The football field, 8:55 p.m.
Gerard Cole was in love with the Montague twins, and not for the same dumb reason as everyone else. Obviously they were hot, their two mind-blowing bodies mirroring the perfection of each other. But they were also the nicest girls at Winship Academy. They were nice to everyone, even Gerard.
Angie Montague waved to him from the sidelines, where all the cheerleaders were stretching and drinking pink Gatorade. Gerard waved back, aware that a huge dumb grin was probably taking over his whole face. Being a water boy may have lacked prestige, but it more than made up for it in proximity to cheerleaders. In one month Gerard had talked to more girls than he had in his entire life. But the only ones he cared about were the twins.
They were both on the squad, but Angie was the real cheerleader. Brittany was the mascot. She spent every game stuffed inside an immense wildcat suit. It seemed like a crime to hide such a beautiful person inside an ugly, smelly costume, but Brittany never complained. She actually liked being the mascot. She always said it made her feel like “a big, cuddly stuffed animal.” The twins looked so much alike that this was the only time Gerard could ever tell them apart: Brittany was the one with the enormous, toothy cat head. He didn’t like thinking of them as individuals, though. He was always relieved at the end of the games when Brittany emerged from the mascot suit, unrecognizable from her sister once again.
Gerard looked around, expecting to find Brittany bouncing around, doing her usual routine. Instead, he saw her on the bench by herself. She was just sitting there, the bulbous wildcat head drooping a little on her shoulders. Gerard squinted, noticing the bulging nose and comically huge eyes, which suddenly didn’t seem so comical. They seemed . . . Gerard didn’t know what. A little weird. He looked around. No one else had noticed Brittany’s uncharacteristic lack of energy. He shrugged to himself and turned his eyes back to Angie—lovely Angie, with her bright smile and white-and-blue pom-poms.
The pep band, 9:05 p.m.
The problem wasn’t a lack of mysteries. Mysteries were everywhere, and Benny Flax knew this to be true. The problem was a lack of people who cared.
Most of the clubs at Winship Academy were stupid and based on either the consolidation of social power (School Spirit Club, the Young Republicans) or the padding of college applications with bogus interests (Nature Club, History of Barbeque Club). Benny had to fulfill the after-school activity requirement somehow, so he’d started his own club, a mystery-solving club that he called, unimaginatively, Mystery Club. He’d always been interested in puzzles and games and documentaries about unsolved crimes. What wasn’t interesting about a mystery? Every day, someone, somewhere, was getting away with something. How did they do it? What really happened? Questions like these consumed him.
When he’d founded the club, he’d expected to be inundated with inquiries about all the unexplained stuff that happened all the time. Who’s been sending dick pics to my private e-mail? Who stole my lunch card and charged thirty cinnamon rolls? Who wrote SKANKY YANKEE on the new girl’s locker? There was always something weird going on at Winship, but people just accepted the unknowns in their lives; they shrugged and moved on. It wasn’t like in the movies where the detective sits back and desperate people throng him with their problems. Benny had quickly realized that if he wanted to solve life’s mysteries, he’d have to find them himself, and no one would actually thank him for it.
We sound really awful, Benny thought, trying to sync his flute melody with the severely off-tempo snare drum. Their conductor, Mr. Choi, hadn’t even bothered to show up to the game, which meant the marching band sounded even worse than usual. The frazzled assistant was shouting, “Halftime! Don’t leave your instruments on the ground, please! They’ll get stolen. Right, Scooby?”
Benny looked up, embarrassed. Were even teachers calling him Scooby now? He hated that nickname. It was infantilizing and undermined the legitimacy of Mystery Club. He gritted his teeth. “Right . . . ,” he managed.
Last year Shelly Jenner’s French horn had been stolen from the band room. Benny had jumped on the case immediately, not that Shelly had asked him to. In fact, she’d seemed kind of embarrassed by Benny’s interest and said she’d rather just buy a new horn than make a big deal of it. But Benny persisted and ultimately caught the thief—a moronic eighth grader who thought he could melt the horn down to gold. Benny hoped, after this, that people would finally start to take Mystery Club seriously. But the only change was that now everyone called him Scooby-Doo.
Benny shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d always been, if not quite ostracized, vaguely dismissed by his classmates. He was one of few Jews in a school where 90 percent of the student body were members of FCA, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Most Jews in Atlanta sent their kids to the Jewish Academy or to Pace, which had more diversity and a better reputation for tolerance. But Winship had offered the best scholarship, so Winship was his cross to bear. And while he didn’t particularly covet a place among their popular ranks, being called Scooby-Doo was annoying. People already treated him like a kid because he didn’t have a car; he didn’t need a nickname from a little kids’ cartoon on top of that. Besides, Fred and Velma were the ones who actually solved mysteries on that show. Scooby was just a foolish nuisance who compulsively snacked and freaked out at the slightest provocation.
The Mystery Club’s loserish reputation wasn’t helped by the fact that the only person to join the club since the disappearing-horn incident was Virginia Leeds—the strangest and most annoying girl in school. Honestly, Benny would have preferred being in a club by himself, but for whatever reason, Virginia seemed determined to solve a mystery. Maybe you should start with the Mysterious Case of Your Annoying Personality, Benny sometimes thought, though he’d never have said it out loud. The key to dismissing someone, Benny knew from years of getting the same treatment, was to act like you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to actually insult them.
A loud cheer went up from the stadium as the cheerleaders got into formation. They always did the same halftime dance to that eighties song about trying not to ejaculate. Benny began cleaning the head joint of his flute. Then, in the course of several seconds, he sensed the mood of the stadium shifting. The clapping became scattered, and the cheers turned to murmurs.
“What’s going on?” someone asked. Benny looked up from his flute. The song continued to blare from the speakers, but the cheerleaders had stopped dancing. They were turning around in circles, looking lost and disorganized. Then he realized why: The mascot was out of control.
