What we saw at night, p.11
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       What We Saw at Night, p.11
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  There was no way now that I could keep Juliet’s involvement with Blondie to myself. I wanted to tell my mother, and Juliet’s father. But before then, I had to confide in Rob. A very small part of me tried to keep another terrible small part of me from myself: the shameful relief that Juliet’s companion at the Fire Festival wasn’t Rob.

  As soon as Nicola dropped me off, I texted him: HAVE to meet NOW

  I heard a ping almost at the same instant my mail took off.

  11:30 at the cabin just u

  One hour from now. My whole body trembled as I thought of us, alone up there at Ghost Lake.

  THERE WAS POLICE activity just shy of the exit up to the old fire road.

  I so wanted to be with Rob that I would have ignored a forest fire, but something about the wreck drew my attention. I slowed as I drew closer to the swirl of sirens, where the police were setting up barricades. A car had skidded off the road and plunged into the ravine below with such force it left the guardrails gaping like broken teeth. I peered over the precipice. Then I slammed on the brakes.

  Purple.

  At first, all I could process was the color under the glare of floodlights.

  The color of crumpled metal that had once been a convertible, now half-buried in mud. I jumped out of the car so fast I left the door hanging open. I ran toward the first officer I saw, Mike Beaufort. “Whose car is that?” I whispered.

  Officer Mike held my shoulders as I tried to plunge past him. I gaped down at the cluster of firefighters and cops and medics. “Who was it? When did this happen?”

  If I hadn’t decided we should be friends, you’d be alive, Nicola, I thought desperately. It should be me. Every moment, the stain on my life got bigger and darker and now it was rolling and spreading, bulging and scalding other innocent people, beyond Rob and Juliet and me. And it was my fault—

  I stopped. No. That was wrong, and worse, self-pitying. I was innocent. We were all innocent. “It was called in about fifteen minutes ago,” Officer Mike said. “The way it looks, the wheels not spinning, the smell of gas … it’s been a while.”

  “Was somebody chasing her?”

  “Chasing her?” He seemed puzzled. “There are no other tire marks.”

  “That was her mom’s car. She would never have driven it in a crazy way. She was going to drive it to college next year. In Texas.”

  My hands trembled. I reached into my pocket for my cell phone when I felt a pair of arms close around me from behind. I knew who it was even before I spotted the Washington Wizards logo on his jacket. I buried my face in Rob’s shoulder and cried.

  THE NIGHT ENDED in Juliet’s kitchen.

  Rob and I hadn’t even knocked. If Juliet’s mother or father had been home, I don’t know what would have happened. I wish they had been. I wish that Juliet’s kitchen had been an open window onto the whole of Iron Harbor, so that every single person in town could hear me as I burst inside and shouted her name. She was sitting at the table, reading. She jumped to her feet.

  “Allie! What’s wrong?”

  “She’s dead!”

  Rob hesitated in the doorway. Juliet’s eyes flashed to him, then back to me.

  “Who’s dead?” she whispered.

  I swallowed. Yes, Juliet was a very, very good and skilled liar. But now she looked frightened. She really didn’t know anything about the accident.

  “Nicola,” I hissed. “Her car is upside down.…” My throat caught. I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to banish the image from my mind.

  “Allie, please. Slow down.” She reached for me, and then stopped. All three of us stood there in that little dimly lit kitchen, like chess pieces scattered on a forgotten board. Rob withdrew further into the hall. “What are you talking about?” Juliet pressed.

  “Somebody forced her off the bridge. I know it was him! Who is he, Juliet? Please, just tell me who he is.”

  Juliet reached into her backpack and pulled out her phone, dialing her father. Where’s Ginny? I wondered. Then I remembered Juliet’s mom spent four or five days at some harvest fair in California every fall, selling her salsa and relish and hand-loomed ponchos. Normally we made a big deal of sending her off. Normally … but what about the past few months qualified as normal?

  “I’m calling about a car accident,” Juliet stated into her phone. Her forehead creased. I could hear the murmur of her father’s voice—rapid-fire. She nodded. Then she swallowed. Her face whitened. “No … I, um. Allie and Rob are here. They told me. We went to school with her.” Juliet paused and then her face clenched. “I’m sorry you have to, Daddy. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll see you in a bit.”

