It’s time for another quick short story. This week’s prompt was “production.”
I hope you enjoy the story.
It’s time for another quick short story. This week’s prompt was “production.”
I hope you enjoy the story.
It’s time for another quick short story. This week’s prompt was “sausage.”
I hope you enjoy the story.
It’s time for another quick short story. This week’s prompt was “retain” and it’s the final part of the series that’s been published the past few weeks.
I hope you enjoy the story.
The two partners sat in Detective Dowen’s car in silence. The car was turned on with the heat on full blast, but the two remained in the parking lot at the hospital.
“I’m glad we reunited Elizabeth with her parents.” Witt broke the silence. “She has amnesia so there’s no way of ever knowing what happened to her.”
“Some mysteries weren’t meant to be solved.” Dowen shook his head.
“We can cross a missing person off that list, which is great. However, now we have a body to find.”
Dowen sighed. He shifted gears in the car and pulled out of his parking spot. “We’re not turning in for the night until Alisha is found.”
Witt nodded in agreement. Sure, their shift had ended two hours ago. But they weren’t going to rest until Alisha was found. Even if it was her body.
“Where are we going?” she asked. “Are we going to talk to Ben again or Eli? Or are we going straight back to the bridge?”
Dowen hesitated to reply. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure. I was just driving. Maybe we should talk to Ben though. There’s nothing we can do at the bridge. The police will notified us immediately if they find anything. Ben might have some information on Eli so I don’t want to go breaking the news to him just yet that we know he never reported his car stolen.”
“We’ll go visit Ben then,” Witt confirmed.
It didn’t take too long for them to make it to Ben’s house. When they did, Ben’s parents let the two detectives in immediately and called Ben down from his bedroom. His mother made the detective’s coffee while his father sat in the living room with them talking about how awful it was that Alisha had done what she did. They were happy she was found though.
“Well, we hate to say it, but the girl we found was not actually Alisha. She’s a missing person who just happens to resemble Alisha quite a bit,” Witt explained.
Ben’s father, Owen, sank into his chair. “Oh, no… poor Alisha… I suppose there’s no hope for her now?”
“Bite your tongue!” Ben’s mother, Louise, came back into the room with a tray filled with coffee mugs, cream, and sugar. “Don’t say that, especially when Ben comes down. There’s always hope.”
“I’m sorry.” Owen shook his head. “I can’t imagine this though… Alisha would never do something like this.”
Louise sighed. She looked at the detectives with a sad gaze. “Ben told us what happened and how he encouraged her. Will that reflect on him somehow? I don’t mean to make the situation all about Ben, but…”
Dowen shook his head. “You’re asking a valid question. It’s only right that you should be worried for your own son in this situation. As of right now, it’s hard to say. He was walking on the bridge when they shouldn’t have to begin with, so he’s going to get in trouble for that at the very least. Until we have a better handle on this case, though, I don’t want to say too much else.”
Witt leaned forward and poured herself a cup of coffee in an attempt to busy herself. She knew Dowen avoided telling them that Ben could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. She poured some cream into her coffee and then leaned back against the couch.
“Have you gotten in touch with Alisha’s parents at all?”
Owen shook his head. “We called a couple of times but they never picked up. We figured we’d go over there tomorrow with a fruit basket or something and let them know we’re here for them if there’s anything we can do.”
“A fruit basket?” Louise lightly whacked him on the arm. “I’m going to make them a macaroni and cheese or something. They’re not going to want to cook and they can’t survive on fruit.”
Owen shrugged. “Excuse me, no fruit. A warm, home cooked meal.”
“Thank you.” Louise poured herself a cup of coffee.
Witt looked at Dowen concerned. He returned the gaze. The police still were unable to get in touch with Alisha’s parents as well. If no one could get a hold of them, then something was clearly wrong. Dowen stood excusing himself. Witt assumed he stepped out to send a patrol car to Alisha’s house. Why they hadn’t done that earlier, she didn’t know.
Ben came down from the stairs as if on cue. He sheepishly looked at Detective Witt and held out a cell phone. “I’m so sorry I took this without telling you guys.”
Witt stared at him in confusion. She put her mug down on the coffee table in front of her and asked what it was. As soon as Ben explained it was Alisha’s cell phone, Witt put on a pair of gloves.
“Benjamin! Why on earth would you take that from the crime scene?” his mother scolded.
Ben sighed. “I know, I know… I’m sorry. I thought I’d be able to conduct my own investigation and figure out why Alisha wanted to… well, you know…”
“Where did you even get this?” Witt asked.
“On the ground. I noticed it after she splashed into the river. It must have fallen out of her winter coat pocket when she jumped off the bridge.”
“Her parents can track her cell phone, right?” Owen said. Ben nodded. “Maybe she dropped it on purpose then. She didn’t want to be found?”
Witt didn’t confirm or deny this. It was certainly a possibility Alisha didn’t want to be found. However, anyone who jumped off that bridge didn’t need to worry about not being found. They were as soon as dead and the moment the cell phone hit the icy water the GPS certainly wouldn’t work on it anymore.
The detective tapped the screen and it lit up. A message appeared saying the phone was locked out for another minute and seven seconds. She held it up to Ben.
“I assume you’ve been trying to get into her phone?”
He nodded. “I don’t know her password and keep locking myself out.”
Dowen entered the room again. “What did I miss?”
Witt held the phone up to Dowen who took it. “Ben found Alisha’s phone on the ground after she jumped. It has a password and Ben doesn’t know what it is so we’re locked out of it at the moment.”
“Maybe one of the tech guys at the station can get into it,” Dowen said, staring at the phone.
“Ben,” Witt said, “why are you trying to get into Alisha’s phone? Do you think there might be something on there that explains what happened today?”
“She keeps getting text messages from the same phone number,” Ben explained. “There’s no name on the message, just the number, which means this isn’t someone who’s a contact in her phone. I don’t know if she was in some sort of trouble or what.”
Louise gasped and Owen put a hand on her shoulder.
“Has Alisha been acting strangely at all within the past few days, weeks, or even months?” Dowen asked. He put the cell phone in a plastic bag and pocketed it.
“Honestly, no. I didn’t notice anything strange about her. We were hanging out as usual. She was going to school and getting her homework done. I don’t know what came over her,” Ben replied.
Witt nodded her head. It seemed safe to say that Ben wasn’t lying. She didn’t think he had any part in whatever sort of plan Alisha had cooked up. He was merely used as a witness and that was it. The question was why. Why did Alisha jump off that bridge and why did she need a witness?
“Speaking of school,” Dowen spoke again. “You have Elijah Thomas as a teacher, right?”
Ben nodded. “Yeah, he’s a great teacher. Both Alisha and I really like him.”
“Was he at the scene of the crime today?”
Ben furrowed his brows. “Uh, not that I know of? Maybe he drove by on the bridge, but I never saw him.”
“The man who got out of that silver car to talk Alisha down before she jumped,” Witt said, “that wasn’t him?”
“No.” Ben shook his head. “I know I was freaking out and in shock, but I would have recognized him. I would have asked him for more help then what he did. In fact, he probably would have stayed to help Alisha and then me after she had jumped.”
Owen growled under his breath. “Who would someone do something like that? Watch a child jump off a bridge, her friend left in a panic, and then they just get back into their car and leave?”
“Some people are so sick,” Louise whispered.
“Do you know what your teacher’s car looks like?” Witt asked.
“Wait a minute,” Owen stood up, “You’re not suggesting Mr. Thomas had something to do with Alisha jumping, do you?”
Ben answered before the detectives could answer his father. He shook his head. “I have no idea what car Mr. Thomas has.”
“Okay, fair enough,” Dowen said. He turned his attention to Owen. “We need to rule him out as a suspect. The car that man was driving when he pulled over on the bridge to talk Alisha down, that was Mr. Thomas’s car, but he wasn’t the one driving it.”
Ben looked over at his parents and then back to the two detectives. “I don’t get it.”
“Unfortunately, neither do we. We spoke with Mr. Thomas this afternoon and he claimed his car was stolen from his driveway for approximately two hours. He said he called the police and reported it but when we checked, no such call came into the station at all today or yesterday,” Witt explained.
Louise covered a hand over her mouth. “Do you think Mr. Thomas is covering for someone?”
Witt shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a possibility. We don’t know why anyone would encourage Alisha to jump off that bridge.”
Ben gasped. “The phone! I need the cell phone.” He reached out his hands to Detective Dowen, who took a step back.
“No way, this is evidence and you already withheld it from us once before.”
“Do you remember the password?” Witt asked standing from the couch.
Ben nodded to her. He looked at Dowen. “Please, I’ll give it right back. Or you can put the code in yourself. Try one-two-three-one.”
Dowen took the phone out of his jacket pocket. He stared at Ben skeptically but did as he suggested. His eyes popped open.
“Wow, that actually worked.” He took out his notepad and wrote the password down to ensure no one would forget it.
“What’s the significance to that string of numbers?” Owen asked.
Ben shrugged. “It’s today’s date. December 31st.”
Witt and Dowen stared at each other. Maybe it was only a coincidence, but it didn’t seem likely. The two detectives wondered now more than ever that this was planned ahead of time. Alisha must have used it as her password to remind herself but also because there’s no way no one else would possibly guess that.
“Good for you, Ben.” Witt smiled at him. “We’ll figure this out, don’t you worry.”
Dowen scrolled through some of the contents on the phone. He turned it off and put it back in his pocket. “This is excellent information. We’ll have to bring this back to the station and go through it. We’ll keep you posted as best we can about the situation.”
“Thank you so much and if we can be of any further assistance, please let us know,” Owen said. His wife nodded in agreement beside him.
Witt pulled her card out of her pocket and handed it to Ben. “If any of you think of something new, please call me right away. Also, if you hear from Alisha’s parents, please call me right away.”
“Of course,” Louise answered.
Without another word, Witt and Dowen saw themselves out. They had more investigating to do. They needed to look over Alisha’s text messages, figure out who’s number those messages belonged to, talk to Eli about his car, and do their best to get a hold of Alisha’s parents.
If they could find any remnants of Alisha in the process, that was a bonus.
Witt followed Dowen through the hallways of the hospital. They entered the ICU area. They showed their badges to the receptionist at the front desk and she pointed them in the right direction. It wasn’t hard to spot which room Alisha was in. There were two police officers posted outside. The two detectives asked for a quick update, but there was nothing big to tell. The girl was okay, as far as they could tell. Some tests were being run but they wouldn’t have the results on those for another day or two.
Alisha seemed to have no memory of what had happened on the bridge. She didn’t even seem to remember who she was. They had called Alisha’s parents to come down and confirm their daughter’s identity – or at least her whereabouts. However, they still weren’t able to get in touch with her parents.
“Something weird is definitely going on,” Dowen whispered to Witt.
“You don’t think her parents have anything to do with this, do you?” Witt asked shocked.
Dowen shook his head. “No, but it’s strange to me how their daughter went out early this morning, it’s now the afternoon and, assuming this is Alisha, they haven’t seen or heard from their daughter. Wouldn’t they be looking? Wouldn’t they have gotten in touch with Ben if they’re such good friends and he would have explained it all to them?”
Witt hummed to herself. “You’ve got a point. I know I would be worried sick if I couldn’t find my kid.”
