That Night by Chevy Stevens is a mystery about Toni, a 34-year-old out on parole after being wrongly convicted of her sister's murder (available June 17, 2014).
As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.
Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.
Now thirty-four, Toni, is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni's innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni's life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.
But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.
ROCKLAND PENITENTIARY, VANCOUVER
I followed the escorting officer over to Admissions and Discharge, carrying my belongings in a cardboard box—a couple pairs of jeans, some worn-out T-shirts, the few things I’d gathered over the years, some treasured books, my CD player. The rest, anything I had in storage, would be waiting for me. The release officer went through the round of documents. My hand shook as I signed the discharge papers, the words blurred. But I knew what they meant.
“Okay, Murphy, let’s go through your personals.” The guards never called you by your first name on the inside. It was always a nickname or your last name.
He emptied out a box of the items I’d come into the prison with. His voice droned as he listed them off, making notes on his clipboard. I stared at the dress pants, white blouse, and blazer. I’d picked them out so carefully for court, had thought they’d make me feel strong. Now I couldn’t stand the sight of them.
The officer’s hand rested for a moment on the pair of my underwear.
“One pair of white briefs, size small.”
He looked down at the briefs, checked the tag, his fingers lingering on the fabric. My face flushed. His eyes flicked to mine, gauging my reaction. Waiting for me to screw up so he could send me back inside. I kept my expression neutral.
He opened an envelope, glanced inside, then checked his clipboard before dumping the envelope’s contents into my palm. The silver-faced watch my parents had given me on my eighteenth birthday, still shiny, the battery dead. The necklace Ryan had given me, the black onyx cool to the touch. Part of the leather cord had worn smooth from my wearing it every day. I stared at it, felt its weight in my hand, remembering, then closed my fingers around it, tucking it securely back in the envelope. It was the only thing I had left of him.
“Looks like that’s it.” He held out a pen. “Sign here.”
I signed the last of the documents, put the belongings into my box.
“You got anything to dress out in?” the officer said.
“Just these.” The officer’s eyes flicked over my jeans and T-shirt. Some inmates’ families send clothes for them to wear on their release day. But no one had sent me anything.
“You can wait in the booking room until your ride gets here. There’s a phone if you need to call anyone.”
* * *
I sat on one of the benches, boxes by my feet, waiting for the volunteer, Linda, to pick me up. She’d be driving me to the ferry and over to Vancouver Island. I had to check into the halfway house in Victoria by seventeen hundred hours. Linda was a nice lady, in her forties, who worked with one of the advocacy groups. I’d met her before, when she’d taken me to the island for my unescorted temporary absences.
I was hungry—I’d been too excited to eat that morning. Margaret, one of my friends inside, had tried to get me to choke something down, but the oatmeal sat like a lump in my stomach. I wondered if Linda could stop somewhere. I imagined a Big Mac and fries, hot and salty, maybe a milkshake, then thought of Ryan again, how we used to take burgers to the beach. To distract myself from the memory, I watched an officer bring in a new inmate. A young girl. She looked scared, pale, her brown hair long and messy, like she’d been up all night. She glanced at me, her eyes drifting from my hair, down to the tattoos around my upper arm. I got them in the joint—a thin tribal bar for each year behind bars, forming one thicker, unbroken band that circled my right biceps, embracing me.
The officer yanked the girl’s arm, pulled her to Booking.
I rubbed my hands across the top of my head. My hair was short now, the middle spiked up in a faux-Mohawk, but it was still black. I closed my eyes, remembered how it was in high school. Feathered and long, falling to the middle of my back. Ryan liked to wrap his hands in it. I’d cut it in prison after I looked in the mirror one day and saw Nicole’s hair, thick with blood, and remembered holding her broken body in my arms after we found her that night.
“You ready to get out of here, Toni?” A friendly female voice.
I opened my eyes and looked up at Linda. “Can’t wait.”
