Just about everyone had turned out for the town picnic, including Eric. He usually avoided town gatherings and had given up trying to be accepted by them. Nothing he said or did seemed to change their minds that he was nothing more than trouble. No one really seemed to want him around so it was no great loss. No one that was, except for Mary.
She'd stopped to talk to him one evening while he was sitting by the river. He went there often to clear his head. They'd talked until well after dark, with Eric getting the feeling that Mary wanted to separate the truth about him from the rumors. Before they each went home, Mary asked if she might sit with him again some time and he told her that he spent most evenings down by the river. She met him again the next night and a deepening friendship had begun.
Mary always seemed to know when Eric needed to talk and even went out of her way to make sure she met him on those nights. She never judged him on rumors or speculations like the rest of the town, but took him as he was. Maybe that's why he'd ventured to the town picnic. He'd been feeling lousy that afternoon and thought that seeing Mary might make him feel better.
Despite the heat, a refreshing breeze blew over the Town Square. Inviting smells of hot-dogs and sausage and peppers greeted Eric as he walked around. The food smells only seemed to aggravate his stomach however. Though he kept his distance, several people greeted him and asked how he was. Eric figured he must look at least a little like how he felt and that they were just being polite. He noticed Mary near the bandstand and headed over to her.
Mary smiled, gave him a quick hug then backed away, concerned. She invited him to sit down on the edge of the bandstand, holding his hands as they talked. Her worry quickly spread through her face, and no matter what he said, she kept pressing him to tell her what was wrong. But he could be as stubborn as she was and kept insisting it was probably the heat that was making him feel a little sick that afternoon. In his opinion, he did feel better just coming to see her.
Sheriff Ethan Drake watched all this from a safe distance, hearing only pieces of their conversation. He far from trusted Eric and that was no secret. He liked even less the amount of time Eric was spending with his niece, Mary. He'd warned her repeatedly about him. He'd reminded her more than once about the apparently "accidental" fires at his mother's house when Eric was seven and the numerous scuffles in which he'd been involved. Mary ignored him. So instead of fighting with her, Sheriff Drake decided it was easier just to keep tabs on them.
He was relieved when Eric got up to say goodbye then stiffened when Mary wouldn't let go of his hands. It looked like she wanted some kind of promise from him first. After he reluctantly agreed she rose, hugged him more closely, then let him turn and leave. Several of the people nearest them glared at her disapprovingly but she ignored them. She hated being the "town sweetheart". Glad that Eric didn't stay long, Sheriff Drake turned his attention to several rowdy teenagers. He didn't see Mary leave about ten minutes later, heading in the same direction.
Eric had just finished changing his clothes to try and get some sleep when he heard someone knocking. Mary anxiously stood on his doorstep.
"What're you doing here?" he asked as he opened the door.
"You looked terrible earlier and I'm worried about you," Mary answered as she slid by him and inside the trailer. "You look even worse now."
"I told you it's probably the heat," he tried again unsuccessfully.
"Sure it is. Come here." She said then lightly touched his forehead and cheek. Alarm spread across her face. "You've got a fever! Sit down."
She coaxed him over to the bed and sat him down. She touched his cheek again, leaving her hand longer this time. He let out a weak sigh. "You are sick. Lay down. I'll be right back."
She laid him back, propping the pillows behind him then headed for his bathroom. His eyes closed as he really started to give in to just how terrible he felt.
"It's really not that big of a deal. It's probably just a touch of summer flu," he said in a weakened voice, " I just need to try to get some sleep."
"I'll decide that," she barked from inside his bathroom then came out carrying a thermometer. "Open you mouth." Knowing this was far from a request, Eric submitted without argument. He sighed wearily as she sat on the bed next to him again, touching his forehead and cheek. "How long have you felt sick?" She asked while lightly running her fingers through his hair.
"Since early this afternoon," Eric admitted while trying not to let the thermometer fall out of his mouth.
"Then why were you at the picnic?" Mary scolded.
"I thought I'd feel better if I saw you," he confessed looking into her eyes. Her entire face softened.
"Still you should have stayed home." She read the thermometer and all the color drained out of her face. "I'm calling a doctor." She announced then got up to use his phone.
"No, please," Eric said.
"It's 103!" she protested.
"No doctor, please." Eric begged. His wounded puppy look immediately made Mary soften.
"Okay," Mary said then went back into his bathroom. She returned with two aspirin and a glass of water. "Hopefully these will help," she offered. He downed the aspirin then laid back against the pillows, his eyes half shut. "Try to get some rest." Mary soothed.
"I will. I'll talk to you sometime tomorrow." Eric said through a weary sigh.
"Wanna bet. I'm not leaving." Mary answered firmly.
Eric's eyes sprang open. "What?"
"I won't leave you alone with a fever that high," Mary stated.
"You can't stay. You know what people will think," Eric protested.
"I don't care. If you won't let me call a doctor, then I'm not leaving. Regardless, if your fever doesn't break by morning, I'm calling anyway."
"I won't win this one will I?" He asked through a weak smile.
"Nope. Try to rest," she smiled tenderly then sat down next to him on the edge of the bed, again running her fingers through his hair. Eric sighed wearily as he closed his eyes. When he seemed to have at least dosed off, she got up to get a basin of water and a wash cloth to use as a compress. It was going to be a long night.
Eric's fever made it next to impossible for him to rest. He tossed and turned almost constantly. More than once he got so bad that Mary thought of calling Doctor Avery regardless of her promise. Each time, however, Eric seemed to calm back down and dose off. His fever finally broke and he fell asleep about 4:30 in the morning. Mary dosed off about a half an hour later with Eric's head on her shoulder. Someone pounding on the door startled her awake.
Mary carefully removed her arm from under Eric's head, making sure she hadn't disturbed him, then sprang for the door. She threw it open, ready to pounce on whoever was out there, and stopped dead when she saw her uncle.
"Jesse told me you came out here last night but I didn't believe him." Sheriff Drake barked at her.
"Shhhhh! Eric only went to sleep about an hour ago," she shot back.
"That son of a bitch!" Drake began, but Mary cut him off.
"It's not what you think."
"Get out of my way!" He demanded then tried to move past her.
"NO!" She strongly whispered through clenched teeth and stood her ground.
Sheriff Drake glared at her and stopped on the step below her. "I don't know what line he used on you to get you out here…" He chastised.