Dowen let out a disgruntled sigh. “Well, let’s head into the room and get this over with. I hope you’re in this for the long haul because I have a feeling this case is going to run us in circles.”
Witt entered the room before her partner. Alisha had a room all to herself with the police officers outside the door and there were no nurses or doctors in sight. She laid down in her bed with her eyes lightly closed. Witt looked at Dowen and pointed to the girl and he rolled his eyes. His partner couldn’t help but crack a smile. Yes, Alisha was awake and ready to talk about twenty minutes ago, but she had a rough day. It was entirely possible she had fallen back to sleep.
Dowen sat down on the left side of the bed and Witt joined him. She remained standing. The two stared at Alisha in silence for a brief moment. Then Dowen broke the silence with a whisper.
“I’m sure the hospital cleaned her up nice, but there’s not even a scratch on her.”
“I know,” Witt said in agreement. “She looks pretty good from falling 50-feet.”
“How can she look like this after what happened to her? There are no bandages or anything.”
“Maybe most of her scars are under the blankets.”
Dowen shook his head. Witt knew he didn’t believe that. She didn’t believe it either but she didn’t have any other answers. Unless this girl was not in fact Alisha like they had noticed when she was first found.
“Do you think we made a mistake?” Witt whispered.
“What that?” Dowen looked up at her in confusion.
“We halted the search the moment we found this girl. Now that I see her lying in this bed, alive and unscathed… I wonder if the real Alisha is still out there somewhere. If she is, she has to be dead by now.”
“Yes, then we have to go with the involuntary manslaughter angle again but we’ll also have another mystery on our hands,” Dowen said.
Witt looked at her partner.
“Who is this girl, where did she come from, and what was she doing there?” Dowen continued staring at the girl in the bed.
Before Witt could answer, the girl blinked her eyes open. She immediately turned her head to look at the two detectives. She gave them a small smile.
“Hi,” she said, her voice raspy.
“Alisha?” Dowen asked softly.
The girl frowned. “I don’t know, but maybe. Everyone else seems to think that’s who I am.”
“How are you feeling?” Witt asked.
“Tired, but okay,” she replied.
“Well, I’m Detective Witt and this is my partner, Detective Dowen. We’re going to ask you a couple of questions but we won’t take up too much of your time. We know you need to rest.”
The girl lifted her head slightly and scooted herself up higher on the pillows with her arms. Once she sat up, she smiled again at the detectives. “Of course, please ask what you need to. I don’t know if I’ll remember anything, but I heard there was an accident.”
“An accident that involved you,” Dowen explained. “You jumped off the bridge falling fifty feet into the icy river below. It’s a miracle you’re alive and not as hurt as you should be.”
“I must be lucky. Someone must have been watching over me.”
“Sure,” Dowen said exasperated.
Witt took a couple of photos out of her pocket. She had printed them out back at the station when they were searching for the car’s license plate number. The first picture was of Ben and Alisha standing on the bridge talking. It was a screen shot from the camera footage. “Do you recognize these people?”
The girl leaned forward a little. She squinted her eyes at the black and white image but finally shook her head before leaning her head back against the pillow. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“This is Benjamin Lame and you right before you jumped off the bridge,” Witt said pointing to the people in the photo.
The girl gasped. “Really? How strange… I know I have no memory of the incident, but I would like to think I’d recognize at least myself.”
“Do you recognize the place?”
She shook her head. “I assume it’s the bridge you mentioned but I have no memory of the place, let alone going there.”
Witt sighed. She turned to Dowen with a look expressing her concern that they might be wasting their time. They couldn’t make any conclusions from the victim if they couldn’t explain anything that had happened to them.
Dowen returned the look and Witt sighed knowing the exact face he was making. He wasn’t entirely sure this girl couldn’t remember anything. Judging from the state the victim was in and how quickly she seemed to recover from the incident, Witt wondered the same thing. Was this all an act? Was Eli in on this act as well?
“I think we may be done here.” Dowen stood making the executive decision. Witt had no objections.
“That was quick. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help to you,” The girl said.
“It’s okay, you focus on getting better. I’m sure we’ll be in touch again,” Dowen said.
Witt didn’t have anything else to say. Normally she was more sympathetic than Dowen but she was far too confused to say anything else to this… victim? Witness? Suspect? She wasn’t so sure.
The two detectives made it back out into the hall. They said their goodbyes to the officers and made their way back to the front desk to check out and give back their visitor’s passes. They were just about to leave when Witt turned back to the receptionist.
“Excuse me,” she said, “may we request to look at the medical records for the patient in room 203?”
The receptionist hesitated to comply.
“She’s the Jane Doe, but may be Alisha Davis. She’s a victim or possible suspect in another crime.” Dowen stepped in.
The young girl behind the counter nodded. “Would you like to see it now or shall I make copies? I can’t let you leave with it since she’s still a patient.”
“Copies would be great, thank you.” Witt smiled. As soon as the girl walked away, she turned to Dowen. “I’m curious about what the doctors think about her condition. I don’t think she’s Alisha at all. I think she’s playing us along with… well, either Eli or Ben. My money is on Eli though.”
“He had the getaway car.” Dowen nodded. “We’ll take these files back to the station and check on the stolen car report. If he never called and reported it, then I think we have means to pay him another visit.”
Witt tossed the copy of the medical records on Dowen’s desk. She had combed through them thoroughly while Dowen checked on the stolen car report. Before she could explain her side of the findings, Dowen leaned back in his chair shaking his head.
“It was never reported which means either Eli was the one driving the car or he let someone borrow it.”
Witt grinned. “Excellent, we’re getting closer. And all this girl has is amnesia. No concussion, no broken bones, nothing. The doctors are calling it a miracle.”
Dowen sat up and took the file folder in his hands. He opened and thumbed through the pages. “You’re kidding me, right? So this girl is not Alisha Davis. She can’t be.”
“I think we need to do a DNA test on this girl. She’s either lying to cover up for Alisha or Eli or whatever is going on here. Or she could very well be a missing person with amnesia who we just happened to stumble upon during our search for Alisha.”
Dowen shook his head. “That can’t be possible though, right? This Jane Doe looks exactly Alisha Davis. Although it would explain the change of outfit.” He put the folder down and began to type on his computer. “I’m going to look up all the missing persons that have been reported within the past year.”
Witt walked around to the other side of his desk and peered over his shoulder. “If we see this Jane Doe in this list, then we have a serious problem. That means Alisha is still out there somewhere.”
“It means her body is out there somewhere, though I’m sure it was washed away with the river at this point.”
“This case is laying it on thick for us, huh?” Witt sighed.
Dowen scrolled through all the missing persons – males and females. Finally, he stopped at a certain young girl. “Oh, man… that’s her. That’s the Jane Doe we just left at the hospital! Elizabeth Hammond.” He wrote down the name.
Witt shook her head in disbelief. “The resemblance to Alisha is uncanny. This can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
“I don’t know, but we definitely need to do a DNA test. We may need to call the parents of this Elizabeth girl. She’s even the same age as Alisha,” Dowen said. He reached for the phone.
“Wait,” Witt put a hand on his shoulder. “Shouldn’t we wait to contact Elizabeth’s parents? We should make sure it’s actually her before we get their hopes up.”
Dowen shook his head. “This can’t wait. I’ll explain everything to them over the phone and make sure they understand that they may not in fact be her. I’m pretty sure it is her though…”
“How long has she been missing?”
“We’ve had such a harsh winter these past two months. It’s no wonder she’s lost her memory. I wonder what happened to her.”
Dowen seemed as though he were about to reply, but then he spoke into the phone. Witt walked away from his desk to give him some space. She made it back to her work station and looked at all they had figured out throughout the day. The case kept getting weirder and weirder. They might have solved the case of the missing girl but that meant they hadn’t solved the case of the girl who jumped off the bridge. Not to mention that seemed to be more than just her simply jumping off the bridge. Another man, possibly Eli, was involved. There was some plan that Witt and her partner were missing. She didn’t know if Ben had anything to do it or if he was just a pawn to be used as a witness. Some stories weren’t adding up and someone was lying about something. Witt put her head in her hands. It had been a long day and she couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was going on.
Detective Dowen stood beside her desk. He tapped her on the shoulder and she looked up at him. He put on his winter coat. “Elizabeth’s parents are on their way to the hospital. We’re going to meet them there. In the meantime, I ordered a team of officers to go back to the bridge to start the search over for Alisha – just in case. I told them to expand the perimeter down the river as well. If she’s there, she’s bound to be washed up ashore somewhere.”
Witt stood grabbing her coat. She nodded to her partner and followed him out of the station. They were in for a long night.
Dowen knocked on the front door to the man who owned the silver car. The car, matching the color, make, and license plate number, sat in the driveway. The two detectives assumed him to be home or at least someone was home and could inform them a little more about the man.
As they waited for someone to answer the door, Witt checked her cell phone. “The victim is still being evaluated. It doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to question her for another hour or so. But she’s awake and conscious at least.”
“Good, that will give us plenty of time to talk to this guy,” Dowen said. “Do they know anything about the victim at least? I assume they’ve gotten her name at least, right?”
Witt sighed. “Well, that’s the bad news. Apparently she doesn’t remember anything.”
Dowen muttered something under his breath. “I guess that would make sense… she’s lucky to be alive.”
Witt was just about to reply when the door opened. A young man with short brown hair, wearing a red pull-over sweater, stood before them.
“Hello, can I help you?”
Witt and Dowen flashed their badges at the same time.
“I’m Detective Dowen and this is my partner,” Dowen jerked his head to his partner, “Detective Witt. We’re investigating an incident that occurred on the bridge this morning. May we come in and speak with you?”
The young man hesitated. “Um, sure. Although I’m not sure I know what any of this has to do with me.” He stepped to the side and allowed the detectives to enter his home.
Dowen allowed Witt to go ahead of him and she did. He whispered in her ear as they entered. “He better not be ignorant or else I might lose my-”
Witt elbowed him and she turned around to face their suspect. “First thing’s first,” she began, “are you Elijah Thomas?”
The man closed the front door and nodded. “Call me Eli, shall we sit?” he pointed to the living room to their left. The two detectives obliged and down down at the leather sofa.
“Can I get you guys anything? Water or coffee?” Eli asked.
“No thanks.” Dowen shook his head. “We just need to ask you a few questions and then we’ll be on our way.”
Eli nodded and he sat down on the leather armchair across from the sofa. “Okay, so you said this is about an incident that happened on the bridge this morning?”
Dowen and Witt nodded.
“So… you’re not here about my car?”
Witt furrowed her brows. “Well, in a way, we are. Are you the owner of that silver car that’s parked in your driveway?”
“Yes,” Eli replied.
“Did you drive it to the bridge this morning?” Dowen asked.
Eli shook his head. “I haven’t driven it anywhere today. My car was stolen from me and then before I knew it, it was back inside my driveway unharmed.”
Dowen and Witt exchanged perplexed expressions.
Eli cracked a nervous smile. “That’s kind of why I thought you guys were here. I called my car in stolen the moment I noticed it was gone. My wife is out of town on a business trip so it’s not like she took it without telling me. I’m home alone for the week. I called it in, the police said they’d send someone out right away but no one arrived. Then, a few hours later, I noticed the car was back inside my driveway. I don’t think I imagined it being stolen, but… if you’re saying you saw it on the bridge this morning, that makes me wonder.”
