Jasmine Burke

I'm a girl in her twenties with a passion for writing and a dream of one day being published. I have been writing books since I was 6 years old, but this has been the first large novel that I've actually finished, so that's very exciting!

I used to spend my summer holidays sat in my room delving into fictional worlds, be that through reading or writing. The older I got, the more I confirmed to myself that having a book out in the world is my ultimate dream. Writing has always formed such a core part of my identity, and I definitely felt the most lost in my life in the few years that I abandoned it. This was made even clearer to me when I started a blog in my first year of university so I could get back into writing on a regular basis and feel like me again. That blog has since grown into a largely viewed website with frequent Google hits.

I started my entry for this contest when I was 15 years old and was massively using writing as a means of escapism. Then it got lost in the void as I grew older and had to focus more on exams and less on my hobbies, and I didn't pick it up again until I was in University and needed that place to escape and those comfort characters again. This book is so special to me as it got me through so many hard times and became a place of comfort in so many unexpected ways. The characters evolved and the friendships grew in ways that I needed for myself, and I am proud of the cohesive adventure it ended up turning into. There are so many aspects of me woven into these characters and their progression, so to see them brought to life is very soothing for me.

I would love to take this world even further, and already have ideas for sequels and their next adventures. I hope you enjoy learning about them as much as I do and maybe even find some comfort for yourself within them.

Award Type
Savannah has spent 10 years at the UN's academy for spies, making her the perfect person to get to the bottom of her best friend's mysterious passing. But a day of searching for answers soon becomes more than she imagined, and she learns that things are far more complex than they once seemed.
All That Lies Here Broken
Logline
Savannah has spent 10 years at the UN's academy for spies, making her the perfect person to get to the bottom of her best friend's mysterious passing. But a day of searching for answers soon becomes more than she imagined, and she learns that things are far more complex than they once seemed.
My Submission

FRIDAY, FEB 1

064326.

COUNSELLORS OFFICE, ACADEMY.

An object is only as strong as its weakest point. It’s a fundamental law of physics; a fact that is simply irrefutable.

No matter what you do, no matter how indestructible you may think something is, there is and will always be a breaking point, because everything is made to be broken. The only thing that ever really poses a question is who the one doing the breaking will be. Over the last ten years, I’ve learnt to do everything in my power to make sure that person is me.

The latest victim sits across from me; her phony tone and crumbly lipstick coated grin adding further grey fog to this already dreary Friday morning.

“So how are we feeling this morning Savannah?” She asks, pulling my name out of her mouth with a treacly sweetness.

How are “we” feeling, she says, like there is a “we” in this room. There’s not a “we”. A “we” would imply that I feel any morsel of companionship towards her. “We’re” not a “we”. In this room sits a me, and an embarrassingly desperate woman who will be out of my life for good in ten minutes or less.

“I feel exactly as the last counsellor told me I should feel, Dr Bracknell.” I answer monotonously, watching as her mismatched foundation cracks in her frown lines.

We’ve been sat here for one minute at 33 seconds and she is already exhibiting every common sign of discomfort. I can practically see her crumble under the weight of my pupils as I stare her blankly in the eye. Honestly, I wish she’d shown more resilience; I didn’t want to be here too long but breaking someone down is always more fun when it feels at least somewhat like a challenge.

“Well, if that’s the case Savannah, then you’re coming along quite… impressively.”

“If that is the case?” I repeat, doing everything I can to stop my lip curling. There’s something oddly satisfying about having someone fear you.

“Well I- I’m just not sure it’s really that simple.” She splutters, pupils fixed to her knock off Louboutins.

She’s shifting uncomfortably and erratically tapping her pen against her paper, weighing up the risks involved with looking me in the eye. I’ll give her this – at least she’s smart enough to know that there is a risk involved.

“So let’s run through this, shall we?” I begin, leaning forward just enough to cause a sharp inhale and some startled pupils, “You’ve taken one brief read of my case file – probably over your pre-meeting coffee this morning – and decided that I’m not capable of moving past all this on my own. Why is that? What exactly do you believe you can offer me that I can’t offer myself?”

She flinches; more than a little taken aback by my candour. Poor woman: saw the file of a presumed-sad 19-year-old and thought her morning session would be a piece of cake. This is The Academy. The best of the best. It’s the wrong place to go for anything sweet.

