Days after a young pageant queen named Jenny is found murdered, her small town grieves the loss alongside her picture-perfect parents. At first glance, Jenny's tragic death appears clear-cut for investigators. The most obvious suspect is one of her fans, an older man who may have gotten too close for comfort. But Jenny's half-sister, Virginia—the sarcastic black sheep of the family—isn't so sure of his guilt and takes matters into her own hands to find the killer.
But for Jenny's case and Virginia's investigation, there's more to the story. Virginia, still living in town and haunted by her own troubled teenage years, suspects that a similar darkness lies beneath the sparkling veneer of Jenny's life. Alternating between Jenny's final days and Virginia's determined search for the truth, the sisters' dual narratives follow a harrowing trail of suspects, with surprising turns that race toward a shocking finale.
Infused with dark humor and driven by two captivating young women, The Prized Girl tells a heartbreaking story of missed connections, a complicated family, and a town's disturbing secrets.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.40(d)|
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Five Days After
When my half sister, Jenny, was killed, it was all over the news-national news, not just the local paper that had to use an offensively large font to fill its pages. Strangers drove great distances to be part of the fanfare. Reporters and their vans lined the street in front of the church hosting her funeral. I parked my dented Jetta along the side of the road about a quarter mile away. There was no reserved parking space for me.
St. Bernard's Cathedral was the only church aesthetically pleasing enough for my stepmother, Linda, to hold the funeral in. It was too large for the community; even Christmas Eve Mass couldn't fill more than half the pews. Not today, though. Today, the local police were turning people away.
Men and women were milling around crying, consoling each other. No one was smiling, not even the polite forced smile you use to mask pain. Just hordes of people looking truly devastated by Jenny's death. I didn't recognize any of them, and I highly doubted they had ever set foot in this town before.
A dopey uniformed officer named Brett stood at the base of the church stairs. We went to high school together. It was the type of town where no matter the age, it felt like we all went to high school together in some shape or form. He looked exhausted, and his buzz cut was useless to sponge up the beads of sweat multiplying across his forehead. He just let them grow until they dripped off and splashed onto his shirt.
Brett was a bouncer without a list, making gut decisions about who he could let into the church. I was fourth in line, an actual line that I had to wait in patiently to attend my own sister's funeral. It was my choice. I didn't deserve special treatment. I was not a good sister.
I watched Brett turn two people away before recognizing the couple in front of me and allowing them inside without hesitation. When I stepped up for my turn, he looked up carelessly, locked on my face, processed who I was, and straightened his spine.
"Virginia . . . hi. I'm very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," I said.
"This is crazy, huh?" He finally wiped his brow, altering the trajectory of his sweat beads.
"Was I supposed to RSVP?" I joked. I probably shouldn't have. No jokes at funerals.
"Of course not," he said, too nervous to get it. "Please go on in." He stepped aside and extended his arms with such flourish it was as if I had the last golden ticket.
It was loud inside. Churches were supposed to be quiet. The noise was unsettling. A group of sobbing women who must have gotten in just before Brett took the helm filled the last two rows. They looked like they were attending the Kentucky Derby. Are funeral hats a thing?
The next few rows were a mixed bag of strange faces and town staples. It was easy to tell who the out-of-towners were because they ignored me. The people from town gave me intrusive pitying looks followed by immediate avoidance of continued eye contact. It was the same way when my mother died.
Wrenton was one of those old New England towns where the founding families all spawned from some combination of people from the Mayflower, and for a long time it was just the same names swapped around over and over again. Even though there were a lot more surnames now, it still felt to me like we were all from the same litter, destined to live and die where our ancestors had. Someday, I was going to leave and never look back-just not today.
I could see Linda in the front row amidst a few distant relatives of hers. Her outfit wasn't as on point as I'd expected. Her black skirt was wrinkled in the back, and her pleated blouse was, dare I say, frumpy. She hadn't touched her curling iron, which was a real shocker. Linda always curled her hair for events. Instead, the blonde strands, too long for her age, just fell flat against her back.
