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Nina Avery tried to concentrate on her highlighted script. Even though she loved to act, and was thrilled with the part she had landed in the school play, she could not focus on learning her lines. She was distracted by the April breeze that drifted through her bedroom window, and by the fact that it was Friday and school was over for the week. But most of all, she was distracted by thoughts of Brandon Ross, the boy who lived next door.
His family had moved in last November, and she had met him at Christmastime. Her mother, Marsha, had invited the new neighbors to a holiday party. Brandon's father, Frank, was balding and stocky. His mother, Sheila, was blond, stylish, and thin. The party ended, not surprisingly, in an argument between Nina's parents. Her mother accused her husband, Duncan, of flirting with Sheila. Duncan insisted that Marsha had ruined the party all by herself by drinking too much egg nog and getting sloppy.
But the party wasn't ruined for Nina. She had fallen head over heels for Brandon.
Unfortunately, she hadn't seen much of him in the months that followed. They took the same bus to school, but in the winter everyone ran to the bus stop at the last minute to avoid the cold. Now that spring was here, Nina had been leaving the house early just so she might be able to spend a few more minutes with Brandon before the bus arrived. He was taller than Nina, and a year older. At fifteen, he had broad shoulders and soft brown hair that fell over his forehead. His eyes, when she dared to meet them, were brown with flecks of gold in them.
"No, you listen to me, Marsha. I have patients waiting for me. I left my practice to go over to that school and be humiliated..." her father shouted.
Nina sighed and returned to reality. She knew very well that it wasn't only spring fever and Brandon Ross that were distracting her. It was impossible to memorize lines over the sound of the shouting from downstairs. Her parents had just returned from the high school, where they had been summoned to discuss her brother Jimmy and the problems he was having. It didn't sound like it went too well. Their angry voices spiked up the stairwell and mushroomed in the hall.
"Your patients can spare you for an hour," her mother retorted in a sarcastic tone. "You don't hear me complaining because I couldn't work this afternoon."
"Excuse me, I'm a doctor. I'm not just dabbling in a paint box," Duncan replied.
"You see, Duncan?" she cried. "This is your attitude. Nothing is important but you. My painting is a waste of time. The children are a waste of time. This is why Jimmy has problems. Because you have no time for him," Marsha shouted. "Because you're too busy with your...other interests."
Jimmy was now sixteen, and had started hanging around with a garage band called Black Death. In a lot of ways, Nina thought Jimmy was sweeter than her older brother, Patrick, but lately he got into fights, cut school a lot, and came home glassy-eyed from the Black Death rehearsals. The band's lead singer, Calvin Mears, was a known drug user whose single mother did not seem to care what he did. A lot of girls thought Calvin was hot. He was lean and mean, with shoulder-length blond hair and haunted-looking gray eyes. Nina thought he was a little bit scary. She had heard the rumor that he had gotten a ninth-grader pregnant. Her brother Jimmy was the opposite of Calvin. Girls thought he was cute, too, but in a different way from Calvin. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with curly black hair and a face that was scarred up from a million childhood scrapes. He acted as the band's general grunt and Calvin's personal bodyguard. No amount of punishment had succeeded in keeping him away from his new friend.
Nina couldn't understand why her mother blamed her father for Jimmy's behavior. Her father was a hero in her eyes. Just last year it had been in all the papers when his astute diagnosis and quick treatment had saved the life of their mailman's young son, who had a rare, often fatal blood disease. Nina liked everyone to know that Dr. Avery was her dad.
But Nina's mother was always mad at him. Her father would try to avoid the arguments, but her mother would persist. And then he would snap back with something mean -- that she was a nag, or she drank too much, or she had let herself go. Which wasn't fair either, Nina thought. It was true that she didn't look much like the raven-haired beauty in her wedding picture. Her hair was graying now, and she was pudgy. But it didn't help anything when her dad, who was still fit and handsome, brought up her mother's shortcomings. Nina sighed. She loved them both so much. Why couldn't they just get along? But arguing had become a way of life for them. It was sickening. It gave her a stomachache.
