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J E S S E G R E Y

This is a work of fiction. The characters and events described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or to living persons alive or dead. Any specific places referred are portrayed in a fictitious manner. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods without the prior written permission of the publisher except for brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.

Copyright © 2017 Jesse Grey

ISBN-13: 978-1544788036

 

The text type was set in Crimson Text

 

Cover design by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To my beautiful mother, for always believing in me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

TO DIE FOR

 

 

 

Six Months Ago

 

This is bad.”

They all knew it was true. They knew the moment that they had stepped foot onto the land of Armor Falls Cemetery that their night had gone south. The four of them were a collective of panic while they stared down at the fallen body in front of them. A dead body. One of them, a tall man with hair as dark as the hour around them, paced in front of the body as his three friends stood shell shocked at the situation.

“This is really bad.” he said once more.

The only girl of their group, a beautiful brunette with long flow-ing tresses, ran a hand through her hair. “Where is he? Where’s Sumner?”

“Lissa, who cares? There’s a body!” The pacing man regarded her.

“He lured us here. We have to find him.”

Another young man of the group, with short brown hair done up in a pompadour style, stepped away from the body. “We need to get out of here.”

“Where do you suggest we go, Mercer? The police? Arclan?”

“Somewhere that doesn’t involve us staring at a dead body, Bridge!”

“Enough!”

The last of the group, a slightly scruffy buzzed blond, locked eyes with each of his friends. They couldn’t lose it. Not now. There was a murder involved, and Sumner was nowhere to be found. They couldn’t lose it now when they were so close to losing it all.

“We’re going to prison. I’m gonna get life without parole.” Bridge said with rigorous finality.

“No one is going to prison.”

Lissa eliminated the small distance between the tall blond and herself in response to his stiff words, grabbing his hand gingerly.

“Abram, please tell me you have a plan.”

He looked around, his eyes locking on the woods on the outskirts of the cemetery just behind them. The only option seemed to be alarmingly obvious.

“Grab a leg.”

 

1

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

 

 

An alarm with a powerful screeching pitch brought Abram to a rushed consciousness. A sigh left his lips as he rolled over and thrashed his clock to a much needed silence with his palm. He ruffled his thick and short dark blond hair as he rose from his bed, shaking the nightmare he had relived during his slumber. That night played back over and over since he’d gotten home, like a cold that refused to leave him.

The blood. The dirt. The body.

He shook himself mentally. He had to push it as far out of his mind as he possibly could. He had other things to worry about.

Throwing off his deep red comforter, he made his way over to his full-length mirror, smiling at his toned, tanned skin physique that he’d been working on since he’d been…away. Of course, he averted his gaze from the scar on his chest. The one just above his heart.

He checked his phone, more out of habit than anything else, to avoid the traumatic scar. It wasn’t like he’d seen any of his friends, let alone heard from them, in the month since he’d been released. Not a single call, not a single text. Not even Lissa had responded.

“Abram, you better be up and getting ready! Breakfast is almost done!”

His mother’s warning caused him to smile. If there was one thing he was thankful for since he’d been home, it was just how supportive his family had been since he’d been to Arclan. He took a quick show-er before he found himself ready and heading downstairs, where his mother was quick to usher him to the kitchen table, the buttery aro-ma of waffles wafting through the air.

As Abram sat down, he noticed that his little sister was reading the newspaper, and the headline gripped his attention.

“Let me see that.”

He grabbed the paper immediately out of her hands, turning his attention back to the headline that read ‘Six Months Since Student Stabbing’.

Abram scoffed as he saw a picture of his friends and himself snapped right after they had buried the body. Not that the forensic photographer or even the police knew that.

His mother took a seat, joining the family as she sat multiple plates of waffles and various syrups on the table. November St. James, her ebony skin glistening, gave her son a warm smile, causing him to mirror it.

“How are you feeling, darling?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Just ready to get my first day back over with.” He set the newspaper on the table, but his sister had moved on to her phone to browse the latest in pop culture news.

Abram’s father, the usually stoic Steven St. James, put his phone down from checking sports scores and addressed his son. “Abe, if you’re not ready—”

“No!” He shouted a little too quickly. “I mean, no. I’m ready, Dad. Honest. I just don’t…it’s just going to be weird to be back in those halls.”

He didn’t need to add that it would be weird without Sumner. It was so strange to Abram. He could hate Sumner with every atom he mustered and at the same time, he still missed his former best friend. He cleared his head. He couldn’t dwell on Sumner. That part of his life was behind him now. He needed to figure out what was going on with his other friends instead of dwelling on the person that had tried to kill him.

“Willa, what have people been saying?” Abram asked, eyes glued to his sister’s expression.

“Nothing,” she said calmly. “We haven’t told them about any-thing.”

Slowly, he eyed every member of his ebony skinned family, a contrast to his own sun-kissed ivory. “You guys haven’t told the world that I was in a mental institution?”

November grabbed her husband’s hand comfortingly before speaking. “Sweetheart, of course your friends’ parents know, but we asked them to keep it to themselves after your friends visited be-cause…” she trailed off, but then looked to her husband to finish.

Steven cleared his throat. “We wanted you to decide. So much control has been taken from you the past six months and we didn’t want to add to that. If you want to tell everyone exactly what hap-pened, we support you. If not, we’ll continue to keep our lips sealed.”

“What we’re saying, is that you have a choice. This is your life and you get to choose what you do with it.”

Abram, feeling completely overwhelmed at the kind hearts that made up his family, felt tears rising within him. “I can’t believe you guys…trust me that much.” He immediately got up and embraced his parents, smiles grazing their lips. Abram turned to his sister. “And thank you for not saying anything. I know how hard that must be.”

Laughing, Willa threw her arms around her brother. “You’ll do great, Abe.” They parted, allowing Willa to grab her keys and purse from the kitchen island. “I’ll drive you. Don’t wanna be late for your grand re-entrance.”

Mentally rolling his eyes at the fact that he’d been denied driving privileges for the time being, Abram nodded and grabbed their al-ready prepared backpacks and bid their parents adieu, knowing that this moment of joy he was feeling would never be the same once he stepped foot into Westbrooke High for the last first time.

 

Westbrooke High School was buzzing with students who wanted to get there early, not that there were many of them. One of the few early birds happened to be Bridge Mathison. He was nervous, but not for reasons he normally would have been. He should be nervous by the fact that he was editing the school’s literary magazine, or that he was trying out for captain of his school’s basketball team in a few months. But no, he was nervous to see his friends.

It’d been so long, too long, since he’d seen them. Especially Mer-cer, whom he had always been closest to. Not to mention that Abram was probably still in Arclan. He hadn’t seen any of his friends since they had visited Abram just five months ago, just a month after everything had gone crazy with Sumner.

Brushing his thoughts aside, Bridge decided to get some early drafts for the literary magazine in the computer lab done. But as he headed down the school’s main hallway, he saw a familiar face head-ing into the school.

It was Mercer.

Bridge’s first instinct was to run and throw his arms around his best friend, to end their months of silence. But Mercer took one look at him and went down the opposite hall.

“Mercer!” Bridge called after him, but the taller boy kept hustling away from him like he had acquired the plague in a gristly manner.

He started running after Mercer then, grabbing him by the shoulder and spinning him around to face him. Despite the situation, Bridge smiled. Mercer had always been cute, but with his new tan, Bridge had to admit he was probably the hottest guy at Westbrooke, with his styled brown hair and ocean blue eyes that spoke of warm summers, and that definitely didn’t hurt his case at all.

“Bridge,” Mercer began.

“Where have you been? I haven’t heard from anyone since…Arclan.” Bridge paused to gauge Mercer’s reaction, which was plain and unnerved. “I called, texted. What happened?”

Mercer sighed nervously before looking into Bridge’s chesnut eyes. “I just got back into town.” he explained. “I’ve been in Louisiana.”

Bridge’s brow furrowed curiously. “Louisiana?”

He nodded. “Visiting family with my dads.”

“But why?”

“To get away from everything.” he sighed again. “They’ve been really worried about me since that night.”

“We’re best friends, Merce. It’s been really tough these past cou-ple of months.” Bridge stopped himself before he blurted out some-thing he wasn’t quite ready to discuss.

“It’s been hard for all of us, Bridge. Listen, my dads are freaking out on me about everything that happened six months ago, and that trip to visit Abe didn’t help. They don’t want me to get into any trouble this year.”

“What happened with Sumner wasn’t your fault. It’s not like we can’t be friends or something stupid like that.” Bridge watched as a cloudy expression settled over Mercer’s features. Before he could open his mouth again to explain, Bridge realized what was going on. “Are you kidding me?”

“Bridge, I’m sorry.” To his credit, Mercer did look really upset, but Bridge just shook his head. “I don’t think we should hang out anytime soon.”

Not letting him give a rebuttal, Mercer turned on his heels and disappeared out of Bridge’s view. He scoffed to himself. If it had just been the fact that Mercer was stuck in Louisiana with no service for his reasoning as to why he hadn’t spoken to him, Bridge would have understood. But the fact that he was avoiding him because he thought he would cause trouble? Unacceptable.

A storm of fear overcame Bridge. Had Mercer told his dads about what really happened that night? About what he had done? They had made a pact to never tell anyone, but could his dads’ constant worry have pulled the information out of him?

No, that was crazy. Mercer wouldn’t betray him, any of them. They’d take their secret to their graves.

Bridge didn’t have time to think about it too long because stu-dents started to enter the school by the swarms. And when he saw Willa St. James, he immediately beamed. He’d always been friends with Willa through Abram but ever since the rest of his friends had seemingly pushed him away, he’d never been closer to her.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, running up to him and hugging him tight-ly.

“You look amazing!” Bridge said, regarding her lavender Chi Chi London lace dress with matching wedge shoes.

Willa laughed and gestured toward his blue and yellow plaid but-ton up and his dark green Levi’s, topped off with a dark gray hat that he wore backwards. “Not looking too bad yourself.”

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in a month.” he admitted.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I’ve been so MIA. I’ve just been dealing with stuff with Abram.”

He smiled weakly. “How is Abram?”

A wicked grin curved Willa’s lips upward. “Ask him yourself.”

Eyes widening, Bridge turned to see a smiling, clean shaven Abram, obviously waiting for Willa’s set up to make his appearance. Bridge laughed as he enveloped Abram in a huge embrace, much like he had wanted to give Mercer earlier. He shook himself mentally as he felt tears licking the edges of his eyes. He’d missed Abram so much. Six months was too long to go without any of his friends.

Coming out of the hug, Bridge realized that Abram was having the exact same problem with keeping his emotions in their respective stables.

“I’ve missed you so much.” Abram said, clearing his throat.

“I’ve missed you too, Abe.”

“I’ve been trying to reach you guys.”

“When did you get back?”

“Almost a month ago.” He smiled, an undertone of bashfulness laying beneath it. “Just been trying to adjust.”

Throwing up his hands, Bridge laughed. “I wish I’d known.” He then noted just how amazing Abram was looking. “You’ve bulked up too.”

Nodding, Abram laughed. “Yeah, I have. But we can catch up lat-er,” Abram grinned before his expression grew more curious, a tum-bling of thought redirecting his focus. “Have you heard from Lissa?”

Bridge shook his head as Willa jumped back into the conversa-tion, the former noticing that people were beginning to whisper and cut eyes in their direction.

“None of us have,” Willa explained. “It’s really weird. It’s like she’s fallen off the grid.”

Abram just affirmed his sister’s accusation, but Bridge could see the concern in his eyes. After all, before that night, Lissa and Abram had been together and so obviously in love. And they hadn’t spoken in almost six months? Bridge couldn’t imagine what Abram was go-ing through with being back to civilized life in Armor Falls.

Suddenly, Willa’s eyes grew wide as she spotted someone behind Bridge. She turned to her brother in frantic movements. “Abe, I was supposed to tell you something on the way here but I completely spaced.”

Bridge turned to see what the fuss was about when he felt a blackout approaching his senses. A guy waved at Willa as he raced toward them. Then the stranger’s eyes fell on Bridge and they grew the size of cantaloupes.

He recognized the guy from last night.

“Ben?”

The handsome Armenian, with lines of concern aging him more than he actually was, stopped just in front of them, his brown eyes expanding as he realized that Bridge wasn’t a mirage and really was standing right in front of him.

“Bridge, what are you doing here? Student teaching or some-thing?”

“Um, he’s here for senior year?” Willa laughed lightly.

His confusion furthered. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Can we get back to what I’m supposed to know?” Abram inter-jected, looking from his sister to Ben.

Ben looked away from Bridge and moved between the siblings, sticking out his hand for Abram to shake. “Sorry. I’m Ben Magnus.”

Abram laughed, shaking his hand swiftly. “And I care…why?”

Willa adopted her nerves and stirred cautiously next to them. “Mom and Dad wanted someone to look out for you and transition you back to everything.”

“My dad recently started working with yours,” Ben explained. “I’m a psych major at Heartmyth University, a senior, and they just wanted someone for you to go to if you’re ever feeling…off.”

Bridge watched as Abram scoffed in annoyance. “So much for giving me control over my own life.”

“I’m just going to be here when you need me. Kind of like an ad-visor. Your sidekick. And I’ll drive you wherever you want to go.” Ben smiled.

“Wait, you can’t drive?”

Everyone turned to see Bridge looking terribly uncomfortable and perplexed.

“Yeah. Because I can’t be trusted, right?” Abram yelled, storming away from everyone and adding to the stares they were already col-lecting as people continued to pass by.

Flustered, Willa went running after her brother, leaving Bridge and Ben alone together.

“What the hell, Bridge?” Ben closed the space between them, keeping his voice low as more and more students piled into West-brooke High. “You told me you were a freshman at Heartmyth last night!”

Bridge sighed. “Ben, I’m sorry but—”

“Are you even eighteen?”

“Technically?” Bridge winced sarcastically.

“Bridge!”

“Chill out, Ben. I turn eighteen in two months. What we did—”

“Was illegal!”

Bridge reached out to touch Ben’s arm, but he recoiled like Bridge was a leper, reminding him once again of his brief encounter with Mercer.

“When we met at that party last night,” Ben began. “The only reason we hooked up was because I thought you were in college, not high school.”

“Ben,” Bridge grabbed his hand, but once again he acted like his touch would incinerate him from the inside out.

“Enough. What happened last night was a one-time thing. I’m not gay.”

Bridge couldn’t help but laugh despite the weird occurrence. “Well you might not be, but your ass sure was last night.”

Ben coughed at his abrasiveness, looking around to make sure no one was listening to their conversation.

“What’s the big deal? We had fun last night. No need to label an-ything.” Bridge nodded.

“It’s more complicated than that.”

He didn’t know what the issue was. Maybe Bridge had fudged a few of the details during the back to school party at Heartmyth last night, but they had both been pretty drunk and Ben had an amazing ass and…one thing had led to another. It’s not like they were hurting anyone.

A titter sounded from behind them. A beautiful blonde spun Ben around and hugged him invitingly. Bridge’s eyebrows raised inquisi-tively as the woman turned to meet Bridge’s, smiling.

“Oh, sorry,” she laughed. “You must be the student Ben is advis-ing. Abram, right?”

“Uh, no. I’m his friend, Bridge.” he smiled nervously. “And you are?”

The woman laughed. “I’m Paige Honeycombe, the new guidance counselor.”

“Oh. Nice to meet you. How do you know Ben?”

Ben shifted awkwardly as he opened his mouth to speak but Paige silenced him by holding up her hand, Bridge’s eyes brightening at the ring on her finger.

“We’re engaged.”

As Ben chuckled oddly, Paige beamed exuberantly, and Bridge stood there speechless as he stared at the man he had just slept with and the woman he was lying to about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

DROP DEAD

 

 

Abram made his way deeper into the heart of Westbrooke High, every step making him all the more angry. His parents had gone on and on about trusting him and then they went and gave him a glorified babysitter? He was so angry he was ready to annihilate some lockers. How could they say that they trusted him when they had sent Ben to observe his every move? He hadn’t felt so betrayed since Sumner had turned his life upside down.

His sister caught up with him finally, and he was facing her be-fore he even realized it.

“Abe, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

“I’m not mad at you, Willa. Mom and Dad gave that speech about giving me back control over my life and they gave me a stalker!”

“Look, I know they didn’t tell you everything but they’re just looking out for you. Having Ben around isn’t ideal, but they’re just making sure that what happened with Sumner never ever happens again.”

Abram took in a chaste breath. He hadn’t realized how hard this had hit his family until he had returned home. What happened with Sumner was tragic, and obviously, Abram had felt the brute of his reign six months ago.

Steeling himself, Abram looked into his sister’s eyes. “I guess I can be nice to the guy, for my family.”

Willa gave him a quick hug. “It’s just for a little while. Plus, he’s a pretty nice guy. He seems to know Bridge.”

“Yeah, what the hell was that about?” he laughed. “Speaking of, you and Bridge seem close.”

“He’s been going through a rough time lately.” Just when Abram went to ask about it, Willa shook her head. “It’s not my place. You’ll have to talk to him about it.”

“We have to get to class anyway. Let’s get this day over with.” he laughed.

She looped her arm with her brother’s, mimicking his laughter. “You still have to tell me what it was like being in a crazy house.” When he laughed even more, she smacked him spiritedly. “I’m seri-ous! You’ve never told me.”

But Abram just cackled again as he walked down the hall he used to own, his sister by his side as he tried to ignore the abundance of stares and whispers that came from every direction.

 

Mercer walked into his first period class and quickly took a seat in the back of the room as a few kids whispered in his direction, caus-ing him to roll his eyes. Last year, he and his friends had been the envy of Westbrooke. Nobody ever gave them shit or gossiped about them, at least not to their faces, like they were now.

He glanced to his right, where the last seat sat next to the win-dow, looking over the sedimentary object with delayed perspective. It’s where Sumner would have sat when the five of them had a class together, always needing the escape to look out into the world be-yond the confines of the classroom. Mercer cursed himself as more kids piled into the room. He hated himself every time he missed Sumner, or at least the friend he used to be to him.

Remembering the first time he had met Sumner, Mercer found himself back in freshman year of Westbrooke. It was the first day back from winter break, and Mercer and his friends were meeting up in the cafe for breakfast, like every other morning. He was just going to stop by his locker before he met them. He remembered sifting through his locker when a stranger had approached the locker to his right, next to a huge window. The guy had molasses dark hair and wore clothes straight out of a GQ photoshoot. Mercer was sure Bridge would be all over the new guy, causing him to smirk. Mercer walked over to the new guy, slamming his locker shut after grabbing his biology book.

“Welcome to Westbrooke,” Mercer grinned, watching the stranger jump slightly at the intrusion, causing Mercer to put his hands up, laughing. “Sorry, man. Just wanted to say hello.” he put his hands down. “You wanna join me and my friends at lunch?”

The kid shut his locker, biology book in his hand too, and gave Mercer a sarcastic smile.

“Drop dead.”

The guy walked away defiantly, leaving Mercer to wonder what he had done to piss the guy off.

The second bell brought Mercer back to the present. His history teacher, the overly effervescent Mrs. Mortimer, told everyone to take their seats as a leggy blonde sauntered into the classroom. Mercer’s gaze stuck to her as she began talking quietly to Mrs. Mortimer. He’d never seen her before. Her blonde hair was styled upwards in a pixie cut. She wore earrings with tiny polaroid cameras dangling from them, among her other ear piercings. Her vibrant green eyes shone as she smiled at Mrs. Mortimer. She wore a black leather jacket over a plain white t-shirt and skinny denim jeans with imitation suede wedge heels that accentuated her legs. Not that Mercer was staring or anything.

“Class,” came Mrs. Mortimer’s bubbly tone. “We have a new sen-ior joining us this year. This is Kirby Wheaton.”

Kirby regarded the class in a very sarcastic way. “I look forward to ignoring each and every one of you.”

Several kids laughed as Kirby smiled at the crowd. Mercer couldn’t help but smile himself.

“You can find a seat, darling.”

Kirby nodded, surveying the room until her eyes landed on the seat next to Mercer, the one right by the window. Mercer steeled himself as she sat down next to him, setting her things down on her desk and leaving her purse by her feet.

“Starting your senior year at a new school. That must suck.” Mercer blurted out in a hushed voice. She gave him a grin, further blushing his cheeks.

“It’s cool. I’m totally adaptable.” She leaned in closer to him. “Plus, if I was still in Maine or Manhattan, I never would have met you.” she winked.

Mercer laughed, thoroughly enjoying her playful confidence. “You traded Manhattan for Armor Falls? Trust me, New Hampshire doesn’t even compare to New York City.”

“I’m actually from around here, sort of.” She paused. “I’m origi-nally from Salem, New Hampshire. My mom decided to move back to our home state.”

Nodding, he extended his hand out to her. “I’m Mercer.”

Kirby giggled lightly as she shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

The class went by lazily after that, Mercer helping Kirby when she had a question about the whereabouts of the school as Mrs. Mor-timer went about summarizing what their year was going to look like. It was nice to have a conversation with someone who didn’t know who he was or what had happened to him six months ago.

Five minutes before the bell was set to ring, Mercer decided to spark conversation with Kirby that didn’t have to deal with school.

“So, are you into photography?”

She laughed, nodding. “How’d you guess?”

“The earrings,” he smiled, gesturing towards the tiny dangling cameras. “Just an assumption.”

“Yeah,” Kirby confirmed, her fingers gracing her earrings ab-sentmindedly. “I have a more modern camera, but my favorite is my restored Polaroid. I don’t use it all the time, but it’s a classic.”

She reached down and rummaged through her purse and pulled out several polaroids with one single date written on all of them. “I took these last night at the cemetery.”

Looking at some of the photos, Mercer raised an eyebrow. “Ar-mor Falls Cemetery?”

“Surprisingly good lights on the grounds,” Kirby confirmed. “I know it’s weird, but we just moved into that house just around the corner from it, the one through the woods? Anyway, I’ve always en-joyed the quiet, dark beauty of the place where the living come to remember the dead.” Seeing his reaction, Kirby began to gather up her pictures. “But it’s not for everybody.”

“No, no, I think it’s cool.” Mercer insisted. “Just have some not so great memories there.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” she said, clearly thinking the worst.

“It’s not like that. It’s just…complicated.” he laughed awkwardly.

The bell vibrated loudly around them, dismissing the rest of the class as students raced to be the first out of the door.

“Maybe if I haven’t fled the premises, maybe I’ll see you at lunch?” Kirby said as she stood up with her belongings.

“Uh, yeah,” Mercer said hesitantly, a watted grin brightening his face. He hadn’t even thought about what he was doing about lunch since he wasn’t speaking to his friends. “Yeah, that’d be great.”

Kirby started to leave as Mercer gathered up his things when something caught his eye. He glanced over at Kirby’s desk to see that she had forgotten one of her polaroids. He looked up to call her, but she was already gone.

Sighing, Mercer intended to just slip the photograph into his pocket and find Kirby later to return it, but the curiosity got the bet-ter of him. He reached for the polaroid and flipped it over, seeing that she had titled the picture “Cemetery Boy 8/30” as he took in the scene the picture displayed. That’s when Mercer screamed and al-most dropped the photo. Because in the polaroid was Sumner.

3

INTRODUCTIONS

 

 

Coming out of his first class, Abram felt strange. Mainly because he was basically a celebrity at Westbrooke for all the wrong reasons. Almost every time someone looked at him, whispers of “He’s one of them” and “Sumner’s victims” were buzzing around him. He couldn’t imagine what they’d be saying if he told everyone about his stays in mental institutions. They’d run with that kind of material forever.

But he also felt strange because he felt so lost without his friends. They’d been his support system for so long that it felt completely foreign to him to navigate through life without their we’ve-got-your-back smiles beaming back at him. Sure, he’d spoken to Bridge, but the one person he yearned to speak to was Lissa. She was one of the only things that had kept him sane while he was away. And he hadn’t gotten so much as a phone call from her. She was the first girl Abram had ever fallen in love with. He didn’t even know if they were still dating or not.

As he made his way to his second period class, he spotted her over by the huge window in the hallway corridor. He tried to stop himself from running to her, but he couldn’t help it.

“Lissa.” Abram breathed easily as he called out to her, watching her turn around to face him. Only, it wasn’t Lissa.

“Abram?”

He grinned slyly as she pulled him into a quick hug.

“Faith, how’s it going?”

She smiled up at him. “I’m fine. What about you? When did you get back?”

“Not long ago. I’m glad I ran into you. Actually, I thought you were Lissa.”

“Oh, I see.” she said uncomfortably.

“Where is your sister? I haven’t heard from her since I got back.”

“Um,” Faith stirred nervously in place as she searched his face for a change of conversation before realizing that he needed an answer from her. “Abe, it’s a long story.”

Fear pulsed against his veins. “Is she okay? Is she sick?”

“No, nothing like that.”

Faith opened her mouth to set everything straight when a man loomed toward them. Abram looked over to see a ruggedly hand-some man making quick strides to close the space between him and Faith. A light came over her face as she laughed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Surprise!” he bellowed, beckoning her for a hug, which she quickly obliged.

Abram coughed uncomfortably as Faith realized that he was still standing there with them and hadn’t run off to class.

“Oh, sorry.” She turned toward the stranger. “This is Abram, my…friend.”

The dark haired man locked eyes with Abram and smiled wide. “Straton Jacobs, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands briefly, perplexed features still displayed on Abram’s face. “And who are you exactly?”

“I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?” Faith giggled as her phone lit up, ignoring the text as she dropped it in the back pocket of her jeans. “Straton’s my boyfriend.” Faith’s grin widened at the mention and grasped Straton’s hand “What brings you here?”

“I figured I’d see how the first day was going on my way to class.” Straton lifted their conjoined hands and placed a light kiss on Faith’s, making it hard for Abram not to roll his eyes.

“Do you go to AFU?” he finally asked.

Straton shook his head. “I’m a sophomore at Heartmyth.”

“Faith, you were supposed to meet me outside the office.”

Abram heard the male voice before he saw who it belonged to. But once he did, he had to do a double take to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. The guy looked so different, his short brown hair and flat chest included, but so many things remained the same. The hazel eyes that Faith also bore. The half halo of freckles along his neck. His pouty lips. He spotted Abram and froze. Abram watched as terror glazed over his familiar features.

“Lissa?”

 

Finally tracking her down, Mercer made his way over to Kirby as she rummaged through her locker. She spotted him as she looked away from the storage space, smiling despite the pinched look he wore as he approached her.

“Mercer, hey.” Kirby said, watching as he slammed something against the locker next to hers, startling her to the point of jumping.

“When did you take this?” Mercer demanded, tossing the picture toward her.

Kirby thanked her reflexes silently as she caught it, realizing that it was one of her polaroids. She looked back up at the obviously an-gry Mercer, confusion leaking out of her pores.

“I told you, I took these last night.”

Mercer huffed, shaking his head with newfound vigor. “That’s impossible.” He pointed at the photo. “Do you have any idea who that is?”

Kirby examined the polaroid once more before tapping the cap-tion she had written. “I don’t know, but as you can see, I call him Cemetery Boy.” After seeing Mercer’s flustered expression, she went on. “Look, Mercer, I swear to you, I took that last night. I saw him in the cemetery and I guess he saw me and tried running when I snapped the picture.” She moved closer to him. “Who is he?”

He sighed. He didn’t want to drag Kirby into the mess of his life, especially with her being new to town, but she at least needed to know who her ‘Cemetery Boy’ was.

“His name is Sumner Shadows,” Mercer started. “Six months ago, he tried to kill me and my friends.”

“Mercer, my God.” Kirby gasped, obviously horrified. “You said you had bad memories at the cemetery.” She let her sentence fade into the air between them as Mercer’s facade darkened.

“That’s where he attacked us,” he nodded. “Afterwards, he skipped town. No one has seen him since.” Mercer sighed. “I’m sorry I was so livid. It’s just hard to believe that he’s assumingly back in town.”

She collected the things she needed from her locker and closed it quickly, inching closer to him as to avoid eavesdroppers. “Mercer, we have to take this picture to the police.”

“No,” he commanded, grabbing the polaroid from her hand. “We can’t tell the cops anything. Not yet anyway.”

“But what if he’s come back to…finish what happened in the cemetery?”

“I’m sorry, Kirby,” Mercer stuffed the picture in his jeans’ pocket. “I’ve told you too much. I shouldn’t have bothered you with any of this.”

He went to leave, but she caught his arm. She locked her eyes with his and took in a chaste breath.

“Mercer, you can trust me.”

“I don’t want you tangled up in this.”

“I already am! I took that picture, remember? Let me help.”

“I can’t,” He shook his head. “I’m sorry about this. Forget we met. For your own good.”

As Mercer stormed away, he heard Kirby calling his name, but he had to put as much distance between them as he could apply. If Sumner really was back in Armor Falls, he had to lessen the potential victims. And just by knowing him, Kirby was at risk. And Mercer didn’t want any more casualties at the hands of Sumner Shadows.

 

Seeing Abram hadn’t been part of his plan. He knew when he had gotten to school and had a meeting with the principal and his parents that had gone well into first period, that it was going to be a trying day. He knew coming back to school a survivor of an attempted murder would be a transition. But seeing Abram was in no way part of his return as a changed man to Westbrooke.

He had run away at Abram’s first uttering of his old name. Why hadn’t Faith warned him that he was back? Maybe she hadn’t known, but he couldn’t talk to him yet. They hadn’t had any closure during their visit at Arclan five months ago. He had to wrap his mind around Abram being back before he could even think about talking to him again.

“Lissa!”

He cringed at the name again as he ducked into the men’s bath-room to avoid Abram, regretting the dead end as soon as the doors closed after him. Of course, the three guys already occupying the bathroom looked startled by his sudden intrusion.

“Dude, the hell?” One guy said, washing his hands at the sink.

There was another clamor as the bathroom door swung open once more, only this time it was Abram in the doorway. Everyone looked to Abram, instantly recognizing him.

“Get out!” he yelled, the three guys too freaked out not to oblige him, running out of the bathroom, leaving them alone.

“Liss, talk to me.”

“First off, quit calling me Lissa. That’s not my name anymore.” He shook his head. “It’s Alex now. Has been for a while.”

Abram scoffed, hands on his hips in frustration. “You’ve transi-tioned? Without telling me?”

“It kind of wasn’t your decision.”

“We were together, Liss!”

“Stop calling me that!”

A silence grew among them as Abram sighed and Alex scoffed pointedly.

“Listen,” Abram closed his eyes and paused, saying his new name for the first time. “Alex, I’m not mad that you’re being yourself. I’m mad because you didn’t tell me. We never ended things. I know how hard this must have been on you but how do you think this is for me? Before Arclan, I had a girlfriend. And now,” he paused again, choosing his words carefully. “And now, you’re a completely differ-ent person.”

Alex mulled his words over in his head for a second. He had to admit, this wasn’t the exact reaction he had expected from Abram. Not that he had planned on actually seeing him so soon. Maybe he had a point. Before he had transitioned, he and Abram had been da-ting. Things had changed without Abram even being present, and Alex realized what Abram was getting at.

“You’re right. I should have told you about what I was going through. But you seemed so…lost when we visited Arclan. And since we all got to finish our last three months of school at home, I just shut myself off from Bridge and Mercer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but—”

“You had a lot to deal with,” Abram agreed. “I’m sure they’ll un-derstand.”

He smiled at Abram’s careful compassion. “And Abe, I really am sorry about how things…happened between us. And obviously, we aren’t dating anymore.”

Alex could tell that he was about to say something else, but he was too scared to hear the words he assumed Abram would say. He flew out of the bathroom with all the speed he could churn from his newly toned muscles as the second bell roared around them.

Abram called after him, and he could call after him all he wanted to. That didn’t stop Alex from barging into his second period class. Only to see that both Bridge and Mercer were also in the same calcu-lus class that he was. Their wide eyes told him that they recognized him within seconds, standing up in their seats. Mr. Argus, their teacher, regarded Alex warmly, making the latter very glad that all the teachers at Westbrooke had been briefed on how he was to be greeted from now on.

“Ah, Mr. Llewellyn. Glad you could join us.”

“Wait, Llewellyn?” Alex heard some jock say, and he realized that the guy was on the football team and that he had once made out with him back when he was still going by Lissa. “Are you related to Lissa Llewellyn?”

“I am Lissa Llewellyn,” Alex rolled his eyes, deciding to lay it all out there for everyone now rather than later. “But you can call me Alex now.”

Murmurs erupted in the classroom, some wrecked by the news and some rather indifferent towards the information. Alex looked at his former best friends and soaked in their heartbroken expressions, just as Abram burst through the door.

“Mr. St. James,” Mr. Argus sighed. “You’re late.”

Alex looked between Bridge and Mercer before looking back at Abram, rolling his eyes again and sighing as deep as an abyss. This was going to be the longest class of his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

THE SLAYER SOCIETY

 

 

When the bell rang, they all couldn’t wait to get out of calculus. Alex was the first one to dash out of Mr. Argus’ class, hoping that none of his friends would follow him. Luckily, Abram and Mercer seemed to have gotten lost in the crowd. But Bridge finally caught up to him just outside the cafeteria.

“Alex,” Bridge smiled as the former faced him. “I like it. A throw-back to your birth name.”

“We don’t have to do this.” Alex scoffed. “This is too much for me right now.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Why would you possibly think that it would be easier to go through alone?”

“I’m not doing this. Abe said you guys would understand. Obvi-ously he was wrong.”

Without another word, Alex left Bridge outside the cafe. He sighed. Alex being…Alex was a complete shock to him. But shutting them out? The entire class, Bridge, Mercer, and Abram had tried talking to Alex, and he wasn’t having any of it. Why couldn’t he have talked to them about what he was going through? Bridge obviously understood what it meant to come out and then be perceived differently.

“Hey.” Bridge turned to see Abram sauntering up to him.

Bridge breathed deeply. “Hey.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Abram sighed. “We talked briefly, and he basically just apologized and said we weren’t dating anymore but he won’t talk to me beyond that.”

“I hate this, us not talking. Alex has gone through so much and he isn’t talking to us. None of us are even talking to each other.”

“We’re talking.” Abram smiled.

“I know,” Bridge grinned. “And it’s the only normal thing that’s happened to me in the past six months.”

“We’ll figure everything out.”

Bridge shook his head. “Mercer said his dads don’t want him get-ting in trouble and he equates me with danger.”

Clasping a hand on Bridge’s shoulder, Abram scoffed. “You got me, B. At least, until they come around.”

“And me,” Willa echoed as she approached them, giving Bridge a warm grin before clearing her throat and looking at her brother. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Bridge nodded. “I’ll see you guys in there.”

The St. James siblings agreed as he went inside the cafeteria along with the other students of Westbrooke. Willa grabbed Abram’s hand and led him to a little stone bench just outside the cafe. Abram watched as his little sister took a chasm of a breath, worry washing over her.

“Willa, you’re freaking me out,” he admitted. “What is it?”

“I saw you talking to Faith earlier.”

“Okay.” He wasn’t quite sure where this would end up.

“Well, I was going to join you guys when that guy showed up.”

“Straton?” Abram’s interest piqued. What could he have to do with the concern in his sister’s eyes?

“Yeah, Straton.” Willa exhaled. “Did he mention anything about Sumner?”

This conversation kept taking wilder and wilder turns. Abram’s eyebrows were practically leaping off of his face at this point. “What the hell would Straton know about Sumner?”

“Remember the party at Heartmyth earlier that night when Sumner—”

“Yes, I remember.”

Sensing his discomfort, Willa decided to just blurt it out. “I’ve met Straton before.” she huffed. “I’ve met him because Sumner in-troduced us at the Heartmyth party.”

His eyes expanded. “Straton knew Sumner?”

Willa confirmed his suspicions. “I just think Faith ought to know, assuming she doesn’t. But I just think it’s weird for her to be dating him if he knew Sumner like that.”

“No, I agree. She must not know. I’ll mention it to her, Or, if he’ll listen, I’ll get Alex to pass it on.”

Willa eased off her own agenda upon seeing her brother’s an-guish. “Speaking of, how are you taking the news about Alex? I only just heard about it myself.”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’m happy for him, but I’m just so confused about how things have changed between us.”

“Change is inevitable, Abe. And Alex has probably endured even more since the night of the attack.”

He knew she was right. Alex was entitled to his space. He’d been through a lot, but he still thought it’d be easier on him to be sur-rounded by his supportive friends.

“I just want us all back to being friends again, like before Sumner even moved to Armor Falls.”

“Things aren’t like they were before though.” Willa stood up. “Just give Alex what he says he needs, even if it is space from everyone.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Abram stood also, presenting his arm, which his sister took with a laugh. “Let’s eat some sub-par food pre-sented as lunch.”

The smiling siblings entered the cafeteria, which was buzzing with students eager to eat and further gossip about the infamous sur-vivors of local maniac Sumner Shadows.

After going through the lunch line with him, Willa left her brother for a few of her junior friends after refusing to accept her offer to sit with them. Abram wasn’t sure he needed his sister’s pity along with the flood of emotions that came with wondering where he would sit for lunch.

Looking out in the cafeteria, Abram didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Except that there was only one table that didn’t have any students at all. The one near the exit in the back.

It was their table.

Bridge suddenly appeared on his right. “Of all the tables, right?”

Nodding, Abram sighed. “Should we?”

Shrugging, Bridge walked with Abram as they made their way toward the table when they realized that both Mercer and Alex were doing the same thing. They all locked eyes and watched as everyone gave each other weak smiles. Pushing forward, the four of them made their way toward the table as the lunch room went silent, the students looking on in anticipation.

They looked around as the crowd silenced themselves. And when they further approached the table, they saw why all sound had vanished around them.

There was a message lathered on the table.

The four of them looked at the table in horror as what looked like blood was smeared along the edges of the table, with a message written in blood red sharpie in the middle. Alex inched closer to the table, reading the message as his friends stepped forward and did the same.

 

THIS TABLE IS RESERVED FOR THE SLAYER SOCIETY

 

Upon reading the message, the crowd erupted in a wave of laughter and heckling. They looked around, searching for a sole per-petrator, but everyone was giving them sinister snickers. Willa came running over, her mouth dropping as she read the table’s message.

“Who did this!?” she yelled out to no one, only meeting with judging eyes and wide cackles.

Not being able to take the torture any longer, Alex ran for the door right by the table, a much needed exit from the cafeteria.

“You guys go,” Willa nodded, gesturing toward the door Alex had just disappeared through. “I’ll get someone.”

Abram was out of the door as soon as his sister finished, eager to assess Alex’s state of mind. Bridge and Mercer soon ran out also, hearing the guffaws fade as the door slammed shut behind them. They found Alex and Abram just left of the cafeteria, a little nook between the cafeteria building and the science building. Alex looked panicked, Abram restraining from physically consoling him.

“You don’t think that was real blood, do you?” Alex shivered.

“Of course not,” Abram scoffed. “It was probably ketchup.”

“Guys,” Mercer started but was interrupted by Bridge.

“You don’t think anyone knows about the cemetery, do you? I mean, Slayer Society? That’s oddly specific.”

“How would anyone know that?” Abram questioned.

“Someone could have seen us,” Terrified, Alex shifted in place again. “They easily could have seen us with the body.”

Silence built up among them like rot along the base of an old tree. It was the first time since that night that they had referenced what they’d done. They all looked among each other, too afraid of eavesdropping to say something more about it.

“No one saw us,” Abram finally said. “There’s no way anyone knows anything beyond what we told the police.”

“Guys,” Mercer shouted, sighing halfway through the word de-spite how much he didn’t want to do what he was about to do. They each looked at him as he withdrew a clear breath. “As much as I don’t want to be involved with this crap anymore, you guys deserve to see this.”

Bridge, the obviously most hurt by this word choice, spoke up first. “See what?”

Slowly, Mercer reached into the front of his jeans pocket and re-vealed the polaroid, holding it out for them to see. Alex stepped for-ward and grabbed the picture before anyone else could. His eyes flexed briefly, looking from the photo back to Mercer.

“What kind of sick joke is this?”

“I know how it looks, but it’s legit. I swear.” he pleaded.

Alex huffed, examining the picture more as Bridge and Abram squeezed close to him, shocked by the polaroid of Sumner at Armor Falls Cemetery.

“You’re sure this was taken last night?” Abram asked.

“Positive.”

“Wait, who took this?” Bridge interjected.

Mercer hesitated in answering, but decided to shake his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, Merce!” Bridge shouted the nickname, breathing heavy and trying to calm himself as he continued. “Whoever took this could be helping him.”

“Assuming he’s back for good,” Alex scoffed, giving the polaroid to Abram. “Why would he be back? Why now? He’s been gone six months without anyone seeing him. It doesn’t make sense.”

“As if anything surrounding Sumner ever does? Look, the person who took this doesn’t need to be brought into our hysteria, but they are not aiding Sumner in staying somewhere in Armor Falls.”

Abram gave the picture back to Mercer, who stuffed it back into his jeans as Alex folded his arms over each other.

“We have to tell the school. And the police.” Alex stated.

“Absolutely not.” Bridge protested. “That’s out of the question.”

“Bridge, my mom is a cop! I can’t keep something like this from her even if I wanted to.” Alex exclaimed.

“It’s not your ass on the line.”

“What if Sumner really is hanging around town, for good?” Abram opened. “If he ambushes us and somebody like the cops find out we knew he was here before that, it’s all going to be over.”

“They’re right, B. We have to tell someone.”

“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with us? Don’t call me that until you do.”

“Breathe,” Abram pleaded. “Right now, we have to be all togeth-er, all on the same page. We’ll go to Cobbins. Agreed?”

Alex nodded instantly, with Mercer close behind him in agree-ment. But Bridge was more reluctant. He couldn’t shake the table’s message and how it made him feel like someone knew about their late night escapades that night. He’d never forgive himself though, if Sumner snapped on someone and he could have possibly prevented it.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But we go now, before I change my mind.”

Finally, all in agreement, they left their safe little nook next to the cafeteria and started off toward the principal’s office. As they headed around the cafeteria, Ben came running up to them.

“Abram, Willa told me what happened. Are you okay?”

Abram scoffed. “Jesus. Yes, Ben, I’m fine.”

“Who is this?” Alex inquired, the look on Mercer’s face suggest-ing that he was wondering the same thing.

“My ankle bracelet.” Abram shook his head.

“I’m his pseudo-life coach.” Ben corrected him, shifting his eyes between Abram and Bridge, hoping the latter wasn’t noticing.

“Thanks for the concern, but I’m good. You can go report back to my parents that I don’t need a psych eval or whatever it is you tell them about me.”

Ben didn’t look like he was leaving, so Bridge broke his focus of not looking at him to throw him a smirk. “Just go, Ben. I’m sure Paige needs to hear about what happened back in the cafeteria.” he emphasized her name like it was secretly a voodoo curse.

He finally left as they entered the building that housed the prin-cipal’s office. It was down a long hallway with classrooms and lock-ers lining the walls, just at the end was Principal Cobbins’ office.

“Mercer!”

They all turned around to see Kirby running after them. Mercer gave them a look. “Go. I’ll catch up in a sec.”

Begrudgingly, they left Mercer alone with the blonde stranger and proceeded to head toward the principal’s office.

“I saw the table,” she breathed slowly. “What’s going on?”

He shook his head. “Nothing that you need to worry about.”

“Wait, you’re doing it, aren’t you? Telling about the photo.”

“Kirby, go back to lunch.”

“What are you going to tell them when they ask you who took it?”

“I don’t know.” he sighed.

“Or how you got it?”

“I don’t know!” Mercer scoffed, seeing the determination radiat-ing in her eyes in regards to just how much she wanted to help him with this. “I haven’t worked out the details. Kirby, this stuff, stuff involving Sumner? It’s dangerous, it always has been. Just, promise me to stay away from all of this.”

“Mercer,”

“Swear.” he looked toward the office, where they were waiting on him, eyes glued to him and Kirby. “Look, I have to do this. You’re safe from this, for now. Stay that way.”

She let him walk away without any other debate as he joined the others just in front of Principal Cobbins’ door.

“We ready?” Mercer said with very weak enthusiasm.

“No,” Alex admitted as he huffed, but gestured to the door. “But it’s not like we have a choice.”

Abram knocked and waited for Principal Cobbins’ velvet smooth voice to grant them entry. Quickly, they all ushered in and slammed the door as she turned from behind her desk, taking in exactly who had just entered her office.

“Oh,” The beautiful olive skinned Thalia Cobbins gave the four of them a feeble grin. “I was wondering if I’d see you all before the day was done, just to see how all of you are…easing back into things, considering.” She gave them a wave to sit down, which they obliged once she too took a seat behind her huge mahogany mammoth of a desk. “What can I do for you today?”

“It’s about Sumner.” Abram took the lead for them.

Mercer threw the polaroid on the desk as Cobbins flipped it over and gasped. “Sumner’s back.”

Before Principal Cobbins could ask them any follow-up ques-tions, the office door swung open feverishly, revealing a tall, leggy blonde.

“Ms. Wheaton, this is a private matter.”

Kirby glanced at Mercer, who shook his head at her as if begging her to leave and forget her involvement, before looking away and nodding at Principal Cobbins. “I’m part of this matter, Mrs. Cob-bins.”

“Kirby—”

She ignored Mercer, pointing toward the picture on her desk. “The polaroid? It was me,” she breathed easily. “I took that picture.”

Everyone gawked at Kirby Wheaton then, Mercer wishing she had heeded his warnings while the others wondered who she was and what connection she had to Sumner Shadows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5

BEGINNINGS

 

 

Lissa couldn’t stop laughing. When she had met the new kid of Westbrooke High in her AP Algebra class, she hadn’t expected to hit it off with him right away, but they had an instant rapport. And she couldn’t lie, it helped that Sumner was totally hot. Plus, their whole way to lunch, he kept making her clutch her stomach from laughter.

She couldn’t wait for Sumner to meet her friends. He’d fit right in with their social dynamic. Once they made their way through the lunch line, Lissa led Sumner over to her friends’ lunch table, the one right by the back door of the cafeteria.

Guys,” she started as they approached the table. “This is Sumner Shad-ows. He’s new to Westbrooke this semester.”

Her three friends looked at him with noncommittal curiosity as they sat down at the table. But Lissa saw something else flash across Mercer’s face that turned his handsome features dark and thunderous. She thought she recognized anger among his chiseled looks.

Sumner, this is Bridge, Mercer, and Abram.” She told him, going around the table.

Nice to meet you.” Bridge smiled.

Yeah, welcome to Armor Falls.” Abram chuckled lightly.

Thanks,” Sumner said, shifting in his seat slightly. “I’m not exactly new to Armor Falls though.”

Really?” Lissa’s interest peaked as she started to eat her salad.

Sumner nodded. “My dad owns Arclan, that asylum that shut down dec-ades ago?”

Seriously?” Bridge said as he finished his Sprite.

Yeah, we moved back from Hanover so he could open it back up.”

Okay, enough.” Mercer growled. “Are you seriously going to continue like you didn’t blow me off earlier?”

Everyone stared at Mercer at first, then at Sumner and the scrunched up look on his face, confusion seemingly spreading like a fiery plague.

I’m sorry,” Sumner spoke softly to Mercer. “Did I do something to upset you?”

Oh, please. You know what you did.”

Sumner hesitated in a dramatic display of facial contortions. “I do?”

Does ‘drop dead’ ring any bells? This morning, by your locker?”

The tension around the table was a spring aching to attack, which Lissa feared there was no coming back from.

I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re going on about. I’ve never met you before now. I didn’t even know your name before Lissa introduced us.”

Maybe there’s been a misunderstanding.” Lissa breathed cautiously, hoping to put an end to the current unrest.

I’m really sorry if I did anything to upset you. I really just wanted some friends upon my return to Armor Falls.” Sumner sighed. “My apologies.”

Lissa thought Sumner was going to leave the table when he grabbed his tray, but Mercer scoffed and put up a hand in defeat, that somehow deterred his thoughts of exiting.

It’s whatever. Being the new kid sucks.” Mercer gave him a weak grin. “Forget it.”

Cool.” Sumner smirked, causing Mercer to wonder if he had orchestrat-ed the entire apology.

About three weeks later, Sumner was practically a long lost friend they never knew was missing from their group. Sumner had somehow become their de facto leader, something that Mercer couldn’t help but resent. Before him, they were all best friends, just hanging out and having fun. But ever since Sumner had entered their inner circle, he’d become their unspoken ringleader, wrangling his circus acts to attend to his bidding. Which was why Mercer was reluctant to go to Sumner’s sleepover. He’d arrived with Bridge, who was trying to get him to quit being so obtuse.

Merce, relax.” Bridge began as they walked up the long driveway to the archaic Shadows Manor. “I know you’ve been cautious of Sumner ever since that initial lunch, but—”

He told me to drop dead, B! I swear, I don’t know why he lied, but—”

But drop it. Give Sumner a chance. You have to admit, he’s been pretty awesome to us these past few weeks.”

Mercer sighed. From the spontaneous weekend trip to New York to sneaking them into the hottest clubs in New Hampshire, befriending Sumner definitely had its benefits. Maybe Mercer was being too hard on Sumner. Maybe it had been a misunderstanding that first day. He just needed to just accept that Sumner was their friend now and he was a good person.

Alright, I’ll let it go.” Mercer finally accepted.

That’s the spirit, Elsa.”

The two pals laughed as they quickly made their way up to the enor-mous mansion and knocked on the front door. After a beat, the door opened and Abram stood before them.

Hey Abe.” Mercer smiled.

Come on in,” Abram grinned. “Sumner and Lissa are downstairs.”

Making out probably.” Bridge laughed as they entered the Manor, let-ting the door close behind them.

Abram shuddered. “Dude, I just came up for a snack. Don’t ruin my ap-petite.”

Just then, a middle-aged woman came out of the nearby kitchen with a tray of freshly baked brownies on a silver platter.

Hello,” she smiled at them. “I was beginning to wonder when Sumner’s other friends would arrive.”

Mercer’s always late and I always end up having to wait on him.” Bridge laughed, earning him a playful shove from Mercer.

Thanks for the brownies, Mrs. Shadows,” Abram nodded, holding out his hands to take the tray, which she gleefully obliged. “I’ll take ‘em down.”

I’m Bridge by the way.” He waved lightly.

Nice to meet you, Mrs. Shadows.” Mercer added.

She smiled at them and returned to the kitchen, leaving them alone in the foyer.

Follow me.” Abram led them with the brownies in tow, descending to the basement which composed of Sumner’s entire bedroom, save that for the small laundry room tucked away in the corner. Lush carpet met their shoes and expensive antiques assaulted their eyes. It was as if Sumner’s room was an Ikea.

Wow.” Mercer and Bridge said in unison.

Sumner and Lissa seemingly materialized out of nowhere, grinning up at their friends.

Hey guys,” Sumner spat evenly. “Welcome to the best part of Shadows Manor; my room.”

From his California king bed to his full-sized refrigerator, Sumner pret-ty much had everything. The latest MacBook. Air hockey table. Giant sixty-inch TV. Walk in closet complete with clothes that truly belonged to some photoshoot that would have been perfect for the likes of Joseph Gordon Levitt rather than Sumner.

Jesus, Sumner,” Mercer barked. “This is insane.”

Sumner laughed as he took the tray of brownies from Abram and set them down on the huge table in the dining room niche of his room, taking one and biting into it. “It’s pretty great, right?” he smirked. “I have a secret passage behind the fridge too. I love a damn secret passage.”

Ooh, let’s see it.” Lissa smiled.

No, no,” Sumner chuckled. “Only I’m allowed to know about where the passage leads.”

You and your secrets,” Lissa shook her head. “B-Merce, you have to see the bathroom.”

Calling them by their collective moniker, Lissa pulled Bridge and Mer-cer toward Sumner’s luxurious bathroom. Abram found himself in front of the TV that had been playing softly in the background.

Hey, isn’t that the asylum your dad’s opening?”

Sumner joined him, grabbing the remote and turning up the volume as the newscaster on TV showed footage of Arclan Asylum.

Arclan Asylum was shut down in the late eighties by Arclan Shadows, the original owner of the establishment, but his son, the renowned business mogul Hendrick Shadows, is opening it back up in just three days.”

When she continued to drone on about psychological studies, Sumner turned off the news and tossed the remote on the ottoman just in front of the couch.

I have a genius beyond Einstein of an idea.”

Bridge, Lissa, and Mercer came back from fawning over the bathroom, catching the remark Sumner had just finished making.

What idea?” Bridge asked.

Sumner smirked. “We sneak into Arclan.”

They all looked at him like he was being committed to Arclan as op-posed to breaking into it.

What? Why?” Lissa crossed her arms, an apparent sign of her disap-proval.

Big, empty asylum left for us to explore! Come on, you guys. It’ll be just like we’re on American Horror Story.”

People die on American Horror Story, Sumner.” Mercer croaked. “Literally every episode is murder central.”

Come on, Mercer. ‘Asylum’ is your favorite season.”

Doesn’t mean I want to live it!”

It would be a little cool,” Bridge commented. “Merce, you love this kind of stuff.”

I have to say, it’d be pretty awesome.” Abram admitted.

I guess I’m in.” Lissa sighed nonchalantly.

Don’t be a wet blanket, Merce,” Sumner cooed. “It’ll be fun.”

After a prolonged pause, Mercer scoffed. He really didn’t like the idea at all, but he didn’t want to bail on his friends.

Alright,” He caved, stirring echoes of excitement from his friends. “But if we get caught, you’re all getting thrown under the bus.”

But how are we going to bypass your dad and stepmom, Sumner?”

Bridge nodded at Lissa’s comment. “And what about Arclan? Is anyone there working security?”

We don’t go now, crazos.” Sumner gave a faux theater class face. “We leave, under a clove of darkness. Midnight is our only friend now.”

You’re mental.” Mercer said, laughing with the others as they took some brownies and waited for the stroke of midnight to break into Arclan Asylum.

 

“Can we stop now?”

Detective Alston Dagger sighed to himself. Ever since he had agreed to move to Armor Falls and take on the ever confusing Sumner Shadows case, he knew he’d have to ask the witnesses to re-tell years of detail surrounding the young attempted murderer. What he hadn’t anticipated on was the extreme whining of the said wit-nesses.

Over the past several days since Sumner’s former friends had no-tified the police about the possibility of Sumner being back in Armor Falls, Detective Dagger had been interrogating his friends relentless-ly, determined to find something in their stories that contradicted their earlier reports. He had even been inspecting them separately to compare their stories. But now that the first week of school was done, Dagger was afraid he’d never solve the Sumner Shadows case.

“We’ve been at this for two hours.” Mercer continued.

“I think we’ve told you enough about how we first became friends with Sumner, detective.” Alex agreed.

“Do you two realize how serious this is?” Dagger banged his fists on the table Alex and Mercer were sitting at, causing them to jump in fright. “Shadows has been missing for nearly seven months. He almost killed you and your friends! Who knows what other crimes he’s committed since.”

“Look, we’ve come here right after school all week to answer your questions and—”

“And you’ve complained the whole time! This is an ongoing in-vestigation and I will not rest until I have every detail of this case memorized by heart and—”

“Detective Dagger,” The door swung open to reveal a stern, but beautiful brunette cop staring at Dagger with combustible rage. “That’s enough.”

“Do I need to remind you again about interfering with my inves-tigation, Officer Llewellyn?”

Adelaide Llewellyn scoffed. “Captain’s orders. He said you have ten minutes with Wheaton and then your time is up.” She then gave a small smile to her son and Mercer. “You two can join Abram and Bridge across the hall until all the parents arrive.”

Much to Dagger’s chagrin, Alex and Mercer got up and exited the interrogation room with Alex’s mom. Once outside, Alex gave her a nod.

“Thanks, Mom. He was getting pretty intense.”

“Alston’s always been intense,” she sighed, clearly knowing the detective in some aspect. “Just wait here.”

As she left them, they watched as another officer escorted Kirby toward the interrogation room with Dagger. Mercer’s gaze wandered in her direction, a desperate desire to talk lingering in her eyes. All week, Dagger had told the five of them to have no contact outside of the police station, at least until the end of the week during Dagger’s reign while he began his investigation. All Mercer wanted was to tell Kirby how sorry he was for dragging her into the darkness that fol-lowed the name Sumner Shadows.

Without a word, Alex lead Mercer into the other interrogation room where Abram and Bridge were talking amongst themselves. They sat down at the table, their conversation turning towards the others.

“How was Dagger?” Abram smirked as Alex and Mercer took their seats and huffed.

“More irritable than usual.” Alex admitted as he crossed his arms.

“He’s interrogating Kirby now.”

Their eyes rested on Mercer, glancing between each other before Bridge spoke up.

“Merce, I know we all haven’t been able to talk to each other since Dagger took the case, but do you think maybe you’ve misjudged Kirby’s innocence in all this?”

Shocked, Mercer’s mouth fell open. “You all still think Kirby helped Sumner back into town? Are you joking?”

“Think about it. She shows up just in time to have a picture of Sumner at the cemetery and she just so happens to bump into you on coincidence?” Abram explained.

“I think what they’re trying to say is that your judgement is clouded.”

“By what?” he snorted.

“By your crush on Kirby.”

Mercer gave Bridge an even look. “Excuse me?”

“It’s obvious,” Alex laughed lightly. “All week you’ve been sneak-ing glances at her, acting like you want to drop everything and talk to her.”

“I don’t have a crush on her, I just met her.” Mercer said, setting the record straight. “I tried talking to her in our history class but she’s been avoiding me. I know Dagger told us not to talk, but I hoped she’d let me explain.”

“Dude, you totally like her.” Abram laughed.

“Shut up,” Mercer smirked. “I just wanted to explain everything to her. Before all this, I thought we could have been friends.”

Mrs. Llewellyn barged into the room then, giving them all a shaky smile. “Time’s up. Let’s go.”

Eagerly, the four friends got up and followed Alex’s mom through the police station until all their parents were staring back at them at the front entrance.

“You’re all free to go.” she told them.

“Addie,” Mrs. St. James came up to Mrs. Llewellyn as the kids dispersed from the adults. “We’re still meeting at your place?”

“Absolutely.” she nodded.

The four friends glanced among each other, jumbled looks among their collective features. Mercer looked around, seeing Bridge start to walk over and talk to Mrs. Llewellyn. He started to wonder over to the rest of the Llewellyn family, apparently leaving with them, but Mercer grabbed his arm.

“Where are your parents?”

“That’s a conversation for later.”

“Why are we meeting at your place?” Abram whispered to Alex as they approached their parents.

Alex sighed. “Knowing my mom, to be told the terms and condi-tions.”

 

About an hour later, the four friends and their respective families were gathered up in the living room of the Llewellyn residence. Ade-laide Llewellyn had quickly changed into civilian clothes and hurried back downstairs to her guests. She found herself in the kitchen to grab some water for everyone when she found her children already doing so, bringing a bleak smile to her lips in spite of the detrimental circumstances.

“You both read my mind.” she beamed at them.

Her twins gave her the same sort of wobbly grin as they finished gathering everyone’s drinks.

“Mom, what is this all about?” Faith questioned, finishing putting the drinks on a couple of platters.

“Does it have anything to do with the visits to the station?” Alex asked.

“In a way,” their mother said, letting her words drift farther and farther apart. “You’ll see soon enough.”

Helping her children, the Llewellyns brought their guests the drinks and sat them down together on the massive coffee table sur-rounding the circle of seating in the living room.

Abram sat with his sister and their parents, both siblings twid-dling their thumbs nervously, an apparent family trait. Mercer and his two dads were talking amongst themselves, almost like Mercer was arguing with them about something. And Bridge’s parents were absent completely, as he had ridden with Alex and his family for rea-sons unbeknownst to practically everyone in attendance.

In a quick manner, Bridge made his way over to Mrs. Llewellyn as Alex and Faith found seats next to their father. “Before whatever it is that we’re here for happens,” he began in a hushed whisper. “I think I should tell everyone about why my parents aren’t here.”

Adelaide looked surprised, not that he could blame her. After all, she was the only one besides Willa that he had confided in about why his parents weren’t there tonight. It was going to have to come up sooner or later with everyone’s parents here. Might as well rip the band-aid off in front of everyone all at once.

“You’re sure?”

Bridge nodded sheepishly. “Can you tell everyone else while I tell them?”

She nodded. “Of course.”

Turning around, Bridge glanced at his friends. “Guys,” then he gestured toward the dining room off to the side. Bridge walked in, leaning on the dining table for sudden support as they quickly piled into the luxe dining room.

“What’s going on?” Abram inquired.

“Do you know what all of this is about?”

Bridge shook his head at Alex. “No, I’m just as in the dark as you guys.” he sighed. He really didn’t want to do this, tell them such a heart heavy secret, but it had to happen. “I just wanted to tell you guys about why my parents aren’t here.” He gave himself a pause be-fore he decided to just get it over with. “They’re missing.”

Horrified faces, as he expected, met his own.

“What?” Mercer gasped.

“What are you talking about?” Alex gawked.

He sighed, preparing to tell the story he’d been dreading to de-pict.

“It was a couple of months ago, during the summer. They went to visit some of our family in Europe, while I was at basketball camp. They were supposed to be in St. Petersburg for a week.” Bridge paused, choking back tears before he could continue. “They never called me back all the times I tried to get in touch with them. They never showed up at the airport.” Bridge swallowed his sobs. “I don’t even know if they’re alive.”

“Wait, back up.” Mercer said with his hands up in confusion. “What about the relatives they were visiting? Didn’t they see what happened to them?”

Shaking his head, Bridge scoffed. “My parents never showed up at their place.”

“B,” Mercer sighed, his voice ladened with sadness.

“I told Alex’s mom. She promised to keep it quiet. They’ve tried looking for them, but there’s no trail. No evidence. Nothing.” he took in a chilling breath, an attempt to cleanse his lungs of his heart-break. “The only person I told was Willa, and that was only a week ago.”

“You’ve been sitting on this, going through this alone, all sum-mer?”

Somberly, Bridge nodded. “It’s been rough. I feel so helpless.”

“B, I’m sorry.” Mercer breathed heavily. “About everything. I shouldn’t have said I had to stay away from you.” he stopped, looking at Alex and Abram. “From all of you. I’ve been such an idiot. I think we need to stick together from now on.”

Abram nodded. “Especially if Sumner really is back.”

“I’m really sorry about all of this,” Alex cleared his throat. “But I’m not sure about this whole High School Musical, ‘All In This To-gether’ bit. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

“Do you really want to face Sumner alone if he ambushes you?” Abram said.

Alex sighed. “Well obviously, I don’t.”

“Then we need to be together, all together if we’re gonna survive this Sumner thing.” Mercer concluded.

All too silent, Alex agreed, shaking his head positively. They all smiled at each other, sharing a brief group hug, only detaching when the loud blare of the doorbell rattled their spines. They joined the rest of the group in the living room while Mr. Llewellyn grabbed the door. As everyone rejoined their families, Bridge noticed a couple of nodding condolences from his friends’ parents, silently sending him their support.

Adelaide was about to open her mouth, starting the explanation on why they were all there, but her husband cleared his throat as a tall, beautiful, blonde woman in a gorgeous vintage Chanel blazer and skirt appeared in the living room entryway, her face taut and her gestures stoic.

“Athena,” Adelaide smiled. “I thought you had reconsidered when you didn’t arrive earlier.” She paused to ask Faith to grab two more chairs from the dining room. “Thank you for coming.”

And right behind her was Kirby.

“This is Athena Wheaton and her daughter Kirby.” Adelaide told everyone.

The Wheatons gave everyone small blinding smiles as they took their seats.

“Alright,” Adelaide said, readying herself between a couple of quick clean breaths. “I know everyone is wondering why we’ve brought you here.” She told the children. “We know it’s been a rough first week of school with the investigation, but we think it’s best if you all keep some distance from each other.”

The shock hit the four friends like a building had just collapsed on them.

“What?” Alex spoke first, rage aggressively woven against his tone. “We just told each other we’d stick together through this.”

“We all, collectively, think it’s best if you all stay away from one another. Even Ms. Wheaton agrees with our decision.”

Kirby’s mouth plummeted. “What? Mom, you can’t be serious.”

“We just moved here, Kirby.” Athena scoffed, clearly done with her daughter’s resistance already. “I don’t want you mixed up in this investigation. We don’t need this after what we’ve been through.”

Wincing a little bit at her mother’s comment, Kirby furthered her argument. “Mercer’s the only person I’ve met here in Armor Falls that hasn’t treated me like a freak,” she glanced at him, giving him a feeble smile, one he quickly returned. “It’s not fair.”

“I think it’s perfectly fair considering the fact that your picture is now police evidence.”

Kirby instinctively gave up as she sighed, knowing that to defy Athena Wheaton was to defy gravity.

“You can’t do this,” Abram stood up, turning around to face his mother and father, rage taking over his usually handsome facade. “It’s a condition of my release to be surrounded by the support of my friends and family.”

“Abram, you have your sister and now Ben.” November told him.

“Ben is a glorified babysitter, Mom. He’s not my friend.”

“Well, he’s going to have to be now.” Steven said sternly.

“This is for everyone’s best interest,” Adelaide interfered, taking back the reigns of the conversation. “And it’s not forever, just until Sumner’s caught.”

“Who knows when that’ll be.” Mercer scoffed.

“Oh, and there’s a curfew. For all of you. Nowhere but school, before and after, pending any extracurriculars.”

Every one of the teenagers’ mouths dropped.

“You’re joking!” Willa shouted.

“This is happening,” Adelaide nodded. “A new beginning for all of us.” She gave another weak smile, her best at trying to diffuse the tension. “Welcome to lockdown.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

STAKE OUT

 

 

None of them dared to undermine their parents’ ruling over the weekend, respecting the keep-distance-from-all-your-friends stipulation they had so heavily handed them. But the following Monday, as the second week of school was set to begin, none of them knew if they could keep up the intense isolation.

As the morning was barely alive with the chirping of songbirds and barely lit from the still rising sun, Mercer was driving his 2005 Jeep Wrangler, still surprised that his dads hadn’t revoked his driving privileges with the lockdown in effect, even though they were totally tracking his whereabouts through his mileage. He was driving to Westbrooke High, turning down a neighborhood as a shortcut when he passed Kirby walking along the side of the street.

Concerned, Mercer decided, against all the lectures he had heard over breakfast, to pull over just ahead of her. His dads didn’t need to know about his little detour in regards to the social fasting. Mercer got out of his Jeep as it idled quietly, surveying the desolate, dark and chilly street before he started walking toward her.

“We’re not allowed to talk, remember?” she shouted as she kept strutting toward him in her heels and black capris, causing Mercer to shake his head when he noticed she only had on her leather jacket over her white t-shirt.

“Aren’t you cold?” he laughed. “You shouldn’t be out here alone, Kirby.”

“Ha!” she mocked him. “You’d never make it with New York’s weather. And please. I used to walk the streets of Manhattan by my-self at thirteen. I can surely handle walking down the street alone in a small town in New Hampshire.” She passed him at this point, though she was sure he was following her, judging by the loud footsteps clamoring after her. “I had to convince my mom that I was catching the bus before she’d leave this morning.”

He shrugged. “I can give you a ride to school.”

“No need, I’m fine.”

“Kirby, Sumner saw you take that picture of him in the cemetery. It’s not safe.”

Kirby screamed in anger, stopping her walk and turning around to face Mercer. “I’m so tired of hearing what is and isn’t safe. If Sumner is here in Armor Falls, then, from what Google could tell me, nothing’s going to stop him from getting what he wants.”

“You’re probably right, but why risk it?”

After a moment, Kirby just laughed, brushing off her earlier defi-ance when she took in his shabby grin, showcasing his surrender. “You’re lucky you’re cute, Meadows.”

He chuckled. “So is that your way of saying yes?”

“Once couldn’t hurt. And my mom doesn’t need to know.” She winked.

They laughed together, making their way back to his Jeep. Mer-cer loved how easy it was to talk to Kirby. And it didn’t hurt that they were now safely in his Jeep on the way to school. There was something about being out in the open that made him afraid that Sumner would pop out from behind a tree at any second and pester his skin with shark-toothed lacerations.

“So,” Mercer started as he swatted away his fears. “Where did your mom go that she’d agree to let you take the bus?”

“Her job. In New York, she was managing a boutique. Fashion is her passion.”

“Not much of that in Armor Falls.” he commented.

“Right,” she agreed. “Since she wants to stay here, she plans to open her own store here in town eventually. In the meantime, though, she’s putting her nursing degree to good use.”

“Oh? Where at? Westbrooke Nursing Home?”

“No,” A quick glaze came over her eyes. “That’s something that’s been bothering me. Why are some things around here called stuff like Westbrooke High instead of Armor Falls High?”

Mercer nodded, having had this asked to him before. “Calliope Westbrooke founded Armor Falls way back when. Some stuff is named after the actual town while some stuff is named after the per-son.” When Kirby tilted her head in understanding, he pressed his earlier issue. “So if your mom isn’t at Westbrooke Nursing Home, then where is she?”

“Oh, she’s at Arclan.”

Mercer almost jerked the stirring wheel and swerved his Jeep in-to the guard rail. “Did you say Arclan?”

“I know, it’s weird giving the whole Sumner thing now. But she said it’s really good money.”

Mercer dropped the subject and drove the rest of the way in si-lence, too encased by the thought of Athena Wheaton working at Arclan Asylum.

 

As students enveloped the halls of Westbrooke High worrying about their classes, Faith’s mind was too preoccupied with the social lock-down her parents were inflicting upon her life to think about wheth-er she was going to drop French for creative writing. All weekend, she had waited on telling Straton. She wasn’t exactly sure how the lockdown and curfew was going to affect her relationship, something she was sure her parents hadn’t even thought about when all the par-ents had decided to restrict their children’s lives. Faith understood the reasoning, but that didn’t keep it from sucking any less.

“Faith,” She craned her neck to see Willa approaching her. Willa put up a hand. “I know, we’re not supposed to be talking to one an-other, which I still think is stupid since we weren’t friends with the maniac, but whatever.”

“No, it is really stupid.” Faith couldn’t help but concur. “It’s such a crappy situation. I don’t even know if I’ll get to see Straton.”

Willa couldn’t argue with how badly everything felt currently. “Speaking of Straton, has Abram mentioned anything to you about him?”

Faith’s brow furrowed curiously. “Why would he? He doesn’t even know Straton.”

“You’re right, he doesn’t. But I do.” Willa paused. “Sort of.”

Her eyes flared with interest. Before she could say anything, Wil-la pressed on.

“I don’t want to stir up any drama, but Straton…I don’t think he’s being completely honest with you.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Faith practically snarled. “About what?”

“About Sumner,” Willa exhaled. “That night of the Heartmyth start of second semester party, I met Straton. Because Sumner is the one that tried to set us up.”

Faith’s gaze fell to the floor. She couldn’t even see Willa standing in front of her anymore. Straton was friends with Sumner? How? Why would Straton keep something like that from her?

