October 31st, "All Hallowed Eve," or in non-poetic terms, "Halloween," had finally arrived, putting an end to the relentless fanfare our school had been subjected to by our Senior Class President and royal pain in the ass, Ashley Daniels.
Wearing any hat that would insure her attention from head cheerleader, soprano soloist in the Madrigal Choir, the lead role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, she'd also somehow managed to convince the majority of mindless minions comprising my senior class, to vote her in as president. The fact that she could make a burlap bag look like designer clothes, and bounce her personal "pom-poms" just enough to hypnotize the entire male population of our school, only helped her cause.
The football team, including my hunky boyfriend, Jason, stood frozen, dollops of drool hanging off their gaped mouths, every time Ashley donned her cheerleader outfit and "jiggled" onto the field. I wore the exact outfit she did, followed third in line behind her, yet Jason failed to acknowledge my presence until I purposely shook my puff of shredded blue and white plastic in his eyes.
"Hi babe," he'd say, sheepish grin plastered on his berry red face. I couldn't help it if the team mascot, a grizzly bear, looked more like a guinea pig across my A cups while it looked like the "Incredible Hulk" stretched across Ashley's publicly declared "C's." I swear she stuffed her gym socks inside her bra. No one that small could be so well endowed and stand up straight.
I arrived at the school gymnasium an hour early as instructed by our bodacious leader, precariously carrying trays of cupcakes from Molly's Magic Sweets. I placed the five dozen cakey treats, a couple of ghosts having collided with Frankensteins and sporting green polka-dots, next to the basket holding the sealed envelopes. Five teams, four members to each one, handpicked by Ashley and her cronies, would participate in this year's "Spooktacular Scavenger Hunt," a town tradition and major fund raiser for the school.
I'd rather have stayed home and handed out cheap candy to the trick-or-treaters, than traipse all over town following clever clues and gathering donations at each destination. The scavenger hunt ended with the last clue in Johnstown's Cemetery, a place I avoided at all costs and not because it was scary in a crooked-eerie-angel-topped-tombstones way, but because a part of me was buried alive and slowly died every day over the past nine months.
"Don't you wish there was a way to open those and rearrange them so Ashley had to spend the night with all the chemistry and computer geeks?"
"I'll try and not take offense," I laughed, licking a remnant of frosting off my thumbnail from a pumpkin face I'd squeezed too hard.
Jamie, my best friend since third grade nudged my shoulder, sneaking the smashed pumpkin-faced cupcake and splitting it in half, hiding the bat-covered paper inside her purse. "Sorry. I forgot you loved chemistry…or at least your lab partner…Jason," she teased in a husky voice.
When I opened my mouth to object, she shoved the other half of chocolate cake between my lips, most of it crumbling to the floor. "Great. We'll probably be charged with theft and have to pay a hundred bucks for that cupcake." I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and cheesy-smiled at her. "Do I have crumbs in my teeth?"
"Don't worry. If you do, I'm sure my little bro will suck them away when he tongue tags you later." She brushed the fallen crumbs with her toe under the display table. "Where is my twin, anyway?"
"Probably in the showers. Practice ran late."
"Why don't you sneak in with him?"
I slapped her arm. "Jamie!"
Her lips curled into a smile the Devil would envy. "What? You don't think I hear you two going at it in his room? He may be downstairs, but his heat duct connects to my bedroom." My face flashed so hot, my skin should have melted. "Gotcha!" she laughed, "but judging by your reaction, my imagination isn't far off the mark."
Jamie palmed an envelope from the basket. "Ashley would, you know…join Jason in the showers if she had a chance."
"Don't remind me, okay? He claims he feels nothing for her and I shouldn't be jealous, but I can't help wondering, you know? I don't want to seem clingy, so I don't ask, but I watch her…"
"He's into you, Sam, more than he ever was with her. That was Freshman year. They were just horny teens with no brain function."
"You're talking about your twin brother. If he had no brain function—"
"Who has no brains? You Sis?"
I twirled at the sound of the voice, my stomach full of butterflies and heat instantly snaking through my veins. A hand wrapped the back of my neck, the other firmly at my lower back, pressing me against rock-hard abs. The smell of coconut shampoo and citrus body soap swamped my senses, and I nuzzled into the damp fabric of Jason's T-shirt. His lips pressed in a chaste kiss and returned, demanding a deeper one from my mouth.
"You smell good," I whispered before indulging in a nibble off his neck.
"Get a room!" shouted Buck, Jason's best friend.
Reluctantly, I stepped back, feeling the cold air from the open gymnasium doors slice between us. Jason kept my hand, tugging me to his side when the gym started filling with the football team and other classmates.
"Where's Ash? We need to get started." Jason dropped his dark gaze to my eyes for a second before sneaking a glimpse inside my shirt. "So we can finish," he said so low no one but me heard the intimate comment. If my bones hadn't already started turning spongy, I would have resented his reference to the nickname he gave her when they dated.
"I'm right here gorgeous!"