Nina heard the front door slam. She went to her open window and looked out. Marsha Avery, wearing sneakers and her old green sweatshirt, her face like a thundercloud, was crossing the front lawn, toting her paint box and her large zippered portfolio. Nina knew where she was headed. At one end of their street was the Madison Creek Nature Preserve. A state-owned woodland, it was her mother's favorite place to paint. The woods ran along the banks of a burbling stream, and its winding trails were overgrown and shady. Nina started to call out to her mother, but then she hesitated. Nina and her brothers all pretended not to hear the arguments between their parents. She didn't want her mother to know that she had been listening.
Nina rested her elbows on the windowsill, her chin in her hands, and breathed in the balmy April air. The New York suburb of Hoffman, New Jersey, never looked more beautiful than it did in the spring, and Madison Street was especially pretty. There were large, comfortable old houses and lots of trees fuzzy with new leaves and buds. If you turned right out of the Averys' driveway, it was a short walk to the quaint downtown shopping area of Hoffman. If you turned left, you were headed for the preserve. It wasn't the ritziest part of town. That was the horsey area of estates called Old Hoffman. But Nina loved her street with its towering elms, lush gardens, and gas streetlamps.
Today, though, instead of cheering her up, the loveliness of her neighborhood made Nina feel more melancholy than ever. Melancholy and lonely. Her thoughts drifted back to Brandon Ross. "He'll never like me," she said aloud. She turned her head and looked into the mirror over her bureau. She had long, wavy black hair and creamy skin with no zits, knock on wood. She had often been told that she was beautiful when she smiled. But why smile? If Brandon thought about her at all, it was probably to think how boring she was.
Nina heard a car engine stopping and she looked out the window again. A shiny Jeep with the sunroof open was pulling into the wide driveway beside her father's car. The Jeep belonged to Lindsay Farrell, a beautiful girl with straight platinum-blond hair. Her dad was some kind of mogul in New York and they lived in Old Hoffman. Nina thought she had never seen teeth as dazzling as Lindsay's or eyes as blue. Lindsay got out of the car, as did her passenger, Nina's older brother, Patrick. Patrick was a dreamboat with brown curly hair and an athlete's body. He looked like a younger version of his handsome father, and together he and Lindsay looked like some Vogue advertisement for the good life.
Patrick came up close to Lindsay and tilted her face up to his with one finger under her chin. Just then the front door slammed again, and Nina saw her dad come out into the driveway, glowering and rattling his keys.
Patrick and Lindsay jumped apart. "Hey, Dad," said Patrick warily.
Nina's father mumbled a greeting and headed for his car.
"Dad, did the mail come?" Patrick asked.
"I don't know. Check the box. I'm heading back to the office." He climbed into his car and began to back out of the driveway.
Nina sighed and turned away from the window. She lay down on her bed, pushing her script to the floor, and looked up at the ceiling. She didn't feel like learning lines. She didn't care about the play. She was overcome with a combination of weariness and the jitters. Nina closed her eyes. "Life sucks," she said.
The phone beside her bed rang. Nina picked it up.
"Nina," said a familiar voice. "It's Brandon, next door."
Like she didn't immediately recognize his voice. Nina scrambled up and sat Indian style on the bed. She was shaking all over, glad he couldn't see her.
"Hi," she said. "How are ya?"
"Okay. I'm fine." He spoke in a rush, as if he wanted to be finished with an unpleasant task. "Nina, I was thinking...do you like...um...Julia Roberts?"
"Of course," she said. "Who doesn't like Julia Roberts?"
"Well, that new movie she's in is downtown. You wanna go see it tonight?"
Nina couldn't believe her ears. It was Friday. He was asking her to go to the movies on a Friday night. She wanted him to say it again. "Tonight?" she asked.
"If you're not doin' anything," he said.
This was how it happened, she thought. In an instant, with one simple question, your life was utterly changed. "I'm not," she said.
"I don't know the time," he said. "I have to call the theater."
"I have a paper," she said eagerly. "I'll look it up." She promised to call him back and hung up feeling numb. She had a date. A real date! With the boy she liked most in the world. This day, which had seemed so bleak, now seemed magical. Of course, she still had to ask her parents, but her mother would say yes. She had to.
The paper, she thought. I've got to get the paper and call him back. Nina clattered down the stairs and spotted the Hoffman Gazette on the coffee table. She stopped to read the caption under the photo of a familiar face on the front page and then checked the index. Her hands were still trembling as she turned to the section that had the movie schedule. Just as she found the listings, she heard a war whoop from the kitchen. Putting down the paper, she walked over to the kitchen door.