“Faith, I—”

She put a hand up, silencing Willa instantly.

“I’m really sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m glad you told me.” Faith admitted.

“I just thought you deserved to know.”

“Actually,” A sly look appeared in Faith’s eyes, making Willa wonder if she was truly grateful or consumed with ravenous rage. With her lashes fluttering like little blood thirsty blades of grass, Faith said, “Can you do me a favor?”

 

Much later, Bridge was totally breaking curfew. Not because he was meeting a boy or participating in any more murders. He just needed a damn night out. After finally telling everyone about his missing parents, Mrs. Llewellyn had stopped allowing him to stay in a nearby hotel by himself and had basically forced him into staying with the Llewellyn’s neighbor, who just so happened to be none other than Paige Honeycombe, the school’s new guidance counselor and Ben’s fiancé, whom he thankfully hadn’t seen since the lockdown.

To say it was torture would have been putting it way too mildly. Paige was excruciatingly nice and watched his every move like a hawk, which Bridge would have bet his life was Adelaide’s idea. But all Bridge had to do was feign a migraine and claim he needed some rest and Paige had finally left him alone for the night. Then, he had fluffed the bed to make it appear like he was still there, snuck out of the window, and ran to the bus stop a few blocks away.

And now, he found himself trying to sneak into Core, a hot gay club right on the border of Hanover and Armor Falls. But the bouncer was claiming that his ID was fake. Which it was, but that wasn’t stopping Bridge from fighting for its validity.

“Dude, I swear to you, my ID is real. I’m a junior at Heartmyth.”

“Beat it, rookie,” The broad, totally hunky guy with a shaved head told him, tossing the ID back at him. “This isn’t my first fake.”

Bridge was about to argue some more, but he noticed a stylish girl coming up and not even bothering to get in line with the other people waiting to get in, groans spurring from the crowd behind Bridge.

Faith gave the bouncer a small smile, too focused on her night’s mission to initially notice Bridge.

“You know the rule,” The bouncer told her. “Ten minutes.”

“Thanks, Stenchel.”

Faith went to enter the club when her eyes fell on Bridge, a wicked grin settled on his face as he looked her over a few times. She looked floored to see someone else that was dealing with the lock-down out and breaking curfew. And out of all of them, Bridge was the least one she expected to meet out and about.

“Bridge…what are you doing here?”

He gave her a smug smirk. “Took the words right out of my mouth.”

Panic coursing through her, Faith glanced at the ID hanging from Bridge’s fingers. She turned toward Stenchel the bouncer and grasped his shoulder.

“Stenchel, he’s good. He’s my tutor from Heartmyth.”

After a couple of stares between the two of them, Stenchel ges-tured toward the door, allowing Bridge and Faith to enter the techno thumping atmosphere of Core.

“I can’t believe we’re both breaking curfew.” Faith shook her head, her emotions flooding with guilt.

“Honestly, I’m surprised we all aren’t out after that prison ward of a weekend,” Bridge said as they made their way down the elongated hallway with over the top scarlet hued velvet walls. “Surely the heavy word of Adelaide Llewellyn hasn’t diminished since I last stopped by. So how’d you manage this grand escape?”

Faith scoffed. “Willa, actually. She drove my car and parked it behind the library earlier, concocted a story about how our AP Bio teacher paired us up for a project and refused to re-pair us. From there, I was shocked at how cavalier Mom was being at allowing me and Willa to work at the library together.”

“Let me guess. She agreed, if she drove you both there.”

Nodding, Faith kept leading them down the hall. “How’d you bypass Paige?”

“Luckily, she believed the migraine I faked. Plus, her windows are super easy to climb out of.” His smile faded. “I just needed a break from everything. Is that why you risked curfew?”

Faith approached the curtains that blocked the hallway from the heart of Core. They both pushed past the dangling purple fabric, the noise of music and drunken hollering suddenly surrounding them.

“Not at all,” she finally said. “I have to talk to Straton.”

“Who the hell is Straton?”

“This not talking thing is really getting old.” Faith said, spotting a shirtless Straton serving a tray of drinks to a table in the back of the club. “Straton is my boyfriend.” Faith gave Bridge an inquisitive glance. “I’ll find you later. We better head back soon. My mom is picking me up from the library in twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Bridge waved her off. “Go find your boyfriend while I find a drink.”

As Bridge drifted toward the massive bar in the center of the huge, high ceiling room, Faith stormed her way over to Straton as the guy he gave his last drink to slapped his tight denim covered pos-terior.

“Straton.”

He turned around, smiling from the huge tip the customer had just given him, to see a slightly flustered Faith before him.

“Faith? What are you doing here?”

“Who’s this, handsome? Your sister?” The very drunk, very handsy tipper said, his words shaky at best.

“No,” Straton said, putting on another smile for the guy and his friends. “This is my girlfriend.”

“Pity,” One of the guys’ friends sighed, running a hand through his bleached platinum blond hair. “The sexiest guys always seem to be straight anymore.”

“Can we talk for a minute?” She whispered to him.

“Sure.” Straton set the tray in his hands down and gave the group of guys a perfect half-smile. “Be back in a bit, fellas.”

They all groaned in annoyance, but Faith finally got Straton alone in the back room of the club. Once Straton closed the door behind them, his friendly facade was replaced by one of worry.

“Faith, are you alright? You look pretty upset.”

“I know you’re working and I haven’t responded to your texts and calls this weekend. I’ll explain all of that later, after you explain something to me.”

Confusion changed Straton’s expression completely. “Okay, I’m not sure where this is going, but obviously I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

“Good.” Faith breathed harshly. “I want to know why you didn’t tell me.”

“About what?”

“About Sumner.”

His eyes quickly clouded. “What are you talking about?”

“No games, Straton. I’m jumping through enough hoops at home and I really don’t need them from you.”

“I mean, I heard about the sighting,” Straton scoffed, putting his hands on his hips. “That’s why I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all week. I’ve been worried about you and Alex—”

“I know that you were friends with Sumner.”

Without missing a beat, Straton was engulfed with fury. “Faith, have you lost your mind!? You know that I only know Sumner from the news. I’ve never asked you or Alex about it because I know how hard that must have been for you and all your friends.”

Regret began to bubble in her veins, but it was quickly replaced by determination. “Willa told me—”

“Enough!” Straton shrieked. “All I have ever been is supportive and there for you. And now you’re accusing me of, what exactly?”

“You knew Sumner. Before he attacked my brother and his friends.”

“Why are you with me if you don’t trust me? I don’t know why you think I know Sumner, but I don’t. And I don’t want to be with you if you don’t believe that.”

“Straton—”

“Go home, Faith. I have to work.”

Straton walked back out into the throes of the club. Faith fol-lowed him, but he must have disappeared into the dancing crowds of people.

“Straton!” She tried to call to him, but he was gone.

Back at the bar, Bridge was enjoying his third tequila shot, al-ready feeling the wonderful warmth of the alcohol. Now that he had some eighty-proof courage coursing through him, he supposed he could dance and possibly make out with someone. But just as he was about to get up from the bar, Ben sloppily leaned against the bar right beside him, whom had apparently been enjoying his own night out.

“Breaking curfew,” Ben tsked. “Willa told me about it. Probably not a good idea going against it.”

Bridge, though not exactly sober himself, could still make out the stinging aroma of alcohol on Ben’s breath.

“Jesus, Ben. Have you been chugging gasoline?”

“Letting off stream. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Ben snaked an arm around Bridge’s waist, which the latter nor-mally would have protested, but the alcohol in him was making him really enjoy the human contact.

“Ben—”

“Do you know how hard it’s been for me this weekend?” Ben slurred. “You’re at my girlfriend’s house for fuck sake.”

“I thought it was fiancé?” Bridge burped, trying to hold down his liquor. “It wasn’t my idea. I can’t help it that Paige lives next door to the Llewellyns. Didn’t mean to interrupt your precious time with her.”

“Bridge,” Ben smirked. “It hasn’t been hard because of Paige.” His hand on Bridge’s waist tightened. “It’s been hard because of you.” he sniffed. “I’ve missed you. You’ve been so close but with Paige…I couldn’t come over.”

“Ben, stop.” Bridge’s head was fluttering like butterfly wings. He couldn’t comprehend what was coming out of Ben’s mouth. What was Ben saying? That he’d missed him? No, he had to have heard wrong. Even if Ben had said that, it was just the liquor talking.

“Ben,” he said again. “No, we—”

Ben’s lips were on his and he forgot everything else. Nothing but their kiss even registered in Bridge’s head. Their kiss intensified and before he could tell what was happening, they were in the bathroom of the club, kissing in between tearing each other’s clothes off of their bodies. It wasn’t until Bridge starting pulling Ben’s pants down and the bathroom door swung open that they both froze in place and took in their surroundings.

“Bridge, are you in—”

Faith burst in and stopped mid-question to see a shirtless Bridge and Ben, the latter of which had his khakis around his ankles, his bare posterior facing her.

“Oh, Jesus.” Faith shrieked.

“I’m not gay.” Ben testified, the alcohol still slightly slurring his speech.

“Shut up, Ben.” Bridge said, buttoning his pants and grabbing his discarded t-shirt and pulling it over his toned torso while Ben started pulling his pants up, searching around for his polo shirt.

“I’ll, uh, wait for you out here.” Faith ran out of the bathroom as fast as she could.

Once she was gone, Ben somehow found the valor to speak. “Bridge, what does this mean?”

He ignored Ben as he started buttoning his favorite Ralph Lauren powder blue shirt.

“She saw us. What does this mean?”

“Shut up!” Bridge blurted. “This was a mistake.” He watched as Ben finished dressing. “Do you even remember what you told me at the bar?”

“Of course I do.” Ben reached for Bridge’s hand. He started to re-coil, but felt too vulnerable to pull away, Ben’s fingers skimming the younger man’s palm. “I meant it. I just…I don’t know what this means or what to do.”

“You still say you’re not gay.”

“Because I’m not. Or maybe I am. I just, I don’t know what to call it or if it even needs to be called anything. I just know that I haven’t been able to focus on anything but you since the night we first met at that party.”

“Stop.” Bridge’s head finally began to clear, fog lifting from his senses. “Ben, you know that I like you, but you’re engaged. To a woman.”

“Bridge,”

“It’s not right. I just…I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”

Bridge left Ben in the bathroom before he could call after him or stop him from leaving. Without looking back, he made his way to-ward the entrance. He found Faith right at the curtains that obscured the entry hallway. Just as he approached Faith, his cell started buzz-ing in his jeans pocket. A picture of Mercer hugging him and placing a kiss on his cheek enveloped his screen. Bridge sent Mercer’s call to voicemail as Faith looked him up and down.

“Please don’t.” he said, dismissing her glance.

“I almost forgot how entertaining you guys are. Alex is going to love this.”

Pushing past the curtains, Bridge led them down the dimly lit hallway. “You can’t tell Alex. You can’t tell anyone.”

“Because?”

“Because that guy you saw me with is getting married to the school’s new guidance counselor?” He ended with a question, winc-ing as he waited for her reaction.

“Bridge!”

“I know, I know. We hooked up before, before I knew. To-night…tonight was just the tequila. It’s over.” he paused, telling him-self to truly believe what he was reciting. “What about you? How’d the meet up with the boyfriend go?”

Sighing, she shook her head. “Nothing like your bathroom esca-pade. I think we might be over too.”

Bridge made a sad face, grabbing her hand. “I’m sorry, Faith.”

“I’ll deal with it another night,” She shrugged it off. “Let’s just get home. Before we’re both on lockdown until we’re fifty.”

 

Mercer had tried calling Bridge over and over, but he wouldn’t answer. The next day at school, he was determined to talk to his friends. Ever since his talk with Kirby yesterday, he’d been unable to stop his mind from thinking back to when his friends and Sumner had snuck into Arclan days before its grand opening. And he really needed to talk to his friends about it.

He made his way to the calculus class that he shared with his friends when he almost ran right into Kirby.

“Hey.” he smiled.

“Hey.” she nodded, finishing a text on her iPhone. “Sorry. My mom is driving me crazy about trying to make some new friends.” When Mercer looked a little hurt, Kirby went on. “No offense. It’s just because she’s really pressuring me with this whole lockdown thing.”

“Right,” Mercer forced an additional smile, feeling completely unsure as to whether he’d ever be able to really be friends with Kirby after the lockdown fiasco ended. The bell blared loudly around them to help his thoughts wisp into the void. “I guess we should get to class. Good luck, uh, with the friend hunt.”

Smiling weakly, Kirby nodded once more. “Thanks. Later.”

“Bye.”

Kirby left, only to reveal Mercer’s friends in her wake, smug looks on all of their faces.

“When’s the wedding?” Abram laughed.

“Shut up.” Mercer chuckled as the four of them entered Mr. Ar-gus’ class, taking four empty seats in the back of the classroom.

Mr. Argus stood up from his desk, assumingly to begin the days’ lesson, when another teacher asked to speak with him outside for a minute. He told them to talk quietly, stepping outside and leaving the class to their own conversations.

“Hey,” Mercer started, leaning closer to his friends. “We have to break curfew tonight.”

“What? Why?” Alex questioned.

“Do you guys remember the night we snuck into Arclan?”

“Obviously.” Bridge stated.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I wanna run something by you guys and I’d rather do it without the risk of being overheard.”

“Breaking curfew twice in one week,” Bridge laughed lightly, be-grudgingly tossing around the self-implication. “Keep it up, Mathison.”

“You’ve already snuck out?”

“Mercer, if you were stuck staying with Paige, you’d have broken curfew already too.”

“Is it really important enough to risk getting caught?” Alex raised an eyebrow.

“Definitely. We have to meet tonight.”

“Where?” Abram scoffed.

Mercer stirred. “Well, I was thinking we could meet up at the RV.”

He saw recognition flaring in their irises, which turned into the three of them looking to Abram. “What do you think?”

Abram shrugged at Bridge’s questioning comment. “We’re al-ready breaking curfew. We might as well add trespassing to the night’s offenses.”

“I guess we’re revolting then.” Alex quipped.

Mercer smiled, delighted. “Meet at the RV at midnight.”

Mr. Argus re-entered the classroom, bringing the class to his at-tention as the four friends waited for the darkness of the setting sun so they could collectively breach their lockdown.

 

The hours seemed to lag and stutter by for all of them. They hadn’t spoken to one another after their calculus class. They all had bid their time at their respective homes, waiting as the sky changed from burnt auburn to midnight blue, a hue that seemed to scream danger. Only fitting, since they’d all be breaking curfew in the middle of the night.

Alex had just finished showering in preparation of their late night meet up, staring in the bathroom mirror and smiling at the muscular chest he had worked so hard to achieve after his top surgery, his mind wandering to his friends. It was funny. When his friends first found out about him, he wanted to fall off the face of the Earth so he wouldn’t have to deal with everything. But now, with the lockdown in effect, all he wanted was to talk to them, explain all he had gone through during his transition. It didn’t help that Bridge was now right next door.

The chiming of his phone from his adjoining bedroom brought him from the depths of his thoughts as he exited the bathroom and entered his bedroom, grabbing a nearby shirt and pulling it over his head. As he quickly pulled on the rest of his clothes, he grabbed his phone from its spot on the bed. It was a text from Abram saying he was at the basement door.

A little confused, Alex pulled on his shoes and quietly made his way through the dark Llewellyn house until he found his way in the basement, ambling over to the door, and opening it to see Abram’s smiling face.

“We should get going.” Abram suggested.

Alex stepped outside, closing the door carefully behind him. “What are you doing here? I thought the plan was to meet at the RV?” he whispered.

“It is, but I figured your mom was practically tracking your car’s whereabouts.”

Alex scoffed. “Not practically. Actually.” He shook his head. “I just planned on walking to the bus station a couple blocks away.”

“No need. I’ve got Willa’s car parked on the next street over.”

Smirking, Alex started walking away from his house with his ex-boyfriend. “She doesn’t mind?”

“She doesn’t know.” Abram smiled a half-smile. “She’s knocked out, just like Mom and Dad.”

“Is Bridge meeting us?” Alex silently slid into stride next to Abram as they made their way down his street.

Abram shook his head. “He’s already out apparently. Maybe he’ll ride with Mercer or take the bus.”

The rest of their brief walk was silent. Willa’s car was parked on a side street right under a tree, shrouded in shadows.

“Let’s get this over with,” Alex said as they got into the car. “My parents will kill me if they find out I snuck out.”

“All of us are risking a lot.” Abram admitted. “Whatever Mercer has to tell us, it better be worth it.”

Abram started the car and turned off the street as he messed with the radio, not wanting to inhibit silence among the two of them as they drove to the RV like he had on the way to pick Alex up. The CD in Willa’s car started to pick up where it had left off and Alex’s voice came blaring from the radio from before his transition.

“That was ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ by Def Leppard, probably Abe’s favorite.”

“Oh…my God,” Alex laughed as he heard his younger self do the same. “Is this our CD?”

Younger Abram answered before the one sitting beside him could. “Maybe it is my favorite, but the next one is yours, Liss.”

Abram looked just as stunned as Alex as their younger selves droned on in the background, their adolescent voices coming out of the car’s speakers with guided ease. “I guess Willa has been listening to it.”

“God, I can’t believe we used to pretend to be radio hosts, let alone record ourselves.” Alex chuckled.

“Hey, our mutual love of eighties music should be celebrated.” Abram smiled.

“This was before Sumner.” Alex’s eyes became suddenly distant. “Before everything changed.”

“Forget about that,” Abram pleaded, then smiled at Alex as he turned down another street. “Do you remember what song is coming up?”

Alex was about to say that he couldn’t ever forget what was about to come out of the speakers when the song started, causing him to smile as he recognized the opening bars of ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ by Starship.

Abram began singing the male lead of the first verse, eyeing Alex occasionally, probably because years ago Abram used to sing the male lead and Alex would sing the female lead, followed by them singing the chorus together.

He kept eyeing Alex further as the female lead closed in on them. Finally, Abram finished his part and then looked to Alex to continue the song. Laughing, Alex began singing his usual part of the song, causing Abram to head bang and smile in response to Alex’s partici-pation.

Once they got to the chorus, they both started belting out the words, singing loudly and smiling at each other. They sang the rest of the song with ease, all while they continued their drive until they reached the parking lot of Westbrooke Storage Lot.

As another eighties love ballad ended, Abram turned down the volume on the radio. Alex was laughing from how into the music they had just gotten, Abram mirroring his infectious hysterics.

“When was the last time we sang eighties music together?” Abram asked, winding down his cackling.

“Practically forever.” Alex stated. “I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed it,” Staring into Abram’s gorgeous cerulean orbs, Alex’s mind flashed to earlier times, times without police interrogations and so-cial lockdowns. The memories swelled in his heart, stirring a deep aching within him. “Honestly, there’s a lot of things I didn’t realize I’d missed.”

Abram gave him that heartwarming half-smile that used to make Alex’s leap on a daily basis, one that he just so happened to experi-ence right then and there for the first time in months. They inched closer together on impulse, Alex almost expecting them to kiss when there was a loud knock on Abram’s window, causing both of them to jump at the abrupt interruption. Luckily it was only Bridge trying to get their attention.

Sighing, Alex gestured toward Bridge. “We should go.”

“Yeah.” Abram scoffed.

The pair got out of Willa’s car, suddenly staring at Bridge and Mercer’s faces.

“You two ride together?” Abram asked, locking the car doors.

“You think my dads aren’t tracking my gas mileage?” Mercer huffed. “No. We both just so happened to take the same bus.”

Bridge nodded. “I was already out, shooting some hoops. Paige only agreed because I told her my parents would have wanted me to keep practicing.” he shrugged. “She’ll just think I’m still practicing my hook shot at the twenty-four-hour gym down the street.”

“Yeah, let’s get to why we’re here so we can get back as soon as possible.” Alex suggested.

Mercer glanced at Abram. “You got the keys?”

He held up Willa’s. “Willa and I keep spares on our car keys.”

“Then let’s go.”

Westbrooke Storage Lot was an open parking lot full of discard-ed, forgotten, and vacation only vehicles. The only thing besides the random vehicles was a petite building where people could register their vehicle on the lot, but of course, no one was there as the time ticked towards midnight. The four friends made their way toward an RV that was a few years old, but still looked like it was fresh off the dealership’s land. It was surrounded by other vehicles, but not enough that it was too cramped for them to make their way to the average sized RV. Abram choose the right key from Willa’s set and unlocked it, everyone following him inside.

The inside of the St. James family RV was the personification of November St. James’ personality. Lavish decorations donned the place, like the faux marble countertops in the moderate kitchen, two full sized beds that lived in the high hallway walls that bore thousand thread count bedsheets, a queen sized bed inside the small bedroom in the back complete with a small 32-inch TV built into the wall, and a rather spacious shower that perfected the ambiance of the RV. The small living room consisted of two plush, though smaller than normal, couches on either side of the RV directly in between the driving cab and the small chic kitchen that housed all the essentials.

They hadn’t all been inside the RV since right after Sumner had attacked them, since the morning after they had all given their state-ments to the police and had had a rather pointless night of trying to sleep. Mercer cleared his throat as he and Bridge sat on one side while Alex and Abram sat on the other.

“Alright,” he began. “I guess I should get to why I brought you guys out here.”

“That’s a decent place to start.” Alex agreed.

Mercer exchanged a pure inhale of air. “I was talking to Kirby yesterday and—”

“Kirby?” Bridge butted in immediately. “Are you kidding me?”

“Why are you even talking to her?” Alex added.

“Chill out, guys. I gave her a ride to school.”

“Mercer, Dagger told us—”

“Jesus, get off my ass about Kirby!” Mercer stood, anger setting in at Bridge’s last attempt at speaking. “We’ve already broken curfew, some of us twice, I might add, we’re all talking to each other right now and I’m getting shit about literally just driving her to school? You guys have got to lay off. Until Dagger proves that Kirby helped Sumner back into town, enough speculating. And so what if I like her? All the more reason for you guys to show some support and eighty-six the Kirby-is-guilty campaign.”

Tension crept around their ankles as Mercer breathed heavily, his frustration settling and evaporating into the air. His friends bore somber features, clearly bothered that they had upset him so deeply.

Abram was the first to break the silence among them. “I’m sorry, Mercer. It’s just such a coincidence. But you’re right. We shouldn’t judge her based off of our paranoia.”

“I’m just scared.” Alex admitted next. “I’m completely terrified by the thought of someone helping Sumner and him being back in Ar-mor Falls. He could be anywhere, plotting anything, and I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of when that he’ll strike and put his plan into action.”

“We’re sorry, Merce.” Bridge concluded.

“Now that we’ve covered that, the fact that Sumner could be an-ywhere is sort of why we’re here.” The three of them were overcome with interest at his statement. They shifted toward Mercer as he sat back down in his seat. “Anyway, I was talking to Kirby and she got me thinking about Arclan. Do you remember the night of our first sleepover at Sumner’s?” He paused as they all nodded. “Sumner was bragging that he had found a secret passage in his room? What if that’s where Sumner is hiding? What if he’s been hiding there all along?”

They all took in the theory for a moment before Abram, per usu-al, spoke up. “That’s an interesting idea.” he nodded. “But even if he is hiding out there, we have no idea where that passage leads.”

“Yeah, it’s not like we can waltz up to Shadows Manor and ask his parents to see Sumner’s super-secret passageway.” Alex quipped.

“Why would we waltz?” Bridge questioned.

Alex waved him off, dismissing his inquiry. “I just mean, we have no idea where it ends.”

“That’s the best part,” Mercer grinned. “I think I have an idea of where the passage leads.”

“Where?” Bridge prompted.

Something in Mercer’s eyes shined like light reflecting off glass. “Arclan Asylum.”

Abram stood up quickly. “I knew it!”

“You expected him to say Arclan?” Bridge said, eyebrows raised.

“Abram already told us,” Mercer nodded. “When we visited him when he was at Arclan, he told us that Sumner was visiting him by hiding in the walls. That’s where the passage leads. Straight to Ar-clan.”

“But we thought Abram was—”

“Too heavily medicated to be making sense?” Abram acknowl-edged Alex. “Forget it. Honestly, I tried my best to forget about see-ing Sumner once they transferred me to a different facility.”

“You weren’t at Arclan the whole time?”

Abram shot down the question. “I had scratch marks up and down my arms that were very real even if seeing Sumner and thinking he caused them wasn’t. They thought I was a danger to myself because of my accusations, so they transferred me to some highly recommended place in Maine. I think it was called Tarryn Hall or something.”

Bridge shifted the conversation. “Okay, let’s assume that the pas-sage does lead to Arclan. Wouldn’t Sumner’s dad know about it?”

“He’d have to.” Alex agreed. “I mean, he opened the place back up, right? He’d have blueprints of the place, not to mention he obvi-ously would know about his own house’s secrets. He would have told the police all about it.”

“Not necessarily. Arclan Shadows is the one who built both Shadows Manor and the asylum. He could have easily gotten the passage constructed and linked the two together. It wouldn’t be that hard to leave out of both buildings’ blueprints.” Mercer told them.

“You’re saying Sumner inherited his love of secret passages from his grandfather?”

Mercer scoffed at Bridge. “Is it that crazy of a concept?”

“Holy shit.” Abram said, still trying to wrap everything together in his head.

“Even if all of this, which I’d like to add is all just theory, is true, what do you suggest we do about it?” Bridge asked.

“Easy. We sneak into Arclan, find the passage, and bust his ass.” Mercer exclaimed, proud of himself for connecting all of the dots.

“Or we should go directly to Dagger, especially if the whole secret passage being wiped off of the blueprints theory is true.” Alex said heatedly. “What if Sumner is there? You think it’s smart to go in there like we’re a band of vigilantes?”

“What do you think Dagger will do to us if we tell him and Sumner isn’t there? You saw how he was with us last week, Alex. He’ll either arrest us or maim us and make it look like we did it to ourselves.”

“We can’t risk giving Dagger anymore reasons to not trust us.” Bridge shook his head in agreement.

“You’re onboard with this?”

“Well I definitely don’t want to go to Dagger unless we have sol-id proof.”

Abram grabbed Alex’s hand, looking deeply into his eyes. “We have to, Alex. You know we do. And if we do catch Sumner, this whole stupid lockdown crap will be put to rest and Dagger will get off our backs.”

“Or at the very least, he’ll ease off.” Mercer added.

Finally, Alex crumpled under the peer pressure to go attempted murderer hunting. “I can’t believe I’m even partially convinced.” He turned to Mercer. “How would we even get into Arclan? Obviously, not through the front doors.”

“And why did talking to Kirby ignite this plan?” Bridge wanted to know.

“Right.” Mercer winced, obviously not wanting to get to this part of the plan. “I was talking to Kirby on the way to school and, well, her mom is a nurse at Arclan.”

“And?” Bridge waited.

“And, we use her mom’s ID badge to get in.”

Just then, before anyone could question Mercer’s methods, there was a loud crash from outside the RV, shaking the entire vehicle.

“What the hell was that?” Alex said, speaking for all of them.

Crash. The RV shook again. No one moved, too petrified to spring into action.

“What could be—”

Alex was cut off by the shattering of the small window just above the door of the RV, eliciting screams from all of them. Abram saw a rock skipping around on the floor, obviously the cause of the broken window. Without a thought, Abram dashed for the door.

“Abe!”

He barely heard Alex’s plea as he ran outside the RV, looking around for the culprit, but no one met his gaze. All he saw were the other vehicles and the shadows they cast down on the ground before them. All he saw was darkness.

As the rest of them piled out of the RV, Abram turned to see two huge human sized dents in the RV, as if someone had thrown them-selves against the vehicle a couple times.

“Where are you!?” Abram yelled out into the open air, his friends scrambling to see the bent metal that were the body slams in the side of the RV. “Come on out, Sumner!”

“Abe,” Alex tried to get his attention, the rest of them focusing on something else entirely.

“Don’t you want to finish what you started in the cemetery!?”

“Abe!”

Abram turned to Alex, the rest of his friends’ faces tuned to hor-rified. “What?” Alex pointed to the ground, Abram moving to see what his friends had their eyes transfixed on. On the ground was a wooden stake.

And it was stained with fresh blood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

BREAKING & ENTERING

 

 

Sleep didn’t happen for them easily. They kept replaying the night over and over. After finding the bloody stake outside of the RV, they were horrified. It reminded them eerily of the night that Sumner attacked them at the cemetery. Working through their panic, they took the stake and burned it, just like first time.

So many questions kept them tossing and turning through their respective sleepless night. Was Sumner really the one outside the RV? Whose freshly coated blood was on the wooden stake? And if it wasn’t Sumner, then who was it, and did they know about what they had done that night?

The next morning at school, they all decided to meet back up in their little nook in between the cafeteria and the science building from the whole table incident. They all stared at each other for a little while, backpacks slung over their shoulders.

“How’d everyone sleep?” Abram scoffed.

“Are you kidding?” Bridge said sleepily. “I’ve slept more during sex.”

“Maybe you’re just a lousy lay.” Mercer chuckled.

“Like you would know, Virgin Mary.” When Bridge saw Mer-cer’s hurt facade, he sighed. “Sorry. I’m a bitch when I’m tired.”

“We remember.” Alex smirked.

“How do you know I didn’t get laid when I was in Louisiana this summer?” Mercer said, placing his hands on his hips in frustration.

Bridge gave him a stern look. “Did you get laid in Louisiana this summer?”

After a couple seconds, Mercer looked defeated. “No.”

“Look at that, case closed.” Bridge rolled his eyes.

“Okay, you definitely need this more than I do.” Alex handed Bridge his cup of sugar overdosed espresso, the latter of which took it with glee.

“Bless you.” Bridge said eagerly, taking a grateful sip.

“We need to do something about Sumner,” Alex finally said, bringing them back to the issue at hand as he pulled his jacket closer to his body on the cold brisk morning. “He could have killed some-one last night. That blood had to come from somewhere.”

“I’m not convinced that this was Sumner. None of this fits him,” Mercer solidified. “The body slams in the side of the RV and not showing his face after? He’d want his ownership of scaring the shit out of us, especially after all this time.”

“All the more reason for him to keep his distance.” Alex rebutted.

“Who else could it be?” Bridge wondered aloud.

“I think someone saw us that night.” Mercer began. “In the woods.”

“That’s impossible. No one saw us. This is Sumner.” Abram de-fended.

“But what if someone did? There’s always a chance, Abe. Do you think, without any doubt, that Sumner would be stupid enough to try and attack us again? Just to freak us out or keep us paranoid after being gone for so long?”

Abram hesitated, clearly already second guessing himself. “Okay, I guess it might not be Sumner, but I just don’t know who would possibly want to mess with us like this.”

“I’m telling you, someone saw us.” Mercer reiterated.

“Well until we find out it’s Sumner or some mystery maniac, we need to forget about it.” Abram demanded.

“I still think we need to go to Arclan,” Bridge said, finishing his newly awarded coffee. “If Sumner did come to the RV last night, at least we could try and confront him about it.”

“If he doesn’t kill us first.” Alex sighed.

“So I’ll talk to Kirby today about the plan.”

“Whoa, what?”

Mercer scoffed at Alex. “How do you expect for me to get her mom’s badge?”

“Mercer, if you wanna date Kirby, great, try mini golf. But I don’t think we should bring her into all this.” Bridge stated.

“I’m not saying we tell her anything specific, just that we might know where Sumner is and that we need her help to get into Ar-clan.”

Abram and Alex were both about to argue, but Bridge put his hand up, putting aside his differences and stepping up to Mercer.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked him.

“I don’t think we have a choice.” Mercer nodded.

“So when are we doing this?”

Alex shot Abram a look, both of them realizing that they couldn’t actually get into Arclan without some kind of help. Mercer was right. Kirby was their best shot at getting into Arclan.

“Saturday.” Abram breathed easily.

“But whether we find Sumner or not, we have to stop sneaking out before our parents catch on to us.” Alex continued.

“Alright,” Mercer nodded, agreeing to the terms. “Saturday will be the last night.”

“We should get to class.” Bridge said. “Let us know what Kirby says.”

“Will do.” Mercer smiled. “Thanks guys, I’ll see you in calc.”

They all went to go their separate ways when Ben came up to them.

“Ben, I’m fine.” Abram scoffed. “No checkup needed.” He lightly punched Ben on the shoulder.

“Your parents wanted me to see if you were still talking to your friends.” Ben glanced at the rest of them. “I see that their worry is justified.”

“Are you seriously spying on us for our parents?” Alex accused pointedly.

“Ben, can I talk to you for a minute?” Bridge said sternly.

“Why do you need to talk to Ben?” Abram contemplated.

“Because we’ve been having sex.”

Ben’s eyes flew open with wide terror as Bridge’s friends looked completely floored.

“Uh, yeah, see you in calc, B.”

“Definitely.”

“Bye, Ben.”

The three of them left for their classes as Ben swatted Bridge as soon as they were out of earshot. “The hell is wrong with you?”

“Why are you spying on us, Ben? Why would you agree to do something like that?”

“Mr. and Mrs. St. James were just worried that you guys might be sneaking out behind their backs.”

“Don’t follow us around.”

“So it’s true.” Ben scoffed angrily. “All of you guys are breaking curfew. I mean, aside from your little trip to Core.”

Referencing their exploit was acid liquefying his skin, the meta-phoric sizzling of his flesh the final straw in upholding his conversa-tional decorum. “It’s none of your business! You don’t have anything to do with what we have going on. Stay out of it.”

“I’m worried about you, Bridge.” Ben said, inching closer to him, but Bridge trembled in disgust and backed away.

“Your fiancé could be anywhere.”

“Bridge, please.”

“Ben, you’re getting married to Paige. Stop trying to act like we can be something when you’re planning to marry the woman whose house I’m staying in.” Bridge sighed, pausing to see the hurt expres-sion Ben wore, but he knew that he had to do this. “I’ve had a good time with you. A really good time, but it’s over. I hope you and Paige have a beautiful life together.”

Ben grabbed his arm when Bridge went to leave. “I’ll break up with her.”

Bridge choked on his tongue. “What?

“I’ll break it off with Paige.” Ben nodded. “I’ll call off the wedding. Paige…Paige is a great person. But what I feel when we’re to-gether…Paige and I haven’t…not since I met you.”

“Ben,” Bridge felt so conflicted. Doing this to Paige didn’t feel right. He didn’t want to do that to her, but he had wanted to hear Ben say things like this to him ever since they had met. “No.” he said, finally swallowing his urges. “Go back to her. It’s the right thing to do.”

“What if the right thing isn’t what I want?”

“Enough is enough. I’m not having this conversation again. No more talking.”

Bridge left Ben once more, hoping that it would be the last time he’d have to do so.

 

Walking into Westbrooke High that morning, Kirby was really try-ing to stay true to the promise she gave her mom to make more friends, besides Mercer. Which was so frustrating, because she liked Mercer. She might have even really liked Mercer, but she had prom-ised her mom that she’d stay away from the throngs of the Sumner Shadows case. Not that she had been doing such a great job at it so far with Mercer giving her a ride to school earlier in the week.

She’d put her mother through so much over the past year and the last thing she wanted to do was upset her by staying close to Mercer and his friends. No matter how badly she wished she could.

Kirby made her way to her locker, quickly rummaging around for her history textbook, wondering how hard it would be today to ignore the cute way Mercer licked his lips when he was taking notes in class.

“Kirby.”

She whipped around to see two familiar faces, though she wasn’t quite sure what the girls’ names were.

“Hi.” She grabbed her textbook and closed her locker, giving her full attention to them. “Do I know you two?”

“Sort of.” The taller girl smiled. “I’m Faith Llewellyn.”

“And I’m Willa St. James.”

Kirby nodded, awareness soothing out her unfamiliarity like a wave of rain. “You’re Alex and Abram’s sisters.”

Faith smiled. “Yes.”

“We know that your mom is participating in the lockdown and curfew.” Willa explained.

“Right. And we know you’re not supposed to get close to anyone involved in the investigation, but Willa and I have been talking it over and we don’t agree that we should be punished for all of this.”

Kirby shifted in place. “I’m not sure I’m getting what you’re try-ing to tell me.” she laughed nervously.

“We’re saying that the three of us should get to know each other.” Willa finished.

“Plus, we’re pretty sure the guys are still hanging out behind our parents’ backs.”

“Why do you say that?” Kirby questioned.

“My car was gone last night,” Willa sighed. “And if I can wake up from a dead sleep and notice, it won’t be long until my parents can too.”

“Anyway,” Faith concluded. “We don’t think we should be suf-fering the consequences for pseudo-knowing a psycho.”

“You guys wants to be friends?” Kirby laughed lightly, regarding them with wide inquiring eyes.

“We know it’s your senior year and you’re new to Armor Falls. Which must suck, by the way.” Faith said, scrunching up her nose in disdain.

“I have Abe and Faith has Alex, but I can’t imagine being thrown into this mess without having someone to go through it with.” Willa commented.

“Also, we really need a photographer for Yearbook, if you’re in-terested.” Faith said hopefully.

Kirby couldn’t help but laugh. “And how did you know I even like photography?”

Faith and Willa eyed each other hesitantly. “Well,” Willa cleared her throat. “We just figured…with the polaroid.”

Kirby looked to the floor uneasily for a second. Neither of them needed to explain what exactly the polaroid consisted of.

“Not too often someone uses a Polaroid camera anymore.” Faith furthered. “The earrings are a pretty good indicator too.”

She laughed again, lightly tapping at one of her Polaroid earrings with her freshly painted cobalt nails. “I see. And I would love to help out and actually have people to talk to, but I don’t think I can. My mom—”

“Kirby,” Faith pushed. “Our parents didn’t think this through. If anything, your mom was pressured into the lockdown by my mom.” She stopped her speech to sigh. “We need to talk to each other to keep from going crazy.”

“And we really need a good photographer for Yearbook.” Willa smiled wide.

With newfound delight, Kirby guffawed, giving them a bright grin. “Alright. I’ll join Yearbook.” Faith and Willa slickly high-fived each other. “But I can’t do what the guys are doing, the sneaking be-hind our parents. I’ve put my mom through too much to do that to her.”

Faith shook her head. “We’re allowed to talk to each other if we join an extracurricular, remember?”

“That’s why joining Yearbook is genius,” Willa gestured to Faith. “She’s seriously this generation’s Stephen Hawking.”

“Please,” Faith chuckled. “Maybe this generation’s Judit Polgar.”

Both Kirby and Willa donned perplexed looks. “Um, who?” the latter quipped.

“Never mind.” Faith shrugged, a giggle curtseying from her lips. “So, Kirby, now that you’ve agreed to all of us getting to know each other, enlighten us. Who taught you to dress?”

“Seriously, that blue blazer has me living.”

Kirby laughed as the three of them started to walk down the hall when Abram, Alex and Mercer came in through the side door at the end of the hallway. The boys spotted them, eagerly ambling up to them as the threesome stopped for their looming march.

“Told you they were still close.” Willa whispered, just out of ear-shot of the guys.

“Well this is interesting,” Abram smirked. “I guess the lockdown can’t stop you guys.”

“Just following your lead.” Willa gave her brother a sarcastic smile.

“What are you talking about?”

“You took my car last night.”

The three girls watched as the guys wore worried facades, just as Bridge burst in through the side door, making his way over to the now large group in the hallway.

“What did I miss?” Bridge scoffed.

“Apparently, my little sister here has her car low-jacked.” Abram sighed.

“Please,” Willa dismissed her brother’s claim. “I woke up in the middle of the night and passed by my window to see my car was missing from the driveway.”

“You guys snuck out,” Faith stated, eyeing Alex eagerly. “It’s cool.”

“Just to talk about everything without worrying about our par-ents and Dagger.” Mercer stepped forward.

Luckily for the guys, the bell rang, signifying the start of first pe-riod.

“Saved by the bell, boys.” Willa smiled, hooking arms with Faith. Mercer stepped away from his friends and up to Kirby before she could leave with her newly formed sisterhood.

“We need to talk.”

Though slightly confused, Kirby agreed and nodded at Faith and Willa as they went to their classes. Mercer waved goodbye to his friends, planning on heading to class with Kirby when Principal Cobbins approached them.

“Wait,” She bellowed to his friends as she stopped before Mercer and Kirby, waving the rest of them over. “You can head to class, Ms. Wheaton. Mr. Meadows will join you shortly.”

Kirby gave Mercer a quick nod, leaving for their history class as his friends joined him, standing beside Mercer as the principal leaned toward them.

“I just got a call from Detective Dagger,” she began. “He wants to see the four of you again. He’s calling your parents as we speak, whom I’m sure you’ll hear from soon. He wants you down at the sta-tion after school. Now, get to class, boys. If your teachers question your whereabouts, have them call me.”

Thalia Cobbins left them to ponder on why Detective Dagger suddenly wanted to speak to them, all while they gave each other paranoid filled glances as last night’s events blared in their memories and waned their repose.

 

“Thanks for making it down so soon.”

Detective Dagger walked in front of them, pacing as they all sat in the all too familiar interrogation room. He stared at each and every one of them, pausing his pacing to lean on the table they sat before.

“I appreciate you and your parents’ continued cooperation.”

“Detective Dagger,” Alex spoke with extreme caution, fearful that a simple edge in his tone would bring out the worst attributes in the detective. “Is there something specific that you called us down here to discuss?”

Dagger shifted his head, taking his seat at the table. “Well, as a matter of fact, there is.” He looked at all of them intensely. “I want a Greatest Hits.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Mercer mirrored his friends’ expressions of distorted concussion.

“I’ve been thinking this case over and over. I’ve got the facts memorized. I can practically recite the police reports.” Dagger paused to laugh slightly. “But I don’t have enough sense of who Sumner is. I was just beginning to when you told me about the night of your first time at Shadows Manor. I want the Greatest Hits of Sumner Shad-ows. The top handful of moments of when you all started to realize that he wasn’t all…there. I want to get into his head through your memories.” He stopped to shrug his shoulders, a gesture of reluc-tance. “If you’ve got some memories in mind, that is.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Mercer said to his friends before eyeing Dagger. “But my already developing inklings about Sumner were solidified the night we snuck into Arclan.”

“That night changed Sumner in all of our eyes.” Abram agreed.

“Alright then,” Dagger ran a hand through his light brown hair, primed to hear more about the infamous Sumner Shadows. “Who wants to start?”

 

Abram was getting suddenly weary about breaking into the asylum the closer they got to it. Shadows Manor was about a half a mile hike from Ar-clan Asylum. It sat on top of a slight hill at the very edge of the Shadows’ land. All they had to do was hike through the wooded area, and they’d be at Arclan Asylum.

Dude, why the hell does your dad have all this land?” Abram questioned as he followed Sumner through the Shadows’ property.

Sumner just laughed. “Gramps wanted his kids and grandkids to have a bunch of land to work with.” He kept leading them toward the asylum. “In-stead of a massive playground, we got the asylum.”

Where is your grandpa? Why is your dad opening it back up?” Lissa called from behind Abram.

Dead.” Sumner spoke evenly, with no evident emotion present. “He died about a year ago. Dad said his last wish was to open the asylum back up and help as many people as he could. Dad left his job and decided to manage Arclan.” Sumner pushed through some tree branches as he switched concerns. “B-Merce, you two still back there?”

After Lissa was Bridge in their little follow-the-leader line up while Mercer brought up the end of the group. Bridge was making the hike with ease while Mercer was heaving more and more with each progressing step.

Still alive, if that’s what you mean.” Mercer was barely able to speak, his lungs laced with lead and overexertion.

How much longer?” Bridge asked.

Sumner turned around and gave them all a sly grin. “We’re here.”

As they all came out of the woodsy area, their eyes were suddenly as-saulted by the blinding white building that was Arclan Asylum.

It’s huge.” Lissa scoffed.

Gramps wasn’t into subtly.” Sumner laughed. “Let’s see what secrets lie behind these asylum doors.” he crooned eerily.

How are we getting in?” Bridge questioned.

As Sumner led them around the side of the building, he snickered. “I’ve already rigged the door so it’s not locked.” he gave them another smile. “I’ve got everything figured out.”

They quickly approached the back of the building, where there was a sole door waiting for them.

Are you sure that no one is here to bust us?”

Quit being such a wet blanket, Merce.” Sumner commanded. “We’re fi-ne.”

Wait,” Lissa said as they stopped before the door. “If you’ve already rigged the door, you must have planned on bringing us out here.”

Sumner played coy except for the devious simper spreading across his broad face. “Guilty.”

How’d you even fix the door? Don’t you usually need a badge or a keycard?” Abram asked.

Will you guys relax? Let’s just have fun.” Sumner rolled his eyes. “Quit asking pointless questions.” He pulled something out of his pocket and placed it near the keypad next to the door, the keypad scrambling various numbers and letters until it clicked, unlocking the door in a matter of seconds.

We’re in.” Sumner smiled.

They all slithered into the empty asylum, all of them feeling all too cau-tious being surrounded by the white stone walls. Sumner led them out of the kitchen, where they had entered, and made their way into the main part of the asylum.

Patients’ rooms lined both sides of the hallways, making it too bizarre that patients would fill the halls in only three days. Completely rid of his earlier fears, Mercer ran into the nearest room, Room 26, and began admir-ing the creepy factor as his friends stopped their walk and joined him.

This is so surreal,” Mercer said. “In a few days, they’ll be grade A cra-zies in here.”

Maybe they’ll be some psycho murderer in this very room.” Sumner flexed his eyebrows suggestively. “I’m gonna make sure Sal isn’t here.” When he saw their faces, he sighed. “Security guard. Chill out. He’s not supposed to work tonight; I’m just going to double check. I’ll be right back.”

Sumner left them in Room 26 to admire the room. Mercer kept close to the window, staring out into the front lawn of Arclan.

Can you imagine being locked up in a place like this?” Mercer stated in disbelief. “Shut away from the rest of the world with no say in how your life goes after they throw away the key.”

I’d go crazy.” Abram scoffed.

Most people that come here will probably need it.” Bridge said. “Or at least deserve it.”

Lissa zipped up her powder blue hoodie, crossing her arms over her chest. “This wasn’t nearly as fun as I thought it would be.”

Yeah,” Bridge added, getting up from the tiny twin bed and joined Mercer by the window. “This place is just really sad and I’m not here for a depressing time.”

There was a sudden loud buzzing that shook them suddenly aware like a clown bursting from its jack-in-the-box coffin.

What was that?”

The door to Room 26 abruptly swung close of its own accord, buzzing again once it was closed, locking them inside. They all ran to the door, panic thumping between them rhythmically.

Sumner!” Lissa screamed.

Abram grabbed the door handle, pulling on it with every muscle in his body, but there was no opening the door. It was locked beyond his capacity.

Dammit!” Abram exclaimed.

Sumner! This isn’t funny!” Mercer yelled.

He came running up to the door, fear overturning his smooth features as he grabbed at the door.

It’s locked!” Abram told him through the door.

Guys, someone is here.” Sumner’s eyes were wide porcelain saucers. “Someone knows we’re here.”

Get us the hell out of here!” Lissa cried.

Sumner fell then, almost like someone had struck him as he fell out of view from the small window in the door.

Sumner!” Lissa screamed in terror.

Holy shit,” Bridge said. “We’re gonna die in here.”

The loud buzzing returned as the door swung open immediately, caus-ing them all to stumble out of Room 26 and out into the hallway. They all looked around, but Sumner was nowhere in their field of view.

Sumner?” Bridge bellowed out into the open.

Shut up!” Mercer whispered. “You never yell out when you’re being pur-sued. Haven’t you learned anything from horror movies?”

I know how to watch horror movies, Merce, not star in them.” Bridge said, more quietly than before.

Who would follow us here?” Lissa pondered aloud as they continued to move very slowly down the hall, all of them holding on to one another.

Practically anyone.” Abram affirmed.

Especially with Sumner’s reputation.” Mercer added.

There was a loud clamor just down the hall, around the corner that led into another hallway that they had yet to explore upon their visit. Inching quietly, they made their way toward the noise.

Sumner?” Abram said loudly.

What did I just say!?” Mercer chastised.

Abram waved him off with the hand that wasn’t holding onto Lissa’s tightly. “Sumner?” he repeated as they continued to slide over to the other hallway. “Sumner?”

A blur of movement assaulted their eyes as Sumner practically fell out from the other hallway, clutching his stomach.

Jesus. Are you alright?” Lissa said from behind Abram.

His eyes looked glossy and distant. “Run.” Sumner moved his hand from his stomach, where there was a huge blood stain.

Sumner!”

Backing away instinctively, their eyes stayed glued to Sumner as he laid still on the linoleum. Lissa screamed as tears cascaded down her tanned face.

That’s when Sumner started up a boisterous laugh.

The four of them stared aghast as Sumner got up from the floor, still laughing at the change of expression on his friends’ faces.

I tried to keep it together for the best effect but that scream, Liss.” Sumner cackled again, lightning cracking over a dark sky. “You were so convinced.”

Mercer stormed over to Sumner and pushed him roughly, making the other stumble slightly down the hall. “What the hell is wrong with you!?””

Calm down. It was just a joke.” Sumner scoffed, a smile still plastered on his face and an elated ringing to his tone.

That wasn’t funny!” Abram yelled. “Why did you do that?”

What’s the point of coming to an asylum and not getting scared? I was just trying to freak you guys out.”

It worked!” Lissa screeched. “Why would you cut yourself on purpose like that?”

I didn’t,” He took his bloody hand and licked his fingers eagerly. “It’s fake. Mostly some corn syrup I found in the kitchen the other day.”

You’re insane.” Mercer said, his tone clearly still hostile. “Completely insane. You should be locked up here.”

Oh, please. Quit being such a drama queen.” Sumner took in their still angry features, rolling his eyes at how irate the looks they were giving him were. “Come on, I was just trying to liven things up. Make it more like American Horror Story. Look, I’m sorry. It was supposed to be funny. I suppose I went a little too far. Forgive me?”

They all looked between each other, all glances of discomfort and rage as they looked back at Sumner.

Don’t do shit like that.” Mercer demanded.

Scout’s honor.” Sumner swore, miming a salute for added effect.

Can we please go back to your house and forget all of this?” Lissa prompted with an exhausted sigh.

Sure.” Sumner said with an eightfold sigh. “This place is boring me an-yway.”

He led them back towards the back door at the back of the kitchen, while his friends hung back and wondered why Sumner would do something like that. And if he’d keep his word and ever do it again.

 

Abram finished spinning their dreaded past as Dagger stared at them in amazement. The four friends sat uncomfortably in front of him, avoiding his persistent glare.

“He made you all believe that he was attacked?”

Still silent, they all nodded simultaneously.

“Why were you even friends with him?”

“He had his moments.” Bridge sighed. “He was, is, completely in-sane, but he had these moments of making you feel…needed. Like you were different from other people. Special.”

“We just explained away his behavior to him having a close group of friends for once.” Abram explained.

“But all of us started to see him a little differently after that.” Alex added.

“Alright.” Dagger stopped. “So Sumner liked to play games. What’s next?”

There was a knock on the interrogation door, bringing them all to attention. An officer stepped into the room.

“Detective, Ms. Wheaton is here.”

They all looked at each other with inquisitive eyes as Dagger gave the officer a nod and told the officer to bring her in before he turned his attention back to the four of them.

“We’ll finish this later. You’re all free to go.” They all got up to leave when Dagger added, “Expect a call sometime next week.”

As they left the interrogation room, they all watched as the of-ficer from earlier escorted Kirby towards the interrogation room. She gave them all a quick glance, lingering on Mercer a little longer than the rest of them as they watched her disappear into the interrogation room.

Kirby entered the room, wishing that the officer would stay with her as she spoke to Dagger. There was something really intimidating about the detective. The biggest thing being that he caught criminals as easily as she had caught mono last summer.

“Ms. Wheaton, thanks for coming.”

“You can call me Kirby, detective.” she said, crossing her arms. “My mother is Ms. Wheaton.”

“Right.” he nodded. “Anyway, I just wanted to tell you in person that I’m not going to be asking you down to the station after today.” When she looked slighted, he went on. “I don’t think you have any connection to Sumner, aside from the picture. I think you just hap-pened to be at the wrong place when Sumner decided to make his dashing return to Armor Falls.”

“Really?” She was stunned. Kirby figured Dagger basically thought she moved to Armor Falls just to get Sumner back to town.

“Really.” he solidified. “Unless you give me a reason to think you’re guilty.”

“Thank you, detective.”

“I hope you know that calling you in was strictly protocol.”

“I understand.” Kirby nodded. “Thanks again.”

“Have a good evening, Kirby.”

Kirby left the interrogation room and made her way out of the police station and saw that Mercer and the rest of his friends were talking just a few feet from the police station doors.

She observed as Mercer came running toward her and away from his friends. “Hey.” he said, smiling.

“Hi.”

“We still haven’t been able to talk.”

She shook her head in agreement. “Right. We never got a chance in history earlier.” she paused to give a small smile. “And now that I’m free from further interrogations—”

“Wait, what?”

She nodded excitedly. “Dagger cleared me.”

“Kirby, that’s awesome.” His words confirmed as much, but his tone turned somber.

“Why does the look in your eyes say different?” Kirby crossed her arms across herself.

Mercer let out a heavy sigh. “Because it makes what I have to ask you even harder.”

Her brow fidgeted in interest. “What is it?”

“We’re pretty sure we know where Sumner is hiding,” he began at once. “And we need your help to get there.”

“If you know where Sumner is then why didn’t you tell Dagger?”

“Because we’re not a hundred percent sure.” Mercer looked around and made sure no one was listening. “If we tell Dagger and Sumner isn’t where we say he is, he’s gonna think we’re trying to help Sumner evade the police.”

“Okay,” Kirby paused, wrapping her mind around his words. “Why are you asking me for help then?”

“We think Sumner is hiding at Arclan. Well, sort of. It doesn’t matter, but we need your help because we have to get into Arclan.”

“But why—” She stopped mid-sentence as his reason for asking her to help crashed down on her features. “The badge. I told you about my mom working at Arclan and you need to get in undetect-ed.”

He confirmed her assumption. “I know it’s asking a lot, especially with Dagger clearing you and everything, but we need for this to be over.”

“Mercer,” she sighed.

“I know. I know this is crazy but we have to do this.”

“What do you plan to do if you find Sumner?”

Mercer looked fearless as he shook his head. “We do what we have to until Dagger can get there.”

Kirby rolled her shoulders in frustration. All of this was all too crazy for her. She thought her life before Armor Falls was intense. Apparently, New York and Maine had nothing on New Hampshire.

“When is this going down?”

“Saturday.”

She nodded. “My mom is working.”

“Damn.”

“No, that’s good.” Kirby assured him.

“How is that good? We need the badge to get in.”

Kirby shook her head. “If she was off and you tried to sneak in, Arclan would know. Security isn’t just high for patients, it’s strict on employees too. Mom told me if a badge is swiped to get in, they in-stantly know, especially if they haven’t clocked in.”

“So what does that mean?”

“It means I can help you. Since she’ll already be at work, I can get the badge and let you in.”

In a flash, Mercer disagreed. “No. What is your mom’s shift?”

“Two to eleven, but—”

“You can go early, get the badge and we can get in right before she leaves, so no one suspects her if things get crazy.”

“I’ll get you the badge if I go with you guys.”

“Kirby, no.”

“Because of Sumner, the police have questioned me about why my mom and I even moved to Armor Falls. I want to help.”

“Sumner is dangerous, Kirby. If you tag along and things get out of hand, I’d never forgive myself if someone innocent in all this felt the brute force of that.” He closed in on the space between them. “Kirby, please. If you can get me the badge, we’ll take care of every-thing else.”

“But—”

“Promise me.”

Kirby just wanted everything to be over. Everything that heard Sumner Shadows’ name was cursed for life, and despite how short she had been involved in all things Sumner, she knew that things needed to end. Especially for Mercer and his friends.

“Alright.” she finally said. “I’ll get you the badge and then I’ll stay away.”

Relief overcame Mercer as he let out a huge breath. “Thank you.” He pulled her into a quick hug, one Kirby smiled into and recipro-cated.

“Just please be careful.” she commented as they broke apart.

“Tell you what,” Mercer gave her a grin. “To make it up to you, how about I take you out, as a thank you.”

Kirby laughed lightly. “Are you asking me out, on a date, Mead-ows?”

“Definitely.” Mercer smiled.

“Who knew you were so smooth?”

He cackled loudly, earning long distance glares from his friends. “I never am, just ask them.”

“What about curfew?”

“I was thinking about a lunch date at school, like a picnic out in the quad or something.”

Pursing her lips, Kirby toyed with the idea until she ultimately agreed. “I got to say, I’m pretty impressed.”

“Is that a yes?”

“How’s tomorrow?”

Mercer’s smile widened brightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Goodnight, Mercer.”

“Night, Kirby.”

Kirby walked down the sidewalk to call her mom to come pick her up as Mercer returned to his friends, closer to the doors of the police station.

“Kirby’s in. She’s gonna get us the badge.”

“Merce, did you just ask her out?” Bridge said, eyebrows to the sky in wonder.

“Didn’t expect me to be so suave, right?”

“Sure.” Bridge clapped him on the shoulder, smiling mockingly.

“So Saturday’s officially on?” Abram said.

Mercer agreed. “We’ve got to get in before eleven, so they don’t think her mom let us in.”

“Alright. Saturday, and hopefully this’ll all be over.” Alex stated.

They all settled on the reciprocated prayer and then subsequently parted, taking their various ways home as they hoped that Saturday would alter everything forever and finally bring them a single ray of ethereal inner peace.

 

Walking up to her house from her car, Willa realized that no one was home yet. She figured her parents were probably just now leav-ing their separate workplaces, but she expected for Ben to have al-ready dropped off Abram like usual. But all the lights were off in the house.

Scrolling through her various keys, Willa found her house key and was just about to go into the house when she noticed something hanging out of the mail slot of the door.

Pulling the item toward her, Willa was staring at a note. Written in red smudgy handwriting was a weird message.

 

Maybe she’ll believe you now

– S

 

Confused, Willa turned the message over when she tried not to faint as her eyes took in a photo of herself that she barely remem-bered posing for. But once she saw the other two people on either side of her, she understood the message clearly.

Because in the picture, she was standing between Sumner and Straton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

CONFESS

 

 

Athena Wheaton walked out of the coffee shop, already exhausted as she impatiently tossed back her double espresso. Working at Arclan had been twice as tiring and stressful than she had anticipated upon taking the job. Managing a fashion boutique in New York was nothing in contrast to working as a nurse at Arclan Asylum.

She kept walking down the street to her car when she noticed a familiar face at the same time they noticed her.

“Athena.” came Adelaide Llewellyn’s velveteen voice, waving at her.

Athena smiled nervously as she saw that Adelaide wasn’t sitting alone outside the quaint coffee shop, but she recognized them. They were both present at the lockdown meeting at Adelaide’s house last week.

“Adelaide, hi.” She kept smiling as she walked over to them.

“Addie.” she smiled back, correcting her. “Would you like to join us?”

She looked at the sun-kissed man and dark caramel fleshed woman sitting with Adelaide.

“I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Please,” The handsome gentleman said, pulling out the chair be-tween Adelaide and himself. “We don’t mind.”

Pushing aside her reluctance, Athena grinned and took her seat with earnest.

“Athena, I know you saw everyone at the meeting, but this is November St. James, Abram and Willa’s mother.”

November put out a hand that Athena shook in an instant. “You can call me Nova, everyone else does.”

Nodding, Athena turned her attention to the handsome man be-side her. “And this is Araec,” Adelaide smiled. “He’s one of Mercer’s fathers.”

“Nice to meet you.” Athena grinned.

“Likewise.”

To redirect how uneasy she was feeling, she decided to steer the conversation, looking back to Adelaide once more.

“Did you hear about Kirby?” Athena started.

Adelaide shook her head. “About what?”

“Dagger cleared her from any further interrogations.”

The other parents looked completely floored, the other two look-ing to Adelaide for answers, which Athena was beginning to figure was the norm, given her lawful employment.

“He didn’t mention anything to me about that.”

“As if he would anymore.” November scoffed.

Adelaide growled in annoyance. “I’m starting to think he took this case just to get under my skin.”

“Do you have history with Detective Dagger professionally?” Athena asked innocently.

Araec guffawed, which preceded angry looks from November and Adelaide. “Sorry.” he apologized hotly.

“Am I missing something?” Athena laughed nervously.

As Adelaide sighed, November took over and answered for her. “Alston, I mean Dagger, and Addie used to date in college.”

“Oh.” Athena spoke softly. “And him taking a case involving your son…”

“He’s driving me crazy.” Adelaide admitted. “It feels like he’s set-tling a vendetta by being back in town.”

“I bet you regret moving here now.” Araec told Athena, laughing. “What even brought you to Armor Falls?”

Athena cleared her throat before she started. “I desperately need-ed a job away from Manhattan, so we moved to a town in Maine, where everything was fine for a while. Until it wasn’t. I wasn’t get-ting anywhere with my fashion background so I applied to jobs using my nursing degree. And when we needed to leave Maine, I used the same method and applied to any and all nursing jobs that could have used another employee.”

“And how did you find Arclan?” November chimed in.

“Google.” Athena breathed uneasily, feeling like how she imag-ined Kirby must have had with Dagger. “Just searched for nursing homes and mental institutions with good reputations. I applied eve-rywhere, anywhere. The further away from Maine, the better.” she paused to look at all of them, sighing. “I was thinking I was going to get a job in Vermont, but Arclan was the first to call back. So we packed up our lives and found our way to New Hampshire.”

“You didn’t research Armor Falls before moving here?”

Adelaide interjected. “You guys are sounding a lot like Dagger.”

“It’s okay,” Athena assured her, deciding to just get it all out in the open rather than these type of questions coming up any later for her to address. “No, I didn’t research Armor Falls. Once I got off the phone with Arclan and found a place to stay, I was sold. Anything was better than staying in Maine.”

“Did something happen with Kirby’s dad?” Araec asked.

“God, no.” Athena scoffed. “Kirby’s father hasn’t been around since she was a toddler.” Pausing yet again, Athena enveloped anoth-er deep breath. “It was just personal affairs.”

“Plenty of that around here.” November nodded.

“Anyway,” Adelaide took a bite of her blueberry scone. “Back to the kids. I did hear about Kirby joining Yearbook though.”

Athena laughed lightly. “She told me this morning. She’s always had a passion for photography. I imagine she’ll do well taking pic-tures for the yearbook.”

“Are you sure you’re comfortable? I can talk to Thalia about it if you want.” Adelaide told her.

“Why would I? Just because I want to keep Kirby away from the Sumner Shadows case doesn’t mean I want to force her to give up her ambitions. And who’s Thalia?”

“Thalia is the principal at Westbrooke.” November said.

“She can help,” Araec continued. “She has a unique insight into the whole Sumner situation.”

“How’s that?” Athena looked confused.

“Thalia Cobbins is married to Viviane Cobbins.” Araec said.

“And Viviane’s sister is, was, known as Marjorie Cobbins.” No-vember added. “Before Marjorie got married.”

“I’m not following.” Athena said nervously. “Who was Marjorie Cobbins?”

Adelaide looked really distant, as if recalling an old memory about the woman in question. Finally, she locked eyes with Athena.

“Marjorie Cobbins was Sumner’s mother.”

 

“You have to admit, they are pretty damn cute together.”

Alex and Abram couldn’t help but agree with Bridge as the three of them watched Mercer and Kirby on their picnic date out in the quad. They stood against a brick archway just outside of the cafeteria, feet from the stairs that lead to another entrance into the building, watching as Kirby and Mercer laughed together out in the grass.

“Lord knows what awful decade old jokes he’s telling her.” Bridge rolled his eyes as they leaned against the archway and looked out from in between the brick structure.

“Leave him alone,” Alex laughed. “I think it’s good for Mercer to be seeing someone.”

“I think so too. If nothing else, he needs to get laid.”

“Abe.”

Both Abram and Bridge laughed while Alex brushed them off with a couple of swats. There was a slight disturbance as a pair of easily recognizable faces were readily visible in the distance.

“What’s going on with your sisters?”

Bridge’s question prompted Abram and Alex to look over and see Willa and Faith in a very heated conversation as they headed to-ward the school parking lot.

“Faith’s been pretty shaken lately,” Alex huffed. “I think she and Straton might have ended things.”

“Yeah, I think they did.” Bridge agreed. “She mentioned it when we snuck out the night before the RV incident.”

Alex’s eyebrows wagged in succession. “Faith snuck out?”

“We were both at Core. I think Straton works there or some-thing.” Bridge shook his head positively.

“Were you meeting Ben there?” Abram asked on impulse. When he saw Bridge’s dazzled expression, he pressed on. “Yesterday you said you were sleeping together.”

Were being the key word in that statement.” Bridge sighed. “We met at the Heartmyth start of the year party.”

“Whoa, you went back to a Heartmyth party? After everything we went through at the last one?” Alex chastised.

“I was already so drunk that night, it didn’t even register in my mind. But I met Ben at the party the night before school started. We flirted, we both got really drunk, and we hooked up. I had no idea he was seeing anyone, let alone that he was engaged to Westbrooke’s new guidance counselor.”

“So you told him it was over?” Abram asked.

“Well, there was a slight almost relapse that night at Core.”

“Bridge.”

“Shut up, Alex.” Bridge said sarcastically. “I told Ben yesterday that we were done. Even though he told me he’d leave Paige…”

“Seriously?”

Bridge shook his head. “I’m over it. Ben’s pretty sexy and all, but I’m no homewrecker. My own home is wrecked enough and I’m not gonna do that to someone else.”

“Good,” Abram scoffed. “Ben’s already too involved in my life and with everything going on, we don’t need him invested in yours too.”

“Well I have a paper to research so I’m gonna get my lunch to go.” Bridge finally said. “See you guys later?”

They both said their goodbyes and watched as Bridge headed in-side to grab something quick to eat, leaving the pair alone, much to the wandering thoughts of Abram.

“Alex, can I ask you something?”

He smiled at the inquiring gaze that Abram held in his breathtak-ing blue eyes. “Of course.”

Abram stirred uncomfortably in place. “It’s about your transi-tion.”

Alex’s earlier interest increased rapidly. “Okay.”

“I don’t really know the right way to ask this.”

“Abe, it’s fine. Just ask.”

Laughing to get rid of his swarming nerves, Abram decided to just oblige Alex’s suggestion.

“The night that we first…you know,” Abram cleared his throat. “Your reaction afterwards, did it have to do with you transitioning?”

Without even thinking about it, Alex reached over and grabbed Abram’s hand. The latter shifted a little but he didn’t recoil or resist when Alex squeezed his hand lightly.

“Abe, I know how weird this has been for you, but I don’t regret anything that happened between us, including sharing our first time together.”

“I just…I just wanna make sure your reaction wasn’t because of something I did.”

“Not at all.” Alex smiled. “It was me. You should know that by now. I just felt like something was missing within myself, and that night when we were…together, just helped me to think about why I was feeling the way I was after. You did everything right, Abe.” Alex giggled a little. “More than right.”

Abram snickered at that. “That good, huh?”

They both laughed together, sharing a unique moment in under-standing. As they stared at each other and their laughter died down, they realized that they rarely had moments of clarity together since that night in the cemetery. Both of them felt they were too few and far between.

“Hey,” Alex smiled, retracting his hand from Abram’s. “Let’s go grab lunch off campus today. What do you say?”

“I say, lead the way.” Abram laughed.

Back on the quad, Kirby and Mercer were enjoying their picnic date. Kirby almost choked on her garlic chicken as Mercer told her another story about him and his friends.

“The garlic chicken can’t be that bad.”

Coughing a couple more times, Kirby shook her head. “No, the food is amazing. I just can’t believe that Abram used to be a cheer-leader.”

Mercer laughed. “He was actually pretty good, even if he and Sumner did join the team to meet girls.”

“Did they? Meet girls, I mean.”

“No one serious. Except Lissa.” He winced at his words. “Alex.” Mercer stopped to shovel in another bite of mushroom risotto. “Af-ter that, guys were vying for a spot on the squad, as if Sumner some-how made it the new it thing for the guys of Westbrooke to do.”

Kirby sipped her sparkling grape juice. “Sumner seemed to have that effect, from what I’ve heard.”

“He did, definitely. He even convinced Bridge and I to make out at a party once.”

“You and Bridge!?”

“Don’t sound so shocked,” he cackled. “Bridge was totally into me once upon a time.”

Rolling her eyes and grinning, Kirby ate more of the seemingly gourmet food Mercer had brought for them. “You’ll have to thank your dads for lunch. I could probably eat yours if you’d let me.” she laughed again.

“I’m hurt.” Mercer grabbed at his heart, simulating hurt.

“Why?”

“Because I made all of this. By myself.”

She regarded him with wide mesmerized eyes. “You did?”

“Absolutely. My dads taught me it’s important to know how to cook.” He gave her a small smile. “You never know who you’ll be trying to impress.” Kirby smiled at him through her juice as she felt Mercer’s hand graze hers. “So, how am I doing?”

“I gotta say, I’m pretty blown away. I didn’t expect five-star cui-sine from you, Mercer.”

He laughed and scoffed at the same time. “I must be doing some-thing right because you haven’t called me Meadows once today.”

“Yeah, I may have to put that one on hold for a while.”

They stared into each other’s eyes, smiling as Mercer closed the space between them for a possibly quick kiss when Alex came run-ning up to them, almost mowing both of them over. Mercer had to throw himself backwards to avoid Alex’s skidding, just missing all of their food.

“Alex, what the hell?”

“I’m really sorry.” he said to them. “But Merce, you have to come quick, before someone sees.”

“Is everything okay?” Kirby questioned quickly.

“Mercer.” The urgency in Alex’s voice was alarming them both further.

“Stay here?” Mercer asked Kirby, whom just nodded, looking confused. “I’ll be back.”

Alex began running toward the school parking lot and Mercer had to push himself to keep up with him. As they approached the parking lot, Mercer saw Abram leading Bridge in the same direction.

“What’s going on?” Bridge yelled over to Mercer.

“Wondering the same thing.” he screeched back.

Alex and Abram led them over to where Mercer had parked his Jeep and where Alex had parked the car he shared with his sister. Mercer and Bridge saw why their friends had been so adamant that they see what was before them so soon.

On Alex’s windshield was a red inked message scrawled in huge letters that said STOP LOOKING. They realized the rest of the message was scribbled on Mercer’s windshield, where the scratchy letters spelled START CONFESSING.

A cackle of laughs erupted nearby, causing all of them to turn at the clueless freshmen, glad that they weren’t looking in their direc-tion and hoping that no one had already seen the ominous message from someone who obviously knew something that had happened that night.

 

Faith hurled herself out of Willa’s car before it had even rolled to a stop at Heartmyth. Willa had to hurriedly throw her car into park so she could run after her emotionally charged friend as Faith stormed into a prestigious university to wreak havoc.

“Faith!” she called after her as they stomped around one of the Heartmyth dorms.