“What’s happening out there?” someone was shouting. Other people were laughing. “The mascot’s on drugs!” The cheerleaders yelled, “Get back in line, Brittany!” But the great wildcat continued to lurch across the field, leading with its heavy plastic head in a zigzagging path. The football coaches stood on the sidelines, debating whether to intervene or stay put.
Benny stood on the bleachers, observing the scene. At first glance the mascot seemed to be running wildly, with no direction. Benny squinted at the field, focusing on the wildcat’s feet, the way she placed one in front of the other. She’s trying to get somewhere, Benny thought, scanning the football field. There, he realized. She’s heading for the woods.
He dropped his flute on the ground and set off running.
The bleachers, 9:05 p.m.
Virginia Leeds sat in the bleachers, trying to look bored, but not too bored. If she looked too bored, people would look at her and think, If she hates football so much, she should just leave. What she wanted them to think was, Virginia Leeds has a mysterious look on her face. She must be watching this football game for reasons unfathomable to us.
That was Virginia’s goal for the year: to become unfathomable. But it was hard because she was already fifteen, which felt like too late. She hadn’t been careful with her identity—for years she’d just done what she wanted and said what she wanted, not realizing that her identity was forming in the process. And now it felt like this was her last chance to change it before it became totally permanent.
Virginia wasn’t stupid; she could see how it had happened. She’d always loved gossip and other people’s business. And the more she dug up about people, the more she wanted to dig, and the more it became this web of information that took over her life. She’d even had a website called Winship Confidential, where she collected rumors and social news items and provided in-depth analysis. But at some point all that gossipmongering had become who she was. Even worse, what had taken Virginia four years to realize was that having a popular blog didn’t necessarily make you a popular person.
It wasn’t just that people hated her for slamming them on the Internet, it was that people thought she was lame for even caring. Maybe secretly they devoured her website—the Google analytics didn’t lie—but outwardly they acted like they were sick of it. And Virginia truly was sick of it. She was sick of everybody’s stupid business, and sick of herself for being obsessed with it. She needed a change; she needed mystique. So she’d shut down the site and joined Mystery Club. It was literally a club of mystery—what could be more perfect? But so far the club involved less mystique and more sitting around boredly.
Benny always said the number one secret to solving a mystery was to Be There. “Wherever you go,” he said, “something might happen. Don’t just be a detective—be a witness. Be watching.”
The main disconnect between him and Virginia was that Benny wanted to solve mysteries, while Virginia just wanted to be part of one. But it was Benny’s club and Benny’s rules. So Virginia sat on the bleachers, trying her best to Be There. Not that it mattered. No one was going to notice her, and nothing mysterious was going to happen. Nothing ever happened at this school.
Then, out of nowhere, something did.
She was watching dopey Gerard Cole ogling the cheerleaders when suddenly there was chaos on the field. The cheerleaders were wandering aimlessly. And the mascot was running off, stomping and lurching gracelessly. Then someone else was running too. His neatly combed black hair and dorky maroon turtleneck were unmistakable. It was Benny.
The woods, 9:12 p.m.
When something strange happens, particularly in a crowd, the average person will immediately lose the ability to focus their senses. Things that should be obvious become obscured by the disorder of excitement. It all happened so fast, people always say. But it doesn’t have to be this way, Benny knew. Not if your brain can be faster.
There was pandemonium in the forest. Benny had followed the mascot, the cheerleaders had followed Benny, and the football players had followed the cheerleaders. Someone had begun to sing “Following the Leader,” and soon everyone was singing it. “We’re following the leader wherever he may go!” Benny tromped through the underbrush, eager to get away from the noise. As he moved farther into the woods, the chorus echoed behind him, no longer jolly-sounding, but eerie and distorted. “We’re following the leeeeeeader . . .”
The mascot was here, Benny was sure of it, but he’d lost her. He spun in circles, looking, listening. But the throng was catching up with him again, engulfing the quiet with their annoying singing.
Then he saw it: a great, lumbering shadow moving in the darkness toward . . .
This section of the river was called the White Bend for a reason. It surged past the school in a great gush, its cold white water frothing over the jutting rocks and cutting a deep, dangerous forty-foot ravine. A one-hundred-year-old footbridge stood tenuously across it, connecting the campus to a black patch of forest on the other side. The bridge wasn’t very safe. The rails were low, and the drop was deadly. It wasn’t a question of drowning—it was breaking your neck and your skull on the massive, slick rocks. Benny remembered some kids getting drunk and falling to their deaths a few years ago. But since they weren’t Winship students, the response had been minimal. Winship was a snobbish old place, not likely to sink a bunch of money into ruining a historic bridge just because some no-name townies couldn’t handle themselves. But this was no townie, it was Brittany Montague—the prize of the school—and Benny stared as she began crossing the bridge, pausing at the center to lean perilously over the rail.
What is she doing? he thought. She’s going to fall.
But she didn’t fall. She jumped.
Benny watched, frozen, as the mascot flipped head over heels and plummeted toward the rushing water. In seconds she was gone.
The bridge, 9:20 p.m.
“We’re following the leader wherever he may go!” The throng had swarmed the bridge, singing and yelling. Benny located one of the coaches, the one with the bushy white mustache, and tried to explain what had happened. “It was Brittany! I saw her jump,” he shouted, fighting to be heard above the raucous din.
“What, son? What? You need to get back to the field. Everyone get back to the field!”
Benny didn’t know exactly how it happened, but within minutes everyone seemed to have heard. Brittany Montague had jumped off the bridge in her mascot costume. The mood changed instantly. The singing morphed into wails and sobs. Benny found himself crammed against the bridge railing, the crowd swelling dangerously. It’s going to collapse, he thought. He looked down at the gushing river below and felt momentarily dizzy.
“Benny. Benny!” A hand grabbed his arm. It was Virginia.
“Virginia. Oh my God. I saw—”
“I saw it too!” she shouted. “I can’t believe it!”
Next to them, Angie Montague was leaning over the rail, sobbing. “I dropped my pom-poms!” she cried, reaching toward the watery abyss. “I DROPPED MY POM-POMS!”
