Violet nodded, a little surprised by the rigid expression she saw on his face.
Again, his voice was nearly inaudible but it was filled with purpose. “Is he in there?” Jay asked, indicating the public restroom.
She nodded for a second time.
“You.” He barely said the word, but Violet felt the gravity of his frustration. “Go wait in the center of the mall, by the benches. And don’t move until I get there.”
Violet started to protest, finally realizing that he meant to go into the men’s room by himself. “What if—?” she began, but he cut her off with an unwavering stare that silenced her before she could finish her argument.
“Seriously, Violet. I mean it.” He nudged her back toward the mall, and Violet decided that now wasn’t the time to argue with him. She knew from the look on his face that he was determined, and that nothing she said was going to change his mind.
She was certain that she was shaking now as she made her way back through the endless stream of shoppers. She was suddenly all too aware of what she’d been about to do, of what Jay had just stopped her from doing, and she realized how absurdly dangerous it had been. Had she really been about to do something so foolish?
The unfortunate answer was yes. And Jay had known it too, which was why he was so angry with her. He’d told her not to leave his sight; he’d made a promise to her parents that he would take care of her, and she’d ignored all of it.
She sat down on a bench in the middle of the bustling shopping center and tried to focus on something other than what Jay might be doing at that very moment. She felt raw with terror. What if the killer was in there? What would Jay do? And worse, what could the killer do to Jay?
Violet wrung her hands nervously in her lap as she waited for what seemed like an eternity, watching the entrance of the hallway anxiously and hoping for a glimpse of Jay.
When she finally saw him, and he appeared to be all in one piece, she jumped up and nearly shoved passersby out of the way to get to him. The look on his face hadn’t changed in the minutes that had passed, but Violet didn’t care, because even though he was still mad at her, he was obviously safe.
“You’re okay.” It was a statement, not a question, and her words were filled with relief. “What happened?”
Jay pulled her aside, to where they were out of the way of the foot traffic. His touch was comforting to Violet despite the fact that it completely lacked any trace of tenderness.
“There were just some punk kids in there…smoking. So unless the guy’s in junior high, it wasn’t him.” Violet was surprised to hear an edge of frustration in his voice that had nothing to do with her. She’d assumed that Jay was there only to humor her and to keep her out of trouble. She hadn’t believed that he had any real interest in finding this guy. And yet, when he’d told her that the killer wasn’t in there, he seemed genuinely disappointed.
Suddenly a wave of garlic burst freshly across her tongue. She spun around in time to see a group of boys exiting the hallway where the restrooms were, and walking right toward where she and Jay stood.
Violet reached out and grabbed Jay’s arm for support, feeling nauseous from the fiery blast that assaulted her mouth.
As they passed, a boy, maybe only thirteen or fourteen years old, looked up at her. The contrast of his dyed black hair against his pale, sallow skin made him seem anemic and sickly at first glance. But when his eyes met hers, in that split second, she felt a level of cruelty coming from deep within him that practically blistered her with its intensity. The searing flashes of garlic were like explosions that angrily scalded her tongue as he stared back at her.
Whether real or imagined, Violet could envision this boy, who was probably accustomed to hurting small creatures at random, growing into the kind of man who could actually kidnap and murder young girls.
But for now, at least, he wasn’t the person she was searching for.
Violet had to look away first, closing her eyes until he’d passed her by completely.
“Was that who you sensed?” Jay asked.
Violet could only nod, waiting until the queasiness, and the lingering flavor of the boy’s particular brand of evil, faded away.
Jay didn’t ask her if she was ready to go or not; he just put his arm around her. There was nothing gentle or reassuring about the contact, it was meant more to guide than to comfort her, as he led her out of the mall to the car.
They drove home without speaking—Jay was too angry, and Violet too exhausted from her brush with malevolence. She was still reeling from the intensity of the sensations she’d experienced from the hate-filled boy.
She knew she couldn’t do that again, just go randomly looking for a killer in their midst. It had been too hard on her today. She was used to trying to buffer herself from those kinds of feelings; she had practiced building up walls to shield herself from experiencing that kind of intensity. Especially when she wasn’t even sure exactly what she was looking for. She didn’t think she could take much more of that.
If she was going to try again, she was going to need a better game plan, she decided. And this time it was going to require some serious preparation.
THE ATMOSPHERE AT SCHOOL WAS MUCH MORE somber than it had been after the previous disappearances. Violet suspected that it was because Hailey McDonald was not a casual acquaintance met in passing at a party or social event. To the vast majority of the student body, Hailey McDonald was someone they knew.
Hailey was the sister of a fellow student, and her family was well known by many of the kids at White River High. Her absence in the community was almost palpable, and it was being taken much more personally than the deaths of the other girls had been.