piercing gaze; Rhys Belmont, the same age as his sister and seeming to be very adventurous, judging by his picture of him rock climbing; and Bradley Belmont, a dark-haired boy the same age as Ryan.

I had never met any of the Belmonts in person, only ever seeing their pictures in the newspaper. It was not much of a surprise that our paths never crossed, since our houses were on opposite sides of town and our families led very different lives. My house was part of the artsy neighborhood (or as Hilton once called it, the poor neighborhood that cared more about pretty pictures than money).

“What’s with the question mark next to Bradley?” asked Elena, taking a bite of my peanut butter sandwich.

“My mom’s having another baby. Don’t know what is yet, don’t really care either. That’s not important. Byrne has to know what she’s dealing with if she’s going to this memorial. Charles Belmont, my father.”

“No way,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm as Elena giggled quietly.

He tapped the whiteboard again. “This is serious, Byrne. Pay attention. He’s the definition of an asshole. All he cares about is money and his next big business move. Just stay away from him. He probably won’t even be at the memorial. He’ll be too busy at the office.”

Hearing his bitter tone, I could not help feeling the tiniest bit of sympathy. Though we had barely spoken to each other before his death, it was well known that Belmont despised his father. I remembered in second grade when we had to write about our parents’ careers and he received a timeout after calling his father a ‘buttface who only cared about money’.

All the expensive cars, credit cards, and thousand dollar a week allowances were not enough to mend their lack of a relationship. I used to think that he was exaggerating how terrible his father was but with his son’s recent death, I could only recall a single interview on the news where his mother was sobbing uncontrollably, barely able to string together a sentence, while his father maintained the same stoic expression.

Belmont seemed to have a much better relationship with his mother, who he spoke of with a fondness that was uncharacteristic of him. With the suddenness of his death, he forbade me from speaking with her, not wanting to put any additional stress on her or the baby.

The bitterness returned when speaking about his two older siblings, the supposedly perfect twins. I had heard plenty about the twins growing up, my own teachers calling them the pride and joy of Belmont Falls. If anyone could be considered perfect, it was them, having won numerous academic awards in school, being heads of many school clubs and sports teams, attending one of the best universities in the country, and graduating from that university with perfect GPAs just last year.

Despite their nearly identical appearances, there were some differences between them. Rosalie was the straitlaced, rule-abiding of the two, being groomed to take over her father’s company upon his retirement. Rhys, on the other hand, cared more about living life to the fullest, which involved all kinds of dangerous adventures.

“If we’re lucky, he’ll be working out down in the basement. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen him shirtless,” whispered Elena, just loud enough for Belmont to overhear and roll his eyes.

“Talk about my brother when I’m out of the room. This is more important. Avoid my sister too. She’s like your mom. She can sniff out a lie from a mile away.”

I sat up, crossing my legs before his eyes could peek under my short skirt. “Am I allowed to talk to any of your family?”

“Rhys won’t be a problem. He’ll just bore you about his latest trip where he climbed a mountain or something. You can talk to my little brother too. Honestly, I doubt you’ll have to worry about my dad or Rosalie. Bet they’re working on some business proposal right now. The company matters more than me, at least to them. Let’s move onto the other people you should avoid at all costs because you are a terrible liar, starting with Chief Parker and his wife.”

Belmont pointed the marker at two pictures on the other side of the whiteboard. Parker was a perfect mix of his parents, inheriting his father’s chiseled chin and burly frame and his mother’s round, chestnut brown eyes and caramel colored skin. Despite his father’s genial smile in the picture, Belmont cautioned that it was all a façade and Chief Parker could be a very frightening man.

His wife, Alexandra, was very much the same, being overly protective of her son. If she heard someone insult about Parker or her husband, she would retaliate with the viciousness of a lioness protecting her cubs. Her petite stature only made her sudden change from a doting housewife that more chilling. Belmont spent another twenty minutes giving her details on members of the police force, most of them barely able to tell their left from their right, and other prominent members of the community.

“She’s going to your house, not infiltrating the White House.”