Patrick was embracing Lindsay, a letter clutched in his hand. A torn envelope lay on the kitchen table. When he spotted Nina, he waved the letter at her.
"I got into Rutgers!" he cried. "I got accepted."
Nina beamed at her brother. "Patrick, that is so cool." So now it was certain. In the fall he would be going to college. Sometimes, though she hated to admit it, she thought she might miss him.
As if to remind her of how sentimental she was being, Patrick let out a loud belch.
"Patrick, ugh," said Lindsay, grimacing.
Patrick released Lindsay and came over to Nina, lifting her briefly off her feet.
"Does Mom know?" asked Nina.
"Not yet," said Patrick.
"They're going to be really happy," said Nina, hoping, selfishly, that perhaps her parents would be reconciled, however briefly, by this good news.
Patrick set Nina down and stared again at his letter. "I can't believe it," he said.
"I always knew you'd get in," Nina said, although that was not entirely true. Patrick's acceptance at college had never been a given. He wasn't much of a student.
Patrick seemed to have a sudden realization. "I've got to call the brainiac!"
Nina knew who he meant. Gemma Johnstone, the smartest girl in the senior class, was Patrick's tutor. Searching the paper for the movie times, Nina had just noticed the picture of Gemma, accepting the Delman Prize, which was given to the best scholar in the school. Gemma had gotten early admission to Princeton months ago. With Gemma's help, Patrick had worked hard and brought up all his grades.
Lindsay knew who he meant, too. She tossed her shiny blond hair like a glimmering curtain. "She wasn't in school today."
"Where was she?" Nina asked.
Lindsay shrugged. "Still sick, I guess. Yesterday she had to leave early."
Patrick had dialed the number and was leaving a message. "Gemma, it's Patrick. I've got big news. Call me."
Just then the back door opened and Marsha Avery came in, looking glummer than when she had left the house earlier.
"Hello, Mrs. Avery," Lindsay said politely.
"Mom," Patrick cried. "Look." He waved the letter at her. "I got in."
Marsha frowned, and then her face cleared. "Let me see!" she cried. She took the letter and scanned it. Her gloomy expression vanished. "Oh, Patrick, that's wonderful, darling. Just wonderful. I'm so proud of you. I knew you could do it." She beamed, and hugged her son. "Did you tell your father?" Marsha asked.
"He went back to the office," said Patrick.
"You better give him a call," said Marsha.
Patrick took the phone into the living room, with Lindsay following behind him.
Nina wanted to protest that she needed the phone to call Brandon, but she knew this was more important. Marsha began to put her painting equipment back in the closet. She unzipped the green paint-spattered sweatshirt that they all referred to as her camouflage outfit.
"How come you're back so soon?" Nina asked.
Marsha's expression darkened again. "I had to leave. There was a lot of commotion there. Police everywhere. TV reporters. It was a zoo."
"Police?" Nina asked. "What were the police doing there?"
"You know that baby that was kidnapped?" said Marsha. "The Kilgore baby?"
Even Nina, who paid little attention to the news, knew what her mother was referring to. Everybody around there knew. April Kilgore, a cocktail waitress, and her baby had moved in with her new boyfriend, a guy named Travis Duffy, who had a history of child abuse from his first marriage. One night, while April was working the late shift, the baby disappeared. Duffy insisted that the child had been stolen while he was asleep on the couch. The police had been investigating it for a couple of months now. "Yeah. What about it?" Nina said.
"Someone said they found him."
"The baby? He was in the park?"
"Well, found his remains, I should say. Apparently a dog was digging there..."
"You mean the kidnappers killed the baby?" Nina asked, confused.
"Oh no," Marsha scoffed. "There never really was a kidnapping. Nobody believed that story for a minute. That boyfriend of hers was lying through his teeth. But they'll get him now. Now that they've found the body. I blame the mother, for leaving the baby alone with him. She knew he had a violent history. What was she thinking?"
Nina didn't really understand and, in truth, didn't find it all that interesting. Not compared to what was on her mind. "Mom," she said. "I have to ask you something..."
A tap on the kitchen screen door interrupted her. They both looked up.
"Excuse me. Is Patrick here?" asked the girl at the door.
"Oh hi, Gemma," said Nina shyly. "He's here. Come on in."
Gemma entered the kitchen. "He called me but I didn't get to the phone in time. I tried to call back, but..." Her large brown eyes stood out against her pale skin and her brunette hair looked greasy. She was dressed as always in baggy overalls and a shapeless T-shirt. Nina felt protective of the shy, studious girl who was often the butt of jokes.
Patrick came back into the kitchen and hung up the phone. When he spotted Gemma, he rushed over to her and lifted her up just as he had lifted Nina.
"Gemma. Guess what?" he cried. "I got accepted at Rutgers."
Two spots of color appeared in Gemma's cheeks as he set her back down. "Patrick. That's fantastic!"
"Patrick, are you ready to go?" Lindsay asked impatiently.
Patrick stretched, his shirt riding up over his taut, tanned abdomen. "I guess so."
"Wait a minute," said Marsha. "Where are you going?"
Patrick threw an arm around his mother and squeezed her. "We're going to celebrate. Probably hang out at the mall. Have a bite to eat at T.G.I.F.'s."
"Why not take Gemma with you?" said Marsha. "After all, without her help..."
"Oh no, really," said Gemma, blushing. "Patrick did the work."
"Besides, she's still under the weather," said Patrick breezily. "Look how pale she is. She's been out of school for two days. But I am going to buy her a present." He turned to Lindsay. "You can help me pick something out."
"That's not necessary," Gemma said.
"Maybe some nice shampoo," said Lindsay.
Gemma reached up and touched her hair self-consciously. Nina glared at Lindsay. She couldn't think of a sufficiently acidic retort.
"Okay, we're out of here," said Patrick. "Come on, Gemma. We'll drop you off."
"If you see Jimmy..." said Marsha anxiously.
"I'm not planning on looking under any rocks," said Patrick. Then he relented, noticing his mother's hurt expression. "Why don't you call Calvin's? Maybe that little creep's mother will know where they are."
Marsha shook her head in disgust. "That woman is so worthless. She doesn't care what they do."
"Well, I'll send him home if I see him," said Patrick. "Gemma, are you coming?" Patrick headed out the screen door with Lindsay, Gemma trailing them.
Marsha watched them go thoughtfully. "If that girl gets any thinner she's going to disappear," she said.
"You know, I saw her at the park yesterday when I was painting," said Marsha. "I wonder why she said she was sick?"
"I don't know," said Nina in exasperation. "But she just got the Delman Prize so I doubt she's playing hookey or flunking out. Mom, I have to ask you something."
Marsha glanced at her watch, and then picked up the remote. "Let's see if the early news is on. They might have something about the Kilgore baby." She switched on the TV in the corner above the sink and changed the channels until she found the local news. "What is it?" she said.
"Can I go to the movies tonight with Brandon..."
Her mother tore her gaze from the TV screen. "With Brandon? Is this a date? Fourteen is a little bit young for a date."
"It's just the movies," Nina cried.
"It better be. 'Cause if I find it was anything else," Marsha warned her.
"It's nothing else." Nina rolled her eyes.
"The movies and then straight home. You hear me?"
"I hear you." Nina felt a little deflated by her mother's response. This was her very first real date. She had expected her mother to be excited. To ask her all about it, at least. But her mother's attention was now absorbed in the TV news. She was watching it intently.
"The baby's remains were found wrapped in a black plastic trash bag," the reporter in the blue coat was saying on the screen. "We have reports now that the child had been suffocated, and buried in a shallow grave..."
Marsha let out a gasp of horror.
"When asked about speculation that this could be the missing Kilgore baby, a police spokesman had this to say..."
It was sad, Nina thought. But it really wasn't her concern. She had a date tonight. A date. With Brandon Ross. She floated up the stairs to her room to call and tell him the screening times and plan her outfit.
By the time the movie was over, and Nina and Brandon had streamed out of the theater with the other moviegoers, the night sky was black and spangled with stars. Nina wanted to grab the people who walked by her and shake them, and make them realize the improbable thing that was happening right under their noses. Nina Avery was on a date.
At least, she thought it was a date. So far, Brandon hadn't even held her hand. When we're walking home, she thought. That's when he'll do it. It will seem natural to just grab hands and walk along.
