Chapter 3: Parties and Left Hands

Annalisa was fretting over the prospect of drawing on her eyeliner again. It was as if we were back in her dorm room, preparing for yet another trashy frat party.

"Ava, I can't do it," she whined. "I can never make both sides match!"

I sighed exasperatedly. "You can do it. All those parties?"

Annalisa glared at me. "You're not helping."

She turned back to the mirror, taking a deep breath before leaning forward, carefully dragging her hand across her eyelids, until her light brown eyes shone from under swipes of black.

We were in one of the Blackburns' many dressing rooms. Annalisa had moved into one of the guest rooms two days before at the request of Mrs. Blackburn. While I found it strange, it seemed to be a newfound attempt on Mrs. Blackburn's part to warm up to Annalisa.

Annalisa finally turned away from the mirror, looking at me apprehensively.

"How do I look?"

Annalisa looked, in short, absolutely amazing. Her mahogany hair was casually swept over one of her shoulders, and her face had just the right amount of makeup, drawing attention to her most beautiful features.

"You look radiant," I said, my heart swelling at the sight. "I can't believe you're getting engaged."

I felt a sudden rush of emotion for her, and my eyes were starting to feel warm (much to my horror). I blinked rapidly, turning to look out of the large window. Below, various luxury cars began to pull up to the mansion, their passengers beginning to trickle steadily into the mansion.

"Aww," she cooed. "Come here, you."

I waddled over in the form fitting dress that Hailey had picked out for me, silently wondering how I was supposed to breathe for the rest of the day.

Annalisa pulled me against her, and I carefully wrapped my arms around her, cautious not to ruin her makeup.

The door to the dressing room opened, and Mrs. Blackburn walked in. She was dressed elegantly, her blonde hair pulled into a tight bun. Mrs. Blackburn nodded at me, and I smiled back.

"Annalisa, the guests have started arriving. Theodore will be downstairs soon, so you should hurry."

Annalisa nodded. "Of course."

Mrs. Blackburn turned to leave, but she hesitated. "You look quite nice," she said finally, sounding a little like someone had forced her.

The door shut and she was gone. Annalisa looked excitedly at me. "I think she's starting to like me," she whispered happily.

"She better," I muttered.

Five minutes later, we were walking down the grand staircase, which in itself was a masterpiece of architecture. Men and women, all looking as refined as Mrs. Blackburn, milled about. The air was filled with chatter and soft clink of glasses as servers weaved among the guests, holding platters of champagne.

As we reached the bottom, a young woman approached us. She was dressed in a stylish white jumpsuit (of a brand I simply could not afford), her honey blonde curls cascading over her shoulders.

"Annalisa," she said sweetly, ignoring me as if I were a part of the staircase.

She leaned forward and embraced Annalisa as if they had been best friends for years.

"Congratulations on your engagement!" she squealed.

"Thanks, Melanie," Annalisa replied, looking taken aback.

"It's so exciting, isn't it?" Melanie said, continuing to ignore me. She linked her arm through Annalisa's, who shot me an apologetic glance as she was led away.

I stood there nervously, clutching my little black purse (that was actually Hailey's) and balancing precariously on my heels as I desperately tried to think of a way to look less awkward.

Fortunately, I was saved by someone tapping me lightly on the shoulder.

As I turned around, I saw that it was, unfortunately, Mr. Blackburn.

"Mr. Blackburn!" I tried to think of something to say. "This is party is, uh, very nice."

I wanted to slap myself. Get a grip! My internal voiced shouted.

Mr. Blackburn let out a huff. "The engagement party is meant to be hosted by the bride's family," he said with an air of annoyance. "Can you imagine her family trying to throw one? It would've been embarrassing!"

"Right," I said, remembering Theodore's words from before. I gripped my purse, as I forced myself to remain calm.

Mr. Blackburn gave me a once-over. "You look presentable today. I had been worried that people would notice."

"...Thank you," I responded stiffly.

"Tell me, what do your parents do?" he asked. He seemed to be much more in the mood for conversation compared to the first time I met him.

"Well, my dad is a teacher at an elementary school," I said proudly.

Mr. Blackburn's raised a single greying eyebrow, his expression growing colder by the second. "How... impressive."

My blood boiled, and I became acutely aware of the sound of my heart beating in my ears.

"Teaching is a respectable profession," I said, my voice quivering with anger.

"Of course it is," Mr. Blackburn replied smoothly, smiling as he looked down at me.

I glared back, but it didn't help that he was tall. I felt like a child challenging an adult.

"Kenneth Blackburn!" came a voice from behind me.

Mr. Blackburn looked away from me and I ducked my head, stepping aside as a man with chocolate colored skin strode forward to give Mr. Blackburn a hearty clap on the shoulder.

"Ah, Lawrence," Mr. Blackburn replied. "How have you been?"

"Quite well, I must say," Lawrence replied with a warm chuckle. "You've outdone yourself with this party."

Mr. Blackburn chuckled along with him. "High praise coming from you, Lawrence."

Lawrence opened his mouth to respond when he seemed to notice my presence, frowning as he did so. "I don't think we've met before."

"No, sir," I said quickly. "I'm Ava. Annalisa's best friend."

Lawrence's face lit up. "Oho! I was hoping to meet her. She seems like such a nice young lady," he said with a polite nod towards Mr. Blackburn. While it was clear that Lawrence meant well, Mr. Blackburn looked annoyed at the mention of his future daughter-in-law.