Virginia burst out laughing. Luckily the scene was so chaotic that only Benny noticed. “Stop laughing,” Benny hissed at her. “She’s obviously traumatized.”
“Well so am I!” Virginia yelled. “I just witnessed a suicide!”
“I did too,” Benny snapped back, “but I’m managing to not be an imbecile about it.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Virginia said. “It was a nervous reaction.”
“There she is!” a girl shrieked behind them, pointing downriver. Benny squinted and saw the mascot floating facedown in the dark water, gliding like a ghost. It sank, then the water heaved it up again. Then it disappeared around the bend.
“Christ, let’s get off this bridge!” Virginia shouted.
They were pinned in on either side by sobbing people. He could hear the coaches yelling at everyone to calm down. Benny craned his neck, trying to see a way out, but the bridge was impossibly crowded.
“Look,” Virginia said, pointing her finger toward the dark forest.
“God, somebody’s elbow is digging into my spine.”
“Benny, look.” She grabbed his jaw and forcibly turned his face.
“I don’t see anything. Let go of—” Then he saw it. A tiny, tiny speck of red light. At first it looked like a burning cigarette. Then he realized what it was: a camera.
Somebody is recording this.
Virginia began elbowing people left and right. She pushed over two sobbing girls, accidentally stepping on one. Benny followed as she wormed her way off the bridge, shoving stupefied football players, brushing past the frantic coaches who continued to scream at everyone to get back to the field. Virginia’s pushiness had always annoyed him, but in this case it was proving useful. There was no way Benny could have elbowed his way off this bridge on his own.
As soon as they reached the shadowy trees, Benny broke into a sprint.
“Whoever it is,” Benny shouted back to Virginia, “just tackle them. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Virginia answered, though truthfully, she didn’t know. She’d never tackled anyone before.
But it turned out she didn’t have to. Because when they arrived at the site of the tiny red light, no one was there. It was just a small camera on the ground, recording everything.
The Boarders, 10:30 p.m.
Virginia rooted around in the common-room refrigerator, looking for something exotic and interesting to offer Benny. Surely there was a mango in there, or some seaweed or something. But all she could find were reduced-fat cheese slices and some old turkey rolls.
“Mom, I’m fine. I’m at the Boarders with Virginia. . . . Yes, her.”
Virginia flinched at the way he said “her.” Clearly Mrs. Flax wasn’t her biggest fan.
“I don’t know, maybe eleven thirty? We have . . . homework. Mom, stop; we’re just friends.”
Virginia slammed the refrigerator door shut.
“Mom, please? I’ll unload the dishwasher. I’ll take Grandma to synagogue. . . . Okay. Love you too. Bye.” He snapped the phone shut. “Sorry about that. My mom’s picking me up at eleven thirty. Is that enough time?”
Virginia checked the computer, glad for an excuse not to look at Benny. Her cheeks felt hot, and she knew she was probably blushing. It wasn’t a sweet or coquettish look on her; it made her look angry. “I don’t know,” she said. “Depends on how much footage there is on the camera.”
There was a small echo to her voice. All the rooms in the Boarders echoed, because they were always empty. The Boarders was a neglected old building at the edge of campus where the resident students lived. Winship Academy used to be a boarding school back in the sixties and seventies. But the residence program was being gradually phased out, and now there were only about two dozen boarders in the entire school. Every year the trustees threatened to cut the program entirely. It created a weird distance between the regular students and the boarders, like it wasn’t worth getting too attached to them, because at any moment they could disappear.
Benny wasn’t sure exactly what Virginia’s deal was. He knew she usually went to Florida during school holidays, but he never got the feeling that she was actually from Florida, only that Florida was where she went. Maybe her family had a beach house or something. He’d never asked. It seemed rude to pry into the boarders’ home situations. There was probably something dysfunctional about them, or else why would they be here?
He and Virginia sat side by side on a pair of wheeled desk chairs, waiting for the common room’s ancient computer to buzz to life.
There was a soft, low whistle above their heads. They both looked up.
“That’s it,” Virginia said, pointing to the ceiling. “Do you hear it?”
There was a ghost living in the attic—at least that’s what all the boarders thought. Virginia had been trying to get Benny to investigate it for weeks, but he was always reluctant. Investigating a ghost was way too much like a Scooby-Doo! episode, and he didn’t want to encourage any more comparisons. And anyway there was no ghost, just scuttling squirrels and the whistle of wind and the magnolia tree casting twisted shadows. And the boarders below padding around like ghosts themselves, probably wishing there were a ghost so that they could have some company.
“Hm,” Benny grunted, uninterested.
Virginia connected the camera to the computer and stared at the little icon that indicated the video was loading. She gave Benny a quick glance. He looked so dorky and serious in his voluminous turtleneck, but actually he was kind of a rebel. Back in the woods, he’d just grabbed the camera and breezed past the throng of police officers who had descended upon the scene. She’d seen enough SVU to know that this was tampering with evidence, but Benny didn’t seem to care. She knew he didn’t like the police—something to do with his childhood dog? She didn’t know the whole story. Old Virginia could have wheedled it out of him in no time, but new Virginia wasn’t obsessed with people’s weird dog traumas.
“It has a bar code,” Benny said, pointing to the bottom of the camera. “I think it’s from the library.”
Virginia opened a viewer on the computer and pressed play. A bright, white-and-gray room filled the screen. At the edge of the frame they could make out the brown fur of Brittany’s mascot costume beside the camera.
“It’s the locker room,” Virginia said, surprised. She’d expected the footage to begin at the bridge.
There was giggling, and a pair of white-and-blue pom-poms sailed across the screen. Then a girl appeared in a pink bra and shorts with the word PRINCESS across the butt. The camera angle raised slowly, surreptitiously, showing her face. Blond hair, radiant skin, faintly flushing cheeks. It was Angie Montague.
“Brittany, get off your ass,” Angie was saying, swiping her pom-poms toward the camera. Another cheerleader bounced into the frame for a second, carrying a pink Gatorade. She was completely naked.
