Katie let out a long, heavy sigh as she plopped down on the couch. Her head dropped back, lined eyes shut as she let out an exhausted groan.
"Thank God that's over."
"Agreed," I muttered, taking my place beside her as she propped her feet up on the glass table in front of us. I nearly opened my mouth to say something, but stopped short when I remembered that Mrs. Lanson wasn't there to yell at her for it. The theatre's box office had been closed for nearly two weeks, spring play over and done, Lanson probably sitting at her cozy little home with her twelve cats until the next semester rolled around.
Actually, at that point most professors, teachers, even the school's office staff were packing up their things for a summer break—those who weren't teaching Maymester, or summer classes that is. Katie and I were taking our first break of the past few weeks, collapsed together in fatigue on the theatre building's ever-loving couch. We had just finished the last of our exams. Handing our completed papers over to Dr. Davis had been the final key to our freedom, for a few months at least.
"Oh lord, did you get that last question, Maggie? Was it sheep or goat worshippers? I swear they're the same thing, so I probably missed it," Katie asked, pushing her recently dyed honey blonde hair back from her face.
"Um, goat," I replied, closing my eyes against the bright outside world. "That was the first lecture I was here for, so yeah, I remembered that one."
"Shit. I put sheep."
I smiled at her angered tone, unwilling to tell her about my on-going deal with Dr. Davis that assured me an A no matter how improperly I answered the questions on his test. I could have gone through and just circled all of one letter and still come out with one of the top scores in the class. I'd gotten him his own play, after all, so he had no choice but to uphold his end of our bargain.
"Look, Katie, I'm sure you did fine. He's not going to fail you and you know that, he adores you because of that accent, you little southern minx," I teased. Katie gave me a pointed look as she sat up, crossing her arms in front of her already tanned chest.
"Did you just make fun of me?" She queried, eyebrows rising.
"There's that possibility, yeah."
Katie smiled, what I could only describe as relief washing over her features as she reached over and pulled me into a bone-crushing hug.
"It's about damn time," Katie stated as she continued to hug me. I awkwardly patted her back in response. "Three months and barely a smile, no jokes, no nothing. There's the girl I became friends with, finally."
My eyes widened momentarily. "Oh."
I didn't know what to say then, how to reply. Instead I just hugged her back, closing my eyes as I thought back over the past few months. Word of what had gone down had spread through the school like wild-fire, my name attached with lock and chain. There were the rumors, everywhere. Rumors that I had pushed Caroline and George from the window on that horrible January evening, rumors that I had somehow been tied to the embezzled funds and thrown them under the bus to save my own hide—those suspicions seemed well grounded given the free ride I had received upon enrollment—untrue, none the less. It left me quiet and distant when coupled when the loss of Simon Dreyton, a burden too much to bear on its own. Aside from Katie who unquestioningly fought against what everyone said tooth and nail, there wasn't much of a social life for me to be had. I found myself focusing more on my studies and the play than I ever had before.
The play itself was a sell-out. Not because everyone loved Shakespeare and knew Brown had an out-of-the-world theatre department, mostly because they wanted to see the girl who they believed killed the Dean. Despite that, the play itself was well received by the newspaper staff and critics.
"Ms. Thompson, Ms. Walton, saying your good-byes for the summer, I see?" Dr. Davis's voice called behind us. I frowned a little, slowly pulling away from Katie as we turned to see the rotund old man.
"No, celebrating the end of exams, Dr. Davis," Katie piped. "I'm going to miss you though! Mind if I pop by your office sometime next semester?"
"I'd be offended if you didn't, Ms. Thompson." He smiled at her before focusing his attention on me. "As for you, Ms. Walton, may I have a word with you in my office?"
He looked at me expectantly over the top of his glasses, Katie's brow furrowed as she glanced between us. I knew what it was; something I had been avoiding for the past month and a half, only at that point, I was out of places to run.
"Sure," I replied. I stood, my brief lapse into relaxation vanishing as quickly as it had come.
"Ms. Thompson if you'll just wait five minutes or so I'll release Ms. Walton back to you," Dr. Davis stated. I glanced over my shoulder at Katie, shaking my head at her lone figure on the couch.
"It's Thursday, I've got plans as soon as we're done. But if you want me to come help you pack tonight I can. Would that work?" I offered.
Katie nodded in response, slowly grabbing her own bags as she shift her gaze between our professor and myself. "Yeah, that'll be fine. Call me when you're on your way."
