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Monday, May 25, 2015

A Fork in the Road


I hate Mrs. Beaverdick's class, don't you? I wish we could get out of here and do something fun. Anything's gotta be better than sitting here listening to her drone on about Lois & Clark or whatever. 
Liam chuckled at the misnomer in spite of himself. He took his blue pen and drew a line through the black ink of "Lois & Clark" replacing it with  "Lewis & Clark." Then, he added a few words of response and folded the paper along its pre-existing creases and passed it back to the young girl sitting next to him.

Ava slyly reached a hand down toward Liam's proffered note and snatched it back to her desk quickly; before suspicion could be roused. Her shoulders shuddered as she giggled silently, looking at Liam out of the corner of her eye. Her face flushed as he brushed light brown bangs from his brow, tucking the longest portion behind his ear. She bit her bottom lip as he winked at her. She averted her gaze before she gave her feelings away completely. After all, the whole world didn't need to know that she had a crush on Liam. Unfolding the paper she frowned at his correction, chastising herself for allowing him to think she was dumb. She glanced at his reply, trying to be as non-chalant as possible just in case he was watching.

This class is the worst. I'd love to get outta here. what did you have in mind?

Ava felt her stomach rise into her throat as the butterflies inside fought to escape. She hadn't actually been serious about getting out of the class; it had been a pretext to talk to Liam and perhaps catch his attention. Now, it seemed, he'd called her bluff and she had no Earthly idea what to do next. She looked at him, choosing to end the note passing before she got in even deeper. When he caught her gaze she shrugged at him, signaling that she didn't know what to do next. Liam smiled and raised his hand.

"Yes, Mr. Cunningham, you have a question?"

"Not exactly, Mrs. Beaverdick. I need to use the restroom."

"This is the Ninth grade, Mr. Cunningham. By this point in your life I'd like to hope you know when to use the restroom and when not to."

"So, I can go then, right?" Liam asked, feigning uncertainty.

"Yes, you can go. Though I do want to remind you that Lewis & Clark and the Louisiana Purchase will be on next week's test."

"Didn't they buy it from the French in 1803?" Liam said with a smirk, showing that he had mastered the material.

"Don't be a smartass." Mrs. Beaverdick said, though there was only friendly warmth in her voice.

"Better to be a smartass than a dumbass." he said, smiling.

"I thought you had to pee?" the teacher admonished.

Liam held up his hands in an "I surrender" gesture and retreated from the classroom. As the door shut behind him, he turned and caught Ava's eyes once again. He wagged his index finger in a come hither motion, then folded his hands together in mock prayer as the door shut.

*                    *                    *

"That was the last time I saw him, I swear." Ava said, her lips trembling, tears falling down her face,
"I already told you that. Why can't you just find him or else leave me alone?"

"That's quite enough." Mrs. Beaverdick said, placing a hand on Ava's shoulder. Her eyes, though, were on the older male in the room. His hair was thinning at his crown, light brown, but with temples that mixed silver with white. His beard was similarly marbled, with silver and white streaking through the thicker red and brown that looked uncharacteristically soft for facial hair.

"Mrs. Beaverdick, Ava," the man began,
"It's been thirty days since anyone has seen or heard from Liam. I don't know if you get what that really means. We don't have the resources to keep something like this going indefinitely. If we can't turn up a new lead in the next 24 hours then the case is going to be closed and marked as unsolved."

"No!" Ava cried,
"No, you can't give up!" she cried, sobs wracking her frame.

"I don't want to, sweetheart. But unless you or anyone else can think of something, and think of it fast then we're going to have no choice. The only way to keep this going is with a new lead. Now are you sure you can't think of anyhing else? Someplace he maybe liked to go that no one else knows about?"

Ava sobbed in response.

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant." Mrs. Beaverdick said,
"At this point the school can't let you continue without the girl's parents present."

"I understand. We've talked with Mr. and Mrs. Arcola already; the first time we interviewed Ava, here."

"Has her story changed at all since then?" Mrs. Beaverdick asked.

