Title: The Tropic of Hunter
Fandom: Xena Uber/Alt/Original
Rating: 18 or NC-17
Lisa was going to cook me dinner but I talked her into letting me show her my grilling skills instead and after impressing her with my salmon and other outdoor culinary talents, we sat on her patio long into the night, Oz and Deke at our feet, napping contentedly. We went to bed close to midnight and made passionate love for nearly two hours before we fell asleep. When I closed my eyes, she was securely in my arms, her back tight against my chest and when I awoke the next morning, she was spooning me. Everywhere our bodies touched, my skin was on fire. I still could not believe the overwhelming sensations this woman stirred up in me. I never wanted her to let me go.
The next morning, she dropped me off at home and then went to her office, leaving me with a kiss and a smile. I loved that it was the last memory I had of her to get me through the day until I saw her again. I could not believe how much in love with this woman I felt.
After I made myself another cup of coffee and read the paper, I looked up the name of the realtor my mother stipulated and dialed the office number.
The agent who answered, a very nice gentleman named Todd Jardine, had been expecting my call but when I told him that I would like to set up a meeting with him, he advised me that there was a problem. When I asked him what that might be, he became quite nonplussed and then finally blurted, "The validity of the will is being contested by your brother, Dane, citing 'Undue Influence.' I just received legal notice this morning. There seems to be some question regarding who the true recipient of the house should be. Sorry, Ms. Roberge, but until it gets straightened out, all business dealings must be put on hold."
"I understand," I told him, through clenched teeth. "Thank you, Mr. Jardine, I'll be in touch." I placed the receiver in the cradle. "Why that little son-of-a-bitch." I picked up the phone to call Sam at work.
Within an hour, both Sam and I were sitting in my mother's attorney's office. Ray Palmisano was a short, sturdy man in his approximate mid-sixties, a full head of more salt than pepper hair and a nose pink and bulbous from too many years of hard drinking. His office was messy, cluttered with law books, files and stray papers and it reflected his appearance. His shirt was only half tucked in and his tie was still knotted but pulled down to accommodate the first two open top buttons of his shirt. My initial impression of him was not a favorable one.
I had called Lisa after I notified Sam that Dane was contesting Mom's will and told her what was going on. After she asked me who the lawyer was, she advised me that he was an experienced probate attorney, had a decent reputation but that he had been practicing here for forty years and he was getting tired and could get lazy if not made to toe the line. She further said that there had been rumors that he was going to retire for the last five years but life-long, loyal clients, like my mother, convinced him to stay in business.
His secretary brought all three of us coffee and Palmisano laid out the necessary paperwork on his desk in front of him. He then looked up at me.
"So you're the mysterious daughter. I've wondered about you for a long time."
Sam and I exchanged glances and then I looked back at Palmisano. "Wondered what?"
"Just...wondered." He didn't elaborate and he returned his focus to his desk. "Okay, here's the deal. Your brother, Dane, is alleging Undue Influence. And what that means is he feels that somebody influenced your mother by excessive insistence, that she was improperly pressured to leave the house to you, Sarah, and because of that pressure, she was unable to refuse."
"Hunter," I corrected.
"Excuse me?" He looked back up at me.
"It's Hunter. No one's called me Sarah since I was born," I half-smiled at him, hoping that might help break the air of tension in the room. It didn't. When he focused back on the file on his desk, Sam reached over and patted my arm.
"So just exactly what does this mean, Mr. Palmisano?" Sam asked him. "There's really no basis for this, right? You know Hunter had no influence over my mother, they weren't even speaking, and you and I worked on all of this will together with my mother."
"This is just going to be more a nuisance than anything else. Think of it like a ref calling a technical foul in a basketball game and the offending player's coach challenging it because he knows it's a bad call." He sighed and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "As you have already seen, Hunter," he put extra emphasis on my name, "the distribution process is temporarily suspended when a will is contested. I think I can prevent this from getting dirty and hopefully from getting too expensive and I will do my best to keep it out of the courtroom. But if there is anything I need to know that might contribute to the validity of his claim, I need to know right now." His eyes bore down on me, accusingly, and I'd had just about enough of his attitude.
"I had no contact with my mother for sixteen years and as Sam will tell you, I didn't want the damned house to begin with!"
"Hunter," Sam said, gently but firmly, placing his hand on my forearm.
"I would appreciate you not cursing in my office," he told me, in a tone that was reminiscent of a reprimanding father.
"Well, I haven't done anything to cause this and neither has Sam," I said, defensively. "What, does Dane think that Sam unduly influenced our mother to leave me a house I didn't even want? That doesn't even make sense."
Palmisano shrugged. "No, it doesn't. Honestly, though, neither does her leaving you the house, especially with you being so estranged for so long."
"But you sat right here when she adamantly insisted that the house and everything in it, including the cat, go to Hunter," Sam reminded Palmisano.
"Indeed I was," he nodded.
"Okay, so all the accusing tones aside, what happens now?" I asked.
"Well, while the claims of invalidity are investigated, the probate process will grind to a halt. Even though we're sure that Dane has no legal ground to stand on this can still take up a great deal of time and money, and can throw the will proceedings off schedule completely." He focused on me. "So if you had any specific date to return to the west coast, you may want to consider postponing it."
"Great," I said, trying to temper my frustration.
"Look, I've dealt with your brother before and I understand he can try your patience..." Palmisano began, in an attempt to be appeasing.
"Try my patience? Mother Teresa would have smacked him by now." I crossed my arms.
"So what's our next move?" Sam inquired.
"We wait," he stated simply.
"I knew he was being too quiet," I said to Sam, outside Palmisano's office building. "Not seeing or hearing from him in any manner after that night in the house was just too out of character for him."
"He doesn't have a leg to stand on, Hunter," Sam soothed. "He can scream Undue Influence all he wants but that will is ironclad."
"Nothing is ironclad these days. Regardless, you and I know it's not about that. Dane may be a buffoon but he's shifty. He knows that will is solid, he just wants to cause trouble for me. He knows by everything having to be put on hold, that's going to cost me money I don't have and time I can't take away from my job."
"He's always been a sneaky little prick, Hunter, you know that."
"Yeah...but something else is going on. He knows I know about his hushed up DUI arrests and he knows by publicly coming out, I could turn his political aspirations upside down by making him look like the hypocrite he is and yet he's willing to take the risk that I would run him into the ground with the local press. Why?"
Sam contemplated this. "Maybe knowing you don't have the time or money to fight him, he thinks you'll just give up and give him the house."
"He should know by now I never give up as far as he's concerned. It's got to be something else. He wants the house. Bad. Why?" I looked at Sam. "It's not about me. It's about that house. I'm just a pawn. What's in that house that has him so determined to get it, that he'd be willing to give up his future in politics for?"
"You know..." Sam stopped, thinking back, "he has been pretty pigheaded about the house ever since he found out that Mom left it to you. You may have a point."
"Why did she leave it to me, Sam? That just doesn't add up. You knew her better than I did, why would she do that?"
He leaned against the Jeep. "Actually, Hunter, nothing against you but I thought that was strange, too. I was pretty sure she was going to leave the house to Dane because he acted almost indentured to her, especially the last few years. And if, for some reason, it wasn't left to Dane then it would definitely come to me...but then she pulls this one-eighty and is unyielding about leaving it to you. No explanation, just 'I want Hunter to have the house and everything in it, including Orion'."
"I'm sure Orion was just for spite." Ideas were swirling around my head, none of which made any sense.
"You and Orion making peace?"
"So far. She's calmed down or she's making me think she has. But she's been sleeping on the bed with us, down by our feet and we actually have all our toes left. I'm still cautious but..."
"How's that going, anyway?" Sam inquired, with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. "You and Lisa?"
"It's going really well, as though we've always been in a relationship. Honestly, nothing in my life has felt more right."
"And how does that figure into your going back out west?"
"We've got to talk about that. Soon."
"Well, now, thanks to Dane, it looks like you'll have a little more time to do that."
Sam and I said goodbye and I called Lisa to brief her on what had transpired in Palmisano's office and she and I agreed to meet for lunch. There was a big part of me that just wanted to drive to Dane's and confront him (before I pounded him into the ground) and ask him outright what he was up to. This had more to do than with him just feeling slighted, I could feel it. Was there something about the house I should know about? Was there something inside the house Dane didn't want me to know about? Was there something in that house my mother didn't want Dane or Sam to have? What had started out as an annoying inheritance was now turning into an annoying riddle and one in which I was determined to find the answer.
Sam had further told me that something happened about three months ago that changed the dynamics of the relationship between my mother and Dane and it was an occurrence that neither shared with him, or anyone else, it seemed. He said that since then things were 'prickly' when they were around each other, even though they both tried to disguise it. I asked him why he had not brought this up before and he told me that there was no need. Our past conversations concerning our mother or brother were usually short and anything but sweet. And, honestly, he added, he hadn't thought much about it. He was surprised she hadn't become fed up with Dane's obnoxious antics a lot sooner.
I asked him if, to his knowledge, Dane had spent any concentrated time in the house alone since our mother died. He told me he didn't know but he doubted it. Mom succumbed to a massive stroke on Tuesday morning and he and Dane were busy making arrangements and just coping. Between then and the time I arrived on Thursday night, pretty much all of Dane's time could be accounted for. Sam went on to say that that Dane did make a comment after I left the get together at Sam and Trina's the night I arrived that he hadn't expected me back so soon, if at all. Perhaps that explained why he had taken his time getting into the house.
Pulling into a parking space in front of Lisa's office, I was about to shut the Jeep off and go inside to get her when I saw her walk out her door and down the steps toward me. I hadn't realized I had been so keyed up about what could possibly be going on that I might now be right in the middle of until I saw Lisa's smiling face and suddenly my tension visibly melted away. But it didn't last long.
Climbing into the Jeep, she said, "I've taken the afternoon off. After I talked to you, I got thinking about something that I know was also bugging you. So I called Sam and asked him if he had fixed your room up after you left, with all your trophies and memorabilia and stuff displayed and he told me no, he never touched your room. He told me the last time he saw it, which was years ago because your mother always kept the door closed, most of your belongings were packed in boxes and there was nothing on your walls, vanity or bureaus. I think we need to go back to the house and look in your room."
