Chapter 4 of Virginia Creeper, for your enjoyment. 🙂
The day continued in the same vein. I wandered through on auto-pilot, with Kelli making sure I got from class to class OK. I endured the stares and whispers as best I could, and when someone mustered up enough courage to actually talk to me, I told them that no, of course Jared hadn’t killed Chelsea, and yes, of course he’d be back in school soon. The teachers, with the exception of Mrs. C-H, left me alone, and didn’t even call on me for answers. I guess my expression, and the knowledge of what was going on in my home-life, kept them at bay.
I was thinking about the question Mrs. Connelly-Hawkins had asked. If not Jared, then who? Someone had killed Chelsea—this wasn’t a case of suicide made to look like murder, or even an accident. Someone had wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed until her eyes bugged out of her skull and her face turned blue.
Or maybe that wasn’t the way it had happened at all. If Sheriff Thayer had given my parents any specific details about the murder, they hadn’t seen fit to share them with me. Not that I blamed them. The images I had come up with on my own were the kind that would probably keep me up nights for weeks.
But that’s beside the point: I didn’t know whether I was right—that whoever killed Chelsea had strangled her with his bare hands—or whether he—or she?—might have used a rope or something else to do the job. Could it have been a woman? A girl? Or would it have to have been a man? Surely it must take at least a little strength to strangle someone.
“I want to strangle you,” I told Kelli after the school day was over, and we were on our way out. She missed a step and had to grab onto my arm to keep her balance. Her blue eyes were wide.
“Why? What did I do?”
“Not like that. I’ve been wondering how much strength it would take to strangle someone. If someone like us could have killed Chelsea, or whether it would have to be one of the boys. Or an adult.”
“Oh,” Kelli said, biting her lip. She glanced sideways at the grass around the flagpole. “Would I have to get dirty?”
I shook my head. “We could do it on your bed when we get home. Or on mine.”
A couple of younger girls who were coming out behind us, giggled and ran down the stairs.
“Oh, great,” Kelli muttered, scowling after them, “now look what you’ve done!”
“What…? Oh.” I shrugged. “Sorry.”
Kelli rolled her eyes.
“So will you do it?”
“I guess. You aren’t really gonna strangle me, are you?”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Of course not. I just want to see if it’s something I could do, if I wanted to. But I won’t really hurt you.”
“OK, then. But only if I get to strangle you, too.” She smiled.
“Sure,” I said.
I’d told my dad I’d walk home with Kelli, but we ended up not having to walk after all. Rufus had parked his ancient VW Beetle at the curb outside the school, and when we drew even with him, he leaned across the passenger seat and opened the door. “Get in.”
I opened my mouth to decline—close proximity to Rufus, inside the tiny Beetle, was bound to scramble my circuits enough that I’d be useless for the rest of the day—but Kelli accepted before I could get a word out. “Thanks.” She shooed me into the back. I was grateful, since that way at least I wouldn’t have to sit next to Rufus. He’d have to watch the road, so I wouldn’t have to deal with him head-on a whole lot. If all I had to do was talk to the back of his neck, I could probably handle that.
“Where to?” he asked when Kelli had shut her door and we had pulled away from the curb.
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Jo’s house. We’re gonna do it on her bed.”
I guess she was hoping to embarrass him, and make him blush. He has such fair skin that it doesn’t take much. Or maybe she was hoping he’d offer to join us. Or ask if he could watch.
He didn’t. A second passed, but then Rufus said blandly, “Oh, really?”
There was nothing wrong with my blush. “I’m going to strangle Kelli,” I managed to choke out. “It was only supposed to be an experiment, but now I may do it for real. Maybe you’d like to be there, so you can pull me off her if I get carried away.”
Rufus grinned, a flash of white teeth and dimples in the rearview mirror, which immediately set off an orgy of flutters in my stomach. Thank God I was in the back seat and he was busy navigating the light at Thompson Drive and Route 11. “Maybe I’d better,” he said. “One Brennan in jail for murder is enough.”
More than enough.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, except for the few times the car drifted dangerously across East Main Street into incoming traffic while Rufus was busy removing Kelli’s hand from his thigh. When we got to the house, mom and dad were gone, so we didn’t bother going upstairs after all, but did our experiments on the living room sofa instead. It turned into a game; somewhat fun as long as none of us thought about the reason we were doing it.
