A week had passed since Natalie had resumed her relationship with Scott, and she was happy. So her mother still passed snarky comments about Scott every time they sat down to eat, and Pete still wasn’t talking to either of them, but she didn’t care. She was happy. Happier than she’d been in a long time.
For the most part at least. That stupid, tiny inkling of doubt was still there, almost like it was taunting her, telling her she was stupid for taking him back so easily. It hadn’t been easy though, it had been eight years. She’d forgiven him because she’d always known why he’d slept with that random girl. She’d probably forgiven him the moment it had happened, but she hadn’t been able to go back, not until now. She wasn’t going to let anything ruin this again, not her mom, or Pete, or her own silly feelings. She was going to be happy.
She approached the Garrison Manor and already the place was buzzing with people in preparation for Bryce’s ninth birthday party. Natalie’s stomach dropped as she tried to mentally prepare herself for the evening. Pete and Eliza had gone all out and had invited everyone close to Bryce, all his classmates from school, his friends, family, family friends and even the extended family. That meant Ryan would be there, and her mom, and Scott’s mom, and anyone else who felt the need to disapprove. It was going to be a fun night.
“Natalie, you’re here early.” Eliza said as Natalie stepped into the foyer, her knocking going unnoticed by the staff bustling about in a frenzy. “Wait, what time is it?”
“Five.” Natalie replied.
“Crap.” Eliza said. “Hurry up people.” She yelled to the house-staff and everything became more chaotic as they ran from room to room, swapping around furniture, removing anything valuable and setting up decorations Natalie didn’t understand, like the spanner with fake blood on the end of it.
“I just found out Bryce actually wanted a murder mystery party.” Eliza explained. “So we’ve spent the day rushing to convert all the superhero crap into this.”
“What do you mean you just found out?” Natalie asked. Bryce had always wanted to have a life-size murder mystery, bring his favourite board game Cluedo to life. She remembered the one night she’d babysat, and she and Bryce had spent the evening planning out several intricate mysteries to solve.
“Yeah, he did. But Pete convinced him to have superheroes.” Her voice was annoyed and her eyes burned with anger. “They’re cooler, all the rage right now, and the kids at school would actually enjoy a superhero party, rather than make fun of the lame, complicated murder mystery party Bryce wanted to throw. Seems my husband forgot our job is make our son happy, not all his pathetic classmates.”
“How’d you find what he really wanted?”
“Scott.” Eliza replied. “He read Bryce’s diary. Bryce is still trying to be mad about it, but the more he sees all of this the harder it is for him not to smile.” Eliza paused, shaking her head as the angry expression washed away, a sad one taking its place. “When I read his diary he held it against me for a month. And now, he can barely remember he’s supposed to be mad at Scott because of how much he wanted this. How could Pete have denied him it?”
“He was doing what he thought was best.” Natalie was all too familiar with Pete’s meddling. She hated it, she’d always resented it, but she also knew it came from a good place. Pete just wanted the people he loved to be happy, but sometimes his ideas of what made them happy were misguided. Still, everything he did was for the people he loved. “He just didn’t want to see the kids make fun of his son.”
“I know. But I also know what its like to be Bryce. We shouldn’t be telling him to change so that those idiots at school will stop picking on him. They’re the ones with the problem, and I want him to know that. I don’t want him to ever think there’s something wrong with him.”
“Pete wants the same thing, he’s just going about it a different way.”
“Yeah.” Eliza said, a faraway look in her eyes. Natalie didn’t know what it meant, but she wished she did. Eliza had been so easy to read back when they were younger, so eager to share how she was feeling. Now she held it all back, made this way because of all the people that told her she had to change. “Anyway, enjoy the party.” And before Natalie could get another word out Eliza was gone, yelling at the staff like nothing had just happened.
Natalie sighed, accepting that she should just do as she was told and enjoy the party. So she walked into the house, placed Bryce’s gift, an original Cluedo board-game, on the gift table and entered the backyard. She was ready. She was ready to deal with whatever the hell this party had to throw at her.
She so wasn’t ready to deal with whatever the hell this party had to throw at her. One hour into the festivities Ryan arrived, and Natalie took a nosedive right behind a massive potted plant, desperate to avoid him.
She could just imagine how ridiculous she looked. She felt just as ridiculous. She just didn’t know if she could face him. Every time she thought of him she felt an overwhelming amount of guilt. They’d been together for three years, and she’d thrown that all away, for her high-school boyfriend. Granted Scott was more than a high-school boyfriend, but to Ryan, and everyone else, that’s how this looked.
