The fountain, 8:10 p.m.
The dusk light glowed with a hundred twinkling flames. It would have been romantic if not for the cloud of death hanging over everyone’s heads. Corny Davenport reached for her boyfriend’s hand, but he seemed reluctant to touch her. He fiddled with his candle, pretending to be distracted by a drip of wax. He was obviously embarrassed. Corny wished he would relax and submit to being comforted by her. They were sixteen; no one expected them to be strong.
“Hold my hand,” Corny whispered to him. Winn looked over his shoulder first, checking if anyone was looking. Corny felt a twinge of irritation, but it only lasted a second. Poor Winn, she thought. He didn’t know how to deal with death. None of them did. They especially didn’t know how to deal with suicide. Everyone had some crazy explanation for why Brittany jumped, mostly involving the supernatural: The mascot costume was cursed because the football team lost to Lowell four years in a row; the bridge was cursed because those kids who’d died a few years ago had been Satanists.
Why is it easier to believe in curses than to believe that a cheerleader could have depression? Corny thought. Being a cheerleader could be very depressing! You were responsible for the happiness of the entire school! Which was a hard job when the football team was having a terrible season, and it was raining a lot, and Lillian Davis’s grandfather died so they couldn’t have parties at his plantation anymore, and it was just generally not being the greatest year. Everyone leaned on the cheerleaders to keep their spirits up, and clearly Brittany had collapsed from the pressure.
The whole thing gave Corny a sad, motherly feeling, like she wanted to scoop up the entire school into a big hug. She was always hugging people—it’s why everyone called her Corny. Her real name was Courtney Anne, but Corny fit her personality; she was a completely sentimental dork. And she’d never felt so purely in her element as she did at that moment. Everyone was vulnerable; everyone needed a hug. She’d given at least a hundred hugs today and felt like she could give a hundred more. Especially to Winn, who really needed one, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
“It isn’t fair!” one of the cheerleaders was moaning. “Heaven is full of angels! Why did they need to take Brittany, too?” Then she began crying bitterly. Corny spotted her like a hawk, swooping upon the needy soul to envelop her in a deep, warm hug.
Winn wiped his hand on his pants. His palm had been sweating for a while, and he’d been wishing Corny would let go of it. But as soon as she was gone, he almost immediately wished she would come back. It made him twitchy and jealous, the way she smothered other people with attention. It was embarrassing, and it undermined him as her boyfriend. All Winn’s teammates on the football team had an exact idea of her body, because she was always affectionately plastering herself on them, pressing her huge, pillowy boobs against their broad chests. Sometimes she even hugged them when they were sitting down, which was pretty much just smashing her boobs in their faces. Winn was always scanning the crotches of his friends to see if they got hard-ons when she jumped on them. It was a gross, paranoid habit, but Winn told himself he was doing it to protect her. Corny was kind of clueless. Actually she was a lot like Brittany in that way. And it was easy to take advantage of girls like that. Girls who didn’t understand the power of their bodies.
Benny squeezed his way into the crowd. It was unclear who had organized the vigil, but now almost the entire high school was gathered together holding candles and crying. Bouquets of flowers had been tossed in a disorganized pile around the gurgling fountain, which looked less like a scene of mourning than a pile of pleasantly scented garbage. Everyone was waving pictures of Brittany on their phones, adding to the weird glow. No one had bothered to print out pictures, no one except Benny anyway. He quickly folded his up and hid it in his pocket, not wanting to stand out. He and Virginia weren’t there to grieve; they were there to observe.
“Do you see Angie?” Benny asked. “Or Gottfried?”
Virginia scanned the crowd. “No . . . But Angie may be in the middle of that bunch of cheerleaders.” They were all wearing their uniforms, as if they hadn’t changed since the game Friday night. Maybe they hadn’t. Virginia pushed through the crowd toward the cheerleaders, careful not to catch her hair on fire from all the carelessly bobbing candles. The cheerleaders’ weeping sounds were soft, unlike their hysteria on the bridge. They were probably exhausted from crying for two days straight.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You gotta be a Wildcat to cheer with us,” a pair of cheerleaders chanted in a weepy whisper. Virginia looked at them.
“Could y’all not do that?” she said loudly. “It’s kind of creepy.”
The girls glared at her, and then turned their backs and kept chanting.
“Don’t talk to anyone,” Benny told her. “Just be in the space.”
He’d never seen this many people packed around the fountain. Apparently it was Brittany’s favorite place to eat lunch. There were already rumors of deliberations to rename the area Brittany Park, which Benny suspected had more to do with obfuscating a certain decrepit old bench under the magnolia tree. The bench had been erected in the sixties as a scanty peace offering to the first black students to desegregate Winship. It had not been a smooth transition, and now the bench was a daily reminder of a very embarrassing period in the school’s history. While the trustees couldn’t actually remove the bench without drawing further attention to it, renaming the entire area Brittany Park would at least overshadow it. Better to remember Brittany Montague—sweet, shining Brittany—than some fraught, bitter time that just made everyone uncomfortable.
“Stop blowing out your candle,” someone behind Benny was saying.
“I’m not blowing it out. It was the breeze.”
“You just did! You blew it out!”
Benny turned around. It was Winn and Corny, the junior class couple. They’d been together since the sixth grade. Everyone envied them, but Benny thought it was weird. Kissing someone you kissed when they were eleven was kind of abnormal. And besides, Benny knew Winn was a creep even if no one else saw it.
Corny was lighting his candle. Winn immediately blew it out again.
“Is this a trick candle or something?” Winn said, sounding really annoyed. “How did I get a trick candle?”
“You’re blowing it out,” Corny insisted. “I just saw you. Benny, didn’t you see it?”
“Um, I guess,” Benny said. “Have y’all seen Angie? Is she here?”
“I don’t think so. . . . Winn, seriously, stop blowing out your candle.”
“She’s over there,” Benny heard. He turned around and saw Zaire Bollo. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed her—Zaire tended to make herself known. She was imperious and a little stuck-up, in a way that was sort of similar to Virginia, but somehow Zaire pulled it off better. A matter of stage presence, Benny guessed. Composure. And the fact that she looked like a model, with the kind of face you’d find etched into the wall of a pharaoh’s tomb.
She was pointing to the bench under the magnolia tree. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Benny could suddenly make out a person lying in a ball, tangled blond hair catching a small bit of light. He could tell she was crying.
“Why isn’t anyone helping her?” Benny asked.
“I dunno.” Zaire shrugged. “I guess we’re the only ones who see her.”
Benny stood there for a second, staring at the dark lump shrouded in shadows. Just as he decided to go over to her, Angie righted herself abruptly and started walking toward the parking garage, a key ring hanging limply from her fingers. She shouldn’t be driving, Benny thought. Benny started to walk after her, but then stopped. He barely knew Angie. It would be invasive, not to mention self-important, for him to sweep in like some pushy hero.
At that moment, apparently realizing that the center of their hurricane of sorrow had drifted away, a swarm of cheerleaders appeared at Angie’s side. In the darkness they all looked dimly alike, as if they were a dozen twins trying to take the place of the one Angie had lost.
“I KNOW IT WAS YOU!”
The scream—hysterical, anguished—jolted the soft hush of the vigil. Everyone looked around.
“Oh my God?”
“What the . . .”
“What’s going on? Who is that?”
“I KNOW IT WAS YOU! I KNOW IT WAS YOU! I KNOW IT WAS YOU!” The scream repeated over and over.
Virginia spun around. Where the hell is Benny? she thought. Is he hearing this? She didn’t know what to do. Her MO was just to follow Benny and do what he said. But she couldn’t find him. It was hard to see anything in the crowd, because everyone was pushing and trying to find out what was going on.
Then she saw it. It was Gerard Cole, the water boy. He was screaming and pointing at someone in front of the fountain. But then some freshmen moved in front of Virginia, and she couldn’t see him anymore. She pushed a gap between them and shoved herself through.
