As it happened, regretting came sooner than anyone expected.
After my two stand-offs with Bennett and Emmie’s not-so-clear revelations, I decided to smuggle myself to the bonfire party my friend mentioned at the beginning of the week. Obviously, I wasn’t sure if Emmie would be able to go as we didn’t really speak for four bloody days. Nevertheless, I hoped against all odds that she would show up, and I would be able to talk to her without anyone noticing, especially Bennett.
Well, I never said I was accommodating.
My only problem was how to sneak in as a). I didn’t have a car, and b). I had a dislocated shoulder. That, however, was resolved during one of my rides home when mum decided to, surprisingly, give me a lift to the party Bennett was throwing. He must have made an impression on her. As a rule, mum was a bit wary about the boys I brought home. That was especially the case before Upton Hill Town. I didn’t know if my mum’s eagerness to help was due to my lack of social life and visibly sour mood caused by the absence of Emmie or Bennett’s charm. Anyway, it didn’t actually matter because the outcome was more than satisfactory.
The end justifies the means and whatsoever.
It was already dark when mum dropped me off at the parking lot by Azure Lake. I still had to make my way on the unlit, dirt road that was barred against trucks, but it wasn’t that far off from where I was currently standing. Or so I hoped. I honestly despised woods and dreaded the walk to the beach, even though it was relatively short. I didn’t find the forest inviting, and the sound of the nightlife of the animals made me jumpy. So, it took me a while to finally gather my courage.
I shivered equally out of cold and wariness and eventually started to walk towards the dull thud of loudspeakers. All the while, I was cursing Bennett to hell and back and fervently praying that no wolf would unexpectedly leap out from behind the bushes.
Thankfully, I managed to leave unscratched. The darkness gave way to the bright light of a bonfire, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I looked around at the raving teenagers.
Some of them were dancing, some of them were drinking in groups by the fire, other cooked marshmallows, smoked or made out.
A boy I didn’t recognise appeared out of nowhere and shoved a drink in my hand.
“Cheers to you, Gemma, and our beautiful Upton Hill Vixens!” He shouted excitedly as a way of greeting, giving me a wide, friendly smile that could easily advertise all kinds of toothpaste. “If you want more booze, the freezers are just by the water. Help yourself to whatever.” He pointed in the general direction of the lake and then walked away, leaving me a bit dumbfounded.
I guess being a part of the Upton Hill High soccer team had some advantages.
I shrugged and drunk half of the cup, deciding a bit of liquid courage wouldn’t hurt. And then I went on a hunt.
I lazily strolled through a group of dancing people, trying to spot Emmie. The music was blasting my ears. A few wandering hands tried to grope me, but I managed to move away just in time to avoid the unwanted advances. I passed a couple who most probably wanted to do themselves right in the middle of the dance floor and spotted Sydney Brooks. She was wearing a white, skimpy dress that left little to the imagination and, as always, was glued to Bennett’s side.
Cursing, I immediately ducked behind a group of teenagers. Thank God, neither Bennett nor Sydney saw me, too engaged in laughing at Jackson’s antics to pay attention to the little old me. I took a sip of my beer and watched their interaction - I simply couldn’t help myself. I never saw Emmie’s cousin so loose. He grinned widely and shoved his friend playfully in the arm with his closed fist. All the while, his eyes never ceased from twinkling in merriment. Happiness radiated from him in such warm waves that I could feel them from where I was currently standing.
My heart clenched at the sight though, whether from jealousy or sadness, I wasn’t sure.
I was pulled out of my own staring party when somebody bumped into me from behind. I staggered a couple of steps, trying to regain my balance, and ended up almost right in front of Bennett. Just as he moved his head to the side to check what was the commotion about, I turned around, let my loose hair cover half of my face, and came face to face with a confused guy who happened to stand right in front of me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed at Bennett, who was still scanning the crowd with an unreadable expression on his face, but I got away before he had a chance to pinpoint me and make a scene... Or something more ridiculous only he could think of.
Distracted no more, I jumped into my mission again. And that was when I finally found Emmie.
She was wearing a dark green top and tight dark jeans. Her long, raven black hair was blown gently at her back as she was heading towards the limestone formation.
Without further ado, I elbowed a couple of loudly protesting girls, disposed of my cup somewhere on the grass, and hastily followed my friend towards the rocks she disappeared behind.
I slithered by the enormous limestone - a mute witness to raving teens - and ended up, once again, in the pitch-dark forest. Gone was the sound of music and laugher, replaced now by the loud chirps of crickets.
“Emmie? Emmie!” I called out in hopes my friend could hear me and turn back.
Frankly, I dreaded going anywhere deeper into the woods, even if it was for Emmie. Still, I did take a few steps further and almost splayed myself on the bedding when my foot caught on an invisible root.
“Emmie, are you here?” I asked again, but the silence followed. Which was when I realised that it was way too quiet. The crickets stopped in their tracks, their loud chirp now replaced by deafening stillness. Even the night air wasn’t stirred by the slightest breeze.
Something was very, very off... And it wasn’t just my imagination - though it surely made the situation ten times worse than it probably was.
“Okay, that’s it. I’m out.” I decided and abruptly turned back. I was a shameless coward when it came to nature, and I had no qualms about denying it. At that very moment, I simply wanted to get out of woods, with or without Emmie.
The thing was, I never had a chance to leave...