“Sorry if I want her to be prepared, Ellie. If we’re going to find out what my ex-best friend knows about my death, we have to make sure she knows who to avoid. His mother is going to be attached to his hip pretty much the entire time and if she can’t talk to him, maybe she can get something out of the cops or—”

He stumbled backwards, bumping into the whiteboard. Getting up from the bed, I grabbed his arm, preventing him from falling to the floor, and felt a tingling sensation traveling up my own arm. Brief images flashed before my eyes, too fast for me to see clearly.

“W—what the hell was that? Do ghosts get dizzy if we don’t eat or something?” he asked, snatching the peanut butter sandwich from Elena.

“You’re starting to remember that night. It happens when you’ve been a ghost for a while. The same thing happened to Elena, about a week after her accident. This is good. It could help us figure out who attacked you on the bridge. I saw what you did when I touched your arm but it wasn't clear. Did you get a better look?”

Belmont shoved the entire sandwich into his mouth, muttering “Not much” between bites. From my experiences with Elena, I knew that the images were just blurs the first few times. She never had a clear memory of the accident that took her life until almost six months later and the memories surfaced at random moments.

He only remembered a blurred tattoo on a wrist and red and green fingers clutching his throat. Elena joked that his murderer enjoyed fingerpainting. Picking up the whiteboard from the floor, she reminded me that, according to my mother, the memory flashes were not always just from the moments before a person’s death, but also from their last day alive.

For once, I decided to take a more optimistic approach, hoping that the tattoo and colorful fingers belonged to his murderer. Later that night, Will picked me up for the memorial, still showing signs of discomfort at my new attire. He awkwardly complimented me on my long-sleeved, black dress with lace sleeves and matching heels.

“Will, I know you have a hard time with change but I haven’t really changed that much. I mean, even if I wasn’t wearing this, I wouldn’t go to Belmont’s memorial in a hoodie and jeans.”

“I’ll get used to it. I just—well, maybe if you told me why you decided to take Parker’s offer…”

“It’s better if you don’t know.”

“That doesn’t help and I want to believe that you’re not becoming one of his fangirls but you’ve never punched Hilton before.”

“Punching her isn’t related to hanging out with Parker. She had it coming for a long time.”

“I heard some of the guys talking about it in the locker room during gym. She said something about…person who shall remain nameless?”

I nodded, feeling a giant lump in my throat. “It’s a touchy subject. I did tell her to shut up so really, it’s her fault,” I said, fiddling with the strap on my right heel.

Will gripped my hand lightly, giving me a small sense of comfort. Just thinking about the incident in the stoner pit with Hilton dampened my mood but I was snapped out of my melancholy when we arrived at a golden gate with the letters B and H plastered into the metal.

Belmont Hills was the gated community that housed the richest families in the town and growing up, the children not privileged enough to live inside such a pristine neighborhood made it a game to sneak past the gates. In my childhood, only half a dozen ever won the game though they were swiftly caught by the security guards before making it past the rose gardens, the most troublesome being sent to juvenile centers the very next day.

The guard at the gate, an elderly man who looked like he had one foot already in the grave, asked for a form of ID to match our names to a list given to him by Rosalie.

“Nelson…your father’s a cop, ain’t he?” he asked, speaking with a thick Cajun accent.

“H—he was but uh not anymore. He passed away a few years ago.”

It was my turn to comfort Will, holding his hand as he teared up from just speaking about his father. The guard nodded glumly, apologizing for his poor memory, and praised Will’s father as a good man.

“Never caused any trouble, that man. Always good to everybody, no matter what. The chief lost a great podna that night.” He handed back my license. “Byrne...your mama teaches my grandson how to draw. You as good as her?”

“I’m getting there.”

“Daddy’s still digging, huh? When he gets back, tell him ol’ Carl wants to keep having that talk about those mummies, cher.”

I fumbled with putting my license in my purse. My father was the last person I expected to ever visit Belmont Hills. He was never fond of the Belmonts, finding them arrogant for putting their family name on every last building and essentially controlling the town. When I questioned if Carl possibly met my father at a local bar, he shook his head, explaining that my father visited the gated community often, usually after arriving home from a dig site.

“I wonder why your dad comes here. It sounds like he’s good friends with that guard,” said Will, driving past the gate.

