“I don’t think anyone’s in the mood for a funeral anymore,” Nidhi mutters next to me. “We can reschedule it to tomorrow, and make our plans today instead.”
“Good idea,” I whisper back.
Raising my voice, I call out to the crowd of disconsolate teenagers. “Guys, I think that’s enough for today. We’ll meet here for Dean’s funeral tomorrow at ten o’clock.”
Sophie glares at me but says nothing.
“Everyone, go back to doing what you were doing before,” I order, ignoring her.
As the crowd disperses, I walk back to Town Hall with my committee of planners. Alisha falls in step next to Nidhi, Saket, and me.
“So are you the leader around here?” she inquires.
“Sort of,” I answer. “Suchet used to be the leader of the gang kids from the other side of town, but I don’t know if he still is. You know, since Leo kicked him out.”
“Gang kids?” Alisha looks mystified.
“Yeah. In this city, there are two general groups of people. One, my friends, and two, the gang. I’ve heard that they’re involved in all sorts of crime, but we can’t be picky nowadays.”
She nods. “I see.”
Looking around, I notice that another of our number is missing. “Where’s Sophie? Does anyone know?”
“I think she ran off after she yelled at Courtney,” Nidhi offers. “But I didn’t see where she went.”
“Can I go find her?” Saket asks.
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
“Thanks,” he says, and scurries off.
Alisha’s brow is creased with worry. “Can I go look for her, too?”
I frown. “No.”
“Why not?” she challenges, sounding cross.
“Because you’re not a handsome young man,” I say, grinning.
Alisha’s lips pucker in a pout. “Well, neither is he!”
Nidhi snickers. “That’s not very nice,” she says in a tone of mock concern.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Alisha responds sharply.
“Hey, calm it, you two,” I say jokingly. “We have stuff to do. Things to plan.”
“All right, then,” Alisha says, suddenly serious. “Let’s go.”
We seat ourselves around the table in Town Hall, trying to ignore the seven empty seats -- where Sophie, Courtney, Leo, Suchet, Saket, Debbie, and Dean are supposed to sit.
“Okay, so we need to start planning our spying missions,” I say.
Alisha raises her hand. “We should first decide who will actually be going on them so we can split into groups to plan. That would be more efficient.”
“You’re right,” I agree. “Okay, so are there any volunteers?”
Everyone looks at each other. For several seconds, no one moves.
Finally, one hand snakes up. It’s Jack’s.
“Let me go,” he says reticently.
“That works,” I respond. “Anyone else?”
At that moment, the doors fly open and Courtney bursts into the room. Her dark hair is tangled, her eyes bloodshot.
“No, Jack,” she cries out, grabbing his arm and trying to force his hand down. “Not you!”
“It’s okay,” Jack says, trying without success to calm her. “I’ll be careful. I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t go,” Courtney wails. “Don’t leave me alone!”
Jack shakes his head. “You went on your own mission, remember? You were fine. It’s my turn now. I’ve got to do something, don’t you see?”
Courtney sighs morosely. “Fine. But you have to be careful. I don’t want to lose you.”
Before anyone else can object, I clasp my hands together and hurriedly say, “Great, great, so Jack can be our spy. Now what?”
Alisha raises her hand again. “Now we decide on a fake victim whom Jack will bring to Christy. Someone she hates very much.”
Nidhi and I look at each other.
“Leo,” we say simultaneously.
I’ve been sitting under the tree, next to Debbie’s grave, for around half an hour or so when I spot a figure jogging towards me from the city. As it gets closer, I recognize Nidhi’s dark complexion and long black hair.
She comes to a stop in front of me and opens her mouth, but I interrupt her. “If you’re here to comfort me about Debbie or whatever, you can leave now.”
“I’m not here for that,” Nidhi says.
“Then what is it?” I ask, while motioning for her to continue.
She hesitates. “Well, uh... Jack’s going to be our spy. He’s leaving for Christy’s fortress tomorrow night.”
“In order for Christy to believe him, Jack has to bring a victim with him. Someone whom we all know Christy hates a lot.”
“Alex... Alex wants you to go,” Nidhi stammers.
I simply raise my eyebrows. “Oh, really?”
I can’t say I’m surprised. I would be the logical choice -- Christy must have hated me for convincing Ruiran to help us, and besides, I’d be more useful dead than alive, since I’ve been doing absolutely nothing productive ever since Debbie died.
Nidhi nods, her eyes wandering across the ground at her feet. “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to make the choice without you, but--”
“I have no reason left to live anyways, so I’m not even unhappy about the decision,” I interject.