She bent down and picked up one of my boxes, grunting a little as she lifted it. Linda was a small woman, not much taller than me. I was just a shorty at five feet—Margaret used to say a mouse fart could blow me over. But Linda was about as round as she was tall. She had dreadlocks and wore long flowing dresses and Birkenstocks. She was always railing at the prison system. I followed her out to her car, my box in my arms, as she chatted about the ferry traffic.
“The highway was clear all the way out to Horseshoe Bay, so we’ll make good time. We should be there around noon.”
As we pulled away, I watched the prison grow smaller in the distance. I turned back around in my seat. Linda rolled the window down.
“Phew, it’s a hot one today. Summer will be here before you know it.”
I traced the lines of my tattoos, counting the years, thinking back to that summer. I was thirty-four now and had been in custody since I was eighteen, when Ryan and I were arrested for my sister’s murder. We’d been alone with her that night, but we hadn’t heard Nicole scream. We hadn’t heard anything.
I wrapped my hand around my arm, squeezed hard. I’d spent almost half of my life behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit.
The anger never really leaves you.
WOODBRIDGE HIGH, CAMPBELL RIVER
I skipped my last class and met Ryan in the parking lot behind the school, where the “shrubs,” the kids who liked to party on the weekends, hung out. Other than the coffee shop at the arena, it was the only place we could smoke off school grounds. The nearby residents didn’t like it, but they didn’t give us too much hassle unless someone was revving their engines or had their stereos blasting. Then the cops would come by, checking to see if we were drinking or smoking pot—and someone usually was, but I never did, not at school anyway.
Woodbridge High was old, and in need of a serious face-lift. The siding was washed-out blue where it wasn’t covered by graffiti, which the janitor was constantly trying to remove. There were about five hundred kids at the school, which went from grade eight to twelve. My graduating class had about a hundred and twenty kids, and I didn’t give a crap about ninety-nine percent of them.
There were a few of us that day, clustered around our vehicles in groups. The girls with their long hair and bangs teased up, wearing too much dark makeup and their boyfriends’ jackets. The guys with their Kurt Cobain hair and the hoods up on their trucks, talking about carburetors and Hemi engines. Most of us were dressed grunge, flannel shirts, ripped jeans, ragged sweaters, everyone in darker colors.
Ryan was leaning on his truck, talking to a couple of his friends. He smiled when he saw me, passed a smoke. “Hey, babe.”
I smiled back, took a drag. “Hey.”
I’d been going with Ryan Walker since last July when we hooked up at the gravel pit, which was where the guys went on the weekends to four-wheel-drive and have bonfires. He drove a badass Chevy truck—which he worked on all the time, the only thing we ever fought about. I’d known who he was for a while, always thought he was cute, with brown shaggy hair and thick brows, almost-black eyes, long eyelashes, a killer smile that made his mouth lift up on one side, and this way of looking at you from under the brim of his baseball cap that was super-sexy. But he had a girlfriend for a few months, a blond chick. After they broke up he didn’t seem interested in anyone else, like he’d rather just do his own thing or hang out with the guys. He had a reputation for being tough, which was hot. He didn’t fight for no reason, but if someone tried pushing their weight around or was talking shit about his dad, who’d been in and out of jail since Ryan was a kid, he’d take them down. Mostly, when he wasn’t with me, he spent time with his friends, working on their trucks, fishing, dirt biking, or four-wheeling.
There wasn’t much else to do. Campbell River’s a small coastal town on the northern part of the island, population who-gives-a-shit. I’d grown up there, but Ryan’s family had moved down a couple of years earlier from northern BC. Everyone in Campbell River either worked as a logger, at the pulp mill, in the mines, or on a fishing boat. Ryan worked part-time at one of the outdoor stores. I used to go there sometimes, pretending to look around but mostly trying to catch his eye. He was always busy helping some customer, though, so I’d given up.
One night last summer, I’d been at the pit with friends, smoking a joint and taking it easy, when Ryan came over and started talking to me, asking how my summer was going. I tried to play it casual, like it wasn’t a big deal, but my heart was pounding like crazy. He said, “You want to go for a drive?” We flew up the gravel hills, spraying mud out behind us, the engine as loud as the music—AC/DC, “Back in Black.” I laughed, feeling alive and excited. He said, “You’re some cool chick.” Later we shared sips of Southern Comfort around the fire, his arm warm behind my back while we talked about our families, my constant fights with my mom, his problems with his dad. We’d been together ever since.
