Burnt Papers is a fiction story written by talented Australian writer Catriona McKeown. This piece deals with many themes and issues especially pertinent to teenagers. Make yourself a cup of tea and read on to find out about the situation these teenagers have found themselves in…..
The children stood looking at the burnt papers in front of them. Small pieces of the ash were picked up by the southerly that swirled and danced at their feet. Ryan, hands shoved so far into his pockets they almost reached his knees, kicked at it a little. Claire glared at him.
“Well,” said Harriet. “I guess that’s it, then.”
“Guess so,” Ryan said, extracting a hand long enough to wipe his nose. The red curls on the top of his head made him look much younger than thirteen; or maybe it was the freckles.
Harriet bent down and poked at the remaining paper. “It looks pretty much gone; I can’t see any of the writing. That’s what matters, right?”
They stood and looked at their feet, at the burnt paper, at the dirt surrounding it. Anything but each other.
A kookaburra laughed from a nearby tree; none of them looked for it. He could laugh all he wanted, but it wouldn’t bring Andrew Peterson back. Nothing could bring him back now.
“I guess we should go home,” Ryan said.
“Don’t we need a plan?” Claire said. “A story, you know, in case someone asks questions?”
“No one’s going to ask us,” Ryan said. “They won’t think to ask us.”
Claire shrugged her shoulders. “Billy might. I heard he was telling people he knew something.”
“No, he won’t say anything,” Harriet said.
Ryan glared at her. “You sound very sure. Why won’t he? Did you say something to him?”
Claire studied her friend’s guilt-ridden face. “Geeze Harriet.”
“I swear I didn’t.” Harriet rubbed her hands down her pleated school skirt. “But Billy saw us. I told him we’d let him in on the whole thing, so long as he promised not to say anything.”
“Harriet!” Ryan swore a couple of times. “We promised we wouldn’t say anything to anyone.”
Claire’s heart raced as she watched Ryan clench and unclench his hand.
“I didn’t tell him anything,” Harriet said. “I just said we would. Eventually – once the heat’s blown over. You heard Casey Smalley saying he was mouthing off to everyone about having some big secret.”
“He didn’t see anything.” Ryan placed his foot on the burnt papers and twisted it into the dirt until it was nothing but black dust. “He was in Sport, like everyone else.”
“Except Billy wasn’t, was he? He had his guitar lesson. He told me he saw you breaking into Andrew’s locker.”
“Don’t say his name,” Claire whispered. Tears were streaming down her face. “I can’t bear to hear it.”
“Billy won’t say anything,” Harriet said. “He’ll be dying to know everything.”
Ryan snarled at her word choice. Claire sobbed.
Harriet put her arm around Claire. “It’ll be okay, Claire.”
Claire gasped. “Okay for who? Us? Well then, that’s fantastic. As long it’s fine for us.” Her face softened, her cheeks glowing with the remnants of her tears. “How could this have even happened?”
Harriet pulled her arm away. “We were just mucking around. We didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Yeah?” Claire said. “Then why’s none of us gone to a teacher and told them what we know? If we’re so innocent, then why did we just burn these pieces of paper?”
Claire looked over at the school’s football oval. The wire fence that separated them from the school grounds looked taller than usual, like the wall of a prison, with nothing but hard labour to do inside. The grass had been freshly mown. A small group of senior boys in footy jerseys were jogging on the spot outside the hall. Life was going on as usual, even at school.
“I wish we’d never printed that stupid email,” Harriet whispered, folding her arms high across her chest.
Claire breathed out deeply, her breath shaking with emotion. “Everything should have stopped. Life shouldn’t be just going on as usual. How can people just go on with their lives, when he isn’t here any more?”
Ryan breathed in deeply. “Has everyone deleted their emails?”
The girls nodded.
“And the deleted emails, too?”
“Well, hopefully Billy Marsden can keep his big mouth shut.” Ryan stepped back and started to walk away.
“Wait, Ryan,” Harriet said. “Claire’s right; we still need to talk about what’s going to happen if –“
Ryan stopped, but kept looking in the direction of his house.
