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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: Murder Road
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Eddie nodded, like he’d been interrogating people all his life. “Who owns the van parked at the entrance to the beach?”

“I do,” Todd said. “We use it for grocery and supply runs.”

“You didn’t offer to take Rhonda Jean to the bus station?”

“She didn’t ask me.” Todd’s voice rose, defensive. Eddie had struck a nerve. “She just packed and left. Like Gretchen said.”

“You could have driven her!” Gretchen’s voice was high and
wobbly, near tears. “She’s just a girl alone! You know what happens on that road, especially at night! We all know!”

“Those are just stories,” the long-haired kid said, though he looked like he was about to throw up.

Gretchen whirled on him. “Rhonda Jean is dead!” she screamed. “Are they just stories now? Someone stabbed her, and we all know what happened! The Lost Girl got her!”

“Gretchen, shut up,” Kay said, angry.

“What’s the matter with all of you?” Gretchen looked around the room. Her cheeks were splotched with red. Todd shifted in his chair, the long-haired kid looked down at the floor, and Kay still looked angry. “Don’t you
care
?” Gretchen shouted. “She was our friend!” When the room still rang with silence, she got up and left, banging the front door behind her.

Into the silence she left behind, I said, “Who is the Lost Girl?”

“It’s a stupid legend,” Kay said, her voice thick with disgust. “It’s been around forever. Like there’s some girl haunting Atticus Line, killing hitchhikers. It’s idiotic.”

I looked at her angry face and realized she was afraid. I remembered the blast of cold I’d felt on Atticus Line, the memorial to Katharine O’Connor.

“Listen,” Todd said, his voice still defensive. “The point is that we can’t help you. We don’t believe in ghosts. We didn’t know Rhonda Jean very well. She was just passing through, like the rest of us. No one even saw her leave.”

The long-haired kid looked up and took a breath.

“I did,” he said. “I saw her leave.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

That’s bullshit,” Todd said.

The long-haired kid looked uncomfortable. “It’s true. I saw her.”

“Mitchell, be quiet,” Kay snapped. “We don’t even know who these people are.”

“My name is Eddie Carter, and this is my wife, April,” Eddie said. “We’re just passing through, like you are.”

“What did you see when Rhonda Jean left?” I asked Mitchell.

Mitchell glanced at Todd, who was glaring at him. Then he looked at Eddie. When he spoke, he directed his words at Eddie, as if there was no one else in the room. “She didn’t say goodbye to any of us, like Gretchen said. I was up in the parking lot, having a smoke last night. I was sitting on the back bumper of the van. I just needed to be alone for a few minutes, you know?”

“I know,” Eddie said.

Mitchell nodded, his shoulders relaxing an inch. “Rhonda Jean came up the steps. She had her backpack on. She didn’t see me. She just walked right past, headed out to Atticus Line.”

“What time was this?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Midnight, maybe. I don’t know.”

“What was she wearing?”

“Jeans and a T-shirt, I guess.” Mitchell still directed his words at Eddie, as if he’d asked the question. “It was a hot night. She started walking up the road. I thought maybe I should call out to her, ask where she was going. You know, say goodbye or something. But her head was down and she was just walking, like she was deep in her head. And I barely knew her. By the time I’d thought about whether to say goodbye, she was already too far away.”

Silence hung in the room for a minute as we all took this in. He’d sat and watched Rhonda Jean walk off to her death. If he’d said something, would she have turned back? If he’d called to her, was it possible this wouldn’t have happened?

“Is that all?” Eddie asked.

Mitchell shook his head. “A truck came down the road. Rhonda Jean put her thumb out to hitch, and it stopped.”

I felt my fingers dig into the fabric arm of the La-Z-Boy chair, and I tried to breathe. “What kind of truck?” I asked.

“A pickup truck. It was black.” Mitchell squinted into the distance, remembering. “I couldn’t see who was driving. Just taillights. But it stopped for Rhonda Jean. She opened the passenger door and said something, and the person driving responded. I think it was a man.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, really.
I don’t remember hearing a woman. But it was a ways up the road, and I couldn’t hear very well. They were too far away. I don’t know what they said.”

“And then what?” Eddie asked.

Mitchell looked like he was going to be sick again. “And then Rhonda Jean got in,” he said. “I remember thinking, okay, that’s okay. She’s got a ride to the bus station. Because, you know, I was worried about her walking in the dark.”

There was another beat of silence. Then Todd said, “It’s not your fault, man.”