"I told you. It's not what you think." Drake gestured at her wrinkled dress and tangled hair then waited for an explanation.
"I know you saw us at the picnic," she began accusingly but quietly. " He looked sick so I came over to make sure he was all right. When I got here I found out he had a very high fever and I didn't think he should be left alone. Nothing else happened! He's been sick all night!"
"Ah-huh," Drake answered flatly.
"You'll believe whatever you want anyway," Mary said, defeated. She spun around when she saw her uncle's face harden, then understood why. Eric stood behind her with his blanket wrapped around him.
"Something I can do for you, Sheriff?" he asked in a weak voice. His face was still flushed with mild fever.
"Go back to bed," Mary scolded softly with a worried expression on her face.
"My niece says you've been sick all night," Drake said accusingly.
"That's right. Mary's been nice enough to stay with me in case I needed anything," Eric informed.
Mary's eyes begged him not to face off with her uncle but he just smiled back at her.
"Why didn't you call Doctor Avery?" Drake barked, eyes blazing.
"I didn't want to bother anyone," Eric said in a weak voice. He felt too sick to get into a shouting match and that seemed to kill some of the sheriff's venom.
"But you'd keep my niece here? " He demanded in a far softer tone than he'd intended.
"She insisted on staying." Eric sighed deeply. Mary was right. He needed to get back to bed.
"Come on. I'm taking you home." Drake commanded then reached for Mary's arm. She shrank away from him and toward Eric.
"I'm not leaving until I know he's okay," She defied.
Eric lightly placed his hand on Mary's shoulder. "My fever's down so I should be all right. Give me a call later." He smiled weakly and nodded his head.
Mary tenderly caressed his cheek. It was noticeably cooler. "If you don't answer your phone later, I'll be back over here so fast it'll make your head spin." She lightly kissed his cheek, darted past her uncle and into to his patrol car.
"You'll slip someday," Drake warned through clenched teeth so Mary couldn't hear him.
"And you'll be there to nail my ass to the wall," Eric finished wearily.
Sheriff Drake glared at him then walked to his car and drove away. As Eric stood watching them leave, Mary looked out the back window at him. He touched his cheek where Mary had kissed him and half smiled. Yes they'd held hands before, but it was never more than friendship. Eric wondered if things might be changing between them, thanks to last night.
He started feeling lightheaded again so he closed the door and collapsed back on the bed. He didn't wake up again until 3:30 that afternoon when Mary called to check on him. He told her that his fever was pretty much gone but he still felt lousy. He just needed a day or two not moving out of bed. Mary was far from convinced but agreed to call and check on him the next day. If he still sounded terrible she was coming over, no arguments. Eric didn't fight her. He was still just too tired.
Over the next two days, Mary called him at least a half a dozen times and stopped by twice to make sure he was eating well. His thoughts about where their relationship might be going only seemed more possible. She fussed over him, wanting to take care of every little thing for him. Whenever she touched his hand or cheek, her hand lingered longer than was necessary. The second night she came over he got brave enough to say something about it.
"Mary, can I ask you something?" he began, while she put the dishes away that they'd used for dinner.
"Sure. Is something wrong?" She replied, turning back around toward him. Eric looked awkward, like he didn't know how to ask. Mary sat back down next to him at the table. "What is it?" Her eyes stared into his.
"Do you think something's changed between us over the last few days?" Eric blurted out. He figured that if he tried to lead up to it he'd lose his nerve all together. Mary took both his hands into hers.
"Do you?" She asked back, her feelings now mirrored in her face.
Surprisingly, Eric matched her tender smile. "I think so. For starters, you've never kissed me before and you did before you left the other morning."
"I know. I was afraid you'd think it was just to spite my uncle." Mary confessed while starting to blush.
"Then I'm right; it wasn't? And all your TLC's been out of more than friendship?"
"Yes." Mary blushed a little deeper as she diverted her eyes from his. Eric leaned forward and kissed her. She flinched a little in surprise but didn't pull away. "Why Eric Jacob, I do believe you're smitten with me," she whispered teasingly. Both of them laughed.
"Maybe I am," he answered, eyes locked with hers.
Mary let out a quick breath. "I better go. It's getting late and you know how this town loves to talk." Mary got up, but this time Eric was the one who wouldn't let go. She smiled warmly at him, lightly pulled on his hands and he got up to walk her to the door. Before he opened it they kissed again, this time a little more passionately.
"Easy. I think this is a surprise to both of us," Mary whispered while moving back a little from him.
"You're right." Eric admitted, casting his eyes to the floor. Mary raised them back to hers.
"That wasn't a 'no'," she told him. They looked into each other's eyes for what felt like an eternity then Mary opened the door. "I better go," she repeated.
"Right. Catch you down by the river tomorrow night?" Eric asked.
Mary's eyebrow raised, "You feel good enough to venture out?"
Eric flashed his charming boyish smile. "I think so."
"Then I'll see you tomorrow night," Mary accepted, kissing him again lightly on the cheek. He caressed her cheek then she turned and headed home. He watched her until she'd rounded the bend at the end of the street, then closed the door and headed to bed.
Eric didn't see Mrs. Cavanaugh looking out her kitchen window. The town had already been ablaze with gossip about what happened between the two of them three nights before. Now even more fuel would be added to the rumors especially with Sheriff Drake doing nothing to calm the fires.
The next afternoon, Eric ventured into town to restock his refrigerator. He'd actually needed to do that before he got sick. All he'd had was what Mary had brought over the past two nights.
Other people in the store seemed more intent then usual at watching him and he became more and more uneasy as he walked up and down the isles. He could hear whispering as he passed some of them but couldn't make out the words. He shook his head lightly as he headed for the check-out line, realizing that Sheriff Drake must have said nothing about him being sick three nights ago.
While he waited to check out, old Mrs. Litchfield came up to him and slapped him hard across the face. He stared back at her in shock.
"How dare you corrupt such a sweet and innocent girl!" She accused.
"Not that you'll believe me anyway," Eric began, speaking loud enough for anyone around him to hear, "but, contrary to what Sheriff Drake's let you believe, I've been sick with summer flu the last three days and Mary's been kind enough to look after me." The check-out girl began ringing up his groceries.
"Then what was that little display that Mrs. Cavanaugh witnessed last night?" Mrs. Litchfield continued.