“First,” Witt began, “I apologize no one arrived when you called your car in. We’ll report back about that and see where the wires got crossed.”
“Next, whoever took your car is looking more and more suspicious. Even if he didn’t have anything to do with the incident, he’s still a thief,” Dowen explained. “We need to figure out who this guy is and catch him.”
“Why would he steal a car and then just happen to go across the bridge when the incident occurred though? I have all the more reason to believe he had something to do with the incident after all. It’s almost as though he knew we’d track the car and it would end up leading us to a red herring,” Witt added her two cents.
“I’m sorry.” Eli raised his hand. “What incident was my car supposedly involved with?”
Dowen turned his attention to their host, admittedly forgetting he was there. “A young girl jumped off the bridge this morning.”
Eli gasped. “Is she okay?”
Witt nodded. “She was found alive and is currently at the hospital being checked over. Her friend was with her and we learned from him there was another witness. That witness had your car. He stopped on the bridge and attempted to talk the girl down. After she jumped, he got back into the car and fled the scene. We have no idea who he is or where he went.”
“We tracked the car here and assumed it was you who was the man,” Dowen added.
Eli leaned back in his chair with a hand over his heart, shocked. “Wow… that’s a lot to take in. No offense to the kids, but I can’t believe someone would steal my car that would basically put me at the scene when I wasn’t actually there. That’s pretty crafty.”
“So, tell us. When did you notice your car was stolen?” Dowen asked.
Eli sat forward again. “Well, I don’t know when exactly it was stolen. I got home from work around 6:00 last night. With it being dark so early, I turned off my outside lights and closed all my blinds. I never looked outside again. I woke up at about 6:00 this morning and still never looked outside. I went about my normal morning routine – I showered, had coffee and breakfast. I didn’t have work today so I took the morning slow and spent a little time reading.
“It was about 8:30 this morning when I decided to go out and run some errands. I went outside and there was no car in the driveway. I don’t know when it was stolen or how long they had it. I immediately took out my cell phone and called the police. They said they’d send someone right over but as I said before, they never showed up. I was going to call them again but when I looked back outside my kitchen window – it overlooks the driveway and front yard – my car was back in my driveway. That was at about 10:30,” Eli explained.
Dowen wrote all this information down in his notepad. He shook his head as Eli explained the times.
“So, we’re thinking the car could have been stolen from anytime between six-pm last night and 8:30 am this morning. That’s a 14 and a half hour window,” Witt explained.
“I know,” Dowen scratched the top of his head. “I think this whole thing was somehow planned before it happened, but if the car was taken late last night, then that means this has been in the works for quite some time.”
Eli nodded in agreement as though he were another detective in the case. “And why me?” he added. “Why my car? I haven’t heard of the incident, maybe that’s why? They didn’t think I’d have any inkling?”
Witt narrowed her eyes. “Do you know Benjamin Lame and Alisha Davis?”
Eli stared back at her blankly. “I have them in my English class at the local community college.”
Dowen wrote that down and Witt sighed turning to her partner. There were still more pieces of the puzzle to put together, but some of the image was becoming a bit clear.
Eli held up a finger. “Wait, Ben and Alisha weren’t the kids on the bridge… were they?”
“I’m afraid so,” Witt said.
Eli put a hand over his mouth. He leaned back in his chair gazing at the ground. “But they weren’t the ones who stole my car, right? You said another man did it? At least, that’s who was caught on camera?”
Dowen and Witt glanced at each other other before Dowen shook his head at the college professor. “It wasn’t the kids who took the car.”
“That’s a relief. I’m sorry something shady is going on with them, but I’m glad they didn’t steal a car. They’re good kids, you know. I wouldn’t expect this from either of them,” Eli explained.
Dowen nodded. Witt’s cell phone vibrated. She looked at the screen and there was a message from an officer who was stationed at the hospital. Witt put her phone back inside her pocket and looked at her partner.
“Finally,” Dowen said. He stood up from the sofa, buttoning the bottom of his jacket. “Thank you for your time, Eli. I ask that you do not go anywhere or leave town. I’m sure we’re going to have to ask you more questions about your car.”
Eli nodded as he stood. “Of course.”
Witt bowed her head to the witness and she lead the way out of the house with Dowen close behind. The two walked to the car in silence, Witt wanting to look over her shoulder but she didn’t. When she made it to the passenger side of the car, she turned around to look past Dowen but hoped it seemed as though she was looking at her partner.
Dowen, with his back still to the house, looked at Witt. “He’s watching us through the window, isn’t he?”
Witt hummed in confirmation. She turned away and got into the car with Dowen as he got into the driver’s side. Neither of them spoke until they pulled away from the house.
“Something was off with him. I didn’t think so at first but then he slipped up,” Witt said, breaking the ice.
“I’m glad you caught onto that too. We never told him how we saw his car or the man who was driving it. He shouldn’t have known about us catching it on camera,” Dowen agreed.
“On the other hand, everyone knows there are cameras set up on that bridge for various reasons. So, if we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt…”
“I’m not giving him the benefit of anything. Even his story about calling his car missing is fishy to me. We never heard anything on the radio that there was a stolen car reported. There is no reason no one at the station would show up and question him about his car.”
Witt rested her head against the back of her seat. “I know… I was trying to be optimistic.”
“You can hope for the best all you want, but you still have to expect the worst,” Dowen said.
His partner nodded in agreement. “Where do we go from here? We have quite a laundry list to take care of.”
“We need to check and see if his car was ever truly reported stolen. If it was, then someone definitely wasn’t doing their job and we need to deal with that. We should also take a look at the footage again and see if we can somewhat match Eli and the guy driving the car together,” Dowen counted.
“That will hard since we only saw the back of his head.” Witt shook her head.
“It’s still worth looking at. We also need to talk to Ben. He said never specified whether he knew the man who stopped or not. I would assume he’d mention if his college professor stopped to talk to them. Finally, we need to have a chat with Alisha… or whoever that girl is.”
“My vote is on going to the hospital. We’ve been waiting around for this moment and I want to catch her while she’s awake and feeling fresh. I know they said she doesn’t seem to remember what happened, but I think right away is our best option.”
“Agreed,” Dowen said. He turned the steering wheel taking a hard right and headed in the direction of the nearest hospital.
Detective Witt followed her partner Detective Dowen down to the river’s edge. The bridge was still blocked off to oncoming traffic from both sides and Ben, their witness and the victim’s friend, stayed on the bridge with an officer watching over him. Ben wanted to come down and see Alisha, but Witt and Dowen didn’t think it would be a good idea especially since they weren’t sure what sort of condition Alisha would be in. It was a miracle they had found her alive after jumping off a 50-foot bridge into a freezing river.
Witt stood beside Dowen as they watched the paramedics treat Alisha with what little equipment they could carry down to the river through the snow. Officers and firefighters were back on the road trying to figure out a way to bring the ambulance or at least a stretcher down to the river so that they could properly carry and bring Alisha to a hospital.
“I want to speak to her the moment they’re done,” Dowen said to Witt. She nodded in agreement.
“I’m highly curious to hear what she has to say,” Witt agreed. “I imagine they’ll be a while with her. They’ll need to get all her information so her parents are notified.”
Witt looked up to see Ben leaning over the railing on the bridge.
Dowen growled. “Someone bring that kid home!” he shouted as an officer watching Ben pulled him away from the railing.
Dowen motioned another officer to come near him. “Go help that guy bring Ben home. Make sure his parents are aware of what happened and make sure they don’t leave town.”
The officer nodded and left right away.
Witt sighed. “That poor kid. I’m sure he’s in better spirits now that he knows his friend is alive, but he’s never going to be the same after this situation. I wonder how much of a handful he’s going to be now.”
“Who cares, we can handle him,” Dowen replied.
“He’s a kid.”
“Exactly, we can take him.” Dowen shrugged.
Witt sighed. “You’re hopeless sometimes, you know that?”
“How long do you think it’s going to take for them to get Alisha sorted out?” Dowen asked.
Witt tilted her head to the side. “Longer than we think, I imagine. They’re going to want to get her to a hospital and evaluated before they allow her to talk to us.”
“What are we still standing here for then? Let’s go look at those cameras and see if we can find that other witness. Ben called in and reported the incident. As far as I know, no one else did. Which means that witness didn’t even try to help after that,” Dowen explained.
“I agree, we definitely should go find that other witness while we wait for Alisha to get checked over. If that is Alisha, I mean.”
“What do you mean? No one else comes down here when it snows. It’s off limits. Who else could that be if it’s not Alisha?” Dowen asked.
“The bridge is off limits to pedestrians as well but that didn’t stop Ben and Alisha from walking across it,” Witt remarked. “I’m only questioning whether that’s Alisha or not because look at what she’s wearing. Ben told us she was wearing a blue puffy coat with gray knee-high winter boots. It’s hard to tell the length of this chick’s brown hair and what color her eyes are from this distance, but she’s in a gray coat with black boots that are definitely not knee-high.”
Dowen stared at the victim for a few moments. He then let out an exasperated sigh and whipped out his notepad again. He jotted down a couple of notes before closing it and putting it back into his pocket while staring back at the victim again. “Well, there are two explanations for this. Either that’s not Alisha or Ben wasn’t telling the truth.”
“If Ben wasn’t telling the truth then that could mean either he simply forgot what she was wearing under the stress and pressure of the situation or he lied on purpose,” Witt continued.
“And if he lied on purpose, then why would he need to do that? Why lie about her clothes of all things?” Dowen added.
Witt turned to a nearby officer. “Please let us know when this victim is ready for questioning.” He nodded and Witt jerked her head back to the bridge. “Come on, Dowen. Let’s head out. We have a lot of work to do.”
Dowen drove his car with Witt sitting in the front seat back to the police station. They rode in silence, both of them thinking about the current and what they were supposed to do with it. Even though it seemed as though Alisha jumped on her own accord, Ben still encouraged it – despite it being a joke – which made the situation messier. The good news was, since Alisha was found alive, Ben didn’t commit involuntary manslaughter. However, when the legislatures made the law, even though Alisha was found alive, Ben could still be charged with involuntary attempted manslaughter. It was a sticky situation for sure and even though Ben was wrong about what Alisha was wearing, Witt still didn’t think Ben was at fault for anything. It seemed as though he was just out for a walk with his friend and, in a way, happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe Alisha had something up her sleeve and she needed a witness – Ben was that witness.
Why Alisha would want to stage something as such, Witt had no idea. It was all speculation on account she hadn’t even had a chance to talk to Alisha yet… if that was in fact Alisha and not someone else posing as the victim.
They pulled up to the police station and Witt hopped out of the car before Dowen had even turned the ignition off. She began to walk into the station with her partner lagging behind just a bit. Witt wanted to check the cameras of that bridge as quick and thoroughly as possible. She wanted to find and speak to that other witness as soon as possible. The moment Alisha was ready to be questioned, Witt and Dowen wanted to be the first to speak with her about the situation. They didn’t want to waste any time.
The two detectives walked down into the security room where the traffic camera feeds were shown. An officer sat in the room eating lunch when Dowen and Witt barged in on him.
“Oh, hey guys. What brings you here?” Officer Preston asked.
