Saturday, May 25, 2013

Virginia Creeper

Once upon a time I wrote what I thought would be a Young Adult mystery about a 16 year old girl whose 17 year old brother is arrested for murder. The name of it was Virginia Creeper, which I still think is one of the best titles I've ever come up with.

However, my agent didn't like the book and everyone told me I didn't have a YA 'voice,' so I never did anything more about it. The book is finished, to the best of my ability, and I think it's cute and not a bad mystery either, but they tell me there's no market for it.

So I thought maybe I'd share it here. A chapter a week or something like that, over the summer. And if y'all like it, maybe I'll put it together into a book and publish it after all.

Without further ado, here's Chapter 1 of Virginia Creeper:


            Chelsea Jacobsen was trouble.

            I knew it the first time I saw her walk down the corridor of Abingdon High School, turning the head of every boy (and a few of the girls) she passed on the way. Including the head of my brother Jared, who should have known better. Not to mention the head of his best friend Rufus, who definitely should have. Not that that stopped either of them.

            Further acquaintance did not improve my first impression. Chelsea turned out to be shallow, manipulative, vain, and catty. And unfortunately for me, I got to know her quite well. Or as well as anyone in Abingdon, anyway. Jared, who is not usually a fool, even if he is my brother, seemed like he couldn’t see past her corn-silk hair and pierced navel and—let’s just say it—the fact that she put out, and he kept insisting that he loved her, and she loved him, and they were going to grow old together.

As if.

            Still, royal bitch though she was, she didn’t deserve what happened to her. Nobody really deserves being beaten and strangled and left in the dirt like a blown tire, do they?


            My name is Jolene Brennan. For obvious reasons, I go by Jo. Sometimes Jolie, although it’s really just Rufus who calls me that. And Jared, when he wants to see me squirm.

We live in a small town called Abingdon, just west of I-81 and almost as far south as Tennessee, at the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail.

That’s not what it sounds like, by the way. Virginia Creeper is a plant, one of those vines that strangles everything in its path, like Kudzu, and the Virginia Creeper Trail is a biking, running, riding and—when we have snow—cross-country skiing trail that runs along an abandoned railroad line from Abingdon to Whitetop, on the North Carolina state line. A 4-8-0 steam engine sits at the beginning of the trail, on Pecan Street in Abingdon. Supposedly, the trail got its nickname from those old locomotives, and the way they crept up the trail’s steep grades. All the creeping ivy in the area probably had something to do with it too.

In any case, the Creeper Trail has nothing to do with anything creepy, like people getting strangled. At least not until Chelsea Jacobson’s body was found at the head of the trail one Sunday morning in April.

            It was a pair of bicyclists who found her, when they headed out for their weekly ride. Any other weekend, one of those bikers might have been me, since Jared had a habit of hitting the trail early sometimes, and of making me go with him. He’d have preferred Chelsea, I’m sure, but his new girlfriend wasn’t the outdoorsy type, and Rufus had been mostly absent since Jared started spending so much time with her. So Jared settled for bike-riding with his little sister instead. But this weekend he hadn’t suggested it. Instead of dragging me out of bed at dawn, Jared slept late. I still hadn’t seen him when the doorbell rang at a few minutes past ten.

            Abingdon is as safe a place as any, but it was just the two of us in the house—and one of us was, as far as I could tell, dead asleep upstairs—so I made sure to peek out the window onto the porch before I opened the door. What I saw out there made my eyes widen and my hands fumble when I twisted the deadbolt and turned the knob.

            “Morning, Jolene,” Sheriff Thayer said.

            Most everyone knows everyone else in Abingdon, at least those of us who have been around for a while. Matilda Thayer has been sheriff since before I was born, which is more than sixteen years now. She and my mom went to school together. At AHS, where Jared and I go now. Jared is seventeen, by the way, and Mattie Thayer’s been sheriff longer than Jared’s been alive, too. So the fact that she knows us and calls us by our first names doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like I’ve got a police record or anything.

            “Morning, sheriff,” I answered. “What’s up?”

            She looked serious, and for a second I worried that something had happened to mom and dad; that she was coming to tell us we were orphans.

            “Your brother here?” She glanced over my shoulder into the interior of the house.

            “Jared?”It’s not like I have any other brothers, but I wasn’t thinking straight, what with the panic. “I think he’s upstairs.”

I hadn’t seen him, but the door to his room had been open when I went to bed last night, and now it was closed. I stepped aside, but the sheriff didn’t move off the welcome mat.

            “How old is Jared now, Jo? Has he turned eighteen yet?”

            I shook my head. My mouth was dry. “His birthday’s in November. Why?”

            The sheriff didn’t explain. “Your folks not home?” she asked instead.

