"We've told you that one of the goals of this retreat is to simulate the separation from family and friends at death." Officer Morelli stood at the front of the big, open room in the rec center, looking out over the former 'victims'. By now they had all been cleaned up, makeup washed off and in clean clothes, for several hours. There had been dinner and games and various things to take their minds off what hadn't really happened earlier in the day. Now, apparently, it was time to get serious again.
"Each of you is going to write a letter to your parents, as if you really died today. The basket up here has letters your parents wrote to you during their retreat after your 'deaths'. Come up and get your letter, find a quiet spot to read, and when you're ready you can grab some paper and a pen, and write your letter to them. Let them know how you feel. Tell them you're sorry. Tell them anything you've always wanted to tell them. When you finish- there are envelopes up here too- you can write any other letters you want to write... family members, friends, anyone you need to say something to. We'll try our best to get them delivered tonight or before the assembly at school tomorrow."
The letter to her parents was easy. Maybe easy wasn't the word- she definitely teared up and had to run over and grab some Kleenex before she finished- but the words came easily. One to her grandma. One to her best friend from grade school, Alyssa.
After that she hesitated. She only had one really close high school friend, and she couldn't...
Well, could she?
She picked up another sheet of paper and uncapped her pen again.
Anyway, if they couldn't get it to him, she couldn't say she hadn't tried.
Dear Jack, she wrote, and then she hesitated.
Did she really want to write this as if she was dead? She couldn't. She could write it style-wise as if she was dead, but she couldn't write what she would actually have said if she was dead. If she was dead she wouldn't have to face Jack afterward, and she'd say things there was no way she could say now.
Maybe she'd just write something about... But could she really be sure that no one would look at it? Jack was in jail tonight. Maybe there was some rule about reading prisoners' mail, to censor it or make sure nothing suspicious was in it, and someone would end up reading it. They'd keep their mouths shut, but still, they'd know. Much safer if no one knew. Okay, she'd just write something real normal and simple. Best-friend-ish.
She put the pen to the paper, and took it away again.
Dear Jack, the first thing I want to tell you is that I forgive you... The dramatic phrasing was creeping back into her brain. Too dramatic. Try again.
Dear Jack, you know you're my best friend... Bland, bland, bland.
Dear Jack, you're the nicest guy I could haveever met, and I'm so glad that... That was sappy. Bordering, at the very least.
Dear Jack, I just want to tell you that... Okay, all well and good, but then you need to think of something meaningful to tell him!
When Officer Farrow asked a few minutes later if everyone was done, Amber was still staring at the paper, and the paper still said only, Dear Jack. She crumpled it into a ball before Heather, one of the paramedics helping with the retreat, came around with the basket for the letters, and once Heather was gone she shoved it into her pocket.
"The rest of the night, until lights-out- which is at 11- is just a time for you guys to relax and have some fun. You can use any of the gyms, the pool is open, down the hall here is a media room with TVs and..."
Amber half-listened to the rest of the explanation. When it finished, she rather vacantly followed Jordan, Katie and Breann as they got up and headed back to the room the four of them were sharing.
Katie shut the door, and the other three girls quickly stripped and started and pulling on gym shorts and tee-shirts. Amber wished she had thought of that. She pulled out her own bag and rooted through, trying to decide between her tank top and semi-nice tee shirt, and in the process found herself holding her swimsuit.
"Ooh, good idea, Am," said Katie, noticing and reaching back into her bag. Jordan and Breann murmured agreements, and all four of them- Amber hurrying to keep up, as if it was a race or something- stripped down and pulled on their suits.
She was done first, and once she had pulled her shorts on over her suit and tucked her underwear back into her bag, she sat on her bed and stared ahead at the door. She knew she should make some attempt to get up and be ready to go, but just at the moment she didn't feel like it.
The other three girls finished and moved to the door as one group. Jordan turned back as she reached it. "You're coming, aren't you?"
"In a minute," said Amber. "You guys go ahead."
They shrugged and left, leaving the door standing wide open. Amber tried to get it together. It was acting, all of it. Just acting. What was she getting so worked up about? Everyone was fine, she was alive, she was allowed to hang out in this cool rec center and do whatever she wanted for the next couple hours, for God's sake! It wasn't like she had to sit alone in some jail cell, like Jack...
That was the wrong thing to think. Her ever-helpful imagination provided a picture of the expression on his face as they wheeled her to the ambulance, and suddenly she was sobbing and she couldn't stop.
He...in jail...and she hadn't taken the keys...and of course it wasn't real but it could have been...how could she be sure he wouldn't be that dumb...he wouldn't...would he?