“We need to look at the camera feed from this morning at the bridge,” Dowen said.
Preston nodded. He turned around in his chair and immediately brought up the footage. “I heard about what happened and had a feeling you’d want to take a look at the jump.”
“It’s not just the jump we want to view,” Witt said. “There was supposedly another witness. He stopped in his car, tried to talk the victim out of jumping, but as soon as she jumped, he got back into his car and fled the scene.”
Preston’s eyes grew. “He didn’t stay with the other kid or help to make sure she was alright? He didn’t call it in?”
Dowen shook his head. “Turn the feed on.”
Preston obeyed turning a circle knob on the control panel. He fast forwarded the footage from the early morning until two young kids walked into frame. He played the video as normal. “Alright, this is from 9:07 this morning. You can see the two kids arriving on the scene on the right side, the same way the traffic goes.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cars passing through.” Witt observed.
The video showed Ben and Alisha stopping for a brief moment chatting. Then two turned their backs to the camera and peered over the edge of the railing.
Dowen snorted. “You can’t tell what color her clothes are in the black and white footage, but did you notice her boots?”
Witt nodded. “Knee-high. So I’m going to assume they’re gray and her coat is blue.”
“Which mean Ben was telling the truth.”
“Which also means the girl they found may not be Alisha.”
Preston stared at the detective open mouthed. “Wait, they actually found a body? I didn’t hear that.”
“They didn’t just find a body, they found a young girl matching the victim’s description. She was alive and they were transporting her to the hospital,” Witt explained. “However, our witness described the victim’s clothes to us and the girl they found wasn’t wearing those clothes.”
“But this footage here, aside from the coloring, the boots match,” Dowen added.
Preston rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, so this seems like it’s going to be one of those cases, huh?”
Dowen sighed. “Unfortunately.”
The girl in the video then pulled herself up and stood on top of the railing. Ben put his hands on his head in a panic and, despite there being no audio, his mouth frantically moved and it was easy to assume he was trying to talk his friend down off the ledge.
“This is it,” Dowen said pointed to the screen. A car pulled into frame. Ben said the car was silver and it seemed to be so but they couldn’t be sure since the feed was in black and white.
A man got out of the car. The driver’s side was just out of frame so when they saw him enter the scene, his back was to the camera. He talked to the kids for a minute. Alisha looked over her shoulder, smiled, and then jumped. Ben, in a panic, ran over to the railing and reached out to grab her – just as he said he did – but she was already gone. He leaned over the ledge peering down. The man in the car backed away out of frame never once showing his face to the camera.
Witt narrowed her eyes. “It’s almost as though he knew the camera was there and he didn’t want to show his face.”
“Everyone knows the cameras are there,” Dowen corrected. “But it is strange than he left as quickly as he entered and seemed to know exactly where to go.”
Preston nodded. “He definitely knew he was just out of frame of the camera. His car was on the wrong side of the road.”
Dowen rolled his eyes. “Of course it is, why didn’t we see that!”
“We’re focused on too many things, that’s why. Thank you, Preston,” Witt said.
Preston nodded and turned back to the screen. “I’ll pause it…” he waited until the end of the car was shown on camera. “Now.”
Dowen and Witt leaned closer to the screen and Preston chuckled. “Hold on, guys. I can zoom in.” The two detectives stepped back.
Preston worked his magic on the footage and sure enough, they got a clear image of the license plate with the last digit cut off. The car was at too awkward of an angle for the camera to get the whole thing.
“Hm, this might be a tough one but at least it’s mostly narrowed down,” Preston said.
Witt nodded. “Don’t worry, it’s easier than we think. We believe it to be silver of color and we can clearly see the make of the car. We just need to run license plates with the first five digits and then narrow it down further by the make and color.”
Dowen patted Preston on the shoulder. “Thanks, man. We have to go now. There’s no time to lose with this one.”
Witt followed her partner out of the room after a quick wave to Preston. They needed to find this other witness before he fled. Whether he had a hand in this or not was unknown, but he was certainly suspicious.
Both detectives went to their own desks and conducted searches on the license plate number. Dowen found a match first after about ten minutes and the two of them hopped back into the car and headed the other witness’s house.
When Thomas showed up at the house in the middle of the night Hazel didn’t know what to think. She didn’t think she’d see him again in her lifetime – at least, not for another 15-20 years. At first, she thought she was dreaming. She had woken up to go to the bathroom and when she passed through the living room, Thomas was there. Lying on the couch, fast asleep.
It must have been exhausting for him to escape from jail. Jail itself must have been exhausting.
Hazel didn’t want to imagine what jail was like. She had seen the TV shows. It wasn’t as glamorous as they made the place out to be, she knew that much. She had visited Thomas in jail a couple of times. It was hard for her to go each time and, for some reason, it seemed to get worse each time she went.
Her visits became shorter. Hazel couldn’t stand being in such an atmosphere for too long. She couldn’t imagine what it was like on the other side, especially if you were locked in there for possibly the rest of your life.
Thomas had made a lot of mistakes in his life time. When they were kids, Hazel always got him out of trouble. She always protected him from the wrath of their parents when he got in trouble for doing something stupid. He always deserved the punishments and they were always as simple as lectures or getting a privilege taken away. Yet, Hazel always stood up for him and protected him, whether he was in the right or the wrong.
This carried on through adulthood. Hazel being the big sister she was and Thomas being the younger brother and eventually taking advantage of her and her kindness. However, Thomas had made a big enough mistake that not even his older sister would be able to protect him. In fact, Hazel felt as though jail was the right place for him. He needed to learn his lesson and take a good, long time-out.
Of course, now that he’s escaped, Hazel knew he wasn’t learning his lesson. Now he would go back to jail and be in there for much longer because he couldn’t sit still and carry out his sentence.
Hazel wept silently in the middle of her dark living room. She knew why Thomas was there. Her sister-in-law had filed for a divorce from him once he was arrested. She was tired of his shenanigans as well. Thomas know if there was anyone in the world he could trust, it would be his big sister, Hazel.
Except she knew she couldn’t protect him this time. She knew he was his own worst enemy and she couldn’t protect him from himself. Hazel watched him sleep through blurry eyes.
She couldn’t guarantee any more jail visits. He would be in there for much longer than 15-20 years now that he’s escaped. This would be the last time she’d see him for a long time.
She heard the sirens wail in the distance. Her little brother was in for a rude awakening.
He counted the coins displayed upon the surface of his desk. Stacks of shining gold and silver lined up twenty high in three rows of ten. It was so good. Years ago, he never imagined he would be at this point in his life.
He grew up in a poor family, his parents always scraping to get by. He watched his father struggle working ten-plus-hour days to bring home a small paycheck. His mother struggled to make sure the kids had enough food to eat. They fought a lot in case his mother bought too much food at the market and there wasn’t enough money left to buy wood for the fireplace or something else they’d need.
They never fought too much to the point where one of them left the other. No, mother was always home – she had no where else to go even if she did want to leave them. Father always came home at the end of the day from his work. Maybe it was because he was too tired to leave. All he wanted to do was come home, put his feet up, and rest. It was a steady place for him to come back to and if he had left, he’d have to find a new place. It certainly wouldn’t be as warm and cozy as his mother set their house up to be.
There were siblings as well. He had three sisters and one brother. The sisters helped out their mother in the kitchen and with the other house chores. His brother and he sometimes went to work with their father or they went out and did other errands for their mother while they’re father was out of the house.
It was a rough childhood. They always struggled. They always found time to be together as a family though as well. They always had something to laugh about. They couldn’t afford such entertainment as a radio but they made do with what they had. He and siblings made up their own games and had plenty of fun with their parents using their imagination and creativity.
Now here he was, counting his stacks of coins. While there were fond memories of his childhood, he didn’t want his children to grow up in such conditions. His mother had gotten terrible sick and passed away not too long ago. If only he had the money then to take care of her and get her the proper medicine she needed. At least he was able to allow his father to live comfortably in his old age.
Although, with his father had a broken heart from his wife passing away, he wondered if his father was not too far behind.
All three of his sisters had married and moved away. They were long gone. The last he heard was that his youngest sister was going to have a baby. However, they never saw one another and he wasn’t sure how he’d be able to help them with that. Telegrams took quite a while to get where they needed to go.
His brother, on the other hand, had left them long ago as well. He had left the village in search of a better life for himself. He wanted to marry, settle down and have a family of his own. He didn’t know where his brother was. They hadn’t spoken to one another in a long time.
He still lived with his father in his childhood home. No more siblings and no more mother. At least he and his father had each other.
So, the coins on his desk kept stacking higher and higher as he counted. He was considered the richest man in the village. He handed out his money when people truly needed it. He bought the company his father worked for and fired the original owners. They never paid his father enough money and never truly appreciated the hard work he put into his work. Now he owned the company and he gave all the employees raises and lowered the prices on the stocks. Everyone wanted to work there, though there were no more open positions.
Everyone shopped there because it was cheaper. That was how he had gotten some of his money. Not all of it though. He couldn’t become this rich from that one company no matter what he did.
Yes, he had a side business that not even his father knew about. If his father knew about it, he surely would die of a heart attack. Or worse, he’d leave his son all together.
He stacked another set of gold coins, pushing it gently to the corner of his desk. The last person he hired for this particular job wanted quite a bit of coins. Normally he’d fight and be a bit cheaper about it. However, he had hired this man for a pretty big job.
Leaning back in his chair, he looked out the window at the village. On the top of the hill far away lay the castle. It was so far away that it didn’t seem as though there was anyone living there. Of course, the king never seemed to pay too much attention to this village. It was another reason he struggled so much as a child. There were a lot of people who had wronged his father through work and payment and then there were more people still who had wronged his mother when she became ill.
This village was nothing in the eyes of the royalty. Why? He had no idea why. It had been that way ever since he was a child. They only began to pay attention to him when he become the richest man in the village. He was just about the richest man in the kingdom, aside from the royals. The king had wanted him for certain jobs but he always refused.
The royals graciously gave him and his father a bigger home. They offered more to his sibling even though they had already run from the village themselves. He accepted all the kind gestures and gifts from the royals though he never agreed to anything. He knew they were buttering him up. He wasn’t going to work for them. He wasn’t going to sell them anything. He had worked too hard and the royals had worked too little. They didn’t deserve to have his help.
He counted one last stack of gold coins. He counted it slow.
One. Two. Three.
He glanced back out the window at the quiet castle. He had sent his hired help to the castle about five days ago. It was a decent journey to make it to the castle and he knew the task itself would take some time.
Four. Five. Six.
His ears tuned into the music the coins made when they stacked up top one another. His hired help would not get paid until he heard the panic outside.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
As if on cue, there was bustle at the castle. A young woman screamed. A man shouted, “The king is dead!”
Whenever the bell rang, that meant everyone had to go back to their dorm rooms. Wren was in the middle of a training session when the bell rang for the third time that day. She groaned and her instructor gave her a prompt expression as though silently telling her not to argue. It seemed as though the bell system was broken, but Wren didn’t have much of a choice. She put her fists down and headed out of the training arena.
As she left the Combat Room, her friend Allen emerged out of the Defense Room. They greeted each other with silence. When the bell rang, everyone was to go straight to their room, no talking. This was set in place in case there were any emergencies but Wren knew, after so many times the bell had been rung, this was no emergency. Someone was either pulling the alarm or it was busted.
