Death in the Pine Forest
Copyright ©2017 by H.M. Hudson
No part of this publications may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Grace Steele: The Prequel
Joe put another log into the woodturning stove and lay back down next to Claudia on the large, white bearskin run. She was hoping it didn’t come from a real bear, maybe just an Ikea bear, but whatever, it felt really good on her almost naked skin. She was wearing nothing but a red and white flannel shirt and panties, her long red hair fanned out on the rug. Joe, sat propped up on one arm and scanned her body, his V-necked black T-shirt revealing the perfect line of his collarbone that she found inexplicably sexy. He started tracing the length of her body with his hand and she shuddered at how excited his velvety touch made her. She arched her back and turned towards him, closing her eyes. As she did that, he lightened his touch. Finally, he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers, then took them away again. She moved towards him and he pulled back, teasing her and making her want him even more.
I stopped writing on my yellow legal pad and tossed it to the side on my bed. I write an anonymous blog series online called Too Gorgeous. I guess you could say Claudia is my “Alter-ego.” If my parents knew about this they’d no doubt kill me. Or more likely, just ground me into the next century. But that would be kind of funny as it wouldn’t do anything to keep me from writing. They’d have to take away the Internet. That is not something I like to think about.
I reached over to my bedside table and opened the small drawer. I took out the vibrator, one I’d swiped from my mother, Lena’s, stash that I don’t think she knew I knew about. It was purple, made of some kind of silicone material, and curved like a well-worn stone from the sea which made it fit perfectly into the palm of my hand. Okay, just in case you’re wondering, I sterilized it before I started using it. Anyway, I didn’t think she’d miss it, she seemed to have a few others tucked away in a black drawstring bag at the back of her closet. And Lena (as I prefer to call my mom) and I may have a good relationship and all but it’s not like I’m going to go discussing vibrator usage with her. I mean, I do have boundaries.
It was after midnight and I’d only gotten home a bit ago from the party outside of town at Joe Caliri’s house. He had a huge bonfire going and a bunch of people from my school were there, plus a few older, and slightly weird townies. I went with my best friend, Talia, and her boyfriend, Trevor, but I didn’t want to leave with them because I ended up in the most deep and meaningful conversation of my life with Joe. We just sat by the bonfire all night and talked, while everyone around us seemed to be passing a bong or drinking cans of Budweiser from a cooler. I didn’t like either and was not partaking, and Joe didn’t seem to be either, which was cool because we were in a world of own making far away.
I’d known Joe since we were kids, like just about everyone else who had grown up in Two Gorges, our tiny, hippy village, misplaced in the cornfields of the Midwest. But I hadn’t really talked to him in years. We didn’t have the same friend group, despite the fact he was one of Sam’s oldest friends. Sam is my other best friend, and no, he’s not gay, just because he’s a guy who’s one of my best friends.
But back to Joe. God, he was hot. He must have been about 6’2”, with dark curly hair he was letting grow long and big brown eyes. He had always managed to bridge the worlds of being both a jock and an honor student, and he had a lot of friends across the various factions that made up our small high school. He had skipped sixth grade and so was a year ahead of us and about to graduate in the spring. This should tell you that yes, in addition to being hot, he was also super smart. But there was also something hidden about him, something dark and slightly dangerous that I couldn’t put my finger on, which of course made him all the sexier.
Anyway, we got to talking and we just couldn’t stop. It was as if we were both meeting each other for the first time at the bonfire. We talked about writing. He told me how he discovered he actually really liked to write, something he wouldn’t have guessed if it had not been for Mr. Siegel’s AP Creative Writing class he took the past year. I told him I thought Mr. Siegel was the best teacher at the high school and my favorite of course. He asked me a lot about my writing. I just said I liked to write short stories — I didn’t tell him they were mostly of the romantic and passionate variety. My secret.
We talked about traveling, which parts of the world we wanted to explore first. How we both wanted to get far away from the Midwest and discover the rest of what the world had to offer. We even talked about relationships. Or he did and I listened. I didn’t have much to offer on the subject though I consider myself an unofficial student of human relationships as a writer. He’s had more “on the ground” experience let’s say. The only thing we didn’t get into was talking about our families. I told him about what it was like living with Lena when my dad was gone a lot for work. All he said was, “Yeah, families are hard.” I couldn’t get anything more out of him on the subject.
We must have talked for a couple hours by the bonfire, sitting on milk crates so close together our knees rested against each other. A lot of people were coming and going and hanging out. Every now and then Joe would get up to hand someone a beer or point them towards the bathroom in the house, but he always came back and sat down and picked up right where we left off. It was midnight and Lena texted me she was on her way to pick me up. By this time I was pretty sure I smelled completely like a campfire, which was pretty gross, but I guess we both did. When she pulled up in her Honda CRV, I suddenly felt awkward saying goodnight to him with her watching. There was so much more I wanted to say but didn’t know how much I should show my interest. I ended up mumbling something like, “Great talking to you. Let’s do it again sometime!” Ugh! Horrible closing line.