“Oh my God,” Benny said, quickly covering his eyes. “They don’t know there’s a camera.”
Virginia stared at the screen. “Omigod. Corny Davenport’s boobs are gigantic. She must wear like ten bras to keep those puppies down.” It was the exact kind of tidbit that would have exploded in the old days on Winship Confidential.
“What else is happening?” Benny asked, still covering his eyes.
“Um . . .” Virginia squinted at the screen. “They’re just, you know, bouncing around. They’re changing into their uniforms.”
“Are they still naked?”
Benny could hear giggling and locker doors opening and slamming. He knew he should open his eyes. He didn’t want Virginia to think he was a pervert, but he couldn’t trust her not to miss something important.
About a dozen cheerleaders were bouncing into and out of the frame in various stages of undress. The lens slowly zoomed in and out, showcasing whichever girl happened to be the most naked. One girl had a large powder puff of glitter and began patting it up and down the long, smooth limbs of the other girls, until their skin shimmered and clouds of glitter formed in the air around their bodies. The dingy locker room was suddenly transformed into an ethereal place where the beauty of the girls was so magical it caused the atmosphere to literally sparkle.
Benny realized his mouth was hanging open slightly. He snapped it shut. It felt very wrong to be watching incredibly beautiful naked girls when someone was dead and he was supposed to be figuring out why. He wished he didn’t have to watch this in front of Virginia. It was so awkward he felt almost ill.
“Is Brittany obsessed with boobs or something?” Virginia said loudly. “Why would she need to record them? She can see them in the locker room every day.”
“Maybe the tape was for someone else,” Benny answered, not looking at her. “The football players. Or some voyeur website.”
Benny shrugged. People were pretty messed up; it didn’t surprise him.
“Here we go,” Virginia announced. The video moved jerkily out of the locker room and onto the brightly lit football field. An enormous shout rose up from the bleachers as cheerleaders skipped past the camera, waving their pom-poms and doing cartwheels. Occasionally the image was blocked out by the large furry arm of Brittany’s mascot costume.
“I wonder if the camera was sewn into the costume,” Virginia said. “She may not have known it was there.”
“No, she knew,” Benny said. “She’s using the zoom button. She’s getting specific shots. It’s probably why she got a real camera instead of just using her phone.”
For a long time the camera was very still, pointing inertly at the football field. In the background, the pep band played an abysmal rendition of “We Will Rock You.” The two teams scuttled back and forth, first in one direction, then in the opposite direction. Was there a stupider game than football?
“Look at that dope Gerard,” Virginia said. “Could he be any more obvious? He’s been gaping at Angie the entire game.”
The timer blared from the speakers. The camera moved as the cheerleaders started getting into formation for the halftime show.
But it was hard to see anything at all. The camera was jerking around, almost spinning. “Brittany, get it together!” one of the girls was shouting. “Brittany. Brittany!”
Then the camera lurched forward. Brittany was running from the field.
“And she’s off,” Virginia said. The blackness of the forest bounced wildly in the frame as Brittany careened toward it. For a while there was just darkness and the sound of the mascot costume swishing as she ran. Then the camera was on the ground, and it was still.
“She dropped it,” Benny said.
“On purpose?” Virginia asked.
Benny didn’t answer; he didn’t know. The camera was pointing toward the bridge, which appeared brightly illuminated by the moon. The whole scene had seemed much darker in real life.
“It’s a wide exposure,” Virginia said, answering his thoughts. “That’s why it looks so much brighter. But it also distorts the image quality. See how grainy it is?”
Benny nodded. Seconds passed as the video played footage of the empty bridge.
“I bet this is all a dumb prank,” Virginia said. “Watch, I bet we’ll see Brittany sneaking out of the costume and then tossing it over the rail. ‘Mascot Commits Suicide.’ It’s kind of funny.”
“Well, yeah, obviously not. But it’s the sort of thing those dumb football guys would think is funny.”
“Shhh, listen,” Benny said. In the background they could hear a faint melody: We’re following the leeeeeeader. “It’s about to happen.”
Sure enough, a great lumbering lion came crashing out of the woods. Benny shivered. An hour ago he’d watched a girl jump off this one-hundred-foot bridge, and now he was about to watch it again. The spookiest part was how disconnected he felt from it, from the gravity and finality of death. It was like Brittany wasn’t a real person; she was just a question: Why?
“Look, that’s you,” Virginia said, pointing to a figure at the edge of the screen.
Benny squinted at it. “That’s not me.”
“That’s not where I was standing. I wasn’t that close to the bridge.”
“Well maybe it’s me. . . . No, I wasn’t standing there either. Um, who is that?”
Benny put his ear to the computer speaker. The raucous chorus of “Following the Leader” still sounded pretty remote. “It’s definitely not me,” he said. “The football players and cheerleaders were right behind me. Listen to how far away they sound right now. This guy’s out there on his own.”
“Turn it up,” Benny said. “I think one of them just said something.”
Virginia rewound the video and cranked up the sound.
Benny leaned his ear to the speaker. “Sounds like ‘fun.’ He’s yelling ‘fun.’ Did you hear it?”
Virginia nodded. “But how did we not hear him when we were standing right there an hour ago?”
“Those stupid idiots were singing right behind us. He could have been shouting a foot away and we wouldn’t have heard it.”
Benny switched off the sound.
“Fun, fun,” Virginia was repeating. “Maybe we misheard it. Maybe they’re saying money? Maybe Brittany had a bunch of cash in her mascot suit, and they were trying to steal it.”
Benny shook his head. “No, look at the way he’s just standing there. He’s not trying to catch her; he’s just . . .”
Benny felt a shiver as he stared at the grainy shadow blocking the exit to the bridge. He’s closing in on her, he thought. He’s trying to trap her.