“I have no idea. He definitely wasn’t meeting the Belmonts. He hates them more than he hates oranges.”

“Well, a lot of families live here. Maybe he was doing business with one of them.”

Belmont Hills was exactly as I pictured in my mind: several lavish mansions with the same model of cars, down to the year, parked in the vast driveways. The only house that stood out was the Belmont mansion at the end of the street, perched on top of the highest hill behind another golden gate. After handing our licenses to another guard who was far less friendly, only responding in grunts, they drove up the winding road.

Will commented that its Victorian style, different from the modern design of the other mansions, reminded him of a house from a horror movie we once watched in his bedroom. Several cars were parked in the driveway and most of our fellow high school students stood outside, either waiting for their parents or too anxious to enter the enormous mansion. The moment we stepped into the mansion, Elena and Belmont walking behind me, I spotted a poster-sized photo of him perched on an easel.

“Names?”

Rosalie, her ash blonde hair pulled up into a tight bun, was standing beside the door, holding a tablet. Her expression was that of someone being forced to attend a business meeting, not a girl who just lost her younger brother.

“We already gave our names twice,” I said, bewildered by her almost robotic behavior.

“It’s called being cautious. Names?”

“Tessa Byrne and Will Nelson. We uh went to school with your brother.”

She never lifted her eyes from her tablet as she tapped it twice with her finger. “I only asked for your names, not to start a conversation. Food and drink are in the room to your left and we’ll begin the service within the hour. Bathrooms are on every floor. Don’t touch anything or you’ll be promptly taken from the premises. Move along,” she explained, already asking the names of the middle-aged couple walking through the door.

“Told you,” muttered Belmont.

In each room, video screens along the walls were playing a slideshow of pictures and home movies, from when he was a newborn to just this year. Most of the guests were in the ballroom where caterers were offering foods like shrimp puffs and tiny blocks of cheese on toothpicks.

I was about to decline a glass of champagne until Parker entered the room with his parents. If I was going to have to endure another hour of his accomplishments in little league, the champagne was a necessary evil to keep myself from falling asleep. Parker looked unusually grumpy, his hands stuffed in his pockets. His mother was whispering in his ear, smiling at passing guests every so often.

“See? I was right, Tessa. They have cucumber sandwiches,” said Will, picking up a small tray.

Amy joined us by the table, giggling at his amusement over the sandwiches. “Have you never seen those before? You’re so weird sometimes, Nelson. Tessa, you look so adorbs.”

“Oh uh thanks. Did you just get here?”

“Yeah, my parents are talking to Claire’s. You missed a little drama. Parker wasn’t going to be allowed into the memorial.”

“That’s weird. Why wouldn’t he be allowed? They were best friends.”

“Well, you can never tell with Rosalie because she always has the same expression on her face but for a second, I swear she looked angry with him. Mrs. Parker almost smacked Rosalie in the face when she told him to leave. There’s always been a little tension between their families. I think they’re just mad that with Fin gone, Parker is head of our clique now. It’s like a shift in power or whatever, you know? Oh, you have to come with me. Mr. Hilton wanted to talk to you.”

“T—to me? Why?” I asked, thinking that it was a trap.

Taking me by the arm, she pulled me through the crowd. I imagined that Hilton’s father was very much like his wife, shallow and dimwitted yet fiercely protective of his daughter. The possibility that Hilton convinced him to smack me around as revenge ran through my mind and I searched for all possible exits out of the room.

The Hiltons were speaking with another couple, likely Amy’s parents, and Principal Hilton quietly scolded her daughter for already drinking two glasses of champagne in the span of five minutes. Hilton ignored her, too busy glaring daggers in my direction. Mr. Hilton, a handsome, very tanned man in a dark blue suit, grinned as Amy, fighting against my attempts to return to Will, ambled towards them. It did not go unnoticed by me that he was considerably older than his wife, by at least fifteen years.

“Amy, here you are. Your father was just telling us about you applying early to UPenn. A very good school. Ah, I see you brought Tessa with you. Wonderful,” he said, speaking with a plummy tone.

