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Authors: Jan Burke

Apprehended

BOOK: Apprehended
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The Unacknowledged

Las Piernas State University Dining Hall

Las Piernas, California

September 1973

I was eating lunch by myself, thinking about whether I could talk my best friend and roommate Lydia Pastorini, still in her last class of the afternoon, to brave the crowds in the bookstore before I gave her a ride home. My thoughts were interrupted when Mark Kesterson asked, “Hi, Irene, can I join you?”

“Sure,” I said.

Mark and I had known each other for a long time. We'd gone to the same high school, and I had interviewed him while working on the school paper. His father, already starting to build the wealth that now allowed the family to live in a waterfront mansion in one of Las Piernas's richest neighborhoods, had grown up in poverty, and he worked with Mark to start a program to ensure that young children in the city's poorest neighborhoods received breakfast before school. I'd talked to Mark and his dad about it, who openly acknowledged modeling it on one started by the Black Panthers in Northern California. That caused Mark a little trouble at school from a few of our fellow students, but it didn't discourage him from his work or from forming a friendship with me.

We had about ten minutes to talk about everything from Secretariat's Triple Crown to “The Battle of the Sexes” match soon to be played between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and were just starting to discuss Watergate, when Alicia Penderson “happened” by and joined us without asking if that was okay with anyone.

Lately Alicia had been ruthlessly if subtly campaigning to set Mark's hormones afire. He had been crazy about her in high school, when she had ignored him for bigger prey. Now he wasn't quite so ready to succumb to her charms, but he didn't rebuff her, either. Those inclined to try to predict whether or not she would succeed were about evenly divided in number.

That is, until Donna Vynes walked into the dining hall that day.

Alicia was the first to notice her—probably because she was utterly unused to having a woman show up in clothing that was more stylish than her own.

Being the type that was all about jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts at that point in life, I couldn't tell you now what Donna Vynes was wearing. I do remember the first two comments I heard about her.

Alicia said, “Who the hell is that?”

Mark breathed one sentence with reverence. “The most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life.”

What Alicia did next might have surprised those who hadn't attended high school with her. She eyed Donna speculatively, then waved her over to our table. When she saw Alicia wave, Donna returned a speculative look of her own. She approached the table.

I looked around the dining hall as she made her way over and saw that Mark wasn't the only male who looked stunned. Any guy in the room who went on to buy a Farrah Fawcett poster years later would tell you she was almost as pretty as Donna Vynes.

Donna was slender, but had curves where they could be appreciated. There was an elegance in her movements. She had hair the color of corn silk and big blue eyes, a cute little nose, and a generous mouth. She had a summer tan that was just dark enough to make her skin look golden. At a time when many of the women I went to school with spent most of the summer slathering on baby oil (some adding iodine) and baking themselves on the beach for six hours at a shot, this meant she was just shy of being pale.

There was something in her manner, a combination of self-confidence and fragility, that acted like a dog whistle on at least half the men in the room.

Although she masterfully hid it, I knew Alicia probably wished with all her heart that the newcomer would pick her nose, break wind, or fall flat on her ass before she reached the table, but none of these things happened. Alicia's method was always to let the competition hang herself before she realized Alicia had put the noose in place.

Alicia was smiling as she called out a cheery “Hi!” and introduced herself. “You looked a little lost,” she said sweetly. “Why don't you join us?”

Donna smiled, accepting the invitation. Mark, who had stood as she approached, offered her his chair. He brought another one over and pulled it up next to hers, so that Donna was seated between Alicia and Mark. Further introductions were exchanged. Alicia began asking questions.

You might have expected me, a reporter-in-training, to be doing the grilling, but often it pays to sit back, shut up, and observe. Besides, Alicia was doing my work for me.

Donna was newly returned to Las Piernas, she said. She'd been born here, but hadn't lived here since she was an infant. Donna was only a few months old when her mother decided to leave Southern California beach life behind. She took Donna with her when she returned to the farm in Ohio where she had been raised.