“I KNOW IT WAS YOU!” Gerard continued to scream. But his voice was getting hoarse and weak. He was pointing at two immense upperclassmen, Trevor Cheek and another one whose name Virginia didn’t know. The boys were looking sort of baffled but also pissed. Suddenly Gerard launched himself at Trevor, beating his fists against Trevor’s broad chest.
“Get the FUCK off me!” Trevor shouted, giving Gerard a swat that sent him flying to the ground. Trevor’s face had turned completely purple, engorged with rage. “I will FUCKING kill you.”
Gerard immediately picked himself up and flung himself at Trevor again. The crowd formed a tight circle around them, everyone yelling, candles being dropped or snuffed out by all the jostling. Trevor blocked Gerard with an effortless wave of his arm, and Gerard was back on the ground. His head was bleeding now.
“Eeeeh . . . ,” Gerard moaned, trying to sit up. He pointed up at Trevor. Tears streamed down his face. “I know it was you.”
“You are a FUCKING psycho,” Trevor sneered at him. Virginia had never heard a more menacing voice in real life. “If you touch me again, you DIE.” Then he turned and stomped away, knocking down several people in his path.
“Nobody move!” boomed an adult voice from across the fountain. It was Principal Baron. “Nobody move” was what he always shouted when he was on the warpath.
Virginia quickly shoved her way to the center of the circle and knelt next to Gerard. “Gerard, come on. Quickly, come on.”
“No one believes me!” Gerard wept to himself.
“I believe you!” Virginia whispered. She had no idea what Gerard was talking about, but it seemed like what he wanted to hear. All around them, people were staring, and the principal was elbowing his way toward them. She had to get him out of there and find Benny.
“You do?” Gerard asked, and his eyes contained such sad, innocent hope that he looked like a child.
“Yes,” Virginia said. “Now come on.” Gerard got up, and Virginia ducked between two groups of upset cheerleaders. She looked over her shoulder to make sure Gerard was following. The small circle of space where he and Trevor had fought was gone; bodies had immediately pressed in and filled it. Like they’d never even been there.
The Boarders, 9:00 p.m.
“I’m invisible to them. They don’t even see me.” He sounded alert, but dulled.
“Well, they’re cheerleaders, Gerard, what do you expect?” Virginia was trying to be patient, but she hadn’t brought him here for a pep talk, she’d brought him here to find out why he’d moronically attacked Trevor Cheek.
Gerard slumped on the common-room sofa with a vacant look in his eyes. Virginia was sitting next to him, but as far away as she could get without insulting him. She didn’t want someone to walk in and think they were together. It’s not that Gerard was even that bad. He was a dope though, very low-hanging fruit, and people would think she had low self-esteem if it seemed like she liked him.
“Not the cheerleaders,” Gerard moaned softly. “They’re nice. It’s the football players.”
“Oh,” Virginia said.
“They say things in front of me. They don’t even notice I’m there.”
“Things like . . . what?” Virginia asked.
“I heard them . . . I heard them talking about Brittany. They’re disgusting.”
“Omigod, what were they saying?” Virginia asked, and was immediately embarrassed by the overeagerness in her voice. She wasn’t a gossip queen anymore, she reminded herself; she was an investigator. She needed to be cool. But if Gerard was put off by her obvious salivating, he didn’t show it. He was probably so starved for attention he would have told anyone.
“They talked about her and the mascot suit. They wanted to hear her growl like a wildcat while they . . . banged her.”
“In the suit?!” Virginia yelled. She burst out laughing.
“Don’t laugh! It’s not funny! I think they banged her before the game. R-r-raped her.” His voice stuttered over the word. “Raped her in the wildcat suit.”
Virginia stopped laughing.
“And that’s why she killed herself!” Gerard sobbed. “Because she was ruined! She was the best mascot in the world! The mascot of beauty and innocence and joy!”
Virginia’s lip curled. She really didn’t want to believe this. It was the most disgusting and perverted thing she’d ever heard. It wasn’t mysterious; it was gross and sad.
“Okay, just . . . calm down,” she said to Gerard. “Come here.” She went over to the computer and sat down. Gerard continued to weep on the sofa.
“Come here,” Virginia repeated, slapping the chair next to her. “I want you to look at this.”
Gerard sniffed and looked at the ceiling. “What’s that sound?” he said, his face wet with tears.
Virginia listened and heard a familiar whistle, breathy and low and emanating from inside the walls. “It’s just the ghost,” she said. “Don’t pay attention to it. Now come here.”
“Y’all have a ghost?” Gerard asked, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Virginia didn’t answer. She pulled out a silver flash drive and plugged it into the computer. Then she clicked open the video from Friday night, pointedly fast-forwarding past the locker room footage so she didn’t have to endure Gerard weepily ogling the cheerleaders in their underwear. It had been awkward enough watching that with Benny.
“Okay, watch this,” she said, pointing to the screen. It was the bridge, all muddled gray hues with a touch of blue. “See that guy? He’s making her jump. He’s intimidating her.”
Gerard wiped his eyes. “Hang on, whaaa . . .”
“And look at his shape. He doesn’t have football gear on. His shoulders are narrow. It’s definitely not Trevor.”
“Well . . . he could have run ahead of her! He could have ditched the gear in the woods!”
Virginia shook her head. “I was there. The cheerleaders were behind me, and the football players were behind them. There wasn’t time for anyone to cross the bridge before Brittany got there. Whoever it was, they were already there. Waiting.”
“Can you zoom? Enhance it?” Gerard said, his voice eager and little high-pitched. “Can you tell who it is?”
“That’s just TV,” Virginia said. Those scenes always annoyed her, the ones where cops zoomed in on a piece of grainy footage and suddenly a million pixels magically appeared, providing a crisp, clear image. “In real life what you see is what you get.”
Gerard didn’t say anything. He seemed confused, staring at the grainy image and blinking dumbly.
“I mean, I guess it doesn’t really change much. Brittany’s still . . . gone. But, I mean . . .” Virginia didn’t know what she meant. “I mean we still don’t have the answers.”
Gerard inhaled slowly, then started crying again.
“Christ, Gerard,” Virginia sighed. Why had she even showed him the video? Because she felt sorry for him, she guessed, but now he was just annoying her again.
She closed the file and yanked out the flash drive.
“I’m going to bed. Can you get yourself home? You can sleep here on the sofa if you want, I guess, but if Mrs. Morehouse checks in, you’ll be dead meat.”
Gerard sniffed and wiped his eyes. “I’ll go.” He began shuffling to the door. Then he turned back and looked right at Virginia.
“Do you think Brittany’s a virgin in heaven?” he said. His voice cracked.
“Uh . . .”
“Or when we die, do we bring all the bad shit that happened to us?”
Virginia gaped at him for a second. Was she actually supposed to answer that?
“The first one,” she managed. But actually, that one seemed depressing too. What was the point of all this shit happening if when you died it just got erased, like it hadn’t meant anything at all?
The fountain, 9:30 p.m.
Benny dialed the number again, but she didn’t pick up. She must not be in her room. Where is she? It was weird and inconvenient that Virginia didn’t have a cell phone, but he didn’t want to embarrass her by bringing it up. Which was ironic, because Virginia never hesitated to embarrass anyone, pointing out all the little ways they were lacking in her opinion.
Benny bent down to pick up another burned-out candle rolling on the ground. Why was he picking up everyone’s litter? It’s not like anyone would thank him for it. There was no one around; after the loud kerfuffle by the fountain, everyone had quickly dispersed and gone home, dropping their candles like they were trash, even though most were only barely used.
Benny sat down on the ledge of the fountain, depressed. It was quiet. They’d turned the water off, so now instead of a gushing, sparkling spray, it was just a pointless cement pool of stagnant water.
A baby cried. A baby? Benny turned around. He’d been sure he was alone. Then something low and slinky caught his eye. It wasn’t a baby; it was a cat.
