Thursday, May 30, 2013

Virginia Creeper 2

For your enjoyment, here's chapter 2 of Virginia Creeper.


2.

 
“Ohmigod!” Kelli squealed when I told her what had happened. “Chelsea’s dead?”

I held the phone away from my ear, grimacing. This is why texting is so much better than calling: it’s not so hard on the eardrums. “Yeah. But that’s not the problem right now, OK, Kel? I need to talk to your dad. My folks are out of town, and Sheriff Thayer took Jared down to the police station. He needs an adult there with him.”

“Oh, right. Sure.” She didn’t bother to move the phone very far from her mouth when she yelled for her father, and it made my ears ring again. Then she lowered her voice to a whisper. “But she’s dead? Really?”

“That’s what the sheriff said.”

“Wow,” Kelli breathed, with—I couldn’t help but notice—a lot more excitement than sadness or shock. Not that I was feeling all that grief-stricken myself. I hadn’t really liked Chelsea. Still, I was shocked at what had happened, and even more shocked that Jared—Jared, who worshiped the ground Chelsea’s designer shoes had walked on!—was suspected of hurting her.

“How?” Kelli wanted to know.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t think I wanted to find out. Still, from the questions the sheriff had asked, I thought I could assume that someone had beaten, or at least hit, Chelsea.

For a second my head reeled at the thought of Chelsea, beaten to death. Her pretty face pummeled, her nose broken, her teeth shattered, her skin bruised and bloodied...

The kitchen started to spin, and I got a grip on myself by clutching the edge of the counter. “The sheriff didn’t say, and I didn’t want to ask. I’m sure your dad will find out. Is he coming?”

“In a minute. What did the sheriff say?”

I repeated the few details Sheriff Thayer had let slip. They weren’t many, just that Chelsea was dead, discovered this morning at the trailhead on Pecan Street, and that it had happened last night sometime. If it hadn’t, why would the sheriff ask me if I’d seen anything out of the ordinary on our walk home from Falcon Park?

“I didn’t notice anything,” Kelli said when I asked. “Just a bunch of people walking and driving around. I didn’t see Jared’s car at all. Rufus drove by a couple of times, though.”

“He did?” I hadn’t noticed, and I was usually pretty aware of Rufus.

She nodded. I could hear the clink as her dangling earring hit the phone. “Once when we’d just turned onto East Main. He was leaving the ballpark and going towards home. Once about fifteen minutes later, going the other way, when we were near the Tavern. And once coming back again just after we’d turned onto Maple. I guess maybe Jared asked him to keep an eye on you, to make sure you got home safe.”

“Maybe.” I wouldn’t put it past Jared, putting Rufus on guard-duty if he couldn’t keep up with me himself. “You didn’t see him anywhere near Pecan Street, did you?”

Kelli did a sort of mental eye-roll, one I could hear through the phone. “He was in a car, Jo. It’d take him—oh—two minutes to get to Pecan. What do you think?”

“I was just wondering if he might have noticed something,” I said. “If he happened to drive by the trailhead last night.”

“You could ask him,” Kelli said.

“I would,” I answered, “except I’ve got a few other, more important things to worry about right now. I really do need to talk to your dad, Kel. Can you call him again?”

“He’s coming down the stairs right now.” She moved the phone away from her ear, and I heard her voice, muffled and from a distance, explaining things to her father. “It’s Jo, dad. Sheriff Thayer has taken Jared downtown to talk to him about Chelsea Jacobsen’s murder. She was found dead this morning at the trailhead on Pecan Street. They think Jared did it.”

My stomach clenched when I heard that last sentence. I hadn’t told Kelli that, not in so many words, and I hadn’t let myself put the thought into words, either. Hearing it said like that was shocking, like a splash of cold water in the face. I struggled for a second, breathlessly, trying to get on top of anger and a sense of betrayal. Then I forced myself to breathe and relax. Kelli hadn’t meant it the way it sounded. She knew Jared; she knew he’d never hurt Chelsea. She was just explaining things to her father in the quickest possible way. I should be grateful that she didn’t beat around the bush.

