“Funeral or not, I’m not going back home…now or ever again.” Bella pulled another handful of grass from the ground and placed it on her thigh.
“So…that’s it? You’re turning your back on everything you’ve ever known? And stop pulling up the grass, you’re gonna leave a bare spot,” said Lenny.
She brushed the grass from her thigh and leaned back on her elbows. “Everything I ever knew died a long time ago. Only thing left in that town are memories and I don’t need to go back there for those. They haunt me all the time.” Bella looked off in the distance.
“You know when you moved here I thought you were this brave woman not afraid to take on the world by herself,” he stared at her.
“And now?” she said without looking at him.
He paused for a moment, then looked off in the distance with her. “I think you’re running from something…and I wish you would trust me enough to tell me what it is.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you.”
“Then why won’t you tell me anything about your past?”
“Because you’ll leave…and you’re the only friend I’ve got.”
“Nothing you can tell me is that bad.”
Bella guffawed at his statement. “If you knew what you think you want to know you would know that it is…that bad.”
Lenny scooted around in front of Bella and spread his legs. He scooted in close to her and gently took her face in his hands. “Look at me. There is nothing you can say that will stop me from being your friend. I love you, Bell.”
She pushed his hands away. “Lenny, don’t.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t say you love me. You can’t love me.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
He furrowed his brow. “Bell, please talk to me.”
She went over that day seven years ago in her mind: what she saw, what she never told anyone. She looked at Lenny, staring at her with such love in his eyes. Love she knew she would lose if she let him all the way in to her world.
She was alone for so long before Lenny came into her life. She loved him, too, though she couldn’t admit it to him. She looked around at the park: there were little kids off in the distance running on the playground; a woman jogging with her dog; a mother feeding her baby in the stroller.
This was the place where she met Lenny, sitting right here under this tree. She was reading a book when a soccer ball rolled right up her leg and knocked her book out of her hand. Lenny came jogging over to get the ball. “Sorry about that,” he’d said. Then he made fun of her for the book she was reading (some trashy romance novel she found at the dollar store). He made her laugh for the first time since she’d moved to the Midwest from Connecticut. Their friendship evolved slowly, but they soon became inseparable.
Lenny interrupted her thoughts. “Bell? Are you here with me?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about the first time we met.”
“It was right here under this tree, wasn’t it?”
“You were reading some awful trashy romance book with a horrible book cover.”
“The story was even worse.” They both laughed heartily.
“I saw a murder and didn’t tell anyone,” she blurted out.
Lenny stopped laughing and stared at her.
“I mean, I didn’t see them actually kill her, but I saw them take her into the woods.”
“Whoa….are you…are you sure?”
Bella pulled her cell phone from her back pocket and began to type. After a few minutes she handed the phone to Lenny. He took the phone and began reading. She looked off in the distance and let the cool breeze kiss her face. She knew this was the end.
“You’ve been carrying this weight around on your shoulders all this time?”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“They were the three most popular girls in school. Everyone loved them. Everyone wanted to be like them.”
“Except me. I was the bookworm. Never fit in with any particular crowd.”
“Ahh…the quiet girl.”
“No…not quiet…just kinda lived on the perimeter of the crowd watching and taking pictures. I love photography. Or…used to love it.”
“I didn’t know that. I’ve never seen you with a camera.”
“Haven’t touched one since that day.”
Lenny pointed to the phone. “The day this happened? You took pictures?”
“No. I was in the woods. Not really woods, more like a patch of trees. But when the sun sets in the evening, it makes for great photos. I was taking pictures of this cardinal sitting on a branch. The sun was coming in at just the right angle through the trees…backlighting the bird perfectly. It was a beautiful shot. I was totally lost in the moment. Then I heard someone crying and these two other girls saying ‘shut up’. I hid behind a tree. I watched them tie her to a tree. Then my cell phone rang and they heard it.”
Bella looked at Lenny to see how he was taking this all in. His face was full of concern. “Go on,” he said, “I’m listening.”
She took another deep breath. “Skylar came over to me and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was bird watching and taking pictures. She saw my camera and freaked out. She started waving this knife at me and asking me if I was taking pictures of them. I told her no, but she didn’t believe me. She put the knife to my neck and…” Bella’s voice broke off as she let the tears fall down her face. Lenny took her hand and rubbed the back of it with his thumb. After a few minutes she took a deep breath. “She told me that if I told anyone what I saw that I’d be next. Then she took my camera and told me to leave or I would end up how Reese was going to end up.”
