This is the latest chapter of a new novel that I’m serializing here. I release a new chapter every Monday. If you need to catch up, you can CLICK HERE.
Thirty minutes later I was back on the porch of the Miller house. Jenny stood next to me, and I wasn’t real sure who was more nervous, her or me. I raised my hand to knock on the screen door, then put it down. I repeated the process two more times before I decided to just bite the bullet and knock.
A man in his mid-forties came to the door, well-dressed despite looking like he hadn’t slept in several days. He stood on the other side of the screen in a polo shirt and khakis, the uniform of the Southern middle class father. I heard a choked sob from Jenny, but when I glanced in her direction, she was gone. Looked like I was on my own for this one.
“Yes, I’m David Miller. Can I help you?”
“Mr. Miller, I’m Lila Grace Carter. I live over on Spring Street. I…I’m working with Sheriff Dunleavy investigating you daughter’s death, and I have a few questions, if you have a few minutes.”
“Can this wait, Ms. Carter? This isn’t a good time. My wife just learned that my daughter’s best friend Shelly…” his face crumpled for an instant, but he pulled himself back together. “I’m sorry. We just got some sudden news and my wife is very upset.”
“I understand, Mr. Miller. I was just with the Sheriff,” I said, wondering a little how the word got out this fast. Sheriff Dunleavy would have barely had time to go talk to Shelly’s family, and the Millers already knew. Word spreads fast in small Southern towns, and never faster than when the news if awful. “But we would really like to get any information you have as soon as possible. If there’s any way…”
“Okay, fine,” he sighed. “But out here. My wife is…resting right now. I don’t want her disturbed.” He motioned to a pair of white wooden rocking chairs on the porch, an accessory that should almost come with the porch in the rural South. I took a seat, and he put his hand on the other one before stopping himself.
“I’m sorry, I’m being rude,” he said. “Can I get you anything to drink? Sweet tea? Pepsi? Ice water? I think there’s even some Cheerwine in there. I don’t know what all people have brought, but there’s at least half a dozen two-liters on the kitchen counter.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Miller. Please, sit down for a minute.” He sat, and we rocked for a minute while I tried to figure out where to begin.
“I know some of these questions will probably be repetitive, but with Shelly’s disappearance, there might be a connection—“
“Do you think whoever hurt my Jenny took Shelly, too?” he asked. There was a flicker of hope in his eyes that I had to temper, or he wouldn’t be able to focus enough to be any use to me.
“I don’t know, sir. I just know that we’re a small town, and a pretty safe one, usually. But here we are with two best friends falling victim to something, I don’t know if it’s bad luck or what, within just a few days of each other.”
“It’s not bad luck,” Mr. Miller said. “Somebody came into this house and killed my Jenny. If that’s the same person that hurt Shelley, then I reckon I’ll have help when I gut the bastard. If it wasn’t, then I’ll get him all to myself.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I wasn’t really working for the police, just working with them. A little. Begrudgingly. Plus, I pretty much agreed with him. I decided to just let it lie, rather than trying to give him some line of righteous crap about what his daughter would have wanted.
“Mr. Miller, can you think of anyone who would have wanted to hurt your daughter?” I asked, keeping my tone as gentle as I could. I’d helped Sheriff Johnny with a few cases, but I’d never talked to a grieving parent while I tried to find out who killed his child before, and I felt like I was walking on eggshells.
“No, nobody. She was a cheerleader, in the FCA, ran track, was Vice-President of her class, all that stuff. She was a sweet child, everybody loved her.”
“Was there anyone with a grudge, anyone that may have imagined some reason to dislike her? A classmate, and ex-boyfriend, anything like that?”
“Nothing,” he insisted. “Jenny didn’t date. It wasn’t allowed. We let her go out in groups and some double dates with Shelly, but nothing serious.”
I heard a snort from my left and turned to see Jenny sitting on the porch rail, her immaterial feet somehow twined around the supports. “Little does he know,” the ghost girl said with a saucy grin.
I tried a different angle. “What about Shelly? Was she as…well-liked as Jenny?” I knew the answer I expected, and Mr. Miller didn’t disappoint.
“No,: he said quickly. “Shelly was a little wild. She was something of a mean girl, and I know she put down some of the less popular girls in school. Jenny was always telling us about something Shelly had pulled on an underclassman, or a girl in their gym class, or some poor child that tried out for the cheerleading squad.”
“Did Jenny mention anyone specifically that Shelly was particularly rough on?” I knew that anyone with a grudge against Shelly probably didn’t care much for her best friend, either. I’d also spent enough time with teenaged girls, having been one once upon a time, to know that whatever Shelly did, it was unlikely that Jenny was blameless in the affair.
“I can’t think of…wait, there were a couple,” the distraught father held up a finger as ideas came to him. “There was Ian Vernon, the photographer for the yearbook. Shelly hacked his phone and sent texts to all the girls in school with dirty pictures, making it look like it came from Ian.”
“That’s more than a little mean girl stunt, Mr. Miller. That could cause serious problems for Ian in the future.” I was expecting some teasing, but not hearing that Shelly committed a felony to harass a classmate.
