Authors: Katherine Holubitsky
I smiled as I thought of eight-year-old Megan whacking her lunch box over the man's head. How ineffective it would have been.
This, of course, was before either of us really knew what a man would want with two little girls. But even then, as young as we were, we could tell something was wrong. People act in certain ways and you learn to read the signs.
Katie had to have been surprised and overpowered the night she was killed. But not by the person who was driving the van. Because if that person was her killer, she would never have willingly got into the vehicle. She would have just known, as Megan and I did when we were very young.
N A SATURDAY MORNING
in late April, I sat behind Eric and my father in the Maul Rocket. Eric had been working on building flying hours, and Dad let him take control for a while. His takeoff was a little shaky, but he smoothed out once we were soaring over the newly plowed fields. It was wonderful being up in the air again, high enough so I could see the world all at once. Somehow things seemed to come together and did not appear so scattered and complicated as they did when I was on the ground.
From the air I could see Uncle Pat on his tractorâand cattle sprinkled like poppy seeds over the greening fields. We passed over the sloped clay-tile roof of the castle with its turret and the stand of aspen where Ruby kept her kiln. Once Eric had reached cruising altitude we followed the winding gray strand of the Grand River.
The roar of the engine made it difficult for me to hear what was being said in the cockpit, but my father's voice was calm as he gave my brother directions. For the moment the challenge of learning something new absorbed Eric, and he appeared more content than I had seen him in some time.
For nearly an hour I felt free of all anxiety. It was not until we were landing that I was reminded of how, over the winter, our lives had changed. Where Fiddlehead Creek weaved through the dark fringe of woods and the roof of the Hippie House had once been visible, there was now only a break in the trees and a small square of yellow grass.
Still, there were some good things happening in our lives. For one, Carl was given more responsibility at the arena now that spring had arrived. Mr. Dikkers had bad knees and wanted to cut back on the number of hours he worked. He asked Carl to take over some of what he'd done. He would never have asked him to do this if Carl's work ethic hadn't improved. But Carl was, in general, more conscientious and trustworthy since Maury had helped him focus on a career. This was a huge relief for Megan, because with Carl useful and employed, the stress level in their house had taken a dive.
Uncle Bud carried on in his role as cook and housekeeper of the castle. He appeared to even flourish in it. We smiled behind his back at the apron he wore and the smudge of melted chocolate across his cheek when he served his latest dessert.
And in the first week of May, Donny Russell asked me out on my first real date. That is, it was not something prearranged by my friends. No, when Donny stopped by my locker and asked me to go with him to the spring dance at the community hall, I realized that the awkward arrangements where I would meet a boy in the company of our friends with the ultimate objective of holding hands were long behind me now. This was the real thing. This was serious stuff and could lead to all the things I'd read and heard a relationship entailed: stolen kisses in empty hallways and long embraces before saying goodnight.
Megan came over to the house to iron my hair before Donny picked me up. She also offered to lend me her red jumpsuit, but it fit poorly. I had nothing to fill it the way she did. Instead of
flattering my thin figure, it looked prison-issued on me. I wore jeans and the baby blue corduroy jacket I had made instead.
Donny drove his grandfather's truck out to Ruddy Duck Farm to pick me up. It was beginning to grow dark when we left for the dance and it was raining lightly. Fat raindrops dimpled the pond, and without quite enough moisture to dampen the sound, the old windshield wipers ground against the glass. My mother's rose garden was beginning to come to life and I caught the scent of emerging growth through the window I had opened a crack.
“Too bad about the elms,” Donny commented in a way that said he really meant it. “It was a bit of a shock to see that row of stumps when I turned up the lane.”
“It was tough for my dad.”
“I'm sure it was.” He looked at me. “But I do like your farm much better in the spring.”
“So do I.”
It was the only reference he made to Ruddy Duck or Katie or knowing me for any other reason than having met me at schoolâuntil we ran into Ross Nash.
We only stayed at the dance for about an hour. The band was unfamiliar; it was a very large one with a horn section. The Rectifiers had not played together since Malcolm was sick. They didn't want to replace him, and Eric, Miles and Jimmy had been spending much of their extra time trying to help Malcolm catch up on his schoolwork.
Donny didn't feel much like dancing, so we decided to go for a drive instead. We ended up at the Dairy Queen on the edge of town. With detectives hanging around their regular spot outside the pool hall and with the Dairy Bar closed, I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Ross Nash and Lyle St. Vincent were there.
Donny bought us sundaes. We ate in a booth by the window where we could watch the traffic on the highway fly in and out
of Pike Creek. Cars sped past the Dairy Queen, the Texaco station, the Pike Creek Motel and on down Highway 10 to Shel-burne. Donny talked about the changes his father had made since they'd moved out to his grandfather's farm. He liked living thereâhe liked to putter with mechanical things and he now had plenty of space. It was his mother who was having a difficult time. His older sister required a lot of assistance and his mother had depended on Katie, who had been happy to share the work. Donny was trying to make it easier for her, but he couldn't do a lot of the things Katie had done. Donny pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
I shook my head, no. But then I changed my mind. “Yes, thanks.”
It wasn't like I'd never smoked before. I just hadn't taken it up as diligently as some of my friends. I wasn't very good at it, and it was also not a trait I admired in my mother. But I was beginning to really like Donny, and if it endeared me to him, I was not above having a smoke. I helped myself to a cigarette.