Willa finally caught up to her, grabbing Faith’s hand and pulling her back. Luckily, for a moment at least, Faith humored her and al-lowed Willa to eliminate her momentum.

“Can we just take a minute to think about this?” Willa begged.

“There’s nothing to talk about, Willa. This is happening.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have shown you that picture, but I wanted to show you before I showed the police.”

“And I appreciate it, I really do. But I have this under control.”

Faith pulled out her phone for a second, seemingly typing away, before quickly sliding it back in her jeans as she treaded through the dorms once again, Willa sighing and cursing herself as she galloped to keep up with Faith and her wrath of a runway walk.

They were just nearing Straton’s dorm room when they turned a corner and ran right into Straton’s roommate.

“Oh, Jesus. Faith, you scared the shit out of me.” The chiseled jawed ginger laughed it off.

“Hugo, where’s Straton?” Faith seethed.

“Cafe, I think.” Hugo answered. “Everything okay?”

Faith didn’t answer him, instead choosing to turn around and head toward the Heartmyth cafeteria, Willa hot on her stilettos.

Willa tried to grab her attention, but Faith wretched her hand away as she found her way through Heartmyth until she pushed through the double doors of the cafeteria.

A few heads flew in their direction, but otherwise things didn’t seem amiss until Faith spotted Straton over the cafe looking for a place to sit. All Willa could do was spectate in solemn as Faith stomped over to him and flipped the tray out of his hands as more attention fell in their direction, Willa running over to them as food lined the floor.

“Faith, what the fuck!?” Straton bellowed.

“You lied to me!” Tears came to Faith’s eyes quickly, gathering like pools of grief that bubbled against her irises. “You made me think I was crazy about you knowing Sumner when you actually did!”

“I didn’t—”

“Stop lying!” Faith reached into the purse that was slung on her shoulder and pulled out the photo of him with Willa and Sumner, holding it up for him to see, where memories flashed in his eyes. “I want the truth. Now.”

Willa looked around and every single eye was on them, which Straton must have noticed too because he was steering Faith outside of the cafeteria. She followed them to just outside the doors of the cafeteria, away from all the college eavesdroppers.

“Tell her the truth, Straton.” Willa spoke up.

Straton nodded, looking from Willa and back to Faith, who quickly wiped away new tears with the back of her hand.

“Yes, I knew Sumner.” Straton blurted out, beginning his tale. “But it’s not what you think.”

“You were friends with Sumner.” Faith said it as a statement ra-ther than proposing it as a question.

“Yes. No.” he sighed. “We met at last year’s Heartmyth start of school party. He was hitting on some freshman girls I knew and we started talking and we hung out a couple times before he brought your brother and his friends to the party the night he went crazy. And…” Straton sighed again, looking completely forlorn. “And the reason I was so afraid to tell you was because…he came to see me.”

Both Willa and Faith looked taken aback in the worst way.

“You’ve seen Sumner since he’s been spotted back in town?” Willa gawked.

“Sort of,” Straton looked worried, acknowledging Faith again by locking his eyes with hers. “Look, I can explain everything just…don’t take that picture to your mom and the police.”

Faith’s earlier sorrow was quickly replaced with anger and re-sentment. She gave him a smirk before she pulled out her phone, which had apparently been on since she had taken it out of her pock-et earlier in the hall when they had been searching for Straton.

“Did you catch all of that, Mom?”

Both Willa and Straton’s eyes expanded in surprise when sud-denly Adelaide Llewellyn rounded a corner and came up to them, another officer tagging along beside her.

“Thanks for the tip, sweetheart.” her mom said, asking the officer with her to grab the picture and take it as evidence as she stared into Straton’s eyes. “Mr. Jacobs, would you mind coming down to the station to answer some questions?”

 

Alex was the last one to arrive at Armor Falls Police Station. Fear throbbed against his head as he burst through the doors of the estab-lishment. The first person he saw was Faith, who pulled him into a quick embrace as the Llewellyn twins held onto each other tightly.

“Alex, I’m so sorry.” his sister said as they pulled apart. “I had no idea that Straton was withholding any kind of information about Sumner.”

He dismissed her with the flick of his wrist. “I know you had nothing to do with this. Hell, I don’t really know what Straton even said to you. Just that Dagger called me down here.”

Nodding, Faith gestured over toward the hallway that led to the interrogation rooms. “Everyone else is waiting for you back there. They’ve already questioned Willa about finding the picture.”

“I’ll catch up with you later?”

Alex gave his sister a smile before he left her in the lobby and headed back toward the interrogation rooms, where he found his friends talking with Dagger in a room just in front of a two-way mirror looking into the interrogation room, where Straton sat alone, awaiting questioning.

“Ah,” Dagger said as they all regarded Alex. “And the little unit is complete.”

“What’s going on?”

“This is unorthodox, but I want the four of you to listen in on Straton’s questioning.”

“Why?”

“He wants us to know Straton’s story and to tell him if what he says sounds like the Sumner we’ve been telling him about.” Abram explained. “Or if we know anything about what he’s about to say.”

“I just need your insight to really crack this investigation.” Dagger concluded. “Hopefully what Straton has to say will bring us one step closer to finding Sumner.”

Dagger left them alone in the room as he entered the interroga-tion room, where Straton snapped to attention immediately.

“What did they ask Willa?” Alex asked Abram.

He shrugged out of annoyance. “Basically just asked her why she didn’t mention the Straton-Sumner connection until now.”

“She said she didn’t even remember him all that much until he showed up the first day of school to surprise Faith.” Bridge contin-ued.

“First the message on our cars and now this.” Alex sighed.

“There’s more,” Mercer sparked his concern. “The picture of Wil-la with Sumner and Straton was signed.”

“Signed?”

Abram scoffed. “It was signed with a single letter.”

“Which was?” Alex inquired.

“S.” The three of them said together.

Alex’s shock was swallowed up by the fact that Dagger was be-ginning to question Straton, causing them all to turn to the two-way mirror and listen in on their conversation.

“Alright, Straton. You’ve said that Sumner has visited you recent-ly. When?”

Straton sighed deeply, a rocky cavern between his lungs. “I’ll tell you the whole story, but I had nothing to do with Sumner coming back into town. I’ve just gotten caught up in the wake of Sumner’s second coming.”

“Enough excuses, Jacobs.” Dagger said, getting agitated already. He stopped his usual pacing around the room, eyes tearing tunnels through Straton. “Tell me about the night Sumner Shadows paid you a visit.”

 

His phone rang loudly for about the fifth time in an hour, eliciting a loud groan from Straton as he rolled over and grabbed his phone on the other side of his bed. As he quickly checked his screen and saw that it wasn’t his girlfriend Faith but rather a foreign and unfamiliar number, he silently thanked God that his roommate was out at a party. He was sure Hugo would have shattered his phone by now with its persistent wailing, especially as the night crept closer to midnight. Straton turned his phone off rapidly, rolling back over to get some sleep and hoped he wouldn’t be interrupted anymore.

Until there was a loud, obnoxious rapping on Straton’s dorm door. He swore under his breath as he ripped his sheets off his bed, revealing his naked chest, naked save for his navy blue boxer briefs.

Hugo, you gotta remember your key, dude.”

Fully expecting to see a totally wasted Hugo, Straton had to swallow a scream when he opened the door and saw Sumner standing on the other side, looking manic and ridden with homicidal desolation.

His clothes were also stained with drying blood.

Sumner!?” Straton looked out into the hall, glad to see that no one was stirring in the hall currently. “Where the hell have you been? Why are you at my dorm? And is that blood?”

Sumner had a crazy look in his eyes. He looked petrified and utterly afraid of something as he looked down at his blood splattered white t-shirt and the dried, cakey blood lathered on his hands before he looked at Straton again.

I’m in trouble, Straton. I need your help.” Sumner’s head turned franti-cally to scan the hallway for onlookers, but he didn’t meet any new faces.

I’m not doing anything but calling the police. You tried to kill your friends, Sumner!”

Sumner’s eyes welled with fear. “You don’t understand. I’ve been away from New Hampshire. And something happened.” Tears fell down his usually perfectly controlled face, turning his features fiercely dark. “Straton, something’s wrong. I don’t know what happened, where this blood came from.” He leaned in closer toward Straton. “I think someone’s plotting against me. I think someone is trying to make me think that I’m crazy.”

Straton shook his head. “No. No, I’m calling the police. You shouldn’t have come here. You should be in jail.” he said severely.

No, please!” Sumner begged, clutching at Straton’s arm and holding on with incredible strength that set Straton’s teeth on edge. “Straton, my friends don’t know the truth about what happened the night in the cemetery.”

Goodbye, Sumner. I’m not getting caught up in all of this.”

You already are,” Sumner cried, releasing his arm. “By dating Faith.”

Alarms and red flags had nothing on how uneasy Sumner’s words had struck him at that moment.

How do you know about that?” Straton demanded to know.

Sumner’s emotions were suddenly clear and sharp, tears no longer coat-ing his cheeks or even on the horizon in his eyes, as if everything up to that point had been a very well-rehearsed front. “I’ve made a couple stops to Ar-mor Falls before tonight.” Sumner then went back to wearing a veil of worry over his face, yet another counterfeit illustration of emotions. “Tonight, something happened. Something bad.”

Tell the police,” Straton was putting his foot down. “Stick around, I’ll call them for you.”

A sinister look glazed over Sumner’s earlier facade of terrified inno-cence. “Be that way.” All too suddenly, Sumner pushed Straton back inside of his dorm room, staining Straton’s bare chest with blood. “One day, I’ll cash in this rejection for something…far more rewarding on my end.”

Sumner, what are you gonna do?”

He let out a cackle that brought the hair on the back of Straton’s neck to attention, troops saluting a farewell to his better judgment. “You’ll know when I take my withdrawal, Jacobs. Until then,” Sumner laughed menacingly again. “Sweet dreams.”

Before a response died in the back of his throat, Straton watched as Sumner ran down the dorm hallway, vanishing once again from the resi-dents of Armor Falls like a tangled vapor with salt slicked razor tendrils ready to strike its next waiting victim.

 

Sumner’s former friends stared in complete disbelief as Straton finished his confession, leaving not only them but also Dagger utter-ly void of a response at first.

“So let me just try and wrap my head around this,” Dagger breathed cautiously. “A bloody, distraught Sumner Shadows pleaded for your assistance involving…what?”

“I don’t know. Sumner said his friends didn’t know the truth about the night they were attacked.” Straton nodded. “And then he said something bad had happened that had gotten him covered in blood.” he sighed. “He made it seem like someone was messing with him, making it look like he was doing something that he wasn’t.”

“And you believed him? Is that why you didn’t tell the police about your little run-in with a wanted fugitive?”

“Sumner tried to kill his friends, detective.” Straton shook his head. “Of course I didn’t believe him. A month ago, this happened and in that time, nothing came of his threat. So I thought I could just forget about it and he wouldn’t strike. Plus, I was terrified. Of what the cops might assume, yes, but more than that, I was scared of Sumner.” Straton looked like he might be shaking. “He said I’d know when he’d make me pay for shutting the door on him. Now I’m your new suspect in Sumner’s case, right? I’d say I’m well aware that he’s gotten me back.”

“So you think it was Sumner that left the picture for Willa to find?”

“Don’t you?” Straton scoffed. “Sumner’s watching, every last one of us. He wanted to get back at me for turning him away and he’s sufficiently succeeded.”

As Dagger asked Straton a little more about Sumner’s state of mind the night he showed up, the four friends were at a loss of un-derstanding. They all turned away from the mirror and just stared at each other.

“What just happened?” Bridge said, shattering their silence.

Mercer rubbed his temples. “I don’t know which part to try and process first.”

“Why the hell was Sumner covered in blood?” Bridge wondered. “And if it was him outside the RV, could he have saved that blood to soak the stake in?”

“Aren’t we done assuming the RV thing was him? He signed the picture, Bridge. He wanted us to know that the picture was him. He’d have done the same with the RV.” Mercer rebuked.

Abram sighed. “I’m stuck on the part about us. How could we not know something about the attack at the cemetery?”

“I can’t do this.” Alex said, looking away from them. “This is all too…I can’t.”

Withdrawing from his friends, Alex walked out of the room heatedly, leaving for the front of the police station.

“Alex,” Bridge called after him, but Abram shook his head.

“I’ll get him.”

Alex was already flinging open the police station doors, glad his mom, sister, or Willa hadn’t been in plain view to stop him from leaving, when Abram finally caught up with him just outside.

“Alex, wait.” came Abram’s voice from behind him.

“Why can’t we be done with this?” He said, whipping around to meet Abram’s face. “Why would Sumner come back at all? He tried to kill us, and the police never found him. He got away, why come back?”

“I know Straton’s confession raises a lot of questions but—”

“I’m tired of questions. I want answers!” Alex lamented. “We’ll always be those kids that knew Sumner. Our lives will always be in-terrupted by police investigations and last minute questionings, Abe. I don’t want a life run by the memory of Sumner Shadows.” Alex tried to hold back his anger and sorrow from showing, but tears beckoned against his corneas. “I want the life I had before this, when it was just the four of us. When you and I listened to songs from the eighties and laughed and we weren’t burdened by crimes and alibis.” His emotions steered him now as his cheeks were assaulted by sud-den moisture. “I transitioned so I could finally be myself and now I find myself trapped in a life I still have no control over.”

Losing to his sobs, Alex’s crying took over completely, Abram pulling him into a much needed embrace as Alex settled into his fa-miliar arms, silencing his sobs into the taller boy’s shoulder.

“We won’t always be Sumner’s friends, Alex.” Abram said as he traced a pattern on Alex’s back comfortingly. “We will get past this, but in the meantime,” Alex’s hysterics dying down, Abram broke the hug to stare at him, wiping away his tears with a stray finger. “We can’t lose ourselves along the way. We’ll get back to times like be-fore.” he smiled. “There is life after Sumner Shadows. We’ll get there, I promise.”

Alex grinned in spite of the situation. “What would I do without you?”

“Drown yourself in Rocky Road.” Abram laughed.

Agreeing, Alex grabbed one of Abram’s hands. “Thanks for al-ways knowing how to ground me.”

“Anytime.” he smiled back.

Alex enveloped Abram into another hug, squeezing him tightly, feeling completely okay with dealing with all things Sumner if Abram was by his side through it all. When they broke apart once again, Alex stared into Abram’s blue eyes and glanced at the smile he held, and he didn’t plan to, but all the feelings came rushing up with-in him like a soda can being shaken and opened abruptly. He was pressing his lips softly against Abram’s before he could stop himself, closing his eyes and savoring the familiar sensation he had missed so much.

The feeling of Abram’s hands on his shoulders brought Alex out of the happy ecstasy, pushing them apart sooner than Alex would have preferred.

“Alex—”

“I still love you, Abe.” Alex cut him off like the quick swipe of a razor blade, blurting out his feelings in an instant, like he’d ripped open a vein. “And I know you still have feelings for me too. That night in the car, before we went to the RV, I felt it. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel it too.”

“Stop.”

“I know this is complicated, I know it’s not what you’re used to, but we were so good, Abe. We can be Abe and Liss again.” He grabbed for Abram’s hand, elated that his former flame had let such an act transpire.

“Alex.”

“I’m still the same person I’ve always been—”

“No!” Abram pulled his hand back, breaking the last of the physi-cal contact still remaining between them. “No, it’s not the same. It will never be like before because we’re not Abe and Liss anymore. I’m still Abe, but you’re Alex now. I’m happy for you, I really am, but things have changed.”

“Abe.”

“I didn’t hear from you for five months!”

Mercer and Bridge walked out of the police station, instantly ending their conversation as they made their way over to them.

“Tell them I had to go.” Abram said. “I’ll text Willa to come out and take me home.”

“Abe—”

“Goodnight, Alex.”

Abram started walking toward Willa’s car as Bridge and Mercer came up to Alex, looking perplexed.

“What’s going on?” Bridge asked.

Alex wiped away fresh tears as he watched Abram walk away, too hurt to explain in detail.

“Nothing,” he finally said. “Nothing at all is going on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

WHERE SHADOWS DWELL

 

 

Abram’s phone rang over and over the next morning, all of the calls coming from Alex, as he had expected. When he sent the calls to voicemail and Alex texted that he wanted to talk, Abram let out a sigh. He had once loved Alex and he still cared for him a lot, but it was a lot for him to come to terms with. He had never thought about his unresolved feelings for Lissa upon learning that she was Alex. Abram just wanted to push it out of his mind for the time being. So when Mercer texted him about meeting up at the gym the next morning, Abram concocted a story about needing to work out to his parents and leapt at the invitation when his parents agreed as long as he was home before dark.

After they were sweaty and the slightest bit sore, Mercer and Abram hit a nearby coffee shop for some carbs and caffeine to re-ward themselves.

“You were going strong today,” Abram laughed as they sat at an outside table to bask in the warmth of the vibrant sunny day. “Kir-by’s sure gonna love the work you did on your biceps.”

Mercer laughed too as he sat the bag with their everything bagels down on the table, Abram taking one with earnest. “Maybe if I get a second date, she’ll be able to appreciate my work out today.”

Smiling, Abram swallowed a generous bite of bagel before speaking. “Speaking of, how’d the first date go?”

“Pretty good,” Mercer said between sips of his caramel Frappuc-cino. “I really like her. I told her a little bit about us before I could ask too much about her though.”

Abram sighed. “Yeah, the car warning cut it short.”

“Now do you believe me that someone saw us?” When Abram just sipped his white mocha frapp, he continued. “Whoever wrote the messages on our cars, they’re not the same person who sent Willa that picture.”

“No, I don’t think so either.” Abram concurred. “I mean, signing the picture? I believe Straton, I think Sumner sent that to my house so Willa would find it.” he paused. “Maybe we should listen to who-ever wrote the car messages and stop looking for Sumner.”

Mercer scoffed. “You want to start confessing too? Abe, we’re so close. Straton’s confession only helped the Sumner hunt.”

“How’s that?”

“I looked it up this morning.” Mercer nodded. “Heartmyth is only about fifteen miles from the Armor Falls county line, which is only about another five miles from Arclan.”

“And what, Sumner took the rest of the night to walk there? That’s like a two hour walk.”

“One hour and thirty-seven minutes,” Abram looked surprised, a sentiment Mercer just brushed aside. “I checked. Sumner could have walked, or biked, or even stolen a car to get there. My point is, it’s not that far for him to get to and hide out there. If Sumner is still watching, especially to make sure Straton is suffering, we need to go while he’s distracted, while he thinks we’re too focused on Straton’s connection to him.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Abram sighed, shoveling in more of his bagel when his phone chimed again. He pulled it out of his bas-ketball shorts, seeing the recipient and sighed. “Relentless.”

Mercer tried to scarf down the rest of his own bagel. “Who’s that?”

“Alex,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “I’m about to turn my phone off.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“He kissed me last night.”

Mercer stopped chewing his food, talking around his food at the bombshell, slightly muffling his words. “I’m sorry, kissed?”

“He said he still loves me and that we could try to be…us again.”

“Wow.” Mercer said. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Neither did I,” Abram admitted. “I don’t even know what to say to him.”

“Well you better patch things up with him before tonight.” Mer-cer finished the last of his coffee. “Just be honest with him. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“Anyway,” Abram deflected easily. He wasn’t in the mood to talk about it anymore. “We need to figure out who’s messing with us.”

“I think finding Sumner is more important right now.” Mercer stated. “Don’t get me wrong, if someone knows about that night, we need to find out who it is, but I think time is on our side right now and we need to break into Arclan while we still can.” Abram’s phone rang again, causing Mercer to smile. “But first things first, you need to talk to Alex.”

Sighing in defeat, Abram caved. “You’re right.” he quickly texted Alex back in a blur of typing. “Can you drop me off somewhere?”

 

When there was a knock on her bedroom door, she didn’t even move. She barely even heard the repetitive tapping. Everything seemed either numb or foggy to her anymore. A knock hardly regis-tered in her mind as important.

“Faith, it’s Willa.”

Faith turned her head, but didn’t rush to open the door. “My dad let you in?”

“He’s the one who called me over. Just let me in.”

A sigh lazily left Faith’s lips. “It’s open.”

The door creaked open, and Willa effortlessly strode in, closing the door quietly behind her. She made her way over to the window seat where Faith resided. Willa sat on the bed across from her.

“Your dad said you haven’t left your room since everyone got back from the police station,” Willa shifted uneasily. “And that you won’t let anyone in. Not even Alex.”

“They don’t understand.”

“You let me in.”

“You knew Straton, a little bit at least. You tried to help me.” Faith’s earlier tears resurfaced. “How did I not know, Willa?”

“He didn’t tell anyone, Faith.”

“But he told me he didn’t know Sumner at all. He lied to me and I have no idea why.”

Willa looked at her with elevated eyebrows. “Alex didn’t tell you anything?”

Her tears stopped instantly. “Why would he know anything about why Straton lied?”

“He didn’t give me details,” Willa’s voice wobbled, unsure if she should tell her. Ultimately, she decided that she would want Faith to tell her if the roles were reversed. “But Abe did tell me that Dagger let them watch Straton’s interrogation.”

Faith was up on her feet in a flash, running past Willa and sprinting down the hall and bursting through her brother’s room, not caring about the startled look on his face as he was pulling a shirt over his head.

“Have you heard about knocking?”

“Why didn’t you tell me that you got to watch Dagger question Straton?”

His face crinkled in sarcasm. “Because it’s confidential infor-mation?”

“Bullshit.” Faith snarled.

“Why would I tell you something that’s just going to drive you crazy?” Alex went to reach for her but she lurched backwards before he could make contact. “Faith, I didn’t tell you because it’s not like I can recite Straton’s confession for you.”

“You have to tell me something,” she pleaded. “I have to know whether or not I wasted three months trusting someone who’s been helping Sumner.”

Her brother breathed deeply, grabbing her hands. “I can’t tell you what he said,” When she huffed and rolled her eyes, he stared at her sternly. “But, I will tell you that what Straton did say, I believe him.”

Her eyes widened liked biscuits in an oven. “You do?”

“Yes.” he said, giving her a small smile. “I do. I think we all do.”

“So…I should talk to him?”

Alex smiled again. “Yeah, maybe you should.”

She pulled her brother into a rapid embrace, holding him close to her for a minute. “Thank you, Alex. Thank you.”

“You can thank me by driving me to meet Abe?” Alex hoped, ending his statement in an inquisitive tone.

“How are both of us going to get pass Dad?” Faith scoffed.

“Say you need to work on Yearbook stuff at the library with Wil-la since she came over,” Alex told her. “I’m gonna tell him I’m trying out for basketball and need to practice.”

“Is that true?”

“I was thinking about practicing for a possible tryout, but I have to see Abe regardless.”

“And I really need to talk to Straton. If where your meeting Abe is on the way, I’ll take you but—”

“I’ll take you.” Willa piped up, stepping into Alex’s room. “I have a couple of errands to run for my mom anyway.”

“Perfect,” Faith smiled weakly. “As long as we make sure Dad doesn’t see us going in the wrong vehicles.”

The three of them headed downstairs together, perfectly aligning their excuses for their various reasons to be bending the rules of the lockdown.

 

“Thanks for the ride.”

Alex got out of Willa’s car and instantly was hit with memories as he took in the beautiful scene around him. Abram had texted him and told him to meet at the park toward the edge of town, at the place where they had gone to after their first date. Alex walked over to their spot, which was tucked away from the rest of the busyness of the park. There was a wooden bridge that overlooked a small creek shore that turned into the river on one side and on the other side there were three drainage holes that the river sifted into, all while the bridge was secluded and surrounded by trees, giving them the privacy they so desperately needed for their much sought after conversation.

The setting brought a smile to Alex’s face, especially when he saw Abram leaning against the bridge, looking down toward the make-shift shore below them, staring at his rough hands, turning them over and over.

“Hey,” Alex bellowed as he approached, watching Abram look up from his hands and laying his crisp blue eyes on him.

Abram held up a cup from the froyo place they had stopped at just before heading to the park for an evening stroll after their first date, furthering Alex’s grin. “I got you a mango pineapple smoothie with a splash of chocolate.”

“My favorite,” he laughed. “You remembered.”

“Of course I did.”

Grabbing the smoothie and taking a huge gulp, Alex leaned against the bridge next to Abram, staring over at him.

“So why’d you want to meet here?”

Abram shrugged. “This place means a lot to both of us. I figured it’d be the most comfortable place for us to talk.”

Sighing, Alex decided to just jump right into their inevitable back and forth. “Listen, I’m sorry about last night. I was just overwhelmed with Straton’s questioning and I let my emotions get the best of me.”

Alex heard Abram let out a deep breath. “Are you apologizing for the kiss or for telling me that you’re still in love with me?”

“Abe,” Alex exhaled. “I’m sorry for letting myself get caught up in my feelings.” He stared into Abram’s eyes as he continued. “I apolo-gize for kissing you without warning but I’m not going to say I’m sorry for letting you know how I feel, how I still feel.”

He reached for Abram’s hand, but Abram shot away from the railing of the bridge and stomped to the other side of it, nostrils flaring as Alex turned to face him, leaning against the structure for support.

“Abe?”

“You have no idea how hard this is for me.” He began pacing, walking in front of Alex hurriedly. “Ever since you kissed me, there’s been this storm of memories and waves of nostalgia crashing down inside my head that don’t mean anything because we aren’t a we an-ymore.”

“I may be Alex now but—”

“But you’re not Lissa!”

Alex looked away from Abram unexpectedly, unable to look at him. After a minute of silence, Alex saw that tears dared to spill from the brim of Abram’s eyes. He kept pacing before him, trying to keep his thoughts in check.

“Just like you said, you’re Alex now.” Abram nodded, going off his earlier outburst. “I just…I don’t know how to feel anything for Alex when I’m still in love with Lissa.”

“Then why have you waited?” Alex felt his own tears threatening to explode from behind his eyelids. “Why have you been acting like things have been fine between us?”

“Because it was easier for me to deal with your transition and have you back in my life if I separated who you are with who you used to be.” Abram sighed. “Your kiss makes it impossible for me to do that again.”

Alex stopped leaning against the bridge, pushing himself for-ward. “I am still the exact same person I’ve always been. Some things have changed, I’m not denying that. But my personality, my memo-ries…” Alex moved closer to Abram, whom stopped pacing and stood in front of him, but Alex still kept his distance. “Abram, that person that you fell in love with, that person who kissed you for the first time at this very spot, is right in front of you.”

He thought that Abram looked as though he was softening, al-most calm about the words that he had just spoken. But when he went for his hand again, his skin barely skimming his tanned flesh, Abram stepped back, leaving Alex with a somber longing.

“I’m sorry.” he shook his head vigorously. “I’m not…I’m straight, Alex.”

“Is that what this is about?”

“It’s not just that,” he sighed. “My point is, is that I’m still in love with a girl that no longer exists.”

“Abram.”

“I loved you, Alex. A part of me always will, but I’m not…I’m in love with a fading memory.” he sniffed to keep his tears from leaving his eyes. “It’s like I’m in love with a shadow.”

“But—”

“No.” Abram said sternly, shaking his head even harder than he had earlier. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Silence slithered around them once again, like a quiet snake hiss-ing at their ankles as Alex felt tears finally bubbling over and staining his cheeks. Abram sniffed again and coughed to clear his throat.

“I’ll, uh, call Ben and tell him to come and pick me up.”

“What about tonight?” Alex’s voice trembled with vulnerability. “What about after tonight? What’s going to happen to us?”

“Tonight will go as planned,” he stated. “After that, I don’t know.”

“We’ve always been friends first, Abe.” Alex’s crying was flowing strong now, unable to be restricted. “I don’t want to lose my best friend.”

“Well I didn’t want to lose my girlfriend.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Wake up, Alex!” Abram screamed. “Life isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair when we were almost killed by our friend, it wasn’t fair when I couldn’t cope and was carted off to not just one but two mental insti-tutions while the rest of you were able keep it together. None of this is fair, but it’s how it is.” Abram couldn’t hold back anymore, sobs swallowing him up, tears consuming him entirely. “The fact that I went to an asylum and six months later I’m back to my normal self is nothing less of a miracle. And I come back to this.” he gestured around them, halting his tears. “That, this, isn’t fair. But this is our lives now. Do yourself a favor and find a way to deal with it.”

Abram was already walking away as his words loitered amongst the breeze, leaving Alex alone at their special spot to contemplate how life was going to be different after what he felt was the loss of his best friend.

 

Across town at Westbrooke Central Park, Mercer and Bridge were lazily shooting hoops, just enjoying their Saturday before curfew went into effect, glad that their parents and guardians were being a little lax on the rules this weekend.

“Wait, so Alex kissed Abe last night?”

Mercer sank a perfect hook shot with a satisfying swish, nodding with a sigh.

“Apparently. Abe was pretty confused by it.”

“Can’t say I blame him. I mean, he went from kissing his girl-friend to getting a kiss from his ex-boyfriend. It’s sort of different.”

“But Alex hasn’t changed. He’s still the same person we’ve been friends with for years.”

“Still, for someone as straight laced as Abe, it’s got to be hard to wrap his head around.”

“Abe’s not close-minded though,” Mercer passed the ball to Bridge, who quickly did a lay-up. “It’s not like he’d not give it a chance if he felt the same. He’s just confused. All I’m saying is so much has happened to all of our lives and maybe he just needs time.”

Bridge passed Mercer the ball. “This is nice though, right? Deal-ing with drama involving our best friends’ love lives instead of con-fessions involving criminals?”

Dribbling the basketball, Mercer laughed. “True, I guess.” Taking another shot and missing, Mercer scoffed, causing Bridge to run and retrieve the ball. “I just hope they work something out.”

“I hope you’re going to make time to improve your shot.” Bridge laughed. “You’re rusty.”

Laughing lightly, he ran over and stole the ball and went to shoot a lay-up, but once again he missed the shot.

“Okay, maybe a little rusty.” Mercer said.

“Lotta rusty.”

“Give me a break. I’m not going to be on a team like you, B.”

“But he’s right, you’re rusty.”

Kirby appeared then, leaning against the fence as she smiled at the pair, walking up to them. “I got your text.”

Mercer rolled his eyes sarcastically. “How would you know if I was rusty?”

She opened up her hands, silently asking for the ball as Mercer passed it to her. Kirby dribbled her way over to the three-point line and took the shot, slamming the ball through the net easily.

“Are you kidding me?” Mercer said, shocked.

“Nice shot, Wheaton.” Bridge laughed.

“How long have you played?”

“I have a lot of secrets I haven’t told you yet,” she smiled as Bridge went to get the ball. “You’ll just have to wait to find out what they are.” Kirby closed the space between her and the pair. “In other news, here.”

Kirby reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out her mother’s badge from Arclan, putting it into Mercer’s hand roughly. Bridge came closer, watching as Mercer slid it into his own pocket.

“Thank you for this, Kirby.” Bridge told her. “Hopefully we can end this tonight.”

She smiled feebly. “Just…be careful. I really hate the idea of you guys doing this alone.”

“We’ve got each other’s backs.” Mercer reassured her. “Tonight will be fine.” Then, he smirked. “When am I gonna find out all these secrets you’re withholding, by the way?”

Kirby scrunched up her face in thought. “Maybe when you ask me out on that second date.”

Sauntering off and leaving them both laughing, Kirby smiled as both Mercer and Bridge’s cell phones began to blare loudly while Kirby disappeared, both of them looking confused at the dual calls.

“That’s weird.”

Bridge agreed as he checked his caller ID, glancing back at Mer-cer. “It’s Alex.”

He gestured toward his own phone. “Abe.”

They both answered, only to be assaulted by Abram and Alex’s heated rambling, both friends’ ears already hurting as their confusion spread as quickly as butter on toast.

“Abe, calm down.”

“What happened?”

Trying to listen, they waited for the full explanation, one that was overcome by Alex and Abram’s rushed stories that lacked the proper details.

“Where are you?”

“Tell me where you’re at, Alex.”

“Be right there.” They said in unison, ending their calls abruptly and facing each other, Bridge’s eyes bulging with concern.

“What the hell just happened?”

 

Mercer brought his Jeep to a stop, not worrying about if his dads found out that he was hoping to finally bring Sumner behind bars by sneaking out. Abram was in the vehicle with him, riding silently in the passenger’s seat, looking out the window wordlessly.

“Abe.”

He didn’t respond, instead deciding to keep looking out the win-dow at the dark night circling them like the sleuthing shadows they had crafted themselves into.

With more gusto, he said, “Abe.”

Moving slightly, he glanced at the clock on Mercer’s dash. “It’s ten thirty. Where are they?”

Sighing to himself, Mercer flashed his high beams once. “They’re probably already here. The lights are the signal.” He looked over at Abram, worry collecting in the bowls of his pores. “Are you sure you can still do this? Earlier you were pretty shaken up and—”

“Thanks, but I’m fine, Mercer.” Abram sighed. “Alex and I just have a lot to work through after this.”

Bridge and Alex appeared from behind some trees, surveying the street as they headed over to Mercer’s jeep parked just outside of Westbrooke Central Park. They hustled into the Jeep as quickly as they could, and Mercer wasted no time in flooring the gas so they could make it to Arclan Asylum.

“Everyone ready?” Mercer prompted, trying to turn the silence around them into actual conversation.

“Not that we have a choice, but yeah.” Bridge stated. “Let’s bust Sumner’s ass.”

“What’s the plan? Where are we even trying to find this under-ground area?” Alex asked.

“It’s an old building. Maybe we should Google the blueprints.” Mercer mentioned.

“I already did.” Bridge said, sighing at his phone as he scrolled through the blueprints he had saved from his previous image search. “Nothing that would help us.”

“We don’t need the blueprints.” Abram scoffed. “The kitchen was the last thing built. We should start there.” When he felt the linger-ing glares from his friends, he rolled his eyes. “Just trust me.”

Taking his word for it since he was the only one of them that had actually lived behind the walls, Mercer kept driving until they were quietly approaching the parking lot of Arclan Asylum. Mercer parked his Jeep as rapidly as he could and turned around to see the apprehensive looks on their faces.

“Here goes nothing, right?”

As fast as they could muster, they all got out of the car after agreeing with Mercer, piling out of the Jeep and silently staying near the tree line surrounding the familiar white building, trying to stay out of sight to remain as undetected as possible.

“No one’s outside,” Alex whispered. “That’s good.”

“What’s good is we’re going through the kitchen to start.” Abram added. “Kitchen staff obviously isn’t here to catch us.”

All too suddenly, they were quickly coming up on the back door that led to the kitchen that they remembered a little too well.

“Mercer.”

He stepped up at Abram’s request, standing next to the keypad and retrieving the badge from his pocket and quickly swiped it against the keypad’s readable crevice. The keypad flashed green and the door clicked like a mechanical metronome. Abram pulled on the door as it opened with newfound ease.

“We’re in.”

Stealth intact, the friends entered the building as they found themselves back inside of the asylum and inside the kitchen.

“What first?” Bridge pondered out loud.

“Check on loose tiles, the closet, anything.” Abram said, finding a doorway that led to a pantry. “It’s got to be here somewhere.”

He explored the pantry while the rest of them started to venture towards the other parts of the huge steel studded and sleek kitchen, including the closet, but they all met back in the hull of the room with no leads as to where Arclan’s underground passage resided.

“You’re sure it would be here?” Mercer said, looking to Abram.

“Maybe it’s in a different part of the asylum.” Alex commented.

“If it would be anywhere, this would make the most sense. I’m positive.” he shook his head.

Abram went back over to the closet, just curious to see for him-self. When he opened up the door to the closet, all he saw was a ge-neric box of a room. Jackets were hung up alongside apron’s and a box of gloves sat on a shelf above the clothes rod.

“We already checked. Nothing under the rug either.” Alex told him as Abram’s eyes fell on an ugly zebra shaded tribal rug on the floor of the closet.

Still not convinced, he traced his hands along the wall, hunting for anything when his hands caught on the wall and it slid a little out of the way. On the edge of uncovering something, Abram kept slid-ing his hands over until he felt a latch, flipping it fiercely as the entire left side of the wall disappeared on its hidden slideable track against the wall to reveal a concrete set of steps that went down into the darkness, allowing them to wonder where it led.

“Seriously?” Bridge expelled a large breath.

“Remember what Sumner said?” Abram scoffed.

Alex answered with a breezy smirk. “Arclan Shadows wasn’t into subtlety.”

Suddenly, there was a shuffling coming from somewhere outside the kitchen.

“Someone’s coming.” Mercer whispered hurriedly as everyone gathered into the closet.

The opaque noises turned into voices rather rapidly. “I’m telling you, I’ve looked everywhere for my badge. I can’t find wherever lost it.”

“It must be somewhere, Athena.” A second voice countered. “We’ll check the kitchen again.”

Abram cursed under his breath. “Toss the badge and close the closet door.”

“What? But—”

“Mercer, now!”

He threw the badge, letting it skid across the kitchen floor to re-side just under an oven, barely visible but still able to be seen. In a swift blur of movement, Mercer shut the closet door and they all stood in the closet and waited.

Athena and her co-worker entered the kitchen, keeping their voices just loud enough to where they could make out the nurses’ dialogue.

“I just…wait! Lavender, I found it!” Their shoes squeaked loudly against the linoleum as Athena found her badge. “I can’t believe it was here the whole time.”

“It must have fallen off when you came to get Mr. Marin’s din-ner.” Lavender said. “Come on, we should go get ready to leave.”

Laughing, Athena agreed as they left the kitchen, their voices fad-ing into the distance until the only thing they could hear was the sound of their own breathing inside of the closet.

“Too close.” Bridge breathed out roughly.

“We should hurry.” Mercer gestured toward the gaping opening in the wall and the stairs that descended into the unknown. “Let’s finish this.”

With Abram leading them and Mercer bringing up the back of the line, they started down the stairs with slow and steady steps.

“This is insane,” Alex blurted out. “Which I realize is redundant seeing as we’re in an insane asylum but—”

“Alex, enough. We’re doing this so either get in line or get out.”

“Abe—”

“I think,” Bridge intervened, trying to swirl the tension, his tone a fork in the former flames’ romantic spaghetti. “He means maybe it’s time to call Dagger. Which may not be a bad idea.”

“We have no proof yet. Just a secret passage that we don’t know what it contains.” Mercer explained.

Once they finished descending the stairs, Abram pulled out his phone and turned on his flashlight function, which his friends were quick to mimic.

“Why would Sumner’s grandfather even want this built? Why would he want to connect Shadows Manor and the asylum?”

“Who knows, to escape work, to escape home. It doesn’t matter why it’s here, only that it is.” Abram answered Bridge’s question.

“Why does anyone with the last name Shadows do anything?” Alex added, a question that all of them had heard in their heads ever since Sumner had entered their lives. “Wait, look up there.”

Alex took to leading the group as he shined his phone’s flashlight on their problem of the night. The light illuminated the start of a passageway, which split into two, leading down two presumably dif-ferent locations.

“This just keeps getting better.” Bridge huffed.

“Damn it.” Abram swore. “There’s no guarantee that we have enough time to search both paths before our parents find out or something worse.”

“We can if we split up.” Mercer suggested.

“That’s what people say in horror films right before the antago-nist chops them up into tiny minuscule pieces and hides all evidence under the floorboards.” Alex panicked.

“But shouldn’t we know where both of them go? We need to know absolutely everything that’s going on down here.”

“Bridge—”

“And we’ll take the left passage. Sound good?”

Mercer grabbed Bridge’s hand and dragged him down the left passage before Abram or Alex could tell them how bad of an idea it was to split up, leaving them to look at each other awkwardly.

After a deep chasm of a breath, Alex cracked his knuckles, a clear sign that he was a bundle of nerves.

“We should get a move on.”

Alex started down the right passage, Abram sighed and started af-ter him.

“Alex, I’m sorry about earlier.” he called up to him.

“We don’t have to talk about it, Abram.”

“Since when did you start calling me Abram?”

“Since you decided to so eloquently reiterate that we aren’t Lex and Abe anymore. We’re just Abram and Alex now, remember?”

Abram stopped walking as Alex went on, continuing down the passage while Abram took in his words and dwelled on their subtext.

Back over in the left passage, Bridge was still laughing at how fast Mercer had leapt at the opportunity to make Abram and Alex inves-tigate one of the passages together.

“Totally hilarious, Merce. I love you for that.”

Mercer laughed too as they made their way down the passage.

“They’re gonna have to face each other eventually. What better way than during a crisis?”

“This is weird, right? Two passages? We never expected some-thing like this.”

“I guess Arclan Shadows had more secrets than we thought.”

Their walk was cut short when their lights fell on a door that completely ended the passage up ahead.

“Well this is something.” Bridge said as they came up to the blood red painted door.

They stood outside the door, gauging each other’s expressions be-fore Mercer cleared his throat.

“Bridge, there’s no way of knowing what’s behind this door. Sumner could be two feet from us.”

“The only way we’ll know is if we open it.” Bridge nodded. “So let’s just rip this band-aid off.”

“And hope we won’t need any band-aids after we open this door.” Mercer sighed. “Alright, on three.”

Bridge grabbed the doorknob confidently. “One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

He threw the door open, both of them holding up their phones like they were weapons, the door banging against something within the room as they stood still. For a moment, they both expected for Sumner to come running out at them. But nothing happened beside the door creaking back towards them.

Mercer gave him a nod and Bridge slowly shined his light inside as he and Mercer entered what looked like a small room. As they shed their lights, they found a light switch and quickly flipped it. The room was like a lone bedroom and bathroom combination, complete with a twin-sized mattress lying on the floor and desk in the corner, the tiny bathroom tucked into the other side of the room.

“Holy…” Bridge couldn’t finish his sentence as they took in the room.

The bed was messy, no frame or even a set of bed springs to support it. Empty soda cans and junk food wrappers and bags lined the floor, trash gathering on the carpet. Clothes were piling up in the open closet, the rod and clothes hangers going unused. And the desk was rife with papers scattered all over its surface.

Both of them stepped further into the room, trying to take in all that assaulted them. Mercer went over to the pile of food sitting in a corner on top of a small table, seeing that there was a bag of food from a nearby burger joint. Searching the bag, Mercer found the re-ceipt pinned to the side and scoffed, uneasy at its contents.

“This food is recent,” Mercer gawked. “This was bought today.”

Bridge would have responded, but he was scouring the desk rid-dled with papers for answers, but only starting skimming the begin-ning of what looked to be a mass of psychosis induced babble.

“Mercer,” Bridge caught his friends’ blue eyes with his own brown ones. “I think we found where Sumner’s been hiding.”

Just then, interrupting Mercer’s response, was a loud ear-splitting scream from somewhere within their location.

“Was that a girl’s scream?”

Mercer ignored Bridge’s inquiry as he felt fear consuming his every emotion. “Kirby.”

He went running out of the room without regarding Bridge in the slightest. Thinking quickly, Bridge grabbed the closest papers on the desk that his fingertips could clutch as he pulled out his phone and quickly dialed Dagger’s number, running out of the room and down the hall after Mercer.

“Mercer!” Bridge heard the screamer bellow loudly again.

He heard Dagger answer the phone as he ran as fast as his legs would carry him.

“This is Detective Dagger.”

“It’s Bridge Mathison,” he heaved while he ran sloppily, his foot-steps echoing around him. “Get to Arclan. We’ve found where Sumner’s been hiding.”

 

In the right passage, Abram and Alex were finally seeing something besides just slate flooring.

“Hey, I found something.”

Abram ran up to see what Alex was seeing, which happened to be a bike leaning against a wall.

“Really?” he exhausted sarcastically.

“Do you remember how far it was from Shadows Manor to Ar-clan?”

Abram nodded. “About half a mile.”

“Hop on, I’ll steer.”

“And if this doesn’t end at Shadows Manor and Sumner is wait-ing to kill us at the end?”

“We have to know where this ends. This path is all at a downhill slant. It’ll take three minutes, tops.”

Inhaling harshly, Abram watched as Alex mounted the bike and prepared to head down the path. All too reluctantly given their cur-rent state of communication, he climbed onto the back of the bicy-cle, barely sitting on the bike seat as Alex kicked off and started off toward their hopeful destination of Shadows Manor.

The downhill slope helped them achieve great time. They were beginning to think the path would keep going on when they saw that the path was not only coming to an end but also narrowing.

“Alex, stop.”

The brakes screeched as they came to a stop, Abram jumping off the bicycle and went towards the end of the passage. Alex followed his actions, throwing the bike down roughly. Shining their phones precisely, the light uncovered what looked like a small door.

“This is it.” Abram pronounced, looking back at Alex. “If this door opens up into Shadows Manor, we were right.”

“Do you think his parents have been helping him?”

Abram nodded. “Maybe. Opening this door might answer that.”

Alex joined Abram at the door, taking in a deep breath. “Open it.”

In a blur of action, Abram pulled at the door, but when it opened they were met with visible darkness.

“What the hell?”

Alex’s eyes widened as a thought struck him like a bolt of light-ning. “The refrigerator.”

“What?”

“Help me push.”

He pressed against the mass, straining with the object as he tried to move it. Abram shoved hard against the obstruction, struggling to get it out of the way. Finally, they managed to move it just enough to see into the room, moonlight coming in from a nearby window.

“Oh God.” Abram gasped.

They stepped into the room through the small opening they made, realizing that their earlier suspicions were correct.

“Sumner’s room.”

There was a faint but unmistakable sound of someone screaming somewhere down the passage. They shared a quick glance of horror before they left Shadows Manor and went back into the under-ground passage.

Alex gestured toward their earlier transportation. “What about the bike? The uphill slant is going to take longer.”

“Leave it, come on!”

Abram started running, with Alex close behind him, running to an unknown scream caused by an unknown source.

 

Kirby was lurking around outside Arclan Asylum, mere minutes be-fore her mother was supposed to get off work. She hadn’t originally intended to sneak over to the asylum, but she couldn’t just go to sleep while her friends possibly faced Sumner.

She was lurking near the front entrance of the building, hoping she could catch the door as someone was leaving. But when she saw them coming from around the back of the building, Kirby had to hide in the bushes to keep from being seen. She watched as her mother and her co-workers got into their respective vehicles.

Kirby swore into the wind. She had no idea how she was going to get into the building now. She was ready to pull out her phone and try and call Mercer when she saw someone standing in the trees watching the employees vacate the parking lot.

Squinting, she tried to make out the figure as the last person left the parking lot, but the shadows of the night draped them perfectly from her vision. As the last person’s car lights faded from view, the dark shadow strode to the back of the building. Against all the warn-ing signs and alarms ringing inside of her head, Kirby got out of the bushes and started to follow them beyond all the logic that told her to run back home.

Keeping close to the building, Kirby kept her distance from the all-black attired stranger. Once they got to the back door that the employees had left out of, she watched as the anonymous figure swiped a badge and flung open the back door wide, practically run-ning into the asylum with heavy interest.

She ran up to the door just as it closed, crushing her hand slight-ly. Wincing, Kirby pried open the door and quickly got inside. She realized that she was in the kitchen of the asylum, seeing a couple wayward overnight nurses wandering in the halls, luckily not paying attention to her standing in the middle of the kitchen.

Snapping back to the situation, Kirby saw that the kitchen closet was wide open. Investigating, she took in the view of a secret stair-case embedded behind a wall. Racing down the stairs, she had no idea where she was going to end up once she reached the end of the stairs. But when her feet found the bottom of the stairs, all she saw was black. Fumbling with her phone, she turned on her phone’s flashlight and screamed a hefty shrill of a yell when she illuminated the space around her and the dark figure was suddenly staring into her eyes.

It was Sumner.

“Well if it isn’t my paparazzo,” he smiled at her devilishly.

She was speechless. Even more speechless when Sumner grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her hard against the cement wall, pain shooting up and down her back like a sputtering firework of agony. A scream elicited from her, operating on fear alone.

“You weren’t supposed to be here.” he growled, coming over to her quickly.

“Mercer!” she screamed as loud as she could, getting to her feet only to have Sumner push her back down harshly.

“You’re ruining everything!”

Kirby heard footsteps as Sumner lifted his leg, assumingly to kick her when he was tackled and sent skidding down on the ground, see-ing that Sumner was taken down by Mercer.

Bridge came running over to her immediately. “Are you okay?” he offered her a hand, one she took eagerly as she gave him a nod.

Mercer and Sumner wrestled on the floor as they exchanged punches. But then Sumner kicked Mercer off of him, far enough to allow him to reveal a small pistol that he had been concealing inside of his jacket.

“No!” Kirby shrieked, moving to Mercer but Bridge held on to her tight enough so she wouldn’t be threatening her life even more.

Slowly, Mercer got to his feet as he stared down at Sumner and his shiny gun, the barrel staring him down like dark dangerous eyes filled with lead and lacerations.

“Sumner—”

“Shut up!”

They all remained silent as sirens sounded from outside Arclan. The police wails drowned out the sound of Abram and Alex running from their passage as they saw a gun wielding Sumner, who was clearly startled by their sudden appearance.

“This isn’t how tonight was supposed to go!” Sumner shouted, pointing the gun at each of them.

“Come to finish us off?” Abram berated.

“Shut up.”

“Sumner, don’t—” Alex started but was cut off by another howl from Sumner.

“Shut up!”

“You psycho son of a bitch, put the gun do—”

Abram would have finished his squall, but he was restricted by the sound of a gunshot, one of them falling to the floor unexpectedly with a loud deafening thud.

10

ECHOES

 

 

Abram sat down at the table nervous, his mind still foggy from all the meds but otherwise, he was in pretty good spirits. He had to be. Today was the day he was finally seeing his friends again.

“When are they gonna be here?” he asked eagerly, looking up at the nurse standing by.

He gave him a small smile, placing a comforting hand on Abram’s shoulder. “They’ll be here any minute, just be patient.”

“I haven’t seen them in a month. I don’t have any patience left.” Abram heaved. “It’s been too long for us. Ever since—” he stopped, trying to calm his wits. “I just need to see them.”

An elevator ding brought Abram out of his head, looking over and seeing his friends being escorted to him from down the hall.

“It’s them.” he beamed, smiling at his nurse, who just grinned along with him.

An orderly brought his friends over to him, standing in front of him, giving Abram weak smiles. “We’ll give you some time.” the or-derly said, nodding at the nurse so they could talk freely amongst themselves.

Abram grinned vibrantly at them while the three of them took a seat across the table from him, gawking at their steady and unreada-ble faces. Mercer gave him a feeble, very uneven smile. Bridge shift-ed in place, looking as if he were totally weirded out to be back in-side the asylum. And Lissa had cut her hair, rocking a pixie cut that had Abram smiling even more.

“I love your hair,” he told her with a pearly white grin, stirring a small copycat leer from her, running a hand over her fresh do. “You look great.” He gave them all a wide regard. “You all do.”

Mercer coughed. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” Abram reassured him. “I just want to know what’s going on with you guys, what I’m missing out there beyond those doors.”

“They’re letting us do our schoolwork at home until school ends.” Bridge shrugged.

“Harley and I broke up.” Mercer prompted.

“You broke up with Harley?” Lissa jumped in. “She didn’t tell me about it.”

“Because it’s not a big deal. We agreed that now just isn’t the time for us, especially with us being out of school.”

“Did you at least get to sleep with her before you broke up?”

“Bridge.”

“You’re too cute to still be a virgin, Merce. Harley’s cute. You’re cute. What’s the big deal?”

“Just because you give it up to anyone with a male identity and a pulse doesn’t mean I have to. I mean you even slept with Thomas Fletcher.”

“You slept with Thomas Fletcher? That super genius freshman in our trigonometry class?” Lissa said, stunned, letting out a couple chuckles slip out of her mouth.

“He has a really nice ass.” Bridge shrugged again.

“You’re out of control.”

“I’m seventeen and I’m charming.” Bridge scoffed at Mercer. “I can’t help it that everyone wants to cross my bridge.”

“Ew.” Lissa laughed.

They all turned to hysterics as they began to laugh collectively, even Abram. But when his friends’ laughter began to fade among them, Abram’s became boisterous and louder, becoming a fit of blind hilarity that caused his friends to exchange phobia knotted glances.

“Abe?” Lissa tried to grasp his attention, but his guffawing con-tinued.

“It’s just so funny.” he managed to say between laughing breaths that ultimately seemed to be settling. “You guys are dealing with ro-mantic woes and school work at home and I’m trying to find the right balance of meds.” His cackling resumed, not helping to cease the fear filled facades of his friends. “The contrast in our lives now are hilarious!” he snickered. “We all get attacked and you guys are fine while I’m basically in psycho prison.”

“Abe!” Lissa cried.

“Sumner’s been here!” His laughter died on his simmering tongue, his eyes turning dark and full of panic, brimmed by the circles that told them that sleep was something he couldn’t quite discover here inside the asylum. “He’s here, hiding in the walls, waiting and watching.” Tears cascaded forth from his blue irises. “He visits my room.”

The paranoia between them grew like weeds. Bridge spoke first. “You’ve seen Sumner?”

Abram nodded emphatically, much to their chagrin.

“Abe, that’s not possible.” Mercer shook his head. “Sumner’s been missing since that night. The police say he skipped town after what happened at the cemetery.”

“No.” Abram said defiantly. “He’s here, taunting me.” Fresh tears replaced the drying ones on his cheeks. “I think he wants to finish me off.”

“Sumner’s not here.” Bridge stated sternly.

“Yes, he’s in the walls, he’s here!” Abram slammed his fists on the table with incredible force, scaring them.

Lissa reached out and grabbed his hands, forcing them open so he could feel her palms pressed against his. Abram started sobbing, closing his eyes and shaking his head lazily. She looked to her friends on either side of her quickly.

“Give us a couple minutes?”

They gave her a small nod, standing up from the table and giving Abram an endearing gaze despite him looking at the back of his eye-lids.

“It was good to see you, Abe.” Mercer grinned shyly.

Bridge mirrored his actions. “We’ll see you soon.”

The pair left the table then, heading over to where the orderly stood so they could wait on Lissa.

She tightly squeezed Abram’s hands. “You are going to get through this. My mom says they have some amazing doctors here that can…that will help you move on from what you’re going through.”

“But Sumner’s here.” Abram shook his head, eyes still sealed shut.

“Look at me.” He kept shaking his head, not listening to her. “Abram Michael St. James, look at me.” The uttering of his full name startled him enough for him to focus on her, remaining still and star-ing into her hazel eyes. “We survived Sumner and we will survive his aftermath. You’ll get better and everything will go back to normal.”

“Lissa,” his voice wobbled with raw emotion. “I’m scared.”

“And that’s okay.” she grinned. “You’re okay.”

He sniffled. “Do you still love me, Liss? Can you even love someone who’s psychotic and dependent on pills to feel normal?”

“Abe, I’ll always love you. This doesn’t change that.”

Abram blinked and suddenly the scene changed, his eyes expand-ing. The person in front of him began to shapeshift into another form. Lissa slowly faded into Alex, but still smiling at him, still holding his hands while they sat at a table in Arclan Asylum. It was as if there was a sputtering glitch in the framework of reality, a digital distortion of what was and wasn’t real.

“This isn’t right.” Abram said, suddenly hyperaware. “This already happened.”

All sound left his ears as Alex started talking, Abram looking around while the scene of Arclan blurred around him until they were underneath it, in the underground passage, still sitting at the table across from Alex as he talked silently.

“Alex?” he tried to scream, but it was as if everything around him was on mute.

Sumner appeared from behind Alex, running towards them in sickening slow motion and away from the right sided passage. He tried to yell for Alex to move out of the way, but it was useless. Sumner pointed a gun in their direction, squeezing the trigger in ag-onizing slowed movement.

The sound around him resumed as the deafening sound of a gunshot shook Abram awake from the memory turned nightmare, causing him to quake about his bed violently.

He sat upright in his bed, taking him a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t back in Arclan or underneath it. Seeing familiar settings around him, Abram knew everything was okay and he was safe, letting out an exasperating sigh of relief. He was okay, even if sweat pooled on his forehead, slick as his now nauseous stomach.

A flash of movement set him on edge until he realized that it was just the TV at the foot of the bed and not a former friend turned at-tempted murderer. He cursed under his breath, tired of feeling on edge. Needing to relax, Abram grabbed the remote hiding between the sheets and turned up the volume on a rerun of some syndicated TV show to just watch and chill out to when the show was hindered by the start of the twelve o’clock noon news.

“In top local news, Hendrick Shadows, father of teenage fugitive Sumner Shadows, issued a statement this morning, just two weeks after his son’s reappearance at his mental institution, Arclan Asylum, that resulted in one injury. Mr. Shadows had this to say.”

The cameras switched to showing Hendrick just outside of Ar-clan Asylum in front of a huge crowd of reporters and other by-standers.

“Contrary to society’s opinion of my wife and I, we have never helped my son in staying around Armor Falls, nor did we have prior knowledge of his whereabouts before the incident here two weeks ago. I would like the public to know that I am,” he paused to cough, keeping his tone steady and determined to keep his composure. “I am considering closing Arclan Asylum given the circumstances. During this difficult time, I urge the police to lift their presence around my establishment for the safety and well-being of my patients. Thank you for your time.” Photographers snapped pictures feverishly while reporters tried to get Hendrick to answer some more questions, but he went off camera and left the front lawn of Arclan Asylum.

“In response to Mr. Shadows’ declaration,” The news anchor popped up on screen again. “Detective Alston Dagger, the lead inves-tigator in the ever changing and all-consuming Sumner Shadows case, released his own statement concerning the details of Mr. Shad-ows’ press conference.”

The scene on the screen changed until it showed Detective Dag-ger holding his own press release at the exterior of Armor Falls Po-lice Station. Even more people were attending this declaration than that of held by the head of the Shadows family.

“We will be diminishing police presence at Arclan Asylum for the health of its staff and patients but this investigation is far from fin-ished. Sumner Shadows has gotten away for the very last time and I will not stop hunting him down until he’s rotting inside a jail cell. Thank you.”

Dagger walked away with a few officers as reporters beckoned to have a word with him while he swatted away questions and cameras that pleaded for his undivided attention.

Abram disgruntledly grabbed the TV remote and turned it off, suddenly needing a reprieve from the circumstances that enveloped him, retreating back under the blankets of his bed and deciding to go back to sleep instead of dealing with the shambles that made up his life.

 

“You’re a lucky guy, Mercer.”

He nodded at his doctor. His parents stood to the right of him and Kirby sat in a chair beside him, all while he laid in a hospital bed.

“He’s going to be okay?”

Dr. Meredith Torres smiled at Kirby and nodded. “Luckily when he was shot, it was far away from the clavicle to not shatter it com-pletely. It was fractured, but his initial surgery fixed that and it’s heal-ing well so,” she looked at Mercer. “You’re good.”

“No more surgery?” Clay Meadows asked, consumed with con-cern.

“No.” Dr. Torres grinned, eyeing Mercer then. “You’ll be sore for sure and you’ll have to use a sling for a little while, but you’ll be fine.” She suddenly looked uncomfortable as she eyed Mercer and then Kirby before looking back at her patient. “That also means no sexual activity until it’s completely healed.”

Both teens heard his parents’ breathing hitch to new heights at that statement. Blushing slightly, Mercer looked to Kirby, who just smiled awkwardly, then focusing on his doctor once again.

“That’s not going to be a problem, doctor.”

“Oh, thank God.” Clay said with a heavy sigh of relief.

“Thank you, Dr. Torres.” Araec Meadows nodded. “And thank you for personally doing the check-up. We know you must be very busy, but it means a lot to see a familiar face from the night of the shooting.”

Dr. Torres beamed. “Of course. Plus, I like to check up on my own handiwork.” she winked, causing them all to smile briefly.

“Thanks for everything, Dr. Torres.” Mercer gave her a final grin.

“Someone will be by shortly to wrap up your paperwork.”

Kirby’s phone bleated as Dr. Torres disappeared behind doctor-only permitted doors. She glanced at the screen and Mercer watched her eyes cloud over, retreating from recognition.

“I have to take this.” Kirby gave his hand a squeeze. “I’ll be right back.”

As she headed down the hall, his father patted his arm. “Is Bridge coming over soon?”

“He better be,” Araec scoffed. “I’ve already got too much maple balsamic pork tenderloin marinating at the house.”

Mercer chuckled. “I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him today, but I’ll text him.” he paused to look over and see Kirby talking harshly on the phone, looking very adamant and angry. Adverting his attention back to his parents, Mercer smiled up at them. “I can’t thank you enough for letting me and Kirby hang out and even more for letting Bridge come and move into the guest room. It really means a lot to him, and to me.”

The couple smiled. “The only reason we didn’t take him in soon-er was because of the lockdown.”

Clay jumped in. “We’re still really scared about everything, espe-cially with Sumner still at large. But keeping you from your friends caused you all to seek Sumner out on your own and we don’t want that to happen again.”

“Trust me,” Mercer interjected, a leaning lie turning his cheek. “A bullet is a hell of a lesson.”

“Since we got rid of the lockdown earlier this week, we don’t see why Bridge can’t at least be staying in a more familiar setting.” Clay concluded.

“It’s just awful about his parents, still missing. We just want him to be as comfortable as possible.”

Returning from the hallway, Kirby joined them once again, only to grab her purse and give Mercer an apologetic look.

“I have to go, I totally forgot about some homework.” She gave his parents a warm smile. “But I’m still invited to dinner, right?”

Araec laughed, as if he were slightly annoyed at such a ludicrous question. “Of course.”

Not convinced by her reasoning, Mercer looked up at her inquis-itively. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

“Absolutely.” Kirby assured him, nodding emphatically. “I’ll see you in a couple hours?”

Clay’s cell phone rang then as Kirby smiled at them again, Clay waving goodbye as he stepped away to take the call.

“Alright,” Mercer told her. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Leaving them, Kirby faded from their collective view, Mercer turning to his dad with a raised eyebrow.

“Did that seem off to you?”

“What makes you think that?” Araec countered.

Mercer shrugged. “Just seemed a little weird, I guess.”

Ending his call, Clay returned to his family. When Mercer saw the bubbling confusion spreading across his father’s face, he quickly prompted a question.

“Dad?”

“Mercer, is there anything you’d like to tell us?”

“Clay?” Araec looked just as confused as Mercer did. “What’s go-ing on?”

“That was Nova.” Clay went on, aligning emphasis on his son. “Abram’s not answering his phone and she just wanted to know if he was planning on staying at our house, like he had the past few days.”

“What?” Mercer exclaimed wildly.

“What’s going on, Mercer?”

“Are you trying to cover for Abram or something?”

“No. No, I have no idea what’s going on.” he shook his head. “It’s not like I’m hiding him in the basement. Abe’s been MIA since the lockdown was lifted. None of us have really heard from him except for a few one worded texts.”

“Then where the hell is he?”

 

Bridge finished putting another box into Willa’s car, glad that they were almost done packing up the room he had been using at Paige’s house. He was at a loss for words over the fact that Mercer’s dads were letting him move in with them. Paige was nice enough, but no longer living in the house of the woman whose fiancé he had once slept with was a massive consolation to him.

“This is the last one.” Bridge turned to see Willa carrying a box full of his bedding, which he hustled to take from her.

“Thanks for helping me pack and taking me over to Mercer’s.” Bridge gathered as he placed the last box in the backseat of her car.

“No problem.” Willa smiled brightly.

Paige came out of the house then, looking at Bridge warmly as she walked over to them.

“You got everything?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Bridge said, moving to close Willa’s trunk. He walked back over to her, standing awkwardly and feeling very out of place as he looked her over. “Thanks again for letting me stay here. I really do appreciate it.”

“It was nothing,” Paige waved him off. “It was nice having some-one else in the house. Although, I have to say, it’ll be nice to see more of Ben around here.” she chuckled.

Bridge laughed uncomfortably. “Right. Um, anyway, thanks again.”

“I’ll see you around school, Bridge. Have fun at Mercer’s!”

He just smiled and waved goodbye to her as she retreated back inside of her house.

“Why was that awkward?” Willa said, scrunching up her face.

“No reason.”

Bridge tried his best to shrug it off and hide his residual jealousy. He knew that he had no right to be. Paige was Ben’s fiancé, not him. And he knew that he was the one who had, rightfully, ended things between them. But ever since the night at Arclan Asylum two weeks ago, all Bridge wanted was to have Ben reassure him that it would all calm down and it would all be okay. And he really needed to find a way to shake that feeling.

“Hey.”

Willa and Bridge turned around, seeing Alex’s smiling face while he approached them.

“Saw you from the house. Got everything?”

“That should be everything, yeah.”

A sleek black BMW pulled up right in front of the grand Llewel-lyn house, the three of them looking to see a giggling Faith get out of Straton’s car. She waved goodbye to him as Bridge looked at Alex.

“They got back together?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Willa grinned. “I’m gonna go talk to her for a sec then we’ll go, okay?” She squeezed Bridge’s shoulder before she ran over to Faith and talked to her on the Llewellyn’s front porch.

Alex turned back to face Bridge. “Yeah, Faith and Straton made up pretty quickly, and even quicker once our parents eliminated the lockdown.” he laughed.

“Gross.”

Laughing together, Alex just shook his head. “Exactly.” A glaze formed a grainy film over Alex’s eyes all too quickly. “Not to sour this conversation, but Mercer mentioned that you hadn’t looked at those papers you found in the secret room at Arclan yet.”

Bridge affirmed as much. “After everything that happened with Mercer, I sort of forgot about them and pushed them from my mind.” he sighed. “I guess the time to address them has arrived.”

“Do you even know where you packed them?”

“I didn’t,” he said, shaking his head. “I stashed them in my back-pack so I wouldn’t lose them.”

Going into Willa’s car, Bridge reached into the backseat and pulled out his plaid backpack. He unzipped it, searching through it for the papers they had found.

“What the hell?”

Alex’s brow arched as Bridge went from leisurely searching through his bag to wildly ripping things out of it in a panic.

“Bridge—”

“They’re gone!”

For a split second, staring at each other was all they could think of to do. Bridge picked up his discarded items, Alex slowly overcoming his silence.

“Are you sure you put them in there?”

“Alex, I’m sure. I put it right here in my front pocket. This thing never leaves my side at school. There’s no way someone got to it there.”

“So, what, someone broke into Paige’s house and took it before we could even see what they said?”

“Someone’s been messing with us about the subject of murder, is breaking and entering so farfetched of an idea for them to commit?”

Alex’s phone cut off a response from him, chiming loudly.

“It’s a text from Mercer.”

Putting their theft threat on pause for a second, Bridge’s alert lev-el attempted to overtake his senses. “What does it say?”

His nose crinkled and collapsed on his face. “Abram’s been telling his parents that he’s been sleeping over at Mercer’s, but apparently he hasn’t been.”

“What?”

“Mercer wants to know if I’ve heard from him.”

“Have you?” Bridge questioned.

“Ever since the lockdown ended, he’s been so distant. You ha-ven’t heard from him?” Alex dialed Abram’s number and quickly pressed the phone to his ear.

Shaking his head, Bridge’s worry spiked evermore. “Not since then, no. I just thought he was still dealing, like he told us that first day back after what happened at Arclan.”

“Shit,” Alex huffed, hanging up. “Straight to voicemail.”

“What do we do?”

In a fiercely fast manner, a thought struck Alex so hard he feared it might affect his balance. Luckily, he kept himself grounded with reassurance. “You get moved in, tell Mercer what’s going on with the papers.”

“Should we tell Willa about Abe?”

Alex shook his head. “Not yet. Just get her and head to Mercer’s.”

“What about you?”

“I’m going to find Abram.” Alex bobbed his head phonetically, totally convinced that he’d prove victorious. “I think I might know where he is.”

 

Abram’s screams woke him up from a very unnerving attempt to try and solidify some sleep. He’d been dreaming of that night beneath Arclan, when Sumner had shown up and shot Mercer and, once again, had gotten away before the police could apprehend him. All of his nightmares had been distorted memories of his life ever since then. And it wasn’t aiding his already fragile psyche.

When he saw his surroundings, he had to remind himself once again that he was okay and the images in his head were only fleeting memories and he was safe from them. He looked over at the small alarm clock sitting on the small shelf made into the bed’s headboard, rolling his eyes at the fact that it was half past five. Fleeing out of bed, Abram made his way to the bathroom and splashed some water on his face. Bags were forming under his eyes from lack of sleep, or so he saw when he looked into the mirror. He hadn’t shaved since before the Arclan attack, making him pretty scruffy in the facial hair department.

Abram sighed. He so easily wanted to be fine, to be able to bounce back and be a normal teenager dealing with normal teenager things. But ever since the Arclan incident, Abram felt himself slipping into old mindsets, old feelings that he hadn’t felt since he was in and out of mental institutions.

The lockdown being demolished had started his feelings of an impending downward spiral, a simple omission of routine screwing with his sense of normalcy. The fear of losing himself entirely in-creased more and more as the days continued to accumulate, causing him to withdraw himself from his friends and family.

A series of short but loud rapping on the door stirred Abram from his thoughts, provoking him to head to the door in nothing but some loose basketball shorts. And when he opened the door to his family RV, he was surprised and speechless when he saw Alex just outside of the vehicle.

“I figured you might be out here.”

Abram sighed. “You can go home, Alex. I’m fine. And isn’t cur-few starting soon?”

“Can I come in?”

Instead of answering, Abram just moved aside and retrieved a t-shirt from the bedroom and quickly pulled it on while Alex closed the RV door, stepping inside and witnessing the disarray that Abram had been dealing with as the messy living quarters pulsed around him.

“Abe…”

“You want something to drink?” Abram asked, opening the fridge and grabbing a water for himself.

“No,” Alex deflected, taking a seat on the couch next to the kitch-en. “I’d rather you tell me why you’ve been staying here and lying to your parents about it.”

Slamming the refrigerator door with a huff, he took his water and sat down next to Alex on the couch.

“I’m fine, Alex. Really.”

“You’re not fine.” he sighed. “This, staying here, is not fine. Needing space from your family and friends is not fine. Locking yourself away is not fine because you’re not fine!”

“But you are!” Abram stood in frustration, turning away from Alex for a second. “All of you are. Mercer got shot and he’s fine. He doesn’t have a problem getting back to his life and completely leav-ing it in the past when the past is the only thing that I can’t seem to let go of, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try.”

Seeing the hurt in Abram’s eyes was crushing Alex to his very core. He looked utterly unnerved and distraught. Abram suddenly returned to his seat beside Alex, grabbing his hands abruptly.

“How come I’m the only one of us that has totally turned into this feeble shell of emotion? Why am I the only one so deeply broken by this?” Alex felt his heart lunge even harder when Abram began to cry. “Why do I feel as out of control as I did before I went to Arclan?”

“Listen to me,” Alex grabbed Abram by the shoulders. “Whatever we have to do to get your control back, we’ll do it. Needing more help is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll help you with whatever you need until you feel like you’re back in the driver’s seat again, okay? All of us will, so don’t shut us out when you need us most.”

