Paul’s blood ran cool at the sight of Max. He had always stuck up for his friend, had always been quick to silence accusation and gossip from anyone trying to defame Max’s name and reputation. But today was different.
Before, his defense would come quickly, without hesitation. Some thought Paul should’ve been lawyer because of his penchant for rapid rebuttals. He was the one who was always confident about Max’s decisions, until this morning.
Two women had been found dead in the center of the camp. Supposedly, the last person they had spoken to had been Max.
Rumors were beginning to bubble to the surface. It was as if someone had removed an invisible cork and now all the things people thought and felt were flying about rapidly.
Max’s smiled broadened as Paul approached. That familiar smile usually calmed Paul, but all he felt now was tension.
“You wanted to see me?”
Paul tried to sound normal, calm, and a little upbeat, but was confused as to how to pull off that combination with Tracy and Ellis dead. No one had called the authorities and if they didn’t do it soon, they would have more problems with legal enforcement and not just the usual rumor mill.
A few people had already mentioned going to the police, but Paul had deftly outmaneuvered their reasoning, making it clear that he didn’t want them being accused of any involvement in these deaths. Instead he would take on that responsibility so they would be kept safe from any brutal interrogation.
Even as he verbally calmed family members, his unrest grew.
As much as Paul had been trying to maintain his calm all morning long, he knew his facade was cracking under the pressure of logic and a weary conscious. Lying was one thing and stealing was another, but no one had ever died before today. And now, what had been evident to everyone else and was now becoming clear to him: In the last month Max had been acting more like a cult leader than an elected representative.
Paul admired Max, and behind closed doors he knew there were whispers of his growing affections as well. Charismatic, charming, gracious, relaxed–it was hard not to fall in love with Max, but Paul would never admit that truth and shatter the trust that had grown between them. But another truth was surfacing and threatening to ruin everything. Max, usually so dynamic and loving, might just be a closeted doctrinaire leader.
“Paul, how are you doing this morning?”
The question was normal, but the smile made him nervous. He tried to maintain an easy gaze.
“Given the circumstances, I’m okay…”
“Good,” Max said, taking Paul’s hand in both of hers. “Things have been so crazy this morning, but they’ll be better within the next few hours.”
Max looped her arm around Paul’s and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Paul, you’ve always been my best friend, my most trusted confidant, and someone I’ve always felt a great deal of affection for…”
Max began walking away from the camp, pulling Paul along with her. On any other day he would appreciate her words and closeness, but today it all felt bizarre and set off a silent alarm within him that only he could hear.
They walked in silence for several minutes, until they stood on the shore of the lake.
“I love this lake… so still and peaceful–serene even. I just love to come and stare at it sometimes in the early mornings, when the sun is rising. I always find peace here.”
Max picked up two smooth black stones. She pitched one high overhead and watched it disappear beneath the surface of the lake. Gentle ripples floated toward the shore. The second stone she placed gently in Paul’s hand, closing his fingers around it. She held his hand for a moment that way, before looking up into his eyes.
She wrapped her arms around Paul’s torso. Max had never touched him before. As kind as she had always been, she was always careful to maintain her physical boundaries.
“Throw it in the lake, Paul,” she said, looking up into his grey eyes.
She exuded the energy of a child out to play. Paul threw the stone into the lake.
“All gone,” she said, still looking up at Paul. The sound of mirth covering her words made Paul feel sick.
She squeezed him tightly before stepping back from him, still holding his hand.
“Paul, you’ve always helped me and you’ve never judged me,” she said. “And right now I really need you to help me…”
She glanced toward the lake, before refocusing her eyes back on him. Her smile had dissipated. Max ran the tips of her fingers along Paul’s sweaty brow.
“I need you to help me throw more rocks in the lake.”