Certain stories love to start with the death of a beautiful and promising girl. This story is no different. She's beautiful, of course, because almost all loss is beautiful. She's promising because she never had a chance to prove us wrong. Corpses are found laid out and sensuous, lovely even in death. She is always sprawled out, a cold Venus, beauty unmarred due to the loveliness of her face. Perhaps she is wreathed in flowers, left in some peaceful place. A beautiful murder.
This story is not about a beautiful murder.
Jenny, of course, was lovely in life. With her golden hair and laughing smile, she was the very picture of a perfect victim, but very rarely in this life is anyone granted a beautiful death.
She had been found curled up behind some bushes in the woods, her position a testament to the pain she had been in. Being on her side caused all of her blood to pool to the bottom half of her body. One side of her was stark white, the other the deep red of the worst kind of bruises. Her hair was matted and torn out in places. Tears were frozen on her cheeks. One arm lay outstretched as though she were trying to reach out to someone. Perhaps her killer. Perhaps someone else.
Being denied the peace of a beautiful death was a particular affront, her killer had to have been known, her final moments had to have been brutal.
All I know is that it wasn't me. I would never have killed Jenny.
I loved her.
If there’s one thing I have learned from all of this trouble, it’s that police station coffee is the actual worst. It’s somehow gritty, definitely acidic, and no amount of powdered creamer and sugar packets can make it seem palatable. I’ve had about three cups of it since I was brought in about six hours ago, mostly invited solely to have something to do besides think. The second thing that I've learned from all of this is that I never want to think again.
The taste of my last cup lingers in my mouth as the detective walks in and sits at the table across from me. I wonder already if I’m dealing with a good cop or a bad cop this time. I've already dealt with four different officers, and it's been a fifty-fifty split so far, this will be the tie-breaker. She’s middle aged with a girlish face that's already lined with either exhaustion or exasperation. I guess this sort of thing would be tiring, and I know that it's exasperating. I can already see the grey begin to creep around her temples, shooting through her thick dark hair that's pulled too tightly into a bun.
She's wearing a a sensible blazer, dress pants, and a loose blouse in a shade of blush pink that I know I could never wear myself. The plain clothes make me think that she's a detective.
“Esme Chadwick?” The detective asks, as though there might be some sort of mix up.
“I prefer Mae, actually.” I sound shockingly polite given how long I've been here.
“Right.” The detective makes a useless mark on the yellow legal pad in front of her. “I assume you know why you’re here.”
“Well I’m not on a field trip.”
The detective doesn’t laugh. I’m vaguely disappointed. The humor would have done me some good. She waits, expecting, and I know what she's waiting for. My throat constricts a little at the idea of actually answering the question. It’s like suffocation, or choking. My vocal chords spasm around the words, not willing to force them out.
“Jenny,” I say quietly.
“Yes,” The detective responds.
My head is spinning away, unwilling to wrap itself around the person-sized hole that Jenny has personally left behind. The constricting becomes even more painful, and it’s then that I realize that I’m trying not to cry.
“Jenny’s dead,” I continue.
I want to move around, to distance myself from the words that I’ve just said. Before I know it, I’m standing, I’m pacing. I can feel the phantom eyes of whoever is watching me through the one-way mirror. I assume that I’m giving them a good enough show.
“Jennifer Thompson, aged 19, was found dead in the woods on February 17th.”
She is smiling at me, she always had such even, white teeth. She is reaching for my hand while dancing ahead. She is pulling me along with her, into her. Her lips are meeting mine.
Was she really only nineteen? It seems like insanity to me. College was painted with a haze of adulthood, we were all living alone, doing whatever we wanted. No parents. Being a teenager with that amount of freedom is ridiculous. It's irresponsible.
“Witnesses on that night say that she was leaving a party. Your party. You live off-campus, while she didn’t.”
I want to rest my forehead against the cool of the mirror. I don’t want them watching me.
“You know all of this already,” I say quietly. Croak is more like it. “I told you all this already.”
