What was supposed to be a relaxed and festive time was filled with speedy, hectic tasks. Closets were gone through, belongings were sorted, boxes were packed, touch-ups were done where the paint was peeling, rooms were scrubbed spotless.
If it weren’t for the Christmas tree Ashley’s aunt had meticulously decorated, one would never know that Christmas had arrived by the glum expressions on Ashley, Katelyn, and Iris’s faces. Nonetheless, they tried their best to generate as much of a holiday spirit as they possibly could.
Iris brought over some sweets she had baked, and Ashley opened the gifts her aunt had left under the tree. There were four packages; three from her aunt and one Iris added while Ashley was in another room.
Reaching blindly, she took hold of Iris’s gift first.
“Read the label on that one,” instructed Iris.
Curiously, Ashley studied it. “Oh, it’s from you.”
She opened the package to find a charm bracelet. The golden shapes were abundant with hearts, musical notes, angels and many other pleasant things.
“How charming. Thank you, Iris,” said Ashley.
“You’re quite welcome.”
The first of her aunt’s packages consisted of a cotton floral dress that would be suitable for school as well as going to finer restaurants.
“Nice,” said Ashley. “Not too casual, not too fancy.”
The second package was a pair of dangling star earrings, the third a journal.
“There you go,” said Iris with a smile. “Anytime this here girl don’t treat you right, you just write all about it, eh?”
The trio giggled.
Ashley felt bad about not having anything to give to the others, but they assured her that under the circumstances she shouldn’t think about it. Besides, Ashley herself was Katelyn’s present, as Katelyn later told her after Iris had gone home for the night.
“It’s still not fair to you, Katelyn. You should be spending this day with your family.”
Katelyn gathered her into her arms. “They understand, Ashley, and it’s not like there won’t be any more Christmases.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Ashley said with a sigh, resting her weary head upon Katelyn’s chest.
“You’re exhausted, Ash. Think we should turn in early tonight?”
Ashley pulled back and nodded. “I could sleep until New Year’s.”
The day after Christmas was when the house went up for sale. Since it obviously wouldn’t sell before Ashley returned to school, an account had been set up that would hold the money from the sale of it once it was officially sold. In the meantime, Katelyn, who had a driver’s license unlike Ashley, used Iris’s car to drive over the things that Ashley wished to have stored.
Since Belen was so much closer to Albuquerque than Las Cruces, it was agreed that Katelyn would stay with Ashley throughout the remainder of their vacation and that they’d return to school together. Katelyn’s parents wired money for her bus ticket. Classes were set to resume on Wednesday, January 2nd. The following weekend, her parents would drive to her with the things she’d taken home and anything else she might want to have on campus. Meanwhile, she had enough clothes with her, as well as on campus, until her parents arrived.
Ashley loved Katelyn all the more for standing by her and for allowing her to grieve when she needed to and for listening to her when she needed to talk. Instead of feeling smothered, she felt loved by Katelyn’s presence. She sensed that Katelyn worried she was being as intrusive as she was supportive, so Ashley made it a point to assure her every so often just how pleased she was to have her by her side. It was the truth anyway.
The sound of the people cheering on TV in Times Square as the ball dropped to signal the New Year brought both positive and negative feelings to Ashley. Whenever she needed feelings of hope and happiness to dominate her worries and fears, she would turn to gaze at Katelyn. The promise of a life with such a wonderful and gorgeous person overrode all else. They kissed lovingly when the ball dropped, not caring if it made Iris uncomfortable or not, for they had a right to live their lives as they saw fit and so they would. They weren’t hurting anyone in any way, and as they learned long ago…if you couldn’t be yourself, who could you be?
They sat at the back of the bus gently holding hands, heads resting back against the seat’s headrests.
Ashley still found it hard to believe that she would never again return to her aunt Hilary’s house.
Iris was kind enough to offer to send her weekly money until the house sold, at which time Ashley urged her to reimburse herself and take however much she ended up sending her. When the house sold, Iris would send her all the paperwork connected to the sale, she told her, so she could be sure she was getting what was hers, not that she didn’t trust Iris. If Iris weren’t trustworthy, then her aunt would never have been friends with her for as many years as she had been.
She had mixed emotions about returning to the campus. It was true that she was glad to be out of her aunt’s house where she missed her even more for the same reasons she had been glad to leave her parents’ Nevada home, yet she wasn’t up to the idea of dealing with classes, homework and first-class snobs like Dalene. Whatever the case, she told herself; I have someone I love by my side who loves me in return.