There was a momentary silence as he extended his hand. Ever since the day that I ‘disfigured’ her daughter’s face, Principal Hilton had been very frigid towards me. She never used to acknowledge me in the halls in the past but now, whenever she passed me, she made a point of saying my name in an icy tone, sounding scarily like her daughter. She scrunched her nose when I shook his hand, slightly letting down my guard.

“Truly wonderful to meet you in person, Tessa. The last time I saw you, it was at the fourth grade art exhibit on parents’ night. You’ve got talent like your mother. Cecile and I love seeing her works at the gallery.”

“Yes, you’re Kala’s daughter, aren’t you? I can see the resemblance. I almost didn’t recognize you. You’re usually dressed…differently,” said Mr. Lopez, taking a glass of champagne from a passing caterer.

His flippant remark caused his wife to nudge his side and reprimand him in Spanish. I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

“I get that a lot…the thing about my mom.”

“I’m sure you girls have all sorts of things to talk about but I was hoping for a moment alone with you, Tessa. Would that be alright?”

Alarm bells rang inside my head at Mr. Hilton’s request. I was now more sure than ever that his friendliness was all an act to get me alone and have some hired hitman bash in my brains. With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to accept his offer.

As I followed him outside, I thought of all the action movies I had watched with my father late at night, while my mother thought I was fast asleep, and how the main character, guy or girl kicking ass in their leather jacket and combat boots, fought their enemies. I doubted that I could learn how to break a man’s arm in a matter of seconds but with him pushing sixty, it would be easy to simply knock him to the ground and run all the way back to my house.

A disturbing thought crept into the back of my mind: he could be hiding expert fighting skills and a ripped physique behind that grey hair and dark blue suit. He stopped in the middle of the rose garden and sat on a stone bench, patting the spot beside him. I joined him on the bench, gripping my purse strap firmly.

“Have you thought about it?”

I just realized that he had been speaking to me during our walk towards the garden. “Sorry?”

“What you’ll be doing after high school. Cecile’s been very busy lately, keeping track of where every senior has been applying or even going to college at all.”

“Oh. Yeah, I uh—well, I definitely want to go to college. I’ll probably go somewhere local since it’s cheaper. I’m hoping for a scholarship but I’m pretty sure everyone does, unless they’re really rich.”

“I’ll admit that my daughter doesn’t care much about her future beyond what outfit she wears the next day but you, I can see that you’re a very driven young woman, Tessa. Cecile’s always spoken very highly of you…your grades and your community service at the recreation center with your mother. I suppose you want to be an artist like her. I saw that you applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in New York. It’s a fantastic school.”

“Yeah, it’s…my mother always wanted to go there but tuition is a lot of money. I just applied to see if I could get in, really.”

“When you do and I know that you will, I would be happy to give you the money.” He smiled at the incredulous look on my face. “I have a vested interest in the arts and its young talent. My mother was an artist herself. I loved to watch her paint for hours. She had a true gift that I unfortunately never inherited. Don’t think of it as charity, Tessa. I do the same for your mother and her friends each year. Charles has wanted to demolish that gallery for ages but I keep it afloat with my donations. I’m afraid he doesn’t have the same appreciation for the arts. I do have one condition for the loan. When you become a famous artist, I get credit for the discovery.”

“Wow and I thought you were going to bash my head in with a brick for punching your daughter. Forget I said that. You really don’t have to—I mean, I appreciate it. Going there is like a dream…come…true…”

The bright red roses in the hedges behind him darkened in color, turning black as coal. As Mr. Hilton offered me his business card to call him to discuss the potential loan, I was distracted by a soft rustling in the hedges. I jumped up from the bench when a pair of milky white eyes stared back at me.

“Tessa? Is something the matter?”

“I uh—I think I had a bad shrimp puff. I should probably—I’m sorry, Mr. Hilton. I really want to keep talking but—”

“If you’re feeling ill, there’s a bathroom on the first floor, just past the ballroom.”

“T—thank you,” I said, struggling to stay calm when drops of blood fell to the ground like a thick string of drool.

I hurried out of the garden, clutching my stomach. Hearing a series of growls, I quickened my pace, ignoring the pain in my ankles from the high heels. The growls seemed to be getting louder but each time I turned my head, all I saw was the slowly shrinking garden in the distance. The tiniest shriek escaped my lips when something slammed into me, like being hit by a truck, and the powerful force sent me crashing face first into the ground.