I went first, wrapping my hands around Kelli’s throat and squeezing. It was a weird sensation, feeling her pulse hammer under my fingers and seeing her eyes widen. We broke apart long before I got anywhere close to cutting off her air supply.
“Can’t do it.”
I stepped back, rubbing my hands against my upper arms to get rid of the sensation of squeezing someone’s throat.
“Want me to try?” Kelli asked, her voice froggy. She cleared her throat. I didn’t want to, but it seemed only fair.
She didn’t do any better of a job than I had. Her eyes widened along with mine, until she dropped her hands as if my neck had suddenly turned too hot to touch. “Sorry, Jo.”
“No problem,” I croaked, and drew a mouthful of air into my lungs. “What do you think? Could you strangle me?”
“As long as you just stood there and let me. Not if you tried to fight back.”
She was rubbing her palms against her thighs, no fonder of the sensation of wringing someone’s neck than I was.
“You girls are pathetic,” Rufus said. He was lounging in the chair at the end of the coffee table, watching us with barely suppressed amusement.
“You think you could do better?” I was still rubbing my throat.
“Oh, sure. It’s all in the technique. C’mere.” He stood and held out a hand.
“Yeah, you. I don’t trust Kelli. She’s too grabby.”
He snagged my wrist—I had a momentary sensation of tingling heat—and then I found myself on my back in the chair, with Rufus leaning over me and his hands wrapped around my throat. And there was absolutely nothing tingly or exciting about it. His eyes were narrowed in a sort of scary, extremely focused way, and a few seconds after that, things started turning black, and small specks of colored confetti danced in front of my eyes. I opened my mouth, futilely trying to breathe, and then I lifted my hands to grab his arms, to break his hold, but I couldn’t find the strength.
“A quick twist, like this…” He mimed the movement, “and it’s bye-bye, Jolie.”
He let go. I sucked in a breath.
“Sorry,” he added. “You OK?”
“Fine,” I managed, between gasps. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“Chickens,” Rufus said, as if that explained it. Maybe it did. He had an aunt and uncle who had a farm a few hours from here.
Kelli stuck her lower lip and a hip out. “What do you mean, I’m too grabby?”
Rufus turned. “You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. Show me.”
Looked like I’d have to have another talk with Kelli, and explain to her—again—why Rufus was off-limits.
He shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
A second later, he had Kelli on her back too, and his hands around her throat. Except she was quicker than I, and rather than reaching up and trying to break his hold, she reached up and wrapped both arms around his neck instead. And then she tried to pull him down on top of her. I averted my eyes as they tussled, a little too determinedly on Kelli’s part, and rather grimly—or so I hoped—on Rufus’s.
“Like I said,” he said after he had detached her and straightened up, leaving her lying there against the pillows, “too grabby.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That was very educational.”
Kelli giggled, and Rufus’s lips twitched, too. He went back to his chair, at a safe remove from both of us. “Now what?” he asked.
Kelli sat up and smoothed her pink top over her boobs. When I glared at her, she winked.
“Well, obviously,” I said, turning back to Rufus, “you could have killed Chelsea. Or Kelli and me, if you had wanted to. Kelli and I couldn’t.”
Or maybe it’d be more accurate to say that I couldn’t, since I’d tried, but that I had only Kelli’s word for it that she couldn’t. Not that I seriously thought she’d strangled Chelsea. There was no love lost between them, but surely it takes a little more than just dislike to murder someone.
“That’s something, I guess,” Rufus said. “Although it doesn’t help Jared.”
“Unfortunately not. But they haven’t charged him with anything. Or hadn’t, this morning. They had until 11 AM to come up with something, I think.”
“It’s after 4 now,” Rufus said, with a glance at the grandfather clock tick-tocking away in the corner, “and he’s not home. So chances are they did. Charge him. Or he’d be here. Sorry, Jo.”
I grimaced. It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought the same thing; I just didn’t like hearing it said out loud.
Rufus left shortly after that, after making me promise that I’d have Jared call him as soon as he got home. He didn’t ask Kelli if she wanted a ride, and she didn’t suggest that he should give her one, but it was probably just because she lived only four doors down, and she could walk there faster than the Beetle could drive. Or maybe—I tried to tell myself—he really didn’t want to be alone with her. Hard to imagine, though. Kelli is the prettiest girl at Abingdon High; prettier even than Chelsea. She has lots of curly, naturally blonde hair, big blue eyes, a pink Cupid’s mouth, and a curvy little body that goes in and out in all the right places. Not like me, who’s what’s affectionately known as a tomboy. I don’t have much of a figure at all, and my face isn’t anything special, either. So I’m not surprised that Rufus isn’t interested in me. I was more surprised—but relieved—that he didn’t seem interested in Kelli. And I was annoyed, not to say seriously pissed
off, that she’d thrown herself at him like that, especially in front of me.