She knew she couldn’t hide from Ryan forever, especially tonight. Okay, she told herself, she was doing this, she was coming out. She peered out from behind the plant and her eyes instantly fell on him. He was standing with Pete, the two of them both with stern expressions as they spoke about something serious. As if sensing her Ryan’s head shot in her direction, and Natalie dived back behind the plant. She knew she’d have to face him eventually, but she didn’t have to do it now. This house was huge, and there’d be about a million people here tonight, there was no reason she had to actively seek out Ryan. If they bumped into each other then so be it, if they didn’t then they didn’t.
Yep she was a coward.
She knew this and yet she still didn’t emerge from behind the plant. Instead she waited for one of the caterers to walk past before jumping to her feet and using him as a body shield as she ran in the opposite direction.
She headed for the games room then immediately regretted it when she saw her mother entering the house, Bryce’s gift tucked under her arm. Great. This was just great. She was about to duck into the study when she noticed Scott, ambling down the stairs, completely oblivious to the danger.
The moment his foot hit the bottom step she jumped out of her hiding spot, grabbed his arm and dragged him through the nearest door. The space was cramped and she quickly realised she’d pulled him into a broom closet.
“This is not what I had in mind, but I can work with this.” He said, placing a quick kiss to her lips.
“My mother’s out there.” She told him.
“Talk about a mood killer.” He muttered. “So what, we’re gonna hide in here all night?”
“No, just until she’s gone.”
“It’s gonna be a pretty weird night if you keep ducking into closets every time you see someone you don’t want to talk to.”
“She just caught me by surprise.” Natalie said. “And Ryan’s here too.”
“You won’t be able to avoid him forever. The town’s too small.”
“I know.” She said. “But I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Well you came to the right guy.” He said. “I happen to know a thing or two about painful conversations. And I would be willing to share my knowledge, for a price.”
“Oh yeah?” She asked, stepping closer to him and kissing the pressure point by his neck. “What did you have in mind?”
His finger came under her chin and he titled her face up to his before kissing her mouth. The moment his lips touched hers she forgot about everything else. It was just them, in a broom closet. A disappointed groan emanated through his chest as he reluctantly pulled away.
“Let them do the talking.” He said. “They’ll direct the conversation.”
“What if they don’t talk?” She asked. “What if we just stand there in this weird awkward silence.”
“What? With your mom and Ryan? Come on, they don’t know how to be silent.” Well that was true. “Then once they’ve decided on a topic you just run with it, answering in short sentences, grunts and the occasional lie.”
“Sounds easy enough.” She commented.
“It is.” He replied, moving away from her and standing up straighter. “Now get out there.” He nodded toward the door and she scrunched up her face in protest. She wasn’t ready for this, she wasn’t ready for any of this.
He chuckled, opening the door for her and lightly pushing her out.
“You can’t run away forever.” He said. “Trust me, I know. Avoiding something doesn’t make it go away.”
Reluctantly she stepped out and back into the party. They’d only been in the closet about five minutes but the room was already bustling with more people. This would make it even easier to dodge Ryan and her mom all night.
No, Natalie, she scolded herself. She’d literally just been told not to avoid her problems. She needed to face this. Sure, so maybe she wouldn’t actively seek anyone out, but if they came to her she wasn’t going to run away and hide behind any more plants or in any more broom closets. At least she would try her hardest not to. Her legs weren’t exactly listening to her brain tonight.
“Father Jacobs.” Bryce said, addressing Scott by the character he’d been given. Yep, tonight he was playing a priest, or minister, or whatever the hell a ‘father’ was. Scott had no idea. Him being a man of the cloth had being a cruel joke played by Bryce, a way to get revenge for the whole reading his diary thing.
Scott didn’t know what the kid had expected, he’d just left it lying on the kitchen counter, seconds after writing in it. Of course Scott was gonna read the thing. Bryce should be thanking him, not making him play a priest or whatever, without Scott he’d currently be having some stupid superhero party. Instead he could barely keep the smile off his face.
“Yep.” Scott replied.
“A father would not say ‘yep.’” Bryce pointed out.
“This one does.” Scott said.
“This would really be more fun if you stayed in character. It’s the least you could do really.”
“Fine.” He conceded. “Yes young boy, how may I be of service? Wanna come back into the confessional with me and take off your pants?”
“What the hell?” Bryce exploded, his eyes wide with horror. “A father would not say that.”
“That’s not funny.” He said, still horrified. “Play properly.”
“Okay fine.” Scott agreed. “Yes young boy, how may I be of service?”
“Father Jacobs.” Bryce tried again from the start. “Where were you at 3pm this afternoon?”
“I was in the prayer room, giving thanks for the lunch I’d just eaten.”
“Can anyone verify your whereabouts?”
“Only the Lord, Jesus Christ, our saviour.”