A hand, slimy and smelling of rotting flesh, pressed against the back of my head, followed by a heavy weight on my back. Whatever had me pinned emittted a disembodied growl and drops of blood dripped onto my shoulder. No matter how much I twisted my body, the mysterious figure did not budge and the hand tightened its grip on my head, its sharp nails digging into my neck. My sobs were muffled by the dirt.

“Tessa!”

The weight was suddenly lifted from my back and a pair of hands lifted me up from the ground. Elena had her arms around me, holding me in a tight embrace. Belmont was standing beside her, a fallen tree branch in his hands. Across from the three of us stood the same creature that attacked Katie on the night of the party, now sporting a gash across its cheek.

“What is that thing, Byrne? How do we get rid of it?”

My head was buried in Elena’s shoulder. “I—I don’t know.”

“Great. Well, maybe its weakness is tree branches. You want some more, you ugly—”

A black blur jumped down from a nearby tree, striking his head. He fell forward and in his place was another creature, this one more slender. The two creatures stared at one another, growling at different pitches and lengths. Elena wondered if they were speaking their own language and my fright-induced panic made me think that I understood a few words. I imagined that the slender creature said something similar to our orders.

Belmont swung the tree branch at the creature’s legs, causing it to stumble, and grabbed both my hand and Elena’s before sprinting towards the manor. The creatures were not far behind, moving with the speed of a cheetah. As I hurried through the back door that led into the kitchen, I bumped into someone, my eyes meeting Parker’s. The creatures were repelled from the doorway and hissed at me before vanishing into the ground.

“Tessa, why were you—what happened to your arm? You’re bleeding.”

There was so much I wanted to say but all that came out was silence. Elena refused to let me go, her arms fastened around my waist. Belmont looked like he was about to hug both of us until he stopped himself, instead choosing to give me a curt nod.

“Was it one of their dogs? Bradley must’ve forgotten to keep the door locked again. They think those dogs are so harmless but trust me, you’re not the first to get attacked. Let me help you.”

Trying to lift me was tough when Elena was latched onto me and he joked that I weighed a little more than a feather. I managed a weak smile as he carried me to the bathroom on the first floor, sneaking past the guests in the ballroom. He sat me down on the counter and opened the medicine cabinet.

“You’re in a better mood. I uh heard what happened with Rosalie.”

I winced when he pushed up my sleeve to get a better look at the scrape. “I’m over it. Rosalie’s a…well, if I say what I really think, you might smack me. She’s never liked me. She always accused me of wanting to get out of Fin’s shadow. It’s ironic, right? Her family’s always been on top in this town. You don’t think I’ve heard what kids say about me at school. How I don’t care that he’s gone?”

“To be honest, it doesn’t seem like you do.”

He dabbed a wet towel on the scrape, wiping away the blood. “Of course I care. He was my best friend since diapers. I guess I’m the type that grieves for a little then moves on. Everyone wants me to be holed up in my room, crying my eyes out, but that’s not me. Why should I act like someone else just for them?”

“Can I ask you something about that night? I uh saw you two at the party…you were fighting. I couldn’t hear most of what you were saying because I didn’t want you to see me but you told him that he wouldn’t rule the school forever,” I lied, protecting Amy from his potential wrath.

“We were fighting about Dr. Baxter. The creep snuck into the party and I caught him and Claire making out in the back of his car. She thought it was such a scandalous little secret but Fin knew all about it. He always knew our secrets, no matter how well we hid them.”

I stared at Parker in disbelief as he confessed that Hilton and Dr. Baxter began seeing each other towards the end of junior year. Belmont had not learned the truth until mid-July, having caught them at the Falls one night, but instead of exposing the illicit affair, he kept it to himself for future blackmail. Hilton wanted to wait until she turned eighteen before revealing the relationship to her parents, hoping that the reaction would be less harsh if her parents believed the relationship began between two consenting adults.

For once in his life, Belmont was completely silent, avoiding Elena’s disgusted glare.