“Why did you do that?” I demanded, almost before the door had closed behind him.
“Do what?” Kelli stretched, her little pink tongue darting out to moisten her lips.
“Come on to him like that. Poor guy…!”
“Poor Jo, more like,” Kelli said, with a smirk. “Rufus can take care of himself; he doesn’t need your help.”
“I didn’t say he did! And I know he can take care of himself. He took care of you pretty neatly.”
Kelli made a face. “I was just having some fun,” she said.
“Good for you,” I answered. “I wasn’t. Next time you get it into your head that you’re going to try to seduce Rufus, do it in private, OK?”
“Next time I get it into my head to seduce Rufus,” Kelli grinned, “I’ll let you try. He likes you better than me.”
The thought gave me a little thrill, even as the idea of trying to seduce Rufus gave me serious heart-palpitations, but I was quick to reject the premise. “Only because I’m not grabby. If I hung around his neck and tried to pull him down on top of me, he wouldn’t like me, either.”
Kelli found a curl and started twisting it around her finger. “Do you think he’s gay?”
I stared at her. “Rufus? Are you crazy?”
“He’s never had a steady girlfriend,” Kelli pointed out. “And he’s just so… pretty.”
She said it like it was a bad thing.
“He can’t help the way he looks,” I answered fairly. “And he’s not… OK, yeah, he’s pretty. Sort of. Not in a girly way, though.”
Kelli hesitated for a moment. “I guess not,” she agreed, a little reluctantly. “Although he’s very polite, you know.”
I snorted. “So is Jared. Surely you’re not suggesting that Jared’s gay?”
“Jared plays baseball,” Kelli said. “And soccer. And lacrosse. Rufus plays chess.”
“So he’s smart. Nothing wrong with that.”
“True,” Kelli admitted. “I don’t know, though, Jo… It’s just not natural for a guy to be so uninterested in girls.”
“How do you know he’s uninterested in girls? Just because he isn’t interested in you…”
OK, so it was hard to imagine that a guy wouldn’t be interested in Kelli, especially when she’d just made her own interest so clear, but I just didn’t want to face the possibility that Rufus might be batting for the other team. It would totally ruin my fantasy life. Four years of romantic daydreams would be down the toilet, and any future fantasies would gain an unpleasantly twisted edge, as well. Not to mention that it would completely break my heart.
No sense in mentioning any of those details. “I’m sure he’s just picky. When the right girl comes along, he’ll date, I’m sure.”
“Well, what does he want?” Kelli demanded, insulted. “If he doesn’t want me, and he didn’t want Chelsea… I guess none of us are pretty enough for him!”
I hid a smile. “I guess not. Sorry, Kel.”
“Hunh!” sniffed Kelli.
She went home shortly after that, her nose still out of joint. I couldn’t help but smile, since it was just so classically Kelli, somehow. Her looks and her charm had always gotten her whatever she wanted in life, whether it was boys, extra candy at Halloween, better grades, or something else. All she had to do was widen those already big, blue eyes, bite her lower lip, and coo, “Pretty please…!” and her victim would just melt into a puddle at her feet. It must be galling to have a boy complain that she was grabby, and then, when she… well, grabbed, to have him resist. More power to Rufus for controlling himself, but Kelli must be seriously wondering if she’d lost her touch.
I snickered, until I realized that maybe he’d have acted differently if she hadn’t made her pitch so publicly. One could hardly blame the boy for not wanting to perform like a trained seal. Maybe it was just because I was there, watching, that he’d resisted. Maybe, if it had been just the two of them, he wouldn’t have minded…?
That thought bugged me for a while, I admit. Until I told myself that no, if he’d wanted privacy to fool around with Kelli, all he’d had to do, was offer to drive her home. He hadn’t, so he must not want her. Still, it took cleaning and rearranging the spice rack (in alphabetical order, wiping down every single bottle and glass) before I had calmed down enough to start doing my homework.
Mom and dad came home late again, and of course they came home without Jared. This time I was expecting it, so I didn’t run to the door when I heard the car pull up outside.
“What happened?” I asked instead, calmly, after they’d hung up their jackets and come into the kitchen.