“Jo?” Owen Stanley’s usually mellow voice was shriller than usual. “Are you OK, darling?”

“I’m fine,” I said, not quite truthfully.         

“Tell me what happened. Everything, from the beginning.”

It was hard to stand there and go over it all again, calmly, when I wanted to scream at Mr. Stanley to get over to the police station now. But I got through it. “I called our parents,” I ended the monologue, my voice shaking, “but they’re in Williamsburg, and although they cut the conference short and they’re coming home, they won’t be here until late this afternoon. Jared needs somebody with him now.”

“I know, darling,” Mr. Stanley said. “But if I don’t understand the situation when I go down there, I’ll do more harm than good. So Jared admitted to having an argument with Chelsea last night?”

“He admitted it to me. Not to the sheriff. Although he probably has by now. Mr. Stanley...”

“I know, Jo. Just bear with me, darling. Did he say what the argument was about?”

“He said he didn’t want to talk about it. He said it was—” I swallowed, “private and personal, between him and Chelsea.”

Owen Stanley was quiet for a moment. “Any idea what he might have been talking about?”

“None. I’m sorry. It must have been serious, though. I mean, she really scratched him.”

I wondered if Jared had bothered to put Neosporin on those scratches last night. And then I wondered if I was insane for even thinking about that right now.

Mr. Stanley was quiet for a moment. “Anything else you can tell me, Jo?”

“No,” I said. Both because I really couldn’t think of anything I’d forgotten to mention, but more because I really, really wanted him to get going. Our parents were making tracks, but wouldn’t be back in Abingdon for hours, and in the meantime, Jared was alone and probably scared. He tries to act grown up, as if things don’t bother him, but this had to be frightening. And if he hadn’t killed Chelsea—and of course he hadn’t—he must be floored by the news that she was dead. More so if they’d argued last night and hadn’t worked things out afterwards.

“OK,” Mr. Stanley said. “I’ll head down to the police station now, and stay with Jared until your folks get there. What are you planning to do, Jo?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. I hadn’t thought past getting Mr. Stanley on the phone and sending him after Jared. “I’d like to go to the police station myself, but I guess that doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

“Better not,” Mr. Stanley agreed. “Just stay where you are. Do you want me to send Kelli over?”

“No.” My rejection was automatic. Then I tried to soften it. “I don’t think I’d be very good company, and I’m sure Kelli has other things she wants to do.”

Like texting everyone she knew, to tell them the news. She’s my best friend, but she’s also a bit of a gossip. And this—the murder of a classmate—was the biggest story to hit Abingdon in years. Plus, if I had disliked Chelsea, Kelli had absolutely loathed her, and although I wouldn’t go as far as to say she was happy that Chelsea was dead, she didn’t seem to be feeling much pain, either.

“Can I talk to her again?” I asked.

Mr. Stanley handed the phone over and left. I could hear the Stanleys’ heavy front door open and close behind him. Kelli came back on. “Do you want me to come over and hang out with you, Jo?” She sounded willing, if not exactly eager.

“You don’t have to,” I said, and tried to ignore the relief coming through the phone at me. “Do me a favor, though, Kel.”

“Sure,” Kelli said.

“When you text everyone, please don’t tell them that the police think Jared did it. I’m sure they’ll let him go soon, and that’ll be it. They’re probably just talking to him about whether he saw anyone hanging around last night. Or maybe Chelsea mentioned that someone had been bothering her, or something.”

“OK,” said Kelli.

“There’s no way they can really suspect Jared. You know him; he was crazy about her. And I don’t want all of Abingdon to think he killed his girlfriend. So if you could just not mention that, I’d appreciate it.”

“Sure, Jo,” Kelli said. “I won’t say anything about Jared being the main suspect.”

I flinched, but told myself that she hadn’t meant it the way it sounded. Kelli wasn’t mean; she just liked to talk, and didn’t always think about what she said before she said it.

“I’ll let you know how it goes, ‘kay?”