She briefly opens her mouth before clamping it shut in defeat. For a moment I’ve silenced her; shown her who really runs this session. But she’s not quite done yet. In fact, she slowly inhales, exhales, and refocuses her beady little eyes onto my own.

“Okay Savannah, you mentioned your file, so let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about Marcus.” She offers, sighing his name with a sobriety that I’ve become all too familiar with in the last year. A sobriety that makes my skin crawl and my heart drop right into my chest.

Bringing up Marcus so early into the session is a bold move and given the way she’s leaned back in her chair, it’s clear that she knows it. Problem is that at this point, I’ve been through enough of these sessions to know exactly how to suppress any physical reaction to his name. I’m ice cold. And one six letter word can’t break me.

“There’s nothing to say about Marcus. He’s gone. I’m here. Case closed.” I lie through gritted teeth.

Like I said, at this point I’m a master at externally suppressing how I feel about him. But that doesn’t mean saying his name out loud is any easier on the lump inside my throat. Turns out you can fake it til you make it on the surface as much as you want, but grief isn’t as easy to switch off completely. 365 days down the line and it’s still able to fill me with a weird, cavernous dread. Only difference is that now, that dread stays between me and me alone.

“Savannah. He was one of your best friends for almost a decade of your life. A death like that is bound to leave a mark.” She sighs.

She’s shaking her head, staring into my eyes with what looks like genuine concern. I suppose I should be grateful… Be thanking the stars that she’s human enough to take pity on me. But in all honesty, there’s nothing in this world that I hate more than pity. Especially from the likes of her.

I mean yes, of course he left a mark… He was Marcus; he would have come back from the grave specifically to leave one if he knew that there was any chance that he hadn’t. But is that really something to be marvelled at? When you spend ten years living and training in the same place and growing up with the same people, you are bound to form some pretty intense bonds. Marcus, Erinn, Dylan and I had pretty much been each other’s family from a week into our time here. It’s entirely natural for me to feel empty now that a member of my family is gone. I don’t need to talk about that in a dingy basement with a complete stranger once a week. What I need is to wrap this up so I can get on with the rest of my day.

“This is a chance for you to feel your feelings – really open up about it all! It was a grand, unexpected loss. Tell me how you feel about it.” She continues, tilting her head and desperately pleading for me to give her something she can work with.

“I feel like it’s last year’s news, Dr Bracknell.” I drone.

These sessions are always tedious, but I’ve already done too much reminiscing to even entertain one today. Dr Fakeface can come at me with all she has, but if she thinks that she’s getting me to talk about him then she’s the one that needs a sit down with a professional.

“Savannah. A smart girl like you should know that counselling sessions like this are beneficial to your development. They promote cognitive stimulation, a general improvement to your wellbeing, and who knows? Maybe dealing with your grief will help you excel even further in your academy traini-”

“I rank in the top 5% of every class I have, Dr Bracknell.”

“Yes I know that Savannah,” She gulps, eyes wider than before. “But counselling still has a multitude of benefit-”

“Oh I’m aware. And I completely stand by counselling as a practice. But this isn’t really counselling, is it?” I start, the small raise in my eyebrow visibly sending shivers down her spine.

“I don’t know what you mean Savannah. I’m here to help you!” She splutters, trying her best to hold it together. I am so close to an early end that I can practically taste it.

“I will give you credit where credit is due, you are doing a far better job than most at pretending that you care about me. However, you’ve still got your tells, and you’re here for the same reason the rest of them were. I know all about the benefits of counselling; I’ve read extensively on it on countless occasions during my training. But let’s just call this what it is: an interrogation that’s being lightly masked under a lighter, fluffier name.”

“That is preposterous. I do care! As do all of your teachers! That’s why they’ve sent me to you: so we can help you deal with this because you still haven’t dealt with it.” She bites, her tone far more pointed than before.

One look at her and you can tell she’s struggling to hold it together. The offbeat tap of her heel against her chair leg is echoing through the room, and her right hand has started to pale with how tightly she’s clenching it around her pen. I’ve seen right through her this whole time, but now she’s finally realised it. A few more minutes and she’ll join her predecessors as a little clump of broken-down dust in the palm of my hand.

“I smile at all of my teachers, continue to achieve in all of my classes and attend every single one of these inane sessions. I’d say that I’m dealing with it just fine.” I remind her, leaning a little further back and enjoying the fruits of my labour.

