November 1st, 10:46 PM, Largo Household.
The tear stain spreading into Ethan’s pillow almost looked like the South American continent. He could still hear his parents yelling at each other in the kitchen downstairs. Upon getting him home from the police station, it had become clear that his father was on his side and his mother wasn’t. She couldn’t even look at him during the hour-long scolding he had received in the living room. She sat on the edge of the couch, staring at a spot of dust in the corner that dangled from the surround sound speaker his dad had installed a few years ago. All of his dad’s talk about, “fighting this injustice,” and “knowing the legal system would work its natural course and prove him innocent, after all he hadn’t been charged with anything and of course hadn’t done anything wrong,” provided the backdrop for his mother’s rejection.
Ethan’s room was a Spartan affair on the second story of his parent’s upper middle class abode. A few posters for alternative rock bands (and a J. Cole album cover, Ethan’s favorite “platinum with no features” rapper) a “Madden” football game foldout, and a slew of college pennants created an arch shape around his bed. A desk in the corner had an Apple Laptop, set of Wal-Mart speakers, stack of textbooks and a Ichiro Bobblehead Ethan had gotten from his grandma when he was in Middle School and a huge baseball fan. The whole room was painted a dark blue, a color he had picked out during his parent’s big remodel a few years back. He had been lying on the bed for about thirty minutes, alternating between growing extremely cold and extremely hot.
He couldn’t hurt Maggie, not after everything she had done for him, yet already it seemed as if the whole world had decided that he had.
The first quick tapping sound came during a time of chill for Ethan. His brain felt like a projector, quickly displaying all the different pictures the Sheriff had shared with him. The most prominent was the close-up of Maggie’s face, the running mascara giving a serene quality to her eyelids, as if each was placed behind a window during a gentle rainstorm. She looked as if she was sleeping, if not for the large cut on her lip which was oozing blood down her chin.
The second pebble to bounce off his window caught his attention however. His room overlooked the roof of the garage. When he first moved into this room, his mother had hung a ladder just outside the window leading up to this roof, in case of a fire. It had never really had a chance to prove itself worthy of its primary objective, but it had allowed Ethan and his friends to sneak into his room past many a curfew. Standing in the window now was a darkly clad Jackson, beckoning Ethan to follow him.
After a short, cliché refusal of the call on Mr. Largo’s part, he was standing behind his dad’s tool shed with Ann Marie, Jackson, and Big Mac. All are dressed in dark sweatshirts and pants, Jackson even going so far as to have put on camouflage face paint.
“Seriously, what the fuck are you guys even doing here? Do you know the amount of trouble I’m already in?”
“Did you do it?”
“Fuck you Ethan, fucking… fuck you!”
“Calm down Annie. We don’t want to get caught out here. Listen, Ethan, we’ve been talking…”
“Oh, you’ve been talking? When did you find the time in between spoon feeding your cunt of a mother and dressing up like GI Joe?”
(Something about cutting tension with a knife would be appropriate here.)
“I’m not going to even address that comment. I know you’re mad. I know you feel like we have totally thrown you under the bus. I know it looked today like we just gave up on you. I know that you feel isolated and scared and betrayed and in pain, real pain, because you love Maggie just like we do. She is our friend. We would do anything for our friend. And Ethan, you, you’re our friend.”
“Ethan, would you just tell us what we need to hear. What happened last night?”
Ethan found himself again explaining how Maggie had been trying to help him win over a girl, that the last thing he had spoken to her about was her being a bodhisattva, and how she had ran off to Annie’s car. He did his best to attempt to change the subject when pressed about which girl Maggie’s stunt had been meant to impress, although Ann Marie shuffled awkwardly when Big Mac asked again about that point. The small rendezvous hunched in the dark for a long minute after Ethan had finished recounting his tale. Big Mac just stared at the row of firewood Ethan and his dad had stacked behind the shed earlier that year. Ann Marie was rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, her eyes scanning the group. Jackson finally interrupted the silence by raising his hand.
“You don’t need to do that Jackson…”
“It’s just, we all agreed we would believe Ethan. And if Ethan is telling us the truth, which, again, we agreed we would take his word as true, that means Annie was the last person to see her.”
“Hardly. She only got into my car to smoke a bowl. We drove around and listened to the Decemberists and talked. (cue a pointed look at Ethan, who despite all the circumstances had found himself admiring how cute Ann Marie looked dressed for this espionage mission.) We stopped back by my place, cause of my curfew and she said she was going to take the blackberry path home. Which, seeing as that’s kind of our thing, the person who attacked her knew about the path or followed her.”
“That’s pretty far from Kate’s though…”
“…So lets put this all together. She gets to the party with Annie around 8:40, she tries to help Ethan pull some stupid stunt, you two leave around 12:30, and Ethan you left to go get the beer from Donnie around 12:20, and part of that was to talk to Maggie, and then Ethan is back by 12:40, and you and Maggie are at your house at 12:50-ish?”
“That sounds about right.”
“And is this our final version of this story?”
“It’s not a story if it’s true James.”
