School was cancelled for the next week due to the murder, so Ben and I spent it mostly on the balcony and at Cosmos. The mood in the town was depressing, so we stayed high to avoid feeling so low. When the next Monday rolled around, everyone was regretting going back to school. Especially all of the sports teams who would have to play on the field that they knew Jake was murdered on.
"Hey." Ben and I met outside of the highway that led straight to the school. We both sat on our bikes, him on his sisters old pink beach cruiser, watching the cars pass by. Yellow buses filled with silent kids, none looking forward to the dreary day ahead.
"There's an assembly today about safety before lunch. I think everyone is afraid of what the teachers are going to say, or if they'll mention him." Ben stared at the road ahead.
"Poor Emma.." I hadn't told Ben about her visit, mostly because I didn't understand it myself, but throughout the week she was absent. When the cheerleaders would file into Cosmos, she was nowhere to be seen.
"Emma wasn't the only one that lost someone." Ben looked at me, irritation in his eyes. I looked at the ground, feeling guilty and sorry for all the other people his death affected. His team, his family, even his newborn baby sister who would never get the chance to meet her older brother. The ripple effect of his death would last a while.
"Ready?" I looked at him, hoping to brighten the mood. Ben nodded his head and yelled "Race you!" Before taking off as fast as his sisters bike could take him.
When we finally got to the school bike rack, Bens blonde hair was wet with sweat and he looked exhausted. Ben had never been a super fit guy, but he was never overweight either.
"Fuck it's hot!" he exclaimed as he quickly took a big gulp of his water bottle. I nodded in agreement, fanning myself with some papers I had pulled from my bag.
We locked up our bikes and followed the crowd of emotionless people in to the school.
First period went by slowly, the seconds seeming to take an eternity. It was history with Ms Jane, and usually the time flew in this class because Emma sat three seats ahead of me and I could watch her smile and hear her laugh. Today she wasn't here, and it made the whole class seem darker.
For second period everyone was directed to report straight to the auditorium. For me that was quite the walk due to it being on the other side of campus. Instead of following the cement path that lead around the field and past the cafeteria to the auditorium, I crossed through the field. As soon as I stepped on to the grass, I reminded myself of what had happened here just a week before and broke out into a fast sprint. I didn't slow down until I reached the other side and stood, hunched over, waiting to catch my breath.
"You're a fast runner." I looked up to see coach Gordon standing over me. He wore the typical gym uniform, and would've blended in to the students if it weren't for his fluorescent orange whistle and coach hat.
"What's your name, son?" He reached out my hand, and I hesitantly shook it. I had never been known for my athletic ability.
"Kyle Bennett, sir."
"Well, Kyle, come by the field at 4:00 on Tuesday if you're interested. After the loss of such an amazing athlete, we're going to be scouting for people with potential, like you. Run along now to the assembly, I hope to see you tomorrow." I nodded my head, slowly walking away and into the crowd of students lined up outside the auditorium as he headed towards the cheer shed.
"What was that about?" Ben asked, looking back at the field.
"I am an athletic star!" He laughed at my sarcasm as we walked into the cool building. We found seats in the middle row, quickly settling in as red lights shone onto the stage creating a dramatic atmosphere.
"DEATH!" A sudden scream startled the audience and a girl wearing a black grim reaper costume stepped forward with a microphone in her hands. "Death is natural, but murder is not. It is unnatural to end such hopeful lives in an untimely fashion. It is up to our law enforcers to protect us from such horrible people, but what if one slips through their fingers? A man who seems normal but has a deadly secret? Only you can protect yourself from him."
"SAFETY!" Another grim reaper stepped into the dim red light, a boy this time, and he managed to startle the crowd all over again. "Safety is the only way to protect yourself when no one else can. You must know how to defend yourself, and what to do when someone tries to harm you." It seemed as though the grim reaper was going to continue, but a police officer stepping on to the stage interrupted him.
"Sorry," the officer murmured as he took the microphone from the first reaper, "hello students and faculty. My name is officer Keaton and I have been a part of the investigative team related to the death of Jake Mathers. I am here to share with you that we have discovered a great relief for our county of Forton, we do not have a murderer on the loose. Although extremely sad and unexpected, Mr Mathers' death was caused by an animal attack. We cannot share all of the details at this time, but we would like you to know you are safe for the time being. There has been no sightings of the animal, but nonetheless your principal has given me permission to dismiss you all to an extended lunch period and at 1:45 my team and I will give a brief assembly on animal attacks and how to defend yourself. Thank you." He handed the microphone back to the guy and quickly exited the stage. I watched him bounce down the steps, red faced and nervous as he approached our principal Mr Tuka.