I watched her face contort and quiver as people whispered things to her with delicate smiles. I knew she was hurting, but I was struggling to muster any sympathy. Jenny was her only child, her favorite little trophy, and Linda was a parasite. Every activity was a calculated move to help Linda feed off her daughter and reinforce her fragile ego.
It was never more apparent than with the beauty pageants. From ages five to twelve, Jenny won more Grand Supreme titles than anyone else in New England. I was told about it quite often, and Linda wasn't going to let anyone in this church forget it. Gigantic glamour shots of Jenny surrounded the coffin. In each one, a dead-behind-the-eyes little girl was dressed in a slightly provocative costume with enough makeup for a roadside hooker.
You would think my half sister had been some angelic being. There were just so many stories about the pageants, and her beauty, and how big her heart was. Her potential! These people were delusional. Jenny would have been fourteen in three weeks. She hadn't done a pageant in months and was becoming a nosy little twat.
I took a seat away from Linda next to an elderly couple who smelled like a forgotten attic. I didn't know them, and they didn't know me. The elderly strangers in the church seemed less creepy to me than the younger people attending the funeral of a child they didn't know. Old people just like to go to church.
From a private door in the front, my father, the esteemed Calvin Kennedy, entered the church and joined his wife. I knew he was a suspect. The father was always a suspect in these sorts of things. Part of me hoped he was guilty. I found solace in fantasizing about all the horrible drop-the-soap-type prison clichés.
I was not one for being out in public for extended periods of time. In Wrenton, everyone knew everything about everyone, or tried to at least. In the minutes it took me to pay for my gas I could learn five to seven intimate facts about my neighbors. World news didn't resonate. A good story was one you had to whisper for fear that the very person you were shit-talking could be lurking just around the next corner.
My skin was crawling. I could feel the eyes on me. Suddenly, I was relevant again and my secrets were fair game. I had to get out of that church. I slipped out of the pew, kept my head down, and made my way to the exit. Another A-plus decision for Virginia Kennedy.
Jenny's funeral lasted a little over an hour. I waited outside, among the hedges to the left of the church doors. If I smoked, I'd have been smoking. Instead, I just chewed at my fingernails, trying to gnaw them even, each bite making it worse.
I could hear everything. Linda's cousin read a poem she had written that rhymed, some of Jenny's perfect little friends from school sang a song, and the priest talked forever about God choosing special children to stand by his side in heaven. The verbiage was particularly disturbing given she was raped and murdered, left to die in the woods. Seems like he could have chosen her with a lightning bolt or something.
When I heard pews creak and feet shuffle, I knew it was my time to fully commit to bailing. I hustled to my car, keeping my head down and praying I wouldn't cross paths with anyone who would attempt to engage. I didn't go to the cemetery. It was a selfish thing to do, but Jenny wouldn't know. She was too busy being God's personal assistant now.
I went home to my tiny apartment, where I could pretend nothing had happened. I could pretend nothing had happened to Jenny, or to me, or to the world. I could embrace some sort of delusional existence where I wasn't a piece-of-shit person or a piece-of-shit sister. It would be harder to hide now, now that Jenny was gone.
Five Weeks Before
The school bus was late on the first day, and Jenny leaned against the remnants of a rock wall, shifting her weight back and forth, bored, anxious. It was her first year in high school. Technically, she was only in eighth grade, but the student population was small, and long before she was born, the district voted to convert the former middle school building into town offices. The students were displaced. Seventh graders were crammed into the elementary school, and eighth graders moved into the high school. It was normal procedure now, but no less jarring for those making the transition. Last year Jenny had shared the halls with kindergarteners; now there was a guy with a mustache waiting for the bus.
The other students huddled together across the street from Jenny in a small area deemed to have the best cell phone reception. She wished her parents would let her have a cell phone, but there was no way they would give her one after what had happened.
Jenny was the only one who seemed to care when a faint whistling came from up the hill. She gazed toward the bend in Sanford Hill Road, anticipating the source of the sound. A lanky teenage boy in an oversized camouflage jacket, baggy jeans, and combat boots marched around the corner. Jenny recognized what he was immediately: a new kid. He looked older, maybe a junior. She stared at the stranger until it was obvious he was walking toward her, then averted her eyes, pretending to look for something in her backpack.