“That is the problem, Savannah. Your file shows that you’ve been ‘dealing with it just fine’ since day one. You have never once discussed Marcus or his death, or exhibited any sort of reaction that-”

“Would indicate I’m capable of human emotion?” I finish, watching as she pretends that wasn’t exactly what she was thinking. “With all due respect, Dr Bracknell, you didn’t know Marcus, you never saw our friendship, and you have no real knowledge of me, despite what you may think because you read a couple sheets of paper on your way in this morning.”

“You’re here so I can get to know you Savannah!” She screams, a tremble in her voice that’s clearly a mere few seconds away from tearing up.

“No. I’m here so they’ll keep letting me go to lessons.” I correct. She is so close to the point of no return… A little more snark and she’ll be there.

“Perhaps we should continue this session another time.” She starts slowly, gulping back her tears and attempting to re-establish herself as the alpha. “You seem quite despondent, and I-”

“Don’t know what to do with me?” I quip, doing my best to keep my smile at bay.

She inhales deeply yet again. If my words weren’t enough, my smugness probably isn’t helping.

“Savannah. I know what to do with you. I just think that perhaps it would be good for both of us to take a little break and resume this at a later date.” She states, her words short and clipped. We both know I’m right and she is not a fan.

8 minutes and 46 seconds… That might just be a new personal best. At one point there I really thought she was going to burst into tears. She still could, but I’m not gonna stay long enough to find out. Without a second to waste I sling my satchel over my shoulder, head to the doorway, and turn to leave her with a few kind parting words – really bring it home.

“So, I trust they’ll provide me with a new counsellor for my next session?”

065946.

GIRLS’ QUARTERS, ACADEMY.

I was ten years old when I first walked through the doors of The Academy. My parents were wrapped up in their high-status careers, my sister was on track to following in their footsteps, and a rambunctious small fry with a sharp wit and a need to know everything didn’t exactly fit their golden family aesthetic. One mention of a new initiative run by the worlds’ best governments, and my parents had my bags packed and me on a train before I even had time to ask where I was going.

I remember glancing around the towering hallways, taking in the majestic oak walls and golden frames, and feeling so comparatively insignificant in my little 4-foot-3 frame. Everything was so beautifully regal and polished and even with such perfect parents I had never seen anything like it. As we sat, wide-eyed and full of wonder, in that first assembly I think we could all deduce that this place was something out of the ordinary. But we were young, and we were new, and we didn’t quite know just how extra-ordinary it truly was until Dr Benjail began his address.

“Let it be known that you are all here because you are the best that this world has to offer.” He declared, scanning our plump, tiny faces with pride. “Over the next ten years you will learn everything you need to know about covert operations, self-defence, weaponry, hacking… The list goes on. By the time you leave these academy walls, the best of you will go on to defend this country and many others from the evils of the world. The rest? Well, I’ll be honest: you’ll probably end up as bodyguards or come back here to teach.”

“I was right, this is a spy school!” An already bored Marcus had whispered quietly to Dylan next to him.

“No young man.” Benjail had replied, smiling as we all gasped at his expert eavesdropping. “You’re better than spies. The world is filled with far more evil than it once was. And while our spies and covert operatives are doing all that they can, the world needs more. You have all been carefully selected as the first strand of guinea pigs for the United Nations next pre-emptive defence plan. You will work behind the scenes, stopping the bad guys before they’ve even perfected their plans to do bad. Think of yourselves as quicker, silent superheroes… Only with better abilities and cooler gadgets.”

Back then, that was all he needed to say to have us erupt into a flurry of excited chatter. We were ready to do all that it took to become the silent superheroes the world required, and boy has that commitment taken a lot.

Academy days take place six times a week, from Monday to Friday with alternating Saturdays and Sundays. Each academic day consists of 8 hours, beginning at 0730, with half an hour permitted for lunch. The three hours following the academic day are to be spent studying and/or training, before the communal dinner in the grand hall at 1900, which must be attended by all – no exceptions. The two hours post dinner are allocated for free time and socialising (within school grounds, of course), before a strict curfew at 2200, where students are not permitted to be anywhere other than their own dormitory beds (Or, in the case of us lucky final years, their on-site apartments.)