“Going to end up?”
Bella nodded her head.
“So they hadn’t done anything to her before you left?”
Bella shook her head. “But the next day Reese was missing and it was all over school. I saw her parents in the school office when I walked past. The police were there, too. I tried to ignore it. Then they called a school assembly and announced that Reese was missing. They said if anyone knew anything to come forward.”
“But you were too scared.”
Bella nodded. “Skylar was sitting right behind me. She leaned forward and whispered in my hear. She…she said…” She broke down crying again. Lenny tried to comfort her but it was no use. Finally speaking to someone about this opened a door of grief and all the tears she fought back for all those years spilled out. Lenny waited patiently for her to regain her composure. After several more minutes of sobbing, Bella pulled herself together. She needed to finish this.
“She told me that if I said anything, she’d gut me like she gutted Reese. I was terrified. Everyone thought she was so beautiful and so sweet. Even I did…until that day. It was creepy the way she acted like she was so concerned about Reese. She even let the news people interview her and broke down crying on camera.”
“Sounds like a real con artist.”
“She was…or…is. When I would walk past her in the hallway, she would always make sure she caught my eye and give me this cold stare. I spent the rest of my senior year with my head down. I went to school. I came home. I lost a lot of weight. Got depressed. Dropped out of the yearbook club and photography club. Life in general. Tried so many times to tell my parents what I saw, but I couldn’t.”
“So you came to Illinois.”
“I came to Illinois. Got accepted to college here, it was kind of my last choice. But I needed to get away. My parents were just happy to see me wanting to do something, so they pretty much didn’t argue, they just let me go.”
“Did they ever find Reese’s body?”
“Yeah. Some guy walking in the woods. Well…his dog, actually. I thought I would be relieved when they found her. Like I could finally move on. But I can’t. It haunts me. That’s why I can’t go back there. Skylar and Rainah were never caught. I just can’t risk running into them. Even if it means missing the funeral.”
“So you’re not going home to say goodbye to your brother’s best friend. The person you say was like another brother to you.”
Bella shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t.”
“What if I came with you?”
She looked at Lenny. A tear ran down her cheek. “You…you would do that…for me?”
He took her hand and kissed it. “I would do anything for you. I don’t know why you don’t believe me.”
“I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve anything!” She got up and ran away.
“Bell! Bella!” he got up and ran after her. When he caught up to her he grabbed her arm.
“Just let me go, Lenny. You deserve someone better than me.”
He pulled her into a hug and wouldn’t let her go. She tried to fight him off but he just held her harder. “So you think you don’t deserve anyone because you were scared for your life? Is this why you’ve been pushing me away? Pushing anything good away that tries to come into your life? You’re punishing yourself for someone else’s crime, Bella. It’s time to let it go.”
“I can’t! Don’t you see that? I could have told someone. I could have called 9-1-1 right then and there and maybe Reese would still be alive!” She began to sob again.
“You can’t torture yourself like that.”
“Yes, I can. I have to. I have to suffer.”
“The only people that need to suffer are the girls that killed her. And you can help with that.”
“No way. If I go back there now, after all these years, people will hate me.”
“Maybe, but her parents will also get some closure. And those girls will go to jail…where they belong.”
“I can’t, It’s been too long. And I’m…scared.”
“I’ll be with you the whole time.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. You don’t need to ruin your life for me.”
“You didn’t ask. I offered. And my life won’t be ruined. So how shall we get there, by car or plane? Plane would be quicker, but I would love to go with you on a road trip. I think there’s this whole person I don’t know that I want to learn more about.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“So, you still want to be my friend after all this?”
“No. I want to be your boyfriend. And more than that, but I’m willing to take it slow.” He finally let her out of the embrace he had her in. She looked up at him. He wiped her face with his hands and leaned down to kiss her. She tried to turn away but he held her face with his hands. He gently touched his lips to hers. Then kissed her nose and then her forehead. “So whose car are we taking?”
“Umm, seeing as how your passenger door doesn’t open, I think mine would be the better choice,” she giggled.
“Right. Good point. Your car it is then.”
Will Bella actually go back home again? Will she go to the police?