St. Valentine’s Day Dance 1987
St. Elizabeth’s High School
What the hell did she want from him?
Jake Marcott hated to think what her plans might be. Standing in the near-freezing night air, he braced himself for whatever demands she was certain to make.
He didn’t know whether he loved her or hated her.
He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers, residual effects from the car accident that had left his best friend dead and nearly taken his own life.
God, he missed that crazy son of a bitch. Things would have turned out so differently if Ian hadn’t been thrown through the windshield. If his goddamned neck hadn’t been broken. Shit! The crash and spray of glass, the screech of tires, the groan of metal twisting and splitting still echoed through Jake’s brain. Ian’s face, freckled from too much sun floated into Jake’s mind for just a second, before Jake pushed it quickly away. Too many times he’d wondered what would have happened if the tables had been turned, if Ian were still alive and he had been the one to die.
It messed him up to think about it.
Everything seemed washed out and pale now . . . the joy bled from it.
He drew hard on his cigarette and thought about the tranquilizers in his pockets, the prescription that Doc Flanders just kept refilling, barely asking any questions, somehow knowing how deep Jake’s pain was, that the little white tablets were a small, nearly useless balm for the ache splitting his soul.
Get over it, Marcott, he told himself and was pissed that he was here in his damned tuxedo, missing the dance and waiting for her. When would he ever learn?
Clearing his throat, he looked around at this, the eeriest part of St. Elizabeth’s campus.
Why this lame, clandestine meeting?
Because she’s a psycho. You know it. You’ve always known it.
Jake took a drag from his cigarette and let smoke stream from his nostrils in the cold night air. He shoved a hand through his hair and glared up at the night-dark heavens. A few stars were visible, not that he cared. He was sick of dealing with the fallout from the accident, his woman problems, and the whole damned world. Eighteen-fucking-years old and he sometimes felt that his life was a waste.
So where was she?
He glanced around and wondered if she’d show.
Tired of waiting, he tossed what was left of his Marlboro into the darkness, watching the red ember arc, then sizzle and die on the frosty grass. He glanced up at the full moon lying low in the sky and heard the thrum of a bass guitar throb through the hills. Edgy, his nerves strung tight as the piano wires inside his grandmother’s old upright, he paced back and forth in front of the oak tree just as he’d been told. Hidden deep in the maze of hedges, the leafless oak seemed to shiver in the wind, brittle branches reaching upward, like skeletal arms scraping the sky.
From deep in the maze he was invisible to anyone. Even a crafty old nun, peering out of her third-story window in the hundred-year-old brick building guarding the acres of this campus, couldn’t see him here.
The place gave him a bad case of the creeps. Throughout the rounded corners and dead ends of the lush labyrinth, benches, fountains and statues and been placed. Beneath the oak a sculpture of the Madonna stared down beneficently. Arms upraised, she stood silent, white as bleached bones, and was surrounded by topiary cut into the shapes of dark creatures that, tonight, seemed sculpted by the devil.
Oh, for Christ’s sake, it’s just plants, Marcott. Nothin’ more.
Angrier by the minute, he glanced at digital readout of his watch.
She was late. Nearly ten minutes late. So he’d give her another five and then he was gone . . . a ghost.
Besides, he had more important things to do that to waste time on her.
He whipped around, toward the sound of a twig breaking.
He saw no one.
“Hey, I’m here,” he said in his normal voice.
Nothing . . . no response, just the far away thrum of music and laughter and the soft whisper of the wind.
A stealthy footstep.
The hairs on his nape lifted.
Surely it was she.
“‘Bout time you showed up,” he said to the inky darkness, his heart pounding a little. “I was about to give up on you.”
Again, she didn’t say a word.
Christ, what was the problem with her?
Always playing these damn head games.
At that thought, he smiled . . . maybe that’s what she wanted. For him to chase her down. Find her in this maze of clipped shrubbery.
He heard the sound of a footstep again. Closer now. And something else . . . breathing.
Oh, she was close . . .
“I know you’re there,” he whispered.
He couldn’t help the smile that threatened his lips.
Still, she didn’t respond.
All the better.
“Have it your way,” he said . . . “I’ll find you.”
His eyes narrowed in the night and he noticed a dark shape move a bit . . . away from the twisted shadows of the topiary only to fade away again.
So this is what she wanted.
A thrill of anticipation sang through his brain. His blood heated.
Jake Marcott could never back away from a challenge.
Where the hell was Jake?
He’d been gone for over ten minutes and Kristen had the first worrisome sensation that she’d been ditched. At the high school dance. By her new boyfriend. On the two-month anniversary of when they’d started dating. It was like the lyrics of some bad 1950’s song.
Don’t panic, he said he’d be right back. Just find him, she told herself.
Jake was easy to spot. At six-four, he stood half a head taller than most of the boys and a foot above a lot of the girls, so why couldn’t she spot him? “Where are you Jake?” she muttered to herself. Tall and lean, with wide shoulders, thick brown hair and an almost shy smile that had caused many a girl’s heart to beat triple time, Jake Marcott was definitely a hunk.