I put the Jeep in gear and sped off. What the fuck was going on?
I took Lisa to her place first, to change her clothes and look in on the dogs. Then we drove back to my mother's and we were met at the house by Sam. When we converged on my old room, I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of a Nancy Drew mystery, complete with Bess and George by my side.
As Lisa started pulling clothes and boxes out of the closet, I began rummaging through drawers and Sam started removing pictures, posters, paintings and articles off the walls and from around the room.
"What's with Palmisano?" I asked Sam, as we sorted through our individual tasks. "Why his attitude toward me? I've never even met the guy before."
"He's very fundamentalist Christian," Lisa offered. "I would guess he knows you're gay and is just being civil because of his long-standing alliance with your mother."
"But how would he know I'm a lesbian? I'm pretty sure it's not something my mother confessed to him and I would say his gaydar is probably worse than Liza Minnelli's."
"Well, I certainly didn't tell him," Sam volunteered, leafing through a carton containing magazine memorabilia of Sigourney Weaver from 'Alien' and Aliens.'
"He and Lesley's husband, Wally, go to the same church. I would assume he found out that way. I bet you were a big topic of conversation, especially after we dropped Lesley off on Saturday." Lisa held up my letterman jacket and smiled, before tossing it on the floor.
I nodded. "That makes sense," I agreed, as I rifled through a drawer with rolled up socks. I picked up a handful and pitched them onto the bed. I could always use socks.
"Just what are we looking for?" Sam asked, almost sounding frustrated.
"I don't know. Mom hated me, Sam. Despite what you say. Her leaving me this house does not make sense. Just like leaving this room like this, especially if you didn't turn it into a shrine, doesn't make sense, either. She's trying to tell me something, or make some point. Just exactly when she turned into Miss Marple, I don't know. But as for what we're looking for? I hope I'll know when I see it."
For two hours we turned that room upside down and found nothing out of the ordinary. It went from being an orderly sanctum to looking like a bomb went off in it. The three of us started on our feet in different sections of the room and ended up sitting on the floor facing each other amid piles of clothes, books, pictures and just...stuff. I hadn't realized I had collected so much junk. And that my mother had actually kept it.
Glancing out the window, I could tell by the angle the sunlight was hitting the panes of glass that we had entered into later afternoon. It would be dark in another few hours. My brother reached around behind him and rubbed his stiff, lower back just as my adorable companion let loose with a thunderous stomach growl. Blushing, focusing on her crossed ankles, she mumbled, "Must be getting close to supper time."
Running my hand through my hair I looked at Lisa then Sam and gestured the disorder in the room. "Well...it sounded like a good idea."
"Yes, it did," Sam agreed, looking around. "Are you going to pick up this mess or just throw everything in boxes and bags and haul it away?"
I shrugged. "I might look through it again...I saw some things I forgot I had that I might not throw away after all."
Lisa dug through the heap and fished out my letterman jacket. "I call dibs on this." She put it on, pushing the sleeves up onto her forearms. It was about four sizes too big for her and it looked so cute on her that even Sam couldn't stop from grinning.
"Aw, isn't that sweet? Next thing I know, you'll be pinned," he laughed.
"Pinned? They haven't done that since the sixties, have they?" Lisa asked.
"Unless he meant this," I countered, tackling her, straddling her and holding her wrists to the floor with my hands.
"Ooooooh. Lisa likes." She laughed, looking deeply into my eyes.
"Sam likes, too," my brother stated, standing up. "And that would put me into areas my shrink wouldn't be able to help me through for years so, on that note, I'm out of here."
"Sorry for the false alarm, Sam," I told him. I should have walked him to the door but I really didn't want to move.
"Don't worry about it." He glanced at his watch. "I can probably get an hour in at work before quitting time, so let me get back to that. Call me if you actually do find something." Then he smirked at us and said, "It's okay, I can show myself out."
"Good. Make sure the door's locked behind you," I called after him as he descended the stairs. I looked at Lisa, hungrily, once I heard the door close. "I don't want any surprise interruptions," I purred before lowering my face to hers.
"Finally," Lisa said, in mock exasperation, "I get to have sex with you in your bedroom. Another fantasy fulfilled."
"Yeah? Well, a fantasy of mine right now would be to have you in nothing but my jacket."
She sighed in restrained excitement, her breath ragged, her eyes sparkling up at me in anticipation. "Then make it so," she whispered.
It had been interesting making love to Lisa in my old bed and having her attired in nothing but my vintage maroon and silver high school jacket, while I kept all my clothes on. But what made the experience better was exorcising the memory of the only other woman who had ever been in that bed with me.
Cuddling after a very satisfying coupling, while Lisa dozed in my arms, my mind was running on overtime. In between thinking I was turning into a sex addict, I could not kick the feeling that my mother was trying to tell me something. Why do the transformation of my bedroom if there was nothing to find? Had Sam been wrong and had Dane been in the house without his knowledge? It was possible. But, then, if Dane already found what may have been hidden in this room, why would he still go ahead with contesting the will, unless it was just to be a bastard? If there was even anything to find in this room. This was just so confusing.
Lisa stirred and then switched her position, nestling up against my side. We had been keeping some pretty late hours with our marathon sexcapades, so it was understandable that she was tired. Even though I was preoccupied with the house issue, soon I was napping right along with her.
I had slowly, softly, absentmindedly rubbed my hand up and down Lisa's backbone, under the jacket, and lulled myself into a light sleep, when I was startled awake by Orion's pacing around on the bed. She appeared agitated and was meowing to the point of almost a howl.
"Shhh, you'll wake Lisa," I quietly admonished the cat, who jumped around the foot of the bed before walking over Lisa and standing on my chest. Orion then turned in circles, continuing to meow. "What is it, Lassie?" I joked, keeping my voice low, "did Timmy fall down the well?"
It was then I smelled the smoke. Paralyzed, I stopped all movement and took a few measured breaths to make sure I had not imagined it. Nope. It was getting thicker and starting to burn the back of my throat. I grabbed Orion and shook Lisa, frantically.
"Lisa! Come on, baby, we've got to get out of the house, let's go!" I raced out of bed and pulled her to her feet. Groggy and dazed, she woke up quickly when I blurted that I thought the house was on fire. "Put these on," I threw a pair of sweat pants at her and while she slid those on, I grabbed a t-shirt and handed that to her as I yanked her by the wrist out into the hallway.
There was smoke beginning to roll up ominously around the ceiling in the upstairs but not excessively so. Something was burning but I wasn't so sure it was in the house. We raced downstairs, Lisa pulling the t-shirt on and we ran out the front door. My adrenaline was surging through my system so completely, I didn't realize until much later that Orion was digging her claws into me, drawing blood. She was no doubt as frightened as the rest of us and because she probably saved our lives, I could forgive her anything. All the past evils that cat had done to me were now absolved.
Once on the front lawn, with my throat and nasal passage stinging with ash and my heart pumping nearly through my chest, I spotted the source of the smoke. The garage was on fire and flames were starting to lick the side of the house. "Lisa," I removed embedded nails from my skin and handed Orion to her, "hold her in your jacket." I ran to the Jeep, got in, put it in neutral and rolled it down the driveway into the street, parking it. Lisa had snatched her cell phone on the way out and was calling 911 while I was able to get to the hose without getting burnt. Hauling it out as far as its length would let me, I began spraying the side of the house with water to hopefully saturate it to discourage the flames from jumping completely. However, if the fire department did not get there soon, it was going to be a wasted effort as the garage was becoming fully involved.
It was then I remembered that Mom's car was still in there and, although it was disabled, it probably still had gas in it and there were, no doubt, other accelerants in the garage. This was not good.
Lisa ran up to me, Orion still safely ensconced inside her jacket. "The fire department is already on its way, one of the neighbors called."
We were both coughing, as the wind was blowing the smoke right at us. "Lisa, I need you to get back. I don't know what's in the garage that might be combustible and -"
"Then you get back, too!" She shouted.
"I will when the fire department gets here. I have to keep water on the side of the house."
"No! Saving this house isn't worth your life!" Her tone was determined and pleading and, with her free hand she was tugging on my arm.
She was right. If there was a secret in that house, it would die in the fire. I stopped squeezing the handle and dropped the hose, moving back with her to the street where neighbors and onlookers had started to gather. Only moments later, three trucks from the fire department and one paramedic unit sped in and set up, hooking into the hydrant near the driveway next door and went to work immediately. The roar of the hoses coming to life and the rush of the water hitting the side of the garage like a monsoon nearly overpowered the crackling and hissing of the flames.
"What happened?" The question came from whom I assumed to be the captain. He stood in front of me as the paramedics attended to both Lisa and me. One EMT was treating a cherry-colored mark on my palm that had already begun to blister, where I had held the hot nozzle. I really had not noticed the pain until he began dressing the wound, which suddenly felt like my hand was holding a hot coal impaled there by a dagger. It was definitely a second degree burn.
I watched as the powerful stream from the fire hoses made quick work controlling the flames of the engulfed garage. "I don't know. We were in my room and the cat came in acting crazy and then I smelled smoke. We got out and that's when we saw the garage on fire."
"When was the last time you were in the garage?"
"Yesterday afternoon. Listen, there's a car in there and it may have gas in it and there may be some other flammable -"
"Thanks, I'll tell my guys." As he rapidly walked away to inform his men, I was approached by a unformed police officer.
"Excuse me, Miss -?"
"I'm going to need to get some information from you. Are you okay to talk to me now?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." And I was, even though my throat, nose and eyes still burned. I answered his general questions which included giving him all my vital information, whether or not I owned, rented or was just visiting the house and what I was doing at the time the fire broke out. After I gave him all the details he was looking for, I asked, "Any indication this fire was set?"
The policeman seemed surprised. "Are you suggesting this may have been arson?"
"What I'm saying is that I don't think this fire set itself."