“What if the teachers do ask us questions?” Harriet’s voice was shaking. “They might. What if one of us -“ Harriet swallowed. “What if they find something out?”
Ryan turned around and shrugged. “Then what good is talking going to do? If that happens, we’ll need to fess up or it’ll be worse for us.”
Ryan ran a sweaty hand through his curls, making them glisten in the sunlight. “Maybe it’s better if they do find out. You two will be right; it will be me they come after. We all know this was my fault. I was the one who put the email in his locker. If I hadn’t, Andrew would be alive right now.”
“We don’t know that. How could we have known what would happen?” Harriet looked at Claire, her eyes wide, pleading with her to agree.
“It wasn’t just you, Ryan,” Claire said, tears streaming down her face afresh. “I should have been a better friend; I should have stood up for him. I’m the one they will point a finger at. If they don’t, they should.”
“You hardly spoke to him at school,” Harriet said. “None of us did,”
“Maybe. But I saw him all the time on the weekends,” Claire said. “We sat together every week at soccer. I saw what Peter and Bailey were doing to him. We all did. And none of us said anything.”
“Yeah well,” Harriet added. “I was the one who suggested putting that photo of him from camp last year in his locker too.”
“You didn’t tell me you put the photo in his locker as well,” Claire said, a deep heat burning in her chest.
“Sure I did. That and the printed copy of the email – but they’re both gone now, off into the air, flying free.”
Ryan rolled his eyes.
“But, hang on,” Claire said. “It was more than just the email we burnt. It was the letters Andrew wrote to us as well, yeah?”
Ryan and Harriet looked at her blankly.
“The letters that we talked about this morning, the ones he’d left in our desks.
“Is that what you were talking about?” Ryan said. “I thought you were muttering about the email.”
“So…” Claire said, her voice shaking, “Andrew didn’t leave letters in your desks yesterday after school?”
Ryan and Harriet shook their heads.
“Claire, what are you talking about?”
Claire buried her face in her hands. “This morning when I got to school, there was a letter from Andrew in my desk. He’d hand written it on notepaper with roses around the edges. It even smelled pretty, like perfume.”
Harriet gave a half smile.
“He told me how he’d always looked up to me. He said I was the closest thing he’d ever had to a friend and thanked me for being kind to him. He said he was disappointed by the email left in his locker,” Claire began sobbing, “that he thought I was better than that. He said,” she gasped for air, “that he knew taking his own life was the easy option, but that he wanted easy for once.”
Ryan and Harriet shuffled their feet in the dirt.
“I thought you two had got similar notes. I thought that was what you were saying.”
“Where’s that letter now?” Ryan asked.
Claire shrugged limp shoulders. “I put it in my blue folder. I told Harriet to get it out when she went back to the classroom for her cello.”
Harriet shook her head. “I took a folded piece of paper from in your diary.”
“What? You probably just burnt my History assignment. Harriet, I told you!”
“Shut up! I thought it was the email. I thought it was -“
“Harriet!” Ryan yelled. “Claire, did Andrew mention us by name in his note?”
“And where is that letter now?”
Fear swept across Claire’s face. “I guess it’s still in my blue folder.” Her chest tightened and her hands felt numb.
The three children stood and looked over the school grounds. There was nothing they could do now. Claire imagined her teacher looking through her desk, pulling out the note, reading it. Would tears fill her teacher’s eyes?
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Claire whispered. “I can’t live with the guilt. I’d have told them anyway.”
Ryan nodded. Harriet wiped her nose with her sleeve.
“Might as well go home and wait for the phone call then.”
The three children looked back over the schoolyard. With school bags draped across their backs, they walked in the direction of each of their homes.
Thank you Catriona for sending in your wonderful writing.
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About the Author: Catriona McKeown
Catriona is a freelance writer, aspiring author, teacher, wife and the mother of three exceptional children. She lives on the Fraser Coast in Queensland, but has a passion for Western Australia, especially the Kimberley, where she and her family had the privilege of living for twelve months in the remote town of Halls Creek.