Jared hangs his head. “I’m the culprit.”
I twitch uncomfortably, the horrifying realization ripping everything away. Life drains from my features as I collapse onto the dorm room cushions. I can’t do this. I can’t be his fallback every time something goes wrong. Bubbles of terror pop and twist like my insides are stirring in a boiling pot. He’s had a knack for getting in trouble, but never like this. Tight nauseating tendrils coil around my stomach, clenching my middle like a vise.
“Anya, please, listen to me.” A muscular arm wraps around me, lifting me into a sitting position and pulling my head toward his chest. I push him away.
“No! I can’t help you.” I thrash my arm in his direction. “We’re done!” A downpour of tears burn my eyes, blurring the chiseled features of the man I once loved… still love... might love… I don’t know.
Jared blinks twice, turning away to stare at the boards on the floor. He stands, his hands curled into fists.
“You are the only one I have left—the only one I trust. Please, hear me out.” His pleading bright blue eyes cut holes deep inside of me, shredding me into tiny fragments of devastation. He cradles the side of my face with a brawny hand.
“Please.” A single tear runs down his cheek.
I pull away.
Everything rages inside me, a whirlwind of fury and terror ripping away all of my senses. The shred of dignity I have left wants to help the old Jared, but not this new one. Who has he become? The man I knew would never do something so heinous—so utterly terrible.
“Why did you do it?” The question hangs in the air as if he didn’t expect it. His head droops, the regret in his eyes shining through.
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t want anyone to be harmed.”
“That doesn’t change the facts.”
“Leave! If the police know you came, they’ll question me. I won’t leave out any details.”
“Anya, I know you're mad, which is understandable.” He sighs. “But let me tell you my side of the stor—”
A heavy knock pounds on the door. Jared looks around frantically, diving out the window into the bramble. Lucky for him, I live on the first floor. Several more knocks rattle the door. I turn the silver handle for two policemen on the other side.
To the left stands a man in a bushy mustache, a bulky police cap pulled down over his eyes, and muscular arms crossed over his chest. The woman on the right stands straight, a deadpan expression scrolled across her face. Her jet black hair pulled back in a loose bun contrasts her olive complexion.
“Hello, Ms Banks. I am police officer Cameron, and this is my associate Jade. Do you know the location of Jared Synclair? You are his girlfriend, right?”
“Ex-girlfriend.” I correct.
“Has he visited you since the library incident?” Jade asks.
I bite my lip, hesitating. Half of me—the furious side that desires him to serve his punishment—wants to point out his position in the bushes. The other half of me—the side still clinging to the old Jared—wants to pretend like he never showed up. I hesitate for a second longer.
“No, he hasn’t been around lately,” I say. Jade eyes me suspiciously.
“You’re lying. Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” My voice catches on the last word.
“Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to come with us for questioning,” Cameron says. I sigh, following the police officers out of the dorms and into a cop car.
Once in the interrogation room, many questions fly at me.
“Where does he like to hang out?”
“Where is he headed?”
“Does he have any friends?”
The interrogators spout off hundreds of inquiries. The endless spiral of questions drag me into a frenzy. Most of them I don’t know how to answer. Others simply aren’t important. Throughout the investigation, I avoid divulging any important information.
I return to my dorm room after the downpour of questions finally subsides. The angry twist of emotions festering inside me, war against each other, all sides playing a hopeless game of tug-of-war. Jared’s usually senseless pranks were always harmless—minor things that hardly bothered anyone. What made him go bigger, meaner, and utterly cruel?
His usual cheery, fun-loving, kind-hearted demeanor doesn't mix with his recent actions. The old Jared would never blow up a library, much less endanger innocent lives. Could all of this be a set-up, misunderstanding, blackmail, or has Jared really changed for the worst? I should have listened to him when he tried to prove his innocence. Maybe he is innocent, or maybe I’m defending him because I can’t stand having dated a terrorist.
One of my roommates, Carly, pauses my drifting thoughts as she enters the room, a load of laundry tucked under her arm. Her apologetic look reveals the tear stains splattered on my yellow blouse. I push aside my latest read titled “The Waves of Poseidon”. I planned to turn the book back to the library, but that isn’t an option now.
“I’m going out.” I say.
Outside the dorm room, my eyes linger on the charred campus building that used to be the library. I suck in a deep breath. Maybe I shouldn’t go out looking for him. Curiosity pulls me to the bus stop nearby. I want to know the truth, even if it costs me everything. The bus stops at a crossroad next to a cafe, my destination. I shared many breakfasts with Jared at Jolly Cafe for the month we dated. If he wants me to find him, this is the place to look.
The little bell above the door chimes and the warm smell of fresh cinnamon rolls wafts through the air. I scan the crowded tables, plopping down at the last empty one in the far corner. Finding Jared during the lunch rush will be no minor feat.
A dose of hesitation floods my body. What if the police find out? What is the punishment for aiding a terrorist? No, I’m not aiding a terrorist. I am simply here to find out Jared’s side of the story.
I lay my head down on the table, waiting. What else can I do? If Jared is here, he will find me. I glance over the commotion swarming the small cafe. A waitress balances two plates in each hand, a group of bikers sit around a table swapping turns arm wrestling, and a group of college students hunch together at a small booth.
My eyes fix on a solo biker walking in my direction. His heavy-duty, metal-soled boots clank against the floor with each step. A tight leather jacket wraps around his bulging body, cropped at the sleeves to show off his hulking muscles. His red bandana conceals most of his sandy hair except for a few wandering strands. Glints of sunlight reflect off of the bulky black sunglasses obscuring his eyes. His familiar light features and perfect jawline catch my attention. Who is he? I clench up as he hunkers down in the seat across from me.