The two made it to the end of the hall. Allen held the door open for Wren to enter the staircase. They weren’t allowed to take the elevator either. Wren knew this made sense but her dorm was on the seventh floor. In case someone else happened to be walking in that same staircase, Allen and Wren remained silent as they walked up the seven flights of stairs. Now that Wren really thought about it, she found it odd they weren’t running into anyone else heading to their rooms. The Academy was huge and had hundreds of students. Surely, she and Allen weren’t the only two out in training?
When they made it to the seventh floor, Wren exited to the left and Allen to the right. Girls and boys were allowed on the same floor, but girls rooms and boys room were in separate hallways. The students were assigned to a room by age so that they could make friends while attending The Academy. Students who attended The Academy were always there for years. Wren had learned the hard way when she first arrived that in order to survive The Academy and stay sane, you needed to a couple of good friends by your side. She had one piece of advice for any newbie who arrived at The Academy: be friends with your roommate. You’ll see them much more often than you think you will.
Wren placed her thumb print on the keypad outside her room. It took about five seconds for it to scan and she heard the door click open. She pushed it forward, entering her bedroom. The door clicked shut and locked behind her.
“What took you so long?” Victoria leaped off her bed and ran to her roommate.
Victoria was a tall girl with skinny legs and dangling arms. The Academy especially worked on strength training for her, but the truth was that Victoria was more of a defense person. She even had a hard time being stealthy. When Victoria stepped away from the hug, she pulled her long hair into a tight, high ponytail. “Where have you been?”
“I was called to training early this morning. I’ve been going back and forth between that to finish my session and here because of that stupid bell.” Wren walked to the other side of the room and sat down on the foot of her bed. “Allen was in the Defense Room while I was in the Combat Room.”
Victoria narrowed her eyes. “I feel like you’ve been in the Combat Room a lot lately.”
“You think?” Wren grunted. She was sick and tired of fighting. It was annoying to perform the same battle techniques each day for hours on end. She didn’t understand why the instructors insisted on her practicing every day. She never noticed any of the other students down there other than Allen who was always in the Defense Room. If anything, the roles should have been swapped because Allen was much stronger than Wren.
Victoria frowned. “They haven’t called me down in a while. I’m afraid I’m going to get kicked out.”
Wren sighed. She was exhausted from training on and off all day – all month, really – she wasn’t in the mood to comfort her friend. “I doubt you’ll get kicked out.”
“They haven’t called me to train in two weeks. All I’ve done is attend class and come straight back here for homework,” Victoria countered.
That reminded Wren she had homework. She hadn’t had time to do it because of training, but that was something else she needed to do before class in… two days? What day was it? With all the training her days have become the same and they were all blurring together.
“I did your homework if that’s what you’re suddenly worried about.”
Wren looked up at Victoria who stared back with a soft smile. Wren let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, but you know I hate it when you do that.”
“You haven’t had time. You’re going to be run into the ground. I also wanted to make sure you wouldn’t get stuck doing it last minute. When you have to stay up late to finish homework that means I can’t sleep either,” Victoria explained, sitting down on the bed beside her friend.
Wren didn’t know what else to say. Victoria was right. Whenever Wren was called to train so much she’d always lose time to get her work done for her Study classes. Victoria would end up suffering along with her because she couldn’t sleep with Wren typing on the computer or Wren would need help with something – Victoria was smart with all their Study classes. That’s where she truly excelled.
“I don’t think you’re going to get kicked out,” Wren continued. “I think the instructors know your strengths and weaknesses. A big strength of yours are the Study classes. I think that’s why they’ve been making you go there more often.”
“I guess,” Victoria sighed. “But it’s boring and I want to learn more about fighting and stuff. Isn’t that why we’re all here in the first place?”
Wren remained silent. She didn’t know why they were here. When her parents told her she was headed to a boarding school for high school, this was the last thing she imagined. She thought it would be like college, but just high school students. She had never heard of The Academy until her parents sprang it on her a month before school started. Wren cast her gaze outside the window. She wondered how her parents were doing. She had been attending The Academy for four months now and she had yet to receive any word from them. She had written them a few letters, but Wren wasn’t sure if they made it to her parents at all.
Allen appeared at the window and waved. Wren rolled her eyes – he was going to get them all in trouble.
“What’s he doing?” Victoria gasped.
“Being an idiot,” Wren said, walking over to the window. She unlocked it and helped her friend into the room.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get caught scaling the outside walls,” Victoria scolded.
Allen shrugged with a proud grin. “I’ve done it so many times. I know where all the security cameras are.”
“We have security cameras?” Victoria looked at Wren. “I don’t think I ever noticed.”
“They’re not obvious. It’s kind of the point,” Wren replied.
“How do you guys know about this?”
Allen and Wren glanced at one another, almost as though they were silently trying to decide if they should include Victoria in on their secrets about The Academy.
“Why am I out of the loop?” Victoria asked. She glared at the both of them putting her hands on her hips. “I thought we were all friends here?”
“We are,” Wren reassured her. “It’s just that Allen and I have been able to explore a bit more of The Academy than you have so we know some more stuff than you.”
“Why haven’t you told me?”
“We didn’t want to involve you.” Allen piped up. “Things have been weird and suspicious around here. You seem to really enjoy The Academy so we didn’t want to burst your bubble.”
Victoria narrowed her eyes in confusion. She looked at Wren. “Suspicious how? What’s he talking about?”
Wren wasn’t sure if she should say, but there was no turning back now. Besides, it would be great to finally include Victoria in on what they knew. Although, she was rarely ever allowed to leave her dorm room so Wren knew Victoria wouldn’t be much help when it came to investigating.
“You know how our classes and training used to be diverse but now they’ve gotten repetitive? You’re always in Studies, I’m Combat, and Allen is always in Defense training?” Wren began.
Allen stepped forward. “We think the instructors are planning something. Why wouldn’t they be diverse about our training and academics? They’re all mindless and barely have any personality at all and they weren’t like that when I first arrived at The Academy. I know this place pretty well.”
“Scaling walls?” Victoria replied.
“I’ve been here for 18 months,” Allen said.
Victoria held up her hands in defense. “I know, I was just trying to crack a small joke. So, what do you guys think is going on?”
“We don’t know, but here are hundreds of students attending The Academy and we’ve barely seen any of them. Whenever the bell goes off the halls are always packed with students headed back to their dorms,” Allen explained.
Victoria sighed. “So, you guys think something suspicious is happening here and you decided to climb through our window to our bedroom?”
“The windows are the only things that aren’t connected to the security system,” Wren clarified.
“But you said they have security cameras around the place that people can’t see right?” Victoria added. “The Academy is way too smart to not have the windows wired to something, especially when they’re trying to contain a bunch of students. There’s probably a camera by the window.”
“That’s not okay if they put a camera in the window,” Wren said with a harsh tone. She walked over to the window to inspect. The Academy shouldn’t be allowed to look through the dorm rooms at all times.
Victoria shook her head. “Of course not. But they probably have cameras on the outside of the building so they can see into the courtyards but also,” she looked at Allen, “to see if there are any students entering or leaving through windows.”
Allen swallowed a lump in his throat. He looked at Wren. “I have to admit, I never thought about that.”
Wren stared at him horrified. “We got sloppy.”
A knock – more like a loud boom – came at the door.
The three friends froze. Wren looked at Allen. Did he stay and hide somewhere in the room? Did he jump out of the window for a five-second head start before Wren opened the door to let the instructors in?
“Allen, we know you’re in there,” came a stern voice from the hall.
Wren and Victoria gave Allen sympathetic looks. He put his hand out motioning for them to step back and to not panic. He reached for the door and opened it. There were five instructors standing on the other side. Wren didn’t recognize any of them and she assumed they must have all worked with security.
The one in the middle, directly in front of the door, coaxed Allen forward with a silent wag of his finger. Without looking back at his friends, he obeyed walking with the instructors as they promptly slammed the door shut.
Victoria let out a breath as soon as she and Wren were alone. She put a hand on her chest. “I thought for sure we were all in trouble. What do you think is going to happen to Allen? They’re just escorting him back to his dorm room… right?”
Wren shook her head. “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” She stepped forward reaching for the door.
She didn’t listen to Victoria though. She opened the door and was startled by five more instructors on the other side. Wren stepped back, leaving the door wide open. The instructors were all different from the ones who took Allen away. Were they there the whole time? Were they guarding the room?
At least, that was what Wren thought until she noticed the one in the middle lower his fist. She assumed he was just about to knock. He glared at her, most likely knowing exactly what she was planning on doing. But he turned his firm gaze to her roommate.
“Victoria,” he said.
All the breath escaped Victoria, but she stepped forward looking brave.
“No!” Wren stood in between the two of them. “Victoria didn’t ask Allen to break the rules and come here. If you’re going to take someone else away, take me.”
The instructor stared at Wren with a gleam in his eyes. He promptly ignored her, looking past her and back at Victoria.
“Victoria,” he said again, this time in a harsh tone.
Victoria put a gentle hand on Wren shoulder for a brief moment as she passed by. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
Wren opened her mouth to say more but, just like Allen, Victoria stepped out into the hall and the door slammed in Wren’s face.
After waiting a moment, she tried to open the door but it was locked from the outside. Wren sighed in annoyance. It was hard to pull a fast one on the instructors. They took Victoria and locked Wren in so that she couldn’t follow. She walked over to her bed and sat down, staring at the door. She assumed they took Allen and Victoria to be punished for breaking the dorm rules. Wren could only assume the same would happen to her and five different instructors would come take her away.
So, she waited.
But no one came for her.
Wren awoke the following morning to a quiet room. Normally she’d wake up to the sounds of Victoria getting ready for her various Study classes or hearing her wander around the room in attempt to keep herself busy quietly while she waited for Wren to wake up. There was no one in the room this morning. It was just Wren which meant the instructors never brought Victoria back to their dorm. She sat up in her bed wondering if Allen ever made it back to his own dorm.
She stumbled out of her bed and began to get ready for the day. She had fallen asleep in her uniform from the day before. This wasn’t the first time that happened, but the instructors always noticed. It didn’t matter how clean or dirty it was. So, she started to dress herself in a different uniform that looked exactly the same as all the rest. Hopefully, Victoria was in another dorm somewhere at The Academy. Wren couldn’t imagine why the instructors wouldn’t bring her back to this room. All of her things were still in the dorm as well. So, there was no way Victoria had gotten kicked out.
Wren tossed her dirty uniform down the laundry shoot. That was one of the many jobs students could get once they got old enough to have a job as well as keep going with their training at The Academy. Wren often dreamed of having a job – maybe not laundry – but she would have loved to get out of this room for something other than training. That’s all she had been doing lately and she was growing tired of it.
The sun began to rise which meant she needed to be out of her dorm and where ever she needed to be soon. Wren walked over to the door where a small tablet hung on the wall. She tapped it on and looked at her schedule for the day – it changed everyday, though lately the instructors have been making her train all the time after Study class. She sighed, looking at the email.
The instructors didn’t even put Study class on her list. She was supposed to go to the Combat Room five times throughout the day with only a 30-minute break in between.