“I know, I’m just getting myself up to speed,” The detective replies.
My forehead touches the cool glass. I am leaning over, I allow myself to bend more. It feels like heaven, although I know it looks like hell.
It’s a thing I’ve always done, bend myself into weird positions. I’m the person who folds awkwardly into chairs, who can’t lay on a couch without one leg splayed in some wayward direction. More often than not it’s a pain in the ass for others, but Jenny always thought it was cute. Jenny thought a lot of stuff was cute.
"I don't even know your name," I tell her.
“I’m Detective Marisol Garcia. I’m a bit new to your case but-“
“It’s not my case,” I say. “It’s her case.”
Garcia quiets. She knows what I mean. It’s Jenny’s. Obviously. It's all about Jenny.
“Don’t worry,” I continue. “I know it by heart.”
I turn to look at her. She seems startled.
“At 4:15, Jenny is spotted leaving my residence, on her way back to the campus. She seemed distraught. She never returns to her dorm room and is found the next morning at 8:45 am tangled in bushes behind my house. Cause of death is strangulation. They don’t know with what. She is found by Olly Wilson, a friend.”
Acid fills my mouth when I mention Olly's name. I always feel this way, a strange mixture of shame and something else. Garcia jots something down, I’m too far from the table to see without my glasses.
"This isn't what you're here to talk about," the detective says. I shake my head.
"It's everything," I reply. "It's how it all starts, isn't it?"
The detective understands what I mean quicker than the other detectives did. She gives a defeated little sigh and leans forward.
“Your relationship to Jennifer Thompson?”
I am silent for a time. Garcia shifts in her chair.
"You wanted to talk about this, Mae, so please talk."
“She was my best friend.”
That is at least true.
Garcia looks sympathetic, so I guess I must be getting the good cop. This is good, because that means can learn what they know, see if it lines up with me.
“I gave you all I knew already," I continue. "I thought I was cleared. Is there anything new?”
Garcia hesitates for a moment before making an internal decision.
“We had a pool of people of interest,” she says. My heart drops, I knew this already.
Olly, the boy who found her.
Blake, the boy who loved her.
Elle, the girl who hated her.
Heather, the girl who obsessed over her.
Theo, the boy who didn’t care if she lived or died.
I knew them all well. We all did. And they knew me.
“We also, of course, haven’t ruled out the possibility of a drifter, or stranger to Jenny.”
Already I am shaking my head. “No, Jenny wouldn’t trust someone enough to disappear without at least screaming.”
“Maybe she couldn’t.”
“She would find a way!” My voice rips out angrier than I intend it to be, judging by the uncomfortable look on Garcia’s face. I am always doing this, I know, I am always speaking too loud or too forcefully and I am always putting that look on someone’s face.
“Are you sure?”
Of course I am sure, I know Jenny. I’m familiar with her thoughts and feelings, her ways, almost as much as I am about my own. Maybe even more than my own. I've always been a bit of a wildcard.
Off of my look, Garcia smiles sadly.
“Then why was she leaving upset?”
I have gone over this one hundred times, it seems.
“She had a fight with Blake.”
This is a lie.
“Not...exactly.”I push down the defensive feeling that rises in my chest. Now isn’t the time. Garcia doesn't look surprised at my response, and why would she? I've made my feelings on the matter abundantly clear before.
The fight is true though, that much is certain. I remember the party well, not only because of the crime committed after it but because it happened to be my birthday. It seemed as though a hundred people streamed in and out of the house where I lived alone. My parents knew at the start that I wasn't made for dorm life, I have proven that enough in the past.
I barely knew most of the party guests, they weren't inner circle. Jenny didn't really mind, everyone was a potential friend to her.
That's probably why she died, in the end.
Garcia watches the emotions play over my face as though studying them for a tell. I don't give her any, at least I don't think I do. I'm not very sure of how I come off to strangers, and what I do know about my effect on others isn't that promising. I don't understand sometimes. I don't know what to do.
