It was the end of summer, when the hills were bone dry and brown; the sun beating down and shimmering up off the pavement was enough to give you heatstroke. Once winter came, Empire Valley would be compensated for five months of hot misery with three months of torrential rain, the kind of downpours that make the freeways slick and send cars sliding into one another on ribbons of oil. On the bright side, the hills would turn a green so lustrous they woud look as if they had been spray painted, and in the morning the fog would transform the valley into an Arthurian landscape. But before the days got shorter and the rain came, there was the heat and the dust and the sun, conspiring to drive the whole town crazy.
School was starting on Monday. I had two more days of freedom. I hadn’t slept very much since Wednesday night; my palms were sweating, and everything ached with the ache that comes after a long hike and a couple of rough falls. My mother wanted to take me to a doctor for the insomnia, so the night before school started I didn’t go home. Instead, I went to Empire Creek Bridge, where I thought I could clear my head. The bridge was a small, overgrown stone arch, a mimicry of ancient Roman architecture that was more about form than function and could only accommodate one car at a time going one direction on its carefully placed cobblestones. A narrow, slow-moving body of water ran beneath it, and clumps of oak trees rose up near its banks. The bridge was almost useless, but very picturesque, and this was where I lay down so that I wouldn’t get run over, and closed my eyes. I needn’t have bothered. All night, not one car passed. I could have died on that bridge and no one would have noticed.
This is not to say that I wanted to die. I wasn’t–and have never been–suicidal. The valley was blanketed by a late, torturous heat wave that made the shadows the only decent place to sit during the day, and the dry winds kicked up the dust, making me uneasy. I had grown up Empire Valley and was used to these uncomfortable summers, but this time I had begun to feel a restlessness reverberating through my bones like the persistent hum of cicadas.
It had been a long, slow summer. I had spent most of it reading massive Russian novels on my porch, playing video games, and sleeping until noon. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I didn’t see much of anyone apart from my parents. I had plenty of schoolwork, too–my class schedule for the upcoming year promised to be brutal, with six AP classes and college application season right around the corner–but nothing seemed to be able to occupy me for very long. My mother had an easy explanation for my agitation–it was my senior year, and I was under a lot of pressure, especially from my father, to chart my future–but it was more complicated than that.
There was another reason I had come to Empire Creek Bridge. The year before, almost to the day, a girl I loved had died on this bridge, shot in cold blood. The police considered the matter solved–there had been an arrest, a trial, a guilty verdict–but Carly’s murder retained an air of mystery for me and so did the place where she died. I had so many questions, but nobody except Carly seemed capable of answering them, and by the time I had found her body she was already dead. Despite all the effort I had put into blocking that night from my mind and trying to forget, the murder still haunted me. I didn’t know what good spending time at the bridge would do, but I had been drawn there throughout that boiling summer, and I thought it was best to go with my instincts, even though they never seemed to do me any good.
As the sun came up that Saturday morning, I sat watching the animals–deer, hawks, the occasional wild turkey–move around on the scorched foothills. Soon, a patrol car pulled up, its siren whooping to get my attention. I had already moved from the ledge down to the creek bank, and was splashing some water on my face. The doors slammed, and I could hear footsteps making their way behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Neily Monroe?” The officer leaned over. “Your parents are very worried. Did you sleep here last night?”
“Yeah,” I said, though I hadn’t slept at all.
“Bryson?” The other officer was on the bridge.
Bryson stood. “He’s pretty out of it. We should get him home.”
His partner came down and took a look at me. “You feel sick?”
“You look sick,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” Bryson asked. “This is a park. You can’t sleep in a park overnight.”
I glanced around. “Doesn’t look like a park.”
“It is according to the City of Empire Valley.” He looked at his partner for confirmation, but the other cop just shrugged. “Anyway, it’s public property.”
“I am the public,” I said.
“You want to be a wiseass? We’ll put you in the back of that patrol car and haul you down to the station if you keep that up.” Bryson narrowed his eyes at me.
“Can’t you just write me a ticket or something?” I asked. I put my hand to my forehead, suddenly dizzy. I was hungry, too, and already sweating from the heat. I wanted my bed.
Bryson recognized me then, as I knew he would. There were very few full-time police officers in Empire Valley, which had the lowest crime rate in the Bay Area, according to the Chronicle. Bryson had been in the station the night I found Carly.
“What were you doing out here?” he asked again, suspicious. “Does this have anything to do with last year.”
“I don’t know.”