"Not one word." the Lieutenant sighed.

"May I ask what you're hoping to gain?"

"It seemed clear from their friends that Ava and Liam had a relationship. Now, there just isn't something right about all of their classmates telling me they're inseperable and this girl is telling me He could disappear on her and she'd have no idea what's going on. It makes the hair on the back of my nick stand on end. When the hair on the back of my neck stands on end then I know there's something else going on."

"Try to remember what it was like to be that age, Lieutenant." Mrs. Beaverdick soothed,
"They might have expected to get married and run off together one week and then hated the sight of each other the next week."

"Yeah," he nodded,
"Yeah, I know you're right. It's just that ... have you ever had to tell a man and woma who's only child is missing that you're calling of the search?"

"No. I haven't." Mrs. Beaverdick said, allowing her eyes to sink to the floor,
"It will be a terrible blow to the Cunningham family, I know. And I don't mean to be indelicate, but isn't that a part of your job, Lieutenant?" there was no malice in her tone, and the Lieutenant looked at her, his eyes icy and his voice hard as steel.

"Yes it is, Mrs. Beaverdick. And if you'll excuse me, it's time I performed my duties." he turned on his heel and left the class.

"Would you like a cup of tea, dear?" Mrs. Beaverdick asked after he'd left. Ava nodded her head,

"Yes, the Lemon Ginger if you have it."

"Of course."

Ava sat still, her eyes focusing and unfocusing on what had been Liam's desk. No one knew what had happened to him. He'd left History class a month ago and for all practical purposes disappeared off the face of the planet. Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham had been given the standard trope of waiting 48 hours to file a missing persons report, even though anyone that knew Liam knew that he wouldn't have strayed far from his family. Ditching school? Maybe, but to not come home or call? That was so out of character that no one close to the family understood why they'd been forced to wait two whole days to get a search underway.

A surge of hope permeated the community on the 49th day when the search began in earnest. It seemed as if every man, woman and child had stepped forward to search for Liam. Ava and her parents working closely with the Cunninghams. Ava had gladly tole everyone everything that she knew. She'd confessed to having a crush on the boy, that she believed his feelings to be returned but had not acted on them. She'd taken them through all of the youth hangouts and secluded makeout spots. 39 kids had been busted for smoking pot. 17 had been caught in various stages of undress and sexual congress. 4 had been caught running away from home and had been reunited with their families. None of them had been Liam.

"There we are, now." Mrs. Beaverdick said jovially a she set a cup of tea in front of Ava.

"Thank you." Ava said, sipping gently.

"How are you holding up, Ava?"

"I'm okay, I guess." She said with a shrug.

"This seems to have been tough on everyone, but no one moreso than you. Losing your first boyfriend like that."

"He wasn't my boyfried." She said, guardedly.

"Oh come on now. It's just us girls, and I'm no fool. Everyone knew the two of you were an item, even if you hadn't announced it to everyone."

"But we weren't." Ava said, firmly.
"I liked him. And I think he liked me back. But the thing is, we never had a chance to ... well ...." she stammered.

"I know, dear. I know what you said in your official statement. And it may be true. But what were your true feelings? How did you label your friendship wth Liam?"

"He wasn't my boyfriend." Ava insisted. Then, when she caught sight of Mrs. Beaverdick's raised eyebrows,
"I just wanted him to be."

"I know, Ava." Mrs. Beaverdick soothed, taking sip of her tea.
"You know, I think I excused Liam to the restroom more than any of my other students. Nearly everyday. I actually tried to set my watch by it once. He wasn't so exact that I could really do that, it turns out. Still, everyday at some point around 1:30 he would ask to be excused to the restroom."

"I didn't realize it was every day." Ava said, shyly. Mrs. Beaverdick looked at the girl as if only now realizing she was there.

"Oh yes, every day." She continued,
"I always wondered where he was really going, but I didn't push it. He had good grades and worked hard. As long as he kept that up, I guess I felt I could look the other way."

"Mrs.Beaverdick?" Ava asked,
"Are you okay?" Her voice sounded anxious.