“It was his party so I told him that he needed to kick Baxter out before some idiot sophomore saw them together and blabbed to someone at school. I didn’t want Claire to get in trouble. He said it was just a fun hookup and Baxter would probably move onto someone else by the end of the night…that you were probably the next girl on his list since he was staring at you all night.”

“H—how long was Baxter at the party?”

“From the beginning, I guess. I think Claire hid him when everyone else showed up…wanted him to wait until we were at least a little drunk so we might not recognize him. After I went looking for the idiot that threw a bottle at me, I saw him leaning against a tree. He was looking right at you but not even just looking. I mean, he was—it was intense. He was talking on his phone to someone. I heard him mention you a few times. Probably one of his buddies…to tell them that he found another underage girl to hook up with that night.”

“Did he stay for the whole party?”

“I don’t remember much from that night but I know he left with Claire after she caught him staring at you when you were leaving with Nelson and his stepsister. Last I saw him, she was offering to wear her ‘sexy outfit’ for him back at her place. Anyway, like I said, we were fighting about Baxter being there. It was just two drunken idiots yelling at each other. When I said that thing about him not ruling the school, I meant that everyone was getting fed up with him using our secrets against us.”

Listening to Parker talk about his version of the fight, it made me question my suspicions. My gut was telling me that even if the fight was over Hilton’s immature decision to have a relationship with her teacher, it did not mean he was innocent. The fight was only one part of that night, taking place long before Belmont was attacked on the bridge.

Whether it was Parker’s jealousy, too much alcohol, or a combination of the two, there was still a chance of him being the murderer. He basically admitted his possible motive when he told me about Belmont knowing all of his friend’s secrets, leading me to believe that Parker had secrets of his own that he wanted to stay buried.

Before I could question him further about his memories of the party, Rosalie was calling all of the guests into the drawing room. I followed Parker out of the bathroom, thinking of ways to get him alone at his party. He stopped halfway down the hallway, poking his head into one of the rooms.

Rhys and Bradley were sitting on the floor, surrounded by pieces of wood and tools. Unopened cardboard boxes and toys were scattered around the room. Bradley waved at the two of us, introducing the room as the baby’s playroom. Rhys decided to let him help build a crib instead of spending all day in his room. It was obviously a way to keep his youngest brother’s mind off of the recent death in the family. My smile soon fell when I finally noticed the color of the walls in the playroom: red and green.

“Two colors for one room? Bold choice.”

Rhys lifted a laughing Bradley onto his shoulders. “Bradley thought it would look cool. He said the baby can decide which color they like when they’re born.”

“It must’ve taken the painters a long time. This room is huge.”

“No, it didn’t take us that long. Oh, I know that look. Don’t think us fancy rich people can paint a room? Well, I’ll admit that it took a lot of prodding from me but I thought it would be fun for all of us. Say what you want about my dad and Fin not getting along but they were both stubborn as hell. They took the longest to convince. Fin was supposed to help us out but he decided his little party was more important. Bet he would’ve chosen differently if he knew what was going to happen, huh? Let’s go, champ. We better get down there before Rosie chews off our heads. Rocket ship time.”

Making engine sounds, he sped out of the room. Parker shook his head, joking that Rhys never aged past five. He continued towards the drawing room while I stayed behind, the red and green walls taunting me like giant warning signs.

“Don’t say it, Byrne.”

“The red and green fingers…it could’ve been from paint.”

“Elena said that those memories might be from earlier that day.”

“Do you and your family like to strangle each other for fun? Your brother just said that they were painting that same day and you were supposed to help them.”

“I remember seeing them paint before I left for the party. Thinking that my best friend might have killed me is bad enough. Don’t say—I’m done with this.”

Belmont stormed out of the room. I chased after him, expecting to find him outside possibly destroying a couple rose bushes, but he was standing in the doorway to the drawing room, listening to his family members speak about him. Bradley was sitting on Amy’s lap, drying his eyes with the back of his hand.

Each of their speeches were different, reflecting their personalities. Rhys spoke about a mountain climbing trip he once took with his brother and how they planned to travel through Europe the summer after graduation. Both Rosalie and Mr. Belmont showed little emotion, speaking about Belmont as if he was a coworker and not family. Mr. Belmont’s speech was terse and I was uncertain if he truly felt nothing for his son or was just bottling up his emotions for fear of looking weak.