But it was. It was everyone’s fault. It was Todd’s for not offering a ride when he was the only one with a vehicle. It was Kay’s because she had never bothered to care. If there was one thing I knew, it was the feeling of carrying someone’s death on your hands. The knowledge that if you could rewind time, you could do something differently and that person would still be alive.

Sometimes you regret it, and sometimes you don’t. But you carry it either way.

There were more questions to be asked, but I let Eddie ask them. I got up and walked out of the cabin.


Gretchen was outside one of the tents, rolling up a sleeping bag and tucking it into its cloth sleeve. She had angry tears on her face. A couple of other kids milled about, watching us curiously, but I paid no attention to them.

“Hey,” I said, approaching her. “Are you leaving?”

“Leave me alone,” she snapped, leaning into the tent and pulling out an empty backpack.

I ignored that. “I’m sorry about Rhonda Jean. I liked her. She seemed like a sweet girl.”

“Whatever,” Gretchen said.

I glanced at the beach, where a boy and a girl were kicking a hacky sack back and forth with almost no skill whatsoever. “I want to know about the Lost Girl,” I said.

Gretchen put her backpack down and straightened. Her expression was a painful map of grief, fear, and raw pain. Adulthood, she was learning, completely sucked. I knew how she felt. “Forget it,” she said. “It’s just a stupid story, like Kay said.”

“Who was she?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you seen her?”

“No.” Gretchen looked away, her fingers unconsciously touching the end of her braid. “I mean, I don’t think so.”

“What does that mean?”

She watched the kids on the beach and didn’t seem to hear my question. “There was a girl in the seventies, I think,” she said. “She was found by the side of the road on Atticus Line. They never figured out who she was or who had killed her. She was just a hitchhiker. She was—she’d been dead a long time when she was found. No one cared. She’s still on Atticus Line, or at least that’s how the story goes. You can feel her. You can hear her sometimes, calling to you. Or you see a light in the trees.”

I felt cold sweat on my neck. I’d seen that light in the trees, right before we picked up Rhonda Jean.

“That’s how the story goes, anyway.” Gretchen hadn’t noticed my reaction. “It’s one thing to see the lights, or to hear her. But if you actually see her, walking by the side of the road . . .” She trailed off.

“Then what?” I tried to keep my voice calm. I wanted to shake the answers out of her. I clenched my fists at my sides.

“People die sometimes.” Gretchen wiped at her face. “If you see her, you’ll be the next one found at the side of the road.”

“Do you know the name Katharine O’Connor?” I asked.

The girl shook her head. “Was she one of them? I’ve only been here since May.”

Of course. Everyone here was transient. No one would have been here long enough to know Katharine. “Someone left a memorial to her on the side of the road. Fake flowers with her name on them.”

“She was probably traveling with friends.”

We were both silent for a second, picturing it. Katharine’s friends, leaving a bouquet where her body had been found as they made their last trip to the Coldlake bus station. Whoever they were, they’d been scattered for years now, probably gone back to their lives.

“I never believed it,” Gretchen said. “I always thought it was a stupid campfire story. Something the guys made up to scare the girls. I never thought I’d know—” Her expression twisted and she bent, putting her hands on her knees. “Rhonda Jean,” she said, her voice hoarse with grief, and then she started to sob.

You let her go
, I thought, staring at her bent back.
All of you let her go, and now she’s dead.
But she was so young, practically a child. I had to remember that. I hadn’t been a child for a long time.

I reached out and touched her between her shoulder blades, rubbing up and down. Through the flannel shirt, her skin was so hot I could feel it. I patted her awkwardly.

“Why did she leave?” I asked.

“She liked Mitchell,” Gretchen said without pausing, her hands still on her knees. “Mitchell didn’t like her back. He didn’t even notice her. She felt like she didn’t fit in here. She’d heard of a camp in Nevada that was hiring summer staff. She said she was going to get a bus down there and apply. She was hoping to see the Grand Canyon.”

So Rhonda Jean hadn’t just left, then. She’d told at least one person about her plans, though when she walked away in the middle of the night, she had probably done it on impulse. Maybe she’d decided she’d had enough of being overlooked by the guy she liked. Then, as she’d walked away to her death, the guy she liked had sat there, smoking a cigarette and watching her leave, oblivious to her feelings. Life wasn’t fair.

“Tell me honestly,” I said as Gretchen straightened up and wiped her eyes again. “Forget the Lost Girl for a minute. Is there anyone here that could have done this?”