“I’m terrified, Alex.” Abram went on, his sobs flowing freely. “I can’t sleep without being brought back to the horrors we’ve had to face. I’m so scared of losing myself again.”

Alex shook his head. “You won’t. I won’t let that happen.”

Pulling him into a tight embrace, Alex held onto Abram as he felt the sobs falling into the top of his shoulder while he shook. He con-soled him the way he used to do, with one hand rubbing his back soothingly and one hand playing with his hair, sliding his fingers along the back of his head.

Slowly, Abram’s heavy crying began to subside and his shaking started to let up. Alex stopped his comforting as Abram pulled back from the embrace. Just when Alex was going to ask him if getting it all out was making him feel better, he felt Abram kissing him rough-ly and quickly, much quicker than Alex could even comprehend. He pushed him away as fast as he could, once again putting his hands on Abram’s shoulders until he was looking into his deep cornflower blue eyes that glistened like light shooting off of stained glass from his previous tears.

“Abe, we can’t.”

“Please,” he pleaded. “The only thing that ever made sense in my life was you.” Abram half laughed, half sniffled. “It’s always been you.”

“But you said that—”

Abram silenced him with another soft kiss, fogging up whatever rational thing Alex was about to say prior to his ex-boyfriend’s lips begging for his own. They broke away again, this time coming from Abram. He gazed deep into Alex’s hazel irises and let one single tear cascade down his cheek.

“Please,” Abram said again. “Please.”

Throwing all thought out of the window, Alex crashed his lips on Abram’s, their small kiss exploding with intense flares as it grew like a healthy raging fire. Abram stood up, causing Alex to do so as well so their kiss could keep both of them fully ablaze. As Abram stopped their kiss to rip Alex’s shirt off of his newly male toned body, he led them towards the bedroom while Alex attacked Abram’s neck with ravage eagerness, eliciting a moan from the latter. The two of them fell back onto the bed and ripped the rest of their clothes off, forgetting any and all obstacles in their way and responding with a wildfire of raw need as they disappeared underneath the sheets of the bedspread, the RV fading from them as they fell into a void where it was just the two of them, leaving everything else for just a moment of serenity, one they both needed more than they realized.

 

11

DEEP IN DARKNESS WE BEGIN

 

 

The early morning rays stirred Alex awake, ending the magical dream that he had been having. He’d dreamt that he had made up with Abram and they had gotten carried away with their making up. But when he finally willed himself to open his eyes, he quickly remembered that his dream had manifested itself in reality, especially when he saw a naked, slumbering Abram to his right.

Alex’s eyes grew, peeking underneath the sheets, seeing that they were both definitely nude. He looked around and took in the interior of the St. James RV. He scoffed, the fact that the dream had actually happened finally setting in.

Moving in his sleep, Abram began to wake up, fluttering his eyes until Alex came into clear view, the cloudiness of his eyes rapidly fading with each furthering blink.

“Hey.” Abram said, his voice groggy.

“Hey.” Smiling awkwardly, Alex bobbed his head, his mind still filled with static over last night’s excursion. “Abe—”

“Before you start some speech,” Abram said, sitting up and twist-ing to face Alex. “I don’t regret what we did. We could sit here and analyze everything in excruciating detail, but right now… I just,” he sighed, staring Alex down. “You were there for me last night, some-thing I’ll never be able to repay you for. Right now, let’s just…I don’t regret last night, okay? Can we just leave it at that for now?”

A little taken aback by Abram’s admission, Alex gave a vague smile and nodded slightly at him.

“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”

A sonorous series of knocks on the RV door snapped them both to attention.

“Oh shit.” Abram scoffed.

“You expecting someone?” Alex whispered back. “My parents think I’m at Mercer’s.”

“Abram, wake up!” the voice from outside bellowed.

“Who is that?”

“Get dressed.” Abram answered him, flying off the bed and re-trieving his own previously discarded clothes. Alex scurried to grab his various items as a now fully dressed Abram opened up the door and saw a fully alert Ben outside the RV.

“Ben, I’m up.” He told him, gesturing wildly. “Go wait in the car.”

“Because of this car out here?” Ben grinned. “Who’s the lucky girl?”

Alex appeared behind Abram, seeing Ben and automatically flar-ing his nostrils, clearly caught off guard.

“Oh.” Ben cleared his throat.

“You told him where you’ve been that past couple days?”

“I had to.” Abram sighed. “He’s my chauffeur, remember?”

“Right.” Alex groaned, his phone blaring over and over. “Faith is blowing up my phone for school, I have to go.”

“Uh, we’ll meet at school?” Abram whispered.

Alex just nodded, moving past him, and then Ben, to get to his car, quickly getting in and driving away from Westbrooke Parking Lot.

“You and Alex?” Ben tried his best to hide his inquisitive tone, but Abram shook his head, quickly dodging it.

“It’s none of your business. I’ll grab my stuff and we can not talk about it all the way to school.”

Abram, quickly as he could, grabbed his backpack and locked the RV, hoping that Ben could keep his mouth shut long enough for him to enjoy a quiet car ride to school.

 

“No, I haven’t told Kirby yet.”

Kirby froze in place at the top of the stairs, overhearing her mother’s conversation on the phone. Creeping slowly and silently down the stairs, Kirby kept quiet as she made her way to the living room, listening to her mother continue her electronic exchange.

“Soon, I will.” Kirby rounded the stairs, inching closer and closer to the living room, quietly passing through the foyer. “I know. I’ll ask her.”

“Ask me what?”

Athena watched her daughter appear in the living room, arms crossed over her chest in anticipation. She went to answer her as she hung up her phone call, but Kirby’s eyes flexed as her mouth opened.

“Does this have anything to do with Priscilla calling me yester-day?”

Her mom looked surprised by her disclosure. “Yes, that was her actually. She mentioned trying to call you, but you wouldn’t listen to her.”

“Why should I? Moving to Armor Falls was a fresh start, Mom. What happened in Maine…part of starting over here is forgetting about Priscilla and Nathan.”

“She just thought you would—”

“No.” Kirby said harshly. “I listened to her offer and I politely de-clined her invitation. End of story.” Grabbing her purse from the nearby love seat, Kirby headed toward the door, her concentration a carafe of hot coals. “We better get going or both of us will be late. I’ll be in the car.”

As the front door blundered to a close, Kirby wished, just for a fleeting moment, that she wasn’t harboring a guilty conscience when it came to the past by deflecting Athena’s persistence.

 

Mercer made his way to an outside table on the patio just beyond the cafeteria. He sank his teeth into a savory steak biscuit when Bridge sat down next to him, sipping on a venti caramel latte, mewling at the taste.

“God bless your dads for getting us coffee before we left.”

He laughed a bit, chewing his food masterfully. “I take it you’re enjoying your stay at Chez Meadows so far.”

“Are you kidding? I love your dads. Just the food alone.” Bridge kissed his fingers in faux satisfaction. “Utterly fantastic. Last night was better than any gourmet.”

Finishing the rest of his food, Mercer begged for a swig of his own coffee to wash it down with, swiftly enjoying his coffee bean infused beverage.

“Speaking of last night, did Kirby seem a little…distracted to you?”

Bridge thought about it for a second. “Maybe a little. Is every-thing alright between you two?”

“Yeah. She got this phone call yesterday and she’s been trying to avoid the subject ever since.”

“Maybe it’s family stuff,” Bridge shrugged. “She’ll tell you when she’s ready, Merce.”

“I’m just worried about her.” He said, scratching underneath his new sling to relieve the itch on his arm.

Bridge gestured with a nod toward his sling. “How’s that going?”

“It’s annoying as hell.” Mercer groaned. “But I’ll only have to wear it for like a week or so.”

“There you guys are.”

They both followed the voice and saw Abram, with Alex close behind him. They found their seats together in front of them.

“Where have you been?” Bridge looked at Abram. “Why did you tell your parents—”

“Let’s,” Alex jumped in, answering for him with a small look from Abram that told him it was okay to do so. “Not hound him with questions, okay?”

“It’s fine, Alex.” Abram decided, giving Alex a wobbly smile be-fore locking eyes with his other two friends. “I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. Arclan just brought up some old stuff and I’ve been stay-ing at the RV to just sort said stuff out. I’ll tell you more about it lat-er.”

“We get it, Abe. We were just worried about you.” Mercer stated. “Seems to be the running theme anymore.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Bridge shook his head, telling them to forget it silent-ly. “Continue.”

“I didn’t want my parents to freak out or anything so I said I was staying at your house. And I’m sorry if I got you in trouble with your dads.”

Mercer offered Abram his second steak biscuit, which was eager-ly taken by the latter. “It’s cool. You might want to talk to your par-ents though.”

“I will.”

Bridge awkwardly cleared his throat. “Have you guys thought about the papers Mercer and I found?”

“Bridge—”

“No, Mercer, this is serious.” He kept his voice at a low murmur as students went by them to enter the cafeteria. “Someone broke into Paige’s house and took those papers. Sumner obviously wrote some-thing important on them or else they wouldn’t have taken them.”

“And Sumner is probably the one who took them back.” Alex de-termined.

“I doubt it.” Bridge shook his head, disagreeing instantly. “Sumner practically left Mercer for dead at Arclan two weeks ago. Even he’s not stupid enough to risk showing his face around town again to break into some stranger’s place.”

Abram let out an exasperated sigh. “So we’re back to this anony-mous person messing with us.” He flexed his fingers against each other, cracking his knuckles.

“Maybe you’re right.” Mercer said, sad to be agreeing with the situation of an unknown assailant toying with them like they were this freak’s personal playthings. “They figured if we got something of Sumner’s, we might finally know something about what in the hell is going on here.”

“Why would this person care if we found something that would help us understand Sumner’s motives?” Alex asked.

“Because this person, whoever they are, wants us to tell the police about what all happened before Sumner attacked us that night.” Bridge explained, looking away discouragingly. “About what I did.”

“Stop blaming yourself, B.” Abram diverged. “We were all there that night. You reacted the way any of us would have.”

“The point is, is that we need to figure out who the hell is doing this to us and how much they know about that night.” Bridge nod-ded.

The bell rang, signifying a five-minute warning to get to class. They all rustled about their seats, standing up from the table.

“Let’s meet after calc to bounce some ideas off each other about what to do on the way to lunch.” Bridge suggested.

“Good idea.” Alex nodded, slinging his backpack over his shoul-der, pushing down his shirt a little.

“Alex,” Mercer tried to hide his smile, but was failing miserably. “Are those hickies on your neck?”

“What?” Alex reacted immediately, pulling at his shirt with un-steady fingers.

“Oh my god.” Bridge chuckled, vibrating his vocal chords. “Abe has them too.”

Abram put on his book bag and cleared his throat nervously. “I have to get to physics.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna be late for home ec.”

Practically running from Bridge and Mercer, they faded from them as fast as their legs could carry them to get them away from their gawking and questions about the halo of faux lesions on their necks.

“Are they seriously hooking up?” Bridge giggled.

“Could just be a coincidence, I guess.”

“Come on, Merce. They’re exes, and Alex just confessed his love for Abram a couple weeks ago.”

“Go to class, B.” he cackled. “I’ll see you later.”

“Later.”

Laughter settling, he grabbed his stuff to head to class when he spotted Ben out on the quad just below the outside patio, laughing as he walked hand in hand with Paige. Not needing another reminder of Ben, Bridge stormed off to class, trying his damnedest to try and move on from further thoughts of Ben Magnus and his perky and perfect fiancé.

 

“Dude, wake up.”

Straton stirred in his sleep, barely registering the words from the disembodied voice close to him. He tried his best to will his dream back to the forefront of his mind, the one where he was free of police ridicule and being happy with Faith, but was quickly shaken awake, blinking through blurry eyes to see a familiar face standing over his bed and disrupting his slumber.

“Hugo?” His roommates’ red hair and green eyes quickly came in-to focus. “What’s going on?”

Straton sat up in his bed, adjusting to the lighting that Hugo must have flipped on, finally taking in his dorm room and the panic that was rapidly taking over his best friends’ normally tamed and handsome features.

“Hugo…”

“You know what, I’m sorry I bothered you. Isn’t Faith leaving her second class early to meet you for lunch?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Straton threw off his blankets and grabbed a t-shirt to throw on, standing up next to Hugo. “Now tell me what’s wrong.”

Hugo paced in front of him, not helping Straton with restraining his impending freak out episode. Sweat beaded down the side of his chiseled face. His eyes wore heavy dark bags, signs that he hadn’t slept all night, worrying about whatever it was that he felt the need to break to Straton before he even woke up for the day.

“I remembered something.” Hugo said, shaking before his best friend. “I guess I blocked it out because I was drunk and thought I had imagined everything on my way home that night.”

“What night?”

“The night that Sumner visited you, here at Heartmyth.”

Straton stared blankly ahead at Hugo, feeling unnerved beyond comprehension. “You were at a party the night Sumner showed up here.”

“I was.” Hugo nodded. “But on my way back to the dorm, I saw him. I saw Sumner.”

Straton scoffed. “You saw Sumner? You’re sure?”

“Well, no, I wasn’t at first. But now I’m positive that it was him I saw that night, just outside our building.”

His eyebrows flexing their inquiring muscles, Straton felt his na-chos from his midnight binge last night finding their way back up, his whole body feeling uneasy. “Hugo, you have to be one hundred percent sure. I mean, you were sauced out of your mind. I still re-member the severe degree of your hangover the morning after.”

“That doesn’t mean that what I saw wasn’t real, Stray.” Hugo huffed, Straton ignoring the nickname that Hugo knew he hated. “And I saw him call someone.” he blinked away tears of terror. “I’m afraid to go to the police after what they put you through.”

“You don’t need to worry about that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re not telling them anything. No one has to know about this, you hear me? No one can ever find out you saw him that night.” Straton pulled Hugo into a caring embrace as Hugo struggled to keep his wits.

Just outside Hugo and Straton’s dorm room door, a horrified Faith leaned next to the closed door, a hand over her mouth in shock at Hugo’s possibly huge revelation.

 

Faith rushed back to Westbrooke High at record speed, quickly can-celling on her lunch with Straton, all while replaying in her mind what she had heard to keep every word fresh on her zealous tongue.

Running from the parking lot to her brother’s calculus class, she flung open the back door of the building and heard the end of sec-ond period bell blare. Faith ran through the math and history build-ing, sifting through the surge of students to get to the front of the building and almost ran right into her brother.

“Jesus, Faith.” Alex laughed. “You scared the hell out of me. Didn’t you ditch the rest of second period to have a lunch date with Straton?”

“Alex.” Faith breathed in large gulps, saying his name like it was the remedy to an age old hex. “Where are your friends?”

“They went with Abe to his locker before we went to lunch. I hung back to use the bathroom.” He gave her arched eyebrows for the surge of fear rolling over her eyes. “What’s going on?”

“It’s Hugo, Straton’s roommate.” Faith gulped again. “The night that Sumner went to Straton for help. Hugo saw him.”

“He what?”

“Hugo saw Sumner after he left the dorm. There’s a couple other details, but Alex, he saw him. Hugo saw Sumner.” she explained, struggling to not scream. “And he saw him call someone.”

Abram and his friends made their way to his locker, looking around for Alex as they came up on it.

“What the hell is taking Alex so long?” he wondered aloud.

“Who knows,” Bridge said, smiling. “Although I’d say you would, judging by those hickies.”

Abram sighed deeply. “Please don’t. I’m already gonna have to dodge questions from Willa when I ask to borrow some concealer.”

“I don’t think she has your shade.” Mercer said, still laughing at Bridge’s sentence.

“She does.” Abram added. “For emergencies like at the pep rally last year. Just please, no more hickie or Alex related berating.”

“But you were together last night, right?”

As he put in his locker combination, Abram thought about Bridge’s question and decided to just give him something so he and Mercer would shut up and quit playing The Hardy Boys when it came to him and Alex.

“Yes.”

Mercer and Bridge shared a grin of Cheshire Cat proportions as Abram got his locker open, something falling out and landing on the dirt ridden floor.

“What’s that?”

Ignoring the question, Abram picked up the folded piece of paper and opened it, his eyes widening as he read it.

“Shit.”

Bridge ripped the paper out of his hand, holding it out so Mercer could read it with him, their hearts pumping faster after they read each word. Alex came sprinting up to them then, about to blurt out what he had learned, only stopped by all of their somber looks.

“What?” he said.

Handing him the note, Bridge looked him over to see his reac-tion while Abram and Mercer turned to do the same, waiting for Alex to read the ominous message. A river of anxiety, Alex felt his veins tense up as he read over the handwritten letter twice to get the full effect of its meaning.

 

Missing those Paiges? Come find them. 1661 Karder Cove.

 

Alex let out a gasp as he finished rereading the letter, though he didn’t exactly recognize the address at first.

“Oh god.” he sighed.

“Two weeks with nothing and we’re back to this psycho ruining our lives.” Bridge said begrudgingly. “I’m so over this.”

“That’s not the worst part.” Abram said in a paranoid tone.

“Abe, this is the worst part.” Alex exclaimed, trying to keep his voice between them and not the entire school. “This person stole those papers. Look how they spelled pages. They definitely broke into Paige’s house while Bridge was staying there.”

Abram looked at them all widely, disbelief reveling against his pores. “None of you remember that address?”

“Should we?” Mercer inquired.

He scoffed, wishing so hard that what he was about to say wasn’t the truth. “1661 Karder Cove is the address for Shadows Manor.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12

THE SIREN SONG

 

 

Taking a break from cooking the breakfast he was preparing, Mercer tried calling Kirby again. He had invited his friends over for breakfast before school to discuss the anonymous message that was left in Abram’s locker yesterday, but before that happened, Mercer wanted to get a hold of her. They’d had plans to see a movie yesterday, but he never heard from her, not even after several texts and calls. It was starting to really worry him, especially since he could really feel himself falling for Kirby.

“I think you’re burning the omelets.”

Bridge entered the kitchen then, gesturing toward the stove where Mercer’s omelets were getting a little crispier than he had originally planned.

“Damn.” Dropping his phone on the counter, Mercer ran to the stove, tending to the omelets before they were inedible. As he did so, he felt Bridge’s scrutinizing burning a chasm into his back.

“Are you okay?” Bridge questioned, taking a seat on a stool at the kitchen island. “You seemed pretty bummed during our musical marathon last night. You didn’t even sing ‘Light My Candle’ with me.” he chuckled lightly.

“It’s Kirby.” Mercer sighed.

“She still hasn’t texted you back after blowing you off?”

He shook his head. “Something’s wrong. I can tell she’s not tell-ing me something, something that’s really bothering her.”

Bridge shrugged. “I told you, she’ll tell you when she’s ready, Merce. Especially if it’s something big, which, judging by the lack of contact, I’d say it is.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Mercer scoffed, finishing some more omelets and setting them on a plate before taking a tray of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. “My dads said the same thing before they left this morn-ing.”

A knock on the door echoed through the kitchen as Bridge grabbed the remote for the small kitchen TV.

“Come in.” Mercer yelled to the front of the house.

“I’m gonna turn on GMA. Halsey is on this morning.” Bridge said, already flipping through the channels to find his program.

“You and Halsey.” Mercer shook his head as the front door opened.

“Hey, I love her. She’s my queen.”

“Who’s your queen?”

Alex and Abram appeared from the front of the house, carrying a tray of Starbucks and setting it on the kitchen island’s marble coun-ter top.

“Halsey’s on Good Morning America and Bridge is fangirling.” Mercer smiled.

“I love her.” Alex grinned, gesturing to the miscellaneous coffee. “We got everyone’s favorite.”

Bridge cooed when he grabbed his iced caramel macchiato and took a small sip. “Now you are my queens.” They both laughed, and Bridge couldn’t help but notice the genuine smile on Abram’s face. “You feeling better?”

Abram grabbed his own white mocha, nodding as Mercer set out a couple plates to put the food on, laying down a breakfast buffet consisting of omelets, cinnamon rolls, and bacon on the kitchen island while Mercer and Alex grabbed their own coffees. “Yeah, I’m okay.” he agreed. “I think just talking about how I was feeling after Arclan helped a lot.”

“You can always rely on us to get where you’re coming from.” Mercer mentioned, mewling into his mint chocolate chip latte. “Eve-rybody dig in.”

They all got their own portions of the delectable food, gnawing on the food and sipping on their sugared up coffee drinks. But the nice morning moment didn’t last long, since they were there for business.

“So,” Bridge started between biting into a cinnamon roll that had the most icing on it. “When are we crashing Shadows Manor?”

“And why would we do that?” Mercer asked, finishing his omelet.

“Because we need to know what those papers have on them.” Bridge displayed, gesturing wildly with his cinnamon roll. “Whoever stole them took them to Shadows Manor, so let’s go get them back.”

“It sounds like a trap to me.” Alex added. “Why give it back to us at all? And why take it to Shadows Manor for us to retrieve?”

“It’s a game,” Abram said, not fully realizing it until he voiced so, taking one last bite of bacon. “Whoever took the papers is in control of their own self-conjured game, and they want us to play along.”

“For what reason though? They want us to tell the police about everything that happened that night. Why give us back something to deter us from that?”

“Mercer, this person just wants to play with us so they know we’ll do what they want, just like they want us to start confessing.” Abram explained. “The papers probably aren’t even there.”

“Then why go?” Alex said, sipping into his entirely black coffee save that for the added single packet of sugar.

“We need those papers. Who cares why this psycho is offering them back.” Bridge stated, slurping his coffee with no abandon.

“What if they can’t figure it out?” Alex prompted. “Maybe Sumner put something down only we’d know or understand and they need us to solve it. This person likes being in the know, obviously, so maybe they need our help to achieve that with the papers.”

Bridge nodded eagerly. “That actually makes sense.”

The TV changed from the morning talk show to an important news bulletin, splitting their attention to the television.

“We interrupt your programming for a special news report. After a violent outburst, a patient has escaped from Arclan Asylum.”

“Jesus.” Bridge said.

“The incident left three patients injured,” the newscaster went on. “Police suspect that Sumner Shadows could be connected to how the patient was able to escape.”

“I’d hate to be Dagger right now.” Mercer admitted.

“Sumner wouldn’t risk his own safety to break someone out.” Abram said. “The media has no clue what really goes on with any-thing their reporting.”

“Maybe the person Sumner called broke them out as a distraction for him.”

Everyone looked away from the TV and latched on to Alex’s fea-tures as they gawked at him while he just sat there with his arms crossed over his chest.

“What?”

“What are you talking about ‘the person he called’?” Abram asked him.

“Hugo, remember?”

“Who the hell is Hugo?” Bridge croaked.

“I didn’t tell you guys about Hugo?”

“Are you talking about Hugo Krcmaric? As in Harley’s older brother?” Mercer sparked.

“I don’t know, maybe.” Alex shook his head. “I started telling you guys yesterday, but then we got the letter in Abe’s locker. I must have forgotten.”

“So what’s going on?”

“Faith went to have lunch with Straton yesterday and overheard his roommate telling him that he saw Sumner the night he tried to recruit Straton for help. And he was calling someone when Hugo saw him.”

“Who?”

“No clue.”

Bridge scoffed. “That’s all you have?”

“That’s all I know!” Alex lamented. “Short of talking to Hugo himself.”

Mercer raised his shoulders as a gesture of complacency. “Not a terrible idea.”

“I’ll see what I can do, I suppose.”

Bridge groaned as he glanced at his phone. “We should head to school.” Shoveling in a couple more pieces of bacon into his mouth, he groaned in satisfaction. “Thanks for breakfast, Merce.”

He smiled. “Nothing like talking about crazy people trying to de-stroy our lives to work up an appetite.”

“See you at school. We gotta go swing by my house and get Faith.” Alex established.

As Abram and Alex left, Mercer grabbed his phone, which didn’t have any new texts from Kirby, and slipped it into his pocket with a sigh.

Bridge clapped Mercer’s shoulder. “Talk to her at school since it’s bothering you so much.”

“I will.” he nodded, sighing again as he grabbed his car keys. “I’m just afraid of what might happen once I do.”

 

Kirby walked into Westbrooke High that morning, unable to leave the thready cocoon of her mind, the turbulent thoughts leaving her unable to hone on much else. Ever since Priscilla had contacted her, Kirby had been practically comatose, her actions condemned to au-topilot. She’d been avoiding Faith and Willa and their constant is-everything-alrights and are-you-okays. Even Mercer had made his way onto her Must Avoid list. Priscilla’s call had reminded her what week this was for her, and the reminder was all too heavy, a moun-tain of jagged baggage on her lungs. Especially when the one person who understood how she was feeling was unable to reach her.

She quietly made her way to her locker, void of all thought, dig-ging through its contents to attempt to locate her Spanish textbook. All she wanted was to disappear until she forgot this week, until the residual pain from her past ceased to resonate at the surface of her psyche.

“Kirby?”

Hearing his soothing voice, Kirby couldn’t resist the urge to turn to Mercer, only to see his forlorn features, darkening her already cloudy thoughts. Still, Kirby forced a vibrant smile to her face, hop-ing it was at least quasi-convincing.

“Mercer, hi.” She continued her stern command to look anything but devastated.

“Kirby, talk to me.” He neared her, closing what already little dis-tance remained between them, making her yearn for his touch, though she knew she’d fall apart in seconds if he consoled her. “Something is going on. I’m not mad at the silence, I’m just worried. I know we never said anything about us being official and dating, but you can tell me. I’m right here. Just let me stay.”

“I can’t.” she breathed in hitched parts, tears swarming around her eyes, breaking her vow of faux positivity. “This, us…I just can’t right now.”

She threw her locker door, allowing it to slam shut and rattle its neighboring lockers. She went to leave, but Mercer hustled to stand in front of her, obscuring her path.

“Just like that? Kirby, whatever it is, you know I’ve endured my share of dark times and—”

“Mercer,” Kirby grabbed his free hand that wasn’t covered up by his sling, concentrating on keeping it together, looking into his dreamy ocean eyes. “I’m not okay. I’ve been okay until now because this investigation has been a blessing of a distraction and you’ve been so amazing to me,” she laughed lightly. “I mean, look at you.” She nodded toward his sling. “You saved my life at Arclan.” Her somber sensations returned. “But this week, and definitely today, I’m not okay. I don’t want to drag you into this.”

“Kirby—”

“Remember when you wanted to keep me away from everything involving Sumner? It’s just like that except now the roles are re-versed.”

“And just like then, I’m already in this.” Mercer squeezed her hand tightly. “Don’t push me away when…” he sighed. “When I’m already falling for you.”

“Don’t,” she sniffled, pulling her hand away from him. “I’m sorry, Mercer. I just can’t.”

Mercer went to stop her, but Kirby rolled his attempts away by storming down the hall, patiently waiting for a break from her tur-moil, all while tears broke their bubble and spilled from her eyes like faucets turned to full capacity, for Mercer and for her happiness.

 

They had almost forgotten what the inside of an interrogation room looked like until Dagger had called them to come down after school. They had spent the rest of the school day trying to console a stoic and silent Mercer to keep his mind off of Kirby. And it wasn’t help-ing to be sitting back in front of Detective Alston Dagger again.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the news about Arclan.” Dagger started.

“This is about that patient that escaped?” Alex sighed collectively for them.

“Yes and no. It’s about Sumner.”

“Isn’t it always?” Abram sneered, avoiding Dagger’s gaze.

“We believe that the patient may have escaped using the under-ground tunnels that Sumner was hiding in.” Dagger explained. “Just one of my many theories.”

“But the only way out is through Shadows Manor.” Bridge added.

“That we know of.” he countered.

“You think there’s another way out of either passage?”

Dagger shrugged at Abram’s unconvinced tone. “Or another way out entirely. We don’t know. Until we do though, Arclan Asylum and Shadows Manor are under close police supervision.” He ignored the glare between the friends at that statement. “But it got me won-dering what else I don’t know about Sumner.”

Scoffing, Mercer adjusted in his chair. “You want more Greatest Hits of Sumner Shadows.”

His friends looked totally out of their comfort zones, but Dagger pressed on. “Yes. I know this is tough, with the Arclan attack fresh on your minds and all but—”

“Spring break.” Alex huffed.

Slightly off put by the outburst, Dagger honed in on him. “What?”

“Spring break, freshman year, just a couple months after he faked us out at Arclan.” Alex went on, looking at his friends. “Remember?”

“Unfortunately.” Bridge snorted.

“Great,” Dagger pulled a nearby chair up to the table, sitting down eagerly. “Tell me about spring break.”

 

Mercer was really enjoying Sumner’s parentless pool party, mainly be-cause he was making out with a pretty girl for the first time in his life. It was spring break and things between his friends and Sumner had been pretty great since the Arclan incident. But the fact that a girl had taken interest in him was even more of a miracle than Sumner behaving himself the past couple of months.

The beautiful redhead with him pulled away from their kiss, immersing Mercer back into his surroundings, which consisted of Sumner’s huge back-yard behind Shadows Manor. Mercer was sitting in a gazebo overseeing the pool area, which contained pretty much the entire school splashing in the water and hanging out by the perimeter of the pool.

You okay?” Mercer asked her, hoping his kissing wasn’t as awful as he had imagined it would be.

Yeah,” she smiled wide. “I just still can’t believe that I’m kissing one of the most popular boys in school.”

He laughed. “I’m not, really. People just think that because I’m friends with Sumner.”

And Sumner is Westbrooke High,” she grinned, looking a little shy all of the sudden. “But he’s not the one I’ve been interested in. Would you maybe want to go out sometime?”

Mercer, a little surprised, laughed lightly at his luck. “I’d really like that, Harley.”

Harley pulled him into another kiss as they started making out again, only for a strong hand on his shoulder to pull him away from her instantly.

Whoa, slow down there, stud.” Mercer looked up to see Sumner stand-ing over them, a grin from ear to ear on his face.

Oh, hi, Sumner.” Harley blushed, pushing her long scarlet strands away from her face.

Nice seeing you with my boy.” Sumner beamed. “Having fun? Besides the obvious.”

She just nodded enthusiastically as Sumner put a hand on Mercer’s shoulder.

Mind if I borrow him? I promise I’ll bring him back in one piece so you two can continue…getting along.”

Sure.”

I’ll talk to you later?” Mercer smiled at her, just as Sumner steered him away from Harley and they walked down closer to the pool.

Damn, Merce.” Sumner cackled, shoving him playfully. “Only an hour into the party and you’re already heading to second base.”

Not at all. Harley’s cool. I think we might actually hang out.”

Take it from me, play the field before you settle on one sport.”

Mercer just shook his head, Sumner leading them to a small gathering just by the diving board of the pool where Bridge, Lissa, and Abram were all waiting on them while a small crowd hung around.

Heard you were interrupted.” Bridge laughed.

Mercer chuckled back. “More or less.”

Sumner and Mercer took their seats around their friends and other var-ious bystanders that looked eager to be included, even if it just meant over-looking the event.

The masses want a round of truth or dare.” Sumner told them. “And I never disappoint when I’m hosting a party.” he purred with another smile.

Who goes first?” Lissa wondered.

Obviously, I do.” Sumner scoffed, as if she should have known without asking. “Bridge, truth or dare?”

Dare.” Bridge said, not wanting to wuss out on the first round.

I dare you and Mercer to make out.”

Really?” Bridge sighed, not impressed by Sumner’s selection.

We’re like brothers.” Mercer agreed.

You had no problem making out with Harley.” Sumner countered.

Mercer isn’t even my type.”

Wait, why not?”

Jesus. You’re attractive, Merce, but I’m into fellow gay guys, not open minded straight friends of mine.”

Just do it.” A frustrated Sumner bellowed. “You said dare, so do it.”

Fine.” They both exclaimed, scooting closer to each other to accurately perform the dare.

Just be glad I’m even agreeing to this, considering you have fresh female on your tongue.”

Bite me.” Mercer grinned.

You’d like it too much.”

Mercer grabbed Bridge by the shirt until his lips collided against his own, both of them opening their mouths to make out, earning them hoots and hollers from everyone around. After a fair amount of time, they pulled away from each other, laughing at each other while people clapped for them loudly.

More tongue, Merce.” Bridge laughed sarcastically.

You actually could use more tongue.” Mercer admitted with another laugh.

Now I’m gonna dare myself.” Sumner said, diverting attention back to himself, like usual. “Who dares me to jump into the pool from the roof?”

The crowd erupted with roars of approval, but his friends shared glares of worry.

Sumner, don’t.” Abram pleaded.

Quit worrying, I’ll be fine. I’ve done it before.”

It’s too dangerous.” Lissa stood up, using her bubbly hazel irises to try and reason with him.

Will you guys quit being such party poopers? I’ll be fine.” Sumner groaned. “Living safe is boring and I refuse to not excite myself. Okay? Good. I’m jumping.”

He left them then, jumping on a patio table to access the lowest part of Shadows Manor’s roof, which was the dining room, and quickly jumped on-to the roof.

This is bad.” Bridge sighed.

As if any of us can convince Sumner to not do something.” Abram told them, not that he had to, all of them nodding as Sumner got to a higher point on the roof overlooking the pool.

Who wants me to jump?” Sumner yelled, instantly met with wild howls of esteem.

Without warning or asking for a countdown from the crowd, Sumner ran off the roof and dove into the pool, prompting more cheers from every-one gathering around the pool for the spectacle as Sumner penetrated the water with ease. Even his friends reluctantly joined in on the clapping, their expressions turning from grim to glee while the crowd continued their jeer-ing for their unrequited king.

But then too much time passed as Sumner remained underwater, a scary amount of time, and the applause started to subside.

You don’t think he hit his head, do you?” Lissa croaked with concern.

Sumner!” Abram yelled from above as the bubbles dissipated and Sumner’s form was finally visible.

He wasn’t moving.

A girl screamed so loud it caused several people to jump, chaos breaking out across the grounds of Shadows Manor. People started running around frantically, fleeing in every direction imaginable for fear of being connected to what was happening.

Sumner!” Lissa cried, tears coming to her effortlessly as she tried her best to keep it together.

Abram jumped into the pool without hesitation, diving in to retrieve Sumner from the water. He struggled to get to his friends once he got to Sumner, finding it difficult to carry Sumner while also trying to get himself to the edge of the pool. Bridge and Mercer helped pull Sumner out of the wa-ter, Abram lifting him up so they could get him out of the pool and onto the concrete next to them.

Should we call his parents?” Lissa stated, already shaking from the sight of Sumner.

No.” Mercer and Bridge said together.

He needs CPR!” Lissa screamed.

I can do it.” Abram told them, looking down at Sumner’s motionless chest, suddenly really afraid. “I, uh, I think.”

Pinch the nose, tilt the head.” Bridge nodded, urgency in his voice.

Right.” Abram did as Bridge directed, taking a deep breath before lean-ing down to give Sumner the breath of life.

But when Abram pursued his mouth, Sumner started laughing.

I like you Abe, but I don’t like you enough to let you kiss me.” Sumner laughed. “I’ve been training myself for months for this.”

Are you fucking kidding me?” Mercer exclaimed, throwing his hands up in mock defeat. “I’m done.”

Mercer—”

Fuck you, Sumner.” As Sumner got to his feet, Mercer shoved him, caus-ing him to stumble back towards the pool, almost falling back in. “This is not some fun game that we’re just going to forgive you for.” Mercer scoffed. “You’re crazy. You’re in need of psychological evaluation.”

After what you did at Arclan, you said you wouldn’t do something like that again.” Bridge’s voice was getting more and more irate with every new syllable. “You fucking promised, Sumner!”

I gave all of Westbrooke High the party of their lives tonight! When we show up at school next week, we’ll be the subject of every whisper and the reason behind every stare! We’ll rule that school even more than we already do.” Sumner smiled mischievously.

And you’ll be enjoying that alone, because this is it for me.” Mercer said sternly. “I’m done with you.”

Cue the dramatics.” Sumner scoffed.

Walking off heatedly, Mercer left them standing there with Sumner, heading inside to grab his stuff and go home. Bridge stepped up to Sumner, his nostrils wide with rage. “When are you going to learn that being the topic of small town gossip isn’t the most important thing in the world?”

I don’t want to be a small town subject,” Sumner seethed back. “I want to be a national headline.”

This just in: Psycho teenager locked up, friends don’t give a shit. There’s your damn headline.” Bridge abandoned them for the house.

You’re such an asshole!” Lissa screeched, running up to him and throw-ing a mean right hook, hitting Sumner square in the jaw, exerting just enough force to knock him back into the pool, his limbs splashing about in the water.

When Sumner got his bearings back, wiping the water away from his eyes as he stood up, he saw anger and finality in Abram and Lissa’s eyes. “So that’s it? Everyone’s done with me after a couple of jokes?”

Yeah,” Abram said. “That’s it.”

They started toward Shadows Manor, further enraging Sumner beyond the point of reason.

You’ll be nothing without me!”

A king is nothing without a kingdom,” Lissa told him. “Your reign is over, your majesty.”

Lissa spoke with as much venom as a deadly black mamba, grabbing Abram’s hand as they retreated from Sumner as he screamed shrieks of ma-levolence, making them glad they got out of the world of Sumner Shadows while they still had their lives.

 

Bridge finished telling the story, Dagger scoffing while his friends looked on with strained faces at the retelling of the memory.

“So, you stopped being friends with Sumner after he went back on his word for the Arclan thing?”

Together, they confirmed his question by shaking their heads positively. Dagger got up from his chair, pacing in front of them while the story rang in his ears like church bells that weren’t quite as pleasing as they once were.

“Why would he do that again, after it obviously upset you so much?”

“He’s crazy, detective.” Abram scratched at his developing beard. “We don’t know why he did anything more than you do.”

“We didn’t talk to him for the rest of the school year after that.” Alex explained.

“Why talk to him again at all?”

“He gave a pretty convincing apology.” Bridge said. “He said he went to a doctor and—”

“Detective,” The door flew open as Adelaide Llewellyn strode right in. “Time’s up. I think that’s enough for today anyway.”

Dagger regarded them, taking in their tired expressions and then smiling at Adelaide. “Maybe you’re right.” He turned back to them. “Thanks again for your cooperation today.”

They all got up to go, giving Adelaide a small smile as they left the interrogation room until just Adelaide was left with Dagger.

“Don’t make us regret allowing you to ask our kids about Sumner Shadows.”

“I don’t think they’re helping him, Ade. Really, I don’t. But there’s something they’re not telling me, something that ties this whole case together, I can feel it. I’m hoping these sessions will unlock what that puzzle piece is.”

“Why are you here, Alston?” She let the door close, moving clos-er to him. “Why did you take this case, to torture me?”

“This has nothing to do with you. I took this case because if I crack it, it’ll be the biggest case of my career. And it’s captivating and complex, and you know how much I love a challenge. It’s not about you, Ade.” he sighed. “At least, not just about you.”

Her brow bristled. “Just?”

Dagger grabbed her face and crashed his lips against hers in a sensual kiss. For about a millisecond, Adelaide leaned into the kiss, but she quickly thought better of it and ripped herself away from him. Not wasting any time after they were separated, Adelaide drew her hand back and slapped him as hard as she could.

Grabbing his cheek, he begged with his eyes to talk to her. He knew he had made a mistake, old history enabling new confidence. “Ade, I’m sorry, I—”

“Stay away from me.” she demanded.

Adelaide left the interrogation room with feverish agony, making her way to the lobby of the police station, both angry at Dagger for his romantic pursuits, but also at herself for relaxing into their kiss for even a fraction of a second.

“Mom?”

Her son reaped her attention, seeing him and his friends waiting by the front doors.

“You can go, sweetheart.” she gave him her best smile. “I’ll see you at home in a couple hours.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Alex asked.

“I’m fine. You all go.” She smiled at her son’s friends. “Have a good night, guys.”

“Thanks Mrs. Llewellyn.” Abram smiled.

She left them for other places within the police station, all of them looking to Alex.

“Your mom looks really mad.” Bridge commented. “You don’t think she talked to Dagger, do you?”

“I hope not.” Alex sighed. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah. I’ve had enough of this place.” Bridge agreed.

Together, the friends exited the Armor Falls Police Station and prepared to return to their respective homes when Kirby came up to the steps of the building.

“Mercer,” She breathed like she’d been crying, not to mention she had ditched her usual chic New York fashion for an oversized sweat-er that had Manhattan scrawled across the chest and some black yoga pants, causing a smile in Mercer’s head when he saw that she was still wearing heels. “Your dads told me you were here. Can we talk?”

He gave his friends a nod. “I’ll talk to you guys later.”

“You sure?” Abram said, more than a little worried.

“Yeah.” he assured him. “I’ll be fine.”

Alex and Abram left for Alex’s car, Bridge hanging back for a second.

“I’ll wait in the Jeep.” Not really wanting to, Bridge left them alone to talk.

“Are you okay?” Mercer started, more worried about her than an-gry and upset, like he’d been throughout most of the day.

“No.” she admitted, sniffling. “Mercer, I’m so sorry for earlier. This week is so hard on me, today in particular, and I took that out on you and for that I’m really sorry.”

“Here.” He gestured to a bench just outside of the station, both of them sitting down with affluence.

“I owe you an explanation.”

“Kirby—”

“No, I do. I want to tell you, Mercer. You said earlier that we never made anything official, but I want us to be.” Kirby grabbed the only hand he had free, due to his sling, and squeezed his hand tenderly. “But the last time…this is just so hard for me to talk about. I spend all of my energy blocking it out most days, but this week, it’s impossible for me to do that.” New tears made themselves known on her now red cheeks.

Mercer wrestled his hand free to swipe a tear from her face with his thumb. He found it completely breathtaking that even during her most broken down state, she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever laid eyes on. “You can tell me. Like I said, I’m sort of an expert on dark haunting pasts.”

With a chaste breath, Kirby started her story, albeit with a very shaky voice. “Today is Bryce’s birthday.”

“Okay.” Mercer said, grabbing her hand once more and squeezing it comfortingly. “Is, or was, Bryce your ex?”

“No.” she dismissed, heaving lightly to keep the tears at bay. “As you know, I’m from New Hampshire originally. But I guess when my dad left, my mom moved us to Manhattan to pursue her dream in fashion. I grew up in New York and I loved it there. It was the city where I fell in love with photography, and with my dreams, I knew I could make it happen there. And that kept me happy for a while. But then, I wanted other things. Like love. Or at least the teenage version of what I thought love was.

“When I was fifteen, I started dating this guy, my best friend who was a grade higher than I was, and I fell in love with something besides Manhattan and photography for the first time. Everything was finally perfect. So, we got carried away one night and…” Mercer’s eyes widened as he silently connected the fragments. “Nine months later, Bryce was born.” She paused, willing the tears and sobs to stay away from the surface of her emotions. “I always loved the name, but it just made everything so much harder, attaching a name to what happened.”

“Oh my god, Kirby.” He held her hand even tighter, a tightrope begging to snap. “What happened?”

“I did the only thing I could. I gave him up for adoption.” No longer able to keep them in check, tears flowed from her eyes like a forgotten hose. “To this amazing couple in New Jersey, Priscilla and Nathan. As much as I loved it in Manhattan, knowing he was just across the water ate away at me for months. So we left New York and found a school in Maine that not only had a nursing job there for my mom but one that also accepted me after the school year had started.” Her sobs took over then, shaking her frame to the point that Mercer felt vibrations in his hand as he held hers. “I know I made the right decision, but I can’t help but thinking what if.”

Mercer watched as she cried, breaking his heart in every way im-aginable. She sobbed heavily, holding onto his hand like her life would slip away if she let her fingers do the same. “You miss him.” he said obviously.

She nodded. “It’s so hard knowing there’s a piece of me out there that I don’t know, which is crazy because it doesn’t hurt me that my dad is alive somewhere not giving a shit about me, but—”

“It’s different.” he agreed, earning a small smile from her as she tried to gain control over her violent shudders.

“Yeah.” she sniffled.

“What about the guy, your ex?”

“He stayed in Manhattan, as far as I know. That’s part of what makes this week so hard,” She wiped away the drying tears on her face. “He helped me try and come to terms with everything, but in the end it was just too much. When we moved, his mother thought it would be best for both of us if we lost contact entirely, and my mom agreed on some level because we changed our phone numbers before my first day of school in Maine. The only person who gets this, can’t even find me anymore.”

“I’m so sorry, Kirby. Honestly, I would have never known that you were carrying this around.”

Sniffling again, she just shook her head. “I can’t help but wonder if I was selfish in giving him up or if I really did it for him and not just myself. That phone call the other day? That was Priscilla, asking if I wanted to see him for his birthday. I’m trying so hard to put that part of my life behind me, but I can’t seem to, no matter how hard I push myself.”

“You don’t know if you want to see him?” Mercer asked, a little surprised.

“If I see him, I’ll want him back, regardless of what it would do to my life.” she cried. “I know Priscilla and Nathan are giving him the best chance at an amazing life, the life he deserves, but I wish I could know that he really is happy.”

“Hey,” Mercer stroked her face before returning his hand to her own. “I’m sure he’s happy. You’re talking to the product of adoption right here, remember? I was adopted when I was barely a year old myself. I wouldn’t trade my life with my dads for anything.”

She scoffed. “You’re not just saying that in an attempt to make me feel better?”

He shook his head, eviscerating her question. “Seriously. Sure, I wonder about my birth parents sometimes like any other adopted kid, but my dads chose me, you know? Out of all the kids in the world, they chose me. It makes me feel special everyday knowing that.” He shook her hand, staring into her eyes. “Trust me, he’s not holding a grudge. He’s doing great. Plus, he’s a year old. Eating, sleeping, making messes that other people have to clean up. He’s living the dream.”

Kirby actually laughed with him, clutching his hand and rubbing his knuckles with her fingertips. “There’s so much more that I should tell you, Mercer. About why we left Maine and ended up in Armor Falls.”

“Not right now you don’t.” he stated. “You can tell me when you’re ready. We gotta have something to talk about on our second date as an official couple.”

Smiling again, Kirby tilted her head, the setting sun vibrantly displaying her features in a whole new light that Mercer felt was overwhelming in the best way possible, like he was seeing her for the first time all over again. She clutched his hand, letting her grip wane. “A second date, huh? So you’re not totally freaked out by The Trials and Tribulations of Kirby Wheaton?”

“Are you kidding? If having a complicated life was the deciding factor for dating, I’d never step foot in a restaurant again for the rest of my life.” They both laughed briefly. “And, I like to think that The Trials and Tribulations of Kirby Wheaton would mesh pretty well with The Attempted Murder of Mercer Meadows.”

Grinning again, Kirby leaned in and kissed Mercer softly at first, mainly due to the latter’s shock at the sudden shift in dynamic. But their kiss grew in intensity while still remaining innocent and rela-tively calm, both of them reveling in the other’s touch. When they separated, Mercer looked at her in amazement, chuckling to himself.

“What was that for?”

“We can’t have a second date, especially as a real couple, without first sharing a kiss.”

“True, considering Alex totally ruined my attempt the first time out in the quad.”

“Oh, you were actually going to make a move?” she laughed.

“I’ve still got plenty.” He laughed, placing his hand on her face as he brought her in for another kiss.

Kirby smiled into it, though the kiss was much quicker than the first, as it went from a kiss to a tight hug that he must have known she needed, each holding onto the other with mighty vigor. Because they knew that together, rather than alone, they could conquer any demons that decided to break through the darkest places in their lives, whether they be past, present, or future.

 

Bridge heard a rustling within his room, which was the Meadows’ guest room, stirring him out of slumber. Though a little groggy, he looked frantically around the room for the culprit behind the noise. That’s when he saw that it was Ben, and he was pulling the window in his room up.

“Ben!” he scalded in a rushed whisper, trying to keep as quiet as possible so that he didn’t wake Mercer’s parents, or worse, Mercer himself.

Finally getting the window open, Ben stepped inside and quickly pulled it back down after stepping into Bridge’s bedroom.

“What the hell are you doing here!? We’re done doing…whatever it was, and you come in here, a house that isn’t mine, and you—”

Ben put up a hand, walking over to Bridge until he was right next to the bed, taking a seat on the soft queen sized mattress.

“Ben—”

He shushed him by putting a finger up to his lips, giving him a sly grin, recalling words that Bridge had spoken to him before when they had ended things, deciding to use them against him now. “No more talking.”

He slammed his lips against Bridge’s, the younger man caught off guard by the act. But when Ben started ripping off his shirt, Bridge took the opportunity to rip off his own boxer briefs before throwing Ben down on the bed, climbing on top of him as he resumed their kiss, giving in to all the passion between them and forgetting about pending weddings and things standing in the way of what he wanted and gave in to the pure, animalistic lust that throbbed within his body. As he helped Ben out of the rest of his clothes, Ben begged for more as his tongue invaded Bridge’s mouth, their raw desire fading into the late hour of the night.

 

 

 

 

13

INTO THE DEPTHS

 

 

Wake up, B.”

Bridge was shaken awake from a generously dreamless sleep, not really registering exactly where he was until he opened his eyes and saw Mercer’s wide smile beaming down on him like some sort of pearly spotlight.

“You gotta start getting ready, unless you want to be late.”

Then, like a crescendo of crackling fire-edged memories, last night came back to Bridge in short bursts of light and movement behind his dark eyes. He sat up in his bed with newfound haste, turning to see if Ben was still there, but was met with the usual empty sheets.

“You okay?” Mercer’s question reminded Bridge that he was still there, looming over him with curling eyebrows of curiosity.

“Yeah,” he grunted back. “I just need some coffee.”

Mercer nodded. “Kirby brought some.” With that, his smile grew like a praised puppy. “She’s downstairs in the kitchen.”

“Kirby, huh?” Bridge grinned, stretching his joints in an attempt to seem at ease rather than wondering what in the hell had happened to Ben, not really wanting to think that he left in the middle of the night. “You weren’t lying when you said that you guys made up.” he forced himself to say.

“Nope.” Mercer lit up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. “I’m officially a taken man.”

Bridge laughed, patting Mercer’s hand. “Congrats, Merce.”

“Thanks. Better hit the shower.” Bridge nodded at his request as his best friend walked out of his bedroom and presumably to the kitchen to guzzle down some caffeine with Kirby.

Sighing at the fact that Ben probably had left in the middle of the night, Bridge threw off his beds’ blankets and walked down the hall in his boxers to the bathroom that he shared with Mercer. But when he opened up the door, the bathroom wasn’t exactly empty.

Ben was standing over the toilet, sleepily relieving himself while Bridge ran into the room and closed the door with great emergent reflexes.

“Ben!”

He noticed Bridge lazily, like he was looking at him through a discarded kaleidoscope, flushing the toilet as he finished before lightly rubbing his ass through his hot pink boxer briefs. “You went a little too rough last night. My ass hurts.”

“You have to go!” Bridge bellowed, ignoring Ben’s sore muscle issues and struggling to keep his voice down. “Mercer and Kirby are still here.”

Ben’s eyes grew like pesky weeds in a garden, like the previous fog was lifted and it suddenly hit him what kind of situation they were in. “Damn. Bridge, we have to talk about last night.”

“Yeah, yeah, we will, but right now you need to get the hell out of here.”

“But—”

“Not now. Out the window.”

He looked at the window and then at his body, which was com-pletely devoid of clothing, except for his hot pink boxer briefs. “Please tell me that’s an attempt at early morning humor.”

“I’m not risking you being seen, now go.”

Sighing, Ben lifted the bathroom window as quietly as possible as he went to hop out but turned back to face Bridge one last time, a seductive grin on his face. In a quick blur, Ben grabbed Bridge’s face and pulled him into a fast but intense lust filled kiss that Bridge smiled into, lightly pushing him away.

“Go.” he laughed.

Ben laughed too, hoping none of the neighbors were watching as he climbed out of the bathroom. Bridge chuckled even more as he spectated the hilarious display of a naked Ben running through near-by backyards to avoid being seen by anyone who cared to notice.

 

Alex laughed, a genuine deep laugh that he hadn’t done in a while, as his dad told him a story about some of his co-workers while the two of them strolled through Westbrooke Park before school and work respectfully.

“I’m gonna go run to the bathroom really quick.” Ethan Llewel-lyn said, smiling at his son as he retreated to the parks’ bathroom fa-cilities.

He made his way over to the bridge absentmindedly, smiling once he realized how just two weeks ago, Abram was practically ending their friendship at this very spot. And now, well, Alex wasn’t exactly sure what they were now but for the time being, he wasn’t complaining. And he definitely wasn’t complaining when he saw a shirtless Abram running toward him from the parks’ track, sweat beading around his muscles and riding along the ridges of his abs, a pair of basketball shorts hanging loosely on his hips.

“Hey, Alex.” Abram said, stopping in front of him to take a break from his workout.

“Jesus, Abe.” Alex said, clearly ogling him. “You’re running be-fore school now?”

“Clears my mind.” Abram admitted, wiping some sweat from his eyes. “What are you doing out here so early?”

“My dad and I had breakfast with Mom and Faith at the bistro across the street before Mom went to work and she took Faith to school for some yearbook thing.” He gestured toward the bathrooms. “Dad’s in there.”

“Cool.” he smiled.

“Hey, while you’re here, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Okay.” he grinned again, not helping Alex’s lust levels.

“I know it’s only been a couple days but about the other night—”

“Alex,” He closed the remaining space between them, the boards of the bridge creaking under his feet as he neared. “Do we really have to talk about it?”

“I just want to know where we stand as far as—”

Abram leaned in and kissed Alex roughly, his hands snaking to the shorter man’s hips and pulling him even closer. Alex immediately kissed him back with ferocious need, running his hands over Abram’s slickly wet abs, earning a groan from him. Though he’d hate to admit it to anyone else, he couldn’t stop himself from whimpering slightly when Abram pulled away, a wide rubbernecked grin on the taller one’s face.

“Did that help you figure out where we stand?”

Alex laughed, biting his lip briefly as he stared into Abram’s deep sea eyes. “Honestly, it just made my head even cloudier.”

Abram just shook his head. “You’re overthinking it.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” Abram smiled again, reaching out to fiddle with the hem of Alex’s pants. “That standing isn’t exactly what I’m focusing on when I think about us.” He kissed him again, swiftly this time, like it was just a habit now. “Let’s not define everything right now. Let’s just be.”

That’s when Abram noticed Alex’s dad coming over to them, throwing a hand up and smiling at him. “Hey, Mr. Llewellyn.” Ethan waved back before Abram looked back at Alex. “I gotta go. See you at school.”

He watched with glee as Abram started running again, a content curve on Alex’s lips.

“Are you and Abram…back together?” Ethan said warmly.

“Work in progress, Dad.” he responded, his eyes fixated on Abram’s ass while he still had it in view. “Work in progress.”

 

For the first time, Mercer and Kirby walked into Westbrooke High hand in hand. Stares followed them while they sauntered down the hall. Between his infamy and her new kid status, they would proba-bly have a ship name by the end of the school day, but they ignored them, only concerned with what really mattered: each other. They found their way down the hallway, ambling over to Kirby’s locker. She quickly opened it, Mercer leaning against her locker’s neighbor. Kirby grinned as she turned to him, leaning forward and kissing Mercer as Faith and Willa, followed by Bridge, came over to greet them.

“Enough already.” Bridge said sarcastically.

They parted, all smiles as each of them eyed their respective bes-ties.

“What’s up?” Mercer said to Bridge.

“Alex and Abe want us”

Nodding, Mercer kissed Kirby’s cheek. “I’ll catch you later?”

She affirmed his question as he walked off with Bridge to meet up with the rest of his friends. Faith and Willa joined her by her locker, the former scoffing.

“Is it just me or are they always having secret rendezvous meet-ings?”

“They’re probably talking about the Hugo thing.” Willa deter-mined.

Slamming her locker door closed, she gave them equally inquisi-tive stares. “What Hugo thing?”

After a collective sigh and a weary glance, Willa spoke up. “Stra-ton’s roommate and best friend, Hugo, saw Sumner the night he vis-ited Straton.”

“Straton saw Sumner?” Kirby felt blindsided by this apparent known information. “When?”

“Mercer didn’t tell you any of this?” Faith scrunched up her nose.

“What’s going on?”

“They got to witness Straton’s interrogation,” Willa said. “Sumner visited Straton, covered in blood, asking for his help. When he refused, Sumner declared revenge and fled. And apparently, Hugo saw him before he disappeared again.”

“And when was this?” Kirby demanded.

“Over a month ago, I think?” Willa looked to Faith for confirma-tion.

“Yeah, something like that.” she said.

Kirby stormed off, leaving them by her locker.

“Wait, we wanted to talk about Homecoming!”

Mercer, down the hall with his friends at Alex’s locker, gave his friends a look of caution.

“What do you mean, ‘tonight’?”

Alex huffed. “If we don’t do it soon, they could get impatient and take the pages away again.” he told him, knowing that his next words were the last ones any of them wanted to hear. “We have to go to Shadows Manor. Tonight.”

“Alright. I guess we should get it over with. We need those pa-pers.” Mercer decided not to argue, especially with Alex being right.

“Are you guys forgetting about what Dagger said?” Bridge coun-tered the content feel that swam around them. “Arclan and Shadows Manor are under police surveillance. The grounds could be swarm-ing with cops. We can’t exactly tell them that we’re there to stroll down memory lane.”

“The four of us there will definitely be easy to spot.” Mercer sighed.

“Then we split up.” Abram said, weighing out their options. “You and Bridge go to Shadows Manor and find those papers and Alex and I will go find out what Hugo saw the night Sumner went to Heartmyth.”

“Whoa, why are me and Mercer the ones going into the gang of police officers? If Alex goes and gets caught, at least he could possibly know some of them and get off the hook.”

“Because I know Straton.” Alex insisted, further adding to Abram’s idea of splitting up. “Straton trusts me and that will help us get the full story out of Hugo.”

“What happens if we get there, somehow don’t get caught by the cops, and somehow find out where we’re supposed to acquire the pages, say all that goes according to plan, what if they’re not even there?”

No one had an answer for Mercer, though he hadn’t really ex-pected them to give him one. If they went through all the trouble of bypassing the police and the clues from Sumner’s hideaway beneath Arclan weren’t there…none of them wanted to dwell on it, not want-ing to think on what the failure would mean afterwards.

Kirby came stomping over to them, with Faith and Willa a little way behind her. She stopped in front of Mercer.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Straton and Hugo?”

Mercer looked pretty confused until Faith stepped up. “I thought you had at least told her about Straton’s confession.” she said with a heavy and guilt filled sigh.

“I didn’t tell you about Straton because Dagger told us to keep it to ourselves.” Mercer eyed Alex and Abram. “It seems some of us took that more seriously than others.”

“Then what’s going on with Hugo?”

People were starting to stare at all of them now, with their huge crowd forming in the hallway. Sighing, Mercer took Kirby’s hand and led her into a nearby empty classroom, both of them disregard-ing their friends as they found themselves alone.

“Mercer, I just told you a huge part of my life.” Kirby said with a shaky voice. “I don’t want you keeping secrets, even if it is to protect me. That night at Arclan, Sumner pulled me even deeper into this. If this is going to work,” She flexed her finger between them. “You have to tell me everything.”

He knew she was right, even before she had finished. She was right that he wanted to protect her, but he couldn’t dismiss the fact that she was also right about being further dragged into The Sumner Shadows Saga. His friends weren’t going to like it, but he had to tell her the truth about what was going down tonight.

“Okay.” he nodded.

“Okay?”

Mercer shook his head again as he scoffed. “We’re going to Heartmyth tonight. Well, Abe and Alex are, to find out what Hugo saw the night Sumner visited Straton.”

Kirby nodded. “Okay. So if they’re doing that, why aren’t you and Bridge going?”

“Because we’re going to Shadows Manor.”

Her eyebrows, much like her interest, raised immediately. “What’s at Shadows Manor?”

Mercer heaved a heavy sigh again, but he had to keep going. “There’s something we have to get there. Something from that room Sumner was hiding in underneath Arclan. We think it holds clues to everything. Sumner coming back, the reason behind the attack that night in the cemetery, everything.” He winced. “Only problem is, Shadows Manor has been put under intense police supervision ever since that patient escaped from Arclan.”

“Back up.” Kirby shook her head, flustered by the onslaught of information. “How did this clue or whatever end up from Arclan to somewhere at Shadows Manor?”

He grabbed her hand, a silent plea for her to let it go. As much as Mercer wanted to be honest and tell Kirby absolutely everything, he knew that he couldn’t tell her about their stalker just yet. And he ob-viously couldn’t let her know the truth about that night in the ceme-tery.

“I want to tell you the whole story, and eventually, I will, but this isn’t just my story to tell. I’ve already told you all I can. Please don’t make me tell you this, not yet.”

She gave him a small but vibrant smile. “I understand. I just didn’t want everyone to know what was going on and I was left clueless.”

“I wasn’t trying to keep it from you.” Mercer told her. “I was thinking about telling you about tonight after school, because I need-ed someone to know where I was tonight in case the police catch us.”

“I have a better idea.” she said evenly. “Let me come with you to-night.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding. The Sumner Shadows Saga isn’t something to mess around with.”

“You’re already an arm short.” Kirby patted his navy hued sling, tracing the pattern with her fingers for a second. “I want to help, Mercer. I’ve never been comfortable just waiting for someone else to fix everything.” She paused to squeeze his hand again. “You don’t have to tell me why you’re retrieving this, but at least let me help you actually find it.”

Mercer laughed, shaking his head. “The guys are gonna kill me.”

“Talk to them. They’ll understand why it makes sense to let me into the depths of, how’d you put it? The Sumner Shadows Saga?” Laughing again, Mercer agreed. “Honestly, I’m surprised Willa and Faith don’t know every detail, considering that picture they received from Sumner.”

“That was more of a message for us, despite what it said. Sumner wanted that to go to the police, which is why he sent it to Willa. I think he knew we probably wouldn’t have gone straight to Dagger with it.”

“So you’re not telling the police about whatever Hugo tells you guys?”

“We’re trying to keep everyone we can away from interrogations with Dagger unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Does that mean I’m going to see Shadows Manor for the first time tonight?”

“I guess so,” he grinned, though he was still a little on the fence about letting Kirby in on raiding Shadows Manor, especially when she didn’t know why. But it seemed as though his remaining hand was tied. “Like you’ve already pointed out, I’m an arm short.”

 

Just an hour before their curfew went into effect for the night, Alex and Abram made their way through the dorms of Heartmyth, getting a couple stern glances from the wandering students, clearly not believing that they went to school there as they wove their way to Hugo and Straton’s dorm room.

“Let’s hope they’re home.” Abram wore a half smile, knocking on their dorm room door.

“Faith said Straton was.” Alex said, slightly hopeful. “I don’t know about Hugo though.”

The door snapped open quickly, a scruffy and well-built redhead stumbling to open up the door. His smile faded slowly as he saw them, not really sure who they were.

“Can I help you?” he said, caution oozing from his tone.

“Is Straton here?” Alex said, clearing his throat.

“Stray,” Hugo called back into the dorm room, a rustling sound-ing from inside. “Some guys here for you.”

Hugo disappeared from view as he retreated deeper into the room and was replaced in the doorway as Straton popped around the doorframe, eyeing them with a sense of confusion.

“Alex?” he asked first, then he looked at Abram. “And Abram, right?”

Abram nodded. “Nice to see you again.”

Straton gave him a nod instead of a smile, still wondering what was going on. “What’s up?” he spoke casually as he looked back to Alex, but they could tell by his slightly flared nostrils that he was fair-ly cagey at their sudden arrival at his doorstep.

“Can we come in?”

Seemingly hesitant, Straton stepped aside and let them enter the room. Hugo, who had been playing a game of Call of Duty on his Xbox, quickly paused it as they piled into the dorm room.

“Stray?” Hugo said, his needful octaves present again.

“Hugo, this is Alex, Faith’s brother.” Straton gestured.

“Nice to meet you,” Hugo scoffed and laughed as he got up from his bed and shook Alex’s hand. “Sorry about acting so gingerly, no pun intended.” Hugo was delighted, feeling a little more at ease, when Alex and Abram chuckled.

“And this is Abram, Willa’s brother. You remember her, don’t you?”

“Dude, shut up.” Hugo groaned.

Straton leaned toward Alex as the other two greeted each other quickly. “He hasn’t shut up about her the past couple of days.”

“I heard that.” he snorted. “So did her brother. Thanks for that.”

“It’s cool.” Abram flashed a fast simper. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You guys can sit.” Straton stated, waving a hand toward their left, where a navy blue sofa sat between Straton and Hugo’s beds. Both sat down, with the roommates sitting on their respective places of rest. “So what brings you guys to Heartmyth so late at night?”

Alex looked suddenly uneasy about what they were doing. It wasn’t until Abram squeezed his shoulder reassuringly that Alex took a deep breath before he was ready to start.

“It’s about the night that Sumner showed up here.” he said slowly, eyeing Straton first and then locking eyes with Hugo. “We know that you saw Sumner after Straton.”

In a paranoid flail of his limbs, Hugo leapt off his bed. “What!?”

“It’s okay.” Abram told him in a calm, strong voice. “We’re not going to tell Dagger or the cops about it. If we were, you’d already be at the police station and we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Straton, you can trust us.” Alex pleaded, turning to his sister’s boyfriend, using his hazel spheres to beg him even more. “We just need to know what he,” He looked back to Hugo. “What you saw, if we’re ever going to understand why Sumner came back to Armor Falls.”

“How did you even know that I saw him?”

“Faith.” Straton answered for them, abruptly realizing the conclu-sion on his own. “That’s why she cancelled our lunch date the other day, isn’t it? She heard us.”

“And I asked her not to tell you why until I had the chance to talk to you.” Alex confirmed.

“Is it safe to assume that she told you about Dagger questioning me?”

After a subtle look between Alex and Abram, they decided to tell Straton the whole truth. “Actually, Dagger let us watch your interro-gation.”

“Great.” he sighed.

“But we don’t think you helped Sumner.” Abram uttered. “We believe you.”

“Which is why we believe that you saw Sumner, Hugo.” Alex smiled feebly. “We just want to know the full story.”

An abyss of an exhale left Hugo’s lips, slowly sitting down on his bed, crossing his arms across his bare chest, eyeing them intensely. “Like I said, I was drunk, but I know what I saw. Even if I did block it out for a while.”

“We know.” Abram displayed a sympathetic smile.

“It’s okay.” Alex nodded, reassuring him to continue. “Just tell us what you saw.”

He sighed again, giving them a weak nod. “It started when I left the party.”

 

Hugo was really feeling the alcohol, the moon looming above him as he left a dorm party. It was still a couple weeks before school officially started, but those enrolled in summer programs were winding down from their term. And Hugo was taking full advantage of the summer parties before the fall semester started back up. He was leaving a rager of a party that a bunch of sophomores were throwing, heading back to the dorm he shared with Straton when someone came storming out of his dorm building.

And he was covered in what looked like blood.

What was worse was that Hugo recognized the crimson stained stranger instantly as Sumner Shadows, the high school student who had tried to kill his friends, and who had been hiding from police since it all went down five months ago.

Even through the haze of an alcohol afflicted mind, Hugo knew better than to be seen by him. He took refuge behind a nearby tree, still having a clear view of Sumner. Luckily, with very few students on campus to begin with, there was no one else around to witness Sumner’s sinister snarls as he stomped around, seething with rage.

He thinks he can ignore me?” Sumner looked like a rabies infected an-imal, practically foaming at the mouth with ravenous malice.

Hugo figured he was about to mutter more unpleasantries when his phone rang. Swearing slightly, Sumner sauntered off away from the dorm buildings and closer to the student parking lot.

Stupidly, Hugo decided to follow him. Maybe it was the beer and liquor, or maybe it was his own morbid curiosity, but he followed Sumner to a gazebo that overlooked the parking lot. It was shrouded in shadows, thanks to the trees surrounding it. Sumner answered his burner phone as he stepped into the contraption, giving Hugo enough time to hide behind another tree next to the gazebo.

What do you want?” Sumner groaned into the receiver end of the cell phone.

Watching through slightly disoriented eyes, Hugo observed Sumner’s fa-cade of slight annoyance turn to outright psychotic.

What do you mean, ‘you’re out’? You can’t just quit this, you can’t just quit me!”

Sumner threw a punch at one of the gazebo’s posts, not even flinching when his fist collided with the wood. Hugo was sure it hurt like hell, but if it did, there were no signs of it on Sumner’s face.

I will ruin you.” Sumner told the person on the phone. “He’s back, and things are about to change. If you go now, I will bury you. Do you get that? Your worst fears will come true. I will make your nightmares come to life, you bitch!”

He was screaming now, already aiding the faint throbs Hugo felt bang-ing against his temples. The other person on the phone must have hung up because Sumner took the phone and smashed it against the gazebo’s wood floor, his roars of anguish ringing loud into the silent night around them.

Sumner smacked himself in the head several times before picking up his phone remnants and running off into the night, leaving Hugo overwhelmed with what he had witnessed, not really sure if it was all in his head or if he’d really just seen a mentally shaky Sumner Shadows.

 

Hugo finished his retelling, uneasy as Abram and Alex, and even Straton, who he hadn’t told every little detail, stared back at him with wide, astonished irises.

“So someone is, or I guess was, helping Sumner.” Alex said, breaking the screaming quiet in the room.

“I think so.” Hugo agreed. “Just like Straton saw, he was covered in blood.”

“And maybe this person found out what he had done and figured they were in too deep with a psycho.”

“But who was it?” Straton quipped.

“And did Sumner get blood on him by hurting someone?” Alex sighed, still reeling from all of Hugo’s information.

“Sumner said ‘he’s back’.” Abram muttered, ignoring all of their lingering questions. “When exactly did this happen? What day?”

“August 1st.” Straton and Hugo said in unison.

“It was late though,” Hugo added. “I think it was after midnight, so technically it was the second.”

“Jesus.” Startled, Abram stood up from the bed. “That can’t be a coincidence.”

“What are you talking about?” Alex said, worry hanging in the back of his throat.

“August 1st. That’s the day I came back from Maine.” Abram ex-plained. “The day I came back from the other institution.”

“You’re sure?” Alex stood now too, alarmed by Abram’s words.

“Institution?” Straton pondered.

“Never mind.” Alex and Abram said together, they lowered their voice for just them to hear. “Why would Sumner come back the same day you did? And how would he know?” Alex stated.

“I don’t know,” Abram confirmed, shaking his head. “But let’s hope Bridge and Mercer are having better luck than we are.”

 

Bridge was pissed. Pissed about the fact that he was skulking around Shadows Manor, pissed that he had no idea what Hugo was telling Abram and Alex. But he was even more pissed that Kirby was with them.

Mercer had told him why they should bring her into the fold, so to speak, and Bridge couldn’t argue that Kirby was already pretty in-volved with everything related to Sumner. But that didn’t mean that he had to like it.

They were already at 1661 Karder Cove, already hiding from the three visible cops just outside of Shadows Manor, whom were lan-guidly talking next to their squad car. Hiding in the darkness several feet away from the property, they watched as two of the cops left the vehicle to patrol the grounds of Shadows Manor as the last remain-ing cop got back into the confines of the car.