"Yes, I'm fine, dear. You should probably run along home."

Ava hesitated at the dismissal. She wanted to leave; she wanted to be alone more than anything. There was something about the way Mrs. Beaverdick was acting, though.

"I'm actually not done with my tea." She deflected.

"Ava, why did you lie to the Police?" Mrs. Beaverdick asked bluntly.

"What do you mean?" Ava went pale.

"Liam was excused from class for the restroom more than any other class. Do you know who was next on that list? Who had cramps so often that there is no way mathematically possible for her to be on a 28 day cycle?"

"Who's that?" Ava asked, sardonically.

"Why you, dear." another sip of tea.

"I didn't realize."

"Of course you didn't. If you had, then you'd know to change up your story, to come up with some other excuse or to vary which teacher you cut out on."

"Mrs. Beaverdick, I'm done with my tea now. I think I'd better go."

"Of course dear, I'll walk you. It'll be getting dark soon. Us ladies must stick together, safety in numbers you know."

Ava allowed the teacher to lead her out, stopping only to flip off the light switch as they left.


"What do you mean you've got to close the case?" Richard Cunningham rose to his feet, his face flushed with anger as he fairly towered over the Lieutenant. He ran his fingers through his thinning light hair before shoving his hands into the pocket of his cardigan. If he hadn't been so flushed with rage, there would be nothing intimidating about this man.

"Mr. Cunningham, I'm so sorry. You'll never know how sorry I am. I won't condescend as to cry about tax cuts and budgets; I just want you to know that if it were up to me I'd keep this investigation going indefinitely."

"So you do think Liam is still alive?" Joan Cunningham asked, wiping fresh tears and smeared mascara from here face.

"Yes I do. In fact, I believe that his girlfriend-"

"Liam wasn't seeing anyone. We told you that." Richard spat in disgust. The Lieutenant continued, unfazed.

"Friend, then. At any rate, I believe that Ava knows more than she's letting on. I think their involvement was more than a mere friendship and more than 'puppy love.'"

"What makes you think so?" Joan asked.
"She seems as broken up about this as anyone."

"Well, it's an instinct mostly. The thing is, she's not done anything ... not acted in any way other than exactly how we'd expect a young girl in this situation to act. Now, I'm not a psychologist, but it's damn peculiar to me. The 'textbook' cases are there to establish a pattern and tell us what to look for but there's not really any such thing as a 'textbook case' of anything. There are always little variations. Personality traits that are unique to the individual and makes their response close to the textbook but still slightly off. Ava? She's an exact textbook case. She cries when I expect her to cry. She says what I expect her to say. She's even insolent when I expect her to be insolent. It's like she's reading a script."

"Wait a minute, what are you saying? The Arcola girl knows where my boy is?" Richard was beginning to shake with rage.

"Richard, please sit down. The Lieutenant will explain, won't you Lieutenant?"

"I, uh, I don't know if I'd go as far as to say she knows where he is. But I do think she knows something and isn't telling. I don't think the teacher," he consulted his notes,
"Mrs. Beaverdick, is convinced as to the bone fideness of the girl's story, either."

"Well, get her to tell you." Richard nearly screamed.

"It isn't that simple, Mr. Cunningham. Ava is a minor and therefore protected. I can't question her without her parents present. I was allowed to talk to her with her teacher present today as a courtesy. Nothing more. Unfortunately, my conversation didn't turn up anything new; now here we are."

"You said we had twenty-four hours, right?" Richard asked, calmly.

"I'll be the one closing the case if I haven't turned up anything new before I go off duty at seven tomorrow morning. I just felt I owed you the respect of looking in your eye."

"And we appreciate that, Lieutenant." Joan said, softly. Tears ran down her face, though it was impossible to tell if she wept for her missing child, her unstable husband or for herself,
"But I think you'd better go, now."

"Yes," the Lieutenant stood,
"Yes. I'll give you some privacy. Just before I go, let me ask you, is there anything else you can think of? Any place Liam may have gone? Something he said that seemed innocent at the time but now ...." he trailed off.