Eric answered while paying for his food. "Just a friendly peck on the cheek, unless she blew it all out of proportion, " Eric insisted, then turned to face Mrs. Litchfield. His face gave away no hint of what had happened before he and Mary had opened the door.
Mrs. Litchfield moved out of his way, eyes cast down at the floor. He'd gambled right. All Mrs. Cavanaugh had said was that Mary kissed Eric on the cheek. Sheriff Drake had probably mentioned the kiss he'd witnessed two mornings before and with that the rumors started flying.
On his way home he couldn't stop thinking about Mrs. Litchfield and the other people at the store. If some of them were almost enraged by two innocent-looking kisses on the cheek, then what would happen if he and Mary were to start seeing each other? By the time he reached his trailer, Eric decided to slow things down between them and let the town get used to the idea that he and Mary may be becoming an item. Besides, Mary's friendship meant more to him than anything. Eric had no intention of endangering that just for the sake of the town.
Mary's dose of the town gossip came from none other than her uncle. She'd been on her way to the town library when Sheriff Drake pulled up alongside her, slowing his car to match her stride. She smiled and waved at him.
"You were over at Eric's again last night, " he yelled to her through the open passenger side window.
Mary's expression turned defiant. "So now you've got Eric's neighbors spying for you too," she accused.
"I don't have to do that. You know how this town loves to talk," Drake said innocently.
"And you set them straight about me staying with him the other night, I'm sure," Mary shot back with her arms crossed in front of her.
"From what I heard, your little display last night puts any innocent-sounding conclusions in doubt," her uncle informed.
Mary's eyes practically shot fire. "When is this town, including you, going to leave us alone!" Mary shouted at him then stopped dead when she saw what was on his front seat. "Spying's not enough; now you're taking pictures too!" She added.
Sheriff Drake glanced down then tried unsuccessfully to close the file before Mary saw the entire dossier. "YOU RAN HIS FINGERPRINTS!" She screamed. Several people poked their heads out of windows to see what was going on. "He's lived here since he was seven. You ought to know what his record is since you're the one who's pulled him in for every little thing you could think of. What, are you still trying to pin the fire on him that killed his mother shortly after they moved here? A lit candle fell over. He panicked and ran. Give it up!" Mary protested then started walking quickly away from his car.
"Mary wait!" her uncle pleaded while speeding up.
"NO! Leave me alone!" She started running.
Now several people had also come out of the barbershop to see what was going on. Instead of having to deal with them, Sheriff Drake turned a corner and headed down a side street. Mary stopped running, turned around and headed back home instead. By the time she got there, she was in tears. She went straight to her room and didn't come out until dinnertime. She said little to her parents and left to meet Eric as soon as they were done eating.
Mary got to Eric's favorite spot, a large fallen log by the water's edge, before he did and sat down to wait for him. He quietly crept up behind her and slid his scarf around her neck. Startled, she turned around.
"I didn't mean to frighten you," Eric apologized through a playful grin. His face quickly turned serious. "What's wrong?" He could tell Mary had been crying.
Mary placed both of her hands over his and stopped their light caressing of her shoulders. "I want to get out of here," she half whispered while gazing up at him.
"Sure. Where do you want to go?" Eric asked then went to remove his hands. She held them fast.
"No, I mean leave town." She turned her head back around to gaze at the water.
Eric began rubbing her shoulders and neck, then nuzzled the top of her head. "What happened?" He urged in a worried voice.
Mary sighed deeply, more than receptive to his closeness and touch. "My uncle ran your fingerprints. He's got a whole file on us, pictures and everything."
A tear escaped and ran down Mary's cheek. Eric tenderly wiped it away." I knew the town was buzzing, but I didn't expect this. Did he say why?" He went back to caressing her shoulders.
"I didn't give him the chance." Mary admitted. "Please, let's just go." Eric's hands stopped their motion. Mary looked up at him in alarm. " What is it?"
"Maybe we just need to take this a little more carefully, let the town get used to it," Eric half-whispered.
"What do you mean? I thought"
"And you're right," Eric interrupted her. " I do think I'm starting to care more deeply about you, but maybe the town needs some time to let that sink in."
"No--to hell with them!" Mary blurted back while standing up to face him. "I wanna be with you!"
"And I you, but"
"How can you say this to me especially after last night?" Mary accused.
"That's not what I mean," Eric tried to explain. "I just think we should watch our step, take it easy."
"I don't wanna take it easy! Do you care about me or not?"
"Yes," Eric said firmly, "but we don't need the whole town turning into a lynch mob."
Mary diverted her eyes from Eric's. She knew that he wanted to be with her; he made that obvious last night. So why the change in him today? "I just don't understand." She admitted.
"Mary, I don't want to jeopardize what may be happening between us. This is new to both of us; you said it yourself last night. Let's not add fuel to the fires until we're sure about this."
"I am sure!" Mary cried then threw his scarf back at him and ran off.
"Mary, wait!" Eric called after her but she'd already gotten halfway up the path to the road. He picked up a handful of rocks and disgustedly threw them into the water. "You handled that really well!" He chastised himself then sat back down dejected.
Mary practically ran all the way home, went straight to her room and slammed the door. She threw herself down on her bed and sobbed heavily. When her mother came in to check on her Mary shouted to leave her alone. Her mother closed the door quietly and walked back into the living room. She shrugged when Mary's father asked what was wrong. Her father shook his head then went back to watching television.
Mary spent most of the next day in a daze. She went about her normal routine like a wind-up toy. Mary told anyone who asked that she felt a little under the weather, then just walked away. Jesse, the town "good guy" was the first person to break through her shell. She'd been delivering groceries to old Mr. Davis when Jesse walked over to her.
"You look like you could use a distraction," he offered as he fell into step with her.
"Jess, I'm really not in the mood," Mary sighed without turning to face him. He moved in front of her so she'd have to stop.
"Jesse," Mary moaned.
"Come on, tell me you've already got dinner plans," he challenged
"You know I don't," Mary admitted wearily.
"Good, then let's get these over to old man Davis and I'll take you to Clancy's. It's not fancy but the food's good," Jesse offered while taking one of the bags from her.
Mary handed it over and shook her head lightly. Jesse'd been hitting on her since the seventh grade. Even back then, the town thought they were the "perfect couple", but Mary never let it go beyond casual friendship. Being the "town sweetheart" was bad enough.
"You just don't give up, do you?" She said through a slight smile.
