It’s trying times like these, I’m thankful for my father’s advice. From raking the leaves and bagging them correctly. Or to his unreasonable standards, I should say. To the times in the garage when he insisted on a complete tutorial on the difference between Phillips screwdrivers and flatheads. When I was 15, my doorknob broke. Instead of hiring someone to come in and fix it fast, my father spent two painstaking hours detailing everything I needed to know how to fix it. Now—he may have yelled a bit and huffed with his impatience, but my father showed me how to do it. Even through my bouts of inattention, he remained determined. I knew one day it’d come in handy. Despite only being here for just a few days, today is that day. My past self couldn’t have imagined it would be for this reason, but here I am with a new doorknob and key in hand. No stalker will get me today or tomorrow. I’m prepared. I’m ready for their intrusions now. Only the key hanging around my neck will grant me access to this room. Only me.
My dampened palms slide down the rough fabric of my skinny jeans, planting a smile across my lips in my one minor victory. The tiny, minuscule incidents like these are the ones I need to revel in. Bask in their glory, because one tiny, little good thing done, has a bad thing waiting for it.
Me: Me-1, my stalker-0. New doorknob.
Tristan- snorts. I can’t believe you did that shit yourself. Badass—1 crazy psycho—0. Got hw? I need some tension release…. care to play AW?
Me: yes HW, but I owe you like 50 AW dates. let's play.
My computers whirl to life in front of me. The screens flash on, as I settle in for the next few hours full of killing big, evil demons. As I set to log in on one computer, I use the other to check on my recordings. My heart falls into my ass, as the image of a girl dressed in black appears before me. My finger hovers momentarily above the mouse before I press play to watch the video my motion detector recorded. There’s no sound, but I don’t need it to read her. Her face is full of sorrow, tears lining her cheeks. She stands in the middle of my living room. My apartment. My fucking safe space. She just stands there, eyes looking around like a wild animal to flee. Chest heaving, sorrow piercing through her perfect facade, like a fire ravishing through every beautiful aspect of her. Her knees give out, dropping hard onto the carpet. Tears continually fall down her red, puffy cheeks with no end in sight. She sucks in a breath, regains her composure, and walks around each room. Just like that, she’s back to her perfect self. She knocks on walls, lifts the mattress, and rifles through my desk. Her swollen lips roll together. Eyes flashing misery again. Utter defeat. Her stiff shoulders sag, head shaking. She gives one last look back at the room, stalking out of the apartment like her ass was on fire. Ainsley fucking Benoit walked into my room, rifled through my things like it was nothing. Like my privacy meant nothing to her. I knew leaving my apartment vulnerable for those hours was a mistake. Fuck. Jesus, I will have to put a full security system in my apartment. An apartment my family paid an arm and a leg for.
My gaming computer continues to log me in, running through a last-minute update, giving me time to get into the school’s secure network. The surveillance videos of my hallway are up in a minute’s time. There she was, with a key in hand, unlocking my door. A key, she has a fucking key. Well—an old key now, but still a key! She has to be the one who put a goddamned camera in my vent. My heart continues to pound inside my chest. Like a drum with a wild, unsteady beat, I can barely hear anything around me. Static fills my ears. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Blood rushes to my ears, my heartbeat filling them. Tiny ants crawl up my skin in tune with my heart. Fuck. Fuck. Deep breaths, Kaycee. Calm down. Count down.
Me: I caught my stalker.
Tristan: you what now?
Me: I have video proof. she came into my room looking for something…..
But what? What could she find in my room that would interest her so fucking much? I have nothing she would want. What would be so important she would break into my room and tear everything apart? Ugh.
Tristan: you need to report this shit. That’s serious, Addi. I swear to God. I will have to track you down and keep you fucking safe. I go to some bratty prep school too... and these tools? They. Don’t. Fucking. Play. Around. Addi!
I know when he uses the name I told him, he’s serious. Deadly serious. I know he could track me down. He and I are exactly alike in talent. Sometimes, though, I think he’s better. That camera? He’s still figuring out ways to help me track it down. It’s what I need. I need to track its signal to find out who is responsible. My gut tells me now, Ainsley is deep into this.