We are, of course, permitted to leave the grounds occasionally because they’re not animals. On your non-academic weekend day you are allowed out of the gates from 1100 to 1400, provided you follow the correct sign out protocol, and remain within a 3-mile radius of the school. The only other occasion where a student can leave the grounds is a sanctioned, academic trip. These are permitted, but not encouraged, and the teacher instigating said trip shall assume any and all responsibility for the students involved.

Uniform does not have to be worn on out-of-bounds days, but it is to be worn throughout all academic hours. Extra-curricular activities such as mentoring, detentions, or appointments with onsite counsellors, therapists, nutritionists or life coaches must be attended in the full itchy blazer, tight tie ensemble, and any extra use of academy sports facilities such as the gym, stables, or shooting range, must be done in the beautifully gaudy orange sports kit.

Therefore, not only are my Friday morning counselling sessions a pit of monotony, but timewise, they’re pretty counterintuitive. If they were ever to last the hour they’re supposed to – from 0630 to 0730 – then I would be forced to leg it across academy grounds to my 0730 Target Practice class, presumably changing from my cotton to my polo shirt as I run. Luckily for me and my punctuality record, I am that good of a student that I ensure that’s never been the case. In fact, I make it a point to ensure that I am done with each new counsellor with enough time to head back to my apartment, shed the blazer and dumb my session handbook back in its rightful place under my bed.

Of course, coming back to the apartment on a Friday morning also means coming back to a blaring workout playlist, a roaring automatic blender, and a sweaty Erinn grunting in the middle of our lounge.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nobody I’d rather share an onsite apartment with than Erinn. She is the human equivalent of a warm hug, and after ten years of being inseparable, we’ve grown to accept most of each other’s annoying qualities. However, even best friends have their limits, and if I could, I would ban the girl from her daily pre-class morning workouts. Nobody needs to be hit in the face with an hour of techno-garble and a pep-filled Erinn before they’ve fully woken up.

We’ve spoken about it many times, and every single time she’s rolled her eyes and laughed it off in true Erinn fashion. Honestly, I respect her commitment to the cause. I do not, however, respect it enough to stop myself from marching over to the counter and cutting the noise off right at its source. She freezes mid squat with the music, wasting no time in staring me down.

“Do you have to do that every single time you get back? I get it. You hate it. But Friday’s the only day I get to at least start playing it guilt free!” She pants, catching her breath as she strolls over and flings her arms around my shoulders for a hug.

Erinn’s the kind of person that hugs you like she’s holding you for the first time in years, every single time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I happily breathe in the smell of her coconut shampoo, her silky black ponytail tickling my arms as I rush to secure them around her polo-shirt clad torso. If we squeezed each other any tighter, someone would pop a blood vessel, but it doesn’t matter. It would be totally worth it.

“You know how much that music irritates me.” I mumble into her hair.

“Of course I know.” She sighs, rolling her eyes as she breaks from the hug to pass me my gym clothes. “But you love me. A lot. So what are you really going to do if I keep playing it?”

She sticks her tongue out as she finishes teasing, before making her way over to the counter and decanting half of the contents of the blender into her favourite cup. Every night, before bed, she asks me if I want her to make me a breakfast smoothie. Every night, I say no. And yet every morning, she’s made and pours enough for two… And at that point, I really have no choice.

“So how was this morning’s session? Did you make this one cry?” She asks, sliding my smoothie cup a little further down the counter towards me.

“Same as usual.” I start, stripping down as quickly as I can and pretending not to see the full cup in my peripheral. “How do you feel about Marcus? Why won’t you talk about him? We’re friends, I promise! I was bored out of my brains about five minutes in. What about you? When’s your next appointment?”

"Not until Wednesday, but they expect that stupid journal to be completed by then" She sighs, fiddling with the straw of her drink.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day that Dylan, Erinn and I were called in front of the Disciplinary Board. It had been three days since we’d seen Marcus – a feat completely unheard of in this place – so we’d all already had a gut feeling it wasn’t going to be great news. They sat us down, provided us with tea, and then flippantly told us that our friend was dead, there were to be no enquiries into his death, and the three of us would attend weekly counselling sessions if we intended to keep our places at the academy. No choice in the matter, no chance to argue… It was a closed case before we even had the chance to process what was happening.

“Have you completed your journal yet?” I ask, nonchalantly sipping on my smoothie as she starts folding my shed uniform from where I left it on the ground.

