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H_NGM_N

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This scene follows follows Tori Younger, a features reporter who returned home to attend the funeral of a childhood friend, and RJ Barringer, her cameraman. They just left the funeral, where they suspect Brooke Martin was murdered and her suicide staged by her husband, Ash Martin. Tori recognizes that the suicide note was not written in Brooke’s handwriting and they sneak into Ash’s home to find something with his handwriting on it.

* * *

As soon as she sat in the Jeep, Tori slipped off her heels and wiggled her toes. The memorial picnic had lasted several more hours, and after countless “Good to see you’s” and “How long has it been’s,” she couldn’t wait to get out of that black dress and into some jeans and tennis shoes.

RJ pulled out of Skeeter Park and rolled onto the dirt path. “So, back to Winnie’s?”

Tori shook her head as she massaged her soles. “Remember last night at the water tower, you talked about finding EVPs in the Martin house?”

The Jeep bounced, and he turned the wheel, avoiding another deep rut in the road. “You aren’t starting to believe me, are you?”

“I believe I can find something with Ash’s handwriting at the Martin home.”

“You’re suggesting we break into his house?”

“It’s not breaking in when you’re practically family. Besides, it’s now or never. We have to be back on the road first thing in the morning, right?”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” She paused, wondering if she needed to explain herself. Wasn’t it obvious? “I need to know if Ash wrote that note and we have an opportunity that won’t come again. Ash is still in jail. Darla is staying with her grandfather. We can slip in and slip out.”

“You’re serious?”

“We already covered that. Yes, I’m serious.” She turned to him and touched his shoulder. “Look, do you want to get your stupid EVPs or not?”

“Okay, you’re serious,” he said as they passed the welcome sign and came to the two-lane highway, Clay Pit Road. He flipped on the blinker and turned east, toward the Martin house.

Neither spoke for several minutes, until RJ said, “So, you and Sheriff Bennett. Sounds like there’s a lot of water under that bridge.”

Tori sank deeper in the seat. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You still have some unresolved issues.”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

For the next twenty minutes, neither said a word. They passed by the bridge that crossed over Twin Lakes and rolled over the bumpy railroad tracks. RJ pulled up the gravel drive to the Martin house and parked next to Brooke’s minivan. He turned off the ignition.

“The sheriff seems like a nice enough guy. I don’t know why you’d even break up with a man like that. He’s tall, handsome, and wears a uniform—”

“I didn’t break up with him,” she snapped at him, wishing he’d drop it already. “He broke up with me.”

“Okay, now I get it. All the pieces are coming together. Ken dumped Barbie.”

“No—”

“Yes—”

“No.” She paused. “If there are unresolved feelings—and I’m not saying there are—it’s not because he dumped me.”

RJ looked at her, waiting for her to continue. “And?”

“And if there are any unresolved issues, it’s because he never told me why. It was just over.”

To her right, she could make out the orange grove. The water tower stood above the gray tree carcasses like some kind of rusty robot from a 1950s sci-fi movie. She could imagine it coming to life and stomping its way through the dead trees. She looked away.

They walked around the house to the back, where a tool shed stood, and a few feet away was a laundry line with a sheet and several shirts still hanging from it. She wondered if they’d been hanging there since Brooke died. The house itself was dark. Empty.

She glanced at her watch. It was almost nine o’clock. She gave RJ a fleeting glance and switched on her flashlight. Crossing the yard, they stepped onto the back porch and approached the door. She shined the dim beam at the knob and gave it a futile turn.

RJ whispered, “It’s locked.”

Tori nodded. There didn’t appear to be a deadbolt, just the lock in the door handle. She wished she’d grabbed those keys hanging by the back door at Winnie’s house. Brooke’s spare house key would’ve come in handy right now.

“Maybe there’s an open window or something.” RJ walked toward the windows overlooking the porch.

Tori called out to him, “You got a credit card on you?”

He looked puzzled. “Yeah. Why?”

“I left my purse in the Jeep.” She held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your card.”

He pulled his wallet from his back pocket.

She shook her head, taking the card from his hands. Inserting it into the crack between the door and the frame, she felt for the bolt. The plastic card pressed hard against it. Nothing happened.

“It’s a debit card,” RJ said, leaning over her. “Maybe it doesn’t take debit.”

She pushed him back a little and pressed the card harder through the space. The bolt slipped back. The door creaked open an inch.

Tori pushed it open and handed the debit card to RJ. She smiled. “Bet you didn’t think I could do that.”

“Good job, MacGyver.” He returned the card to his wallet and stepped forward.

Tori placed a hand on his chest, stopping him. “Wipe your feet.” She pointed at the doormat. “We’ve been walking through mud and weeds. Who knows what we might track in.”

RJ wiped his feet, and together they entered the dark house.

In the living room, she went to a wall covered with family pictures and played her light over them.

He whispered, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“What is?”

“Not knowing the real reason he left you,” he said. “Sometimes, not knowing is kinder than the truth. You know what they say, ignorance is bliss.”

“But there’s no closure.”