Was this punishment for last night? What did they do to Victoria and Allen? Wren was so confused. The worst part of it all was that she couldn’t ask. If she went into the Combat Room and asked whichever instructor she had, they’d ignore her. The training area of The Academy was strictly for training, no talking. The only talking that was allowed was from the instructor to correct their form.
She looked at the door. Wren pressed her lips together. They had locked her into the room last night. Would she be able to get to her training? She reached for the door handle and pressed it down, pulling it open slightly.
Okay, so someone had come by, most likely when she was asleep, and unlocked the door. Maybe they unlocked the door and needed Wren for something but noticed she was asleep and left? No, they must have just unlocked the door and that’s it. There was no way they would let her sleep after a long day, especially if they needed her for something. The needs of The Academy always trumped the needs of the students.
When she stepped out into the hall, a few other students were emerging from their dorms. They too were dressed in uniforms, some carrying books, some without. It seemed as though a lot of them were going to training because there were fewer students carrying books for their Study classes. Wren hated sitting in the classroom, but she viewed that as relaxing at this point. She enjoyed training, but she was tired and wanted a break. She didn’t dare ask for one though. The last time a student asked for a break in training (or so Wren heard) the instructors never let that student train again taking it as a sign that the student wasn’t strong enough to carry on with it. The student disappeared about a week later. The instructors told their roommate she was sent back home, but rumors spread quickly and no one truly thought she was sent home because of that. That was about a month after Wren arrived at The Academy and no one still hasn’t seen or heard from that student.
It was nice to see other students coming out of their dorms. The previous day it seemed as though she, Allen, and Victoria were the only students in the entire building. When the bell rang, no one else marched back to their dorms and Wren assumed it was because they were already in their dorms. Why she and Allen were still training, she didn’t know why. It seemed as though things were back to normal though. The students had come alive again and were carrying out their routines and headed to where their assigned schedules told them to go.
Wren stepped into the hall with three other students. She hoped Allen would be in the Defense Room while she was in the Combat Room. She’s at least see him arrive or see him leave once the bell rang later in the day. She wanted confirmation he was alright. She also hoped, if she saw Allen, he would know what happened to Victoria.
She thought about asking one of the three students in the elevator, but when she opened her mouth, she decided against it. There was no talking allowed in the hallways and even though they were in an elevator, someone was bound to hear them. There were cameras everywhere.
Wren noticed all three students carried books and she suppressed a sigh. She was the only one going to the basement for training it seemed.
After dropping off the other students on their respective floors, Wren stood in the middle of the elevator alone until it reached the basement. She was alone with her thoughts still wondering where Allen and Victoria had gone to.
The elevator dropped her off at the basement and she headed down the hall in silence making her way to the Combat Room. She passed the Weapon Room and while she couldn’t see if there was anyone in there due to the lack of windows and metal door, she didn’t hear anything. The Combat Room was before the Defense Room so Wren couldn’t try to tell if Allen was already in his training. At least, she assumed that’s where he’d be. He had been stuck in a training loop just as she had.
She wasn’t allowed to dilly-dally though. If Wren was a fraction later than she was supposed to be for training, then she would be in huge trouble with her instructor. At least, that’s what she heard.
It was hard. Wren had only been at The Academy for four months and she had heard a lot of things about The Academy in general as well as the instructors. She believed most of it, especially from Allen who had been here for almost two years. It was hard not to believe what the other students said about it. She had seen some things as well which made her believe all the rumors, though she hadn’t seen anything as bad as students disappearing. But even she had a funny feeling about the place and could tell that not everything was normal.
Wren didn’t even know what normal was for The Academy.
She entered the Combat Room and her instructor was training another student. Wren froze in the doorway. Had she read her schedule wrong? Was she not supposed to be here yet? Was she needed in another area of training? Whatever the case was, she was already late now. She was in trouble for sure.
She sighed, defeated. Her mind was so focused on what had happened to Victoria and Allen that she must have missed the mark somewhere. But what was Wren to do now? It would take her far too long to make it back up to her dorm to check her schedule again. She was already late to where ever she was supposed to be, so she was going to be in trouble no matter what. She might as well stay there and let the instructor be confused about it with her.
Wren stepped to the side watching the instructor and the other student duke it out with one another. She had never seen this other student before, but he was good. The instructor was barely getting a hit in on this student. She narrowed her eyes at him, but she didn’t think she’d seen him before. He didn’t look familiar at all. He must have been a bit older than she was so his dorm was on another floor.
Something else was off though. Wren and all the other students – it didn’t matter their age or what floor their dorm was on – began and ended their day at the same time. It was odd to her that she and Allen seemed to be the only ones left training when the bell rang last night, but now this student was already in the middle of a heated battle in the Combat Room. He must have started his training at least 20 minutes ago. Training always lasted at least an hour, too. Maybe she was where she was supposed to be and this student had actually been down here for a lot longer.
Wren shook her head to herself. She was officially confused and that was that.
Before she knew it, the two had stopped battling. Both the instructor and student breathed heavily. (Which further confirmed to Wren that not all the instructors were robots. She still had her suspicions though.) The two bowed to each other and then engaged in conversation, which shocked Wren.
While she couldn’t hear what they were saying, the student had begun the conversation. That wasn’t allowed. The students weren’t allowed to speak at all and that included asking questions or responding to feedback or direction. The instructor nodded his head listening to the student intently before replying.
Wren watched closely as the two looked at wrist watches on their arms. She narrowed her eyes again. Watches weren’t allowed. She didn’t know why, but she figured it was because it could get ripped off in training. Or maybe The Academy didn’t want the students to know what time it was all the time. The bell was supposed to be their clock.
She took a step forward. She didn’t want them to know she was there – because it was painfully obvious they hadn’t noticed her yet – but she wanted to hear what they were saying.
Wren knew it was none of her business but there were some weird things going on lately. Both of her friends were taken by the instructors the night before and haven’t been seen or heard from since and now an instructor and a student were engaged in Combat Room earlier than training was supposed to begin and now they were speaking to one another when that wasn’t allowed either. Not to mention the watches. Wren was prepared to admit to herself that the watches had nothing to do with anything, but she didn’t want to be too careful.
There was something going on and she wanted to know what it was and why.
“It’s stuck at 9:03 am. Can we assume that’s the time of death?” Evelyn, with latex gloves on her hands, tapped the face of the wrist watch with the tip of her finger.
“Maybe, though it also could have already stopped working beforehand.” Michael watched as his partner examined the victim’s wrist from the driver’s seat of the car. “Something doesn’t quite add up though. If that’s when the time of death was, then we would have gotten a call much sooner.”
Evelyn stood up. “What time was it called in?”
“About 10:30 am.”
Evelyn brought her hand up to her mouth. “The caller said they had just heard a car crash into the lake across from their house, right?”
Michael nodded. He looked over his shoulder and pointed to a young woman across the way. “That’s her house over there. She’s standing in the front yard speaking to one of our officers.”
“If the watch stopped because it got submerged in water at 9:03 this morning but the neighbor, who lives directly across the street from the lake, didn’t hear anything crash until 10:30 this morning… I’m confused.” Evelyn shook her head.
“You should be because she not only heard the splash but she saw the car drive into the lake,” Michael clarified. “Supposedly she was in the kitchen pouring herself another cup of coffee when she looked out the window – which is above the kitchen sink right next to the coffee pot – and saw the car drive into the lake.” He pointed behind him to a small window a few feet to the left of the woman’s front door.
Evelyn sighed. “It’s early in the morning on a Friday. I’m not sure if my brain can handle this much inconsistency right now. What are you trying to tell me right now? Do you have suspicions?”
Michael raised his shoulders into a shrug. “If the clock stopped because of the water than that means the victim drove into the lake at about 9:03 this morning. But how can that be if they didn’t drive into the lake until 10:30 this morning? Or so our witness claims.”
“Do you think the witness has any involvement in this?”
“Maybe. Or maybe whoever the real culprit is put on a show for the neighbor so as to create a witness with a false lead.”
Evelyn breathed deeply and let out a long sigh. “We need to figure out who our victim is. Maybe we can ask around and figure out where he was headed and what time he left his house or where ever he was coming from. Maybe that will be a clue to as to what time he should have been driving down this road. Still, I think the watch will be our biggest clue to this case.”
“Unless the watch was already busted before he put it on this morning and that, in a way, is a false lead as well.”
Evelyn narrowed her eyes at her partner. “Why would the victim put on a broken watch before leaving the house?”
“Maybe he didn’t realize it was broken. Maybe he had put on the wrong watch. Maybe the battery died while he was driving in the car,” Michael rattled off a few possibilities.
“Maybe,” Evenlyn joined in with a point of her finger, “he knew the watch was busted and was on his way to the watch shop to get it fixed.”
Michael stared at her with a deadpanned expression.
“It’s a joke, Detective,” Evelyn said with a frustrated sigh. “I know the investigation has barely begun, but my head already hurts.”
“Mine too. We had to skip our morning coffee because of this call. We’ll pick something up when we’re done with this scene.”
“That’s not why my head hurts, but alright. I won’t say no to coffee.”
“Let’s make a list.” Michael pulled out a notepad and clicked his pen open. “We need to figure out who the victim is, where he was coming from and where he was going.”
“Who the neighbor is, check out her kitchen to get her perspective of the incident, and figure out what exactly she saw at 10:30 am. Also, what she was doing at 9:03 am,” Evelyn added.
“We have our work cut out for us this time,” Michael said. He clicked his pen closed.
“Also, the watch. When did it stop and why,” Evelyn stated.
“That may not be a priority just yet.”
“I think it should be the number one priority. The time on the clock and the witness’s statement and call-in to the police don’t add up. If she saw the whole thing happen, then she should have called the police right away,” Evelyn said.
“She did,” Michael nodded. “She saw it happen at 10:30 this morning and called it in right away.”
“But the watch stopped at 9:03 this morning. What if the witness saw a fake killing for the purpose of creating a witness?”
“I gave you that idea, remember. I don’t know how plausible that is though.”
“I think,” Evelyn suggested, “we should search this whole lake and look for another car.”
Michael sighed. He clicked his pen open again and wrote that down. “If it would make you feel better. I guess we should cover all our bases. But again, I don’t think we need to. A proper autopsy on the victim will tell us the time of death.”
“It may not be accurate though.”
Evelyn squatted down beside the victim again. Her hand hung out of the driver’s side with the car door wide open. With her gloves still on, she took the watch off his wrist.
“What are you doing?” Michael asked.
Evelyn stood, prying the back of the watch open. She smiled, turning the watch around for her partner to see. “No battery.”
Michael groaned. “Great. Now we definitely have a homicide on our hands.”
The words stared back at her. She flipped her pen over the knuckles of her right hand, though it kept falling onto the paper where the words were listed. She had seen people fiddle with a pen in their hand – weaving it in and out of their fingers, though she was never able to master it. (Sure, she had mostly seen people do it in the movies, but it must have been a little possible, right?)
Noelle pressed her lips together not sure how she was going to get through this assignment. She had just finished her homework for school and now had to worry about this task. Was it legal for a therapist to give their patient homework? If it was, it definitely should have been illegal.
She had only been seeing her therapist once a week for about a month. They were slowly getting to know each other but Noelle wasn’t sure how this list of words would help her. She still wasn’t going to feel confidant in anything she did – her soccer team, homework, any creative work she’d done. There were still going to be days when Noelle wasn’t going to want to get out of bed and go to school, see or talk to people, and not want to do anything at all.
