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High School Contemporary Suspense

Cyberbullying: the new catchphrase for our day. Mabel was a pioneer in this regard, although in our case, I’d offer a twist: reverse cyberbullying. I’m not sure if that makes sense. Contrived bullying, fake bullying, I don’t know. 


We were cyberbullying Mabel. We put scantily clad pictures of her on the internet, circling her cellulite, her soft and vulnerable places. If it’s attention she craved, she got it in spades. Public opinion can be ruthless, scathing. We were prototypes, the three of us- myself, Shaye, and Phoebe- placed squarely into boxes, each with factory settings. 


But was it true?  


Before that fateful night, before we were stamped with such concise labels- Bullies and Bullied- we were at our breaking points. Keep in mind, this was before our public spurning, merely at the school level, trifling in comparison. And yet, when they say life goes on, it really is true. Despite the strain, our lives demanded minutiae: papers and chores and trying to find that particular sock in the laundry basket. Nothing, it turns out, can quite eclipse the banality of living. That was how I coped: putting one foot in front of the other, that barest of tenements. 


Phoebe coped through her faith, through an emerging serenity. Not in a proselytizing sense- she wasn’t spouting off scripture and vocalizing a forgiveness toward Mabel that could be construed as patronizing. It was inward, a strength which she said came from a greater power than herself. She was joyful, she said. Despite everything, she was joyful. She had the inner glow of the persecuted. 


Shaye coped by relying on the merits of her strength- money, lawyers, sheer determination. Her father, as a CEO, knew that truth meant little in the corporate world. Fight fire with fire. She was a warrior with a touch of arrogance and a dash of white privilege. 


The school was preparing their case against us, assessing what constituted as punishment in regards to social media. We were looking at expulsion, which was devastating. For one thing, I’d been slaving away for an academic scholarship, and while this did force me to pull my head out of the sand, to blink at the harsh reality facing me, Phoebe maintained her come-what-may peacefulness. We were desperate, and still- still!- thought we could reason with Mabel. A girl who’d put unflattering pictures of herself in her underwear and made herself go viral. 


Money, Shaye said to me. It came down to money. I considered it for a moment and decided that she was right. (Possibly, maybe.) Shaye was convinced that Mabel was attempting to bribe us, that she’d been doing it all along, and now we’d have to broker a deal. I suggested she simply ask her dad for money, but she insisted that her dad would never stoop so low- to offer a bribe for Mabel to retract her accusations and accept defeat in such a sordid manner. It was a moral code I didn’t quite understand, but our families were still under the illusion that Mabel was a mental case consumed by jealousy. 


This hypothetical situation, or amusing anecdote, or what have you, began to take shape. I didn’t put a halt to it, just let Shaye take the driver’s seat. It took a lot of strategizing between us to see how we could pull it off. We threw ideas back and forth, discarding most of them, bickering with each other, especially when I kept telling her how dumb the whole idea was. It was dumb- the idea that Mabel was conning us. I’d see her at school, her small dumpy self, and I’d feel stupid. But Shaye was so insistent; the idea had burrowed deeply inside her and she wouldn’t be swayed. 


My biggest point of contention was what to do about Phoebe. Shaye argued that she should be with us, part of the plan, but I disagreed. I had to convince Shaye that, unlike us, Phoebe wasn’t bitter. She’d forgiven Mabel, and once you’ve reached that sort of pinnacle, it’d be hard to bring her down to our level. To Shaye, Phoebe was just pathetic, and while I was inclined to agree, we had to compromise: we’d bring Phoebe along to give the idea that we were only going to speak to Mabel, and then play it by ear once we’d confronted her. Not much of a plan, but I could no longer sit back and do nothing. Our futures seemed too linear: college and only college. We couldn’t perceive much beyond that, couldn’t recognize the variables of adult life; the winds that blew off course, the compromises one took. 


