Three months earlier, Jenna Barton was supposed to meet her lifelong best friend Celia. But when Jenna arrived late, she found that Celia had disappeared—and hasn’t been seen again. Jenna has blamed herself for her friend’s disappearance every single day since then.
The only piece of evidence is a lone diamond earring found where Celia and Jenna were planning to meet, leading the national media to dub Celia “The Diamond Mom.” And even though Jenna has obsessively surfed message boards devoted to missing persons cases, she is no closer to finding any answers—or easing her guilt.
But when her son’s new girlfriend—who suddenly arrived in town without a past—disappears, a stricken Jenna begins to unwind the tangled truth behind Celia’s tragedy. And as long-buried secrets finally come to light, she discovers how completely lives can be shattered by a few simple lies.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Five police cars. Three news vans. And one coroner’s wagon.
Jenna Barton saw them as she made the turn onto the last county lane. The vehicles were fanned out around the old weathered barn, one wall collapsing in and the others hanging on for dear life.
The fields around her on either side, stretching away for miles to the edges of the county, were empty and barren, still marked by patches of snow from an uncharacteristically heavy storm for that part of Kentucky. The soil was dark and lumpy, the remnants of cornstalks sticking out like spikes.
As she came closer, the dirt and gravel on the narrow road pinging against the underside of her car, she saw the people as well. County sheriffs in their pale green uniforms and Smokey Bear hats. News reporters in their nice clothes and perfect hair were being followed by cameramen in flannel shirts and heavy boots. And a scattering of onlookers, the curious good old boys who heard the call on their scanners or read about it on Twitter, standing around in their feed caps, hands thrust deep into pockets against the cold, hoping for a glimpse of something horrific. Something gory or gross, some story they could tell later that night in the Downtowner while they sipped beers or threw darts.
Yeah, they’d say, their bravado mostly covering their unease, I saw them bring the body out. Wasn’t hardly anything left. . . .
Jenna parked next to a sheriff’s cruiser, but she didn’t get out. She sat in the car, hands clenching the wheel, and took a few deep breaths. She told herself this was probably nothing, another false alarm, one of many she had experienced over the past three months. Every time an unidentified woman’s body was found in central Kentucky, along an interstate or in a culvert, an abandoned house or the woods, someone called her. Usually the media but sometimes the police, and Jenna would have to wait it out, wondering whether this would be the time they’d tell her they’d found Celia. As she sat in the car, her eyes closed, the heater making the cabin of her Civic feel even closer and more cramped than it already was, she wondered whether she wanted to know the truth or if she could she keep her eyes shut and hide forever. Would she finally feel relief when they found her best friend’s body?
The thoughts swirled through her brain like some twisted Zen koan:
I want to know.
I don’t want to know.
A light tapping against the window brought her eyes open. Jenna blinked a few times, turned her head. She saw a smiling face, one wearing a pound of makeup and a wide smile. Becky McGee from Local 40 News. Becky gave a short wave, her shoulders rising in anticipation of Jenna’s response.
Jenna turned the car off and stepped out. She’d been at work when Becky called and still wore her light blue scrubs. She’d rushed out of the office so fast she barely had time to grab her keys and purse. A damp winter chill hit Jenna as she straightened up, so she pulled her coat tighter, felt the light sting of the wind against her cheeks.
Becky placed her hand gently on Jenna’s upper arm. “How are you?” she asked, her voice cooing as if she were talking to an invalid or a frightened child. “Tough day, huh?”
“Is it her?” Jenna asked.
“They don’t know anything,” Becky said. “Or they won’t tell us anything. They’ve been poking around in there for the last thirty minutes. It’s a potential crime scene, so they have to take their time. . . .”
Becky’s voice trailed off as Jenna’s eyes wandered to the old barn. Some cops stood at the opening where a door once hung, staring inside. One of them said something and then smiled, looking to the man next to him for a laugh as well. They were close to fifty feet away from Jenna, so she couldn’t hear them, and she envied their ease at the scene, their lack of emotional involvement in the outcome of the search. She looked around. She was the only one truly invested, the only one who would buckle with pain if Celia’s body was discovered in the shitty, run-down barn.