Me: let’s play…. help me take my mind off of it.
Tristan: fuck’s sake. They didn’t put another camera in there, did they?
me: no, not this time, they just tore my shit apart... looking for something….
Maybe it’s time I get to know Ainsley Benoit a little better. A lot better. Time to become the best of friends or something. I know exactly where she will be Friday night, Chase gave her away. I can keep surveillance as she leaves and then make my move. It’s perfect. An eye for an eye. If this was her second time coming into my room, then maybe she has some important evidence in her room. It was part of my initial plan, anyway. Break into their rooms, one by one, to discover their secrets. This solidifies it. They’ll never know what’s about to hit them. Like a thief in the night, I’ll be in and out before the first half of the football game.
Me: let’s just play…. I’ve got a plan.
Tristan: oh lord.. well you’ve got a plan….. how dangerous is it?
me: if you call sneaking into my stalker’s room while they’re away dangerous... then a lot.
Tristan: I’m tracking your ass down, ADDI! you can’t just break into someone’s fucking room!
me: says who?
Tristan: says me god damnit. heart attack... You. Will. Kill. Me.
Me: Then you’ll die knowing these brats won’t get one over on me. Besides, it helps my secret mission.
Tristan: you ever going to go all no bullshit with me and tell me what your secret mission is?
me: No bullshit
Tristan: for my fucking sanity??
Me: someone murdered my best friend. I will find them.
Tristan: I shouldn’t have fucking asked…... No Bullshit, you ok?
Tristan: on what?
Me: on if they catch me or not.
Tristan: Grey hair at 17…... a fucking aneurysm too…... So which day should I pace my dorm worrying about your ass?
me: Friday night.
Tristan and I strategies some more throughout the night, while playing a few rounds of Angel Warrior, texting through our app. We’ve discussed headsets a few times, which would make gameplay easier, considering we are on a team but dismissed it quickly. Getting close to Tristan is nice, but the anonymity works for us right now. We’re both teenagers. And with my father’s fame, it makes it difficult. In the blink of an eye Tristan could know everything about me, my family, and anything else he would want thanks to google. It’s something I’m very uncomfortable with, so we stay like this. Anonymous in every way. The only good thing for Tristan come Friday is he’ll be on his own football field taking his worry and aggression out on unsuspecting guys. It tilts the scales in my favor. He’d text me nonstop if he didn’t have a distraction.
Throughout the week, Chase takes this whole wooing thing to a new level. Tuesday was red roses in a vase in my locker with a brief note letting me know Chase tried. “Your first day of wooing. Still up for football?” Later in class, I told him of course I’d be there for his game and thanked him for the flowers. They aren’t my favorite type of present. They’re beautiful for a week if you’re lucky. Their smell is heavenly until it’s not. Their thorns pierce your skin when you handle them. They wilt. They die. And then they’re trash. But I give Chase the credit. He’s trying, for whatever reason.
Wednesday I found a small, old white iPod with new headphones in my locker.
“Enjoy what I enjoy,” He said with that panty-melting smile. “Besides, I’m desperate for you to listen to the Hartbrakers, New Girl. You’ll love them! And don’t tell Zoe, but—God—her drumming and singing is sooooooooo killer!!” I of course don’t tell Zoe a thing. In between classes I block out the yells and the screams of the other kids, listening to Zoe’s raspy voice. Her singing hits me right in the heart. I feel what she feels. Heart pounding heartbreak. Sadness. Anxiety. Happiness. Joyful celebrations. Every ingredient mixed in her music blends like a delicious cake, mixed to perfection.
Thursday, a ticket for his football game sits in my locker. He reserved a comfy VIP seat just for me. “You’ll have the best seat in the house! You’ll be able to see everything. I can’t wait to show off my incredible moves to you. Hot damn, you will enjoy the game so much!” He squeals like a girl through the entire day, vibrating like an excited puppy. Even sneaking an arm around my shoulders, pulling me close to his body, and walking me from class to class. I couldn’t help but lean into him, soaking up the happiness radiating out of his every pore. Chase is like sunshine bottled into a huge, muscular, football player.