"Not until I get at least one date out of you," Jesse admitted with a determined look on his face.
Mary shook her head again. "All right. I may live to regret this though," she confessed then started walking again.
"Great!" Jesse blurted out, a little more excitedly then he'd intended.
Mary unsuccessfully stifled a giggle. She didn't see the look of triumph on Jesse's face or the dark quality behind his eyes. If she had, she might have changed her mind. Sheriff Drake kept hoping for that same look on Eric but hadn't found it yet. They delivered the groceries, stayed a "polite" amount of time, and then headed over to Clancy's in Jesse's car.
Clancy's Grill was an old fashioned roadside drive-in at one end of the town's main street. After customers ordered their food they could either sit at one of the various picnic tables or eat in their cars. Just about every teen-ager in town at one time or another had worked there during a summer.
Mary and Jesse got their food then sat at one of the picnic tables. Her mood had brightened even further on the drive over. Jesse had started talking about things they used to do in school. By the time they'd finished eating, Mary's side hurt from laughing so hard.
All these years, she'd avoided spending any "personal" time with Jesse. The stigma of being the "perfect couple" was too much to handle on top of being the "town sweetheart". She wondered if that was part of the reason that she became Eric's friend. He helped to tarnish that good girl image. Just then she realized that she had not thought of Eric since she and Jesse left old Mr. Davis. Truth was, Jesse was actually fun to be with.
"So what do you think?" Jesse finished asking.
"I'm sorry," Mary said while starting to blush. "Think about what?"
Mary didn't notice the minute flash of anger that shot through Jesse's eyes. "I know you like to walk down by the river in the evening. Wanna head over there for a while?"
A flash of guilt went through her mind. What if Eric was there? The hell with him! He made his choice last night, she thought. Here she was, sitting with a perfectly nice guy while she worried about whether Eric might see them. "Sure, why not," Mary answered, finishing her soda. Then she and Jesse drove over to the river at the opposite end of town. Mary did, however, casually steer Jesse further along River Road hoping to avoid Eric should he be in his usual spot. Why take chances when she might be wrong about Eric's intentions.
Jesse turned the car off and several awkward moments of silence followed. They were here, Mary thought. Now what?
"I see why you like it out here at night. It's very peaceful," Jesse finally said.
"Yes it is," Mary agreed, then added, "I wanted to thank you."
"What for?" Jesse asked, turning quizzically toward her.
Mary turned to face him for the first time since leaving Clancy's. "For taking me out tonight."
"You finally accepted," Jesse pointed out with a widening smile on his face. He lightly took her hand into his. It surprised her but she didn't pull it away.
"I know that. I was really down today until you came along. Thank you." She smiled. He began lightly caressing the back of her hand. Mary gave him a confused stare.
"You're welcome. Truth is, I've been drawn to you since we were eleven years old. You've always looked so beautiful to me." His caress became more substantial.
"Um, I'm not so sure I know why you brought me out here." Mary said, his motives becoming clearer as his caress moved further up her forearm.
"I just told you. I've wanted to be with you for so long, and you finally said yes." That look of triumph was back in his eyes. This time Mary saw it.
"Jesse, I agreed to dinner. I didn't say..." Jesse leaned over and kissed her firmly on the lips. Mary pushed him away. "Jesse…"
Jesse put a finger over her lips. "Shh." He kissed her again, this time much more passionately. She stiffened at first then slowly began running her fingers through his hair. His hands slowly worked up to caress her shoulders. Their lips parted and Mary stared into Jesse's eyes.
"I'm not sure this is such a good idea," Mary admitted with very little conviction.
"Why?" Jesse's hands edged carefully down along the neckline of her dress then back to her shoulders. He could feel Mary responding to his touch.
"You don't want to be with me?" He asked then kissed her with even more intensity. This time his hands brushed over her breasts. A shock shot through her and she pressed against him. "I'll take that as a yes," Jesse whispered into her ear then began kissing down her neck.
Mary couldn't help responding to him. All her feelings had been turned upside down the night before. Had Eric been this way then, she'd have given herself completely to him without hesitation. Now she found herself doing just that with Jesse. Before she realized it, they were seriously making out in the front seat of his car, with Mary giving little resistance unless his hands ventured a little too low for comfort.
Jesse didn't fight her. He just went back to caressing other areas. If she continued responding so eagerly, eventually that would change also. She just needed a little more "persuading" first.
Eric sat a long time in his usual spot thinking about how badly he'd hurt Mary's feelings. He really did care about her, but he just couldn't face the town's anger. They already believed he and Mary had spent the night together. What happened when things actually did go that far? The more he thought about it, the more depressed he got. He decided a walk back toward the dirt road, which wove its way along the river, might clear his head. As he neared the road, he noticed a parked car and curiously headed over to it.
Mary and Jesse really started getting intense. She didn't know how long she could stop herself from giving in to him completely. Mary looked up just in time to see Eric looking back at her. She buried her head shamefully into Jesse's shoulder, knowing Eric had seen her. Just then, her uncle's patrol car pulled up across from them. Eric saw Sheriff Drake and took off down the trail on the other side of the road. His scarf caught on the bushes and was left behind.
Sheriff Drake sprang from his car and headed toward Jesse's. Mary got out just in time to see Eric disappearing along the path.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing with her!" Drake shouted as Jesse also got out of the car.
"I was just, I" Jesse stammered. "She wanted to"
"I'll deal with you in a minute!" He shouted at Mary then turned his attention to Jesse. He began verbally assaulting him while Mary slowly edged away and out of sight. She carefully untangled Eric's scarf, and then headed after him.
Eric stood on the riverbank angrily throwing rocks into the water. How could he have been so naive? Sure Mary wanted to be with him; that's why he just saw her making out with another guy!
"Damn it!" Eric swore then spun around when he heard someone coming.
"Eric?" Mary began tentatively as she stepped into the clearing.
"What do you want?" He answered disappointedly then turned away from her.
"To try to explain," Mary continued while edging closer to him.
"Why? I know what I just saw," Eric said in a hurt voice.
"I know and I'm sorry," Mary admitted shamefully. "I never meant for you to see me." She lightly placed her hand on his shoulder.
"No kidding!" Eric shot back while shrugging off her hand. He turned to face her. "What is this, some kind of game with you? Lead them on then leave them cold?"