“So what’s the plan?” Kirby said, eyeing them eagerly.

Bridge scoffed. “You tell us. You’re the one who brought a weap-on.”

Laughing, Kirby readjusted the strap over her shoulder, the one she had attached to a metal baseball bat. “I’m not taking any chances after what happened beneath Arclan.” She patted the bat with mock affection.

Mercer took to his own straps, adjusting his sling so his arm was a little more comfortable. “We have no idea where to start.” he told them with a nod.

“We can bypass the cop in the car.” Bridge sighed. “We should start out back. The door to Sumner’s room is by the pool, remem-ber?”

“Yeah.” Mercer nodded. “Starting at his room makes sense.”

Becoming instantly stealthy, they used the trees as cover while they made sure to keep out of sight of the cop in the squad car. In just a few minutes, they had scaled the side of Shadows Manor and were running to the side of the mansion, leaving the safety of the tree lines for the danger of being exposed.

“We have to be careful.” Bridge said. “Those two cops are on the grounds somewhere.”

Kirby absorbed his words, leading them since she had the weap-on, with Mercer right behind her and Bridge in the back. They made their way around the house until they reached the beginning of the backyard. She kept creeping along the edge of the house, ambling parallel with the massive pool, but Bridge and Mercer were frozen in place just around the corner.

It’d been a long time since they had really been in the backyard of Shadows Manor. The memory of spring break was at the forefront of their thoughts. How had everything gotten so messed up?

“Hey.” Kirby came back to them, seeing the dual hypnotized looks on their faces. “You guys okay?”

Bridge just scoffed, shaking his head. “A lot of memories is all.”

“Yeah” Mercer stated. “Come on. We need to get going.”

“I’ll lead. Let’s go.”

Bridge took over then, guiding them towards the basement door that led to Sumner’s bedroom. He figured they’d have to break into the mansion to hunt for the missing pages, that their tormentor would make them scavenge for what they thrived to find. But their stalker must have been as impatient as they were to get some an-swers.

“Guys.” He stood there before the basement door, waiting for Kirby and Mercer to join him and see that their search was already over.

Because on the basement door, hanging by a single strand of chrome duct tape, were two pieces of paper.

“That’s it?” Kirby asked, looking at them with dumbfounded eyes.

“They’re getting desperate.” Bridge commented, grabbing the folded up pages swiftly.

“Who’s desperate?” Both Mercer and Bridge were suddenly aware that Kirby didn’t exactly know everything.

“What do they say?” Mercer was ready to know what infor-mation they risked their lives for.

“Who’s there?”

The voice didn’t belong to any of them, all of them motionless and overcome with fear. They stood still, not making any noise, not even fully breathing to keep quiet.

“This is Armor Falls PD. If someone is there, come out now.”

Eyes flared, they ran. They went back toward the tree line, back to the obscurity of the darkness. But the cop acted quickly.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

But they were in the trees by now. They kept running as the bul-lets started, weaving their way closer to safety and away from the gunfire erupting from the grounds of Shadows Manor. The police officer stopped firing, presumably to inform his fellow officers about them, but they’d be long gone by the time the cops began searching.

A few minutes later, they were back at Mercer’s Jeep, hidden be-hind some shrubbery and trees just beyond the forest down the road from Karder Cove. It’d probably be only minutes before the police came, but they had several places to look, buying them plenty of time to work with.

Kirby ran up to the Jeep, leaning on it to catch her breath. Bridge immediately ran to the front seat and grabbed his phone to use as a light. Mercer was the last to approach his vehicle, joining them at the hood of his vehicle.

“I hope whatever is on those pages was worth getting shot at.” Kirby said, Bridge fiddling with his phone to turn on its flashlight.

“They better be,” Mercer looked like he was shaking a little bit. “I’m already having flashbacks from the passageway.”

The huddled around Bridge as his phone’s flashlight roared to life, illuminating the hood of Mercer’s Jeep in total vibrance. He placed the papers on the hood and unfolded them, the page on top coming undone from its creases. Staring confused, they saw that the first page was a scrawling of Sumner’s inner rage.

 

They think they can defy me. They all do. They’ll see, they’ll all see. I’ll get them all in time. Streetcar will be the first one, she’ll be so close to the truth and yet she’ll never learn of it. They’ll find out that I always get what I want in the end.

 

No one said a word. They just kept staring at the message over and over. Bridge folded the first page up and stuffed it in the pocket of his jeans, Mercer reaching to flatten out the second piece of paper to assist.

The second page wasn’t as difficult to follow or think about. It was just the same two words written repeatedly, every time the two words were scribbled, the writing looked angrier and angrier.

“Oscar Runner?”

Kirby’s questionable echoing of the name fell on incapable ears. The two young men didn’t know what the name meant any more than she did. But the name was covering both sides of the page, so it had to mean something pretty important.

Sirens were heard in the distance, rising like coyote howls in the night, making them stir in antsy circles. “We don’t have much time. Let’s go.” Bridge nodded as they scrambled into the Wrangler, trying to wrap their heads around the utterly vague findings that made up the two pages Sumner had poured his murky soul into when he had been hiding in the room beneath Arclan Asylum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14

SHE KNOWS THINGS

 

 

Any breakthroughs yet?”

Alex sighed at Mercer’s question as they approached the latter’s locker. Ever since they had retrieved Sumner’s pages from Shadows Manor last week, they had been trying to figure out their meanings, but they were coming up short. Now it was the following Monday, and they still had less than zero leads.

“No.” Alex finally told him, while Mercer grabbed some books from his locker and slid them into his backpack. “I understand now why our anonymous friend wanted us to figure it out. If we’re hav-ing this much trouble solving it, I can’t imagine what they thought of them.”

“What about the Streetcar thing?” Mercer stated, slinging his backpack over his good shoulder. “Didn’t you say you knew some-thing about a play with that name?”

A Streetcar Named Desire,” he nodded. “But even if that’s the ref-erence Sumner used to nickname someone, we have no idea where to start.”

“The notes said ‘she’ though.”

“The ‘shes’ of Streetcar are Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski, I looked it up. But seeing as we don’t know anyone with those names, we have nowhere to start.”

Bridge and Abram, who had gone to the cafeteria to grab some food for everybody, appeared around the corner of the hall and found them straightforwardly next to Mercer’s locker. They passed their friends some hashbrowns, which were gratefully taken by hun-gry hands.

“No progress must be contagious.” Bridge added, overhearing their conversation. “The feeling of helplessness must be too.”

“I know.” Alex said, a sigh heaving his lungs for a second time. “I think finding out what the messages mean will help us unravel who is trying to mess with us though.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Bridge agreed.

“How?” Abram asked.

“Because I’ve been thinking that they want to understand every-thing that led up to the cemetery just as badly as they want us to tell the truth about that night.”

Mercer was just about to argue when a familiar face started to saunter up to them.

“Harley?”

The bright redhead smiled at Mercer. He hadn’t seen her since they’d broken up several months ago after the whole Sumner thing went down and Abram had gone away. She looked as beautiful as she always did, with her fair skin and freckles that she shared with her brother. Like usual, her hair was tied back in a ponytail.

“Hey, Mercer. It’s been a while.” She didn’t give him time to re-act, instead setting her eyes on Abram. “I’ve actually been looking for you.”

“Me?” Abram and Harley had rarely spent time together without Mercer, or even the others, present. “Why me?”

“Well, I’m captain this year and—”

You’re captain?” Alex interjected, trying his best to hide his sur-prise.

Back before his transition, Alex had been on the cheer squad and before everything changed, he was the front runner for captain. Of course, he’d left cheering behind but he never figured Harley, who hadn’t been on the team for very long, even when he was on the team, would take his place.

“Weird, right?” Harley laughed, admitting to the abnormality. She focused once again on Abram. “As I’m sure you know, Homecoming is this week and Troy, one of our cheerleaders, sprained his ankle and can’t do the pep rally Friday. I was wondering since you used to be on the team…”

“You want me to cheer in the pep rally?” Abram scoffed. “And learn the routine in four days?”

“I know it’s really short notice and you quit the team after what happened with…Sumner, but we’re really desperate.” She then looked to Alex. “I could use your help too, if you’re interested.”

“Thanks, but I’ve left that part of me behind.” Alex stated.

“Yeah, I don’t know.” Abram shook his head. “Four days—”

“Is plenty of time, I swear. I’ll practice every day with you per-sonally. You always were really quick with choreography and I’d really owe you one.”

Right when Abram was about to politely refuse Harley’s request, Willa turned the corner, noticed their gathering, and ran right over in an instant. “Before you say no, you should remember that I’m on the team and you’ll be helping out your little sister.”

Sighing, Abram finally nodded, quickly giving in. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

Willa hugged him in a fit of joy. Harley smiled behind them and said, “Thank you so much, Abram. I’ll meet with you after school in the gym?”

“Yeah, I’ll meet you there.”

As Harley and Willa retreated in a fit of happy hoorays, Alex gave Abram a head tilt and a questioning gaze.

“Are you really sure about doing this? We already have to find out what these notes mean, do you really have time to cheer?”

“I’m not letting this person completely run my life, Alex. It’s just for the pep rally. Plus, it’ll help me take my mind off of everything we’ve got going on. Cheering always did help me focus.”

Alex wanted to protest, but he knew how hard Abram had fallen after the confrontation with Sumner underneath Arclan weeks ago. He’d been so vulnerable and on the verge of another breakdown. Alex, despite still not really knowing what the future held for the two of them together, just wanted Abram to be happy. And if cheering in the pep rally helped him gain some focus in his life, there was no way he was going to stand in his way.

“You’re right. You have a right to your life, we all do.” he finally said.

“We’re no closer to figuring the messages out anyway.” Bridge nodded. “Maybe until we do, we can have some semblance of a life.”

“Maybe. I’m still going to hit the library and look through past yearbooks for clues, for anyone named anything remotely ‘Streetcar’ adjacent. Maybe we’ll get lucky and figure this out before something bad happens.”

Alex left them in the hall, retreating to try and find out what the pages meant and, in correlation, find out who was holding the truth over their heads, worry lacing its way into every emotion he had un-til they figured out who was trying to get them to tell the world their innermost secrets.

 

Later that night, as the sky grew to a dark shade of eggplant purple, Athena Wheaton was pulling brownies out of the oven and setting them on the kitchen counter for Kirby and Mercer, whom she had invited over so she could get to know her daughter’s boyfriend.

It made her apprehensive to meet Mercer, given the string of events that came with Kirby’s last boyfriend back in New York. But during dinner, Athena’s worries had been severely lessened upon getting to know the pseudo-infamous Mercer Meadows. It also didn’t hurt that he had saved her daughter’s life that night under Arclan. Mercer was a really good kid, and she knew that he was good for Kirby, especially with everything she’d been through.

She poured them a glass of milk each and set them down next to the brownies.

“Thanks for the brownies, Ms. Wheaton.” Mercer beamed as he reached for the dessert. “And thanks for inviting me over for din-ner.”

“Yeah, thanks Mom.”

“No problem.” Athena smiled, giving them genuine approval. “So, Homecoming is pretty soon.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna ask this guy in my history class to go with me.” Kirby commented sarcastically.

“Ooh, he’s hot. I say go for it.” Mercer said with a laugh, Kirby joining in quickly.

Athena smiled and shook her head, a knock on the front door breaking all of them from the warm comfort of laughter and good food.

“I’ll be right back.”

She left the teenagers in the kitchen, hastily making her way to-ward the front of the grandeur house. But when she made her way through the foyer and opened up the door, she was met with the dark of the growing night. She surveyed the street, not seeing obvi-ous signs of anyone, at least not anyone that wanted to be seen. Grabbing the doorknob, she turned to go back inside when her eyes caught on a folded piece of paper on the welcome mat.

Bending down to pick it up, Athena opened it, a gasp leaving her lips as she read it over. Athena looked back inside, where she could just make out Kirby and Mercer, laughing and feeding each other pieces of a brownie.

Her eyes returned to the letter, then back into the night, franti-cally seeking the sender with cautious optimism. She was about to call their name, but knew that it was a mistake to do so. They gave her this letter as a warning, a last resort. And she couldn’t just do that to them, for the owner of the letter was someone Athena knew very well, someone the police were very interested in finding.

Because the one who had sent Athena Wheaton the message, was the escaped patient from Arclan Asylum.

 

The next morning, Abram and Alex lazily walked into the Meadows residence. Mercer and Bridge had asked them to come over after overhearing Mercer’s dads talking to Dagger, who wanted them to go down to the station after school again.

“Good, you’re here.” Bridge said, turning down the small TV in the kitchen.

“So what’s going on?” Abram said, taking a seat at the kitchen is-land with the others.

“Dagger called my dads this morning, saying that he needed to see us after school today.” Mercer regaled. “Then he mentioned that something was being released to the public this morning that he wanted to talk to us about when we get to the station.”

“It’s too hopeful to think he found something on Sumner.” Abram sighed.

“Guys, I think we should reconsider telling Dagger about the night at the cemetery.”

All eyes clung to Alex, mouths agape with dripping discomfort.

“You’ve lost it, Alex.” Bridge yelled. “This isn’t some eye witness report we’re keeping from the police, it’s murder!”

“I’m not saying right now,” Alex sighed, trying to explain himself. “But if we can’t figure out who is doing this to us, we’re going to need a Plan B. We can make a deal with Dagger and—”

“No.” Mercer grunted. “Dagger knows we’re holding something back. Even if he says we have some sort of understanding or plea, murder is murder.”

“Not to mention obstructing justice or whatever it’s called when you withhold as much information as we have.” Bridge said, malice and annoyance sparking on the end of his tongue like firecrackers.

“Just as our saving grace, guys. It wasn’t our fault. Sumner planned everything, every event that went on that night. I don’t want to relive any of it by retelling it, believe me, but if we’re backed into it by our stalker, at least we can do it on our own terms.”

Abram patted his hand tenderly, grazing his knuckles gingerly. “Let’s worry about that later. We won’t have to go that far. We’re gonna figure this out. We have to.”

“Breaking news in the Sumner Shadows case…” The TV’s low voice whispered in quick drawls, taking the reins on their attention.

“Turn it up!” Mercer roared.

Bridge scrambled to find the remote, pounding the volume but-ton until it sounded like they were in the newsroom.

“Police have finally released this image of the escaped patient from Arclan Asylum.”

The screen went to a picture of a young woman instead of the newscaster, a very pretty brunette with blue eyes, eyes that looked like they could hold massive, damaging secrets.

“Police have identified her as Blanche Baxxen, who was sent to Arclan Asylum just shy of two months ago. After further investigat-ing, this image was found.”

A pixelated picture of Blanche and some guy at a bar, with only half of the guys face visible, showed up on the screen. But they could tell that the guy in the photo was Sumner.

“It is believed that the person with Ms. Baxxen is none other than Sumner Shadows.”

The newscaster went on, putting up pictures of both Blanche and Sumner, asking anyone with any information to contact police immediately. They continued to talk about Sumner and Blanche’s possible connection and how it played into her escape from Arclan, while they tried to digest the news.

“This is it,” Alex said with more vigor than he thought possible. “Blanche is the one who helped Sumner. She’s the one Sumner talked to when Hugo saw him the night he went to Straton for help.”

“She’s Streetcar.” Mercer said in disbelief.

“So Blanche was working with Sumner, but broke away once she discovered his psychosis somehow, just like we did.” Abram deter-mined.

“Then how did she end up locked away in Arclan?”

Pondering on Bridge’s question, they knew that this was huge. They knew one piece of the mysterious messages laid between the lines of the pages Sumner left behind, something that was connected to the entirety of why Sumner snapped that night and turned their lives into a parallel universe of normal.

 

All day at school, each of them had thought about the novelty of finding Blanche Baxxen, while still keeping it from their siblings and romantic interests. A part of all of them was very eager to get to the police station, but once they arrived, nerves overcame them, like some sort of antibody mind control. They had no idea what exactly Dagger wanted out of their visit, and they hoped he’d at least be con-siderate of their communal state of mind when it came to the news.

Once they were back in the interrogation room they were overly accustomed to, they waited for Dagger to join them, since the room was vacant for the first time since their meetings with Dagger had started.

“Well this is weird.” Bridge scoffed. “Dagger’s always here before we come in.”

“Do you think they found Blanche?” Alex asked.

None of them wanted the police to find Blanche, not at first. Blanche had answers, answers to almost every question the friends had. They had to find her and get some solutions before the police or Dagger got ahold of Sumner’s ex-accomplice.

Dagger burst into the room without preamble, looking at them once before taking a seat at the table. They stood frozen, standing in front of their seats and staring at Dagger with uneasy masks of agita-tion.

“Take a seat,” His voice shook with demand, causing them to pull back their chairs and sit down at the table before he opened up his mouth again. “There’s a lot going on today.”

“Is this about Blanche Baxxen?” Alex quipped, piquing the detec-tive’s interest, judging on the height of the man’s eyebrows.

“Indirectly, I suppose.” He adjusted in his seat. “Once we realized that the patient that escaped Arclan Asylum was Ms. Baxxen, we searched for her face everywhere, and found security footage with Blanche and who we think is Sumner.”

“It is Sumner.” Abram said.

“His face may be half visible, detective, but we’d know it was him if his chin were the only thing we could see.” Bridge stated, folding his arms across his chest, a failsafe sign of his growing irritation.

“No question.” Mercer dipped his head, coinciding with the unanimous declaration.

Dagger fiddled with his fingers, fidgeting his digits while his brain’s gears churned faster and faster. They just sat there, waiting for him to talk again.

“How sure are you?” He cut his eyes at them sharply, stabbing jagged stares in their direction.

“A hundred percent.” They answered all together, proving to the detective just how positive they were.

“Alright, good. That’s one thing covered.” Dagger had a more comfortable look, like he was finally at a place of ease. None of them were surprised when his facade changed to one of stern determina-tion. “Now I have to ask. Do any of you know anything about Blanche Baxxen?”

“Why would we? We’d never heard the name until this morn-ing.” Mercer nervously cracked his knuckles as he spoke.

“I think Blanche was helping Sumner,” Dagger said, telling them what they already knew to be true. “They’d have to be pretty close, don’t you think?”

“Detective, we severed ties with Sumner when he tried to kill us.” Abram told Dagger, starting to get angry at the underlying accusa-tions. “When are you going to get that we don’t have anything to do with him? We don’t know where he is, we don’t know who he’s been in contact with, and we sure as hell don’t know some girl he tricked into aiding him with whatever plans he concocted in that massive murdering brain of his.”

Abram’s nostrils retracted like a metronome, fed up with these investigations and feeling like he was still connected to Sumner.

“Abe, calm down.” Alex told him in a low voice.

“It’s okay.” Dagger gave a brief grin. “I’m sorry, Abram. I didn’t mean to make you think I’m suspicious of you and your friends help-ing Sumner. I’m just trying to crack this case, using every angle I can to try and get this thing closed, for good.” He cleared his throat, glancing at the clock, looking back at the four friends. “Which is why I was wondering if you’d continue telling me more about Sumner.”

“That’s why we’re here?” Bridge scoffed.

“You’ve demonstrated the beginning of Sumner’s hidden psycho-sis,” he nodded. “But you guys forgave him.”

“We told you, he—”

“Gave a compelling apology, I know. Just tell me about the time you brought him back into the group, when you let him back into all of your lives.”

Forgiving Sumner was one of all of their greatest regrets. After the pool drowning incident, they were free from him in every en-compassing way. But when Sumner told them why he was the way he was, he’d appealed to their deepest sympathies, and they’d com-mitted a dark crime against their once promising self-worth.

Bridge craned his neck, letting it pop a couple times, eyeing De-tective Dagger evenly, while his friends tensed up and shifted un-comfortably in their chairs to await the flashback to their lives.

“Ironically, the day Sumner convinced us to award him a fresh start, we were all by a pool.”

 

For Sumner’s former best friends, being free of his constant pranks and hijinks proved to be what each of them needed. They all felt free to be them-selves again, like before Sumner ever infiltrated their lives upon his arrival to Armor Falls. Freedom was their new adrenaline, and that was all they needed to sustain their newfound cautionless friendship.

They were at the community pool, enjoying some time to themselves. Mercer had brought his girlfriend of almost three months, Harley Krcmaric, who was busy talking to Lissa while they went to grab some snacks from the concession stand, leaving the boys tanning in reclining chairs by the pool.

This is perfect,” Mercer smiled behind his Ray Bans. “Who knew end-ing a friendship could make you feel so good?”

It’s been a perfect summer.” Bridge agreed, flipping down his shades as he ogled the insanely hot lifeguard. “Isn’t that Orry Hatchet from this year’s graduating class?”

Keep it in your pants, B. Orry doesn’t bark up your tree.” Abram said, reapplying some sunscreen to his vulnerable face.

He hasn’t met me yet.” Bridge smirked, his mouth upturned on its back in a illustration of self-assurance.

As they laughed off Bridge’s advances, Lissa and Harley sauntered back from the concessions when they all noticed a familiar face through the crowd of random pool-goers. A face they hadn’t seen since that fateful spring break day almost four months ago.

Sumner made his way through the shocked faces of the strangers around him, until he strode up to his former friends and saw the frightened turned irate features that they bore.

What the hell are you doing here?” Abram leapt up from his chair, inches away from him. “Go home, Sumner.”

I just want to talk,” He put his hands up in mock protest, shifting his dark eyes to set upon each and every one of them, but finding nothing but disdain caking around their corneas. “Five minutes, that’s all I’m asking for.”

All of them were a little too stunned to say anything at first. But then Lissa cleared her throat and eyed Harley with extreme seriousness.

Harley, can you give us a sec?”

She gave them a nod, gave a look to Mercer, and went toward the deep end of the pool. A few feet away was a stone patio table, complete with a rainbow umbrella. It was a little more secluded than their current position out in the open where they were already collecting several staggering stares from various onlookers. Lissa led them over to the patio set, everyone trying not to make it too obvious that they were sitting as far away from Sumner as they could on the stone seating.

I know you guys hate me,” Sumner began, sighing idly. “And honestly, I don’t blame you. But I came here for one reason, and I just want to do that and I’ll be out of your lives. Permanently.” They sat silent, gaping at him and waiting for him to continue, so he took the cue. “Nothing can ever excuse what I put you guys through, but I told my therapist that I at least had to apologize for the things that I’ve done.”

Therapist?” Lissa stated, mirroring her friends’ looks of misperception.

Sumner nodded, remaining in a total state of calm and peace, which to the friends was an opposite archetype for him. “I’ve been seeing one for a while now, since summer started. I’ve really been trying to focus on my issues and working to move on from them.”

You expect us to believe this after all the shit you pulled?” Abram scoffed.

Rather than getting mad, Sumner just sighed. “No, not really. But I have.”

Are we done?” Mercer huffed, sharing Abram’s feelings as he searched for Harley among the crowd.

Look, I’ve done a lot of terrible things to you guys, with the pranks and everything. After talking my issues over with my therapist, she thinks that I might be bipolar. Getting used to taking meds every day is a little strange.” He laughed a little, trying to ease the tension he felt emanating from them, but when he arrived at the deduction that it was useless, he went on. “And with talking everything over with her, I realized that I kept in a lot of stuff from…when my mom died.”

The bipolar diagnosis made a little bit of sense, though they hadn’t ex-pected it. Even more unexpected was the mention of his mother’s passing. Sumner never used to talk about his mom or her abrupt death. All they really knew about it was that she had passed away here in Armor Falls, when Sumner was six and before he and his father had left New Hampshire to get away from the pain.

They saw tears bubbling to a boil against his dark eyes. For a second, as just a passing thought, they felt sympathy for him. But then they thought better of it and kept their stoic facades pasted on their faces.

I think I kept a lot in about her death,” Sumner coughed the lump form-ing in his throat away. “And I think that moving back to Armor Falls brought back too much, way too much for me to handle alone.”

Sumner—”

Let me finish, Lissa. I’ve come to the conclusion, and Dr. Croft agrees, that I felt like I had no control over my life with my mom being gone and coming back to town really intensified that. So I found you guys and con-trolled you. And nothing can justify my actions, but I’m so sorry. I’m so deeply sorry about everything that I’ve done. I may not have any friends anymore, but I think maybe that’s what I need. I just want to move on from the past and finally be happy. That’s what I want for you guys too. I just want you to be happy. And now that you’ve got me out of your lives, you finally can be.”

Sumner looked over to see Harley wading around in the pool, talking to someone from school and laughing. He gestured over to the redhead and then set his eyes on Mercer. “I’m really happy for you and Harley.”

Thanks.” Mercer grunted, not really committing to the response.

Lissa shifted in her seat, which enabled Abram to wrap his arm around her in an effort to comfort her. Sumner took notice pretty quickly.

Wait, are you guys—”

Yeah,” Lissa gave a weak grin. “For a while now.”

They all thought they saw a flicker of rage behind the calm exterior of Sumner’s countenance, but they must have imagined it, because it was swiftly swapped with a huge teethy smile.

That’s great.” he said. “But listen, I don’t expect your forgiveness, I just wanted to apologize.” He stood up from the table and smiled nervously. “I guess I should head back to Sunshine Shack.”

I’m sorry, to what?” Bridge asked, his brows wobbly with weak interest.

Sorry,” Sumner laughed. “I’m talking about Shadows Manor. It’s this little code I came up with that I do sometimes, coming up with the opposite of what I actually mean. I need to work on that too because my therapist says it’s not helping my bipolar symptoms. Anyway, I’d say I’ll see you around, but, you know.”

He left them sitting there at the patio table, intending to leave the swim-ming pool, but Lissa beckoned him back.

Sumner, wait.”

While he turned around, her friends gaped at her with new shock.

Liss, what are you doing?” Abram whispered harshly.

All that stuff about his mom, it makes sense.”

And if he is bipolar, he can’t help that.” Bridge said with shaky confi-dence.

Sumner was beginning to walk back over to them while Mercer hurried-ly argued. “He’s a liar.”

He’s sick.”

Exactly.”

I mean clinically.” Lissa told him. “And he lost his mom. I can’t even comprehend how I’d react to that.”

Same. Who knows how I’d be if I lost either of my parents.” Bridge nod-ded.

He was in front of them again, looking uncomfortable just standing there like a defendant in front of a very biased jury.

Probation.” Lissa decided, seeing a nod from her friends in her periph-eral. “If we ever hung out again, you’d have to prove to us that you wouldn’t ever treat us like before.”

Changing from confusion to astonishment, Sumner scoffed in spite of himself. “You’d actually do that, give me a practically millionth chance?”

The friends gazed at one another. Trying to mend things with Sumner was complicated, especially with how liberating their lives had been since they’d ditched the rocky friendship. But if Sumner was suffering from bipo-lar disorder, they owed it to him, and the late Marjorie Shadows, to see if he really was attempting to rehabilitate himself.

Maybe we’ll hang out next week as a trial run.” Lissa gave him a beaming smile, full of hope.

A glowing glaze over his now cheerful face, Sumner smiled at them. “I can’t thank you enough. But I really should get going. See you next week?”

They shook their heads positively as he faded into the sea of people, while his soon to be best friends again wondered if they were making a monumental mistake they’d live to lament in the years to come.

 

Alex finished retelling the memory and Mercer stood up from his chair, his eyes wide with recognition.

“That’s it.”

Joining the friends, Dagger sent a look of displaced understand-ing at Mercer. “What’s it?”

“Detective, can we be excused for today?” he urged.

“Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s good.” Mercer grunted. “It’s just,” he craned his head, thinking of an excuse. “We’re in the pep rally Friday and we really need to practice. Are we good?”

He could tell by the detective’s expression that he didn’t exclu-sively trust this claim, but Dagger just let out a sigh and stood up, delivering a positive reaction.

“Alright, you can go. I’ll talk to you all soon.”

“Thanks, detective.”

Mercer almost ran out of the door, provoking his friends to ponder the reasons for his earlier exclamation while he beckoned them to hurry up and follow him outside. It wasn’t until they were down the sunset lit street and away from the police station, in a pretty secluded side street, that they confronted their friend.

“What was that all about?” Alex folded his arms over each other as the chilly evening air blew over him.

Bridge snickered. “Whatever it is, we skipped out before Dagger started his usual rambling, so I say bravo.”

“During our remembrance with Dagger, I got an idea and I think I might be onto something.”

“About what?” Abram asked.

“The other message Sumner left behind.” Mercer said. “When we forgave Sumner that day at the pool, he told us about his opposite code thing when he described Shadows Manor.”

“So?”

“So, what if that’s what he did with the second page? We haven’t been able to find anything about anyone with the name Oscar Run-ner. Maybe it’s because we have the wrong one.” His eyes were lit up and his heart was slathered in excess amounts of excitement. “I’ve watched enough award shows with my dads to know that, since the Oscars are for movies, the equivalent to it is its TV counterpart, the Emmys.”

“Hold on.” Abram breathed slowly. “So we should look for Emmy Runner?”

Mercer scrunched up his face. “Not what I was thinking exactly, but that’s an option we should explore. But I think both names are part of the code.”

“And the opposite of runner is what, stander?” Bridge scoffed.

“I was thinking of a more popular last name, B.” Mercer stared at them with extra vitality, finally sure of himself. “We don’t need to be looking for Oscar Runner.” he shook his head. “We need to be searching for Emmy Walker.”

 

The evening sun was starting to set behind lilac clouds and dusk initiated its process to the sky when Straton Jacobs got back from the gym. He was half surprised, half not-at-all when he found the dorm room empty. A part of him envied how easily Hugo was able to make friends. Straton did okay, but he was too focused on school to go out drinking during the week.

Setting down his gym bag, he absentmindedly turned on his TV while he got ready to hop in the shower. Some news report droned on in the background, grabbing a towel when he heard the news program mumble something about Sumner Shadows.

“What the hell?”

He careened toward the television, seeing what looked like a re-peat report, talking about a new development in the case involving Sumner. Straton was about to just go shower and catch the report later but a face popped up on the screen, one he immediately recog-nized, as they talked about the escaped patient from Arclan Asylum that caused a gasp to fall from his dropped jaw.

“Blanche?”

Upon continued listening of the news, he learned that the police believed that Blanche Baxxen had helped Sumner in hiding in Armor Falls. Then they unveiled a gritty, foggy photo of Blanche and Sumner at a bar.

Straton grabbed his phone, needing desperately to contact some-one else who knew Blanche Baxxen when a series of erratic knocks ricocheted across the surface of his door.

He raced to open it, revealing a face he hadn’t seen since before his summer semester at Heartmyth had started.

“Sterling.”

The young woman fell into his arms, basically collapsing against his currently sore frame. Sobs erupted forth from her nude shaded lips, concern and worry tangling up around Straton’s already accu-mulating emotions. When they parted, Straton stared down at his younger sister with wide scared irises as her eyes reddened with pre-vious sentiment.

Sterling Jacobs fixed her newly dyed honey brown hair, wiping her face so it was free of stray tears. “You heard?” she ultimately spoke, her voice teetering with unstable uncertainty.

He nodded lightly. “Just now.”

Sterling shook her head. “This person the news and police are de-scribing, this isn’t Blanche. You know that.”

“I know. How did she even meet Sumner?”

“I wish I knew,” she cried again. “It must have happened during this summer, following graduation. But she wouldn’t do this, Stra-ton. She wouldn’t help someone who tried to commit murder.”

He inhaled an intense breath, exhaling the carbon dioxide twice as hard. “Dagger is sure to bring us in for questioning soon. Or in my case, further questioning.”

“What? You’ve been interrogated by the police for the Sumner Shadows case?” Sterling’s cries quit instantaneously after learning of her brother’s apparent criminal involvement. “What’s going on?”

Straton heaved heavy yet again, preparing to tell his little sister about the night an attempted murderer dropped by his dorm room, and all the encapsulating events that had aspired from the bloody late night visitation from the infamous Sumner Shadows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

15

A VESSEL AND HER SKELETONS

 

 

Abram was just finishing getting ready when he heard his phone bleating on his bed from his bathroom. Running a hand through his hair for a completed tousled look, he went back into his bedroom and picked up his phone. It was a text from Alex, asking him if he wanted something from Hardee’s. He sent Alex a quick order before his thoughts wandered.

He was in a predicament when it came to Alex. Abram had told Alex that they should just enjoy their time together and not define what was going on between them, but Homecoming was in two days, and he knew that it was a big deal to Alex. Or at least, it had been.

Back when they were Abe and Liss, he always knew they’d go to Homecoming together, and eventually, Prom. But things had changed so much since Lissa had become Alex. Sure, he knew he still had feelings for Alex, but he didn’t exactly know what that really said about him and his sexuality. And he needed to talk to someone about it.

It also didn’t help that they were at a standstill with the Emmy Walker situation. Throughout the entire surrounding areas of New Hampshire, they’d found four Emily Walkers and ten total women with the last name Walker that were within driving distance, since they figured that Sumner had to know the person well enough that they were relatively close by. But Abram and Alex had both left mes-sages for all of them, and they hadn’t heard anything the two days that had passed. Just thinking about Alex again brought up the ur-gency for him to talk through his emotions.

Abram headed downstairs, seeing his sister talking on the phone, presumably with Faith or Kirby. “Hey, where’s Dad?”

Willa covered the receiver end of her cell phone. “Patio.”

He left his sister to ramble on the phone about what sounded like Homecoming as he went through the kitchen and glided out of the back door, seeing his father sipping some coffee and reading some-thing on his Kindle, leisurely reclined at their patio table.

Steven looked up upon his son’s entrance to the St. James back-yard, putting down his e-reader. “Morning.”

“Yeah, morning.” Abram said nervously, suddenly knowing that this was a terribly embarrassing thing to even think about talking to with his dad. But at the same time, he knew he needed to. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Of course. What’s up?”

Abram sat down in front of his dad, anxiety eating away at every edge of his skin. “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”

His phone chimed again in his pocket, taking a pause from his conversation to glance at it to see that Alex was headed to the St. James residence to pick him up for school.

“Is Alex on his way?” Steven asked.

“Yeah.” Abram nodded back with weak enthusiasm. “It’s actually Alex that I wanted to talk to you about.”

Steven’s brow quivered. “You and Alex? Are you back together?”

A severe sigh dangled from Abram’s lips, a cliffhanging answer clutched in the shadows of his mouth. “I don’t know. I mean, it was a huge shock when I found out that Alex had transitioned. But throughout the past month, I can’t ignore the fact that the feelings are still there.”

“Okay.” Steven nodded. “So what’s the problem?”

“I’m just a little confused about what it all means. Alex is a guy. Does this, wanting to be more than friends with him, make me gay? If Alex and I started dating again, I don’t know what that means as far as who I am to other people.”

His dad smiled a little bit, regarding his son with warm features on the horizon of his face. “Son, do you love Alex?”

“I don’t know,” Abram admitted without conflict. “I definitely did before. I don’t know about now, but for whatever reason, I can’t stop thinking about him. And now, when we kiss—”

“So you’ve kissed, huh?”

Blushing slightly, Abram laughed. “Yes, Dad, we’ve kissed. And when we have kissed, it’s just felt so right. It’s felt like we’ve never been apart these past few months.”

“Then why worry about what that makes you?” his dad went on. “If you want to be with Alex and Alex wants to be with you, then be together. Life’s too short to worry about what label to give yourself. Just be happy, Abram. That’s all your mother and I have ever wanted for you and your sister.”

All Abram could do was smile at his father as he got up and gave him a hug. “Thanks, Dad.”

Being with Alex, he was coming to realize, didn’t make him any-thing but lucky to have found a person to share his life with. He had found a palpitating, kindred soul in Alex, a bright being that knew him better than he thought he knew himself. To Abram, maybe lov-ing Alex meant he just loved people, not genders.

He went to leave, but his father caught his attention again. “So then what’s next for you and Alex?”

“Ask him to Homecoming.” Abram beamed as he went back in-side the house.

He re-entered the house just as there was an unruly visitor out-side the front door. He walked through the kitchen and watched as his mom reached for the handle, a smile pulling Abram’s lips upward as he expected to see Alex on the opposite side of the door, but Abram wouldn’t have bet on seeing the blonde that was currently at his doorstep when the door swung open and revealed their visitor.

“Celia?” came November’s voice, her tone drawn back in a high pitch of bewilderment.

Celia Shadows gave a curt grin to the two St. James family mem-bers in front of her. “Nova, it’s been a long time.”

Abram hadn’t seen Sumner’s stepmother in a long time, since the night that Sumner attacked them. She looked like she always did, with hazy gray-blue eyes and pinched facial features that made her look leagues younger than she truly was. She fiddled with her finger-tips as she eyed the St. James matriarch with extreme intent.

“Do you have a minute?”

 

She had just slipped on her favorite nude pumps when Kirby heard a car pull up outside of her house. Her mom had been gone from their restored Victorian when she had woken up this morning. Not an-swering her phone, Kirby was left to wonder where her mother was the entire time she had been getting ready for school. So when she heard the vehicle rustling outside, she raced to the window to see what was going on. Kirby couldn’t have possibly prepared herself for what was waiting to assault her retinas.

Athena Wheaton got out of the police car laughing, Detective Al-ston Dagger opening up the unmarked police car door for her. The smile on his face reflected the same giddy expression her mother wore like a new expensive perfume, and Kirby’s jaw lay open at the surely mirage of action through the blinds that she was witnessing.

When her mom entered the house, Kirby was there, glancing at her from the foyer with grand eyes. Athena jumped once her eyes fell on her daughter.

“Lord, Kirby. You scared me.”

“Why did Detective Dagger just drop you off?”

She saw hesitation scurry across her mother’s face. But she quick-ly did her best to replace it with a neutral sentiment. “Just some business.”

“Mom.” Kirby approached her, not believing the feign attempt at an excuse.

“I’m serious. He brought me down to the station to ask me some questions about the escaped patient.”

Interest caused her eyebrows to bob for a few seconds, like waves crashing over on her forehead. “Blanche Baxxen?”

“She was one of my patients, along with many others. He was just questioning me about my interactions with her.”

Wrinkling her nose at a familiar aroma, Kirby scoffed. “Okay. So you went down to answer some questions and you swapped stories over coffee?” When her mother’s irises flexed in reaction, Kirby knew that her silent assumptions were right. “I can smell the dark roast on you.”

Losing the facade, Athena sighed. “He may have invited me out for a cup of coffee afterwards.”

“Are you forgetting that he accused me, really both of us, of help-ing Sumner back into town?”

“He’s a good guy, Kirby. And it’s been a really long time since I’ve met one of those.” Athena said. “He’s one of the good guys. And he’s…sweet.”

The smile on her mother’s face was enough to make the need to retch rise within her. “Just be careful.”

“I’m fine, darling. Who knows, maybe it was a one-time thing.”

As her mother passed her, Kirby saw the stereotypical schoolgirl giddiness glaze over her features again, making Kirby think that she’d be seeing a lot more of Alston Dagger in a more personal setting, one she wasn’t sure she was prepared to be a part of.

Something fell out of her mother’s jacket as she walked into the kitchen. Kirby was quick to retrieve it and was just about to yell at her mother about dropping the seemingly innocent piece of paper, but something told Kirby not to.

Picking it up, Kirby stood in the foyer and traced her mother’s name on the front of what she realized was a letter. She was unsure if she should actually read the letter, hoping that she wasn’t crossing some huge line of trust between her and her mother, but she had to know. So when she opened the letter and saw its contents, Kirby gasped so loud, her mother appeared from the kitchen, causing Kirby to shove the letter in the pocket of her blazer before Athena could see what she had in her hands.

“Everything alright, sweetheart?”

Kirby plastered on a smile. “I’m fine.”

Athena smiled back. “I’ll grab us some muffins and we’ll head to school, okay?”

“Yeah.” she held her grin.

Once her mother receded back into the kitchen, Kirby ripped out the letter again, gawking at the strokes of the pen that had been writ-ten. She wanted to confront her mother, ask her what in the hell was going on, but she knew she couldn’t. Not just yet. She knew she needed to mull things over before she asked her mom why in the hell Blanche Baxxen was writing to her and asking for her help.

 

Walking onto the campus of Westbrooke High School felt weird for Sterling. She’d only known the familiar halls of her high school in Hanover, vibrant color schemes along the walls and warm inviting decorations strung up by overly energized faculty. But Westbrooke was all dark paint and noncommittal upkeep, something so foreign to her it made her wonder how anyone got anything done in such a state of colorless environment.

Sterling followed the flow of the crowd toward the cafeteria, searching for the people she longed to talk to. Pushing her way into the heart of the cafeteria, she scanned the room with severe focus until a couple minutes passed and she found the four of them sitting at a table in the back.

With a high-strung breath, Sterling marched over to them, hear-ing their laughter grow louder and louder in her ears until she saw their faces drop from laughter to a collective of unspoken inquiries as they looked her over.

The first one to stare into her eyes was the one who seemed to ooze charm and confidence, his wildly styled black hair as untamed as his personality. “Can we help you?”

His friends joined him in glancing over the honey brown haired vixen. But she kept her cool as she rolled her shoulders before she spoke, steeling herself for the topic at hand.

“You’re all Sumner’s former friends, right?”

“Yeah.” the black haired boy said with caution. “And you are?”

“Sterling Jacobs.” She gave them a small smile. “I believe you all know my brother, Straton.” All of their eyes strained at her words. Sterling wasted no time in continuing on with her mission. “I want to talk about Blanche Baxxen.”

The tallest of the group, a scruffy blond that would, under differ-ent circumstances, totally be her type, stood up from the table. In a faint whisper, he leaned toward her. “What do you know about Blanche Baxxen?”

“Maybe we should talk somewhere less public?” Sterling suggest-ed.

They were all in agreement that they should move the exchange elsewhere. The four of them led her to a small little area between the cafeteria and another school building, secluded from the rest of the student body.

“Straton never mentioned having a sister.” The small boy with light brown hair spoke softly. “Does Faith know about you?”

The stain of a smile accosted Sterling’s lips. “You must be Alex.”

He nodded, returning the grin. The rest of them quickly intro-duced themselves, allowing Sterling to put their faces to the names her brother had given her. Not that he knew she was here and skip-ping school to talk to them about her best friend.

“So, Sterling, what are you doing here?” Mercer asked.

“I want to know what you know about Blanche. Because if you know anything about Sumner using her—”

“We don’t know anything. We never even heard of her before the news report.” Bridge explained, picking at the handful of tater tots he’d brought with him from lunch.

“Nothing? You never saw her with Sumner at a party or anything like that?”

Abram shook his head. “He never talked about a girl. Really ev-er.”

“Anyway, we think he met Blanche after everything happened the night of the first attack.” Alex added.

“None of this makes sense,” Sterling began to pace, giving con-trol over to her frustrations. “This isn’t Blanche.”

“How do you know her?”

Sterling tossed her hair to the other side, biting her lip in small slivers. They waited for her explanation as she quietly gathered her-self. “You swear you don’t know anything about Blanche’s involve-ment with Sumner?”

“If we did, we’d be sitting in a police station having every detail pulled out of us.” Abram told her. “We’re as clueless as you, Sterling.”

Quieting her mind, she nodded at them. If Blanche had met Sumner after he fled from police, they really wouldn’t know any-thing. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear what she had to say because they would already have some of the answers. Slowly, she began to explain herself.

“Blanche and I are best friends. We met in middle school when she moved to Hanover from Virginia. She was a grade above me, so when she went to the high school, we were separated. But that’s when she got close to Straton. My freshman year, when Blanche was a sophomore and my brother was a senior, they started dating.”

“Straton and Blanche?”

Sterling shook her head positively at Alex’s question. “For a little while. Once Straton graduated, they split and it was back to me and Blanche against the world.” She paused to laugh it off a little, re-membering the dynamic between her and the girl she considered a sister. “But then Blanche graduated this past summer and we were separated again.”

“Where did she go after graduation?” Mercer said.

“Her plan was to go to Heartmyth, but because of some issues with her mom, she couldn’t go right away. She always wanted to travel, so she took the opportunity to see more than just the sights of New Hampshire. So, she left town.”

“And she ended up finding Sumner along the way.” Bridge scoffed.

Sterling raised her shoulders noncommittally. “I guess. But there’s no way Blanche put her mother in the coma.”

Alex’s eyes bulged, and he saw all of his friends were reacting in the exact way that he was. “Coma?”

“That’s why they sent her to Arclan Asylum. She returned back to Hanover and the day I was supposed to finally reunite with her, they found her mom unresponsive. Blanche was blamed, and sent to Arclan.”

“This entire thing is insane.” Bridge sighed.

“But she didn’t do it. Blanche and her mom had serious issues, and I’m not saying that there were times that she didn’t have just cause to at least wish her mom ill will, but she would never bash her own mother’s head in.” Tears stung at the brims of her eyes. “I think Sumner is the one who hurt Blanche’s mother.”

“Sumner?”

Sterling affirmed Bridge’s curiosity, shaking her head as she went on.

“She met Sumner, got involved with him, and finally realized that he was actually dangerously crazy and stopped helping him. Then a couple days later, Blanche’s mother is comatose and she ends up in Arclan, where Sumner just happened to be hiding beneath? I don’t believe in such a huge coincidence.”

The friends took in her words, staring at Sterling and then at one another. If somehow Sumner had framed Blanche for her mother’s condition, then that meant that Sumner was even more of an at-tempted murderer. He was a calculated and cold-hearted vessel of vicious assault.

“How much did Straton tell you?” Abram said.

“He told me about his and Hugo’s interactions with Sumner at the start of August. And about how the police knew about him but not about Hugo and to keep it that way for as long as possible. Then he told me about you guys, about what you must have went through that night.” Sterling concluded.

“We’re really sorry about Blanche,” Alex began. “But we have no idea where she’s hiding.”

“I’m sorry if I seemed to accuse you before. I just want to find her. She must be terrified, being on the run.”

“We want to find her too. “Abram nodded. “She spent time with Sumner right before he showed up at Straton’s doorstep. If she knows why he was practically bathing in blood, we have to find her and get to the bottom of why Sumner started this hysteria all those months ago.”

“That won’t be a problem.” Sterling said, her demeanor straight-laced and determined. “Because after Westbrooke’s Homecoming, I’ll be transferring here.” She ignored the crazed way their eyes constricted. “Because even if Blanche wises up and flees this place, I’m not giving up until I know every detail of what Sumner Shadows did that led him to destroy my best friend’s life.”

Sterling Jacobs spun on the tips of her toes then, content with abandoning Sumner’s old friends and letting them mull her words over like the serious proclamation that they were.

 

Adelaide Llewellyn felt instantly nervous once she ended her phone call with November St. James. She placed her cell phone on the kitchen counter, her husband coming into the room with his inter-ests raised.

“Who was that?” Ethan prompted.

“Nova,” she responded, absentmindedly swiping at her cheek as she felt the heat rising to her face. “Celia showed up and wanted to have a dinner with everyone.”

“Celia? Why?”

Adelaide scoffed. “Some sort of mock apology for the incident beneath Arclan.”

Ethan shrugged as he searched through the refrigerator for a pitcher of sweet tea he’d made earlier. Pouring himself a glass, he said, “I wonder what took her so long to do something like this. Her and Hendrick haven’t said two words to us since the night Sumner attacked the kids.”

“I get it, they wanted to give us space.” Adelaide told her hus-band. “But I still feel uneasy about the whole thing.”

“I just don’t know how the kids are going to react to it.”

A dark thought crept into her mind then. A thought that had been a heavy shadow on her subconscious for a while now. Hesitation settled into her skin as she braced herself for what she was about to do. Adelaide had wanted to discuss her weighing thoughts with her husband for weeks. But fear of Ethan’s response had halted her proaction and implanted the seed of doubt deep within the abyss of her psyche; until now.

“Speaking of the kids, I think we should tell Alex and Faith the truth.”

Her eyes stayed on Ethan’s the entire time. At first, he remained impassive and unmoving. Then his eyes sparked and a huge exhale widened his nostrils in hindrance. Adelaide saw the hair raise on his knuckles. “No, Addie. No way in hell.”

“Ethan—”

“Are you ready for our kids to change the way they look at us?” He staggered in his stance, making her feel all the more uneasy. “I’m not. I may never be.”

“They deserve the truth. Do you know how hard this has been to keep bottled up after everything that’s happened?”

“And it’s just easy for me, right? You need to stop thinking that you’re alone in this, Adelaide. I’m your husband. This is something we agreed on. We’re not doing this to them.”

“How long do you expect us to wait, Ethan? Until the twins leave for college? When they get married?”

“Enough.” Ethan shook his head with as much vigor as his bari-tone carried upon every syllable he had spoken. “We’re not saying a word.”

Ethan Llewellyn stormed off, his feelings distorting his words to the point of scaring him, not sure of what he would tell his wife if he didn’t walk away. A bedroom door slammed with finality out of her vision, Adelaide wishing she hadn’t decided to share the burden that she continued to feel aching in her heart. Instead, she swallowed the truth like she always did and grabbed her keys in a futile attempt to leave the house, taking her deep secret with her.

 

“A friendly reminder that Homecoming nominees will be announced shortly before school officially ends.”

Alex heard the announcement over the intercom system, but he wasn’t all that interested. He just cared that they got out of class for the last five minutes before school let out for the Homecoming an-nouncement. Cutting his way through the random crowd of stu-dents, he found his friends huddled together by his sister’s locker, talking mildly amongst themselves. Aside from his friends and his sister, Kirby and Willa were gathered around as well.

“There you are.” Faith smiled at her brother.

Abram came up to him, grinning like a wide eyed puppy as he put an arm around his shoulders. Mercer and Kirby were hanging off each other. Bridge was laughing at something with Willa. All eyes fell on him then, making Alex feel uncomfortable enough to invol-untarily laugh.

“What’s going on?”

“Though she won’t tell us who,” Bridge said. “Faith says at least one of us got nominated for Homecoming Court.”

“Why would someone nominate us?” Alex huffed.

“Everyone has pretty much gotten over the Sumner thing, and now most people feel guilty for how they’ve treated you guys, espe-cially after Sumner showed up underneath Arclan.” Faith explained.

“It’s obviously me.” Mercer said, his head raised in a show of con-fidence. “All of Westbrooke not only feels bad for me with my gun-shot wound, but they finally have come to terms with me being the hottest guy in school.”

Kirby put a finger to Mercer’s lips. “Please stop.”

They all laughed together as the PA system crackled back to life, silencing most of the chatter around them in the hallway.

“And now it’s time to announce this year’s Homecoming Court.”

The friends all listened while the principal announced the girls nominated for Homecoming Queen. But Alex wasn’t surprised when his sister was nominated, considering how many clubs she was in and how connected to everything within the school she was. Faith brushed it off, saying that she was way too busy to campaign for votes despite the smile on her face.

“Our first nominee for Homecoming King is…Abram St. James.”

Shock wasn’t even an accurate portrayal of what overwhelmed Abram’s senses when he heard his name being called. His friends congratulated him in a fury of smiles and eager embraces, all while Thalia Cobbins continued to elate the school with the remaining nominees.

He gave Alex the last hug as he laughed.

“Congrats, Abe.” Mercer grinned. “You really deserve it.”

“Normally, there’s only four nominees for both king and queen,” Thalia urged everyone’s attention, waiting as everyone hung off eve-ry syllable she uttered. “But this year, there was a tie between the last two nominees, so this year there will be an additional student vote for Homecoming King. Congratulations to…Alex Llewellyn.”

Alex felt completely numb after the announcement, seeing noth-ing besides Abram as the taller man swung him into a massive hug. It had been Alex’s dream back when he was Lissa to be Homecoming Queen, and of course, later, Prom Queen. But never in his wildest dreams did he conjure up a way where he could possibly win Home-coming King as his true self.

“This is perfect!” Abram said, grabbing Alex’s hands, their friends still encompassing them. “I was going to do this whole grand gesture but now is the perfect segue.”

Alex stood by, looking into Abram’s eyes with cloudy curiosity all while their friends looked on with just as inquisitive expressions as the one Alex had.

“I know it’s been a weird couple of months and a lot has gone on in our lives since senior year started, but I’ve done a lot of thinking lately. I’m finally at a really good place in my life and the only thing missing, is you.” Their friends stood in anticipation as Abram squeezed Alex’s hands with his own. “I want us back. I want you back.” Abram went on. “That’s why I’m asking you…will you go to Homecoming with me?”

“Abe, what about—”

“I’m not done. I want us to go to Homecoming together, but I want you to go with me as my boyfriend.”

Bridge and Mercer immediately clasped each other on the shoul-ders and gave half hugs to one another. Alex saw his sister looking on lovingly out of the corner of his eyes. But when he turned back to Abram, all he could see in his eyes was love.

“Abe, I don’t want you to do this if it’s not really what you want.”

Abram laughed. “Don’t you get it, Alex? I love you. I love you as Lissa and I love you as Alex. You were right. You haven’t changed. You’re the same person I fell in love with two years ago. I don’t care what other people interpret us as, because we’ll always be us. I love you, Alex. All you have to do is let me.” He beamed with radiating confidence and adoration. “Let me take you to Homecoming like we always planned. Say yes.”

Alex laughed, suddenly flooded with warm emotions. He saw himself reflected in Abram’s eyes and he realized that this is what true, concentrated happiness really felt like. Clutching back against Abram’s grip, Alex chuckled lightly, a nod preceding his answer.

“Absolutely.”

Holding onto his hands, Abram pulled himself forward and gin-gerly laid his lips on top of Alex’s, both of them finally feeling at peace with their relationship, not caring who saw them kiss. They heard their friends exclaiming ecstatically, but Alex and Abram were caught up in each other, knowing that they were back to how they were meant to be.

 

Morning came all too quickly the next day for everyone. The huge news of the Homecoming Court was still looming on all of their minds. For Bridge particularly, it made him a little sad when he thought about the upcoming dance. He was the only one without an actual date. Abram and Alex were an official thing again. Mercer was obviously taking Kirby, Faith was going with Straton. Even Willa was unavailable to take pity upon his situation since she had a date too, telling everyone it was a surprise as to who she was going with. And then there was the issue of Ben, not that his friends knew any-thing about his secret relationship.

Ben and Bridge had been pretty much seeing each other ever since the incident at the Meadows residence when they had made-up. Bridge still held a bundle of guilt about it, but Ben swore he was go-ing to break things off with Paige when the time was right.

He was waiting for his friends to meet him at school, passing by one of the faculty-only bathrooms when he was quickly pulled inside the one closest to him. Ben’s darkly handsome face came into view as he flipped the bathroom light on, Bridge’s mind ever spinning from the abrupt change in scenery.

“Ben,” Bridge giggled, mentally chastising himself at the occur-rence. “What are you doing?”

“I wanted to see you.” Ben said with a quick kiss and a smile to match it. “And to tell you that I’m gonna be at Homecoming.”

“You are?” This was news to Bridge, considering the point that Ben hadn’t really stepped foot into the halls of Westbrooke since he’d been relieved of his Abram advisory duties just about a week before.

He nodded quickly. “Paige has to supervise and I’m going as her date.”

“Right,” Bridge exhaled, over their conversation already. “You’re going because of Paige.”

“Hey.” Ben let a hand cup the rigid jaw line he loved kissing, star-ing into Bridge’s mysteriously dark irises as he spoke. “I was serious about us, Bridge. It’s just not the right moment for me to break-up with Paige right now.”

He sighed again. “I know. It’s just hard. I want to be with you, for real. And keeping this from my friends—”

“I know.” Ben softly pressed a kiss on Bridge’s forehead. “It won’t always be like this. I promise.”

“I gotta go.” Bridge said, giving him a weak smile. “My friends are probably wondering where I am.”

“Alright. See you at Homecoming?”

“Just try and keep your eyes off me.” He leaned into Ben and gave him a rough kiss full of I-can’t-waits and wait-until-we’re-alones, leaving Ben wanting more as he left the older man in the bathroom, and exited once a few moments had passed. Bridge stepped out of the bathroom, only to be face to face with Principal Cobbins.

“That doesn’t look like the student bathrooms, Mr. Mathison.”

He gave her an abashed wince of an apology. “Sorry, Principal Cobbins. Won’t happen again.”

Bridge turned and ran down the hall, causing Thalia to roll her eyes and yell, “You’re indoors, Mathison!”, which triggered him to ultimately slow his pace as he ran toward the meeting place in be-tween the two school buildings to gather with his friends.

When he stumbled upon his friends in their signature nook, he saw Alex and Abram holding hands, something he hadn’t seen them do in quite a while. It inspired a smile to tickle his upper lip.

“You guys took no time getting gross again.” Bridge snickered.

“Jealous?” Alex raised an eyebrow in mock annoyance, a smirk on the tips of his lips.

“Hardly,” he smiled back. “How’s it feel to be back together?”

Alex looked to Abram before regarding Bridge again. “Surreal.”

“Yeah. It’s different now. It feels more authentic than before.” Abram explained.

“Now we just gotta find you a date, B.” Mercer guffawed. “Unless you’ve already found a willing one-time victim.”

“Hey, contrary to my track record, I do want to have a meaning-ful relationship and I am capable of one.”

“I know.” Mercer nodded. “I was joking. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m just gonna go stag to Homecoming. I don’t need a date to get a guy to dance with me.”

“True.” Alex chimed in. “Plus, you can spend extra time laughing at those of us on Homecoming Court when the karaoke thing starts.”

“What karaoke thing?” Abram’s voice heightened, terror taking over his tone.

“I’ve been waiting to tell you,” Alex stated. “Faith only told me this morning. The Homecoming Court is going to perform, singing a song of our choosing to the school. Then after all the nominees perform, voting will be open.”

“Why?” Mercer asked.

“They’re looking for chemistry between the noms and their dates. The hope is that it’ll be about that instead of a popularity contest, even if two of the winners aren’t actually together.”

“Interesting. Weird logic, but interesting.” Bridge shrugged.

“Honestly, I just think Mrs. Wingfield has been watching too much of The Voice.” Alex laughed.

“I assume you guys haven’t heard from any of the potential Em-my Walkers?”

Mercer’s inquiry shifted the vivacity amongst them. Abram and Alex had been the ones to leave the messages with the people they called, so it was up to them to keep tabs on the prospects of finding the connection between Sumner and this conundrum of a woman.

“Nothing yet.” Abram admitted. “But hopefully soon. Emmy Walker has to tie this whole thing together.”

The conversation was altered yet again when they saw Sterling wandering around campus.

“The hell?”

Bridge led the others away from their nook to the pathways around campus until they approached Sterling on the quad, the grass still slick from the morning’s dew.

“Sterling,” Alex took the reins on the questions, Sterling’s eyes resting on them with intense and irritated pupils. “What are you do-ing back here?”

“I’ve been looking for you.” Sterling stated. “I’m taking the rest of the week off since I’m transferring here Monday.”

“You’re still going through with that?” Abram interrogated.

“Without question.” Sterling affirmed. She reached into her bag, pulling out a letter. “And this just solidifies why I have to.”

She shoved the letter toward them, allowing them to huddle to-gether and devour the words scribed on the page.

 

Sterling,

Don’t worry about me, I’m okay, but I won’t be for much longer if what I assume is happening turns out to be true. Trust the Slayer Society, they’re trying to put an end to Sumner, something I could never do. Show them this letter, hopefully they’ll realize I trust them and, maybe, they’ll re-turn the favor. I’ll be at their Homecoming. I’ll explain everything there. Meet me on the roof. I’ll see the five of you there.

Blanche

 

Saucers for eyes, the once again dubbed Slayer Society didn’t know what to do with their soon to be meeting with Blanche Baxxen and her vague and choppy attempt at warning them about impend-ing dangers.

“I found it this morning,” she said. “It was on my bed when I woke up.”

“How do we know she’ll show?” Mercer’s worry was easily mir-rored on all of his friends’ faces.

“Can’t you read between the lines?” Sterling’s feeble state of being began to quake in front of them. “Blanche is scared. She said she won’t be okay for long. Sumner might be trying to track her down, which means this is her last chance to tell her story before something awful happens.”

“Well then we better be ready for Homecoming.” Abram said.

“Are we really, for once, actually going to figure something out about why Sumner started all of this?” Alex said, his open ended question full of hope.

They all begged it to come to life, because the reason behind why they were henceforth referred to as The Slayer Society was a mystery they really hoped to solve. If a situation presented itself in the form of meeting with Blanche, they could go back to lives free of secrets and finding answers to questions that, whether they knew it or not, they might not be ready for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16

HOMEKILLING

 

 

Westbrooke had been buzzing with Homecoming hysteria throughout the week. Now that Friday had finally fallen upon the masses, the entire school was bubbling with anticipation for the dance. But before the gym became the dancefloor, it first had to hold the very important event that was the pep rally.

Classes were done with and everyone was either on their way to the pep rally or was already attempting to find a coveted seat in the bleachers. While almost every able body in Westbrooke High was piling into the gymnasium, Abram was lingering in the weight room with the other Westbrooke Wolverine cheerleaders for the pep rally to begin.

He was standing with his sister, nerves welling against every ac-tion he displayed as he retied his shoes for the third time.

“Abe, relax.” Willa laughed. “You’re going to do fine.”

“It’s just been a long time since I’ve done this. And the last time I did…” he trailed off, not wanting to say the name of the marauder that had actually gotten him into cheerleading.

The door to the weight room flung open, Alex gliding in and greeting everyone with a smile. Harley was quick to notice his sud-den arrival and swiftly went to meet him at the head of the room.

“Alex,” Harley hid her immediate uneasy feelings about the should-be-captain of her squad showing up behind doors closed to those without a uniform. “Hi.”

“Sorry for intruding. I just wanted to wish everyone luck.” he beamed again.

Alex waved and hugged a few of his cheerleader friends before striding over to the St. James siblings. “You guys nervous?”

“I’m not.” Willa flicked her wrist at her brother. “But your boy-friend here is wearing the cologne of nervous.”

“Shut up.” Abram scoffed. “You won’t be making fun of me when I drop you on your face out there.”

“You’ll do great. You were amazing on this team, Abe. Just think back to those old times and you won’t have anything to worry about.” Alex reached out and rubbed his shoulder.

“You’ve nailed this routine.” Willa agreed. “It’ll be fantastic.”

“Alright guys, it’s time.” Harley yelled over the chatter amongst the various cheerleaders.

“Good luck, you guys.” Alex hugged Willa quickly, followed by giving Abram a fast kiss. “Go entertain the school with what I’m sure is a transcendent mash-up of several Top 40 hits.”

Abram and Willa left with the squad, leaving Alex alone to fol-low them. Just as he was passing through the door of the weight room, Alex’s phone went off, a loud screeching from the front pock-et of his jeans. The cheerleaders’ loud music began to blare as he walked toward the bleachers. Reaching for his phone, he pulled it out to see the caller ID was displaying ‘Potential Emmy Walker #3’ across the surface of his screen.

He stopped right where he was, which was just off to the side of the bleachers. The phone continued to ring, not that it was heard over the music as the cheerleaders began their routine. After taking a quick glance at Abram and seeing the smile on his face, Alex searched the vast seating of the bleachers until he spotted Bridge and Mercer sitting with Faith and Kirby. The four of them were intently watching Abram and the rest of the Wolverines cheer. Soon, Bridge and Mercer glanced over and saw him at the bottom of the bleachers. With an unsteady hand, Alex waved them over to him as he went ahead and clicked answer on his phone, fearing that he would miss the incredibly dire opportunity to see if this was the woman they had been looking for.

“Hello?”

“Is this Alex Llewellyn?”

“Yes, it is.”

Bridge and Mercer were sauntering over to him when he put a hand over the receiver. “It’s a possible Emmy Walker.”

Their glares of astonishment were enough for Alex to lead them back into the empty weight room so their conversation could remain as secret as it felt for them to even take the phone call, while Abram did his best to focus on the routine as he watched his friends leave the area. Once they were safe and secure that they were alone in the weight room, Alex put the call on speakerphone so they could all hear what the woman on the other end had to say.

“Hello? Are you there?”

“I’m sorry, I’m here. I’m Alex Llewellyn.”

“I got your message.” the woman said. “You were asking about Emmy Walker?”

The three of them eyed each other with an abyss of hope between the silence among them. Alex cleared his throat before continuing on. “Yes, that’s right. I’m looking for anyone with information on an Emmy Walker that might have any connection to Armor Falls here in New Hampshire.”

“This isn’t really something I should talk about over the phone. Is it possible for you to meet with me, say Monday?”

“Ma’am, are you Emmy Walker?”

“I’ll explain everything in person, Mr. Llewellyn. Can you meet me or not?”

It was finally happening. They were already meeting Blanche lat-er tonight at Homecoming and now they might have some sort of lead on who exactly Emmy Walker was, and what role she played in the inner workings of why Sumner decided to lose grip on his re-maining hold to reality the night that he attacked them in the ceme-tery.

“Where are you located?” Alex said, his voice trembling a little.

“Vermont, actually, in Hartland. But it’s only about a thirty-minute drive from where you are now. Is there a coffee shop or something where we could meet?”

“The Bistro, on Seventh.” Bridge whispered to Alex, making sure to keep his voice low enough so the woman couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying.

“What was that?”

“Um, there’s a place called The Bistro here in town. We can meet there.”

“I’ll be there. See you next week, Mr. Llewellyn.”

“Thanks—” Alex was going to say more, but the woman decided to end their phone call before he could say much more.

They looked at each other, still in awe at the cycle of situations that plagued their lives. Tonight, they were finally getting some an-swers as to how Blanche was tied into what Sumner did the night that he visited Heartmyth and then, in just the span of seventy-two hours, they were, hopefully, on their way to finding out the enigma that was the woman named Emmy Walker.

 

Kirby plucked in her last earring, finalizing her look for the night. She was excited about going to Homecoming, especially with Mer-cer, but she was wrapped up in her rampant thoughts, a carousel of wayward feelings.

Stakes were already high enough with the meeting with Blanche that Mercer had confided in her, but she couldn’t get the note Blanche had addressed to her mother away from the forefront of her thoughts. She knew that she should tell Mercer and his friends that Blanche and her mother were in contact with each other, but she would rather die than betray her mother. Not after everything her mother sacrificed for her upon moving them to Armor Falls.

She had to talk to her. Kirby had to know why her mother was possibly aiding Blanche Baxxen and why she wasn’t going to the po-lice about it.

“Mom.” Kirby called from her mother’s massive walk-in closet that she had insisted on getting ready in. But that’s because it was flawless.

The closet had its own makeup station, a gorgeous pink vanity complete with a halo of lights and every product you would ever need to apply if you chose to do so. A small couch big enough for two resided opposite the vanity. In one of the corners of the room was a sewing machine, a chair sitting right before it for when her mother got into one of her creative fits and made gorgeous garments while in the next corner was a fabric rack that held the materials she would use to spin the fabric to her obsessive ideas. Of course, the walls spoke of her mother’s vast fashion taste, plentiful designer clothes mixed in with mounds of her mother’s own creations. And Kirby’s Homecoming dress was an Athena Wheaton original.

“Where are you, darling?” Her mother called from the second floor hallway. “Are you still in the vault?”

She momentarily rolled her eyes playfully at her mother’s nick-name for the closet. As Kirby played around with a questionable an-imal print vest, she said, “Yes, I’m here.”

Athena walked through the closet’s already opened double doors, smiling down at her daughter with widespread pride. She looked breathtakingly beautiful in the dress she had made for her. It was Athena’s favorite color, pink, covered in intricate, wispy lace. The dress was gorgeous from absolutely any point of view. And for whatever reason, Kirby was insisting on wearing one of her leather jackets over the dress, claiming it “completed the look” even though her mother was the obvious designer between them. Luckily, the jacket was white and matched the lace on the tight but stretchy fabric.

“You look amazing, sweetheart.” Athena admitted. “Mercer is go-ing to pass out when he lays his eyes on you.”

Kirby was just about to open her mouth, letting her mental floodgates spill forth from the jail of her thoughts about the letter from Blanche, when the doorbell rang loudly throughout the house from downstairs.

“That’s probably Mercer.” Athena lit up. “Hurry up with your fi-nal touches and meet us in the foyer. It has better lighting for pic-tures.”

Any attempts at protest were halted by her mother’s rushing to answer the door. Kirby sighed as she stood up, grabbing her white clutch off the vanity. Maybe it was a sign that Mercer had shown up before she confronted her mom. With everything else going on, it probably was best if she waited to discuss the letter. Kirby decided to do just that, at least until after the meeting with Blanche happened at Homecoming tonight.

Taking one last glance at herself in the mirror, Kirby gathered her thoughts into a quiet corner of her mind and left the closet, her mother’s room, and then ultimately the second floor of the house and began descending down the stairs. Her eyes found Mercer’s within milliseconds, smiling at him as he stood mid-walk between the stairs and the foyer, his mouth hanging slightly ajar.

“Kirby,” The breathiness of his voice caused a light wave of blush to cherry her cheeks. “You look…absolutely beautiful.”

“Doesn’t she?” Athena nodded in agreement, ruining their ex-change in a way that both of them just brushed aside. “Kirby, you look utterly ethereal.”

“Thank you.” She responded to her mother’s biased compliment, moving as her feet, donning her mother’s vintage white and pink Chanel heels, hit the first floor’s hardwood. Sliding over to her date, she gave him a bright beam of sentiment as she lightly traced her fin-gers along his messy pompadour styled hair. “You look handsome as hell, by the way.” She leaned in closer, disabling her mother from listening. “Sexy, actually.”

Mercer smiled, tilting his head and clearing his throat at Kirby’s candor. Athena waved them over closer to the foyer, her daughter’s Polaroid camera in her free hand.

“Careful with that, Mom.” She pleaded as she led Mercer into the foyer. “That one is the favorite of my camera children.”

“I know, I know.” Athena rolled her eyes. “Come on, picture time!”

Both teens obliged the matron’s request rather quickly, holding onto each other in several different poses before Athena was satisfied enough to stop creating polaroids.

“Alright, Mom.” Kirby laughed. “We have to get to the dance. I’m taking a few pictures for Yearbook, remember?”

Mercer chuckled as Athena playfully slapped her head in forget-fulness.

“Right,” Athena went to the living room, a Nikon camera carry-ing case replacing the Polaroid one in her hands. “Here’s your pro camera.”

Swinging the strap over her white leather jacket, Kirby grabbed Mercer’s hand again, a glance flung at his gorgeous cerulean irises. “You ready?”

“Actually,” He squeezed her hand before giving her one of those half-smiles that he perfected, from Abram, she had found out, that happened to drive her crazy. “There’s a surprise.”

Momentarily letting go of her hand, Mercer walked over and threw open the front door. Kirby ambled over and felt her jaw gain slack, opening a little when a sleek, white limo sat idling outside of her house.

“Seriously? A limo?”

“It’s not just ours. All of our friends are waiting for us, except for Willa and her mystery date. Faith and Straton, surprisingly, did join us. It’s Adelaide’s gift to us, for all the police trouble.” Mercer winced at the group effort. “I hope it’s okay that we won’t be just taking my Jeep and being alone.”

