When we pulled into the parking lot, he turned off the engine and looked over at me. With a baseball cap pulled low, the strong line of his jaw stood out. “You ready for today?”
“It’s probably going to be a little rough.” He reached over, poking my leg. “Not that you can’t handle it.”
A wry, tired smile twisted my lips. “I know. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Okay.” He pulled his keys out, leaned back, and grabbed our bags, handing mine over. “Let’s do this.”
Jensen and I walked into the building together. Any other day, this would’ve been the talk of the school.
But not today.
Everyone was talking about Vee. As the day progressed, there wasn’t a pair of lips her name hadn’t passed through. Grief counselors were called in, and throughout the day, long looks were sent in my direction. I knew people were talking, but very few approached me about it.
Mason was one of them. At lunch, he dropped into the seat next to me. “Hey,” he said.
“Hi.” I glanced over at Heidi, who looked as surprised as I felt. I picked up my plastic fork. “What’s up?”
He wet his lips. “You got a second?”
Mason lowered his head and dropped his voice. “The cops made the rest of us leave Saturday before—well, before we could see anything.”
“Jesus,” muttered Heidi, dropping her hands on the table.
He ignored her while I tensed up. “What did she look like? I mean, I know that’s a gross question, but I wanted—”
“Are you serious?”
Mason turned at the sound of Jensen’s voice. One look at his face, and it was evident that he was angry. His pale eyes flashed a dark, thunderous color as he stared down at him. “What? I’m just—”
“Get the hell out of my seat.” Jensen’s knuckles were bleached white around the tray he held. “Before I get you out of the damn seat.”
Standing up, Mason raised his hands as he glanced at Jensen and then me. His cheeks paled. “Look, man, I didn’t mean anything by any of that.”
Mason hesitated for a moment and then spun off, hurrying back to his table.
“Your seat?” I asked, brows raised.
He took Mason’s spot, placing his tray in front of him. “Yep.”
I pressed my lips together, stealing a peek at Heidi. Her eyes were bouncing back and forth between us like we were her own personal tennis match.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I could’ve shut him up.”
Jensen raised a shoulder as he stared at what I was guessing was Salisbury steak. “I know, but seriously, what was I supposed to do when I was just walking along, minding my own business, about to have a seat and that dick is sitting here, asking a question like that?”
“Wait to see what I was going to do?”
Heidi snorted. “I, for one, am glad Jensen said something. I cannot believe he asked you that kind of question.” She shook her head. “Didn’t Linds get with him?”
“Yeah,” I murmured. Sickened by Mason’s crassness, I’d lost my appetite. And, as the day progressed, there were others like him, people who didn’t give two craps about Vee, but were compelled by a sense of morbid fascination.
On Tuesday, the cops arrived at the school and, at the beginning of each class, a handful of kids were pulled out and sent to the office, which had my nerves stretched taut. The lack of sleep and everything else was getting to me.
Rain thundered off the windows and roof as I stopped by my locker after lunch. Jensen checked it out before I looked in it, inspecting the inside for something that would most likely ensure me a lifetime of therapy. When there were no masks or other creeptastic things, he leaned against the locker next to mine, his baseball cap pulled on backward, dark blond strands curling around the edge.
“If it’s still raining after school, I’ll pull the truck up to the back.”
I smiled as I grabbed my art textbook. “Rain won’t hurt me.”
“Sugar melts,” he replied, grinning slightly.
Rolling my eyes, I laughed softly. “Did you just compliment me?”
“Oh, that’s right, I’m not supposed to do that. I’m supposed to be keeping it real.” Those lips of his pursed thoughtfully. “I need to come up with a good insult. It’s going to take me a while.”
Smiling, I shook my head.
“Is your Mom still going out of town tomorrow night?” he asked, changing the subject.
I was so not looking forward to tomorrow night. “Yeah, she needs to since she stayed home last week. She wants me to go stay at Dad’s, but that’s not something I want to do.”
“It would be smart.” He reached up, adjusting the bill of his cap. “You shouldn’t be staying alone.”
“I know, but . . .” Staying with Dad meant staying with Rose and eating raw vegetables and being lectured on how I needed to do at least thirty minutes of cardio a day and—
We turned at the sound of Linds’ excited shout. She was speed walking down the hall, dodging students. The hem of her skirt fluttered around her slim legs.
“Hey.” I shut my door as I shoved my book into my bag. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“I’m using the bathroom.” She slid to a stop between Jensen and me. “But I needed to come find you. It couldn’t wait until—oh. Hey, Jensen. Whoa . . .” She stepped back, looking him up and down. “I like the baseball hat. It’s a good—”
“Linds,” I interrupted, tapping her shoulder. “What couldn’t wait?”
Eyeing Jensen until he grinned at her, Linds’ cheeks flushed before she got back on track. “Have you talked to Gavin?”
“On Sunday.” He’d stopped by to see how I was, claiming he would’ve come by Saturday night, but he’d seen Jensen’s truck out front. “We really didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday.”
“What about you?” she asked Jensen.
He shrugged a shoulder. “Nothing longer than a few seconds since Sunday. He actually went out with me to get Ella’s car.”
I blinked. Once, then twice. “Gavin went with you to get my car?”
“Yeah,” he replied slowly. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Why? Whenever Gavin and Jensen were in the same room together, it was like a contest to see who could out-stare the other the longest. “Well . . .”
“That’s not important.” Linds stamped her mule-heeled foot. “The police pulled me out of last period to question me again about Saturday. They’ll probably get to you again,” she said, and I winced, not looking forward to that. “Anyway, they asked me if I’d known that Vee had been seeing Gavin.”
I gaped at her. At first I didn’t think I’d heard her correctly. “Come again?”
“Did you know that Gavin and Vee were dating?”
It took me a moment. “What?”
“Exactly!” she whispered-yelled. “I had no idea and I’m assuming you had no idea either.”
“No.” I slipped my messenger bag up my arm. “They must’ve been mistaken. Gavin hadn’t been seeing anyone since we broke up.” I glanced over at Jensen, but he was staring at Linds, his jaw clenched. “Gavin wasn’t dating Vee.”
Looking me straight in the eye, Linds clasped my arm. “Yeah, he was. Supposedly all summer. And I heard them talking among themselves as I was being ushered out. He was with her the night she supposedly disappeared.”
We sat in a circle on the floor of the tree house, cross-legged with our knees pressed against each other. The sun was setting, splashing deep blues and violets across the sky. We didn’t have much longer before we had to leave. Penn wouldn’t climb down the wooden planks nailed into the tree at night, and even though it was summer, his parents wanted him back before dark.
The air was humid, and the thin wisps of hair that had escaped my ponytail stuck to my damp neck. I wanted to dunk my head in a vat of cold water as I nervously rubbed the palms of my hands along my legs.