In a small, seaside town called Littleton, four people are suddenly confronted by their own secrets. Whilst fighting for sanity in a world gone half-mad with prejudice, they discover life is not what they expected it to be, and so each of them are forced to deal with their own problems in a different way . . . but some loose ends, especially those frayed beyond repair, are better left untied.
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The American flag flapped in the wind, furling into itself and then stretching again. Its pattern was messed up â€“ as was what it represented, in Catherineâ€™s not-so-humble opinion. She stared at it with poorly hidden contempt as she sat on the stairs in front of the school, trying to keep a good distance from all the junk that littered the area around her. This was nearly impossible, however, and on more than one occasion Catherine had to scrape chewing gum from her shoes with a twig.
Catherine wasnâ€™t entirely sure why she was sitting here instead of having gone inside. Perhaps it was because she wasnâ€™t ready to face the others yet, or because the cold felt pleasant to her burning skin. All she knew was that she felt a great reluctance to head inside and look and be looked at; a great reluctance to feel slighted by criticizing gazes; a great reluctance to play her part. A great reluctance for everything, really.
Today was the color brown. Not chestnut brown, the kind you wished your hair was, but the murky kind that made your nose wrinkle: dirty and ugly and smelly. Today was the smell of rotten eggs. It spread through the air like poison, chased by the hissing wind. Today was the image of the tears of a newborn baby, rolling over crimson cheeks like pearls â€“ upsetting and blessing at the same time.
Catherine looked up, squinting her eyes against the sun. A flicker of emotion tapped her soul, calling her memory to attention. See? See who it is?
â€œItâ€™s time to get inside. You donâ€™t want to be late,â€ the boy informed, looking serious. â€œTrust me, Mrs. Cook has a great vocab and she will use it to embarrass you.â€
â€œThanks,â€ Catherine mumbled, grabbing the rails of the stairs for support as she rose quickly. â€œIâ€™ll see you in class, I guess.â€
Without throwing so much as a glance over her shoulder, Catherine hurried through the doors. The scent of lemony cleansing supplies, cologne and sweat hit her instantly, like a giant wave. Posters of the Sadie Hawkins dance had been taped everywhere. On it, the flamboyantly colored cartoon of a thin girl dancing with some football quarterback drew more attention than the uninviting print at the top, as it was undoubtedly meant to. Catherine bet ninety percent of the girls in the school didnâ€™t have the guts to invite the person they really liked. If they liked anyone at all, that was.
There were still some leftover students in the hallway, lost little guppies looking for the right corner in the aquarium. Young and older, tall and small, shot into classrooms. Catherine herself followed a thin little thing with brown eyes big as dinner plates. She hardly looked ten, and even from behind Catherine could easily count her ribs. Even harder to ignore was the childâ€™s odd combination of red trainers and a light blue dress, which appeared luminescent on the dark skin.
â€œGood luck today,â€ the little girl said, giving Catherine an earnest look before darting inside. Her trainers slid so smoothly over the floor that it seemed as though she was flying.
Catherine paused in the doorway and stared at the scene before her. Beyond the threshold, the light was bleaker, the objects grey and the people themselves sallow-looking. It was a sadder, Tim Burton version of the world, hollow as the inside of a pretty shell. But she had a choice: she didnâ€™t have to enter this realm. She could run and hide, like she had done all her life, or face the blank canvas and try to paint it. She had the pallet, she had the brushes â€“ she just didnâ€™t have the creativity. Not yet.
Wrapping her arms around herself for protection against that never-ending cold she felt, Catherine turned slowly and began to walk away. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and she would reach it someday. Right now that mysterious glow might be the janitorâ€™s closet or the girlsâ€™ bathroom, but that didnâ€™t matter. What did was that someday, that light could be a home or a family or an actual life. It could be love. And that was worth waiting for.
Julie looked up at the creaking of the door, hastily removing her wrists from the running water. The drip, drip, drip of the tap continued as she stared at the newcomerâ€™s wary green eyes, trying to decide whether she ought to flee or remain in the room.
