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Devil and the Duchess

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After the funeral, Jennifer goes to the diner.  It looks the same it always does - dark wood paneling, sleek leather seats.  A place where four high school boys can wear suits and not look out of place.  She had always found the place a bit sterile, but Jameson had liked it, and Shane always followed where Jameson led.

She’d hoped it might look warmer in daylight, that the sun might chase away the ghosts.  But no.  The only difference between the atmosphere now and the last night she saw Shane here is that the diner has more guests now, and every one of them is watching her.

She sits at the same table as always, window to her left, back to the door.  This time, though, she is alone.  She orders the same burger as always, no cheese.  This time, though, the waitress takes twice as long to come by, and her gaze is steely and suspicious.

Jennifer doesn’t make eye contact with anyone after that, instead staring fixedly at her hands as they smooth out the wrinkles in her black bengaline dress, as they bunch into fists in her lap, as they slowly and methodically shred the paper napkin into tiny pieces.  When her food arrives, she picks at it and cuts it up, but can’t bring herself to swallow a single bite.  She doesn’t stir when she hears heels click by, but startles when a familiar voice orders from behind her.

“Two chocolate milkshakes.”

Jennifer looks up, to see - her. The girl in black.  Only she is wearing a sleeveless floral dress this time, the pastel colors and the print out of place amid the brown and black backdrop of the diner.  She slides into the seat across from Jennifer and nods in greeting.

In the last few weeks, Jennifer has often wondered if the surreal conversation that night might have been a dream, if the girl had been a figment of her subconscious, a warning.  

Jennifer wonders, briefly, if this is a dream.

The girl doesn’t speak until the milkshakes arrive.  “It’s been a rough few weeks for you, hasn’t it?”

“You’ve heard, then,” Jennifer says bitterly.

Of course she has heard.   Everyone has heard by now.  After the first body - Daniel - was found, and then the others immediately thereafter, staged so gruesomely, the police had asked her some routine questions.  She had cried, and everyone had whispered about the madman that must surely have done this, but sympathy was on her side as the grieving girlfriend.

It had not taken long for the police investigation to turn up the other bodies.  They’d had more questions for her then.

“There are an awful lot of people staring at us,” the girl says.  Her hair, which had seemed white-blonde in the fluorescent diner lighting the night they first met, is a warmer golden hue under the sun.

“They don’t know whether to pity me or to hate me,” Jennifer says.  “They don’t know if I’m a victim or an abettor.”  She lets out a harsh chuckle.  “Hell, I don’t know which I am.”  She savors the taste of the word hell on her tongue.   Hell is where she hopes Shane is.   Hell is where she hopes they all are.  She’s the kind of girl who says “hell” now.  She crumples up what remains of her napkin.

“You’re not a victim because …”

“He didn’t hurt me.  He wasn’t like that.  He loved me, or so I thought.  So he said.  And I loved him, fool that I was.”  Jennifer looks out the window.  “I didn’t know.  About any of it.  But I wonder if I should have.”

“Which means you’re not an abettor either,” the girl says.  “Well, there you have it.”

“What?”  Jennifer tears her gaze away from the people walking by outside, who aren’t even pretending not to stare at her curiously as they go by.

“You’re neither victim nor abettor,” the girl says.  “You’re you.”  She takes a sip of her milkshake, her lips leaving a pink imprint on the straw when she’s done.

Jennifer looks at the girl more carefully.  She had been drawn to her the night they met, as the girl had charmed Jennifer out of her funk.  There had been something flattering about having those blue eyes focused so intently on her every word.  There had been something about those eyes that had seemed familiar.

Jennifer realizes now why - it was the same look that Shane often had, that Jameson always had.  The look that Jennifer once thought was just a look and nothing more.  Now she knows that look is a sign, an omen, a warning.   Here there be danger.

“You-”

The girl covers Jennifer’s hand on the table with her own, and Jennifer feels a jolt go through her at the contact.  Now that Jennifer is on the watch for it, she can tell that the girl’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes, yet it intrigues Jennifer all the same.  “I’m taking off,” she says.  “But I feel a bit responsible for you, all told.  So I’m inviting you to come with me.”

“To- what?” Jennifer says.

The girl doesn’t say anything, just tilts her head and waits.

“Don’t you have a boy?” Jennifer asks, trying to recall what it was they had discussed that night.

“Less of a boy, more of a- a teacher,” the girl says.  “I have graduated now, so he has gone off to mold-” and something about the way she says mold makes Jennifer thinks she really means warp “-other young minds.  So I’m alone.  And I don’t mind being alone - less people is better, all told - but I think it would be more … fun, with you.  So come with me.”

“I don’t even know your name,” Jennifer protests.

“It’s Veronica.”

Jennifer looks back out the window, at the streets she has always known and the people who will always be staring.  She thinks of her parents, who wouldn’t go to the funeral with her, and her friends, who she doesn’t have any of because Shane had taken all of her time.  Shane and his friends.  Shane and his sociopathic crew.  Shane, whose murders will color every single interaction she has for the rest of her life.

Jennifer looks back at Veronica.  “Live today like you’re going to die tomorrow, right?” she says finally.

Veronica smiles back, and it is genuine this time.  Her smile lights up her face, and Jennifer thinks she might fall in love with this girl.  She really has terrible taste.

Jennifer leaves a twenty-dollar bill and a hastily-scrawled note on the table:  

Mom, Dad, I’m taking off - Jennifer.  

Jennifer leaves behind the black cardigan she had been wearing and the black bow that had been in her hair.

Jennifer walks off into the sunset, shoulder to shoulder with Veronica, and starts her new life.

Jennifer leaves.