They don’t know anything, her mind reassures her, ~and they never will~.
In the Braidwood Police Department, Mia Trinket shifts restlessly on the visitor’s seat. She tries to restrain her shudders but her body denies her instruction, powerless in anxiety’s grip.
Fear doesn’t need doors and windows. It works from the inside.
It’s not her first time at a police precinct, and she knows it won’t be her last.
Mia’s heart caves into her chest. The door behind her whines and her gaze remains in her lap.
Heavy footsteps thunder into the office and Detective Russo appears in her peripheral vision. He makes his way around his desk before sinking into the leather chair.
“I apologize for the wait. How are you, Miss Trinket?”
He reaches for his memo pad. After placing it in front of him, he retrieves one of the black pens held in a silver beaker.
He gives her a long, appraising look.
“How are you doing, Miss Trinket?” He repeats his question again, this time reuniting her with reality.
“I’m fine, just agitated.” Fear pulsing within like it has a life of its own. Her tongue is sapped of all its moisture. “Since I’m going to be late for my first day back at school. Not a great start.”
Detective Russo nods understandingly. “You’re a senior, correct? This year is your last at Braidwood High before you graduate?” he asks, pen in hand.
“Do you know Keila Venus?”
Her brows clash together, and she nods a stiff yes.
“Are you two friends?”
Mia’s resolve wavers. “We…were.”
Detective Russo straightens in his seat, assessing her with a cold, calculating look. “All students will be back at school today. Except for one. Keila Venus.”
Her blood runs cold, turning into ice.
The detective observes her blanching face that goes from pale to bone-white.
“You were not aware of this? That in the latter days of summer break, Keila went missing and until this day, no one has seen her?”
He spares her a moment to digest the new information.
Mia freezes. Perplexed. Shocked, yet somehow, not surprised.
“So, you said that you were friends with Keila Venus? Did you two have a falling out?”
Mia’s eyes widen, and she slowly raises her gaze to meet his.
“No. We just—we just grew apart,” she stammers. “We haven’t hung out or even spoken to each other in years.”
Detective Russo nods and looks down to scribble a few words on the pad. Mia deems illegible from her line of sight.
“Interesting, because her mother said the same thing.
“But when the forensic team cased her room, they found a whole photo album and scrapbooks of you guys. Pictures of you, Keila Venus, Aries Black, Opal Chiang, Akin Ballo, and Erin Lockwood. Together. But much younger.”
The fear within her is like a poison, virulent and incurable.
“We all have our histories, Detective, but—uh.” The words splutter out. “How did she go missing? Who was the last person to see her? And where was she seen last?”
Detective Russo flares a brow at the queue of questions.
“According to her mother, she left abruptly in the night. She assumed at the time that it was for a night run. However, when she awoke, Keila had not returned and her running gear was still in her room.”
Mia clenches her hands to cease the tremors.
“Once the news is made public, a town-wide search will be on the way with police dogs and the entire BPD to canvas the woods—”
“She’s not there,” Mia interjects.
Detective Russo slants forward, and the pen drops onto the pad so he can interlock his fingers, staring back at her quizzically.
“Look,” she begins. “Keila and I knew each other when we were kids, yes. But a lot can change in seven years, although one thing will not, and that is Keila’s fear of the woods.
“If she was abducted, search away. But if Keila willingly ran away, she’d rather spend a day in hell than a minute in those woods.”
An unreadable look flits across Detective Russo’s face.
Without breaking eye contact, he tilts to the side to pull open the second drawer of his desk, picks up a case file from the top pile, and slaps it down in front of him.
He pushes the drawer back closed and tents his fingers above the file.
“Could you be referring to the trauma she faced, along with you, seven years ago? When Erin Lockwood disappeared in the woods, too?”
His eyes darken with suspicion.
“Except she had witnesses to her disappearance. You, Keila Venus, Aries Black, Opal Chiang, and Akin Ballo.
“If I didn’t know any better…I’d think I was detecting a bit of a…pattern,” he emphasizes, his voice edged with distrust.
Mia clings to her composure, jaw tightening. “What? Do you honestly think that we had something to do with that?”
Maddened, Mia shoves her hand down the neckline of her long-sleeved jersey, reaching for her gold necklace.
She pulls out the pendant that hangs at the bottom—half a heart with a jagged broken line on its flank. The word “Best” is written on the one half of the heart she wears.
“We were kids. Erin Lockwood was one of my best friends and Keila was a part of that. We would never harm each other. I admit…” Mia straggles off, and she forces the words from between her gritted teeth.
“After what happened with Erin…we all went our separate ways. Not because of each other, but because we didn’t know how to deal with—” she cuts herself off, choosing her next words carefully.
“I don’t know what happened to Keila, but I want to do anything that I can to help you find her.” Mia’s thumb caresses the rusted edges of the pendant. “Anything…”
Detective Russo eyes her down and inclines his head.
“You are free to go, Miss Trinket. The school has already been informed and they will declare her, officially, as a missing person in the assembly.”
Mia bops her head and leans down to scoop up the strap of her backpack with her forearm. She rises to her feet and slides the strap over her shoulder. She swivels and makes a brisk start toward the exit.