“Wildcat,” Benny said. “What’re you doing out here, little guy?”
The cat meowed again and hopped up beside him. He was a brown, fluffy part-Manx, slightly mangy looking, with big expressive yellow eyes. He was the school cat and had the run of the campus, but usually avoided the students.
Benny hesitantly ran the tips of his fingers over Wildcat’s long fur, matted in places and in need of a good brushing. Wildcat wasn’t generally very friendly. He was one of those moody cats who test people—rubbing up against you, then attacking out of nowhere, just to see if you’ll still like them.
“Did you see what happened, Wildcat?”
Wildcat nuzzled Benny’s arm. Benny reminded himself that this was the same cat who had literally scratched Connor Tate’s eye out and sent him to the hospital. The Tates wanted to have Wildcat put down after that, but everyone agreed it was Connor’s fault. He was an asshole and an idiot and was trying to put a sock on Wildcat’s head.
Benny called Virginia’s room again. No answer. He left a message. “Hi. It’s me. . . . Umm . . . could you bring the camera to school tomorrow? We should take it to the AV lab, find out if Brittany checked out equipment like that a lot. Maybe videotaping the locker room was, like, a habit of hers. . . . Okay, anyway . . . bye.” He snapped his phone shut. Next to him, Wildcat stretched, gave Benny a random, offended-seeming hiss, and then hopped to the ground. “Bye,” he said to Wildcat.
Benny put his head in his hands and moaned quietly. He was furious with himself for missing the action with the fight or whatever it was. He’d been at the edge of the crowd, watching Angie Montague shuffle toward the parking garage. He must have been staring for a full minute, just spacing out. Then he’d heard shouting and immediately turned around. Virginia was gone, and the crowd had compressed, forming a wall of bodies that blocked Benny from whatever was going on at the center. Benny had circled the crowd desperately, like a dog circling a tree. But there was no way in—they were packed too tight. Maybe Virginia could have shoved her way to the center, but Benny couldn’t. He was stuck there, missing everything. Which proved the entire point of the philosophy of Being There. You could never get inside from the outside. Your only hope was to Be There.
The Boarders, 2:11 a.m.
Virginia realized she was awake. She wasn’t sure how long her eyes had been open, or why she’d woken up. She was lying on her side, staring blankly into the darkness. In the corner her coat hung from a metal hook, creating a bulky shadow. She kept staring at it, like her eyes were magnetized. The room had a faint bluish tint from the streetlamp filtering in through the thin curtains. As Virginia’s vision slowly adjusted to the dimness, the coat’s outline started morphing, taking on eerie details. A pale sheen of gold on top. Shadows almost seeming to form a face. And it was moving slightly.
It’s October, Virginia thought suddenly. My coat’s in storage.
Instantly she was wide awake. Her arm shot out to reach for the desk lamp. But she knocked it over, and there was a loud thump and a clatter as the power cord dragged everything on her desk down with it.
“GET OUT!” she screamed. She fell out of her bed in a tangle of sheets, landing hard on her hip. She picked herself up in the darkness, then tripped on the sheets and fell down again. She scrambled to her feet and lunged for the light switch. Bright yellow light flooded the room. Virginia blinked, looking around frantically. Her heart was pounding and her breath was ragged. Her lamp was on the floor, her sheets in a messy knot.
There was no one there.
Virginia poked her head out into the hall. It was dark and silent.
Chrissie White’s door opened and light spilled into the hall. “What’s going on?” she said groggily, squinting at Virginia across the hall.
“Nothing,” Virginia said, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t know. I was dreaming. Did you hear someone in the hall just now?”
“Be quiet!” someone shouted from inside their room.
“I just heard you screaming,” Chrissie said. “Go back to sleep.” She closed her door, and her light disappeared.
Virginia stood there for a second, feeling foggy and confused. It wasn’t the first time someone had woken up screaming in the Boarders. Yancey Kemper had nightmares all the time, and no one paid attention. The boarders tended to have little sympathy for one another. They were all stuck in the same shitty situation; no one had it particularly worse than anyone else.
Virginia went back into her room and looked at the corner. There was no coat. There was no person, either. It was just her normal room. She gathered her sheets and threw them back on the bed. Then she flicked off the light and went to sleep.
The girls’ locker room, 11:00 a.m.
I love you and you’re my best friend. You have the biggest heart!
I love you and you’re my best friend. Your smile makes my day!
I love you and you’re my best friend. Never ever change!
Corny began carefully taping the notes to the locker doors, using tape she’d sprinkled with pink and silver glitter. She’d stayed up until two a.m. writing a special note for every girl on the varsity and junior varsity cheer squads, each with a unique message to lift their spirits and help get everyone through this sad and awful week.
I love you and you’re my best friend. You have the most beautiful hair!
She taped up the last one with a flourish, and then plopped down on a bench. She closed her eyes and made herself breathe in and out. It was important to take a moment for yourself every now and then. It was called self-care. Corny had read that in a magazine.
“Okay!” she said after five seconds. She opened her eyes.
This locker room is disgusting, she thought. Stuff was strewn everywhere—clothes, bras, pairs of tennis shoes. No one had bothered to clean up after the game on Friday. Everyone had just gone home and cried. And now it was like a moment frozen in time, the moment before Brittany’s light had gone out and left the world a darker place.
Corny noticed a puddle on the floor near the pom-pom closet. It looked like urine. Gross. Had someone been so sad they’d peed themselves? Grief pee? Maybe that was a thing. Corny got up and went closer to it, to see if it really was pee. It was disgusting, but she couldn’t help being curious. Then she realized it was coming from under the pom-pom closet door.
Oh my God, she thought. There’s someone in there.
There was a burgundy backpack leaning against the door. It had initials embroidered on it: GWC. Gerard Cole. She knew Gerard came in and out of the locker room sometimes to refill their pink Gatorade. No one really minded—Gerard was practically one of the girls. But did he, like, hang out in there when they were all gone? Just by himself? That was kind of weird.
She heard him groan softly.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Corny said. “I think we all deserve to cry in the pom-pom closet today. Let me in and we can cry together.” She jiggled the door handle, but it was locked.
“Did you pick a fight with Trevor again?” she asked through the door.
She waited, but he didn’t seem to be moving.
“I’m going to get the spare keys from the lounge. And a mop. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in five minutes, and I’ll give you a nice foot massage.”
She gave Gerard’s backpack a little push with her foot so the urine puddle wouldn’t touch it. Then she dashed from the locker room, buzzing with all the love inside her.
The AV lab, 12:30 p.m.
Skylar Jones sat in the dark, blinking back tears. He was in the equipment closet, watching The Lion King on Mr. Rashid’s laptop. The circle of life—it was so beautiful! Skylar swiped a match against his pant leg, preparing to light up for the third time since breakfast. On a day like this you really couldn’t be too high, Skylar figured. Everyone was freaking out about Brittany Montague. Apparently she’d jumped off the bridge in her mascot suit and was dead. About a hundred people had seen her do it, right in the middle of the football game. Skylar shuddered, not wanting to think about it. He turned up the volume on Mr. Rashid’s computer. Hakuna matata, right?
Ding ding! It was the little bell at the front desk. Skylar considered ignoring it. The school was barely functioning today. Half the student body hadn’t even shown up, and the other half was crowded into “grief circles” in the guidance hall. Ding ding! The bell rang again. Skylar sighed and paused the movie. He poked his head out of the closet to see who was there.
Great. It was that Scooby-Doo guy and god-awful Virginia Leeds. Just being in the same room with Virginia was a buzzkill. She’d worked at the AV desk for a few weeks at the beginning of the semester, and she’d driven Skylar crazy. The AV lab had always been Skylar’s place to chill out, but Virginia’s vibe was anything but chill. She was always in your face, and she was incredibly nosy. He’d even caught her going through his backpack once. When he asked her what the hell she thought she was doing, she said, “I’m just trying to get to know you!”