I voluntarily sit with him and the others through lunch, enjoying their conversations. Seger seemed to have healed over the last few days since his spat with Carter. I still don’t know what happened there, but whatever it was, he’s not talking about it. Zepp, being Zepp, barely said a word to anyone. He just stared at us all, taking everything piece of conversation in, and stored inside his brain. Being around them so casually like this, and seeing them in their natural habitat, made me rethink the whole “they’re murderers” thing. Sure, Seger and Carter threw some punches like street fighters, but Seger walked away. They were still on my radar, but maybe I had to consider other possibilities.
Ainsley didn’t sit with us that day. She hid with her girlfriends at another table, barely making conversation with them. Her fork pushed most of her lunch around, almost as if her mind had wandered to a distant land. Which it wasn’t. Ainsley seemed too spacey and too timid to be a murderer, but she was still on my shit list. Not just for the bullying she pulled on Mags, but for breaking into my fucking room. Twice. With a camera. Looks can deceive, I have to remember that.
After a week of being on Chase’s radar, I relaxed around him. It’s easy to do. His lively personality makes it so easy to feel wanted and comfortable. He’s easygoing, jokes a ton, and never fails to lift my spirits. Chase is so good, he almost distracts me away from tasks I had come here for. He wouldn’t of course, this would be to my advantage, but still. A girl could get used to this kind of attention. I’ve never had a guy chase me before. And maybe…. maybe I like it. Just a little? Ok, I liked it a lot.
By Friday a red and white football jersey, with Benoit scrawled across the back of it, makes its way into my locker. I smiled at the surprise, feeling the odd butterflies floating in my tummy. I never expected to feel like this, but I like Chase.
An arm wraps around my shoulder, my eyes admiring the football jersey in my hands. Chase’s body heat penetrates through my school uniform, pulling me further into him. “You’ll wear it, yeah?” I peer into his hopeful grey eyes. There’s a lightness in them, begging me to give in. He smiles down at me with a genuine grin reaching his eyes. His hands pull together, begging. Looking as if he’d fall to his knees if I said no. But how could I say no? To that face? No way.
I smile, reaching up to peck his cheek without thinking. “I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity.” His face lights up like I’ve just set off the world’s greatest firework show, tinting a bright shade of red.
“YESSSSSSSSSS!!!” He shouts, gaining everyone’s attention inside the long, locker-filled hallway. My cheeks flame, but I can’t deny his happiness is contagious. We laugh together, walking to class with his jersey in my hands. Excitement thrums through my veins, moving like an addictive high I could get used to. With his arm around me, we make our way into calculus. Carter eyes us from the back of the room with his eyebrows raised into his shaggy brown locks. Confusion warps his features, watching my every move. Eventually, class starts and the teacher drags his attention away from me. The day goes by quickly enough. The anticipation of what I will do later weighs me down like a heavy boulder resting in the pit of my stomach. Threatening to send the delicious dinner, I ate back up.
I pull on a black hoodie and sit in front of my computers. If I will pull this off, I need to cover all my bases. Who is to say Ainsley doesn’t have the same skills I do. The last thing I need is to bring this whole undercover, Sherlock Holmes, gig down by one mistake. So while everyone is in the football stadium celebrating the first game of the season against their biggest rivals, I’ll disable all the cameras. No one will see me coming and no one will see me going. I’ll get in, look around, and be out before the first quarter of the game. I pull up the student directory and look into Ainsley’s private files. Room 301, Kirkland Building, not too far away.