“Looking for someone?” He asks.
“Are you sure?” He lowers his sunglasses briefly to reveal familiar deep blue eyes, the eyes of Jared Synclair. I gasp. My arms reach out to hug him, stopping short as I remember his current predicament. I cross my arms over my chest, narrowing my eyes at him.
“You have a lot of explaining to do.”
“Yes.” He looks away. “I do, but not here. Follow loosely.”
He stands, scooting his chair back and walking to the door. I follow, keeping several strides behind and letting my eyes wander absently. I trail behind him for several minutes, weaving through the crowds of people congregating on the city block. I nearly lose sight of him several times and would have if not for his tall stature and red bandana. He stops in a deserted alley between a restaurant and an abandoned hotel.
The stench of rotting trash fills my nostrils as I step over several dark clumps of filth. Jared opens the only door in the alley, a backdoor to the abandoned hotel. I hesitate before following him inside. Mice skitter through the dark halls and splotches of light seep through the rotting boards nailed over the windows. A light draft sends shivers racing down my spine. Of all the places he could have chosen, why this place?
Jared yanks off his bandana and wig, revealing his dark untamed hair. Unkempt sprigs sprawl out in every direction.
“I didn’t do it.” A surge of relief nearly knocks me off of my feet. His sincere eyes and comforting words change everything. I bury my face into his chest, tears pooling up on his jacket. After several moments, I step back.
“Then… who framed you? I swear whoever did this will—”
“I work for a secret society dedicated to saving our world or, more specifically, our country.”
“Wait… this isn’t some crazy organization burning down buildings to say ‘hey, world, live better before global warming takes over and we strip our planet of its resources’, right? Because there are a lot of peaceful alternatives that don’t involve endangerment of innocent lives.”
He scrunches his eyebrows. “The WPO—World Peace Organization—specializes in protecting the government from being overthrown. Threats to our country are much more common than many realize.”
“If this is a secret organization, why are you telling me about it? Won’t you get in trouble?”
“We are recruiting you,” a voice from behind me whispers. I nearly scream, whipping around to see a figure hiding in the shadows. As he nears, his tuxedo and neat brown hair come into view. I freeze, unsure how to respond to the stranger. Recruit me? I don’t have any special talents. Why do they need my help?
I turn to Jared. “I’m not joining an organization burning down libraries.”
“Anya, listen, we’re trying to stop an evil organization from infiltrating the government.”
The stranger says, “We need you to be a spy within the college. We believe someone smuggled a secret document from the library. It contains paramount information we need to take down the WCU—World Communism Union. We know they are planning something big. If we don’t find their headquarters soon, the government could fall. I wouldn’t be asking you if your boyfriend, here, had completed his mission.”
Jared clears his throat. “The WCU sent a recruit to plant a bomb in the library. They don't want anyone getting their hands on the document. I scoured the library beforehand, but never found it.”
I put my hands on my hips. “How am I supposed to find it?”
“The document must have been checked out by a student. I would poke around the school myself, but... seeing there’s a manhunt for my arrest… You get the picture,” Jared says.
“What does the document look like?”
“It’s disguised as a fictional book about Greek Mythology titled ‘The Waves of Poseidon’,” Jared says.
“‘The Waves of Poseidon’?” Shock fissures through my body.
“You’ve heard of it?” Jared asks.
“I’m the one who checked it out.”
“Did you notice anything strange about it?” The tuxedo man asks, adjusting his circular glasses.
I close my eyes, pushing my mind to its limit. I read through the entire book and nothing suspicious jumped out at me. I search my memories harder, focusing on even the most miniscule of details—the words in the margins, the page numbers, the chapter titles. That’s it, the chapter titles. The author italicized some letters in each of the titles. Is that the answer?
I share my findings and venture to my dorm room to collect the book. Conveniently, my two roommates are not around. I pull open the book to each chapter, writing down the italicized letters in order. After scribbling down the last letters, I stoop to read the message.
Follow Lindbergh Trail and stop at the river’s edge. Enter the secret tunnel hidden behind the bushes.
I fold up the paper, deposit the book on the couch, and rush back to the abandoned hotel. The message must be directions to the evil organization’s headquarters. If we can unmask them, it will prove Jared innocent. Relief cascades through my body, releasing the tension running through me. I can finally relax and accept Jared as my boyfriend once again. Our breakup resulted from my lack of trust. Now that I know he’s innocent, everything is different. After all this is over, we can go back to our lives and I can have my boyfriend back.
My fingertips graze the dark halls of the hotel as I walk to the meeting place. Jared stands alone, waiting.
“Did you bring the book?”
“I brought the message.” I respond, wrapping my arms around him. He pushes me away.
“Hand over the message.” His gruff, irritable voice makes me back step. He must just be in a hurry to prove his innocence. He holds out his hand. Hesitantly, I give it over.
“Zank you forr yourr assistance. You have been verrry helpful in divulging lokation of Vorrrld Peace Orrrganization. I’ll be surrre to mention you when ve overrthrrow U.S. goverrrnment.”
I gasp. Am I dreaming? Did those accented words just come from Jared—if that’s even his name? It’s all a lie. My heart throbs as I hyperventilate and the world around me swims into inky blackness. I really dated a terrorist. If the government falls, I am responsible.