"It was nice meeting you, Ava. Lawrence Emory, by the way. My daughter and I live just down the street," he said. "Hope to see you around more often!"

And with that, he stepped away, moving with an exuberance that the others seemed to lack.

Mr. Blackburn gave me one last distasteful glance before turning to greet another well-dressed man, no doubt yet another wealthy friend of the Blackburns.

Smoothing down the front of my dress, I turned to survey the guests. They were moving through the mansion, past the massive living room and towards the backyard, just beyond a pair of double glass doors. I could see numerous round tables complete with flowers and impeccably white tablecloths.

A few seconds later, Annalisa appeared in front of me, her face pink and flushed.

"Annalisa!" I said, slightly startled. "What are you-"

"Have you seen Theo?" she asked hurriedly, panting slightly. "Grace is looking for him-the guests are-I'm really-"

"Whoa, whoa," I interrupted, grabbing onto her arm. "Take it slow."

Annalisa nodded, gulping in a deep breath. "Sorry, Ava. This whole thing is just a lot."

I looked at her sadly. "Yeah, I bet."

She sighed, looking overwhelmed. "I always knew it was going to be hard," she said miserably, more to herself than to me.

Before she could say anything else, Mrs. Blackburn had walked up to us. "Annalisa, they're waiting outside. I've asked Colton to go look for his brother."

"I'll help too," I volunteered, glancing at Annalisa's worried expression. The actual engagement was already tough enough on her, and I was going to do all I could do for the party to run as smoothly as possible.

Mrs. Blackburn looked at me warily, but she pursed her lips and gave me a terse nod. "Two is better than one, I suppose," she said. "Colton has gone to check Theodore's bedroom, so you can start on the second floor instead."

I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Mrs. Blackburn. We'll find him."

She ignored me, turning and walking briskly towards the backyard, where the guests had settled into their seats. Annalisa hurried after her, anxiously brushing her hair over her shoulder.

Not letting a single second go to waste, I raced up the grand staircase and down a hallway, going as fast as my dress and heels would allow me. A portrait on the wall caught my eye, and I stopped for a moment, curiosity getting the better of me. It was of a middle-aged man that I did not recognize, and yet... he looked strangely familiar. I reached out, barely touching the surface-

"What're you doing?"

I jerked my hand back, whirling around as I spotted the young man we had passed when leaving the mansion a few days ago.

Colton Blackburn.

"I, uh, nothing," I stammered.

Colton narrowed his eyes at me.

Regaining my wits, I cleared my throat. "Mrs. Blackburn asked me to look for Theodore," I said. "You're Colton, right?"

Colton strode forward until we were only a few steps apart. "And you're Annalisa's friend. Ava, is it?"

I wondered how he knew my name. Then, I remembered that he was Theodore's brother. He probably told him about me.

I nodded. "Have you found Theodore?"

Colton looked at me suspiciously. I could see him deciding whether or not to trust me.

"His bedroom's locked," he said finally, gesturing for me to follow him.

Colton walked back down the hallway and up a flight of stairs, with me chasing after him. Pain shot up my feet. Screw these heels, I thought.

I was debating whether to just kick them off when Colton stopped before an ebony door. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment-then he looked away, so quickly that I wasn't even sure if it really happened. Colton leaned in against the door, giving it three firm knocks.

There was no answer. Colton made a frustrated noise, running a hand through his messy dark hair as he paced in a circle.

"Theodore?" I called. "The guests are waiting for you downstairs."

"Screw this," muttered Colton. He fumbled in his pockets for a second before kneeling in front of the door handle.

"What are you doing?" I blurted.

"Picking the lock," he responded evenly. I realized that he was holding two golden hairpins.

Where did he learn to pick locks?

Before I could ask, the lock gave a satisfying click. Colton straightened up.

"Hey, Theo, I'm coming in," he announced loudly. Then, he pressed down on the silver handle.

A million feelings ran through me the moment that door opened. First was horror. Then came dread, and soon after, nausea.

Theodore was laying spread-eagled on his perfectly made bed. He looked like he could have been sleeping, if not for the bloody wound at his temple. A gun laid in his motionless right hand.

I was faintly aware of myself gripping onto Colton's arm. If he noticed, he didn't care. His face was blank and unreadable, but the skin over his neck was stretched taut. His Adam's apple throbbed.

Distantly, I heard Colton croak out: "Call 911."

"Ava." Colton spoke more firmly now.

"R-right," I stuttered. I fumbled with my purse, almost dropping it. I was shaking like crazy.

Colton pulled out his own phone, his fingers moving nimbly over the screen. His eyes never left his brother's body as he spoke. I caught a few words, and I gathered that he was speaking to his mother.

"911, what's your emergency?" A gruff voice sounded through the receiver of my phone.

"I-I think there's been a suicide," I managed. "At the Blackburn mansion."

A minute later, I hung up. Colton had informed his parents, and we stood in silence, both unable to move from the doorway.

I couldn't look at Theodore. Instead, my eyes roamed his room. An impossibly tidy desk, complete with a little notepad and a pen on the left side. A set of drawers fit snugly under the side where the notepad laid.

Except, something was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I could feel it in my gut, like acid seeping through my insides.

"Colton," I said suddenly, breaking the silence. "Something feels off."

His eyes were fixed on the gun. "I know," he replied, surprising me.

Then, Colton turned to look me dead in the eye. "Theo was left-handed."