"She didn't have a fight with her boyfriend?" she asks as though deliberately pushing at me.
"They weren't....real," I explain. Again. Always again.
"You two were close, would you say?"
"I don't like Blake."
"I was talking about Jenny."
How to explain? I can't, even if I possessed normal faculties, what Jenny and I had transcends even the words of a socially adjusted person. How do I explain the way she looked at me? The way she would hold my hand, the way she would hold me so close that it felt like we were breathing the same breath.
"Jenny was my friend."
I have said this so many times that it turns to ash in my mouth at this point. It's not a lie. It's true enough. That's good enough for me. That's good enough for now.
"Right. So she leaves upset, and shows up dead, is there anything you saw?"
I don't know how this has become some sort of interrogation on me, if there's anything that I would have said before, I won't share it now. Of course I saw something, I saw her walking away. I saw a figure speaking to her. I don't know who that is. It could be anyone. I could be Elle or Olly or Blake.
"No. I was at a party."
"Some people said that you disappeared for a period of time. Can you explain that?"
"Sometimes...I need to get away from too many people."
There had to have been a hundred people there. Too many people. Too many people that I did not know in my house. The thought of it overwhelms me even now, and I'm leaning forward again, maybe I want another coffee to settle my nerve. To give my hands something to do.
"I understand." She probably doesn't. I'm used to people not understanding. I cover my face with my hands, the partial darkness comforts me.
"I already told you everything I know," I moan through my fingers. It's a lie. But I can't tell the truth. Not yet. Not like this. No one would understand if they don't hear the whole story.
"But you haven't, Esme."
I hear Garcia sigh, and I don't care. I can feel myself moving against my will, rocking a bit. The movement is comforting.
"Mae. You know the reason why we brought you in here."
"I told you everything I know about Jenny's death."
"We're not here to talk about Jenny's death. Not really. You know that, Mae."
I stop moving, I look up through my fingers. I drop my hands.
"What do you mean?"
Her eyes are soft, it seems as though she actually pities me, in a way. I loathe that more than the concept of being distrusted. The terrible feeling roils through my stomach, and I feel like there's a possibility I might end up throwing up that powdered creamer, acidic coffee, and way too many little packets of sugar.
"Mae." She's saying my name too often. I know it's an attempt to placate me, but instead it just feels wrong, I feel as though I am a child who's trying to be reasoned with. I don't want to be reasoned with, I want to be let go.
"Stop it," I whisper.
"You know we're not here to talk about Jenny, right?"
"I'm always here to talk about Jenny. That's what I come here for."
"Not today, okay?"
I'm thinking in circles. I hate to think. I know, in a way, what she's getting at and part of me feels so relieved, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. I need to know if the police know, I need to know if I have to do their entire job for me. The rocking is soothing that snarled part of my brain, she watches me with a practiced and even gaze.
It's beginning to dawn on me why she would be brought in. I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps she's here to deal with people like me. Her voice is too practiced, she seems too at ease with the way that I am. I don't expect to be treated with fear or hatred or anything, but for the most part I'm used to people attempting to find footing with me. She walked in as though she's seen it all before.
"Then what am I here to talk about?" God, I know. I actually know. I just don't want to. I can't.
Garcia opens the beige folder she had tucked underneath her yellow legal pad. Inside are a series of photos taken from various Instagram and Facebook pages. Familiar faces. There are other photos too. Bad photos. Photos that look like finger paintings in black and white. She sifts through these before pulling out a single photograph. Comparatively, it's not that terrible. It's a photo of a house surrounded in the woods. Looking at it fills me with a sick sort of dread.
"We're here to talk about what happened in the cabin."
Once upon a time, there was a cabin in an enchanted wood. I thought about it that way while I was growing up, at least. Now, not so much. My parents were always fans of the outdoors and were cursed with an overabundance of wealth. Instead of purchasing some beach house, or a penthouse in Paris or something, they instead decided to opt for a house in the woods. In return for me keeping my personal life as secret as possible, I'm allowed access to this, as well as the wealth. It’s not terrible, all things considered. I’m not the type of person to spill my personal life out in the open anyway.