The students all slowly rose from their seats, it almost seemed as though some invisible weight had been lifted from our shoulders. People murmured about how horrible it was that Jake was dead, but what a relief it was that Forton didn't have a murderer. We all filed back into the boiling heat, all feeling more chipper and excited to get a two hour lunch. Some students drove off in their parents fancy cars for more fine dining, and many headed towards the cafeteria for Fajita day. Ben and I headed there, we never missed a cheap fajita.
"I wonder what kind of animal it was." Ben and I tossed our trays on to our usual table by the window and sat down.
"Must've been something huge, and really strong to bring down such a big guy." After I said it, I couldn't help but think of Emma. Had she seen the animal? She was surprisingly strong, I remembered how she had pushed me to the wall. Had she tried to protect him and that was why she was upset? A thousand scenarios ran through my head. She was no animal, so it couldn't have been her, but had she known? I scanned the busy cafeteria looking for her golden hair, but she still mustn't have wanted to come.
"Maybe it was a panther that escaped from the zoo in the city!" Ben suggested, but we both agreed it would have been noticed on its two hour trek down the highway to the county of Forton, and another 30 minutes to make it to Kingsbury. We sat and speculated together in the cafeteria for about an hour. At 1:00 we got up and went to the picnic tables in the botanical garden that hid at the very edge of the school property behind the cafeteria. Not many people went there due to its far location, but with all the time we had today, it didn't make sense to go anywhere else.
We sat at one of the tables and I listened as Ben ranted on about an art project with Liza and how useless she was as a partner, and I tried to focus on his words while I wondered about Emma and that night.
"Fuck!" I hadn't realized Ben had stopped talking and was on his phone until he yelled out in frustration.
"Liza. I swear to God that girl would forget her head if it wasn't glued to her shoulders. She just texted me and said that she can't figure out where the tail of our paper mâché dragon is. She's too freaking stupid to read a text with specific directions that would lead her to it. Sorry Kyle, I gotta go. Save me a seat at the assembly though!" We quickly did our handshake and he darted off towards the east wing of the education buildings. Once Ben was gone, it was just me hidden in the shade of the tall green hedges. I pulled out my phone and started scrolling through meaningless tweets when a voice whispered to me.
"Bennett, pssssst Bennett!" I looked around, not seeing anyone.
"In the maze!" The voice whispered again, and I turned to look towards the strange gravel maze that had been built 75 years ago with the original schoolhouse. It had high gazebo like walls with vines crawling all over them, creating a cool tunnel lined with flower buds and beautiful greenery.
I hesitantly stepped forward, peeking into the dimly lit maze of tunnels, and looked for the person that the voice had come from. As I walked deeper into the maze, a slim figure emerged from around a corner.
"Emma?" She stood there, looking elegant in a tight white dress with knee high brown-leather boots. She carried a light brown cardigan over her arms, and stood across from me just staring.
"Hi Bennett." She smiled weakly at me. "I needed to talk to you. I want to be sure that we're on the same page about the other week.. we weren't on the field that night." She tilted her head down and looked at me sternly.
"Why?" I couldn't think of a better response, and waited as she sighed and relaxed her position.
"Jake was killed by an animal, but they still have reason to believe that a person dragged him from the field to the shed without calling the police. I don't want you, or I, to get in trouble if they change their minds again and label his death as murder. So we were just never there. Okay?" I nodded my head in understanding, and Emma smiled. We then stood there for a moment as I felt awkward under her heavy stare as she gave me a one-over. Butterflies erupted in my stomach from her just talking to me, but my palms sweated from the nervousness of losing this moment.
"You're actually kinda cute, Bennett. Why haven't I seen you around?" Emma tilted her perfect face and looked at me with her big blue eyes.
"I'm just a fly on the wall." She laughed, a sweet musical sound that I replayed in my head for hours after until the sound faded away.
"Well, I'll see you around. I never forget a face." She smiled smugly before darting off like she had the one night at my house, I didn't even try to follow, knowing I couldn't catch up with her.
Back in the auditorium, I found Ben sitting beside an empty seat. Liza beside him talking animatedly while simultaneously waving at every person she knew. I quickly sat down beside them, following the sudden hush and everyone's gaze to the stage. A huge screen had been pulled down in front of the curtains, and the same red-faced officer stood before it. On the screen was a clean body, a huge chunk missing from it's neck, appearing a pale pink against the cold white skin.
"Hello students," the officer began, scanning the silent crowd, "I am officer Keaton and this is detective Biggs." Another man stepped on to the stage, wearing a bold black suit with a crisp red tie. He approached Officer Keaton, gently taking the microphone while Keaton stepped back.
"Hello kids, I know this is a gruesome photo, but often being subtle and gentle about things makes them seem less horrible than they truly are. So, I am here to show you how bad things are so that when you get into a bad situation with an animal, in this case, you will seriously act in order to protect yourself." The slides changed to an image of a bear standing over a small boy in the fetal position, blood was clumped on the boy's face and it appeared to have darkened the dry dirt he lay in.