“OK, Jo,” Kelli said. “I’ll call you later.”

She hung up. I looked around, blankly, thinking about the countless hours stretched out in front of me, empty of anything but fear and worry.

            I do have other friends, but there was no one I wanted to see. If I couldn’t trust Kelli, who’d been my best friend for as long as I could remember, I certainly wasn’t going to trust anyone else. It’d be hours before my parents got back, and when they did, they’d go straight to the police station. I didn’t want to go outside, just in case I met someone I knew—which was practically all of Abingdon. Even if they didn’t know that Jared was down at the police station being interviewed—my mind shied away from saying, or even thinking, ‘interrogated’—the whole town knew that he and Chelsea had been going out, and it’d be natural to ask how he was taking the news. No, I was better off staying inside, where no one could find me. Even if that meant I’d be spending the day alone, climbing the walls.

            I tried to read, but nothing kept my attention. I tried to watch TV, but there was nothing on except religious programs—thou shalt not kill—movies with murders and stabbings and pretty girls getting killed, and nature programs. And I didn’t need any reminders of the Creeper Trail right then, thanks very much. Whenever I closed my eyes, and sometimes when I didn’t, I saw that picture of Chelsea from earlier: her long, blond hair sticky with blood and her body crumpled in a heap in the grass and spring flowers.

            Jared hadn’t had time to straighten his room this morning before being hauled off to the police station, and I told myself I’d be doing him a favor if I did it for him. So I made the bed and emptied the trash and stacked the books and straightened the desk, and then I pulled the laundry basket from under the bed and started piling it full of dirty clothes.

            There was laundry all over the floor, including the dirty socks and underwear I’d smelled earlier. It would never occur to me to leave my used panties and bras on the rug in my room, but boys are different. Several pairs of Jared’s boxers were on the floor, and I picked them up with two fingers, and dropped them in the basket. Gross!    

            The baseball uniform from last night was crumpled in a pile in the corner, and when I shook it out, I couldn’t help noticing a few things. One was a tiny spatter of rusty brown spots across one shoulder and side; it was probably where some of Jared’s blood had landed after Chelsea tried to gouge his eye out. I’d have to pre-treat that with stain remover before I put the shirt in the washer.

            On both sleeves, standing out against the blue of the undershirt, were three or four evenly spaced spots, mud or dirt, just above where Jared’s wrists would be.

It took me a moment to realize what they were, and when I did, I felt lightheaded, like all the blood was running out of my head and pooling somewhere in my stomach.

            They were finger marks. In exactly the spot where they’d be if someone had grabbed both Jared’s arms last night. To try to—for instance—stop him from hurting them.

            Before I had time to decide between leaving the shirt in Jared’s room, where someone else might find it, or putting it through the permanent press cycle, the doorbell rang.

            It was a tough decision, and I was glad for an excuse not to have to make it. Washing the shirt would remove any evidence that might be on it, but I would be setting myself up for a possible charge of accessory to murder, or at the very least, of impeding the investigation. But leaving it where it was meant someone else could get hold of it and maybe use it to make the case against Jared look worse.

            It was hours too early for mom and dad to be back in town, but that didn’t keep me from hoping as I launched myself down the stairs, Jared’s shirt still in my hand. I dropped it on the bench in the hallway on my way past, my heart beating double-time, both from the headlong rush and from the anticipation when I grabbed the knob and yanked the door open.

            “Oh!” I stopped on the threshold, my heart doing an extra somersault before settling down into a slightly steadier rhythm. “Hi, Rufus.”

            Rufus nodded. We looked at each other for a moment.

“Won’t you come in?” I stepped back. Rufus moved silently across the threshold and into the house, brushing against my arm on the way. I felt a little zap of electricity. He headed toward the kitchen while I closed and locked the front door, my thoughts in the usual jumble. He has this way of scrambling all my circuits.   