And now here she was, leaning across the desk and holding a small digital camera. “Skylar, can you give us the checkout history on this camera? It has a library barcode. Just tell us how often it gets checked out.”
“Um . . . no?” Skylar said. “We don’t fork over that information.”
“We’re just trying to return it,” Virginia said. “We found it on the ground. . . . Are you crying?”
“It’s okay to be one with your emotions,” Virginia said, smirking.
The Scooby guy looked impatient. “Yes, yes, everyone’s upset. So can you give us the checkout history?”
“You just found it on the ground?” Skylar asked. “Why do you care who checked it out?”
“Why do you care that we care?” Virginia said.
“I don’t,” Skylar said, scowling, wishing he’d never left the equipment closet.
“If you could just check,” the Scooby guy persisted.
Skylar sighed loudly and scanned the barcode on the camera. He squinted at the computer screen. “Um . . . nobody checked this out. Well, not a student anyway.”
“Yes they did,” Virginia said. “It was definitely a student.”
“Well if you know so much, why are you asking me?” Skylar sighed.
“Here, let me look,” Virginia demanded, leaning over the desk to see the computer screen for herself. Her elbow bumped a cup full of pens.
Skylar swatted her away. “Quit. You’re knocking things over. Let me a do full scan.”
“Patrick Choi,” Virginia said, reading the scan result. “Mr. Choi? The pep band conductor? Mr. Choi?”
“Mr. Choi?” Scooby repeated. “Mr. Choi?”
Now Skylar really needed a joint. “Let’s say ‘Mr. Choi’ five hundred more times.”
Virginia grabbed the camera and started walking off with it, followed by her nerdy friend. “Thanks, Skylar.”
“Hey, you have to give that back,” Skylar shouted after them. They ignored him. He sighed and returned to the equipment closet, resolved not to come out again until he was high enough to tune out this entire day.
The girls’ bathroom, 2:45 p.m.
Virginia stood at the mirror, spritzing herself with perfume. I can’t believe I used to think Skylar was cool, she thought. She’d applied to work at the AV lab in September because Skylar Jones had seemed like the most mysterious boy in school. He was a senior, he wore sandals, he had a bumper sticker on his car that said THE TAO OF CHILL, and Virginia had started the school year determined to be his girlfriend. She had spent every free period in the AV lab, probing Skylar’s mind for the mysterious, philosophical thoughts that she was certain must be in there somewhere. But after a few weeks Virginia learned the important lesson that some people who seem mysterious are actually just incredibly stoned.
Virginia eyed the camera in her backpack. Mr. Choi? she thought for the hundredth time. It was so weird and random. Maybe he’d been paying Brittany to do his lecherous peeping for him. Except that didn’t make sense, because the Montagues were already rich.
“That smells really nice,” came a girl’s voice from inside one of the stalls.
“It smells like . . . I dunno. Like a rose.”
Virginia frowned, annoyed. She didn’t want to smell like a rose. She wanted to smell like yearning or eternity.
“Can I use some?” The stall door swung open, and a tall blond girl stepped out, dramatically wobbling on a pair of high heels. One glance at her face and it was obvious that the girl was way on drugs. But for once Virginia reserved her snotty judgments, because this wasn’t just some druggy lowlife skulking in the girls’ room. This was Angie Montague.
Virginia’s mouth hung open stupidly for a moment. What is she doing here? Half the school was missing today, and Angie was the last person anyone expected to show up. And who could blame her for wanting to drug out—only why was she doing it at school ?
“Uh, sure,” Virginia managed to say finally, holding out the perfume bottle.
“Thanksss,” said Angie. She reached out and swiped the perfume, then immediately dropped it. The glass bottle shattered on the filthy bathroom tiles, and within seconds the air was thick with the pungent smell of perfume. Angie looked at her hand with confusion, as if she expected the perfume bottle to rematerialize. Then she burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry!” she cried out, crumpling to her knees. The perfume’s smell wafted up from the floor.
“Whoa, it’s okay,” Virginia said, coughing a little from the smell and wondering if she should go get a guidance counselor.
“I’ll pay you back!” Angie said, sobbing into her knees. “How . . . how much was it?”
“Um, forty dollars . . . but don’t worry about it, really.”
“Forty dollars?” Angie gasped. “Where am I going to get forty dollars? MY PURSE WAS STOLEN!” Then she collapsed in tears, burying her face in her hands.
Virginia felt her lip curl in irritation. She’d been prepared to excuse Angie’s histrionics, but this was just insulting. She didn’t need to make up some story about her purse being stolen. She was Angie Montague; she could probably reach up her ass and pull out forty dollars.
“I said don’t worry about it,” Virginia said icily. “You can write me a check.”
“Do you have anything to eat?” Angie demanded. “I’m fucking starving.” And she actually looked kind of starving. Her cheeks were hollow and colorless, and she seemed weak.
Virginia rummaged in her bag and found a crumbly old granola bar. “Here,” she said, handing it to Angie. Angie took it, but then just stared at it.
“So . . . are you gonna eat it or what?” Virginia asked her.
Angie glared at her, and her eyes were suddenly clear and ferocious. “Oh my GOD, get OUT of here! I want CORNY! I want a HUG! Not you and your disgusting trailer-trash perfume!”
Virginia stumbled backward, startled by Angie’s outburst. “Sorry,” she muttered. The heavy perfume was making her dizzy. She turned and ran out the door, and immediately crashed into the soft, hefty chest of Corny Davenport.
“Sorry,” Virginia found herself saying again. “I think I touched your boob.”
“Is she in there?” Corny breathed urgently.
“Yeah . . . she was asking for you.”
Without another word Corny whirled past her. Virginia watched her dash on her tiptoes toward the bathroom, the door whooshing open in front of her. Virginia peered in for a second—and immediately wished she hadn’t. It was possibly the saddest thing she’d ever seen: Angie Montague weeping on the filthy bathroom floor in a puddle of perfume.
The music hall, 2:50 p.m.
Benny leaned his ear against the heavy wooden door. Silence. He knocked lightly. No answer.
In a way he was relieved. He hadn’t planned what to say if Mr. Choi had actually answered. The two things detective work required were intuition and authority: the ability to see through your suspect and the ability to make him crack in front of you by trickery or intimidation. But Benny didn’t know if he could do that with a teacher. Benny was the kind of guy who said “yes, sir” compulsively, even to Rick the janitor who was twenty-four years old and always laughed at him. He had been raised to be respectful.
He looked for the appointments roster on the door. It took him a moment to find it, because the door was covered with posters of famous jazz musicians. Mr. Choi was obsessed with jazz. He was in the house band at the Sapphire Lounge, and was always trying to persuade his students to come see him play. But the Sapphire Lounge was in the bad part of town, and Benny knew there was zero chance that his mom would ever let him near it. “Monday through Thursday, I’m always there!” Mr. Choi was constantly reminding the class. Nobody ever went. It used to make Benny feel guilty, and also kind of embarrassed. It seemed a little desperate, not to mention inappropriate, for Mr. Choi to be inviting his students to a place like the Sapphire Lounge.
Benny found the roster half concealed behind a black-and-white print of Charles Mingus. The roster was blank, except for the hour between three-thirty and four: Marty Robeson. Private lesson. 3 and 3:30.
Benny Flax, he wrote beneath it. Question.
The football field, 3:20 p.m.
Benny felt a little weird watching the cheerleaders halfheartedly doing stretches on the field. He knew he probably looked like some clueless pervert hoping to prey on one of the grief-stricken girls after practice. It didn’t help that Gerard Cole, the sappy water boy, was there too, staring at the cheerleaders and periodically weeping.
I wish Virginia would get here already, Benny thought. She’d left a note on his locker reading, in bright pink marker, Meet me at cheer practice this aft —important clue to discuss. It was just taped to the front of his locker for anyone to see. Virginia had yet to absorb the finer points of investigating a crime, for instance that you don’t advertise to the world when you have an “important clue.”