Kristen scanned the packed gym, her gaze skating over the knots of students clustered in the corners and crannies of the old gym. A few couples were dancing beneath a canopy of twinkling lights strung from the ancient rafters. Music thrummed, drowning out most conversation and a fog machine, supplied by the DJ, gave the old building a creepy, intimate ambiance. It was late, nearly eleven, and most of the guys had ditched their ties and jackets, but the girls were still dressed in gowns of silk, satin, lace and chiffon, some sophisticated and sleek; some outrageously frilly, but all far more interesting than the stupid uniforms they wore daily to this, the last all-girls Catholic school in Portland.
Next year St. Lizzy’s, the last bastion of separation and education by sex would, like its brother and sister schools, fall to the sword of coed classes, a non-uniform dress code and more lay teachers than nuns. Kristen’s senior class was, thankfully, the last of its traditional, and in Kristen’s estimation, archaic kind. There was even talk of updating the social curriculum enough that the St. Valentine’s Day dance wouldn’t be held in the creaky old gym where it had been for nearly seventy years, but could conceivable be hosted someplace way cooler, like the Portland Art Museum or on one of the old stern wheelers that churned their way up and down the Willamette River, or one of turn-of-the-century hotel ballrooms around Portland, anywhere but in this dingy, old gymnasium.
“Hey! Kris!” a female voice yelled over the din, just as a song ended.
Kristen turned to spy Mandy Kim, her jet black hair coiled high onto her head, hurrying through the throng. Petite and athletic, she was weaving her way toward her through the knots of couples. Inwardly Kristen groaned. Mandy was one of those kind of friends who was quick to point out any flaw in others. An A student who was captain of the soccer team, president of Honor Society, and had already been accepted by Stanford, Mandy could be a real pain. Tonight she was dressed in a sleek black gown that exposed enough of her back to give Sister Mary Michael conniptions. “Where’s Jake?”
If only I knew. “Outside, I think,” she said, noticing that Mandy’s date, a tall, handsome Asian kid with a stare so unblinking Kristen was certain he was wearing contacts, stood right behind Mandy, looking over her head, one hand cupped over her shoulder as if he were navigating her.
“Oh.” Mandy turned her head to look up at her date. “You know Boyd.”
Boyd mumbled a greeting, but his attention seemed keyed on the spot where the tips of his fingers scraped the smooth skin of Mandy’s nape. His last name was Song and he was forever getting teased about his name . . . Boyd Song, or Bird Song, Birdie and finally Big Bird.
“Maybe Jake’s with Nick or Dean,” Mandy went on, mentioning Jake’s two best friends who also attended Western Catholic, an all boy’s school and the counterpart to St. Elizabeth’s. “You know, I saw them all talking a while ago, near the back doors.” She leaned closer, as if to whisper the darkest of secrets. “Hey, did you see who Bella brought?” Mandy’s dark eyes deepened. “Wyatt Goddard! Remember? He’s been kicked out of about a million schools, including St. Ignatius and Western. Goes to Washington now and Boyd says he’s been suspended twice this year. Twice.” She said it in disbelief and yet there was the tiniest trace of admiration in her voice for something that frightened but fascinated her. Boyd nodded. “I’m surprised he was allowed into the dance,” Mandy went on conspiratorially. “What’s Bella thinking?”
Who cares? Kristen thought, but kept her opinion to herself, her eyes searching the crowd for any sign of Jake while Mandy rambled on and on about the couples on the dance floor.
Kristen just needed to find Jake.
Boyd kept rubbing Mandy’s shoulder, gently kneading her skin. Obviously he was hoping to turn her on as, no doubt, he was getting off on the simple touch. Mandy didn’t act as if she noticed. “So Jake just took off? I wonder if he was looking for Lindsay . . . I saw them talking a while ago, out in the hallway,” she said, motioning to the gym’s wide double doors that were surrounded by red and white helium-filled balloons and had been forced open.
“I think he wanted to smoke. Outside.”
Mandy’s eyebrows lifted and there was a bit of a gleam to her gaze, the barest of a disbelieving smile touching her glossed lips. “Sure.”
Boyd kept on rubbing, his eyes even more glazed. Geez, he was really into it. Kristen didn’t dare let her eyes drop for fear she might see evidence of his enjoyment pressing hard against his rented tuxedo pants.
The disc jockey spun What’s Love Got To Do With it by Tina Turner and Mandy, grabbing Boyd’s hand and breaking his trance, headed for the dance floor.
Kristen was gratefully alone again.
And still no sign of Jake.
Well, crap. Jake had been gone the better part of half an hour and Kristen wasn’t the type of girl to stand in a corner and wait. She tried to fight the paranoia that he’d taken off on her, that he’d either hooked up with his ex-girlfriend Lindsay, or that he’d ditched her for a chance to get high with his friends.