Benny’s house, midnight
Every day when Benny came home, his house felt like a theater set that had been carefully staged for his much-anticipated entrance. A glass of milk and a plate of Oreos sitting on the kitchen counter next to his Scientific American or whatever had come in the mail that day. His clothes freshly laundered and stacked neatly at the edge of his bed. An autumnal-scented candle burning on the living room table. Every surface spic-and-span and shining. It was a conspiracy between Benny’s mother and grandmother to make every detail perfect and pleasant, as if that could make up for the one huge and very imperfect aspect of the Flax household, which was currently slumped in the living room easy chair with the canned laughter of The Golden Girls blaring in his face.
“Don’t make him watch that,” Benny said, setting his book bag down. His mom followed him inside.
“Your grandmother’s watching it. And he doesn’t know the difference.”
Yes he does, Benny thought, but he didn’t feel like having the same argument for the ten-thousandth time. He went over to the TV and changed the channel to PBS. It was a show about South American slugs, which wasn’t much better than The Golden Girls in terms of mental stimulation, but at least it was science.
“What did he say today?” Benny asked.
“Light cold no fine,” Mrs. Flax answered, as if “light-cold-no-fine” were one single word instead of four.
Benny sat at the kitchen counter and pulled a National Geographic calendar from his backpack. He felt fidgety and overexcited. He wanted to go on a long walk outside to calm his nerves and review the events of the night over and over in his mind. But he had a job to do.
In the square for October 3 he wrote light, cold, no, fine. Then he highlighted the word “cold” in yellow and “fine” in green. Yellow meant a new word; green meant a word his dad had said twice within the space of five days. There were more than fourteen highlighter colors in Benny’s system, and 480 words so far, most of them with only one or two syllables—words like “cup” and “door” from a man who had once said things like “orbital mechanics” and “hyperbolic trajectory” on a regular basis.
Mr. Flax had been an aerospace engineer for twenty years. But sixteen months ago there’d been an accident on the test flight for the AeroStream V4 Spinetail, designed to be the fastest, most advanced plane ever commercially flown. It was the Titanic of planes, and just like the ship, it had sprung a leak. Mr. Flax was running diagnostics in the back of the plane when it depressurized. The tertiary backups failed to bring the aircraft down to breathable airspace, and the pilots stopped responding. As the plane seeped oxygen, Mr. Flax’s brain cells died by the millions. It was a full twenty minutes before the autoland system recovered. By then the pilots were already dead.
Mr. Flax lived but was left with extreme brain damage from hypoxia. Benny had seen the CAT scans showing purple splotches indicating areas of his father’s cerebrum that were irreversibly damaged. But it was too depressing to think that the brain could be broken, like a ligament or a collarbone. It wasn’t just a muscle; it was the mind ! Surely it was more than tissue and cells. Surely his old dad—his real dad—was in there somewhere, lost in that lavender-colored fog.
To prove this, Benny had embarked on a project of obsessively documenting every word his father said, convinced that his father was trying to say something. The ironic thing was that before the crash, Benny and his dad could have talked all the time, but they hardly ever spoke to each other. Mr. Flax had been a workaholic and wasn’t home much. Few conversations from before the accident stuck out in Benny’s mind. There was really only one: When he was thirteen, Benny had discovered that the Spinetail was costing AeroStream eighty-eight million dollars to build, which seemed like an ungodly amount at the time. He remembered asking his dad if it was wrong to spend that much money on a faster plane when people in the world were starving and homeless. His father had answered, “Progress should never wait. If we waited for everyone in the world to be clothed and fed before we advanced ourselves, we’d have no civilization.”
Now, on the sofa, that same man stared blankly at the TV, drinking from a child’s sippy cup decorated with bright cartoons of planes. Mr. Flax could still feed himself, but his left arm was paralyzed, and his right arm had periodic spasms and twitches that made normal glassware impossible. Nana had bought the sippy cup, cheerfully pointing out, “Look, it has planes on it!” Benny had almost cried.
“Now what’s this foolishness about someone dying?” Mrs. Flax asked, dumping leftover spaghetti into a Tupperware.
“A cheerleader jumped off the bridge,” Benny said. “I’m trying to figure out why. It’s for my club.”
Mrs. Flax sighed loudly. “Well I’m sure no one asked you to. I don’t see why you have to create problems for yourself and make life difficult.” She glanced at Benny’s color-coded calendar. Obviously she wasn’t talking about Mystery Club.
Benny stood abruptly. He scooped up his calendar and highlighters and dumped them in his book bag. He took his plate of cookies and started toward his room.
“Do your homework,” Mrs. Flax called after him.
Benny closed his door and sat at his desk. He pulled out his chemistry book and stared at it for a second. Then he pushed it aside. He reached under his desk and grabbed his freshman yearbook, flipping to his class and scanning the Ms.
Angie’s and Brittany’s pictures were side by side. Identical faces, identical smiles. People thought of the two of them as basically interchangeable, which they’d never seemed to mind. In fact they exploited it all the time—dressing alike, wearing their hair the same, making little effort to carve out separate identities. But now one was a corpse, and one was still alive.
What made Brittany different?
The football field, 8:30 a.m.
It was sunny but windy, a wind that accentuated the emptiness of the football field. It swooshed across the crisp green grass, with not a single body to offer resistance. Benny checked his watch. Virginia was late.
“Sorry, sorry,” she panted as she ran up to him. “They were late serving breakfast.”
“Oh,” Benny said. It was depressing, imagining the boarders having Saturday breakfast in the cafeteria. Empty tables, lukewarm eggs, toast from the bread heels left over from the sandwich bar. Always late because the weekend staff didn’t give a shit.
“So what are we looking for?” Virginia asked, still catching her breath.
“You don’t look for anything,” Benny said. “You just look.”
Virginia stood still, trying to look like she was looking. A huge white cloud passed overhead. It was so quiet, it took her a moment to notice the sound of distant chatter. It was coming from the woods.
“It’s the cops,” Benny said, nodding toward the voices. “There are about ten of them at the bridge. Probably destroying the crime scene.” He gave an impatient sigh. “Not that they know it’s a crime scene. Idiots. They still think it’s a basic suicide.”