A knock came at her bedroom door and when Noelle looked over her shoulder she noticed her friend in the doorway. She must have left her door open which was a mistake. Noelle had no intention of seeing anyone or talking to anyone tonight.
He walked into the door and stood over her at her desk. “Hey, you were missed at school today.”
“Okay,” Noelle said. How else was she supposed to reply to that? She wasn’t sorry she missed school. Besides, it wasn’t her fault she missed school anyway. Her brain didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. She was lucky she wasn’t back in bed right now.
Also, she certainly wasn’t going to go back to school because people missed her. Who missed her anyway? The teachers? Of course they were going to say that. She knew her classmates didn’t miss her. Aside from Alexander, she had no friends.
Noelle let out a sigh. She turned around in her desk chair and placed a tick mark on a sheet of paper in the corner of her desk. It was one tick mark of many covering the page.
“What’s that for?” Alexander asked.
“My therapist told me to mark whenever I begin to over think. I think she wants to gauge just how much I do it,” Noelle explained.
“Ah, okay. Did you want to talk about it? You don’t have to, but I’m here if you want.”
Noelle gave him a small smile. “I appreciate that. I always knew you were here even though I don’t act it at times.”
“I know.” Alexander placed a gently hand on her shoulder. “What’s that list there?”
Noelle rolled her eyes. “It’s a list of virtues. My therapist wants me to circle five to ten words that describe me.”
“Oh, well that’s easy.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “They’re a list of virtues. You know, positive words. How am I supposed to circle five of these things? I told her I might be able to get one but she said I needed at least five. She wasn’t going to accept any less than that. Do you know how stressful this is?”
Noelle continued. “She said it gently, of course. I like my therapist, I really do. But I don’t think it’s fair that I have to really think on this when it stresses me out. Virtues aren’t exactly something I have too many of. How am I supposed to pick a couple out that explain who I am? Not to mention I’m going to totally sound arrogant if I do circle a couple of these words. Who likes arrogant people? No one.” She paused. She wrote another tick mark on the other sheet of paper.
“Okay, I hear you. But let’s just take a look at this list,” Alexander replied reaching over his friend. “There are a lot of words here and I bet there are way more than five that describe you.”
“Hear me out.” Alexander stared at the sheet. “I can easily point out some words that describe you.”
“Of course you can. My parents could too but you guys are just being nice,” Noelle said gently. “Besides, my therapist told me I need to pick the words out on my own without any influence from anyone else.”
“That’s fair.” Alexander nodded.
Noelle turned back to the list and grumbled under her breath about it staring at the words.
“Why don’t we talk about something else and take your mind off of that list?” Alexander suggested.
“I’m seeing my therapist tomorrow afternoon though. I really should get this done. I’ve honestly lost sleep over this,” Noelle replied.
“Be sure to tell your therapist that,” Alexander said. “But let’s just talk for a little while. I won’t stay long. I don’t want to distract you too much but it seems as though you need a break.”
Noelle sighed. She turned away from the list of words once more. She didn’t know why her mother had allowed Alexander to come up to her room in the first place. She loved him, they were best friends, but she wasn’t in the mood to see or talk to anyone. Alexander was just about to use up the last bit of strength she had for the day and once he left, she wasn’t going to want to think about the list anymore. Though she couldn’t argue with him – she really did want to do something other than think of that list.
“What do you want to talk about?” she asked.
Alexander sat down at the end of her bed and grinned. “Do you remember how we met?”
Noelle furrowed her brows in confusion. “Of course I remember. Why do you want to talk about that?”
He chuckled. “You tell me. How did we meet?”
“One of our classmates outed you before you were ready. You were pretty embarrassed and upset,” Noelle recounted.
“And who punched that classmate in the face and got suspended for it?”
Noelle paused a moment before throwing her head back and laughing. “I forgot about that… I must have blocked it out of my memory. My parents were so mad at me.”
“I wasn’t mad at you though. We became fast friends after that despite not really talking to one another before that day.”
“Yeah, that was a good time. I mean, I’m sorry you went through that though.”
Alexander shrugged. “Hey, my job was done for me even if I wasn’t ready to tell people yet. And I made a new friend that day, so how can I look back at such a day with a sour face?”
Noelle nodded in agreement with a grin still on her face. That was a good day despite Alexander being upset and her getting in her first (and last) fight in school. Also, her first (and last) time being suspended.
“Hey, aren’t some of those words on your list?” Alexander asked.
Noelle frowned. He had to bring that up now? They were just having a good conversation.
“I mean,” Alexander amended his statement, “are there any words on that list you can find that remind you of us meeting?”
Ah, she saw where he was going with this. She picked up her pen and scanned the list of many words that faced her. Two jumped out at her.
“Acceptance, I accept you for who you are.” She circled the first word on the list. “Friendliness? We became friends that day.”
“I would say you’re friendly. You’ve always tried to make sure someone had somebody to sit with at lunch, for example,” Alexander agreed.
Noelle circled the word. Then she chuckled to herself and crossed out the word, “peace”.
“You’re a peaceful person,” Alexander argued.
“I punch people in the face.”
He laughed. “Okay, but that was one time.”
She looked at the list again. “What about creativity? I was creative in sticking up for you.”
Alexander narrowed his eyes. “I wouldn’t exactly call that creativity… I’m not so sure your therapist would like to hear you talking about how punching people in the face is a creative way to get them to stop doing whatever they’re doing. I would say you’re creative in other ways though.”
“What do you mean?”
“You think of new ways to do things or to fix things. Remember we worked together on a science project freshman year? We worked so hard on it and had many late nights and spent our weekends on it.”
“Well, yeah. That was our final project, right? It was easier than a test and, if I recall, we were both doing pretty lousy in that class,” Noelle added.
“We didn’t have the best science teacher that year though. I wouldn’t go so far as to blame us for our lousy grades,” Alexander corrected.
“That’s what all dumb people say.”
“We’re not dumb, we just talked a lot in class. Do you remember the project? The solar system?”
Noelle nodded. “I remember we thought it was weird to be learning about the solar system in high school when that was something we went over in elementary school.”
“I agree, but you remember the actual project?” Alexander egged on.
“You mean the food?”
“We didn’t make it out of food at first. It was all Styrofoam pieces and we had tried to think of other materials. But we took the easy way out and painted Styrofoam and attached them to Popsicle sticks. But then my dog got to it?”
“Oh, yeah…” Noelle said trying not to laugh. “That was an interesting day. The project was due the following day and for once we didn’t procrastinate.”
“So, what did you do?”
“We went to the grocery store and we bought a bunch of baking supplies and ended up remaking the solar system using cake and cookie dough.”
“That was all your idea and it was the most fun we’ve ever had. I’d say that’s pretty creative,” Alexander stated.
Noelle looked back at her list and circled, “creativity”. She read the other words and circled another. “Determination? We could have given up the whole project but we didn’t.”
“That makes sense to me.”
“I didn’t get angry that you left the project on the table where the dog could easily get to it. I saw an opportunity to improve upon on our project. Despite our hard work the first time around, we were both flexible in just doing the whole thing over again,” Noelle explained.
Alexander smiled and gave her a nod. “I think that makes sense.”
Noelle circled the word and squealed with excitement. “Hey, that’s five!”
“See? I knew you could do it. There are many other words on there that describe you too. But you have your bare minimum for your therapist. Maybe you can get some good sleep tonight.” Alexander stood up from the bed and leaned over his friend’s shoulder.
Noelle looked back at the list and circled two more words. “Loyalty and thankfulness,” she said. “I am thankful for your company and friendship, especially since I’m having a hard time lately.”
Alexander put his hands on her shoulders. He gave them a gentle squeeze before massaging them.
“Loyal because I believe we’ll be friends forever no matter what. I know that sounds corny but we’ve both been through hell and only came back because the other got us out.”
“So you do believe you’ll make it out of this rough time?”
Noelle hesitated to reply but she nodded. “I do. I know it’ll take time, but I understand my parents, my therapist, and you are all here no matter what.”
“Exactly. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you all along. I’m glad you see it for yourself. However, if you lose sight of it again, we’ll point out these words and have a chat,” Alexander explained.
Noelle chuckled. “Who knew this exercise would actually be helpful? Honestly, I can’t wait for therapy tomorrow.”
Mae had seen a lot of things in her many years of teaching. She had students put in more effort than what was expected from them. She had also seen some children put in way less effort than they should have. Some kids had a good excuse for why they did this or that and others… well, they lied through their teeth. There was one student who almost didn’t get caught at all. Mae was impressed by their elaborate lie with full eye-contact and serious tone of voice. However, they were caught in the end and Mae had to pretend she wasn’t impressed at all and was, in fact, upset with her student.
There were some students on the other hand who seemed to take everything literal or they didn’t understand the directions no matter how clear Mae thought she was. She would ask a question in class and some of the kids would overthink it, thus coming to the totally wrong conclusion.
This was how some of her rubrics went when she assigned essays to her classes.
Mae had always been particular with a certain format for her essays. It was a creative writing class, yes, but there were some essays that needed to be written when it came to the “rules” for writing. These essays weren’t necessarily formal content in the case that the essay topic had a right or wrong answer. She was always curious where each one of her students was when it came to various pieces of writing advice.
With that said, there had always been a generic format for when it came to submitting your work of writing to a publisher, agent, or magazine. Mae knew a lot of her students had already begun submitting some of their short stories and poetry to different websites, magazines, and contests. She wanted to help them through that process by showing them how to submit each piece in the proper, professional manner.
Most submissions were wanted in a certain font such as Courier New. The font size should be around nine to 12-points with double line spacing. There were never any cover or title pages. The first page was the same page the story begun, but not until halfway down.
At the top left corner of that page was the student’s name and contact information. Of course, for the sake of the class, Mae always had the students write their name, which class day and time they were part of (she taught five creative writing classes and each semester got more difficult to tell them all a part), and the date as well as their school email. At the top right corner they needed to write the exact word count of their piece, excluding the heading and the title of the piece. Halfway down the page, centered, was the title of the piece. Then the story began.
Mae always thought she was pretty clear about those instructions. She wrote it all out in the rubric and she even included an example with her own information on it. It was the first page to an actual short story she had submitted long ago for publication.
Now she was at a loss. Mae had always looked forward to reading the various works of all her students. They wrote such an array of pieces and genres. She had a few poets, some who wrote in different genres such as different areas of fantasy, mystery, drama, general fiction, and more. She enjoyed every bit of it and she certainly loved seeing the various levels of creativity come from her students. Mae always got a smile whenever she noticed an improvement from one piece to the next from some feedback she had given her students.
Of course, feedback was always taken with a grain of salt. That was something Mae had always drilled into her students’ heads. Feedback was helpful and needed, yes, but in the end, it’s their story. They should listen to the feedback but the final decision for what’s right for the story is always up to the author.
So now Mae was reading some of the stories her students had submitted to her. This was their final project for the semester. They had been working on these particular stories since the beginning of the semester with smaller projects here and there as well as working on draft after draft of their longer story, their final project. Peer editing and self-editing have all been part of the process as homework and group projects for grades. She was eager to finally read these pieces since she had yet to look at their longer works. She always wanted to save these until the end so she could read the final works as not just a teacher but also a reader and truly be surprised about what was to happen at the end of whatever her students came up with.
