1. The Ache You Left Behind

Lies, secrets, one deadly truth.

For sixteen-year-old Ava Hale, dealing with her older sister's murder is hard enough. But when an old friend of Kesley's reappears back into her life, Ava starts questioning who she can really trust - friend or not. As Ava pieces together the evidence that led to her sister's death, she realizes that she was hiding a few secrets of her own.

                                                          Dear Kesley,

My therapist tells me I should write you a letter. Every time I see her, she asks whether I’ve started yet, and every session I say: No, I haven’t, it’s a stupid idea.

But alas, here I am, writing a letter to a dead girl. I tried the argument of saying it’s morbid, but that ran dry when she said it could be therapeutic. Like flushing all my thoughts and feelings out of my system and onto paper. She said that she doesn’t even want to read it herself, that it’s a completely personal thing where I can say whatever I want about whoever.

I pondered over where I should start the letter. Where, after all, did our story begin? From the moment you were born, or died? I chose the latter, thinking that at least the letter would be done quicker that way.

So here goes nothing, Kesley, because it begins, and ends, with you.

                                                              ***

 

                                  1. THE ACHE YOU LEFT BEHIND

 

             Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them

                                                    George Eliot

 

 

The first thing I did every day, after fixing a pale pink bow in my hair, dressing, and consuming my mandatory cup of coffee, was stare at your photo. Stupid, don’t you think? But I sat at the side of the road with a framed image of your face, waiting, waiting, waiting. For what? Well, that was beyond me. Maybe I hope you’d leap out and become real again, or maybe I just read too many fantasy novels. Either way, I’d stare at your photo.

       You’d stare back, too, as silent as ever. Your eyes bored into mine; lifeless, captured in a moment one year ago. And I sat there, on the chipped, paint-peeled bench, trying to not think of what they were saying on the news.

       About how someone had slit your throat: a thin red line that gaped open like some sort of ghastly smile. Thrown you into Lake O’Hara. How it had floated to the surface, the water stained with blood. How a couple that was travelling along the trail that clung closest to the water’s edge had spotted a pale figure, lying face-down in the water. Dead.

       The sound of a car engine rumbling to an abrupt halt pulled me from my thoughts. I fixed a smile onto my face as my best friend, Lia Zhang, drove the car right to the curb. The window slid down with a hum and she poked her head out the glass. Her long curtain of glossy black hair looked sleek and model-like, achieving a quality that all those hair product ads promised. Lia’s half-Filipino, half Chinese heritage showed through in the flawlessness of her skin, too.

       “Get in,” she instructed. “You must be freezing your ass out there.”

      She had a point, but I only realized the biting weather when she mentioned it. I had been too wrapped up in my own thoughts to focus much on something as trivial as the weather. A shiver travelled down my spine but I ignored the foreboding feeling that crept up on me, and walked around to the passenger seat. The warmth from the heater engulfed me in a hot wave.

       Oddly enough, I didn’t find it comforting at all. Music pumped from the car speakers, but on seeing my gaze flicker toward it, she rolled her eyes and turned it down. She knew I hated music.

       You, Kesley, you loved music. And ever since you left me, I despised each correlating note that came from any speaker anywhere. It reminded me too much of you. Of how you loved to sit at the old piano in the sun room, with slats of light highlighting the dusty, yellowing keys. Of the way the hands sort of flew across the keys and melded gently with each other to create a rhythmic tune.

       So I just blocked out the tune that still hung quietly in the air and turned my attention to Lia.

       “You were ten minutes late,” I said. “Why?”

       She pressed her lips together before she laughed. “Yeah, I know. Such a rebel right? ‘Cause, like, I have a record of being so punctual anyway.” Lia was always known for being late. Fashionably, but still — late was late. Time was precious. It could seep past you without you even knowing, like it had done with you, Kesley.

       I tilted my head in her direction. I knew Lia. I knew Lia like I knew the back of my palm. Better, probably. And by the way her eyes were too focused on the road ahead, and the way that her fingers turned an unnatural shade of white against the steering wheel, I knew that something was wrong. And just like it always did, her facade cracked.

       “Just don’t be angry at me, okay?” she whispered.

       “You know I won’t,” I said, and despite the thick cloud of depression that still covered me, I managed a small smile. Or a replica of what used to be my smile, anyway. Close enough. Most people didn’t look deep enough to find a difference.

       Lia shot me a sceptical look, but answered. “I ran into someone this morning.”

       “Who?” I asked.

       “Rafe Lawrence.”

       My mind went blank for a moment as I stared out the window. I was distantly aware of the thumping coming from my chest, getting louder and louder as the seconds ticked passed. Breathe, Ava, breathe.