His mother, sporting a tiny baby bump under her dress, was hardly holding herself together, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. When she spoke after her husband, the entire room was able to hear the pain and loss in her voice. She constantly stuttered and stopped every few seconds to catch her breath, torn up inside over the loss of one of her children.

“H—he was my special little boy. I loved him more than anything in this world and—I wish I had kept him from leaving that night. If I put my foot down for once, maybe he’d still…st—still be here instead of—I’m very sorry. Ex—excuse me.”

No longer able to contain her sobs, she left the drawing room, Rhys close behind her. Belmont’s eyes were shut tightly, an attempt to hold back his own tears. Remembering how he responded last time, I was reluctant to give him a hug but this time, he did not push me away though his hands still remained at his sides. I stepped away from him when I caught Bradley looking at me oddly and pretended to fix the sleeves of my dress.

“I can’t imagine how hard this is for you. I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“I never thought I would live forever or something delusional like that but when I died, I didn’t think my mom would still be around. Seeing her like that…I don’t like it. I have to find out what happened that night but not for me…for her. I can’t let her think that I died because of some stupid accident.”

“We’re going to find the truth, I promise.”

“I want to talk to her. I know she can’t see or hear me so can you do it?”

“Sure.”

Mrs. Belmont had retreated to her room. She was standing beside the windowsill, staring at a vase of flowers while clutching her handkerchief. The flowers had six wide, white petals with brown streaks down the middle.

“Those flowers are pretty. Are they lilies?”

She was startled by the sound of my voice. “S—sorry, I just…I wanted to check on you, Mrs. Belmont. I could see how upset you were when you were talking about your son.”

“It’s quite alright, dear. No, they’re not lilies but very close. Asphodel. My mother used to grow them in her garden when I was a little girl and I’ve always liked them. There’s something almost…mesmerizing about them, don’t you agree?”

As I looked at the unique flowers, I began to forget why I was searching for her. “Yeah, they’re really…” Belmont pinched my arm. “They are really nice. My name’s Tessa, by the way. We’ve never met before.”

“Oh, the daughter of Belmont Falls’ prized artist. That’s what Declan calls your mother. I’ve seen her work. She is very talented and I hear you’ve got some of that talent as well. You went to school with my Finley?”

Thankfully, she was unable to hear Elena’s uncontrollable laughter and Belmont shouting, “Shut the hell up! It’s not that funny!”. Suppressing a smile, I nodded.

“Yeah, I uh knew him. We weren’t best friends or anything but we’ve been in classes together since second grade. My mother always says that—” I was distracted by Elena chanting “Finley, Finley, Finley” in a taunting manner to a red-faced Belmont. “That the dead never really leave us. If we listen really hard, we can hear what they’re saying to us.”

“I’d give anything to hear my little boy speak to me again. What do you think he’s saying to me right now?”

I recited exactly what he told me as we walked up the staircase, subtly stepping on Elena’s foot to stop her chanting before she became the first account of death after becoming a ghost, thanks to Belmont bludgeoning her with one of his mother’s heels. I told Mrs. Belmont how he did not want her to blame herself for his death and that he was always thinking of her. Just those few words seemed to cheer her up immensely.

“How do you know that’s what he’s saying? Can you actually hear him?”

“W—well, no. I just um…knowing how much he cared about you, I think that’s what he’d say.”

“I’d like to believe that too.”

My entire body tensed up when I heard a scraping, like nails on a chalkboard, outside her window. One of the creatures was climbing up the side of the house. I was relieved that for some reason, the creatures were unable to enter the house though I could not tell that to the pee about to trickle down my leg. Making direct eye contact, the creature dragged a sharp nail across the window, writing Tessa in the glass. Belmont rushed to shield his mother when the creature slammed its fist, shattering the glass into a million pieces. I bent down beside her, checking if she had been injured.

“Mrs. Belmont ,are you okay?”