Only about half the cheerleading squad was in attendance. The principal had declared all extracurricular activities optional until after Brittany’s funeral, which kept getting pushed back. It was supposed to be Wednesday, then Thursday—now people were saying next week. The problem was that the body had been drifting downriver so fast that no one could catch it. It might have been funny if it weren’t so grotesque.
Yesterday the immense, waterlogged wildcat head had finally washed ashore, but the body it had encased was proving more elusive. There had been sightings as far south as Troup County. People were calling the police hotline claiming to have seen the body floating right past their backyards. A video had popped up on the Internet of a white, corpselike form floating past the Cherokee Trail Bridge. It already had more than one hundred thousand views. Benny had watched the video himself at least thirty times. It was about ten seconds of footage, taken on a jerky camera phone: a grayish expanse of skin—the naked back of Brittany’s corpse—bobbing into view before disappearing around the river bend. Just remembering it made Benny shudder.
The local news had been dominated all weekend by outraged community members demanding to know how the police force could possibly be so incompetent. The river was basically a one-way street. All they had to do was stake out a position downriver and wait for the body to float past. But so far no one had been able to catch it. Maybe Virginia was right, Benny thought. Maybe this really is some horrible, morbid prank.
“Can you believe they’re keeping the mascot costume?” Benny turned and saw Virginia clomping down the bleachers toward him.
“They’re keeping it?” Benny repeated incredulously as Virginia plopped down next to him.
“Apparently the wildcat head was like three thousand dollars, and there isn’t any money to get a new one. I just saw Coach Graffe scrubbing it down in the locker room. Some poor girl’s going to have to wear it at the game next week. After Brittany, like, decomposed in it for two days.”
At this Gerard Cole suddenly snapped out of his stupor. He glared at Virginia and shouted, “Don’t talk about Brittany like that!”
Virginia scoffed. “What? I barely said anything.”
“Brittany will never decompose in our hearts!” Gerard shouted, thumping his chest with his curled fist.
“Leave him alone,” Benny said. He wished Virginia would just ignore Gerard and explain what they were doing here.
“You should give that video to the police,” Gerard said, standing up and pointing at them. “You think this is a game, you and your silly club!”
“What is he talking about?” Benny whispered.
“Oh, the bridge footage,” Virginia said. “I showed him.”
“You WHAT?” Benny hissed.
“You’re both jerks,” Gerard went on. “You don’t care about Brittany at all.”
“Shut up, Gerard,” Virginia snapped at him. “Leave us alone. Go cry on Corny’s boobs.”
“You’re jerks!” Gerard repeated, and with that he turned and stumbled over to the far end of the bleachers.
“Wow, that guy needs to get a grip,” Virginia said. She glanced at Benny, expecting him to agree. But he was just gawking at her. She realized Benny probably didn’t think it was cool to make fun of dweebs, because he was one.
“Oh my God, Benny, you’re not even close to that bad,” Virginia assured him quickly. “He’s pathetic.”
But Benny just looked confused. Finally he said, “What on earth possessed you to show the video to him? Gerard, Virginia! Gerard!”
“Oh, that? I don’t know. He had some revolting theory about Brittany being raped in her mascot suit by Trevor Cheek. I felt sorry for him.”
“Well for all we know, that was him on the bridge, and now he knows somebody saw.”
“Oh . . . I didn’t think of that.”
You never think, Benny thought. It was Virginia’s main liability. He’d known something like this would happen eventually. He should never have let her join Mystery Club in the first place, but Benny believed in justice and inclusivity, and that everyone deserved the chance to improve themselves through the act of mystery solving.
“I’m sorry,” Virginia was saying. “I’m really sorry.”
Benny looked at her. She looked sorry. She looked more than sorry—she looked scared, like she was afraid Benny was about to kick her out of the club or something.
“It’s okay,” Benny said, trying to swallow his irritation. “I mean, it probably wasn’t Gerard on the bridge anyway, or else he wouldn’t be telling us to give it to the police. He’d be glad we were keeping it to ourselves. It’s just . . . the principle. Don’t ever show anything to anyone without asking me first.”
“I won’t,” Virginia swore, actually making the cross-my-heart sign like a kindergartener. Benny looked at her and felt tense. He wasn’t sure Virginia actually got what he was saying. Maybe she could be obedient, but it would be better if she could just understand.
“Well it’s not true,” Benny said. “Not intrinsically, anyway. Knowledge is only powerful when you have it and other people don’t. And that’s why we don’t share information—not with the police, not with anyone. Not even harmless-seeming people like Gerard. Every person you share information with, you reduce your own power. I reduce my power by sharing information with you. But I choose to do it, because I choose to trust you.”
Virginia looked at him, nodding earnestly. “I appreciate that. And I totally trust you, too.”
Benny winced a little and felt his cheeks getting hot. “I mean, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a matter of . . . machinery. The more moving parts in a machine, the weaker the machine is. So . . .” Benny trailed off. Oh my God, what am I rambling about? “So what are we doing here?” he asked.
“Oh!” Virginia exclaimed, suddenly excited. “I have a hunch!”
Benny rolled his eyes. Virginia was way too into the mystery-solving lingo like “hunch” and “gumshoe.” “What kind of hunch?” he pressed, humoring her.
“You’ll see. Watch.” She pointed at the cheerleaders, who had begun running in a small circle in the football field. Benny raised his hand to shield his eyes against the afternoon sun.
“Brittany would want us to keep cheering,” Coach Graffe was saying to the girls somberly. “We still have a tri-county championship to win!”
“There,” Virginia said. “Look at their feet.”
Benny looked. They just seemed like normal feet to him. “Um, okay . . .”
“They run on their toes. Every single cheerleader does it. I noticed it when I ran into Corny Davenport in the hall today.”
Benny nodded slowly. Virginia went on. “It’s totally unconscious. Like, ingrained in their feet. They could be running for their lives, and I bet they’d still do it just like that—on their toes.”
Benny closed his eyes, the memory of Friday night flashing in his mind. The bright stadium lights, the music blaring from the speakers. The great lion charging across the field, carried by a pair of stomping, flat feet.
The music hall, 3:45 p.m.
“I think Angie’s having a nervous breakdown,” Virginia declared. She and Benny were sitting on the floor outside Mr. Choi’s office. The halls were empty and quiet. “She seemed, like, disconnected from reality.”
“I can’t believe she even came to school,” Benny said. He checked his watch. It was three forty-five, and nobody had entered or exited Mr. Choi’s office. He was starting to feel like they were wasting their time.
“Apparently she’s been wandering around school all day, randomly napping. Like, sleeping in bushes and stuff. That’s what I heard.”
“Someone should drive her home,” Benny said. Why did no one ever take responsibility in these situations?
“And she said my perfume was trailer trash, but it’s not,” Virginia continued. “It’s French.”
Benny looked at his watch again.
“Do you like my perfume?” she said, shoving her wrist in Benny’s face.
“Hey, are you guys waiting for Mr. Choi?”
Benny and Virginia looked up. It was Marty Robeson, dragging his giant stand-up bass.
“Yeah, do you know where he is?” Benny asked.
“No. He’s not here. I’ve been dragging this bass around for half an hour trying to find him.”
“Couldn’t you just put the bass down?” Virginia asked. Next to her, Benny rolled his eyes again. Why did Virginia have to harp on everyone all the time?
“No,” Marty said. “It might get stolen. Right, Scooby?”
Benny nodded weakly. The Case of the Disappearing Horn felt childish and ludicrous to him now. He wished people would stop reminding him of it.
The parking lot, 4:00 p.m.
Virginia dropped some change into the Coke machine and pulled out a Dr Pepper. “They’re replacing this with a juice machine next semester,” she said. “Which is stupid, because juice has just as much sugar as soda. It’s like the biggest impostor of healthy beverages.”
