Here you go, the next chapter of Virginia Creeper.
Mom and dad didn’t come home until late, and when they did, they were alone.
As soon as I heard the car pull up outside, I ran to the front door and flung it open, ready to cheer and embrace the prodigal. Then my mom and dad came trudging up the steps, and my heart dropped. I looked around. “Where’s Jared?”
“Let’s go inside, Jo,” my dad said, putting an arm around my shoulders to steer me back into the house. Mom followed, and shut the door behind us with a decisive click, before attaching the security chain. Obviously, no one else was coming. She moved slowly, like her whole body was heavy, and she looked that way, too. Tired, and older than yesterday. So did my dad.
“Where’s Jared?” I insisted, my voice turning shrill. “Why isn’t he with you?”
Mom twisted out of her jacket and hung it on the coat rack by the door. “The police are keeping him overnight.”
“I guess to see if his story changes by tomorrow,” dad said, handing his windbreaker to mom so she could hang that on the rack, as well. “Maybe a night in jail will make him more cooperative.”
“Or they’re hoping to come up with something new by then,” mom added. “Some other piece of evidence they can use to charge him.”
Her face crumpled. I put my arms around her. Dad put his around both of us.
We stood like that until mom stepped back and dried her tears. “What have you been doing with yourself all day, Jo?” she asked. I watched her nostrils quiver, as the scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap and Pine Sol registered, and then she added, “Never mind. The house is spotless, I assume?”
I shrugged. “As spotless as I could make it. All the beds are made, the floors are vacuumed and mopped, the furniture is dusted, the clean dishes are put away, and I did three loads of laundry.” I also spent an hour kicking balls in a net in the backyard. Normally I would have gone down to the soccer field by the school for that kind of practice, but today I hadn’t wanted to risk meeting anyone I knew.
“I love it,” mom said, with a ghost of a smile. “Deplore the reason behind it, hate the fact that you have to be upset to do it, but I love that it’s done. And that I didn’t have to do it.”
“You’re welcome. I wish I hadn’t been stessed enough to clean the whole house from top to bottom, too. So what happened at the police station?”
“Let’s go sit down,” dad said, grimfaced. I gulped. This couldn’t be good.
We sat around the kitchen table. I took Rufus’s spot, so I wouldn’t get distracted by remembering what he’d looked like sitting there earlier. Not that there was much chance of anything distracting me from this conversation.
“Good call on your part, Jo, getting Owen Stanley down there.” Dad opened the proceedings with an approving nod.
“So he was helpful?” I looked from one to the other of them, where they sat next to each other across from me. They were holding hands under the table. That was a little squicky, but under the circumstances I couldn’t really blame them. I just wished I had someone’s hand to hold.
“Very,” mom said. “Without him, I’m not sure things would have gone as well as they did.”
I didn’t think things had gone that well when mom and dad had come home without Jared, but I didn’t say so.
“That’s good,” I said instead. “I’m glad I thought of it. And I’m glad he was home and could do it. So what’s going to happen now?”
The folks exchanged a glance. “By 11 o’clock tomorrow morning,” dad said, “they have to either let Jared go, or charge him with a crime. They can’t keep him any longer than 24 hours without making a formal charge.”
“What does he say happened?”
“He refuses to say anything,” mom said with a sigh. “I hoped maybe he had been more forthcoming with you.”
I shook my head. “I asked, but he said he didn’t want to talk about it. I can ask again, but if he won’t tell you, or the police, I don’t think he’ll tell me. It must be something really bad.”
“Do you think he’d tell Rufus?”
The parents both eyed me, and I added, with a blush I just couldn’t suppress no matter how hard I tried, “Rufus stopped by earlier, after Kelli told him what happened. And he asked me if I knew what Jared and Chelsea had argued about, so obviously he doesn’t know.”
“Oh,” mom said, her voice dejected. “That’s too bad.”
“Rufus hasn’t been around as much since Jared started dating Chelsea. So if they don’t charge Jared with anything, they’ll let him go?”
Dad nodded. “And keep an eye on him, I’m sure. Tell him not to leave town, that sort of thing.”
How ridiculous. As if Jared would leave Abingdon. “What if they decide to charge him with something? Then what’ll happen?”
