What we saw at night, p.16
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       What We Saw at Night, p.16

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  Casually but elaborately, as I passed through the kitchen from the shower, I let the scholarship letter drop on the counter where my mom was chopping vegetables. When I came back out, fifteen minutes later, she was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Jackie Kim is not easy to tears.

  “Onions?” I joked.

  “No, age. Being old enough to have a college kid rocks my world.”

  “Time for that Ethiopian baby, huh, Jack-Jack?”

  “Alexis,” she said. Our eyes met. For the first time, my mother had acknowledged that I actually might go away at some time, live apart from her, have a life of my own. “I’m proud of you.”

  “I think my porcelain skin tone had something to do with it,” I said.

  “Stop!” She swept me into a hug. “Let me enjoy this moment.”

  “Okay,” I said. I shut my eyes, letting myself enjoy the moment, too.

  “I’m glad you’re not going away right now, though.”

  “I know,” I said, not quite agreeing. Weturned our focus to the stir-fry.

  Angie burst in with plans for her Halloween costume. Naturally, she was going to be David Belle, which meant she would look like a guy in a T-shirt. I texted Juliet and Rob, both of whom instantly texted back LOL!!!! and insisted on helping her prepare. And that set the tone for the next few weeks. The tres compadres, somehow united again.

  IN A PERVERSE way, that build-up to Halloween was a sort of premonition of longing for the past, the kind I’d first understood trapped under the car with Rob. I’d spent so much time worrying about the future I’d rarely focused on the preciousness of now. I’d made a very conscious decision not to discuss Garrett Tabor with Juliet anymore until she was ready. And I let Rob know that I wanted to cool it a little on the intimacy front.

  Naturally, he thought it was because I was scared of losing him when I went to John Jay next year. He was right, but it was more than that. I couldn’t be with him until the Garrett Tabor issue had resolved itself completely, until I knew for certain that Juliet would be all right. And Rob, being the person that he was, buried himself in creating a tribute video for Mrs. Burns in honor of Nicola, cobbled together from the existing footage that we had. He never heard if she received it; she never thanked him. But it didn’t matter. She was alive. She was surviving, for now.

  When the three of us were together at night with Angela, we were one again. Or at least we were one in playing our respective roles. But it was enough. All the annoying and hideous things that Angela did suddenly made me laugh. In them, I could see me and Juliet—one minute jumping out of trees, the next minute threatening to chop off her hair so she looked “more like the King of Parkour,” and another minute talking back to Jack-Jack because Mom wouldn’t allow her to trick-or-treat past ten at night.

  The morning of October 31st, maybe an hour before dawn, Juliet reached into her pocket and handed me an old picture of us in our Halloween costumes: me as her penguin (yes, I loved her so much that I dressed as her stuffed animal) and Juliet wearing oversized ruby slippers, holding hands, knowing that trick-or-treating would be limited to a few homes who stayed up late just for us. Beneath it was a scribbled quote from Henry David Thoreau. I have traveled a great deal in Concord.

  Juliet missed nothing; she just didn’t tell everything she knew.

  “Thanks,” I murmured.

  “Can I stay over?” she asked quickly. Angie and Mom had been asleep since midnight. Rob was pulling out of our driveway. I nodded.

  She borrowed a pair of pj’s. We slipped under the sheets, huddled on one side of my big bed, as we’d done hundreds of times before.

  I waited for her to speak.

  “That’s really cool you got into college,” she said. “I’m happy for you.”

  “Yeah … I’ve already started, in a way.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Reading,” I said. “And writing. Just to get a head start. I might try to graduate in December. I have the credits.”

  I debated whether or not to tell her more. Although some assignments were ordinary, others were instantly fascinating and demanding. One instructed us on the fundamentals of criminal research, the ways that experts used field notes and different kinds of observation to tighten the loop on criminals. Another discussed the ways in which traditional constants of human nature and behavior, in the anthropological sense, were some of the most reliable tools in modern criminal investigation.

  In the past two weeks, I’d learned one fundamental lesson: the world changed, technology changed, but people did not.