Mary anxiously rolled his scarf between her hands. "I, I didn't mean…"
"To hurt me?" Eric interrupted. "Well, I guess we're even on that one," he added in a wounded voice.
Tears streamed down Mary's face. "Please let me explain," Mary begged. She desperately wanted to caress Eric's cheek but knew he'd push her hand away. Instead, she began rambling.
"Last night you hurt me and I cried all night. I spent most of today in a daze until Jesse came along and took me out to dinner. We came out here and one thing led to another. I never meant for it to go this far." Mary's eyes pleaded with Eric to believe her, but all she saw in his eyes was hurt and disappointment.
"How could you do this to me when you know how I feel?" Eric whispered.
"Not after last night," Mary protested.
"All I said last night was that we needed to be careful--not that I didn't care about you. You jumped to that conclusion on your own," Eric countered.
"I'm so sorry!" Mary sobbed reaching for his hand. He stepped back from her.
"No, I can't do this," Eric said then turned and started walking away.
"Eric, please!" Mary shouted after him.
"NO! Leave me alone." Eric shouted back, increasing his pace. He rounded a bend and was out of sight.
Mary stood staring after him. She wrapped his scarf around her neck then turned to stare out at the water, tears streaming down her face. If only she hadn't run off so easily the night before. Obviously she had been wrong about Eric's feelings. Now even their friendship could be over. Like Eric did earlier, Mary spun around when she heard someone coming up behind her.
"Please, just leave me alone," She said then turned away.
Click here for what I think happened next
Eric sat on his bed staring absently at the television program that was on. His thoughts switched between the sight of Mary in the car with Jesse and the sight of his mother in bed with a man other than his father. It seemed that all the important people in his life had shattered his trust.
First, his father left him and his mother to be with another woman. Then his mother took up with that man with the dark hair right before the fire. Now even Mary, whom he thought might be different, had also betrayed his feelings. He raised both hands up over his eyes and began to cry. He eventually fell asleep and didn't wake up until the next morning when Sheriff Drake and two of his deputies, with their guns drawn, broke in his door.
"Give me a reason to pull the trigger!" Sheriff Drake invited while Eric stared at them in horror.
"What's this about?" he asked.
"Shut up!" Drake shouted as he forced Eric onto his stomach and began handcuffing him. "Move!" He added as he pulled Eric up to a sitting position.
"What's going on!" Eric screamed frantically as Sheriff Drake dragged him to his feet and shoved him toward the door.
"Knock it off, Sheriff," Deputy Richards warned then turned his attention to Eric. "You are under arrest for the murder of Mary Keller. You have the right…"
"What!" Eric shouted back at him.
"Mary's dead, you son of a bitch! You'll pay for this!" Drake shouted while again trying to "help" Eric down his front steps.
"That's enough Sheriff!" Richards warned again. "We do this right. Eric Jacob, you are under arrest for the murder of Mary Keller. You have the right to remain silent…."
The deputy continued reading Eric his Rights but Eric didn't hear him. How could Mary be dead? She was fine when I left her at the river last night. This isn't happening.
"Do you understand these rights as I've explained them to you?" The deputy asked again. Eric nodded numbly. "I'm sorry, son. Let's go."
Deputy Richards began ushering Eric down the steps and over to the patrol car. He made sure that Sheriff Drake kept his distance. As they drove back to town, Drake made sure that they drove past the area where they were still combing the riverbank and bridge for evidence. As they drove by, Eric stomach churned, making him feel like he was about to be sick. He lowered his head and stared at the floor.
The rest of the trip was a blur. Eric vaguely remembered people staring at him as he was led up the steps and inside the police station. He went numb, as he was finger printed and photographed. Then they led him to a holding cell and left him there. Eric sat down on the bunk with his back against the wall and drew up his knees. This can't be happening, he thought over and over again as he ran his fingers through his hair.
About two hours later, he heard a commotion in the office and called out to get someone's attention. Eric had been told nothing about what had happened and he wanted some answers. Finally, Deputy Jenks opened the door and walked over to him.
Eric immediately began grilling him about what had happened to Mary, but he might as well have been talking to the wall. The deputy either refused to answer or he too had no idea what was going on. Now even more depressed, Eric lowered his head to his knees. He heard Deputy Jenks sigh deeply as he left.
He dozed off and several hours later noise from the outer office startled him awake. As he tried to listen to the jumbled voices, Eric's stomach let out a loud growl. He realized that he hadn't eaten since the night before. He called out again and this time Deputy Richards, the one who had prevented the Sheriff from "helping" Eric down his front steps, came through the door.
"I suppose I still can't get any answers from you?" He tried again, knowing it was probably a waste of time.
"What do you need?" Deputy Richards asked in return.
"I haven't eaten all day and I'm hungry." Eric mentioned with little hope that the deputy even cared.
"I'll see what I can do," he answered with a little more compassion than Eric expected.
"Thank you," Eric said as Richards turned to leave. He nodded then went back out into the office.
Eric heard a very heated but muffled argument and figured Deputy Richards was trying to talk the Sheriff into letting him go for some food. The voices ended abruptly with a slamming door. A few minutes later, Deputy Richards crept in through the fire exit.
"It's not much," he said as he placed a soda on the floor just inside the bars, "but maybe it'll hold you until I can talk some sense into the Sheriff." He turned quickly to leave.
"Wait!" Eric whispered. Richards glanced back at him. "Why?" Eric asked as he gestured at the soda.
Deputy Richards shrugged. "Due process," was all he said then turned and quietly crept back out the door.
Eric drank the soda and made sure to hide the empty can as best he could. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. By now, Eric was so drained he just didn't care any more. How long were they just going to leave him there? He thought. He fell asleep again, but voices from the office woke him back up.
Sheriff Drake was arguing with Agent Riggs, the State Violent Crimes Investigator. He couldn't believe that Eric had been kept in a holding cell for over eight hours and had not yet been questioned. The door to the cells opened and Eric was escorted to an interrogation room.
Eric stared in horror at the crime photos of Mary's body after it had been pulled from the river. "No," he moaned and quickly turned away. Agent Riggs had expected remorse, not despair from someone accused of murder. He sat Eric down so his back would be toward the pictures, then sat down himself at the end of the table. He turned on a tape recorder and began questioning Eric for the first time.
Over an hour later, Eric lowered his head. "We've already been over this," he sighed. "I'm tired and hungry. What do you want from me?"