The room full of bodies parted like the Red Sea when she sauntered into the gym wearing skinny jeans so tight if there was a quarter in her back pocket, you'd see the year it was minted. Her pink button-up blouse was mostly "unbuttoned," leaving a gap just wide enough you could see the black bra she wore. When she sidled up to the side of Jason, tapping a manicured finger on the end of his chin, I could see the matching pink satin bow marking the front clasp.
"Miss me?" she purred in a sexy lilt.
I curled my arms around Jason's waist, my elbow purposely knocking her away. "Hardly," I sneered. Jason's arms folded around me, the soft kiss to the top of my head finally giving her a big enough hint to prowl elsewhere.
"Listen up 'peeps.' We've got two hours before Rogers Texas Grub arrives with our food." She held up two baskets—one with the assigned teams, and a second one with coordinating colored envelopes full of clues. "Let's see who has the winning team this year."
Luckily, I was on Jamie's, along with two other chemistry geeks. At least we had intelligent beings on our side. My stomach dipped to my toes when she read the last team. Buck and his girlfriend, Tina, an "Ashley wannabee," along with Ashley and…Jason.
Tears burned the edges of my eyes and my throat tightened. "That bitch!" I hissed.
Jason tipped my chin up with his finger. "Stop. I'm crazy about you. No other girls exist in my world—especially not Ash—ley." Oops. Major slip. "Sorry. I didn't mean to—"
"It's okay. I trust you. Let's just hurry and get this over with. I have a late curfew tonight."
"Oooh, your basement or mine?"
"I was thinking we could sneak into the hot tub at my grandma's clubhouse. She gave me the code and the security dude only works weekends to save money."
"No bathing suits?"
"Underwear, champ. Let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet."
Ashley grabbed Jason's arm and yanked him away, but his "thumbs up" and wicked wink, held a promise the night wouldn't be a total waste.
Jamie gave my shoulder a playful punch. "Come on 'bedroom eyes.' We're the last ones out of here. Those two dweebs, Owen and—"
"Marcus. At least try and remember their names?"
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. They've got the first three clues already figured out. We'll be done in no time and then we can shadow loverboy and his asshat ex to make sure we ruin any plans she's got brewing."
Fear pushed my lustful thoughts aside. "You don't think she's trying—"
"To get Jason back? Hell yeah! Open your love-blinded eyes, Sam. There's only so much a guy can take before he'll surrender…even Jason. Those boobs were hanging out for a reason tonight, and it wasn't to make a fashion statement."
"If she goes near him, I swear I'll kill her!"
Jamie looked around the room, ushering me out the door. "Keep your voice down. People take those kind of statements serious nowadays. Something happens to 'queeny' and you're the number one suspect."
My hearth thrummed loudly in my ears. I was serious. Johnstown's Cemetery held more than decaying corpses. Dark, seedy secrets, tucked alongside the dead and sealed in pleated satin. Everyone had a life riddle—some solved in the light of day, others revealed under a cloak of darkness.
The double-edged mysteries, however, took on a life of their own…lived beyond the graves of those thought to keep them sacred, and among the innocent or those pretending to be so. Puppets held by ghostly threads who danced on deadly marionette strings. Puppets like me…like Ashley.
We were running behind, the last clue Marcus thought he'd figured out, sending us in the wrong direction. The clue eluded to an "eight ball in a pocket,' and all three of us jumped on board when Marcus said it had to be Benny's Billiards, the only pool hall (and bar) in town. When we walked into the smoky tavern, all eyes trained on Jamie and me.
"Perverts," Jamie scowled before easing a hip onto a barstool. Before I could set my butt on one, the bartender threw his towel over his shoulder and leaned to Jamie. I suspected the numbers tallied in his brain fast—face, boobs, hair. He gave me a sideway glance for a second, then back to Jamie. Again, I'd failed some "jiggle scale."
"Need to see ID princess."
"We're here for clue three," I interjected, forcing his leer my direction and away from my girlfriend.
"Clue three? I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Marcus jumped into the conversation, explaining our brilliant deduction and showing the barkeep the clue. Turned out "BB" also meant "Burger Barn," where a deep pocket was code for large fries, and an eight ball represents their special Crazy Eight club sandwich combo.
Standing outside Burger Barn, I tried forcing the steamy puffs my breath created into rings, while Owen and Marcus wolfed a cheeseburger and Jamie decided to use the restroom. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of someone moving toward the graveyard. Ashley and Jason!
I reached in my pocket for my cell phone only to remember laying it on the counter at Benny's Billiards. Damn! When I pulled my hand out, a lime green piece of paper drifted to the sidewalk. The last clue…the one I'd already solved and kept secret from my teammates. The last destination would place me at the foot of a granite monument, marking a grave I hadn't visited in nine months.
Imagining the inscription carved into the glittering flecks, panic bubbled in my chest. My heart physically hurt it pounded so hard. "Kevin Gregory Barnes. A life taken too soon…" My brother—whose car careened off a cliff to avoid hitting a girl standing in the road. A girl who disappeared, but left a note on my brother's grave the day of the funeral.
A piece of paper, dampened by the fresh loam mound, pale peach in color, the cursive script squiggly, probably from a shaking hand.
I'm sorry. You weren't supposed to die.