“There’ll be a bail hearing,” mom said steadily. “Owen explained it all to us. Jared will plead not guilty, and the judge will decide how much of a bond is needed to let him out of jail. We’ll pay it, and he’ll get to come home, pending trial.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Depends on the bond,” dad said. “It could be quite high. That poor girl was killed in a horrible way. She was only sixteen, with her whole life ahead of her; the judge is liable to treat it more severely because of her age. And Congressman Jacobsen is bringing some pressure to bear, too.”
I blinked. “Chelsea’s dad doesn’t think Jared killed her, does he? He knows Jared; how could anyone who knows Jared think that?”
“His daughter is dead,” mom said simply. “He wants someone to blame.”
“Well, of course he does, but… you don’t think Jared did it, do you?”
“No, of course not,” mom said.
“How did she die, anyway? Sheriff Thayer asked if Jared had hit her…”
“I know he didn’t. He wouldn’t. But…”
“She was strangled,” dad said. “Beaten first, and then strangled. That’s all they know at the moment. Until the autopsy tomorrow.”
“They’re gonna cut her open?!” My stomach twisted in protest.
“They have to, Jo,” mom said, reaching her free hand out to grasp mine across the table. I twitched away and moved out of her reach, wrapping both arms around myself, too nauseated and upset to handle having any part of my anatomy touched at the moment.
“Why? If being strangled is what killed her—and they can tell that without an autopsy, can’t they? She’d be blue, right?—then why do they need to slice and dice her? Isn’t it bad enough already?”
I’d never felt that kindly towards Chelsea in life. I’d certainly never felt protective of her. I did now. I wasn’t afraid of anything the autopsy might find—Jared hadn’t done it, and that was that—but the idea that after everything that had happened to her, Chelsea’s lovely body and pretty face would be carved into mincemeat to provide answers, was upsetting.
“It’s more than bad enough,” dad agreed, “but an autopsy might give us some insight into what happened. Or why.”
“Will her parents allow it? Would you allow it, if it was me?”
Mom and dad looked at each other.
“Let’s hope it never comes to that,” mom muttered. Dad nodded.
Mom continued, her voice kind, “Yes, Jolene, we would. If it would help to explain things, we’d allow almost anything. She’s dead, sweetheart; it won’t bother her.”
“But she was so proud of the way she looked.” I blinked to get rid of the tears, and only made it worse. “She was always checking her reflection in every window she passed by. She’d hate being carved up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Even if she is dead!”
“I’m sorry, Jo,” mom said again, “but it’s necessary. I don’t like the idea, either—I wasn’t thrilled with Chelsea when Jared brought her home the first time, and I never did get used to her—but I do want to know everything I can about what happened to her, and why.”
She hesitated for a second before she added, with a faint attempt at a smile, “Who knows, maybe they’ll find something that explains everything.”
I knew what she meant: something that would prove that Jared couldn’t have killed Chelsea. I wasn’t as optimistic, but I forced a smile anyway. “Maybe she’ll turn out to have some weird disease that makes her skin bruise on its own and causes her to choke to death. It could happen.”
Mom’s smile faded, and she glanced at dad.
“Excuse me,” I added, and got up, “I’m beat. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow’s gonna be worse. I’m going to bed.”
I headed up the stairs without another word. They let me go, also without another word. I didn’t start crying until I was in bed, in the dark, with my head buried under the pillow, and if mom and dad heard me, they chose not to come upstairs to ask if I was all right.
They made me go to school the next morning. I didn’t want to, but they insisted.
“There’s nothing you can do here, Jo. The house is already spotless, and you won’t do Jared any good sitting here wringing your hands. They’ll decide what they’re going to do with him whether you’re in school or not.”
“But I’ll be really uncomfortable!” I protested. “Everyone will be talking about what happened, and speculating about Jared, and staring at me!”
Mom and dad glanced at each other. “Sorry, Jo,” dad said, “but you’re going to school. Unless you’re planning to run away from home and never see the people of Abingdon again, you’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later.”
“But what if something happens? What if Jared needs me? Or you do?”
I was reaching, and I knew it, but I really, really wasn’t looking forward to facing the stares and whispers and pointed fingers. Or worse, the questions.