â€œSorry,â€ Catherine Hughes said, successfully breaking the tension. â€œI didnâ€™t know anyone else was skipping.â€
A snicker left Julie as she turned back to the sink and turned the valve. Much to her irritation, the dripping continued. â€œThis is high school. Youâ€™re bound to find at least one girl hiding in the bathroom, even on a Friday.â€
â€œPoint taken.â€ Catherine leaned on the counter, staring into the mirror with an unfathomable expression on her face. She turned her head slightly to look at Julie, the right corner of her mouth pulled up ruefully. â€œSorry for crashing your party.â€
â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ Julie lied. â€œI donâ€™t really mind some company.â€
â€œWhatever you say.â€ The girl shrugged and returned her gaze to the mirror, as if seeking some truth in her reflection. â€œJulie,â€ she spoke up after a minute, â€œhave you ever looked at yourself and seen someone else staring back at you? A ghost or a monster or a child?â€
When Julie did not answer, though she appeared startled by being called by her first name, Catherine resumed, â€œI used to be a popular girl, but people assumed thatâ€™s all I ever was inside: just a pretty object that you could toss around and kick without it ever being damaged. And it wasnâ€™t damaged â€“ not on the inside, at least.â€ She paused for the dramatic effect. â€œWhat they couldnâ€™t see was that it was filled with glass. And glass, well, it shatters.â€
The uncomfortable silence was broken by Julieâ€™s question. â€œWhy are you telling me this?â€
Catherine took in Julieâ€™s pallid skin, uncombed hair and bloodshot eyes, trying to determine what sort of person this oddball really was. â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she blurted out with a laugh. â€œI suppose I see your mother in you â€“ youâ€™ve got that same look.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m not my mom,â€ Julie bit. â€œIâ€™m me, and you have no idea how my mind works. I just want to be alone.â€
â€œIsnâ€™t it obvious?â€ Catherine commented. â€œYou and me, weâ€™re already alone, whether weâ€™re standing here, in this bathroom, or in Times Square. Weâ€™re as lonely as people can be, Powell, and thatâ€™s how weâ€™ll always feel. Abandoned and friendless and alone.â€
â€œThose could be synonyms,â€ Julie quipped, fighting to remain nonchalant. â€œBut that was an impressive speech all the same, Hughes.â€
â€œYou can call me Catherine, you know.â€
â€œAnd you can call me Julie.â€
Julie stared at Catherine, a look of confusion dawning on her face. â€œWell, excuse me, rude little Miss Perfect, but I decide when Iâ€™llâ€”â€
â€œBe quiet!â€ Catherine urged, clamping her palm over Julieâ€™s mouth. Her eyes were wide. â€œDidnâ€™t you hear that?â€
â€œHear what?â€ the other questioned, her voice muffled. She pushed Catherineâ€™s hand away impatiently and opened her mouth just as another peculiar, chilling sound could be heard; a sort of bang that echoed through the room, followed by a shrill scream and then another bang.
As before a storm, it was completely quiet for a moment. The birds outside, which could previously be heard through the small window, had fallen silent. The leafs had stopped rustling altogether, too, and no longer did the occasional shout of a student ring through the school.
Then the screaming started.
It was shrill and terrifying, the kind of noise you only knew from horror movies. They sounded like tears and fears and ignored pleas, and again and again there was a blast that Julie didnâ€™t want to recognize, a blast that shut up the shrieks until the bang of a slammed-open door could be heard and it started all over again.
â€œOh my God,â€ Catherine whispered, turning to face the door and clasping her hand over her mouth. â€œOh my God.â€
Julie grasped Catherineâ€™s arm and tugged her back, not bothering to wipe away the tears that were freely streaming down her cheeks. Facing the other girl, she stooped down to look her in the eyes and said in a low, broken tone, â€œCatherine, you have to listen to me. Listen.â€ She snapped her fingers to gain Catherineâ€™s attention and, when this worked, added, â€œWe need to get out of here, okay? I need you to ignore everything for a moment and when I open the door, we run towards the exit as fast as we can and call the police. Catherine, do you understand what Iâ€™m saying?â€
All blood withdrew from Catherineâ€™s face. â€œIâ€”â€
Another scream, louder than the others, interrupted her sentence. Julie whirled around and let out an involuntary whimper of terror, feeling her heart quiver. â€œTheyâ€™re too close,â€ she affirmed, voice shrill.