“Nope. But I don’t know if I’m going to, to be honest.” She boasts, swishing her ponytail and casually averting her eyes from mine.

“Oh you’re going to.” I scoff, rolling my eyes as she blushes.

Bless her – ten years into our friendship and she still thinks she can trick me into pretending she doesn’t care. It’s cute that she tries, but we both know that Little Miss People Pleaser will have done more than just completed that journal by Wednesday – it will be immaculate.

“Well I don’t tell them everything!” She argues, “Nothing important, anyway. And what can I say? Not all of us have such an issue with authority figures.”

“I do not have an ‘issue’ with authority figures!” I contest.

“We have been friends far too long for you to think you can lie to me like that. I’m actually a little insulted.” She muses, entirely deadpan. “Now drink up, we’ve got a big day ahead of us.”

“You’re right, we’ve gotta leave ASAP actually. I told Dylan we’d swing by his beforehand – walk to practice together, given the day and all.” I note before gulping down as much as I can as quickly as possible. My brain’s been so foggy since waking up this morning that my internal clock just hasn’t been as sharp as usual.

“Before we leave-” Erinn begins, shrinking into herself as we meet eyes. “How are you actually doing today? You know, given the circumstances.”

How am I actually doing today? Where do I even begin? It’s the anniversary of one of my best friends’ deaths, and we know just as little about it as we did back then. There’s an aching hole in the pit of my stomach that grows every time I even think about the date, and then I get mad at myself for feeding that emptiness, because at this stage in our training I should be far better at controlling my emotions. And then there’s Erinn and Dylan… The two people I know are struggling to hold it together even more than I am. The two people I have to pretend I’m okay for. Because at least one of us needs to be okay. So I guess I’m actually doing terribly today. You know, given the circumstances.

“I’ll be okay.” I whisper, enveloping Erinn in a bear hug. “We’ll all be okay. Now come on, let’s go get Dill.”

092132.

DEADLY WEAPONS & ASSAULT CLASS, ACADEMY.

Deadly Weapons and Assault, despite sounding fun and dangerous, is actually a deceptively boring unit. In fact, most lessons here are deceptively boring. You see, fights seem fun and watching people come out with cool tricks and gadgets has this whole sexy allure to it. But what you don’t see, is the insidious amount of knowledge and theory that one has to ingest before they can even consider going into the field. Deadly Weapons and Assault is the kind of class most use for a catch-up nap. Or, at least, it usually is when your teacher isn’t Dr Benjail.

He’s standing bright and alert, boldly gesturing to the assault rifle on the board with a fiery passion in his eyes and a smile on his face. He has the kind of presence that most teachers dream of – the kind that has a class of 19–20-year-old students transfixed as he proudly explains how to build a working firearm from everyday objects. Everyone, that is, apart from me. In fact, we’re fifty minutes into his lesson and I can’t tell you a single thing that’s been spoken about.

It’s nothing to do with Benjail. Teachers here can be a bit hit and miss – they’re all ex-agents and some have dealt with their field trauma far better than others – but Benjail is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

Every meeting and session that we’d had post-Marcus’ death featured take after irrelevant take on grief and morning. Everyone seemed to know how to do it best, or how exactly we should feel and each person had their own idea of when we should snap back and readjust to academy life like we hadn’t just lost a part of us. Benjail was one of the few people that didn’t try to drum a ‘new normal’ into my head. Instead he listened, and he observed, and he pushed me to take all the time I needed to process and move on. A year later I still feel like I’m floating through life, waiting for that supposed processing to take place, but I have a little more faith that it one day will happen. And that is thanks to the man leading our class.

“And what kitchen item do we all know can be used as an explosive at the hands of the right person? Savannah?” Dr Benjail bellows, snapping me out of my self-pity.

“Laundry detergent.” I answer without hesitation.

As he grins proudly back at me before continuing with his lecture, I can feel my stomach settle just for a moment. Thank God I read ahead.

Honestly, it’s still surreal sitting in any class without Marcus. I can still feel him sprawled at the desk behind me, kicking my chair and calling me a swot after every right answer I give. Of course, I’d be the same swat he’d beg for study notes from when a test rolled around… But that never stopped him teasing. Nothing ever stopped Marcus teasing the three of us, it was the way he showed his love. A way we all came to find comfort in.