The other cop, whose name tag told me he was Officer Lopez, put a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get you out of here.”
I tried to follow him up the creek bank, but I couldn’t keep my balance and fell flat in the mud. I thought it might be all right just to lie where I fell.
Bryson slipped his hand under my armpits and tugged at me. “Come on, Neily, you’ve got to help me here,” he grunted, digging his heels into the mud. “Steady as she goes there, captain. Lopez, help me get him in the car.”
“Maybe we should take him to the hospital,” Lopez suggested, and Bryson nodded.
We drove along Empire Creek Road slowly. I let my eyes go lazy and the trees blurred together. The sun was no longer showing. A blanket of clouds had blotted it out. I couldn’t help feeling relieved; maybe it would rain soon, and the heat wave would end. I put my head back against the seat and closed my eyes.
At the hospital they must have given me some kind of sleeping pill or tranquilizer, because I woke up at four-thirty on Sunday afternoon feeling gruesome. I stared at the ceiling, bringing the cracks and paint bubbles into focus. I was in my bedroom and could hear somebody moving around downstairs. It was probably my mother, but then there was a low voice, my father’s voice. The fact that he had come meant that, to them, this was serious.
I got out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans. The room was hot and stuffy, so I quit rummaging around for a shirt and returned to the bed to gather myself. When I had left the house, my room had been a disaster, per usual: clothes–clean and dirty–heaped in piles on the floor, papers strewn all over my desk, garbage spilling out of the trash can. My mother had been in here. She had cleaned.
I finally ambled downstairs, trying not to look so much like a zombie, although God knows for whose benefit. I caught sight of myself in the hall mirror and drew back; my skin was a pale gray, the color of chewed gum, and my dark, wavy hair, which needed a cut, was plastered against my face. There were red creases where my cheeks had been pressed against the pillows. I looked like I was about to hurl. The sedatives hadn’t sat well in my stomach; it churned at the smell of brownies coming from the kitchen. My mother had gone on a rampage of nervous baking. The kitchen counter was covered with platters, each piled high with a different baked good. My parents were at the kitchen table, arguing.
I cleared my throat. They stopped talking about me and looked up.
“Oh, Neily, you’re awake,” my mother cluked, getting out of her seat and wrapping her arms around me. I swayed a little, still unsteady on my feet. She pressed her hand against my forehead. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been hit by a truck.”
My father didn’t say anything. He just stared at me like he didn’t know who I was. The house seemed smaller with him in it; his self-righteousness was crowding us out.
“What’s he doing here?” I asked, opening the refrigerator and getting a carton of orange juice. My parents had divorced when I was seven, and I could have counted on two hands the number of times my father had visited since he’d moved out. They had joint custody, which was strictly enforced by my mother. She insisted I visit my father every other weekend and sometimes on major holidays, but I don’t think either of us enjoyed our time together much.
“I called him. I was worried.”
“Well, I’m fine. He can stop pretending to care and go home now.”
“Neily, he’s your father–“
“Would you two stop talking about me like I’m not even here?” my father shouted, slamming his fist against the table. “I’m in the goddamned room.”
“Sorry, I guess we’re just not that used to it,” I snapped.
“Well, our son’s being an asshole. I think that means he’s back to normal.” My father got up and stood behind my mother. He had almost a foot and a hundred pounds on her, but since the divorce, whenever we were together, he started putting her between the two of us, as if daring me to try something. I wasn’t huge, but I was agile and strong–I could’ve taken him.
“I guess I can be going now, since he’s awake.” My father picked up his suit jacket and tossed it over his arm. “Glad you’re not dead, Neily.”
“That would be more convincing if you weren’t looking at the door when you said it!” I shouted after him. The front door slammed. I slumped against the refrigerator, suddenly too weak to stand on my own.
My mother rushed over and put her hand under my arm. “You’re too hard on him. He rushed right to the hospital when I called.”
“I’m too hard on him? Why is it that the only time you ever stick up for him is when I’m the one who’s mad at him?”
“What are you talking about?
“You’re always bitching about him, but the one time I need you to back me up, you rush to his defense.” I shook her off. “I don’t need your help.”
“Maybe you should take another sedative. Sleep a little longer. It might make you feel better.”
“Or you could eat something? I could make you taost? The doctor said nothing heavy for a while after you get up, but I could make soup?”
When she’s worried, my mother speaks only in interrogative sentences. “You know what, Mom? I’m fine.” I head toward the stairs.
“Suit yourslef. But if you’re fine, then you can go to school tomorrow. Senior year. Go Gaels!” My mother made a half-hearted fist in the air and gave me a small smile.
Senior year at Brighton Day School. Go Gaels.
We lost a classmate last year, but you wouldn’t know that from the way everyone was acting. It was all business as usual, laughing and showing off after a summer of leisure and pleasure. The big n ews on the quad was that Cass Irving got a new car, a black Mercedes SLK, and Lucy Miller had hooked up with a college guy down in Cabo San Lucas. Adam Murray, the tough, good-looking son of a cardiothoracic surgeon and his bombshell second wife, was the center of attention as always. The go-to guy for drugs at Brighton, Adam took top billing on the roster of the school’s popular crowd. He seemed to command the school without ever really having any interest in it. He cared about nobody and nothing but himself.
Carly Ribelli, the girl who died, ahd been many things. She had been my frist friend at Brighton, and my first girlfriend. IT had ended badly, and I had never forgiven her for it. Carly had been smart, the brightest girl in our class. But she had also been reckless and damaged and lost, and the people she trusted to fix all of those problems had only made them worse. When I first met her, I had known none of those things, saw none of it coming. In retrospect, it was all there, down in the dark, cavernous part of the heart where anything might lurk, but when I met Carly she was, for all intents and purposes, an entirely different person than she was on the night she died, and I blamed Adam and his crew for that.
I would say that Carly fell in with the wrong crowd, but the truth is that there was no falling, no tumbling, no deceit on the part of the wrong crowd involved. Carly sought them out. She wooed them, anxious for something more than after-school study sessions and People With No Problems. Overnight, seemingly, she developed an affinity for kids with sharp edges. For Carly, this sort of social mobility involved ascensions rather than collapse–these wastrels she wanted so desperately to befriend were not the gutter junkies teetering on the brink of expulsion, or the emo hipsters who sat behind the library at lunch smoking clove cigarettes and wanking about bands no one had ever heard of. Her target was Brighton royalty.
My classmates disgusted me most of the time, now more than ever. I knew that it was hypocritical–after all, I was one of them–but I couldn’t help it. I felt bad for the Brighton Fund kids, students whose grades and standardized test scores were their free ride into the school but who were teased mercilessly for their lack of status. Every day at Brighton was a reminder of what I didn’t want to be, what my father had tried so hard for years to make me become. By the time Carly died, I was already straining at my ropes, desperate to escape but incapable of finding a real way out, or too cowardly to try.
Brighton was in the foothills, with Empire Valley proper spread out beneath it. The rich kids all lived in the mansion bought with medical millions. Their fathers cured the scik in the valley, then scurried like cocroaches to their brightly lit palaces at the end of their shifts. My father, however, was an executive at a local software company, not a doctor–it was one of the many ways I didn’t quite fit in.
I had a half hour to kill before first period (physics, advanced placement), so I headed to the library. There was a corner where nobody ever went, with a table and chairs. I’d been using it as my makeshift study since I started at Brighton four years before. Carly used to sit there with me; we became friends over that table. Like every other place on campus and in town, it reminded me of her. I could imagine her sitting there without even closing my eyes, hunched over a notebook, her face a mere inch or two from th epage, long dark hair spilling over her shoulders.
That morning, Audrey Ribelli had beaten me there. Audrey was Carly’s cousin, and was in the same year as us at Brighton. Shortly after Carly’s murder, Audrey’s father, Enzo, had been arrested for the crime. Audrey’s maternal grandparents–with whom she was now living–had pulled her out of school. They were afraid, I’d heard, that she would be tortured if they forced her to return, which was probably what would have happened. As it was, I couldn’t believe she was sitting here as if no time had passed, as if we were friends.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. Audrey and I hadn’t been on good terms since the end of our freshman year. There was no reason–at least, none that I could think of–for why she was sitting at my table, waiting for me. It had to be some sort of joke.
“I’m back.” She closed her book, putting a yellow note card in as a placeholder. “Try not to look so disappointed.”
“You have no idea what you’re in for,” I told her. “They’re going to crucify you.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” she said.
“Well, you should be. If you think they’re going to let you forget whose kid you are, you’re delusional. You’d be better off anyplace but here.”
She looked at me squarely, unafraid, and for a moment I wondered if she really was prepared for how she would be treated.
“I don’t understand you,” I told her, shaking my head. “If I were you–“
“You’re not me,” she snapped.
“I had to come back.”
“I don’t see why.”
“That’s what I came to talk to you about.”