A keen left Catherine as she bent over double, hands twisted into the fabric of her shirt as if tearing it apart could stop what was happening. â€œI donâ€™t want to die,â€ she cried, her body shaking. â€œPlease, oh God, please, donâ€™t let me die.â€
Julie supported herself by holding on to the counter, staring at the ghost in the mirror. â€œWeâ€™re not going to die,â€ she murmured, like those words alone would make everything okay again. She looked over her shoulder at Catherine and let out a breath. â€œThe window.â€
â€œItâ€™s too small, I canâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œYes,â€ Julie urged, releasing her hold to grasp Catherineâ€™s shoulders, â€œYou can.â€
Catherine shook her head, her breath coming in short gasps. â€œYou go first.â€
Those three words instilled a sense of numbness in Julie, and she looked at the small window. She could fit through it. She could climb through there and run away and never return, fuck the price she had to pay for it. She could live.
An even louder shriek than before interrupted Julieâ€™s thoughts. She looked back towards the white door, petrified at the sound of the weepy begging that followed.
â€œPlease, Iâ€™m so sorry â€“ please donâ€™t hurt me, please!â€ The last word was sobbed, tainted with fear of the inevitable, and Julie could only stare at the tiles in horror. The girl was going to die only feet away from them, and there was nothing she could do that wouldnâ€™t result in her own death.
â€œThatâ€™s Courtney.â€ Catherineâ€™s eyes flowed over and she folded her hands in front of her face, a low, animalistic noise tearing its way out of her stick-like body. â€œOh my God, thatâ€™s Courtney.â€
â€œGive me your phone,â€ Julie ordered. â€œGive it and go through that window now, do you hear me?â€
Catherine fished her phone out of her pocket, pushing it into Julieâ€™s hands without looking up. â€œWhat are you going to do?â€
â€œWhat a true Gryffindor would,â€ Julie replied as she put the device next to the continuously dripping sink, forcing a grim smile. â€œIâ€™m saving your life. Now go towards the window, Iâ€™ll help you up.â€
â€œBut who will help you?â€
No response came as Julie cupped her hands and nodded at the opening. â€œStand on my hands, Catherine,â€ she said croakily. â€œHurry, please.â€
Catherine took her shoes off and obeyed, clutching the ledge with all her might. Julie stepped back as she kicked her legs and watched, keeping up a brave face until the bare feet were completely out of sight, and all that could be seen was a brief flash of rusty blonde hair as Catherine darted away towards safety, never looking back.