Donna blushed when she reached that part of the story. I wondered why.

She hurried on. Her mother was apparently one of those folks who told people in California that there was no place like home, and people at home that there was no place like California.

Her mother had passed away a few months ago. Having heard about the place all her life, and wanting to get away from memories, Donna had decided to move to California. She had enrolled too late to get the courses she needed, she said, and had signed up for just enough units to keep her in school. She was hoping she'd be able to get on the waiting lists of the ones she really wanted to take. Then she startled all three of us by softly saying, “I promised my husband I would finish school.”

“Oh, you're married!” Alicia said, delighted.

Mark's face fell.

“Widowed,” Donna answered, just above a whisper.

“I'm so sorry,” Mark said, utterly sincere.

“What happened?” Alicia asked.

“He died in Vietnam four years ago,” Donna said.

“Four years ago!” Alicia said, then quickly added, “Forgive me, but you seem too young to have been a widow for four years.”

“I'm twenty,” Donna said. “I'll be twenty-one in November.” She smiled, and added, “John and I had known each other almost all our lives, but we weren't married long. He was two years older, lived on a neighboring farm. My mother gave consent for us to marry when I was sixteen because she was half-afraid I'd follow him over there when I turned seventeen.”

“He was drafted?” I asked.

She shook her head. “He volunteered to go. Couldn't wait, in fact. We got married just after he finished boot camp, before he shipped out.”

“You've been through a lot,” I said, thinking of the loss of both her husband and her mother within a relatively short space of time. Would I have had the courage to leave a close-knit rural community to live on the other side of the country, in a city of half a million strangers?

She smiled at me and said, “Thank you. Others have been through worse, though.”

“Irene's mom died when she was twelve,” Alicia put in.

I wondered what the hell she hoped to achieve by bringing that up—was she trying to signal to Mark that we all have our tragedies, so don't feel too sorry for the motherless war widow? I frowned at Alicia, then said to Donna, “Grief's not exactly comparative, is it? No one wants any form of it. Tell me, have you found a place to live, or are you just getting settled in town?”

“I'm renting a room from a couple until I find a place of my own,” she said, seeming glad of the change of subject. “Most of my things are still in storage in Cleveland.”

“I thought you lived on a farm,” Alicia said with a fake puzzled look.

“Most of my life, yes. But we were driving to the Cleveland Clinic so often when my mother became ill, we moved in with one of my great aunts who lives there. It's a small place and Aunt Lou was used to being on her own, so I think she was hard-pressed not to cheer out loud when I decided to move out here.”

We were interrupted by the arrival of Eldon Naff, who made himself at home by telling me to move over and squeezing a chair between mine and Alicia's as he introduced himself to Donna. Even though I didn't care for Eldon's company, I didn't protest, because it was going to ensure a certain heightening of the drama at the table. Eldon had spent the last two months making a determined effort to pry Alicia's attention away from any other man she happened to be with. I would be mostly ignored, which was fine with me.

For once, though, Alicia's would-be suitor had his attention fixed on someone else.

Eldon's chief way of trying to amuse others was to gossip. I know some people think women are the more gossipy of the two sexes, but I'm not sure I believe that. Eldon, in any case, loved to dish the dirt more than anyone I've ever met, before or since.

I'll also give him credit for knowing how to be amusing at another's expense. As he told the story of a professor whose shirt, if viewed after one o'clock in the afternoon, could tell you what was on the menu in the faculty cafeteria, Donna seemed relieved to no longer be the center of attention. Eldon claimed most of that, but I saw Mark and Donna exchanging shy smiles whenever Eldon focused on Alicia for a moment.

Eldon only got the one story in, though, before Donna glanced at her wristwatch and said, “Oh! I'm going to be late for my bus! Thank you all for being so nice to me today.” She stood and gathered up her handbag.