Through the camera’s, doors open throughout Ainsley’s apartment building and close. Including her. She shrugs on a small sweater over her school spirit wear, even though it’s hot as balls, and makes her way out of the building with everyone else. By the time I make it to her building, silence fills the corridor, making my job ten times easier. I walk along the forgotten stairway, making my way up to the third floor. I peek my head out of the stairwell door, looking around for any signs of life. The bulbs of the fluorescent lights buzzing above my head are the only sounds filling the air. On the tips of my toes, I creep down the hallway towards apartment 301. I pull my kit out of my pocket, dropping to my knees. When I investigated Mag’s tormentors six months ago, I tried to commit to the role. Downloading everything I could about this campus, I discovered, despite the amount of money brought in by tuition, they still had old-fashioned keyed rooms. You’d think with their money, they’d have eye scanners by now. But luckily for me, they don’t. So after logging hours upon hours on Videotube, I picked a lock, like a thief, but I knew my plans. So I had to learn.
Listening to the tiny clicks of the lock, I finally hear the one I’m listening for. Click. The door cracks open with a small twist of the handle and I’m standing inside. If I thought my apartment was amazing, Ainsley’s is spectacular. Beyond what a 17-year-old needs to survive. Her apartment looks completely updated from mine. New TV, new computer desk, and more room than necessary. I knew by the blueprints of every building; they were all different. But to see it in person changes it all.
I move around the apartment like a stealthy ninja. Staying as silent as possible, I look through the mounds of paperwork on the kitchen counter. I flip through pages and find nothing suspect, just a bunch of school papers. Moving on to her computer desk, I open the bottom drawers and search through them, coming up empty. There’s nothing here. Nothing but school syllabus and other bullshit, nothing to point a finger at Ainsley. I move to the top drawer of the desk and pull. Locked. I run my tongue over my top teeth and try to pull again. Defiantly locked. Only important items get locked inside a desk. Without ripping the lock off, I take out my kit again and pick it. The same familiar clicks come from the lock until it pops open. I take a deep breath, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and reach inside.
My eyebrows furrow at the sight before me. There're pictures of her and the guys as kids. Her and Chase making mud pies as kids. Tons of her, Chase, Seger, and Zepp hanging around campus from their freshman year until last year. There’s even a picture of Mags sitting with them at lunch, smiling like they didn’t bully the shit out of her. Ainsley and Mags share another picture, just the two of them together. Leaning in, shoulders touching, and large smiles on their faces. Water sits in the picture's background, looking like the pond on the furthest part of campus. The most secluded too.
I run my finger over Mags’ smiling face. Her brown eyes stare back at me with happiness shining through them. Her auburn hair is blowing in the wind that must have been present that day. I smile back, tears clouding my vision. Blurring my surroundings as I give in. When she died, I couldn’t look at her. I knew she wasn’t coming back. I knew I’d never see her again. But the pain it pierced through my broken heart to look at her, it was too much. Seeing her happiness glaring back at me splits my soul in two, gnawing at the edges of my grief. Maybe she was happy at one point, but what changed?
“What happened, Mags?” I whisper to the girl staring back at me.
“Fuck!” I whisper, shoving the photo into my pocket. Several key’s jostles on the other side of the door, separating me from whoever is coming in. My body trembles, my eyes looking around frantically. Whoever is out there cannot see me in here. The doorknob jiggles as I run towards the bedroom door. I fly under the tiny ass bed, hiding my body from view.
The front door shuts softly, small cries coming from the living room. “It’s happening!” Ainsley’s pained and trembling voice comes from her living room. The white soles of her shoes are the only glimpse I see of her pacing form. Back and forth. Back and forth she tiptoes the entire length of her living room.
“NO, Chase! AGAIN!” She wails. “It’s happening again, what the fuck? I thought this was over. I thought----” She stops mid-sentence and listens to Chase, I’m assuming over the phone. “Yeah—yeah, after the game, I’ll show you. But it’s the same person, I swear.” She whispers in agony. “I can’t do this again. What if----what if it’s me this time?” She whispers. “Fine. I’ll see you later.” She huffs and hangs up. She takes several deep breaths and walks out the door again with a bang.
I stay under the bed for another ten minutes, just in case. My mind mulling over her words and the picture burning a hole in my pocket. I need to get out of this room, throw my black hoodie around my waist, and make it to the game for appearances. Chase will look out for me and to be honest, I’m kind of excited to see him play. Although the enormous crowd will make me want to puke, I’ll do it for him. Wow—for him. I never saw myself doing something like this for someone like him. Never in a million years did I think I could have some feelings like this for a guy. But Chase has it. We have it. Some connection. I may not know him on a deep level, but for now.