Forcing a smile she didn’t feel, she eased her way through the tangle of students, recognizing familiar faces, seeing a few new ones but unable in the semi-dark room to discern who went to St. Elizabeth’s, Western Catholic or Washington. Nor did she care.
She walked past a chaperone in a pink suit and stepped into the cold night through an exterior door.
Lindsay Farrell, her dark hair twisted atop her head, her face seeming wan in the bluish illumination from a security lamp mounted high overhead, nearly ran into Kristen. “Oh, sorry,” she whispered and then recognizing her friend stopped short. Lindsay’s ice blue dress was sleeveless, her arms bare and she crossed them over her chest, warding off the chill of winter. “It’s freezing out here,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “Let’s go inside.”
“I’m looking for Jake.”
“Oh.” Lindsay’s mouth puckered into a little frown and the air was suddenly charged with unspoken recriminations. Kristen suspected that Lindsay still loved Jake; the reason for their break up was still a deep secret.
“Have you seen him?”
“Me? No. I mean, not for a while . . .” Lindsay’s voice trailed off and she edged toward the open doors.
“Yeah, with you.”
“Where’s Dean?” Kristen asked, the bad feeling that had started in her gut growing deeper.
“Dean and Nick went to check out Chad Belmont’s new car.” Lindsay shivered and cast a glance up at the moon shining like an icy disc in the sky. “Kind of a weird night, huh?”
Really weird, Kristen thought. No one in her small circle of friends seemed to be with their date. Isn’t that what the Valentine’s Day dance was all about? Being together? Being in love? Or was she kidding herself? Was she just a stupid, hopeless romantic? Why would one night be any different than any other?
Or was it a night when Jake was having second thoughts? Thoughts about hooking up with his old girlfriend, the one he really did love?
But Lindsay was here, without Jake, wan and tense, acting as if she couldn’t wait to disappear. Kristen tried to shake off her worries. Even though Jake and Lindsay had been broken up before Christmas, Kristen still felt a little strange dating him. Her relationship with Lindsay with Lindsay had definitely suffered because of it. “Look, Linds, if this is uncomfortable for you–”
“I mean, me being with Jake.”
Lindsay scanned the area. “Are you? With him?” she asked, then shook her head impatiently as Kristen’s face reddened. “Look, I don’t have time for this.” She hurried away, silk skirts rustling, heading inside.
Fighting back a burning guilt, Kristen turned toward the parking lot. She was pretty sure she loved Jake, and that made it okay. And Jake hadn’t left her. He was here, somewhere, probably with Dean and Nick, checking out Chad’s new car. Or, he could be drinking stolen beers with them. . .or. . . Her gaze skated to the maze behind the cloister, those imposing, thick, impenetrable hedge rows planted in an intricate pattern.
She felt something. A warning. A tiny shift in the atmosphere that caused her scalp to prickle.
She was suddenly sure something horrible was about to happen.
Lindsay barely made it to the bathroom. She flew past two girls adding layers of gloss to their lips, stepped into the
stall and ralphed up all of the contents of her stomach into the toilet.
“Oooh. . .yuck. . .” one of the girls said and they both hurried out, muttering about people who shouldn’t drink.
As the bathroom door banged shut behind them, sweat broke out on Lindsay’s forehead. Her mouth tasted foul, but once she’d retched, she felt immediate relief. Just as all the pamphlets had told her she would.
How she wished her sickness were the result of alcohol!
Oh, Lord, how am I ever going to get through this? she wondered desperately.
One day at a time.
She placed a hand over her flat abdomen and thought about the child growing inside her. All because of one night. One stupid night. How had she been so foolish? What had she been thinking? She, an A-student, who knew all about the facts of life. Then one night, because she was feeling down, she’d tossed away all of her values and dreams for one evening of passion.
She closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath. Breathing deeply, she made her way out of the stall. Stumbling to the sink, she splashed cold water over her face. Too bad about her makeup, too bad about college, too bad about the rest of your life. You’re going to be a mother. Alone in the bathroom, she leaned her head against the cool tiles covering the wall.
So how was she going to tell her parents? Her mother would be heart-broken, her father bitterly disappointed that his only daughter had gotten herself “knocked up.” How could she explain it to anyone? She barely understood it herself.
Slowly, she released a tense breath.
She couldn’t cower in the restroom all night. She had to go out and face the truth. No more time for pretend. This was real. She looked at her reflection. Dark hair coiled onto her head, sleek blue dress showing off her figure and an antique diamond necklace her grandmother had bequeathed her – the princess, heiress to the Farrell Timber fortune.
Wouldn’t Nana be proud?
Well, there was more to her than Barbie Doll looks.
It was time to face the damned music.
She had to talk to Jake.
Squaring her shoulders, uncaring that some of her hair had fallen free of the plastered curls, mindless of the fact that her
face was nearly devoid of any residual makeup, she hurried outside and into the night.
She’d lied to Kristen a few moments before.
She knew exactly where Jake was.
It was time for a showdown.
