Upon a heavy bed of dry maple leaves, she strums the melody Jon showed her. Cass can escape reality when she plays her guitar. An annoying fly dances with death, landing on her over and over, and ending her peaceful play. Autumn flies are slow but defiant clinging to the shirttails of summer. Time to head to school, no amount of escapism can change reality. Cass shuffles through the leaves and reaches campus as the first bell rings. Seven hours of boredom along with isolation is a punishment in itself.
Cass ran with a crowd, going to parties and being involved, but that was before everything changed.
“Megan!” Cass calls out to her best friend who walks with a group of girls. Megan doesn’t even respond as they continue on to class. Who can blame her or the rest of them, Cass wonders. She must now carry the burden of regret, complete high school so she can leave this dusty little town.
But something is different today. When she stands holding her lunch tray and awkwardly scanning the cafeteria for a place to sit, she finds kindness from a stranger who rescues her.
“Join me if you like,” he says motioning her to the empty place across from him.
“Thanks,” she replies plopping down.
“My name is Tom, you look like you could use a friend.”
“Hi, I’m Cass. And yes, you are right about that. I’ve only been here two hours, but I’m ready to leave.”
“It’s not time to go home yet,” Tom replies with compassion.
October drags on. Tom is always there, Cass likes having someone to talk to again.
Cass enjoys a walk in the evening. She relishes the solitude after the sun sets, the chirping of the crickets and the hoot of an owl. The dampness of the night cools everything down.
“Care if I tag along?” he asks her.
“Hi Tom, sure come along.”
“It was a long day, I think I blew my history test,” Tom tells her.
Many of their walks end up by the shores of the river watching the rapid current.
“You are my only friend these days, Tom.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says quietly.
“Don’t go home yet,” he says. Cass reaches in her backpack for an apple and a knife and splits it for them to share.
“This is where it happened,” Cass says.
“It was all just a game,” Cass says. “Jon and I shared music, and my best friend Megan’s jealousy put an end to that. She just never trusted me where he was concerned.”
“Do you like him?” Tom asks.
“Not in that way. Megan has been my friend for many years, no guy is worth that. But Megan doesn’t believe me. Megan’s jealousy grows into something darker.”
“Is where the dock was?” Tom asks her.
“Yes, we all knew to stay away from that rickety dock,” Cass says. The uneaten apple halves draw flies and Cass kicks them into the water.
On a dreary day before Halloween, Cass waits outside the school for Tom. The anniversary of the tragedy approaches. Talk circulates around the school about a candle vigil to be held at midnight on Halloween where it all happened. The warnings from officials about staying far away would be ignored. A year ago, it was a ghost story that originally brought them all to the old well on the grounds of the dilapidated old Hanson house. For decades the story was repeated about a young man who was pushed into the well and fell to his death on Halloween night. If you dare to trespass on the old grounds, the young man can be seen next to the well holding a burning lantern at midnight. Like a magnet the legend draws thrill seekers out on Halloween night, despite the warnings from the city to stay away from the crumbling house and grounds.
Cass sees Tom walking and catches up to him.
“How was your day?” he asks.
“No highlights, nothing really.”
“Let’s head to the park,” Tom suggests.
“Tell me more about you Tom. I always do most of the talking,” Cass says.
“I don’t have much of a story. I might win an award for the most addresses,” Tom says laughing.
“You have moved around?”
“Yes, but this is where it started, born right there,” Tom says pointing towards the hospital across the street.”
“What took you away?”
“My dad’s work, I guess. He’s been gone for a long time. I live with my Aunt now,” Tom says, kicking an acorn with his shoe and looking sad and empty. Tom avoids details and Cass never pushes for answers.
“I should go,” Cass announces.
“It’s not time to go home yet,” Tom tells her, “let’s walk a bit more.”
Most of the trees have lost their leaves, covering the park sidewalks.
“Tell me about last year, Halloween night,” Tom says. Cass is reluctant to tell Tom. She pulls her sweater closer around her.
“If I tell you, promise you won’t judge me?” Cass asks.
“I promise,” Tom replies.
We were all at my house, Megan and Jon and the rest. We were talking about the ghost from the well. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“No, I don’t think I do,” Tom says laughing.
“There is a ghost who shows himself at midnight on Halloween, he holds a lantern and stands next to the old well at the Hanson house, the site of his murder. He was pushed into the well, or that is the legend,” Cass tells him.