She looked back at him. He held a voice recorder in his left hand.

“Closure is overrated.” He raised the recorder. “Brooke Martin, can you hear me?” He peered in the darkness at the ceiling. “Speak into the recorder.”

Tori turned the flashlight on him and then shined the thin beam around the room. A large couch and recliner sat angled in front of a fifty-five-inch television. Hunting rifles hung from a rack on the wall. Nothing out of place. Her heels struck the hardwood planks of the floor with a hollow sound that echoed around them, making the home seem lonelier.

RJ wandered around the room, holding up the recorder. “Brooke Martin …”—he raised the recorder above his head— “are you here with us?”

Tori played the light on the ceiling. “Why do you keep looking up? You think she’s floating around up there like Casper the Ghost?”

RJ raised his arm higher, holding up the recorder. “Brooke Martin, if you’re here, give us a sign.”

The back door slammed shut with a loud, hard bang. Tori jumped. RJ dropped the recorder.

“What was that?” She threw the dim beam of the flashlight on the door.

RJ picked up the recorder and shook it. He turned it back on and held it up in the air. “She’s here,” he said.

Tori cringed. “It was the wind. It pushed the door shut.”

He tried one more time. “Brooke, did you slam the door? Were you trying to get our attention?”

They waited, frozen, listening. The house was silent. The wind kicked up again and whistled through a window.

Tori shook her head. “Come on, let’s find something with Ash’s handwriting,” she said, taking RJ’s arm.

He looked across the living room one last time, and then followed.

As they crept through the house, she said, “And closure is not overrated. It’s necessary.”

“If you say so.”

She stopped. “Everything was going great. We were planning the wedding and our life together. Then, out of nowhere, he vanishes. It’s our wedding day and he up and disappears. Ash had to tell me the wedding was off. And it makes no sense, you know, because we were so happy.”

“Guess he wasn’t.”

“What do you know?” She shot him a dirty look and resumed walking.

They made their way to the front entry and shined their light on the small table next to the front door. A broken vase lay beneath it with wilted lilies scattered on the tile. Tori lifted a framed photo from the floor. A spider web of cracked glass cut through Brooke, Ash, and Darla’s faces. “Wonder how long that’s been lying there?”

RJ shrugged.

She set the picture frame back on the table and aimed her flashlight past the staircase and into the adjacent dining room. Dark streaks ran down the wall to the baseboard. Tori shined her light on broken glass scattered on the floor. She looked at RJ.

“You think it’s connected to the dead flowers by the door?” she asked.

He leaned closer to the wall and ran a finger across the stain. “Someone threw something at the wall.”

“I think it was a liquor bottle,” she said, moving the light from the floor to the dining room table. “Watch your step.”

Construction paper cluttered the table. Tori looked at the drawings and picked one up. A stick figure woman hung from a water tower by a rope around her neck. Two stick figures—policemen? —stood on the horizon. One was pointing to the hanging figure. Tori handed the drawing to RJ.

He made a face. “She’s kinda liberal with the black crayon.”

“It’s her mother.”

“Yeah, I got that. That girl’s got years of therapy ahead of her.”

Tori took the picture and studied it again. She folded it and put it in her back pocket.

“What’re you doing?” he asked.

“There’s like a dozen identical drawings here. Ash’ll never miss it. Now we gotta find something with his handwriting on it in all this mess.”

“Tori, look.” He reached for her, but she was shining the light beyond the dining room and into the kitchen. She didn’t go into it. Instead, she made her way back to the front entry and the staircase.

She stopped on the middle step. “You know, if he wasn’t happy, then he needed to tell me that.” She turned to RJ. “But I never heard from him again. Not a single word. Nothing. Nada. One day he’s the love of my life and the next day he’s not a part of my life in any way, shape, or form. How do you deal with something like that?”

“I don’t know.” He shot her a quick apologetic smile.

She scrunched her face and shook her head and continued up the staircase. “Then stop bringing it up. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Clearly.” He followed her upstairs.

Three bedrooms branched off the upstairs landing. She looked in the first bedroom, a little girl’s room with a frilly bed, scattered clothes and dolls on the floor, and a wooden rocking horse in the corner. She recognized the purple plush elephant sitting on the horse and it brought a smile to her lips.

The door across the hall opened into the master bedroom. Tori shined her flashlight across the unmade queen-sized bed. She was about to comment on the sheets when something caught her eye. She walked into the bathroom and found one of Brooke’s dresses hanging on the shower rod in front of the curtain. The medicine cabinet door swung ajar above the vanity. She pulled the mirrored door open as RJ came up behind her.

“What’cha looking for?”

“Something to confirm she was depressed. There should be antidepressant prescription bottles in her medicine cabinet. But there’s nothing here. Not even St. John’s wort.”

“Maybe she wasn’t taking anything prescribed for the depression. Maybe she was managing it with exercise and diet and stuff.”

“I don’t know. If she was as depressed as everyone says, you’d think she would have something for it. She must’ve talked to a doctor about the antidepressants. She got those sample packets we found in her purse from someone.”

