Guilty

By Jessica McKenzie All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Mystery

Chapter 20

Before.

I trailed after Blake into Violet’s house, our footsteps creaking on the front porch. The floorboards of the house were a whitish-grey, tiny cracks spiraling out across their surface. In the entranceway, watercolor glasses were balanced on delicate tables, modeling after numerous animals--an elephant, a panther, and a crow. Among those were frames of recent school pictures of Violet--as recent as her living in King, at least. One had to have been her eighth or ninth grade picture--metal braces covered her tiny white teeth as little frizzes of straightened hair hung past her shoulders. Across the wall she formed gradually into what she was today in everyone else’s eyes: completely impeccable.

Violet’s grandmother trod lightly into the kitchen with us following, where her husband lounged in the recliner in the next room glued to the glowing, scratchy texture of the TV guide. His hoary, wide legs stretched across the coffee table and his eyebrows scrunched like nothing materializing on the screen would ever fill the shoes of his necessary entertainment.

Rose stomped about the warm, wooden kitchen, wiping down a flour-covered countertop. “So, what can I get you kids? I was just working on some homemade communion bread for church this week when you came to the door, so nothing’s prepared, but, er, we have some leftover ice cream from dessert last night--vanilla with chocolate fudge. How does that sound?”

“No, they’re not touching my ice cream. I’ve been looking forward to enjoying it all day,” Thomas grunted from the couch, pointing the remote at the television. “Where’s Violet? God, she’d better not’ve run again, Rosey, I swear.”

My eyes flashed in his direction as he switched the channel to something blaring and angrily political.

Rose hesitated, flicking her attention to him, then to the mess of flour left on the counter, then back to us, offering an understanding grin. “You can just ignore him. I had to limit him to one dessert a day and he’s been rather...passive-aggressive. Doctors say that besides the old noggin and a mildly high cholesterol, his health is immaculate.” Swiping specks of flour off the counter, she gave a nervous laugh. “I’m sure he won’t miss one night of dessert.”

Ashley paused to press her long hands together. “Oh, we’re good, Mrs. Wren. We’re just here to ask you something about Violet’s...behavior lately,”--out of the corner of my eye Gavin glared at her, probably disappointed that we weren’t getting ice cream out of this. She only acknowledged him by stroking his back, determined to keep confident. “I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened to Samara Galen? She was a sophomore at our high school.”

Rose flinched backward for a moment, then fixed her expression so that she was assured none of us noticed. Instead of showing her original twitch-reaction, she settled for a solemn nod. “Oh, yes, Violet told us the other day. Such a tragic end to a life with so much potential. I know she was very upset by that news.”

“Do you know if they might’ve known each other? Had she mentioned her at all, like, before?” Ashley shifted forward, the downcast of her eyes suggesting a debate on whether or not to use the name “Dana.”

She’s avoiding the topic. She’s so avoiding the topic oh my God.

It was the first time I’d ever seen her shy of manipulating a person’s words just to pull the rug out from under them. Except, of course, when murder was brought into it. She was the reflection of Violet like a young child is the reflection of a parent--identical, but combined with helpless innocence.

Rose’s face tightened as she exaggerated intense concentration. “Not that I remember. Of course, Violet has lots of friends. Lots of names fly out of her mouth if we ever really get her blustering. I think that Samara’s death upset her simply because, well, it’s the first tragedy she’s ever experienced here in King.”

Ashley nodded slowly, the four of us catching the simple detail at the same instant: here in King. Not “back in Baltimore.” I glanced at Blake beside me, who kept one leg bent in front of the other as though ready to sprint out of the house at any given moment.

“Mrs. Wren, would it be okay if Hayden and I went into the other room to make a quick phone call to my parents? My phone’s dead; I need to borrow hers. Forgot to tell them I was going out.” Blake brushed dark, wavy hair out of his eyes and tossed me a secret cue, sending a tiny shiver from my shoulders to my elbows. I noticed the way his eyes matched his bright, clear blue t-shirt and willed myself to blink away, my brain naturally satisfied by the harmony of colors.

