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Authors: Katherine Holubitsky

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BOOK: Hippie House
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4

I
T WAS TWO WEEKS
before the farm became ours again. By then, investigators had removed most of the floorboards as well as the center post from the Hippie House. This meant that if the building wasn't torn down, it would eventually collapse on its own. So for safety's sake, among all other reasons, my father and uncle pulled it down. It was a task they insisted on doing themselves and completed in half a day.

I was immediately relieved of some of my chores, those that took me out of sight of the house. Dad would take them over for now. I was instructed to stay close to the farmhouse at all times, and my parents would not allow me to walk down the lane to catch the bus on my own.

Trudging through a fresh layer of snow behind Eric one morning, I thought about how swiftly Katie had disappeared. She worked only ten minutes from where she lived, yet in that short time she had been abducted without a witness. It occurred to me how foolish I had been. I had never even considered the potential danger in what I'd assumed were normal activities. How many hours had I tempted fate by lingering on the road, alone, at the end of this lane? And during the summer there were
the many times I had ridden between farms on my bike—spaces of time when I could so easily have been snatched like Katie, never to be seen again. At least not alive. In that moment, the vision I had of my life moving forward, unhampered, in a direction only I would determine, crumbled. Life transformed into something so fleeting and fragile it sent a shiver up my spine.

In the days following the murder, locks that had never been used were oiled and tested, and sales of locksets in hardware stores boomed. Dogs accustomed to lying on warm rugs in second-storey bedrooms suddenly found themselves expected to work, assigned to the cold linoleum next to a door. Lights remained on at all times, so that strangers driving through the area must have wondered what we were celebrating, why even in the early hours of the morning the farmhouses along the dark roads were ablaze.

Alarms and home security systems were not common at the time, so rudimentary ones were created. Sitting on the goatskin rug, Hetty and Ruby and I strung what seemed like miles of soda pop cans together. But miles of them were needed if they were to circle the entire castle where, hanging six inches from the ground, they would trip unwary visitors, alerting the people inside.

Not surprisingly, Katie's murder was the topic of discussion on street corners, in coffee shops, at local functions and in the halls at school. News reports and rumors were often combined, elaborated upon until the line between reality and truth became obscure. The body had been mutilated beyond recognition. Katie's watch—although some said it was a boot—had been stolen by the killer as a souvenir. Doug McCrae, who was playing the Artful Dodger in the school's production of
Oliver
!, told me the wire had been pulled with such force it had completely severed her head.

“Is that true?” I asked Eric, more horrified by the image of this than anything else I'd heard since the discovery itself.

“No, it's not, and why would you believe somebody who doesn't have a clue what he's talking about? Ask him this—was he there?”

Constable Wagner held a public information session at the high school in an attempt to ease our fears. Megan and I went together with Mom, Aunt Alice and Mrs. Fraser, who drove.

Aunt Alice sat in the backseat with us. “It's all these rumors flying around,” she explained. “They've got everyone terrified. On the other hand, there's always a little truth in every rumor so I'm guessing Constable Wagner just wants to set us straight on what's true and what's not.”

Detective Mather appeared confident, assuring us that the circumstances surrounding Katie's murder suggested that the killing was random. He also thought it was highly unlikely that the killer was from Pike Creek or that he was still in our midst. “Would he kill again?” Mrs. Gillespie wanted to know. Detective Mather hesitated, shifting his feet a little—until then the only hint of indecision. Finally he acknowledged that any answer he might give would, at best, only be a guess.

Katie had been raped, most likely in the Hippie House where she had died on the same night. The orange extension cord that had been used to tether her body to the post was a key piece of evidence. It did not belong to us, Uncle Pat or any of Eric's friends. However, the guitar string—an E—used to strangle her, tightened with such savage force it had cut deep into her throat, had once belonged on Jimmy's bass. He remembered the day he replaced it, tossing it to the floor after playing “I'm Goin' Home” four times in a row.

Mrs. Gillespie was probably not the first in town to suggest that Ross Nash and Lyle St. Vincent might have played a part in Katie's murder. She was just the first I'd heard discuss the possibility as if it were fact. I was eating chips and gravy with Megan in the Dairy Bar when I overheard her speaking to
Mrs. Chisholm. The two women sat in a booth across from us, dipping spoons into the whipped cream piled high on their banana splits. Mrs. Gillespie popped a cherry in her mouth. She told Mrs. Chisholm that she hoped the two hoodlums hadn't been ruled out as possible suspects. After saying this, she drew the cherry stem from between her teeth, leaving a large dab of whipped cream clinging to her upper lip. It wobbled as she continued to speak. In her mind, anyone who would set fire to the teeter-totter in Queen Mary Park was capable of anything.

I thought about what Mrs. Gillespie said. Ross was far from a model citizen, but the leap from public mischief-maker to psychopathic murderer did seem a very big stretch.

Ross and Lyle had been interviewed within the first twenty-four hours of the body being discovered, but so had the members of The Rectifiers along with many of their friends. Eric told me they had been asked little about their whereabouts on the night of November 9. The police were far more interested in people they may have recently become acquainted with from out of town.

Megan and I tried to recall what we were doing on the night of the murder.

“That was the day Eric and Jimmy drove us down to Toronto to see
Love Story
. Remember? And we cried all the way home. They kept asking us what we were blubbering about because they hadn't seen it. They'd gone to check out some music stores instead.”