"There's nothing, Lieuenant." Richard spat.
"There's nothing at all. And my boy is gone. And you're telling us to get over it."

"Mr. Cunningham, I wish there were more that I could do. I promise you we'll keep looking until the last possible second."

"No you won't." Joan said, her voice eerily cheery.
"You'll close the case long before the last possible second." She looked the Lieutenat in the eye coldly, though her tone remained upbeat and civil,
"Honestly, Lieutenant, I do understand that you can't keep up the search. I, that is, we, knew that it would happen eventually. It's just that I must insist that you be honest with us, and honest with yourself when you say it. You will not look until the last possible second."

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it."

"I want you to say it." Joan said, maintaining her calm demeanor,
"I want to hear you say that you won't look until the last possible second."

"Joan, come on, that's enough." Richard said, shooting a glare toward the Lieutenant,
"We're all upset. I'm angry too."

"He isn't. He's closing the case. The least he can do is be honest about it."

"Mr and Mrs. Cunningham, it is true I will have to close the case if I can't turn up a new lead by tomorrow morning. I realize this is upsetting news, and I want you to know that you have my deepest sympathies." Before they could reply, he turned and left; finding that he couldn't stand to look at them for another second.

Joan Cunningham crumpled to the floor. Richard caught her as she wailed. Sounds of pure pain and despair filled the hall as the Lieutenant walked away as quickly as he could while still being considered polite.

*               *               *

"Thank you for coming." Richard stood, and gestured for the seat across from him. Ava pulled the chair out and accepted his invitation.

"Of course, Mr. Cunningham. I was surprised to hear from you. Is everything okay? I heard about Liam's case being closed."

"Yes, the uh," Richard poured a glass of water for each of them from a pitcher that doubled as a centerpiece,
"The Lieutenant told us he'd talked to you."

"I wish I could help more." Ava said, concentrating on her glass of water, which was now sweating.

"The Lieutenant seemed to think you could." Richard said, his voice only shaking slightly.

"I don't understand." Ava said hesitantly.

"You don't understand," Richard mocked,
"You don't understand."

"Mr. Cunningham, are you okay?" Ava asked.

"You listen to me you little bitch," Richard grabbed her arms in his hands and pinned her to the table,
"I'm not the police and I don't follow anyone's rules but mine. And right now, when it comes to my son, to getting Liam back; I don't have any rules."

"Mr. Cunningham, you're hurting me." Ava whimpered.

"Good. That's how you can tell I'm serious. Ava. The Lieutenant believes you know more than you're telling. That your teacher believes you know more than you're telling. So I'm going to tell you what's going to happen. You're going to tell me what you know. Then you're going to go home and get ready for school tomorrow."

"Mr. Cunningham, I promise I don't know anything."

"Then why does everyone think you do?" Richard's voice rose and drew the attention of other nearby diners. He relaxed his grip on the girl's arms, allowing her to yank them free.

"I don't know, Mr. Cunningham. I don't. I don't know what happened. I wish to God I did but I don't.' she began to sob. Richard watched her intently, remembering the Lieutenant's words that she appeared to be following a script.

"Ava, what do you know? Please. Please just tell me. I need to understand." He pleaded with her.

"Mr. Cunningham, like I said I just don't know what happened." She replied.

"And I don't believe you." Richard said. Ava followed him out, but the two didn't share another word.


"It's just up here." Ava said, motioning for the Lieutenant to follow her.

"What is?" He asked.

"I have to show you. I can't wait for you to see it. Maybe then you'll believe me. Believe that I don't know what happened."

"Ava, I do believe you." the Lieutenant insisted.

"That's not what Mr. Cunningham said. He said you thought I knew more than I was telling."

"He shouldn't have spoken with you. I'm sorry that happened." The Lieutenant inwardly seethed. He should have seen this coming. The Cunninghams had both shown evidence of instability; it should have been obvious that one or both of them would do something stupid. He forced himself to put those thoughts aside for now, concentrating on following Ava.