"Animals are incredible creatures," with that he introduced a seven step safety demonstration on what to do if a bear attacks you. Thankfully the gruesome photos that he showed us were lightened a bit by a guy dressed in a bear suit and wearing a fluorescent orange hunter's hat who demonstrated the actions. By the end, many people were distressed, and others were completely at ease. It was interesting to see how many different ways the assembly effected my classmates and I. Ben and I both left feeling confident that we could handle any sort of bear attack from now on. As we stepped outside, we saw that a crowd was crossing the football field over to the cheer shed, and decided to go with the flow. Coach Gordon stood, with many of the other faculty members, by a small mural that had been set up in Jake's honour. A wreath of beautiful white lilies stood behind a handsome photo of him in his jersey, standing on the field with his helmet by his side, the cheerleaders posing in a pyramid behind him. Although the cheerleaders were blurred out significantly, I could still make out Emma's golden hair at the top.
"Candle?" Ben and I looked to our right to see Emma standing there, holding tall candles with paper skirts out to us. We both took one and stepped forward to light them from a larger candle that rested in front of the photo. A few players placed more bouquets of flowers as everyone stood, waiting for someone to say something or dismiss everyone. Eventually, after giving almost everyone a candle, Emma stood beside Jake's memorial. She held a candle as well, but a red one, unlike the white ones everyone else had. A journalist no one had noticed before took a photo, momentarily blinding everyone. I watched as Emma glanced around, looking confused but beautiful. The journalist then snuck around and took a photo of the crowd without the flash, and I looked back, admiring the amazing scene behind us. It looked like the entire town was there, everyone holding a candle and being as quiet and still as they could be.
"Hello everyone," Emma cleared her throat, blushing as she briefly made eye contact with me, "my name is Emma Waters, and as some of you may have known, Jake was my boyfriend. But he was also so much more than that.. he was also my best friend and companion. We had been friends our entire lives, living just blocks from each other in Columbus Hills. He had been there for me and known all of my deepest and darkest secrets. Even though I was at games to cheer him on, his occasional winks or grins gave me the confidence to cheer my best. He was a star player, not only on the field, but he excelled in school too. There wasn't a math problem that he couldn't solve. Right now I could describe to you the musky smell of his cologne, describe his wavy brown hair to you and the deep green of his eyes. Jake was more than a lover to me, Jake was my other half, my mate. I wanted to do this candlelit ceremony for him, because I know that this is what he would've wanted. Jake loved attention, more than anything. Almost more than me even; but he didn't like direct attention. He liked silent praises from people. A nod in the hallway, a smile to him when he's on the field, a high five in the locker room. He didn't like to talk about his achievements or losses, he just liked the comfort of people knowing. You all know of his passing," she quickly wiped away a tear that had crept out of the corner of her eyes, "but now you are showing him you know. Wherever he may be, he knows that we all care, and I know that that will be enough for him." She suddenly burst into tears, holding a hand up to stop her friend Taylor that had begun to approach to comfort her, and stabbed the red candle into the ground in front of the shrine. Jake's parents followed, holding his baby sister in their arms as his mother wept and his father tried to hide his grief. Slowly everyone followed, coming to the front and stabbing their candles in to the ground. Many people left after giving their condolences to the Mathers' family and Emma, but Ben and I stayed, climbing the bleachers and sitting to look down at the scene. It was beautiful, even though it had been done for a sad reason, it still looked incredible against the black night.
"My dad just texted me, I gotta go for dinner. You want to come?" Ben glanced up from his phone, and I smiled awkwardly.
"I'll catch up with you later." Ben nodded and we did our handshake before he climbed down and walked towards his sister's bike.
"Hi," Emma climbed up after Ben left, and curled her legs under herself as she sat down beside me. She looked at me, her eyes less sad than before.
"Hi," I smiled, happy to see it made her smile too.
"That was difficult, especially because I had to pretend we still loved each other at the end of our relationship." My smile disappeared as I stared at her in shock. Her performance had been so believable that it had even hurt my heart to see her so upset. I was also shocked that she was sharing such intimate details with me after only knowing me such a short time.
"I don't think anyone would've known that."
"I feel like I can talk to you," her eyes intensified and I could almost see that gray haze that had overcome her eyes the first night as she stared, "like I might be able to trust you even. I don't trust a lot of people."
"I try to be a trustworthy guy." She smiled at me, tilting her head as she looked me over. Suddenly she stood, abruptly turning her head and staring off at the forest yards away.
"I've got to go," she began to step down, quickly glancing back with an expressionless face, "can I see you later?" Before I could respond she ran off, disappearing into the blackness.