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Death in the Fort - Chapter Sixteen

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 16

Jessica's party - "The Waltons Meet Burning Man" - turned out to be really great. I admit it.

"Not just great," Jessica said. "This is the Godzilla of parties."

The back yard looked all twinkly, with hundreds of Christmas lights draped above one really long table - four long card tables, actually, draped in little red and white checkered table cloths. And there was music, naturally, courtesy of Jessica's friends Tina and Nate and their band Tip O'Neill Built My Hotrod (which wasn't as bad as it sounds). They played all these funny sing-along sea shanties with names like "High Barbaree" and "Hurrah! My Hearty Bullies!"

And toward the middle of the evening, Jessica served this huge Norman Rockwell-style meal - the kind I thought people born after 1940 could never pull off. At one point, flanked by two torch-carrying men dressed in togas, she walked outside with a big, golden turkey on a silver platter. Everyone clapped.

Cyrus was there - carved bear head and all - teaching everyone how to whittle. Shay had shown up, too. (She'd brought her own bottle of very expensive vodka. And her own glass.) And even Mrs. Collins came. Fully dressed, of course.

By the time the jugglers showed up, though, I needed a break. So I headed toward the front porch for a while.

The weather was nice, just cool enough to catch a hint of fall, which was fast approaching and bringing the fall semester with it. I sat on the steps with a cup of homemade cocoa and watched the streetlamps buzz awake and cast pools of yellowish light on Columbia Avenue.

I looked over at Jaime's house, listening to him not yelling, but talking really loudly to Bella.

"What is in your mouth?" he said. "Bella! Open your mouth and give me that goldfish right now!"

He'd been so happy to see us alive when he'd arrived at Freimann Square that night, police in tow. He'd even grabbed me by the waist and half-carried me away from Nikki, who was still writhing in pain on the ground.

She admitted everything, naturally. How Darleen's suicide seemed like a happy accident, a chance for her to escape an abusive boyfriend. She'd arrived in Fort Wayne with one plan: to smoke meth until Darleen's money ran out. And whenever money got tight, she'd sell a button - cash only, of course - to an antiques dealer somewhere down on Broadway.

"And she would've gotten away with it," Jaime had said. "If it wasn't for those pesky kids." And then he had playfully chucked me under the chin and hugged me.

Sitting on the porch, I reached into the pocket of my hoodie and pulled out a purple rabbit's foot. It was a gift from Jaime, something he'd given me a few days after the excitement at Freimann Square.

"I'm not promising any miracles," he'd said. "The day you run across a purple rabbit with three feet, you're on your own."

Life is nothing like the movies. For instance, if this had been a movie, I probably would've sat there, rubbing the rabbit's foot and thinking about Jaime. And then Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell would've started singing. And the camera would've closed in on my half-smiling, sappy face. And maybe I would've rubbed the rabbit's foot once more for luck and started running - through blocks and blocks of city streets, in the rain - to Jaime's house.

Instead, I stood up and walked across the alley. And then I knocked on his door.