He had met her at the school as she'd asked. Ava had called him and simply said that she had something to show him and that it was about Liam. She had led him from the school to a storm drain that ran behind the length of the school and its neighborhood. They'd followed the drain for a quarter of a mile, Ava insisting that their destination was "Just up ahead," before she began the climb out of the drain. The Lieutenant was now perched on the top of a runoff tunnel, his right hand holding onto a rock as he waited for Ava to climb ahead and make space for him to follow. She climbed to a point about five feet above him before turning around and motioning for him to follow.

"Quickly, Lieutenant. You need to see it! I need you to see that I don't know what happened."

"Ava, honey, I know you don't know what happened. Can't you tell me where we're going?"

"It's just up ahead. Near the Quarry."

"Ava, stop. I'm not going another step until you tell me where we're going." the Lieutenant stood up straight, allowing his height to intimidate the girl.

"Lieutenant, please. It's just up ahead."

"You need give me a little more to go on, young lady." He admonished.

"Walk with me and I'll tell you." She compromised. The Lieutenant followed her, reluctantly.

"Mrs. Beaverdick, you met her right? Her class really is the worst. Liam and I both hated it. We used to come up with any excuse we could think of to get out of it. He would have to use the bathroom, I'd fake cramps. Stuff like that. We've been friends for a really long time so it was really just a bit of fun. I promise. It was nothing more than a little fun. Do you believe me?"

"Ava, if you mean do I believe that you didn't do anything on purpose, then yes. I do believe you. But what did happen? Was there some sort of an accident?"

"You're not listening." Ava said, exasperated.

"We found this tunnel leading of from the Quarry. We started to explore it."

"Tunnel? Ava is Liam in this tunnel?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you Lieutenant. I don't know what happened."

"Okay Ava," he soothed,
"Just start from the beginning."

*               *               *

Ava watched the door close on Liam's "come hither" finger wag and smiled. Today was the day. She knew it. Today was the day she would tell him how she really felt. Today was the day of their first kiss. She looked at her planner and drew a heart next to the date where she had already written: "First kiss with Liam. Remember for anniversary purposes."

"Mrs. Beaverdick?" She called, raising her hand.

"Yes, Ava? I suppose you have to go to the bathroom too?"

"No, ma'am. I need to go to the nurse."

"You're not feeling well?" Mrs. Beaverdick asked.

"Not exactly. I sort of, um, forgot to bring ... you know ...." she silently hoped her teacher got the hint.

"I see. Yes, of course you may visit the Nurse."

Ava left as quickly as she could. She made sure the door shut before she moved again; not wanting anyone in the class to see her heading in the opposite direction. She bolted through the gymnasium exit, sprinting across the field to the hole in the fence that everyone complained about but that no one ever fixed. Once she was in the storm drain, she hurried to the Quarry. She'd half expected to catch up to Liam on her way, but there was no sign of the boy. Reaching the Quarry she made her way to the tunnel and found Liam waiting for her inside.

"Hey," she said, as casually as she could muster,
"How's it going?" There was no response. She looked at him, trying to tell if he was playing a game with her.
"I think Mrs. Beaverdick suspects something. I think we should make today count and take a break for a while and let things cool off. What do you think?'

There was again, no response.

"Speaking of making things count, Liam, there's something I've been wanting to give you for a long time. I've just been waiting for the right time. I think it's today." She leaned forward and boldly kissed him. She pressed her mouth firmly to his, allowing her passion to dictate the ferocity of the kiss. Her hands went from his chest to the sides of his face. For his part, Liam stood stock still. His arms remained at his sides.

"Liam?" Ava asked, pulling away,
"Liam, don't you like me?"

Liam didn't respond. He didn't move. In fact there was no change at all in his demeanor aside from a low growl in his throat.

"Liam, I don't understand. What's happening?"

*               *               *

"What happened next, Ava?" The Lieutenant prodded. The girl had trailed off and been silent for two minutes.

"I've been telling you, Lieutenant. I don't know what happened."

"Well, we're at the Quarry now, can you show me this tunnel?" He tried.