I took a drag of the smoke. Ryan watched, giving his lazy smile as he leaned against his truck, one eye half closed, his hair winging out from underneath his ball cap. His friends had drifted off. It was the first week of January, and cold, but he wasn’t wearing a coat, only a thick brown sweater that made his eyes look like dark chocolate. He tucked his fingers into the front pocket of my jeans, pulled me close so I was leaning against him. He didn’t work out much but he did lots of physical labor—his body was hard, his stomach muscles tight. He was already six feet, so I had to reach up to give him a kiss. We made out for a while, the smoky, bitter taste of tobacco tangling on our tongues, his unshaved chin scraping against mine. We stopped kissing and I buried my face in the warmth of his neck, smelling his boy smell, feeling an ache all down my body, wishing it was just us, all the time, like this.
“Can you come over tonight?” he whispered in my ear.
I smiled against his skin. “Maybe.”
Even though I’d turned eighteen at the end of December, I still had a curfew on weeknights. Weekends, my parents were a little easier—I just had to call when I got where I was going, to let them know I was okay, and I couldn’t stay out all night unless I was sleeping over at a friend’s, but my mom was a hard-ass if I was even a minute late. I tried to spend as much time as possible with Ryan, going for drives, messing around in his truck, his basement, wherever we could be alone. We’d gone all the way after dating a couple of months—he was the first boy I’d ever been with. His dad had been at the bar, his mom, a nurse, working late at the hospital. We smoked a joint, then made out in his bed, Nirvana playing softly in the background, the sweet scent of a candle mixing with marijuana. I was excited, my head spinning from the pot, my body grinding against him, our naked chests warm against each other. We took off the rest of our clothes, shy under the blankets. “Do you want me to stop?” he whispered.
I said, “No,” and stared in awe at his face, wondering how a boy could be so beautiful, the way he spoke, his voice, soft lips, dark eyes, everything so damn sexy. And I felt beautiful too, a real woman, the way he looked at me like he couldn’t believe I was there, in his bed. I was nervous, awkward, then my body just took over, pushing and pulling, grabbing at him. He moaned into my mouth and I caught my breath, holding it against the pain. Our eyes locked. I felt him move inside me, knowing that he was the only boy I ever wanted to be with, would ever do this with.
He was sweet about it afterward, asking if I was okay, bringing me a towel and a glass of water. We cuddled, my head on his chest. I traced my fingers along his ribs, the fine sheen of sweat in the candlelight, kissed the scar on his side from when his dad pushed him out of a truck, and he shyly said, “I love you, Toni.”
* * * * *
I heard laughter and looked to my left. Shauna McKinney and her girls were sitting on the tailgate of one of the guys’ trucks. I hated it when they hung out back. Kim, Rachel, and Cathy weren’t as bad as Shauna, but together they were some serious bitches, the I-don’t-give-a-crap-about-anything-especially-not-you kind of bitches. Shauna was popular and pretty, with her long auburn hair and big blue eyes, played lots of sports, and had a super-athletic body.
She always seemed to have the latest gadgets or clothes and was the first kid in our class to have a decent car, a white Sprint her dad bought her. She exuded confidence and had this way about her, like she wasn’t intimidated by anyone. She was smart too, got really good grades but made fun of teachers behind their backs so the other kids still thought she was badass.
Most of the girls in our class either feared her or desperately wanted to be her friend, which I guess was kind of the same thing in the end. Rachel Banks was her main henchwoman. Rachel used to be chubby when we were little kids and got picked on a lot, even after she lost the weight in high school, but then she started hanging around Shauna and people stopped messing with her. She was still curvy, with thick, straight brown hair, always wearing baby doll dresses with tights or short plaid skirts and knee-high socks.