Jenna turned back to Becky. The camera guy, Stan, loomed behind her, the equipment in his hand but not shooting. Jenna had learned over the past few months what the red light meant. “What did they find?” she asked. “You said on the phone it was a body.”
“Well, it’s—” The cheer and lilt quickly went out of Becky’s voice. She was a little older than Jenna, probably in her early forties, but her voice still sounded like the high school cheerleader she had once been. “Bones. I guess, a bone to be more specific.” Becky nodded, confirming the fact. “Yes, they found a bone. A surveying crew was out here, and they went looking inside the barn to get out of the cold or to take a smoke break, and they found a leg bone. Now they’re digging around in there, looking for more.” Becky made an exaggerated frown to show how awful she found the whole situation.
“Did someone call Ian?” Jenna asked.
“I did. He said he wasn’t going to come. You know he never makes it out to anything like this.” Becky lowered her voice. “I think he mistrusts any potential display of emotion. Plus, you know, a lot of people still think he’s guilty.”
“The police cleared him,” Jenna said.
“Mostly,” Becky said, her voice low.
Jenna wished she could be as strong as Ian, could so easily and readily draw lines and never cross them. It was easier for men. People accepted it if a man was cold and distant. “He’s smarter than me, I guess. It’s so cold out here.”
Jenna saw the other reporters and their cameramen moving her way. They recognized her, of course, after all the stories and interviews, after all the features and updates on Celia’s case. They knew she was good for a quote or two, knew the viewers loved to hear from her, even the ones who took to online forums and social media to criticize her. It was Jenna whom Celia was leaving the house to see that night back in November. It was Jenna who first called Ian when Celia didn’t arrive at their designated meeting place. It was Jenna, Celia’s best friend since high school, who could tell the viewers anything they wanted to know about Celia.
Jenna knew the reporters were using her, but she couldn’t help herself. She felt obligated to speak to them out of loyalty to Celia, even though she always received crank calls—at work and at home—and hateful comments on Twitter and Facebook. People offered support too, plenty of people, she reminded herself. But the nasty ones stuck with her.
Becky nodded to Stan, easing toward Jenna, reaching out with one hand to brush something off her coat. “You know what would be great? We’d love to be able to get your reaction now, you know, and have it as part of the story tonight. And I’ve already heard from New York. Reena wants to do a live remote tonight, put it all over CNN. Of course she’d love to have you again. She thinks you’re great.” Becky tilted her head to one side, studying Jenna. “This is so cool that you wore your work uniform. It’s so real. If you could slip your coat off and—”
“Please, Becky.” She didn’t want to be rude, didn’t want to snap at the reporter who Jenna knew was only doing her job and who had always been decent to her. Jenna tried to soften her words with a smile, but it felt forced, like squeezing toothpaste back into a tube. “It’s cold out here.”
“You want the coat on?” Becky asked. “That’s fine. It’s a little brisk, even for February.”
“No, I don’t want to talk right now,” Jenna said, her voice friendly but firm. “Not before.”
Becky was a professional, but that didn’t mean she could hide all her emotions. One side of her mouth crinkled when Jenna told her no, and a glossy coldness passed over her eyes. “You don’t want to talk now?” Becky’s eyes darted around. She scooted closer, lowering her voice and adding a steely edge. “You’re not going to talk to someone else, are you?”
“I’m not going to talk to another reporter, no. Of course not.” Jenna sighed. “Whatever happens, I’ll talk to you first.”
“Good. Because you and I—” Becky’s glance darted to the other reporters who stood just out of earshot. She eyed them like a school of circling sharks, which in a way they were. “We’ve always had a rapport, ever since this happened. And with Reena in New York helping me—”
“After,” Jenna said. “Okay? Let’s just talk after.”
“After what?” Becky asked.
“After we find out what’s—who’s—really in that barn.”
“Are you sure?” Becky asked. She lowered her voice again. “You know it could take a while for them to identify anything. I mean, they have to use the dental records at this point. And you always have something interesting to say. And this whole town has been on edge for the past few months. Things like this don’t happen here.”