  I felt sick. Juliet’s father always said there was nothing he hated about his job except having to walk up to a door where the people inside were having the last good few minutes of their entire lives. It wasn’t just XP that claimed lives in Iron Harbor. Kids started drinking in sixth grade and driving at thirteen. Accidents weren’t unheard of or even uncommon, although I knew of only two kids who had been killed—two boys the summer after my freshman year.

  Juliet turned to me and opened her arms. Before I even knew what I was doing, I fell into them. “Hush, my Bear,” she soothed, stroking my hair. “I’m so sorry. I know you were friends.…”

  Just as quickly, I began to struggle out of Juliet’s grasp. “Your Bear?” I snapped. “You’re goddamned right Nicola and I were friends. And if you care so much, why have you been lying to me? To us? Who is he? Why were you with him tonight?”

  She tried to hold my arms. “He didn’t have anything to do with Nicola Burns.” There was fear in her eyes again, fear I hadn’t seen since her ski accident. “Allie, do you know how much I’ve missed you? How much we both have?” She jerked her head towards Rob. “Is this what it takes for you to come to me?”

  “No. Stop it. Stop lying. You know that he tried to kill us, the night I broke my arm. In the parking lot in Duluth.”

  “No,” she said, sounding not just adult, but also old and vastly tired—like a grandmother. “No, that’s not true. That was a mistake.”

  “A mistake?”

  “This is all a mistake. It’s awful, but not like you think.”

  “He killed Nicola tonight, right?” I nearly shouted. “Isn’t that what your dad just told you? That she’s dead?”

  Juliet didn’t answer. Her lips quivered.

  “Right. Dead. All because of me. Because he knows I know! And I saw you with him tonight! It wouldn’t matter to him who she was. It was … it must be some kind of warning. He wanted to get to me because I’m the only one who saw him with the girl he killed, that night at Tabor Oaks.”

  She lowered her gaze. “I don’t know what you saw that night, Allie.”

  “Don’t say that! Don’t say that anymore! You both know that I saw him that night with a dead girl. Her face was covered with bruises. She was gray, Juliet. If you had seen her, you wouldn’t be pretending it was all some kind of dream.” I turned to Rob. “Tell her! Tell her!”

  “I don’t know what to tell her,” he said. “I absolutely believe you. And after what just happened to Nicola, I want to believe you more. But … I didn’t see anything, either. And neither did the police. Not that night.”

  Hot tears stung my eyes again. “So you think I’m nuts, too.”

  “Not at all. Not even a little.”

  I turned back to Juliet. “Please. Please if you care at all, tell me the truth.”

  She kept shaking her head, her eyes flickering over me—as if weighing her options. Would she still lamely attempt to make it seem that Blondie never existed, or, if he did, that she wasn’t connected to him in some weird way? Would she insist that her connection with him had nothing to do with how the three of us fell apart? Let her try, I thought. I wasn’t going to let Juliet make this into a hallucination. My life had become crazy, but I wasn’t crazy. I had reached outside the sanctum of the three of us and touched another world, and been touched by it. In some pretty
essential ways, in a very short time, I was a different girl. I wasn’t willing to be controlled by Juliet for the privilege of her willful, intense, (and yes) sweet friendship.

  “Okay,” she said. “Okay, Allie-Bear. Do you want to know? Do you want to know things you’ll wish you didn’t know?”

  Very suddenly, I was afraid. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before to fear Juliet. Maybe because our history together was lifelong, or because even tonight, her sadness was so convincing. Yet it was increasingly clear that if she had been trying to confuse me, she had nothing to lose. My fists clenched at my sides. “Admit that he exists and that you know he tried to kill me.”

  “He exists, but he didn’t try to kill you.” Juliet sat down hard on the kitchen chair. “I think … or I believe … I have to believe that he just tried to scare you. I’m sorry Allie. You’re my heart. You’re my best friend. I would never be part of anything that would hurt you.”

  “Who was in the car with him?”