  I discovered that I was born to love this discipline. Seriously. All I lacked was the ability to go outside. But my freshman-advisor-to-be, Professor Barry Yashida, even wrote me a personal note. Not every investigator works in an urban lab, he assured me. One of his students was confined to a wheelchair and a computer speaking board by cerebral palsy, and, though she never left the first floor of her house, she was a full-time, respected LAPD officer in their major crimes unit. I didn’t think I would ever have that kind of future. But it was encouraging to hear. I would begin online in January.

  Meanwhile, I learned more than I ever wanted to about serial killers, even after my brief summer research. For instance: Bellevue, Washington, seems be serial killer central. You would probably find half the missing persons in America, there or at least their skulls. Also, until they fell apart, serial killers compartmentalized. In their “professional” lives, they took strays, prostitutes and addicts and homeless women and runaways: the earth’s restless whose last known address was a street corner. Tony Costa, who cut up girls and buried them in the woods on Cape Cod, had at least two wives … and three kids. Charles Manson was expert at spotting needy throw-away girls. But for every rule there was also an exception. For instance, Ted Bundy was different: his victims weren’t the lost. They were nurses and university students and school kids. He could look preppy and speak with intelligence. People trusted him.

  People trusted Garrett Tabor, a doctor’s son, an inspiration to young athletes.

  I’d also started the readings for a psychology class that explored masculinity in American culture. They were drawn from fiction and non-fiction as well as scientific studies. Each text, in its own way, considered what it means to be an American man and how women and their thinking influenced the idea of maleness. One of the sections touched on sexual deviance, and the prevailing theories of why rape and sexual battery, or any kind of battery, had nothing to do with masculinity. Yet somehow they were almost exclusively an enterprise of men rather than women, and directed at women and children. Myths about the ways that a woman’s behavior “provoked” men to sexual frenzy were just that, although the ardent sexualizing of pre-adolescent female children was no help. Most rape victims were not glamour queens. They were helpless or believing, friendless or unguarded.

  One observation throughout the literature troubled me in particular. Almost always, within twenty-four hours before a murder, something had happened to upset these predators. Some incident affected them profoundly and emotionally, the kind of thing that screws up your radar. If your ability to sense things that are out of whack is your greatest camouflage, then distress strips it away and exposes you. Preoccupied people are people at risk. They wreck their cars. They wreck their lives. And those who hunt predators know exactly how to spot them.…

  “Allie-Bear?” Juliet prompted in the charged stillness. “You were saying?”

  I forced a laugh. “Right. Like I was saying: college but not college. All the work and none of the perks. No gorgeous guys and sororities and that stuff. Not yet.”

  “You wouldn’t do that shit if you could, Allie.”

  “But I want the chance to refuse.”

  “Why’d you choose geek college then?”

  “Geek college?”

  “Choose to go to school for four years to be a little lab mouse comparing two pubic hairs under a microscope?”

  “Because it matters,” I said. “
Two hairs can mean the different between a bad guy getting caught or getting the chance to do it again.”

  Silence dropped like a stone between us.

  “Promise me you’ll never see him again, Juliet,” I whispered.

  “I … can’t promise anything.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I know you could never understand. He wouldn’t have gotten to you. You’re different.”

  “I would have been too afraid. You’ve never been afraid.”

  “No, you have common sense. You do. All I’ve ever been afraid of is missing out on something. You know, of dying.”

  “Without ever having really lived,” I finished. “Juliet, you’re living now. You’re being brave to shut him out. Especially if he really is dangerous.”

  “My father’s the sheriff,” Juliet said, almost automatically.

  “His father’s the freaking medical examiner,” I snapped back.

  “Exactly,” she said, her voice suddenly cold. “Who could be better at making every trace of somebody disappear?”

  I stifled a gasp. Not for nothing was Juliet a detective’s daughter. The idea of gentle Dr. Stephen, with his awkwardness and golf ties, colluding with his son in a girl’s murder and the accidental death of a teenager, was so far beyond the level of possible that not even I could boulder up there. But maybe that was a mistake. Juliet always pushed farther. That was her strength.

  For maybe another hour, I lay there until I noticed that Juliet’s breathing had grown loud and steady. I pivoted to glance at her in the moonlight. She was asleep. Penguin was tucked between her right shoulder and her head. The G.T. tattoo poked out from beneath the bottom of her borrowed pajama shirt, gently rising and falling with her breath. Hatred like venom seeped outward from my stomach.

  I won’t let you hurt her anymore, I thought.

  There was no way I could sleep, so I decided to text Rob. When I fumbled for the phone in my jeans, I saw that there was a text waiting for me. From BLOCKED.

  Tonight, 11 p.m. Nicola Burns’s grave. To clear the air. Just you. You’re smart enough to keep this to yourself.

  Funny: last Halloween, I’d visited the cemetery, too. Only then, I’d been the one pulling the strings, setting up the villain to pay for what he’d done to Juliet. Amazing that I’d even harbored such ill will toward Henry LeBecque. He may have been a weenie, but he was no monster. He was a lost and confused kid. He was even honest. Instead of pushing him into an open grave and giggling at the thought that he might have pissed himself, I should have been trying to repair his relationship with Juliet.

  Nicola’s grave was the freshest in the lot, of course. It already looked like one of those graves you see on the news: festooned with flowers (some wilted, some still blooming) and photos and empty bottles and other detritus of a life snuffed out, items that only assume value and meaning when one of their shared possessors is no longer there to possess. I kept spinning in circles, partially to keep warm, but partially so Garrett Tabor wouldn’t be able to sneak up on me.

  I wasn’t all that scared, though. The whole night had been such a royal fiasco that I was too ashamed to be scared.

  First, neither Angie nor my mother could figure out why I didn’t want to go trick-or-treating with them. I feigned exhaustion (who wants to argue with an XP kid over that) and it helped that I’d had a fight with Rob. Or what they’d perceived as a fight.

  As soon as the sun had safely set, he’d texted me that he wanted to show me a surprise. I told him I couldn’t. Then he texted SCREW THE SURPRISE and sent a series of photos of the cabin up by Ghost Lake. He and his dad had renovated it. I got the full-on real estate section treatment, a slideshow tour of our new romantic getaway: new glass windows, a little electric generator for lights and heat, a queen-sized bunk built from natural logs into one wall, piled with a thick mattress and pillows and a gigantic patchwork quilt. There was a log table, stools and shelves that held canned foods and candles. And of course, workout equipment for Parkour.

  We were only seventeen. Rob’s dad had helped his son create a place of our own.

  First I burst into tears. Then I called him and told him I had a mission, just tonight, but that I loved him and our cabin like crazy. He asked if it had anything to do with Juliet. I told him I couldn’t tell him. “So it does,” he said.

  Only then did I notice Angie and Mom standing at the bottom of the stairs, Angie all decked out like David Belle—which just made me cry again. Whatever. The (feigned, or not) adolescent freak-out had done its job. Everybody left me alone, and I was able to sneak off in the minivan.

  I glanced at my phone, half-praying Rob would call. Or my mom. Or Juliet. It was already 11:15. Maybe.…

  My ears perked up. There was a distant rustle in the cemetery’s blanket of autumn leaves. A moment later, he swept into view. He didn’t look remotely threatening. He simply plodded with his head down, his hands jammed in his coat pockets, his icy breath producing little moonlit clouds.

  Crunch, crunch, crunch went his boots. I thought of the tide. Now? Now?

  “Thanks for coming, Allie,” he said, keeping his distance.

  I nodded. It was the first time I’d heard him speak. His voice was measured, slightly more high-pitched than his relatives, but resonant. Even at night, I could see now that he was not an exact clone of his cousin, Tim Tabor. His face was thinner, almost gaunt. His shoulders were broader. His hair was more closely cropped.

  “What do you want?” I demanded.

  “For starters, I want you to know that I didn’t hurt Nicola. I feel terrible about it. I feel terrible about what happened to you and your friend back in Duluth. I was joy-riding. I’m a nurse, Allie. I should have stopped and checked on you.… That was just stupid. I just didn’t want you to drive Juliet away from me.”