Virginia looked at him. She knew Benny was weird about police, but it seemed kind of unreasonable to call them idiots. The only reason he knew it wasn’t a “basic suicide” was because she had spotted the camera in the woods.
“So . . . are we waiting for them to leave?” she asked him.
“No. It’s a mistake to be obsessed with the bridge,” Benny said. “The field is where it started. It’s where she started running.”
He kept staring at the field. Virginia glanced at him a few times.
“She was sitting on the sidelines,” he said, “looking that way.” He pointed across the field. It was an unusual football field because there was only one side of bleachers. On the other side was a small bit of woods, half concealing a three-level parking garage. They were the only school with a garage in addition to a lot, a recent one up in an ongoing facilities race between Winship and its rivals.
“Maybe she saw someone on the roof of the garage. Someone she wanted to get away from. And then when they saw her running into the forest, they ran down to corner her at the bridge.”
“Stop, stop,” Benny said, holding up a hand. “It’s way too early to start forming a narrative. You’ll confuse your brain and start seeing things that aren’t there.”
“What, like hallucinating?” Virginia asked.
Benny rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna look under the bleachers.”
He ducked under the metal stands. The air instantly felt about five degrees cooler. Dirty paper cups and napkins littered the ground. Benny took out his phone and snapped a few pictures. A torn, crumpled French quiz. Someone’s half-eaten hot dog, lying in its own ketchup like it was a blood splatter. A few cigarette butts, but not too many. Winship had an incredibly strict no-smoking policy, and for most people it wasn’t worth getting kicked out of school just to seem cool. A used condom caught his eye, half shoved in its torn wrapper. Benny frowned at it. People were so gross and callous. If Benny were going to have sex, he hoped he’d treat his ejaculate with a little more reverence. Not in a perverted way—it’s not like he’d frame it or something—but didn’t people realize their fluids were the wellspring of life? You don’t just pump them out and leave them on the ground.
Benny jumped, and his head slammed against the metal stands. “Ow, fuuu . . . ,” he said, stumbling forward. Benny never cursed, at least not completely. He always stopped himself before the whole word came out.
“BENNY!” Virginia shouted again.
“I’m hallucinating, just like you said.” Virginia’s voice was weirdly calm.
“Um, what?” Benny said, rubbing his head.
Then he saw it. A blond boy had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the field. At first it didn’t look like he was going anywhere. He was staggering in small circles. He looked lost, or drunk. He wore red pants that stood out starkly against the green grass. He continued spinning aimlessly in circles, then he bolted suddenly.
“Is that . . . is that Gottfried?” Benny asked. But before Virginia could answer, Benny took off running.
The woods, 9:12 a.m.
It was like a strange replay of the night before—Benny following someone into the forest, and Virginia following him. But this time it was daylight, and the forest was empty, and instead of chasing a mascot, they were chasing a German exchange student.
How is Benny so fast? Virginia wondered as she strained to keep up with him. He wasn’t on any sports teams. She knew he took some weird karate class that was about trying to punch people with your mind or something. Maybe he had some supernatural mind-body connection that allowed his body to siphon power from his brain in times of physical need. Or maybe he secretly worked out. He could be ripped under those voluminous turtlenecks, and no one would ever know.
She reached the edge of the woods, leaping over a line of yellow police tape. She almost smacked right into Benny.
“Where is he?” she panted.
Benny didn’t say anything, just pointed.
Gottfried stood hunched at the edge of the bridge, his hands on his knees. He was vomiting his guts out. The brackish spew splattered across the ground and the edge of the bridge. Virginia recognized the congealed chunks of cafeteria oatmeal, which had already resembled vomit in the first place.
“Oh my God,” she said, covering her eyes. “Gross.”
“Uh, you okay?” Benny shouted to him. Gottfried stumbled and coughed quietly. Then he wretched again. Leaves formed unflattering shadows on his face.
“I don’t think he heard you,” Virginia said.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?” A cop was climbing up the steep riverbank toward them. But he was balancing a clipboard and a tray of coffees and almost immediately started to slide back down the mud. One of the coffees tipped over and sloshed on his shirt. “God daymit,” he hissed.
“Gottfried, come on,” Virginia called out. Gottfried was staring vacantly, wiping his mouth. He looked baffled and ill. Virginia strode toward the bridge and gently took his arm.
“He’s from Germany!” Virginia shouted, dragging Gottfried away from the bridge. “Police tape is red there! He was confused!”
Benny was already far ahead of them. Virginia led Gottfried through the trees back toward the field. It felt like leading a cloddish horse. He kept stumbling and slowing her down.
“Geez, Gottfried, what the hell were you doing over there?” Virginia demanded as soon as she’d dragged him into the end zone.
“Give him a second to breathe,” Benny hissed at her.
They could hear the policeman still shouting, but he was far-off now. Apparently he’d decided it wasn’t worth the effort to scale the muddy bank and go after them. Soon even the shouts stopped. Lazy fools, Benny thought. If some random kids trampled over his crime scene, he wouldn’t just let them run away.
Gottfried was squinting up at the sky. He shook his head a little and blinked. Some of the color was returning to his face. Benny studied him. Gottfried was kind of a spacey, weird guy. No one really knew what his deal was. He’d appeared in the ninth grade as part of a one-semester exchange program. But then when everyone came back from Christmas, Gottfried was back too, with a room in the Boarders. And then he was back the next semester, and the next semester. He’d been at Winship for almost two and a half years now. Evidently he was very attached to the place, but Benny couldn’t imagine why. He wasn’t particularly popular. People thought he was funny and goofy, but more in a laughing-at-you way. He was known for saying strange things—like once Benny had heard him tell a teacher he needed an extension because he thought he’d done his homework, but actually it had been a vivid dream. People assumed his English was bad, attributing his weirdness to foreignness, even conflating the two. But Gottfried’s English was fine, Benny knew. He was just a weird person.
“Are you really drunk or something?” Virginia asked tactlessly.
“Hm . . . eh . . . ,” Gottfried mumbled.