The 0930 bell breaks me out of my fog long enough to whack my books into my bag and head to my next class. But a voice stops me on my way out, a voice clearly concerned and trying its best not to show it.

“Savannah?” Benjail asks softly, prompting me to swivel on the sole of my pumps.

“Yes sir?” I ask, clutching my bag.

“Would you mind sitting down for a moment? I just wanted to have a quick chat. I’ll email your next professor.” He offers, staring down at me with a tenderness in his eyes.

“Of course, sir.” I smile, making my way back to his desk.

I’m known for being one of the first ones out of each class, desperate for a change of scenery. But the way my brain’s going today, I honestly don’t know how much more fake listening I can take, and it hasn’t even gone 10. So, if Dr Benjail wants to excuse me from Self-Defence for a much-needed catch-up, I am happy to oblige.

He stares kindly as I drop my bag and shimmy into the wooden chair opposite him, the wrinkles in his forehead squeezing together as he purses his lips.

“Tea? I have lemon. I recall that being a favourite of yours.” He offers, picking up his desk-kettle and decanting a bottle of water into it.

The kettle fizzles to life, the soft bubbling sound echoing around the high ceilings. I nod, smiling kindly at his attentiveness as he delicately prepares a mug of lemon tea before gently handing it to me.

“I asked you here,” he begins, mid sip. “Just to see how you were doing today. It’s been a year since you lost him, hasn’t it?”

I nod solemnly, letting the citrusy water trickle down my throat and through to my stomach, warming my insides and trying its best to dull the empty feeling down there.

“Has the counselling been helping at all?” He continues, prodding gently for information. I can’t keep myself from chuckling sadistically.

“To be honest Sir, I don’t think any of them truly get me.” I start, doing as best as I can to not completely tear them to shreds in front of the Deputy-Head.

“Ahh, lots of faff and niceties and no real progression.” He responds, nodding understandably.

“Exactly.”

He pauses, staring intently at my face with his lips pursed, gauging my level of emotion before choosing to continue.

“Do you still think about him a lot?” He asks gently, closely studying my body language.

“All the time.” I begin, as he silently urges me to elaborate, “I mean, he leaves on an out-of-bounds-day without the three of us – a thing he never did, then we’re called into an office and told that he just… Died. And nobody knows how or why. Just split from the group for no apparent reason and washed up on shore a few days later. We never even got to see the body.”

It doesn’t make sense. It didn’t when they told us last year, and it still doesn’t. I don’t understand why nobody but the three of us seems to acknowledge that.

“That Marcus was never really one to stick to the rules.” Benjail remarks, tentatively pushing a tray of biscuits in my direction.

“But he also wasn’t one to go it completely alone.” I reply, too wrapped up in the conversation to even consider grabbing a biscuit.

He hesitates for a moment, analysing my reactions once more before continuing.

“Do you think… Do you think, maybe, that you’re reading too much into it? It’s perfectly reasonable for you to want answers, given how close you all were. But straying from a group is hardly out of character for the boy. Sometimes, these things do just happen, despite how awful that sounds.” He muses, before tenderly before leaving his seat, mug in hand, and walking around to perch on the edge of his desk.

As he stares into my eyes with a fathering look, the fuzziness in my brain eases up just a tad. I genuinely think it might be impossible to look in his eyes and not feel safe and cared for.

“I lost my best friend too you know, back in the day. We were partnered together for a mission, came into enemy territory… Only one of us left that day.” He recounts, dropping his eyes to the ground for a small moment, before staring back at me. “It took me a while to come to terms with it. For ages I blamed myself - believed that if I had just done more that day, he’d still be alive. I spent years trying to track down the exact enemy operative that killed him… Drove myself absolutely crazy. I wasted almost half a decade of my life wrapped up in his passing. Then one day I realised that I couldn’t live the rest of my days like that. Whether I like it or not, he’s gone. The best I can do is live out the rest of my life – that I’m lucky to have – in his memory and make that the best that I can. Perhaps it’s time for you to start doing the same. You’re a bright girl Ms Cranton, and I don’t want you making the same mistakes that I did.”

“Live the rest of my life in his memory and make that the best that I can.” I repeat, hypnotised by his soothing demeaner.

He smiles back at me, taking the empty mug from my hand.

“That a girl. Now run along to the gymnasium. Mr Frieman will have my head if I keep you all day.”