  “Me.”

  “So at least you’re telling the truth now. And you say he didn’t try to hurt me. Let me ask you again … Juliet, are you insane?”

  “He was trying to scare me, spinning out of the garage. Not you or Rob—me.” Juliet smiled and shrugged, but her face was pinched and closed, and she no longer looked like a kid, but like a crone. “It’s this thing he does. It wasn’t even bad that night. He off-roads and spins his car on the ice—”

  “Nothing you’re saying makes any sense,” I interrupted. “But say I give you all that. Even if he just happened to be in Duluth with you in the same place that Rob and I had picked to do a course—”

  “I knew about what you guys were doing,” she snapped. “I wanted to see that. I wanted to show him. He drove me. But believe me, we had no idea we scared Rob so much or what happened to you after the fact.”

  “It didn’t occur to you to apologize?” I said, nearly spitting. “For breaking my arm?”

  She stared at the floor. “I was so ashamed. And I didn’t want to tell you.”

  “So, okay. This guy, driving Dr. Stephen’s car, tries to scare you and ends up nearly killing Rob and me … and you don’t even bother to introduce him to us so he can apologize. I could call your father right now and have him brought up on charges. You know that, right? You’re lying out of your ass right now, but I don’t even care. Let’s say all of your bullshit was true. How do you explain those girls in the apartment?”

  For the first time all night, Juliet looked me straight in the eye. “The girl I saw is fine. And yes, he was the guy with her. But I never saw him with anyone else. I’ve known him a long time and he’s never lied to me.”

  “You’re crazy. You think I’m lying about something like that.”

  “I’m not sure what you saw. Neither is Rob. Neither is my dad. He thinks you might have imagined it. Especially after what happened at Tabor Oaks, when you were babysitting.”

  I’d all but forgotten that Rob was there, patiently standing near the door, listening to us go at it. The revelation hit me, vivid and terrifying: Juliet knew that I’d called the police the night I’d gone out to investigate the trapped door in the lawn. And she’d decided to tell Rob about it, spinning the whole thing as if I had gone mental. Juliet had decided to sell Rob a sack of garbage, and he’d made the purchase, and he was still halfway lapping it up. That’s why he hadn’t called all summer. That’s why he’d been spending so much time with her. That’s why they’d both avoided me after I broke my arm. I was suddenly “the crazy friend.” She’d actually succeeded in making Rob doubt the evidence of his own senses. She was a snake charmer. No, she was worse. She was a stranger. In that moment, I truly didn’t have any idea who Juliet Sirocco was.

  “Allie?” she murmured, “do you really think I’m capable of hanging out with somebody who would do something so horrible?”

  I stood there for a moment. “No. Well, I don’t know. He nearly killed Rob and me; you’ve just admitted as much. Basically, you’re telling me that there’s a key to the lock and I can’t even see the door, Juliet. That’s not fair.”

  She nodded. “I know.”

  “And right now, I am sick to my stomach. I need to call my mom.”

  “Go ahead,” she said.

  Rob stepped forward. “I’m gonna go home. Allie … call me later, okay?”

  I nodded.

  “Promise?”

  “I promise.”

  He didn’t even glance in Juliet’s direction. “Bye,” he said.

  The front door slammed. Seconds later, the Jeep’s engine sputtered to life. There was a thud of tires on the bumpy road outside, and the dull roar faded into the night. Before Juliet could say a word, I dialed home. Angela answered, crying. It all came out in a frantic jumble: Mrs. Staples was with her at our house, because Mom had gone into work in the ER. They were short-handed and a girl from town had been in a car wreck, and she was dead, and they were still getting the dead girl out of the car but the girl’s mother accidentally took too many pills when she heard the news.…

  “Is Nicola’s mother okay?” I asked. The words sounded hollow in my ears, as if someone else had spoken them.

  “Yeah, I think so, but Mom just called,” Angela said, hiccoughing through her sob. “She’ll be home soon. I wish you would come home now. She said to tell you if you called.”

  I swallowed. “I’m at Juliet’s. That girl was my … she was our friend.”

  “Can you come home now?” Angie pleaded.

