Jessie glanced down at her fingers as if seeing them for the first time. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open, but no sound came out. She pressed her lips together and wrung her hands.
“I know what you think. But it’s not what you think.” She stared at Detective Gross with a pitiful expression of fear. “She’s come back for us. She’s going to get even.”
Detective Gross sighed, leaning back in his chair. He pinched the bridge of his nose. This was another reason he avoided long talks with his daughter-teenagers had the uncanny ability to talk in circles, a skill he’d never quite mastered himself when he was their age. He’d always been a straight-shooter-he didn’t evade; he was clear and, most importantly, direct. This girl was anything but, however, and he silently prayed for patience before continuing his questioning.
“What is Morgan trying to get even for?”
Jessie’s watering eyes finally spilled over and she swiped at the errant tears. “For everything we did to her.” She leaned back in her seat and tugged at her shirt sleeves again.
“It started when she first came here three months ago. She was quiet, and she didn’t dress well, so that instantly made her a target. The guys made fun of her and said she looked homeless, and the girls were just as bad. No, they were worse. They used to pull awful pranks on her.”
Jessie rolled her eyes. “There was this one time she wore white pants to school. I don’t know where she got ‘em from ‘cause nobody I know has white pants. They looked a little old even, like, flare leg jeans. And nobody wears those either. Anyway, the girls took a handful of ketchup packets out of the lunch room and put them on her seat in Government. She sat down and the packets burst, and everyone was laughing because you could hear the squish, and when she stood up there was this huge brownish spot on her pants so it looked like she’d had her period or shit herself.”
Her eyes widened and her hand flew up to her mouth. “Sorry. I meant ‘pooped.’”
Detective Gross waved her off. “Doesn’t matter. These pranks-they were always like that?”
Jessie nodded vigorously. “She cried after the ketchup incident. She ran out of the room while everyone was laughing and didn’t come back to class for three days.”
“Did you laugh?”
Her cheeks reddened and she lowered her gaze. “At first. It was funny, you know?”
He didn’t, actually. He’d been a Morgan in high school himself so he wouldn’t find that kind of adolescent “humor” all that amusing. To each their own though.
Jessie pulled her turtleneck up around her throat, shivering.
“Are you cold?” He didn’t think it was chilly in the room; in fact, he felt his underarms dampen, but he was also heavier than the tiny girl. It was possible she was still feeling the effects of the night air from when she was brought in the station. Nerves may have had something to do with it, too.
The girl shook her head. “I’m fine.” She stared back down at the table, not meeting the detective’s gaze.
“I told Brooke about the ketchup incident one day after school, trying to make conversation. Of course Lassie laughed, but Brooke didn’t. I was shocked because that seemed like something she’d find hilarious. But she tossed her hair over her shoulder and said something like, ‘We should talk to her. Invite her to lunch.’ Lassie stopped laughing then. If we were seen with Morgan, it’d be like social suicide.”
Detective Gross looked up from his writing. “Why?”
“Because Morgan was lame. The way she dressed-she looked Amish. Seriously, it was embarrassing. Her hair was never combed, it looked like a bird’s nest most days. And she was a nerd. Always had her head stuck in a book. She was poor. She lived over on Peach Street in the broken down house next to Mrs. Landingham. No one cool lives in that neighborhood.
“But nevertheless, Brooke had me invite her to lunch. She asked me to do it because we had a few classes together. I didn’t really mind Morgan, but something didn’t sit right with me about this.”
“So why do it?”
Jessie shrugged. “We always did what Brooke said. If you wanted to be ‘in’, you had no choice.”
“Brooke was the Queen Bee then.”
Jessie’s brow creased and Detective Gross shrugged. “My kid watches those Gossipy Little Liars shows. I know the lingo.”
Detective Gross noted Jessie’s sudden silence. She bit her lower lip and stared past him at the wall.
“When I asked Morgan to lunch, she was so happy. She wasn’t blabbering about it or anything, but you could just tell by the way her eyes lit up that she was psyched. She didn’t have any friends. People don’t go out of their way to befriend newbies.”
“You took her to lunch-then what happened?”
Jessie folded her arms across her chest. “She sat with us and it was fine. The first day. Brooke was nice-for her-and Lassie…she made passive-aggressive comments here and there, but Brooke shut her down every time. The next day, Brooke barely spoke to Morgan. Lassie ignored her too and I was stuck having to talk to her. It was so awkward. We didn’t have anything to talk about. She tried talking to me about some dead Russian writer, but I don’t read that kind of stuff so there were these long moments of silence.”
The detective noted their own moment of silence with mild amusement. Jessie had stopped talking again and it was just like being in a room with his own daughter. He never really knew what to say to her. And when emotions were high, like they were with Jessie now, he definitely didn’t have a clue how to behave.
Jessie shivered again and Detective Gross stood. He needed to do something besides sit there looking like a brain-dead idiot.
“Would you like some coffee?” he asked. “It’s not very good, but it’ll keep you warm.”
“No, thanks.” Jessie wrapped her arms around her middle. She stared up at the detective. “I’m ready to tell you what happened.”
Detective Gross nodded and sat back down. He raised his pen, poised to take her statement.
Jessie cleared her throat. “Things didn’t get bad until about a week or two later. Brooke and Lassie got bored with being fake-nice and decided to revert to form. They’d invite Morgan to lunch with us or to walk home with us after school and they’d make catty ass comments the whole way. You could tell Morgan was uncomfortable, but she wasn’t the type to defend herself. They made fun of her hair and her clothes and the way she talked-she had a slight stutter. Why she kept hanging with us, I don’t know. They were awful to her. I would have stopped coming around if it was me.”
“Okay, so the girls made smart-aleck comments from time to time. Do you really believe that’s enough for a girl to want to kill someone?”
Jessie’s face turned stony. She looked the detective in the eye. “Obviously you’ve never been a teen girl.”