Ashley and Gavin were nearly gaping at him.

Rose’s attention shifted off of her little white lie, and she steadied her gaze in Blake’s direction. “Of course, hon. You know your way around.”

“Great, thanks.” He bobbed his head and gestured me to follow him down the hall, back to the cramped entrance way and up the stairs.

“Where are we going?” I pondered aloud, the crater in my stomach answering that question perfectly well even though I still hobbled behind him up the stairs. I peeked over my shoulder, unsure if the croaks of the staircase were audible from the kitchen where Rose Wren lied, lied, and lied some more.

“I’ve practically been dating Violet on and off since she moved here. I’ve been in this house a million times.” Rounding off the stairs and onto the second floor, he cracked a dejected smile. “And after, what, three, four years--I finally know who Dana is.”

I knitted my brows. “What do you mean? She’s mentioned her?”

He led me into the dark hall and shushed me. “Okay, look, I know what you’re thinking,” he tapped the first door to the left and tiptoed in, “but Violet’s not crazy. She’s just...she’s been through a lot. Ash already proved to you--her parents died in a fire when she was nine. I mean, nine! Come on. It’s almost, like, disturbing to me, you know? People are so attracted to her presence because she’s so...different. Un-freaking-destructible. I figured you’re the first one who should know that. The only reason she wants you to kill Darius Blecker is because she’s angry. Not at you, but...anyway, she’s not actually going to kill him. She--she won’t. Don’t worry, just...don’t fall for it.”

I goggled at the bedroom he’d steered me into. Undoubtedly Violet Perfect Wren’s. Unlike mine, her ivory-white carpet had been flawlessly vacuumed, free of random wrinkled laundry or papers that she never felt necessary to go through. Small lights twinkled around large picture boards that lingered over her bed, exhibiting multiple faces of people that probably called themselves her friends.

“But--the other night--” In the corner of my memory was Violet’s graceful silhouette, tossing a hand gun from one hand to the other, an emotionless side curve of her lips. I blinked the horrifying image away. “I’m still surprised he didn’t call the cops.”

Blake shook his head. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I think Darius knows Violet, that’s why he didn’t call the cops. Like...like it was something he would expect from her and he’s not afraid. Didn’t you hear what Thomas just said? ’She better not have run away again’? Maybe she’s tried to get to him before. Maybe now she knows she can’t do it herself. That’s why she needs you.”

Deserves to die.

I winced away from him. “We should get out of here before anyone notices we’re not in the next room. We don’t know for sure if that was even Darius talking to Samara on Facebook. And if he really knew Violet, she would probably end up like Dana. He wouldn’t care whether he busted some random teenagers for breaking into his shed. Like she said, he’s a creep.” Stealing one last peek at Violet’s sophisticatedly grey walls, I began to skid away from him, snapping eye contact.

Deserves to die. Deserved to die. Deserved to die.

He bolted in front of me, restricting the door. “Look,” he closed his eyes and exhaled, sticking his arm against the wall so it was in my path, “I know, okay? I get it. Trust me. I’m just trying to tell you that Violet’s more of a person than you think she is. Than anybody thinks she is. I really care about her.”

I shoved my entire body weight into his gut and failing to affect him whatsoever, rebounding off his muscles like a goddamned basketball. “Why?!” I whisper-screamed in his human trap, feeling my face heat with frustration. “Because you’re in love with her?! So is everyone. She doesn’t give a crap about you. Only herself. I’m going home.”

“You said you would let me show you something!”

I rolled my eyes, avoiding his and attempting again to budge past him. “Let me past the doorway,” I adjust my stance, “and yeah, I will.”

“Well, thank you.” He lowered his arm, frowning as I slithered past him in front of her bed. He spun around to face me and held one last shaky breath. “I knew that Violet was lying about how her parents died. I knew the truth about the fire. Violet told me back in ninth grade that it...well, it caused some sort of anxiety. The doctors couldn’t really diagnose it--it’s some sort of cross between OCD and PTSD. Hayden, she saw her dad die. I don’t know exactly what happened, see, she told me she was with some friends at the park down the street of her neighborhood when the fire happened and I’m guessing Dana must’ve been with her. It was right after her school day, but she came home when she saw the ambulance pass by to go to her neighborhood. I guess they lost her mom first but thought they could save her dad, and she saw him die, then come back, then die again. She was an orphan until her grandparents took her in, but she’s had to take pills to contain her symptoms ever since. And, well, I guess you wouldn’t know about the anxiety unless you witnessed, like, one of her triggers. She...definitely had me fooled. And after Friday, it’s pretty obvious that something’s wrong with her, right?”

“What?” My brow furrowed and I stumbled backward, flickering off his eyes. “You knew? You’re telling me she told you that she was sick and you watched her nearly kill all of us, threaten me and Tyler and Darius and all you did was turn the blind eye because you wanted to be the one guy she decides to trust?”

The one person I finally went off on, it was the gorgeous Blake Lynch.

(who’s ten times less attractive in 5, 4, 3, 2…)

He flung his arms forward, striding past me, collapsing to his knees, inviting himself to dig through the perfectly straight piles of books under her bed. He stuck his head beneath the white bed frame and huffed, “Not the point.”

I watched him below me, feeling a heavy magnet attach my foot to Violet’s carpet, reminding me to contain myself although, as he poked through her things, I had the spotless window of opportunity to kick him in the head. IHe only seemed glorious to me because he used his doesn’t-belong-in-King, drop-dead, cute-and-sensitive-boy energy to get Violet (and consciously or not, me!) to trust him.

Violet had issues. Legit, diagnosed, issues.

Blake leaned forward, pulling a piece of black construction paper out from under the bed. “The day she told me about all that was the one-year anniversary of Dana’s death. I didn’t know Dana had any relation to it, but memorial stuff was blowing up all over the news. I was over here and we were hanging out watching a movie when she put it on pause and suddenly got very upset, told me that she’d been lying to everyone about her parents. I swear, she didn’t say anything about Dana. And she didn’t until that night driving to the shed. But she did tell me that she’d been having, like, er, destructive thoughts because she hadn’t been taking her pills to ease them. She told me that she didn’t know why, but she couldn’t shake the--I mean, she had like, a need to cure herself on her own. She’d been dependent on the pills for too long.”I crouched beside him, cutting him off as I snatched the paper from his hands and examined it for myself. On the back, where he’d displayed it, there was a cramped scrawl of colorless chalk:

Mr. Forster’s art class

May 2008

To: The world’s best big sister!!!!!

Love: Dana

May 2008--right after I turned seven, Dana must’ve been around seven as well. Violet would have been ten or eleven. And she had no idea that five years later…

I flipped it over, studying the childlike fingerpainting on the front. It was a picture of the solar system, I figured, lightly stroking the nine round clumps that I assumed were the planets, all facing the end of the paper, where a rubbery-textured wad of red, orange, and yellow were used so massively it almost rose off the paper. The sun. White splatters surrounded the image, all I guessed were stars.

I smoothed a curl in the corner of the paper, an argument caught in the back of my throat.

Before I could cough it up, Blake spoke again. “A few weeks after she’d told me about her anxiety, she had started taking her pills again and I found this on accident. Her grandma was mad at her that day because the night before, Violet snuck out to go to a party with me, Ash and Gavin and didn’t answer her phone when she called her. So she’d gone to her room and had me climb some branches and sneak in through that window,” he pointed over my shoulder to the opposite wall, where long tree branches dangled across the view of outside.

“We were just going through her things and joking around, she was showing me some baby pictures and I was teasing her, trying to find some more to embarrass her. I had been digging around under her bed and found this. Without reading the back, I thought it was hers. I waved it in her face, telling her how adorable she was. I did see a little of the back, but she grabbed it from me and turned...angry, like I had intruded or something.”

