A heavy cloud hung over the conclusion of the Central City Model Search, once eagerly awaited by aspiring actress and Simon Fraser University student Maple Batalia before her murder last September.
Backstage, the 11 remaining finalists exchanged nervous chatter - they had arrived at Central City Shopping Centre early Saturday morning to be dressed in the latest hair, makeup and clothing styles. They buzzed with youthful optimism. One contestant, Larissa Simpson, said she felt like a princess.
But Maple's absence from that group was palpable, heart-wrenching.
The finale, originally scheduled for three days after the 19-year-old was shot and killed in an SFU parking lot neighbouring the mall, honoured her life with an emotional tribute and a $2,000 donation to the Maple Batalia Memorial Fund.
It was a far cry from the event Maple had been daydreaming about on that fateful day in September, with her older sister Roseleen.
"Rosie, do you think I'll win?" she'd asked - now those words are her sister's memory of the last time they spoke.
"She was really excited, she was really looking forward to this and I hope she's looking down and is proud," said Roseleen, blinking back tears.
At the beginning of the program, a moment of silence was observed for Maple. Then, her singing teacher Erin Aubrey took the stage to sing a tearful rendition of BeyoncÃ©'s "I was here."
The lyrics rang true for the Batalia family. Roseleen, her mother, Sarbjit, and her father, Harry, wept quietly as Aubrey's voice rang out: ".When I leave this world, I'll leave no regrets, leave something to remember, so they won't forget, I was here."
And one by one, each of the finalists crossed the stage to give Sarbjit a white rose.
The finale, in an awkward collision of grief and energy, then continued on with the main event of singing and dance performances and a fashion show.
There, still, to represent Maple in the fashion show was Michelle Cyr, who was her best friend.
"We wanted to do this together, get as far as we can together," said the 21-year-old. "I'm here to do this for her and to keep her spirit alive."
For Cyr, keeping her friend's spirit alive means more than just waltzing down a runway to compete for a title, though. It means helping to bring awareness to issues of violence and the importance of healthy lifestyles.
"It doesn't matter if it's dark or light - we shouldn't have these types of issues here," she said.
Roseleen, too, voiced that thought.
"It just goes to show that violence happens to educated women and non-educated women. Every type of woman can be prone to this and we need more resources in our community," said the SFU women's studies and psychology student.
As the event came to an end, runners-up were named, and then the winner - Rachel Francis.
She took the stage to accept the grand prize of $1,000, beaming with surprise but weighed down by the shared loss.
Francis' voice caught as she announced her decision to donate $250 from the award to the Maple Batalia Memorial Fund.
That loss is a feeling that is all too familiar to Roseleen, now. Every day, her mother cries, begging her to "please bring Maple back, can we just wake up already?"
"How do you tell a mom I can't bring your baby back? It's hard," said Roseleen.
She's also burdened by the lack of answers in the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) case.
IHIT has seized a white 2011 Dodge Charger seen speeding away from the scene in surveillance footage from just after 1 a.m. on Sept. 28 and is calling for those who may have more information to come forward.
"We're praying every day that something new comes up in Maple's case and we get justice for her," Roseleen said. "It would be a lot easier if we could just get at least a little peace of mind knowing the people who hurt her are behind bars and they will never hurt anyone else."
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