But now they were walking up Madison Street, and coming ever closer to their houses, and still he hadn't touched her. He was talking easily to her, telling her about his plans for the summer and his ideas about high school, but he kept his hands resolutely to himself. Maybe he just wants to be friends, she thought in despair. Maybe he just needed somebody to go to the movies with him. She felt her mood sinking as their houses came into view. That was probably it. It wasn't a date at all. Just two friends going to see a movie.
"Nina, is something wrong?" he asked.
She shook her head, and tried not to look tragic. She plastered a smile onto her face. "No, nothing," she said. "That was fun. I'm glad we went."
Brandon looked over toward his house. "I'd invite you over to my house, but I see my dad's car is back and my mom went upstairs with a headache before I left. They might not want any company."
Nina yawned, as if the very idea of spending another moment together was tiresome. "I better go in, too. I'll see you, Brandon."
He gazed at her with a troubled look on his face, and for one second she thought he might be going to lean toward her and kiss her, but then he backed down off the front step. "Okay, I'll see ya," he said.
She opened the front door, wanting to escape from his sight. It was a disaster, she thought. There was no other way to describe it. In her mind she'd rehearsed how she was going to tell her mother about it. Her mom was always interested in the details of Nina's life. Earlier, when Nina left the house, her mother had been brooding and had hardly said good-bye. Nina knew she was distracted by her worries about Jimmy. And that fight with her dad. But by now she would be more relaxed, her cheeks flushed from the evening wine, that familiar half-smile on her face. She would be ready to listen.
Nina stepped into the front hall and was surprised to find that it was dark. Instantly, she felt alarmed, her fretting over the date forgotten. Nobody around there ever went to bed that early. Besides, her mother wouldn't turn the light out when Nina hadn't come home yet. And there was something else. A funny smell. Somebody had to be here. Both of her parents' cars were in the driveway. "Mom?" she called out. "Dad?"
There was a light on in the living room. From the looks of it, it was only one light -- maybe the standing lamp by the bookcase. She followed the dim arc of light and walked into the living room. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust, to register what they were seeing. And then she let out a gasp and a strangled cry.
"Nina," her father said.
He was crouching on the oriental rug in front of the coffee table, looking up at her. His broad even-featured face was pale and sweaty. He was disheveled, still wearing his shirt and tie but no jacket. The front of the shirt was splotched with something dark. On the rug in front of him lay her mother, clutching the newspaper from the coffee table, as if she had pulled it down with her when she fell. Marsha's eyes were open, and there was a look of panic frozen in them. The front of her turtleneck was ripped, and there was a huge dark splotch over her chest. Her jeans and even her white socks were speckled with dark spots. Near her head on the rug was a knife. Nina recognized it. It came from the block in the kitchen. It, too, was stained.
"Mom, oh my God!" Nina started to rush toward her mother.
Slowly, Duncan rose to his feet, waving his hands at her. "Nina," he said. "Don't. Don't come any closer."
"Mom," she cried in a hoarse voice. "Mom. What's wrong with her?"
"Honey, your mom is...gone," he said. "I came in and found her like this."
"She's dead. Yes." He approached Nina gingerly, as if she were a rearing horse.
"No, she's not dead!" Nina cried. "Don't say that." She lunged toward her mother, but he intercepted her and held her back.
"No. There's nothing you can do. Someone's stabbed her."
"No. That's crazy. Let me go!" Nina cried frantically. "Mommy!"
"Honey, stop. She's dead. Believe me. I'm a doctor. I know when someone's dead. Come on. Get away from her. I don't want you to see her like this."
"Mommy," she whimpered.
"Don't go near her," Duncan murmured, holding her. "Come on. We have to go in the kitchen. We have to call the police. Come with me." He steered her away from her mother's body, although Nina could not tear her gaze from the horrible, incredible sight. Supporting one another, they stumbled into the kitchen, which was lit only by the light over the stove. Nina slid on something wet and slippery. She looked down just as Duncan flipped on the switch for the overhead light. Nina saw that her own sneakered foot was resting in a scarlet puddle. She looked up. Blood splattered the cheerful, fruit-garlanded wallpaper and smeared the checkered tile floor.
"Oh my God," said Duncan.
Nina began to scream.
Copyright © 2004 by Patricia Bourgeau