The bleachers. 9:05 PM.
Virginia Leeds sat in the bleachers, trying to look mysterious and bored, but not too bored. If she looked too bored, people would look at her and think, If she hates football so much, she should just leave. What she wanted them to think was: Virginia Leeds has a mysterious look on her face. She must be watching this football game for reasons unfathomable to us.
Virginia’s goal this year was to completely revamp her image at Riverside High. Since first grade she’d been the school loudmouth and gossipmonger. She’d even had a column in the school paper called “Virginia’s Daily Dish.” But she was sick of it. She was sick of everybody’s stupid business, and sick of herself for being obsessed with it. She wanted to be cool and weird now, and joining Benny Flax’s Mystery Club was the perfect way to make it happen.
Benny always said the number-one secret to solving a mystery was to Be There. “Wherever you go,” he said, “something might happen. Don’t just be a detective–be a witness. Be watching.” The main disconnect between Benny and Virginia was that Benny wanted to solve mysteries, while Virginia just wanted to be part of one. But it was Benny’s club and Benny’s rules. So Virginia sat on the bleachers, trying her best to Be There. Not that it mattered. No one was going to notice her, and nothing mysterious was going to happen. Nothing ever happened at this school.
Then, out of nowhere, something did.
She was watching dopey Gerard Cole ogling the cheerleaders when suddenly there was chaos on the field. The cheerleaders were wandering aimlessly. And the mascot was running off, stomping and lurching gracelessly. Then someone else was running too. His curly black hair and too-big turtleneck were unmistakable. It was Benny.
The woods. 9:12 PM.
When something strange happens, particularly in a crowd, the average person will immediately lose the ability to focus their senses. Things that should be obvious become obscured by the disorder of excitement. “It all happened so fast,” people will say. But it doesn’t have to be this way, Benny knew. Not if your brain can be faster.
There was pandemonium in the forest. Benny had followed the mascot, the cheerleaders had followed Benny, and the football players had followed the cheerleaders. Someone had begun to sing, “We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader!” Soon everyone was singing it. We’re following the leader, wherever he may go! Benny tromped through the underbrush, eager to get away from the noise. As he moved further into the woods, the chorus echoed behind him, no longer jolly-sounding, but eerie and distorted. We’re following the leeeeeeader…
The mascot was here, Benny was sure of it, but he’d lost her. He spun in circles, looking, listening. To his annoyance, the throng was catching up with him again, engulfing the quiet with their singing.
Then he saw it: a great, lumbering shadow moving in the darkness towards…
The school was called Riverside High for a reason. The great Chicapaw River flowed past the campus, with a massive wooden bridge suspended high above the ravine. Benny stared as the mascot started across it, pausing at the center to lean perilously over the rail. What is she doing? Benny thought. She’s going to fall.
But she didn’t fall. She jumped.
Benny watched, frozen, as the mascot flipped head over heels towards the rushing water. In seconds, she was gone.
The bridge. 9:20 PM.
“We’re following the leader, wherever he may go!” The throng had swarmed the bridge, singing and yelling. Benny located one of the coaches, the one with the bushy white mustache, and tried to explain what had happened, “It was Brittany! I saw her jump,” he shouted, trying to be heard above the raucous din.
“What, son? What? You need to get back to the field. Everyone get back to the field!”
Benny didn’t know exactly how it happened, but within minutes everyone seemed to have heard. Brittany Carnegie had jumped off the bridge in her mascot costume. The mood changed instantly. The singing morphed into wails and sobs. Benny found himself crammed against the bridge railing, the crowd swelling dangerously.
“Benny. Benny!” A hand grabbed his arm. It was Virginia.
“Virginia. Oh my god. I saw–”
“I saw it too!” she shouted. “I can’t believe it!”
Next to them, Angie was leaning over the rail, sobbing. “I dropped my pom-poms!” She cried, reaching for the watery abyss below. “I DROPPED MY POM-POMS!”
Virginia burst out laughing. Luckily the scene was so chaotic that only Benny noticed. “Stop laughing,” Benny hissed at her. “She’s obviously traumatized.”
“Well so am I!” Virginia yelled. “I just witnessed a suicide!”
“Me too,” Benny snapped back, “but I’m managing to not be an imbecile about it.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Virginia said. “It was a nervous reaction. Christ, let’s get off this bridge!”
They were pinned in on either side by sobbing people. He could hear the coaches yelling at everyone to calm down. Benny craned his neck, trying to see a way out, but the bridge was impossibly crowded. He looked down at the gushing river below and felt momentarily dizzy.
“Look,” Virginia said pointing her finger towards the dark forest.
“God, somebody’s elbow is digging into my spine.”
“Benny, look.” She grabbed his jaw and forcibly turned his face towards the forest.
“I don’t see anything. Let go of–” Then he saw it. A tiny, tiny speck of red light. At first it looked like a burning cigarette. Then he realized what it was: a camera.
Somebody is recording this.
Virginia began elbowing people left and right. She pushed over two sobbing girls, accidentally stepping on one. Benny followed as she wormed her way off the bridge, shoving stupefied football players, brushing past the frantic coaches who continued to scream at everyone to get back to the field. As soon as they reached the shadowy trees, Benny broke into a sprint.
“Whoever it is,” Benny shouted back to Virginia, “just tackle them. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Virginia answered, though truthfully, she didn’t know. She’d never tackled anyone before.
But she didn’t have to. Because when they arrived at the site of the tiny red light, no one was there. It was just a camera on a tripod, recording everything.