“If we need you, we’ll call,” mom said. “A little cooperation, Jolene? The best thing you can do for us right now is go to school, where we won’t have to worry about you. In case you haven’t thought it through, there’s a murderer running loose in Abingdon, and he has already killed one young girl. I want you somewhere safe. I have enough to worry about in your brother.”
Put like that, there wasn’t anything else I could do. I went to school, where the stares and whispers were everything I had anticipated, and more.
Dad dropped me off. Usually, I ride in with Jared, but obviously he was otherwise occupied today. I hoped he was all right, and that the night he’d spent in jail hadn’t been too bad. It couldn’t have been comfortable, but hopefully he hadn’t ended up sharing a cell with some drunk named Bubba, at least. Or worse, a transvestite hooker. Not that we get a lot of those in Abingdon, but I’ve read books about the sort of people who frequent jails.
Kelli was waiting for me out front, and she wasn’t alone. Rufus was with her, and several groups of kids were hanging out, watching the Land Cruiser as it made its way to the bottom of the steps. When I slid out, every eye tracked me.
“I’ll walk home with Kelli,” I told my dad.
He nodded, with a glance past me to the goggling students. “Good luck today.”
“I told you.”
He smiled. “Just stay out of trouble, Jo. I’ll see you at home this afternoon.”
He drove off. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and turned to face my doom. The masses surged forward.
Kelli put an arm around me and guided me up the steps, while Rufus made way. Nobody gets too close to Rufus. It’s hard to say why, because he’s not all that imposing. Slight, no more than average height, and he certainly doesn’t come across as dangerous, or as someone to be avoided. Yet there’s something a little otherworldly about him. Something aloof and untouchable. As if a marble and bronze statue—in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt—had suddenly come to life and started walking around. There’s something just a bit unnerving about Rufus.
He had the desired effect, anyway. Nobody came within three feet of us as we walked through the door and down the hallway. People were turning and staring, and I could hear the whispers start as soon as we’d walked by. Kelli squeezed my arm. “Don’t listen to them, Jo. They don’t know Jared the way we do.”
Obviously. Or they would know that my brother could never, ever do what some of these ghouls accused him of doing.
During second period, Mr. Keller, the principal, called an all-student meeting in the auditorium so he could set the record straight. That helped a little, especially when Deputy Darrin Moore stood up and emphasized that Jared had not been charged with the murder of Chelsea. Yes, Chelsea was dead, and yes, Jared was with the police—that was why neither of them were in school today—but so far, the police had made no arrests. I did notice, however—even if no one else did—that Deputy Moore avoided looking me in the eye, although I sat there in the first row, right in front of him.
“If anyone knows anything,” he said, looking right past me, “anything at all that might have some bearing on this heinous crime, we ask that you contact the police department. Anonymously, if necessary. Let’s all work together to bring the murderer of Chelsea Jacobsen to justice.”
He sat down, amid scattered applause and head-nodding. Everyone would feel better once someone was behind bars. I wondered if I was the only one who got the impression that Deputy Moore, at least, was less interested in getting the right man behind bars, than he was in getting someone—anyone—there, pronto.
Principal Keller stood up again, to say that the school nurse and grief counselor, Mrs. Connolly-Hawkins, would be in her office for those of us who needed someone to talk to. Of course he himself would also be available to anyone who needed to talk, as would any of the other teachers. He looked around for a second, his eyes lighting briefly on me before moving on. “Dismissed,” he said.
We got up and headed back to our classrooms. Rufus, who is Jared’s age, a year older than Kelli and me, left us in the hallway, with a brief touch of my shoulder. He’s pretty hands-off usually, so it was almost like getting a great, big hug, and it left me with a pleasurable tingle and a warm feeling. Kelli watched me blush and giggled, but she refrained from comment.
I didn’t really feel like I needed counseling, but Mrs. Connolly-Hawkins must have thought otherwise, because about an hour after lunch, she came and got me. Not the best thing to do under the circumstances, because it precipitated my version of a meltdown, which is a screaming hissy fit. When she dragged me out of class, I thought the worst had happened. I wasn’t quite sure what the worst might be—what had already happened was pretty well as bad as it could get—but still, I expected the other shoe to drop. When she told me that nothing new had happened, and she had just wanted to make sure I was OK, I lost my temper and said a lot of really unforgiveable things. Which, being the magnanimous type, she forgave.
