Route 80 stretches past Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. We speed beyond the dense acres of towering trees into the brick of City Central. My dad pulls up and unfolds a map for the dozenth time. His finger taps against 1402 Marina Way. It has already been circled with a black ball-point pen. I frown at his apparent preparation. Since when did my father become a detective?
We drive along Marina Way Street, and I see water glistening ahead with boat masts bobbing up and down. As we turn into a car park, my eyes squint to focus on a rounded man standing keenly in front of what looks to be a school.
“Mr Mathews tracked down Sophia’s old High School. Wanted to help us best that he could,” my father responds.
“Well, that is... unexpected.”
“He believes in you, Lucas. We all do.”
The car doors bang shut as we leave the vehicle and steadfast towards Mr Mathews, who smiles broadly as we approach. It is strange to see him in more civilian clothing. All I’ve ever seen him wear are ill-fitting suits.
“Ready?” he asks, gesturing to the entrance of John Henry High School.
“Are we allowed to just go inside?” I question.
“I’ve already spoken to the Headmistress; they are expecting us and have organised for us to meet with two of Sophia’s friends.”
I can’t believe how nice everyone is being. All my life, I’ve felt chastised by society somehow for seeing the world differently to people my age. Yet here I am, fighting for my livelihood, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Did I deserve such understanding?
“Are you coming, Lucas?” my father beckons, waving me through the school’s doors.
Being a little past 10 am, pupils are tucked away studying, making the halls eerily quiet. Our trio of feet taps against the varnished floor towards the Headmistress’ office. She flings the door open to greet us before anyone can even signal our arrival.
“Boys, please come on in,” she instructs. “Take a seat.”
We oblige and sit on the chairs facing her large desk. Mr Mathews is the first to speak.
“Thank you for meeting with us. We promise not to take up too much of your time. As we discussed on the phone, speaking with Sophia’s close friends could greatly help us exonerate Mr Stevenson.”
I watch as he motions towards me, and the Headmistress’ eyes rest on my face.
“Of course, anything to help. Sophia was a marvellous student, whatever her and Mr Stevenson are wrapped up in, I’m hopeful Ali and Trinity can support.”
A tentative knock beats against the door behind us.
“Ah, here are the girls now.”
As the Headmistress welcomes them in, I take my first glance at Sophia’s joy-riding accomplices, and I am shocked at what I see. Neither of them appears as edgy or rebellious as I had imagined. They stand nervously in well-presented school uniform. No high-rise miniskirts or puffed-up collars insight. They aren't even wearing nail polish. Any indication of their personality, their real self, lay hidden away, behind their worried expressions.
“Now girls, you aren’t in any trouble, these are not policeman, but what they do want to discuss with you today is very important. It is to do with your old friend, Sophia,” the Headmistress explains.
Ali and Trinity turn to one another with mouths agape.
Mr Mathews coughs under his breath and flickers his eyes at the Headmistress, her name still unbeknown to me.
“I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything I’ll just be outside.”
As soon as she leaves her office and closes the door, Ali and Trinity take a seat next to Mr Mathews.
“Is Sophia alright?” Ali pleads.
“Sophia is fine, it is Lucas whose freedom is in jeopardy.” Mr Mathews looks the girls up and down as he speaks as if questioning their demeanour. As the girls screw their face up in confusion, I decide to interject.
“I’m Lucas by the way,” I say with a wave despite their intimate proximity.
“So how does this involve Sophia?” Trinity chirps up, arms folded.
“What I am about to disclose is strictly confidential,” Mr Mathews informs the girls before divulging the details. “Our client, Lucas, believes he witnessed Sophia’s father abusing her. Sophia is not supporting these claims. We think this is out of fear of her father.”
My father twists his hands in his lap waiting for Ali or Trinity to react. I notice Ali’s face of concern, whereas Trinity remains unfazed.
“That’s terrible, how can we possibly help? We haven’t seen Sophia since, since—”
“Go on,” Mr Mathews encourages.
“Since she left Richmond,” Trinity finishes Ali’s sentence off for her.
“According to Sophia, you were interested in joy-riding back then. Is that correct?”
As Ali leans forward, like she is about the say something, Trinity holds her arm across Ali’s torso. Stopping her.
“Mrs Burckinghore says you aren’t cops, why are you interested in that?” her voice airy and light.
“Because, Trinity, one of those car rides ended up in disaster, didn’t it?”
Ali turns her head swiftly to glare at Trinity however Trinity’s position does not change. She remains fixed to her chair, defiant and poised.
“You are wasting your time, we don’t know what you are talking about,” Trinity scoffs. “Come on Ali, we’re leaving.”
As the girls stand, Ali more slowly than Trinity, I see my father’s desperate eyes grow large and intense. I too feel a pang in my heart. Our only shot wasted. The girls abruptly leave and in walks the Headmistress.
“Thank you for your cooperation Mrs Burckingshore,” Mr Mathews expresses whilst shaking her hand.
“Of course, I do hope it helped.”
We leave the school more sluggish than we once came. As we drag our feet back to the parking lot, hurried steps follow us.
I snap my head around to follow the direction of the noise. Ali catches her breath as she stumbles nearer.
“I think I can help,” she says, “but Trinity can’t know, and you have to promise we won’t get in trouble.”
“Absolutely,” Mr Mathews replies. “What can you tell us about the night of the accident?”
“I’m sure you know we were as high as a kite, driving around. Out of nowhere, we hear a bang and the car jolts to a stop. None of us dared to go out and take a look, but we knew we’d hit something.”
As Ali speaks she rubs her right arm up and down. Comforting herself, I think.
“Go on,” my dad urges.
“Well, that morning, after we returned to our homes, Mr Andrews came to my house.”
“Fred Andrews, Sophia’s dad?”
“Yes. He said that he knew what had happened and wanted to talk. I was petrified my parents would overhear, so I went with him,” Ali reflects as she glances over her shoulder. “He told me to direct him to the scene of the accident. I managed to retrace our movements that night, and that’s when we saw it.”
The hair on my arms suddenly stands on end despite the warmth of the day. This is it.
“Mr Andrews, Frank, and I got out of the car to take a closer look. We noticed the dead deer by the side of the road. He made me help him dig a grave for it. It was awful.”
“So you didn’t kill a person?” I clarify.
“No! God no. I couldn’t live with myself if we had.”
“So why did you never report it? Why does Sophia not know you hit a deer?”
Ali was pulling at the skin on her arm now, making it grow red and sore.
“He said that he knew Trinity and I were in the car that night and that Sophia had said we were the ones that stole his car. He said Sophia told him that Trinity was the one driving and she was angry with us both. He threatened to press charges if we ever hung out with his daughter again.”
We all glance at each other in amazement. Relief drains from my body. Sophia isn’t a killer. Fred has nothing on her.
“Ali, this has been incredibly helpful. Would you go on record with this statement? You won’t face any penalties, I promise. You are a witness, not a criminal.”
“…I’m not sure. If Trinity finds out... her parents are worse than mine. They would kick her out if they knew what we were up to.”
I reach out and grab Ali’s hand.
“Please, Ali, please, without your help I could go to jail and Sophia will stay living with a father who rapes her.”
Seconds pass and then Ali takes a long exhale, finally letting go.
“Okay, if you can promise Trinity and I won’t face any charges, I’ll do whatever you need.”