The day arrived, a bitterly cold Sunday. We kept to our normal routine: church and afterwards to the Doons, Shaye joining us, just like normal. Sadness expanded inside me. Perhaps it was the bare trees scraping against the living room window, the darkened sky, but I was depressed in a way I’d never experienced at the Doons before. As though my safe place had a window cracked just a little, a creeping cold that pervaded my spirit.


When the fateful time arrived, we first we went to Starbucks and ordered hot chocolate, and then made our way to Mabel’s. It was when we entered her neighborhood that Phoebe grew worried. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she told us. 


“You’ll be fine,” I said, driving slowly. It was icy on the roads and I drove at a snail’s pace. “We’re just talking.”


Phoebe wasn’t soothed. “Andi, we need to turn around. We need to go home.” 


“Phoebe,” Shaye said, “we’re doing this.” 


If only we had listened to Phoebe, if only we had recognized the warning. If only she’d pushed us harder, even though in her mind it was futile against the strength of our personalities.  


To my dismay, her father opened the door. “Good evening, Mr. Briggs,” Shaye said, her manner subdued, her voice entreating. “How are you?”


He cocked his head and looked at Shaye with a perplexed expression. “How am I?” he repeated in wonder. “Would you really like to know?” His smile was tight, his eyes hard. “Well let me tell you, Miss Haddock. Your father, the formidable Mr. Haddock, has threatened my family with complete and utter ruin.” He abruptly turned around and left us standing there, the door opened to the frigid air, not extending the courtesy of inviting us inside. He soon returned with a stack of papers, thwacking it against his open palm. “Would you like me to read it to you? It makes for endless entertainment.”


Shaye held up the hot chocolate. “We come in peace.” His face twitched. She added meekly, “I’m truly sorry about all of this. I just want it to go away. That’s why we’re here.” 


Mr. Briggs seethed at her. “I am not going to waste my hard-earned money on a ridiculous, pontificating lawyer who will bill me a hundred dollars an hour to write up some drivel to then be sent to your father’s lawyer and have the process repeated.” 


Mabel had once told us that her dad never swore, that he held the English language in the highest regard- but by his short bursts of words, it sounded rife with expletives. Pontificate, for instance, sounded dirty. 


Shaye said evenly, “I will make this right.” And then Mabel appeared, hovering in the entryway, her arms wrapped around herself. She said to her, “Mabel, we just want to talk. To go on a drive and talk it out.” Again, she held up the hot chocolate like an offering. 


“A drive,” Mabel said tonelessly.


“Yes, just a drive.” She turned to Mr. Briggs. “Would that be okay?”


He gave her a mocking smile. “Oh, I believe a drive won’t be necessary. Despite your father, we’ve got it all worked out.”


It took so much willpower for me not to lash out, to scream that we’d done nothing wrong! We were only part of his daughter’s grand delusion. Shaye, to her credit, didn’t take the bait.


“I understand,” she said reasonably, “but it’s just that we want to apologize to Mabel.”


He peered around us, his breath billowing in the icy air. “Who’s that with you?” 


“It’s only Phoebe.” She turned to Mabel.“Will you at least talk to Phoebe?”


Mabel narrowed her eyes at us, assessing.


Shaye looked at me and sighed. “Well, we tried.” This might have been her conceding the futility of it all, but I’m more inclined to believe it was a psychological tactic. In which it worked. 


“Ten minutes,” Mabel said. Her dad protested, but she assured him she’d be fine. Before he could force her back into the house, she grabbed a pair of boots that looked too big, like they were her one of her brother’s, and stepped into the cold night. She was wearing only a sweatshirt and jeans.


I was desperate to leave. What a half-brained sloppy plan. We would convince Mabel of nothing; it seemed so obvious as we gingerly made our way across the driveway, the ice cracking under our feet, my car chugging away; and Phoebe there, watching us approach, her face set in a frown, a condemnation of sorts. 


I drove cautiously and attempted small talk. “How have you been Mabel?” 