It was beautiful though, the seclusion of this place. Located on a long, winding driveway, the cabin isn't exactly the kind of cabin that Abraham Lincoln was raised in. Instead it was more of a chalet, built into the side of a woodsy mountain, with big windows that overlook a spectacular view.
In the fall, when the leaves change, it looks as though half the world is on fire.
I liked it here even more than my parents house, than the small place I lived in while studying at university. Far enough away from people, I felt as though I could be myself. Jenny loved it here too.
It made it a perfect place for my plan.
It had been several weeks since the incident, Jenny had already been released for burial, although there was a terrified part of me that wondered if they'd find a reason to bring her back out again. I haven't made my mind up on whether or not that would be a good thing or a bad thing. I knew she hatec the dark, but I also knew she loved to sleep.
I also knew that at this point, neither of those things matter to her anymore.
Does it always rain when someone beautiful is put in the ground? The soft patter of the drops on my umbrella was soothing, more soothing than the priest's words were. I stood in my black dress and winter coat and found that I could not watch her lower into the ground, instead I had watched the people who decided to attend.
The wake for a young person is like a ride at Disneyland. It's mostly lines and waiting, with a brief moment when you get to the main event...seeing her. The embalmer had done a terrific job, smoothing away the bruises and cuts around her neck, painting her face to hide the bruising. She did not look as though she was sleeping, but she looked peaceful, at least. She didn't look much like her, in any case, Jenny never had to wear that much make up, no matter how much Heather tried to give her a makeover.
I did not linger too long casketside, she wasn't there anyway. While many people attended the wake, most of those acquaintances and fair-weather friends melted away during the funeral itself. I saw her to the end, and so did others.
Elle Park was looking pinched, sewn up. She couldn't wear her usual array of colors, not even to the funeral of someone she most likely hated, but she silky fall of her black hair was swept into a bun that seemed almost too elegant for the occasion. Like a secret celebration.
Blake looked grim and sad, all buttoned up. So different from his usual self. He wore a suit that bordered on ill-fitting. It's likely he had to find one in a hurry for this very occasion.
Olly was there, looking a bit lost. He slicked his dark hair back, hollows in his eyes. Obligation clearly tied him there, being the one to find her. A bruise stood out high on his left cheekbone. Had he been fighting?
Heather wept silently into an actual fabric handkerchief. It was so unbelievable as to be considered ridiculous.
Theo wasn't there.
I didn't expect him to be.
But as I stood there in the rain, watching the faces of the people who had decided to linger, that's when it all started to come together.
March wasn't the best time of year to visit the cabin, there's too much risk for early spring snow storms, and none of the foliage is particularly beautiful yet. Looking out over the view, it seemed desolate. Painfully isolated.
Everyone accepted my invitation. In any other situation, the surprise would be welcome, instead it just filled my stomach with dread.
You need to do this though, I kept telling myself. You need to figure it out.
The grey clouds began to gather as people began to arrive. Olly was first, he struck me as the sort of person who always arrives first to everything. Out of everyone arriving, I knew Olly the least, but he seemed the most like me. Quiet, sticking to the fringes. I barely knew how he even knew all of us, he was one of those people who would show up not as much as some, but more than others.
As I lined up bottles of wine on the kitchen counter, he crept in like a shadow. He looked crumpled somehow in his plaid shirt and jeans, his dark hair a little too long, a little too messed, a winter jacket folded in his arms. It didn’t look like he had brought any luggage for a weekend stay, although I later learned that he left his duffel bag in the hall.
I looked up. He looked over. We stood in silence for what felt like an hour, before he laughed nervously.
After Jenny died, there were times when I try to imagine what he saw. Before I went to bed I would close my eyes and he is walking down the forest path behind my house. I imagined him catching a glimpse of dead flesh. Maybe he thought she was sleeping.