Nidhi looks taken aback by my cold, bitter words, but she doesn’t say anything. She just motions for me to follow her.
I let her lead me back to Town Hall, where I take my seat next to Debbie’s vacant one.
“So when exactly do we leave?” I ask Alex.
“Right after sundown,” he answers. “I don’t know when exactly that would be.”
“What else do I need to know?”
“Act like a snivelling idiot.”
“That won’t be hard for you,” Alisha says with a snicker.
I silence her with a glare. “Is that it?”
“That’s all that concerns you,” Alex says. “You should go get a good night’s sleep and be ready to go tomorrow.”
“All right,” I say, and zone out for the rest of the meeting.
The meeting ends two hours later, and I slip out of Town Hall, already knowing what no one else had the courage to tell me.
This isn’t just a spy mission. Not for me.
It’s a suicide mission.
I close my eyes and get ready to embrace death at last.
I finally find Sophie hiding in Dean’s old home, a dilapidated shop that had sold clothes at one point but now served as a shelter for the gang kids.
Her eyes are swollen from crying, and her voice is hoarse when she greets me. “Hey, Saket.”
I cross the threshold and sit down next to her. “Hey, Soph.”
“Don’t call me that,” she says sharply.
I sigh. She used let Dean call her “Soph” all the time.
“Uh...” I falter as I search of something to say. There really isn’t anything you can say to a girl with a dead boyfriend. Especially when she’s the girl you like.
“It’s okay,” Sophie says, sensing my discomfort. “You shouldn’t feel guilty for something you couldn’t prevent.”
“I’m fine, really,” I say. “But are you?”
Sophie just shakes her head.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “You can always talk to me, you know.”
“I don’t really want to talk right now,” she murmurs, shrugging my hand away.
“Okay,” I respond.
Since no one makes a sound, we just sit there in silence, watching the sky get darker and darker through the window. We stay like that for several minutes -- or was it hours? Days? Decades?
I watch her as she gazes out the window, her eyes gloomy and somber. I can’t help but wonder what she’s thinking about.
Smart, gorgeous Sophie. I’ve never met anyone who could possibly come close to her luminous, blazing personality. She’s just lost the one person she cared about, and she’s somehow still fighting through it. She’s still the Sophie I admire and love.
Sitting there watching her, I forget all about the tragedy and pain going on in our lives. The inferno of beauty within her is simply breathtaking, and I can’t think about anything else.
For just a moment, I feel like nothing can touch us. We’re Saket and Sophie, the only two people in the world, and I love her.
Suddenly, on an impulse, I reach out and grab her hand, twining my fingers into hers.
The look she gives me sends me crashing back to Earth.
I instantly realize my mistake. “Sophie, I--”
She wrenches her fingers out of mine and stands up, knocking over several boxes behind us. Her eyes are smoldering with shocked anger.
I cower from her. “Wait! I didn’t mean-- I thought--”
“Saket, how could you?” she hisses.
Then, before I can say anything else, Sophie kicks the door open and dashes out.
The next day, all I can do is curl up under the tree -- I’ve started to think of it as Debbie’s tree -- and do nothing at all. People come and go, bringing me water and food, sometimes trying to talk to me. I ignore all of them.
Evening creeps upon me like a snake approaching a mouse, silent and unassuming. Before I know it, the sun is starting to sink towards the horizon.
It’s almost time to go. For the first time in several hours, I uncurl from my position, barely feeling the soreness in my muscles and the rumbling in my stomach.
Then, something clicks inside me. The sunset. Debbie liked to watch the sunset.
I shuffle over to her grave. “Um... hey, Debbie, can you hear me?”
“I think I owe you a few words,” I continue. “I never told you what I thought about the sunset.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it a little, and I agree with you. We can change things, even though we’re small.”
The sun’s rays kiss the horizon.
“Saving someone doesn’t change the world. But for that person, the world changes forever.”
I pause for a moment as the sun turns blood red, making the sky look like a bloodstained sea.
“You really did make a difference, you know.”
A world of difference, paid for by a truly beautiful life.
“Just before sunset, the sun is at its most beautiful. But after sunset, it’s gone.”
I kneel down and lean my forehead on the damp, soft dirt so that my mouth is almost touching the ground.
“That’s the price we pay for beauty. You meant everything to me. Everything I ever did was for you. You were my world.”
Infinite shades of color.
"When you left, I... that was the end. I have nothing left now."
The price we pay for beauty.
“You were right, Debbie. We keep fighting, no matter what -- as long as we have something worth fighting for.”
The sun throws out its last dying rays of light.“It’s only when we lose everything we love, when we lose everything worth fighting for, that we stop.”