I’ve known Rufus pretty much my entire life, and I’ve had sort of a crush on him almost as long. Not so much of a crush that I don’t get interested in other people occasionally, but it’s basically always there, sort of underneath everything else. He doesn’t know about it, thank God. At least I don’t think he does. And of course he doesn’t feel the same way. If he did, I’d have no need to get interested in anyone else. Jared knows, from watching me blush and stumble over my words and my feet for long enough to guess what the problem is. But although he gives me a hard time in private, so far he seems to have been gentleman enough to keep his knowledge to himself. I can’t imagine it’s been easy, either, considering how close they are.

Or used to be. Since Chelsea came into the picture, Jared’s had less time for Rufus. A whole lot less time. It was several months since Rufus had been over to the house. No wonder he looked different. At least that’s the excuse I gave myself for staring at him. Truth is, I don’t think I could have looked away if I had wanted to.

I didn’t notice that his lips were moving until he’d said a word or two. “...know, Jo, it’s not a good idea to open the door without looking outside first. I might have been someone else.”

No problem guessing how that sentence had started. Lucky break. Sometimes he says things I totally miss, and I sound like a real idiot trying to catch up. This time, maybe I wouldn’t. “I’d never mistake you for anyone else, Rufus.”

Or maybe I should just resign myself to sounding like an idiot anyway. I wanted to knock my head against the kitchen counter, but I thought it might look a little weird, so I just bit my lip instead, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.

Rufus smiled. My breath stuttered.

Here’s the thing: Rufus is quite possibly the most beautiful boy—or person of the opposite sex—I’ve seen in my life. And that includes the movie stars on TV, and Josh Turner the year he dropped in to play the Highland Festival. And for that matter Mr. Hawkins, our Language Arts teacher, who looks like a painting of Lord Byron. I’ve never been able to figure out why Chelsea would choose to go out with Jared when she could have had Rufus.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Jared. He’s tall, dark, and handsome, he gets good grades, and he’s popular, too. Any girl would be lucky to have him. I’m not arguing with that. But Rufus is... well, like I said, he’s beautiful. Ridiculously, heart-stoppingly beautiful. And Chelsea would have to be blind as well as stupid not to notice.

Or maybe it’s just me. Sometimes I’m able to look at him—from a distance, usually—and just see a pale, slight boy with reddish-brown hair and good bone structure. The problem is the rest of the time, when I get caught up in the flawless porcelain of his skin, or the way his hair changes color from dark cinnamon to bronze to chestnut in the sunlight, or how his eyelashes—long and thick and smudgy—could make him a fortune as a Cover Girl model.

This was one of those times. From the neck down, he looked just like any of the other boys at AHS. Faded jeans, scuffed sneakers, and a long-sleeved oatmeal-colored T-shirt that put some color in his cheeks and brought out the green in his eyes, both at the same time. From the neck up...

“...doing, Jo?” Rufus said. I pulled myself together again. Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to piece together the parts of this sentence that I’d missed, either.

“I’m OK. You?”

He made a sort of impatient noise, and I caught up, finally. “Oh, you mean about Jared? Did Kelli call you?”

He nodded. Waves of amber grain... sorry, waves of chestnut hair fell over his forehead, and he drove his hand through to get it out of his eyes. I suppressed a sigh, this one just as much envy as infatuation. Rufus has the most gorgeous head of hair in the world, thick and shiny and that fabulous color...

“...going on, Jo?”

“What...? Oh.” I tore my eyes away. There’s really no other word for it. “Would you like something to drink? Lemonade? Milk? Juice?”

If I kept my back to him, maybe I’d be able to tell him what was going on without losing my train of thought constantly.

“Lemonade, please.” I heard a chair leg scrape as he sat down at the table. I pulled two glasses from the cabinet above the microwave, took the lemonade from the refrigerator, and poured. While I did it, making sure not to look at him, I answered his question.

“If Kelli contacted you, you know as much as I do. Apparently Chelsea was killed last night, over at the trailhead on Pecan Street. Or maybe she was killed somewhere else and dumped there; I’m not really sure. Sheriff Thayer showed up here this morning to talk to Jared. They had an argument last night—Chelsea and Jared—and she scratched his face. There was tissue under her fingernails...”