Benny was standing behind a tree, peeking his head out to scan the parking lot for Mr. Choi’s blue Honda.
“Did you know that?” Virginia asked, crossing toward him. “About juice having just as much sugar as soda? It’s like, you may as well drink a soda. Are you even listening to me?”
“Hm? Yeah, I’m listening. . . .”
“Well what did I just say, then?”
Benny pointed suddenly. “Look, there it is!”
“Mr. Choi’s car. Way over there.”
Virginia looked where Benny was pointing and saw Mr. Choi’s dented blue Honda parked at the end of the lot. Benny got out his phone and started dialing a number.
“Who are you calling?” Virginia asked.
“My mom. I have to tell her I’ll be late for dinner.”
“Why, are we going somewhere?”
“We should stay here until Mr. Choi shows up.”
“A stakeout!” Virginia cried excitedly.
Benny sauntered off to argue with his mother on the phone. “Mom, it’s for Mystery Club. . . . I can’t; I’m the president. . . . I have barely any homework. . . . Mom, please?”
Virginia dug a pair of sunglasses out of her bag, prepared to wait a while. She’d grown used to overhearing this weird ritual between Benny and his mother. It wasn’t very suspenseful—Mrs. Flax always let Benny do what he wanted in the end. But she always made him fight for it first. Maybe that’s the difference between Benny and everyone else, Virginia thought. He’s been trained to have convictions.
She looked up from her Dr Pepper and noticed a girl walking toward the parking lot. She immediately recognized the lithe frame and billowing blond hair: It was Angie Montague. Quickly Virginia ducked behind the tree and motioned frantically for Benny to hang up the phone.
“Hm? Mom, I have to go. I love you. Bye.” He snapped the phone shut. “Virginia, what?”
“It’s Angie!” she hissed, pointing across the parking lot. “I don’t think she saw me.” They watched Angie striding between the cars, heading toward her silver Lexus. Her gait was graceful and quick.
“She doesn’t seem very drugged out to me,” Benny said. “I thought you said she was, like, a wreck.”
“Well maybe the drugs wore off . . . ,” Virginia answered. Angie seemed very crisp and put together for someone who had been on drugs and sobbing in the girls’ room an hour ago.
“Is that how drugs work?” Benny asked. “One minute you’re a wreck; the next you’re fine?”
“She changed her shoes,” Virginia observed. “When I saw her, she had on these ludicrous high heels. Wait, look.” She pointed to the Lexus. “There’s someone waiting for her in the passenger seat.”
Benny squinted. A thick white cloud reflected on the windshield, making it hard to see. “I can’t tell.”
“Here, look.” Virginia took off her sunglasses and placed them awkwardly on Benny’s face. Her fingers brushed against his temple as he straightened them on his nose. Benny already wore glasses, and adding the sunglasses on top made him look like the Terminator.
“They have polarizing lenses,” she explained.
Benny peered at the Lexus.
“You look cool in sunglasses,” Virginia said.
“Everyone looks cool in sunglasses.”
Virginia shrugged. “I guess so. . . .”
“Wait a second. That’s . . . Whoa.”
“What, what? Let me see!” Virginia snatched the sunglasses off Benny’s face and put them on. She looked back to the Lexus. Overhead, the cloud passed. Now Virginia could clearly see a blond girl, barely conscious, slumped in the passenger seat. At that moment Angie reached the car and jumped in the driver’s side. She gave a quick glance to the knocked-out girl beside her, and then turned on the ignition.
“It’s . . . it’s both of them,” Benny was saying.
Virginia felt a surge of excitement as the sight of both twins in the car confirmed her vague suspicion.
There was a crack as the soda can slammed against the tree and exploded. In her excitement, Virginia had just hurled it, and now she was gripping Benny’s shoulders and shaking them hard.
“Ow, stop! Please calm down.”
“Oh my God,” Virginia said feverishly. “This is really exciting. This is really mysterious. You know what word I just made up? Twinister. ‘Twin’ plus ‘sinister.’ ”
Benny gritted his teeth, wishing Virginia would stop rambling and help him think. Across the empty parking lot, Angie had gotten out of the car and was dragging Brittany into the backseat. Corny Davenport appeared, scurrying to the trunk and pulling out a Wildcats blanket. She unfolded it and threw it on top of Brittany, who was curled in a lump.
“Are they trying to hide her under a blanket?” Virginia asked, her voice way too loud.
“Shhh!” Benny hissed.
“Maybe Gerard was right, and there is a mascot rapist, and they’ve been hiding her from him this whole time!”
Benny had about two seconds to decide what to do. The brain can do a lot in two seconds, he knew. When people have a near-death experience and report their lives “flashing before their eyes,” what’s actually happening is that the mind is reviewing the entire sum of their experiences, seeking some tidbit that might help them survive this life-or-death scenario. And it all happens in the space of a microsecond.
Benny had always scorned the idea of the action-adventure detective, the guy who scales buildings and wears elaborate disguises and puts himself in reckless and dangerous situations in order to solve a case. Real mysteries weren’t about being a daredevil; they were about being patient and observant. For instance, at the start of the school year a bunch of the really popular guys kept getting their tires slashed. Everyone assumed the culprit was some trashy townie who was jealous of their cars. “The Slasher,” people called him, almost fondly, like they felt sorry for him. But to say the tires were “slashed” was inaccurate, Benny found upon examination. “Stabbed” was a better word. The tires hadn’t been cut; they had been punctured.
Benny went online and studied common types of knives. He knew all the boys at Winship had bowie knives for deer hunting. But bowie knives had long, rounded edges designed for slicing, not stabbing. The perpetrator could have used a throwing knife or a butterfly knife, but only hicks and rednecks had those kinds of knives, and Benny was convinced the Slasher was a Winship student. Lots of kids had nice cars, but the only ones getting slashed were from a particular circle of guys, and never girls. The Slasher had targets; it wasn’t just some random townie.
It was possible the Slasher had acquired a pointed knife specifically for tire-stabbing purposes, but to Benny that seemed unlikely. Tire slashing was an unoriginal crime, an immature offense usually motivated by spite. Whoever did it wasn’t the most creative person in the world and probably used a pointed knife because that’s just what he happened to have access to.
Then Benny remembered that rusty old gun Winn Davis kept in his car. It was a Confederate musket with a short bayonet on the end, “a real Richmond rifle,” Winn bragged to everyone. The teachers let him bring it to school because the shooting action was long broken. But the bayonet was still sharp, its blade ending in a nice stabby point. After one hundred and fifty years you could probably still kill someone with it, and you could definitely puncture someone’s tire. They were all Winn’s friends, the guys who kept getting messed with. And the more Benny watched Winn, the more he sensed something weird about him—a hidden rage maybe. Something.
In any case, as soon as Benny realized the Slasher was Winn, he dropped it. It was enough to have privately solved the mystery; he didn’t need to cause a sensation by accusing Winn Davis of slashing his own friends’ tires with no apparent motive. The point of the story was that you didn’t need daring heroics to solve a mystery, just the ability to look closely.
But now the Lexus was pulling out of the parking spot, and Benny had the agitated feeling that he should stop looking for once and do something. But do what? He couldn’t follow them because he didn’t have a car. And it wasn’t like he could just run up to them—that idea seemed insane. Beyond the fact that they had a girl who was supposed to be dead in their car, they were cheerleaders and he was nobody. The social order was so rigidly in place that even in this bizarre scenario Benny couldn’t bring himself to defy it.
“What should we do?” Virginia asked. The question felt like it was a spotlight on his ineptitude. It was time to act—even Virginia knew it—and she was looking to him for instructions. But Benny didn’t have a clear idea.
The Lexus pulled out and turned directly toward them. Benny tried to hide behind the tree, but then stopped, knowing it was too late and that hiding was pathetic. Then, in a swift, unexpected motion, Virginia leaped from the curb. She planted herself in the middle of the parking lot, legs apart, blocking the exit to the street.
