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School Years 11 to 13 Category Highly Commended The Aftermath by Ella Scarrott

I breathe the fresh air of the countryside. A new beginning is upon me. The universe is finally on my side. The others trail behind me as we trek further up the mountains, occasionally gazing out at the magnificent view in awe. After some time, we reach the top and stand in silence, admiring nature's beauty. As we inhale the thin air, I look around as I breathe heavily, exhausted from our journey so far. A concealed cave catches my eye and intrigues me and, before I know it, I trudge over to examine it closer.

"Where are you going?" asks Sam. "Be careful, you know, it's dangerous up here; one trip and you're gone!"

"Don't worry, I'm just quickly checking this out." I say as I enter the mysterious grotto. I am met with darkness. My curiosity intensifies so I continue looking around. I am greeted with emptiness. I continue to look further into the darkness. Suddenly I see it: the dead body of a vaguely familiar teenage boy. It horrifies me. I feel shivers all over my body. I feel faint. My legs are about to give way when my friends turn up outside the cave.

"Geez Zara you look awful!" Bella exclaimed. The others murmur in agreement. I stay silent. I cannot find any words. I beckon in the direction of the grotesque creature. The screams are slightly delayed but still pierce my ears.

"What is that?!" Jenny cries in terror, body shaking. "Why is it here? What should we do? It's not our fault!" Jenny continues, getting increasingly worked up.

"Simply put, it's a dead body. I don't know who it is or how it got here, but we have to do something about it." Sam replied in a relaxed manner, despite having seen the disturbing site.

"No! We can't do anything! We'll end upon the list of suspects. How will my parents ever trust me again?" Kelly whines. No one answers. She's right. But so is Sam. Nobody speaks. Eventually we decide to report the body, even though we know the repercussions. Nobody mutters a word on the long walk back down. All of us are fearing for our lives.

In the following weeks, we were in and out of the police station, constantly being interrogated on the events of the one day I stupidly decided to enter the cave. I never knew how I could have been so unlucky. I was just exploring because I was curious. I wouldn't have entered the cave had I known the consequences. The five of us were all severely distressed during this time but Sam seemed especially shaken, always restless. I dreaded falling asleep because, when I did, I had vivid nightmares of the frightful sight of the body in the cave. I wondered if life would ever return to normal.

One day, Sam messaged me asking whether I had been called in to be interviewed on my own. I hadn't but I'd given the police my story of the events several times. So had Sam, for that matter. The day after this, I called him to check if everything was alright, but he declined the call. At this point I started to worry. I hadn't seen him in several days and I couldn't contact him either. I decided I had to see him and talk to him.

Knock knock knock. I hammered on Sam's door. Bella, Kelly and Aaron had joined me on my mission after I explained everything to them. They were equally worried about Sam. The door opened slightly, and Sam popped his head out. Before he could shut the door in my face, I kicked it open and held my arm there. Sam was not going to be avoiding any of us anymore. "We know something is up Sam. We just want to help you, but you can't keep avoiding us," I said. Before I knew what was happening, Sam started to cry.

"I have to tell you something," he muttered, in between sobs. "I put the body in that cave because I knew somebody would find it there."

To say everyone was shocked is an understatement.

''You knew that boy? And you killed him?" inquired Aaron, sounding confused.

"No! It's not like that! It- it was an accident! I was on a hike with Jeremy and then he tripped, hit his head and then fell off a cliff. I knew I would be suspected of murder if I immediately reported the body, so I found a cave nearby and hid the body there."

"But who is Jeremy?" I questioned. "You've never mentioned him."

"I was just so embarrassed. See, Jeremy and I were really good friends," replied Sam. "Actually ... more than friends."

We were all dumbstruck. It was not disapproval that we felt, we just needed time to process this unexpected piece of information. After the penny had dropped, the silence was broken as usual by Kelly.

Oh Sam!" exclaimed Kelly. "You should have told us about the body. And everything else.... "

Sam burst out in tears again. And then instinctively we all hugged him and that was it.

We all then headed to the police station with Sam where he finally opened up fully to the police and, at that point, they knew that he was telling the truth because everything he said corresponded with the medical report. The police decided not to charge him and just like that, the nightmare was over. I went to sleep that night feeling more at peace than I had in a long time, knowing that everything would work out. Life is a learning experience and the one thing I now know for sure is the value of honesty and friendship.

Judge Charles Durante’s comments:

“A trek up a mountain turns into a nightmare when a group of friends find a body inside a cave. The experience becomes truly unnerving when one of the friends, Sam, starts to behave in a strange manner. Goaded by his well-meaning friends, Sam confesses to having put the body there after a tragic accident. Not only was Jeremy Sam’s close friend, but they were lovers. Unbeknownst to his friends, Sam is gay and it is only after confessing to his involvement in Jeremy’s death, that he decides to come clean with his friends. This story has a strong narrative thrust and we feel we want to reach the end so that the mystery of Jeremy’s body will be cleared up. It is also a testament to the importance of friendship and how only the truth can solve painful emotions and renew trust and restore relationships. A very heartening story.”

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