Benny’s phone buzzed. “Ugh,” he said, checking it. “I have to go. My grandma’s picking me up for temple. Um . . .” He looked from Virginia to Gottfried, and back to Virginia. Was it wise to leave her alone with him? It wasn’t her safety that concerned him—Gottfried was harmless, and Virginia could take care of herself anyway. It was the fear that she’d screw up his investigation somehow. Tell Gottfried the wrong thing, ask him the wrong question.
“So . . . I guess . . . ,” he said stupidly.
“I’ll take him back to the Boarders,” Virginia said.
“Sure, just don’t, you know . . . ,” Benny said, eyeing Gottfried. He didn’t seem to be paying attention, but Benny couldn’t risk being explicit.
Benny fidgeted with his phone. “I dunno. Whatever. I’ll call you later. Bye.” Then he turned abruptly and sprinted from the field.
The Boarders, 10:15 a.m.
“Would you feel better if you took a shower?” Virginia asked, eyeing a tiny fleck of vomit on Gottfried’s shirt.
Gottfried shook his head, which didn’t surprise her. People avoided showering in the Boarders on the weekends, because for some reason the hot water tended to run out. It was a running joke that the boarders always smelled on Mondays—an affectionate joke, for the most part, but one that nevertheless emphasized their general apartness.
“Well . . . do you want some tea or something?” Virginia offered. She started opening and closing cabinet doors, looking for the herbal tea Mrs. Morehouse kept stocked in the common-room kitchen. Mrs. Morehouse was the Boarders’ house mom. She was supposed to live with them and supervise their every move. However, in her ancientness, she seemed to grow disinterested in her duties, making up for long stretches of absence with fierce disciplinary tirades whenever she randomly appeared. The tea she liked was always fruity flavors paired with an abstract quality, like “passion fruit persuasion” or “peppermint spice tranquility.” Zaire Bollo, the British girl—or part British, who really knew—read the ingredients list out loud once and declared that it contained no actual tea, just artificial flavors. Zaire was always complaining about the food in America, which Virginia thought was snobbish. Gottfried was from Europe too, but he never complained.
“No sank you,” Gottfried said. His accent was faint, but you could always hear it when he made the “th” sound, which came out like a hiss, instead of soft and velvety like it was supposed to.
Virginia flopped onto the sofa next to him. It felt weird to be hanging out together. She wasn’t sure if she should leave. People always assumed that since there were so few of them, the boarders were all best friends and had orgies every night—cooped up with all those empty rooms. But actually they tended to feel kind of awkward around one another. The building was just too spacious and too quiet. There was a “Boarders Bash” in the common room once a semester, but it was always dysfunctional—everyone showed up at different times and missed the others, or else they just refused to relax and ended up pretending to go to the bathroom and never coming back.
Gottfried stared at the wall while Virginia chewed her thumbnail. I’ll call you later. Had Benny actually said that? He’d never called her before, but he’d said it like it was no big deal, like they talked on the phone all the time. Just don’t, you know. . . . And what had he meant by that? Don’t lose Gottfried? Don’t make out with him? Virginia glanced at him. Maybe Benny saw something she didn’t. Maybe Gottfried was in love with her. Or maybe he was Brittany’s murderer, and what Benny was saying was Don’t get killed. That would be so like him, to send her off with a murderer while he went to synagogue with his grandma. Benny never let her know what was going on.
“How did you know police tape in Germany is red?” Gottfried asked suddenly.
Virginia looked at him. “Huh?”
“What you told da police officer. Have you been to Deutschland?”
“Oh! Um, no, I just said that. Is it really red?”
“Ja . . . ,” he murmured. “Polizeiabsperrung . . .”
People were always commenting on Gottfried’s eyes. They were so blue they were fake-looking. No imperfections or flecks or brown or gray—just a seamless ring of pure pale aquamarine. Virginia made herself look away. She didn’t want to be like everyone else, going gaga for Gottfried’s eyeballs. She liked to think of herself as a person who was unimpressed by superficial things.
“What were you doing out there?” she asked, redirecting the conversation. “Were you channeling the mascot or something?”
“Hm?” Gottfried’s eyebrow cocked curiously, in a way that Virginia couldn’t quite read.
“You did the same weird dance as Brittany,” Virginia pressed, “and then you ran to the bridge just like she did.”
Gottfried shrugged, and then yawned hugely.
“I sink I will take a small siesta now,” Gottfried announced. “I am so tired . . . tired all da time.” He stood up and looked right into Virginia’s eyes again. “You helped me today. It was very kind. Sank you.” Then he bent down in a swift, smooth motion and kissed her cheek. Before she felt it, she smelled the faint rotten odor of his vomitus breath on her face. It made her stomach turn. But then she felt his lips, and her stomach turned again, in a different way.
“You’re welcome . . . ,” she said lamely.
Gottfried stood up and left the room. Then she heard him say, “Oh,” as if he’d bumped into someone in the hall. Virginia stiffened. Was someone there? Was someone listening in on them? Virginia scanned their conversation in her mind. Had she said anything weird or incriminating? She got up quickly and poked her head into the hall. Gottfried was gone. A door shut upstairs. And then it was quiet—that familiar sound of no one being there.
Congregation Mikveh Israel, 10:30 a.m.
Benny paced back and forth in front of the row of rabbi portraits. He turned his face away from them; some of the portraits were the creepy kind where the eyes follow you, and Benny didn’t feel like dealing with their reprimanding gaze.
“Well, what was his facial expression when you mentioned Brittany’s name?” he was saying in a half whisper.
“It’s hard to describe,” Virginia said over the phone. “It was like . . . when a dog hears a sound it recognizes? Like its food being opened?”
“Huh . . . ,” Benny said, not quite sure what to make of that. “Not, like, guilty or anything?”
“No, he didn’t look guilty. Mostly he looked incredibly spaced out. I think he was on drugs.”
Benny could hear the children’s choir singing, which meant they were about to start the Torah service.