“Just dandy,” she said. 


“Isn't that nice,” I returned. As I entered Bluebell Park, Shaye told me to pull over.


“Why are we stopping here?” Mabel asked.  


Shaye took off her seatbelt and turned around to face her. “We get it, Mabel. You win.” 


Mabel looked confused. “Get what?”  


“What will it take, Mabel? Money? Look, we’re not going to make a big thing of this. You played us and you win.” Shaye let that hang for a moment. “You win okay?”


“What are you talking about?” 


Dread, that’s how I felt, in all its useless hindsight. A dread that had been subconscious, just under the surface, and now growing. Phoebe’s instincts were right: we should have gone home. 


 “Let’s cut right to it. We give you money and you stop lying.” 


Mabel looked at Phoebe. “What is this about?” 


“I don’t know,” Phoebe said, her voice agitated, looking at me for an explanation. 


“Money,” Shaye repeated. “It’s simple. We give half now and the other half when you tell the school it was all a bunch of lies.”


“Shaye,” I said desperately. “Let’s not do this. Let’s just quit.”


Shaye shook her head. “No, she’s playing us again.” She narrowed her eyes at Mabel. “I see who you are. You can’t fool me. I’m telling you right now, take the money, make this go away, or I swear I will ruin you and your family.”  


Mabel only put her hands up to her ears and closed her eyes. To our surprise, she screamed, a long shrill note. Then: “You’re doing it again! They told me you would!” 


We could only stare at her.  


Phoebe gave me a pleading look. “Andi, let’s go.” 


Shaye slapped my hand as I went to put the gear into drive, and then grabbed the keys and pulled them from the ignition. “Are you insane?” I asked, failing to pry them from her grasp. 


Shaye’s voice was full of warning. “Let me finish this.”


Phoebe asked me again to take Mabel home. Shaye said to me irritably, “This is why I didn’t want her to come.”


“Then what do we do?” I demanded. “What's your genius plan?”


Shaye folded her arms in defiance. “We wait.”


 “We wait for what?”


Her voice rose, “We wait for them to chill, those two in the back there. Mabel, your little act isn’t working on me. It might be working for Phoebe, but not me.”


I have to say, I was impressed. For all of Shaye’s lack of drive, her penchant for easy living, she was quite the negotiator. What happened next chilled me.


Mabel stopped hyperventilating. Stopped. In this atmosphere of hysteria, it felt like a switch had been turned off, the drama excised. In a calm voice she asked, “How much?” 


“One thousand dollars,” Shaye said, not hesitating. “One half at school tomorrow, the other half when you recant.”


Recant, I thought. How noire; how dramatic. Phoebe’s eyes were wide with disbelief. 


Mabel’s face twisted into a sneer. “One thousand dollars?” 


But Shaye was not goaded. “Not one penny more. That’s all we’ve got. This is our money, not my family's.” 


Mabel regarded us with a calculating pause. And then she came to a decision. And she committed to it. She unbuckled her seatbelt and let herself out of the car; she ran into the middle of the road and screamed, a spine-chilling sound, frozen notes shattering into the night; and then she stumbled into the woods. She was clearly insane. Why else would she scream like a banshee when there was no one to hear her? And then to run off into the frigid February night?


We looked at each other. “What just happened?” I said. 


“We need to find her,” Phoebe said frantically. “She’s going to hurt herself.”


“She’s just running home,” Shaye said. 


“No Shaye, she’s not!” Phoebe screamed at her. With that, she got out of the car and slammed the door. 


“So that went well,” Shaye said mildly. 


I glared at her in response, and in solidarity with Phoebe, I opened the door, a blast of cold air slicing through me. None of us were properly dressed, but I didn’t believe it was dangerously cold. Not when we had a car; not when Mabel’s home was so close by.


Shaye leaned over and grabbed my arm. A last parting shot: “But I was right.”


“Whatever Shaye.” 