“Hmmm.” Bryce said, making notes on his evidence book, eyeing Scott suspiciously. “Thank you for your time Father.”
“For 10 bucks I’ll tell you if I did it.”
His eyes went wide again, that look of horror returning to his face. Scott couldn’t help but laugh, the kid was just too easy to wind up. He needed to take a chill pill every now and then. He glowered at Scott, not appreciating the joke before turning on his heel and stalking away to go and question the next subject.
The mystery was pretty good if you asked Scott. He and Eliza had spent the whole night writing it. It happened just like any normal Cluedo game. All the suspects had gathered at Mr. Walters mansion to playa croquet tournament on the grounds. Some time during the festivities one of Mr. Walters’ rare and expensive collectable items had gone missing. The aim was simple, the kids needed to figure out what was stolen, who stole it, where it was stolen from and at what time. A few of the parents were playing the suspects, and each of the kids had to question them to get to the truth. Each player was also given an individual clue card, ones they had to share with one another, further helping in the solving of the case.
Bryce was determined to win. Scott had never seen him more passionate about anything. This was his favourite game and he wanted to win, no one was going to take it from him.
But as the night wore on, and everyone grew closer and closer to the truth, some of the kids decided to sabotage the others. It was just the one group of them really, what Scott assumed to be the ‘cool kids’. They banded together, deciding to share their clues only with each other, that way it would be their group to solve the mystery. When someone questioned them about their clue cards they’d lie about what they said, pretend they’d dropped it somewhere, or outright refused to share its contents. Sure, the mystery could still be solved without those clues, but it wouldn’t be easy, especially with bloody Cooper Bronson holding the card with the biggest clue of all, the reason the item was stolen.
The kids weren’t exactly secretive about their plan. Everyone else knew what they were doing, but everyone was too scared to confront them about it. Everyone except Bryce who marched right up to Cooper and co. and gave them a piece of his mind.
“You’re ruining the game.” He said. “We can’t figure it out if you don’t share your clues properly.”
“Then you’re just not smart.” Cooper replied, his friends snickering at the wicked ‘burn’ he’d just delivered.
“You have to play properly.” Bryce said, growing more frustrated.
“And who’s gonna make us?” Cooper challenged.
“Fine.” Bryce exclaimed. “We will just figure this out without your clues.”
“Good luck.” Cooper taunted. “We have the good stuff.”
Bryce turned on his heel, storming out the room, trying his best to look unfazed as he fought back the tears welling in his eyes.
“What a crybaby.” Cooper yelled after him, earning him another round of laughs from his little group. Scott spied Eliza at the corner of the room, her eyes burning with fury as she took a step toward Cooper.
Scott sprung into action, blocking her path and grabbing her arms to hold her in place.
“Don’t.” He said. “You don’t want Bryce to be the kid who needs his mommy to solve his problems.”
“I’m gonna kill that kid.” She hissed.
“Just let it be.” Scott said. Eliza glowered at Cooper for a few moments longer before taking a deep breath and conceding. Scott knew it sucked, he himself wanted to go over and slap Cooper over the back of his head, maybe jiggle those loose bolts in his brain into place, but neither of them could confront him.
Before Eliza changed her mind and lost control she turned and left the room. Scott followed her, wondering how the hell those idiots had risen to the top of the school’s popularity food chain. They could barely string a good insult together and yet those were the kids everyone was scared of. It made no sense. None. Scott had never understood the system.
Scott broke away from Eliza, heading to the front of the house. If he were Bryce that’s where he’d run, the only place you could be sure no one would be. Sure enough there Bryce stood, on the front porch, isolated from all the festivities taking place inside. He heard Scott approaching, and Scott braced himself for a verbal lashing, Bryce’s go to move every time he was annoyed, angry or upset.
“Everyone is having fun.” He said instead. “Everyone loves my party.”
“I noticed.” Scott replied.
“For once they all liked me. They’re saying this is the best party ever.”
“It is pretty great.”
“I needed to win.” Bryce continued. “Sure, I threw a great party, but if I don’t win no one will care. They’ll only care about the winner. And now Cooper is going to win.”
“Isn’t he the kid who couldn’t spell smell?”
“You really think he’ll figure it out with what, five clue cards?”
“They have all the clue cards, because unlike them everyone is sharing their cards.” Bryce exclaimed. “And I know what was stolen, where it was stolen from and I think I know the time, but I don’t know the person. Cooper might have the answer, and he might not figure it out but his friends will help him. Then he’ll be the hero, like always.”