"Wait a minute? You haven't eaten all day?" Agent Riggs asked in disbelief.
"No, I haven't," Eric half whispered.
"I don't believe this!" Riggs growled as he sprang from his chair and flung open the door. "Sheriff!" He screamed down the hallway. Sheriff Drake came out of his office, a confused look on his face. "I don't know how you run your town, but we feed a suspect who's been in custody for more than a few hours. Get this man something to eat!" He shouted.
Sheriff Drake's face flushed with rage. He spun around and stormed away to the outer office knowing better than to say anything directly to Agent Riggs. Instead he chewed out Deputy Richards and sent him over to Clancy's for food before it closed.
Agent Riggs walked back over and sat down again. "I'm sorry, son. I can't believe how Sheriff Drake's been handling this." He apologized. Eric gave him a surprised stare. "This may be how he runs things, but we don't work that way." He turned off the tape recorder to wait until after Eric had had something to eat before continuing.
A crowd had gathered outside the police station shortly after Agent Riggs arrived. Most of them figured he was just there to take Eric away. They grew more agitated the longer Agent Riggs remained inside and practically swarmed Deputy Richards when he walked out the front door.
"What's going on in there?" Jake Stockwell, the owner of the corner grocery store, shouted.
"Eric's still being questioned," Richards informed while trying to edge down the steps.
"Why? I heard Eric's scarf was found tied around Mary's neck." Mike Elliott, the town lawyer countered.
"The Sheriff has released no official details about the case," Richards relayed with as little surprise in his voice as possible.
Tammy Fredericks walked forward to join Mike. "Hank Marlow saw it there when they pulled poor Mary's body from the river this morning."
Deputy Richards had to shout over the growing clamor. "We're still going over the evidence we gathered this morning and Agent Riggs is still questioning Eric. This may take most of the night." The crowd began to quiet down then fell completely silent when Sheriff Drake appeared at the door.
"It's a good thing I called over to Clancy's." Drake barked at Richards. " Get your ass over there so that Riggs will get back to doing his job." Richards glared at Drake then turned and stormed off toward Clancy's grill. The Sheriff then turned toward the crowd.
"Okay people. I know you want some answers but it doesn't look like they'll be coming any time soon. You might as well go home." He turned and disappeared back inside.
About twenty minutes later, Deputy Richards returned carrying three bags of food. Most of the crowd had already left but a few stragglers remained. "Why don't the rest of you go home? Eric's not going anywhere." He shook his head and went inside.
"Did you hear that?" Jake asked those who were still with him. "Sounds to me like he thinks Eric's gonna walk." The others agreed with him. "What's say we give him a little taste of our own justice?" Ripples of agreement spread throughout the crowd.
"Let's head over to Dusty's and figure out what we're gonna do about it." Jake suggested then headed down the street toward Dusty's Bar on the far side of the Town Square. Even stronger echoes of agreement arose from the already riled up crowd as they followed Jake across the square.
Nothing could have been worse for Eric than to have half of the town's troublemakers getting drunk over at Dusty's bar. Jake Stockwell was a great ringleader, but always steered clear of any real trouble. He loved drawing a crowd on, then safely standing back to watch the outcome; that night was no exception.
Jake continued to spur on his fellow troublemakers into exacting some form of "punishment" on Eric regardless of the outcome of the State Investigator's questioning. He believed a good way to sway a mob was to get them drunk first. Over a half an hour later, Jake had everyone still in Dusty' convinced that Eric deserved a similar treatment to what Eric had done to his own mother. Now a full-blown mob, Jake and his fellow townspeople set out to seek their own "justice", stopping at Tate Brown's to light torches.
Mrs. Cavanaugh nervously peered out her kitchen window. She saw Jake Stockwell leading a mob toward Eric's trailer and figured there was about to be trouble. Jake turned and motioned for quiet when he reached the trailer's front steps.
"You all know what's going to happen," he began, reigning the angry grumbles, "That state agent's going to let Eric walk!"
The grumbles became shouts. Mrs. Cavanaugh gasped when she realized what they intended to do and quickly dialed the fire department.
"It's our town. I say we hand out some of our own justice!" Jake bellowed, then shrewdly moved out of the way.
Toby Ellis let out a loud cry then threw his lit torch through the front window. The crowd cheered when the blinds immediately caught fire. Flames sprang up inside just as the town's fire alarm sounded. The mob scattered and the people who still had lit torches made sure to douse them in the run-off creek behind the trailer.
The volunteer fire department made quick work of the blaze shortly after arriving at the trailer but it was heavily damaged. Fire Chief Thompson inspected the charred floor and shook his head when he found the remains of the torch. He went back outside and headed over to Mrs. Cavanaugh.
"You didn't see anything suspicious before noticing the fire?" He asked her again.
Her eyes widened with fear. "No. I was on my way to the bathroom when I saw the flames in the front window."
"Are you sure you didn't see anyone lurking around the trailer?" Thompson pressed. Mrs. Cavanaugh was one of the town's best gossips. He couldn't believe she hadn't seen anything suspicious. All the color drained out of her face.
"Chief?" Dan Marley, one of the volunteer firemen began as he walked over to them, "Take a look at this." He handed Thompson a charred piece of wire. "This end looks pretty frayed, wouldn't you say?"
Chief Thompson turned and glared at him. They both knew that the fire had been deliberately set. Marley shot Mrs. Cavanaugh a quick glance. She looked ready to faint. Thompson glanced at her too, then nodded his head. He couldn't believe he was about to let someone get away with arson. No one had been hurt this time. But if whoever had done this turned his or her attention toward old Mrs. Cavanaugh, they might not be so lucky next time.
"Yeah it does. This could have sparked, easily starting the fire." He turned back toward Mrs. Cavanaugh. "Thank you for calling so quickly. You probably kept it from spreading."
A visible wave of relief spread over her. "Thank you," she said with sympathetic eyes. She could see how hard this would be for him. He nodded and she went back inside her own trailer.
Eric took his time eating, while the Sheriff and Agent Riggs argued in hushed voices over in the corner. Sheriff Drake seemed intent on watching every move Eric made. Like I'm going to try anything with both of you wearing guns on your belts! Eric thought angrily. How dumb do you think I am? He purposely tuned out their conversation. He just didn't care anymore.
"I told you Sheriff," Agent Riggs growled loud enough that Eric couldn't help but hear him. "Based on how you've handled this so far, you won't get to question this man until I'm done with him."
