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PENDLETON (First draft) - Chapter 2: Ghosts

by jackwyndeonline


[Joni - Friday]

-

SHE CAME HOME THAT night to find – lying to one side of her meticulously organized kitchen counter – a loose razor blade.

Joni closed the side entry door, dropped her keys, her eyes frozen on the blade.

Her things were perfectly sorted, tucked away in drawers to infinitesimal neatness.

And she would never have left a razor blade on the counter.

Where had it come from?

She stared at it, the blood in her veins running cold. She felt sick, a sudden weakness eating away at her limbs. She swayed, steadied herself against the wall behind her. Terrified and disbelieving.

The blade was even laid crooked. Maybe twenty-nine degrees from parallel with the edge of the counter. It was so unassuming, so cruelly calculated to unnerve her. As if the blade had a mind of its own, had materialized itself.

Her fingers went to the vulnerable skin under her wrists, felt the scars there.

A dark night.

Alone.

A razor blade.

How did it get there? Was there any chance that she had misplaced it? She was alone in this house for the summer. So she must have.

But Joni never misplaced things.

Because of things like this.

Because of terrible memories.

<2>

Joni couldn’t sleep.

The incident with the razor blade had so shaken her that after two hours of trying her hardest to calm down, she gave up. She climbed out of bed, wandered around the dark, empty house for a few minutes. She checked that the doors were all locked, checked them again, checked a third time. Eventually, she settled herself on the sofa with her phone and a rolled-up slice of plain bread. She tucked her short legs up into her small chest, curling her back against the cushy arm of the sofa. Her eyes roved down the screen, mindless news feeds to keep her mind on something other than traumatic memories.

And that’s when she heard the car approaching her house.

Her ears first caught it coming from a distance, but she abruptly became aware that it was quickly getting closer. She put the phone down, listened.

Then she heard the car pull into her driveway.

Someone was here.

Briefly, she wondered if it was Azul, back from her trip. But then she discarded the idea. Her best friend was gone for three more weeks.

Then who had just showed up at her house in the middle of the night?

She stood up nervously, eyes fixed on the door at the end of the house.

The house shook as fists bashed on the door. Joni was startled.

“Joni!” someone shouted from outside the door. A man’s voice.

Her heart began to pound. She forced herself to walk forward, mesmerized with fear. She saw her robe lying folded neatly on a chair, grabbed it and threw it on over her pajama shorts and tank top.

The banging continued, urgent and forceful. “Open up, Joni!”

She was a few feet from the door, walked infinitely slowly. Her unsteady hands went to the kitchen drawer, found by touch the can of pepper spray. She pulled it out, flipped off the safety. There was a light switch to the driveway. She slammed the light on, an orange glow coming through the shuttered window.

The banging stopped.

Suddenly, without a single sound.

Everything was silent for a long moment.

Joni was suddenly aware of her own rapid breathing, stepped to the door and put one hand on the knob. “Hello?” she shouted.

No reply.

“Who’s there?” she called again.

No reply.

She took a deep breath. Clenched the doorknob and pulled it open slowly. Fearing the slightest sound, she peered out of the opening in the door.

The dark shape of an unknown sedan loomed in her covered driveway. Heat was still radiating from the hood.

Other than that, the driveway was completely abandoned.

“Hello?” she called.

Silence. Someone had been here just a second ago. She wasn’t imagining it. The car was in her driveway.

But its driver had vanished.

She took one step out the door, pepper spray extended and ready. She turned to the opening of the covered driveway, studied the dark outdoors beyond. She took another step.

And felt something wet and sticky beneath her bare foot.

She glanced down, lifted her foot.

Blood.

She gasped in shock, ran back into her house. She closed shut the door, locked it, shut her eyes. Tried to breathe deeply for a few seconds.

Then she reached for a flashlight, slowly opened the door again, her eyes locked to the pavement.

It really was blood. A small cluster of drops, that led off in a tiny red trail that disappeared out the opening of the driveway.

She jumped as she heard the sound of a branch snapping.

She spun toward the opening of the driveway, flashlight aimed with one hand, pepper spray aimed with the other. Somewhere out in the front yard.

There! A shadow moved in the bushes by the road. She took a frightened step back.

She tried to remind herself she hadn’t seen anything yet. Everything was fine.

Panic pounded in her chest. She laid the flashlight on the abandoned car, used that hand to reach into her pocket. Dialed the police.

After a couple seconds, a voice came on the other end.

“I’m at my house,” Joni said, her words strained with fear. “Some stranger pulled into my driveway and disappeared. There’s blood on the ground. I think…” she shivered uncontrollably, “I think there’s someone here. But I can’t see anything.”

The woman on the other end was speaking, instructing her to remain where she was. She held the phone between her ear and shoulder, freeing her hand to pick the flashlight up again. She pointed it at the bushes.

Spotted something between the leaves.

“Wait,” she said. “I can see something.”

“Stay where you are, mam,” the woman said. “You’ve got help coming in just a few minutes.”

“I don’t have a few minutes,” Joni said, walking forward slowly into the night. “There’s someone here.”

The woman was protesting, but Joni was too focused on the dark outline in the bushes.