The tears he’d been trying so hard to hold back fell from his eyes, and he quickly wiped them away, hating that the uncle he despised was the one to see him like this. Scott’s heart ached for the kid. All he wanted was a fair shot, to be on the same level as Cooper and those other kids. Scott got that. He’d always wanted to be put on the same level as Pete. The truth was some people were just more important. They didn’t always deserve to be, but it was the way the world worked. Tonight it didn’t have to be like that. There was nothing he could have done to change his own status growing up, but he could help Bryce change his.
“Come on kid.” He said, nodding for Bryce to follow him.
“Just come on.”
He began to walk away, hoping Bryce would follow him. For a moment he thought it wasn’t going to happen, but after a few moments hesitation Bryce sighed and began to follow.
Scott led his nephew around the house, all the way to his sacred spot by the air vent, the one spot where you could hear every word uttered inside.
“This is creepy.” Bryce said.
“Just shut up.” Scott replied. “Come here, and listen.”
Cautiously Bryce stepped toward the air vent and he copied Scott as he lowered himself onto the grass. Voices flowed from the vent, every voice from every person inside the house merging together as the noise travelled through the air.
“You can hear everyone.” Bryce said, his eyes wide with wonder.
“Yep.” Scott replied. “Now it’s a bit harder to hear specific conversations when the house is full of people, but not impossible.”
He leaned toward the vent, covering the left side with his hands, dulling the voices from that side of the house. Other voices became clearer, easier to hear and make out, but no one conversation came through clearly.
“Woah.” Bryce said amazed.
“Put your hands here.” Scott commanded, nodding toward the open spaces.
Bryce did as he was told, blocking out more of the sound. It still wasn’t great, but the two of them had run out of hands. Scott glanced around the yard, looking for something to help block more of the sound.
When he was younger he had made himself wooden panels. He’d measured them out and spent hours during workshop sculpting them down to perfection. He’d failed his class, having spent the whole semester making small wooden rectangles, but when he’d brought them home they’d done exactly what he’d wanted them to. All he had to do was slide them into the right place and he could block out the rooms he didn’t want to hear and magnify the one room he did.
Screw it, he thought to himself, lowering his arse onto the grass and lifting his feet into the air so they blocked the spaces he needed to block.
“You look ridiculous.” Bryce said.
“Is it really that hard to say thank you?” Scott asked, his stomach muscles clenching as he tried to hold himself at the awkward angle. “That should do it. Now try block out everyone else’s voice and focus on Cooper’s.”
“That shouldn’t be hard.” Bryce said, before pushing his ear to the vent to listen.
“Back up a little.” Scott instructed.
The two of them waited, straining to drown out all the other voices in the games room and focus in on Cooper’s. After a few moments it rang through the vent, clear as day as he spoke at an obnoxious, boisterous volume.
“Sarah, what does your clue say?”
“Everyone was accounted for at midday.”
“I already knew that.” Bryce commented.
“Parish, what does your card say?” Cooper asked.
“What are with names these days?” Scott asked. Parish? What the hell was that?
“Shhhh.” Bryce hushed.
“Everything Esmeralda says is a lie.” Another voice, one Scott assumed belonged to Parish, said. Bryce’s eyes went wide, his brain ticking over as he processed this new information.
“I spoke to Esmeralda.” Bryce whispered, afraid to be heard through the vent. “She said Father Jacobs wasn’t in the prayer room at three. If she lies that means Father Jacobs was in the prayer room at three.”
“So the item was stolen from the prayer room. It was a rare bible worth millions. If Father Jacobs was in the prayer room then it couldn’t have stolen at three.”
“What’s your clue say?” Someone asked Cooper.
“Mine doesn’t make any sense.” Cooper said. “It says Anne Clayton had a gambling problem”
Except he pronounced Anne as Annie, Clayton as capsicum and gambling as game-be-ling.
“He means Anne Clayton has a gambling problem.” Bryce exclaimed, so excited he’d forgotten to whisper. “I know who did it. I know who stole the Bible.”
“You sure?” Scott asked. “Wanna ask me? I’ll blink once for no and twice for yes.”
“I’m not gonna cheat.” He said horrified at the mere suggestion. “And I don’t need to. I solved it.”
He jumped to his feet and in a flash took off back to the house. Scott eased himself off the grass, his foot numb from the awkward position he’d been sitting on.
“Scott.” He heard Bryce say and he looked up to see the kid had come back. “Thank you.”
“You can thank me by not telling anyone about this.” He said.
“Okay.” Bryce agreed, nodding. “And thanks for reading my diary I guess.”
“No.” Bryce said firmly. “You will never read it again.”
He glared at Scott to show that he was serious, that if he so much as thought about reading it again he’d regret it. Then he turned and took off, running toward the house. This time he didn’t turn back, he had a mystery to solve.