Seconds ticked by. Julie took the phone in her hands and looked at it. She blinked away tears as she dialed one of the few numbers she knew by heart and pressed the mobile against her ear, trying to regain that courage that had allowed her to save Catherine Hughes. â€œMom?â€ she mumbled, wiping her wet cheeks. â€œI called to say goodbye.â€
Josephine laid down her pen as the phone rang, letting out a groan of frustration when she couldnâ€™t find the source of the annoying ringtone. She pushed the paperwork that littered the desk outside, ignoring the flimsy papers that flew to the floor, and grinned in triumph when her quest was proven successful. Several attempts at answering later, Josephine had finally pressed the correct button. â€œJosephine Powell speaking, how can I help you?â€
â€œMom?â€ The voice was soft, filled with tears. â€œI called to say goodbye.â€
She sat up slowly, heart starting to thunder. What did I miss? her thoughts asked. What signs didnâ€™t I pick up? â€œJulie, whatever youâ€™re thinking, you donâ€™t need to do it.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to die,â€ her daughter sobbed on the other end of the line. â€œMom, Iâ€™m so scared.â€
â€œItâ€™s okay, honey, tell me whatâ€™s happening.â€ Pressing the phone to her ear, Josephine rose and shrugged her coat on quickly. â€œBaby?â€
â€œSomeoneâ€™s in the school,â€ Julie answered, a brief whimper of fear following her words. â€œIâ€™m in the bathroom, but theyâ€™re so close. Mom, I can hear their footsteps.â€
No â€“ God no, not her daughter. This had to be a misunderstanding, a bad dream, a lie, because this couldnâ€™t happen while she herself was still here. â€œOkay, listen up. Is there a window in the room?â€
Another sob: â€œYes, but I canâ€™t get through. Itâ€™s too high up.â€
Josephine pushed the door of her office open and broke into a jog, signaling wildly at a female client on her way to the bathroom. â€œCall nine-one-one and tell them thereâ€™s a shooter at Littleton High,â€ she bellowed. â€œNow!â€
â€œMom? I love you.â€
She came to a halt, chest heaving, and ran a hand over her mouth as the sound of someone attempting to open the door travelled over the line. â€œBaby,â€ she responded, her voice breaking in two. â€œMy baby.â€ She swallowed a sob, forcing those words out, those terrible words that meant the end even though it couldnâ€™t possibly be. â€œI love you so much, sweetie. I always will.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Mom. I justâ€¦ I thought we would have more time to talk everything out. Iâ€™m so sorry!â€
â€œNo, baby, donâ€™t be sorry.â€ Josephine hunched over, attempting to keep her breath regular. â€œDonâ€™t hang up on me.â€
â€œTell Daddy I love him, please,â€ Julie begged. â€œAnd donâ€™t cry.â€
Something clattered to the floor. Josephine whirled around, ignorant of all the people staring at her. â€œJulie?â€
A muffled conversation began on the other line. Josephine would never forget those last few moments in which she tried to listen, tried to recognize her daughterâ€™s voice in vain while remembering all the things they had done together and the fights they had shared and the jokes they had laughed about. Then the worst noise in the universe, one that would never stop haunting her sleep, came true as Julie shrieked loudly and a gun fired twice.
The screams are never the worst part. Itâ€™s the silence that follows.
The rifle felt warm and familiar in his hand, better than the gun he had held before, the one that had run out of ammunition after Mr. Abernathy. With this weapon in his hand, Louis didnâ€™t have to think about pulling the trigger. It just happened when he pointed it at someone fleeing the hallway, like the way he would shoot an animal. And it was that way; they were beasts.
Louis stepped over Courtneyâ€™s body, holding the rifle close to his chest. Someone was crying loudly inside and, without thinking twice about it, he tried to open the door. It was blocked, but that didnâ€™t matter. There couldnâ€™t possibly be something inside that bathroom strong enough to hold him back, especially if that something was just a girl.
Another tug and push and then the door inched open. Louis heard something clatter to the floor and the person backing away. Then he was through and standing in front of a mousy-looking girl with dark hair and bloodshot eyes, who let out a soft keen at the bloodied sight of him.
â€œGet up,â€ he ordered.
She drew in a quick breath and obeyed, shoulders so straight that she seemed almost undaunted. A foul smell pervaded the room and gave her away, however: the girl had pissed herself in fright.
â€œPlease,â€ she pled, â€œyou donâ€™t have to do this. This isnâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œDonâ€™t tell me what I should or shouldnâ€™t do,â€ Louis bit back, voice skipping an octave. He felt his fingers begin to shake. Reality was crashing down on him. â€œI know what Iâ€™m doing this for, and that matters more to me than whatever sad excuse youâ€™ve got ready.â€
â€œOkay. Youâ€™re right,â€ the girl said, her body trembling like a leaf. â€œYour name is Louis, right?â€
She sank down onto the tiles with the grace of a deer, as if having read his mind. Her brown eyes, sparsely framed by dark lashes, stared at him. They were moist with tears, but Louis wasnâ€™t going to let them fall. He didnâ€™t want any more crying today.
He lifted the rifle in response, urging her to hold her mouth with the gesture. His finger brushed the trigger lightly.
