By Chris Bedell
I met Chace in the school hallway a couple of mornings later without Steven. There was no other way around it. He had to be left out of the operation. At least for the moment. I could only tolerate his attitude for so long.
Chace shoved a piece of paper in my face. “Here you go. I thought this could help.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What’s this?”
He chuckled. “Just look at it. I promise you won’t regret it.”
I took the piece of paper from him, scanning it with my eyes. I lifted my gaze off the paper a few minutes later. “How did you find this?”
“Let’s just say you should be glad your best friend is a nerd.”
Yeah. No need for Chace to state the obvious even if I had bigger problems to worry about. Like how I hadn’t vanquished Horatio. Whatever. No use in being impatient regardless of how justified my feelings were. Corny expressions were sometimes right, which meant good things took time. The only problem was knowing how much time defeating Horatio would take.
I pulled him in for a quick hug. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
He pulled back from me a few seconds later. “At least now you can prove the life insurance aspect is real.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Absolutely.”
“What exactly is going on between you and Steven?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. “What do you mean?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I noticed things seem tense between you guys.”
I rolled my eyes. “We’re only in Seventh Grade. We weren’t that serious to begin with.”
“He’s a great guy,” Chace said, pausing to wipe a bead of sweat from the side of his face. It was a shame he didn’t have more self-confidence. He shouldn’t have gotten nervous so easily.
“You really care about him, don’t you?”
His cheeks turned bright red. “He’s a good friend…”
Okay. Fine. Chace didn’t have to be honest about his feelings for Steven. That was his right, and I couldn’t make him. He would tell me the truth at some point, though. Honesty was inevitable with him. Chace’s biggest issue was feeling safe, which was obvious since he was so quiet.
I stared him down, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I want to apologize for the other day. I shouldn’t have brought up certain things.”
He looked away from me, deciding to glance at his new sneakers instead. “I didn’t even notice.”
Wow. Chace was a better friend than I realized. He made my excuse for me. Doing so was the sign of a true friend because that meant he could overlook my faults.
I yanked my hand off his shoulder. “That still wasn’t right of me. Being put on the spot isn’t fun.”
Chace still wasn’t looking me in the eye. That was fine. He could take all the time he needed. I knew the truth, and he did too, and for now that was what mattered. He deserved time to figure things out for himself before the rest of the world started judging him.
I clenched my jaw. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
I coughed into my jacket sleeve. “I’m going to visit Steven’s mom after school today. I can’t take it. We risked our lives by running back home from the cemetery.”
He returned his attention back to my eyes. “Okay. That’s fine.”
“You aren’t even going to give me grief for talking to Steven’s mom behind his back?” I asked.
His shoulders bounced up. “It’s not my place.”
I ignored the burning feeling in both of my eyes. It was a shame scary thing made me cry.
Chace’s eyes widened. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ve been debating whether to tell you this, but I’m pretty sure Horatio was at the cemetery that night,” I whispered.
Chace let the flock of students plow down the hallway before opening his mouth. “Are you sure?”
“I would have recognized that morbid feeling anywhere.” I glanced down at my watch, noticing I still had a few minutes before the bell rang.
“I almost forgot…” He unzipped his backpack, making a clinking sound before grabbing something from inside it.
“Why are you giving me a cellphone?”
His teeth jabbed his lip. “It’s a burner phone; I thought you could use it.”
Wow. Chace was a bigger nerd than I realized. Being honest meant I would have never thought about needing a burner phone. Whatever. That was why the universe invented the word delegating. Because I didn’t have to be a genius to understand how I needed help.
I cracked a smile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
I glanced at the cellphone. “How were you able to afford an iPhone?”
“That’s simple. I never told you guys this but I have two cellphones.” His eyes were back on his shoes.
So much for eye contact!
I expelled a quick chuckle. “But you still didn’t answer my question?”
“Trust me,” Chace took in a few deep breaths. “You don’t want to know.”
Chace was different than Steven. There was no denying it. And I sometimes couldn’t even help but think life would be easier if I were more than friends with Chace as opposed to Steven. That would never happen for two reasons, though. Dating Chace would hurt Steven too much. Chace and Steven deserved to have their friendship remain intact. There was also the issue of Chace being different. He might have admired attractive girls here and there, but the interest was fleeting. And that meant a potential relationship would be doomed from the beginning.
I walked straight to the police station after the last bell. Check that! I ran like my life depended on it. Speed was my only choice. I refused to play the role of victim anymore because it was my chance to turn the tables on Horatio. The best part was he wouldn’t even see it coming unless he was monitoring my every move, which wouldn’t have surprised me. That behavior would have upped the creepy factor by ten more levels at a minimum. I put the thought out of my mind. There was no use in thinking demented thoughts. I already had enough trouble sleeping at night as it was, and didn’t need more problems.
I was also lucky there was sidewalk my entire way to town so I could be safe and not worry about cars.
I glanced up at the sun half through my walk, smiling at the beams of light oozing out from the clouds. Spring was coming. I felt it in my bones. Soon winter and Horatio would both be a distant memory. Life would get better. I just knew it.
And no. It didn’t matter how sentimental my previous statement was. I needed all the optimism I could get. Defeating Horatio required a clear head, which meant I couldn’t be chained by emotional baggage. Okay. Fine. Horatio would always be on my mind till I defeated. However, I could have at least tried thinking about him a little less each day.
It took me another half an hour to get to the police station because there were only so many sprints I could run before gasping for air.
I shuffled into the lobby of the police station, as a receptionist desk popped out me, causing me to trek over to it.
The lady took her focus off her computer. “Can I help you?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I would like to talk to Detective Daniels about a murder.”