“So what should I do?” Shaye asked, peering up at me. “Should I drive over to Mabel’s house and wait for her to come back?”


“Just stay there.”


The next half hour was a blur, filled with aimless wandering and bitter cold. I called out their names until my voice grew hoarse. I assumed Mabel had indeed gone home, that she knew the trails- except for the fact that the trails weren’t visible. Everything was covered by a thick fondant of snow and ice. Still, my pervading emotion was irritability, which was only offset by the growing demands of my body, slowly losing feeling. Eventually, I became so cold I decided to head back, clinging to the idea that Phoebe had found Mabel. 


I did feel a tinge of fear. Worst case, and this the absolute worst, I could call Mabel’s family. They could bring flashlights. I circled back to my car only to find it abandoned. I swore out loud in frustration. At least it wasn’t locked, in which Shaye had so generously left the keys. I turned on the car and blasted the heat, and then called Shaye. At this point, my body was warming up and I felt drowsy, blissfully so.


“Where are you?” I asked her. 


“I’m with Phoebe,” she said, her voice reedy. I closed my eyes in relief. All was well. “I’ll pick you up,” I told Shaye. “Tell me where you are.”


“We’re on a service road. I think it’s a utility road by the group camping grounds.” Her voice was sputtering at this point. “Hurry Andi. We’re literally freezing. Phoebe’s lips are blue.”


At this I did feel a sense of urgency. “Is Mabel with you?”


“No.”


I groaned. 


“Hurry.” 


It took another twenty minutes before I could find them. In a frustrating attempt to find the road, Shaye had to guide me by looking for landmarks. Finally, I saw them huddled together, their bodies close together, shivering. They flung themselves into the car, in which I had cranked up the heat so high I was practically sweating. Shaye put her hand directly on the vent. “Ow, ow,” she said as her fingers prickled back to life. 


Phoebe chattered, “I tried calling her, but I was just so cold.” 


“I had to talk her out of calling the police,” Shaye said. 


“Really, Phoebe?” I said accusingly, looking through the rearview mirror. “That’s just what we need.” I did drive rather recklessly, considering the condition of the road. “Why did you leave the car, Shaye? You aren’t even wearing a coat.”


“I thought I saw Mabel through the woods,” she said, her voice gaining strength. “Then I ran into Phoebe and we got lost trying to find the car.”


“How stupid to go out there without a coat.” 


“Yeah, tell me about it,” Shaye said. “My boogers are defrosting.”


“It’s not a time to joke,” Phoebe said sharply. She was furious with us. I pulled up to Mabel’s house, and Phoebe bolted out of the car, skidding on the ice.


“Dang,” Shaye said. “It’s not like we kicked Mabel out of the car. She ran out like a little monkey.” 


I couldn’t help it: I laughed. It was nervous tension. Our laughter was shrill and Shaye looked especially crazy-eyed. And unfortunately for us, that’s what her family saw. Her mom opened the door and peered at us- the visual of us laughing, not a care in the world. We sobered when it became clear that Mabel was not home. 


“She’s probably hiding somewhere,” Shaye said furiously. “She just wants us to get in trouble.”


“Hiding where? This is serious.” I felt my insides tense; my heart felt like it was dropping out of my body. “She can’t survive out there without a coat. Do we need to call someone?” In a smaller voice: “Like the police?”


Shaye’s expression was grim. “I’m sure Phoebe already has.”


“Then let’s go,” I said, full of dread. The night, it turned out, was only beginning. And, you could say, was also the end. 


Mabel was found. Close to the utility road, so close to where Phoebe and Shaye had been huddling. Frozen, peaceful; one could even say serene. Our mugshot encapsulated us so perfectly: Phoebe, abashed; myself, scornful; and Shaye, so defiantly beautiful.


July 29, 2023 02:50

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1 comment

Éan Bird
19:59 Sep 09, 2023

I really enjoyed the characterization of the girls, and the tension built into the dialogue!

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