Sheriff Drake stormed out of the interrogation room, slamming the door behind him. Agent Riggs sat down again at the end of table and sighed deeply. "Okay son. The sooner we get on with this, the sooner it will be over." He turned the tape recorder back on and began the same onslaught of questions all over again. This time, Sheriff Drake watched and listened intently from the other side of the door. Just as Agent Riggs finally seemed to be leaning on Eric, the town's fire alarm sounded. Drake waved him off and went to see what was going on. Riggs shrugged and went back to his questioning.
"What's going on?" Drake asked Carla, one of the town's dispatchers. She had just switched off the two-way radio.
"Someone just called in a fire over on River Road." She told him.
"The trailer park?"
"Yeah. The woman on the phone sounded really frightened," Carla added.
"It's probably just some kids setting fire to the brush again. Send Jenks over and let me know when Chief Thompson checks in." Sheriff Drake instructed her then headed back to the interrogation room. Agent Riggs walked over and opened the door.
"Okay Sheriff. If you think you can get anything further out of this young man, be my guest." Riggs moved aside but instead of entering, Drake went to his office first. He returned with a file folder.
Agent Riggs closed the door and resumed his place at the end of the table. Eric stared blankly at the recorder as he changed the reel. He flinched when Sheriff Drake dropped the file folder onto the table in front of him.
Since Agent Riggs knew very little about Eric's relationship to Mary, he'd had to stay with generic questions to try and fill in the gaps. Sheriff Drake, on the other hand, had been watching the two of them for several months. He showed Eric picture after picture that he had taken of the two of them and wanted to know every little detail about what they had been doing.
The more Drake pressed, the more Agent Riggs doubted that Eric had had anything to do with Mary's death. Sheriff Drake's questioning wasn't revealing a torrid love affair to Agent Riggs. Instead, it was revealing a very deep friendship. He was not surprised that Sheriff Drake had neglected to share this information before now.
Drake kicked Eric's chair so suddenly that Eric practically leapt out of it. "Answer the question!" he yelled as Riggs glared at him.
"I, I didn't date her," Eric stammered. He kept his eyes fixed on the table.
"You didn't date her," Drake barked as he moved to the other side of Eric's chair. He leaned over to look right at Eric. Eric lowered his head slightly and turned away from him.
"She made you jealous didn't she?" Drake goaded him. "You saw her with Jesse and lost it, didn't you?" Eric nodded slightly.
"Alrighty Sheriff, what's the point?" Riggs challenged.
Sheriff Drake reached around Eric and grabbed a plastic bag off the table. "This is the point!" He shouted. "Recognize this?" He held the bag right in front of Eric's face. "How did you tie this around Miss Mary's neck?" Eric jerked his head away.
"Sheriff, you're going to need a lot more evidence than that if you want to hold this young man." Riggs warned. Drake straightened and glared at him. "I've got no fingerprints on Mary or that wet scarf and that river's been stomped all over." He paused.
"And right now we're going to end this by declaring the cause of death-Suicide."
Eric looked at him in shock. "What!"
"Shut up!" Drake screamed. Eric slumped down in his chair. "You've got to be kidding me!" Drake shot back at Riggs.
"I've got no evidence to suggest otherwise," Riggs countered.
"My niece gets killed and you're going to let her murderer walk!" Drake accused.
"Sheriff, you show me evidence that places anyone with Mary at the river last night and I'll pursue it tooth and nail. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing this young man is guilty of is caring about your niece."
Eric sat in shock not even hearing Drake and Riggs as they went back and forth. No matter how upset she was, Eric thought, she never would have done this. Eric jumped when Riggs placed his hand on his shoulder.
"It's over, son," he said in a much more sympathetic voice. "Once we take care of some paperwork you're free to go." He began packing up the tape recorder then added, "I'm sorry about all of this. She obviously meant a great deal to you." Eric stared at him in shock.
Sheriff Drake stood-dumb founded as Agent Riggs coaxed Eric to his feet. Eric just stared blankly at him. First he was arrested and told that Mary was dead. Now they were letting him go and ruling it a suicide. He just couldn't take any more. He numbly followed Agent Riggs out into the main office.
Agent Riggs may have decided that Eric was free to go, but Sheriff Drake did everything he could to keep him as long as possible. He left them twice, first when Chief Thompson radioed in and again when Deputy Jenks got back from River Road.
He also dragged out every little detail necessary for the release papers. It was after seven o'clock in the morning before Eric finally got his wallet and keys back.
"I think you owe Mr. Jacob a ride home," Agent Riggs told Sheriff Drake, who then rose to go get Deputy Richards. "And I wouldn't be at all surprised if this young man asks for a state investigation into how you've handled this case, " Riggs added, stopping Drake in his tracks. He turned and stared defiantly at both of them.
"I don't know," Eric began, "I just...," he trailed off, too confused to be able to think straight.
"I know son, it's okay. I'll check back with you in a week or so on this," Riggs clarified. Eric nodded absently as Drake stormed out of the office. Eric lowered his head.
"Is he going to make things difficult for you?" Agent Riggs asked, genuinely concerned.
"They can't get any worse," Eric admitted despairingly.
Agent Riggs pulled out his card. "If you need anything...," he said, and handed it to Eric.
Eric looked up at him in surprise. Agent Riggs was the only person other than Mary to show true concern for him since his mother died. "Thank you." He said.
Just as the two of them were shaking hands, Sheriff Drake returned with Deputy Richards. "He'll take you home," Drake said flatly.
Deputy Richards nodded reassuringly, then escorted Eric outside and over to his patrol car, this time Eric rode in the front seat. Several people, who were already out and about, saw them pull away in the direction of River Road. News spread quickly and before they had gotten halfway to Eric's trailer, a large crowd had gathered on the police station's front steps. Agent Riggs came out and went into extensive detail regarding the investigation, revealing that no evidence had been found to suggest that Mary had been murdered.
"What about the scarf?" someone in the crowd shouted. "We all know it was Eric's."
"I am fully aware of that," Riggs answered calmly, "but there is no indication that Mary was strangled. All I can confirm is that she was wearing the scarf when she entered the water."
"Wait a minute!" Mike Elliot protested. "Are you saying Mary committed suicide?" Loud grumbles circulated through the crowd.