Jenna felt the heat rise in her cheeks, and as it did, the molars at the back of her mouth ground together like shifting tectonic plates. She didn’t want to say the wrong thing. She had a tendency to do that, to blurt things out. The wrong things at the wrong times. Jokes at a funeral, curses in front of someone’s grandmother. They never came out the way she intended, and sometimes she hurt people or offended them. She never seemed to know how her words would land, and she wished she could learn to keep her mouth shut.
But Becky read the look and nodded, reaching up to pat her hair. “You’re right,” she said, smiling, doing her best to set Jenna’s mind at ease. “After will be better.”
Better, Jenna thought. Better? Would any of this ever be better?
It was a first for Jared Barton: a beautiful girl in his bedroom.
Yes, he’d fooled around with girls before. At parties or in the park, fumbling in the dark, the sweet taste of some kind of flavored vodka on the girl’s breath while they kissed, their tongues swirling like clothes in a dryer. And he remembered the ever-present fear of interruptions that hung over those encounters: other kids barging into the bedroom or, worst of all, police chasing them from the park, the flashlight blast in the eyes, the smug cops hustling them away with smirks on their faces. Okay, Romeo, the park’s closed now. . . .
But even though his mom worked full-time and his dad was long gone, Jared had never managed to bring a girl home. At fifteen, he felt a little behind. He had friends at school who boasted of blow jobs and even sex, and Jared listened to the stories in awe, not saying much for fear of betraying the fact that he’d never made it past second base, a private shame he kept to himself. But here she was, standing in his room after school on a Tuesday afternoon, the amazing Tabitha Burke.
Jared told himself to remain calm and to not—for the love of all that was holy—blow this chance.
Tabitha leaned over his desk, her long fingers picking up items and then placing them down, almost as though she was shopping in a store and didn’t know what she wanted to buy. When they’d come in, Jared silently thanked whatever god dwelled above that his room was relatively clean, that there were no dirty boxer shorts on the floor, no stained socks or wet bath towels littering the carpet. For once he was glad his mom rode his ass about keeping things clean. He wanted to make the best impression possible, and he didn’t think Tabitha would be the kind of girl who would leave dirty clothes on the floor or dirty dishes on her desk. Not that he’d ever been close to her house, let alone inside.
“Do you want a drink or something?” Jared asked. “I think we have some Cokes. Maybe my mom made iced tea.”
“I’m fine,” Tabitha said. She looked back at him, offering a smile that revealed a dimple on her left cheek.
Jared loved the smile—even though her teeth weren’t perfectly straight—and he loved the dimple. He liked to caress her cheeks when they were close, making out and kissing her lips, her ears, her neck, running his fingers over her soft skin because he’d never felt anything like it. But that answer to his question about the drink. I’m fine. Tabitha said it all the time about almost everything. He thought of it as her motto, her catch-all response to most questions, and Jared couldn’t help thinking of it as a line in the sand, something that always reminded him he’d know her some, but not as much as he wanted. He hoped—and kept hoping—that would change, that he’d hear that phrase less and less as time went by.
He’d only met her three weeks earlier on the icy January day she showed up at Brereton Jones High School in Hawks Mill, Kentucky. The semester had already started and, in homeroom that first day, Tabitha was escorted in by a guidance counselor. She carried no backpack or pens, no papers or books, and she looked tired, like someone who’d just come off a twelve-hour shift in a factory. Jared didn’t care. Tired or not, Tabitha was beautiful: almost as tall as he was with fair freckled skin and green eyes. Her hair looked a little greasy that day, and she wore it back, but that only called more attention to her full lips, which Jared stared at while Tabitha explained to another girl that she’d just moved to Hawks Mill from Florida. They’d driven all night, she said, she and her dad. He’d just started a new job in town. . . .
But Jared didn’t care about the details. He wanted to—needed to—meet her. He wasn’t sure he’d ever wanted anything—anyone—so much in his life. It felt like hunger, a physical craving.
And he did meet her that very first day during sixth period. Jared went to the library instead of the cafeteria where he normally spent his study halls, goofing around with his friends, drinking Cokes and watching stupid videos on their phones. But he knew he had a math quiz that day, and he knew if he went to the cafeteria he’d fail.