“I know, but you know how kids are, right?” I decided not to get into that discussion with him just days after the death of his daughter. “Was there anybody else that might hold a grudge against Shelly?”
“I guess any girl that didn’t make the cheerleading squad probably hated both of the girls,” he said. “Jenny and Shelly were the ones who decided on the team, with some help from Mrs. Hope, their advisor. Last year there were a few girls who got upset, but from what I understand they put some new systems in place this year to make it more transparent. Score sheets and things like that, and they had individual meetings with all the girls after tryouts to tell them why they didn’t make the squad and what they could work on for next year. From what Jenny said, it worked real well.” I knew Debbie Hope, and that sounded like something she would do. She was a heavy girl in school, and now that she had started teaching she was the kind of teacher that wanted everybody to feel like they were being treated fairly.
“What about boyfriends?” I asked again. “I know you said Jenny didn’t date, but what about Shelly?” I found it hard to believe that two high school cheerleaders wouldn’t at least go on dates.
“She had a few boys that she went out with from time to time, but nobody serious. Jenny and Shelly would go to the movies with Derek and Edward sometimes, and I think Shelly when to the prom with Tony Neefe last year.”
“Who did Jenny go with?”
“She didn’t go. She was supposed to go with Aaron Tolliver, but he started dating a girl, and he wanted to take her instead. So Jenny didn’t go. She was just a sophomore, so she still had two proms, so she wasn’t upset.”
“Really? Had she bought a dress?” I remembered back in the Dark Ages when I went to prom, buying the perfect dress was more of an ordeal than trying to keep your knees together all night after the prom.
“Oh, no,” her father replied. “If I’d laid out that kind of money, there would have been a whole different conversation. No, she never…” He choked up, probably thinking of all the pretty dresses he was never going to get to buy his little girl. My heart broke for the poor man, but I felt like I had to keep pressing. With two dead girls within day of each other, there had to be some connection, if we could just see it.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Miller. But could you just—“
“What are you doing here?” I turned looked up at a pretty blonde woman in her early forties standing on the other side of the screen door. She was obviously Jenny’s mother, the hair, eyes, and nose were almost identical. But I’d not seen Jenny’s mouth twist up into that kind of scowl, and I’d certainly not heard her speak with such venom.
“I’m sorry,” I stood up and held out my hand. “I’m—“
“I know who you are, charlatan. Pastor NAME has told me all about you.” Mrs. Miller spun around and disappeared into the house. I heard her footsteps stomp through the house, then I heard the sound of a refrigerator opening and closing with a thud.
The angry woman walked out onto the porch holding a blue and white pyrex dish with flowers that I recognized as my own. “We didn’t wash the dish, because I wouldn’t touch any food that came from your house. When Reverend NAME told me you came here, I couldn’t believe him. I couldn’t understand for a second why a heathen like you would want to set foot in the home of a god-fearing family in their time of grief. And now I come out onto my front porch and see you flirting with my husband? You need to leave, right now, and take your witchery with you.”
I was stunned. Speechless. I’d been called a lot of things in my life; heathen, godless, witch, liar, fake, you name it, I’ve heard it. But I’ve never in my life had someone speak to me with the abject loathing that Karen Miller unleashed on me in her den.
I looked down, working hard to keep my temper under control. It was not an inconsiderable struggle, but I somehow managed to speak with a civil tongue. When I felt like I could speak without screaming at her, I said “Mrs. Miller, I am so sorry for your loss, and the last thing I want to do right now is upset you or your husband further. I will go, but please understand that the police have reason to believe that Jenny may not have fallen, and now they have found Shelly NAME’s car in John D. Long Lake, so they have asked me to help with the investigation. I am not trying to do anything other than ask your husband a few questions—“ I snapped my mouth shut as she held up a hand.
“Out,” she ordered. “Get out and do not ever set foot in this house again. Take your dish, and your casserole, and your lies, and your devil worship and get out of my house.”
I nodded. I couldn’t see any way to do anything else, so I just nodded my head and turned to go. I stopped on the sidewalk and turned around, looking at the grief-stricken man sitting in the rocking chair and the fuming woman just inside the threshold. “I hope y’all can find peace. I hope that the police can find who did this terrible thing and bring them to justice. I am truly sorry for your loss.”
Then I turned and walked down the sidewalk, got into my truck, and nestled the casserole dish onto the passenger side of the bench seat amongst a jacket and some other junk to keep it from sliding around. I put then old girl in gear and pulled onto the street, making a right turn, then a left, then another right until I sat in the parking lot of the big Presbyterian church where I grew up.
I unfastened my seatbelt, leaned my head on the steering wheel, and let the tears of pain and shame and anger pour down my face. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” I shouted in the privacy of my truck’s cab. “Lord, I know I don’t talk to you as often as I should, but I have to ask—why can’t they just let me try to help them? Why do these people have to be so damn mean?”
I sat there for a couple more minutes, then pulled a pack of Kleenex out of the glove box and blew my nose. I tossed the tissue into the passenger seat floorboard and got out to walk the cemetery and talk to my people a little while.