  I’d planned for a quick getaway. My anxiety fueled my focus, just like in Parkour. My mom’s minivan was parked at the opposite end of the cemetery, at the back entrance. He’d come the way I’d expected, through the front, which meant that if I suddenly turned and ran, it was a straight shot past Nicola’s grave and downhill and to my car. I’d even prepared a note on my computer, so that if anything happened to me, Juliet’s dad would find it. Worst case: I would phone Officer Sirocco if I had to escape. His number was cued up. It was just a matter of touching the screen.

  “I don’t believe you,” I forced myself to answer. “I saw what you did at the apartment. I saw those girls!”

  “There’s only one girl, Allie, and you can see her anytime you like. She lives in Burnt Bluff. I can call her and you can talk to her.” He reached into his pocket (I flinched) and extended his phone. He clicked the speaker button. I could hear a ring tone.

  Then a woman’s voice: “Gary? Is that you?”

  “What does that prove?” I shouted.

  Garrett Tabor whispered, “I’ll call you later, sweetie,” then shut the phone.

  “That could be Gina. Or Dr. Wilenbrand. That could be anyone but Juliet.”

  He sat down on a stone bench. Slowly, he ran his fingers through his hair and seemed to massage his forehead. “I don’t expect you to understand. I love her.”

  “Her? The woman you just called sweetie?”

  “Juliet.”

  “You love her? You’re old enough to be her father. You tried to ruin her. You tried to make her into your own personal slave. Like that woman you just called.”

  His face changed then, like ice melting in a hot pan. All the fake sincerity slipped and there again was the empty face behind the balcony glass. I backed towards Nicola’s grave. My fingers moistened. The phone slipped to the bottom of my pocket. “I’m … I’m going to be a criminal justice student,” I said, and the words sounded ridiculous in my own ears. “I know about hair and fiber evidence and other evidence, too.”

  He smiled and stood. “That’s great. So do I. Raised on it, you could say. But we weren’t talking about a crime, because none has been committed.”

  “You stole the battery from R
ob’s phone,” I said. I forced myself to meet his unreadable gaze. “You stalked two kids and jeopardized their lives.”

  “You can believe all you want to believe, Allie,” he said. His voice remained a polite monotone, a stark contrast to my scratchy quaver. “But no one is supposed to use a public park as a private playgound.”

  I shuddered. My God. He really was there. He really did do it.

  Without thinking, I whirled and sprinted toward the minivan. He was faster than I imagined he would be, but he gave up the chase fast. He was smart, no doubt about it. I was sweating as I vaulted over graves and sidestepped tombs. In seconds, I was at the back lot, the minivan eerily vulnerable there in the gravel, alone. My fingers shook nearly uncontrollably. I pressed the unlock button and slammed the door shut and jammed the key in the ignition and struggled to start the goddamn car—

  I held my breath. He was probably revving up his own car right now. I had to get home. I had to put distance between him and me. I jammed my foot on the gas. At the mouth of the highway, I stopped, forcing myself to breathe again. Checking to make sure that I had enough gas and that the doors of the car were all locked, I heard a car motor. Shit. His headlights swept through the trees.

  As I swung out onto the highway, only three miles from my own driveway, the Alfa Romeo fishtailed out from the path behind me

  What if I led Garrett Tabor to my house, where Angela and my mother were getting ready for bed? Now was the time to call Juliet’s dad. Why hadn’t I called him earlier? When I frantically snatched for my phone, it bobbled in my hand and it dropped to the passenger seat, vanishing on the floorboards. Stupid, stupid, stupid.… The headlights bore down upon me in my rearview.

  No choice but to gun for downtown and scream for help. Then I saw a light. Of course. Thank God. Gitchee Pizza.

  Throwing the car into park, I leaped out, and grabbed the handle of the glass door, shouting, “Gideon!”

  The doors were locked.

  The red convertible screeched to a halt beside me. Garrett Tabor jumped out. I ran down the alley for the fire escape, muscling up onto the lower rung and tucking my feet as he lunged for my legs. I darted up the ladder to the roof. If only I had my headlamp.…

 
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