He hadn’t stopped thinking about Tabitha since seeing her in homeroom. He’d spent the whole day hoping she’d end up in another one of his classes, and short of that, he hoped for a glimpse of her in the hallway. But those things didn’t happen, so when he walked into the library and saw her sitting alone at a table, reading—of all things—a book by Dean Koontz, his heart raced like a motorboat.
She liked Dean Koontz. Jared loved Dean Koontz. And she just so happened to be reading one of Jared’s favorites: Whispers.
Jared didn’t stop. He didn’t open his math book, and he didn’t sit at another table. He went right up to Tabitha and complimented her on her taste in books. He knew he was taking a risk, approaching the new, very pretty girl and striking up a conversation. Jared felt the same that day in the library as the time he first went off the high dive at the community pool. He remembered the slow climb up the ladder, the terrifying view of the blue water on all sides. He knew kids were lined up behind him, and to turn away or back down meant instant humiliation.
So he jumped.
And how good it felt—the free fall through the air, the glorious splash into the water. The bubbles streaming from his mouth as he sank, and then the steady rise back to daylight. The terror and the glory.
He jumped with Tabitha too. He didn’t think, didn’t turn around and walk away.
She looked up from Whispers and smiled, the dimple catching his eye. “I read this before, a few years ago. And then I found it on the shelf here. It’s one of my favorites, so I just started rereading it.”
“It’s one of my favorites too,” Jared said, slipping into a chair across from her. She hadn’t asked, and he didn’t care. He acted, his body taken over by some force that allowed him to behave like a confident, mature human being. They talked about other books they liked. And movies. And food.
He never even opened the math book. He later failed the quiz.
He didn’t care.
It all seemed to be leading to this moment in his room.
And so she stood before him, gently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear with one hand as she studied the books on the shelf next to his desk. “You really do like Dean Koontz,” she said.
“He’s the man who brought us together.”
She turned and smiled again, then picked up the framed photograph on the top of the shelf. “Who’s this?” she asked. “Is this your dad and your brothers?”
“Half brothers. Yes, that’s them.”
“Your dad looks like you. I can see it in the eyes.”
“I guess so.” Jared didn’t want to talk about his dad. Not because his absence was particularly painful. It really wasn’t anymore. His dad had left when he was five, and he remembered that pain very well. It felt as if he cried for weeks, stumbling around with his vision blurred by tears, asking if Dad was ever going to come back. His mom put on her best face for him, but even then he could see how much it hurt her. At night, after she put him to bed, he’d hear her crying through the thin walls of the apartment they lived in back then. Nothing ever scared him as much as the sound of an adult crying. “I can never see those things,” he said to Tabitha.
“Didn’t you say you don’t really know your half brothers?” Tabitha tapped the glass with the end of her finger.
“I visited a couple of years ago. Dad paid for the plane ticket, so I went.” Jared’s first plane ride. He loved the window seat, looking out and watching the huge patches of nothingness beneath the wings. So much room in the country, so many places to go. “It was weird. It felt like I was staying with strangers. I mean, his new wife is okay. Shelly. And the kids are good kids. I guess. But how much can you get to know people in a week? Dad . . . I barely remember him, and he doesn’t know me at all.”
Tabitha nodded. She placed the frame back in the exact spot she found it, as though she were handling a precious work of art.
Jared waited, hoping she’d signal a willingness to talk more about her own family. He didn’t want to press or push if she didn’t offer any signs, even though he wanted to ask almost as much as he wanted to do anything else. Almost. There were other things he wanted to do with Tabitha more.
But he didn’t know where Tabitha’s mother was. On the few occasions the subject came up, Tabitha was evasive, suggesting only that her parents were separated, and her mother lived in another part of the country. Tabitha didn’t seem to have much contact with her mother, if any. He wondered if her mother had problems, emotional or something else.