“That movie was so sad,” Megan sighed. “The part at the end when they're in the hospital and Oliver lies down on the bed with Jenny, knowing she's about to die? Every time I think about it I still start to cry.”

“I know. So do I.”

“Oh my god! I cut past the barn and walked down the road right past the Hippie House on the way to your house that night! It could have been me that was killed!”

It seemed our whole world had been put on hold. Ordinary activities were impossible because of the restrictions, but they also brought little joy. It was difficult to get enthusiastic about going to a dance or buying a new record or a great pair of shoes when somebody so close to our age had died in such a mysterious and violent way.

Late one afternoon I passed Eric in the barn on my way to feed the geese. Tools lay spread on the floor around him where he kneeled on the dusty floor. He was tinkering with the snow-mobile. Malcolm, Miles and Jimmy watched from where they sat, sprawled on bales of hay.

“My dad figures it was some freak on acid,” I overheard Malcolm say. “Except he didn't word it like that. He said, ‘It was probably some long-haired hippie high on LSD.'”

Malcolm's frumpy imitation of his father was so ridiculous even I had to laugh.

“Ever since the Tate murders and Charlie Manson and those crazy chicks were arrested, he figures every crime is committed by some long-haired hippie on LSD.”

Miles stamped snow from his feet. “I don't know any long-haired hippies. Do you know any long-haired hippies, Jimmy?”

“Not that take LSD.”

They all laughed a little. Except for Eric.

“Will one of you guys get this.” he grumbled. “I can't support it and get the belt back on by myself.”

“Hey, Eric, you've been so uptight since this thing happened. Try to relax, will you, man?”

I had never had such difficulty talking to Eric, who seemed to be living in a world separate from my own. He had trouble focusing. His homework was left undone and he missed ground lessons. When Dad suggested that he might forget them for the time being and start up again in the spring, he refused. More than anything else he wanted to continue to do what he was doing, and he didn't want anything to change.

It didn't matter what time of night I passed his bedroom, a light shone from beneath his door. Returning from the bathroom at three o'clock one morning, I quietly opened it. Light from the lamp on the bedside table fell across his face. He lay sprawled across his bed, tangled in a mess of twisted sheets. It appeared to me as though he had fought hard to free himself from their grip, but unable to escape, and exhausted from the struggle, he had fallen asleep.

I returned to my room, where I climbed into bed and began to think about the day Eric would no longer be at home. He was now in grade twelve. He had only one more year of high school and then he would be leaving for university. A strange and empty sadness came over me as I tried to imagine life without my brother around.

Two weeks after the discovery of Katie's body, my mother was tired of seeing photographs of Ruddy Duck Farm and the Hippie House in the newspapers. She had just about had it with curiosity seekers who drove past our farm, pointing fingers where they thought the Hippie House might have stood. She said she would just once like to go into town and not be stopped and asked if there were any further developments. How was she supposed to know? Did no one understand that just because the murderer picked our farm when he could have picked, say, Pat's, or the Frasers' next door, it did not mean she had inside information from the police! And if one more person asked her why we hadn't heard anything the night Katie was killed, she thought she was going to spit!

She began to smoke more than usual, if that was possible, and read much less, her concentration affected by her nerves. My mother bounced between chastising me for my foolishness and becoming giddy as she proclaimed how thankful she was that I was alive. One moment her dark eyes would turn and flare angrily. “And to think you hitchhiked on that very same
highway last summer. Climbing in the car with people you didn't even know. What were you thinking, Emma Jenkins?!” The next moment I would be hugged simply for standing where I was.

A week before Christmas, Eric told us that Ross and Lyle had left town. “Mr. Blane won't serve them at the pool hall. Malcolm's dad said that no one else will come in if they do. They can't walk into a store or a gas station or even buy a hamburger without someone giving them a dirty look. They're being ostracized by everyone in town. I know they're just a couple of greasers, but they really don't deserve it.”

“But maybe it was them. It's not like they've never been in trouble,” I said, recalling Mrs. Gillespie's conversation with Mrs. Chisholm in the Dairy Bar. Although I still didn't believe it. “Maybe they're admitting their guilt by leaving town.”

“It wasn't them. Besides, if it was that easy, don't you think the police would have arrested them by now?”

“Well, I wish it was them,” Mom surprised us by saying. She jumped to her feet and began clearing dishes from the table.

Dad watched her frenzied movements for a moment. “Clare, you don't really mean that.”

But my mother met him with shiny eyes. “Yes, I do mean it, John. Because then at least they'd be off the street and somebody could sleep at night. Somebody could let their children go to school without worrying that they're going to wind up dead.”

My mother's reaction was understandable as fear turned to anger and frustration. I was seeing signs of it all around. I was beginning to feel it myself. When I had digested the murder long enough, replayed the discovery in my mind, discussed all the could-have-beens with my friends—I did not want to see one more picture of Katie Russell, this girl who had come uninvited to our farm. This girl with whom I had no connection but who had thrown our lives into chaos. This girl who had changed my father so that he seldom smiled.

We had heard nothing to alert us the night of the murder. How this could be possible ate away at my father like rust. He had always taken such care; he had never produced a diseased crop or raised an unhealthy animal. How could he have not known what was happening on his own land? How could he have not heard the girl scream?

It was the depth of the woods and the sound-insulating factor of the snow, Uncle Pat more than once assured him. Was that not the reason he had relegated the electric guitars to the Hippie House in the first place?

But in the winter the air is brisk and still, acoustically more obliging my father argued. And then there was the car.

BOOK: Hippie House
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