Kim Gunderson was a ballet dancer and tiny, about my height. She wore a lot of black clothes, leggings with oversized sweaters and cool boots, and talked really fast. I’d heard rumors that she was gay, but no one knew for sure. Cathy Schaeffer was almost as pretty as Shauna, with long white-blond hair, pale green eyes, and a serious rack. Cathy was crazy and funny, always doing wild shit at parties. She also smoked, which was why the girls came out back.
I’d known all of them as long as I could remember, even used to be friends with Shauna. When we were twelve or thirteen, she liked this game where we’d call a girl up and ask her to come over, then call her a couple of hours before and say we didn’t want her to come anymore—sometimes we’d just take off before the girl arrived. Shauna was also really good at mimicking people—she’d call a boy and say she had a crush on him using a different girl’s voice.
When I told Shauna I didn’t want to play the games anymore, she stopped talking to me for a week. I was devastated, especially when she and our friends walked by me in the hallway like I no longer existed, whispering and rolling their eyes. I went home crying every day. Finally, Shauna came up to me after school and said she missed me. I was so relieved I forgot what had even started the fight in the first place, forgot I didn’t like how she was treating people.
Shauna was the daughter of a cop, Frank McKinney. Everyone knew him. He coached baseball teams and hockey teams, stuff like that. McKinney, as most people called him, wasn’t around Shauna’s house a lot when we were kids—he was usually at the station. Shauna’s mother had died in a car accident when Shauna was five, and her grandma looked after Shauna but she wasn’t very with it. At birthday parties she’d serve up a bunch of chips and hot dogs, put in a movie, then disappear into the other room for hours. Frank McKinney and his wife had had Shauna when they were eighteen or something. He was a big guy but not fat, just muscular and tall, and he walked with a confident swagger. He had a Tom Selleck mustache, a deep voice, wore sunglasses, and chewed gum, snapping it between his teeth. You could tell he was a cop even when he was in casual clothes by the clipped way he spoke, using short words and acronyms. And you could also tell his job was really important to him—he sent his uniform out to be dry-cleaned, kept his shoes polished, and his police cruiser was always clean.
Sometimes I got the feeling he was kind of lonely—he spent a lot of time sitting by himself, reading a book in the kitchen or watching the news. I don’t think he dated much, and the few times he had a girlfriend they didn’t seem to last long. We all felt bad that Shauna didn’t have a mother and we knew it bothered her too, the way she would talk to our moms when she was at our house, polite and sweet, helping clean up after dinner, like she wanted them to like her.
Most of us kids were kind of scared of McKinney, but it wasn’t like that for me. I just felt sad for him, though I was never really sure why. Whenever I thought about him, it was always that one image that held fast, him sitting in the kitchen for hours, the newspaper or a book in front of him, a cup of coffee, and the way he’d look up and out the window like he was wishing he was out there in his car, on patrol. Like he was wishing he was anywhere but in that house.
* * * * *
When we got to high school, I was getting tired of the way Shauna was constantly trying to play the rest of us against each other, saying one of us had talked about the other, leaving someone out of an invite, or making mean comments about our clothes and hair, then adding, “Just kidding!” The next day she’d tell you that you were her best friend and give you one of her favorite items of clothing, jewelry, or a CD she made just for you, which would make the others jealous. It felt like every week there was a flare-up and someone was upset. I was also getting tired of not being able to wear what I wanted—jeans and T-shirts, not skirts and blouses, which Shauna had decided should be our uniform.
When we were in ninth grade I mentioned to Shauna one day that I liked a boy named Jason Leroy. She told me she’d help. She threw a birthday party at her house and invited a few boys. Her dad was working and her grandma was supposed to be supervising, but she vanished into the TV room with a glass of something and a vague “Have fun, kids.” Before the party, Shauna told me she heard Jason liked me but he was into “real women.” She said I had to give him a blow job, and if I didn’t, I was a chicken—they’d all done it. I was nervous at the party, but Jason kept smiling at me and asked me to go into one of the bedrooms. After we were necking for a while, he hinted that he wanted a blow job. When I balked, he said Shauna had promised him I’d do it and that’s why he was there with his friends. If I didn’t go through with it, he’d tell everyone he had a threesome with Shauna and me.