“You mean, followed her and killed her?” Gretchen’s brows furrowed. “No—I mean, not that I can think of. I don’t know most of the people here very well.”

“Does anyone here have a car besides Todd?”

“No.” She shook her head. “These murders started in the seventies, before a lot of us were born. It doesn’t make sense that it was one of us.” She looked at me, alarm starting in her face. “Wait a minute. Will the police come here?”

“Yes, they will,” I said.

“When?”

I shrugged.
Whenever they get it through their heads that Eddie and I didn’t kill Rhonda Jean.
“Probably soon.”

“My parents will kill me.” She turned back to the belongings
she was packing. “I’m getting out of here.” She pulled something from the pocket of her bag. “You can have this. Give it to her parents, maybe. I don’t want it.”

I took it. It was a photo, taken on the beach. Todd was standing there, making a goofy face. Gretchen was standing next to him, smiling. And next to Gretchen was Rhonda Jean, with her freckles and her shy smile. The sight of her hit me like a blow.

The photo was slightly blurry and overexposed, but each face was clear. “You’re sure you don’t want this?” I asked.

“I don’t want anything to do with any of this,” Gretchen said, her voice thick with misery and fear. “I can’t look at it. Take it.”

I slid the photo into my pocket. “Do you want a ride somewhere?”

Her glance was brief, but I read it clearly. “I’ll get Todd to take me. There’s probably more than one of us leaving. We’ll take his van. I think he owes us.”

She was right; he did. But she also didn’t trust Eddie and me.

Maybe Todd had killed Rhonda Jean. Maybe she had gotten in his van instead of a mysterious truck, and Mitchell was just covering for his friend. It was certainly possible. Or maybe Eddie and I were lying, and we had killed Rhonda Jean ourselves.

Either way, Gretchen had to take a risk to get to the bus station. She was picking the devil she knew, at least a little bit.

I’d been this girl. For years and years, I’d been her. She’d never believe me if I told her the truth.

“Be careful,” I said to her. “Please.”

But Gretchen had turned away, and she already wasn’t listening to me.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Robbie’s car was blistering hot by the time we got back inside, and Eddie had to roll the windows down while he started the engine. I winced as the backs of my thighs hit the hot vinyl seat.

“You okay?” Eddie asked me, and I knew he didn’t mean my scorched skin.

“I’m fine,” I said.

He let the feeble air-conditioning start to blow as the car cooled down, but he didn’t put it in gear. He just waited.

“I’m really fine,” I said.

“No, you’re not. You got up and walked out. I’ve never seen you do that before. And now you’re upset. I can tell.”

Oh, hell. I felt a twist of panic start up in my chest, somewhere behind my rib cage. “Can we just go? I have nothing to say.”

Eddie sighed and pushed his sunglasses up on his head. He reached to Robbie’s cassette player and pressed the
eject
button.
A cassette popped out of the player like a piece of toast. “Okay. I can listen to some”—he peered at the cassette—“Waylon Jennings while I wait.” He pushed the cassette back in and hit
play
. The notes of “I’ve Always Been Crazy” wafted through the car.

I clapped my hands over my ears. “Jesus Christ.”

Eddie said nothing. As the air-conditioning cooled us off, he cranked his window closed. That made the music louder.

I gritted my teeth. “Eddie.”

“April.”

We were in a standoff. I could make the music stop, but we weren’t going anywhere until Eddie decided to drive the car. I was strong for a woman, but he outweighed me. We were stuck.

Was this what marriage was going to be like? The two of us in a standoff when we didn’t agree? When I’d dated before, I’d never let a man get this deep. When a man pushed me somewhere I didn’t want to go, I had simply walked away.

The urge to do that now was strong. I could get out of the car and get away from this, from him, from how I was feeling. I could just start walking, like Rhonda Jean had.

But suddenly, that didn’t feel like I would be walking away—it felt like I would be running. This was my life now, this car, this man, this Waylon Jennings music. I’d run for survival before, but this wasn’t survival, and I wasn’t a coward.

“You know what happened when I was twelve,” I said finally, forcing the words out.

Immediately, Eddie reached to the tape deck and turned it off. “You and your mother escaped your father,” he said.

It was the story I’d told him on our fourth date, when he’d cooked me spaghetti and meatballs. The story of the summer I
was twelve. I’d told him of the night my mother had awoken me, her cold hand gripping my shoulder as I lay in bed. She’d told me to put my most valued belongings in a bag and get in the car. She’d told me to be quiet.