       “Yeah,” said Lia. “I know, right? He leaves, and suddenly, a few days after Kesley dies —” She broke off with a stiff glance in my direction. “Anyway,” she continued. “He’s back now. He told me that he wants to talk to you.” I swallowed, but my throat was dry. It felt like I was swallowing parchment. My tongue felt too thick in my mouth and I couldn’t seem to form any words.

       “Right,” I managed.

       “You’re not going to go, right?” she said.

       “I —”

       “Don’t be insane, Ava. Seriously, the boy has issues. I don’t see what Kesley saw in him —”

       “They weren’t together like that,” I said, cutting her off swiftly. An instant defensiveness had sprung up inside me of me. My cheeks heated as I fought to defend you. But if the truth was told, I wasn’t sure. You spent an awful amount of time together. Too much time for being ‘just friends’ like you had once said. Like you reassured me. But you were dead, and I wanted to keep your memory from being tainted from the accusations that Lia was hurling at you.

       “If you say so,” Lia muttered, eyeing the marked road that stretched ahead of us. I sighed and glanced out the window once more. Lia and I are both stubborn; we both thought that we’re always right. That was where we clash. Continually. But she was also the best and only friend that I had, so I clung on tight to her. And now you were gone, and she and Jackson were all I had left.

       A blur of green and brown of pine trees sped past as we headed in the general direction of the one school that Circling Pines had. If I tilted my head to the side slightly, I knew that I would be able to see the mountains tipped with snow, like white icing on cake. Winter was drawing closer and closer by the second, though the thought didn’t bother me. At least that would give me an excuse to stay indoors all day.

       “What exactly did Rafe tell you?” I asked Lia as we passed the only shopping strip: a collection of cafes and overpriced clothes shops.

       “Not much,” Lia admitted. “Only that he wanted to speak to you, and that he wanted to meet you for coffee after school.” There was a pause, a very deliberate, prolonged pause. “I also told him that you wouldn’t go.”

       “Lia —”

       “I know! I’m sorry! But you can’t seriously go, Ava.”

       I folded my arms over my chest and glared at the pine trees. My fingers shook under the tightly folded skin and I resisted the urge to ball them into a fist.

       “Until you give me a good reason why, then I’m going,” I said in a surprisingly calm voice.

       Lia tapped the steering wheel in a melodic sort of way, though I knew it was more of a nervous habit than a subconscious thought. The sharp line of her jaw tightened. It looked like she was fighting against something she wanted to say, as if she was worried it might get me upset. I’d seen that look plenty of times in the past days.

       “What’s bothering you?” I said.

       “What do you really know about Rafe?” she blurted out.

       “Um. He was a year younger than Kes — my sister, spent way too much time in juvenile detention, my foster mother never liked him much —”

       “Okay, okay,” interrupted Lia. “But I mean. What do you know about Rafe and your sister?”

       “I don’t know, she never told me much about him, all right? Can we just leave it at that?” The school gates were coming into view, iron-wrought and impressive looking, with ivy that clung to the metal like a second skin.

       “Fine,” said Lia. She angled the car into a free parking space near the back of the parking lot — most people had already taken their places, and killed the engine. The lot was deserted. Everyone must have been in class already, meaning that Lia and I were horribly late. Lia pulled the car keys out of the ignition and stuffed them into her jacket pocket with a brief glance in my direction. “All I’m saying is that your sister was murdered, and there’s a killer on the loose.”

       Her words sent a chill through me more than the bitterly cold air outside.

 

 

“Miss Hale, Miss Zhang. For the third time this week, you’ve been late.” The clipped voice of my English teacher came from the head of the classroom. Almost in synchronization, every student in the class turned to watch as Lia and I entered the room. Almost every student in the room, with the exception of one. A pair of dazzling blue eyes caught my attention from close by; I glanced over to see Rafe Lawrence, looking the same as he ever did, leaning back in his chair. As if he had sensed me looking, he suddenly shifted his gaze to fix on mine. His expression was unfathomable though I thought his lip curled up at the edges a bit.

       I looked quickly away.

       Mrs. York fished something out from her desk, headed toward us, her heeled feet clipping against the linoleum floor.

       “What’s that?” I asked as she handed us both a frail slip of paper.

       “Detention. For a week. My compassion is wearing thin, Ava.” A hot feeling crashed over me and I felt my cheeks blaze with humiliation. I felt a gentle tug on my shoulder from Lia. I let her pull me over to one of the spare seat and I sat down heavily, stowing the detention slip into the depths of my backpack.

        “Old bat,” Lia muttered in my ear. I allowed a grudging smile as I tuned out for the rest of the English lesson.

The End

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