“Let me give you a ride home,” Eldon said quickly.

She smiled. “That's kind of you, but I'm not going straight home. I—I have an errand.”

“My wheels are at your command,” he said gallantly.

“I'd be happy to take you anywhere you need to go,” Mark said.

“But Mark,” Alicia said, making one of her rare tactical errors, “we have our sociology class this afternoon.”

He looked miffed, but Donna said, “Of course you shouldn't miss class. Perhaps I'll see the rest of you another time?”

“I'd like that,” I said, and scribbled my phone number on a piece of paper. She returned the favor. “Great!”

“I'm parked in a good spot,” Eldon said before anyone else could exchange numbers with her, “but we'd better start walking out to Lot Four if you aren't going to be late.”

She gave the rest of us a slightly helpless look and allowed Eldon to usher her outside.

Lydia arrived about then, and correctly interpreting a signal from me, engaged Alicia in an intense conversation. It allowed me to slip a piece of paper with Donna's number on it to Mark.

“You're a doll,” he whispered, and smiled.

“What secrets are you two whispering about?” Alicia demanded.

“If I told you, would it be a secret?”

“Irene,” Lydia said in exasperation. She was right—my teasing Alicia was only going to allow her to cotton on to our ploy to distract her from Mark.

“Oh, all right. I just bet Mark a dollar that Donna ditches Eldon before he can find out where she lives.”

“I think she's more than happy to be with him,” Mark said. “So I'm betting it's the start of true love.”

The idea delighted Alicia, so she was in a good mood when they left for their sociology class.

I stared after them.

“Okay,” Lydia said. “What was that all about? Other than someone Alicia called a phony scheming bitch?”

I was still staring.

“Irene?”

“Sorry. I just never realized before now that Mark could lie so smoothly.”

•   •   •

I told Lydia the whole story.

“Poor kid,” Lydia said. “Married, widowed, and—orphaned? All at the age of twenty?”

“I don't know about the orphaned, part,” I said, frowning. “Come to think of it, she never mentioned her father.”

“Probably divorced when she was little,” Lydia said.

“Probably,” I agreed.

•   •   •

Later, at home, I called Donna's phone number, but she wasn't there. The woman who answered the phone was apparently her landlady, who took a message. “She came home for a little while, but I think she may be out until sometime this evening. How late can she call?”

I was a night owl, but Lydia had an early class, so I said anytime before nine would be okay. I didn't hear from Donna that evening.

•   •   •

The next morning, I was studying in the library, when Eldon came up to me and took a seat next to me, big with news.

“Holy shit! Wait until I tell you about little old Miss Vynes!”

We received looks of annoyance from others who were reading, so I folded up my books and we went outside and sat under a tree on the quad.

“Okay, what?” I said.

“Yesterday, you remember she said she had an errand to run?”

“Yes.”

“Well! She gives me an address, and asks me if I know where it is. It's down on Shoreline Avenue. ‘It's a residential area,' I told her, thinking she must have something mixed up.”

“And?”

“No, it's the address she wants all right. Do you know whose home it was?”

“Eldon, I don't even know which address it was. You aren't telling this story in your usual manner.”

“Sorry, I'm just so rattled. I'll tell you, but you can't tell a soul.”

“Then never mind.”

I was just torturing him, of course. Whatever or whoever was at the heart of this was burning him alive with the desire to talk about it.

“All right, all right, I'll tell you.” He drew a deep breath, then said, “That mansion belongs to Homer Langworthy.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? That's all you can say?”

“As far as I know, Homer Langworthy paid for the place, so there's no reason it shouldn't belong to him.”

“Paid for that and—with Auburn Sheffield—gave enough money to build the new city library. And then on this campus—”

“Everyone in Las Piernas knows that Homer Langworthy is as rich as Croesus, a confirmed bachelor, and all his money will probably go into a charitable trust.”

BOOK: Apprehended
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