Jack spun around and ripped his arm out of Leah's grasp with his other hand raised as if he were going to hit her. As soon as he saw who it was, he froze. This was his whole problem with this girl, she didn't behave predictably; he never knew what to expect from her. And then she did it again.
She grabbed his sleeve back and pulled him toward the side of the school. This time he was too stunned to protest. Leah pulled him along until they were safely tucked away from prying eyes before she released her grip on his shirt.
"Are you okay?"
Jack blinked, "What?"
She stared up at him with her arms crossed over her chest. "Well, I want an explanation to what I saw on Thursday but you've seemed kinda off all day, so are you okay?"
"Well then, do you mind telling me what exactly it is that I walked in on last week?" Her words were calm and clear; she was not afraid.
He almost smirked as he looked around at the red and gold trees that surrounded them on all sides except where the school building stood. What was that saying; even the trees have ears?
"I think you know. I killed Derrick Webber."
Out of the nearly limitless possibilities this was the only word to come out of her mouth. And Jack wasn't really sure how to answer it, or even if he should, but words just started to tumble from his lips.
"Because Derrick was an asshat. You don't really see anyone too broken up over the whole thing, do you? Even Derrick's own girlfriend doesn't give a shit because the guy was a dick to everyone, and deep down they're all happy he's gone. I was doing y'all a favor."
"You're lying," Leah said simply.
Jack's face fell and his whole body visibly stiffened; he hated this girl. "Excuse me?"
"I said you're lying," she said with an air of authority, "You didn't mean to kill him. I heard you from outside the room; you sounded panicked. You didn't mean to kill him."
Jack was taken aback by how calm and demanding she could be for a girl who stood a head and a half smaller than the killer she was confronting. His jaw slid back and forth, grinding his teeth together. "Yes, I did."
"No, you didn't. And I get that part, but what I don't get is why someone would cover up an accident with a murder."
His nostrils flared, "Because it wasn't an accident," he hissed through clenched teeth.
Leah took a step closer to him so she was only about a foot away. He was so damn tall she had to tilt her chin up at him just to see his face, it made her feel like a little kid.
"Yes, it was."
Jack's lips pinched together but finally he let it go with a shrug. "Murder, accident, it doesn't really matter. The point is that it happened. So, what are you going to do about it?"
There was a long moment when the only noise came from the wind and the scuttering of leaves over pavement. They just stared at each other until Leah took a step back and locked her hands together.
He squinted his right eye. "Are you just saying that so I don't kill you too?"
She did something he wasn't expecting; she smiled. "You're not going to kill me," she said matter-of-factly.
Who the hell was she to tell him what he would or wouldn't do?
She shook her head, almost like she pitied him. "No you won't. If you were going to kill me, you wouldn't have waited four days to do it."
"Maybe I was lulling you into a false sense of security."
"Or maybe it was an accident and you spent all weekend totally freaking out about it."
He wanted to kill her. It would be easy. There was no one around. He could lure her into the woods; put his hands around her small neck, and press. She wouldn't be able to stop him. She was tiny and weak, breakable. He could do it. And in that moment, he realized there was a part of him, a small part, but a part none the less, that wanted very much to kill her. He took a step back, horrified, and then he threw up his walls, the walls he had built so thick and strong over the last five years.
"Oh Sweetie, it was no accident; why do you think the cops haven't found any evidence? I know what I'm doing," he smiled, showing off the white of his teeth. "And the only reason you're still breathing right now is because I hate to be told what to do. I'm kind of contrary that way."
"Yeah? Well, the only reason you're not sitting behind bars awaiting a trial is because I think you might be a better person than Derrick ever was."
Leah couldn't help it, she burst out laughing and even managed to catch a glimpse of Jack's rare sincere smile before it left his face. "I'm not going to tell anyone; I have no reason to. I just thought you should know that," she said once her laughter died away.
Jack allowed his guard to slip just a little. "Not that I don't trust you or anything," he said in a low voice that sounded more unsure than he would have liked, "but I'm going to need that shirt now that it's no longer covering what little you have in the chest department, and my hoodie too."
"I burned them."
Jack looked stricken as he stared at her wide-eyed. "You burned my Bon Jovi sweatshirt?"
She nodded, completely unapologetic. "It had blood on it. It had to be destroyed."