“Lemme ask her.” He raised his arm again, holding up the recorder. “Brooke Martin, were you taking antidepressants or any kind of prescription for your depression?”

“RJ, it’s not funny. The coroner’s report showed that she had Deletycide in her system, and the deputy found twelve empty sample packets on the ground near her body. But there were no tablets in her stomach. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“It bothers me she’s not responding to my questions. We should be getting some strong EVPs here.”

“Forget the EVPS. If she took that many tablets, there’d be a few left in her stomach. She drank something with the drug in it.”

RJ turned to her. “So, what are you saying?”

“I don’t know.” She thought about it a moment before answering. “I have this funny feeling … like we’re playing a game of Hangman, but the letters on the board aren’t forming a word.”

“Or maybe you don’t know what the word is yet.”

Stepping out of the bathroom, Tori moved past the bed. She found a cubby with a desk. A monitor, along with papers and cards, cluttered the top.

“Have at it,” RJ said. “I’m going to keep checking the house.”

RJ left as she made her way to the desk. She opened the center drawer, rifled through it, shut it. She opened a side drawer and pulled out several envelopes. By the time she’d gone through all the drawers on the right-hand side of the desk, her excitement was turning into exasperation. There was nothing here but old light bills, old tax receipts, old everything. She opened the bottom drawer and started on that.

“Bingo,” she said. “Birthday cards.”

RJ returned to the room, stepping beside her as she searched through the cards and envelopes. She flipped through them and stopped. One had her name written on it—in Mike’s handwriting: “For Tori”.

She glanced at RJ. He nodded toward the envelope in her hands. “You going to open it?”

She tore open the envelope and pulled out two folded notebook pages. A scribbled message in the top margin caught her attention.

Mikey B. asked me to give this to you, but I chickened out. I couldn’t give it to you on your wedding day and then you left town before I had the chance later. Sorry. I know this hurt you. — Ash

She scanned the first page and flipped to the second. The handwriting haunted her, as did the memory, and she didn’t need a date to know it’d been written five years ago.

Dear Tori,

I know I owe you an explanation. I’m not even sure where to begin, but I’m guessing that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how a thing ends that counts, right? Not how it begins.

I never wanted to hurt you and I didn’t mean for this to happen, but we can’t get married. It’s not that I don’t care about you or I don’t love you. You’ve been like a kid sister for as long as I can remember. And I will always love you, but not in the way you deserve.

You deserve so much more than I can ever give you. You’re smart. You know stuff. Get out of this town. Go to New York. Travel the world. Write a book. I’m just a dumb pitcher who’ll probably never make it to the majors. I’ll never get out of this town, but you can. You can go see the stars. And once you’ve been up there you know you been some place. …

She put down the letter as her eyes teared. She couldn’t read any more, even though it all came rushing back.

A night some sixteen years ago.

She’d turned fifteen. With her mother out of town, she had the whole house to herself for the weekend. Brooke and Winnie came over and Tori couldn’t believe it when Mike showed up with them. He brought beer and taught the girls drinking games. When Brooke and Winnie drifted to sleep, Mike and Tori sat up late into the night, side by side on the couch with a bowl of popcorn between them. Rebel Without a Cause played on a cable station. James Dean sat next to Sal Mineo at the planetarium and looked up, awed by the stars above them. “Once you’ve been up there you know you been some place,” he said.

Mike looked down at Tori and awkwardly put his arm around her. He displayed all the restless allure of James Dean, with his face lighting up and darkening with the old movie on the TV screen.

When it ended, they slipped outside into the backyard and sat on the dock. They watched the stars, and Mike pointed. “Once you’ve been up there you know you been some place,” he whispered to her.

She could still feel his breath on her ear. It burned hot, even to this day.

RJ reached for the note in her hands, startling her. She pulled it away.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “What does it say?”

“Nothing,” Tori said, collecting herself. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Well, it’s got to be something. You look like you’re cutting onions.” He reached for it again and she pulled away.

“No, it’s private.” She stiffened and looked down at the note. “We’ve got Ash’s handwriting. Now we need to see if it matches Brooke’s note.”

Tori grabbed her phone and pulled up the suicide note. She enlarged the photo to zoom in on the lines Ash had written in the margin and compared it to the handwritten note. The same slanted w’s and y’s appeared in both notes. In fact, the handwriting was identical, or near enough.

“It matches,” she whispered. “The handwriting matches. Ash wrote the suicide note.”

“Let me see it.” RJ grabbed the pages from her hand. She reached for it, but he turned away from her.

“Look at the part Ash wrote. Don’t read the letter, okay?” She considered the ribbing RJ would give her over the mushy Dear John letter and held the phone back a moment before begrudgingly handing it to him.

He took it and held it next to the note. “I just want to compare the handwriting.” His head bobbed from the letter to her phone and back to the letter. After a moment he glanced up, his eyes large. “Do you know what this means?”

“No, tell me …” came a deep voice behind them.

Tori and RJ turned and shined their flashlights on a man standing in the doorway.

Tori gasped and said, “Ash … you’re home.”

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