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Amy McCrutchen thought it was the first time she had ever really fallen in love. At fourteen, she had been in love before, but not for real. Billy Cook in fourth grade, then Johnny Stillman in sixth, but they didn't count, not like this. She and her best friend Greta had hovered on the outskirts of the big party that night, watching, commenting, giggling at the silliness of the celebrants, most of them in Robert's graduating class. Earlier, they had been banished from the family room, where the furniture had been pushed back against the walls for dancing. But they could still see everything, and they could help themselves to the plentiful food spread out on the dining-room table.
Earlier Amy had pointed out those she knew. "That's Chloe," she had said, indicating a girl in a red tank top and skintight white pants. "She and Robert are engaged. They're going to announce it tonight."
"She's pretty," Greta said.
Amy examined Chloe appraisingly. She had dark hair, almost black, straight, and halfway down her back. Her pants were so tight she couldn't sit down, and she bulged a little in them. "Too fat." She spotted Jill Storey and pointed. "She's prettier."
Jill was blond and slender nearly to the point of emaciation. She wore a black sheath that clung to her torso like a sealskin and flared at the hips. Her hair was cut short and curled about her face. She was the best dancer, Amy had decided.
"Too skinny," Greta said judiciously after studying Jill, "but she is pretty. Boy, can she dance! Who's that old guy dancing? He's good, too."
"Dr. Elders. He's not a real doctor, not like my dad, just a professor. They live next door." Her father was a surgeon, and he had gone to bed an hour earlier. Amy lowered her voice to a near whisper. "Mrs. Elders has something wrong with her. Leprosy or something. Her skin peels off, and she smells bad. She doesn't come out much."
Greta grimaced. "She peels? Like a sunburn?"
"Not like that. Great big flakes of skin, with red patches. All over. Face, arms, everywhere. It's yucky."
"Gross," Greta said. "That's too gross."
"Yeah, she can't go in the sun, or where it's hot or anything. He comes over a lot, but not her. She has to be in air-conditioning all the time." Amy shuddered. "And she's real fat."
"Double gross!" Greta said. And for a time they were both silent, savoring the grossness.
They danced on the deck, helped themselves to party food and watched. And later, hot and sweaty, Amy said, "Let's sneak some beer."
Greta grinned and nodded, and they picked up glasses
and made their way to the keg. Amy had half a glass and Greta was filling her own glass when Dr. Elders came out, closely followed by Amy's brother, Robert, both carrying empty glasses.
"Are you girls drinking beer?" Dr. Elders asked in a low, pained voice. "Amy, does your mother know you're drinking beer?"
Robert glared at Amy. "I told you kids to beat it, and put that beer down!" His words were a bit slurred and his voice was loud. "Get lost, brats!" Other guests had turned to look, to Amy's mortification.
Behind Robert, David Etheridge looked at her, rolled his eyes, shook his head and then winked. At that moment Amy fell in love.
Her mother walked out and said calmly, "Amy, why don't you and Greta make yourselves a sandwich and take it to your room."
Amy and Greta fled.
They had talked a long time, cursing Dr. Elders with the worst curse they could think of, that he would catch whatever it was his wife had, and that his nose would fall off. Secretly Amy wished the same fate on her brother, but she didn't say it aloud.
After Greta fell asleep, Amy was thinking dreamily of David, who had winked at her. She didn't know what color his eyes were, she realized. She had not paid attention before when she had seen him as just another one of boring Robert's stupid pals. She twisted and turned a short while, then put on a sweatshirt and jeans and cautiously made her way downstairs.
The party was a lot quieter, with piano and guitar music and a low murmur of voices the only sounds. She met no one and made her way out to the deck and beyond to a dogwood tree where she could see into the family room and hear the music but still be concealed in shadows.
There were only a few people left, gathered at the far end of the family room by the piano. The music was soft and dreamy, the spinning disco light turned off, and no one was dancing anymore. Several people were sitting on the floor; someone was sprawled on the sofa. Dr. Elders must have left, she was relieved to see. She spotted David, took a deep breath and sat down in the grass.
He would go out into the world and make a fortune, and the day she turned eighteen he would return and they would be free, run away, or maybe have a grand wedding with a diamond tiara and a ten-foot-long satin train for her, and a white tuxedo for him.
The kitchen lights dimmed, the patio door opened and her mother came out, paused a moment, then went to the far side of the deck, beyond the light from the family room and kitchen. Amy could not see her any longer, and she didn't think her mother could see her, either.
Her butt was getting cold and wet, she realized, shifting slightly, then she stopped moving. Jill Storey came out to the deck. She had a dark sweater over her shoulders. She passed the pale light to the family room and went to the railing on the side, where she became a dim figure. A lighter flared, then the glowing tip of a cigarette.
After a moment Robert followed Jill out, and Amy knew she was doomed. She was close enough for Robert to see her if he happened to glance her way. She scrunched down lower and pulled her sweatshirt up around her face.
Robert's voice, while not as loud as it had been yelling at her and Greta, was still quite audible as he drew near Jill.
"Hey, Jill baby, let's duck out of this, go up to my room for a little while."
"No way. Take Chloe," Jill said.
"Nah. You're the one, honey. We hit it off just right. Don't we?"
"I said no. Leave me alone."
"Not what you said a couple of weeks ago," Robert said.
"That was then. This is now."
"How 'bout you pay me back my twenty-five bucks, then? Take it out in trade?"
"You already took it out in trade. You got what you wanted, and so did I. Leave me alone," Jill said angrily.
Amy, freeing her eyes of the sweatshirt, watched the scene, frozen. Robert was slurring his words even more than he had been earlier, and he was swaying. He caught on to the rail near Jill. She moved back a step or two and he made a grab for her arm.