The format for one particular student, however, stuck out to her like a sore thumb. Not only was this their final project as a huge grade for the class from the whole semester, but Mae had drilled the format into their heads and… well, now she wasn’t so sure if this was a mistake or if one of her students had given up after a semester of working hard.
The example Mae had given the class was her own information for a short story she had submitted a long time ago. She had students in the past input her information instead of their own believing they were meant to do so. Mae didn’t understand why some of them thought a magazine would want their teacher’s information rather than the actual author’s, but that was an entirely different conversation.
This student did not do that. No, they forgot to plug in all their information. Instead of their name, they had written, “[Name]” on their paper. They didn’t even fill in the day and time of which creative writing class they were a part of. (Now Mae needed to do some trial and error. She had to save this piece of work for last and figure out which student hadn’t been corrected yet so she could give it a proper read knowing which student wrote it.)
Mae had been teaching college level creative writing classes for quite a few years. In all her many years of teaching, she had never seen a student pass in a short story with a format such as this one. Surely, the student knew their own name and their class day and time so there was no need to put placement text. She didn’t understand the logic behind it.
She moved the story to the side not wanting to read it quite yet. She’d move onto the next story and, when she figured out which student forgot to input their own information, she’d roll their story up and bonk them on the head with it.
As much as Marin was nervous for this meeting, she was going to do her best to remain positive about how it would turn out. She didn’t want to admit defeat before anything started and she certainly didn’t want everyone in the room to think she was afraid.
So, she walked through the parking as though she were on top of the world. Well, she stood tall at least. If anything she might have looked like a snob with her nose stuck up in the air but that didn’t matter. Marin only cared about how one person felt about her and it wasn’t any of the strangers she passed in the parking lot or who drove her.
She entered the office with her head held high. She passed the lobby without needing to talk to the receptionist – she knew exactly where she was going. Unfortunately, she had been there one too many times already.
Marin didn’t know how her life got to this point and she wished it hadn’t. However, now that it had come down to this, she needed to stick up for herself. She had lost everything because she didn’t have much of a backbone. She felt bad for the situation so she didn’t care if she was left with anything at all. However, now she actually had nothing because she gave it all away. There was no way he was going to take the apartment as well.
She couldn’t be homeless with nothing to her name. That wasn’t fair to her at all. She was done playing nice.
When Marin made it to the third floor where the divorce attorney offices were, she drew in a sharp breath. She was fine, she could do this. She was going to walk in there and demand that she get to keep the apartment because she had given him everything else – even the things she bought with her own money. He took back one of the gifts he had given her because even though he never cooked, he knew he would for sure use an air fryer now that he was a bachelor again.
Marin seethed in the hall. She needed to calm herself down before she entered the office. She was a few minutes early. She didn’t think it’d be an issue if she paced outside the door for a moment or two to gather her bearings.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if she had asked for the apartment, right? Both of their names were on the lease and she knew they’d have to pay a fee for one of them moving out (a fee she didn’t mind taking care of if that meant he was gone). The bottom line was that it didn’t make sense for both of them to move out and have to find a new apartment. Marin knew what he was going to say. He was given everything else from the marriage so it didn’t make sense for him to have to pack everything up and leave the apartment. It would be easier (for him) if Marin just packed up what little stuff she had left and moved out of the apartment. Plus, the apartment was originally his. He lived there before Marin had even me him. They dated for six months before eloping. Marin moved in with him and now… Now she regretted just about all the choices she had ever made in her lifetime.
With that logic and reasoning between herself and the voices in her head, Marin barged into the office and stood in the doorway. Everyone in the room – her lawyer, his lawyer, and him – stared at her. Marin immediately regretted walking in at that moment.
“Thanks for joining us,” her lawyer said. “We’ve actually been talking about you.”
Marin felt her blood pressure rise. How could they start the meeting without her?
Her ex-husband stood from the table. “I already signed the settlement. We just need your signature and then we’re all set.”
Marin opened her mouth to retaliate. How dare they decide on something without her present!
Her lawyer raised a hand. “Hear him out.”
Marin was about to snap at him when her ex spoke up again.
“I realized none of this has been fair for you. We rushed into a marriage and it was fun while it lasted. I wish I could say I hope we keep in touch, but honestly…” he chuckled. “Anyway, I’m giving you everything. All the stuff you told me I could take, I’m giving to you. I mean, aside from the stuff I owned before we were married. The furniture, TV, the air fryer, other gifts I gave to you… it’s all yours. So is the apartment.”
Marin remained in the doorway with her mouth gaped open. She had to be dreaming, right? Maybe she had married the evil twin and the good twin was here to make things right?
“I talked to my brother and he said I can stay in his guest bedroom until I find a new place,” he continued. “I realize a lot of our problems from the marriage were my fault and I want to make sure you’re comfortable and taken care of. So, if that’s all okay with you, then please. Go ahead and sign.”
Marin felt tears form in her eyes and willed her emotions to stay in check. This was reason she had fallen in love with him in the first place. He could be a self-centered jerk, but he always came to his senses at the end. Even divorced, it seemed as though he cared and he still wanted to make sure things were not his fault. For once, he was taking responsibility.
She walked over to the table and picked up the pen. She glanced at her lawyer who nodded. Yet, she couldn’t find herself to sign it.
“I feel like this isn’t right. You should have something,” she said.
She cursed herself for saying anything at all. She knew she was too nice for her own good at times, but… how could she let things end like this?
Her ex shook his head. “Please? We’re already losing a friendship because we rushed into things. I’d rather just get this over with and be happy knowing that you’re taken care of.”
Marin got back to their – well, her – apartment. She had signed the papers. Everything was going to be processed and approved in a few months. The apartment was dull and quiet when it was just her there. She couldn’t tell if he truly did care or if he just didn’t want to deal with being in the apartment alone. Still, this was his apartment for about ten years. Marin couldn’t imagine him being able to give this up so easily.
After lying in bed that night and going through the following day as normal as she could, she realized something else. Her ex didn’t give up the apartment because he wanted to make sure she was taken care of, as he claimed. There was another reason.
Everywhere Marin looked, something was his. The apartment smelled like him. The apartment held a number of memories of the two of them – some good and some bad. Everywhere she looked, she was reminded of him and her heart broke all over again.
That was the reason he didn’t want to stay.
They hated each other, but they hated this situation more. Marin couldn’t help but smile. Well, it seemed as though he did like her a little bit.
She picked up her purse and headed out of the apartment. Without a second thought, she’d tell the leasing office she was moving out.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Lyla asked. She picked up her hot coffee and drew it to her lips without taking a sip. It was still piping hot, the steam rising from the small slit in the cover.
Victor, sipping his coffee across the table, stared at her. He put the paper cup down on the table. “What do I think who are talking about?”
“Them,” Lyla said, turning her attention back to her friend, jerking her head to her left.
Victor looked to his right scanning the cafe. There was an empty table beside them but next to that one was another man and woman sitting together. They seemed to be deep in conversation, not taking their eyes off one another. The man sat back with one arm casually on the back of his chair and his other hand holding his hot beverage. The woman hunched forward with both hands cupping her hot drink.
“Why are you curious about what they’re talking about?” Victor asked turning his attention back to Lyla.
Lyla stared at the couple once more. “I can’t get a read on them.”
“Why do you need to get a read on them?”
“Why do you have to question everything I do?”
“Because I think you’re crazy.”
Lyla snorted through a smile. It wasn’t the first time someone called her crazy and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. In fact, she knew she was a bit crazy. She was too nosy for her own good, but these were strangers. There was no harm in wondering what they’re lives were like today. Lyla brought her drink back up to her mouth and took the tiniest of sips. It was still hot but at least she didn’t burn her tongue this time.
“Okay, let me ask you this,” Victor said, “What do you think they’re talking about?”
Lyla shrugged. “That’s why I asked you.”
“You’re the nosiest person I know and you eavesdrop all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard bits and pieces here and there in their conversation,” Victor stated.
Lyla frowned. “I tried, but it’s too loud in here and they’re two tables away.”
Victor laughed. He took another sip of his drink and looked back over at the couple two tables over. They hadn’t moved their positions, but they were still talking, staring deeply into one another’s eyes.
“It seems to me,” Victor began, “the woman is trying to have a serious conversation and the man doesn’t seem to care.”
“That’s what you get out of that?” Lyla asked in surprise.
“Body language says a lot.”
“But you make it sound like the man isn’t serious at all. The woman is trying to convince him of something and he’s brushing her off,” Lyla countered.
Victor shook his head. “I didn’t say the man was never serious. I meant this particular conversation isn’t interesting to him. Or maybe the woman is making a big deal out of nothing and that’s why she’s stressed out and he’s not.”
Lyla pressed her lips together in a smirk.
Victor narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“You’re just as nosy as I am.”
“I am not.”
“You are,” Lyla said with a chuckle. “You have this all thought out. You thought of two scenarios.”
Victor waved her off. “Oh, forget it.” He took another sip.
There was a moment of silence as the two old friends sipped on their own coffee. Lyla and Victor met up once a week at the cafe to catch up with one another and have a relaxing time after a long week. They had been doing this for years, ever since they graduated high school and they went to different colleges. They wanted to keep in touch and going to a cafe for about an hour a week was the only time they were able to make. Even when college was over and they both had full-time jobs this was the only time they could make. Life was always so hectic and on-the-go. Lyla enjoyed that they were able to take this time out of their week and keep in touch with each other.
“Why do you care so much?” Victor broke the silence.
“About what those people are talking about. You ask me that just about every time we come here.”
Lyla shrugged. “I’m curious about what’s going on in other people’s lives. I think it’s cool that other people live like we do.”
Victor raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t too sure how to respond to that one. Of course other people had lives. Everyone went to school or work, they hung out with friends. Everyone had feelings and their own worries and doubts about things. Someone somewhere was receiving good news while another person somewhere was receiving bad news. It was the way life worked.
“I mean, I know other people have lives, of course.” Lyla attempted to defend herself. “But it’s interesting to know how similar or different strangers are to us. We get so wrapped up in living our own lives, thinking, and worrying, and all that jazz that we forget there are other people around us possibly going through the same thing.”
Victor nodded his head. She made sense. He had some interesting customers at his work all the time and he often pretended they were having a bad day so Victor tried to remain as calm and nice as he possibly could.
“It’s true,” he said, adding his two cents. “Everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about. I still don’t see why you need to eavesdrop on conversations in the cafe though.” He smirked.
Lyla laughed. “This place is filled with interesting people. It’s the perfect place to people watch.”
Victor smiled and raised his cup. “I can’t argue with that.”
“You don’t need to keep whispering. They can’t hear us.” The man two tables over took a lazy sip from his drink.
The woman, still hunched over the table, stared at him. “I know, but I don’t want them to see that we’ve been looking over at them.”
“Then don’t look at them. I don’t know why you always feel the need to know what other people are talking about whenever we step foot inside a busy public place.”
“You’re not the least bit curious about what’s going on in their lives?”
“Because I’m not crazy.”
Victor nodded his head to two tables over and Lyla casually gazed over acting as though she was looking at something else.
“What about them?” she asked.
“I changed my mind,” he said. “I think they’re arguing.”