After the party, when I told Shauna what he’d said, and what he’d made me do, she was furious. She called Jason and said if he told anyone what had happened, she’d tell everyone at school that he had a small penis. We never heard a word more from him, but later that night Shauna started giggling and admitted that none of them had ever given a blow job to a boy—I was the first one.
I was really angry that Shauna’s lies had set me up, but I tried to let it go because she’d stuck up for me. Part of me even relished my role as the now sexually advanced member of the group. A month later, though, Shauna developed a crush on Brody, a boy in my woodworking class. We’d often stay late to work on a project, and one day she walked by when we were laughing about something. I wasn’t into Brody, not like that, but it didn’t matter. After school, all the girls acted like I didn’t exist. So I asked Shauna what was wrong.
“You were flirting with Brody.”
“I was not! I don’t even think he’s cute.”
“He’s totally cute—and you’ve been crushing on him for weeks.”
They were all standing there, glaring at me.
I knew what she wanted. I’d have to apologize, then they’d ignore me for a while until they decided to forgive me. But I was sick of Shauna, the power trips, the games. I’d had enough.
“Screw you, Shauna. Believe whatever you want, but it’s not my fault Brody doesn’t like you. Not everyone thinks you’re hot, you know.” I walked away. Behind me I heard her gasp, and then angry whispers.
I knew she’d retaliate but didn’t realize how bad it would get until I went to school the next day. Turns out, Shauna had spent the evening spreading rumors that I’d been born with a penis—and tried to make out with her. She also told every single person anything bad I ever said about them—most of it stuff I never actually said myself, I’d just agreed with Shauna. After she was finished, I didn’t have any friends for months, endured whispers and stares. I was so ashamed of my new loser status that I didn’t say anything to my family, even when my mom kept asking why the girls weren’t calling anymore. Nicole, who was younger than me but went to the same school, knew something had happened and asked me about it, but I didn’t tell her either. My sister was the only person who talked to me at school, and if it hadn’t been for her I’d have been even lonelier.
Finally, after gym class one day I dropped my shorts in the girls’ bathroom and told them all to have a look. One of the girls, Amy, thought it was hilarious. She was a cool chick, dressed tomboyish like me—since Shauna had dumped me I wore whatever I wanted, camouflage pants and a tight-fitted black T-shirt, or big army boots with faded jeans and one of my dad’s work shirts. The next day at lunch, Amy dropped her tray beside mine and said, “I’ve always liked girls with penises.” We’d been best friends ever since, but I had a harder time trusting girls after the way Shauna had treated me—I was more comfortable with boys.
After that, Shauna moved on to other targets, made friends with Cathy, Kim, and Rachel—who instantly moved up the social ladder—and didn’t bother me for years. Sometimes she was even halfway friendly, saying hello or smiling when she walked past. But then I started dating Ryan. I found out later that Shauna had been going to the pit every weekend hoping to hook up with him. He’d given her a ride home once when she was super-drunk but nothing had happened, although she tried, and then Ryan and I connected the next weekend. She’d hated me ever since, even more than when I dissed her about Brody.
I’d only run into Frank McKinney a couple of times since my friendship ended with Shauna. He gave Ryan and me a hard time when he caught us out at the lake one night but he just dumped out our booze and told us to go home. Ryan had also gotten caught siphoning gas off a logging truck that summer. McKinney didn’t write up a report, just took him to the jail and gave him a tour, told him to smarten up, and said he’d be watching him from now on. And we knew he meant it.
I’m pretty sure McKinney didn’t know what Shauna did with all her free time after her grandma died, probably thought she was home studying. She must’ve done enough to keep up with her grades, though she didn’t have to try that hard, which pissed me off, but mostly she was hanging out with her friends or partying.
The girls were all watching me now from their perch on the other truck, whispering to each other, giggling.
I snuggled closer to Ryan and pulled his head down for another long kiss. I got really into it, wrapping my arms tight around him, loving that his hands were on my butt, smiling against his lips when I thought of Shauna watching.
When I looked back up, Shauna and the girls had left.