            I breathed a sigh of relief. At least nothing was wrong with mom and dad, then. “They drove up to Williamsburg on Friday. For some kind of conference. Daughters of the Revolution or Colonial Virginia or something.”

            Our parents are amateur historians, or hysterians if you prefer. All about preserving old Abingdon, preserving the Creeper Trail, preserving any little piece of the past they can. Since Abingdon’s the oldest town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s plenty to preserve around here.

            “When are they coming back?” Mattie Thayer asked.

I shrugged.“Probably not until late. You know how it is. When they get with the other nuts, they forget the time.”

            The sheriff nodded. She’s a bit of a history nut herself, although not as rabid as mom and dad. Still, she takes part in the living history reenactments during the Highland Festival, and does something for the Hysterical Society, as well. If she hadn’t been on duty this weekend, maybe she’d have made the 5-hour trek to Colonial Williamsburg, too.

            But she was in uniform, with a night-stick and gun holster hanging from her belt, and here on our porch at barely 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, when any God-fearing Southern Baptist ought to be in church. Something was going on, and it made me nervous. Why was Sheriff Thayer asking about Jared’s age? And why did she seem concerned that our parents weren’t here? We were old enough to take care of ourselves, and it wasn’t the first time the two of us had been home alone for the weekend. The sheriff had to know that.

            “If you’ll wait a minute,” I said, letting go of the door, “I’ll go drag Jared out of bed.”

            Sheriff Thayer lifted a hand to stop me, but then she let it fall again. I waited a second, just to see if she’d tell me not to go, but when she didn’t, I excused myself and headed up the stairs to the second floor.

            We live in one of the historic homes, an 1896 Victorian on Maple Street, with a proper entry foyer and floating staircase. It’s been in the family since it was built; these days, we couldn’t hope to be able to afford something like that. Nowadays, only people with money—like Chelsea’s dad, Congressman Jacobsen from Washington—can afford to move to Abingdon.

            The first floor of our house has a couple of parlors and a formal dining room, along with a kitchen—updated, since mom draws the line at cooking on a wood-burning stove, however historic it may be—while the upstairs has four bedrooms and a bath. Mom and dad have two of the bedrooms, one to sleep in, and one for all the books and paperwork they’ve collected over the years. Jared and I have the other two. His is at the end of the hall on the right. I put my ear to the door and held my breath, but I couldn’t hear anything from inside. Not even a snore.

            “Jared?”I turned the knob and pushed the door open, peering around it. Maybe he wasn’t here. The last time I’d seen him was last night, when he and Chelsea left Falcon Park after the baseball game. I’d walked home with our across-the-street-and-four-doors-down neighbor (and my best friend) Kelli Stanley, and by eleven or so, I’d gone to bed. For all I knew, Jared had spent the whole night with Chelsea. He didn’t have a habit of staying out all night, but with mom and dad gone, maybe he’d decided to take advantage of the opportunity. “You here, Jared?”

            He was here. Or at least he had been. The bed had been slept in, though it was empty now. The covers were trailing on the floor, as if someone had gotten out in a hurry.

            “Jared?”I took a step into the room, wrinkling my nose at the smell of stale sweat and gym socks. “Did you go out already?”

            Maybe he’d gotten up early and gone biking without me—

            No sooner had the thought formed, than a movement on the edge of my vision caused my heart to jump up into my throat and continue beating there.

“Dammit,” I said weakly, after catching my breath. I had planned to say more, but I got a good look at him, and curiosity took over. “What happened to you?”

            “Who’s downstairs?” Jared countered.

            “The sheriff. Why are you hiding behind the door? And why’s your face bloody?”

            “My face isn’t bloody,” Jared said. It was a bald-faced lie. Three long furrows ran across his cheek from just below the left eye to his chin. Chelsea must have been very upset to scratch that hard.“What’s the sheriff doing here?”

            “She didn’t say. Although she asked for you. What did you do last night?”

The more I looked at him, the worse the scratches looked. Another half inch, and she would have taken his eye out.

            “I didn’t do anything,” Jared said. “It’s just left over from the game.”

            He turned away. I walked around him so we were standing face to face again. “I was watching, Jared. Every minute. You didn’t plow face-first into any bases last night, and none of the other players got that close to you, either. Did you and Chelsea have a fight?”

            “I don’t want to talk about it,” Jared said. “What did you tell the sheriff?”

            I huffed impatiently. “That I’d go get you, of course. That you were asleep, but I’d wake you.”

            “Figures,”Jared muttered, with—I couldn’t help but notice—a glance toward the window. The second story window, overlooking the backyard. With a handy drainpipe just off to the left, on the corner of the house.

            “You’ve got to be kidding!” I said. “What’s going on, Jared? Why is she here? What happened last night? Why don’t you want to talk to her?”

            “Nothing happened.” He looked at me, finally. “I swear, Jo. Chelsea and I had a fight, but I didn’t hurt her. I swear.”

