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Mystery Selves Part 5: Into the Woods

Nicole Jeffords 5 months ago

Diana awoke to birdsong and the clink of dishes being put away downstairs. She sat up, glanced over at the other bed. All she could see was a shock of black hair. She swung her feet to the floor, grabbed some clothes, tiptoed from the room.

 

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Downstairs the two women were drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Diana told them she was going for a run and plunged through the screen door into the green redolent world outside. Barns and cows flashed by, hayfields, a pond, little kids on bikes. When she strode back through the door, the women were still in the same place. Mona’s face looked flushed and excited and a little sneaky — a look that vanished the minute she saw Diana. “What?” Diana said. Suddenly she felt unwelcome.

“Have a good run, sweetie?”

Diana nodded and went up for a shower. After that she curled up on the living room couch with breakfast and a book, and it wasn’t till twelve-thirty that the dog started wagging its tail and Julie came downstairs, silent as a cat, and crept to the refrigerator for juice, downing three glasses in a row before she was satisfied.

 

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Mona and Gail had migrated to the screened-in porch that adjoined the kitchen. “Come meet my friend,” Gail called. From where she was, Diana saw Julie make a face of annoyance before doing as her mother told her. There was a murmur of hellos and then Julie returned, a tiny creature in baggy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. She zigzagged over to the couch where Diana lay. “Hi,” she said shyly.

“Hi,” Diana said back.

“I’ve got to go check on this house nearby. Want to come?”

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They crossed a bridge of stepping-stones over the gurgling brook behind Gail’s studio, and entered the woods where the light was choked off by tall trees and it was at least five degrees colder. Diana stole glances at Julie who was extremely pretty, but whose skin had a grayish pallor beneath a scrim of deftly applied make-up. Her eyes were gloomy and it was clear she didn’t really want to talk. “Your mom seems nice,” Diana said to break the ice a little.

“Uh hunh.”

“My mother talks about her a lot, their college days, how they once drove across the country with pot stashed in a box of Kotex, how a cop stopped them in Iowa or someplace for speeding and your mom was so scared she wet her pants.”

 

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“Your mom talks about stuff like that?”

“Sure, why not?”

Julie shrugged and fished a pack of cigarettes from somewhere inside her jeans. “My mom’s such a goodie goodie. I can’t imagine her smoking weed.” She lit a cigarette, offering one to Diana, who shook her head.

They were deep in the woods now, enveloped by a stillness and gloom that made Diana think once again of a cathedral. She shivered, sensing menace here, perhaps because of the way Julie hunched her thin little shoulders together, or because of a bird taking off suddenly with a monstrous flapping of wings. Diana wished she were in Austin where the air was bright and arid instead of in these damp, dark woods with this surly Asian girl who kicked at leaves and pebbles with her sandaled feet and exhaled smoke in hard, nervous puffs. “How much further?” she asked.

“Just around that bend.”

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They walked a little faster and a house came into view. Julie lit a cigarette from the one she already had going.

It was a small, dark house set close to the ground. Trees hemmed it in on all sides, throwing it into a constant shade that even the flowers planted in front couldn’t brighten. Julie crushed out her cigarette and tried the door. It wasn’t locked and suddenly she looked even more tense and worried than she had out in the woods. A wave of mustiness hit them. “When were you last here?” Diana asked.

“Day before yesterday.”

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They went inside. A cat came yowling out of the shadows. His fur stood up in tufts and his eyes were huge and desperate. Julie reached down to pet him and he jumped into her arms and clung there, digging his claws into her skin as if terrified. “Wow — is that normal?” Diana asked.

“He must’ve been scared no one was coming,” Julie said. “C’mon, let’s feed him.”

They entered the kitchen, Julie holding the cat in her arms. There was an odd mildewy smell in the air, a damp, sweet, sick odor as if water had trickled onto a carpet, or the trash hadn’t been thrown out. At the far end of the room a chair had fallen over and something, or someone, lay crumpled on the floor. Julie dropped the cat and latched onto Diana, dragging her forward.

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It was a Hispanic man of about twenty-five. Diana knew instantly that he was dead. His face was a waxy gray and there were black threads of blood trickling from his nose and mouth. His eyes were open — that was the worst part, the way the eyes stared with such great knowledge at nothing at all, except maybe the world beyond. Every hair on Diana’s body stood on end. She gave a single loud shriek and ran from the room.

Julie stayed there a moment longer, peering at the man and then rushing to the pantry and rustling around. “Oh my god! Oh my god!” she kept screaming. When she appeared in the hall she was white-faced. The two of them flew out of the house, running as fast as they could, not screaming anymore, just tearing through the woods until they were almost at Gail’s studio. Then they fell into each other’s arms, shaking and trying to get air into their lungs. “Who was that?” Diana asked when she finally had enough breath.

“Don’t know.”

“We should call the police.”

Julie pulled away violently. “No!”

“Well, what should we do? We have to do something.”

Julie’s face fisted. She started weeping — big glossy tears that carried filaments of mascara with them. “It’s my fault,” she whispered.

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Diana watched the tears form soot marks and thought of the black lines of blood trickling from the dead man’s nose. “Why?” she asked. Julie didn’t answer, so she gave her a little shake. “Why’s it your fault? Why?”

Julie gasped and shuddered. “Because.” She dug sharp nails into Diana’s shoulders. “If I tell you this, you have to swear not to tell anyone.”

Off in the distance they heard a dog bark, followed by a series of barks as other dogs picked up the call. And then, close by, they heard something else: the sound of musical scales as Gail began to practice her cello. Diana immediately flashed on the rapt, white-haired audience of the night before, the wriggling boredom she had experienced.

“All right,” she said.

They moved a little further back into the woods. Still shaking, Julie told Diana about Leo and how she had agreed to let him hide a bag of coke in the Randolphs’ house. “But when I looked on the shelf where we’d hidden it in the pantry, it was gone.”

“‘We’?”

“I mean he– Leo.”

“Did you do it so he’d love you?”

“No.” Julie shook her head slowly.

“Why else would you agree to something like that?”

“All right, maybe I did. So what?”

Diana gazed at her, sickened and shocked. “If we don’t tell the police, we’re accessories to a crime.”

“I don’t care,” Julie said. “I can’t let my parents know about this.” She began crying again.

Diana felt no pity. “That guy back there died because of your boyfriend.”

“No, he didn’t! He o.d.’d. Obviously he had a problem.”

They looked at each other with apprehension. Both were sweating profusely, damp hair pushed back from their faces. “You promised,” Julie said fiercely.

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Tune in next week for PART 6: THE BONDS OF LOVE

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