Once at the door, she sneaks a glance behind her.
Detective Russo flips the case file open and starts to review it.
She resumes her departure, leaving the door wide open in her haste.
Mia manages a few steps forward in the dimly lit corridor. And suddenly, something tight clenches her chest, suffocating her under an avalanche of guilt. Her arm shoots out to press her hand against the wall for stability.
Detective Russo observes Mia from behind, watching with half of his frame peeking out of the doorway.
Mia drops her head for a second, her breathing labored before her head shoots back up again. She takes a moment to assemble her emotions, quelling her panic.
Unsteady, she continues her journey to the staircase, passing a blue and black haze of policemen and women to make her way out of the precinct.
As Russo returns to his office, scattered thoughts congeal into a theory. Soon, he settles behind his desk and begins to review all the gathered intelligence on the Erin Lockwood case.
I never knew then how a teenage girl could rupture my whole world from the inside. I have endured many dangers during different cases, but no peril like the Erin Lockwood case.
No greater peril than her, than them all.
I presumed the task would be difficult to execute but simple in its concept; find the missing girls and capture the perpetrator.
But what unfolded next pushed me from the brink of insanity and plunged Braidwood into pandemonium.
Keila’s vanishing was death’s summoning.
Erin’s disappearance was the true catalyst of destruction.
The moon was like a phantom-silver orb, moonlight filtered from above, silver dappling the ground as branches swayed, driving the chill from her bones.
Mia hobbled forward at the forefront. The damp undergrowth of the forest floors smooshed between her toes, squelching beneath her bare feet with each step.
Keila trembled beside her. The red summer dress she wore was caked in filth and grime.
Akin’s long, bony legs wobbled, his hand clutching his side.
Opal’s arm was draped around Aries’s shoulders and his arm was wrapped around her waist, which kept her bolstered at his side as she hopped on one leg.
They all emerged from the woods, scathed, broken, and irrevocably traumatized.
Soon, all they could hear was the blaring sounds of sirens that screamed into the midnight sky, tires screeching as four police vehicles descended upon the scene.
Eight officers rushed out of their cars, briskly and yet cautiously making their way to the dazed children.
Bright blue lights reflected in Mia’s unblinking eyes as a policewoman approached her. Mia remained stagnant—frozen—trapped in a paralyzing stupor.
Tormented by the harrowing image of Erin’s desiccated body, inert, and the light in her eyes snuffed out eternally.
“Hey there, I am a police officer.” The policewoman gestured to the star pinned on her chest. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”
Mia remained still, numb and unresponsive.
The policewoman moved to stand right in front of her and sank to her haunches. She lifted her hands to hold Mia’s small frame.
But the moment she touched the girl’s bare skin, Mia jolted as if she had been burned and gasped as if struck. Her eyes blinked rapidly, darting from place to place as the horrific reality of what had happened finally dawned on her.
“Jim!” a policeman exclaimed. He clasped his hand on Akin’s gaunt shoulder pointedly.
“This one claims that his other friend is still in the woods,” he said to the other officer, who had scooped up a whimpering Opal and was carrying her to the passenger seat of one of the police cruisers.
“Carter, John. Go with Jim and find the other kid,” he ordered. The three police officers sprinted into the woods, engulfed by the darkness as the other four remained and tended to the five children.
“Let’s get you to the car, warm you up,” the policewoman said softly and rubbed Mia’s arms, friction creating fleeting heat. “And take you back to the precinct. Your parents are worried sick.”
She moved her hand and it placed behind the girl’s shoulder to gently guide her.
Mia refused and slipped from her grasp.
“N—no. I—I have to go back! She needs me!” Mia cried hysterically, and she swiveled around to run back into the woods.
The policewoman lunged and swiftly wrapped her arms around her petite frame.
Mia thrashed and wailed in protest. “She needs me! She…needs me.”
Her wails quietened and softened into snivels as she bowed her head. Tears welled in her eyes and slid down her dirty cheeks in strings, clearing a clean path.
The policewoman stepped back but kept Mia at arm’s length, adjusting her so she could face her fully. The girl’s head was still bowed, and she tried to get Mia to look into her eyes.
“What do you mean, sweetie? What happened to her?”
Mia lifted her head gradually, and the policewomen stared back into her haunted gaze.
“It—I killed her—uh, um,” she stuttered.
Rebecca’s eyes exploded with alarm, pierced by a nameless dread.
She adopted a serious tone. “Hey, I need you to focus for me. What is your name?” she demanded.
The policewoman nodded and flashed an encouraging smile.
“That’s good, Mia, really good. My name is Rebecca.” She patted her hand on her chest and placed it back on Mia’s shoulder.
“I need you to do me a small favor. Can you do that for me?”
Mia’s trembling head bopped a yes.
“Can you tell me what happened here?” she asked, and flicked her gaze at the woods. Her eyes drew back down to Mia’s face, which was taut in a woeful expression.
Mia raised a hand to clutch onto the pendant that hung from her neck.
“What happened?” she asked firmly.
Mia yielded, and her hand dropped to her side.
“I killed her. I never meant to,” she whimpered, tears welling up anew. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Rebecca’s mouth fell ajar.
“I killed her.”
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