Eric Connolly was a boob. An idiot. A Cretin! No two ways about it and Rachel was stuck with him, at least for the remainder of the night. She watched as he, thinking he was so funny, poured a little gin into a cup of punch before taking it over to Sister Clarice . . . oh, Jesus.
Save me, Rachel thought, heading the opposite direction. She needed some air, some space, and the appearance of not being with Eric when Sister Clarice took a sip, recognized the taste and smell, then grabbed Eric by the back of his scrawny neck and called his folks . . . as well as hers.
Rachel inwardly groaned and glanced at the doors leading to the back parking lot. She’d seen Jake Marcott walk through them not ten minutes ago and he hadn’t returned. His date, Kristen, was standing on the edge of the crowd, alternately checking the doors and scanning the dance floor, as if she were looking for him, as if he’d ditched her. But Lindsay Farrell had gone outside along with a few other kids. Rachel had seen Jake’s sister Bella and Wayne Goddard slide outside. Nick and Dean, Jake’s friends, had exited earlier and now dateless Aurora Zephyr had wandered outside behind DeLynn Vaughn and Laura Triant.
It was almost as if the party was moving outside.
She bit her lip and thought of Jake. What was he doing? Her heart ached a bit and she reminded herself she was here with Eric The Clown.
Sure, Eric was cute.
But he was just so over the top. So stuck on himself.
She glanced around again and noticed Haylie Swanson bearing down on her.
Oh, God, not now.
Haylie was still in major bereavement mode: black dress; black hair ribbons; black arm band; sad, sad eyes. Ever since Ian had died, she’d worn her grief like a noble mantle. But, Rachel knew, hidden in the folds of Haylie’s sorrow was a slow, burning and intense anger, a hatred for the boy who had escaped injury while Ian had given up his life.
Rachel wanted to avoid Haylie, but there was no hope for it.
“I thought I saw you over here,” Haylie said, not cracking a smile, her lips painted a dark purple, as if she were some kind of wannabe Goth.
“You with Eric?” Haylie wrinkled her nose a bit.
“Why did you invite him? He’s sooo immature.”
Rachel lifted a shoulder. Didn’t want to be part of this conversation even though Haylie was only echoing her own thoughts.
“You would have been better off to come alone. Since that bastard already has a date.”
“That bastard?” Rachel repeated.
Haylie’s gaze skewered her. “I know you’re in love with Jake,” she said, little white lines of fury creasing around a mouth the color of bing cherries. “God, Rach, you wear your heart on your sleeve. Everyone knows.”
Rachel cringed. How could anyone know, much less everyone? Or anyone, for that matter? Hadn’t she hidden her feelings for him? She thought of Lindsay and Kristen. Her two best friends who had both already dated and professed their love for Jake. Did they know? Oh, God, this was terrible. Mortified, she felt herself blush a deep, incriminating red.
One of Haylie’s eyebrows raised a fraction. She was satisfied by Rachel’s reaction . . . so she’d been guessing about Jake. Haylie didn’t know anything. Nor did anyone else. Haylie had just made a wild stab and had come up with a bull’s-eye!
Leaning closer, a slight gleam in those night-dark pupils, Haylie said, “It’s just such a waste, Rachel, because he’s a loser. A murderer. He killed Ian, y’know.”
Oh, Rachel knew. The whole county knew. Haylie made it her mission to make certain every living soul in the greater Portland area was aware that Jake Marcott had literally gotten away with the murder.
“Not now, Haylie,” Rachel said.
“Then when? When is he going to pay?”
“The police don’t think there was foul play.”
“The police are idiots! They’ve covered it up.” Haylie was nodding now, agreeing with herself. Thankfully the music was loud enough that noone else heard.
“Why would they bother?”
“Because they just don’t give a damn.”
At that moment Eric returned, smelling of marijuana. Haylie cast Rachel a withering glance as she sniffed loudly, whether to indicate she’d smelled the sweet scent of the wicked weed, or because she was into her near tears act again, Rachel didn’t know.
Rachel felt bad about Ian. Everyone did. Especially Jake. But Ian was gone and there was no bringing him back. No amount of accusations, railing at the gods, praying to Jesus or crying and wringing one’s hands could return Ian to this earth. There had been memorials, services and dozens upon dozens of flowers and candles left at the corner where the accident had taken place. Rachel and her classmates had cried buckets of tears, said hourly rosaries and prayed for Ian and his family. It was sad. Tragic. Horrible. But, in Rachel’s estimation there was no conspiracy. It was just an awful accident that would hopefully help everyone learn not to drink and drive.
Ian had been behind the wheel. Like Jake, he’d not been wearing a seatbelt. His blood alcohol level had been in the stratosphere and there had been traces of prescription drugs in his blood as well. He’d taken a corner much too fast and paid the ultimate price. Both boys had been thrown from the car; Jake had ended up in intensive care with broken ribs, a fractured shoulder, concussion and ruptured spleen. But he’d survived. To live with the guilt of knowing somehow he’d been spared.
Everyone mourned Ian Powers, but Haylie’s grief and anger had turned to bitter anger. She claimed that Jake, not Ian, had been behind the wheel of Ian’s car.