“Are you kidding? That would be a waste of a breathtakingly per-fect limousine.” Kirby pecked his lips, taming her actions with her mother in attendance. “Let’s go!” She grabbed his hand and started hauling him toward the exaggerated Chrysler 300.

“Bye, Ms. Wheaton.” Mercer managed to throw back over his shoulder.

Athena grinned. “Have fun. Be careful.”

She stopped mid-run and graced back over and gave her mother a quick embrace. “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.”

She watched her daughter and her boyfriend flee from the house, her smile fading the closer they got to the luxury vehicle. Not wast-ing any more valuable time, Athena quickly closed the door and pulled a small burner phone from the front pocket of her dark grey blazer that perfectly went with her flowy silk, cream colored gown. She held down the first button, calling the only speed dial recipient the phone possessed. The person on the other end answered after exactly six rings, the code for it being safe for the two of them to talk.

“Blanche,” Athena breathed cautiously. She had meant to say a little more to the young woman, but she spoke candidly before the chance disappeared acutely. “They just left. Meet me at the spot in fifteen.” She nodded, determination buzzing against her pores. “I’m on my way.”

 

Arriving at Homecoming was a spectacle to behold, especially in a bright white limousine. There was a miniscule red carpet for students to walk, complete with a camera crew that comprised of the photography club. They were streaming the footage to a huge projector screen inside the gym, as well as acting like mock paparazzi that took pictures that Kirby would later go through and help select for the yearbook. And the president of the photography club was acting as some sort of Ryan Seacrest, interviewing people as they showed up.

When Mercer and his friends stepped out of their limo, they were bombarded with cameras, flashes brightening up their faces like a perfect Instagram filter could never accomplish. All of them were a form fitted collective of wide happy caricatures of their usually stressed selves as they got out of the vehicle. Nervous and excited, they walked the carpet very cautiously.

“And now, two more Homecoming nominees have arrived!” Photography club president Hayden Combs said with eager enthusiasm. “Alex, Abram, who are you wearing?”

“My dad’s old Armani.” Alex smiled.

“Nice!” Hayden grinned, telling the camera girl to focus on Abram. “What about you, Abram?”

“David’s Bridal? I literally have no clue.”

Alex laughed, butting in. “He’s wearing Men’s Warehouse.”

“Awesome, you guys look amazing tonight and good luck with both of your nominations. Go ahead and head inside. Have fun!”

“Thanks Hayden, you look great, too.” Abram grinned widely, grabbing Alex’s hand on the way into the gymnasium while Faith stepped up with Straton to talk to Hayden about their choice of wear for the night.

Mercer and Kirby were the last of the friends to walk the carpet, Bridge going just after Straton and Faith. Hayden came up to them next, both of them awaiting the questioning that they knew was in-evitable.

“Mercer Meadows, how’s it going?” Hayden gawked.

“It’s going great, Hayden.” Mercer smiled back. “And even better now that I’m able to ditch that sling I’m sure everyone saw me wear-ing recently.”

“I noticed that! Well, I’m sure it’s very welcoming to be back to your old self again.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“And with you is the newest addition to the yearbook staff,” Hayden bore his brightest smile for them as Kirby stepped up. “As well as the overall new addition to Westbrooke’s senior class. What are you guys wearing tonight?”

“I think I’m wearing Hugo Kloss.”

Kirby cackled, Hayden looking like he didn’t get the gravity of what she was laughing at.

“That would be Hugo Boss.” She told the camera, along with Hay-den and his crew before looking back at Mercer. “Your dads must be cringing back home.”

“I didn’t inherit the fashion sense.” he admitted candidly.

“You two are adorable.” Hayden laughed. “And you, Kirby?”

“I’m wearing Athena Wheaton.” she nodded. “My mother is a de-signer and my dress tonight is just a show of her talents.”

“Amazing! Everyone inside, remember to tell your parents if they want something done like what Kirby has on tonight, to keep her mother in mind!” Hayden kindly told the camera that streamed to inside the gym. “Alright, you guys, head inside and remember to vote for king and queen after the Court Karaoke event, which is just about thirty minutes away.”

Once Mercer and Kirby walked inside the double doors of the gymnasium, awe overcame them both. The night’s theme was dia-monds and ice, the whole setting covered in articulate frozen decora-tions and cubic zirconia detailing. The gym had been devastatingly transformed in the best way possible. It was like they were trapped inside an artic palace beneath the cold waters of Antarctica. And it was overwhelmingly exquisite.

“Holy Met Gala.” Mercer scoffed.

Kirby’s shoulders rattled in small rotations as laughter tickled the back of her throat. “You skewer Hugo Boss’ name but Met Gala you know perfectly.”

Grabbing his hand, Kirby led him over to the gathering near an ice sculpture of a cherub where their friends had decided to congre-gate.

“This place is a madhouse.” Faith scoffed. “Amazing turnout. I’m so glad the Homecoming committee took my suggestion for the theme.”

“Diamonds and ice was your idea?” Kirby smiled.

“Might help my votes.” She winked.

“Just so you know, I’m still against singing ‘Love Is An Open Door’ tonight.” Straton sighed. “I might be a pretty decent shirtless waiter at a gay bar, but a singer, I am not.”

“It’s about the connection,” Abram smiled, clutching Alex’s hand even tighter than he had been. “Plus, it’s not like you’re going to win. We got this.”

“Carla Solaice sounds incredible,” Faith told their group. “There’s talented competition tonight. Nothing’s set in stone.”

“Well, I’m gonna put in a request with the DJ. This whole cou-ple’s competition thing is too mushy for me.” Bridge said, on the hunt for a guy to dance with while he strayed from his hoard of friends.

Faith was about to take Bridge’s cue and drag Straton to the dance floor when her eyes slithered over a friend, a grin smearing across her neon painted features.

“Oh my God.”

Everyone turned to see Willa walking into Homecoming, look-ing like an absolute model in a meringue tinted dress, a smile match-ing the vibrancy of her Chanel ensemble. And Hugo was hanging off her arm.

Willa and Hugo sauntered up to them, warm exchanges evident on their faces. “Hey guys.”

“You kept this a secret on purpose, I’m guessing?” Faith nudged her boyfriend playfully.

“He asked me to.” Straton nodded. “So they could keep the reveal a secret.”

Hugo gave his wildest smirk. “How could I say no to a date with such a gorgeous proprietor?”

Throwing her head back, Willa howled. “You’re too much, Hu-go.” She leaned in close to him and whispered in his ear. “And I love it.”

“Okay, no more of that while I’m around.” Abram laughed, look-ing at Willa with astonished eyes. “You look beautiful, Willa.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I guess this is why you didn’t join us in the limo.”

Willa agreed to his open-ended question presented as a regular statement. “Hugo took me in his BMW.”

My BMW.” Straton corrected.

“Enough chatter, let’s dance!”

Leading him by the hand, Willa guided Hugo to the massive dance floor. Faith and Straton followed them shortly. Kirby would have loved to go with Mercer and shimmy to the baseline of the lat-est Calvin Harris track, but since it was just them standing with Abram and Alex, she had something she needed to discuss with them. But she needed Mercer gone to enable the dialogue.

The perfect excuse to get Mercer away from her much needed exchange with his friends appeared through the crowd in the guise of Harley Krcmaric, who had noticed her brother’s presence and had stopped to talk to him and Willa.

“Why don’t you go dance with Harley?”

Even his friends were a little shocked by her proposition. Mercer still gave her his best raised eyebrow.

“You want me to dance with my ex-girlfriend?”

She shook her head at the stereotype where she automatically had to hate her boyfriend’s ex without question or explanation. If she didn’t like Mercer so much, she would have delivered a lecture.

“Mercer, do you still have romantic feelings for Harley?”

“Of course not, but we’re still friends. Well, acquaintances.” Mer-cer shrugged. “I mean, we have history.”

“Then why would I care? It’s fine, just go catch up.”

“Why are you sending me away all of the sudden? What am I missing?”

Thankful that she thought swiftly under pressure, Kirby tapped her camera, hanging conveniently around her neck. “Just need some candids of the nominees for the yearbook. I’ll cut in shortly.” Kirby smiled at him comfortingly, making sure to add a wink to ease Mer-cer’s surely lingering doubts.

“Alright,” he said, content with her acute analysis. Leaning in, Mercer gave her a quick kiss, softly skimming her lips with his own. “I’ll leave you to your work.”

Her smile faded as he vanished from their area just off the great dance floor. When she turned back to Alex and Abram, they were fixing their outfits and flexing their muscles with their best poses for the pictures they assumed she was about to start taking.

“Okay, where do you want us?” Abram inquired.

“What are you talking about?”

“You told Mercer you needed candids of the Homecoming nom-inees.” Alex repeated her previous words.

“I do,” she assured them, ensuring her boyfriend’s best friends that she hadn’t lied to him. “What makes pictures candids is that you’re not looking into the lens when someone takes the photo. But that’s not why I sent Mercer away.”

Dubiety spread among the two young men. “What do you mean?” Alex asked.

“We need to talk about Straton.”

“Straton?” Abram didn’t like hearing confessions involving the guy that was dating his boyfriend’s sister. “Why Straton?”

“Because he’s telling Faith about the whole Blanche thing that’s happening tonight.”

The very questioning glances that Alex and Abram wore grew with savage intensity. They all took a second to stare over at Straton and Faith, who were dancing closely together as the song shifted to a much slower pace, talking amongst themselves quietly.

“Why do you think that Straton would do something stupid like that?” Alex wondered.

“That’s exactly what he’s doing.” Kirby nodded, scoffing at their nonchalant musings about her findings. “I’m a photographer, what I do is watch people and if you think Straton is too conscious heavy to tell Faith everything, you don’t know him at all. I promise you, Stra-ton is telling her every detail of our meeting with Blanche.”

“Dammit.” Abram swore.

“We need to go ahead and bring Willa into this.” Kirby sighed.

“Absolutely not.” Abram shook his head vehemently.

“Abram, your sister is already tangled up in this. Sumner sent that picture directly to her.” She shook her head. “It’s time to bring Faith and Willa into the Slayer Society.”

“Hey, I take offense to that.” Abram huffed.

“Yeah, I’m not too keen on that label either.”

Kirby laughed a little at how personally they were taking the moniker. “Chill, you guys. It’s not like you guys are the ones who killed someone.”

Thankfully, Kirby decided to turn away and stare at Faith and Straton then, allowing Alex and Abram the time to stare at each oth-er, still glad that Kirby didn’t know the whole story about the attack in the cemetery.

Out on the dance floor, Straton in fact was overcome with guilt and had decided to tell Faith everything about Blanche. He had to tell her. After making the mistake of lying about his friendship to Sumner, Straton couldn’t risk ruining his newly reconciled status with Faith by keeping something of this caliber to himself.

“Faith, I have to tell you something.” Straton started, their slow dance continuing as he spoke. “Something important.”

Intrigue pulsed back against her hazel eyes. Faith kept her arms wrapped around her boyfriend’s neck. “Alright.”

“I don’t want there to be any secrets between us anymore. Which is why I want to tell you that tonight—”

“There’s a meeting with Blanche Baxxen.”

He looked at her like she had suddenly started speaking in tongues. “What? You know?”

Faith gave him a smirk in response. “Of course I know. My brother isn’t nearly as quiet as he thinks he is when he’s on the phone with his friends. That, and he leaves his phone laying around too often. So tell me, what’s happening exactly?”

“It’s happening here at Homecoming.” he continued. “We’re meeting her here so she can explain what happened when she met Sumner.” Straton sighed. “I’m also sorry, about not telling you about me and Blanche.”

“I’m sorry, you and Blanche?”

Straton, overcome with befuddlement, scoffed. “You didn’t know that part?”

“Straton,” Faith detached from him and stared back at him ex-pectantly. “Why don’t you just start from the beginning and tell me everything you know about Blanche Baxxen.”

A little later, it wasn’t long until it was time for the Homecoming Court’s karaoke event. The music from the DJ had stopped and the sing along had begun. Faith and Straton were up, the second to last performers of the Court nominees.

While they were singing, Willa and a loosely following Hugo, found her brother and his friends standing away from the gathering of the student body and keeping to themselves.

“Willa, are you—”

“Okay?” She said, interrupting her brother when they came upon them. “No, I’m not okay because I’m just now finding out about this Blanche thing.”

“What?” Abram looked at his friends, then Kirby, before his eyes rested once more on his sister, wondering how she had found out. “How did you—”

“Faith.” Willa admitted. “Straton told her everything before they went on stage. She found me and Straton told us everything. Abram, what’s going on?”

He looked back to his friends for, well, he wasn’t sure why. But when his eyes went back to Kirby’s smirking facade, she just scoffed and said, “I told you.”

“Should we?” Abram pondered to his friends.

“Aren’t we forgetting how dangerous telling people about this is?” Bridge shook his head, eyeing each of them so they could actually see his throbbing vein of concern.

“Kirby’s right.” Alex added, nodding at Abram. “Abe, they’re al-ready involved.”

All of their focus was shifted when they saw Sterling enter Homecoming, sauntering through the wide oak double doors of the gym. As a collective, they left their conversation for another time and Abram led them over to the girl, whose eyes were expanding as they got to her, startled at the large quantity of their group.

“Sterling.” Abram nodded, his own way of greeting her. “Is it time?”

“Almost.” She reacted positively. “We better get going.”

While they had been talking and meeting with Sterling, Faith and Straton had wrapped up their song, cheers meeting them at the song’s completion.

“And last up for the Court Karaoke are nominees Alex Llewellyn and Abram St. James.”

The crowd immediately turned to where they were huddling at the doors of the gym. They clapped for them to storm the stage and begin singing their song of choice.

“What do we do?” Alex inquired to his friends.

“You two are going to do your song.” Mercer told them. “We’ll take care of this.

“Don’t you think a crowd is going to be a little noticeable while we sneak out?” Sterling urged. “Go do what you have to, but it shouldn’t be this many of us meeting with her. Who are these peo-ple, anyway?”

“Mr. Llewellyn, Mr. St. James,” The teacher on stage bellowed into the microphone. “We’re waiting.”

“Go.” Mercer stated. “I’ll go with Sterling.”

It didn’t take long for Abram and Alex to disappear into the sea of students and make their way towards the stage. When they were out of range, Kirby turned back to her boyfriend, adamancy lathering her usually supple features.

“I’m not letting you go alone.” she scoffed. “I’m coming with you.”

“And what are we supposed to do?” Willa asked, still holding on-to Hugo’s hand while he stood silent.

That’s when Bridge happened to look away from the group as Alex and Abram made their way through the excited applause and onto the stage, catching the eyes of Ben as he looked out. Ben saw him too, lingering at the start of the hallway that led to the strength and conditioning room as well as the various offices of the coaches and the locker rooms.

Bridge cleared his throat, sending his friends an audible signal of his soon-to-be departure. “Yeah, I gotta go.” He shook Mercer play-fully. “You’ve got this, right?”

As Bridge left them for unknown pastures, Straton and Faith made their way to the rest of the group.

“Is it happening?” Faith gestured to Sterling. “I’m Faith, by the way.”

“Sterling.” She smiled at her, eyeing her brother evenly. “We’re trying to minimize the quantity of this meeting.”

“Well I’m going.” Straton demanded. “I’m not letting my sister go without me.”

“Fine.” Mercer interjected. “The four of us should go then.”

“Straton,” Faith went to argue, but he stopped her in seconds with his own words.

“I’ll be fine. Just stay busy and dance.”

“Come on.” Willa let go of Hugo and grabbed her best friend’s hand. “Let them do the hard work.”

The two girls left for the dance floor to watch Abram and Alex perform their song as they readied their already previously chosen track to sing along to.

“Be careful, dude.” Hugo told Straton, following his date to watch the upcoming finale to the Court Karaoke event.

“Okay.” Sterling said, nodding at her brother, and then at Kirby and Mercer. “Did anyone set up a ladder or something to help us get to the roof?” When she was met with vacant stares, her mouth fell open. “Seriously?”

“It’s not like we knew what to do.” Mercer huffed. “It’s not every night we do something like this.”

“Let’s just go.” Straton stated. “We’re wasting time discussing what to do when we should just be figuring it out as we go.”

The four of them did their best to conceal their exit from the gym in pursuit of finding Blanche and learning what she knew.

 

Bridge heard the opening bars of ‘Keep On Loving You’ by REO Speedwagon as he made his way down the hallway, away from the dance floor, rolling his eyes at Abram and Alex’s song choice. He on-ly knew the song because both of them had an obsession with music from the eighties. But Bridge didn’t have time to listen in on his friends’ performance because he was following Ben.

He looked around the corner and saw Ben standing at the end of the hallway, a smirk transfixed on his face as he walked backwards to the boys’ locker room.

“Really?” Bridge said to himself, smiling mischievously as he made his walk over to the boys’ locker room, which, of course, was empty save that for the ever sexy Ben Magnus. “Locker room fantasy?” Bridge went up to his boyfriend, standing in front of him and crossing his arms in feign inspection. “Someone’s been watching porn.”

Laughing for a split lapse of time, Ben pulled the younger man toward him, wrapping his arms around his athletic frame. “I’ve been seeing a high school student, I might as well give in to the scenario, shouldn’t I?”

That’s all it took for them to start kissing, removing each other’s clothes in between heated breaths and softened moans. Time seemed irrelevant to them as they quickly undressed one another. Both men felt completely free as they relished and ravaged their bodies, making love to each other like it was a habit, like it was something that they’d do for the rest of their lives together. Unbeknownst to them though, their time with each other was destined to be short lived, especially since someone was just about to stumble upon their secret sexual rendezvous.

Neither Bridge nor Ben heard the person who had discovered them in the locker room until they screamed. Bridge was actually in the throes when he turned to see an open-jawed Paige overlooking their tryst.

“Oh my God!”

Letting go of Ben’s ankles, Bridge worked on getting his clothes together and throwing them on in a blur of scrambling to be clothed. Ben was working at light speed to get off the bench they had been using and already had his shirt and slacks on when he faced his fian-cé.

“Paige, I can explain.”

“Don’t give me that cliché shit, Ben.” Paige dared a brief glance at Bridge, disgust on her face as he finished getting dressed, his outfit back to resting on his bones once again. She looked back at Ben then. “You’re sleeping with a kid in high school? And he’s underage!”

“I’m so sorry, Paige.” Bridge felt embarrassment and guilt-tinged tears starting to descend down his face. “I didn’t—”

“Don’t.” She put out a hand. “I let you into my house. I gave you a roof over your head, fed you, and you’ve been screwing my fiancée the whole time!?”

“Paige.” Ben pleaded with his tone rather than deciding it wise to move. “It’s not…I actually have feelings…it’s not just some fling.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Paige yelled, shaking her head violently, her blonde shoulder length hair following her berserk movements. “This can’t be happening.”

“I’m so—”

There was no chance for Ben to offer up an apology due to Paige issuing a hard, calculated slap across his stubble-slathered face. Even Bridge recoiled at the commotion, feeling like he had almost felt the sting of her hand on his own sizzling skin. Ben didn’t move except for the act of grabbing his cheek and staring back at Paige in raw awe.

“I can’t believe you, Ben.” Paige admitted, vital vigor vibrating her vocal chords. “Here’s your ring.” She ripped it off her finger and tossed it at him, hitting his chest and bouncing off, skidding across the dirty floor of the locker room. “And I was even carrying around this stupid mockup of what our wedding invitations could look like to show you tonight.”

Reaching into her blazer’s inside pocket, Paige pulled out a piece of paper, her own personalized stationary, and crumpled it up before throwing it in Ben’s face as well.

“Good riddance, Benjamin.” Paige concluded, a deadlock stare in her eyes. She looked back over at Bridge, delivering a devilish glare of death his way, her eyes pulsing and saturated with severe, explo-sive spite. “I hope you don’t think you’re off the hook. You’ll get what’s coming to you, you can be sure of that. Go to hell, the both of you.”

Sobs started to spill out of Ben with ease when Paige stomped out of the locker room and pummeled the hallway with her stilettos, Ben standing in place as sorrow built a fortress within him like some sort of toxic disease, ready to rupture fatality into his bloodstream. Bridge didn’t even look at Ben, not at first. Instead, he picked up the engagement ring and the balled-up paper, returning to him and holding them out for him to take.

“Ben, I…” The older man ceased his cries long enough to make eye contact with Bridge, an action the latter was thankful for after their dynamic had just drastically been altered. “I don’t know what to say.”

“That’s because there’s nothing left to say.” Still somber and visi-bly distraught, Ben cradled Bridge’s face and planted a finale of a kiss against his lips, pulling away from him and taking the ring from Bridge’s waiting hands. “Nothing but goodbye.”

“Ben—”

“I’m sorry, Bridge. For everything. I just hope you know that…” He had to stop himself from choking on his diction. “That this, us, was the most real thing I’ve ever had.”

Bridge felt his own emotions catching up with him. “What’s go-ing to happen now?”

“You’ll go back to your friends, your life.” Ben laughed in frustra-tion at how he wished he could do the same, even though he knew there was no chance of that happening. “As for me, it’s all over.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I have expectations to fulfill.” he screeched. “My parents expect for me to get married, to a woman, inherit my father’s psych center, sire some biological kids…”

“Ben,” Bridge latched onto his hands like his own were Ben’s gloves, attempting to provide some much needed warmth to the palms opposite him. “You’re your own person, not some dream-toy mannequin for your parents to manipulate and direct. You have choices.”

“You don’t get it.” He stepped back, away from Bridge’s reach. “We have different destinies, Bridge. We’re both meant for opposing outcomes. Maybe all we were meant to be to each other was a beauti-ful distraction.”

“How am I supposed to let all of this go, everything that’s hap-pened between us?” Bridge didn’t know how to just let his relation-ship evaporate into the ether. They’d tried before, and here they still were, still sneaking around.

But even Bridge had to admit that a relationship made up of hushed meet-ups and secretive sexual encounters couldn’t last forev-er.

“We’ll see each other around,” Ben tried to smile, but it faltered and looked incredibly forced. “I love you, Bridge. I honestly do.”

Unable to say the same with the devastation around them, Bridge tried to keep from crying and just jutted out his hand that still held the scribbled on stationary. But Ben pushed his palm away.

“Keep it. I don’t need another reminder of what I’ve done.” Bridge finally felt his tears begin their exit from his dark orbs as Ben gripped him closer for one more kiss.

“Goodbye, Ben.”

“Goodbye, Bridge.”

They let their stares linger until Ben turned around and made his exit from the locker room, leaving Bridge there alone with Paige’s paper. But he couldn’t mourn the passing of his relationship for too long, due to the fact that the stationary, which was just an off-white color with a design in the bottom corner, looked instantly recog-nizable. Bridge’s eyes flew open, knowing where he’d seen it before. And that’s when the music thumping into the Westbrooke gymnasi-um ceased as Abram and Alex finished their song, following the cue from Bridge’s heart.

It was written on paper he’d carried between his fingers before. It was the exact same paper that had sent him and his friends to Sumner’s house to retrieve from the room he had stayed at under-neath Arclan Asylum.

Paige’s words hissed against his ribcage, a cacophony of anxiety startling his heart. You’ll get what’s coming to you. Bridge was coerced into living with her by Adelaide’s heavy spirited suggestion, but what if it had been a skillfully planned ploy, a scheme of crafted malevolence? What if Paige was their stalker and had been antagonizing them this entire time?

 

Abram loved the look on Alex’s face when they got on stage as the surprise song began to play. ‘Keep On Loving You’ was another one of their favorite eighties ballads, and it perfectly described how they were both feeling. So they sang the song with ease, Alex looking over at him and vice versa while they sang along to the karaoke instru-mental.

After it was all over, they were met with wild jeers and a few shouts of encore as they descended from the stage. Thalia Cobbins took to the mic then as Alex and Abram faded into the crowd.

“Alright, everyone, you have five minutes to vote for king and queen before we announce the winners.”

The student body briefly applauded for the principal as the DJ spun the music again, a mindless loopy beat filling the room. Alex and Abram shoved their way out of the now dancing crowd and found a clearing void of their fellow classmates.

“Where is everyone?”

Alex’s open-ended inquiry was forgotten when Willa and Faith came up to them, the former’s date trailing them expectantly.

“They’re not back yet.” Faith crossed her arms hesitantly. “Shouldn’t they be back?”

“I have a bad feeling about this.” Alex added.

“Stay here.” Abram told his sister, and by extension, Hugo. “We need to see what’s taking them so long.”

Alex and Abram started for the exit of the Homecoming dance, Faith still planning to join them as they went to leave the gymnasi-um. Abram looked behind them, seeing that Bridge had joined his sister, looking devastatingly forsaken. Unfortunately, neither of them would get the chance to find their friends because right before they approached the main entrance door, it burst open with police officers led by the dangerously intense Detective Alston Dagger.

The teens stopped their trek out of the building, watching as Principal Cobbins marched over to the detective, visually upset at the police department’s sudden intrusion at the high school’s social func-tion.

“What is all this, detective?” Thalia demanded explanation from him.

“This entire building is being put on lockdown.” Dagger nodded, gesturing for the accompanying officers to set up a perimeter around the gym.

“What? Why?”

“Because we have reason to believe that Blanche Baxxen is on the premises.”

As Dagger ordered the DJ to cut off the music and took control of the entire room at Homecoming, the friends shared worried glances, instantly wondering how they were going to explain the fact that their friends, all of which Dagger was already beginning to notice was missing from their collective, were trying to meet with the very fugitive that the police were very keen on capturing.

 

“This was stupid. We’re-gonna-get-arrested stupid.”

Mercer’s words reflected how every one of them felt as they climbed the stairs that led to the roof of the gymnasium. They had found an access hatch at the back of the gym outside that brought them to an emergency stairwell, which then led to the roof. It had taken them a little while to think to trace the perimeter of the gym for a way up, but luckily they were still making the best of their time. All of them knew that Blanche must be waiting on them beyond the stairwell since the lock to the door of the roof access had been busted and left open for them to enter without issue. The throbbing of the music from within the gym seemed to vibrate against the walls as they made their way up the stairs.

The moment finally came, where they reached the top of the stairs, a closed door keeping them from the breaking ground of the roof.

“Everyone ready?” Straton prompted.

“I want to see Blanche. No more stalling.”

Sterling took charge of their group, pushing the door open with a hard, grunt-earning push. Straton quickly followed his sister without hesitation or doubt, but Mercer and Kirby hung back for a couple seconds.

“He already asked, but are you ready?” Kirby was still new to be-ing included into Slayer Society matters, but she knew that this meeting with Blanche was a big deal. Smiling on a miniscule scale, she let out a hand for him, a gesture to try and alleviate his anxiety.

Mercer mimicked her little grin, reaching out and graciously tak-ing her hand with his own. “Ready and willing.”

Hand in hand, Kirby and Mercer walked out onto the roof, catching up to Straton and Sterling, just walking out onto the roof. Once they were all together, they kept looking around, since Blanche was nowhere they could see.

“Blanche?”

Straton nudged his sister. “Really? Calling out into the open night? Do you want this to end like Scream?”

“She should be here.” Sterling scoffed, concern and caution seep-ing through her scared tone.

“Maybe she’s running late.” Mercer shrugged.

“Then how do you explain the lock, Mercer?”

Without warning, the music from the Homecoming dance below them ceased to pulse at their feet.

“Why did the music stop?” Kirby questioned as they all turned around, facing the door they had just entered through.

And that’s when Sterling started to scream enough for all of them.

Hanging from the top of the roof door’s platform, dripping with fresh slick crimson blood, was the lifeless body of Blanche Baxxen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17

ONE OF YOU

 

 

Silence crowded around them like an abundant fog of stagnant thought as Sumner’s former friends explained a few things to the other involved individuals in the wake of an earth-shattering murder.

Once the police had found Blanche’s body, Homecoming was of-ficially over. Police tape and sirens cloaked the entire mass of West-brooke High, and the friends had spent the rest of the weekend in-side an interrogation room, answering an onslaught of angled ques-tions from Detective Dagger. Ultimately, they had gotten out of Dagger’s line of fire, but only because of Sterling claiming she asked Blanche to meet her there and forced the rest of them to help prove Blanche’s innocence. It had worked. But not for all of them.

Sterling and Straton were still being bombarded with questions by the police for their former relationships with Blanche, from their time with her before she became a patient at Arclan Asylum.

Blanche Baxxen was dead, and everyone thought it was because she knew too much.

No one knew who killed Blanche, but they all had a mutual sus-pect. One they didn’t have to voice out in the open to one another.

Now, the others previously blind to Slayer Society affairs thought there might be another potential killer. They were being told of the news of a stalker trying to bring them down by any means necessary. The silence was accumulating in heavy sheets to the point of discom-fort, so Faith was the first one to infiltrate the sound’s restraint.

“So, just so I’m hearing every detail correctly, there’s been some-one following you, stalking you in every sense of the word, leaving messages and threats for months, and you haven’t gone to the po-lice…why?”

“Because we can’t.” Her brother answered with a much needed sigh. The four of them were standing in the empty St. James house-hold, thankful that they had waited for Abram and Willa’s parents to leave for work before they had called everyone over to hold their private details enlightenment, as he and his friends looked into the open faces of their sisters and one particular girlfriend.

“Why can’t you?” Willa heaved, unfolding her arms and massag-ing her temples with one of her hands to ail the forming headache she felt galloping upon her. “What possible reason could there be for not getting the police to catch whoever is doing this to you?”

“It’s complicated.” Mercer sighed.

“We just can’t.” Abram added to Alex’s earlier ideal. “We’re al-ready risking a lot bringing you guys up to speed on this. We just wanted to tell all of you why we had to be there to meet Blanche.”

The speaking of her name chilled all of them, like the air condi-tioning had been suddenly set to frostbite, their spines coated with icicles. But Faith couldn’t stop her mind from regurgitating queries that kept sizzling her tongue.

“You were meeting with her because of the stalker?”

“Yes,” Mercer stated. “She’s connected to Sumner and the stalker had a message that tied her to him.”

“She’s Streetcar, isn’t she?” Kirby had kept quiet the whole time they’d been talking to them, listening to them expound the intrica-cies of their anonymous follower, and instead deciding to take every detail in; until now. “From Shadows Manor.”

“What is she talking about?” Faith growled.

“It was evidence from the room Sumner hid in below Arclan,” Kirby furthered. “They went there to get it, because the stalker sent you there. And one of the pages said ‘Streetcar’, which was code for Blanche. Am I right?”

Taking a moment to look at each other, speaking silently be-tween one another, the friends gave the reigns of conversation to Mercer to conclude. “Yes.”

“I’m still not getting why you can’t tell the authorities.” Willa shook her head.

“We just can’t, okay?” Bridge yelled, a little louder than he needed to. Bridge, amidst the chaos of being questioned in Blanche’s murder, hadn’t had time to tell his friends about the connection between their stalker and Paige having the same stationary. And it was consuming him, considering he was also dealing with an unfortunately rough break-up. “You know enough. Take it or leave it.”

“But—”

“No, I’m done with this.” Bridge said defiantly. “Anyway, we need to go if we’re goinna make the assembly.”

The assembly had just started when all of them arrived at West-brooke High School. Luckily, the girls hadn’t asked anymore ques-tions once the notion of them being late for the much-anticipated assembly, that Principal Cobbins was issuing before classes began, had been brought up. Since the untimely demise of a certain former patient of Arclan Asylum crashed Homecoming before the an-nouncement of King and Queen, the whole school was being gath-ered for the awaited reveal.

“Before we begin,” Thalia ushered as they found a place in the crowd. The Homecoming Court was standing behind Thalia on the floor of the now repurposed back-to-normal gymnasium while eve-ryone else settled into the extracted bleachers. “I’d like to take a mo-ment of silence for Blanche Baxxen, as well as all of those who knew her.”

An unsettling sweep of sorrow and despair descended upon the communal of students and faculty. Blanche wasn’t a student at the school, but the loss of such a young life resonated with everyone. It was a good two minutes before Thalia started speaking into the microphone again.

“Alright, without further ado, let’s announce the winners of Homecoming King and Queen.”

A teacher came over to Thalia and an envelope was exchanged between their hands with the fluid flick of their wrists. The principal ripped at the edges of the news of who had won the coveted Homecoming titles. A smile skated across her face as she read the results from the dance’s voting. She looked up from the results and spoke evenly into the mic.

“We have a first here at Westbrooke High School.” Thalia beamed. “For the first time ever, our school doesn’t have a queen.” She paused as a few girls gasped at the newfound fact. “Our two Homecoming Kings are none other than Alex Llewellyn and Abram St. James.”

The couple shared a look of pure disbelief, wondering how they both had gotten the most votes as the crowd joined their friends in clapping congratulations to the new reigning supremes of West-brooke High. They hugged and kissed swiftly right before they were crowned, Abram taking the crown intended for the potential Home-coming Queen as Alex donned the prized King’s encrusted headdress of gold.

Abram and Alex kissed again as people applauded their feat, which was a complete flip of how they had been greeted back to Westbrooke at the start of the school year. Everyone clapped as they came out of their kiss, glad that people were seeking repentance from their actions earlier in the school year. The young Homecoming Kings soaked in every moment of their winning, especially before they had to leave during lunch to possibly meet with Emmy Walker, a meeting they knew had the power to change everything that they knew to be true.

 

Arriving at The Bistro, Alex and Abram felt their nerves fully ablaze with anticipation. They had gotten to the meeting place early to meet the woman with the answers about Emmy Walker, surprised at how busy the quaint shop was.

The venue was all modern architecture and sleek furniture, the pungent aroma of freshly brewed coffee and timely baked pastries wafting from table to table. They took a seat in the middle of the shop, awaiting the presence of the woman who could set the record straight about who Emmy Walker was.

“I hope this works out.” Abram stated, fidgeting with his fingers while he repositioned himself in his chair.

“Why wouldn’t it?” Alex brought to question, scooting his own chair closer to the metal table. “This is good, Abe. We’re one step closer to figuring this whole thing out.”

“Things aren’t exactly going our way, Alex.” Abram shook his head, countering his boyfriend’s heartfelt words. “Blanche was just murdered for coming to tell us everything.”

“Keep your voice down.” Alex looked around, making sure no one was overhearing their hushed discussion. “Listen, this is good.” He reached over and grabbed Abram’s hand, applying pressure to subside the taller man’s growing anxiety. “Just stay focused and eve-rything will be fine.”

At the end of his utterance, a middle-aged woman walked into The Bistro, looking around the establishment like she was hunting for someone.

“Abe.”

He followed Alex’s trail of vision until he too saw the officious gestures the woman was making as she looked around the room. Taking the lead, Abram lifted himself out of his chair and made his short walk over to the dark haired woman.

“Ms. Walker?” Abram asked, hoping his outright prompt at her identity wasn’t misconstrued and didn’t anger their guest.

But to his favor, the tall woman just smiled at him. “Sort of, but please,” she ordered. “Call me Reyna.”

Sparing no second, they found their seats once again and Abram and Alex prepared their questions mentally before they voiced them.

“Alright,” Reyna started, eyeing them eagerly. “You both want to know about Emmy Walker. Why?”

“Ms. Walker—”

“Reyna.” She corrected again. “My last name is Walker because of my brother and…anyway, my legal last name is Prescott.” She shifted the conversation ahead of any questioning about her family, dodging before any asks could sputter to fruition. “Why are you looking for Emmy? What led you to her?”

“Sumner.” Abram uttered softly. “Surely you’ve heard of the phe-nomenon of Sumner Shadows.”

“I have actually, but—”

“Sumner knew Emmy Walker,” He went on. “We found some-thing of his that had her name all over it. Clearly she has some sort of connection to him.”

Reyna sighed, looking away and placing her hands on the table. “I understand. You want answers about your…friend. And you think Emmy has something to do with it.”

“We know she does, Reyna.” Alex said, suddenly including him-self. “You said your last name was Walker. Are you related to Emmy Walker?”

She heaved a massive breath, obviously fortifying herself for the tale she was about to unfurl to the two teenagers in front of her.

“I used to be. Emmy was married to my brother years ago.” Reyna seemingly nodded. “She was my sister-in-law.”

The boys shared an uneasy glare, something that wasn’t lost on the woman with them.

“Emmy is your family?” Alex said.

Was my family.”

“Why was?”

“Emmy went missing, that’s why.”

“Missing?” Abram’s voice rose an octave. “For how long?”

“About twenty years.” Reyna sighed again, her hands slightly shaking at the situation. “My brother and I are from Hanover origi-nally, which is how he met Emmy. They were married just over a year before she went missing. We looked for years and years. She just…vanished. The police told us she was gone, probably dead.” Reyna sniffled while Abram and Alex quietly listened on.

“What would have caused her to up and leave without a trace, if she isn’t dead?” Alex wondered sternly, lightly shaking his head, mentally searching for a reason behind Emmy Walker fleeing from her life.

“Because of what happened right when she left, because of the—” Reyna cut herself off as something dawned on her, something that she previously hadn’t even thought could be apparent.

“Because of what, Reyna?” Abram asked, hanging off of her in-complete sentence.

“It’s one of you, isn’t it?” The couple looked at each other franti-cally, Reyna seeing the action and standing up from her chair. “Oh my God, it is.”

“Reyna, we don’t know what you’re talking about. Honestly. You were about to say something.” Alex stood up then too, Abram mir-roring the move as well.

“I’ve said too much.” Reyna shook her head. “Forget we met here today and everything we discussed. I have to go.”

She turned to leave, but Abram’s words halted her. “But what about Emmy Walker?”

“Emmy Walker is dead!” Reyna screeched, whipping back to face them with tears staining her olive skin. “I suggest you learn to face that truth.”

Reyna Walker heatedly fled The Bistro and the inquiring nature of the two young men that were trying so hard to stir up her past baggage. Once she was gone, Abram eyed Alex with heavy doubt.

“She’s hiding something, something huge.” he nodded. “Reyna knows something more.”

“Abe.”

“She was just about to tell us something, but our conversation triggered something she knows, Alex!”

“Abe!”

The shrieking of his name brought his monologue to an abrupt end, causing him to stare at his boyfriend expectantly. “What?”

“She said Emmy Walker is dead.” he neared Abram then, so that no one could hear the next words to exit his mouth. “What if she’s been traceable back to Sumner this whole time?”

“What are you saying?” Abram questioned.

“Maybe she does know more, maybe there is a bigger connection between Emmy and Sumner,” he said positively. “But what if she’s dead, has been dead, because Sumner got her to go to Armor Falls Cemetery the night he attacked us?”

“No…” Abram gasped, staring into the depths of Alex’s hazel eyes, the weight of his words crushing any other response from his mouth.

“Abe, what if that night we killed Emmy Walker?”

 

Bridge was very close to being wasted. It was only about an hour since school had ended. He and his friends hadn’t had any other clas-ses together or any opportunities for Alex and Abram to explain how their meet up had gone, so they had gotten together after school let out to retell the events that had transpired at The Bistro. And that’s when everything went to hell. Abram brought up everything that had happened, which was already majorly confusing, but then Alex had opened his mouth. Even the thought of Emmy Walker being the woman they had accidentally killed and buried in the woods was too much for Bridge to take in. Knowing that he personally could have killed their greatest lead caused him too much boiling self-turmoil.

And that’s why he was getting drunk at a bar on the far end of town, putting his fake ID to further good use to hide his true feel-ings. His feelings for Ben, for Paige possibly being their stalker, which he still hadn’t told his friends about. And now, his feelings about murdering someone, someone with a name now. A family.

He was tenderly sipping on his tequila sunrise, minding his own aggravating thoughts, when a really attractive guy sauntered up to the bar where he was sitting.

“Can I get a shot of Patron, anejo, please?” The guy slapped down his ID on the counter as the bartender strode over.

Concluding that the man’s ID wasn’t fragulent, the bartender gave him a curt nod. The man took his seat at the bar, giving Bridge the chance to really look at him. His dark brown hair, which he kept relatively short, was slicked back effortlessly. He had brooding, bright brown eyes that dressed perfectly with his earth tone ensemble of a dark khaki shirt and black jeans, pairing it all with a dark brown leather jacket that mimicked his hair along with his mahogany boots. And Bridge couldn’t stop staring at the guy’s intricate hand tattoos. The back of his hands were each inked by a different flower, and his fingers were engraved with peculiar symbols.

And the stranger must have noticed his stares, because he smirked at Bridge and simply said, “Planets.”

Bridge took a little longer to react, probably due to the tequila sunrise vibrating against his veins. At least, that’s where he decided to place his blame.

“I’m sorry?” He spat out, putting down his drinking glass, and gazing into the dangerous eyes of the mysterious stranger.

He chuckled. “My hands.” The sexy stranger strummed his fin-gers on the bar’s counter, giving Bridge a sloppy, and pretty striking, smile. “The flowers are larkspur and lilac, but the symbols at the base of my fingers, they’re the symbols for all the planets excluding Earth because, who are we kidding, Earth is boring.”

Laughing in harmony, Bridge just shook his head at the man. “You’re really deep, aren’t you? Clearly you know your way around Tumblr.”

“I know you’re not old enough to drink legally.” A dead-pan look soared across the surface of Bridge’s skin. The guy just cackled to himself. “Don’t worry, dude. I won’t tell.” He leaned into the small bubble separating them and whispered, practically purred, into his ear. “My ID is fake too.”

When the man pulled back, Bridge bore the brightest sneer on his face. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” The man looked over at him, tilting his head into a question. “So, what caused you to crave tequila so badly? Boyfriend give you trouble?”

Tossing back another gulp of his tequila sunrise, Bridge gave him a side-eye glare full of pondering poison. “What makes you think I’m gay?” Bridge gestured toward him, the guy shooting another anejo shot. “Are you?”

He shrugged. “What happened with the boyfriend?”

“Ex-boyfriend,” Bridge sighed between breaths, quickly ordering himself a third tequila sunrise. The bartender sat down his drink as Bridge continued. “Which is the smallest of all my problems.”

“Ahh, damaged goods.” The man nodded. “Me too, if it makes you feel better.”

“Damaged goods is a bad thing.” Bridge chuckled.

“But at least it’s never boring, like Earth is to the other planets.” The man raised his now refilled shot glass, angling the glass toward Bridge’s own drink. “To damaged goods.”

“To damaged goods.” he laughed harder.

They clinked their glasses and sucked down the respective liba-tions until their glasses were empty. The man gasped in refreshment, gazing over at Bridge, winking. “Us damaged goods need to stick together.” He stood up from his barstool, leaning over to once again utter hushed words into Bridge’s awaiting ears. “Do more damage with me in the bathroom.”

The handsome guy left Bridge with a familiar stirring within himself, ordering a quick shot as the man receded from his view and took a sharp turn down the hallway where the bathrooms resided. Using the last of his money he had saved from jobs over the summer, Bridge threw down a wad of bills before he threw back the shot quickly, standing up afterwards to saunter down the hall to the bath-rooms. And when he threw open the bathroom door to the men’s room, he was attacked by the man’s mouth upon his entry. The pair made out fiercely as they made their way across the empty men’s bathroom to find a stall. The sexy stranger ripped off his pants as Bridge did the same, grinning as he faced the man’s now bare rear end, allowing Bridge to forget his worries with a really hot tatted up guy that was giving him such an opportunity to lose himself entirely. And maybe, just maybe, he could put aside the incriminating thoughts rotating within his frame like a Category 4 storm.

 

“Alex, can you get the door?”

The obnoxious doorbell combined with his mother’s pleading led him to the door, anticipating the excuse Bridge was sure to have for being late, considering that he was the only one that had yet to ar-rive.

An hour had passed since the last person arrived for the massive dinner party at the Llewellyn household that Celia had asked Ade-laide to throw together, and that guest had been Celia herself. All of his friends were in attendance, including all of their parents, upon Celia’s request. Sterling and Straton had also been invited, but both declined, which Alex had figured would happen. They were once so close to Blanche. He could only imagine how they were handling her brutal murder, especially with both of them still being questioned ruthlessly by Dagger.

Sure enough, Bridge’s face was the one hidden behind the house’s mahogany ornate opening, wearing a huge lopsided grin that was twisting his face into an effervescent parody of his usual self.

“I know, I’m late.”

Alex wrinkled his nose at the friend standing in front of him. “You’re freaking me out. Why are you smiling so much?”

Bridge smirked. “I was at a bar across town and this guy—”

“Whoa,” Alex threw a hand up swiftly. “Sorry I asked. Just get in here.”

He joined Alex inside the lush, modern stylings of the Llewellyn residence, heading into the living room where everyone was relaxing with mouthwatering hors d’oeuvres, save that for Adelaide and Ethan, who were putting the finishing touches on dinner.

“Bridge,” Celia, who was hanging off the side of the entryway, beamed down at the young man with an eerie, faraway look in her eyes. Almost like her thoughts were somewhere else, somewhere vastly opposed to their current setting and it were affecting her stay within the realm of reality. “It’s good to see you again.”

He just gave her a nod and the smile that still shined through brightly on his face. “Yeah, you too, Mrs. Shadows.”

“Oh, I just remembered,” Alex wore an expression of pure forget-fulness, throwing his eyes at Bridge. “I needed to ask you a question about our calc homework.” He gave Celia a shake of his head. “Ex-cuse us, Mrs. Shadows.”

“Of course, dear.” Celia smiled as they began their walk from the sophisticated woman and to a different part of the house.

“You seriously have a question about calculus? Because you should know by now that I’m a lost cause on the subject of arithmetic.”

“I know, I’ve seen your grades from the last quiz.” He sneered at his less mathematically inclined friend. “But would you rather have stuck around and cut up with Sumner’s stepmother?”

“Good point.”

Alex led them into the downstairs bedroom, which was the Llewellyn guest room, where their friends had decided to use as their reclusive hangout. While their parents and the others were out in the living room, Abram and Mercer were talking amongst themselves in a room free from listeners when they made their way inside.

“Finally.” Mercer scoffed at the sight of Bridge as he strutted in with Alex, stepping away from Abram. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, after we all talked about Emmy Walker…” Abram engi-neered, but their friend shook their concerns with the same action with his head.

“I’m fine. Well, maybe not fine exactly, but I’m alright. I will be.”

“Well, if you ever need to talk—”

“I know, Merce.” Bridge cheered, his face visualizing the joy over his friend’s mawkishness. “Anyway, anyone know why Celia is rounding everyone up like cattle?”

“No idea. Not even Mom knows. Or if she does, she’s not letting on.” The only Llewellyn family member in the room spoke squarely to his friends.

“And the others?”

“Our sisters haven’t asked any more questions if that’s what you’re trying to segue to.” Abram nodded.

“Neither has Kirby.” Mercer added.

“Alright.” Bridge rolled his shoulders, using the tension in his tendons to signify a shift in their priorities. “How long till we find out, because I’m still feeling the subtle pangs of tequila and Daddy’s hungry.”

Adelaide announced that dinner was ready just as the friends cackled at Bridge’s comment. Everyone piled into the dining room, making as much room as they could with as many people that were gathered around the adequately massive Llewellyn dining room ta-ble.

Time skewed as everyone dug into their food, most of them ea-ger to sustain their ravenous appetites. Once everyone had at least some food in their stomachs, Celia clinked her wine glass to halt all conversation, cleared her throat, and stood up from her chair be-tween Adelaide and November. Everyone granted her their atten-tion, set to hear her clarification for this dinner.

“By now, I’m sure all of you know that I orchestrated this little get together. Hendrick was going to be here, but he had one final meeting.” Celia reconstructed her stance by leaning more to the right. “The reason both Hendrick and I wanted to get all of you in one place, is because he’s come to the decision, after the heinous act in which Blanche Baxxen lost her life, to close Arclan Asylum for good.”

A crash of quietness fell on them like a sheet of rain falling from a suddenly open cloud. No one spoke right away, but when someone did, the speaker was Athena Wheaton.

“Why haven’t I been told about this? I’m an employee.”

“That’s why Hendrick was supposed to be here.” Celia nodded. “He wanted to tell you himself.”

“What’s going to happen to the building?” Clay asked.

“And what about the patients?” Steven pondered.

Celia opened her mouth to respond, her jaw slightly jerking as everyone heard the front door of the Llewellyn residence swing on its hinges in a burst of kinetic action. The motion to move didn’t rustle any of them to check out the malevolent disturbance, mainly due to the culprit being Hendrick Shadows. He stuck his salt and pepper contrasted head into the dining room, his eyes finding Ethan and Adelaide as they stood up from the heads of the dining room table.

“I’m so sorry about just barreling in here,” Hendrick spoke in be-tween gaspy intakes, his lungs grabbing at a chance for chaste breaths. “I was trying to get here before Celia broke the news.”

At that admission, Celia stepped closer to her husband, her eye-brows arching up at him in mock question marks. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Not anymore.” he smiled.

“Hendrick, what’s happening?” Araec leapt at the question, beat-ing everyone else to it.

“Arclan isn’t closing.”

All the adults and teenagers present felt the tense prickling sensa-tion of confusion combust over them like an alcoholic rain.

“How?” Adelaide asked.

“Ever since I’ve come to this decision, I’ve been trying to come up with one last effort, one last option before I completely gave in.” Hendrick halted his decree, his eyes falling over the faces of everyone there. “We all know that…that my son—” he stopped himself once more, tears singeing the rims of his eyes as he felt the full typhoon of his emotions whirling at the helm of his core. “That Sumner proba-bly is the one behind Blanche’s murder. And that thought is consum-ing me.”

“Hendrick,” Celia’s tone was full of sympathy and concern for her husband’s well-being and state of mind.

But he just shook his head at his worrisome wife. Everyone just kept staring at him, waiting for more words to spew forth from Hendrick’s mouth, the audience craving his jagged barbs of infor-mation.

“But, despite my personal turmoil, I couldn’t let my father’s lega-cy die without expunging all of my choices. So, I agreed to meet with someone looking to make an investment, someone willing and able to breathe new life into my father’s mission of helping those who couldn’t help themselves, no matter their backgrounds or reasons. And that someone is saving Arclan, coming in and helping run it with fresh eyes and new ideas for the safety of our patients and our staff. And if it’s alright, I’d like to introduce the savior of Arclan Asy-lum.”

No one felt abrasive enough to object, so Hendrick called around the corner, beckoning someone to reveal themselves.

A vibrant middle-aged woman with soft fair skin stepped into the dining room, a chic nude hued trench coat that looked right off the runway hiding her fit frame, her nude top and black pants snugging her body perfectly. Her hair was completely grey, almost silver because it had been dyed the lighter hue from her natural dark color. Her dark, looming eyes scanned over all of them, silently calculating all of them with excruciating intent that none of them were quite sure of.

The woman was trailed by a young man, presumably her son, judging by their shared likeness. His brown hair was slicked back, perfectly highlighting the savory chocolate eyes they both donned. His outfit oddly mirrored the woman’s, a khaki shirt paired with his deep brown leather jacket and black jeans. And his hands were cov-ered in tattoos.

But Bridge didn’t get to call out his hot bar hook-up because Kir-by and Athena almost broke their chairs as they ascended to their feet. The woman and her son too felt their irises expand once they rolled over the mother and daughter duo.

“Maxima?”

“Salem?”

The grey-haired vixen, Maxima, remained silent, too stunned to speak and her jaw open in awe as she gawked at them. But her son, Salem, couldn’t keep himself as contained as his mother.

“Kirby?”

In a few gasps and exasperated sounds of astonishment, Kirby ran over to him as he did the same. They collided right behind a standing Ethan, arms wrapping around familiar and seemingly forgotten bodies.

“You…know each other?” Hendrick said in Maxima’s direction, just as perplexed as the rest of them, all while she continued to stare over Athena.

“Athena Wheaton,” Maxima scoffed, shifting her stance as her Louboutin’s purred against the carpet. “I had no idea I’d really ever see you again.”

“Likewise.” Athena chuckled, walking over to her old friend and the pair sharing a brief hug while everyone was still quite confused.

“Maybe we should take a break from dinner.” Adelaide suggested, cackling nervously and allowing everyone to mingle.

Before anyone else took their attention, Kirby unraveled from Salem’s embrace and grabbed his hand, pulling him toward the va-cant foyer.

“Salem, it’s amazing to see you, you have no idea.” Her grin took up the entirety of her supple face. “But what are you doing here?”

“Me?” Salem smirked. “I’m still convinced that you’re a mirage.”

“I’m real, trust me.” she laughed. “What are the chances of us re-uniting here in Armor Falls?”

“Arclan Asylum brought us here.” he nodded.

“But what about your dad? And where’s Holly?”

“Don’t talk to me about Holly.”

His severely stern tone set Kirby’s nerves aflame, her caution ful-ly sizzling like the tapping of a taut snare drum. Salem saw the hurt throbbing in her eyes, quickly shaking off the grainy nature from his soul.

“I’m sorry. It’s just…a lot has happened, especially with Sahalia, in the past year.”

Kirby’s eyes flexed, knowing the feeling Salem’s words expressed all too well. “Tell me about it.”

Salem looked away from her then, catching Bridge’s eyes as he walked down a hallway alone, realizing that he had just hooked up with the young man at the bar not too long ago.

“Hey, we’ll delve into details later, okay?”

Simply nodding, Kirby smiled into another embrace with Salem, taking in his usual scent of leather. He retreated from the foyer, am-bling down the hallway until he found Bridge in the bathroom. He went inside, closing the door behind himself.

“This is ridiculous,” Bridge stated, one hand on his hip while the other combed the side of his head. “Why does every guy I end up with have some inevitable connection or plot twist to my life?”

Salem laughed. “Did we not have fun earlier?” He closed the space between them, letting his hands rest on Bridge’s hips.

“Stop.” He pushed his inked hands away from his body. “We had an amazing time, really amazing, actually, and I’m not denying that you’re insanely hot, because look at you.” Bridge just ignored Salem’s coy blushing, because it made him all the more adorable. “But you don’t even know my name.”

“Right, introductions.” he nodded. “I’m Salem.”

“Bridge. And Kirby’s boyfriend, Mercer, is my best friend. So tell me, Salem. What’s your connection to Kirby?”

Seconds sweat from the evening as Mercer found Kirby alone in the foyer. He had just watched Salem march off from her, having looked on at their exchange from afar. He made his way over to his girlfriend, watching her eyes change as she looked him over.

“Hey.” Mercer grinned. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Kirby absentmindedly stroked her chin fleetingly. “I just can’t believe he’s here.”

“Who is he?”

“That’s Salem Simon.”

Like the intensity of burning wreckage, all the six degrees of sep-aration fell into place for Mercer like descending dominoes. “It’s him.” He didn’t propose it as a question, since he knew that his as-sumption was valid and free of doubt.

“Yes,” she nodded, looking into the chasm of her boyfriend’s comforting cobalt orbs. “Salem is the father of my baby.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18

MORIOR INVICTUS

 

 

When Alex woke up, he hadn’t been expecting to be woken by the excited, hushed, ramblings of his boyfriend. His eyes finally blinked away the sleep from his eyes, blurry vision eclipsing his view, taking in the empty bed scene.

Stirring his body awake, Alex flung his naked form off of the siz-able mattress and threw on his previously discarded trunks and made his way from the RV’s bedroom, finding a mostly naked Abram on his laptop, smiling wildly.

“If we’re going to lie to our parents about where we’re spending the night so we can have some alone time, can we at least get to wake up together?”

Abram looked up at Alex, apologizing with his cooling baby blues. “Sorry, babe.” Then he made a kissing face, which Alex quickly solved by placing a fast kiss on his lips. Taking a seat next to Abram on one of the couches, Alex tried to get his eyes to focus on the blar-ing bright light emitting from the focal laptop. Fortunately, the RV had its own Wi-Fi for them to access whatever Abram was up to.

“What are you doing anyway?”

Abram’s eyes became focused slits as they bulged against his sockets, looking from Alex and then back to his computer screen. “I found him.”

“Who?”

“Remember Monday when Reyna said her brother married Em-my Walker?”

“You found the brother?”

They both turned their eyes to the laptop, which was transfixed to a page on a business website of a distributing corporation. Abram’s finger went to a certain place on the screen, under the ‘about us’ link, where Abram’s eager digit hovered under the CEO’s name.

“Rephaim Walker?” Alex’s voice heightened.

“The only reason I found him is because Reyna works there too. She’s not nearly as high up, but they both work there. Together.”

“You’re sure it’s him?”

Abram nodded suggestively. “Positive. If Reyna won’t give us any answers, maybe her brother will.”

“Hopefully, especially since he was the one married to Emmy Walker.” Alex stood up abruptly, grabbing Abram as they lifted from the couch. “But let’s deal with that later, okay? And go back to bed.”

“Alex, we’re so close to finally knowing something.”

“I know, but since we’re not going to school today because of the funeral, we have all day to call and badger this guy.” Alex leaned closer and bent down to kiss Abram’s bare pecs. “Come back to bed with me.”

He allowed himself to get lost in the passionate kiss that Alex ini-tiated next, the couple making out as they pressed their bodies against each other’s overly hormonal bodies. And he hid a small grin that caressed his ego when he pulled apart and Alex unwillingly let out a grunt of frustration.

“One phone call, just one try.”

Slightly shaking his head after it dawned on him suddenly that Abram wasn’t going to let it go, at least not now, Alex gave a last nod of agreement. “Fine. As long as we take a shower afterwards.”

“Try and stop me.” Abram kissed him rapidly before he grabbed his phone to dial the number for the apparent Walker family busi-ness.

Abram was connected to a receptionist quickly, a bubbling voice colliding violently without abandon in his ear.

“Thank you for calling Anzhelika, how may I direct your call?”

“Uh, hi.” Abram wasn’t exactly sure how he was supposed to ini-tiate the conversation, especially when he didn’t really know what he was looking for. All he could think about was the fact that Reyna’s brother knew something that they didn’t. And that something was something they not only needed to know, but deserved to know af-ter everything they had been through. “I was trying to reach Mr. Walker.”

“Who may I ask is calling?” The man’s voice rang through loudly, a little less peppy than when he had first answered the phone, a little more guarded. But nothing about his tone indicated that he was any-thing other than curious.

He looked to Alex then, even though he knew Alex had no idea what he should say either, even if the call was on speakerphone. So he just blurted out an answer that was sort of true. “I’m, uh, a friend of his ex-wife’s.”

There was a large and loud palpable pause on both ends of the phone call. Abram checked his cell, just to make sure that the call hadn’t dropped or anything. Nothing was wrong with the call how-ever. And Abram learned that the receptionist was just taking a mo-ment to choose his words particularly carefully before he spoke to him again.

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Walker doesn’t discuss topics not related to business.”

“I think his ex-wife…I think he has some type of connection, through his ex-wife, to Sumner Shadows.”

Another long break in dialogue occurred, but the receptionist was quicker than the prior pause. It was obvious, by his next set of speech, that he had absolutely every detail about who exactly Sumner Shadows was. “I don’t know who you are, but do not call here again with assumptions and half-hearted accusations unless you hold a warrant in your hand. Mr. Walker has been through enough without dimwitted calls that hold no merit.” His tone shifted to the efferves-cent one he had worn proudly earlier in the conversation, no longer heatedly whispering into the receiver. “Thank you for calling An-zhelika, you have a wonderful day.”

The receptionist hung up then, enabling both Alex and Abram to just glance at each other, soaking in everything that had just tran-spired from their collective efforts.

“Do you think they’ve gotten calls like this before?” Alex scoffed sarcastically.

“We’re obviously on the right track though. He recognized Sumner’s name.” Abram nodded. “Without question, this guy, Re-phaim, whoever he is, was married to Emmy Walker.”

“We should get ready,” Alex sighed. “We’re not going to get any further with this guy today. And Mom wants me to ride with the family before we go to the funeral.”

Knowing the need to shift his priorities, Abram nodded at his boyfriend, settling into the subdued sensations that came with knowing that in a few hours, he’d be attending the funeral of an innocent person who had been murdered way ahead of their time.

 

Kirby blamed the funeral as to why she was tearing apart her mother’s room. She hadn’t had much time to even deal with Salem being back in her life because knowing that her mother was in contact with Blanche was driving her to the very edge of sanity. And here she was, missing school on a Friday because she was going to the funeral of a young girl that had been killed, one her mother might have talked to on the very night she had died.

The Salem thing definitely brought back a lot of…well, every-thing for her. He had once been such a huge part of her life, and she’d admittedly be lying to herself if she voiced that she hadn’t missed the person she always had and always would consider her best friend. But him being back left a tremor of problems to shudder her soul, that she normally avoided, the topics wide awake again after being left to a neglected hibernation for longer than she had time to focus on. It made her strangely glad that Salem was busy adjusting to life in Armor Falls so that they both could garner some perspective. That way, they could prepare themselves for their inevitable ‘catching up’ conversation.

But right now, she had bigger things to tackle. Kirby was scav-enging around her mother’s room for more evidence that pieced to-gether her mother’s relationship with the late Blanche Baxxen. Kirby already had the letter that Blanche had addressed to Athena, but all it contained was a short scrawled cry for help and a phone number. Kirby figured there was no point in calling the number now, since it was probably already disconnected. All she wanted to know was what they had talked about and why Athena had risked everything to let Blanche believe that her mother was a safe place to turn to.

“There has to be something.” she said to the empty room, know-ing that no one was around to hear her musings, but needing to ver-bally assure herself that giving up wasn’t an option she could access.

There was a nagging, gnawing voice in the forefront of her mind that told her to check the self-proclaimed vault, where Athena kept her most prized pieces of both couture and self-spun fashion. It only made sense to look there next. Kirby drew back the pair of doors to her mother’s massive closet and found herself sitting at the vanity, going through the drawers for anything out of the ordinary, some-thing that had been added upon her earlier entry into the vault itself. She found her answer in the bottom right drawer of the pearl white vanity. Kirby knew the contents of the makeup station as well as her mother did. And lying in the drawer among her mother’s discarded designs was a flash drive. One that hadn’t been there before Home-coming.

She flew out of the matriarch’s room and made haste downstairs to the living room, instantly finding her laptop on the coffee table, opening it up and throwing the flash drive into its designated USB port.

It took her computer just a second to embrace the flash drive as compatible, a window displaying its contents on her laptop screen. Only one file resided on the device, a video file. With slightly quak-ing tips in her fingers, Kirby double-clicked on the file and waited for it to play.

“If you’re watching this right now, chances are you already know who I am.” Blanche spoke as soon as she filled the entirety of the screen, Kirby’s eyes begging for an exit as overwhelming fear singed her entire body with a sweep of emotions. “But in case it hasn’t hit you yet, my name is Blanche Baxxen.”

The front door to the Wheaton home swung open as her mother glided in looking like a wilted orchid from having worked night shift. Athena turned to greet her daughter, but she heard Blanche’s voice, her dark eyes going right for Kirby’s computer.

“Turn it off!” Athena screamed.

Just shocked by the intensity caught in her mother’s throat, Kirby obliged by shutting the lid of her laptop, and Blanche’s post-mortem uttering by proxy.

“Mom, enough avoiding. What’s going on?”

Setting down her purse on an end table by the door, Athena found a seat next to her daughter on the living room couch, grabbing the flash drive and closing a fist around it. Kirby shifted on the fur-niture as she faced her mom for an answer.

“Kirby,” Athena began. “The video you found…it’s dangerous.”

“Everything about this, Sumner, Blanche, all of it, has been dan-gerous.” Even though she was speaking to her mother in a tone she wouldn’t have previously, Kirby saw reflected in Athena’s eyes that her mother knew that she understood the stakes they had been living in since moving to Armor Falls. “I’ve seen the note, Mom.” she ad-mitted quickly. “All it had was her asking for assistance and a num-ber for you to call, but I assume she wanted you to meet her.” Once again, Kirby’s affirmations were confirmed as Athena’s eyes expand-ed like orbs of yeast. “So did you?”

“Yes.” Athena expressed, forgoing any hindrances of verity. “But listen to me, really grasp what I’m saying, because this is super im-portant. Blanche knew the risks and she still…” Emotion demanded attention over her entire body as she tried to suffocate her senti-ments enough to be able to continuing speaking, but Kirby could see the internal struggle as she closed her eyes.

“I understand, Mom. You know I do. Just tell me what hap-pened.”

Her mother steeled herself as her eyes locked on Kirby’s. “You can’t tell anyone what I’m about to say. Not Mercer, not your friends, no one.” Athena sighed. “Because I’m almost certain I was the last person to see Blanche Baxxen alive.”

 

Cool air met Athena’s oval face as she stepped out of her car, fleeing from her vehicle as her pumps left half-heavy imprints in the grass of West-brooke Park. It was the night of Westbrooke High School’s Homecoming and Kirby and Mercer had just left the house to arrive at the event. That’s when Athena had called Blanche and agreed to meet. She had to try to help. She had to try. Athena found herself at one of the park’s gazebos to wait for Blanche.

As her nurse at Arclan, Athena knew that the young woman hadn’t committed the crime that had landed her behind the thick walls of the asy-lum. She knew Blanche didn’t, couldn’t, have hurt her mother enough to send her into a life-threatening coma. And she also believed her when she claimed that Sumner was the real culprit connected to the assault of Veronica Baxxen. Since then, Athena had taken to Blanche, looking after her. And when the incident occurred that allowed Blanche to escape Arclan, Athena had just been worried about her and was seeking her own answers as to why Blanche felt the need to run.

Athena.”

Looking at the gazebos opening, the older of the two women took in the vibrant young features of her former patient turned fugitive. She hadn’t even heard her approach, too wrapped up in her own thoughts to listen out for anyone. The dark hue of the night told her that the sort of mishap of not listening out for anything could end very badly if she wasn’t careful.

Blanche.”

Smiling on a miniscule scale, the shorter brunette embraced the leggy blonde warmly for a few measures, the pair separating shortly thereafter.

Thanks for meeting me.” Blanche nodded.

Of course.” Athena stepped closer to the young girl, her eyes scanning beyond them for potential eavesdroppers and onlookers, unlike before. “You said you were finally going to tell me what’s been happening, why every-thing’s been so crazy.”

I am,” Blanche gestured positively, her hands reacting to the cool envi-ronment thriving amongst them by twitching in small seizures of moderate magnitude. “In a way. I can’t just outright tell you.”

Why?”

Because I don’t want you to end up in the morgue.” She wasn’t jolted by Athena’s retort to the truth, which involved the blonde jerking wildly to her words. “I’m only attempting to trust you with this because I’m afraid some-thing…that something might happen to me.”

Blanche—”

Athena, just listen. I have to get going soon.”

Alright, alright.” She tried her best to remain calm and listen to her young friend and not outwardly show that she was panicked and scared. “Go ahead.”

You have access to patient files, right?”

Correct.”

Good. If you want answers as to what this is all about, all you need to do is find a certain patient’s file.” Blanche insisted.

Why? Who’s the patient?”

Frankie Ellery.”

Athena instantly knew the name. The patient she was bringing up hadn’t been on her own round of people to assist, but Frankie Ellery was one of the few patients injured during Blanche’s escape. And ever since the excursion, all those involved in the escape were confined to solitary, every employee being brought up to speed that no interaction with these patients would be tolerated, by any means.

Why Frankie Ellery? What does she have to do with all of this?”

Find the file, it’ll lead you to the answers.” Blanche checked the leather watch around her wrist. “Look, I’m trusting you with this, to figure this out in case something happens to me tonight.” Blanche’s eyes wavered with substantial emotive indicators, tears singing their goodbye from her dark blue irises.

Wait, Blanche, tonight? What’s happening tonight?”

Tonight, I stop hiding.”

Shaking her head, Athena refused to accept this as a good enough re-sponse. “I don’t understand.”

You don’t have to.” Blanche, reaching into her jacket pocket, revealed a flash drive and thrust it toward Athena. “If…if I don’t make it, you can re-lease this video. But not until you figure it out by yourself first, with the file. I need someone I trust behind this, someone who uncovered the full story so people don’t just go off the video confession of a…dead girl.”

The look on Blanche’s face told Athena that she honestly didn’t think she was going to live to see morning. She was confused. Athena wasn’t under-standing why Blanche was holding back the information she so clearly pos-sessed.

Blanche, we should go to the police! Or just let me watch this video!”

Athena, dammit, you have to trust me! Trust me that this is the way everything has to happen, okay? And you can’t tell anyone. It’s your choice, Athena. This is where you decide whether to run or stick around and trust me. Are you in or out?”

Without really meaning to, Athena was reminded of the event that hap-pened back in Maine with Kirby. Back to the reason they had moved to Ar-mor Falls, one that no one knew. And back then, she had done the impossible to protect Kirby. Blanche didn’t have her mother, didn’t have a constant to defend her legacy. She needed someone like Athena on her side, to help her settle this for good.

Leaving her actions to speak for her, Athena grabbed the flash drive Blanche was still extending to her. If she wanted Athena to be her Plan B, to piece everything together if the worst happened tonight, then she had to honor Blanche’s plea so that for the first time since her mother’s accident, someone could protect her.

Thank you, Athena.” Blanche said, letting out a pure tinged breath. “I owe you everything.”

I’ll do everything I can. I promise you.” She nodded.

I know you will.” Blanche bore a half halo of a grin. “I have to go. Thanks again, for everything you’ve done, and everything I know you’ll continue to do for me. My death…it won’t be for nothing, thanks to you.”

The young fugitive woman started to run out of the gazebo like an Olympian, ready to go off into the shadowy drapes of the cool night. But Athena had to ask one final question before she disappeared. Possibly forev-er.

Blanche,” she roared, causing her to turn around and stare back into the dark eyes of the stoic and sympathetic woman that was curating her legacy, awaiting her further directory of dialogue. “It’s him. The reason why you’re scared about tonight. It’s Sumner, right?”

Scoffing, Blanche bobbed her head appropriately, as if she were waiting for Athena to ask for the validation so that it could finally be set in stone. “It always is, isn’t it?”

Blanche retreated from Westbrooke Park, Athena clutching the lifeline that was the flash drive and hoping that everything worked out tonight so she wouldn’t have to uncover the happenings that were being kept by her former patient, and she really hoped her young friend wouldn’t meet the end of her life for attempting to tell her what Sumner’s entire breakdown was all about.

 

Kirby just sat in finite quiet, looking at her mother with open, astonished eyed. She figured her mother had probably met with Blanche, but confirming that Athena was the last person to see her before the killer had slayed her like a fantasy dragon…it was a lot to take in.

“Frankie Ellery?” Kirby pondered aloud, not needing her mother to respond. “Well, did you find the file?”

“It’s being taken care of.” Athena nodded.”

“Mom—”

“No, Kirby. I’ve told you enough. I only told you because of the note you found.” The matriarch ascended, changing the core of the energy in the room. “We should get ready. The funeral is in an hour.”

Her mother headed upstairs, enabling Kirby to re-open her lap-top and try to find everything she could about Frankie Ellery. If she was the key like Blanche said, Kirby was going to dedicate her every waking moment to making it unlock everything that was the shrouded mystery of Sumner Shadows, even if it meant not telling a single soul what she was about to embark on.