  “I’m going to stay at Juliet’s. Just for a while—”

  “I’m scared you’ll get killed in an accident.”

  “I won’t. I promise I won’t, Angie. I would never leave you.”

  “Okay. Will you tell Juliet hi?”

  “I’ll … bye, Angie. I’ll be home soon.”

  I shoved the phone back into my pocket. I felt even sicker. I had no idea what to say. One life lost; another in danger. Because of me. Because of him.

  “You and Rob,” Juliet said, catching me off guard. “Do you love Rob?”

  “Obviously,” I said. Reacting to her unspoken follow-up, I added, “You’re the one who’s been hanging out with him.”

  Juliet sighed again, once more sounding old and defeated. She slumped back down at the kitchen table.

  “Allie, I want you to hear me right now. I know you’re shaken up. You just told Angie you’d never leave her. But you’re going to leave her. We’re all going to leave our families. We’re trapped until then, having blood drawn and giving pinch biopsies and having moles removed and waiting to die, like monkeys in cages.”

  Now I really was frightened. I’d never heard Juliet talk like this. For a moment, I even forgot about Nicola. “The research with the retroviruses repairing the DNA—”

  “Isn’t going to happen for us,” Juliet said.

  “You don’t know that. My mother says it’s on the horizon.”

  “She’s your mother, Allie. That’s what she wants to believe.”

  I shook my head, mostly for myself. “Juliet, think about what DNA research has changed, in just our parents’ lifetimes. There are people who were executed for crimes they didn’t commit before DNA testing. There are people who got nailed for murder who would have gotten away with it.…” I stopped.

  “What?” Juliet said.

  I know what I’m going to do with my life. It was an epiphany, the kind only a horrible trauma can induce. I wasn’t going to be the female David Belle. No, I was going to stick a pin through insects like Blondie with their own blood and tissue, insects that sucked the life out of friends and turned them into zombies. At work in the dark of a lab, I could wield a sword like Joan of Arc in the sunlight. I had never thought much in terms of my destiny as an adult. It wasn’t territory where I was comfortable going. XP kids can think all they want about college online or in person, but usually, the reality is they’re going to grow up single and kind of disabled.

  I decided right then that I
was not. I had reentered my love of the natural world. And I was going to study it, beyond college. I was going to study Biology first, and Criminal Justice, then Forensics.… People like Blondie would fear me, their time as predators like an hourglass slowly emptying, one they could not dislodge or turn over.

  “Juliet, if I am your best friend, you owe me,” I said, returning to the moment. “You owe it to me to tell me everything.”

  “I can’t.”

  “Then I’m not really your friend.”

  “No, really, you are. It’s because I love you that I can’t tell you.” She stood again and began to tie up her hair in a bun. I was exhausted, by the events of the night, and by the time I’d spent here. I looked at the clock, and it was already past two. What time had it been when I’d arrived? All I wanted was to sleep.

  With her hands fiddling with her hair, she unintentionally bared her mid-riff. I glimpsed her tattoo.

  “The ‘Great and Terrible’ Juliet Sirocco,” I muttered.

  Her hands abruptly fell to her sides, as if I’d caught her stealing something. “If I tell you something, you have to swear to God that you won’t ever tell a living person, not even Rob. Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, and if you think it’s for my safety. I get to decide that.”

  Slowly, I nodded. “What are you talking about?”

  Juliet raised her eyebrows. “Say it. Swear it.”

  “I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “Not even Rob.”

  “G.T.”

  “What about it?”

  “It represents … my ticket out of here,” Juliet said.

  “A person? A drug? Are you talking about a way to end your life, Juliet? You said it meant the great and terrible.”

  “It does, sort of.”

  “But not completely.”

  “No. Not completely. And that’s all I can tell you right now.”

  When I got home that night, I found something tucked in my backpack: her little stuffed penguin on skis. Juliet still slept with it even when she came to my house. It was the closest thing to a security blanket she’d ever admit holding onto. (Not surprisingly, she’d named him “Penguin.”) He smelled of the only cologne Juliet ever wore, Cartier de Lune. She’d never parted with him.

 
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