"It's just over here." Ava motioned.

"Ava, why didn't you tell anyone about this before?"

"Oh, I did." She replied simply.

"You did?" He asked,

"Just the other day I told Mrs. Beaverdick." Seeing his surprised look, she continued,
"She asked me why I had lied to you when you'd asked me if I knew anything else about where Liam was. I told her I didn't know what happened. She didn't believe me so I had to bring her here to show her."

"I wonder why she didn't call me?" The Lieutenant muttered to himself.

"I think she might still be talking to Liam."

"To Liam? What the hell is going on Ava?"

"Oh, I also showed Mr. Cunningham. Though to be honest I didn't want to. He hurt me. And he's mean."

"He hurt you? Ava, we need to stop right now, and I need to take you in to make a formal statement."

"Well that'll be up to Liam, won't it?  I mean if he isn't really missing then why do I have to make a statement?"

"Where's Liam, Ava?"

The girl didn't respond. Instead, the Lieutenant felt a tug on his right arm. He looked at the source and found the lifeless eyes of Mrs. Beaverdick. The deathmask she wore betrayed the fact that she'd been terrified when she died. She lumbered on a broken right ankle, pulling the Lieutenant behind her. Ava smiled,

"I told you she was still down here. That's why she didn't call you."

"What is this? What's going on?" The Lieutenant asked.

This time the response came as a tug on his left leg. He looked down to find Mr. Cunningham's arms wrapped around his ankle. Looking closer he realized that it was only Mr. Cunningham's torso that had hold of him. The man's body seeemed to stop at the waist; his legs were missing or had been replaced by a trail of his intestines and digestive system that he dragged behind him. Ava's grin became even broader.

"Mr. Cunningham was so happy to see Liam that he rushed right up to him and gave him a hug. Liam missed his dad too. He hugged him so hard he pulled him right off his legs!"

"Ava, you've got to listen to me. Please. Help me. Get them off of me. We've got to get out of here."

"Not yet, Lieutenant. You need to see that Liam's okay. That I don't know what happened but he's okay."

The Lieutenant heard another low growl from in front of him. He turned his gaze to the source of the sound and found Liam moving toward him from the darkness. Ava walked around the Lieutenant and took the boy's arm, kissing him on the cheek. Liam made no move against the girl, instead moving toward the Lieutenant as if the man were all he could see. The boy was in the best shape of all of them, but was still obviously a corpse. His skin was pale, as if his body had been drained of blood. The Lieutenant could see the trace lines of veins as if the boy's skin was transluscent. Ava wrapped her arm around Liam and helped him toward the Lieutenant.

"See Lieutenant. He's okay. Just a little different now. I told you I don't know what happened and I don't. I kissed him and then he was like this. I don't think it was my fault,but I can't think of anything else it could be. I don't know what to do, now because everyone thinks Liam is missing and when they see him like this they'll all know it was my fault." She hung her head in embarrassment.

"Ava, you've got to get me out of here. I can help you. We can get a team here, like I heard they had in North Carolina. We can figure it out."

"You're not listening, Lieutenant. I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened to Liam. I don't know what happened to Mrs. Beaverdick. I don't know what happened to Mr. Cunningham, and when they come asking me I'll be sure to tell them I don't know what happened to you, either, Lieutenant." she looked at Liam, kissing him on the cheek again,
"I've got to get home, honey. Mom will be worrying if I'm not back soon. I'll be by in the morning to see you again." Another kiss, this time on his mouth, which was in mid-snarl when her lips made contact.

"Ava, don't do this. Please. We can figure this out."

As last words go, they weren't the best. Ava wished that he'd had something more poignant or inspirational to say. Something about love beating the odds and how to make a relationship work. She found it immensely disappointing that he'd been about as useful as the others. So focused on how Liam had changed. None of them seemed to care that she'd changed to. That Liam had made her a woman.

"There's nothing to figure out, Lieutenant. I love him. We'll find a way to make it work. Somehow." With a final kiss blown to Liam, Ava left; the Lieutenant's screams playing a recessional to her exit.

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