The five roommates fell back into the routine they had before their vacation. Dalene and Rose were hardly ever home, Nicolette studied hard, and Ashley and Katelyn spent every minute they possibly could with each other. It got to the point where Ashley only went into her room to get things. She rarely spent more than a few minutes at a time in it.
When Katelyn’s parents came to visit, they offered their condolences and encouraged her to hang out with them, assuring her she wasn’t intruding upon the visit in any way by doing so.
She found them to be jovial and outgoing people. Katelyn’s mother loved to chat and she had a wonderful sense of humor. Her father was more on the quiet side yet he had the same air of life emanating from him that her mother had. They seemed to genuinely love each other as well as their daughter and often stopped to comment about how lovely and smart Ashley was, with Katelyn’s mother winking at Katelyn with a knowing smile.
She knew that they knew that she and Katelyn were more than friends, yet it didn’t seem to bother them in any way. For this Ashley was grateful and she wished there were more parents in the world with their accepting attitude.
They insisted that she spend spring break with them and that it’d be silly for her to stay on campus all alone and vulnerable to the killer who was still at large, and for all they knew, might not have been caught by then.
It was a cold February night. Heat whooshed softly through the vents. The bedside clock told Ashley she’d only been asleep for a few hours and that it was now coming up on two.
So what had woken her?
She strained to hear any odd sounds, yet all she heard was the air pushing through the vents and Katelyn’s soft, steady breathing.
Just as she was about to close her eyes and concentrate on falling back asleep, she heard it again.
She hadn’t been dreaming after all.
She rose up on one elbow. The sound had come from somewhere inside the house. When it came again, she realized it was the sound of a key being inserted into the lock of the front door. Next, she heard it swing open, softly shut, and then the deadbolt being slid back into place.
Who could possibly be coming in this late?
Careful not to wake Katelyn, Ashley gently nudged aside the arm she had draped over her waist. Although slender, the arm was long and packed tight with muscle, making it seem like it weighed a ton and as if she was lifting a log rather than an arm.
With the arm now aside, Ashley cast the warm comforter all the way off and slowly got up from the bed. She squinted to see through the darkness for her long terrycloth robe that hung on the back of the desk chair. Once she found it and slipped it on, tying it snugly at the waist, she tiptoed towards the door. Although she knew it was either Dalene or Rose, her heartbeat sped up nonetheless. Curiously, she opened the door a few inches and peered out and down the long hall. Straight ahead at the end of it, a strip of light shone through the closed bathroom door that the other three occupants normally used.
She stepped out into the hall, closing the bedroom door behind her as quietly as she could. Guided by the dim night light in the hallway, she moved on past the living room and kitchen and down towards the other bedrooms.
Because Nicolette and Dalene’s doors were closed and Rose’s wasn’t, she assumed it was Rose who was in the bathroom. She couldn’t help but wonder why she would come home so late on a school night.
As if hypnotized into a trance by the strip of light, she sauntered up to the door and listened intently. She heard the sound of water running, splashing in the shell-shaped marble sink. Then she heard a louder splash followed by the sound of something being ferociously scrubbed.
What in the world would Rose be washing in the bathroom sink in the middle of the night? Maybe she was on her period and had simply had an accident.
She lifted a hand and was about to knock on the door to see if anything was wrong, but then she stopped herself. She wasn’t sure why, but something deep within her instincts told her it was best to keep her presence unknown to Rose.
The water stopped running.
Ashley took a few steps backward. Shadows began to flicker under the door and sounds of plastic rustling were now audible.
Just as Rose opened the door, Ashley spun around and darted into her own room, losing herself in the darkened shadows just as Rose passed by. From her vantage point, she could see that she was carrying a black trash bag.
Ashley gingerly crept towards her doorway, glad the house was on a concrete foundation and couldn’t have creaky floors, and peered out just as Rose rounded the corner and disappeared into the kitchen.
She shot towards the kitchen doorway, stopping just a few inches before she reached it to keep out of view.
She heard the back door open next. Whatever it was Rose had in the trash bag, she was determined to get rid of it now, in the wee hours of the morning.
She started to cross the kitchen doorway and return to Katelyn’s room but thought better of it. She wanted to remain hidden. If Rose saw her now, she would know she’d been spying on her, and the last thing she wanted was to come off as a snoop. With this in mind, she doubled back to her room, once again letting the darkness in it swallow her up.
A few minutes later she heard Rose, who was trying to be as quiet as she could, re-enter the house. She moved quietly and gracefully despite her extra bulk and softly shut her bedroom door behind her.
Ashley waited a few minutes to see if she would come out again. When she didn’t, she returned to Katelyn’s side, feeling almost a sense of relief to be within the warmth and safety in which the soft comforter and Katelyn’s arms provided.