Those who knew Brooke Bennett, whether it was in the halls of Randolph High School or out on the lacrosse field, knew the young girl's enthusiasm for Halloween.
They also knew that contagious bright smile, the one splashed across television screens and newspapers nationwide this week. They knew Brooke's smile was genuine – not a pose.
"The thing that I like about her was the here-now outlook on life she had," said Angel Blanchard, 14, who met Bennett at a school dance two years ago.
Bennett didn't worry about the past or what could happen in the future, Blanchard explained. Brooke was focused on today.
The two girls attended Braintree Elementary School together and went on to play lacrosse in seventh grade at Randolph High School.
On Wednesday night, Blanchard was one of 300 people in Randolph Village who showed up for a vigil-turned-memorial service to support Bennett's family in the fresh hours of their grief.
Two hours before the ceremony was to begin, authorities confirmed the state's worst fear: Brooke Bennett, who had been missing since June 25 and sparked the state's first-ever Amber Alert, had been found dead.
But the focus, as the shock and grief seeped in, remained on Brooke's bright character and life.
"She had such an easy-going personality, liked everybody and was a great person to be around," said Blanchard, standing with other classmates. "She got into the whole Halloween thing, whenever we had a dance she got into it and dressed up."
For last year's Halloween dance, Bennett and a couple of friends designed "dead cheerleader" costumes. Bennett donned huge, poofy white hair and made her face look pale to go with the flashy pom-poms and cheering uniform, according to Blanchard.
The girl with the independent streak gave her all when being competitive, too, said her friends.
Bennett tried her hand at two sports her first year at Randolph High School: lacrosse and basketball.
When it came to lacrosse, it took Bennett a while to pick up the game. But Blanchard and teammate Autumn Langlois agreed: Bennett was determined to become the best player she could be.
"When she got embarrassed, she'd laugh about it," said Langlois, 14. "When she started out, she had trouble with cradling, but she picked it up … She was fairly good. She worked hard … She was determined to figure something out."
At practice, Bennett would sprint and give it her all, Langlois said. The same went for game time. There was one instance when Bennett's focus was so intense that when she scored she nearly lost her chance at glory.
"She was so shocked, she didn't even know she made the goal at first," said Blanchard. "Everyone was yelling and screaming, and she was like, 'what's going on?' "
Basketball was Brooke's other sport. Coach Laura Miller, who grew up with James Bennett, Brooke's father, laughed when asked whether Brooke brought skills to the team. The laugh signaled a different strength brought to the game.
"She was a blast," said Miller, who also is a cook at the high school and saw the seventh-grader at lunch each day. "She got along with everybody. She was always laughing, that's all she was about was laughing."
Friends recalled a more personal side to the young girl.
For Chris Decoteau, Brooke's bright blue eyes were what he remembered most about his dear friend. Decoteau, 14, admitted to having a crush on Bennett, and had enjoyed numerous phone conversations with her at the start of this summer vacation.
"I just know she was funny and nice, really nice," he said shyly. "She laughs easily … I also remember her laughing about the freckle on her toe … She didn't really care what people thought."
In the Amber Alert, issued the day after she disappeared and lifted within an hour of finding her body, the description of Bennett included purple highlights in her hair, pierced ears and that endearing freckle on her toe.
"He was going to date her, but now he'll never get the chance," said Langlois, standing in a circle with Decoteau and his older sister before the Wednesday night vigil.
"She made a lot of good friends and she made them easily," said Danielle Decoteau, 15, who was a year ahead of Brooke in school. "I don't ever remember her being upset about anything."
Bennett often hung out with girls older than her, whether they were teammates or lunch buddies. She was the youngest of Cassandra Gagnon's three children. Her brother, Dennis Andress, is two years older, and while friends say they got along most of the time – as brothers and sisters do – he was protective of the younger Bennett.
Daisey Lumbra, 16, who said she is more familiar with Andress but remembers Bennett, noticed Brooke from the commute to and from school on the bus.
"She talked with everyone," said Lumbra, emphasizing that Bennett was hardly shy or reserved. "She never held back when she had something to say."
Bennett often sat near the front of the bus with her friends, many of who had assigned seating, Lumbra said, recalling Bennett being louder than most of the other riders.
Perhaps that was the presence Bennett looked to imprint on those who knew her.
Coach Miller recalled a particular aspect of Bennett's basketball game that became her signature.
"She had one of the best defenses," said Miller. "She had a defense we would call … 'the octopus defense.' "
It consisted of arms flailing, holding off opponents, determined to block moves, like an octopus, she said. "She was tough," said Langlois about her teammate and friend. "She wouldn't put up with anybody."
Contact Sarah Hinckley at firstname.lastname@example.org.MORE IN Central Vermont
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