“I have to go,” Benny said. “Keep an eye on Gottfried. If he leaves the Boarders, follow him.”
“Okay,” Virginia said. “Anything else I should do?”
“Get ahead on your homework. It could be a big week, so school can’t be in the way.”
“Okay. I have a paper due Thursday, but I’ll do it now.”
It was always surprising how obedient Virginia could be. She never argued with him or tried to be in charge. It was strange for someone so pushy and assertive.
“Should we go to that vigil tomorrow?” she asked.
“Oh, there’s a thing at the fountain, to light candles and stuff. Everyone’s going.”
Everyone’s going. Benny usually never heard about these sorts of things until they were already over and “everyone’s going” had become “everyone was there.”
The Boarders, 2:30 p.m.
She had lost him almost immediately. Surveilling someone was pretty much impossible if you didn’t have a car. Virginia reread her pathetically brief report, trying to come up with ways to pad it and make it look more impressive.
Subject was in his room for an hour and a half, sleeping probably. At 1:22 someone showed up and started throwing rocks at his window to wake him up. It was the delivery guy from Domino’s. Everyone at the Boarders calls him Corn Flakes because he has cornrows and really bad dandruff. He tries to hang with us all the time, but pretty much only Gottfried will talk to him. They drive to the gas station sometimes to buy cigarettes. That’s probably where they went, but I couldn’t figure out how to follow them.
There was a ton more she could say about Corn Flakes—how he was obsessed with Lindsay Bean and always got her free toppings, how he tried to take her to prom and Lindsay was so embarrassed she pretty much died, and how he supposedly went to Georgia State but was more likely just a townie loser. But was all that intel or just gossip? It was hard to know the difference.
Post siesta, subject looked refreshed and revived. He didn’t seem sick anymore. He’d changed his pants.
Virginia frowned, erased the part about changing his pants, then wrote it back in again. She didn’t know what was important to report. Maybe in some weird universe Gottfried’s pants could unlock the Mystery of the Suicidal Mascot.
Gottfried and Corn Flakes had this elaborate high five they gave each other, which struck me as interesting because I didn’t think they hung out all that much. But maybe it’s just one of those high fives that all dudes preternaturally know. I will investigate this and report back.
She folded up the paper and went to the common-room computer to google “guy high fives.” The results were pretty useless, like guys high-fiving their dogs or accidentally smacking each other in the faces. She came up with a great plan to ascertain whether the high five was a standard dude one or unique to Gottfried and Corn Flakes: She’d wait for Gottfried to come back in the hope that they would do the high five again, but this time she’d be waiting with the camera. She’d film the high five, study it, and practice it until she could do it perfectly. Then she’d go up to Gottfried and do it, and if he was incredibly shocked, she’d know the handshake was personal between him and Corn Flakes.
And then what? she thought, suddenly discouraged. What would that even prove? That Gottfried and Corn Flakes were buds? So what? Total myopic fixation.
“Myopic fixation” was what Benny called Virginia’s principal weakness as an investigator. She’d looked up “myopic” in the dictionary; it meant being shortsighted. And “fixated” meant being obsessed. Together they meant a tendency to get sidetracked by small details.
Zoom out, she thought, and found herself envisioning the Earth from outer space. Christ, not that far, she told herself. She closed her eyes. What did football, boobs, and a German exchange student have in common?
She sighed, opening her eyes. She just wasn’t good at seeing the big picture. All she saw was a big blank.
Virginia closed the Google tab and folded her pathetically inadequate field report on Gottfried. Then she left the common room and went back to her hall. A pair of white-and-blue pom-poms was lying in a fluffy pile next to one of the doors. Her door. Virginia looked around. The pom-poms hadn’t been there before. Someone must have dropped them there while she was in the common room.
There was a Post-it note stuck to the door, written with messy handwriting in blue ballpoint pen:
You left these in my car. Hope your OK
Chrissie White was the only cheerleader in the Boarders; someone must have mixed up Virginia’s room with hers. Virginia picked up the pom-poms and crossed the hall to knock on Chrissie’s door. Virginia and Chrissie hadn’t talked in ages, though they used to be best friends. Chrissie was a total social climber, which Virginia could have respected if she weren’t so bad at it. She got way too drunk at parties, gave blow jobs to the wrong guys, and then bragged about it to the wrong girls. And the fact that she’d started snubbing Virginia was proof that she had zero sense of social strategy. Not that Virginia cared anymore. She had her own reputation rehab to deal with, which was challenging enough without getting sucked into Chrissie’s downward spiral.
The door cracked open. “What?” Chrissie’s voice was small, and she looked like she’d been crying. She was still wearing her nightgown even though the afternoon was half over.
“Someone left these at my door,” Virginia said, handing her the pom-poms.
Chrissie wiped her nose on the sleeve of her nightgown. “These aren’t mine. They’re Corny’s.”
“Oh. How can you tell?”
“They have glitter on the handles. Corny puts glitter on everything.” Chrissie sighed sadly, as if everything—even glitter—was ugly and meaningless now that Brittany was gone.
“Oh . . . ,” Virginia said. “Well, someone left them at my door. Will you take them?”
“Sure,” Chrissie sighed again. Then she closed the door, presumably to resume weeping in her nightie.
Virginia stood in the hall for a second. Who was clueless enough to think Corny Davenport lived in the Boarders? None of the really popular girls were resident students; they were all Atlanta-born-and-bred types whose parents had also gone to Winship back in the day. Winship had a reputation for being one of the more cliquish schools, which its students wore like a badge of honor. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. And in no universe did Corny Davenport’s pom-poms belong at the Boarders.
Virginia turned and crossed the hall and opened the door of her room. The air felt different inside, muggy and sticky. Was her window open? She looked; it was closed. But the air was thick and smelled like the magnolia tree outside. She gave the window a closer look. There were smudges from fingertips at the bottom of the glass. She pressed her own hand on the window next to them. She held it there a second, then drew it away.
“What the hell . . .”
Side by side, the smudges weren’t the same.
Someone else had been in her room.