“We all just want to make sure you’re all right, Jolene,” she said, her freckled, fox-like face concerned under her carrot-red hair. “You’re under a lot of stress. I understand.”
“No,” I wanted to say, “you don’t,” but of course I couldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, Mrs. Connolly-Hawkins is a nice lady. She’s been school nurse at AHS for a couple of years. She’s married to Cooper Hawkins, the Language Arts teacher, and everyone was a bit surprised to meet her, since Maureen Connolly is nothing much to look at. Not that she’s ugly or anything, but she has flaming red hair and a ton of freckles, and she’s a bit broader in the butt than she should be. And Mr. Hawkins is just so handsome that one sort of expects him to be married to a super-model. Mrs. Connolly-Hawkins is super-nice, though, even if she had ticked me off in a pretty major way when she dragged me out of class.
“So tell me what’s going on, Jo,” she said, after I had finished screaming and was slumped in the orange chair across from her desk, pouting and pleating the bottom of my shirt into folds for something to do.
“I told you,” I answered, “nothing’s going on. I don’t need to talk. Chelsea and I weren’t close, and Jared’s going to be fine. He didn’t do it.”
“Of course not,” Mrs. C-H said. She had a pencil in her hand, and was scribbling on a pad of paper in front of her. I stretched my neck to see whether she was taking notes on my mental stability or just doodling, but I couldn’t tell. “So who do you think did it, then, Jo?”
She looked up at me, her green eyes steady in her pointed face. “If your brother didn’t strangle Chelsea, who do you think did?”
I blinked, realizing I didn’t have an answer. I knew—absolutely, no question about it—that Jared hadn’t. He didn’t have it in him to kill anyone, and especially not Chelsea, whom he’d adored. But I’d never asked myself the question Mrs. Connolly-Hawkins was asking now. It was like it didn’t matter who’d killed Chelsea, just so long as everyone knew it wasn’t Jared.
“I don’t know,” I said, surprised. “I never really thought about it.”
“Of course.” Maureen Connolly-Hawkins nodded sympathetically. “You’ve had a lot on your mind. Still, you and Chelsea must have been friendly. She was dating your brother, and she didn’t have any other close girlfriends that I know of…”
She paused invitingly. I shook my head. “We really weren’t close. She went out with my brother, but it’s not like they wanted me to tag along. And I didn’t spend much time with her apart from Jared. Once in while she’d stop by, and I’d have to keep her company until he was ready to go, but it was never more than a few minutes at a time.”
“So she never told you about anything else that might have been going on in her life? Any problems she might have had with anyone? Any reason why someone would have wanted to get rid of her? Other than your brother?”
“My brother didn’t want to get rid of her,” I said. “He was crazy about her. And no, she didn’t talk to me about anyone else. She didn’t talk to me at all. The last time I spent any time with her was Saturday night at the baseball game. Jared was playing, so she sat with me and Kelli for part of the time.”
“Just part of the time?”
I shrugged. “She wasn’t really into baseball. She came to watch Jared, but she got bored almost right away. She kept twitching and looking around. After an hour or so, she got up and walked away. I didn’t see her again until the game was over, when she and Jared left.”
Mrs. C-H made another scribble on her legal pad.
“So are we done?” I added. “Because if there’s nothing else, I’d really like to get back to class.”
She nodded, her focus still on the note-taking—or doodling—she was doing.
“Thank you, Mrs. Connelly-Hawkins.”
I stood up, and as I did, I took a step forward and peered down, kind of slant-ways, at the desk. She was doodling. Along the top edge of the yellow legal pad. A little clothes line with teeny-tiny clothes on it. Baby booties, or something. Maybe she was expecting; she was looking kind of pale, now that I took a closer look at her, and she was wearing a pair of loose scrubs with pictures of Scooby-Doo on them, kind of babyish.
Then again, she wasn’t the only person who was pale today. And it was none of my business whether she’d gotten herself knocked up. I left the office, not giving the doodling another thought, but wishing that her handwriting hadn’t been quite so loopy, so I could have read what she’d written about me.
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