123656.

LUNCH BENCH, ACADEMY.

“Live your life in his memory and make that the best that you can? Bullshit.” Dylan scoffs, taking a vigorous bite of his PB&J. “I know you love him Sav, but that could take the title for the biggest load of crap we’ve heard all year.”

Dylan, Erinn and I have spent our lunch breaks in the same place for the last four years: a rickety old bench, located in a CCTV blind spot by the academy’s abandoned vineyard. It’s not like we do anything forbidden – honestly, you’d need more than just a blind spot to get away with breaking rules at a place like this. We just like knowing that, for 30 minutes of our day, no one in this building has eyes or ears on us. You don’t really realise how much privacy is akin to a breath of fresh air until it’s stripped from you.

I’d spent the first five minutes of today’s lunch break recounting the conversation I had with Benjail earlier this morning. I thought that maybe, as a group, it could bring us some much-needed clarity on a day like today. But Dylan, who has never been one to shy away from his opinions, is proving to think quite differently.

“It’s the advice of someone who’s been through all of this before!” I argue, albeit somewhat weakly.

Truth be told, once Dylan has made up his mind then there’s no point wasting your energy trying to change it.

“It’s the equivalent of telling a depressed person to ‘smile more’ and you know it!” He bites, glowering at me from across the bench.

Dylan and I are the worst two in an argument: we’re both stubborn, we’re both hot-headed, and we’ve both shared the Academy Debate title for six years running. We’ve learnt at this stage in our friendship that there’s no point bothering with a back and forth unless we both have a few hours to spare. So, without another word we snap our heads towards an expecting but reluctant. She takes a deep breath, sticks her fork back in her salad, and straightens her spine as we eagerly await the results of her moderation.

“Can we talk about literally anything else?” She shrills. “I love you guys and I love… Loved Marcus, but it’s the only think that anyone has wanted to talk to me about all day. I would like to go 20 minutes without having to rehash my dead friend grief please.”

And that’s all we need to extinguish the flame. Dylan and I both nod in agreement and toss the subject behind us with a second thought.

“So Sav, are you gonna eat that rice cake or just keep fiddling with it?” Dylan jests, staring at me smugly and knowing exactly what he’s starting.

“You know I practically had to force-feed her a smoothie this morning as well.” Erinn remarks, apparently forgetting I’m sat right next to her.

“Erinn’s already making your breakfast, do we need to start packing you a lunch too?” Dylan asks, the corner of his lip curling as he feigns sincerity.

“Are you two my best friends or my parents? Because it’s coming increasingly hard to tell the difference.” I retort, scowling between them as I pop a chunk of rice cake into my mouth.

“I’m just saying, if you learnt how to prepare your own hearty meals every once in a while, then maybe you’d have grown a lot taller than 5”3.” Dylan jokes before narrowly avoiding the half-eaten rice cake I throw at his head.

We all laugh, throw a few insults, and then everything’s okay for the next ten minutes or so. Jokes are exchanged, tough lessons and gossip relayed… We almost resemble three people that didn’t undergo the biggest joint tragedy of their lives a year ago. But then the conversation lulls about as quickly as it picked up, the atmosphere drops, and we’re all left silently ruminating on the same, sombre topic.

“Do you ever think about how strange it all is?” Erinn asks, breaking the silence ever so timidly.

“Erinn, don’t.” I start. But it’s too late. Her mind is already there.

“They said that he broke off from the group and wound-up dead… Marcus had a better head on his shoulders than that. Also, it happened on the one out-of-bounds weekend that all three of us were tied up with other things. Since when did Marcus leave the academy without at least one of us by his side?” She continues, glancing around nervously.

“I just think that if we keep going down this path, we’ll never get off of it. Benjail did the same with his friend and it drove him crazy.” I repeat, like I didn’t just tell that whole story 16 minutes ago.

“It is weird that we never got to see the body though. And that they didn’t even mention starting an investigation.” Dylan joins, also choosing to ignore my logic, apparently.

“So what, you think he’s alive?” I ask, raising my eyebrow as he stares back, determined as ever.

I love Dylan, and I love that he loves a conspiracy, but surely even he knows that’s pretty much impossible.

“Of course I don’t think he’s alive, Sav. I just don’t think that his death was an accident.” He shrugs, as if it’s the only obvious explanation.

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