The short walk to Dr. Davis's office was silent; I constantly looked out the window at the green world basked in golden sunlight. It wasn't my first time acknowledging the weather's change, really, but it was the first time that year I had felt a sense of longing for it. I wanted to be out there, not stuck in Dr. Davis's office, even if it was for such a brief period of time. Partially because I had no desire to partake in the upcoming conversation, and partially because I just wanted the warm breeze on my skin and the smell of freshly cut grass swimming around me. I really only craved my freedom.
I sat in one of the two uncomfortable plastic chairs in front of the old man's desk as he plopped comfortably in the leather one opposite me. His crossed hands rest atop his stomach as he stared at me, droopy eyes piercing despite their apparent age. I gave him a tight lipped smile before toying idly with my hair as the heavy silence set in.
"I see you still studied for the exam, even though you knew you were getting an A on it, regardless. Impressive, Ms. Walton."
"I considered your promise more of insurance than anything, in case I got overwhelmed and needed to spend more time focusing on another subject," I replied quickly. "For History of Theatre at least. The acting class? Um, I knew I'd need it there."
"Well, yes. You're very unrefined, and you lack the training most of your classmates have had, but I must say I've seen quite an improvement over the past few months in your skills, Ms. Walton. You did surprisingly well in the play for a freshman, and given the," He paused, clearing his throat. "Stress you had previously been under. Although I don't think you're nearly as bad as you imagine yourself to be. You do enjoy acting, don't you?"
I heaved a sigh; the direction of the conversation was apparent, and it was time to face it.
"Of course I do," I muttered.
"So then, Ms. Walton, would you care to explain to me your sudden switch in major? I didn't peg you for the quitting type, you know, even if you weren't phenomenal I saw you as someone who would go for what they wanted." Dr. Davis's voice came across as soft, but the harshness of his words was in no way masked.
"I had a choice to make, and I did what I thought was right." I shrugged.
Dr. Davis took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes. "Felt more of an obligation to your father than yourself, so you went back to Business Economics, is that it? I must say, I find myself somewhat disappointed."
I went rigid at his words, a trickling trace of anger racing through me. My hands clenched into fists in my lap.
"Actually, this has nothing to do with my father, or the funeral home if you must know," I stated coldly. "In fact he and I aren't really on the greatest of terms right now because of it. So thanks for throwing that out there."
He was silent for a moment as he watched me shoot him a harsh glare. "I seem to have struck a nerve. I do apologize. Though, may I ask just why you did it then?"
"Because when you nearly destroy someone's life you feel obligated to help them when they ask for it."
My reply was sharp; the words stinging even me ask they left my mouth. Business Economics by far was not my major of choice. The matter of inheritance James Dreyton had mentioned back in January was far more to swallow than I could imagine. There was no heir-apparent for the teetering back he was struggling desperately to get back on track, a feat he slowly seemed to be accomplishing. James Dreyton propositioned me with that title. Requested I switch majors, graduate, and join the bank as his second in command, and then, upon his retirement, take over as CEO. He hadn't put it in such simple terms, but in the long run that was what it boiled down to. His faith in those around him had shattered with the reveal of Caroline's true nature, yet for some reason despite that being my doing he placed a strange degree of faith in me. It didn't matter what it was; given what I had done to him I felt refusing was out of the question. I couldn't let him down. Not like Caroline had.
But in some way, I knew that wasn't the entire reason for my acceptance. The name Dreyton would forever be imprinted in my mind and soul, in some strange way, being tied with the family helped me feel like I was still attached to Simon in some way; ridiculous, but true.
I looked up from the old wood of Dr. Davis's desk, giving him a fake smile. "Now if we're done here, I have somewhere to be. Have a nice summer."
He said nothing as I quickly stood and exited his room with the slamming of a door. I didn't know if he was going to ask anything else, nor did I want to find out. I wanted to get out, and away. The relief I had felt upon leaving his classroom and handing in my exam had vanished, a fresh wave of frustration had hit me as I left the theatre building, cutting across the green grass and up the cement steps as I made my way to my car. The midday sun left it ripe with warmth as I slid in, turning on the air conditioning as soon as the engine came to life. The half-empty parking lot provided an easy escape from the campus; I only glanced briefly to my right as I took a left away from the school. I hadn't heard any news of Oliver since the day James and I met in the graveyard, mere days after Simon's death. It was always business when we spoke, never personal lives. Perhaps that was the way it should be; we both had scars on our hearts too painful to bring up in conversations.