She checked her watch, sent Rachel a final knowing glance, then turned and headed towards the back of the gym.
“Head case,” Eric observed as the song ended and he spied Sister Clarice bearing down on him. “Crap!” His gaze darted around the gym. “Look, Rach, I’ll be right back. I’ve, uh, got to go to the john,” he said and half jogged through the crowd, trying to lose himself as the nun, like a patient lion stalking prey, slowly but surely followed after him.
Rachel wanted to melt into floor. Since that was impossible, she turned and headed outside as another song, Springsteen’s Dancing In the Dark trailed after her into the cold winter night.
She should just call it a night. Make some lame excuse to Eric and find a ride home. Instead, she kept walking, searching the area for Jake.
Geez, how dumb is that?
Ditch your date and go looking for a boy who doesn’t see you as a girl, only as a “friend” he can use?
A few kids were scattered in the shadows, hidden from the eyes of the chaperones inside. Some were smoking, others drinking, others making out. But nowhere did she see Jake.
Don’t try to find him, Rachel, that’s a huge mistake. HUGE.
She ignored the warnings running through her mind and let her gaze skate away from the few kids hiding here for whatever their reasons.
Keeping to the shadows, she walked around the corner of the cloister to the gardens where a hundred year old maze of laurel, flotinia and arborvitae crowded the dark sky and hid the moon.
It was a place to hide.
A place to avoid the people she didn’t want to see.
A place to figure out how to find her pride.
Coward she thought, but wasn’t about to risk her shot at a scholarship and graduating with honors because of that dweeb, Eric. God, why had she been so foolish, so damned desperate for a date, to invite him? She’d known enough about Eric to realize he relished his role of class clown at Washington High and yet, determined to go with a date, she’d invited the oaf to the dance. Now, she was embarrassed as hell. It would have been better to come single. For the love of God, she should have known better. She was a level-headed girl, the daughter of a cop, for God’s sake, if not a straight-A student, then consistently on the honor roll.
But in her own way, she was as much of a moron as Eric.
Because of Jake.
Though no one knew it. She fingered the locket at her throat, the one she always wore, the one no one had ever guessed held not only tiny pictures of her mother and father, now divorced, but of Jake as well … hidden behind the little heart cut out of her father.
And Jake, she knew, didn’t even know she was alive.
How long had she been in love with him? Three years? Four? Since eighth grade at St. Madeline’s?
She’d dreamed of him and told no one about her secret fantasies, not even her best friends, Kristen and Lindsay. Because she couldn’t. Lindsay had dated Jake for two years and once they’d broken up, he’d turned to Kristen, never once looking at Rachel, his friend, the girl who tutored him when he was failing. The girl who befriended his younger sister, Bella. The girl who took care of his dog when he went hunting. Good old, reliable Rachel, who had covered for him when he’d been in the accident over Christmas vacation that had ended Ian Powers’s life.
She hadn’t really lied to anyone. Not really. She just hadn’t admitted to seeing Jake earlier that night.
You’re a fool, Rachel, she told herself as she marched towards the maze, a great place to hide, a spot where neither Eric Connolly nor anyone else who mattered would find her.
Kicking off her high heels, she sighed. She’d never had much use for killer shoes, and she didn’t care that the hem of her dress was dragging along the grass. Too bad. Her mother would be furious of course, though the dress was a hand-me-down, it was still good and could be used again.
What she wouldn’t give for her sweats and running shoes. She would be so out of here!
And go where, Rach?
She heard her mother’s tired voice as if the woman were walking right next to her instead of pulling a double shift at a local diner.
You can’t run from your problems.
Rachel turned into the maze, past a statue of the Madonna with her arms stretched and palms turned toward upward, as if to cradle the next poor soul to pass.
Rachel kept right on walking.
She had to think ahead. Of her future. One definitely without Jake. She had big plans. And nothing, not even her feelings for Jake, was going to stop her.
Kristen headed toward the center of St. Elizabeth’s campus, the garden area where a deep, frigid labyrinth of trimmed laurel hedges, pruned trees, benches and statues separated the school grounds from the convent and chapel where the nuns lived and prayed. Fog was beginning to rise, causing the light from the moon to reflect oddly, as if the silvery orb were fuzzy with some otherworldly halo.
The temperature dropped.
The wind picked up.
Kristen’s skin crawled as she passed the weird gargoyles of topiary and the walls of foliage. Her premonition about something bad about to happen hadn’t left her. Turning a corner, darkness suddenly consumed her as she met a dead end. Far in the distance, the music stopped, the background noise of drums and guitars fading into silence.
Where was she going?
Why was she exploring this maze tonight?
She heard a footstep behind her.
She wasn’t alone.
Her heart trip-hammered.
Something sizzled through the night.
And then a gasp, a strangled cry, like a wounded animal, a gurgling, primal groan.
She jumped backward.
What the hell was that?