The garage and everything in it was a total loss. Fortunately only the side of the house was lightly charred and the interior smoke damage was minor. Because of that, I made the decision to stay there as opposed to temporarily moving in with Lisa. I was convinced now more than ever there was something in the house that Dane did not want me to find and my mother did.
With my hand loosely bandaged with gauze and even though I still had stinging in my lungs and the back of my throat continued to burn a little, I refused further medical attention, as did Lisa. Once the fire was out, the questions were asked and re-asked and the investigation to determine the cause was underway, Lisa and I went back inside. I was just about to call Sam when he and Trina came racing through the front door, alarmed and upset.
"Jesus, Hunter, what happened?!" Sam asked, both he and his wife approaching us in the kitchen.
I took four bottles of beer out of the refrigerator, passed three around and then kept one for myself. "Did you see the garage?" I asked, taking a long drink, wincing as the carbonation scratched my already irritated throat all the way down into my stomach.
"Yes," Trina responded. "What's left of it." She spied my wrapped hand. "Did you get burned?"
"Just from grabbing the hose nozzle. The fire made it pretty hot," I told her. Quietly drinking her beer, Lisa leaned against me and my free arm automatically went around her shoulder and pulled her close. She turned her body into my side and held on. She had let Orion go as soon as we got back inside but she was still wearing my jacket. She looked as unnerved as my brother and sister-in-law. I just felt numb and almost detached as I explained waking up to the smell of smoke and what happened right up until they got to the house.
As we were talking, Lisa's cell phone rang and she excused herself, moving away from me and stepping into the hallway. "Yes, Mom, I'm fine," I heard her say. "No, no one was seriously hurt. Hunter's hand got burned while trying to put the fire out but..." She disappeared into the other room.
"She seems distressed," Sam commented, watching Lisa with concern.
"What do you expect? Had it not been for the damned cat, we both could have very easily been crispy critters." That thought made me drain the contents of my bottle in three long swallows.
"What are you thinking, Hunter?" Sam asked, cautiously. "Dane?"
"You know, Sam, I don't want to, I really don't. I don't want to think that, regardless of how my brother feels about me, that he would be so soulless and cold-blooded that he could murder two people by burning them alive in a fire. I don't want to believe I'm related to that kind of a monster. But to me, the question isn't if he did it but why?"
"No, you don't think that Dane set that fire...do you?" Trina's tone was incredulous. She looked back and forth at Sam and me. When neither of us answered her right away, she said, "I know he can be the biggest asshole on the eastern seaboard but do you really think he's capable of this?"
Lisa walked back into the room and before anyone else could speak, the fire captain knocked on the kitchen door. He was still wearing his insulated structural turnout pants, his navy blue logoed t-shirt under his suspenders with his hood pulled off his head and slouched around his neck. His red helmet, denoting his captain status was tucked under his left arm. His bronzed face was weathered and dusted with black and white ash and his full head of black hair was plastered to his head with sweat. I opened the door for him and he took a step inside. I tried to place him as someone I may have known from my childhood but there was no sense of familiarity there. His eyes alerted on my sister-in-law in recognition. "Hey, Trina."
"Hi Chuck," she acknowledged. She gestured loosely to everyone else in the room. "You remember my husband, Sam. This is his sister, Hunter, and -"
"Lisa Riordan," he finished for her. "I've testified for her a couple times." He reached over and shook Lisa's hand. "How are you?"
"I've had better days. Obviously," Lisa responded, still shaky.
He looked back at me. "And this is your house?"
"It is now. I just inherited it."
Captain Chuck nodded, walking over to the counter and leaning. He moved like a man with an abundance of confidence and inner strength and despite his weary, haggard appearance, a man who took a lot of pride in himself and his job. The look on his face was grim. "I've already put in a call to the county fire marshal. From what I can see - and this is just preliminary - the burn patterns are consistent with arson."
"So you think the fire was intentionally set," I paraphrased, looking pointedly at Trina. I closed my eyes, pinching the the bridge of my nose, hoping to thwart the massive headache of migraine proportion I knew was inevitable as I tried to organize my thoughts before speaking. I glanced back at our guest. "I have a suspect for you."
"Hunter..." The hesitant, cautious voice belonged to Trina who was obviously not pleased that I was throwing any accusations around at this point. "Think about this, Hunter."
"Why?" I snapped. "Because he's family?" I certainly felt no blood loyalty to someone who just tried to kill me.
"No," she barked back, defensively. "Because if you're wrong, we all, including you, will suffer the consequences of the publicity of it. If you're right, they'll crucify Dane and maybe he deserves that if he just tried to set the house on fire with you and Lisa in it. But if you are wrong, our entire family will be picked apart on the channel five news and in the papers. I mean, this is the kind of story CNN would zero in on."
"She's got a point, Hunter," Sam agreed. "If he didn't do it, everyone is going to want to know why he was accused of it by his own sister. In this town, that would be a big enough story on its own but since he's running for congress, it would be the story. It would probably cost him the election and cost the rest of us any privacy we ever hoped to have for the rest of our lives if we stayed in Otter Falls." He looked at Lisa. "That would include you."
Although it was a mildly compelling argument, it still didn't persuade me not to follow my hunch. The events were too coincidental for my brother not to be responsible for this. Before I could speak up and say it myself, Captain Chuck jumped in and verbally echoed my thoughts.
"If he's innocent, we can prove it. If he's not, we need to get to him while we can still preserve any evidence he may still have on him or confiscate any clothes and shoes he may have been wearing before he has the chance to destroy anything." He looked at Trina. "I'm assuming you're all talking about Alderman Roberge?"
Nodding reluctantly, Trina folded her arms and said, "Yes."
"Don't worry, I'll call Jimmy and ask him to pick up your brother-in-law for questioning and ask him to be discreet, as this just may be a family feud."
"Family feud?" I bristled. "This is not -!" I felt a firm hand curl around my forearm and Lisa slightly but deliberately leaned into me. Her gesture worked and I immediately bit my tongue. "Who's Jimmy?"
"Lieutenant James Macri," Lisa supplied. "He's in charge of the OFPD detective bureau. Dane and Lt. Macri are professional colleagues. Dane leaving work to meet with Lt. Macri on some issue would not raise anyone's suspicions or curiosity."
"Are they friends? I can't see anything but a cover up if they're friends," I told them, getting riled up again.
Captain Chuck smiled patiently at me as he took out his cell phone. "Ms. Roberge, off the record, I'm not a big fan of your brother's. He has caused my department some major problems just because he seems to like stirring the pot. He has been even less accommodating to the OFPD. Unfortunately, for some reason, the mayor thinks your brother walks on water and indulges every whim of his." He pushed a button on his phone, held it to his ear and smirked. "Believe me when I tell you that, although Jimmy will be publicly prudent, the last thing he'll do is go easy on your brother." Turning away, he spoke into the phone. "Hi Patty, it's Chuck Sawtelle. Is Jimmy in? Yeah, I'll hold, thanks." He walked to the door, turned the handle and as he stepped outside, I heard him say, "Jiminator! Do me a favor..."
Once he closed the door, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Sam was the first one to speak.
"Anyone want another beer?"
"I'd love one," Lisa responded, gratefully.
Sam collected our empties and placed them on the counter and pulled four bottles out of the refrigerator, twisting the caps off, handing each of us one. Trina and I were trying not to glare at each other. I did realize what she was saying and it wasn't for Dane or against me, she was just trying to give me time not to react so emotionally and consider the impact of pointing a finger at my brother. However, she wasn't the one who was nearly incinerated by the bastard, either.
"Hunter," Trina began, breaking the silence, her voice coolly even, "I am not trying to minimize what happened here but I think you forget how small this town is and you don't have to stay here."
"And that is supposed to make me keep my mouth shut about my little brother trying to kill me?"
"That's just it, you're jumping to conclusions because you hate him."
"I don't hate him, Trina. But I sure as hell don't like him. Put yourself in my shoes. I agree with your friend," I nodded my head toward the door, "if Dane didn't do this, he should have no problem proving it. But I am done playing nice."
Once the air ceased being so thick with tension which coincided with the smell of smoke finally dissipating to barely noticeable, Trina and I called a truce. Even though we were thinking in different directions, she and I ultimately respected each other enough to agree to disagree. I really don't think she thought Dane was incapable of such an act, it was more that she didn't want to believe he would actually follow through with it. And, although Lisa never vocalized it, I had an inkling she felt the same way.
Maybe it should have shocked me more but it didn't and it was obvious that it did not seem to surprise Sam either. I wanted to be a fly on the wall when 'The Jiminator' picked Dane up and started questioning him about the fire and I made that comment to my older brother after Trina and Lisa walked outside to take another look at the garage.
"I'm sure he'll deny everything," Sam replied. "And even if they pin him down to admitting it, it won't be his fault. Nothing is ever Dane's fault." He puffed his cheeks out in contemplation and blew out air slowly. "Hunter...what if Dane didn't do it?"
"Do you really think there's a chance of that?" I reached under the microwave stand and picked up the phone book, placing it on the counter. My tone told him that it was not even in my realm of possibility that Dane could be innocent.
"There's always a chance of it, regardless of how small and it's my job to be the devil's advocate."
That was true. Sam would always argue against me, taking an opposing side to whatever was firing me up, whether he believed in what he was debating with me about ot not. It had always been infuriating. I found a grin for him. "Well, if it's not him, then it is awfully coincidental. This house has been here how many years and some unknown party decides to set it on fire now? Come on, Sam, I haven't been in town long enough to piss anyone off that bad yet. Except maybe Lisa's sister." The visual in my mind of Lesley, probably three sheets to the wind, trying to set the garage on fire, made me smile wider. If she was as drunk as she was the last time I had seen her, she would have been lucky not to breathe on the match and combust before it ever got to the garage.
"What's got you smiling?" Lisa's fond, inquisitive voice asked.
I glanced over to see that she and Trina had returned from outside. Lisa stood on the other side of me as I leafed through the yellow pages. "Other than you? Just Sam being Sam." I looked at Trina's unusually pale complexion. "You okay?"