            “Well, of course you didn’t,” I said. Our mother hadn’t raised a girlfriend-beater. “What happened?”

            “I don’t want to talk about it,” Jared said again, and turned away from me. “Get lost so I can put on some clothes, OK? I’m not gonna change with you in here.”

            “I appreciate that.” I’ve seen my brother naked before—we’ve shared the same bathroom for sixteen years—but it wasn’t something I needed to see again. Ever.

I turned away and reached for the doorknob, but before I could grab it, there was a creak from outside in the hallway. Jared’s head whipped around, and his eyes narrowed.

            “Probably just the resident ghost,” I said lightly, grasping the knob. Jared snorted. He knew as well as I did that there’s no such thing as ghosts in our house. Some of the other old houses in town claim to have specters, but ours isn’t one of them. And like me, Jared must have recognized the creaking floorboard halfway down the hall, the one the two of us are so used to that we automatically step over it.

            Of course I knew who was outside. There were only three of us in the house. And it was a little worrisome that Sheriff Thayer had snuck upstairs after me. What did she think I was doing; telling Jared to make a run for it because the law was on his tail?

            Then again, considering Jared’s instinctive glance at the window, maybe Mattie Thayer wouldn’t be as far off as I’d like to believe.

            In any event, she was outside in the hallway, so close that I almost stepped on her when I came out of Jared’s room.

“Oh,” I said, faking surprise as well as I could, “I didn’t realize you were up here, sheriff. Jared’s getting dressed. He’ll be out in a minute.”

            The sheriff nodded and backed up a couple steps, so she wasn’t crowding my personal space. She tucked a strand of her blond pageboy behind her ear and avoided my eyes.

            “Why don’t we go sit in the living room?” I added, moving in the direction of the stairs. “It’s more comfortable than standing here.”

            The sheriff shot a glance at Jared’s door, the one I had considerately closed behind me—hey, my brother was changing!—but apart from looking like she wished she could insist on hanging out in the upstairs hall, she didn’t object, just turned and followed me down the hallway. I stepped over the creaky board; the sheriff put her regulation shoe squarely on it and made it squeal.

            “So what did you do last night, Jo?” she asked when we were sitting across from one another in the living room. Her voice was calm and friendly, almost uninterested, but her eyes were sharp. I wasn’t fooled into thinking that she was just making conversation. There was more to it than that. But since I had nothing to hide, I didn’t see the harm in telling the truth.

            “Baseball game at school. Jared was playing.”

            “How’d it go?”

            “We won,” I said, “barely. Jared scored a run. A couple of other people scored runs. The other team’s players scored some runs. The final score was 6-5, after extra innings.”

            “So the game went late?”

            “A little later than usual. It ended around 9:45, I think.”

            “What did you do then?” She glanced over her shoulder toward the stairs, but whatever sound she thought she heard must have been her imagination, because Jared wasn’t coming yet.

            “Walked home with Kelli,” I said. “Cleaned up after dinner. Loaded the dishwasher. Brushed my teeth. Went to bed.”

“Kelli Stanley? What time did you girls get here? Which way did you go?”

            I blinked. “I got home around 10:15, I guess. We didn’t walk fast. And there are only so many ways to walk here from Falcon Park. We didn’t go through the cemetery, so we went straight down East Main Street, mostly.”

            “Did you go anywhere near the trailhead?”

            I blinked. “The Creeper Trail, you mean? That’s in the opposite direction. Why do you ask?”

            “I don’t suppose you noticed anything going on anywhere?”

            “What do you mean, anything?” I’d noticed lots of things. Including the fact that she wasn’t answering my questions. “It was a Saturday night, and the weather was nice. The Tavern was full. So was the coffee shop. There was a performance at the Barter Theatre that let out late. People were walking the streets. Lots of people. And more than just us were going home after the game.”

            “What about Jared?” the sheriff asked.

            “What about him?”

            “When did he get home?”

            I hesitated, but only for a second. “Not sure. You’ll have to ask him.”

            “He didn’t walk with you and Kelli?”

            I shook my head. “He’s been dating Chelsea Jacobson for a couple of months. You know, Congressman Jacobson’s daughter, from Washington? They left together after the game. I guess he drove her home—she lives in one of those new McMansions on the north side of town. He wasn’t here by eleven, but I don’t think he would have stayed out too late, when he knew I was home alone. I couldn’t put the security chain on the door until he got here.”

            The sheriff opened her mouth, but whatever she was going to say next was forgotten when Jared came down the stairs. He’d changed into jeans and a blue, long-sleeved T-shirt, and the scratches on his cheek were bright red. I could see the sheriff’s eyes lingering on them for a moment before she nodded, cordially enough. “Jared.”