Her blood turned to ice. She started running, along the grassy pathways, guided by the eerie light of the moon. Her high heels fell off, but she raced bare foot, barreling down blind alleys, bouncing off prickly bushes. Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Don’t panic!
But she was already frantic, leaves and branches tearing at her arms, her hair falling around her face, her heart pounding out a terrified cadence.
Where was the sound coming from?
She careened around another sharp corner, stubbed her toe on the end of a bench and yelped as she hurtled through the maze. It was too dark to see the lights from the school, the hedge was too high to peer over, but she kept running. In circles? Toward the center of the labyrinth? Or, out of the damned maze?
Blood was oozing from her toe, through the ripped nylon of her panty hose.
Run! Run! Run! Get help!
She tore around a sharp corner just as a scream of pure terror ripped through the shivering shrubbery.
Her heart froze.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, her stomach wrenching.
In the weird moon glow she spied Jake Marcott, his body pinned to the trunk of the gnarled oak at the very center of the maze. His face was white, his eyes wide as he hung suspended. A crimson stain covered the ruffled shirt of his tux, a thick arrow at its center. Blood dripped from the corners of Jake’s mouth and his head hung forward at an impossible angle, his dead eyes wide and staring.
Kristen took a step forward. This was a joke . . . a sick, awful, twisted joke. Jake couldn’t be . . . he wasn’t . . . “Oh, no . . . oh, no . . .”
Lindsay Farrell, her hands covered in blood, her dress splattered and stained was crumpled at Jake’s feet. Her hair had fallen out of its pins, the long, dark coils curling at her bare shoulders. She lifted her head, her eyes filled with tears that streaked her face with black mascara.
“Why?” she cried as the sounds of shouts and frantic, thundering feet echoed through Kristen’s brain.
Help was coming. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe Jake could be saved! Maybe he wasn’t dead yet!
She started to run to him, but Lindsay, her face twisted in fury, forced herself clumsily to her feet and barred her path. “Why, Kristen?” Lindsay demanded again, her voice a razor sharp whisper, her face twisted in fury and pain. “Why did you kill him?
“So, I’m stuck, is that what you’re saying?” Kristen balanced her cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she leaned back in her desk chair and felt a headache coming on. Though time was definitely running out, she’d held out hope that her friend Aurora had found someone else to be in charge of the damned twenty-year reunion. “No one’s willing to take over the job?”
“You were the Valedictorian. If you didn’t want to head up the reunion, you should have gotten at least one B, okay? Like in PE or calculus or something.” Aurora Zephyr laughed at her own joke and Kristen imagined her toothy smile and knowing hazel eyes. Aurora was the one student at St. Elizabeth’s that she’d really kept up with over the years.
“If I’d known this was coming up, I would have.”
“Fat chance. Now give up the whole glass is half empty thing. It’s going to be fun.”
“What’s got into you? There was a time when you knew how to gave a good time. Remember?”
“Good time. . .” Kristen murmured skeptically.
“You’re just going to organize a big party for kids you knew way back when. Get into it, would ya?”
Kristen sighed and leaned a hip against her desk. “It’s just that I’ve tried to avoid anything to do with St. Elizabeth’s.”
“I know. Because of Jake. We all feel that way. But it’s been twenty years, for God’s sake. Time to get over it. Bury the past and lighten up.”
“I can try.”
“Hallelujah and amen, sister,” Aurora said and Kristen smiled.
“I’ve already rounded up quite a few volunteers,” Aurora added, “Remember Haylie Swanson?”
That psycho who believed that Jake killed Ian Powers? She wasn’t likely to forget. “She’ll be there?”
“Yep. And Mandy Kim. Her last name is Stolz now.
Mandy Kim. Another girl Kristen hadn’t trusted in high school.
“We’ve got a few others who will show up. I just told everyone to spread the word. The more people involved, the better. I even called Lindsay Farrell and Rachel Alsace, but they both live too far away to help out.”
“I know.” Kristen still received annual newsy Christmas cards from the girls who were supposed to have been her best friends.
“Lindsay’s some hot-shot event planner in New York and Rachel’s . . . geez, wait a minute . . . I know this . . . ”
“She’s in Alabama. A cop.”
“That’s right,” Aurora agreed slowly. “Like her old man. He was with the Portland Police Department for years.”
Kristen felt the muscles in the back of her neck tense. Mac Alsace had been one of the detectives who had worked on the Jake Marcott murder. Despite his, and the Portland Police Department’s best efforts, the “Cupid Killer” case had ultimately gone cold. Kristen had heard that Detective Alsace’s inability to solve the murder of his kid’s friend had driven him to an early retirement.
Jake Marcott’s ghost haunted them all.
Kristen hadn’t seen either Lindsay or Rachel since graduation. She remembered them in their caps and gowns, all surface smiles and unexplained tears. The day had been warm for June, Kristen had sweated as she waited to give her Valedictorian speech and later, accepted her diploma from Sister Neva, the Reverend Mother. After the ceremony, she’d found Lindsay and Rachel. They’d hugged, posed for pictures and sworn to keep in touch, but they hadn’t. Not in that first summer before college, not afterward.