 

When Bridge offered to answer the door to the Meadows house while everyone else finished getting ready, he hadn’t planned on see-ing Salem Simon. So when he threw the azul door open and was met with Salem’s dashing handsome face, a smile sizzling on his lush lips, Bridge immediately pushed him out of the doorway and closed the door so they could talk outside without the fear of being overheard.

“What are you doing here, Salem?”

He was dressed in his mourning best, a dark tuxedo pressed to perfection that rested tightly against his clearly muscled and toned body. Mentally getting over his apparent thirst, Bridge cleared his throat while Salem answered him.

“Just wanted to see how you were doing.” Salem winked. “Do you really live with Kirby’s boyfriend?”

“I told you,” Bridge scoffed. “Mercer is my best friend.”

“What about your parents, why don’t you live with them?”

The question stirred a roaring stab to his heart, even though he knew it wasn’t Salem’s fault. Bridge just shook his head, stepping back from the crushing gravity of the subject.

“We don’t have to tell each other everything, like we’re a couple or whatever, so I don’t know why you’re here, and—”

Salem stepped forward then, eliminating space between the two young men. “I haven’t stopped thinking about the bar.”

“Salem,”

“I’m not asking you to marry me, Bridge.” he laughed it aside, like it was preposterous, which Bridge agreed. It really was. “I’m just saying, if you ever wanted to share a pizza together, or see a movie…get coffee…” All while he kept his sentence sputtering between his lips, Salem seductively inched closer until Bridge felt his hot breath against his mouth, one of his hands on his own hips while Salem’s other hand loosely skimmed against Bridge’s chest. “Or grab another drink and swap further damage.”

And then they were kissing, viciously making out while their tongues each fought for the crown of their royal battle. Their hands found each other’s bodies with such simplicity. Bridge somehow found his better judgment during the heated endeavor, lightly yet firmly pressing Salem off of him. He felt strangely proud of the look of discomfort on the taller man’s rugged face.

“I can’t.” Bridge finally said. “I really want to, you have no idea. I’m just not ready for…anything right now.”

“I get it.” Salem assured him with a brush-off-his-shoulder way about him that Bridge couldn’t help but be fascinated by. “Can’t blame me for trying.” He paused to wag his eyebrows at him before his smirky nature was replaced by genuine concern. “I’m sorry if I pressured you or—”

“No.” Bridge stated, calming the other boy’s cloudy concern with a tiny laugh. “You seem like a great guy. But I broke up with my ex-boyfriend practically two hours ago. I’m just not in a place for any-thing more than the one time at the bar.”

Salem agreed with a tilt of his head, grinning at him brightly. “Bridge, I got it. We’re good.”

“Good.” he smirked.

They broke apart abruptly when the front door snapped back open as the three Meadows’ men rolled out of the grandeur house.

“Oh,” Clay said, seeing how close Salem and Bridge had been be-fore their exit from the house and they had stumbled upon the pair. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. Salem, right?”

“That’s right, sir.” he grinned. “I better get going though. I have to pick my mother up for the funeral.”

“You and your mother are attending Blanche’s funeral?” Araec inquired.

“As respect,” Salem told them. “Since Mom is the new face of Ar-clan.”

“Right.” Araec smiled warmly at him.

“We’ll see you there then.” Mercer gave up a sincere smile that caught Bridge more off guard than Salem’s arrival on their doorstep.

Salem just beamed again, letting his eyes linger on Bridge prior to him returning to his sleek Mitsubishi Eclipse, the latter doing his best to keep appearances as they got ready to attend Blanche Baxxen’s untimely funeral.

 

“So, are you hooking up with Salem?”

Mercer’s outright inquiry didn’t really raise suspicion to Bridge as they walked across the vast expanse of lawn as a storm cloud of peo-ple gathered for Blanche’s funeral. Personally, Bridge was just explo-sive with gratitude that Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, who were funding the dark event, hadn’t agreed to have the funeral at Armor Falls Ceme-tery, something Mercer couldn’t have thanked them enough for ei-ther. The last thing all of them needed was a reminder of the night that they were attacked, through the death of someone their age that had fell victim to murder.

“Seriously?” Bridge smirked as they glided across the lawn to find their friends. “Is that jealousy I detect under all that bravado?”

“Oh yeah, I’m so mad he took my man.” Mercer scoffed, laughing as he shoved himself into his friend, their shoulders rubbing together off key. “I just wanna make sure you’re careful.”

“Is this because Salem is Kirby’s ex?”

“It’s because you just completely ended it with Ben.” Mercer sighed, knocking his head back and forth, like a metronome of pure thought. “Although, that fact is still very…new.”

“At least you’re not freaking out about the former pregnancy meets former flame phenomenon.”

“It’s weird,” he said truthfully, rolling his shoulders thusly. “But if Kirby’s alright, then I’m cool with Salem. Look how she’s been around Harley. That being said, it worries me if you two are hooking up since you’re still so freshly wounded from the Ben incident. And everything with Emmy Walker and—”

“When have you ever known me to act like a wounded animal?” Bridge draped an arm around Mercer then, rocking both of them as they continued to amble on the grass. “I’ll be okay, Merce. I love you for caring, but I’m good. And I’m not casually hooking up with Sa-lem.” He hugged briefly as their trek to Alex and Abram came to an end. “No matter how much I wa…I mean, no matter how much he wants to.”

Stopping their give and take, Abram and Alex both looked up as their friends joined them just outside the group of people in attend-ance.

“Okay, so what couldn’t wait until after the funeral?” Bridge quickly prompted, ready to get to business as usual.

“We don’t have long before it starts,” Alex nodded, looking to Abram first before giving his other friends the smallest of smiles. “Abe found the brother.”

“What brother?”

“Reyna has a brother, remember?” Abram said, responding to Mercer’s question outright. “We found him. His name is Rephaim Walker, and we made contact with him. Sort of. Anyway, what’s important is that we know that he was her husband. He was married to Emmy Walker.”

“That’s good. Really good.” Mercer stated. “Maybe he can help us find her, or at least why Sumner seemed to know her.”

“That’s great and all, but what about what Reyna said?” Bridge countered. “What did she mean by her ‘one of you’ comment?”

“We don’t know.” Alex told him. “But we have a lead. And that’s what we should focus on after all of this.”

“Rephaim is our key to Emmy. And by proxy, the solution to un-locking the reason behind Sumner attacking us in the cemetery.”

“Can we talk about this later, like when we’re not in another cemetery?”

They agreed with Bridge, so they turned away from each other to join everyone else. Everyone in the mournful congregation took their seats as the funeral procession began, the friends finding sanc-tuary by their families’ side. The funeral had just started, every mem-ber of the Jacobs family standing by the leader of the funeral, when a team of policemen, led by the ever lethal Alston Dagger, made their lawful wave commence, marching towards the funeral. Many eyes flew to their adamant stampede, whispers among the dark characters wondering why they were intruding upon their grief.

Adelaide leapt up out of her seat just as everyone’s eyes fell on the brigade of blue donned officers. She focused on Dagger, her eyes vigorous slits of intensity.

“Alston, what is going on?”

“This doesn’t concern you, Officer Llewellyn.” His tone surprised her, a cold front invading the voice she had known for years and years to an unrecognizable baritone as he slipped past her, scanning the crowd for his reason in coming.

“Is there a particular reason you’re here, detective?” The man storming over to Dagger then was Mr. Jacobs, followed by his wife and their children. Straton and Sterling looked on with confused, blurry eyes as tears thrusted against the outside world, a grimy film threatening to burst at any given moment.

“My apologies, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, but this can’t wait.” Dagger flexed his eyes over to where Sumner’s former best friends sat hud-dled together with their families. He walked over to them, standing before where Mercer and Bridge sat with the rest of the Meadows family.

“I’m sorry about this.” Dagger said, and it was evident that his sentiment was just and true when he looked at both Clay and Araec, but once his eyes fell on the young man sitting to their left, he was back to business mode, intent on fighting crime in every shape and form it happened to manifest. “Bridge Mathison, you’re under arrest for the murder of Blanche Baxxen.”

He stood up in horror, Bridge staring at Dagger like he was pub-licizing that he was addicted to methamphetamine, like he was utter-ly insane and on his way to admit himself into a private room at Ar-clan, but it was spelt all over his face in highlighted letters. He truly believed what he was accusing Bridge of committing.

“Are you crazy?” Clay said, standing up with him. “You come to this poor girl’s funeral and accuse—”

“That’s enough, sir.” Dagger silenced him with a stare that could stop a speeding Ferrari. An officer came around to Bridge, handcuff-ing him as his friends came over in an uproar, their parents not far behind.

“Detective, Bridge didn’t do this!” Mercer screamed, Kirby run-ning up to his side, looking on, terrified by what was happening.

“Mom,” Salem said from a little distance, looking up at her. “You’re a lawyer, help him!”

Maxima Simon sauntered over to the debacle, sifting through the shocked facades of the crowd in attendance as Clay and Araec, and really all of the other parents, glued their eyes to Maxima as the offic-ers started to push Bridge away from them and towards where Dag-ger stood a few feet from them.

“You’re a lawyer?” Adelaide said, none of them really knowing how she had acquired the means to help save Arclan Asylum before hearing about her career.

She didn’t speak to any of the parents, or Bridge’s friends, but in-stead yelled at him directly from behind the officers that were leading him away from the funeral. “Bridge, don’t say a word until I get there.”

As they watched their friend being shoved into the posterior of a cop car, Bridge’s friends all felt their previously silent phones buzz in unison, all of them receiving a message at that exact moment. Every-one was so distracted by the funeral being interrupted by the law that they backed away from the hysteria to glance at each other together.

“All three of us?” Alex said, all of them pausing to look at their phones, seeing that the message was from a blocked number, which was way too ABC Family for them, considering that the person that they knew it must be from had been speaking to them in the form of letters, so that nothing could be electronically traced.

The message was undoubtedly from the stalker, the person who knew about what they had done right after Sumner had tried to kill them at the cemetery. And its message was clear that they had been watching everything that had just happened, or maybe that they had even played a hand in making it happen, not to mention that this person was most likely the same person that had taken the pages from Bridge to begin with.

 

It only takes one to bring the rest of you down. How long until he breaks and spills the truth?

 

In true paranoid fashion, they looked around to see if someone was looking, their eyes finding the police car as it sputtered to a start, taking Bridge to the police station for a murder they all knew he didn’t commit. But one that the person who knew explicit infor-mation about the night at the cemetery could have framed him for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19

IT’S HER

 

 

I swear to you, I didn’t kill Blanche.”

Five days. That’s how long it had been since Bridge had been arrested. Since then, Dagger had resolidified his belief that they were all helping Sumner. That they were dedicated to covering for him, even murdering for him if it came to it. Of course this wasn’t close to the truth, but Dagger wasn’t just convinced, he was obsessed. He needed them to be guilty, to be the ones behind everything that was going on in Armor Falls. Because if they were guilty, if they were the sick and twisted accomplices, then they could lead him to the real mastermind, the real killer; Sumner himself.

In the days that came with his arrest, Bridge had been subjected to multiple sessions with Dagger, submitted lines of questioning that he had already answered, with the same conclusions that he had given the detective during his initial crusade upon their culpability. It was a constant state of badgering that Bridge was thriving inside of, a battle that he was destined to lose at the feet of Dagger’s persistence. He wasn’t letting up, and while Bridge knew he was innocent, that he hadn’t killed Blanche the night of Homecoming because he was with Ben, he couldn’t tell Dagger that. He was in enough trouble without dragging Ben and his self-inflicted issues into the interrogation room with someone as savage as Detective Alston Dagger.

He wasn’t the only one feeling the white hot wrath of their less than favorite law enforcement figure. The rest of his friends were being questioned just as hard in the coming days. Ever since Blanche’s funeral, Dagger had not only himself, but also the town believing that they were the ones behind Blanche’s murder, and therefore, the ones who were really hiding Sumner, waiting for the right moment to attack the entire population. And when countered with the fact that Sumner had tried to kill them, he simply waved it away as an act, one they had kept up for over six months. He was a man possessed with finding the truth. Except he was so blinded by pursuing it that he didn’t see that his view was obstructed.

And now, Bridge was having another meeting with his lawyer, Maxima Simon, annoyed with the fact that he was being told to plead guilty so he could have a reduced sentence for murder in the first degree.

“I’m not taking it, Maxima.” Bridge shook his head. “Why would I want Blanche dead? She was the only person who knew what Sumner was really about, why he was doing everything that caused the mess that I’ve called life for the past eight months.” He scoffed, seeing that Maxima really did mean well, that she was just doing her job, which was to advise her client on their best choice for survival. “I want this to be over. I’ve been treated like a murderer for only five days and I already want out. But I’m not going to say that I’m a killer in order to do so.”

“I know this is crazy, Bridge.” Maxima breathed between her slightly chapped lips, edges of frayed skin crying for attention and making home on the crevices of her face. It somehow warmed the cold exterior her features shone to the world, which helped Bridge feel the need to trust her despite his lack of choices in the matter. “I don’t want you to think that I believe Dagger, because I don’t. But the evidence against you…while it’s concrete, I don’t think it got there because you were the one to end Blanche Baxxen’s life.”

“Then why tell me to take the plea?”

“Because someone wants you to go down for this.” she nodded. “Someone wants you to pay for her death with the rest of your life.”

“It’s her. I’ve been telling you it’s her.” Bridge licked at his own lips as he continued to focus on his lawyer’s, also a sign that he was beginning to get restless. “Paige is the one who’s framing me.”

“Bridge, if I tell Dagger—”

“I know, I know.” He sighed. Bridge was at a junction of juxtapo-sition, one that didn’t seem to have a clear destination as to what he would get when he found the end of either path. If he kept it to him-self that Paige and their stalker shared the same stationary, he’d stay in jail. He’d go to trial. He’d be labeled a murderer for the rest of his life. And if he told Dagger, the detective would know not only about the stalker, but he’d ultimately have to ask about what it is that the mysterious blackmailer was hanging over them. And no one, not even Bridge scared out of his mind for his life in prison, wanted to condemn the lives of his friends from something that he felt he alone had committed that night at Armor Falls Cemetery.

“You have choices, Bridge.” Maxima said, steering him back to-wards the current conversation they were still having and away from his darkening thoughts. “You can either tell Dagger what you told me, about the stalker and Paige and the stationary, everything. Sure, you’ll have to tell me, and him, why this person is doing this, what it is you’re willing to go to jail over. Or, you could let Ben be your ali-bi—”

“I can’t.” He stopped her, shaking his head vigorously. “Ben doesn’t want anything to do with me. He’s…no. I can’t do that. It doesn’t really prove anything anyway. I was with Ben after Blanche’s apparent time of death, so they’ll still think I could have killed her once I left my friends and went searching for him or something stu-pid like that, right?”

“That’s definitely a possibility as to how it could look.”

Bridge rustled in his chair, his awful orange jumpsuit chiming its fabric together like a wounded cricket in the night. He felt like he was on Orange Is the New Black, only with less antics and more murder. “There has to be another way.”

“There is.” Maxima leaned closer to Bridge, grabbing his hand tenderly. “Tell Dagger about the stalker. At the very least, they can bring Paige in for questioning and you’ll know once and for all if she’s the one behind this.”

“My hair was found at the crime scene. I lived in her house. I’m telling you, it’s her.” Bridge nodded. “She’s the one that’s been plagu-ing me and my friends’ lives.”

“Then you already know what to do.”

He didn’t want to. Only because he’d truly have to face the fact that he was a murderer, just not the one that had killed Blanche. He was a killer, albeit an accidental one caused by the placement of Sumner Shadows. But he had still taken a life. And it was time, final-ly, after a long almost eight months, for him to face the shiny mirror that was the truth. The only thing that caused hesitation to thrust in his veins was what would happen to his friends.

“The only way I can do this is with them. My friends have to be here, with me and Dagger. This affects them to. Can you make that happen?”

It only took about an hour to get everyone assembled. Bridge was beginning to learn that not only was Maxima a true woman of her word but also the type of person who made things happen, unable to waste any time. So when Bridge sat before his friends, which Dagger was less than pleased about but had ultimately agreed to, along with his lawyer and the short-tempered detective, all he could think to do was take a chaste chasm of a breath before opening his mouth.

“I’m going down for this,” He was addressing his friends, pre-tending that the adults were as far from this room as they could pos-sibly be. This was about them too, and he didn’t know exactly how they were going to take the next set of events that he was about to put into motion. “And the only way to save myself is to tell them.”

The flash of a lightbulb breaking was easily read in all the eyes of his friends, a subtle hiss from the broken skull of glass ringing in Bridge’s ears. None of his friends opened their mouths, each of them fearing the confession that simmered painfully on the cusp of their lips.

“Tell us what?” Dagger asked impatiently, eyeing every one of the friends gingerly.

“Bridge.” This was from Mercer, but the arrestee abstained from facing the pleading he knew would be reflected in the dark splotches along his best friend’s eyes.

“I’m out of options right now.” he scoffed. “I’m sorry that it has to happen like this.”

Collecting himself, Bridge turned away from his friends and stared into the shadowy pits Detective Dagger claimed were his eyes.

“Someone’s stalking us.”

“Bridge!”

He ignored Abram’s protest, trampling over his cry with the stampede of his further discourse. “It’s been going on for a while, since just after you first brought us in for questioning about Sumner, right after Kirby snapped that picture of him.”

“Why?” Dagger said, leaning off the wall and standing tall over them, a rage swelling massive waves of flames that were ready to capsize and devour them all. “Why wait until now to say some-thing?”

“That’s not important right now,” Bridge shook his head. “What is, is that the one framing me for Blanche’s murder, the one you need to be arresting, is Paige Honeycombe.”

Dagger’s stare was sharp and felt like a blade across his neck, the detective’s namesake threatening to cut his carotid. But the aston-ished outputs on his friends’ faces felt like burns on his unsuspecting skin.

“Paige?” Alex cried.

“What are you talking about?” Mercer and Abram said together.

“Detective Dagger, Paige has been harassing us for months. And I can prove it.”

While he looked to Maxima, Dagger took the time to call an of-ficer to put out a search for Paige Honeycombe at her house.

“Bridge, why haven’t you told us about this?” Abram stated, eye-ing his friend with an eye of proposition.

“Because Blanche was murdered. Because everything was hap-pening.” he declared. “Maxima?”

His lawyer retrieved two pieces of paper, one that Bridge had held onto and one that he had gotten from Abram weeks before they had arrived at the police station for this little get together. The first page, the one that Abram had previously found stuck inside his locker at school, just needed to be unfolded once. The second one was viciously crumpled into a paper ball that Bridge had to take several moments to smooth out.

Finished calling in the order to arrive on Paige’s doorstep, Dag-ger realigned his priority on the pieces of paper gracing the table as Bridge set them side by side for optimal viewing.

“What is this, Mathison?”

His eyebrows arched as he answered Dagger’s grunt of an in-quiry. Bridge pointed to the first piece of synthesized vellum.

“This is one the stalker sent us. Notice the design of the station-ary in the bottom corner. This one,” his hand wavered to the next page. “is a rough draft that Paige made of her wedding invitations.” His finger flitted to the design that the page shared with the one pre-ceding it. “Same design.”

“You’ve known this, suspected this, since Homecoming?”

“Are you listening?” Bridge was elevating his voice as he spoke to Abram, unaware of his friends’ reaction to his restlessness, his en-compassing feeling of loss for himself. “This isn’t about you right now, about any of you. Do you think this is easy, that any of this is easy? Everyone in this town thinks I killed Blanche and I find out that Paige is the one that’s been making our lives a conscious version of hell. That’s not easy for me. Especially dealing with all of this so…so soon after Ben.”

“Who’s Ben?”

“Ben Magnus.” Mercer nodded, seeing the sparkling tear in Bridge’s eye when he looked away from the detective. “He’s a psych major at Heartmyth.”

“I was dating Paige’s fiancé, detective. That’s why it’s her. She’s putting this on me as revenge for giving Ben the best sex of his life.”

“Okay, I’m going to pretend to ignore the underage sex part for the time being,” Dagger shook his head, violently wishing that he wasn’t having to deal with these kids and their seemingly sordid teenage love lives. “Assuming this is even the slightest bit true, that Paige has been stalking you, that doesn’t answer the question of why. What is it that she’s holding against the four of you to be haunting you over the course of two months?”

There was no way to accurately reply to Dagger’s question with-out confessing to the accidental murder in the woods just outside of the cemetery all those months ago. They’d kept the secret for so long that it felt cheap to just blurt it out, like they were robbing the per-son they had taken before their time of the grandeur they were de-served. A terrible thing happened, and they didn’t even know who it was that they had buried in the ground that night. There was a lin-gering assumption that it might be Emmy Walker, but the truth was they didn’t know for sure. It was a terrible thing that had happened to them that they had been hiding from the rest of the world for so long, it seemed second nature to bury it from the forefront of their thoughts. How were they supposed to shatter such a heavy secret and, once more, deface the life that they had taken?

Bridge’s mouth trembled with a response, some type of answer to calm the intense shaking of Dagger’s eyes. But the door slammed open with visceral necessity as a stumbling officer made his debut in the room.

“Detective,” the officer said between his strained breathing, eye-ing the tall man systematically.

“What is it, officer? We’re busy.”

“We just received a call from Officer North. It’s Paige Honey-combe, Sir.”

His stance went from eager to agitated and alert, a warning visi-ble in the vein on his forehead. “What about her?”

“Her place, it’s been ransacked, Sir. The officers on the scene be-lieve it’s in disarray because she’s fled town.”

Dagger blasted off from the room like a disoriented rocket with sloppy aim, a startled eagle in the wild. Bridge stared at his friends, a lopsided laugh falling out of his mouth at the idea of Paige’s disap-pearance being the catalyst for him being released from his charge of first degree murder.

 

Being called in for questioning the next day wasn’t shocking to Ben Magnus. He’d been waiting for the call once the news broke that the police were looking for Paige in regards to the murder of Blanche Baxxen.

And Dagger was brutal. He kept implying that he and Paige were working together in torturing Sumner’s friends. Ben was still in awe that Paige had been keeping such a hideous secret, a truth so devas-tating, he was finding it hard to answer Dagger’s constant shouts in the forms of loop-ended questions.

“Detective, I don’t know anything.” Ben concluded for him, in-terposing another question that Dagger had ushered.

“Mr. Magnus, you have to know something.”

“But I don’t.” Ben scoffed, trying not to roll his eyes and at least keep some decorum about him given the situation. “I don’t know where she’s gone to, I don’t know why she did this to Bridge instead of me, and I have no idea what caused her to try and destroy Bridge and his friends.”

“Let’s talk some more about Bridge.” Dagger said sternly. “He said he was with you minutes prior to Ms. Baxxen’s body being discov-ered.”

“He was.”

“So how do I know you didn’t kill her together?”

“Seriously? I didn’t even know Blanche.”

“You’re hiding something.” The smell of car maintenance that usually hung off of Dagger like a lost soul attacked Ben’s nostrils as the detective got in his face. “I can see it in your eyes. It’s all over your face.”

“I’m hiding my sexuality, maybe, but I’m not some psychopath.” After a heavy huff, Ben went on. “I love Paige, I do. But there’s al-ways been a part of me that I kept hidden, even from myself, and when I met Bridge,” He had to pause his rise in conversation, letting out a soft, velvet laugh, a light breeze on an airy summer day. “He somehow broke through that security I had subconsciously con-structed, and I feel like I’m finally on my way to being my true self. I’m gay, detective. And I just might be in love with Bridge Mathison. But I’m not a psychopath.”

Exasperated, Dagger flung his wrists towards Ben. “Get out of here. Before I decide to follow through on filing some statutory charges.”

“I’m free to go?”

“Goodbye, Magnus.”

Ben rose from his chair, abandoning the interrogation room, knowing better than to give Detective Dagger any amount of time to alter his decree. When he ambled out of the police station ten minutes later, after really understanding that he wasn’t a viable sus-pect anymore, he watched two officers escorting a casually dressed Bridge out of the police station after him.

“They’re releasing you?” Ben’s voice was wet with disbelief, but also unbridled joy, which brought a relaxed half-halo smile to Bridge’s face.

“Just now.” Bridge inclined. “With Paige fleeing town, I guess Dagger figured that she probably planted the evidence against me. Plus, I’m guessing whatever you said carried me the rest of the way out of there.”

A simper graced Ben’s darker features then, the first genuine grin he had felt ever since Homecoming. Since before Paige had been re-vealed to be stalking Bridge and his friends, before he’d admitted to himself that he wasn’t perfectly heterosexual anymore.

“Why didn’t you tell them about us right away?”

Bridge suspired, taking in a huge gulp of air, saying, “I didn’t want to—”

“I’m gay.”

Speech stalled, the younger man stared at him intently, waves of trauma sending spastic twitches to his face. “What?”

“I’m gay.” He took a step towards Bridge, slicing through the space currently keeping them apart. “I’m gay and I love you.”

“Ben, stop.”

“I know a lot has happened, I know I was engaged to the woman trying to destroy you and your friends, I know everything is crazy. But I’m crazy about you, Bridge Mathison.”

He sighed again, stepping ever closer to the equal-heighted man standing next to him. Ben saw a glaze lift from Bridge’s eyes, color livening up his face in an acrobatic tumble of clarity.

“Ben, you’re great—”

“But?” he sighed, knowing the word was popping up on Bridge’s vocabulary next.

“But you’re right, everything is crazy. I was just arrested for first degree murder. My friends just found out the woman who let me live with her is the same person that’s been trying to put us on trial for reasons of unknown origin.” Bridge shook his head, a stiff beam on his face as he examined Ben. “I can’t. I haven’t even had a chance to process everything. I need to focus on myself, without the distrac-tion of a relationship or a casual friends-with-benefits. It’s a Bridge-a-thon.” He grinned again. “That’s all I can really handle right now.”

Ben would have been lying to himself if the word disappoint-ment wasn’t floating around his mind like a lazy river of diction. He wasn’t as upset as he would have expected. Bridge had just been through hell and back and Ben himself had, for the very first time, stepped out of the shadows of the closet. As much as it sucked to admit it, Ben didn’t need to jump into another committed relationship at the moment either.

“That’s good.” Ben brightened his face with a sudden smile. “You should focus on yourself.”

“And you should too.” Bridge pulled him into a great bear hug, clapping Ben’s back thrice in succession. “You’re coming out. Enjoy it.”

“I will do my best.” Ben stated, and really meaning it.

“Hey, my birthday is next week. I think I should have a party. With everything going on, I want to celebrate while I still can. You should come.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.” He laughed. “I’ll let you know the details later.”

“Alright, thanks.” Ben beamed again, before saying, “Hey, you need a ride?”

Just before Bridge was going to politely reject his offer, a certain Jeep rolled right up to them, carrying Bridge’s three best friends.

“Thanks, but I’ve got it covered.”

“Right. I should’ve figured your squad had already been assem-bled.”

His chest rumbled with light laughter. “We’re a ride or die sort of squad.”

He just laughed back at Bridge as the teen approached the Wran-gler. “Enjoy freedom, Bridge.”

Ben went to walk away, to head back over to his car when Bridge called back, “Ben,” A look thrown over his shoulder until his eyes met Bridge’s once again. “You enjoy your freedom too.”

Their smiling exchange wasn’t excruciatingly lengthy, but Ben could feel the surge of their lasting and former chemical reaction as they slipped into their respective vehicles.

Bridge was met with vibrant smiles of his friends, stares of thank-God-you’re-alright and we’ve-missed-you.

“Welcome back, jailbait.”

“Not funny.” Bridge hid a smile after throwing the statement up to Mercer in the driver’s seat.

“You’re really free?” Abram asked, draping an arm over Bridge’s shoulder from the seat next to him.

“Free as can be.”

“So, what do we do now?”

The question Alex proposed swam around the foursome for a few moments, Bridge nodding when the answer came to his lips without restraint. “Now we wait for Dagger to find Paige.”

 

Kirby didn’t want to be spying on her mother. It just so happened that Athena had answers to burning questions in which her daughter was too petrified to solicit.

It was the next evening following Bridge’s release, and her moth-er had just received a phone call from Detective Dagger, and Kirby was shamelessly listening from the kitchen after school, Athena droning on in the living room when someone rapped on the kitch-en’s conveniently placed side door of the restored Victorian. The sensation startled Kirby, the fright shuddering her subtle core, quick-ly running over to the door and opening it to see it’s yet to be re-vealed suitor.

“Hey,” Salem bore his usually sloppy, charming simper.

“Shh, just get in here.”

Pulling Salem into the kitchen, she quietly closed the door and mosied her way back to her eavesdropping rendezvous point.

“Kirby, what are you—”

“Be quiet!” She hushed incessantly, a hand up that supplicated his silence.

Drawing a huge breath within himself, Salem walked over and hunched next to Kirby as she hung off the door frame, harkening at her mother’s continued telephone discussion from the slightly ajar kitchen door.

“Alston, this is serious,” Her mother’s voice echoed the worry and doubt that her words spoke of, enabling intrigue to devour Kirby’s gathering thoughts. “You know how important that file is, and you’re just leaving it in your office?”

The file. No wonder Kirby hadn’t found its new safe hiding place when she had upturned the house a second time. Athena had turned it over to Detective Dagger. If he knew about the file, then that’s probably what her mother had previously meant about Blanche’s post-mortem findings being handled.

“Is your mom dating that detective dude that ruined the funeral?”

Closing the kitchen door to shut off her mother from them, Kir-by nodded. “She is, but that’s not why I was snooping on the call.”

“So you’re free now then? Because we should catch up.”

Kirby’s reply evaporated when the kitchen door gave way and Athena sauntered into the cutlery cavern. Her mother eyed Salem quickly, unbeknownst to the intrusion of company.

“Oh, Salem. I didn’t know you were coming over.”

“Sorry, Ms. Wheaton.” Salem inflicted in his best proper-young-gentleman baritone. It’d been many moons since Kirby had wit-nessed him using it, especially on her mother. The memories it brought to the very start of her recollect singed the edges of her sen-timents. “It wasn’t planned. Just figured I’d pop by.”

“It’s good to have you back around here, Salem.” Athena boasted. “Maybe you can stay over while I’m out.”

Alarms deafened Kirby’s auditory senses. “Out?”

The Wheaton breadwinner reiterated with the stern ricocheting of her head. “Alston and I are going to dinner. Assuming you can scrounge something up for you and Salem here? I can leave some money for you to order takeout.”

“I can whip something up.” Salem snickered. “You know how Kirby is around a kitchen.”

She shot him a glare that told him to shut up, which he gladly did as she took the time to truly hear her mother’s earlier claims. Kirby couldn’t escape the sheer euphoria radiating along the lines of Athe-na’s upturned smirk. And if her mother was having dinner with Dagger, he’d be absent from his office…

“Go have dinner with your beau, Mom. That’s great.”

“Since when?” Athena laughed sharply. “I thought you had reser-vations about Alston and I.”

“If you’re happy, then I’m all for it.” She grinned enthusiastically. “The only reservation in question is yours with the great detective.”

Chuckling openly to the room, Athena agreed as she started her exit from the kitchen. “I’m just going to grab my good heels and I’ll be on my way to the restaurant.”

“Are you talking about the gold Circus City Spiked Peep-Toe Pumps?”

“Kirby, we’re headed to a five-star restaurant.” Athena guffawed. “Damn right I’m wearing my enchanted Louboutins.”

Shaking his head as Athena retreated from the kitchen, Salem let a few simple chortles slip from the outstretched oval he made as the laughter found him.

“You and your mom. I almost forgot how much fashion talk you two exchange.” His shoulders shimmied with continued amusement. “So, it’s been a while. Where do you wanna reminisce?”

“We’re not staying, so our reunion is going to be delayed.”

Confusion spread like an infection on Salem’s face, a virus of un-settled feelings driving his eyebrows upwards. “Meaning?”

A sly stab of mischievousness finely tuned her features, changing her attribute from elated to ferociously determined.

“How do you feel about breaking into the office of a police sta-tion?”

 

Almost an hour later, Salem was following Kirby up the steps of the Armor Falls Police Station. Having not been in Armor Falls for even a full two weeks, all Salem really wanted to do was talk to Kirby, as opposed to possibly committing a crime.

In the past year since Kirby had left Manhattan, several primeval moments had lapsed in his life that were unspoken on a critical level, because his heart was too laden to recite.

There was the adoption thing. To label the restraint of knowing a child harboring the DNA that conjoined them, and knowing they inhabited the same city, and not tracking him down as difficult, was the most severe of understatements. Salem had always wanted to be a dad, and it wasn’t that the decision to give him up was a resolution of regret. The hardship stemmed from the notion that he had a son, but he still remained as a man who couldn’t carry the rubric of father.

Then there was the father thing. His father. Actually, it was quite preferred that things had been vastly chaotic. It kept Kirby’s studies about why Zeus Simon hadn’t accompanied the rest of his family to New Hampshire in a dark corner that remained, as he wanted; unex-plored.

Lastly, perfecting the trilogy of turmoil of Salem Simon, was the thing concerning his sister, Sahalia. His sister, Holly, as he had nick-named her since they both were very little light-hearted adolescents, was the very reason behind their united resolve to move to Armor Falls. It was because of Sahalia that their mother had signed on to work for Hendrick Shadows at Arclan Asylum.

These sort of things were topics he would love to go over with Kirby, if some more than others. And he’d much rather enjoy think-ing about enacting those sordid altercations more than he favored sneaking into the office of a police detective.

“Kirby,” Salem ushered as they began to ascend the steps of Ar-mor Falls Police Department, eyebrows shivering with bubbling cau-tion. “Have you developed a need for danger since you left New York?”

“It’s not a big deal. And this is important.” Kirby countered, mimicking her mother’s earlier dissertation, her verbal reflexes pre-meditated and wickedly jagged.

“How important?”

“Life or death, Salem. Trust me. I just need you to create some sort of distraction so I can slither into Dagger’s office undetected.”

“Fine. I got you covered.”

When they parted the sea of mahogany that consisted of the doors to the police station, Salem threw a hand to his chest, gripping the material of his dark gray button up that hid the vital organ from the naked eye. In a split second prior to attention falling of both of them, Kirby side-stepped away from him, walking casually as Salem flopped on the floor, clawing the carpet and wailing for assistance. The officers went for him just as Kirby discreetly slipped into the office belonging to Alston Dagger without being seen by the three available cops on duty.

She allowed herself a moment to be scared. Kirby was inside Dagger’s office. Alone. And someone, any one of the officers, could determine that Salem was fine, that he was stalling, and find her rummaging in the renowned detective’s professional dwelling seeking answers.

Her fear-filled pause was over. Kirby leapt into action, a kinetic fury of movement as she went headfirst into Dagger’s desk. It began with tossing aside papers and disregarding take-out menus and end-ed with Kirby finding a manila folder in one of the top drawers un-derneath a mound of Almond Joy wrappers. Apparently her mother wasn’t the only delicacy Alston Dagger indulged in from time to time.

Plucking the folder from its candy crumb grave, Kirby flipped the file open. Of course, one thing she had expected was still true. This was the patient history file on Frankie Ellery.

The file read like a modern horror movie. It told of how the six-teen year old butchered her parents and two siblings in the middle of the night with a meticulously dull knife. Then she went back to sleep for a few hours, resting up before fleeing, and then being found by Armor Falls Police hours later.

But that wasn’t the most unbelievable part about Frankie Ellery’s Arclan file. Not when Kirby saw the date in which the young mur-deress had committed the act in question, and the estimated time in which it had taken place.

She shoved the file back into its place underneath its candy wrapper drapery, stealthily emerging from Dagger’s dungeon as Salem was attempting to persuade the officers that he dubbed his heart pain as an over exaggerated false alarm.

“Salem?” Kirby said in mock surprise, catching his eye and hop-ing he played along. “What are you doing here?”

“Ms. Wheaton?” An officer Kirby recognized regarded her with an inquisitive tilt of his taut head, an unspoken question lingering in the squeezed space between his eyebrows. “We didn’t see you come in.”

“Yeah, I stopped by to see if my mom was here.”

“Alston left with her almost an hour ago.” he nodded.

“Just missed them then.” Seeing the fading smile from her friend’s devilish features settled her worry, knowing that he knew where she was headed with their fake ailment. “Salem, are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” He threw a wrist in the air to solidify his adequate health. “I think I just forgot to breathe for a minute.”

“You should get home.” Kirby ambled closer to him, going so far as to wrap her arm around him before easing a look back toward the open-eyed officers. “I’ll take good care of him, I promise. If he’s still in pain, we’ll head to the hospital first thing in the morning.”

They got out with minimal additional questions, gratitude be-tween them as they strutted over to Salem’s Eclipse. It wasn’t until they were both in the car that Salem glanced over at her, seeing the palpable dread beating against her cool skin.

“Kirby, I know we haven’t been able to talk, but now would be a great time to explain what’s happening here. If dating this guy, if da-ting Mercer, is dragging you into this Sumner Shadows case…”

“You know?”

“Of course I know, Kirby. Google can do wonders when you know what to look for. Look, Mercer and his friends—”

“Mercer and his friends, my friends, aren’t the ones that got me involved, okay?”

She didn’t want to tell Salem anything, she shouldn’t. But Kirby had convinced him to drive her out to the police station. On some subconscious, deeply buried level, Kirby felt like she needed Salem to know…something. Faith and Willa, they knew about the stalker. They didn’t, however, know about Emmy Walker or anything re-volving around Frankie Ellery. No one but her knew about Frankie Ellery.

“You can talk to me,” Salem’s voice sounded muffled, like he was far away as opposed to sitting in the driver’s seat next to her. “You can trust me.”

“I saw Sumner the night before school started, before I knew an-ything about him or his friends. That’s what started all of this. I was out taking pictures and I caught one with him in it. And since he had been missing for six months…” Kirby sighed, cracking her fingers as nerves boiled among her veins. “It’s why I had to come here tonight. It all goes back to Sumner.” She scoffed. “It always does.”

“Okay.” Reaching over, Salem grabbed one of her hands and slid his fingers across her knuckles. “Maybe I don’t understand, and I don’t know all the details. But you can tell me in due time. I’m still here for you. Always.”

“God, I’ve missed you.” She chuckled sarcastically, a tear slipping past her defenses. “But you’ve gotten sappy since Manhattan.”

Laughing, he just agreed with her, the bobbing of his head filling the silence in the car along with his hitched hilarity. “Yeah, I guess I have. Just tell me one thing, and I’ll follow you into the dark, Death Cab For Cutie style.”

A grin bruised her lips as she shook her head. “Okay.”

Salem had no idea what he was agreeing to, what he could possi-bly be signing up for by reassociating with her. She supposed she should have disclosed the full terms and conditions of what it meant to be back in her life, about every little detail about Kirby Wheaton that Sumner Shadows had altered with his antics of dire destruction, but she needed this. She needed Salem by her side again. Like old times. Kirby needed some normalcy amidst the detached feeling that had taken over her life since she’d moved to Armor Falls.

“What did you find in that detective’s office?”

Salem witnessed an entire glow ebb its way through Kirby’s de-meanor, a sneer quick on her lips, a sharp side-eye glance in his di-rection.

She said, “A lead.”

 

The planning of his upcoming eighteenth birthday was keeping them all busy, much to Bridge’s appreciation. A lot had been muddled since Bridge’s arrest and subsequent release. School was thrashing them through the academic mud, basketball tryouts were soon, and the police still hadn’t found anything about where Paige was or any further incriminating evidence associated with her motive. So focusing on his Halloween birthday bash was a good way to wind down from all the crazy.

“Quit saying no, it’s a great theme.” Bridge was telling his friends as they sat in the sunroom of the moderate Meadows residence. “And it’s my birthday party, isn’t it?”

“You can’t have a Día de los Muertos themed party, Bridge.” Alex declared, swiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s in terrible taste, with what our lives entail.”

“I happen to have great taste, thank you.”

“So, since we’re talking about taste, should I mention Ben right now or…?”

“Fuck off, Meadows.”

All of them did the ritual of barking in a few choice chortles, Bridge even taking them up on their cue and joining in on the fanat-ic guffaws his friends were emitting around him.

“Just kidding, B.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Bridge nodded at Mercer, sipping on the strawber-ry lemonade that Clay had made upon their arrival. “Seriously though. My birthday is on Halloween. Día de los Muertos is a great theme for the party.”

“Aren’t we surrounded by a heavy amount of death without a Day of the Dead themed birthday party?”

“It’s just face paint and costumes, Alex. I love everything the tra-ditions of Día de los Muertos hold, and I think it’s a nice nod to my heritage. Anyway, it’s cool, right Abe?”

“Yeah, it’s awesome.” Immediately after such a response, Alex el-bowed his boyfriend in the ribs, which elicited Abram to amend his earlier statement, saying, “I mean, it is a little morbid.”

“Oh, what do you know. You’re blinded by sex.”

“That’s rude.” Alex scoffed, clearly not taking the comment to heart by his small laugh.

“I’m definitely not blinded by sex and I think reconsidering the theme might be a good idea.”

“No, you don’t count either. Blinded by virginity.”

“Fuck off, Mathison.”

Another round of merriment struck them as Clay walked into the sunroom, smiling at them as he garnered their communal heed. And he had someone with him.

“Kirby?” Mercer stood up, just unsettled by her abrupt arrival af-ter his father, heading over to her as his dad handed her a glass of the perfected strawberry lemonade. “Everything alright?”

She ignored Mercer, giving his dad a teethy beam of apprecia-tion. “Thanks for the lemonade, Mr. Meadows.”

“Just yell if any of you need anything else.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Mercer smiled.

As he departed from the room, Kirby shut the glass door to the sunroom, granting them total seclusion.

“Kirby.”

She took his hand and joined the group, taking a seat in the me-ticulously chosen wicker furniture with the rest of them.

“I should have texted.” Kirby stated, eyeing Bridge. “What’s the theme for your party?”

Bridge puffed out his chest in pride, boasting loudly, “Día de los Muertos.”

“I love that. I’ll YouTube an amazing tutorial for my makeup.”

“Kirby, we love you, but we can tell you didn’t come over here to talk about Bridge’s birthday.” Alex saw her face alter into the truth he had presented. “What is it?”

“Last night,” Kirby started, gripping Mercer’s hand to ground herself and keep her tone even as she went on. “I followed some in-formation and ended up breaking into Dagger’s office at the station.”

“I’m sorry, you did what?” She was surprised to hear this from Abram and not Mercer, or even Alex, who had obligation to the force through his mother.

“He had a file, one that Blanche recommended we find to piece everything together.”

“When did you start speaking to the dead?” Bridge scoffed.

“Just following your Día de los Muertos motif.”

Alex huffed. “How do you know this exactly?”

“I can’t say,” When she answered his question with such a closed analysis, all of them scrutinized her. “I have my ride or die, too, al-right? The file was of a young girl, barely sixteen, that was admitted to Arclan Asylum.”

“So what is so special about this girl’s file?” Mercer asked.

“Because Frankie Ellery, the girl that stayed in Arclan with Blanche, was admitted the morning of August 2nd.”

“As in—”

“The morning after Sumner showed up at Heartmyth to plead help out of Straton.” Kirby confirmed. “I’ve been thinking it over, where the connection lies, and what if the reason Sumner was cov-ered in blood the night Hugo and Straton saw him is because he did what Frankie was convicted of and murdered her family?”

“For what reason?” Abram brushed it off, unmoved by this proc-lamation that had as many loose ends as everything else that fol-lowed anything about what they thought they had known about what Sumner did. “What sensible link could she have to Sumner?”

“First Emmy Walker, now we have this Frankie Ellery.” Bridge’s temper flared in the abstract form of rolling his ankle, cracking its double joint irately. “All we keep getting is dead ends and harder questions to answer.”

“It doesn’t get much better.” Kirby was beginning to ruin Bridge’s previously natural high. “I looked into it and Frankie is closed off from any type of access. She’s in isolation, ever since Blanche’s es-cape. They think she might have been involved, along with two oth-er unidentified patients.”

“So we have to wait.” Alex growled, restless over their diminish-ing options, lifting from his chair. “Waiting to find out more about Emmy, waiting for the police to find Paige, all we do is wait!”

“Alex,” Abram persuaded him to sit back down, after placing a strategic kiss in between a set of his knuckles. “So we take some time off from investigating. We could use more of that.”

“We should tell Dagger.” Alex huffed. “About Emmy, Reyna, Re-phaim, this Frankie girl, all of it.”

“No.” Kirby was adamant, having no intention of betraying her mother’s prerogative in such a cheap way. “We can’t.”

“Why, Kirby? We probably should!”

“We just can’t, Bridge!” She was yelling, but she couldn’t help it. There was no stopping the rush of vocabulary spewing from her mouth. “You guys said you couldn’t say more about the stalker. You claim that you can’t divulge in details. This is that.”

Kirby was filled with relief as the crescendo of cognizance lit their faces up like a banquet of fluorescents. Alex and Abram held on tight to each other, Bridge and Mercer swapping their silent bro bond through their eyes.

“Alright.” Mercer’s hand drifted toward her, understanding form-ing a sheen of familiarity on her wrist where his fingers teased the skin he was caressing. “So we won’t tell Dagger.”

Bridge stood then, his chair flying backward from the inertia of his ascension. “My birthday is in a week. We’re not getting anywhere with Emmy Walker and we can’t question this girl. They’re still looking for Paige, so can we relax and just celebrate the momentous miracle that is my birth?”

“Momentous miracle?” Mercer smirked pointedly, when he saw a response twitching Bridge’s mouth open. “I know, I know, ‘fuck off, Meadows’, right?”

A similar leer on his face, Bridge agreed wholeheartedly. “Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“How about this,” Alex decided, an auditory inclination of his es-crow of reluctance hanging off of every syllable he uttered. “If after the party they still haven’t found Paige or anything, we at least anon-ymously let Dagger know everything we do, so at least we aren’t stumbling through this without some hired guidance.”

The terms were enough for an agreement among the attendees, accepting for some semblance of normalcy. If only fate could hold off on meddling for a week, they’d, maybe, be okay and able to cope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20

FOUND

 

 

Grabbing coffee with Salem after not seeing him for a whole year felt good. More than good, it felt great. Kirby knew it was long overdue, and it felt great because it was right. Salem had been pretty much her only friend back in Manhattan. He had always calmed the noise of her life. Only now, her life was noisier than anything she’d ever known, the idea of silence out of the question.

It was the following Wednesday morning, before school, since she had entrusted the disclosure about Frankie Ellery to her friends. She agreed that until the police found Paige and Frankie was released from solitary, there wasn’t anything more that they could be doing.

Salem and Kirby were walking around town together after stop-ping to grab coffee. They kept walking until they were leaving the confines of the city, strolling alongside aged oaks and withering pines on the outskirts of Armor Falls. The weather was breezy and warm, perfect for their jaunt of reminiscence.

“So, Mercer, huh?” Salem stated, sipping on his caramel latte, thankful for its warmth on the chilly day currently enveloping eve-rywhere their heads swiveled.

Curiosity itching along her senses, Kirby laughed at the vague variation in conversation. “What about Mercer?”

“Nothing.” Salem gazed, meeting her interested look. “He seems like a great guy.”

“He is.” A swallow of her white mocha dark roast followed the incline of her head. “Mercer is amazing.”

“And he knows…”

“About the baby, yes.”

“And that I’m…”

Kirby chuckled, making sure to step over a flattened styrofoam cup from one of the local fast food joints in town. “Salem, you’re just fine in the eyes of my boyfriend.”

“His best friend’s cute.”

“Bridge?”

The flush of red lit Salem’s cheeks like rose lights implanted un-der his skin. He avoided contact with her eyes, resolving to drink his latte in lieu of a riposte. An uproar of delirium echoed upon Kirby’s throat, swatting Salem’s leather glossed arm with her own leather lathered limb. It was funny that time had separated them so, yet their mutual love of leather jackets remained as true as ever.

“Shut up.” he sighed.

“You have a thing for Bridge.” It was a statement rather than a question, a fact that she happened to know held all verity.

His face contorted as he grimaced. “I sort of already had a thing with Bridge actually…”

“You what?”

“Right before that dinner you guys had about the fate of the asy-lum. We may or may not have hooked up in the bathroom of a nearby bar.”

“Salem!”

“What? He needed a rebound, I had just gotten to town. He’s hot, I’m hot. We made heat together. Explosions, actually. Volcanic explosions.”

“Lord, Salem.” she chuckled, feigning the act of being over-whelmingly grossed out. “So what are you both doing now then? Does Mercer know?”

“We’re not doing anything. We called it off. More accurately, he called things off, which is cool. I’m not, like, into him or anything. My point is, is that no one knows. Except you.”

“Right.” She drew out the word, disbelief of his coolness of the situation evident by the slow-mo delivery. “Good luck with that. You haven’t told me, by the way.”

“I thought I just did.” His neck snagged at a slant as he thought on it. “Oh, the tattoos.”

“Not about Bridge or the tattoos, but I’d love to hear more about both.” She smirked. “I was talking about why you’re here in Armor Falls.”

Their amicable stroll slowed, a weightful exhale lowering from his lips. Kirby felt the vibrating hesitation drying out his flesh as they kept walking in the grass by the vacant road connecting the town with the drive out towards the scenic countryside. Salem peered at his former best friend turned ex-girlfriend with misty eyes and a mouth full of lead.

“It’s not a good story.”

“Trust me, my stories aren’t cotton candy and gumdrops.”

He readied himself, needing a second to strengthen his mind in order to let Kirby inside, a blockage at the door to his past.

“My dad died.”

Kirby dropped her coffee instantly, the latte splattering all over her worn Manolo Blahniks. “No! When!?”

“A few months ago, back in April.”

A slight weight repositioned inside him, the deafening sound of crumbling cinderblock filling his senses, one side of his walls coming crashing down at an alarming, but needed rate. Salem dared a sharp gaze to gage her reception to such a deep misery. Her eyes were al-ready twitching at the arrival of tears, her skin blue in mourning, her lips wrestling against each other to silence the scream itching to break free. Wordlessly, her hand found his, Kirby’s grip hard next to his shaking fist.

“How?”

“Heart attack.”

“Oh my God.” Her free hand swiped at a tear, evicting it from her face. “Salem, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah.” No other words seemed to appropriately portray the dis-mal damage from losing his father, but Kirby didn’t seem to mind.

“How did Sahalia take it?”

“She got pregnant.”

Salem’s big sister being with child was way too wild a concept to wrap her head around. She had just let go of her friend’s rough hand, fully prepared to badger every detail out of him when a car popped up at the end of the road they were walking toward. The driver was swerving dangerously across the pavement, closing in on their loca-tion.

“Look at this asshole.”

His blasé comment bore no comfort to her flourishing anxiety as the vehicle neared them evermore. But then it was clear that the per-son operating the car was either losing control over the metallic monstrosity or was intentionally throwing away every fear over their well-being, looming trees elongating their branches to lure the driver to meet their end against their potentially brutal bark.

“Salem—”

And then metal clashed off-key on wood, the tan sedan careen-ing into a nearby redwood. Salem leapt into hero mode, scrambling to make the light trek over to the freshly cultured crash site. Slower than her counterpart, Kirby found a path to the mangled, dark face of the halted Honda with her cell phone dialed and pressed firmly at her ear.

A random officer picked up the phone and said, “Armor Falls Police Department.”

A full rendition of the event in front of her had been queued up on her tongue, keen and ardent. Salem threw open the driver’s door and her prepared words dissipated off her earnest taste buds.

“Oh my…God.”

“I’m sorry, what seems to be the matter, miss?”

She ignored the cop. “Get me Dagger.”

“Kirby, what is it?” Salem’s regard momentarily killed any viable heroism.

“Don’t you recognize her from every news report every five minutes?”

A clicking was heard on the other end of the phone call, indicat-ing that her call had been successfully transferred. Then a familiar booming voice clearly spoke into the phone. “Detective Dagger.”

Altering her priorities, Kirby declared distinctly into her phone’s receiver. “Alston, it’s Kirby. I’m just off of Wheats Valley Road. You’re going to need to get here. Fast.”

“What? Why?”

A scoff of incredulity involuntarily fell from her mouth, a leaf of information in an updraft of discovery. “Because we’ve just found Paige Honeycombe.”

 

Waking up felt awful. Once her unconscious was ailed, everything hurt. Her nerves rebelled against her with significant force, every movement a cataclysm of molten affliction. Paige’s eyes stuttered, flapping aimlessly like window shutters in the throes of a terrific tor-nado. A flutter of facts presented themselves while she struggled to open her eyes.

The first was Ben. How much she loved him, how badly she wanted him, how she craved for their life together. But something snagged at the sentiment, telling her that she was forgetting an im-portant detail. Then she thought of Bridge. She felt unfathomable rage for him, though she was clueless as to why the emotion con-sumed every atom within her.

Paige saw light bending and darkness fading, her eyes finally fin-ishing the act of breaching confinement and allowing her green irises to breathe for what felt like the first time.

“Hey.” Ben’s smile both sent her shocks of anguish as well as pangs of bliss. “How are you feeling?”

“What-what happened?”

He moaned in discontent, a crater of a pant leaving him with earnest. “You were in a car crash.”

In her head she heard scraps of metal and the shrill wail of an ambulance, yet nothing even close to a fragmented memory was tangible by her mind’s grasp.

“A car crash?”

“Don’t you remember?” Ben, skirting closer to her from his seat next to the hospital bed she resided in with inverted eyebrows, felt hope at her loss memory to save his own mistakes taken out on their relationship. “Don’t you remember…anything?”

A massive swirl of nothing came to her, a blank slate of missing memories. A wrinkle concaved in the space between her eyebrows.

“I remember chaperoning Homecoming.” Paige coughed a few times, her throat suddenly raw from either the apparent crash or her compulsory slumber. “After that…” Paige knew a big calamity hap-pened at Homecoming, but her head was hazy, full of fuzzy forget-fulness. Her brain was a maze filled with thorny turns and blinding sunshine. “How long was I out?”

“About twelve hours.” Ben admitted. “Are you sure you don’t remember anything?”

Then, something did hit her recollect, a whisper of remembrance floating between her ears. “Blanche Baxxen.” Paige shuddered, the truth cold along her cerebral cortex. “Blanche Baxxen is dead.”

“Yeah.” Ben curled up next to her, leaving his chair and crawling into the hospital bed and cradling her. “Yeah, she is. But you’re not, and that’s what you should be concentrating on.”

As Ben kissed her forehead, telling her it would all be okay, Paige wasn’t able to shake the feeling that everything was very, very wrong.

 

“What do you mean, ‘Paige is at the hospital’?”

Dagger let Bridge’s question linger in the room. He had pulled them from class just a half hour prior. He was just telling them that Paige Honeycombe had woken up less than thirty-six hours ago. He had waited to tell them after Dagger himself had a chance to meet with Paige, with failed advance. And the four teenagers that claimed Paige as their stalker weren’t taking the news of finding her, and not arresting her right away, so well.

“Why isn’t she in jail?” Abram exclaimed, screeching his chair across the concrete of the secluded interrogation room.

“Bridge gave you evidence. She tried to flee town and then she ended up in a car crash!” Mercer yelled.

“You had no problem locking Bridge up!”

“Enough!” Dagger said, ending Alex’s spew of incompetence. “Paige hasn’t been arrested because she doesn’t remember.”

“But—”

“But we can’t question her if she has no memories.” Dagger eluci-dated, toes tapping the surface of the floor. “The doctors are corroborating her condition, and they won’t release her until tomorrow.”

“So what are we supposed to do then?” Alex asked.

“Until they release her tomorrow night, we can’t bring her in for questioning. I only brought you in to inform you of the circum-stances.” Dagger sighed, waving to the single officer in the room with them. “I’ll have Officer North drive you back to Westbrooke.”

By the time they were back at school, they had decided to skip the rest of first period, since it was almost over anyway, and gathered at their spot in between the cafeteria and the science building.

“All of this is bullshit.” Bridge breathed with boisterous irritation. “Paige just conveniently acquired amnesia the mere second she was found? I don’t buy it.”

“Doctors have signed off on her status, Bridge.” Mercer heaved, berated sorrow clashing in his voice. “There’s nothing we can do right now.”

“There is one thing we can do right now.”

“I’m not gonna go finish first period, Alex.” Bridge scoffed.

“No, we can break into the solitary block at Arclan and talk to Frankie Ellery.”

“What happened to waiting?”

“Things have changed, haven’t they?” Alex squared up.

“Alex,” Stepping closer to his slightly shorter boyfriend, Abram tilted his head, angling his blue spheres evenly. “We’re not breaking into Arclan…again.”

“Aren’t you tired of waiting, Abe?” He looked from Abram to the rest of his friends. “Aren’t we all tired? This is our chance to get one of the only answers we have access to. Paige has amnesia and we think we might have missed our chance with the enigma of Emmy Walker, but we still have a chance with Frankie Ellery.”

“You’re crazy.” Bridge yelled. “How are we supposed to accom-plish that? I’m sure the solitary block has way more security than a regular patient’s hallway.”

“We still have an Arclan expert.” Alex used his head to gesture in his boyfriend’s proximity. “We can do it tomorrow.”

“Um, hello? Someone becomes a birthday boy tomorrow.”

“Bridge, Frankie could have something that we could take to Dagger while he waits for Paige’s release from the hospital.”

“And what about simply getting into Arclan Asylum?” Mercer’s words mimicked Bridge’s disposition, the group evenly divided.

“They never demolished the passage connecting Arclan and Shadows Manor, just blocked it from the asylum’s end,” Alex’s eyes were sparkling with perfectly finessed cognition. “They lifted surveillance at both ages ago. We can sneak off during the party and make this happen.”

“I can get us in.” Abram nodded. “I think I can get us in through Shadows Manor.”

“Okay, now you’re both crazy.” Bridge chuckled. “Are we sup-posed to just knock on the door and say ‘What’s up, Hendrick? Celia asleep? Because we really need to hit up your son’s bedroom and prance through the passage to your asylum’. He’ll get Dagger to throw us in a room in Arclan in milliseconds.”

“We can do this, you guys.” Abram’s adamancy was a rapturous neon sign capsizing over his face. “One last raid at Arclan before we turn everything over to Dagger and the entire Armor Falls Police Department.”

“You guys agreed,” Bridge’s perfectly plucked eyebrows formed a straight line of apprehension. “Full skeleton makeup for the party. How is it going to look when four specters with Día de los Muertos sugar skulls for faces start roaming an asylum’s halls?”

“They’ll think we’re ghosts, it’ll be fine. And if not, who’s going to believe anyone about seeing something like that on Halloween, especially at a place where things aren’t exactly as they seem?” Alex swore, making sure to use his eyes to give Bridge and Mercer some unshakable reassurance.

A bell brought them down from their high hopes of further breaking and entering charges, manifesting the completion of first period, students pouring out of their classrooms and filling other areas of travel.

“We’ll meet at my party.” Bridge sighed. “Be at the farmhouse at seven. Don’t be late.”

He went to strut away, in a locale other than with them to their shared second period class.

“B, we have calc, remember?”

An easy sneer touched down on Bridge’s face when he looked at Mercer and the remaining pair making up his best friends.

“I know. Cover for me?”

He spun back, having bigger affairs to attend to than turning in his butchered, contrived calculus homework. And he had to confront said affairs now before it jeopardized his extremely vital birthday shenanigans.

Bridge found his way into Armor Falls Memorial Hospital, walk-ing hurriedly to a nurse’s station. Once blessed with the precise knowledge, he got off the elevator on the third floor, seeing the bee-line straight for the room of Paige Honeycombe. Only he hadn’t ex-actly anticipated being thwarted by the likes of his ex-boyfriend.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Ben’s choice of tone was sizzling and sinful, a quick slap that burned an invisible handprint on Bridge’s face. He ushered the al-most legal adult down the hall, cutting a corner away from the room where Paige was still recovering.

“Jesus, Ben—”

“No, why are you here?”

Bridge shook his head. “Dagger said she didn’t remember, I want-ed to see if it was true for myself. I didn’t even think you would be here.”

“You have to go.” he determined.

“Why are you here, Ben? You and Paige broke up in a pretty big way if I recall.”

“She doesn’t remember, Bridge. Paige needs someone right now!”

“You told me you were in love with me!”

Ben closed his eyes, holding back the true tendencies that were squirming underneath his tanned skin. Hands firmly locked to his hips, the older of the two rocked his head, saying, “Bridge, this is complicated, okay? The cops, they’re saying…” His eyes were sudden-ly slick with the shaky tears thriving on top of the warm and wel-coming brown pools where his eyes lived. “They think that Paige might have done this, crashed her car, on purpose.”

Sympathy washed any and all other emotions Bridge felt away like the tide. The thought of Paige purposefully attempting to terminate her life was so heinous, even despite what she had put Bridge and his friends through. He wanted justice, sure, but he certainly didn’t want Paige to kill herself.

“Shit.”

“All she remembers is me,” Ben went on. “So that’s what I’m giv-ing her because I at least owe her that much, after what I did.” He matched his eyes on Bridge’s frequency. “After what we did. I know she’s the main suspect as your stalker, but—”

“No, I get it.” Bridge said, exasperated breaths beating out of him like a snare drum being played with lazy hands. “I just…needed to know for myself, I guess.” He looked off, in the direction of Paige’s room, a conflicting contrast of standing on how he felt about his in-cessant stalker burrowing in his skull. “I should go, so I can make it in time for the lunch bell.”

“Bridge,” He felt a hand as Ben’s fingers intertwined with his own. “I still am, in love with you. And you have every right to hate me for wanting to help Paige, but I have to. I just do.”

“I know.” Bridge smirked, sloppy and unrefined as his eyebrows rose in a maneuver to accompany his departure. “I gotta go. Good luck.”

He left Ben and then hospital, not knowing how he was sup-posed to feel about the headache inducing conundrum concerning the current health status of Paige Honeycombe.

 

Pacing the floor wasn’t working, though it never really did for any-one who decided to take up pacing as a means to try and alleviate their mental woes. And it definitely wasn’t aiding the anguish of Adelaide Llewellyn. Since it was Halloween, she was dressed as Piper Halliwell, her favorite fictional character. Her husband was donning a Rick Grimes inspired outfit, both parents representing their enter-tainment niches.

“Addie, please sit down.”

“How can I sit?” Adelaide stressed, her syllables slothily spilling out of her. “We have to tell them, Ethan. It’s eating me alive.”

“Honey, we talked about this.”

Adelaide eliminated her previous pacing, settling in front of her loving husband with a wisp of another battle on her lips. “Ethan, please. Isn’t this killing you like it’s killing me?”

“This isn’t just some simple conversation with our kids. This is something that could change our lives, our kids’ lives.” He huffed in heavy, concrete breaths. “Can’t we just pass out candy to the neigh-borhood kids like we’d planned? Faith and Alex are still upstairs, so you need to keep your voice down.”

“I’m sorry. Your reasons are conclusive and justifiable, but this is killing me from the inside out. We have to tell our children the truth.”

“Which is what?”

Both of them suddenly facing the stairs, Alex and Faith were staring at them fixedly in spite of their skeleton makeup for Bridge’s birthday party. Alex had on a tuxedo made to look like it was decay-ing, with tattered seams and fraying ends. Faith’s dress was giving the effect that it had been on fire at one point. And their faces were scary perfect, exact immaculate portrayals of the extraordinary Día de los Muertos traditions.

“Dad?” Faith’s voice wobbled with consummate uneasiness.

Ethan received a glimpse from his wife, a grand prayer for the green light to unravel the biggest Llewellyn family secret. Ultimately, Ethan nodded and said, “Come sit down.”

“Is it really that serious?” Alex sighed. “We’re going to be late for Bridge’s party.”

Catching the swap betwixt their parents, Faith tensed up like eve-ry one of her nerve endings had just been simultaneously struck like the chord of a violin. “Alex, it’s serious.”

“Please sit.” Ethan said again.

The twins sat across from their father in the living room, Ade-laide warily taking her descent next to her husband.

“There’s something you need to know, something you deserve to know.” Adelaide stated, slithering a hand around her husband’s for tactile support.

“Okay.” Alex said.

Faith added, “Go on.”

“Your father,” Adelaide faltered, her grievances overruling her precogitated speech.

“I’ve always known.” Ethan stated, verbally stepping in. “So we don’t want you to think I’ve been in the dark about this, because I haven’t.” He grinned extensively. “I’ve always wanted this.”

“This hasn’t been easy, is what we want you to comprehend.” Mama Llewellyn intervened, love tapping Ethan’s hand tenderly. “But it’s been too long, too much has happened to keep this a secret any longer.”

“Mom, what is it?”

Ethan answered his son’s question with a fully improvised elocu-tion. Their kids abided on sighs of preambles and pauses comprised of long forgotten tales of reticence. Adelaide wiped the cold sweat shimmer from her face with her elongated forearm, the seconds that passed feeling like centuries for all entangled.

“You know that your mother and I met in college. And that we got married a few months after we graduated.”

“Is that not true or something?”

“No, Faith.” Adelaide smiled casually. “All of that is true, but your father and I made our connection while I was still dating another guy.”

“Oh my God.” Faith howled, sheltering her mouth in object pro-test.

“What?” Alex turned to his sister, wondering why he wasn’t grasping what she so noticeably had mentally seized.

“Alex, your mother and I—”

“I was pregnant, when I met your father.”

“You what? But—”

“And it’s him!? Why, Mom?” Faith shrilled her voice. “Why would you both keep this from us?”

“What’s going on?” Alex pleaded.

“Alex, open your eyes.” Faith stood up, her posture an indication of her vehemence as she slanted in her moderate heels. “We already know someone Mom dated before Dad, and he’s in town!”

Foggy pictures of authenticity parted for Alex, everything he had been missing abruptly crisp and abundant with rigor. He looked into the eyes of his parents and it was in the reflection of their corneas that the cloudy revelation started to seep to the surface of Alex’s mind.

“But wait, that would mean that…” During his beat of reassur-ance, both of his parents nodded in synchronization. “…that our bio-logical father is Alston Dagger.”

At the earth shattering epiphany, Faith fled from the house, fall-ing into her malice laced trample to the car she shared with her brother.

“No.”

“Alex—”

“No!”

He stood up, much like his sister before him, blinded by the mol-ten malevolence swimming around the blood that glided throughout his irate anatomy. Ethan and Adelaide soared from their seats as well, tears stinging their souls to match their eyes.

“Why would you keep this up?” He stared at his father. No. At ‘Ethan Llewellyn’. Alston Dagger was his father. This was way too much to deal with, especially with what he and his friends had going on tonight. “Why would you agree to it?”

“Because I love you and your sister more than anything, and I’ve been so happy for so many years, Alex.” Ethan concluded. “You kids and your mother mean everything to me. I wanted this. I still do.”

“So, he knew this whole time? Dagger knew about us and didn’t think to mention it during the multitude of hours we’ve been spending together?”

Silence met him, lapping at his face with as much control as an adolescent Labrador. Faith honked the car’s horn from its parking space just outside, adding to the anxiety of the emotionally fragile parents.

“Dagger doesn’t know?” His nostrils flared, his blood slowing and thudding to the beat of negligence. Alex screeched his following words, his vocabulary overruling any residual parental respect. “How could you do this to us? Dagger doesn’t even know we’re his!?”

“He didn’t want you!” Adelaide leapt forward in anger, develop-ing an immediate infuriation over being badgered by her teenage son in the realm of right and wrong. “Alston told me way before I got pregnant that he never wanted the ‘unruly burden of siring eventual mistakes’.”

“But you’ll never know, Mom! Because you were too selfish to tell him he had two kids!”

“Alex—”

He ignored his father’s outburst, looking forlorn at the front door. “I’m going to be late.”

“Alex!”

His mother’s outcry fell on unresponsive ears, Alex fuming as he left the now unfamiliar Llewellyn household. He felt like a phantom in his own skin, something he’d only felt once before when he was living as Lissa. It scared him to think of himself as someone he didn’t recognize anymore. And he couldn’t help but again see a stranger when he glimpsed through the window of Alex Llewellyn’s life.

 

“Heading home, sir?”

Glancing up from his desk, pouring things into his bag, Dagger smirked at the ever diligent Officer North. “Yeah, here in a bit. Eve-rything good at the Mathison farmhouse?”

He had ordered extra, unmarked police presence at the vast loca-tion for Bridge’s Halloween birthday bash. It never hurt to be a dash overly cautious, notably when it came to the unpredictable deviance of Sumner Shadows. Bridge’s birthday conveyed the exact affair that would inspire another jolt encounter with the elusive corsair.

“Yes, sir.” North responded. “Looks like most of Westbrooke emerged for the occasion.”

“They would,” he commented with a scoff curled under his breath, latching his bag to secure his array of belongings. “Sumner’s friends are infamous.”

“Halloween patrol is a go as well.”

“Good, good.”

North smiled at the respected detective ardently before drum-ming his fingertips along his crossed arm. Dagger swung his bag over his shoulder as the officer changed the axis of his head and said, “Plans with Athena tonight?”

It was known at the precinct that Alston and Athena were quick-ly becoming a severely serious item. Normally, Dagger didn’t discuss his personal life at the station, but North was harmless and he’d actu-ally been one of the few people around Armor Falls Police Station that Dagger trusted to do even more than what was expected of him, soaring performance his vital key in winning him over. An answer pulsed on his lips but his cell phone’s blaring of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ halted any resolution. Swiftly scanning his screen, Dagger gestured at it with a booming beam.

“That’s her now.”

North let his eyebrows do a suggestive wave. “Have a good night, detective.”

“You too, Aaron. Say hi to Cindra and the kids.”

Dagger was left alone in his office then, free to answer the phone to his heart’s desire.

“I was just talking about you.” He purred into the cellular device.

“Alston.”

Her voice shook with palatable fear, oozing with penetrating pet-rification. It stunned him to where a few excess moments transpired, putting his reply on a flaky hold. They hadn’t been dating a handful of years, but he could already sense that something wasn’t right.

“Athena, what’s wrong?”

“You have to get here.” Her seemingly feeble tone trembled on. “Now.”

“Talk to me. What’s going on?”

He was an immobile hyena, crazed to know what information she had, but too scared to move toward the truth’s surface

“I figured it out.” The dread temporarily vanished from her, a gasp slipping between her strained breaths. “I know what Blanche Baxxen knew, why she was killed. I found out why Sumner started all of this.”

Dagger felt like his response time had been tuned to half speed. Like a sloth lathered in molasses had invaded his senses, a tortoise tittering dangerously on his brain. He finally felt the gravity of his girlfriend’s words, a massive ship of understanding sinking into the forming pit in his stomach.

“So tell me.”

“I can’t, not over the phone.” Like the snapping of fingers, Athe-na’s tone was restored to one of fright. “I think someone’s here, Al-ston. Someone knows that I know and they’re watching me.”