            “Sheriff Thayer.” Jared nodded back. He had his hands in his pockets, and he looked relaxed, but I knew him well enough to see the tightness in his jaw and shoulders, and the wary look at the back of his eyes. They were tired, with dark circles, like bruises, under them.

            “Have a seat.” The sheriff gestured to the chair at the end of the table.

The command seemed a little pushy when you considered that she was a guest in our house, but Jared didn’t say anything, just walked to it and sat.

“I’ve been talking to Jo about last night,” Mattie Thayer added.

            “What about last night?” Jared’s eyes caught mine for a second.

I shook my head. So far I had no idea what was going on.

            “She tells me you left with Chelsea Jacobson after the baseball game was over?”

            Jared nodded.

            “Did you two have a fight?”

            The sheriff’s voice was sympathetic, understanding. And with three deep gouges from Chelsea’s nails across his cheek, there was really no way Jared could deny it, even if he’d wanted to. “It was no big deal,” he muttered.

Obviously the deal had been big enough to make Chelsealose her cool. Although considering how pea-brained she was, that didn’t mean much. Maybe Jared had been worried about letting me and Kelli walk home alone at night, and Chelseahad gotten pissed. She didn’t like Kelli, who was the prettiest girl at AHS, and the one all the boys liked best before Chelsea came along. She didn’t like me much either, if it came to that. She tolerated me because I was Jared’s sister, but we’d never be best friends. Or maybe she’d wanted Jared to spend the night with her and he’d refused, or maybe he’d been too preoccupied to notice her new hairstyle. But the sheriff didn’t know Chelsea, and looking at those scratches, I didn’t know that I could blame her for being suspicious.

“So you hit her?”Sheriff Thayer said now, her voice still calm and friendly.

Jared stiffened, and for a second, the silence hung heavy in the air.

“Of course I didn’t,” he said after a moment. “I’d never hit a girl. My mom would kill me.”

It probably wasn’t meant to be funny, but under the circumstances, it struck me as such. I suppressed a snort. Both of them glanced over at me. “Sorry,” I said.

The sheriff turned back to Jared. “What was the fight about?”

Jared’s eyes turned flat, like blue circles painted on paper. “I’d rather not say.”

“Why not?” Mattie Thayer asked. She looked like she wished she had a pencil and notebook handy, to be able to write this down. I opened my mouth to ask whether we needed to postpone this conversation until our parents came home, since I’d finally thought of a reason why the sheriff wanted to know Jared’s age. A police officer can’t interrogate a minor without the minor’s guardian there. Jared was still technically a minor. But before I could get a word out, Jared had answered.

“It’s between Chelsea and me. No one else.”

“In that case,”Sheriff Thayer said, getting to her feet, all warmth and sympathy gone from her voice, “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to come down to the police station, Jared.”

Jared got up, too, to face the sheriff across the glossy wood of the coffee table. His posture wasn’t relaxed anymore, and his hands were clenched into fists at his sides. “Why?”

The sheriff hesitated, with a glance at me.

I felt my stomach twist. Something must have happened, something more than Chelsea and Jared having a fight. Couples have fights all the time, without the police getting involved.

“What’s wrong?”

I think Mattie Thayer’s eyes may have softened a little, although it was hard to be sure. “I’m sorry, Jo. But Chelsea Jacobsen’s body was found at the trailhead this morning, and it looks like Jared was the last person to see her alive.”

Jared’s face turned blank with shock, and I scooted around the coffee table and grabbed his arm as he reeled. “Dead?”

The sheriff nodded grimly. “Your brother has to come downtown and make a statement. We’ll also need a DNA sample, to match with skin tissue found under Chelsea’s fingernails. Not that there’s much doubt that it’ll be a match.”

“Are you arresting me?” Jared asked, his voice a whisper. I squeezed his arm.

The sheriff hesitated. “Not at the moment. There may be a question of charges later.”

Jared nodded. I could feel a tremor running through the clenched muscles in his arm. I leaned my head against his shoulder for a moment.

“I’ll call mom and dad, see how long before they’re back. And I’ll call Kelli’s dad and ask him to meet you at the police station. You should have an adult there with you.”

Especially an adult like Owen Stanley. The Stanleyshave been attorneys for generations.

“Come on, Jared,”Sheriff Thayer said. She reached out, and it looked like she was going to grab Jared by the arm and frog-march him out of the house. Jared twisted away at the last second, and headed for the door on his own. The sheriff followed. I stared after them, blankly, until the front door closed with a click, and then I woke up and ran for the kitchen and the telephone.

# # #


Maria Macklin said...

I just wanted to jump in and say that regardless of other opinions I would love to read the rest of this. I think you have a wonderful gift and would hate to see something like this, that you have clearly worked hard on, go to waste so please post the rest soon! As always, keep up the fantastic writing, Maria x

Jenna said...

Awww, thank you!