He stretched his hands behind his head, almost like he was ashamed of himself. “Violet wouldn’t tell me who Dana was. No matter what I asked her, what bargains I attempted. After a while, I just gathered that the painting didn’t belong to her, that this was just Violet being Violet, and she had found it interesting and stole it from her grandmother or something. I mean, I’d always thought that she was an only child. I had no reason to believe otherwise. No one had mentioned a little sister while we were dating, and she was always by herself when she wasn’t with me or friends. So when she finished pleading with me, she put it in the exact spot I had found it--right there.” He pointed behind her neat piles of books, where he had unburied it now. “She never moved it. And until Friday, I completely forgot about it.”

I eyed the painting in my hands, feeling every detail and fiber of construction paper on my skin. “Oh.”

He nodded at the ground. “She stopped taking her pills again. Right after Samara died. I can tell.” He straightened some crooked books from his investigation. “Her room’s never this knit-picky. And she’d never risk talking about her past, especially Dana. Never. It makes her vulnerable.”

I set Dana’s artwork on the carpet beside me and held my knee against my chest awkwardly. “So...shouldn’t we tell Ashley and Gavin about her...er, illness?”

“I can’t do that to Violet.” Blake paused to scoff. “And anyway, Gavin already knows something. Why else would he agree to drive us to the shed that night?”

I shrugged, a tremble swerving me as we sat in silence.

It tore through my gut. I wished I could tell Tyler that Violet Wren was really Violet Farr. And that was the reason the entire town was captivated by her. She was never honest with anybody, that’s how she knew how to manipulate everybody, including Blake.

And he was still wrapped around her finger.

Hypnotizingly breathtaking or not, he belonged to her. I had no freaking chance.

From downstairs, the shatter of glass sawed through my thoughts. Blake and I jolted forward robotically, and I hurried through the door and down the stairs while he set the painting exactly how he found it.

“Out! Get the hell out of here and never talk to my granddaughter again or I swear on my life I’ll kill you both!”

--(lots of cussing.)

“Thomas! Enough! Go downstairs right this instant! Leave him be! Now!”

I shot down the stairs, lifting myself off the banister, my feet clashing on the ground with Blake less than two inches behind me. Beside my feet, what used to be the waterglass panther and elephant was smashed into a million crystallized pieces on the floor. Blake hopped forward and I pushed him behind, saving him a trip the ER. Around the corner, Ashley and Gavin burst in front of us with Rose Wren aside them.

“Where the hell have you been?” Ashley hissed, smoothing her hair behind her ears.

Blake shook his head, glaring at the crow next to him, the only glass structure that stood.

“I’m so sorry for my husband’s behavior.” Rose arranged a level stand. “His dementia has been worsening over the past week. Some days are good, some days are bad, others he just can’t control himself.”

Ashley caught a slow breath. “I mean, like, it’s okay. Just scared us a little.”

“Did you get a hold of your parents, Blake?” Rose asked him.

He nodded.

“I think it’s best if we save discussing Dana for another time. In fact, I personally think it’s best if you ask Violet instead of us. The subject’s delicate--there’s not much I could tell you.” She flattened an askew strand of hair as Gavin included a bitter snort that she ignored. “But it was nice seeing you all. And nice meeting you, Hayden.”

I bobbed my head as everyone else trampled outside for the truck, tripping behind them.

In the truck, Blake watched Gavin turn the key into ignition, wide-eyed as the truck roared alive. “What happened?”

Gavin snickered madly, staring at Violet’s house as we rolled down her driveway. “Turns out Grandpa wasn’t in the mood to play Scrabble.”

Ashley jabbed him in the gut and rolled her eyes. “He, like, lost it as soon as the word ‘Dana’ left my mouth. Came in and freaking attacked Gav. I mean, he tried to get away but, like, Thomas freaking shoved him into those stupid glass thingies in the front.” She broke off to pet her boyfriend. “Did it cut you, babe?”

Gavin shuddered and grunted. “No, I’m good.” He pressed his foot on the gas as we headed down the street. “We’re just not doing that again.”

I gazed out the smudged window, grimacing when I noticed a cherry-red Ford pass in front of us.

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