The fifteen minute drive was spent listening as a familiar assortment of 90's music poured from my speakers, slightly soothing the pent up frustration and exhaustion that had come from the brief chat with Dr. Davis and the piles of work I had dealt with over the past few weeks. What it didn't help was the creeping sense of loss, the one that snuck up on me about that time every week. Nothing really though was capable of derailing that feeling. Not since January. Not since he had disappeared.
There was only one other car parked along the worn-down path as I pulled up to the cemetery. My feet met the cement path eagerly, confident in their familiarity with the place. It was a sad truth that at least once a week I had found myself there; rain or shine, always straight to the grave of Simon Dreyton.
I smiled lightly as I slowed my pace, familiar headstone in sight. A fresh bouquet of flowers sat on the grave; I leaned down, lightly touching the petals of the yellow roses.
"I see you've had company," I stated softly as I sat down on the grass. James perhaps had been by—or maybe Oliver. Those two were the only ones aside from myself I could even possibly place at the gravesite. "Exams are officially over, if you care. I guess that's kind of good, and bad. No more stress for a few months thanks to classes, but it means Katie's leaving to go back to Tennessee for the summer. So then I'm really not going to have anyone to talk to. Jesus, I don't think you have any idea how much I miss your inescapable presence when I think about that. It's been lonely without you, but at least she's been here, I won't even have that for a few months. And dad and I…"
I paused, looking back towards the tree behind me, the one where Simon and I had stood and watched his burial. It was really a bit scary how much I still missed him, enough to come visit his grave once a week; enough to talk to him, even though I knew this time he really wasn't there. In some strange way, it helped. Not that it didn't leave me aching most of the time, but I needed it. There wasn't a day that went by that his blue eyes hadn't haunted my dreams, that I hadn't seen his smile behind shut eyelids, or recalled the feeling of his cool touch.
"I didn't tell you, but your dad wants to leave me the bank. I accepted. I don't know how you'd feel about that, but I had to. I owed him for what I did to him…for what I did to you. Dad isn't happy about it, in the least. We haven't really spoken in nearly a week. I think he feels like I betrayed him or something," I chuckled weakly. "Dr. Davis and I actually got into it today because I switched majors, can you believe it?"
The light breeze pulling at the flowers was the only reply I received. I frowned then, resting my arms on my knees as I stared at the gray tombstone.
"God, I miss you."
I let the surrounding silence take over then. I just sat in front of his grave, taking in the lively green that coated the graveyard, a stark contrast to the blanket of snow that had kept a grasp on it over the winter. It never failed that memories of Simon would rush over me like water from a broken dam when I was at the graveyard. Of course it hurt, but I was learning to cope. I was finally learning to accept it. Letting go though, was something I couldn't do. Simon Dreyton still had a vice-grip on my heart.
The sun moved slowly across the sky as I sat in the cemetery, every once in a while speaking to the boy who wasn't there anymore. This was the first time I was able to spend as long as I wanted there since I had started coming. No more classes; no need to rush. I felt a slight discomfort on my shoulders though as the time slipped past, looking down I noted they'd taken on a distinctly pink color. Sunburn, I frowned. That was hint enough it was time to go. I stood then, dusting the loose pieces of grass off the back of my shorts.
"Until next time?" I smiled at the grave. "Maybe now that school's out I can—"
The sound of my phone's ringtone cut through the air, stopping my sentence short of completion. I pulled it out of my pocket, eyebrows furrowed at the strange number on the screen.
"Hello?" I answered, confused.
There was a static-y silence on the other end. "Magnolia Walton?"
"Um, yeah. Can I help you?" I replied to the strange male voice on the other end.
"This is Deputy Calton. I'm going to need you to come to your residence," He said. Only then did the noises in the background of the phone register; a siren shrieked as the shouts of multiple men reached my ears. A strange icy grip took hold of my stomach as a shot of alarm ripped through my system.
I swallowed, throat suddenly feeling inexplicably dry. "Is…Is everything okay?"
"We're going to need you down here as soon as possible, Ms. Walton," He stated, tone uncertain.
I found myself still trained on the shouts and sirens in the background, I hadn't even noticed that my feet had carried me through the graveyard, and back to my car. I fumbled with the keys, hands shaking as I tried to get the door open.
"What's going on?" I asked, panic growing as quickly as the sinking feeling in my stomach was.
There were a few moments of silence before he spoke again. When he did my mind went on a sickening spin cycle of panic and fear, something I hadn't felt in four months, the same terror that had filled me when I saw George Max and Caroline Dreyton lying on the snow covered ground below me. Because there are words no one wants to hear over the phone from an officer:
"There's been an accident, Ms. Walton."