After dropping off the picture to my room, I make my way to the football stadium. The crowd roars with cheers and excitement. A loud, male voice booms through the speakers, welcoming everyone to the very first football game of the season. By the sound of the screams and roars, I have missed very little. The surrounding atmosphere is so jovial, I feel it in my soul. The souls in this stadium believe in the players running onto the field with their red and white uniforms on. They printed all their last names on the back of their jerseys. All except for Seger and Zepp, who each have their first initials along with their last names. I guess to tell them apart on the field so the couch can yell at them specifically from the sidelines.
I take my ticket out of my pocket and hand it to an actual guard, guarding the nearly empty VIP section. Ainsley sits like a stiff board on the edge of her padded seat. Her eyes never leave the field as I make my approach into the skybox. Air conditioning surrounds us, creating a nice cool breeze among the heated outside world. Ainsley pulls her sweater closer to her body, taking a deep breath.
“I see Chase gave you a ticket.” She says in a monotone voice, eyes still on the action on the field.
“He did,” I say, taking the seat farthest away from her, leaving three empty seats in between us. She peers over at me quickly, before putting her eyes back on the game. Chase is running around the field like a maniac. Seger and Zepp taking down guys hot on his tail. I sit on the edge of my seat, peering down at a game I never thought I’d enjoy. Sure—I watched my brother play plenty of times, and he’s good. Fantastic. But watching the boys run around the field like crazy guys, it feels different. Maybe because they’re my friends. Friends. Hmm. Maybe they really are. Maybe my original assumptions based on Mags’ emails were wrong. I need to reevaluate her emails.
“My brother must really like you,” Ainsley says, refusing to look at me. I shrug, even though she can’t see me.
“Oh—I don’t know about that,” I say, finally catching her attention. Red puffy bags still dominate underneath her eyes, as she stares at me like I’m crazy.
She scoffs, rolling her eyes. “Chase doesn’t invite randos to his precious private viewing box. Enjoy it. For now.” She says with a one-shouldered shrug. A knock sounds at the door and two girls come barreling in like they own the place, escalating the mounting tension in the room.
Girl number one stops walking and eyes me, scrunching her perfect little button nose. Her eye twitches as she stares at the name on the back of my jersey. Ah—yes, I recognize her, although she hasn’t been at school this past week. Harlow Lacey, daughter of a powerful media mogul, Neil Lacey. He’s built his media firm from the ground up over the past 20 years, making him and his family richer than the Queen. Or God himself. I’d know her smug little face anywhere. Especially from Chase’s FlashGram from last year. She was everywhere for a few months. In every picture, kissing him, holding his hand, and looking like his perfect match on the red carpet for his father’s events. They were a perfect couple on paper, a match made in heaven. Until one day she disappeared from his pictures.
“Who the fuck is this, Ains?” Harlow grits out, flopping a wrist in my direction. “And why the fuck is she in my seat?” She asks again, gaining Ainsley’s barely there attention.
“Chase asked her,” Ainsley says solemnly, before turning back to the game. She turns her back to Harlow, earning me the intense hate-filled stares.
“I don’t care if he asked her, she’s in my fucking seat!” She shrieks again, stomping her foot like the spoiled little rich girl I pegged her for. Great, just great.
“I don’t see your name on it,” I say, looking all over the red-cushioned seat for a name of any kind, coming up empty.
The girl behind Harlow, her sister Hadley, eyes widen at my words. She eyes between me and Harlow, swallowing hard, shaking her head, trying to give me a silent warning. But like I’ve said before, If I’m not afraid of Cruel Carter, then Harlow Lacey doesn’t scare me one bit. She may have claws like a tiger and words that would kill anyone else’s spirit, but she doesn’t bother me.
“I’ve been coming to this box every game to support my boyfriend for the last year! That’s. My. Fucking. Seat. Now get out!” She shrieks again, hovering over me. Her hands instantly fall to her hips, her foot tapping an impatient tempo against the wood floor.