I walked his path in my dreams a lot. I was never able to make it to the end like he did.
Those ghosts had taken up residence in his eyes. It took me a long time to realize that I had been standing there for far too long after his initial greeting, so I did the only thing I thought I could do in that moment.
He looked startled at first, I didn’t blame him, but when my throat began to tighten and I began to choke back the laughter tears, he moved to my side, his hand reaching and hovering, never touching me.
It was strange, I wanted him to touch me.
I usually don’t want to be touched.
“Hey,” he said gently. “Is this...is this going to be okay?”
“Hello, Olly,” I replied. “Thank you for coming.”
He smiled, it was an uneasy smile, but good enough for me.
"It's no trouble, really. You've been through a lot, I know that you and Jenny were close, that had to be difficult for you."
"I've had better birthdays."
Something flit across his face, horror perhaps. There was no way that he realized what the party had been for, at least not at that point. Wiping my eyes, I turned my mind back to the task at hand. There needed to be enough alcohol to get everyone relaxed. There needed to be enough to to get people talking. Olly watched as I worked, completely trapped in his own sense of uselessness in that moment.
"Mae....what are we doing here?"
I didn't look up.
"I'm lining up wine glasses."
"No, I mean, all of this. The invitation, wine? Are any of us even of legal age to drink?"
I snorted. "That didn't stop us before."
"Well maybe it should have, but seriously, Mae. What is going on?"
I wished that my hair could form a curtain over my face, I liked when that happened. Usually it keeps me from having to control my face emotions. I hate when my face emotions show. Unfortunately now I couldn't.
"I thought it would be nice to have everyone together," I explained.
"How could that possibly be nice?"
"You didn't have to come," I shot back. "If you're so uncomfortable, why did you even bother to come?"
Olly was quiet for a long time. Long enough for me to look up from what I was doing in order to see his face. I don't really get people's faces most of the time. Olly was smiling, but even I could tell that this was not a happy smile.
"I didn't have anything else to do," he admitted.
"Oliver Wilson," Garcia says. I hold my newest cup of coffee in my hands, although whatever warmth that terrible coffeemaker bestowed upon it had leeched out about twenty minutes ago. "Age 20. Sophomore. He's the one who found the body."
"I know who Olly is."
"Right," Garcia flips through the file. I can see flashes of black splatters and pale, pale hands. I want to flinch, but I don't.
"So Oliver Wilson arrived at the cabin at 5:45 PM on the night of March 10th."
"I'm not really good at keeping track of time, but that sounds right. It was before the storm, anyway."
"Was he a close friend of yours previously?"
"No. I don't have many close friends."
"But he was one of five people you invited that night."
"Were any of them your close friend?"
I don't move. She stares at me. She seems so very tired, or maybe it['s just because I can feel my own exhaustion seeping into my bones. She looks at me, I think she's waiting for something, but all I do is chew on the bottom of my lip and hope that I can become invisible somehow.
She won't let me go, not until I answer.
"No," I whisper.
"What was that?"
"No!" I say it a little louder. She flinches, so perhaps I'm too loud. I'm always too loud or too soft. I'm never in between. "None of them were my close friends. They were all Jenny's friends. I guess that made them my friends too. Jenny was good like that."
Garcia allows me to sit quietly for a moment. When I look up from my rapidly cooling cup of coffee a second time, I notice that she's staring hard at one of the pictures. I know what that's a picture of, I can see it from here, but even if I couldn't, that image is seared into my brain like a brand.
"So Oliver arrived first."
Time stretches out before the two of us, and I wonder if she's trying to come up with another question. There's so much for her to cover, and yet she seems to be dragging me through the information piece by piece. I think I know this tactic, she's trying to wait for me to slip up. That won't happen, I don't have any reason not to tell the truth anymore.
After what feels like a year or so, she finally speaks again. Her voice is quiet, terrified.
"Did he have any idea of what you were going to do?"
For once, I look her dead in the eye.
"No," I reply. "None of them did."