The misshapen wooden steps in front of Delia Leonne’s trailer house sank into the mud under Todd’s weight as he ascended them. He took a moment to make sure he was properly balanced and then knocked on the brown plastic door. As he waited he examined his surroundings and saw stacks of sun-faded milk crates and a pile of pallets leaning up against a crumbling burn-barrel. The air was grey and little drops of rain sputtered out of the sky, touching the various pools of water that speckled the muddy yard.
Todd could hear movement from within the trailer and poised himself for human contact. He lacked the social bravado that seemed to be prolific amongst his peers but he took solace in the fact that he would most likely be speaking to one of his relatives rather than one of his schoolmates. After a moment, the door opened with a weary but piercing creak. Delia’s mother, who was Todd’s aunt by marriage, stood in the threshold. Todd had never been close with his aunt, meeting her only at the family functions that materialized after his father had remarried. Todd’s attendance to these events had faltered as he grew older. Between his schoolwork, his job, and new hobbies like making beats and building model airplanes, as well as an overall disinterest in the affairs of his extended family, he simply did not have the time or the desire to attend every Easter Sunday potluck and Independence Day barbecue. Thus, it had been quite some time since he had spoken to his aunt, and it took her a moment to realize where she knew him from.
“Hello, Aunt Lorraine,” said Todd. He offered a warm smile and slouched a bit so as to appear less imposing in front of her.
“Todd, hello. How are you?” She squinted her eyes and cocked her head to the side.
“I’m doing all right, thank you. Um, it’s been a while.”
“It has. You’ve grown so tall.” She smiled slightly. Her hair was frizzy and danced about her shoulders with every tilt of her head. Most of it was dyed black, but the roots were grey. She appeared to be quite old, though Todd knew that she was younger than one might think.
Todd nodded his head and said, “That’s what they tell me.”
She laughed. “I must be honest, I didn’t expect to see you when I opened the door. Please, come in,” she said, stepping back to clear the doorway.
Todd chuckled and said, “I honestly didn’t expect to find myself here either.” He stepped through the doorway, stooping to avoid hitting his forehead as he walked into the living room.
The room was smoky and the smell of both the woodstove and weed mixed together and made the air smell almost sweet. The carpet was decaying and worn through in places and, looking into the kitchen that was separated from the living room by a tall bar, Todd could see that the old yellow linoleum had peeled up around the edges. The TV was set to the news, but the volume was turned low.
“Please, sit down,” said Lorraine. “Can I grab you anything? A glass of water?”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” said Todd, who moved further into the living room and found a seat on a faded and expired sofa. “I’m really just looking for Delia.”
“Oh, it’s not a bother. She’s not here though.”
“Oh, okay. Do you know when she’ll be back? I guess I could just give her a call but I was hoping to speak to her in person.”
“I doubt she has any cell service. She took off with that boy. They’re always driving off into the woods and partying with those people. God, I wish she would hang out with nicer people. I’m glad you’re trying to see her; she needs more people like you in her life.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Aunt Lorraine,” said Todd. “Who are these people she’s hanging out with?”
“They’re all like that boy. Dressed all in black, covered in tattoos.” Her face darkened. “You know what I think? I think they go off into the woods and worship the devil. They used to do it when I was younger. You’d always hear stories about those devil worshippers up Harris Creek sacrificing animals. They stopped after they killed that girl though.” She stuck her finger in the air and thought for a moment. “Debbie…Debbie Clements. That’s right.”
“They killed her?” said Todd.
“Yes. She was their virgin sacrifice. That’s what I heard at least. The cops started patrolling up there and everything stopped after that. That’s been twenty years ago though, at least. I doubt they bother going up there anymore.”
“Huh. You think these people that Delia’s hanging out with are doing the same thing now?”
“I do.” She nodded her head. “The only saving grace is that Delia’s not a virgin. Believe me. You wouldn’t imagine how sound carries in this old place.”
“I guess that’s a good thing,” said Todd.