She had her knees hugged to her chest and her head propped on them, squeezed into the corner at the head of the bed. She couldn't even hold herself together enough to get up and shut the door.
Some immeasurable amount of time later, there was a knock on the doorframe. When she wiped her eyes and looked up, Officer Morelli was standing just a step outside with a concerned look on his face.
"Yes?" She was quite proud that she could get her voice back to calm and even so quickly. She had forgotten the 'sir', but then again did you have to call policemen 'sir' when they were out of uniform?
He didn't ask her if she was okay, or how she was feeling. "We know it's rough," he said.
"Want to talk about it?"
Well, she wasn't up to much else, but talking about it sounded okay. As long as the secret stayed secret. And- No, not to him! He was a police officer!
She couldn't just say, 'not to you'. That would be bad. First it would be mean, second it would look like she had something to hide. Which of course she did. Multiple things.
She sniffled and wiped her eyes and bought herself the time to think to ask him, "Um, who was the, uh, the leader, I guess, of the paramedics who brought me in? Is she here? Or anybody from my ambulance, I guess."
"Shannon's down at the gym, I think. Do you want to talk to her?"
"I'll go get her. You hang in there, all right?"
Another long moment, during which she tried very hard not to think. Just about when she had started to wonder if he had actually found her, a youngish woman- somewhere between old enough to be her mom and young enough to be her older sister- appeared in the doorway. She tucked a loose curl behind her ear and asked, "Amber?"
"Yes," said Amber, not sure what she should say after that.
"I'm Shannon. Mind if I come in?"
Very polite. "Yeah, you can come sit down if you want..." Which sounded so stilted.
Shannon came over and sat down on Jordan's bed. She didn't say anything.
Amber desperately tried to think of something to say. As usual, she fell back on an apology. "Sorry for being such a mess."
"Oh, no, don't be sorry," Shannon said right away, just as Amber had figured she would. "I know it's hard."
There was another moment of silence. Amber, irrationally, felt like it would be awkward if she was the one to break it again.
"I'd say I know how you feel," said Shannon thoughtfully, "but I'm not really sure I do. Today was... easy? For me. I guess you could say. At least today I knew everyone was going to come out of it alive."
Next to that, she didn't feel like she had a right to complain. She looked at Shannon, who was looking at her, waiting for her to respond or at least say something, and eventually said uselessly, "It just felt so real."
"Like it could really be real."
"I guess that's what got to me," Amber went on, and now that she was talking she kept talking. "If you were in a play or something, or a movie where you got shot to death by this violent criminal, or something... Well, no, I guess that could happen, it's just not very likely to happen. But when you're trying to act out something that seems absolutely real, exactly the way it could happen, I guess you get a little bit too into it and you're partly not acting it, it partly almost is real."
Shannon was nodding, but she still hadn't said anything.
"And you know it's not real. You absolutely know it's not real, but you can't quite get your...heart to hook up to your...brain, so you just keep thinking it is real, or it could be real, and what would you have done?"
Shannon nodded and gave her half a serious smile.
She didn't decide to say it. There was no thought process. Even afterward she could never remember what made her suddenly blurt out, "Jack drinks."
Now Shannon was looking at her with a very different expression. There was shock, and empathy, and something else...
"I know," she blathered on, staring down at the blanket on the bed without being aware she was looking at it. "We're in high school. A lot of people drink. Jack's probably better than most people because he doesn't at parties or whatever, he just has these guys that go over to his house every once in awhile when his parents are out and they drink. His parents don't know. I mean, they know the guys come over, but they don't know that they drink. Even his brother doesn't know... I mean, Jack thinks he's suspicious but he doesn't want to ask. So he's been drunk. Lots of times. But he's never tried to drive anywhere, and I don't think he would, I just..." Finally she ran out of things to say and risked a look up at Shannon. "I feel really stupid because of course tons of people in this school probably drink, and then I feel stupid the other way because of course you have to be way, way against it... Please don't tell anyone. I think only one other person knows besides them and me. And you don't have to tell me he shouldn't be. I know he shouldn't. I'm not going to convince him. I've tried." That was somewhat less than true, but he did certainly know she disapproved, and it hadn't changed anything.
Shannon, mercifully, didn't say anything. She didn't look as if she knew what to say. After a moment she reached out an arm, and Amber went over and leaned in for a hug.
There was no real reason talking about it should make her feel better, but it did, a little.
And thank God- thank you, God- even through all her blathering, she had managed to keep the secret to herself.