“That is horrific. I’ve heard that story too,” Tom tells her.
“I knew I wanted to kick up the intrigue a notch that Halloween night, so I challenged them. Who would be the brave one to reach the well first and snatch the glowing lantern at midnight? I knew most would be too spooked to even visit the grounds. There was only one rule, they couldn’t leave my house until they all received the same group text announcing the start of the fun. I planned to be watching and waiting on site to see the winner and to place the lighted lantern on the well myself. I wanted to make it fun.”
“So you don’t believe in ghosts?” Tom asks her.
“Never did, but it made for some fun that night,” Cass tells him. “It all feels like a dream.” Cass doesn’t feel like talking anymore and Tom rises and walks alone down the sidewalk as rain begins to fall.
Halloween arrives with the usual display of bizarre and outlandish revelry. Nobody follows the rules, and school officials are glad at the end of the day when they can send a rowdy bunch on their way. Cass wishes the night were over too. Tom finds her in a back booth in the coffee shop.
“Can I join you Cass?” he asks.
“Tom, I was just leaving,” she tells him.
“It’s not time to go home Cass,” he says to her. His smile charms her.
“Ok, join me. I think I’m starting to give off the scent of a loner,” she says in jest.
“Meaning, loners have a scent that others avoid?” he asks her laughing.
“Possible explanation maybe,” Cass says.
“Tell me more about that night, Cass,” Tom says.
“Yes, I just love repeating it Tom,” she says sarcastically.
“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” he tells her.
“Nah, it’s ok.”
“It was windy and cold. I lit the lantern and placed it on the well a few minutes before midnight. But Jon showed up. He confessed his feelings to me. He kissed me. Surprised and confused I ran away from the well with Jon following. I could hear the car doors slamming and the group rushing to the well to find the lantern. I told Jon I was Megan’s friend and he should leave me alone.”
“You are a true friend, Cass,” Tom tells her.
“When everyone got to the well the lantern was gone, it had been moved and placed on the end of the flimsy dock. I tried to stop the group from rushing the dock, but just about everyone was on it when we all went crashing into the fast moving river. Everyone except one of the girls made it back to the shoreline. There was panic and pandemonium, then emergency vehicles and search lights, but all to no avail her body was never found. The next few weeks were a blur. I had lacerated my arm when the dock crashed into the water, and could not attend the funeral. The whole town was in mourning. I was to blame for the tragedy. I lost every friend I had. When I returned to school weeks later I was ignored. I don’t know how that lantern got on the dock. I wouldn’t do that to my friends or anyone. Everything was different, and no one seemed to listen.”
“Cass it was an accident, you are not to blame,” Tom tells her.
“It was my game, I am to blame,” Cass says. “Tonight they’ll hold candles in her honor, I should be there,” Cass says.
“Yes, you should.”
From the shadows, Cass and Tom watch the group assembled. They hold candles and sing, their sad melody carried downstream by the winds. Megan speaks before them.
“At midnight one year ago, I watched from the tree line right over there as Cass placed the lantern on the dock, luring us all. There are consequences to every action. ” The crowd is solemn as Megan recounts the events leading up to the tragedy. And as if the final piece to a puzzle is found, Jon speaks up.
“Wait!” Jon yells over the wind. “That’s not true! I was with Cass when she placed the lantern on the well. I went to confess my feelings for her and she ran away from me. When I caught up to her, she explained her friendship with you Megan, was important to her. If you were watching from the shadows Megan, you saw me with Cass. You were the one who moved the lantern to the dock. You caused this tragedy! You caused Cass’s death.”
The group assembled is shocked at the revelation as Megan’s responsibility is exposed. Everyone departs, cell phones already spreading the information. With the shoreline abandon, Cass and Tom emerge from the shadows. Cass is stunned, confused. Tom takes her hand.
“You are vindicated Cass, everyone knows the truth now. You have done no wrong. You are free!” Cass looks into his eyes and slowly begins to understand.
“I am the one from the well,” Tom tells her, “my spirit too has wandered aimlessly waiting to guide you. I’ve been waiting a long time. Come now Cass, it’s finally time.”
She takes a deep breath and exhales months of turmoil savoring peace for the first time. Cass turns to see Jon watching. She smiles to him and then takes Tom’s hand and they walk beneath the glow of the moon, through the mist taking them home.