The car stopped, waiting.
Virginia didn’t move.
The glare from the windshield made it hard to see the girls inside. For a moment the car just stood there, the engine idling. Then Virginia could see Angie raising her hands from the steering wheel like, Hello?
“Excuse us?” came Corny Davenport’s small voice. She was glaring at them. Virginia had never seen Corny glare at anyone. Her fat pink lips were pressed into a hard line. It made her look like an indignant four-year-old. But the look only lasted a moment before it was gone, as though Corny lacked the essential meanness to sustain it. “Um, can we help you?” she asked with a small smile.
“Where are y’all going?” Virginia asked loudly.
Corny opened her mouth to answer, but Angie cut her off. “Don’t tell her. She’ll tell everyone.”
Virginia crossed her arms, looking very offended. “No I won’t!”
“Yes you will. You’ll tell everyone and put it on your gossip site.”
“I will not,” Virginia practically shouted. “I’m not that person anymore. People change.”
“Well obviously you didn’t, or you wouldn’t be butting into our business.”
Virginia fumed. “Oh my God! You are so rude!”
“You’re rude,” Angie spat back. “You’re standing in our way.”
“Virginia, we really have to go,” Corny said in an excessively gentle tone. “It’s an emergency, honey. Let’s have donuts tomorrow, okay? We’ll talk, woman to woman.”
“Get out of our way!” Angie shouted.
Meanwhile Benny was studying the car. There was a faint smell of urine mixed with exhaust from the idling engine. A GPS was poised on the dashboard. And Corny kept glancing back at Brittany heaped in the backseat, as if checking to make sure she was still there. Benny narrowed his eyes at the lump of a person wrapped in the Wildcats blanket. It looked like a corpse. Blond hair stuck out in greasy-looking clumps. A pale, lifeless wrist poking out, hung with a sterling silver charm bracelet, the kind all the girls wore. It had always amazed Benny how everyone at Winship seemed to know what to wear, like it was their birthright, these Patagonia fleeces and charm bracelets and backpacks with the little polo players on them.
Is she dead? Benny’s stomach twisted. Surely she wasn’t dead. Surely Angie and Corny weren’t dragging a corpse around in the middle of the afternoon. The idea made Benny feel repulsed, but also faintly impressed. People thought girls were the squeamish ones, but he was the one who was on the verge of throwing up all of a sudden, while Corny and Angie and Virginia bickered in the parking lot.
The blanket moved, and there was a quiet moan. “Ooohhm . . .”
At the sound, Corny’s eyes snapped to Benny. She held her arm up to the car window, feebly trying to block his view. Benny just looked at her. What were they doing? It was hard to imagine Corny and Angie carrying out some sinister twin-hiding plot, yet there they were with Brittany’s unconscious body in the backseat. And Corny didn’t even seem that upset about Benny seeing everything. She just seemed a little flustered.
Virginia was still refusing to move, and now she was looking at Benny like she expected him to back her up. He just gave a tiny shrug. He wished he could disappear. Or that he could make Virginia disappear. It was one thing to jump in front of the car with no plan, but now she expected him to save her and finesse the whole thing?
“I know who’s in there,” Virginia declared, her arms crossed. Then, in a faintly threatening tone: “Maybe someone should call the police.”
“We already did,” Angie said. “Now will you move?”
Virginia looked at Benny again to see if he would step in. Benny did nothing. “Well . . . fine!” she said, stepping back.
“We’ll get donuts at Glaze tomorrow, okay, Virginia?” Corny called, flashing a fake-looking smile. As soon as Virginia was out of the way, Angie slammed the gas. The tires screeched as the car tore away.
Once they were gone, it was quiet. The leaves swished in the breeze, but other than that it was silent. For a while neither of them said anything. Virginia breathed heavily, clearly still mad.
“You can’t let people get to you like that,” Benny said finally, not looking at her but at the empty street.
“Like what?” Virginia asked, kicking a clump of dirt.
“You totally let Angie control the conversation.”
Virginia scoffed. “Well at least there was a conversation. If it had been up to you, we would have stood here like blobs and nothing would have happened.”
“Sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing,” Benny said.
“Well that doesn’t sound very American.”
Benny looked at her. “What does that mean?”
Virginia was sort of pacing. Her face was red. “Just that it’s better to try and fail than to never try at all. I mean it’s the American way. It’s why we have the bankruptcy system.”
What is she talking about? Benny thought. “Okaaay,” he said, “but what I’m saying is, you know how people say, ‘Don’t just sit there; do something’? Well I saw a YouTube video of a Zen master who said, ‘Don’t just do something; sit there.”
He waited for her amazement. It didn’t come.
“A YouTube video of a Zen master,” she repeated.
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. While you were busy sniping with Angie, I was examining the scene. That was definitely Brittany in the backseat. And they were taking her to the hospital.”
Virginia stopped pacing. “Wait, how do you know that?”
“I saw it on the GPS.”
“Wow . . . you really know what you’re doing, don’t you?”
Benny looked at her face—was she making fun of him? It didn’t seem like it, but he couldn’t be sure, so he just sort of grunted.
“Anyway, hopefully you can find out even more tomorrow,” he said. “You can practice controlling the conversation. With Corny it shouldn’t be that hard.”
Virginia looked at him like she had no idea what he was talking about. Then she said, “Oh, that? I doubt we’ll actually go to Glaze. Corny constantly invites people places, and then it never happens. She’s a flake.”
“Oh . . .”
They were always embarrassing, these moments when Benny realized how little he understood about the people he’d been surrounded by for five years. Not only was it embarrassing, it was a problem. Investigation only got you so far if the minds of your suspects were a mystery to you.
“So should we follow them?” Virginia asked.
“Do you know anyone with a car?” Benny asked halfheartedly. He liked to think a real detective didn’t need anything but a brain to solve a mystery, but it wasn’t true. The fact was, you needed a brain and a car.
“Your mom,” Virginia said with a shrug. Then she giggled. “That sounded like a ‘yo mama’ joke.”
Benny grimaced. “How can I get her to drive us to the hospital without asking a billion questions?”
“Tell her we’re visiting a cancer patient,” Virginia suggested. “Tell her it’s for Compassion Club.”
Benny looked at his cell phone, apparently considering it. Then he sighed. “There’s no point. Angie said they called the police? It’s over. It’s beyond us now. God, I hate being fifteen.”
Virginia looked at him. She’d never seen him get mad before. Benny hated things? It was a revelation.
“So . . . who was in the mascot suit?” she asked, hoping the question would distract Benny from his tantrum. She didn’t like seeing him all perturbed. It was unsettling, like seeing your dad cry. “I mean, there was a body, right? People saw it. It was on the Internet.”
Usually Benny enjoyed these moments, the moments where it turned out everything you thought you knew was wrong. But this time felt different. Instead of being energized by the twist of events, Benny felt baffled and lost. Maybe it was just embarrassment from how badly Virginia screwed up the altercation with Angie, but everything felt like it had gotten suddenly out of control.
He took a breath. “Okay. Let’s just pause. We’ll go home, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” Virginia asked, sounding disappointed. “Shouldn’t we Be There? At the hospital or wherever?”
“We can’t Be There after you accosted them like that,” Benny snapped. Then he changed his tone, trying to be patient. “We’d be conspicuous and they’d run us out. Do you see what I mean about doing nothing being better than doing the wrong thing? We talked to them, sure, and we found out some stuff, but in doing so, we were cut off from other opportunities. Your initiative is an asset, but it’s also a liability.”
Virginia felt annoyed, but she couldn’t articulate exactly why. Why was her initiative a liability, but Benny’s total timidness wasn’t? Probably because he’d call it conscientiousness. Benny was so full of shit sometimes. But they were his club and his rules, which he’d never let her forget.
The media lab, 6:00 p.m.
STILL FLOATING, SAYS LOCAL RESIDENT.