“Yeah, for sure!” he said, and gave me a wave as I walked off towards Lena’s car idling in the driveway, her headlights beaming straight towards us. The ride home I didn’t say much as I found myself dissecting his parting words and wondering if he felt what I felt. Did he want to spend time with me again? Luckily, Lena seemed lost in her own thoughts and didn’t ask too many questions about my night.
And so there I was, sitting propped up again my pillows, the duvet pulled up over my knees that were close to my chest. I looked at the clock: 1:03 am. I found the little on switch for the purple vibrator and pushed it up. I reached down and put it between my legs and felt a crazy, melting, enveloping shudder that seemed to permeate my entire being. I let myself go with it and pictured Joe leaning in closer to me on the bearskin rug, the lick of the flames in the fireplace warming my bare skin. I imagined looking back into his warm brown eyes as he watched me play with my vibrator. I think this vibrator was a keeper and I was going to have to give it a name.
On Monday at school, I decided to do the first bold thing I’d done in a really long time. I sat down next to Joe Caliri at lunch outside at one of the picnic tables. Truthfully, I was a bit nervous but I didn’t really think it was that bold a thing to do. After all, or so I kept telling myself, we hit if off the other night and talked for hours, so what would be the big deal, right? Well, I was mortified and I am not exaggerating. I sat down and said, “Hey, Joe? What’s going on?”
I kid you not, he looked at me as if I was a complete and utter stranger. He said, “Hi?” Like, in that, do-I-know-you kind of way. I immediately felt a flush of heat and red rising up from my chest and no doubt taking over my neck and face like a crimson tidal wave.
I stumbled on my words but said something like, “That was a fun party the other night — thanks for inviting me.”
He only barely granted me any recognition at that point. “Oh yeah, cool. Sure, no problem,” he said. Then added, before I made myself too comfortable I guess — not that I was feeling remotely comfortable at this point. “I’m actually waiting for someone here.”
“Oh, sorry! Sure. I just wanted to say hi,” at that moment I glanced off towards the exit to the school and saw this senior girl, Celina, walking towards us with what like the eyes of a hawk zeroed in on me. I got the whole picture in an instant. She was his latest conquest. Or maybe vice versa, judging from the look in her eye. Whichever it was, it was clearly not to be little old me and Joe Caliri. How could I have been so off base? I literally wanted to die on the spot in that moment. If someone could have thrown a pail of water on me and I could have evaporated like the old wild witch of the west in The Wizard of Oz, I would have been eternally grateful. Instead, I had to manage to walk all the way back inside school and make it to the bathroom in time to keep my flood of embarrassing tears from drowning me. I am not very good at controlling my emotions and this latest incident proved to be no exception to the rule.
I collected myself inside the bathroom stall for a few minutes before I was ready to go back out. I’d lost my appetite for lunch, which was just as well since there wasn’t much time left in which to eat it. I made my way to Algebra II, my most God-awful class I had to suffer through three times a week. Whoever invented Algebra must have done so as a means to torture prisoners of war. What other use for it could there possibly be? I could see no application to real life in any way, shape, or form. And it wasn’t as if I planned to go on and study anything scientific in college, which as far as I was concerned, meant I should have a free pass to skip this unnecessary form of torture.
After all, I was planning to move to New York when I was old enough and live in Brooklyn or Queens. I’d share a small apartment (although the image of an expansive loft was preferable, though I knew a long shot) with about five other up and coming writers or creatives, and make my way in the publishing world. That or I would go to school and study to become a foreign correspondent. I loved Christiane Amanpour. She was my hero from the world of journalism. I had too many literary heroes to be able to pick one, so don’t even ask me. I tried to remind myself that Christiane Amanpour must have survived Algebra somehow. Just then Mrs. McKenzie, our teacher, called on me to come up to the board and do a problem in front of the class. Honest to God, did I have a bulls eye on me today that just said ‘Loser Here’ with a big finger pointing at my head?
“Grace? I’m waiting.” Mrs. McKenzie stood by the whiteboard with her arms folded. I took a deep breath and went up to the front of the class.
Later that evening I was back at my desk in my room, after having done the dishes, and taken out the trash for Lena. We alternated every week when my dad was out of town. It was my week to take out the trash on garbage collection night and she would pull the empties back up to the house in the morning. I read what I had started to write the other night inspired by my conversation with Joe at the party. It was the first time I’d left myself read it again after what happened today. Wow, what a dick! I mean, what was wrong with him? How could he seem so amazing the other night and acted like such a tool today at lunch?
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I had always heard stories from people that he was pretty much like that. But I guess I just thought since we had the big soul sharing the other night, people must have been wrong and he really was different. He just needed someone like me to bring it out of him. But I guessed he regularly pissed a lot of people off. Either for being like that or just saying what he thought of people to their faces. He called it honesty. Other people called it “assholedom.” I had to admit, they were probably right.
I was feeling kind of in the dumps and no in the mood to write on my blog, much less do my homework for government class. It was still just dusk and I thought maybe walking downtown to Avery’s Market for some gum would do me some good. I went downstairs to tell Lena my plan and she gave me some money and asked me to get a quart of organic milk while I was down there. I stuffed the money in my front pocket, slid my iPhone 6 into the back pocket of my favorite worn and tattered Levi’s and threw on my matching jean jacket with a worn patch on the back that read The Clash. I inherited this from Lena and made it my own. She wasn’t ever getting it back because I loved it too much. I yelled goodbye over my shoulder and headed out the side door.
The air was unseasonably warm for mid-March. It felt more like May and fooled you into thinking summer was just around the corner. I could have texted Sam or my friend, Talia, to join me for the walk but for some reason, I was just feeling like I wanted to be alone. Sometimes making conversation, even with people I know well, just takes too much energy. I guess I am truly an introvert when it comes down to it.
I was walking down Phillips Street, which was going to bring me out onto the main road into town, also known as Route 58 or Cedar Avenue. Because it was a state route, big semi tractor trailer trucks blasted through our quiet little town, making it seem a little less quaint every time. But there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. I was just passing a little red house on the corner of Phillips and Cedar when I saw none other than Joe Caliri emerge from the house, stride out to the curb, and get in what I guessed must have been his car. I had no idea whose house it was and I couldn’t help wondering who Joe was visiting. There was a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign on the lawn, big overgrown evergreen-like shrubs surrounding the house and blinds pulled down in all the windows. The whole impression it gave was somewhat ominous — a go-away-and-leave-me-alone statement if ever there was one. I was just about to pass the car and I decided the safest bet at that moment would be to pretend like I didn’t even see him. He was sitting in his car and staring at his phone or something. I picked up my pace and took out my phone and pretended to be engrossed just as I passed him. I got a few feet ahead of the car when I heard him call out.
“Hey! Steele! What are you doing?” His voice sounded sharp and startled me even though obviously I knew he was there.
I tried to act surprised. “Oh, hi! Wow, you scared me. I didn’t see you there, Joe. What’s up?”
“I asked you first,” he said, softening his tone a bit.
“I’m just walking downtown is all. Is that a crime?” Immediately I thought, what a dumb thing to say. And then I double-asked myself, why was it a dumb thing to say?
“Ha! No, I doubt you’d be guilty of any crimes. You’re a good girl, aren’t you, Grace?” He looked at me kind of funny and it made me uncomfortable. He didn’t seem like the same Joe I’d talked to earlier in the day or the same Joe I’d had the long, deep conversation with at the party the other night. How many Joe’s were there I was starting to wonder?
“Hop in. I’m going that way — I’ll give you a ride.”
“Oh, that’s OK, I’m fine. Really. I need the exercise.”
“No, come on Gracie, I want to apologize about earlier today anyway.” He leaned over and opened the passenger door for me to get in, not that I wasn’t capable of doing it myself. At that point, it was getting harder to say no and I admit, I was curious. I got in and he pulled the car up to the intersection and turned left to go into town. It would be a short ride as it was only about five blocks from where we were.
“So, sorry about today at lunch. That probably seemed weird. But I had to deal with some stuff with Celina,” he said, not looking at me as he drove.
“It’s really fine, Joe, no worries,” I had the feeling he was about to tell me more than I even wanted to know.
“Yeah, this relationship shit is really too much for me right now. Got too many things going on, you know?”
“Yeah, totally. I get that,” as if, I thought.
“You seem like somebody who gets that, Grace Steele. Don’t you?” he looked over at me now and smiled.
I shrugged and said, “Who has the time for drama?”
“Exactly! I do not have the time for drama. Places to go, things to do, people to do…” he broke off, laughing at himself. “Or however that saying goes.”
He was slowing down as he’d come into the main area of downtown. “You can just let me out here. I’m just going to Avery’s.”
He turned into the parking lot behind Avery’s Market and stopped. “All right, here you go. Thanks for the pleasure of your company, Grace Steele.” He looked at me, in what seemed like his most genuine moment of authenticity since our conversation at the bonfire.
“Sure thing. Thanks for the ride!” I said, not wanting to dwell on any lingering awkward moments, and got out of the car. I did not look back and went inside the market, wondering about the enigma that seemed to be Joe Caliri, and how I wound up in his force field. Or, maybe it was actually the other way around. How did he wind up in mine and why?
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This is a short story that introduces amateur detective and blogger Grace Steele and her world to readers. Death in the Pine Forest (Book 1) To her friends and family, 17-year-old Grace Steele is a shy, studious girl with a regular high-schooler's life. But in the privacy of her room, Grace inhabits a different world -- the world of passion and romance she creates on her anonymous blog she calls "Too Gorgeous." But when Grace's best friend, Sam, becomes a suspect in a shocking murder in their peaceful town of Two Gorges, Grace is drawn out of her digital world and hurled into the real one. As she struggles to clear Sam's name, she discovers her knack for understanding misplaced passions makes her a natural sleuth and that ultimately, true love is found in the most unlikely places.