“I’m asking if we all agree, this is the correct version of reality. Shit is about to get fucking fucked up around here. Ethan, I’m sorry bro, but you really are fucked. I think you didn’t do it, and I feel like I know that, but like, good things don’t happen in these cases. People are looking for a villain man, and you are going to be the first up on the pedestal.”
“So help me.”
“That’s why we are here. It was Ann Marie’s idea. I know this morning, and at the station, just, lets forget about that. We all know you didn’t do it, you couldn’t have. I remember taking a rip from the beer bong with you before going to bed. I know you were at Big Mac’s house. So now we need to figure out who did.”
“Wait, seriously? You guys came here for the fucking kid detective bullshit?”
“Maggie is our friend! We owe her this. Plus, the rest of your life hinges on us finding the right pervert before sheriff Boyer slips the noose around your neck. This kid detective bullshit could save your life. This shouldn’t have to be about you though, Ethan.”
“I’m sorry, today… all of it…”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I think we need to ask Todd Sizemore what he saw when he found her.”
“I can do that, I work with him. He’s really sweet.”
“Yea, and creepy. His claws give me the real jitters.”
“They fucking do!”
“My mom was talking about the Griffen house, the party last night. She said Maggie was there. But, I mean, I don’t even know how my mom got in, and Maggie was with us all night.”
“Dude, your mom was just high, there is no way she made it to that rich people circlejerk.”
“I don’t know man. She kept bringing up a Bridgette, and talking about that AP Lit book, Heart of Darkness I think.”
“I don’t know any Bridgette’s”
“Isn’t Ms. Halverson’s first name Bridgette?”
“That sounds nerdy enough for someone who wanted to a math teacher. We could look into it.”
As Ethan watched his friends stand in this little huddle in the dark, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief and true belonging. Their silly outfits, the determination in Jackson and Ann Marie’s faces, the way Big Mac laid out plans and individual tasks for each member of this troop, this sudden camaraderie helped calm Ethan down. Perhaps, even in the face of a great calamity, humanity doesn’t just give up on each other.
“Hey, uh, listen, thanks you guys. We should set up new email accounts to fill each other in as we look into this. I’m pretty sure my computer is totally evidence now, so I better, like, wipe my browser history, ha (his joke falls miserably flat). But, anyways, you should get out of here, don’t want to get caught with me tonight. Thank you so much for, for believing in me.”
“Not a problem man.”
“Hey, uh, where is Reggie? Does he think I did it?”
“He’s on our team, I think. Shits going kinda weird for him. He couldn’t get out of his house tonight. I don’t know if you knew or not, but his mom has been seeing Officer Bishop for a while now. With all this, I guess Officer Bishop brought over dinner, and according to his last text is staying the night tonight, for protection or some crap. Reggie has never been good about his mom dating other guys. Don’t tell him I told you that.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yea. I’ve actually got to get over there, promised him I’d tell him about all this and snag some leftovers. Jackson out.”
Jackson hugged Ethan before he slinked off into the shadows, sticking tight to the fence so that Mr. Largo’s motion-detection lights didn’t spring to life. Annie squeezed Big Mac’s arm, the universal female signal for “let’s get the fuck out of here” and he whispered to her to go wait in the car. She looked at him pleadingly, and followed along Jackson’s path to the front of the house and the street beyond.
When the car door audibly clicked across the silent night (that is to say, when the car door audibly clicked across the silent night which also included the rhythmic guttural chanting of frogs, which had always been a part of Deercliff nights, although it seemed louder tonight) Big Mac lashed out. His fist struck Ethan right below his eye, in the general cheekbone region. Ethan spun around and hit the ground hard, Big Mac following close behind in order to put Ethan in a sort of wrestling pin. Big Mac’s forearm bore most of his weight onto Ethan’s head, who was coughing up swear words along with the dirt that was in his mouth.
His mouth right in Ethan’s ear, Big Mac whispered, “Stay the fuck away from Ann Marie. I don’t know what you did or didn’t do to Maggie, but your little fantasy comes to a close tonight, do you understand me? If you touch her I will kill you personally. She is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me and nothing will take that away from me.”
He brought his knee into Ethan’s rib cage as he dismounted him, and then slunk away via the same shadowy fence. Ethan lay there for sometime behind his father’s shed, crying once again. His mind was racing with the images of that smoky mascara, the eyes changing with each sob between Maggie and Ann Marie’s, his lips salty with the taste of tears or those bloodstained lips.
November 2nd, 9:12 AM
At this moment in time Todd is knocking on the front door of Delia’s double-wide, staring at a text on the bedazzled pink phone reading, “I think it worked!” from the previous day. Essie Boyer is slamming the door of the Ford Bronco so many Deercliff sheriffs before her have also used as a steed, staring at the Griffen mansion. A car speeds along I-90, its only real company the cows and snow that make up this part of the country during the winter. Inside, the heater blares, NPR whispers sleepily, and Trevor Nice rubs his Odyssean eyes. He doesn’t really pay any attention to the girl in the seat next to him; she had been mostly quiet since he had picked her up on the way out of Chicago. For her part, Amanda Sanders didn’t really think Trevor was interesting enough to talk to anyways. She had her eyes on the prize finally, a story that would justify her decision to become a reporter, and how she got to the podunk town of Deercliff was in the hands of the fates.