“It’s not what I would have chosen for her. We didn’t give it up so easily when I was young. She’s always been with assholes and now she’s with this boy. She tries to hide it, but he beats the hell out of her. I’m certain of it. God, I wish she would meet some sweet boy who would treat her right. Someone like you.” She laughed. “Obviously not you though.”
Todd smiled. “Well, would you have her give me a call when she…” He trailed off as the TV caught his eye.
Lorraine noticed him looking at it and said, “Oh, this story. You must know this girl, huh?” She walked over and turned the TV up.
In a somber voice, the newscaster was saying, “…results have returned and authorities have confirmed that 18 year old Deercliff Alternative High School student Maggie Nice was indeed raped in the early hours following Halloween. Ms. Nice remains in a coma at Deercliff Community Medical Center. The cause of the coma has not yet been confirmed, but the authorities say that a toxicology report is pending. The doctors are said to be optimistic as Ms. Nice has begun to show signs of life. More on that as things develop. Let’s hear from some of the students at Deercliff Alternative who want to offer words of encouragement for their classmate.”
The screen cut to various students from the school saying things like, “Get better, Maggie! We’re all thinking of you!”
Lorraine moved into the living room and sat down in her favorite green chair. She picked up the bong that sat next to it and smoked out of it as Todd wiped his forehead and covered his eyes.
“Poor thing,” said Lorraine, and then she coughed a couple of times as smoke swirled out of her mouth and around her tangled hair. She smoked some more out of the bong and then said between coughs, “There are a…lot of …ugly…people in this…world, you know?” She wiped her running eyes and then gazed down at Todd’s three-fingered right hand that was resting peacefully on his knee, and then looked up into his eyes. “There are a lot of ugly people in this world and they can’t help but try and destroy everything that’s beautiful.”
Ann Marie looked into the rearview mirror of her 2005 Pontiac G6 and saw Jackson marching up the street. He approached the back seat of her car and nearly got in, but saw that the passenger seat was unoccupied. He opened the door and jumped in saying, “Where’s Big Mac?”
“He had to work,” said Ann Marie. “It’s just you and me today.”
Jackson looked at her and nodded and then said, “Well, how do you want to do this?”
“I thought about it all night. Honestly, I’m on like an hour of sleep right now.”
“Me too. Me too.” Jackson looked out the window and across the street at Bridgette Halverson’s house. For a split second, his eyelashes fluttered and he looked as if he was going to have a seizure, but they returned to normal immediately and he rubbed his hands together.
“I honestly think we should just be straight up with her. Tell her that we’re trying to figure out what happened with our friend and that your mom told us that she saw Maggie at that party.” Jackson rocked back and forth in his seat, nodding his head rhythmically. Ann Marie went on, “At worst she’ll tell us nothing and ask us to leave. At best, she’ll tell us something really important. I don’t know. What do you think?”
Jackson shook his head. “I haven’t come up with anything better.”
Ann Marie nodded. “Okay, let’s go.”
A minute later they were knocking on the door on the stoop of Ms. Halverson’s house. It was white with a black iron fence that lined the sidewalk that led up to the porch. Large white pillars held the roof of the porch in place and Ann Marie couldn’t help but wonder how Ms. Halvorsen could afford such a house on a teacher’s salary.
Ms. Halverson answered the door and was wearing a white robe with black slippers. She seemed irate almost immediately.
“What are you kids doing here?” she said, crossing her arms and frowning.
“Hello, Ms. Halverson. Sorry to bother you today,” said Jackson.
“Kids, you cannot show up at my house like this. Not only is it rude, but I’m not even really supposed to speak with you outside of class.”
“I know, I know,” said Jackson. “Look, we just have a couple of questions for you real quick. They’re about Maggie Nice.”
Ms. Halverson paused for a moment and seemed taken aback, but then said, “I don’t know anything about what happened, kids. I’m as sorry as anybody else about what happened but I certainly wasn’t involved. I can give you the number of the guidance counselor at school if you need somebody to talk to. Beyond that, I need you to leave.” She waited for a moment and when neither of them budged, she said, “Seriously! I will call your parents!”