Jared only knew Tabitha lived with her dad in Hawks Mill. Beyond that . . . not much. And most of his inquiries in those first few days they walked home from school together or hung out in study hall were met with some variation of the standard I’m fine. Since then, he’d kind of let the subject go, hoping that over time she’d open up more. But weren’t relationships supposed to work the other way? Wasn’t the guy supposed to be closed off and the girl the one who always wanted to talk about her feelings?
“I heard something about your mom today,” Tabitha said. She still stared at the photo of Jared’s dad and brothers, a photo Jared only put out because his mom said it would be a nice gesture. He didn’t know who the gesture was for, since his dad was never coming back, but he did it to appease his mom.
“Oh.” Jared tensed. The muscles in his stomach tightened as though bracing for a blow. She could mean only one thing. “People say a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah, some kids at school told me something about her friend disappearing. Is that true? I didn’t know if it was just some weird gossip or exaggeration.”
Jared hesitated before answering. Okay, he had to admit, Tabitha wasn’t the only one holding things back. He hadn’t mentioned much to her about his mom at all, except to say she worked as a nurse and she was pretty easy to get along with. He left out the part about Celia, knowing he’d have to tell Tabitha someday but hoping they’d know each other better when they went down that rabbit hole. A shared love for Dean Koontz was a much better icebreaker than, So my mom’s best friend disappeared without a trace and is probably dead. . . .
“It’s true, yeah.”
Tabitha turned around to face him when he started speaking, leaning back against his desk and folding her arms under the gentle curve of her breasts. She didn’t say anything but seemed to be listening with a particularly sharp focus, as though every word that came out of Jared’s mouth mattered a great deal to her.
“It’s kind of weird to talk about,” he said. “Are you sure you want to hear about it?”
“Okay. My mom’s been friends with Celia ever since they were in high school. I’ve known Celia my whole life. Back in early November, they were supposed to go out together. They were meeting near Caldwell Park. Do you know where that is?”
Tabitha looked confused. “I don’t know where anything is yet.”
“It’s not far. They were meeting late at night, almost like they were sneaking out. I don’t know why. I think they were trying to recreate some of the wild times they had in high school. But Celia didn’t show up. At first Mom just assumed she’d changed her plans or something. Celia’s married and has a kid.” He snapped his fingers in the air. “Maybe you know her? Ursula Walters? She’s in our grade.”
“There’s a girl named Ursula in a couple of my classes.”
“She’s kind of a pain in the ass,” Jared said.
“She seems like a bully to me.”
Tabitha lifted one shoulder, a halfhearted shrug. “She just strikes me as the kind of person who thinks she should always get what she wants. I’ve known other people like that.”
Jared waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. “I’ve known Ursula since I was a kid. My mom thinks maybe Celia wasn’t around for her enough. You know, Celia and Ursula’s dad, Ian, were kind of wrapped up in their own thing too much instead of paying attention to Ursula. But that’s another story. Anyway, Mom texted Celia and called her, never got an answer. She called Celia’s husband. And then they called the cops, but they couldn’t find her.” Jared straightened up, scooting forward on the bed. “Wait a minute, have you really not heard about any of this? I mean, not until today?”
“No,” she said. “I just moved to town. I don’t know many people.”
“But it’s a national story. Or it was for a month or so, until they didn’t find Celia and everybody decided to move on to some other kidnapping or plane crash or whatever. It was on CNN every night. That weird lady on the crime show? The one with the gray, poofy hair, Reena Huffman? She practically moved here.” He almost smiled at the strangeness of the blank look on Tabitha’s face. He didn’t think it was possible not to have heard of Celia’s case, given how much it played on the news. “Have you never heard of the Diamond Mom?”
“The Diamond Mom? That’s what they call Celia.” He looked around the room, trying to see if there was a clipping from the local paper he could show her, but he didn’t see any. “Celia disappeared by the park, and the cops found this diamond earring at the scene. One of her earrings. Like it fell out when the maniac or serial killer grabbed her. Her husband and her mom identified it. They’re worth a crap ton of money, I guess, the earrings. They’re heirlooms, and Celia never went anywhere without them. She wouldn’t just let them fall out and not notice. Celia’s family is rich too. Anyway, that Reena Huffman lady started calling Celia the Diamond Mom. That popped up on the screen every night when she talked about Celia’s disappearance. It’s a play on some old song. ‘Diamond Girl’ or something. And, I guess, it makes Celia sound rich. The news shows love that stuff.”
Tabitha’s mouth hung open a little. Her eyes glistened, as though she might cry, as though the story about Celia had happened to someone she knew well. “So how’s your mom?” she asked, her voice a little shaky.
“She’s doing her best. The first couple of months after Celia disappeared were a disaster for her. She tried to act tough and cool and everything, but I knew it was killing her. You know how parents are. They feel like they have to be strong for us, but it really put her through hell. The media kept bugging her. People looked at her funny at work or the store, even though she didn’t do anything. She blames herself, you know? She feels guilty about the whole thing.” Jared felt a protective instinct swelling in his chest, some desire to shield his mom from the scorn and the pain and the attention. “It can’t be her fault. After Celia disappeared, her husband told the cops she thought someone was following her.”
“Some creep, I guess. But then how do you prove that? I guess she just felt freaked out a few times when she went places, like a car was following her or something. But maybe she was imagining it. How can anyone know?” He shrugged. “The whole town’s kind of gone crazy, you know? People have bought guns and security systems and dogs. They think a madman is on the loose. Maybe one is. It’s been hard on Mom. I know she thinks about it all the time.”
“That’s terrible,” Tabitha said, and her voice carried a weight that seemed heavier than her years. “Does everybody think she’s dead?”
Jared noticed that Tabitha didn’t pull any punches. So many people tiptoed around the topic of death. They said “passed away” or “deceased,” but not Tabitha. She didn’t play coy.
“I think everyone assumes that,” Jared said. “Once someone has been gone that long, everyone thinks the worst. And maybe some creep was stalking her. . . . Sometimes I watch those cop shows on TV. After forty-eight hours, it’s like impossible for them to find someone alive.”
“I know,” she said, again with the heavy weight in her voice.
Jared didn’t want her to be sad, so he tried to say something hopeful. “People do think they’ve seen Celia. More than once someone in another town, sometimes way across the country, says they’ve seen Celia somewhere. The cops always try to check it out, but they haven’t found her yet.”
“And they haven’t found her body?”
“I guess that’s good. Kind of.”
“You must live in some kind of cave, or a news media blackout, if you’ve never heard of the Diamond Mom,” he said, trying to sound joking and casual.
Tabitha’s cheeks flushed. Her lips, which had remained parted, clamped tight into a wire-thin line. The sympathetic emotion in her eyes grew hard and flat, almost like a light going out.
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“That cave comment.” Her words came out in rhythmic bursts, like steel banging against steel. “It’s not funny.”
“It’s just an expression. Everybody says it.”
“I should go.” In one quick, fluid motion, she pushed herself away from the desk and grabbed her coat, moving to the door like someone rushing to catch a bus.
Jared barely had time to move. He walked a couple of steps behind her as she glided through the bedroom door, turning to the right and the front of the house. “Tabitha? Wait.”
He followed her, hurrying. The denim from her jeans made a sharp brushing noise as she walked away from him, and Jared had to jog to reach her before she made it to the living room.
She stopped. He started to reach out and touch her arm, but some instinct told him to back off, that no one as angry as Tabitha was wanted to be touched at a moment like this.
But she had stopped.
She kept her back to him, her shoulders moving as she breathed heavily with anger.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I was just . . . I didn’t mean anything.”
She didn’t respond. But she didn’t leave. He took that as a good sign, one that meant he still had a chance to keep her in the house for a little while longer.
“I didn’t mean to insult you or your dad. I don’t care where you live. I was just being a smart-ass. I do that sometimes.”
“It’s not . . . That’s not what I’m mad about.”
“Forget it,” she said. “I should go.”
“No, I want you to stay. Please?” Jared decided to pull out all the stops, open up the way he wanted her to. If he was going to lay it all on the line, he figured this was the time to do it. “I want to tell you something else. About Celia. And my mom. About what I had to do with her disappearing.”
She turned to face him, her eyes opened wide.
And she stayed.
Excerpted from "Since She Went Away"
Copyright © 2016 David Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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