Authors: James DeVita
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A Winsome Murder
A trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press
A trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press
1930 Monroe Street, 3rd Floor
Madison, Wisconsin 53711-2059
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London WC2E 8LU, United Kingdom
Copyright Â© 2015 by James DeVita
All rights reserved. Except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles and reviews, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any format or by any meansâdigital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwiseâ or conveyed via the Internet or a website without written permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. Rights inquiries should be directed to
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
DeVita, James, author.
A winsome murder / James DeVita.
ISBN 978-0-299-30440-9 (cloth: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-299-30443-0 (e-book)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
humid night in August, after midnight. Helga Steimel was walking her dog, Fred, a tiny yelp of a poodle. The stars were out and a mild breeze was beginning to cool the evening.
Fred, happy to be himself, barked and tugged Helga farther and farther away from town, past the Legion hall, past the church, past the high school and the cornfields behind it, and down the empty streets of the new development being carved out of the last forty acres of farmland out by the highway. There were no houses there yet. No street-lights. The asphalt roads were laid, as well as the sidewalks, chalk white and unscuffed in their newness. Mounds of lumber and roofing materials lay stacked along either side of the street, and every fifty yards or so numbered stakes sectioned off the hayfields soon to be bulldozed into residential lots.
Fred kept yapping at the air, pulling Helga along, and she let him, gazing skyward occasionally at the clusters of brilliant stars above. On a night as dark as this she could even make out the wispy thin sheen of the Milky Way, which was exactly what she was doing when Fred suddenly stopped.
He did not bark.
He did not shift from his mark.
What Helga saw first was a shadowy darkness in the tall grasses to her left, a deeper darkness than the rest of the field. Everywhere else the hay was moving, the long grasses swaying back and forth beneath the light night breeze, but not where Helga was looking. There, nothing moved. There, the grasses had all been matted down, leaving a sort of dark impression. She moved closer. Within the dusky void there seemed a thing of whiteness on the ground, a colorless form, silent andâ
Helga stopped. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. She backed away, slowly, carefully, as if she'd stumbled upon some act of horrific intimacy that she knew she should not be looking at.
Its arms and legs bent and pointed in ways arms and legs should not be able to go.
elissa Becker was the first girl that Deborah Ellison ever kissed.
She'd kissed girls before, of course, when she was little, at sleepovers, lying under blankets on living room floors or sleeping in the same bed
with a playmate, but that was always practice, as they giggled it, practice to kiss the boys. But for Deborah, it wasn't practice. She enjoyed it. She craved the tingly feeling she felt when a little friend's hand accidentally brushed her body while whispering sixth grade secrets. There, nested into each other, so close that each could smell the other's candied breath, Deborah felt an overwhelming desire to
the other girl, to be all of her, to dissolve within her. She didn't know what this meant at the time, only that it felt right and true. And although some part of her, the part that was not truly her, told her that what she wanted was sinful and wrong, another part of her told her that it was right and good.
So she knew, even then, that she was different. This difference walked before her like another person whom only she could see, leaving herself always trailing slightly behind. She wanted to catch up to her own self someday, to be the person in front of her, the person she'd been trying to pretend wasn't there.
And then she kissed Melissa Becker.
Melissa was Deborah's first love. The kind of love that marks you for life, the kind of love that can damage you. She'd felt this way about Melissa ever since middle school, but never dared to say a word. Slowly, though, as they grew up together, Deborah began to think that maybe Melissa felt the same wayâsomething in her eyes when they said goodbye after volleyball practice, or when they ate lunch together, or when Melissa combed her hair on the bus. Deborah's chest tickled at her touch, a flutter of hummingbird wings within her heart. She was so scared, though, so scared to say anything, to do anything. What if she were wrong? What if Melissa didn't have the same feelings? What if she would think her disgusting and never talk to her again?
Then Melissa got sick. The kind of sick you read about in newspapers.
Deborah could barely breathe. She could not imagine a world without Melissa, without the person who made her look forward to waking. Just to glance her way in the hallway made day worth being day. How could this be? How could whoever does such things do such a thing?