Donny held the lighter to the end while I inhaled. The smoke tickled my throat and I let out a little cough. He flicked the lighter again, but when I tried to inhale a second time I began spluttering like a spout full of air.
“Here,” he said. Taking the cigarette from my hand, he puffed twice and got it going for me. But by then I was grabbing for my Coke. I waved it away.
He laughed. “That's probably a good decision. They seem to be finding more and more reasons why they're not good for you anyway.”
He kept the cigarette for himself.
“So what do you do with yourself when you're not sewing?”
I had to think about this. Because sewing was pretty much all I did when I wasn't in school. Unless I was doing my chores, and I really didn't think it would interest him to hear about cleaning duck pens or collecting chicken eggs. No, if I had to sum it up, I led a very dull life. The thought depressed me. “I don't know. I guess I do stuff with my friends.”
Donny laughed. “Oh yeah? What kind of stuff?”
But before I had a chance to answer, I noticed Ross Nash sauntering toward us. He stopped next to our table, leaned one shoulder against the post separating our booth from the one next to it, and flashed his nicotine-stained teeth. “Well, what do we have here? The Jenkins and Russell kids. I see you inherited the old man's truck.”
He was referring to Donny's grandfather's Dodge.
“Not really,” said Donny. “I mean, I didn't inherit it. I just drive it. My dad's got his own. We've got more vehicles than we need.”
“What year is it?”
Ross nodded. “Does your dad want to sell?”
“I don't know. Maybe sometime. But not right now.”
“Hey, can I bum a smoke?”
“Yeah, sure.” Donny dug into his pocket again. He offered Ross the pack of Exports.
Ross helped himself, struck a match and leaned back against the post again as if he had no intention of ever moving on. He blew a gust of smoke over our heads. “So, what's up?”
Donny and I looked at one another. Donny shrugged. “What do you mean? We're having a bite to eat.”
“Oh, I thought you were maybe putting your heads together and trying to solve your sister's murder.”
“No,” Donny's eyes darkened, “that's not what we were doing. You've got your cigarette, Ross.”
“Hey, don't be so touchy. It only makes sense.”
“What are you talking about?” “Well, you'd both know things. You know, you put all that information together and you might come up with something.”
“Yeah, well the subject hadn't come up.”
Ross took another drag and tapped the ashes on the floor. The length of chain connecting the wallet in his pocket to a belt loop scraped against the metal table edge. “Well if you want my two cents, I'm leaning toward Gillespie, although he's supposed to have some kind of alibi. But I saw the way his tongue hung out when he looked at your sister. You couldn't miss it. He tripped over it when she came in the Dairy Bar. I wouldn't put it past him that he jumped her, there was a struggle and he was afraid he'd get caught. And then what would Old Lady Gillespie do if she knew? She'd make his life a living hell, that's what.”
I really wished he would shut up. Donny was concentrating hard on snuffing out his cigarette, and I didn't know him well enough to know how he would react.
“Anyway, that's my take on the thing.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for that.” Donny stood up. “Let's go, Emma. I've got to get the truck back. It's getting late.”
“But it's only nine o'clock.”
“Yeah, well, I have to work in the morning, early.”
Oh how I wanted to strangle Ross Nash! He'd just destroyed my perfectly good first date.
Donny was relatively quiet on the drive back to Ruddy Duck. He spoke a little about the cross-fencing he was doing with his dad. It was no longer raining; it was just a heavy, damp night now. The tires against the pavement churned up the rain we'd had earlier. Donny drove slowly up the lane, past the row of stumps, and parked in front of the garage. He hopped from the truck, came around to the passenger's side and held the door for me.
“Thanks, Emma,” he said as I jumped to the ground. He closed the door behind me. He stood close to me, pressing me a little against the door. “I'm sorry for pulling out like that. I guess I still have a hard time when people start on the topic of my sister.”
“You don't have to explain.”
He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine. I wasn't quite sure what to do, but he tasted so good. I tried to respond the way it felt I should. His arms tightened around me, but then they suddenly went slack. He backed up a bit.
“Look, I'm sorry.”
“About what?” I hadn't meant to sound panicked. But I could still feel the pressure of his lips against mine and I wanted it back again.
“It's no good.”
No good? What did he mean, no good? Was I that awful? Maybe it was my hair. I knew ironing it was useless; one drop of humidity and it was all thick and frizzy again.
“I mean, it's not you. Well, yes, it is. It's you and this place. I like you a lot, but I can't seem to separate you from what's happened.”
I felt like I was about to cry. I heard my voice break, “I understand.”
But I didn't understand. Well, I did, but I didn't want to. I wanted to shake him and tell him to tryâto try real hard to separate me from the farm.
“Maybe when it's all over it will be different. But right now I don't seem to be able to concentrate on much else. It's in my head all the time.”
Of course it was in his head all the time. With nothing solved, how could it not have been constantly in his head? Still, I wished that he could have spared a little room for me.
“Will you call me if that happens? I mean, if, when it is over and it is differentâwill you let me know if you're able to concentrate on other stuff again?”
I had never felt so abandoned as I stood and watched Donny drive away that night.
“That's so tragic,” Hetty commented the next day when I told her about my evening. “I mean, it's romantic and tragic at the same time. Poor Donny. Poor you. You must just feel, wellâ empty inside.”
This made me feel a little better. Like I was the hapless victim of a doomed love affair in a romance novel. It was not failure on my part, but fate that had torn our lips apart.