"But it was a Bon Jovi sweatshirt."
"And now it's ashes. You're welcome."
His eyes dropped and his whole attitude seemed to deflate. "Thanks, I guess," he mumbled, but he didn't sound like he meant it. "I gotta go; you've made me late."
Instead of heading back to the school, Jack disappeared into the trees, almost silently. Leah stood and watched him go. She thought the whole confrontation had gone rather well. At least now they had a better understanding of where they stood. Though she still had lots of questions and she wasn't sure why he kept insisting that he'd killed Derrick on purpose. But all in all, she was pleased. She could now resume her life.
But she was forgetting ... her life sucked.
As soon as she got home that evening her mother was waiting for her in the kitchen with a scowl. That was never a good sign. Her mother was a high-power lawyer who never really had time—or much interest—in her family, until they started to reflect badly on her, that is. And Leah was used to being the guilty one. That's what happened when you'd rather watch horror movies and play Call of Duty than join volleyball and go to sleepovers.
"I got a rather interesting phone call from Lin today," her mother said as she popped a frozen pizza in the oven.
Lin Sanders was Sarah's mother, and Leah's mother's best friend.
Leah faked a smile. "Oh? Hope you told her that I say hi."
"No, instead I tried to explain to her that there was no way my daughter would be involved in spreading rumors on the Webber boy's death."
Leah nodded. "Thanks for backing me up, Mom. I'm gonna go start on my homework."
"Not so fast, young lady; how did you and Sarah get that information?"
"What information?" Leah said as innocently as possible.
Her mother glared right in her eyes in that lawyerly way, like she was about to be cross-examined. "Don't play stupid with me; I know you're brighter than that."
Aaaand that was the nicest thing her mother had ever said to her.
"The information," her mother continued, "about the stab wound and the suspects being questioned."
"Oh that information, yeah, I heard that from some kid at school."
Leah pretended to think about it for a minute. "Ya know, I don't remember their name."
"Yes? Well now this highly sensitive information is all over social media. This is going to hinder the police investigation and possibly cause lawsuits. If Sarah is the one who started all this, you need to tell me."
"What?" Leah acted as shocked and defensive as she could, even if it was a bit over the top it was still better than the smile she wanted to display for hindering the police investigation.
"How would Sarah even get the information?" she added, "You know how careful her parents are."
What she left out was the part about how resourceful Sarah was. Over the years Sarah had gobbled up information from messages left on answering machines, stolen off of laptops, overheard from around the corner, pulled out of the trash, and other means, but never had a case been this important or interesting. And Sarah just couldn't keep it to herself.
Her mother scrutinized her face, looking for guilt. "Get on that homework; I expect better grades this year."
Leah growled, "I have a three point seven GPA."
"Logan has a four point six."
Leah nodded with a tight smile on her lips. "That's because golden boy Logan got a perfect score on his SATs. Oh, and did you hear how Logan scored the winning touchdown at the last football game of the season? And let's not forget, Logan's senior project is tutoring underprivileged children. Everyone loves Logan; Logan gets invited to all the parties. Logan is so responsible. Logan is just such a great guy; why can't more people be just. Like. Him?"
Her mother nodded, like she had somehow missed the dripping sarcasm. "Yes, and that could be you too if you'd just apply yourself and stop playing those internet games."
"Uggh!" Leah yelled as she tugged at her hair. "Well don't come crying to me when zombies attack and Logan gets eaten; we all know how great his brain is!"
She stormed up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, and turned on her X-Box. She could be contrary too.
Jack tried to slink passed his parent's office as he made his way to the kitchen. He knew they wanted to talk to him, and possibly strangle him, so he really had no desire to have that conversation.
"Jack!" his father's voice boomed from behind the closed door.
Jack stopped and his eyes slid over to the bare, grainy office door; he stared at it for a second, and then scrambled down the hall.
His heart was racing as he forced his legs to move as fast as they could. His father was hot on his heels by the time he reached the living room. If it wasn't for the sofa blocking the hall he would have made it to the safety of his room. Instead, he tumbled over the couch with his father's skeletal hand wrapped around his ankle.
The man peeked over the back of the couch with a large grin reaching all the way to his eyes. "Tag, you're it."
Jack pulled his face out of the carpet with a low growl; at least it was a good day. "You cheated," he panted. "Since when do we move furniture?"
