Violet was surprised at how quickly she responded to his touch, even when she knew it was more for Lissie’s benefit than for hers. But she had to suppress a triumphant smile when she stole a quick look at the other girl’s disgusted expression before Jay put the car in drive and left Lissie standing there, gawking after them.
“Sorry about that,” he said apologetically as he concentrated on maneuvering through the busy parking lot. “I’ve been so worried about strange men following you around that I forgot how dangerous Homecoming Queens can be.”
Violet smiled at him. “That’s okay. That kiss was a nice touch, by the way. Sheer genius.”
“Yeah, that one just came to me,” he chuckled.
“Maybe you can show it to me again…later,” she said playfully.
He reached over and gave her leg a squeeze, his eyes never leaving the road. “I like the way you think, my friend.”
“Is that how it is now, we’re back to just friends?” Violet asked, raising her eyebrows at him challengingly. “I’ll remember to keep that in mind next time we’re ‘doing homework.’”
He was suddenly serious, his tone determined. “We’ll never be just friends again, not if I have anything to do with it.” And then with conviction he added, “I love you too much to go back now, Vi.”
It was still strange to hear him saying things like that. The words sounded so foreign to her ears, but her heart responded, as if it had been waiting a lifetime to hear them, by beating erratically.
They spent the evening watching one of the movies that Jay had rented, snuggled up on the couch together, while her mom popped a frozen lasagna into the oven for dinner. Of course.
They ate together at the table that night, she, Jay, and her parents. They talked carefully around one another, avoiding the conversation that seemed to hang ominously over them: the glaring lack of headway in finding the man who’d been after Violet. Violet actually preferred it that way, the not saying it, almost as if not speaking the words out loud somehow erased what had happened to her…at least to some extent. She knew that was foolish thinking, and she tried to ignore the fact that she carried the grim reminder of how real it was all day long as she limped from place to place.
She was afraid to organize her disjointed worries into an actual, articulated concern. But ignoring it didn’t make it go away, and she couldn’t help wondering if he was still after her. It was a question that had begun to haunt her thoughts more and more frequently as the police, and even the FBI forensics team, seemed to be getting nowhere in figuring out who she’d seen out in the woods that day.
When Jay left that night, Violet collapsed onto her bed in a state of exhausted apprehension, trying to convince herself that her worries were unfounded, that she was probably just a casualty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like all those other girls had been.
So why couldn’t Violet push away those nagging thoughts, the ones that hovered around the fringe of her consciousness, telling her it was no accident that he’d been out there that day? Why couldn’t she shake the feeling that she was the reason he’d been lurking in the dark cover of the forest? That he’d been waiting for her?
She got up and double-checked her window, making sure it was locked, and glanced down to see the officer in his car, leaning back in his seat, settling in for his shift. She bounced in two hops back to her bed after first trying to put some pressure on her foot, only to be disappointed that it still wouldn’t support her weight without sending a jolt of pain all the way up her leg. She nearly fell over after the excruciating attempt to stand.
She settled in, struggling to shut off the disturbing thoughts that raced around inside her head, until she finally fell asleep, where they haunted her dreams instead. In them she was hunted by a stalker so dangerous, and so mysterious, that even her subconscious couldn’t give him a face. His unrevealed image pursued her with unrelenting stamina, finding her wherever she hid, while she ineffectively struggled to elude him. His determination knew no bounds.
Violet woke in the night feeling like her chest was being crushed beneath the panic that settled over her. She convinced herself, after checking her window again, and making sure the cop was still awake outside, that it was just a dream. That her faceless assailant couldn’t stay that way forever, that eventually he would be caught.
But until that time, Violet knew she would be fearful of closing her eyes for too long.
The next few days were hard for Violet. She felt like she was sleepwalking through school, and restlessly fighting against sleep each night. It was impossible to hide the strain from Jay, who had become increasingly attentive, recognizing what was bothering her even before she was able to voice it out loud.
“You know they’re going to find him, right?” he finally offered one afternoon.
“I know,” she answered, but even she knew that her voice was too bright, and her response too quick, to be sincere.
His voice was serious when he asked, “Do you, Vi? I think it’s bothering you more than you want to admit. I think you’re scared.”
She was annoyed that he’d figured it out so easily. She thought she’d been keeping up appearances fairly well, only to find out that she was completely transparent. She wondered if her parents were as perceptive as Jay was about her fears. “I know,” she said again. This time her voice was tinged with defeat. “I just can’t quit thinking about it—about him. I was so scared, Jay. And if you hadn’t come looking for me…” She trailed off, unable to even imagine what might have happened out there…alone with her assailant in the shadow of the trees.