Her lashes fluttered down and covered those accusing eyes. The girl was biting her bottom lip hard to refrain from sobbing out loud, but despite that her whole face was wet and red with the tears she was shedding. Her body was still shaking. She bowed her head and inhaled so deeply that one was left wondering whether there was any oxygen left in the room.
Louis blinked rapidly and sucked in a breath, finger tensing against the trigger. The girl shifted slightly, resembling a trapped doe in the undergrowth. She knew she had nowhere to go. The prey was stuck, just like everyone else; unable to see that he was doing her favor.
But she looked up in that last second, face full of disbelief and fear, and screamed just as his finger pushed down. A louder bang than all the previous bang followed, and the girl fell back. Her soft hair flew out behind her like a fan. Those dark eyes, wide and unseeing, seemed to scream at him.
Louis turned away towards the wall, staring at the white there until he knew no other color. What seemed like years could only have been seconds as he pressed the tip of the rifle to his chin and looked at the ceiling. The top of his index finger found a familiar place for the last time that day as he murmured something, unsure whether it was a plea for forgiveness from God or Helenâ€™s name or an apology. It didnâ€™t matter.
The last bang echoed through the room, and white walls were white no more. Red tainted the pure tiles and mirrors, and what had been a place of boredom only minutes earlier became a cursed graveyard. If only one looked closely at the pattern of crimson leaking from Louisâ€™ unmoving head, they could see stories written over and over in the blood of the murderer: names and regrets and hopes and futures that would never happen.
Catherine stared numbly at the scene before her, hands clutching the blanket that had been wrapped around her tightly. She wasnâ€™t sure if she was still crying, or whether she had run out of tears a long time ago.
â€œCatherine? We called your parents. They will be here as soon as they can.â€
â€œOkay,â€ she whispered. â€œThank you.â€
The policeman scraped his throat. He was clearly a rookie, barely older than Catherine himself, and he looked scared and revolted. He, too, had now seen too much in too short a while. â€œIf thereâ€™s anything we canâ€”â€
â€œDid you find a girl with red trainers?â€ Catherine asked. â€œRed trainers and a blue dress?â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid we canâ€™t disclose any information on that yet,â€ he replied uncertainly. â€œItâ€™s classified.â€
â€œI need to know.â€
The boy turned away, but she could still see him roughly wipe his eyes. The unmistakable sound of his crying filled the air while Catherine waited for an answer and stared at her surroundings without truly seeing anything; not the snow that had started falling, not the bleak sun, not the budding flowers in front of the school, not the other crying students, not the blood on the policemanâ€™s black shoes.
â€œShe, um, was in the class.â€ He still refused to look at her and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. â€œAnd your other friend, the one you asked about earlierâ€¦ Iâ€™m sorry.â€
â€œOh,â€ Catherine said, blissfully unaware that those two insignificant words â€“ â€œIâ€™m sorryâ€ â€“ were part of a sentence she would often hear in the months to come.
The man nodded and left, and then she was alone again: alone like only Powells and Hughes ever were. She was abandoned and friendless and lonely and wrong, because today wasnâ€™t brown, it was red. It didnâ€™t smell of sulfur, but of the rotting dead. The image wasnâ€™t of a crying baby: it was of Julie Powell, who died like a true Gryffindor, and the girl with the red trainers and blue dress and Courtney Laurel and Catherine herself. And this was the story of them and this was how it would be remembered, with the world broken in two and the sky white and the sun pale and young children murdered or murderers. This was the story of how Death had unfairly ripped open the innocent, the broken and the brave. And this was how it ended.
I am sorry for this ending. It is horrible and sudden and unfair, but that was who Louis was in the end. I want to make it clear that I do not approve of the unforgivable actions he committed that day. If anything, this story is a warning to everyone out there to love instead of hate, and to realize that everyone else hurts too. Violence or verbal abuse is never the right option.
I hope all of you faithful readers enjoyed this story, that it even inspired you. I wish you the best of days, and thank you all for your commitment and support.