“I’m coming to you, right now.” Dagger insisted, already storm-ing out of the station and running to his car as their call progressed. “Lock your doors and stay upstairs until I get there, okay?”

“Alston?”

“Yeah?”

“Hurry.”

She hung up, cutting off their supplementary communication. Dagger got on his walkie as he drove out of the station’s parking lot, telling an officer to follow him out to the Wheaton residence in case Sumner Shadows was trying to terrorize his girlfriend with the likes of murder.

 

Straton and Hugo were doubtlessly late for Bridge’s party. But that was mainly because Hugo was busy with a support group. Ever since he had revealed to Straton, and the rest of their friends, that he had seen Sumner over the summer, he’d vowed to stop drinking. After all, it was the dark suitor of alcohol that had kept the vital infor-mation from Hugo’s most primal of memories. So, here they were, running late because Hugo was doing the right thing for himself.

The support group was a smaller scale of what Straton assumed Alcoholics Anonymous would consist of, and was hosted at the youth center just across from Armor Falls Memorial Hospital. Hugo had begged and begged Straton to come as a show of support, and being the good best friend that he was, he had finally agreed. The meeting was just wrapping up when Hugo disbanded from group of well-wishers and approached Straton. He had been partaking in the free food the entire time Hugo had been pouring out his heart and soul to the surrounding strangers, and their sweet tea was sweet se-renity.

“You drink too much of that and you’re going to turn into a share of Lipton.” Hugo laughed, clasping his friend on the shoulder. Straton chuckled along with his bro as he finished his cup and tossed the styrofoam into a designated trash bin. “But seriously, dude, thank you for coming tonight. It really means a lot me.”

“Of course.” Straton smiled, giving Hugo a half hug that ended with a pair of smiles between them. “I do think we should get going, though. We still have to conjure up some type of skeletal makeup on our way to the party we’re incredibly late for.”

“I know,” Hugo nodded. “But I brought some supplies for us, and it’s a simple skeleton look that we can put on before we see anyone at the party. Let’s head out.”

After giving their thanks to a few people in the group, as well as the curators of the night’s occasion, they made their way across the parking lot and made it into Straton’s vehicle. They were just driving by Armor Falls Memorial Hospital, when someone was running from its doors and was almost flattened by Straton’s BMW.

And the person running out in front of them was a freshly re-leased Paige Honeycombe.

Once his tires completed screaming against the pavement, both Hugo and Straton hopped out of the car, Paige standing there in front of them as immobile as a monument.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Straton yelled, suddenly real-izing the weight of what Paige had done to his friends as he delivered the ambush of words to her. “I almost flattened you.”

“Sidetracked by Halloween, I guess.” Then, really looking at them, she spoke with wildly intense eyes that vibrated with analysis. “Wait, you’re Straton and Hugo, right?” When they nodded, she added, “I saw you at Homecoming. You’re both acquainted with Bridge and the rest of his friends.”

“And you’re their amnesiac stalker.” Hugo huffed.

“No.” She ricocheted her head with profound potency. “I remem-bered something and the hospital only just let me leave.”

Straton’s ears perked up with intrigue. “Remembered what?”

“The cops thought I was trying to kill myself when I crashed my car.” Paige began to shake, sobs cascading from her like the water at Niagara Falls. “And I fled from my house because I was running from the truth.”

“Spit it out.” Hugo barked.

“I was trying to kill myself.” She admitted between suppressed whimpering. “But not because I’m their stalker.” Paige looked at them with unwavering dismay. “It’s because I found out who it really is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21

THAT NIGHT

 

 

Heartmyth was on figurative fire as the party celebrating the start of the second semester was rallying its most accumulating crowd yet. Sumner had invited them, because apparently he had friends other than them who went to the university. But for his four high school best friends, a Heartmyth rager seemed daunting.

“Are we sure that Sumner is even here?”

“Of course he is, Liss.” Abram confirmed with conviction, affirm-ing his confidence with a firm grip on her hand.

“I’m gonna go find some hot college dude to make out with.” Bridge determined, his own firm grip impeccably caressing his ego.

“Do you ever think about anything without factoring in your pe-nis?” Mercer smirked fiercely, awarding him a comical shove from his best friend.

A redhead came flouncing over to them, specifically attaching herself to Mercer with the loop of her arm.

“Isn’t this party amazing?”

“Harley, are you drunk?” Her boyfriend snickered, alluding to the indistinct conveyance of her words.

“Okay,” Bridge scoffed, an act that preceded the massive rolling of his eyes. “Now that I’ve officially reached fifth wheel status, I’ll see you guys later.”

He faded into the crowd, slipping past belligerently wasted col-lege and high school students that were eagerly assaulting their livers. Unbeknownst to Bridge, he passed a huge gathering that was surrounding the illustrious Sumner Shadows as he tossed a handful shots of vodka down his hatch. Standing directly next to him was a new pal of his who attended Heartmyth and had gifted him the invi-tation tonight. He had yet to see signs of his friends, but for now, his new pal would serve his means.

“Do another shot with me, Straton.” Sumner said, a belch freely flowing.

“I should cool it.” Straton shook his head. “I’ve got an early class tomorrow.”

“Come on, Jacobs.” His begging echoed his discontent at his friends’ urbane refusal. “Don’t bitch out on me.”

The face of one of his best friends’ siblings appeared close by in the corral of kids, halting anymore petulance geared towards Straton, Sumner’s hand flying up as he waved the person over to them.

“Willa!”

Her glossy hair moved like the wind as she met his face from the distance, a glaze of a grin appearing like sunshine in her face. Willa joined them rapidly, a quick hug completed between them.

“Does your brother know you’re here?”

Her head shuddered with a silent negative. “Have you seen him?”

“Not yet.” Sumner officiated. “I’m sure he and the others are around here somewhere.”

“Hi.” Straton said, his glittering eyes scouring the entire contents that comprised of the ever gorgeous Willa St. James.

“Oh, right.” Sumner laughed off his bad manners like it was a tasteless joke he’d forgotten to dismiss. “Willa, this is my friend, Straton. He’s a freshman here at Heartmyth. And Straton, this is Willa, one of my best friend’s little sister.”

“Nice to meet you.” Straton smiled his effortless and timelessly handsome simper.

“You too.” Willa beamed. “Interesting name, by the way.”

He chuckled slightly. “My parents wanted fairly original names for their children.”

After a symphony of a laugh to interrupt their initial introduc-tion, Sumner said, “Come here.”

Sumner’s plea was met as Willa and Straton ushered closer to him as they witnessed Sumner exchanging his phone with a nearby partier, a grin greasing his face.

“Take a picture of us real quick.”

The random person obliged Sumner’s statement, whether it was because they knew him or due to the shock of being asked outright, neither of them were sure. But once the picture was taken and Sumner was returned his phone, it began to bleat obnoxiously.

“Excuse me, I have to take this.” Sumner looked up from his phone and jolted an eyebrow. “Feel free to make out in my absence.”

While Willa and Straton disregarded the irreverent remark, the rest of Sumner’s friends were mingling with the crowd on the back lawn of one of Heartmyth’s many buildings. Bridge was macking on some questioning senior, Mercer and Harley were dancing with a mass of people in the center of the designated party arena. And that left Abram and Lissa to do whatever they wanted, which was the problem. Lissa just wanted to dance with her loving boyfriend, and Abram was consumed with the notion to find Sumner.

“Abe, can we just grab a drink and dance?” Even as she spoke, Lissa knew her plea was colliding against closed off hearkening.

“I just want to see where Sumner is.” Abram nodded.

“Why? Can’t we forget about him and have some fun?”

He smiled. “He’s my best friend, Liss. I wanna say thanks for the invite.”

“Well I’m going to grab us some drinks and I’ll meet you by Har-ley and Mercer when you’re ready to relinquish yourself from Sumner Shadows.”

Lissa pulled Abram in for a kiss quickly, so quick like they’d do it for the rest of their lives. He reveled into the small burst of passion. He beheld his beautiful girlfriend as she walked away, and all Abram could mutter to himself that he was the luckiest guy ever to be so happy and in love with the plentifully quintessential Alissandra Llewellyn.

But the issue with Abram wanting to find Sumner was that he didn’t want to be found. After receiving the call and stepping away from the stumbling and liquor laced crowd, Sumner had a bad feel-ing. And not just because of who he knew was contacting him at the moment. Things were being set into motion, things were changing.

Tonight was the night.

Once he was far enough away from anyone wanting to locate the unmanned king of Westbrooke High, Sumner slipped the familiar burner phone from his jacket sleeve and answered the imperious call.

“I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.” Sumner sneered into the phone.

The woman on the other end was clearly distraught over the contact immersed between them, a loose grip on her breathing. It was new, this interaction between them. It was only about a month ago that Sumner had learned the truth, and it had been driving him utterly insane to not spill the treacherous truth to his friends. But these things needed planning, these things needed to happen at just the right moment with just the right people. The woman on the phone with Sumner was one of those people.

“Blackmail is one of those hard things to dismiss.” She snarled, a hoard of needles poking out of her tone, ready to attack Sumner with the edges of her words.

She clearly had no idea who she was dealing with.

He laughed at her futile crack to dislocate his composure. “Well, when you put it like that, it does tend to take on a dismal context.”

“What do you want, Sumner? Enough games. Quit wasting my time and tell me how we can end this What is it going to take to make this, to make you, go away forever?”

He’d been right. This was it. Everything was in place, shifting ac-cordingly. Not even the stars could have aligned such a perfect pre-amble to the night. It was happening. After a sufferable month of silence, it all ended tonight.

Tonight was the night.

“Armor Falls Cemetery. Be there in an hour. Tonight will be the last you hear of me. I swear on my mother’s grave.”

“It better be.” The woman snidely dictated. If there was one thing Sumner could appreciate, it was someone who attempted to equal his own perspicacity. “Or else your wretch of a mother would no longer have a son to be disappointed in, when I took care of you myself.”

The woman hung up, and left Sumner to break his astute exteri-or. He growled, both out loud and in the black scribble of his mind. It was as if his mind was a blank piece of paper, and he was attempting to make a perfect circle with a black crayon while someone angrily manipulated the sheet of paper. He had underestimated her ability to get under his skin, and he’d let it affect him. So much so, that he felt the slipping of his usual veil, the one that kept him from losing complete control of the plan and unleashing his wrath on all those that dared to defy him.

And that’s how Abram found him, approaching him like Sumner had about five seconds before he created a billowing inferno of vexa-tion.

“Sumner, hey.”

His best friend’s neck snapped over to Abram so fast, the latter thought he heard an echoing crack, Sumner’s eyes searing targets in-to Abram’s own.

“What do you want?”

“Whoa.” Abram continued to near his friend, caution gushing through every nerve he possessed. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Get out of my way, Abraham.”

“Not my name, dick.”

Sumner pushed past him, throwing a shoulder against Abram’s, propelling him backwards, so that he was stumbling over the lush lawn to remain standing.

Abram had never seen Sumner so detached from normalcy. The vibes falling from his friend scared him, venomous tendrils whirling within and seeping out of Sumner like demonic, inebriated fireflies. Abram just surveyed as his friend dissolved into the swarm of popu-lation partying all over. And he was beginning to think that tonight just might be the night Sumner Shadows lost himself.

It was about thirty minutes later before his friends found him. Bridge had just left a boys’ dorm room after some very hot heavy-petting with the questioning senior he had been making out with earlier in the night. He was feeling pretty great as he weaved through the masses. Only trouble was that he didn’t spot any of his friends lingering within the throes of the party. Lissa and Abram had long left the area they had formerly resided, and there were no traces of Harley and Mercer grinding together off-key and void of rhythm. And Lord knew where Sumner was hiding himself.

“Hey,” Bridge stopped an indiscriminate someone passing by him. “Have you seen Sumner Shadows?”

“Yeah, he told Jacobs he had to get the fuck out of here.”

“Thanks.” The guy left him prior to telling Bridge who this om-niscient ‘Jacobs’ individual was.

“B.”

Following his nickname’s utterance, he grinned up at Mercer, whose expression seemed focal to the phone he cradled in his hand, right next to his heart.

“Everything alright? Where’s Harley?”

“Headed home,” Mercer mentioned flippantly, having larger is-sues at hand than the current whereabouts of his girlfriend, such as the phone resonating visibly along the lines of his palm. “Did you get the same text?”

Silencing any feedback, Bridge took in the scene of Lissa and Abram pushing past several people to get to them.

“Did you guys get the text?”

“What text?” Bridge scoffed, his eyes rolling on cue.

Mercer tilted his head toward his shorter best friend. “From Sumner.”

Bridge’s phone buzzed in immaculate segue, displaying a new text from the missing member of their best friend brigade.

 

Armor Falls Cemetery. Now.

 

“Why the fuck is Sumner at a cemetery?” Bridge exhaled as ex-haustion and exasperation rocked on his knuckles. “And we all got this text?” The successive tipping of their heads was all the clarity Bridge deemed essential.

“Earlier, he was being super weird,” Abram used in addition. “Evasive, manic, douchey. Make that mega-douchey.”

An energetic, embroidered scoff escaped past Mercer’s mouth, his eyes slick with hesitancy. “We’re going, aren’t we?”

 

Walking around a cemetery late at night was altogether as one would have perceived when dwelling on late night strolls where the dead roamed recklessly. The four friends were ambling in between rows upon rows of the deceased, gravestones bearing the names of those lost by the living. And the idea of Sumner needing to enact a tryst with them here was already encapsulating them in aromatic fear.

“Sumner?” Abram belched, scanning the grounds for some visible sign of occupancy, but the field of the departed was void of much ruckus, the only things in clear view being a discarded shovel and a pile of random building equipment.

“You can stop,” Lissa demanded as she grabbed Abram’s hand, her whole body fighting the frigid air of the night for warmth. “You’ve succeeded in scaring our souls out of us.”

They heard some rustling to their right, the moon beaming down on them when they saw another headstone, only this one held a colossal significance.

“Look.”

Obliging Mercer’s automatic maneuver and reading the grave, the friends realized why Sumner had arrived here, even if his reasoning was still ambiguous.

The stone read, ‘Marjorie Cobbins Shadows. Beloved sister, wife, and mother. May your brightness always cast the biggest shadow’.

“Why did he come here? Why would he do that to himself?”

Nodding at Bridge, Lissa added, “Why tonight?”

Sumner jumped out from behind a nearby bush by the wooded outskirts of the cemetery, panic and despair melting his face to al-most complete unrecognition. He tackled Abram, seeking him out over the others. The pair hit the ground hard, their friends scram-bling to make sense of what their eyes were presently viewing.

“This is your fault!” Sumner seethed, incisors catching air as they were exposed from his open jaw, a crystal indication of just how en-raged he was. He was a boy berserk, everything but foam forming between his teeth and eroding his enamel.

“Sumner, get off of him!” Lissa cried, searching around for something to attack her crazed companion with, her friends quickly doing the same.

“I’ll kill you!” He landed a punch against Abram’s jaw, repeating the brutish bit as he faced the rest of them. “I’ll kill all of you!”

Having found a since forgotten shovel by someone tending to the cemetery preceding their incursion, Mercer quickly acquired and then swung the landscaping instrument roughly at Sumner’s temple. He went tumbling, no longer on top of a still startled Abram, his remaining friends helping him to his shaky feet while Mercer’s entire soul went limp.

“Oh, God.” He dropped the shovel, his hands flying to his face as he stood over Sumner’s motionless body lying on the ground. “What did I do?”

“We have to go.” Lissa said, already pulling an emotionally stunted Abram from the scene at hand.

“Mercer,” Bridge tiptoed closer to his best friend, glancing from him to Sumner, who was still unmoving, and back again. “We need to get out of here. People are going to ask questions.”

“Like how we killed him?” He choked on a sob, swallowing his sorrow as it etched razorblade slits on the way down his throat.

A loud grunt of incoherence barged out of Sumner’s mouth, his body seizing ferociously in a single spasm. But his eyelids were still crippling drapes on his face, indicating his depleting motion.

“See? No one killed anyone tonight.” Bridge slid a hand into Mercer’s, gently leading him away from the crippled crazie coming to on the terrain adjacent to them. “We gotta go.”

They began to jog after Lissa and Abram, who were doing the same thing as they made their way across the other side of the ceme-tery. That’s when a deafening scream pierced the air, alarming all of them, a sudden awareness that the wail of anguish was emitting from the fallen Sumner Shadows.

“Run!” Bridge matched the maniac’s power and delivery when he shouted the command.

Communally, they sought sanctuary on the far side of the ceme-tery where most of the woods prepared to take its claim over the land the cemetery engrossed. It was then that Bridge observed his friends running into the woods for shelter. He stopped just in front of the forest’s opening, spotting some unexplained wooden stakes discarded by an earlier visitor, seeming like additionally misplaced building materials. Instincts thundered inside of him, his own per-sonal monsoon of survival as Bridge scooped up one of the stakes and joined his friends in the shrouds of the forest, just out of reach from the grounds.

“What is that?” Lissa’s eyes honed right in on the weapon in her friend’s veined grasp.

“Life insurance.”

They all quieted as footsteps prodded closer to them beneath the bribery of the leafy protection. Reticence kept them all inanely tepid. Their heartbeats enveloped every sound, pounding on their ears like hollow drums while their pulses put their souls in some variant of a chokehold.

Just as he was sure Sumner was close enough, seconds from ac-costing them, Bridge lunged forward, his stake poised to strike its victim with white hot apathy. The stake connected with flesh, Bridge forcing all of his weight into the burrowing of the blunt object. He fell on top of his mark, the bloody stake protruding from the once alabaster neck, having nicked the carotid artery without attempting to do so. Bridge’s aim was to critically subdue Sumner, so he’d meant to hit Sumner in the chest, non-fatally, of course.

Not only was the person underneath him shorter than anticipat-ed, thus defining the volatile laceration, but this person was without a doubt not Sumner Shadows.

They came out to see the brawl just as Bridge rolled off of the older woman, tears queued in his eyes over what had just accidentally ensued. His friends were horrified, looking beyond for a sign of Sumner that wasn’t available. The bleeding woman’s eyes were the size of a landing strip, aching in expansion as her entire carcass con-vulsed.

“Oh God!” Lissa shrieked, her cheeks glistening with obvious emotion.

“What’s happening?” Abram’s hands meandered over his buzzed blond hair and tangible beard.

The aging bleeding beauty clawed at the stake in her neck. Bridge scooted over in the grass toward her, sobs and swimming pool cries pouring from him like a fountain of sensibility.

“I’m so sorry.” He cried. “I thought you were someone else, someone trying to hurt us.”

Through bloody teeth, she managed to spit out, “I heard a scream.”

Mercer sniffled violently, his best struggle at keeping himself in one coherent piece.

She reached for the stake again, but Bridge swatted her hand away. “No, you’ll bleed out.” Then, to his friends, he said, “Why isn’t someone calling the cops?”

“No, it’s too late.” The woman said, despite her increasing trem-bling. “I know who really did this.” She started to cough up a sizable quantity of dark blood, and she quickly added a final decree as she placed a hand on the stake still in her neck, her eyes unclouding as an admittance foxtrotted on her tongue. “Make sure you kill that bastard.”

And then she yanked out the stake, a gasp emerging from her as the blood in her carotid flowed freely without its previous barricade preventing its euphoric release. The crying stopped as Bridge rose to his feet, all of them eyeing one another abrasively. Could the woman that had just died by their hand been aware of and openly addressing the desired termination of Sumner Shadows?

“She knew him?” Mercer prompted.

Not caring, Bridge paced, eyes glued to the body of the life he had just ended.

“This is bad.”

They all knew it was true. They knew the moment that they had stepped foot onto the land of Armor Falls Cemetery that their night had gone south. The four of them were a collective of panic, while they stared down at the fallen body in front of them.

“This is really bad.” Bridge said once more.

Lissa ran a hand through her long brunette hair. “Where is he? Where’s Sumner?”

Still pacing, Bridge regarded his friends by saying, “Lissa, who cares? There’s a body!”

“He lured us here. We have to find him.”

Stepping away from the body, Mercer stated, “We need to get out of here.”

“Where do you suggest we go, Mercer? The police? Arclan?”

“Somewhere that doesn’t have us staring at a dead body, Bridge!”

“Enough!”

Abram serrated his silence to wrangle everyone back to the spec-trum of rational thinking. They couldn’t lose it. Not now. There was a murder involved, and their ‘friend’ was missing. They couldn’t lose it now when they were so close to losing it all.

“We’re going to prison. I’m gonna get life without parole.”

Abram, abruptly the epitome of calm, countered with, “No one is going to prison.”

Lissa eliminated the small distance between the tall blond and herself, grabbing his hand eagerly.

“Abram, please tell me you have a plan.”

He looked around, his eyes locking on the woods on the outskirts of the cemetery.

“Grab a leg.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” Mercer said, ever the explicit language for him. “What about this woman’s family? What about everything and everyone important in her life?”

“What about our lives, Mercer? Do you want them to be over because of an accident, over an act Sumner drove us to commit? The police won’t believe our story, not even Adelaide.”

Bringing up her mother stirred up another round of vehement conflicts within Lissa, administering fret alongside the contours of her heart. Abram caught the eyes of every one of his friends thor-oughly, hoping that they really grasped that there was only one feasi-ble choice blazing at them like a field of flickering fluorescents.

“So, grab a leg.”

Hauling the body into the woods was the easy part. They ran in-to difficulty when deciding who would have to dig the grave. Ulti-mately, Mercer and Abram stepped up and made a cursory two foot grave. Finished with its mediocre development, the two boys looked to Lissa and Bridge, who were both mimes during the morose opera-tion.

“Should we say something or?” Mercer recounted.

“If she knew Sumner, she knew what he was capable of.”

“Bridge!”

“What?” He scoffed at Lissa harshly. “Sumner did horrible things to us over and over again. This woman, whoever she was, was aware of that. Or was I the only one in attendance as she pried that stake from her own neck?”

“Stop.” Abram sighed a gorge of a huff. “No turning on each oth-er, alright? From now on, we’re in this. A united front. We make a pact right now. We tell no one. Ever. We take this to our own graves. All in favor?”

A feeble smirk on their lips, the friends admired the fearless way Abram commanded their dire circumstances. They all simply gave confirmation with the decline of their heads.

After that, easing down the body into its new earthy home was a breeze. Mercer was smoothing out the top of the grave when they heard a loud scuffle nearby.

“What was that?”

Bridge shook his head at Lissa. “Probably just an animal or something.”

“Well we should go before that animal becomes a person.” She braced her arms over one another.

“What do we do, about Sumner?”

Mercer’s words paused their forefronts of thought. Sumner could have been out in the cemetery running amok, lurking and waiting for their blood to cake around his knuckles. This could all have been part of an even bigger scheme to have them rot in jail.

“I’ll take the stake and burn it.” Bridge cleared his throat. “No murder weapon, no crime.”

“Sumner just attacked us.” Mercer jeered. “Aren’t you worried about explaining that instead of destroying evidence?”

“No, I’m not, not when I’m worrying about the murder that just happened, Mercer.”

“We go home.” Abram stated, taking the shovel and tossing it back toward the cemetery. “And none of this ever happened.”

“Agreed.” Lissa tilted her head to prove so.

Reaching the adjoined consensus, the four of them left the DIY gravesite and executed the short hike out of the woods and back to the white lit cemetery. When they broke through the trees together, each of them were on edge that Sumner would pounce on them as fast as a lethally ravenous lion that had been deprived of premium sustenance. But all that met them when headstones came into view was the quiet night around them, licking the back of their necks with late night perspiration.

“Let’s just get back to the Jeep and go home.” Mercer nodded.

Holding onto the stake, the bloody tip stained and drying, Bright gave a bow with the decline of his head as it changed axises. “Tonight never happened.”

In unison, Lissa and Abram too said, “Never happened.”

Walking back the way they had ran, Mercer was in front leading them back to his vehicle, so he was the first to see the limp form in the dark.

“Guys,” he said, his tone oozing disbelief and alarm. “Over there.”

Upon closer analysis, they happened to come across the late Mar-jorie Shadows’ grave just as they had before, and lying on the ground crumpled about a foot from it was Sumner, just as they had left him.

“Is he actually dead?” Lissa’s breathing hitched an octave as she aroused the proposition.

Bridge was incapable of opening his mouth for his usual retort of woe, because the idea that they had killed two people tonight as op-posed to one was so mind melting, he thought he might just sponta-neously combust in the middle of Armor Falls Cemetery, a bonfire in mourning over the night’s abysmal coil of encounters. Mercer must have been concealing identical logic, because he immediately leaned against the closest headstone, his muscles craving the assist to keep him standing. Falling back into the helm of authority, Abram gradually approached the slumbering Sumner, torn between wanting him to stay unmoving and hoping that another person hadn’t gulped their last batch of life-supporting air on their watch.

Fingers pressed against Sumner’s neck, Abram relaxed into fac-ing his friends. “He’s alive.”

Maybe it was a thrust of adrenaline emptying itself throughout Sumner’s bloodstream, or maybe he had been waiting for Abram to be in his current proximity, but as Abram hefted his pair of fingers from his flesh, Sumner snarled to life and swept the towering blond from his feet with the unyielding jab of his tensed arm.

Lissa’s scream arrived just before Abram’s ungrateful thud to the ground, his friend’s stunned reactions much slower than Sumner’s vengeful intentions. He climbed on top of Abram and without paus-ing to ponder on his impulsive scheme, plunged a previously con-cealed knife into Abram’s skin in one swift slice to sever his once imperfect flesh.

A roar slashed in every angle through the cemetery, Abram cry-ing out at the splicing of his skin. Writhing the blade in a miniscule lopsided oval, Sumner reveled in the tearing of tissue.

“She’s mine!” The angry-cries came pouring out of him. “She’ll always be mine.”

While reeling from the pain, Abram glanced over at Lissa, al-ways knowing that it had gotten under Sumner’s skin that he had taken the girl Sumner had always been crushing on, much like Sumner’s knife was doing a great job of at the moment. Unable to handle what was happening, Lissa yelled in unmatched fury, throw-ing out her leg and kicking the assailant with all the gusto she could conjure. Sumner fell from his position of straddling Abram once more to cracking his head alongside the protruding edge of the near-est headstone, knocking him out cold in one sufficient bang.

“Abe,” Clearing herself of lingering animosity, Lissa bent down and covered Abram’s wound, which was still seeping blood even through her firmly placed fingers. “You’re going to be fine.”

He kept quivering, utterly petrified at what just came about with him and the person he used to consider his best friend in the uni-verse, his shaking getting worse and worse as the seconds ticked fast-er than a stopwatch. Lissa looked at her remaining friends, at Bridge hugging his murder weapon like it was going to save a life in con-trast to the one it had taken, tears coming to his face as he aimed his eyes at the tremoring yet statuesque state Abram was currently thriv-ing. Which left Lissa only one choice.

“Mercer, get over here.”

Obliging mindlessly without much verbal restraint, Mercer saun-tered over to the pair, his lip quivering at the sight of one of his best friends in such withering peril.

“Hand on the wound.” Lissa directed with falsified confidence. “Don’t forget to apply pressure.”

“What?”

“Now!”

He knelt down in a flash, taking a knee and taking over for her as she rose like a phoenix from the wilting embers of their night. She reached for her back pocket, doing what they should have done at the start of the incursion of this terrible evening, her hands finding her phone.

Bridge fidgeted in place, flustered by her agile dialing. “What are you doing?”

“Calling my mother.”

“Lissa—”

“Abram is traumatized!” She bellowed, her indignation masquer-ading her absolute terror that welled against her ribs, rattling the cell of her fragile heart. “Bridge, he needs help! We can keep our pact about…earlier,” Her reference didn’t need to be clarified. The freshly evoked grave was still too close to be a fading murmur of recollect. “But we are not keeping quiet about Sumner shoving a knife in my boyfriend’s chest!”

“Where’s Sumner?”

Mercer’s words felt icy on all of their spines, because when they turned back toward Abram’s twitching frame, his was the only one in view.

“How is that possible?” Bridge cried.

As Abram lied on the cold, earthy ground, unable to do anything but withstand his searing agony and his abrasive convulsions, he dwelled on the simple evidence that he was within a centimeter of losing his life, his mind, and everything else he held up on the pedes-tal of his still young life. And it pained him worse than the knife had when it severed his skin that the bringer of the most brutal pain of his life was the person he used to trust more than any living thing ever to exist.

In one night, they had gone from running for their lives to be-coming a teenage clique of murderers to almost earning their own graves in Armor Falls Cemetery. And it was too much to deal with as Abram’s view was clouded by darkness, allowing the void to swallow him up, not caring if he ever came out of it as long as he was safe from the sinister sociopathic scandals of Sumner Shadows.

22

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

 

 

Finding someone in a sea of skeletal faces and sugar skull manifestations resulted in being challenging when Salem stepped onto the scene at the Mathison farmhouse. Everyone had gone all out, really committing to Bridge’s theme both in time spent and cultural accuracy. The music was a cavalcade of genres that perfectly described Bridge Mathison. As Nicki Minaj’s ‘Roman’s Revenge’ screamed from some outside subwoofers, he realized just how vast the Mathison’s land was. The farmhouse itself was a giant erected in their honor, surveying the five acres they owned with supreme scrutiny. The dark wood of the farmhouse harmonized the Día de los Muertos concept exquisitely as people paraded through the massive front lawn where everyone could dance, eat and drink: the party trifecta that was a perfect concoction to make the night unforgettable.

That’s when Salem spotted Kirby’s recognizable anatomy over by one of the drink tables, pouring neon hued alcohol into three sepa-rate solo cups. His devilish face paint must have spooked her, since she jumped when she glanced at him, missing one of the cups she was filling and caused the dark red tablecloth to be coated in sweet sticky saturated liquor.

“Dammit, Salem.” He was merely glad that she could see his fea-tures underneath all of his faultless makeup, her gasp enough to up-turn his lips in amusement.

He popped his eyebrows a couple times at her. “It’s good, right?” Salem gestured toward his intricate red paint. “I figured Bridge would appreciate the effort.”

“So it’s all for Bridge? That why you’re here tonight?”

“Partly.” Salem stated. “But I was also hoping that you and I could talk about us finding that woman the other day.”

“I’m just here to have a good time, Salem. To let loose and forget heavy stuff like witnessing Paige’s crash.”

“Seriously, Kirby. The fact that you even know her well enough to recite her name is exactly what I’m talking about.” Salem’s gaze zeroed in past her vigorous deflection. “It’s clear that something big is at play here. I’m just asking for you to be real with me about it.”

Kirby gracefully grabbed her drinks and whipped away from the table, Salem trailing her as they glided over the lawn.

“Yes, there’s a bigger story.” She ultimately pronounced. “All you get, all I even really know, is the guys are convinced that Paige has been stalking them since school started.”

“What? Kirby—”

“Not now, Salem.” She looked toward a clearing, a break in the crowd of people, where Faith and Willa were hanging out until her return with their drinks. She faced Salem again, making sure to really spray her dialogue with as much conviction as they truly carried. “I just want to be a girl at a party tonight.” Her nose imploded in on itself as she eyed her friend. “Why don’t you go find Bridge and just be two boys at a party?”

Her drinks pointed her in the direction of where her friends were waiting for her. Once she handed Willa and Faith their cups, their eyes remained on Salem.

“Okay, why haven’t you introduced us to that ghost of boyfriend past yet?” Faith cooed suggestively.

“Seriously, Salem is delicious,” Willa sighed, a faux indication of her heart’s romantic pitter patter. “Even if I am sort of already taken.”

Faith reacted with a wide beam of a glare. “You and Hugo made things official?”

Nodding emphatically, Willa dazzled like a diamond melting waves of crystal in the sun as Kirby shrugged off the school girl swoons over Salem. “I’m glad for you, Willa. But Salem and I have a lot of history. We’re still getting to know each other again.”

“Well, that’s good.” Faith declared with certainty. “Have either of you seen any of the guys? Straton and Hugo are super slow getting here.”

“I haven’t, no.” Willa stated.

Taking the suggestion to glimpse over the wave of illustrated high schoolers, Kirby just happened to make out Bridge, and then later Mercer as he came up to him hurriedly.

“I’ll go see if they know anything.”

Pushing past both the strangers and the familiars, Kirby was coming into her boyfriend and his best friends’ conversation as Mercer said the words, “We should do it soon.”

“Do what soon?” Her eyebrows arched as she swapped intense eye-locks with each of them.

“Go ahead and tell her.” Bridge decided, cracking his knuckles during the inevitable pause between them. “We may need her help.”

“Bridge—” Mercer went to protest and debate the idea of his girl-friend into their clandestine meddling, but his friend was nimble to suspend his sentence.

“The birthday boy hath spoken.” He said defiantly, holding his head high like a true regal candidate, which coincided with the cheap yet extensively detailed plastic crown wrapped around his dome.

Mercer let his eyes somersault in dismissal, Kirby chuckling as he grabbed her hand as a tactile tether, a way to draw her attention to his eyes. Bridge wordlessly examined the area for Abram and Alex, but all he witnessed was his random skeletal subjects as Mercer filled her in.

“Breaking back into Arclan?” Her voice lifted like a hot air bal-loon taking sudden ascension. “Wait, are you trying to get into con-tact with Frankie Ellery?”

He confirmed her assumptions with the gentle clutch of his hand. “We have to. We’re preparing to tell Dagger the whole story, and Frankie is a part of that, at least whatever she knows.”

“Frankie’s in solitary.” Kirby shook her head. “How do you—”

“We’re out of options,” He exhaled harshly, throwing away his al-ready toxic feelings concerning the night’s transgressions. “It has to be tonight, while Paige is still in the hospital.”

“Alright, alright.” She was beginning to interpret the urgency Mercer was warranting. “When is this going down?”

“Preferably now.” Bridge mentioned with the wisp of his hair as he smoothed it with the quick flick of his wrist.

“We have a problem.”

The voice came from Alex, Abram right by his side where every-one knew he belonged. They came bounding from what looked like the parking lot, having observed something that required an urgent relay.

“I really hate to ask for any follow up.” Bridge resolved.

“There’s pretty stable security surrounding this place.”

“More details, Abe.”

Alex took it upon himself to interject. “Unmarked police cars surveying the perimeter of all streets leading out of here.”

“Maybe it’s just Dagger keeping an eye on things.” Mercer gave his opinion with guarded optimism. “Just in case.”

“That’s great and all, but that makes it more than difficult for all of us to sneak over to Arclan and badger a psycho in solitary.”

Abram winced at Alex. “Can we refrain from the P-word when talking about people in Arclan?”

“The point being that we all can’t go disappearing from the party and go straight to Arclan.”

A series of bleeps reverberated from Abram’s phone then, the blond taking the time to read it. All the color blurred from his face, his emotions as untamed as wildlife in the Serengeti. His friends’ worry climbed without question when his entire body went as white as his sugar skull face.

“Abe, what is it?” Alex’s agony grew when the phone holding his hand quaked.

He allowed Alex access to the phone from his possession and re-ceived the non-verbal okay to read the text aloud.

“Mr. St. James, I acquired your number from when you called our company. I believe it’s time I tell you the whole story.” Alex lifted his presence from the phone, eyes rebounding between Bridge and Mercer. “You deserve to know about Emmy Walker.” Alex looked up from the phone, bemused by its current glowing paragraph. “Reyna.”

“Oh my God.” Bridge breathed carefully.

Another text appeared on the surface of Abram’s phone. Alex gave it back to him, Abram’s grip on the device making a vein en-gorge.

“She sent me an address.” Abram leered. “She wants to meet with me. Now.”

“You have to go.” Mercer concluded. “You get the dirt on Emmy Walker, we’ll get whatever we can from Frankie Ellery, and we can take it all to Dagger to finally get everything out in the open.”

“Ugh, please don’t say the detective’s name.” Alex pleaded rough-ly.

“Why?” Abram relished on inquiry.

“Long story, it can wait.” He grabbed Abram’s hand. “But Mer-cer’s right, you should go.”

“What about getting into Shadows Manor? I’m the only one who knows how to get in.”

“So tell me.” A gallop was performed as Mercer stepped forward. “I can do it.”

“Mercer, are you sure?” Kirby’s tone vibrated prudence, convuls-ing every chord on the way up. “The last time you were down in that passage, you were shot.”

“Go with him,” Bridge advised with an invisible shove. “You’re the only other person who’s familiar with Arclan’s layout. Do you know where the solitary block is?”

“I had to hunt my mom down for lunch there once. I can get us there, no problem.”

“Then let’s go, I can explain how to break into Shadows Manor on the way to Alex’s car.”

“B, come with us to Arclan.” Mercer nodded.

It was at that instant that Bridge found Salem in the crowd, a simper brightening his mood. Sure, they had secret stuff going on, but it was still Bridge’s day and he wanted to truly enjoy something before the night became transfixed on crime and confidentiality.

“Actually, I’m going to hang around here for a bit.” Still looking over at Salem, Bridge added, “Good luck.”

Alex lunged forward to clarify why him staying at the party alone was a bad idea, but Abram blocked him by outstretching his arm.

“Abe, he’s so unprotected by himself.”

“It’s still his birthday, Alex. Let him at least attempt to have a normal one while we do what needs to be done.”

“Alright. Let’s go then.”

Kirby nodded. “Lead the way.”

Mercer and Kirby went ahead and bounced for the parking lot, Abram and Alex lagging behind. Alex turned around to see Faith popping up amidst the parade of teens, agitated and frantic judging by her erratic facial contortions and wild flailing of her limbs intend-ed to be seen as gesturing.

“Take the car,” Alex presented his boyfriend with his car keys. “Faith needs me and it’s obvious we’re meant to split up.”

Abram strived to ease his ails with a suave grin. “I’ll be fine.”

“Make sure of it.” Alex leaned in and kissed Abram swiftly before retracting back to his previous stance. “I love you, you know.”

“I know.” he laughed. “I love you too.

With the mutual declaration, Abram left for the parking area off the main part of the lawn as Alex went to meet his sister at the half-way point between their current locale.

“Wait, no.” Faith let out when they were close enough. “Where is Abe going?”

“Dealing with something.” Alex easily read the panic running a marathon back and forth in her darkly dressed eyes. “Why do you look like you’re waiting to faint?”

“Because I’m still convinced that I might.” Faith assured with mock certainty. “But I need all of you for this. Straton and Hugo just got here.”

“Well good for them.” He scoffed. “And everyone is out trying to deal with our stalker and other encompassing problems, so you’ve got me.”

“Alex, this is big. Hugo and Straton have information on the stalker that are exponential.”

“What? What intel could they have on Paige?”

“No,” her eyes grew darker as she glimpsed her brother’s soul through their shared hazel eyes. “It’s not Paige.”

Back across the lawn, Bridge joined Salem by the rim of the par-ty, leaning against someone’s car that started the parking arena. He was still in awe that he was back at the family farmhouse. It was the first time that Bridge had been back since his parents were claimed as missing. Having the party at the house was his way of connecting with his parents, of somehow sharing his birthday with them even if distance and conundrum exiled them from each other. Shifting pri-orities and all thoughts thereof, he laughed as he leaned next to the taller man sipping his self-concocted mixed drink.

“You made it.” Bridge said, still chuckling. “Love your makeup, by the way.”

“I told Kirby you would love it.” Salem nodded as a smirk set off his features. “Speaking of, have you seen her?”

Bridge went to describe to Salem that Mercer and Kirby had left a few minutes ago, glancing to where Abram was issuing himself into Faith and Alex’s car unattended. Eyebrows raised, he watched as his friend eased out of the parking job, as anticipated. But then someone exited the shadows, someone also watching Abram, that was crouched behind an identical car to the one Abram rode off in, trying to thwart whatever this person assumed they were up to. Under added scrutiny, Bridge managed to make out two flat tires on the doppelganger vehicle, clearly caused by the cloaked character as a fury of fuming curses befell them, this person owning the title of their stalker without Bridge hesitating on the accusation. And then, their defeat discernible, the shadowy figure turned back to concealment, but they slipped up and Bridge was able to see the person’s identity for a two second window.

His heart was instantly submerged in arctic water, drowning in hypothermic shock as their stalker’s true existence sent icebergs of skepticism to the void in his stomach.

“Anyway, do you wanna dance?”

Salem’s words were distant and suppressed, straining to compre-hend the verity of what he had just seen. Slowly stumbling steps car-ried him onward, away from Salem, undeterred by the latter’s beg-ging for a clarification, and Bridge thoughtlessly broke out into a run, craving an escape from the crushing reality of who had been torturing them since school had initiated. He wasn’t sure if Salem was following him when Bridge stumbled right up to Willa’s car and sent up an unspoken invocation that she had been careless enough to leave her doors free from latching closed.

Luck must have sided with Bridge at his request, because the driver door to Willa’s Chevy Cobalt retracted at his will. As he slid into the seat, Bridge quickly thanked whatever karma was spectating him that the car had the breezy push to start ignition.

The Cobalt thundered to vivacity. Bridge looked up and gazed into the rearview mirror and waited for Salem’s face to appear, having chased him for more details on his leaving his own birthday party, but the face fading on the glass belonged to his stalker. They were so stupid, so naive to think that it was Paige, someone who was an innocent bystander in all of this mess. Someone who had only tried to help Bridge in his time of need when he was without a place to stay without proper supervision. But he didn’t have time to send himself the onslaught of self-damnation. It was in the moment that their eyes connected in the mirror that Bridge knew that wherever he took the car, they’d follow him.

And he knew exactly where to lead them.

He drove the brisk ten-minute ride, trying to remain calm and vigilant when he threw the car into park at Armor Falls Cemetery. Two horrifying forces fought for supremacy inside as he calmly got out of the Cobalt. First, he hadn’t been to the property of Armor Falls Cemetery since the night that Sumner had snapped, and his first steps strolling past headstones were ones of untrustworthy stability. Second, a car had been tailing him since his departure from the farmhouse, a fact that quickened his heart rate without proper navigation.

The stalker had just arrived as Bridge stopped at Marjorie Shad-ows’ grave, his pulse fluttering when footsteps met the crumbling leaves that plentifully decorated the lush of the cemetery. Still un-moving and his back facing the stalker, Bridge felt his heart doing trapeze tricks when the figure gridlocked the stomping toward him, presumably only a handful of feet truly dividing them.

“I know you’re really the one who has been threatening my friends,” Bridge spoke, his shaking chest giving his words a coarse fringe. “I know who you are. I know when I turn around and see that I’m right, that it’s been you all along, that there’s no hope at some other conclusion.” He paused to sniffle out a bout of distracting emotion. “And I need a minute to believe that I’m wrong.”

Nothing happened right away, which only fueled the thoughts Bridge knew were valid. A slick wave of nausea bubbled at the base of his esophagus. He gradually spun to face the stalker, a gasp catch-ing his breath when he looked into the eyes of the last person he wanted to be standing before him.

“Ben,” Bridge managed to choke out, tears aligned and standing by for the okay to jump from the cliff of his reddening black eyes. “This whole time…”

“Bridge, I can explain.” Ben’s demeanor was passive, sheer diver-gence to the harasser that had been plaguing their every waking move.

“Explain?” Bridge was crying, a mixture of heartbreak and wrath. “Explain how you could do this?” Then, a burst of temperament permitted him to howl. “How could you!?”

“I swear to you, my feelings for you—”

“Stop!” He clutched where his heart was housed, taking his avail-able arm and using the sleeve of his sweater to smear his skeletal makeup, two thirds of his real face now evident. “I was so stupid!”

“Bridge, please.”

“If you ever felt anything for me, you will tell me why you did this, what you’ve done and what you know.”

“But—”

“Now!”

Bridge wiped his face again, his tears smudging what remained of his masterful and meticulous Día de los Muertos inspired visage. Ben let out an anvil of a groan to free his lungs.

“Where do I start?”

“The very beginning.”

Fearing Bridge’s retaliation if he didn’t accommodate, Ben cleared his throat as his confession iced his tone on the way out of his mouth.

“My parents live on the same street as Kirby,” Ben began with re-luctant earnest. “And I was visiting them before second semester started at Heartmyth. We got into this fight about what I was doing with my major after I quit my psych internship, so I went out for a walk to cool down from the argument. I thought about going back to school for the party, but I decided on walking through the woods behind the house Athena and Kirby would move into. And then when I was walking in the woods…”

“You saw us burying the body.” This realization shivered his fin-gertips with static apprehension. “You were the one Alex heard that night.”

Ben affirmed the statement. “I was mortified. How could you just bury someone and not tell the police?”

“Ben, you have no idea what we went through!”

Ignoring him, Ben pursued the ending of his disclosure. “I thought you would come to your senses and tell the police, but then you all went away and so much time had passed, even more so once Abram was released. From there, it was easy to convince my dad that I could do some freelance psych tutoring when Abram’s dad confided in mine about his asylum woes. So, I became Abram’s therapist in training.”

“So you decided to make us bend to your will? That means you knew who I was the night we first met at that Heartmyth party when school started this year.”

Ben sighed. “Yes.”

“You bastard.” He sobbed and scoffed simultaneously, avoiding Ben’s intent stare.

“It started out as trying to get all of you to report to the authori-ties. That’s why I paid a couple freshman to write that ketchup mes-sage on your table the first day of school.”

Bridge’s jaw snapped ajar, unable to avoid his eyes at such a reve-lation. “That was you?”

“It’s all been me.” Ben admitted with exact clearance. “The rum-mage outside the RV, the messages on your cars, taking the pages from the passage and leaving them at Shadows Manor. All of it.”

“Did you…” Bridge wrestled to enunciate the one act that really ate away at the hearth of his soul. “Did you set me up for Blanche’s murder?”

Without sobbing or letting emotion dip into his tone, Ben re-plied with a simple, “Yes.” He sighed, searching for sympathy when he looked into his eyes, but all Ben found in them was himself re-flected back. “Bridge, I’m so sorry.” He stepped forward in a small way. “I just wanted you to tell the truth. You killed someone!”

“Because Sumner was trying to do the same thing!” Bridge felt every overwhelming sense suffocate him to the brink of asphyxia-tion, a wobbly chance that he would faint from this very confronta-tion with their stalker. “You’ll never get what that night did to us.”

“Bridge, you have to tell someone. Dagger has to know. It’s been eight months now.”

Rage bewildered Bridge’s ribs, silencing the hate speech that bul-lied its way out of him. At the stillness, Ben furthered his verbal as-sault.

“I’m sorry about what I’ve put you and your friends through, I re-ally am. I just wanted you to do what was right.” Approaching the high schooler with acute hesitancy in his progressing movements, Ben advanced him with comfort. “And I never planned on falling in love with you.”

A callous clash emerged, Bridge’s braced fist interlacing haphaz-ardly when it rocked Ben’s jaw, a crack matching the release in Bridge’s wrist, waving off the pain in a series of shakes. Ben fumbled to the ground like a football that had failed to be caught, hitting cor-ners to teeter on the ground.

“Don’t you even stumble in front of me and suggest that the in-accurate idea of loving me kept you constantly berating us over the past couple of months.” Bridge let his crying take control, talking with heavy sob-ready malevolence. “You didn’t love me.”

“I did, I still do!”

“No, you don’t!” He countered. “You don’t obliterate the life of the one you love!”

On the ground, Ben was on his knees clutching his swollen and aching jaw. During the violent but well deserved excursion, neither of them heard another car pulling up in between their own separate means of travel. Ben boosted to his feet at the same time that Salem ran up to them in full athletic stride.

“Salem, get out of here.”

He was surprised by Bridge’s immediate discharge of his appear-ance, especially when the other guy with Bridge seemed incredibly seething as his hand left his cheek.

“Is this the reason you refused to give us another shot? You’ve al-ready got some dumb tatted jock to bang?”

“Dumb jock?” Salem scoffed. “I graduated as salutatorian, ass-hole.”

“Did you do it?” Bridge neglected the show of testosterone be-tween the two romantic interests. “Did you kill Blanche?”

“What? I’m not a murderer, Bridge.” Ben said, out of breath at the allegation. “You really think I’m capable of killing someone?”

“You’ve been stalking my friends for months, set me up for murder.” Bridge issued without doubt. “I believe you’re capable of anything at this point.”

“This guy is your stalker?”

“Salem, please.” The breath Bridge liberated was reaching a new level of devastation. “I can deal with this. Just get the police.”

“Wait.” A plea sizzled Ben’s tone as he took a cautious step to-ward Bridge. Salem stayed a few feet from them, something the eld-est of the trio held on a pedestal of caution, extra speech ready on Ben’s tongue. “There’s something you don’t know. I know you hate me, but I can help you find some closure. I figured out the associa-tion that both Emmy Walker and Frankie Ellery have to Sumner.” A slight shiver of a scoff touched Ben’s lips. “I solved the mystery of Sumner Shadows.”

Regardless of the hostility he held for Ben, Bridge yearned for an answer to what they’d been running around searching for. Unfortu-nately for both parties, an easy solution to the motives of the infa-mous maniac would never be delivered by the stalker known as Ben Magnus. The reason being that a gunshot gnawed its way through the night.

None of them possessed a gun in any aspect. Instead, the weapon sounded from a reasonable distance. But the bullet protruded Ben’s flesh, striking him in the back and worming a path out of his chest just as it nicked a corner of his heart. Bridge screamed, over Ben be-ing shot right in front of him and over the bullet hitting his own shoulder harshly, falling to the ground, the bullet finding a new home in his skin.

“Bridge!”

Salem caught Bridge by grabbing him underneath the armpits, doing his darnedest to get them out of there before whoever had shot Ben, and inadvertently Bridge, came to see the rewards of their devi-ance.

“Wait,” Bridge babbled breathlessly, limp as Salem literally dragged him toward his Eclipse. “Ben was shot…”

“I’m worried about you.” Salem grunted from his straining labor. “Now try and stay with me.” He did his best to keep Bridge from slipping from his stronghold.

“I deserve this,” he heard Bridge spew as they made it to Salem’s car, having no real choice but to, as gently as possible, throw Bridge into his car. He coughed as blood burrowed out of his shoulder blade. “This is my punishment for killing that woman.”

Alarm presented itself, Salem momentarily lapsing in action at the daring direct in dialogue Bridge was uttering, but it was probably due to his GSW. It must have been. Salem closed the passenger door, clearing his mind of absolutely everything except for rushing Bridge to the hospital, the latter’s blood threatening to exit the throbbing wound until his entire supply of AB negative tarnished Salem’s leather interior.

 

Thanks to Abram’s instructions, they used the back entrance to Sumner’s basement bedroom to weasel their way into Shadows Manor. It also helped that both Celia and Hendrick weren’t home to see them breaking and entering. Mercer and Kirby got through Sumner’s bedroom easily, astounded that Sumner’s family hadn’t done more than locking the door that lead to the passage that mar-ried Shadows Manor and Arclan Asylum. After busting the lock, their trek down the passage consisted of sprinting until they were met with a much more baroque chaining of the door leading into the kitchen of the asylum.

“Dammit.” Mercer exhaled. “We’re so close.”

“Mercer, this is life and death.” Kirby took the miniscule steps to the newly chained door. She got down on the floor at the door, lying on her back until she could kick the door down. Swirls of grunts predated Kirby literally kicking the door in, all of her might summoned to perform the action. A perfectly proportioned hole was left when Kirby’s kicks ceased to take place in the wood. Mercer ran up to the steps to help her up, pulling her into him once she was standing.

“Is it wrong that I’m excessively attracted to you right now?”

Laughing ebbed from them without restriction, but Kirby pressed away from Mercer by using his chest as leverage. “Later, Meadows. Come on, we need to move faster.”

They crawled through the jagged opening, traveling from the concealed closet to the kitchen. Luckily, there was a Halloween event occurring for the patients, so security was reserved for the grand hall to protect the patients. Slipping into the solitary block proved to be more effortless than previously foreseen, with only one guard tend-ing to the double doors labeled in bold stoic letters as solitary.

“Help!” Kirby cried from around the corner, surprising her boy-friend.

“Kirby, what are you doing?” He whispered harshly.

“Providing a distraction.” She nodded. “Get to Frankie, I’ll lose him and meet you back here.”

She went running full speed in front of the guard, shrieking for help over a faux matter as she disappeared down another corridor.

“Hey, wait!” The security guard heeded, running after to her with lazy gumption.

Making great haste, Mercer tossed back the doors of solitary, sleuthing through the elongated hall. He rapidly checked the paper cards naming which patient dwelled in that respective room. Frankie’s room was the second to last on the left.

Peering in, Mercer was suddenly glad that he and Kirby had wiped their makeup off so they wouldn’t scare her any more than their unannounced visit already would. He looked through the tiny window and saw a fragile and feeble redhead sitting on her dilapi-dated twin mattress. He slid the window to the right, opening up to a tiny screen allowing them to converse.

“Frankie Ellery?”

“Who are you?” She leapt of the bed in slow motion, not grant-ing herself to trust a man with paint remnants on his face. “How do you know who I am?”

The double doors swung open violently, Mercer’s heart plunging until the intruder was exposed to be Kirby. His relief followed a gulp, thankful that it wasn’t the guard.

“We have about five minutes before he circles back here.”

Bowing his head, Mercer regarded Frankie again as Kirby made her way over to join them.

“Frankie, I want to help.” He admitted. “We’re people who are trying to understand your relationship with Blanche Baxxen.”

“Blanche? Is she okay?”

They failed at swapping a knowing glance, a glare Frankie could still observe through the window.

“She needs your help.” Kirby said, temporarily covering their ali-bi. “We need to know what information you have on Sumner Shad-ows.”

“Sumner,” Frankie spoke his name like it held a hex and carried the aroma of formaldehyde. “Blanche was terrified of him.” She stat-ed. “She always swore that he had been the one to put her mother in the coma.”

“What about what happened to you?”

She shook her head at Mercer. “I can’t explain it. I have no memory of it, even now. All I remember is waking up covered in blood and my family…” She broke down, her memories aching her comprehensively. “I swear I didn’t do it.”

“And we believe you.” Mercer nodded ardently.

“Is there anything else you can tell us about Sumner? Anything that could explain why he would frame Blanche and maybe you?”

“Sumner framing me?” Frankie toyed with the idea. “But why?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out.” Kirby added.

“Do you remember any details about why Blanche was afraid of Sumner, anything about Sumner at all?” Mercer pressed on. “Some-thing that could lead to why Sumner did this?”

“I did hear something,” she prodded. “Blanche and I were never really friendly, until…”

Mercer nodded. “Until?”

“The night she escaped, she discovered something.” Frankie withdrew a breath, an anxious surge flowing through her nostrils. “It scared her. Really scared her.”

“Did she say what it was, the something she uncovered?” Kirby questioned.

A gyration of head turning proceeded Frankie’s answer. “She said it was the truth.” She focused on Mercer, squaring her gaze on him powerfully. “Are you Abram?”

“Abram?” Kirby looked between Mercer and Frankie frantically. “Why would you ask if he’s Abram?”

“The last thing Blanche said that night,” Frankie continued. “She said that Sumner had to finish what he started with someone named Abram.”

“Oh, God.” Kirby clamored, the depth of the cognizance striking her thoughts like a metal probe aiming for a lobotomy. “Mercer, he got those texts.”

Mercer quivered in place, the horror hitting him objectively in the heart. “Sumner is going to try and kill Abe tonight.”

 

Alex let Faith lead him back to where the rest of their friends were waiting for them. Willa and Hugo were huddled close together, fright frozen on their faces. Straton was standing next to Sterling, who had apparently decided to join in on the delirium.

“Okay, what’s going on?”

At Alex’s prompt, Straton took lead in the rendition. “Hugo and I were on our way here, and we ran into Paige.”

“Literally.” Hugo interjected with a scoff.

“She got released already?”

“Apparently.” Straton nodded at him. “But she was on her way here to tell you guys what really happened when she wrecked her car.”

“Which is?” Alex felt funny about this. What did Paige want to do, apologize for terrorizing them?

Hugo took over then. “She told us that she had been attempting suicide not because she’s your stalker, but because she discovered that it’s been Ben Magnus all along.”

“Ben?” He had to find Bridge. There was no way his friend would be capable of dealing with this seismic shift in validity, not alone. “Anyone seen Bridge?”

Alex’s cell thrashed awake, stalling any reply from his friends. Fear filled every space of his active conscious when Mercer’s name lit up on the phone’s screen. He did his best to persevere, to look un-fazed as he answered the call.

“Mercer, something’s happened.”

“That’s why I’m calling.” He retorted. “Kirby just got a text from Salem. He’s followed Bridge to Armor Falls Cemetery.”

“The cemetery?” Alex’s mind was racing at mach speed. Why on Earth would Bridge go back to that specific place of personal trauma? “Oh, God. He knows.”

“Knows what?”

“Ben’s our stalker. I can’t explain right now, or even validate it appropriately, but maybe Bridge found out and led him there where it all started.”

“Shit.” Mercer said over the low grumble of his Jeep. “I’m headed there now. But that’s not even the worst part.”

Alex sighed, so deep it put a spasm in his chest. “There’s a worst part?”

“We talked to Frankie Ellery,” he huffed. “And she heard that Sumner…he’s planning on attacking Abe.”

He saw a blur in front of him, his friends fogging up with heavy precipitation. Alex felt his heart seizing, his blood pressure blasting off like an Apollo mission. He couldn’t lose Abram. Not by the hands of Sumner Shadows.

“Find Bridge.” Alex rushed out of his mouth. “I’ll get Abe.”

Hands tremoring, he ended the call and tried to ring Abram’s cell.

“Alex?” Faith’s tone asked the question she kept to herself.

“It’s Abe.” he said with razor-sharp honesty, his hands shaking too much to dial out his boyfriend’s number.

“Alex.” she repeated his name, seeing the ashen appearance on her brother’s face.

“Faith, there’s two unmarked police cars on either end of the street,” He closed his eyes and smoothed the storm welling and weathering his ringing ears over everything clashing around him. “Go get them and direct them to Armor Falls Cemetery, and we can have one of them follow me to rescue Abe.” Alex then directed his attention over to Straton. “Can I take your car?”

“Rescue Abe?” Straton questioned, pulling his keys from their home in his pocket and plopping them in Alex’s hand. “From what?”

Alex remained undaunted as a tear slid down his cheek, his friends already mournful at his mood.

“From Sumner.”

 

Excitement exuded from every nerve ending Abram had, savoring the live wire feel humming throughout his body. Meeting with Reyna again was huge. Anything they could learn about Emmy Walker was exceedingly valuable, and he was ecstatic that she was ready to tell them any details to try and resolve the mystery of Sumner’s impromptu outbreak.

The address she had designated for their sequel of a meeting wasn’t even an establishment, but rather a small clearing just before a bout of forest, and coincidently it was the same spot Mercer had parked his Jeep when they were fetching the stolen pages from Shad-ows Manor. He was hoping that Mercer and Kirby were around, maybe just having finished exploring the asylum and passing by, but they’d long since left 1661 Karder Cove.

Abram was getting impatient as he waited outside of Alex’s car. Leaning on the vehicle, he let out an anxious breath. Shouldn’t Reyna have been here first? Just when the thought evaporated from his head is when his phone buzzed from his jeans. Pulling it out, he saw the same assortment of numbers in the recipient’s bar, a text from Reyna.

 

I’m here, just within the trees.

 

It was then that a wicked feeling dusted itself across Abram’s shoulders. Something was off, Abram analyzing the vibes the atmos-phere was putting out when he re-read Reyna’s text and looked up to assess the trees.

But he had to go talk to Reyna, it wasn’t up for discussion. This was no time to be scared, even if the universe was telling him some-thing was very wrong. Abram inhaled a clear, slightly pine-scented breath, and stepped through the branchy veil of the trees. His heart thrashed like a caged animalistic fusion of being enthusiastic over finding the lowdown about Emmy Walker and being unable to ne-glect the sense that he was about to be in a whirl of paranoid induced danger.

“Reyna?” He knew better than to call out into the night, but he couldn’t help himself. “Reyna, it’s Abram.”

He pushed his way into another clearing within the woods, reaching his destination finally. Only, it wasn’t Reyna that was waiting on him. His abysmal perspective had been right. Abram only wished he would have fully listened to his guttural instincts.

“Sumner.”

A seething simper angled his dark brown eyes, Sumner looming over him, waving an expendable phone at him, the silent taunt doing wonders on shattering Abram’s confidence that he would or even could survive this treacherous encounter.

Abram was immobile, fear governing his willingness to operate kinetically. With whip cracking certainty, Sumner threw the phone down on the pine needle ridden grass, his foot coming down like a smoldering meteor and decimated the device way beyond future function.

“Oh, Abram.” Sumner said once the phone was destroyed. “Did you honestly believe Reyna would want to spill her secrets?”

“What are you doing, Sumner?” Abram was petrified, but he wasn’t going to let Sumner bully and display condescendence at him. “Why lure me here?”

“Are you that dense?” He scoffed, scratching deep red marks into his own neck absentmindedly.

“Enough. What do you want? You’ve already ruined everything. You’ve unleashed your havoc and shaped our lives into ones of ma-nia and suspicion. And we still don’t know how Blanche, Emmy, or Frankie fit into all of your devastation. So, before the cops get here, just tell me what it is you plan to achieve by bringing me here.”

Sumner seemed surprised by Abram’s entire schpeel, and Abram was as well when Sumner cackled like a bloodthirsty banshee.

“You really don’t know anything, do you?” A knowing facade at-tuned his face, Sumner stepping forward. “Emmy Walker is your birth mother.” He reveled in the plummeting change to Abram’s dis-position, a dramatic alteration that fed Sumner’s sadistic and soulless appetite. “Why haven’t you figured that out by now?”

“Oh…my God.”

Abram didn’t possess any other words. Emmy Walker was his birth mother? He couldn’t instantly give Sumner’s assertion credit, with him being a compulsive liar and all, but even the words, the possibility of the idea, raised the hair on Abram’s neck.

“If that’s true,” He gave Sumner his most unshakable gaze. “Then why did you uncover it? Why do you care?”

Sumner stepped up again, another cackle springing forth from his lips. “I can’t give it all away.” He shook his head. “That’d be too easy.”

Sumner took a swipe at Abram with the blade he had been hid-ing in the sleeve of his grey and black striped shirt. Abram lunged himself backwards to avoid the cool slash of the knife.

“Sumner, stop this. Please!”

“No, this has to happen.” Sumner’s eyes did that maniacal thing they had the night Sumner had first attacked him, all bouncy and swirling with incredible lunacy. It gave Abram the same sense as all those months ago; he felt like tonight was the night he was going to die. “There can only be one of us.”

He took a second jab at Abram, but he took the chance to seize Sumner’s arm, wrenching the knife free from the crazed grasp of his former friend. Abram punched Sumner in the face, giving him enough time during Sumner’s surprise to grasp the blade from the grass and for a moment, Abram wasn’t sure what to do. He’d never held a knife in his callous hands, let alone with the objective of using it. But ever since the night at the cemetery, Abram had been labeled a victim, a brave survivor of Sumner Shadows’ strife. Flipping over the knife in his hand, Abram decided that tonight, that was finally going change.

Sumner was working through the cloudy vapor that Abram’s punch had initiated, so it was now or never if Abram was going to strike. He took the glinting blade and sent a slash Sumner’s way, the knife hitting skin along the aggressive ridges of Sumner’s collarbone, extracting a stubborn scream from him.

As the adrenaline pumped rapidly, the sound filling his ears, Abram knew he wouldn’t get another opportunity to escape from him. Unfortunately, during his struggle with Sumner, he’d gotten turned around. Abram had no idea which direction would lead him to the car that would enable his escape.

So he just started sprinting, hoping for the best as his legs pumped him farther and further away from the young man obsessed with ending his life. But Sumner refused to give up without a huge leap, so he went running after Abram at tremendous length, much faster than Abram if he didn’t push himself to outrun Sumner.

On the way, Abram pulled out his cell, needing to hear Alex’s voice in case he didn’t make it or Sumner caught up to him. He ig-nored the missed calls from both Mercer and Alex, and went under his boyfriend’s name and pressed call.

Abram didn’t even realize that he was crying until he heard Alex’s voice and he stifled a sob.

“Abe, thank God. Where are you?”

“In trouble,” He laughed it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but both of them knew better, Abram’s breathing labored by his persistent run-ning, fear quaking his uvula upon hearing Sumner’s approaching hoof beats. “I just want you to know that I love you, Alex. I always have and I always will.”

“Abram, stop it. Tell me where you are!”

He broke through the woods then, running onto the street, a side that didn’t occupy his car. Abram opened his mouth to tell Alex how he could help when a car came out of nowhere at thunderous light-ning speed, mowing Abram down like he was an out of season lawn. The driver’s windshield spider-webbed as Abram’s body crashed into it, the screech of the car’s tires shredding his eardrums. A cascade of darkness invited him to the realm of unconscious, his fate teetering endlessly on the seesaw of life, not knowing exactly what state he’d wake up to, assuming he had the strength to fight the darkness that was quickly becoming his new home.

After seeing the incident first hand, Sumner halted his pursuit, watching with wide, distant eyes as Abram rolled off the car and fell to the awaiting asphalt, scraps urgent to bless his skin with a cruel kiss. The car finally came to a stop, the engine lurching smoothly as the driver stepped out of the sheer white vehicle, their eyes latching onto Sumner knowingly.

Astonishment embedded into every pore thriving on his face, Sumner stumbling between scoffing and chuckling when glazing over the driver’s identity.

“Well, I never thought you’d have it in you.”

 

There was a huge police squadron populating Armor Falls Cemetery when Mercer pulled his Jeep into the parking lot. For a few seconds, Kirby and Mercer surveyed the scene, all the officers working to put the police tape up to keep outsiders at bay. Their hearts doubled the dismay over the limitless things that could have happened to Bridge and Salem before their abashed arrival.

Mercer snapped into perfectly honed focus, needing to know that his best friend was still alive, that the night hadn’t claimed the life of someone he cared about. They rushed out of the Jeep and ducked under the feeble warning of police tape and meandered up to the mirage of cops, telling them that they couldn’t be there, which was honestly the least of their cumulative worries.

“My best friend is here, I’m not leaving!”

His outcry was enough for the officers to lower their assault on their approach, especially when his eyes caught on a body lying on the ground, a sheet covering the figure’s true identity. Tears poised on the rims of his eyes, Mercer leapt forward, needing to know that Bridge hadn’t succumb to some dastardly, mysterious end. The offic-ers tried to stop him, but the only thing preventing Mercer from unmasking the body was his own fear, and he simply had to know. He ripped back the sheet in one swift movement, the fabric doing a cascade of pirouetting in the air, as the individual that had passed was revealed in a sufficient draught.

“Ben.”

Mercer looked back to Kirby, who just looked on with a heavy heart that a life had been lost, hoping that there wasn’t another to add to the evening. He was just thankful that his best friend was pre-sumably still alive, but where was he? If Ben had died tonight, then where the hell were Bridge and Salem?

After covering up Ben’s body once more, the officers pointed them in the direction of where Dagger was located. A tendril of dread surged along Mercer’s veins when he concluded that Dagger’s direction was standing just before the woods that contained the grave, precisely where they had buried the body all those months ago, and it sent his heart into hyperdrive. What if things had gotten crazy out of hand and Bridge had accidentally confessed, leading them right to the descended corpse?

They came to Dagger’s locale, the great detective lingering on the line at the start of the woods, his face hidden beneath his hands.

“Where is he?” Mercer’s voice shook severely, trying to prepare himself for the probability of Bridge being incapacitated. Or worse, decapitated. “Where’s Bridge?”

Kirby and Mercer’s assumptions were sent rocking off their axes as Detective Dagger faced them, his eyes puffy and scarlet from cry-ing, fresh tears still scampering down his rugged face. Imaginations heightened with possibilities, Mercer tried to look beyond the detec-tive to understand his state of distress better.

“What’s going on?”

Apparently, Dagger hadn’t really taken in the sight of them, his irises passing over Mercer until resting on Kirby with deliberate strain.

“Kirby.” The detective sniffled grimly, shaking his head zealously at her. He lopsided his head back over to Mercer, a significant weight pulling his normally spry features back. “Mercer, you have to get her out of here. Now.”

“What?” Panic rang vibrant in Kirby’s voice. “Why?”

Mercer was confused by the hazy sense of command he had been awarded by Dagger’s metaphorical metallic fist. What was happen-ing? And where were their friends?

It dawned on Kirby like a splintering sunrise, a blinding veil of light softening her skin when the visceral thought tore through every neuron attempting to comprehend Dagger’s intentions.

“No.”

Trudging forward, Kirby burst through the woods, disregarding Mercer’s cries to wait. Dagger went to sobbing again, not bothering to stop them from seeing what was in the forest.

Scared couldn’t quite describe how Mercer was feeling when it hit him that they were nearing the grave of the woman they had buried, and that fact was as disheartening as how distraught Kirby was getting when they neared the grave.

Kirby transformed into a full-fledged harpy as her body went rig-id with sympathetic rigor mortis, a shriek expelling from her as she stared down at the body lying half in the ground at their feet. She thrashed herself in the dirt, cradling the body in her arms, Mercer crying with her as he watched his girlfriend lose the one thing she never thought she would.

Everything was a cache of chaos, Mercer seeing Kirby wail for her mother as questions whirled around them like buzzards waiting for a mass of unfortunate demises

Because in the grave that Mercer and his friends had created didn’t contain the body of the woman they had accidentally killed. Staring up at them lifelessly, clutched tightly in Kirby’s arms, was the corpse of Athena Wheaton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J E S S E G R E Y is diving into the literary world with his debut novel, SEVER, the first in a four-part series culminating in the SLAYER SOCIETY saga. He relies on music the way others rely on people, plays too much video games, and sings too loudly in the car. He lives in Virginia with his extensive Grey’s Anatomy collection and multiple copies of every Taylor Swift album.

 

You can find more information about Jesse and upcoming books at

jesse-grey.com

 

Be sure to follow Jesse on social media for updates

 

Twitter - @JesseGrey_

Tumblr – jesse-grey.tumblr.com

Instagram – JesseGrey_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sever

Six months ago, high school king Sumner Shadows tried to kill his friends. He led them to a cemetery and tried to bleed them dry. And he almost succeeded. But his friends lived through the horror, and ended up committing their own heinous crime in the process. They covered up what they did, and Sumner got away. That was supposed to be the end. But when a new girl moves to Armor Falls and has tangible evidence that Sumner might be back to finish what he started, the four friends he left behind are put to the test to learn what caused Sumner's sudden need to have them dead. But are they ready for the truth, and will it change what they thought was already real? For Abram, Alex, Bridge, and Mercer, life is going to be an abyss of chaos as they begin retelling how they became friends with Sumner three years ago and everything he's put them through up until the fateful night he decided to sever ties with them once and for all. If Sumner is back, what are his motives? What does he want, and will his friends be able to survive his second coming?

  • ISBN: 9781370824090
  • Author: Jesse Grey
  • Published: 2017-06-21 04:20:26
  • Words: 113835
Sever Sever