He sauntered over and joined Jenny at the rock wall, but left a comfortable space between them. He took a deep breath and rubbed at his thighs, preparing for an interaction she didn't care to initiate. She fidgeted with her bag, like maybe she was so enthralled with it that she hadn't noticed him. Surely he would understand because whatever she was looking for was important. Where was the freaking bus?
"Want one?" the boy asked, reaching into his coat pocket.
Jenny paused her frantic searching to look up and see him pull out a packet of cigarettes. "No, thank you," she said, even though her brain pulsed with the opportunity to do something so forbidden.
"Eh, that's good. These things are disgusting." He pulled one from the pack and returned the rest to his pocket. With his other hand, he grabbed a lighter from his jeans and lit up. "I'm hooked." He smiled as he turned his head to blow the smoke away from her.
Jenny debated going back into her bag. Would he notice that she had just given up this all-important search? Why did she even care?
"What's up with this school?" he asked. "I hate new schools. Either they assign me some hyperactive pep squad bitch to show me around, or no one knows I exist."
"We don't have a pep squad."
"Good, maybe I'll be left alone then."
"Maybe" was all Jenny could muster. He had engaged her, but now he wanted to be left alone. Mixed signals.
"Where's the bus?" he asked.
"You just have all the answers," he teased.
Jenny's reciprocating smile was cut short as a car came speeding down the hill, tearing through the gravel, and sliding to a stop in front of them.
Christine Castleton rolled down the window of her hand-me-down Nissan. "Hey, Jenny," she said as if they had interacted more than zero times in the past. "I have one seat left. Are you interested?" She intended for the question to be rhetorical. Of course Jenny would want a ride. Christine Castleton was a special brand of popular. After a knee injury her junior year derailed her promising athletic future, she went from golden child to intoxicating rebel. At some point over the summer, she had even dyed her hair a bright magenta, unheard of in this town.
It meant something that she was talking to Jenny. It meant something to be chosen, but Jenny froze. Her summer had been long and full of painful isolation. Her mother had made sure of that. Jenny wasn't ready for the Christine Castletons of the world. It wasn't just a car ride. It was an initiation.
"I'm going to wait for the bus," Jenny answered, trying to be casual about it, but Christine hit the gas and blew through the stop sign at the end of the road, evidencing her disapproval.
"Must be some bus," the boy she had momentarily forgotten about said before smirking. He took one last long drag from the cigarette, tossed it to the ground, and stomped it out with his combat boot. "Day one, can't wait."
The sound of diesel in the distance was the most welcome noise Jenny had ever heard. They both slid off the rock wall, and she was unsure if she should walk with him or leave their interaction at that. She took the lead, and he followed just enough behind her to show he wasn't sure either.
"I'm JP, by the way. If you cared."
"Jenny," she said, hoping this wasn't a mistake. It was her first day of high school; she hadn't even boarded the bus yet and had already rejected Christine Castleton and attached herself to a weird nobody.
JP reached out to symbolically hold the bus door open for her, and as her foot left the ground, a voice yelling in the distance demanded their attention.
"Jenny! Jenny!" her mother screamed in no particular direction as she came barreling down their driveway, running parallel to Sanford Hill Road and all too visible from the bus. Linda was in her silk bathrobe, hair wet, arms and legs flailing. "Jenny!" She spotted the bus and began a targeted sprint.
Jenny stared in shock before jumping off the bus, pushing JP out of the way. "Mom, what? Stop."
Linda threw her arms around her daughter and squeezed. "Oh my God, I didn't know where you went. I was so scared."
Jenny shoved her off. "Jesus, Mom, this is so embarrassing. Please go."
"You're right, OK, I'm sorry." Linda backed away. "Have a great first day. I love you."
Jenny rolled her eyes and headed back to the bus. Doomed.
The funny thing about death is how hard everyone strives for normalcy in its wake. If we could all just pretend it didn't happen, these horrible feelings would go away. Only a week had passed since Jenny's murder, and we were having Sunday dinner. The weekly ritual was something none of us enjoyed to begin with. Now, it was unbearable.