Because of Jake.
So many things had changed, because of Jake.
Kristen leaned forward in her chair to watch the aquarium screen-saver on her computer monitor where an angelfish was being chased through lengths of sea grass by a darting neon tetra. “Aurora, you should be running this reunion, not me.”
“No way. You’re not weaseling out of it! I figured I could jumpstart it for you, but the reunion is your baby.”
“Fine,” Kristen capitulated. “Why not? Believe it or not, I’ve done some work. I’ve got a couple of places who will cater, if we really elect to have it at St. Elizabeth’s.”
“It’s perfect. We were the last all girl’s class to graduate and now the school is closing. It would be weird to hold it anywhere else. I did a quick poll of the first few classmates I contacted and the general consensus is to hold the reunion at the school.”
“If you say so.”
“Good. I’m sending you an email with an attachment. It’s everything I’ve done to date. From there on in, it’s your baby. See you in a couple of hours.”
“You got it.”
Kristen hung up, popped a couple of aspirin for the impending headache, then buried herself in her work, effectively putting anything to do with St. Elizabeth’s out of her head as she polished a human interest story about a man and dog who had spent a year walking from Missouri to Oregon via the Oregon trail. Once she’d emailed the story to her editor, she glanced up from her cubicle. The Elvis clock mounted on the temporary wall over her desk swivelled its hips. As the clock kept time The King’s hands moved around the old-fashioned dial. Right now, Elvis was pointing out that it was nearly six and Kristen, as usual, was running late. She checked her email, found the note from Aurora and printed out an Excel file which contained more information than she’d ever want on her classmates.
Slinging her purse strap over her shoulder, Kristen stood up and stretched. She’d been allotted this cubicle while one of the newspaper’s more roomy offices was being remodeled. She’d been with the PORTLAND CLARION for fifteen years, long enough to actually warrant an office – a dubious honor given that it felt as if the “higher-ups” scarcely noticed her.
“I’m outta here.” Kristen snapped closed her laptop, placing it and her Excel printout inside her computer briefcase.
“Big date tonight?” Two cubicles over Sabrina Lacey asked as she tossed back the reminder of her double espresso, then crumpled the paper cup in her long fingers and discarded the remains into her wastebasket.
“Yeah, right.” Kristen scrounged in her purse for her keys and once the huge ring was found, headed for the door. Sabrina joined her as she wended her way through the labyrinthine desks, tables and chairs of the CLARION’S newsroom. It had been her first job out of college, the one she thought she’d use as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter newspapers. Though her position had changed over the years – stretching, evolving, mutating – it said something she wasn’t sure she wanted to examine that she was still here.
“You should go out,” Sabrina, all big brown eyes, corn rows and metal jewelry, insisted. “Find a guy. Have some fun.”
“I’m married, remember?”
“You’re separated, have been for a year and, last I heard, you were going to divorce Ross’s ass.” Sabrina arched a perfect eyebrow.
“I know, I know. It’s just hard.”
“Nuh-uh. I’ve done it three times.”
“Maybe it’ll get easier after the first one.”
“You’ll never know unless you try.” Sabrina stopped at the hallway leading to the restrooms.
“I’ve got a kid,” Kristen reminded her.
“Who’s nearly grown.”
Kristen snorted. “Sixteen does not an adult make.”‘
“You tell her that?”
“Every day. Besides, I do happen to have a date tonight, only it’s with half a dozen women I haven’t seen in twenty years. I got drafted into heading the damned high school reunion.”
“Drafted,” Kristen stressed. “I didn’t volunteer.”
Sabrina wrinkled her long nose. “Can’t you go AWOL?”
“I’m hoping to pawn the duties off on someone more deserving tonight.”
“Good luck.” Sabrina laughed and moseyed down the hall.
Kristen shoved open the glass doors of the newspaper offices and a blast of frigid air, smelling of the river and exhaust, rolled towards her. Dark clouds gathered over the spires of Portland’s highest buildings, and as she hurried the two blocks to the parking lot where her beat-up Honda was waiting, the sky opened up. Flipping up the hood of her jacket, Kristen made a mad dash to her Honda. The car looked as tired as she felt and the fun was just beginning.
Kristen shook her head in disbelief. For her, high school had ended that night at the Valentine’s Day Dance. The remainder of the school year had been a blur that hadn’t become clearer with time. But, apparently, one of the perks of being Valedictorian of the class was that she got to organize the class reunion.
She’d managed to duck this responsibility for nearly twenty years, but no more. Aurora was making certain that this anniversary of the graduating class of ‘87 would be celebrated.
The only good news was the hope that she could pass the baton for the next reunion. If there was one. . .