“Y—yes," she said, holding her hand to her chest. "That must’ve been a rather large bird. I should go find my son. He’ll be able to repair the window. Thank you very much,Tessa. I hope we can talk again.”

“Anytime you want.”

“Excellent. I look forward to our next chat,” she said, leaving the room in search of her son.

“Can ghosts pee themselves?  I’m pretty sure I’m proof that they can,” gasped Elena, staring at the window in fear that the creature would reappear for a third round.

“We’re getting out of here now. Screw Parker’s party. It’s not worth getting attacked by those shadow things…or worse.”

Belmont was unconcerned about the shadow creatures, wanting to spend more time with his mother. I dragged him down the stairs by his shirt collar, reminding him that the creatures were somehow able to harm him and if he did not want to end up in a ghost hospital, a term I said with enough confidence to sound convincing, he needed to leave his home. I was halfway out the door when someone shouted my name.

Will grasped my wrist. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I wasn’t sure if you were with Parker. Everyone’s already heading over there for his party. I know I said I wouldn’t mind going but—”

“No, we don’t have to go," I said, shaking my head. "Let’s go home. I want to leave right now. Take all the cucumber sandwiches you can fit in your pocket and let’s leave."

“O—okay. I don’t need the sandwiches but leaving is good. Yay for leaving.”

A young man with swept-back golden blonde hair was inspecting the inside of Will’s car. I remembered him from the night Belmont and I sneaked out to the Falls: the officer who had pulled his body from the water.

“Can I help you, Officer Garren?”

“Will, good to see you. Didn’t realize this was your car. We got a call at the station that a Lexus at the Belmont memorial was carrying some…illegal substances.”

Will pointed at his old sedan. “Does that look like a Lexus to you?”

“Never been a guy who knows his cars so I figured I’d check every one before the chief freaks out on me. Standard protocol says I have to do a search of any people on the premises. Is that okay? I’d hate to do it but if Chief Parker catches me slacking, I’ll be demoted to doing paperwork until he retires.”

"Um, I guess so.”

“I’ll have to check your friend too.”

Officer Garren performed a quick search, halfheartedly checking Will’s sleeves and pockets for any illegal substances, before doing the same to me. He brushed back my hair, observing the cut on my neck.

“Ooh, nasty cut.”

“I uh tripped.”

“Hate when that happens. Don’t get in that car,” he whispered, checking under my left sleeve.

“Wh—”

“Looks good to me. I knew you two weren’t any trouble but if I went straight to the chief’s son, I might get my badge taken away. You two get home safe.”

Will opened the door on the passenger side but I was too preoccupied with Officer Garren’s words. I brushed it off as my mind playing tricks on me though I could not shake the knot twisting in my stomach as Will drove back to our neighborhood. I nodded my head, only half listening to his story about Amy flirting with him after a few too many glasses of champagne.

“I know it didn’t mean anything but I felt bad when she started flirting with Dr. Baxter. Not that he minded…you know him. He loves the attention. Tessa.”

“Yeah, such a creep.”

“Tessa.”

“I heard you, Will. Can we not talk about him?”

“Tessa. Itty bitty baby Tessa. Stupid, naïve Tessa. Thinks her little friends can help her. Stupid Ellie and Fin…just as stupid as her.”

Elena and Belmont were sitting in the backseat, gaping at the rearview mirror. “What did you s—”

Will’s eyes were no longer dark brown, but milky white. He stamped on the gas pedal, speeding the car down the street.

“Master, oh master," he said, his voice rapidly changing from high-pitched to gruff. "Damn all men, oh never-ending.”

“Will, you have to listen to me! Stop the car!”

“Stop the car!” he mocked, laughing hysterically.

“Get out of him or I swear I’ll—”

One of his hands wrapped around my throat. “Itty bitty Tessa can do nothing. Master says be a good girl or a little bird will fall to the ground. No one to save all from evil. Tessa, here I stand. I see Tessa, her eyes…eyes now doomed.”

He threw his head back with a loud gasp as he released my throat and his eyes returned to normal.

“Will, look out!”

I gripped the wheel, helplessly steering in the opposite direction as the car sped towards a street lamp.

 


Submitted: July 01, 2016

© Copyright 2021 skv. All rights reserved.

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