"Since you started locking yourself in your room and stopped talking to us." He offered his son a hand and Jack only hesitated a second before accepting it.
"I started doing that when I was eleven; try again."
His mother rounded the corner in her jeans and long sweater with every strand of hair neatly tucked up into a bun, "How was school?"
And for once, Jack knew they were actually interested in his day, because it affected them.
"It was swell guys, thanks for asking. I got this lunch detention in first period, because my teacher is, like, out to get me or something. And in Web Design we were learning how to use HTML; it was like I was in kindergarten all over again! And then, at the end of the day I missed my bus, but that's okay because I got to enjoy six miles of fresh air."
His parents were, as always, unamused by his performance.
"And what about the person who saw you covered in blood?" his mother asked.
"Oh yeah, I talked to them; everything is a-okay. She knows that I didn't do anything and promised not to tell anyone. Problem solved. Told you I'd take care of it."
His father looked to his mother for approval. She shook her head. "That's not good enough, Jack."
He cracked a grin and held out his hands. "Story of my life."
The next morning in Science, Jack was back to sitting in the corner reading a book like he always did. Leah smiled as she walked into class and saw him. Two days in and life was back to normal. Derrick really didn't leave much of a ripple.
Leah made her way to the back of the class and took the empty seat next to Jack. She noticed a few heads turn when she did; namely, Sarah.
"Hey," Leah said as she slid into her chair and pulled out her Science book.
Jack didn't say a word and continued reading.
"How's the book going?" She tried again.
"Did you finish that whole math worksheet yesterday?"
Jack continued to ignore her as he flipped a page.
Pursing her lips, Leah snatched the book off the table and quickly sat on it so he couldn't get it back.
The vain in Jack's forehead twitched before he finally looked up at her and held out his hand. "Give me my book."
She shook her head. "Not until you stop ignoring me."
"I wouldn't have to ignore you if you'd ignore me."
Her nose crinkled up and her head tilted to the side. "What?"
Jack sighed like he was explaining something simple to a child. "We are not friends, nor should we be. So you need to go back to the front and sit with the black-haired bitch who's glaring at me."
Leah turned her head and smiled and waved at Sarah. "Oh Sarah doesn't mean any harm. She just thinks you're creepy and weird and might bring a gun to school and shoot lots of people."
Jack's mouth fell open. "Could you lower your voice, maybe just a tad?"
Leah shrugged, "Eh, no one's listening to me anyway. But apparently you do have some sort of reputation that I was unaware of."
Jack clutched at his chest like he'd been stabbed. "Uggh, you're killing me, Ebner. I spent years working on that reputation."
"Yes, but I've spent my whole life pretending the majority of people don't exist, and until recently you were in that majority."
Jack nodded, "I see, and how do I get back in the majority?" he teased.
"Oh you can't. See, once I know you exist then I can't wish you into nonexistence."
"Well then, how about you just, I don't know, leave me alone?"
Leah began pulling out all her books and colorful pens and arranging them just so on her desk. "Sorry, no can do, friend."
Jack had never noticed how much the word friend sounded like a threat until now.
"I'm not your friend."
"You will be."
Now that definitely sounded like a threat.
And Leah made good on her word. She walked with him to every class and sat next to him, even in the classes with assigned seats. He never knew she was such a rebel. And when lunch came around she followed him to his empty table.
"I think Sarah's gonna be mad at me." Leah said as she stared at Jack with her head resting in one hand.
"So, she's my friend, actually she's more like a sister. I've known her forever. And it's not good when she's mad."
"See, this is why I don't do friendship. Because if you have friends then you're expected to start caring about their well-being and their feeling, and blah, blah, blah."
Leah nodded as she pulled a peanut butter sandwich out of her backpack. "Yes, but in turn they care about your well-being and your feelings, and blah, blah, blah. That's why Sarah's going to be mad at me because she's worried that if I hang out with you then I'm going to get hurt ... or commit social suicide."
"Can't blame her there."
Leah looked out over the busy cafeteria. Where everyone was talking and laughing and the volume was at a low roar. She bit her lip and looked back to Jack who was now reading his book.
"Was it really not an accident?"
He glanced up slowly with his deep, dark eyes. "Does it matter?"