I shuddered involuntarily at the thought. The steady stream of lemonade jittered, and a few drops splashed on the counter. “The sheriff wanted Jared’s DNA for comparison.”

I snagged a paper towel from the roll and wiped the counter.

“Kelli said Jared’s been arrested?”

Rufus glanced up at me from under his lashes as I placed the lemonade on the table in front of him. My heart skipped a beat, but it got lost in a wave of anger.

“She said what? No, he’s not been arrested! And Kelli promised me she wasn’t going to say that!”

“I don’t think she’s saying it to everyone,” Rufus said as I took a seat across from him. “She was probably just trying to give me more reason to go over here. So if he’s not been arrested, what’s going on?”

I sighed, sipping my own lemonade, watching his hands instead of his face. “The sheriff is talking to him, I guess. About last night. And whatever it was he and Chelsea argued about. What he said to make her try to scratch his eyes out. He must have said something.”

“Don’t you know?”

I could feel his eyes on me, but I didn’t look up to meet them. I shook my head. “We didn’t have much time to talk. Jared wasn’t home when I went to bed last night, and he didn’t wake up until the sheriff got here this morning. Or if he did, he didn’t come downstairs.”

The realization that my brother might have been awake but avoiding me, shocked me a little. Why would he have done that, unless he had something to hide? Unless he’d known, beforehand, what had happened to Chelsea?

But no, I told myself, he was probably just trying to put off the moment when I’d cause a fuss about the scratches on his face.

“Oh,” Rufus said. There was something a little odd about his voice, but when I glanced up, the sight of his face blew anything coherent right out of my head. He was looking down, making circles with the bottom of his glass on the tabletop, and his eyelashes were doing that thing they do, when they make shadows across his cheeks in the light.

“Kelli said you were driving around last night,” I said. “She said she’d seen you a couple of times on our way home from the ballgame. Coming and going.”

“I had to go back for something,” Rufus said, and I couldn’t help but notice the flush that stained his cheekbones. Was he embarrassed? Could he... had he gone back because of a girl?

The thought of Rufus with a girl—another girl; I was perfectly OK with the idea of Rufus with me—took an uncomfortable grip on my stomach and twisted.

“Well,” I said, eyes on my hands, “I just wondered if you’d noticed anything while you were driving around. Did you see Jared and Chelsea fighting? Or go close to the trailhead at all?”

“Why would I go close to the trailhead?” Rufus answered. “There’s nothing there in the middle of the night. No, I didn’t see Chelsea and Jared fighting. Or anything else.”

“Do you have any idea what they were fighting about?”

I looked up, got caught in the depths of his eyes, fluttered ineffectually for a moment, and tore myself away.

“How would I know anything about it? I wasn’t there.”

He stood, and turned to the sink to place his empty glass in it. I followed him down the hallway toward the front door again.

Just before getting there, Rufus slowed down. “What’s this?”

He grabbed Jared’s uniform shirt from the bench in the foyer. I didn’t say anything, since it seemed obvious. It was a white baseball shirt, with Abingdon in blue script across the chest and Brennan in block letters across the back. I could see the moment Rufus’s eyes caught the finger marks on the sleeves, and a second later his mind caught the implication, too. His back stiffened.

“I was picking up the laundry when you came,” I said, my voice amazingly normal. “I was planning to wash it.”

I reached out. Rufus’s eyes scanned my face for a second before he gave me the shirt. “Yeah,” he said, turning toward the door. “Good idea. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jo.”

“Right,” I said, and locked the door behind him.    

 # # #

1 comment:

thewoobdog said...

Not sure what the publishers were thinking - I think your writing voice in this makes for great YA reading. Just because it's not overly emo-moody or idiotically giggly like most of the pap foisted on teens these days doesn't mean it wouldn't appeal to them.

I'm not a teen anymore (not even close - thank goodness!) but I know several and keep up with what they're reading and I think this is great. I'm on tenterhooks waiting for more!