I’d packed a teddy bear, a copy of
My Friend Flicka
stolen from the library, underpants, two T-shirts, my favorite bead necklace, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and the pink wallet I kept hidden under the mattress, which had eighteen dollars in it. Maybe I had predicted this night would come, or maybe I was just the type of girl who was ready to run. I hadn’t bothered to think about the distinction.

I’d forgotten shoes, so I’d gotten into the car barefoot. My mother had coasted slowly down the street with the lights off at first, sneaking away like a thief in the night. Then she’d turned the lights on and started to speed, and I’d begged her,
Faster, drive faster. Drive faster.

My name hadn’t been April Delray that night. That girl’s name was long gone, as was my mother’s name. We’d driven away in the stifling California summer night to become other people. It was wildfire season, and when I dreamed about that night, I could smell smoke as we drove away, leaving our old life behind in ashes.

We’d wandered for years, my mother and me. She took waitressing jobs, and I was tall and pretty enough that if I put on makeup and did my hair, I could appear older and work behind the counter at Dairy Queen, using a new ID. We’d stay in one place for a while, and then we’d move. We had to stay safe, she said.

After the first few years, I started taking care of her. Of us. I paid bills and made sure there was gas in the car. I got a driver’s
license—I used an identity that was two years older than my real age for a while—and drove my mother to and from her shifts. I got us through one move, then another.

Then, when I was eighteen, my mother was gone and I was on my own. I told Eddie my mother was dead.

“Those kids back there,” I said to Eddie now. “Those girls. They remind me of me. I lived like that for a long time.”

Eddie nodded. “Not exactly like that,” he said reasonably.

“No. I wasn’t on a journey to find myself. I was trying to survive. But those kids are running, just like I was. Rhonda Jean was running. I’ve hitched before. I’ve stayed with strangers. Rhonda Jean could have been me.”

Eddie didn’t answer that. He just took my hand and held it in his. My hand was chilled and clammy, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“This place,” Eddie said, after we’d sat for a moment in silence. “It’s strange, don’t you think? There’s something wrong about it. Something I can’t put my finger on.”

He was right. We were sitting in our borrowed car, looking over the lake, but behind us was Atticus Line, the place where Rhonda Jean had started walking, according to Mitchell. It bothered me that the road was behind us. It was so uncannily quiet. Unless I looked in the rearview mirror, I wasn’t sure if there was something coming our way.

“I don’t want to go back to Rose’s yet,” I said.

Eddie’s voice was calm. “Quentin will be looking for us.”

“I don’t care.”

“Neither do I.” He looked at me. “They could end up pinning this on us if we’re not careful. Do you understand that? They need someone, and we’re right here, being cooperative little bees. She
was in our car, bleeding to death. They can forget about all the other details if they want to. That’s all they need.”

Eddie was right, and yet I didn’t feel fear. I’d faced worse things than Detective Quentin, as intimidating as he was. “Then we’ll be careful,” I said, “and maybe we won’t be as cooperative as they want us to. Starting now.”

He nodded. “I’ve been thinking about our next move. Todd said there was a Dollar Mart nearby. Maybe the people who work there have seen Rhonda Jean or know her, if she’d been there before.”

I looked out the window at the water. “Rhonda Jean didn’t just leave without telling anyone. She told Gretchen she was going to Nevada. She liked Mitchell, and he didn’t like her back, so she was leaving.”

“Mitchell, who was the last one here to see her,” Eddie said. “According to his story, it was right here.”

Maybe it was the air-conditioning, but despite the heat of the day I felt cold travel up my spine. Like the cold I’d felt earlier as I’d stood on Atticus Line.

If you see her, you’ll be the next one found at the side of the road
.

A ghost? Or an urban legend, created to cover up for a murderer?

If you were the one left by the side of the road, did it matter which one it was?

I pulled the photo Gretchen had given me out of my pocket and handed it to Eddie. He studied it in silence for a long moment.

“Quentin hasn’t been here yet,” I said. “He doesn’t know what we know.”

Eddie’s eyes stayed on the photo. “He’s busy looking at us. Our backgrounds. Trying to figure out if we’re lying.”

“That’s true. But right now we’re a step ahead of him. I don’t think that will last.”

“He’ll probably be here in a few hours at most,” Eddie agreed, putting the car in gear. “We don’t have much lead time. Let’s go shopping at Dollar Mart.”

BOOK: Murder Road
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