“Boyfriend?” I ask, raising a brow. Triumph rushes through her eyes, her chin raising, taking in the pleasure of bursting my bubble.
“Yes, my boyfriend. And from what I’ve heard since I got back last night, you’ve been moving in on what’s not yours. So---I’ll tell you once, New Girl Slut, he’s mine. Back the fuck off and get the fuck out of here.” Her teeth grit so hard she nearly pops one out of her mouth.
“Did he ask you to come here?” Ainsley asks Harlow calmly, keeping her eyes on the game still.
“Well—uh---I---just assumed this was still my seat! My daddy’s money helped to build this!” She says, eyeing Ainsley with caution. For the first time since she’s walked into the room, she stares at Ainsley in terror. She’s desperate for Ainsley to like her. She wants her to accept her into this box so she can ogle Chase on the field. Her chin lowers a smidge, as her hands fall to her sides. She’s two seconds away from begging Ainsley for this chance.
“If he didn’t ask you and you don’t have a ticket for this area, then you must leave. The both of you. He asked Kaycee and gave her a ticket. And quite frankly, Harlow, you’re getting on my last nerve. Chase broke up with you. Broke. Up. With. You. Last year. Get over it and screw off.” Ainsley spits venom into her words, never takes her eyes off the field, but I’m sure she can feel the intense fire burning off Harlow’s eyes.
Harlow huffs flips Ainsley and me the bird and grabs her sister’s arm. She stomps out of the viewing box, shaking the windows in the wake of her slamming the door. Ainsley sighs a breath of relief, sitting back in her chair. She pulls her sweater tighter around her.
“She’ll be gunning for you now.” She whispers. “But dear God, that felt good. Between you and me,” She says looking into my eyes for the first time tonight. “I don’t know why my brother kept her around. She wasn’t even his girlfriend, not really, more like a clinger who wouldn’t let go. Of all of them.” She gives a small shrug and turns back to the game.
“So glad I could be of service,” I say through a tight smile. My eyes move to the game, as Seger makes a touchdown at the opposite end of the field. The boys jump him in their excitement to end the quarter.
I roll my eyes as Piper’s peppy ass comes out onto the field at halftime. I mentally groan, thankful she hasn’t said more than hi to me over the last week. Ever since Chase has been on my tail, wooing me, she’s stayed clear.
They all hop up and down, swishing their red and white pom-poms. A cheer begins and soon the entire crowd chants with them. Piper bounces on the balls of her feet, slinging her arms up in the air. She leads her crew through a series of cheers. The band plays from the field as well, everyone joining in on the school.
“We’ve got spirit, how bout you? Let's sing our fight song and beat the blue!” The Talon Prep Blues from a town over. Our biggest rivals in every sport, but especially in football. They always give the boys a run for their money. Usually getting their asses beat, no matter what year it is. Or what boys are on the field.
The trumpets start and the drums beat a heavy thud with every hit. Everyone in the stands jumps to their feet, stomping to the tune of our school song. The song goes on and then it’s over. Piper jumps around some more, leading the girls and guys on her team off the field.
Ainsley stays silent throughout the entire game. I don’t necessarily think she’s ignoring me, but I don’t think she’s pleased about my presence. In fact, I don’t think she wants company at all. Even after the game is over, she scurries away like her life depends on it. Making me wonder what the hell happened to her? Magnolia described Ainsley as her number one tormentor. She’d call her names. She’d shove disgusting things into her locker and taunt her about it later. The thing that confuses me is, Ainsley is so meek. She doesn’t seem like the girl who Magnolia claimed she was. So—what changed?
There are so many people and incidences I need to look into before I continue looking in the wrong direction. One fact I do know for sure. Someone murdered her. I just don’t know if some names on my suspect list fit the bill anymore.
Me: meet me outside the locker room? Please? I’ll beg if I have to!
Me: I’ll be there. But you could do some begging.
Chase: I'll get on my knees for you... and beg.
Me: snorts. Please don’t. I’m heading that way.