No one understood why the cheerleader killed herself. Her death had the entire student body of Clearwell High, even those who didn’t know her, walking around in a daze. Everyone was baffled. Scared, almost.
It was frightening for those of us not blessed to be in the popular cliques. Brittany Gerlach was popular and pretty with a bright future ahead of her. If she couldn’t make it through the hell of high school, what chance did those of us who struggle every day have? Brittany’s suicide made us feel even more vulnerable, more susceptible to the whims of the fragile human mind and the pressures of high school life. There seemed to be an unspoken fear that any one of us could fall prey to whatever compelled Brittany to take her life.
It was our senior year at Clearwell High, with only one month remaining. Springtime was in full bloom. But the sense of excitement that we’d almost fulfilled our tour of duty in war-torn Clearwell was dampened by the shocking news. I couldn’t help but wonder how miserable Brittany must’ve been if she couldn’t hold on for one more month. Things have to get better once we leave these hallways of horror forever.
I didn’t really know Brittany Gerlach. We didn’t run in the same social circles. But we’d shared several classes over the years, and she’d actually offered me warm smiles when I passed her in the hallway. She wasn’t the brightest student at Clearwell, but she didn’t appear to make anyone’s life miserable either. To me, that goes a long way.
I should’ve taken it for the portentous omen it was. Just as Brittany’s vacant, pretty smile covered up a soul in agony, something dark was once again coming to the town of Clearwell, hiding behind the façade of goodness and righteousness. A fierce wolf in sheep’s clothing was preparing to devour everyone in its path.
* * * *
The time had come to fulfill my mandatory meeting with the guidance counselor. After four years of having never met her, it seemed kinda odd putting my future into the hands of a stranger. I’m sure the various popular kids had been guided like the wind, but I seemed to have slipped under Mrs. Bennesh’s radar. With one month to go, she’d better start guiding me at hyper-speed.
A couple knocks on the door, and Mrs. Bennesh called out, “Come in!” As I sat down across from her, she held a tissue to her face and honked loudly into it.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said. “Damn allergies get me every time this year.” Her eyes widened behind her wire-rimmed glasses. “Excuse my ‘French.’”
“No problem, Mrs. Bennesh. I suffer from allergies, too.”
She pulled the tissue away so I could finally see what a guidance counselor looks like. Her wiry black hair was dotted with gray spots, a scouring pad riddled throughout with flecks of soap. She set her mouth in a grim line and squinted at me suspiciously. Either that or her allergies were really getting to her. Staring down at a folder on her desk, she groped for a coffee cup proclaiming World’s Greatest Counselor.
“A shame about Brittany. A real shame.” She shook her speckled head. “Did you know Brittany?”
“Um, not very well. I, um, knew who she was. She seemed nice.”
“She was very nice, Robert.” She leaned back in her chair, capturing me with her prison matron steely gaze.
“Um, it’s Richard, actually.”
“It’s Richard. Richard McKenna, Mrs. Bennesh. You, ah, called me ‘Robert.’”
One side of her mouth curled up. “I really don’t think so, Richard.”
I had to wonder if it’s time for Mrs. Bennesh to retire and hang up her guiding spurs. “Okay. Um, does anyone know why Brittany…took her life?” Sure it was a bold question, but it was on everyone’s mind.
She frowned. Then again, I think her face was frozen into a frown, so I didn’t take it personally. “I couldn’t tell you that kind of information even if I did know, Richard.” She smiled bitterly, which was a step up from her previous grimace.
“Yeah, of course, Mrs. Bennesh. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that everyone’s wondering why—”
“Yes, well.” She went back to thumbing through my folder. “So. I see Mr. Hastings has red-flagged you several times in your personal record, Richard. What do you have to say about that?”
I was framed? Vice Principal Arville Hastings is the imposing and terrifying zookeeper of Clearwell High who’s decided to make me his pet project. Not in the way he favors his football players, either. No, Hastings has become my own personal stalker. Every time I turn around, Hastings is ready to blame me for the usual high school shenanigans like, I don’t know…murder, black magic, global warming. Over the past several years, he’s come perilously close to finding out the truth about me. But, somehow, I’ve always escaped unscathed.
“Um, what exactly does it say, Mrs. Bennesh?”
“Mr. Hastings believes you’re involved with black magic. And you were mixed up with…let’s see here…two murderers?” I thought she was going to drop the coffee cup that had yet to reach her lips.
“Um, that’s not really true,” I said. “It was just a bunch of misunderstandings.” I guess that’s one way to describe it. I had been involved with two murderers through no choice of my own. Well, other than the fact they were both friends of mine. And I’m really getting sick of my friends ending up being murderers.
“I see. You’re going to sit there and tell me being involved with two murderers is a mere…misunderstanding?”
I sighed, settled in, and told her—the edited versions, of course—of my last two years of high school. During my lengthy speech, I kept seeking solace in the poster on the wall behind Mrs. Bennesh. A kitten hung perilously for life onto a window ledge with the slogan emblazoned Hang In There, Baby! at the bottom. I kept telling myself I had to “hang in there” for just one more month.