* * * * *
The next day after school, I was in the parking lot, waiting for Ryan by his truck and having a smoke, when a car pulled up so close it almost hit me. Shauna, in her white Sprint.
“Hey, bitch,” she said as she got out. Cathy and Kim climbed out of the backseat, Rachel from the front. They all circled me.
“What’s your problem?” I said.
“You’re my problem,” Shauna said. The girls laughed. I glanced over at them. Rachel had a mean scowl on her face, and Cathy had one of her big stupid smiles. Great. Nothing like being a chew toy for some catty bitches.
“I haven’t done anything to you,” I said. “Not my fault Ryan doesn’t like skanks.”
She got right in my face, so close I could smell her perfume, something fruity, like tangerine.
“You better watch your mouth.”
“Or you’ll what?” I said.
She reached out and gave me a shove. I stumbled into the truck.
I dropped my smoke and pushed her back, hard. Then we were going at it, fists flying, pulling hair. I could hear kids yelling as they ran over, cheering us on. The girls were screaming, “Kick her ass, Shauna!” Shauna was bigger than me and had the upper hand, but I managed to get free and was about to punch her in the face. Then an arm was around my waist, lifting me up.
“Cut it out,” Ryan’s voice said in my ear.
I was still spitting mad, wiping hair out of my face as he sat me down on my feet. Another guy was pulling Shauna away. Her friends were shouting insults at me. Ryan hustled me into his truck, threw my packsack in the back.
He started up the truck and tried to reverse out. Shauna was still standing by her car.
“Why don’t you let Toni finish her own fights?” she yelled.
He yelled out the window, “Shut up, Shauna.”
She gave him the finger.
* * * * *
We went back to Ryan’s place. His mom was working another night shift and his dad, Gary, as he told me to call him, was sitting bleary-eyed in front of the TV.
He glanced up as we came in. “Hand me another beer, Ry.”
Ryan gave him one and said, “We’re going to my room.”
His dad winked. “Have a good time.”
That made me cringe, but it was nice not to be hassled, not that his dad didn’t give Ryan a hard time about other shit. Most of Gary’s arrests had been bar brawls or stealing stuff when he was drunk. Ryan said his dad didn’t have sticky fingers, he had whiskey fingers. When he was really drunk, he’d get rough with Ryan. They’d come to blows a few times this last year—now that Ryan was bigger and tougher, his dad seemed to want to take him down even more, prove he was still the man. Gary had a job as a logger, which was seasonal, but Ryan did all the chores around the house and helped his mom out. I don’t know why she didn’t leave Ryan’s dad. Her name was Beth; she seemed like a nice woman, worked a lot but was still caring, always smoothing Ryan’s hair back, asking him if he’d had enough dinner, needed money for school. And you could tell she really liked her son by the way she laughed at his jokes and looked at him proudly.
We went to Ryan’s room and I threw myself onto his bed while he turned on his ghetto blaster.
“You can’t let Shauna get to you like that,” he said.
“She started it.” I’d told Ryan the basics of the fight on the way to his house.
“So what? Ignore her.”
“Right, like you ignore someone who’s giving you a hard time?”
“It’s different with guys, usually when someone beats the crap out of someone, the other one backs off, but Shauna gets off on making you mad, so you’re just giving her what she wants. If you ignore her, you’ll piss her off.”
I thought about what he’d said, staring up at the ceiling. It was true that the more I reacted, the more Shauna seemed to enjoy it.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe she’ll run out of steam eventually.”
He dropped down beside me, turned his baseball cap around backward with a cheeky smile, and started nuzzling my neck. He slid his body over mine and reached under my shirt, his rough hands scraping against my skin, sending shivers down my spine that made me want to curl into him. I let myself be carried away, by the hard beat of the heavy metal music, his touch, his warm mouth. I wasn’t going to think about Shauna, wasn’t going to let her win, but I couldn’t help but feel a whisper of doubt. Was she ever going to leave me alone?
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Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still lives on the island with her husband and daughter. When she's not working on her next book, she's camping and canoeing with her family in the local mountains. Her debut novel, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel.