I know. I know. I haven’t seen Aric Stacy since Junior year. More in depth, I haven’t seen Aric Stacy since I shoved him through a window of a local bar when I saw him making out with a freshman. The idiot had the nerve to turn down my date offer saying he was sick, then show up at the same bar I frequented every Friday with some bimbo. Talk about a dumbass.
Whatever. I still wanted to look good. I didn’t want to look like I put in too much effort, though, so I kept it casual. A maxi dress and messy hair. Beach chic without appearing too thought-out.
I did slip on a pair of heels, though. So yeah. I tried too hard.
I called for a taxi, knowing there was no way in hell I could ride my bike in my dress. Halfway through town, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Sergio.
S. Quezada: Meet us outside the bistro. I already ordered you food.
I wanted to be mad about them changing the plans on me, but my empty stomach growled anxiously. “Change of plans,” I told the driver. “Take me to that little bistro by the station, please.”
When I arrived, I saw Sergio right away. He was sitting with a man with sandy hair and tanned skin. I barely recognized him as Aric, but I knew it had to be him. He looked good – he was a bit more professional, a bit less SLC punk.
Sergio stood as I approached, always the gentleman. Aric remained seated, taking a drink from his beer bottle. I narrowed my eyes at him as I got to the table. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“There’s the attitude I remember,” Aric snorted. “Sit down, Lolly. This copper found me, not the other way around. I agreed to come down and see your pretty little ass one more time, and maybe give some help to the local boys in blue. Sounds like they need it.”
Sergio looked as annoyed as I felt. “Miss Derelict, how are you this morning?”
I shrugged, sitting. “Fine. So, what’s going on with the photos?”
Aric shrugged. “I don’t know anything about who took them or when-” he paused them smirked. “Well, I can tell you when. I definitely remember that red outfit, Lolly.”
I swallowed and looked away – I knew a blush was rising on my cheeks. “Quit being such a pervert and spit out what you know. You didn’t come all this way to torment me for past mistakes.”
“Well, here’s what I know that might help,” Aric grunted, leaning back further in his chair. “There was this guy who kept coming to the campus looking for you. Older than us, definitely not a student. Had this shaggy mess of gross hair, matted beard. He kept asking for Layla. Kept saying, Have you seen Layla?“
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” I asked, eyebrows furrowing. “That’s kind of something a normal person might bring up in the day-to-day.”
Aric shrugged. “Look, I didn’t think nothing of it till I got the call from these po-po’s a few days ago. He just looked like some meth-head after a bad batch. All strung out and loopy as fuck. How was I to know you had a genuine stalker?”
“Do you remember anyone who looked like this, Layla?” Sergio asked gently.
I shook my head. “Not that I know of. I mean, I didn’t really look around a lot while crossing campus. When you have somewhere to be, you just focus on getting there.” I shot Aric a glance, unable to keep back a barb. “Unless you were there to smoke weed in the grass and look up girls’ skirts, I guess.”
“Hey, it got me you, didn’t it?”
The shit-eating grin was too much. I chuckled softly and shook my head. “You never got me.”
“Oh baby, I got you in more positions-“
“Enough,” Sergio snapped. I bit my lower lip to keep back a smile. The talk seemed to really agitate Sergio, which wasn’t exactly a bad thing. It told me that I must have been a little more than a paycheck – even if just a little.
“Anyway, if anyone was taking creepy pictures of you, it would be him,” Aric said simply.
“How would he have gotten into the room, though?” Sergio pressed. “There are camera angles that wouldn’t be possible unless someone was right there in the room.”
“Ain’t got a clue, man,” Aric said, getting to his feet. “Layla knows no one was in the room. I know no one was in the room. Shit, this prude wouldn’t even let me take pictures of her.”
“Good thing, too,” I laughed humorlessly. “I remember Amber bitching about pictures of her winding up on Myspace.”
“Ah, Amber and Myspace,” Aric chuckled. “Those were the days.” He patted my hand and tipped his head to Sergio. “You got my number if you need anything more, police boy. Lolly, it was good to see you. Looking good as ever.” He tugged on a loose curl as he passed.
“I don’t like that guy,” Sergio admitted, watching him walk away.
I smiled, reaching for my water. “If you don’t like him now, you would have hated him in college. Now where’s the food?”
Lunch was uneventful. Sergio spent most of it on his phone updating his deputy, the woman I met earlier, with what Aric had said. The woman was going to make some calls to the school and see if they could catch a photo of the creep Aric described.
“Heading home?” Sergio asked.
“Yeah, gotta get those horses in show-shape,” I said, tilting my head to the side. “Maybe fetch a better price for them next year if they have some more ribbons on their belts.”
Sergio nodded and looked uncomfortable. “Well… I guess I’ll see you when we get a development?”
I shrugged. “Guess so.” I turned around and started heading to the main street to hail a taxi.
“Let me give you a ride home,” Sergio offered. I shook my head and kept walking. The boy needed to figure out what he wanted – to be my knight in shining armor or the aloof guy in the background who focused on business.
When I got home, I was not expecting to find Aric on my front porch, seated on one of the new chairs the furniture company must have finally gotten around to delivering.
“Nice place, Lolly,” he called.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. I couldn’t help the smile. Even though he was a dick, he was still fun.
“Well, I wanted to come see if you wanted company,” he offered slyly. “I’m in town for a few more days… maybe more.”
“Maybe more?” I pressed.
“I might also be looking at some jobs in this area. If there was a reason to stick around. Protecting you from hobo meth stalkers sounds like a pretty good one,” he added, reaching out to run a finger along my arm.
I shook my head. “You’re not one for steady employment or steady relationships, if you forgot.”
“Hey, it’s been two years. People do change!”
I looked at his pouting face and couldn’t deny he was a guy would could keep me distracted from other issues in my life. I shook my head but smiled and he knew he’s won. “You can stick around but you need to help in the garden and with the horses.”
“And do I get paid?” he grinned.
“You get paid in free rent and food, you idiot. I’m not handing you cash every day,” I laughed.
“I meant something else…” he whispered, leaning in close.
I closed my eyes. This was such a bad idea.
It was a terrible, horrible, monumental fuck up. But at the time, it didn’t feel like one.
Three days passed in a haze of purely exquisite sexual bliss. I don’t think there was a surface we hadn’t done something on. It was completely reckless and stupid and juvenile – but that’s how he made me feel.
And then one morning he was gone. He left his things; his dirty clothes were still in the hamper, his suitcase was still in the corner. But he was gone.
I figured he had gone out for breakfast. And then breakfast turned into lunch and lunch turned into dinner. I didn’t go out into the barn to work with the horses at all that day. I just sat on the porch, watching the road.
Around seven pm I gave up. He probably found some other girl and was with her, fucking away and not even remembering me. He had gotten what he wanted from me.
I swallowed hard and made my way upstairs.
It was about that time I noticed the smell.
One of the upstairs rooms was once dedicated to crafting, metalwork, and sculpting. It was a room grandma has made for herself and, later, let me work in there, as well. She was always welding things and selling them for astronomical prices. While she did that, I would sit and sculpt.
I hadn’t been in the room since I was a teenager. It brought back too many memories. But now there was a tangy, sweet something tinging the air that came from that room. I had to make sure it wasn’t something bad, right? Like maybe Jasper had gotten in there and been using it as his personal poo station inside the house?
I think I already knew, somewhere deep down, what I was going to find when I opened the door.
I think I had been screaming when I called the police. I think they probably assumed I was being murdered since they couldn’t understand me through all of the shouting and crying.
I had never seen a dead body. Especially not one like this. Not one posed especially for me to see. Not one that had blood trailing from the body to form a looping warning.
Stop trying to find me, Layla. I will find you when it’s time.
“Layla, I need you to come down to the station with me,” Sergio said softly. “We need to ask you some questions.”
I met his gaze. I had stopped crying sometime between Sergio pulling me away from the body and hugging me close, and Sergio taking me downstairs to sit in the living room with a cup of coffee. “I’m a suspect now?”
He pursed his lips and reached out tentatively, his thumb brushing my cheek. “I know you didn’t do it, but this is my job. I have to talk to you.”
Someone cleared their throat and we turned, finding Sergio’s deputy there with her arms crossed over her chest. “We should probably get Miss Derelict to the precinct, Sheriff.” Her tone made it clear she didn’t like how close Sergio was to me, nor him admitting he believed my innocence.
Sergio nodded, standing. “Let’s go.” He reached out for my hand.
I had no other option but to comply.