"Kind of. You said yesterday that you knew how to leave no evidence; how?"
Jack clenched his jaw and closed his book; he could tell that he wouldn't be reading much anytime soon. "I watch a lot of TV."
Leah shook her head, "You're gonna have to do better than that. I watch a lot of TV too, but I would never know how to—" she looked at all the students happily eating their lunches all around them, "do what you did." She finished.
He shrugged, "Obviously we're watching different programs."
"That's because I still haven't figured out what channel The Perfect Crime is on," she hissed.
"Oh that's because it's called How NOT to Get Away with Murder; you can find it on the local news channel."
"Look, it's great and all doing the silly banter back and forth with you, but could you try to be serious for like five minutes?"
Jack ran a hand through his stringy hair. "Life's too damn depressing when you're serious. I was just careful, that's all. It's not some great secret. I'm not that interesting, I promise."
"Do you regret it?"
His cool eyes slid down to the table. "Probably not in the way you're thinking." He looked back up at her, "Listen, I'm pretty fucked up, and Sarah's right; you should stay away from me."
Tugging on her ponytail that flowed over her shoulder, Leah nodded. "Yeah, you're probably right. But you know what? I think I might be pretty messed up too."
Leah's eyes narrowed and her bottom jaw stuck out to the side. "Like you're one to judge."
"I didn't say it was a bad thing," he laughed as he flicked a piece of his salad at her before opening back up his book.
Leah ate her sandwich in silence as she thought about what she was doing, this trying to form a friendship with Jack thing. She had been thinking about him almost nonstop since Friday when she'd decided to burn the shirts. He was like an addiction. Her curiosity was getting the best of her and she just had to know more. But she also knew she shouldn't, that she should walk away. It was hard to know what was the right thing.
Lunch ended too quickly and Leah had to say goodbye to Jack as she made her way to History.
The day was looking rather dark and gloomy with the reflection of the gray rain dripping onto the tiled floors. As Leah pushed her way through the crowd of students that littered and clogged up the halls, she spotted Sarah's bouncy black high-ponytail.
"Sarah, hold up!" She hustled to try and catch up.
Sarah stopped walking in the middle of the hall but didn't turn around as she tapped her boot against the floor.
Leah gave a half smile as she ran up to where Sarah was standing. "Are you mad at me?"
"I thought you said that you were going to stay away from him." She snapped.
"I never said that."
"Well you should have," Sarah said, "What do I have to say to get you to realize that that guy is a creepy weirdo?"
"I don't know, but I like him and you should give him a chance. I don't think he's that bad of a guy."
Sarah clenched her jaw. "Okay, you might not think he's weird, but everyone else does. If you start hanging out with him then people are going to think you're a freak, too."
"That's the difference between me and you," Leah said with a finger point, "I don't care what other people think."
"Well, you should, because what people think can determine a lot in your life. Other people's opinions are what shape your grades, your jobs, your relationships. Face it, a big part of life is based on what people think of you. And here's some news for you, people judge you based on who you're friends with and it's never good if your friend is a creepy freak. And here's something else," once Sarah got going there was no stopping her, "did it ever occur to you that he probably doesn't like you clinging to him like a lost puppy? You're not the only person who's ever tried to be nice to him. There's a reason he's alone, Leah; he hates everyone and treats them like garbage. I have pretty good instincts about people and he makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end."
Leah's face began to heat up, and the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. "If who you're friends with matters that much then why are you even friends with me? I'm sure my 'nobody' status is tarnishing your prospects."
Sarah looked as if she'd been slapped. "What?" she breathed, "Why would you even say that?"
"Because obviously it matters!" Leah stamped her foot like a toddler, but the noise was muffled by the rain beating on the roof and the roar of the other students. She didn't know why she was taking this so personally, but there was something about Jack that reminded her of herself. "Everyone's always telling me to be more social, be more outgoing, be more like Logan. But I can't be like that, not everyone is meant to be like that. So, so what if Jack's different, we all are. And I think I'm perfectly capable of choosing my own friends."
The halls were beginning to thin out now that the bell was about to ring.
Sarah's voice softened, "I've never said I wished you were like your brother, though I wouldn't mind if you were a bit more easygoing. And I'm not trying to choose your friends; I just want you to be smart about this, and careful. People get reputations for a reason."