“Not interested. It’s your problem. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Which was probably more than I owed her.
She hesitated. “I heard about your…weekend.”
She shrugged. “People talk.”
“Not to you.”
“They’ll talk to anyone with ears to hear. Word gets around. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal out of this. I’m fine.”
She gave me an exhasperated look. “Picked up by the police, Neily? Taken to the emergency room? In case you can’t see them, those are red flags.”
“I have a mother. I don’t need you to worry about me.”
“If you say so.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a chain-link bracelet, placing it in front of me on the table. “I thought you might want this.”
The bracelet was silver, with a tag the size of a quarter inscribed with the initials CCR in a Gothic script. It had belonged to Carly; it was the gift I’d given her for her fourteenth birthday.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
“It was in the box of personal effects the police returned to my uncle Paul after the trial,” Audrey said. “Carly was wearing it the night she died. You didn’t notice that?”
“Not impossible,” she said, getting up out of her chair. “True. Keep it. She would’ve wanted you to have it.”
“Why would she…?” I sat down, fingering the bracelet almost absently, lost in thought.
“I don’t know. I thought you might.”
I shook my head wordlessly. I couldn’t imagine why Carly would have been wearing the bracelet on the night she died; she hadn’t worn it, that I knew of, since we’d broken up the year before her death.
Audrey started to walk away. I looked up sharply and asked, “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Audrey looked as if there was something else she wanted to say, but apparently thought better of it. “See you around, Neily.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, still clutching the bracelet in my fist. “See you.”
When I got to my locker, it was almost time for the bell to ring. I had shoved Carly’s bracelet in my pocket, aware, however obscurely, that it had no answers for me. Instead, there were only questions: Why had Carly been wearing it the night she died? And why had Audrey returned it to me now, under the pretense of simply wanting me to have it? I was sure it was a pretense, that there was an ulterior motive to her appearance in the library. I considered that maybe she had not come to give something to me, but to receive something–assurance, perhaps, that her decision to return to school had been the right one. Or that, even though her friends may have deserted her, I was someone she could count on.
Most of the other students were already in their first-period classrooms. My locker should’ve been empty except for a couple of books, but there was a folded piece of paper at the bottom. I held it up as if it were wired with explosives, carefully unfolding it.
It was a bad scan of a newspaper article that ran a year ago to the day. The picture that accompanied the item, Carly’s last yearbook photo, was blotched and wrinkled, as if somebody had hurriedly shoved it into a copy machine. The bell rang, but I didn’t feel like going to class. I shoved my books in my locker and sat down on a bench to read the clipping. I had read it before; I had read it about a hundred times. I was familiar with the detais, but I couldn’t help it.
EMPIRE VALLEY TEEN SLAIN
EMPIRE VALLEY, Calif.–Police are looking for
any witnesses who might have information regar-
ding the murder of 16-year-old Carly Ribelli.
The victim died of multiple gunshot wounds to
the chest on Empire Creek Bridge late Sunday
night. Authorities place her time of death at
approximately 8:45 p.m.
Ribelli attended Brighton Day School in Empire
Valley. She was the only child of surgeon Paul
Ribelli and his late wife, Miranda.
The victim received a significant inheritance
after the death of her grandmother. Police sus-
pect that her uncommon wealth might have
been a motive for her murder.
That was all the article had to say: Carly, her age, her parentage, her murder, and her money. Everything that mattered. Carly’s inheritance came from her widowed grandmother on her father’s side, who, due to some rift nobody really liked to talk about, skipped her two sons in favor of her grandaughters–Carly and Audrey–when it cam to bequeathing her fortune.
There were two details that never made it into the papers; they had nagged at me from the very beginning, but the police had suppressed them, perhaps because they didn’t fit perfectly with their theory. The first was the complete lack of fingerprints on Carly’s cell phone, which had been found in the front pocket of her jeans. The second was that, along with the gun that had killed her, a waterlogged digital recording device like the ones used by journalists had been dragged up from the bottom of the creek bed. Carly had owned one exactly like it, and when her bedroom was searched for evidence it had not turned up. It was obvious, at least to me, that the recorder belonged to her and that she had had it on her the night she died.
This was an early article, written before the police officially stated that they had a suspect in custody, before they arragned and charged Audrey’s father, before the town was invaded by a media circus and Carly’s face was splashed all over the front page of every rag in the country.
I was the only person connected with the tragedy who didn’t talk to a single reporter.
Excerpt from All Unquiet Things © 2010 by Anna Jarzab