"You bitch! You just wanted the dough? Is that what you're telling me? You were in it for a lousy twenty-five? All smiles and come on, big boy, spread your legs for a lousy twenty-five. How many others? Spending money? Mad money? You liked it just fine then."
Jill's voice was furious as she said, "Liked it? Liked it! You disgust me, you and all the others. Stick it in, that's all you think of! Stick it in anything that moves. Think with your prick, that's all you know. Well, listen to me, you filthy ape. I don't need you now. I was going to be evicted, now I'm not. So beat it! Leave me alone!"
Amy drew in her breath sharply.
David had stepped out onto the deck. He crossed to stand close to Jill and Robert. "When you're ready to leave, I'll drive you home in your car," he said to Jill. "You're in no shape to drive tonight."
"So that's it," Robert cried. "You've got yourself a new patsy! I saw him pass you a key! You have the key to his apartment, don't you? You're moving in with him?" He was facing her, but his words were aimed at David as he said, "What's the deal for a key to an apartmenttwenty-four-hour access? She'll keep her legs spread day and night for a whole apartment?"
"Robert, shut your mouth," David said in a low voice. "Go duck your head in cold water."
"You going to make me?"
Robert swung at David, who moved aside, deflected Robert's arm and sent him sprawling off the deck into a bush. With a cry, Jill ran to the kitchen door and entered. David watched Robert right himself and stumble to his feet, then he turned and reentered the house.
Amy realized that her mother had risen, taken a few steps toward the small group at the other end of the deck, then stopped and sunk back down onto a chaise, again out of sight. Amy pulled her sweatshirt up over her eyes again and hugged her arms around herself, shivering. It was a long time before her mother rose and went inside, and Amy didn't dare move until after that.
The next day, Sunday, the news spread like a grass fireJill Storey's body had been found that morning outside her apartment, partly hidden in shrubs. She had been strangled.
"I think the worst is over," Barbara Holloway said, standing at her office window. Shelley and Maria were at the matching window, all three watching a wind-battered tree across the street. Although it was still raining, sheets of rain were no longer racing down the street. The tree appeared safe now, but the street looked like a river, with wavelets surging up over the curb. The power had gone off half an hour earlier and, according to the radio reports, damage was extensive throughout the county.
"Another storm of the century," Shelley said. "Never mind that it's the third such in the past few years. I'm going to call Alex for a damage report."
She hurried out to her own office, with Maria following to call home, and Barbara hit the speed button for Darren's office at the rehabilitation clinic. She got voice mail, left a brief "we're okay" message, then called her father.
"I'm fine," Frank said, sounding grumpy. "The yard's an unholy mess, and Norton's poplar tree is in the middle of the street. How are you fixed for lanterns at your place?" "On my way to check any minute," she said. "I'll round up lanterns and candles. I imagine the clinic is using the generator, and Darren will probably be there all night. Todd went to his mother's house after school. He called a while ago. So we're all right. I guess you're marooned for a bit, aren't you?"
Across town, Chloe McCrutchen hung up her phone after speaking with Mildred Ochs. Chloe was smiling, then laughed softly. She walked through the sprawling house to her bedroom, where she found the key to the small apartment that had been built decades ago by Robert's parents, for his grandparents' use. Chloe opened the apartment door and entered, still smiling.
Over the past twenty-two years she had put on only a few pounds, and her hair was still dark and straight, but cut becomingly in a pixie style. She was in better shape physically than she had been when younger, as now she was a regular at a gym, where she worked out twice a week. She watched her diet carefully, didn't smoke or have any other habits that invited early impairment of any kind. She intended to live for a long time, and to live well.
The apartment adjoined the main house. It consisted of two rooms, with kitchen space and a sliding door to the deck and garden. After the rain stopped, she would open the windows and the sliding door, air it out, and turn on the refrigerator when the electricity was restored. Mildred would bring over a few things and she would dust and do whatever else needed doing. A tree had smashed into the apartment she had arranged for David Etheridge, she had wailed, and she had to find him a different one, but nothing was to be had in Eugene, not with the track trials coming up, and commencement, and all. He was due in on Sunday. She had one day, Saturday, to ready an apartment for him.
"Have you read his book?" Mildred had asked, and Chloe had to admit that she had not. "I'll bring you a copy and the Times review. It's
well, controversial, to say the least."
Chloe's smile widened. She had not read the book, but she had read about it, and about the demonstrations it had caused on campuses when David had gone on lecture tours.
"You know him, don't you?" Mildred had asked. "I believe he was in your graduating class, yours and Robert's. Apparently he's made quite a name for himself."
Chloe leaned against the door frame laughing. She could hardly wait to see Robert's face when she told him David Etheridge would be staying in their apartment during his lecture series in Eugene.
The last time they had all been in the same place at the same time had been at their graduation from the university and the subsequent parties, and now they would share the same roof. It was too bad that Robert would not be home until late. She knew he would probably use the storm as his excuse, and he would take time to conduct a little private business with a pretty staffer before leaving Salem for home. She and Robert both pretended she knew nothing about his meetings with pretty staffers; they had an arrangement they both understood and accepted. Robert was a state senator with big plans, and a party grooming him to take his part when the time came. She had a role to play in his game plan, and she played it well. But she could not suppress her smile, thinking about the news she would greet him with when he got home.
She also pretended that she had never suspected that Robert and David had fought over Jill Storey, and that Robert lost. He had come in that night with scratches and some twigs and leaves on his clothes, and had promptly vanished. She knew not exactly what had happened out on the deck but that it had something to do with Jill.
She was not surprised when Robert called an hour later to say he would not be home until the following afternoon. He said there was a big smashup on I-5 and traffic was at a standstill for miles. Her news could wait, Chloe thought, hanging up the phone. Let him have his night out first, that was fine with her.