“Okay. I’ll call her.” The woman punched the numbers before placing the phone up to her ear.
It didn’t take long for Mrs. Daniels to come to me.
She crossed her arms. “Is everything okay, Esme?”
I whipped my head back and forth, deciding right then and there that I could no longer hold back the tears. Crying would help my performance because Mrs. Daniels needed to see my urgency. “No. Like I told the receptionist, I need to talk to you about a murder. I was hoping you’d make an exception about talking to me without a guardian present since you’ve know me all my life.”
Her eyebrows inched up. “Sure. Why don’t we go to my office?”
“Yeah. That’s a good idea.” I followed her lead to the elevator.
The up arrow turned red right after she punched it, causing the elevator door to open.
“Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but why do you have to talk to me about something so dark?” She shut her office door behind me before gesturing to sit down in the chair.
I plopped down in the chair in front of her desk. “It’s about Horatio.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised. Steven’s told me you aren’t crazy about him.” Mrs. Daniels reached for her mug, bringing it up to her lips. Wow. She didn’t waste any time, and chugged down her coffee in a matter of seconds. “I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Would you like a cup of hot chocolate, water, or a soda?”
Going on a tangent would have meant discussing how my eyes couldn’t help but beam. Little things revealed insight into a person’s character just as much as bigger moments. After all, there was no doubt Horatio would have been kind like Steven’s mom despite how he once cooked me breakfast.
I raised my hand at her. “I’m good.”
An awkward silence ensued for a beat.
“I can prove my suspicions aren’t crazy,” I continued.
“I never said you were crazy.”
I yanked open my backpack before grabbing the documents. “Here you go.”
She grabbed the documents from me. “I don’t understand. What am I looking at?”
“The first two documents prove Horatio isolated Mom and I from my extended family,” I said, pointing to the piece of papers. “And the second document shows he took out a life insurance policy.”
Her eyes continued staring at the documents. “I see that.”
My heart thumped inside my chest. “You believe me, right?”
She placed the documents on her desk, pushing them out of the way. “Forgetting about how you even got hold of these documents, yes, I do believe you. But I’m afraid I can’t help unless you have reason to suspect you’re in immediate harm or he’s about to commit a crime.”
My face drooped. “But the funeral was closed casket. That has to count for something.”
“It does. But it won’t help us here,” she said. “However, I can make a call to a social worker and she can check things out. Anyone with half a brain can see your upset, and we should do something about that.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “You would do that for me?”
“Your mom was one of my best friends. Besides, I can tell Horatio seems off.”
I fanned myself with my jacket. It was hard to believe I could work up a sweat walking to town on a winter day. But winter was waning since it would be gone soon. Spring arrived early, and was here to stay as far as I was concerned.
She tapped her feet on the ground. “There’s something else I wanted to say. There are certain things that are guaranteed to raise red flags.”
My hands fell to my lap. “Are you telling me to lie?”
“Of course not. I’m just pointing out that certain things would help make your case easier. I could never instruct you to lie. I could lose my job.”
Mrs. Daniels could deny the subtext all she wanted. But I knew the truth, and she did too. She wanted me to lie, and I only hoped she had a better poker face when dealing with criminals.
In the end, I couldn’t lie. Inflicting bruises on myself or telling a lie seemed wrong even if I was too stubborn for my own good. But there was nothing wrong with wanting to make Horatio pay with the truth. Besides, I was sure Horatio would use a lie against me. The right way was the only way.
The social worker showed up the following afternoon when I came home from school.
“Someone needs to talk to you,” said Horatio the moment I trekked into the living room.
They were plopped down on the couch at the moment.
She flashed a smile. “My name is Mrs. Roberts. I’m a social worker, and I came to ask you a few simple questions. But don’t worry. You aren’t in trouble.”
If only Horatio could hear my internal giggling. Okay. Giggling was the wrong word. I should have used cackling instead. Because he would be the one with pricked up back hairs if I cackled. And I didn’t need to mention how flipping the dynamic would have been rich. But my tangent was enough. Acting amused could have been a big tell and that wasn’t something I wanted or needed. The whole plan had to go off without any complications because I couldn’t take one more day of living under the same roof as the monster.
Horatio stood. “I’ll leave you guys alone.”
He stared back at me before darting down the hallway and into the basement. It was the longest five seconds of my life. Yup. I thought I would be submerged in fire from the intensity of his gaze. And it was also almost enough to make me cry.
Mrs. Roberts shoved the file back into her briefcase after we finished. “I have everything I need.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She propped herself up from the couch. “I’ll be in touch.”
I held back my laughs. “I look forward to it.”
Mrs. Roberts brushed off her suit and dress. And it didn’t matter if her outfit made her seem uptight. Her sincere behavior was refreshing.
I glanced out my bedroom window hours later in the evening.
Yup. It was another sleepless night. An icy sensation spread across all of my skin, and I just didn’t understand it. I might have a hard time seeing since it was dark out. But that didn’t change how Horatio was carrying something. I squinted. The outline of the object looked like it could have been an axe, and it wasn’t long before he shut the shed door behind him.
The axe couldn’t have been the murder weapon. This was Horatio, though, which meant no theory was too absurd.
I wouldn’t speculate about Horatio’s intentions tonight. It was time for bed. I had a history test in a few hours, and Horatio would be tomorrow’s problem.
If I were lucky, I’d dream about happier times with Mom. But I wasn’t counting on it. My dream would be some morbid tease about the life with Mom that Horatio stole from me.
Yup. I had no qualms about being cynical. I was the girl who thought about murderers. I was the girl who lived with a murderer. I was the girl who had her mother killed by a murderer. But none of those facts mattered. But I was also the girl who would defeat a murder. I just knew it. After all, my life depended on winning.