Zaire Bollo hit the refresh button, but the headline was the same. For three days Brittany’s body had eluded the police, bobbing to the surface of the Chattahoochee River and then disappearing again into its murky depths. Pictures of the corpse showed it morphing into a bloated and purplish sack as it floated on downriver. It was becoming a joke. People needed resolution, they needed to say good-bye—but instead all they could do was watch helplessly as the inept police continued to let the body slip through their nets. Maybe they’d never get the body out. Maybe it would just disappear into the Gulf of Mexico, poured from the river into the sea. The thought haunted her, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She felt obsessed.
She hit the refresh button again for the billionth time. Then she checked her e-mail. There was a message from Chrissie.
Hi Zaire this is so awkward but it’s like, people are dying and life is so short, I just want to make sure I follow my heart. No regrets, you know? So anyway would you be mad if I liked Gottfried? I know you two were pretty intense but it’s been six months so I don’t know. I’m too nervous to ask you this in person. xoxoxo, Chrissie
Zaire read it twice, then deleted it without responding. Chrissie had been hinting for months that she liked Gottfried. It gave Zaire a kind of cruel enjoyment to pretend not to catch her drift. She knew she was being ungracious. But the idea of Chrissie and Gottfried getting together made her want to throw up.
She clicked back over to the news site and hit refresh again. STILL FLOATING. Across the lab some sophomores were talking loudly:
“And Trevor was like, get the fuck off me! And Gerard was like, I know it was you! Or something like that, I don’t even know. And then Gerard punched him.”
“He punched Trevor? Christ, did he have a death wish?”
Everyone was talking about Trevor and Gerard’s big fight at the vigil. Apparently Gerard had started it, which was insane. You don’t touch football players. They were animals who had no control over their aggression. It wasn’t their fault—the coaches trained them to be violent and thuggish, and yet everyone was surprised when they beat kids up or were insensitive to women. They’d been hardwired to be barbarians, and they couldn’t just turn it on and off. Your best defense was to stay out of their way. It was one of the first things she’d learned at Winship. She’d never been to a school with a football team before. Her schools in England and Nigeria had rugby—which was arguably more violent—but somehow football was scarier. Something about the bulky equipment the players hid inside, making them impossible to distinguish from one another as they rammed and slammed and heaped in piles.
She clicked refresh again, barely seeing the screen. She’d been in the lab for three hours, refreshing and rereading. Which is why it took her a moment to realize that the headline had changed:
Benny’s house, 6:00 p.m.
Benny folded his hands in the furitama position and shook them up and down. The name of the exercise literally meant “shaking the soul.”
It is my wish that the world should know everlasting peace.
Benny thought the words, but his mind was elsewhere. He kept seeing Brittany heaped in the backseat. If she was alive, who was the body in the river? Whose purplish, bloated sack of skin had been floating past houses and under bridges for three straight days? He got a chill every time he thought of the video, and once the image of the corpse was in his head, it stuck there until he forced himself to think of something else.
“Rodrigo, can I get you a drink?” Mrs. Flax called from the kitchen.
“I’ll get it,” Benny said, quickly dropping his pose. He went into the kitchen and poured a bourbon on the rocks. That was Rodrigo’s drink, and the smell didn’t feel new anymore. Before the accident Mr. Flax had been a scotch man; scotch had a cold, smoky smell, like a campfire extinguished by rain. Bourbon was different—rich and warm like leather or toast. It had taken Benny a while to get used to it. A little-known fact is that the nose is the strongest memory architect of all the senses. The connections made by olfactory receptors stay with the mind forever. In this way Benny’s life was defined and divided by two aromas: before the accident, scotch; after the accident, bourbon.
For more than a year Rodrigo had been coming to the house five times a week for Mr. Flax’s occupational therapy. His job was to help Mr. Flax relearn physical tasks like holding a cup and dressing himself, as well as complex mental functions like how to read.
“It . . . felt . . . like . . . rain. . . .” Mr. Flax read slowly from a special large-print book. At this stage he could see words and recite them, but was unable to articulate the meaning of sentences. What did “It felt like rain” mean? To Benny it seemed very deep and existential. What did “It felt like rain” mean? Why did anyone attempt to communicate at all? It was futile; no person was capable of understanding another person through words. Everyone was alone in their minds. An impassable gulf existed between what people said and what they thought. Brain damage just made the case more obvious.
“Gracias, amigo,” Rodrigo said as Benny handed him the bourbon.
“Ein davar, chaver,” Benny said back.
Rodrigo swirled the glass so the ice clinked. He held it up and smiled at Mr. Flax. “You know this one, don’t you?”
“D-drink,” Mr. Flax said, his mouth twitching. His expression was always in flux. One second his eyes would seem as sharp as ever, almost impatient, as if the idea of having to demonstrate that a drink is called a drink was too stupid to bear. But then the next second his eyes would glaze over, and Benny wouldn’t really recognize him anymore.
“Not going to write that one down?” Mrs. Flax said from the kitchen.
“Rodrigo prompted him. It doesn’t count.” Benny had explained that to her about a million times.
“Mm-hm.” It was a classic Mrs. Flax utterance, meant to convey precisely how foolish someone was being. She used it with his father whenever he made some addled, unintelligible demand. When she used it on Benny, it made him want to scream, I don’t have brain damage! Don’t mm-hm at me!
“I’ll be in the other room,” she announced in a clipped voice. Mrs. Flax was always formal and awkward with Rodrigo. It was like she saw him as a stranger who’d just shown up one day, and whom they were all too polite to ask to leave. Which Benny found ironic, because at this point Rodrigo felt more familiar to him than his actual dad, who had been remote before but was now beyond remote—he was on another planet.
Sometimes Benny had dumb fantasies where Rodrigo and his mom fell in love against all odds and got married. His father’s role in this was always dim and ambiguous. In some versions he miraculously recovered but still lived with them, like an uncle or a much older brother. In other versions he just sort of disappeared. Benny always felt embarrassed emerging from these fantasies; they were childish and disloyal. Rodrigo was a nurse, not a substitute dad, and Mrs. Flax was too old for him anyway.
Benny looked at his watch. It was six thirty. He turned on the news and resumed his stance on the yoga mat.
It is my wish that the world should know everlasting peace.
He repeated the mantra, trying to clear his mind. Aikido was meant to be practiced with tranquility of spirit, not with visions of unidentified waterlogged bodies floating before your eyes.
Benny always did his aikido exercises in the living room during the news. He felt it was beneficial for his father to observe this ritual, in whatever foggy capacity he was able to. The translation of aikido meant “the way of unifying with life energy.” It was a Japanese martial art unlike karate or tegumi, where the winner of a fight was determined by which opponent could force the other into submission. In aikido, the goal was not to use force, but to evade and redirect your attacker’s strike in such a way that no one, including your attacker, was harmed. The idea was that everyone was deserving of empathy and compassion, even those who sought to destroy you. The aikido fighter blended himself seamlessly into the motions of his opponent, like a magnet, anticipating each movement and deftly redirecting it using the attacker’s own momentum. It didn’t require physical strength or brute aggression: only focus and awareness and the desire to understand, rather than hate, the person who wanted you dead.
“Hey, Rodrigo, did Mom tell you I’m getting my black belt?” Benny asked, doing a wide side stretch.
“Very cool,” Rodrigo said, sipping his bourbon. “Mr. Flax, can you point to something in the room that’s the color black?”
Mr. Flax sort of twitched and stared mutely ahead.
“Yeah, black sucks,” Rodrigo said. “It’s not even a real color. How about pointing to something red?”
Mr. Flax pointed at the TV. On the news a bright red body bag was being heaved onto a stretcher.
“Nice,” Rodrigo said. “Now point to something—”
“Oh my God,” Benny interrupted. He stared at the TV. Police officers were standing aimlessly on the riverbank holding what looked like an enormous soggy piece of fur.
Who is in that body bag?