Mom sighed and fell into the chair opposite from me. “The police decided to charge Jared with murder.”
I was prepared, but hearing it out loud was still a fazer. “So what happens now?”
“Bond hearing tomorrow,” dad said. He put a glass of liquid in front of my mom. It was dark amber in color—I’d seen Rufus’s eyes look like that once or twice—and I was pretty sure it was a stiff drink. Or more accurately, I knew it was a drink, and from the color, I thought it might be stiff. Mom sipped on it, and after a moment, a touch of color came into her cheeks. Up until then, she’d looked pretty gray.
Dad sat down next to her and took a gulp from his own glass. “The judge can decide to release Jared on his own recognizance,” he explained. “He can require secured or unsecured bail, or he can refuse bail altogether. If he does, Jared will have to stay in jail until the trial starts.”
“But that can take months!”
Mom nodded. “Owen Stanley will be there tomorrow, to argue that Jared is a minor, and that he needs to be in school, and that he should be released to the custody of his family. There’s a good chance that the judge will agree. It’s cheaper and easier for the county if they don’t have to keep him. But just in case, we’ve been to the bank to see about taking out another loan on the house.”
“Will that be enough?”
Real estate prices in Abingdon may have gone up lately, but had they gone up enough to post bail for murder?
“If it’s not,” mom said, her voice hard, “I’ll figure a way to beg, borrow, or steal the rest. I’m not leaving my boy in there any longer than necessary.”
I swallowed, my eyes on the table. “How is he?”
I felt bad about not having been able to see him. I’d even walked down to the police station in the early evening, but Darrin Moore had been on duty, and he’d told me—with a smirk on his pimply face—that visiting hours were over for the day.
“Not good,” dad said. “Jail’s never a good place to be. Jared’s too young to spend days cooped up in there. And on top of that, he has to deal with the grief over Chelsea’s death. Although the nurse from the school stopped by this afternoon, to see him.”
“Mrs. Connelly-Hawkins? She spoke to me today too. Was she able to help Jared?”
“I don’t know about that,” dad said, “but she spent some time with him, anyway. Tried to get him to talk about his feelings, I guess. That’s what these people do, isn’t it?”
“That’s mostly what she tried to get me to do. Talk about it.” I shrugged. “So unless the judge decides not to grant bail at all, Jared will get to come home tomorrow? Is there any reason why the judge would choose not to grant bail?”
“Owen says he’ll be very surprised,” dad said. “Mostly, that would be in cases where the defendant,” he stumbled a little over the word, “would be a threat to other people. Like a serial killer, or rapist, or sniper. Someone who might kill again. Even if Jared had killed Chelsea—and of course he didn’t—he wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else.”
I nodded. “So chances are he’ll be coming home. Can I come to the bond hearing, or are you going to make me go to school again? And sit there all day and wait, while people point and whisper?”
The folks exchanged a look.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt if she came?” mom said.
Dad nodded. “Was it uncomfortable today, Jo?”
“You saw them this morning, didn’t you?”
“Very few people actually talked to me, but they all talked about me. Or about Jared. And they stared and pointed a lot. But I guess it could have been worse.”
It would probably be worse tomorrow. When word had gotten out that Jared wasn’t just a person of interest to the police, but that he’d actually been charged with the murder. “I’d really like to be there. Not just because it’s uncomfortable at school, but because I want to support Jared. And…”
“Would it be OK if I called Rufus? He was here again this afternoon, and he asked me to have Jared call him. He might want to come tomorrow, as well.”
“Of course,” mom said. “They’ve been best friends since kindergarten; this must be hard for Rufus too. Although he hasn’t been around as much lately, has he?”
“I don’t think he liked Chelsea very much,” I admitted. “He always seemed kind of uncomfortable around her. Even more quiet than usual, and you know how quiet he is.”
“The strong and silent type,” mom nodded, with just a hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth. She knows all about my infatuation with Rufus, although we’ve never actually talked about it.
“You got that right,” I muttered, rubbing my throat unconsciously, where I could still feel his hands from earlier. He’d certainly been stronger than I’d expected. Mom and dad looked politely inquiring, so I went ahead and told them how we’d spent the time after school.
“Just the two of you?” mom asked, with a glance at dad. I shook my head.
“Kelli was here, too. Not that I’m afraid of Rufus. He’s the last person I’d suspect of strangling Chelsea. Why would he?”
“Why would anyone?” dad said.