"From what I learned from the interviews your own police department conducted, Mary was depressed, even despondent, yesterday. The evidence showed either that Mary was very careless while walking along the river or intentionally entered the water."
They continued to grill him but the more questions he answered, the less convinced even the crowd remained that Mary had been murdered. They finally dispersed at about the same time Deputy Richard pulled up to what was left of Eric's trailer.
The damage was unmistakable. The outside of the trailer around the front door and window was black and a section of the roof had been pulled up.
Eric's radio, television, and several other items lay charred on the ground. Eric got out and slowly started toward where his front door was left wide open. Deputy Richards followed him not believing his eyes. Eric turned to see Mrs. Avery walking her son to school. She protectively turned his head away and continued past. All the life drained out of Eric. He crouched down and absently stared at his charred television.
Mrs. Cavanaugh came out of her trailer and headed toward them. Deputy Richards intercepted her before she could reach Eric.
"I saw you pull up. Has he been released?" She asked, her voice obviously revealing that the news had already reached her.
"Yes. The state investigator found no evidence that Eric had had anything to do with Mary's death," Deputy Richards told her.
"Poor thing," she said as she watched Eric rise and continue toward the trailer. "First he loses Mary, now this," she sighed deeply.
"What happened?" Richards asked her.
"Scared the life out of me last night!" she began dramatically. Eric only half listened. "I got up last night to go to the bathroom and saw the flames in his front window." Richards far from believed her.
"Can I go inside?" Eric asked from the doorway.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Richards answered.
"It's okay," Mrs. Cavanaugh piped up. "Chief Thompson said the trailer's still structurally sound but to be careful."
Eric disappeared inside. "How'd it start?" he called from just inside the front door.
"Chief Thompson said a spark from you television ignited the blinds."
Eric shook his head. Then where did this deep scorch mark on the floor come from? He thought to himself, then continued to inspect the rest of the trailer.
"Cal Marcus said you can stay with him and Elly for a few days if you want," she added. He waved at her that he'd heard but didn't answer.
Cal and Elly Marcus lived two trailers down from him. Even though they treated him no differently than the rest of the town, they were decent people. They wouldn't turn their backs on anyone if they could help, no matter who you were.
He'd pretty much lost everything. All his furniture was either charred or water damaged, as were most of his clothes. The money he kept hidden in an old coffee can was still okay but little else had been spared. He knelt down and picked up a cracked but otherwise undamaged picture frame. In it was a picture of him and Mary from about two months before.
The strain of the past twenty-four hours finally hit him all at once and he began to cry. Deputy Richards and Mrs. Cavanaugh were still talking when he finally came back outside, still holding the photograph.
"Are you going to be all right?" Richards asked majorly concerned. "You can stay with me for a few days, if you'd rather."
Eric met his eyes, the glazed look in his own finally lifting. "No that's okay. I'll stay with Cal and Elly for a few days until I figure out what I'm going to do."
"Are you sure?" Richards asked again.
"Yeah. I'll be fine." Eric reassured.
Deputy Richards touched his shoulder, then turned and headed back to town. He went straight to the police station and into Sheriff Drake's empty office. He placed his badge and his gun on the desk, turned, then walked away.
"Would you like something to eat? I've got fresh bread in the oven." Mrs. Cavanaugh offered sincerely.
"Sure, thank you," Eric accepted. She led him tenderly by the arm back to her trailer.
The next several days kind of all blended together for Eric. Cal and Elly Marcus did take him in but only out of politeness, not friendship. He salvaged what he could from his trailer but none of it really mattered to him- except for Mary's picture. He cleaned the glass and carefully repaired the frame.
Mary's funeral was held two days after he was released. He'd expected to be kept away but, instead, he was treated like a grieving husband. The only person who tried to cause trouble was Sheriff Drake. Mary's parents put the Sheriff in his place very quickly. They pointed out to him that Mary had never been happier than when she was with Eric, but Eric still heard the muffled whispers from other townspeople. No matter how they felt that morning, there would always be doubt in their minds as to what had really happened that night.
After the service was concluded at the cemetery, Eric started walking toward the river. Fearing his present state of mind, several people tried to stop him, including former Deputy Richards.
"I just need some time alone," Eric told him, as he looked Richard's straight in the eyes. "Really, I'm okay." Eric nodded reassuringly and Richard's let him go.
He went to his and Mary's favorite spot, the fallen log right by the water's edge. He tenderly took out the picture of Mary that he'd carefully hidden under his denim jacket and placed it next to him on the log along with a pair of scissors.
He stared out at the water for a long time, reliving in his mind everything from when he'd gotten sick through that morning. Eric had never felt so alone, not even after his mother had died.
He slowly picked up the scissors and began cutting his hair. By the time he'd finished, his once shoulder length brown hair was collar length and uneven.
He brushed the hair from his shoulders as he rose from the log, then looked down lovingly at Mary's picture. He then turned his back and walked away from the river for the last time. He headed along River Road, past the town line and never looked back.
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"We need to talk," Jesse said placing his hand on her shoulder, getting her to turn
around. Mary gasped when she saw the look in his eyes. "You left me to fend off your uncle
so that you could chase after him!" he demanded.
"Just leave me alone. I never should have come up here with you in the first place."
Mary said. Jesse's face turned cold. Mary edged back away from him.
"This is how you end our date?" He reached for her, grabbing the ends of the scarf
around her neck instead.
"Jesse, let go!" Mary screamed.
He pulled the ends of the scarf tight around her neck. She clutched at. He kept it just
tight enough to make it hard for her to breathe.
"Our entire date was a joke, wasn't it?" Jesse growled at her. Mary continued to pull
against him but his grip was just too strong.
"You'll never understand," Mary managed to gasp back at him.
"Oh, I understand!" Jesse barked. " You just wanted to make him jealous.
Mary started sinking to her knees, desperately trying to loosen his grip. When Jesse
realize he was starting to strangle her, he quickly released the scarf. Mary took several deep
breaths then started coughing.
"Jesse, what…" was all Mary could manage between coughs.
"Forget it", Jesse interrupted her. "And after what your uncle saw the two of us doing,
kiss your 'good girl' image good bye!" He turned and headed back toward his car.
Mary shakily got to her feet. Jesse was right. If the town was against her seeing Eric,
news of her making out with Jesse in his car was sure to brand her for life. Still a little
lightheaded and now fully distraught, Mary stepped down closer to the water.