She came up to the shrubs, pointed her flashlight through the leaves, darkly curious as to what was hidden there.

Her heart stopped. She dropped the flashlight.

A face.

She took several terrified steps back, reached fitfully for the flashlight.

“Mam?” the woman was saying. “Mam, stay where -”

“There’s a body,” Joni stammered as quickly as she could get the words out. “A dead body. In the front yard. He’s in my front yard. A dead body.”

“Mam, go back inside. Officers are on their way.”

She recovered herself, her frame shaking all over. She edged closer to the bushes, forced herself not to jump when she caught sight of the body again.

A young man, hidden in the leaves. Blood soaking the front of his shirt, as if he had been stabbed.

But that wasn’t what horrified her the most.

She recognized the face.

<3>

“We checked the dead man’s body. His pockets were empty. His wallet and phone were taken.”

Joni listened silently to the officer – his name was Clint, he’d told her. The policeman was lean and athletic, still in his thirties. His eyes were restless, seemed to take in everything. Joni tried again to settle her nerves, watched as a few other officers roved her front yard.

“We’re searching his car,” Officer Clint continued. “We’ll let you know if you find anything. But without his wallet, we can’t ID him yet, so we have to go on what you know.”

Joni paused, searching through her memory again, trying to tell if she’d misplaced any detail. “Like I said – I heard someone pull into my driveway. When I went to answer the door, they’d disappeared. I heard a sound near the road and found…”

“Found the dead man lying in the bushes,” Clint finished for her. “You were acquainted with the man?”

Joni nodded. “Cameron Alder.”

Clint scribbled down the name, muttering it under his breath. He glanced at her hands. Hesitated. “What are you holding, mam?”

Joni lifted her hands, showed him the tiny purple craft stapler.

Clint cocked an eyebrow. “A stapler?”

“I just… fidget with it.”

“How often?”

“All the time. It helps me stay calm,” she lowered the stapler, continued to click the lever. “Can we get back to the other questions, please?”

Clint cleared his throat. “So, the man’s name was Cameron Alder.”

“I knew him as a teenager,” Joni explained. “I… parted ways with most of my friends after high school. Hadn’t seen him for five, maybe six years.”

Clint called a junior officer over, muttered to him, “The victim’s name is Cameron Alder. Get a few guys to go lock down his house, start investigating.”

The officer hurried away, and Clint turned to Joni. “Any idea how old he was?”

“We graduated the same year. So probably twenty-four or twenty-five.”

“Anything notable or unusual about him? Anything that might give us a hint why someone would’ve killed him?”

Joni felt tears coming to her eyes, looked down and shook her head. “No. Not that I can remember. I blocked out most everything from that time in my life.”

“Did you two have any kind of history?”

Joni hesitated, looked back up. “…What do you mean?”

“Were you ever in any kind of relationship with him or involved in -”

Joni suddenly realized the intent behind the question. “You think I might’ve killed him?!” She was angry, frightened.

“Of course not,” Clint reassured her. “But it’s my job to ask questions. You were the only one on the scene, and we have no evidence of any third party that could’ve killed him.”

“I would never kill anyone, officer.” Joni stammered, her heart racing. “Everything I told you was the truth.”

“No one’s making a case against you, miss. But you have to be aware of where the police stand in this situation. Until we find more information -”

“Someone killed a friend of mine,” Joni said. “You will find information about it.”

Clint nodded. “Of course.” He paused, glanced around. “This way, miss.”

Joni was still on edge, followed him hesitantly as he made his way toward the dead man’s car. All the sedan’s doors were open, and three officers wearing latex gloves were climbing in and out.

“Any progress?” Clint asked.

One of the officers stood up, holding a sheet of paper in his hands. He passed it Clint.

Joni watched restlessly as Clint read the paper, a fascinated glint in his eyes. She stood anxiously for a few seconds, worrying the officer wouldn’t share the information with her.

Then he looked up at her, offered her the paper. “You were right we’d find something.”

Joni grabbed the paper, started reading frantically. She realized it was a list of names.

Damien Byers

Faye Lexis

Karen Pittman

She gasped.

Joni Varson

Her name sat in the middle of the list, circled heavily. The only one that had been circled, she realized.

Who are these people?

She looked up in bewilderment. “I don’t get it. Why… why is my name on a list of strangers? What does it… what does it mean?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll get to the bottom of it.” He looked at the officer. “So Mr. Alder had a list of nineteen names, and he circled -”

“Twenty, sir,” the officer interrupted.

Clint hesitated, obviously annoyed. “No. I counted them. Nineteen.”

“I know, sir,” the officer replied. “But there’s twenty names on that paper. Number nineteen is on the back.”

Clint grabbed the sheet out of Joni’s hands, flipped it to the other side.

“It’s the one that makes no sense,” the officer continued.

Clint stared at the back side of the paper, a look of pure confusion on his face. After a few seconds, he passed it back to Joni. “Does that name mean anything to you, miss?”

One word. Written in massive, uppercase letters that spanned the entire page.

HAYDEN

Joni looked up at Clint, mystified.

She shook her head.


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"The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth."
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening