Her Last Word

Page 29


Groans rumbled over the class. “But I was getting to the good stuff,” one young woman said.
“Send me your midterms by tomorrow at noon.”
More grunts followed, but the students gathered their belongings and left the room. She locked up, hurried down the side stairs, and hustled across Main Street to her car.
As she wove in and out of traffic, the sense of urgency built inside her. The GPS on her phone noted her exit approaching, forcing her thoughts back to the moment. She decelerated off the exit ramp and headed toward the exclusive neighborhood. Her GPS guided her past manicured lawns until she arrived at the familiar white colonial. There were no cars in the driveway, but a light was on in the house.
Kaitlin texted Erika’s number. I’m here.
A new text popped. Come inside.
The hairs on Kaitlin’s neck rose as they had the night Gina was taken. She opened her glove box and fished out a personal alarm, which when pressed was loud enough to wake the dead. In a fight, a weapon could be turned against you, whereas an alarm disoriented an attacker with much less risk.
She slid the cylinder into her coat pocket and climbed out of the car. A woman a half block away walking a small dog was staring. Kaitlin waved, and the woman nodded.
Kaitlin hesitated at the base of the stairs and glanced at her phone before she climbed the stairs to the front door. She eyed the security camera mounted on the porch and then she pressed on the front door latch. She moved into the marbled hallway and looked up at the dark chandelier and then toward the light in the side room.
“Erika,” she said.
She listened for a response but heard only the faint tick of a clock and her heart beating against her chest. None of this felt right.
“Erika. Where are you?”
A frustrating silence followed.
Her skin puckered with goose bumps, as it had fourteen years ago on the road by the river. She had just turned to leave when she heard the quick rush of steps inside the house with her. Her nerves jumped. Instinctively she fumbled for the button on her alarm and ran.
She caught the flash of a black hoodie and a clown mask microseconds before something hard cracked against her skull. Pain rocketed through her body, and her breath caught as she dropped to her knees in the hall. She dropped the alarm. Her vision blurred as her fingers scrambled for the device. A hand clamped on her shoulder as she pressed the button. “Get off me!”
She swung back blindly, and her fist connected with her attacker. He cursed, and seconds later a sharp pain sliced across her midsection and ricocheted through her body.
A shrill sound shattered her eardrums. The cutting pain in her gut made her nauseated as she struggled to sit up. A figure loomed over her and raised a knife but then paused. Cursing, he lowered the knife and ran toward the back of the house.
Blood soaked her blouse, and she pressed a trembling hand to the wound, thinking maybe she could stop the bleeding. The piercing siren wailing, she rolled onto her belly and crawled toward the front door. She was inches from the threshold when another wave of pain rammed through her body. She dropped to the floor. Footsteps sounded near her, but she wasn’t sure if it was her attacker or savior.
She passed out.
Saturday, January 6, 2018; 8:15 a.m.
It’s a few minutes after eight in the morning. The coffee shop is buzzing with patrons anxious for their morning jolt of java. The aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon make the room feel warm and cozy and a haven against the cold January temperature. The barista wears a black, short-sleeved T-shirt that exposes his forearm, tattooed with a sea-horse in aqua waves.
I sit in the rear corner of the shop, my latte nearly finished. I have a ten a.m. class, and I’m not sure how much longer I can wait for Erika Travis Crowley, who promised to be here at eight sharp. In high school, I remember she’d always been late.
The bells jingle above the door, announcing a customer, and I look up again, hopeful to see Erika. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a thick beard lumbers toward the cashier as he types on his phone. He glances at me and moves on to get his coffee.
I’m about to check my phone for a possible message from Erika when the door pushes open with purpose. I look over to see a polished blonde wearing a brown coat, jeans, heels, and dark sunglasses that don’t quite fit the time of day. It’s been fourteen years, but I recognize Erika instantly.
I rise and wave my hand. The movement catches Erika’s attention, and she studies me a beat, trying to reconcile her memories of me with the woman she sees now.
She glances from side to side, then hurries across to the small round table in the corner. She pulls off her glasses. “Kaitlin?”
“It’s me.” I sound cheerier than I feel.
We exchange a brief, if not awkward, handshake, and she sits. “I’m sorry I’m late. My husband was delayed leaving for work, and I wasn’t interested in explaining where I was going, so I waited until he left.” Her husband is Brad Crowley. He’d been a few years ahead of us at Saint Mathew’s, and I still picture a serious, stern man with plans to be a surgeon.
“Thank you for seeing me. I ordered you a coffee, but I’m afraid it’s cold.”
“That’s fine. I’m so wired. Just thinking about this interview has set my nerves on edge. I haven’t been able to sleep for days. I worry now it was a mistake.”
No one so far has been comfortable talking about Gina Mason. She still is sorely missed, and it still hurts.
“This doesn’t have to be a formal interview or anything. Why don’t we just talk?”
“Sure.” She settles her small black purse in her lap and fiddles with the gold latch. “How did you find me?”
“It wasn’t hard.”
“Really? I don’t like the idea of being so easy to locate.”
“I understand.” I’ve grown paranoid over the years about my address and online profile and taken steps to hide it all.
“Do you mind if I jump right in?” I flip a page in a thick worn spiral notebook. I’ve filled two of these in the last couple of weeks.
“I can’t promise I’ll answer any of your questions.” She sounds unapologetic.
“Fair enough.” I uncap my pen, always worried the recorder will fail or I’ll miss a key detail. “As I said on the phone, I’m creating a podcast about Gina. What can you tell me about her?”
“I was jealous of her.” She tries to smile and soften the confession, but it hangs between us. “We all wanted to be her, and all the guys we dated wished they were with her.”
“How do you know what the boys were thinking?”
“My high school boyfriend confessed to it. Brad. He’s my husband now.”
“Brad liked Gina?”
“Yes. I know he loved me, but he was hot for her. He slipped and called me Gina once when we were doing it.” She tucked a blond strand behind her ear.
“Did Brad ever talk to you about Gina?”
“What did he say?”
“Other than her being hot, he thought she was stuck up and that she believed she was better than everyone else.”
“Did you tell this to the cops?”
“I never mentioned Brad’s name to the cops.”
“Why not?”
“Loyalty. I knew he didn’t have anything to do with whatever happened. He was a horny teenager who could be insecure sometimes.”