“Ms. Halverson, please!” said Ann Marie. “We’re just trying to figure out what happened. Wouldn’t you want to help your friend if somebody hurt her? Just talk with us for a minute, please!”
Ms. Halverson looked angrily at Ann Marie, but then her face softened and she sighed. “All right, all right, relax. Look, come inside and I’ll fix you some tea.”
Ann Marie and Jackson exchanged raised eyebrows and then followed Ms. Halverson inside. Ann Marie noticed immediately that the niceness of the outside of the house veiled the relative cheapness of the inside of the house. The furniture was a colorful mishmash of pieces that looked as though they were acquired at rummage sales or thrift stores. The television still had a large back on it and Ann Marie immediately assumed that Jackson was wondering how she could get by without being able to plug a laptop into it. The walls were covered with pictures of Ms. Halverson with people who appeared to be relatives at different stages of her life. The most expensive item in the room appeared to be a Macbook that sat open, but turned off on the coffee table. There was a blanket and a pillow on the largest couch in the room which seemed to suggest that Ms. Halverson had been sleeping in the living room.
Ann Marie and Jackson sat down next to each other on one of the couches and Ms. Halverson said, “I’ll be back in a moment. I have some tea already made up in here, I just have to warm it up.” They busied themselves by examining the photos that hung on the walls, marvelling at how beautiful Ms. Halverson had been when she was their age. Ann Marie noted to herself that she was still beautiful, but that she was getting to be too old to be alluring for much longer.
Ms. Halverson returned a couple of minutes later holding tea that had been prepared in two mismatched mugs. She set them in front of Ann Marie and Jackson and then took a seat herself amongst the blanket and pillow on the other couch.
She said, “Look, kids. I’m sorry I was so dismissive outside. I’ve just been really stressed. This thing has hit me hard as well. I haven’t been sleeping well at all.” She gestured to the pillow and blanket on the couch.
“It’s okay,” said Ann Marie. “We understand. We just have a couple of quick questions and then we’ll leave you be.”
“Well, I don’t really know anything about anything, but I’ll tell you what I can.” She offered a faint smile.
“Jackson, do you wanna…?” said Ann Marie, looking over at him.
He sat up and said, “Oh, yeah. Sure.” He put his hands together and then began. “I guess the gist of it is that my mom came home from the party at Aiden Griffen’s the other night and told me that she saw both you and Maggie at the party that night and we were just wondering if you spoke to Maggie or knew anything about what happened to her. Obviously, we don’t think that you’re responsible or anything. We’re just curious if you saw anything that might help us to figure out what happened.”
Ms. Halverson immediately looked irate again. “Don’t you think I would have gone to the police if I knew anything that could help with the investigation?”
“It’s not that…” Jackson began.
“What are you kids playing detective or something? This isn’t The Hardy Brothers. You can’t just go around and figure out what happened to Maggie. Do you really think that you’re gonna be able to do anything that the police can’t? It’s none of your business what I saw at that party.” She crossed her arms again.
Ann Marie and Jackson looked at each other and Jackson shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.
“We just thought we might be able to help,” said Ann Marie.
“Well, you can’t,” said Ms. Halverson. “I need you kids to leave now.”
Ann Marie nodded her head. “All right.”
“What a waste of time,” said Ann Marie as soon as they were back in her car. “All we learned was that she was definitely at the party. We don’t know if Maggie was there or not or what was going on or anything.” She exhaled and looked down at the digital clock on the radio, which said 12:44.
“I think I might have found something,” said Jackson.
“What? What do you mean?”
Jackson pulled a slip of glossy paper out of his pocket and handed it to Ann Marie.
“It’s an invitation to the party at the Griffen’s house.”
“Oh,” said Ann Marie. “Well, so what? We already know that she went to the party.”
“Look at the bottom,” said Jackson.
Ann Marie squinted a bit and read the fine print at the bottom of the invitation out loud, “This event will also serve as a meeting of the BHIN.”
“So?” said Ann Marie. “What’s the BHIN?”
“I don’t know,” said Jackson. “I think we need to figure it out though.”