Sliding behind the wheel, she rummaged in her purse for her cell phone. Starting the Honda with one hand, she speed dialed her home number with the other. On the second ring, as she turned on the wipers, her answering machine clicked on. “Lissa?” she said as soon as the recorded message beeped at her. “If you’re there, answer, okay?” A pause. Nothing. “Lissa, are you home?” But there was no breathless response; no sound of her daughter’s voice. Obviously she wasn’t home. “Listen if you get this, call me back. I should be home in twenty minutes.” She clicked off, punched in the number of her daughter’s cell phone and heard, “Hi, this is Lissa. You know what to do. Leave your number and, if you’re lucky, I’ll call you back.”
Kristen hung up. Her daughter was undoubtedly screening her calls. Caller ID could be such a pain. “Great,” she muttered under her breath as she nosed her car out of the lot and settled into the slow flow of traffic that oozed out of the downtown area. She was ticked that her daughter wasn’t home. Didn’t that kid know what “You’re grounded” meant? Hopefully, Lissa would show up before Kristen had to leave again, in what? Less than an hour? “Save me,” she whispered thinking of the evening to come and the first of what would probably be a dozen meetings of the reunion committee.
Never reaching a speed even close to twenty miles an hour, Kristen edged west onto Canyon Drive which sliced through the steep, forested cliffs of the West Hills. Her route cut under the Vista Avenue Viaduct, more commonly referred to as the Suicide Bridge, and each time she passed under that arching eighty-year-old stone span, she thought of those who had leapt to their deaths on the very pavement on which she was driving. Shuddering, she noticed the first fat drops of rain drizzling down her windshield as she reached the turnoff leading to her house. She punched the accelerator and her little car climbed up the hillside, along an impossibly winding side road that snaked through the stand of Douglas fir trees to the crest and the tiny dead-end lane that stopped at her house, a cedar and glass ‘Northwest Contemporary’ that had been built in the 1970s and boasted a panoramic view of the city far below.
Tonight she would have loved to throw on her most comfortable sweats, light the fire and curl up by the windows with a good book. The last thing she wanted was to leave home again to deal with some of her ex-classmates. She could do without their exuberance to connect with friends, enemies and unknowns after twenty years of virtual silence. Nothing sounded worse.
As she reached her house, she suddenly realized how wrong she’d been: the reunion meeting was not at the top of her Things I Don’t Want To Do list. That first, dreaded spot was reserved for dealing with her soon-to-be ex-husband. And it looked like she was about to have the pleasure of another face-off with him as well. Ross’s monster of a black pickup was blocking the drive.
“Give me strength,” she silently prayed as she parked her car across the street.
The day was quickly sliding from bad to real bad.
“Perfect,” she muttered under her breath. She sent up another quick plea for patience in dealing with the man she’d married her sophomore year in college. It had been a rash, hasty decision; one she’d come to regret. If not for their only child, the now “out of cell range” Melissa, the entire marriage could be considered a colossal mistake.
She just hadn’t had the guts, heart, time or energy to end it.
Neither, it seemed, had he.
No divorce papers had been filed.
“More fun to come,” she whispered under her breath as she grabbed the mail from the box. With her orange tabby nearly tripping her, Kristen made her way through the open door of the garage, past the lawn mower, ladders, and recycling tubs to the door leading to her kitchen, where, big as life, Ross was seated at the nook café table, sipping one of her lite beers and reading the paper.
Just as he’d done thousands of times during their years together.
Wearing a white shirt with the top two buttons undone, his sleeves rolled up, his tie tossed casually over the back of a chair, he scanned the business section. His wallet and keys were on the table.
“Been here a while?” she asked as he looked up, his gray eyes, as always, assessing.
Her heart did a funny little glitch. Even after all the years, the fights, the differing paths of their lives, she still found him sexy. Her downfall.
“I thought I’d take Lissa to dinner. She hasn’t shown.” “Just like that?”
She was stunned. “Did you consider calling?”
“Yep.” He took a swallow of his beer and leaned back in his chair to stare at her. “Thought better of it.”
He lifted a shoulder. “I figured you might try to talk me out of it. Or, if I got your okay, then I’d have to go through the whole thing all over again. This seemed easier.”
“So you just let yourself in?”
“Still own half of the house. Got my own set of keys.” Those damned eyes skewered her, challenging her to argue with him. Kristen decided not to rise to the bait. She didn’t have the time nor energy to argue.
“Where is she?”
“I thought you’d know.” He stretched, his shoulders and arms tugging at the seams of his shirt, the black hair at his nape a little too long and ruffling over his shirt collar.
Uneasiness crawled through Kristen’s blood. “Lissa was supposed to come home straight after school.”
“You told her that?”
“Oh, yes.” The ugly scene this morning was fresh in her mind. They’d argued, the gist of it being that Lissa was furious with her mother for finding the progress reports from the school. Even though the envelope had been addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ross Delmonico, Lissa had considered the contents about her failing grades to be noone’s business but her own. She’d thrown a fit and refused breakfast. Her eyes, so like her father’s, had snapped gray fire and she’d half-run out of the house to catch a ride with her boyfriend. “I grounded her because of the progress reports from her school,” Kristen explained.
Ross waited, eyebrows raised, for Kristen to continue…