It happened in the high school gym.
Deborah and Melissa were putting away volleyballs in the storage room. Melissa, in loose blue gym shorts, sitting on a rolled-up gymnastic mat, showed Deborah her leg, where the cancer was. Deborah knelt and put her hand on Melissa's knee, hating what was beneath the skin, the
unseen sickness inside, the other thing that was in the room with them now. She could feel its presence. She stroked Melissa's leg, feeling for it, but felt only smoothness and warmth. She bent and kissed her knee. Holily. She kissed it again and again and again and again and prayed to God to make the disease go away and leave Melissa alone. When she looked up, Melissa was smiling.
Deborah's neck and chest blushed warm. She rose higher and kissed Melissa on the mouth. No hesitation, no awkwardness. A naked, unbound, long kiss. And Melissa kissed her back, all wanting, all willingness, all acceptance and ease, all which cannot be said, all which cannot be described in words, was in that kiss. Deborah's body felt as if it should burst. She could not stop kissing Melissa, barely could she find time to breathe as her hands touched her every part. She wanted to travel the whole of her, every turn and curve and rise of her body, to feel it and taste it and sear it into her memory. She wanted herself and Melissa to be inside each other, to pass into one another; she wanted to devour her and keep her safe and whole within her own belly, safe from the cancer, safe from the world. It was all heat and breath and love and giving and generous and naturalâand, god, so easy, so, so easyâso like the person that Deborah had always known she was. She had finally become the person walking before her, the one who had always been just a few steps ahead, waiting for her to catch up.
She had arrived now, and she and her other self breathed as one.
And she and Melissa breathed as one.
And now this had happened.
om Ellison finished up his paperwork and headed home. He pulled the squad car into his driveway and got out, noticing for a moment what a warm, listless night it was. He went into his unlocked house, placed his car keys on a table just inside the front door, and fingered through the mail.
He walked down a short hallway lined with family photographs, oak framed and neatly arranged on the wall. He took a moment to look at them. In one, his daughter, Deborah, was wearing a white lace dress and a flowered veil, her hands, gloved in white, held before her in prayer. She was smiling. She had an amazing smile, wide mouthed and full. The picture hung slightly askew next to a silhouette profile she'd
made of herself in the third grade, cut out of black construction paper. Beneath these two pictures, on an oak side table polished to a golden sheen, were three photograph albums: one for Deborah, the cover hand-colored by herself; one for her brother, Braden; and one for the family. Tom's wife, Deanne, was an avid scrapbooker.
If you had been standing there, in Tom Ellison's quiet hallway, on the freshly cleaned carpet, and you had reached down and flipped open Deborah's photo album, you would have seen a picture of her in diapers, straddling a baby walker, playing in the ankle-high water of the lake in Winsome Bay. Even as an infant, her smile is what you would have noticed first. If you looked down a little farther, on the same page, you'd have seen a photo of her at three years old, standing in the same lake, a clump of marsh weeds balanced on her head. Two plastic-covered pages farther in, Deborah wears a sparkly red dress, red leotards, and tap shoes. If you kept turning and reached the high school pages, you would have seen her at fourteen in a blue-and-white Wildcats uniform, her softball cap pulled down low on her forehead, prepared to bat and trying to look very serious, but you'd still have been able to see the grin beneath. On the next page, at fifteen, she holds a twenty-three-inch walleye, caught while vacationing with the family at Lake Sinissipi, her hair wildly fat and funny, her cheeks burnished red from the wind, smiling a smile that would have made you smile to look at it.
At sixteen she stops smiling.
Tom Ellison continued down the hallway into the kitchen. He flipped on the light. On his way to the fridge he saw the flashing red button on his answering machine. The ringer is always off after midnight because so many people call his house directly instead of the police station. He's told people time and again to call the nonemergency number or 911, but having grown up in Winsome, and knowing just about everyone there, he still gets calls for everything from stray cats to drunks at the Dew Drop Inn to shot-up mailboxes. A rash of lawn globe thefts had been the big case last year.