“You’ve mentioned it. He disappeared, right?”
“We were twenty. Just walked out of our dorm room one night. Said, ‘You won’t see me for a while.’”
“Bet that was hard.”
“Yeah, it was hard. He contacted me last May. Walter, you can’t tell anyone. Not Beth, not—”
“Who am I going to tell?”
“You remember that black teacher who went missing last spring?”
I swallowed. You say it now, he’s involved. Think about it. You’re too hammered to make this decision.
“She’s buried in my woods.” Walter’s face blanched. “My brother, Orson, put her there. He blackmailed me. Told me my blood was all over her and that the knife he killed her with was hidden in my house. Swore he’d call the police if I didn’t come see him. Threatened my mother.”
“Wanna see the body?”
Walter stared at me, eyes laced with doubt. “He killed her?”
“He’s a psychopath,” I said, steadying my hands.
“What’d he want with you?” Tears welled up in my eyes, and I couldn’t stop them. They spilled down my cheeks, and as I wiped them away and looked up at Walter, my eyes filled again.
“Horrible,” I said, my lips quivering as tears ran over them and down my chin.
“Where’d you go?”
“The Wyoming desert.”
“Why?” I didn’t answer him, and Walter allowed me a moment to regain my composure. He didn’t ask why again. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. Could be anywhere in the country.”
“You never went to the police?”
“He threatened my mother!” My voice rose into the second floor. “Besides, what would I say? ‘My twin brother killed Rita Jones and buried her in my backyard. Oh, by the way, my blood’s all over her, she was murdered with my paring knife, and my brother’s disappeared, but I swear I didn’t do it!’”
“What other choice do you have?” he asked. I shrugged. “Well, if what you’re saying is true, people will continue to die until he’s caught. It could be Beth or John David next. That doesn’t concern you?”
“What concerns me,” I said, “is that even if I could find Orson, haul him into a precinct, and tell the detectives what he’d done, Orson would walk out the free man. I have no proof, Walter. It means shit in a court of law that I know Orson is a psychopath, that I’ve seen him torture and murder. What matters is that Rita Jones is covered in my blood.”
“You’ve seen him murder?” Walter asked. “Actually watched him kill?” Tears came to my eyes again. “Who did he—”
“I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”
“But you’re telling me you—”
“I won’t talk about it!” Leaving the chair, I walked to the window, which looked across the lawn and, farther down, the lake. On the forest’s edge, yellow poplars had begun to turn gold, and scarlet oaks and red maples would soon set the woods ablaze with their dying leaves. My forehead against the window, my tears streaked down the glass, leaving blurry trails in their wake.
“What can I do?” Walter asked, his voice gentle again.
I shook my head. I murdered, too. Cut out a woman’s heart and shot a man in the head, because Orson told me to. The words ricocheted inside my head, but I couldn’t tell Walter what I’d done. Somehow, I thought it’d be enough that he knew about Orson and where I’d been.
“I have nightmares every night. I can’t write. The things I saw…”
“You have to talk to someone. Something like this could f**k you over for—”
“I’m talking to you,” I said, watching a boat drag an inner tube across the lake and wondering what really was coursing through Walter’s mind.
He came to the window, and we both leaned against the glass.
“She’s right out there,” I said, pointing toward the woods. “In a shallow grave.”
We stood for ages by the window. I thought he might push for more details, but he kept the silence, and I was grateful.
It was soon time for him to leave. He had his daughter’s play to attend. I pictured Jenna onstage, Walter and Beth in the audience, beaming. I swear it only lasted a second, but I was gorged with envy.
JEANETTE Thomas lived alone in a dying neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the same ranch-style house where her sons had grown up and her husband had died. It had been a thriving middle-class neighborhood when I was a child, but now as I drove my red CJ-7 slowly along Race Street, I marveled at how the area had changed. Rusted chain-link fences enclosed the yards, and some of the homes were derelict. It seemed as if an elderly person sat in a rocking chair on every front porch, waving at the infrequent cars that passed through. This neighborhood served as the final zone of independence for many of its residents, most only several years from a nursing home existence.
Approaching my mother’s house, I couldn’t help but ruminate on what this place had once been. In my childhood, kids had filled the streets, and I saw them now, riding bicycles and scrap-wood contraptions, laughing, fighting, chasing the ice-cream truck as it made the rounds on a sweltering summer afternoon. A wonderland, shrouded in shady green trees and electric with youthful energy, it had been mine and Orson’s world. We’d climbed its trees, navigated the cool darkness of the drainage ditches, and explored the forbidden woods that bordered the north side of the neighborhood. We’d formed secret clubs, constructed rickety tree houses, and smoked our first cigarette here on a deserted baseball diamond one winter night. Because it was the only home of my childhood, the memories were thick and staggering. They overcame me every time I returned, and now that this neighborhood had become a ghost town, my childhood felt far more spectacular. The present listless decay made my memories rich and resplendent.
My mother always parked her car at the bottom of the driveway so she wouldn’t back over the mailbox. When I saw her car edged slightly into the street, I smiled and parked near the curb in front of her house. I cut off the Jeep and opened the door to the grating whine of a leaf blower. Stepping outside, I slammed the door.
Across the street, an old man sat in a chair on his front porch, smoking a pipe and watching a crew of teenagers blow the leaves on his lawn into a brown pile. He waved to me, and I waved back. Mr. Harrison. We were twelve when we learned about your subscription to Playboy. Stole the magazine for three consecutive months. Checked your mailbox every day for its delivery when we got home from school. You caught us the fourth month. Peeped from behind your curtain for a whole week, waiting to identify the thieves. Came tearing out of the house, fully intent on dragging us to our mother, until you realized she’d know you were a dirty old man. “Well, you got three of ’em already!” you shouted, then whispered, “I’ll leave ’em on my back porch when I’m through. How about that? At least let me get my money’s worth.” That was fine by us.