"Yes, it's just...God, if that cat had not woke you up..."
"I'd rather not think about that." And I really didn't. Putting that particular thought out of my mind was the only thing keeping me sane at the moment. "How about we order in and hang out here for a bit until we hear from Lt. Macri? Anyone up for Chinese?"
"Only if we order from The Panda," Sam said. "Last time we got food from that other place, I regretted it for three days."
"That's because you wouldn't believe me when I told you they spiced their General Tao chicken with a chi-chien pepper," Trina playfully poked him. She looked back at me. "Flames shot out of his ass for nearly a week."
I laughed. "I thought it was my other brother who was the flaming asshole."
Lisa walked by me and lovingly squeezed my forearm. "I'm going to go wash up. I'm also voting for The Panda but whatever you all decide on, I'd like some hot and sour soup, two shrimp eggrolls, sesame chicken, brown rice, and a dozen crab rangoon."
"Got it," I said, finding the phone number I was searching for. Then I looked up at my brother and sister-in-law, both wide-eyed, who watched Lisa leave the room.
"She sure eats a lot for someone so tiny..." Trina finally stated.
"Yeah," I smirked, "She stores it up now so that she has energy to burn later." Getting what I meant at the same time, Sam and Trina quickly glanced at each other, then at the floor and then at me, sheepishly. "Orders, please?"
We had just started to eat our individual take-out orders when the front door splintered open and there was Dane, looking clearly unbalanced, holding an unmistakably loaded .38 Ruger. Nobody moved while Dane's body pulsed with adrenalin, his face beaded in sweat, his eyes crazed. He took in the scene, scrutinizing us all separately, although I seriously doubt he really saw anyone but me. I could hear everyone swallow hard.
I put my hands up, palms facing outward, level with my shoulders and slowly started to rise. "Dane..." I began, my voice firm but calmly pleading, "put the gun down. You don't want to do anything more you'll regret..."
"More?" He sounded like he was on the verge of either laughing or crying. "I haven't done anything! I didn't set that fire! I wasn't anywhere near here! I went to a business breakfast at the Holiday Inn this morning from seven to nine-thirty with two campaign contributors and at least a dozen witnesses, then I went right to work and I was in a committee meeting with six other people from noon right up until Macri pulled me out of it!" He was waving the gun around wildly.
That stopped me dead. If Dane wasn't anywhere near the house all day, who did set the fire? I studied my younger brother who, despite all his former nasty bravado, appeared very vulnerable at the moment. Had I just made a terrible mistake that might cost me or someone else in this room her or his life? "Okay, Dane," my voice was as calm and as soothing as I could muster, "let Lisa, Trina and Sam go. It's me you want, me you're pissed at, let them go and you and I can talk about this..."
This time he did laugh as he focused on me. "You? I don't want you, Hunter. The house I wanted but not you. No, I'm not here for you." He zeroed in on Sam. "I'm here for you."
In unison, everyone's head, including mine, swiveled toward Sam, who looked stunned. I turned back to Dane. "Sam? What did Sam do?"
He never took his eyes off our older brother. "What did Sam do?" He repeated, sarcastically. "That's right...Sam would never do anything. Sam's perfect. Sam's the golden boy. Right, Hunter? Isn't that what we always used to call him?"
I was more than confused. Why was Dane talking to me as though he and I were old buds and why was he going after Sam?
"Sam...what's he talking about?" Trina was obviously just as perplexed as the rest of us.
Before Sam could answer, Dane jumped in. "Yeah, Sam, what's he talking about? Tell them, Sam."
Sam shrugged, apparently as puzzled as we were. "I don't know what you mean, Dane."
"Tell them, Sam, or I will!" The aggression in Dane's voice sent a shiver down my spine. But Sam's tone, when he responded, downright chilled me to the bone. It was a controlled snarl, guttural, and if I hadn't been looking right at him and saw his lips move I never would have believed it was him speaking. The shock on the faces of Lisa and Trina reflected the same disbelief.
"Shut the fuck up, Dane. Stick to the plan or you'll ruin everything," he hissed through gritted teeth.
His words struck me like a punch to the gut. Stick to the plan? My eyes flashed to Lisa, who had also picked up on the phrase. Her brows furrowed and she cocked her head slightly as though she had not heard him correctly. Yet I knew she had when she glanced up at me. Trina just kept blinking, dumbfounded. The three of us had been struck mute, just watching this scene play out before us.
Dane didn't seem fazed by Sam's abrupt sinister metamorphosis. "You're not running the show anymore, Sam. I'm done. It's bad enough I have to live with the things I've done but I am not going to go down for the things that you've done."
Sam remained seated but his posture relaxed, indicating he wasn't afraid of Dane. "Be careful what you say," he warned our younger brother, his voice still ominously altered. "Don't forget there is a lawyer in the room."
The focus then turned to Lisa, whose eyes were as wide as mine and Trina's. She raised her hands in concession. "This is between you two...whatever this is..."
As I listened to this exchange between my brothers, I found myself not being able to speak. Usually, I was never at a loss for words but it felt like the two men in the room I shared parents and a childhood with were total strangers, nobody I had ever met before. Where I would have normally jumped in and sided with Sam against Dane, I was unable to do anything except remain still.
"Why would you let Macri pull me out of a meeting and question me about something you know I didn't do?!" Dane was agitated, speaking to Sam as though the rest of us did not exist. "Why would you let Chuck Sawtelle leave here thinking I set that fire?! Putting suspicion on me for that wasn't in the plan!"
"Shut up NOW, Dane!"
"Or I'll bury you."
"Yeah, you're good at burying things, aren't you, Sam?" Dane began to pace. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of the hand that wasn't holding the gun.
"Think about your career, Dane...look at what you're throwing away -" Sam began.
"What I'm throwing away? Too late, you just did that for me!" Dane thundered.
"I didn't sic Macri on you! Hunter did!" Sam's arm extended sideways toward me.
Barely glancing my way, Dane balled up his unarmed hand and through clenched teeth, he said to our older brother, "But you did nothing to stop her, did you?! I'm tired of it, Sam. Macri knows everything now."
"Everything? I doubt that, Dane, or he never would have let you go."
"He let me go to go home to get my affairs in order and then I'm going back to turn myself in. But he and his boys are on their way here to get you, Sam."
Sam's demeanor turned menacing again as he slowly rose out of his chair. "What did you tell him, Dane?"
"Sam, what the hell is going on?" Trina demanded to know. Her tone was frightened, yet determined. It echoed my sentiments as well as Lisa's.
"Shut up, Trina," Sam hissed. "What did you tell him, Dane?"
I was torn between wanting to know what the hell was going on and what Dane had confessed to Macri that had caused Sam to become so bizarre and threatening. I was guessing it was going to turn out to be the same thing. I looked at Trina, who was stunned into silence by her normally mild-mannered husband's words to her. I then looked at Lisa who was just transfixed on the interaction between my brothers.
"I told him you set the fire, Sam. And then I told him why."
My eyes nearly popped out of my head. I stared at Sam. "You started the fire?"
Glaring at Dane, Sam said, "You've never believed Dane, Hunter, why would you want to start now?"
"Because your behavior is freaking me out here, Sam. And if Dane has a solid alibi, where were you? Because, you know, he's got a point...the timing is pretty coincidental."
"Hunter, Jesus, it was bad enough thinking Dane would do such a thing, but you know Sam would never -"
"See, that's the problem," Dane jumped in, "he's got you all brainwashed that he's the good guy and I'm the bad guy and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not perfect but I'm not a murderer."
"What?" Trina, Lisa and I chorused.
"Dane...!" Sam warned, again, "shut up now!"
"No, Dane, don't shut up," I urged. "Stop being so damned cryptic and say what it is you're here for." Sam was obviously hiding something that Dane knew about and whether Sam was guilty of starting the garage fire or not, I wanted to know why he was trying to keep Dane from talking.
My brothers were staring at each other. Finally, Dane turned to me. "Sam set the garage on fire, hoping to make it look like an accident, didn't you, Sam? Hoping the house would catch fire and burn to the ground, didn't you, Sam? Taking our sister and all evidence with it. Isn't that right, Sam?"
I was finding it hard to breathe. I should not have believed him but something about the bearing of both my brothers in the last few minutes convinced me that Dane was actually telling the truth. Before I could respond, Trina was on her feet.
"Shut up, Dane, what's wrong with you? Sam is not capable of that kind of evil! This is ridiculous. Sam would never do such a thing. Put the gun away and we'll try to help you with your problems," Trina told him, unrealistically. If the situation hadn't been so grave, I would have rolled my eyes.
Dane wasn't quite so diplomatic. He did roll his. "My problems? My problems begin and end with your husband." He pointed the gun at Sam for emphasis.
Sam flinched as Trina and I shouted, "No!" Lisa stayed quietly alert on the couch, perched on the edge, gripping the arm rest.
"Jesus, Dane, you're scaring the shit out of everybody here." I tried to reason with him. "If Macri is coming back here to arrest Sam then there's no reason to keep swinging that gun around."
"Sure there is. I don't know what Sam might do. Besides, when Macri gets here, I want to make sure Sammy is going to confess."
"Confess to what?" I asked, a second before Trina.
Sam slowly stood up. "You are such a fucking idiot," he sneered at Dane. "We were almost there. All you had to do was tell Macri you didn't do it, prove you had an alibi and let me do the rest."
"Murder our sister? And one of the town's most prominent citizens? I don't want any part of that."
"You hate her, Dane! And you're not a big fan of Lisa's, either."
"I don't like them but I don't want them dead. You should have just let me contest the will. I would have gotten the house and it would have been done."
"What is in this house?!" I demanded to know.
"Remains," Dane answered. "Heather Cushing's remains."
Lisa gasped and Trina sucked in a shocked breath. I looked at them, bewildered. "What the holy fuck is going on here?"
It was then all hell broke loose. The sound of several vehicles pulling up and stopping outside, brakes squealing and voices shouting, were overpowered by Sam screaming into the air. He started to rush Dane and Dane aimed the Ruger directly at him, cocking the hammer back. Before I could react, Sam grabbed me, swung me around in front of him and the gun went off.
The joked used to be that if you heard the shot, it missed you.
This was not true in my case. As if in slow motion, even though it had only been a split second, a sharp, high-pitched sound resonated in my ears and then I heard before I felt the thump of the impact. The force of the bullet spun me around and knocked me to the ground as though I had been slammed by a Louisville Slugger. It felt like my upper body exploded. The bullet had entered the right portion of my chest and exited through my back just below my shoulder blade, feeling every bit like a hot ice pick going in and staying in. Then it really started to burn.
It seemed like hours before I thought to take a breath as a continuing sensation reminiscent of boiling water being poured into my wound overtook me, numbing my right arm, shoulder and breast. I began getting nauseous and dizzy and just before I passed out, I heard screaming and yelling, voices I recognized and ones I didn't and then the last thing I remembered was Lisa's face. She was crying and her expression was terrified and her lips were moving but I couldn't hear her.
Then everything went black.
When I awoke, it took a few minutes for the fuzziness to go away. Blinking into consciousness, my eyes slowly took in my surroundings, everything looking white, smelling antiseptic and feeling unfamiliar. When I made the mistake of trying to move, penetrating, pulsating pain shot out of my back to my front, up my shoulder, into my neck and down my right arm. It felt like I had been branded with an andiron and was suddenly being held to the bed by an anchor.
Everything was throbbing on my right side from my waist to the top of my head. As what had happened started to come back to me, I figured the excruciating pain must have been the residual effects from the gunshot wound. A sharp intake of breath and an involuntary groan brought about movement to my left.
"Hey, Baby...you're finally awake." My focus zeroed in on a beautiful face and warm, caring, green eyes.
"Hey..." I got out. My mouth and throat were as dry as cotton. "Where am I?"
She kissed me tenderly on my forehead and gently sat on the side of my bed. "Otter Falls Regional Medical Center. You were shot. You had to have surgery, you -"
The room started to spin wildly and I was suddenly very nauseated and I could feel the bile rising in my throat. I looked around, panicky, for something to throw up in. Before I could stop it, it spewed out all over my precious girlfriend. She jumped up off the bed and if it had not been for the extremely pounding headache that accompanied my vomiting, I would have apologized for her now wearing the contents of my stomach, which shouldn't have been very much but it looked like a lot.
Lisa reacted by pressing the button for the nurse, ignoring the mess I had made on her and concentrated on me. She stepped into the bathroom and returned with a damp towel and started to clean me up.
I always came out of anesthesia hard. I'd had a few minor operations in the past where I had to be knocked out and coming to was never pleasant.
"Oh, dear," the nurse commented, when she assessed the situation after entering the room.
"Sorry," I sighed, my head falling back on the pillow. "I'm really sorry."
"Shhhhhh," Lisa soothed. She went back into the bathroom and came back out with a wet washcloth. Lovingly wiping my face, she pursed her lips and turned to the nurse. "I think she might have broken a stitch or two."
The nurse approached me as I looked down at the bandage covering my wound. It was definitely seeping blood, as the gauze was spotting bright red. Looking at me, smiling, then at Lisa, the nurse said, "I was going to come in and change the dressing anyway. I'll take a look at it." As she left the room to get supplies, Lisa started wiping the puke off her shirt with the washcloth.
"What happened?" I was finally able to ask. "I know Dane shot me but...what happened?"
Studying me, Lisa said, "Let the nurse change your bandage first and get you stitched back up if you need it." She must have recognized the agonizing grimace I was wearing. "And get you something for the pain."
"How long have I been in here?"
While I digested that, the nurse walked back into the room with whatever she was going to need to do whatever it was she was going to do. "Well...let's clean you up and see what we have here..."
We had been alone for at least ten minutes before Lisa spoke. She looked apprehensive and as though she had started to say something several times but stopped herself. She appeared to be trying to gather her thoughts before she actually talked. "Hunter...both of your brothers are in jail."
"Sam, especially," she replied, bitterly. "He used you as his bullet proof vest. And that's the second time he tried to kill you."
I looked away. Not Sam. But I knew it was true because as she reminded me of what happened, my last conscious moments before getting shot replayed in my head. I was still stunned at what had transpired in that living room and how my life had dramatically changed even before the bullet hit me. Hearing the obscure exchange between Dane and Sam was enough for me to determine that the Sam I thought I knew was not the person he really was. And the blow of that was as bad as, if not worse than, the impact of actually getting shot. "Lisa, what the hell is going on with my family?" I asked her in a more resigned tone than an angry one. "And who is Heather Cushing?"
She poured me a cup of water and placed it on the tray by my bed. "Heather Cushing went to school with me. She was in my class. In our junior year, she disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to her. At first, everybody thought she had simply just run away even though her parents insisted things were fine between them and there was no reason for her to run away. So then the police started an investigation and search parties were organized which your brothers were involved in, but there was no trace of her. It was as though she had disappeared off the planet. Now we know that one or both of your brothers murdered her."
This was unfathomable to me. "I just...can't believe this." I suddenly felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
She took my hand and squeezed it, compassionately. "I know, Sweetheart, it's a lot to absorb right now. Do you want to talk about it later? When you're a little more coherent?"
"No," I shook my head, "I want to know now."
Nodding, she continued. "Sam and Dane are pointing fingers at each other, saying the other one did it."
"But why? Why would either one of them do that?"
"Well...that's the big mystery. Wisely, Sam lawyered up immediately when Macri arrested them and Dane, who meant to shoot Sam and not you, believe it or not, sat there and poured his heart out until his lawyer arrived and told him to shut up. But your house is now a crime scene."
"Because I was shot?"
"And Heather Cushing's bones were found in between two walls in the closet in your old room."
"Oh, Christ. How did they get there?"
"According to what Dane said to Macri, she had been buried in the old woods behind Sparrow Pond. But when that area was bought to build a new recreation center on, Sam dug up the remains before his company could start digging. He hid them in a temporary location until your mother went on a three week cruise with three other members of the church, which Sam talked her into and which he and Dane helped her pay for. Then Sam did a little reconstruction on your closet wall. He figured since your mother never went in there anymore, anyway, it was the perfect hiding place. Also, since it seemed to be a given that the house would go to either him or Dane when she died, it should have been a piece of cake."
"But somehow my mother found out?"
"Apparently. About three months ago, she over heard Dane talking to someone on the phone and she put two and two together about Heather. When she found out it was Sam he was talking to, that was a devastating blow but when she learned Heather's remains were in her house, that's when it all became too much for her, resulting in her fatal stroke. But not before she changed her will."
That she was talking about my family was surreal. I just knew we were going to be immortalized on the Dr. Phil show. "Why didn't she just go to the police?"
Lisa shrugged. "I don't know. I guess she explained it all in a letter that accompanied your copy of the will."
A letter that was sitting in my post office box in California. "So that's what was in the house that had Dane so crazy to get."
"Yes. And Sam thought everything would work out and that Dane was overreacting. Whether you kept it or sold it, he was going to burn it to the ground."
"With me in it?"
"Not at first. Remember that day we were in your room looking for something?"
"Well...Sam found it." She reacted to my eyes widening. "Yeah, I know. Sneaky. It was a copy of the letter that's with your copy of the will. It was taped behind one of the sports awards hanging on your wall. I guess she figured when you went to remove everything, you'd find it. It was written a week before she died. When the letter stated that she instructed Palmisano to include a sealed copy of the letter with your copy of the will, Sam knew that he and Dane would finally be caught and he couldn't have that, so he arranged for you to 'accidentally' die in a fire. And then the secret would still be between him and Dane. Funny, isn't it? Dane is the one who had the conscience in the end?"
My head was spinning again. Who was this horrible person that was inhabiting my precious brother's body? If this Heather Cushing disappeared in Lisa's junior year, Sam, and Dane, had been holding onto this for about twelve years. That would have made Sam twenty-three and married to Trina for a year and Dane eighteen and not married yet. What had been their connection to or involvement with this young girl? "Any guesses as to why my brother's may have killed Heather?"
"Sure, I have a lot of guesses at this point but they are probably the same ones you have." She shrugged. "The frame of mind Dane was in, I really have no doubt that he will confess and cooperate and then everyone will know. As for Sam? At this point, what he will do is anybody's guess."
"God. How is Trina?"
"Understandably she is a mess. I really believe she had no clue about any of this."
"I need to go see her when I get out of here."
"She's not seeing anybody, Hunter. As soon as the police are finished with her, she's leaving to go stay with her mother in St. Johnsbury. She needs time to sort things out. She doesn't blame you for any of this and yet, in a roundabout way, she does. There is a part of her that feels if you hadn't come back, everything would be like it was before."
"How do you know that?"
"She said that when Macri took Sam away. I'm sure it was just a knee-jerk reaction."
"I've got her. She's fine. She's staying in my spare room so she and the boys don't kill each other. Well...I doubt they would kill her but I'm not so sure she wouldn't make cat food out of them," she smirked.
"Wise choice." I tried to reposition my body but my shoulder protested greatly. Lisa stood up and helped me readjust. "When can I get out of here?"
"The doctor will be in to talk with you later, so that's something you'll have to tell me. By the way, your Aunt Cissy, who is your next of kin since your brothers can't be here, is waiting to see you. She generously and graciously spoke with the staff about allowing me priority access to you. The hospital administrator is a friend of mine, anyway, so that also helped. I don't want to tax your strength so I will go grab a cup of coffee and run some errands while Cissy visits and I'll be back." She softly kissed my dry, cracked lips. "I love you, Hunter."
"I love you, too, Lisa."
She kissed my cheek and left the room. I was dizzy, not from illness, pain or medication but from everything Lisa had just told me. Talk about a dysfunctional family... No wonder my mother had a stroke, discovering that her two perfect sons were murderers and her deviant daughter was her best child after all.
"Oh, Hunter, sweetie," Aunt Cissy wailed the second she passed through the doorway. She was crying and smiling at me, sympathetically, as she approached the bed, carefully leaning in to give me a hug. She sat down in the chair Lisa had just been occupying. "How are you?"
Suddenly I was smirking, "You mean other than nearly being killed twice in one day by both brothers, finding out my family is crazier than bedbugs and that there really is a skeleton in my closet? I'm fine."
Two days later, I was released from the hospital and was back at Lisa's. She had requested that my suitcases and other personal belongings which were not considered to be a part of the crime scene be brought to her house. Lt. Macri had made a few courtesy visits to the hospital but he was very cautious in his inquiry. Dane had advised him that I was not involved in any manner and due to the circumstances of my being away through all of this and then being a victim of my brother's as well, his interviews with me were cursory. He did ask me to come to the station when I was out of the hospital to read and sign some statements.
My arm was nestled in a sling, mainly to keep me from moving it too strenuously. Mobility was limited on my upper right side and the pain was ever present but subsiding. Lisa requested that I spend the day, taking it easy and resting but with the doorbell and phone ringing off the hook from reporters all wanting an exclusive, I couldn't relax. Besides, I had as many questions as the media did and I wanted answers. I arranged with Lieutenant Macri and the regional correctional facility to visit with one or both of my brothers.
Sam wasn't talking to anyone and was on a suicide watch in solitary confinement. Dane agreed to see me against his lawyer's advice. Due to the circumstances, we were allowed to meet alone in the private rooms usually set aside for attorney-client meetings or police interrogations.
The town's medium security prison was a two-story steel and concrete building that, except for the razor wire surrounding the perimeter, looked like it could have been a school or office building. Entering the facility, I passed through one metal detector, registered at the desk and was met at the superintendent's office by the deputy warden and Macri. I was advised that Sam wasn't eating and if he turned away one more meal, they were going to have to forcibly admit him to the hospital. I asked them one more time if they would ask Sam to see me. The deputy warden, a bear of a man whose name plaque on his desk read 'Corben' told me that he would try again but so far Sam had refused any visitors and wouldn't even talk to his own attorney, so he doubted my brother would speak to me. I then said, "Tell him I'm not angry and that I love him."
Both men looked at me as though I were as nuts as the rest of my family. "After what he did to you?" Corben stated, aghast.
"Just tell him, would you please?" I responded, a little annoyed. I can't honestly say whether my irritation was at them or myself. I suppose it did sound insane after Sam tried to burn me to death and then get me shot. However, I felt that, maybe, if he thought I would forgive him, he might want to talk to me.
Corben picked up the portable radio that sat in the charger on his desk. Keying his mic, he said, "William Two to Sam Three."
I knew his William Two designation referred to his second in command Warden status and the Sam designation was the call sign of the Sergeant who was either third in command or in charge of section three or something along that line. It was a pretty universal code, except William usually referred to Watch Commander. "Mr. Corben? Could you deliver the message yourself? I think that also may make a difference."
He looked at me a second time as though I had lost it completely and in a patronizing tone, he said, "Ms. Roberge, I can't possibly deliver a personal message to a resident. Why, if I agreed to that every time someone asked I wouldn't have time to do my job."
Macri rolled his eyes. "Get over yourself, Pete. We need to try anything at this point to get this guy to talk. The Cushing's need to put closure on this, they need to know why their daughter died."
"Then break the other brother, he's been singing like a bitch in heat since he came in here."
"But not about what actually happened the night Heather Cushing died. Other than he didn't do it, Sam did."
"But...Jim..." He was almost whining, "this will set a bad precedence with the other staff and residents."
I placed my good arm over my sling to make it appear as though I were crossing my arms. I pinned him with a glare, conveying what a big baby and fucktard I thought he was. I shot a glance over at Macri who, coincidentally, was giving Corben the same look.
"All right!" He breathed out, exasperated, and then left.
"Was he born an asshole or was it something he perfected along the way?" I asked Macri.
"Warden Vandine is on vacation. I'm afraid the power has gone to Pete's head." He reached over and lightly tapped my shoulder. "How are you doing?"
"I'll be fine. Thank you for asking."
"I just know this has got to be tough on you. Well, on everyone involved, I'm sure." His compassion was sincere.
"Have you heard anything from or about my sister-in-law? I'm worried about her but she's gone into seclusion."
"She's been very cooperative but we have only had communication with her when we have needed to talk to her and that's it. She has not been here to see your brother if that's what you're asking."
"Well, okay, I was wondering about that. Maybe a visit from her would help bring him around, too."
"In my book, he's damned lucky he's getting a visit from you. I don't think I'd be able to do it."
"Honestly? I really don't know why I'm here."
After a surprised Corben returned to his office with the news that Sam would see me, I secured all my items in a locker, was instructed to walk through another metal detector and locked momentarily in a sallyport with Corben. He escorted me to the high security area where I signed in at another desk, walked though two more electronically secure doors and was set up in a private office with a heavy wooden table and four plastic chairs.
"An officer will be in the room with you just in case."
"No. I don't want anyone else in there. I'm sure I won't be able to get him to talk to me if anyone else is present."
"I can't guarantee your safety if -"
"Your officer can stand right outside the door."
"Ms Roberge -"
"Mr. Corben! If you want to hear what my brother has to say about this then you will let me see him alone. If not, we are all just wasting our time here." I realized he had regulations to enforce but I knew Sam would ask to go right back to his cell if we couldn't have privacy.
"I'm sorry, I just can't allow that," He advised me, gesturing me into the room.
"How about this...leave the door open and have your officer stand right outside." I looked at him, expectantly.
"Ms. Roberge, I would think just the fact that your brother tried to kill you twice, two different ways in one afternoon, would be enough to not want to be alone with him."
"I won't be alone with him. Your guard will be three steps away from us." Before he could respond to that, I heard the clanking of the iron barred gates rolling back and I saw my brother, Sam, shuffling toward me, wearing an orange jumpsuit, his wrists handcuffed to a waistbelt and his ankles also shackled. He was flanked by two correctional officers, who looked more nervous to be approaching Corben than they did escorting a 'dangerous,' alleged murderer, attempted murderer and arsonist. When Sam was led into the room, one of his escorts was about to accompany him when Corben's hand shot out and stopped the guard at the door, instructing the officer to stand outside. I nodded my thanks to the deputy warden and then focused on the hollow eyes that once belonged to my beloved older brother.
"Hi, Sam," I said, my voice breaking at the sight of him and the idea of what was now our relationship.
Not saying anything, he sat down in one of the filthy, stained, once-white chairs. I sat opposite him. Finally he looked up at me. "Can you ask them to close the door?"
"I already did. This is the best I could do." I sighed and glanced around the room. "It doesn't matter anyway; I think we both know this room is probably wired."
He nodded and focused on his bound hands, which were folded on the table. "You want to know why." It wasn't a question.
"Among other things, yes." I couldn't help it. I wanted to reach over and pull him into a hug, grasp his hands, do something, but I knew any kind of contact would be prohibited and more than likely end our meeting.
I didn't want to believe this was the same person who wanted to end my life just a few days earlier. I realized that I hadn't just loved Sam, I had worshiped him and studying him from across the table, it hit me very hard and, without warning, the tears just started running down my face.
Hearing me trying to sniff back the stream trickling from my nose and escaping from my eyes, Sam looked up and his face contorted in despair. "No, Hunter, don't cry," he pleaded, "Please..." As he tried to slide his cuffed hands across the table, the guard stepped into the room.
"Roberge," the officer warned and, with a sharp flick of his wrist, motioned for Sam to move his hands away from mine. When Sam slowly complied, the officer assessed the safety of the situation and stepped back, out the door.
When I drew my attention away from the guard and focused on my brother, he was crying, too, which pushed me to borderline sobbing. "Christ, Sam...what's going on?"
"Hunter, I am so sorry. So sorry. I never meant to -"
"Don't you dare say you never meant to hurt me. You tried to kill me, Sam. Twice. That goes a little beyond not wanting to hurt me."
"I was desperate! You became an obstacle. I was out of my head, it wasn't even like you were a real person." The look on my face must have told him that I wasn't comprehending this explanation as a reason. "You have no idea what it was like having to be the 'man of the house' since I was six years old, what it's like having to be perfect all the time...the perfect son, the perfect husband, the perfect father, the perfect brother, the perfect employee... You have no idea what I had to deal with, after you left. You thought Mom was impossible before? She was unbearable after. I didn't know what it was that you did but I knew whatever it was, she treated it as though she had spawned Satan's child. She was so adamant about our family reputation and us maintaining that air of perfection that -"
"Wait, are you blaming your actions on me?" I couldn't help but sound incredulous.
He stared at me, blankly, then said, "No...I'm blaming it on her."
I wiped more tears out of my eyes. "Sam...there comes a time in our lives when we need to stop blaming our childhood for the choices we make as adults. If I used Mom's treatment of me as a child as the basis of my behavior now, I would probably be on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. But I made a decision to not believe her characterization of me as a bad, worthless degenerate and turned my life into something positive, despite her. Or maybe even because of her."
"Well, bully for you," he said, sourly. "You didn't have to stay around here and deal with her, either. Maybe had she not kicked you out and disowned you, you would have turned out a lot differently."
"Maybe. But the fact remains, if we use your theory, if any of the three of us should have turned out to be the criminal, it should have been me. And it didn't. All I am saying, Sam, is that there are consequences to the choices we make and we have to take responsibility for them."
He pushed his chair back, as though he were going to stand up to leave. "Well, if that's how you think then I guess listening to what I have to say won't mean anything, so I might as well go back to my cell."
"No, please don't. I want to hear what you have to say. I want to know, Sam. I have to know. Please." I could not remember the last time I had done this much begging.
He sighed, shaking his unwashed hair away from his face. He had several days growth of beard, displaying a few random whiskers that were actually gray. He scratched the side of his chin on his shoulder, the sound making a slight scraping noise. His haunted eyes were tormented, apparently possessed either by the memory of murdering Heather Cushing (and/or what led up to it), or by what he was now facing that would be his existence for the rest of his life. He finally glanced back up at me but he was silent.
"Honestly, I don't know what it was like for you, growing up. I was too busy having to deal with my own issues with her. I thought it was okay for you, for the most part. She seemed to put you on this pedestal and that's the ideal I was supposed to live up to. I just thought, compared to me, you had it pretty good. And I thought we were good with each other about it. I thought that Dane was our common nemesis, you know?"
He shook his head. "Dane was a little shit but I kept thinking he could be controlled."
"Dane was always out of control, Sam. Maybe you could control him but he was smart enough not to go after you. I never had that luxury with him. I had to get back at him when I could, which wasn't that often." I knew Sam was aware of all this and I was getting impatient, although I tried not to let it show.
He sighed, readjusting his position and stretched his legs out. "I soon discovered, I couldn't control him. It seems I was always getting him out of trouble. A majority of stuff you have no idea about. One stupid scrape after another. I'd just clean up one of his messes and there'd be another and each one would escalate into a bigger fucking mess. Mom was always warning us to keep our lives above reproach. And then that suck-ass little brother of ours would play up to her and turn right around and get into some shit again."
"Big shit or little shit?"
"What difference does it make? It smells just as bad either way and Mom didn't want any smell at all. You know how she was when she didn't get her way on something. Everybody suffered for it. Forever."
I rested my chin on my folded hands. "Sam...what happened to Heather Cushing?"
He hesitated. "My attorney advised me to shut up about that."
I nodded. I was disappointed and I couldn't disguise it no matter how much I tried. "I understand."
"No, you don't. And you couldn't possibly...because...I don't." His voice was threaded with what certainly sounded to me like remorse. "I'll never understand how everything spiraled so out of control that night as fast as it did."
There was a delicate silence between us. I subconsciously ran my free hand over the area of my wound, an action he didn't miss. "You mean, like the afternoon I was shot?" I asked quietly. "What happened to you, Sam? The person you were that afternoon was not you."
"I don't know," he said, sounding distant, detached. "It's like when my nice, orderly little world gets threatened, something snaps in me and I can't rein it in. I feel like I'm in another person's body. I know that sounds like a convenient excuse but it's not."
"When did that start? Because I never remember you being like that when we were kids." And I didn't. Sam was always the diplomat, the negotiator, the peacemaker. Dane could certainly cause him to lose his temper but not to the extent of what I had witnessed a few days ago.
"The first time I noticed it was that one time, when we were in church and they were passing the collection plate, Dane palmed money instead of putting his dollar in there. Mom saw it and, as usual, instead of disciplining Dane herself, told me to handle it. I remember the last time she had told me to handle something he did and I didn't do it right - or to the point where she felt Dane wouldn't do it again - all I heard for the next week was how I had to set an example for Dane and if I didn't, however he behaved was on me." Wow. I hadn't realized the separate negative impact my mother had on all of us. How foolish and selfish to think she had just singled me out. "So the fact that the little fucker had just done something to make my life a living hell again, just pushed me to a breaking point. I hardly remember thumping him." He drew in a deep breath and then sighed. I wasn't there when that happened but I heard about it from Dane that night at supper. My youngest brother showed up at the table looking like he had been run over by a truck. He sported some nasty scrapes and bruises that Sam told Mom had happened when he went to talk to Dane and Dane pulled away from him and lost his balance, falling down the hill behind the church into the scrap heap. Mom bought it. Or pretended to and admonished Dane for exaggerating.
"So when Dane whined to Mom that you almost killed him, he wasn't lying?"
"No. And if Jackie Riffey hadn't come out back when she did to look for me, I might have gone through with it. I remember being really angry but like I was watching the whole thing from above my body."
"Wasn't Jackie afraid of you or what you were doing?" Jackie Riffey was the Reverend Riffey's youngest daughter, the same age as Sam, and had a huge crush on him all through junior high school.
"Hell, no, she wanted to help me. That was the week after he ran to her mother at the youth fellowship meeting and told her that Jackie and I had been making out in back of the pipe organ. But the sound of her voice brought me back to reality. It just got worse from there. I should have got counseling. I should have seen somebody about the anger. I knew it was abnormal. I brought it up to Mom once and she told me that only crazy people see psychiatrists. She said going to a psychiatrist would send out the wrong idea about our family and she wouldn't hear of it. There was nothing wrong with me."
"Jesus. Her whole family was insane! Talk about denial..." My grandparents died before I was born so I never got to know them but I'd heard plenty of whispering about them from the men who had been married to my mother's sisters. According to my mother, her parents were eccentric saints but in the opinions of my uncles, my grandparents were fucking nuts, which was why we probably weren't allowed to see or associate with my mother's brothers-in-law after her sisters died. My mother had three sisters, two of whom committed suicide (one by overdosing on sleeping pills and the other by carbon monoxide poisoning, having locked herself in her garage, in her car with the motor running, something, she said in her suicide note, the little people who lived in her light fixtures told her to do) and one who passed away after a short, undisclosed illness. We were always told it was cancer that claimed her but I never quite bought it. Since they all lived a substantial distance from Otter Falls, what was spread about them was pure conjecture, since the only person really able to deny or confirm any rumors or gossip about them was my mother. And now the third generation was suffering as well. "Didn't you think about getting counseling on your own, when you became an adult?"
He shook his head, sadly. "By that time, I had adapted her philosophy. I believed if everything was okay in my head, it would be."
"Was Heather Cushing a casualty of believing everything would be okay in your head?" I asked gently.
"God. She didn't deserve what we did to her." His voice was anguished.
He lifted his hands to push his hair back on his head and his handcuffs clanked and jangled. It suddenly and harshly reminded us both of our surroundings. Placing his hands back on his lap, he said, "It was Dane again. He fucked up. One more in a succession of many. He had been trying for months to get Heather to go out with him. She was always busy or dating someone else. She had just broken up with some guy from the community college, so Dane asked her to the senior prom. She said yes because, it was only a week away and, I guess, being with Dane was better than not going. Once she got him there, she dumped him and ignored him."
I grimaced. "Dane or not, that wasn't a nice thing to do."
"I agree. But he just should have left it alone. Three nights later, he came over to the house and talked me into going with him to Heather's so he could talk to her. He said he needed to tell her off and he needed me there for moral support. I remember telling him to be a man and go alone. But he was very upset, so I said okay."
"Where was Trina?"
"She and Eric had gone to her mother's in St. Johnsbury for the week. Her mom was recovering from some kind of surgery or something and she went up there to help out." He sniffed and shook his head, blinking his thoughts and recollection back into focus. "Anyway, we got to Heather's and she told him he couldn't come in because her parents weren't home. He asked if he could talk to her about prom night and she told him there was nothing to talk about, that she never promised him anything other than she would go to prom with him. She said that's exactly what she did, then told him he was lucky he got that far with her. Then she saw me waiting in his car and that's when the trouble started." Sam paused and then looked out at the officer standing just outside the door. "Do you think we might be able to get some water in here or something?" he raised his voice just loud enough for the guard to hear. I watched as the officer glanced at Corben, who nodded, and the guard said something into his radio and within a minute, two big bottles of water were brought in and left for us. I opened one for Sam who took a very long drink. "Where was I?"
"She saw you waiting in Dane's car."
"Right, right. Okay, so, she pushed by Sam and walked up to the car and leaned in the passenger side and started flirting with me. Me! Right in front of Dane. Now, I don't like the little puke but this just wasn't right. And I could see Dane was just devastated. I was polite to her but she was pissing me off because she kept trying to get closer to me and touch me and I finally told her to knock it off and apologize to my brother. She got this really funny look on her face and then said that she'd only apologize to Dane if I took her for a ride in the car and then she winked at me. I told her I was a married man and I wasn't going anywhere with her then I told Dane he was an idiot to have the hots for such a slut. All she did was smile. I told him that we needed to go, that he was wasting his time. So then she turned to Dane and told him that she'd give him a blow job if he just took us all for a ride. He looked at me like a whipped puppy and I said absolutely not. Told him I didn't want any part of it. Then she said if we didn't take us all for a ride, she would start yelling rape and I'm thinking, 'what kind of wingnut is this?' so I told Dane she was bluffing and we needed to leave and, damn, if she didn't start screaming. Dane tackled her and put his hand over her mouth to shut her up. If anyone heard her, they never said anything about it." He took another drink from the bottle.
Was everybody in this town - with minor exceptions - certifiably loopy??? I was beginning to thank the entity I really didn't believe in that my mother kicked me out and I had the presence of mind to leave, as opposed to stay here and fight her, trying to prove something to her. The more I thought about it, the more I was aghast yet grateful that Lisa had turned out so well-adjusted - unless she was hiding an alternate personality from me, too. Jesus, I couldn't fathom that, so I returned my attention to Sam.
"When he took his hand away from her mouth, she told him that unless we took her for a drive, she'd start screaming again. I was out of the car by this time and I told him to let her scream and let's go. But she picked that time to reach down and start rubbing Dane's crotch and gave him this kiss that almost got me hard just watching them. I walked over and started to yank him off her and he stopped me and just started dry-humping her right there. I told him, that was it, I was walking home. I heard her say that she would only let him continue in the car and only if I drove them around."
"And you went along with it?" I was pretty sure where I saw this scenario going but I asked anyway.
"I refused at first but horny little Dane begged me. He wanted her bad and it was obvious that he was ready. I don't know why I went along with it, Hunter. I guess I didn't want her to give either of us any more trouble. If driving them around until they got off would do it, then I was all for it. I just figured that she was a spoiled brat and that they were horny kids and I thought I had made myself clear about not being interested in what she was offering me. I know I should have left or insisted Dane leave but I remembered what it was like to be that horny and that hot after someone and having the opportunity to go for it."
"Trina wasn't your first?"
He glared at me. "You're kidding, right?"
No, I hadn't been. I truly thought that he was a virgin when he met and fell head over heels in love with Trina. He always struck me as being too shy to be any kind of 'ladies' man.' However, I realized that I had been mistaken about so many other things, it only made sense I would be wrong about this one, too.
"Jackie Riffey was my first, if you must know," he confessed. I looked up at the ceiling, wondering where the microphones were planted. Now the whole town would know. "I was sixteen."
"Sixteen? You lost your virginity with the minister's daughter when I still lived at home and you never told me?"
"Well, you lost your virginity with the minister's wife when I still lived at home and you never told me," he countered.
Point taken. I could imagine the 'ears' in the main control room were having a field day with this. I glanced out the door at the wide-eyed deputy warden and then looked back at my brother, who had a raised eyebrow and a familiar smirk. At that moment, he was once again the brother I knew and adored. It made me want to burst into tears again. "I think we should move away from that subject and get back to the other," I suggested.
"Yeah. That. So I gave in and agreed to drive them around while they did their thing in the back seat. Do me a favor...if you do get to talk to that little bastard, call him 'minuteman' and watch him go ballistic."
"Too much information," I told him, smiling. Poor Dane...he was obviously a failure at, well, pretty much everything. "Let me guess - that wasn't enough for her."
"Don't think it was enough for him, either, but she was finished with him. She said she wanted a man, not a boy, and one who knew how to satisfy a woman. She climbed over to the front seat and started kissing on me. I told her to knock it off but she didn't, she grabbed me and started stroking me."
This girl sounded like she was as much a piece of work, in her own way, as my brothers were. "What was Dane doing?"
"Recovering." Sam looked at the ceiling, randomly studying the supposedly soundproof tiles, taking a few measured breaths before looking back at me, continuing. "I kept trying to push her away from me with one hand, push her back to the passenger side, but she wasn't having any of that. She held onto my johnson like her hand was superglued to it. I had to pull the car over and stop before she caused us to have an accident. Things just went crazy from there."
"Sounds like they were already crazy."
He buried his face in his hands. "In my mind, I've relived this every day but this is the first time I've talked about it since that night." When he dropped his hands back onto the table, his face was red and his eyes were misty. "She thought I was pulling over to fuck her, so she crawled onto my lap...and despite myself I got an erection. She unzipped me and God help me, she almost had me in her when I just...lost it. I love Trina. I didn't want my marriage ruined by some slutty, insatiable teenage girl who meant absolutely nothing to me. So I threw her off me. It took all my strength to do it so when she landed against the door, she hit pretty hard and knocked the wind out of her. It also caused her to split her lip and put a gash in her cheek so when she got her breath back and realized she was bleeding, she came unhinged. She attacked me and was screaming at me that I ruined her face. She said she was going to go to the police and tell them that Dane and I had ganged her. She wouldn't stop pounding on me and screaming that."
"And what was Dane doing all this time?"
"Nothing. He just sat there in the back seat too afraid to do anything." He took another drink. "I ended up having to drag her out of the car. I could try to tell you it was to calm things down but that would be a lie. I was too far gone by that point. I don't really remember exactly what I did to her. The next thing I remembered was Dane violently shaking me and bawling like a baby and yelling frantically, over and over, 'Sam, what did you do?' and I looked down at Heather Cushing's lifeless body. And I knew she was dead." By this time, he was crying and my heart was breaking for him. I didn't condone his actions but I could certainly understand how the incident could have mushroomed into the situation it became.
"Are you sure Dane didn't do it during your lost time?"
"The blood was on my hands, Hunter. Literally and figuratively."
"And obviously you didn't go to the police yourself..."
He shrugged. "And tell them what? That I drove a minor around isolated areas of town so that she could have sex in the back seat with my brother and when the oversexed little lust bucket turned her voracious appetite on me, I killed her? Yeah...that would go over like a loud and smelly old fart in church."
"So what happened next?"
"We put her into the car, drove her to the west side of Sparrow Pond, you know, the marshy, deserted side? And we buried her there. It took us all night to dig a hole deep enough with a crowbar, a window scraper and our hands but we did and no one ever found her. I burned her clothes...maybe I should have burned her body as well. Then when it was announced that a new project, a recreation center, was going to go up in that area and they were going to extend the pond over the marshy area, we knew we had to get the body out of there. I didn't know what to do. That's how she ended up in the house. I thought for sure the house would go to Dane or me whenever Mom passed away. But Mom overheard Dane, drunk, on the phone to me one day and she confronted him. He told her what had happened and where Heather's remains were. She told him he was never to speak of it again. That would have been the ultimate scandal, if anyone ever found out, you know? But I think that's what led up to her stroke. We didn't know until the week before she died that she had left the house to you. I really think she got some satisfaction out of telling Palmisano, with me right there, that she was changing her will."
I nodded. "Why didn't you set the house on fire before I got there?" The thought of broaching this part of the discussion began to make my head pound. I really didn't want to rehash the idea of my brother wanting me to burn alive in an inferno but I had to know, when he had other choices, why he made that one.
"I thought you'd sell the house. And then when you were safely back in California, I would have burned it down. But then when you figured out that Mom was trying to tell you something and that she had set your old room up the way she did, hoping you would figure it out, that concerned me. Then finding her letter and reading what she wrote to you, seeing that she sent a copy to you in California, I...I wasn't thinking...I was acting purely on instinct. I was protecting my secret any way I could. I...I panicked."
"Sam - what did Mom's letter say?"
I knew my mother didn't like me. But it really hurt to learn that she had stopped loving me, making me wonder if she ever did. I tried to believe, through the years, that her dislike for me was just a surface thing, that in the depths of her heart, she forgave me for not being the daughter she wanted. Yet instead of the years softening her, she became hardened and contemptible regarding anything to do with me. When I did finally get to see Trina, as she handed me the wrinkled copy of the letter Sam had left at their house and not had a chance to destroy, she told me that my mother despised me and even the mere mention of my name would send my mom into fits of frightening rage. I asked her why she and Sam tried to make me believe the opposite and she said that Sam didn't think I needed to know the extent of our mother's hatred for me. If I had any deep-seated fantasy that there would be a fairy tale ending to the saga of my mother and me, that she would admit that she overreacted and confess her undying love for me, it was vanquished forever by the contents of her letter.
The tone of the missive was cold and blameworthy. She could very easily have written it to a total stranger, except the stranger's version probably would have been more compassionate. It stated that my brothers had apparently committed a murder and that the remains of the young 'whore's' body had been placed between the walls of the closet in my old room. It further stated that she was advising me because if I turned my brothers in and ruined their lives and the family name, it would be on my shoulders and if I didn't, and spared them, it would be on my conscience. So, either way, somebody would suffer but it appeared that in either case, she tried to set it up so that I would be the bad guy. She advised me that we reap what we sow and that my unnatural, unforgivable sins had brought me to this pivotal point of my life and that my evil must have rubbed off on my brothers. She said that my moral sense, if I indeed had any, would be sorely tested by this.
I never understood how parents could choose their religious convictions over their own children, how they could act as though a child they brought into this world and raised and nurtured, suddenly never existed because their son or daughter was predestined to live a life different than their own. I was amazed that this woman who was so firm in her alliance with the Bible, had opted to stand by her sons who, regardless of the circumstances that led up to it, had committed murder and then covered it up over a daughter whose only crime was to love someone of the same sex. How she perceived that as being worse than taking a life would never make sense to me. But, then, somehow I knew that I could have been as 'perfect' a child as one could possibly be, lived an exemplary life and she still would have favored her sons over me. The other question I had was how she could know her sons were harboring this terrible secret, help them keep it, continue to protect them, place the responsibility of what to do on me and still feel sanctified? How she could still think this made her more righteous or superior? She could forgive her sons for breaking a major commandment but not her daughter whose alleged violation of the word of God was always up for debate. There was no disputing murder. My brothers' transgression ranked number six whereas my so-called sin never even came close to the top ten.
It took me two days to recover from the significance of what, in essence, my mother's dying words were to me. The funny thing was, nothing she said was really much different than the negativity she had instilled in me all along, yet the desire to want to finally hear something more positive from her, the longing to be 'forgiven' and approved of and accepted and acknowledged was further embedded into my heart than even I expected it to be. When Lisa had told me there was a letter to me from my mother, deep down inside, I wanted it to be an apology, an acquiescence of tolerance and an admission of guilt at how wrong she had been to treat me the way she did. I would have settled for a simple, 'I love you.' Those three little words would not have changed anything but they would have meant so much. The letter was her incontrovertible last word that my wish of being morally exonerated was never going to happen and what I was left with, I would have to find a way to deal with. The blow of the reality of that, however, hit me harder than I ever imagined it would.
Lisa continued to be my rock throughout the ordeal and the discovery process that my immediate family was as unbalanced and disturbed as the generation before us and the one before that. It made me wonder if I was as deranged as the rest of the Roberge-Hunter clan and my inevitable emergence of dormant mental illness had not yet been awakened. Lisa assured me I was over-thinking the possibilities but therapy would probably be a good idea, regardless. She also acted as my legal advisor until such a time came where I would need actual representation. Her commitment to me was steadfast, even when her parents threatened to disown her if she continued the 'embarrassing, scandalous' allegiance to me. Someone made of weaker stock would have crumpled under the glare of such an unflattering spotlight and from the pressure of her family and more prestigious colleagues to sever her ties with me. Her love for me was unwavering despite the negativity.
She remained sanguine and sensitive and became my personal sentry, not only keeping a tight rein on others around me but she continued to monitor my emotional state, ensuring I would not shrink too deeply into an abyss of self-pity. She unquestioningly understood when I needed to be alone to absorb all that had taken place and the implications of what it all meant. She held me at night and let me cry out of frustration or sadness or silently shake with anger and she never once told me what I should be thinking or saying or doing. She offered her opinion and her advice and her support even if she didn't agree with me. Lisa was there when I needed her and not there when she knew I needed to figure things out for myself. Had fate somehow not brought this wonderful woman back into my life, I had serious doubts that I would have survived this living nightmare.
The local press stalked me everywhere and my response was always the same. Silence. Sometimes it was extremely hard to ignore them as their behavior and questions were quite intrusive, offensive and vicious. Not that I really blamed them. My brothers did a despicable thing and the journalists were paid to get the story but their obstinacy reminded me of a pit bull that had locked its jaws onto something and wouldn't let go. As much as I did not want to be the focus of their attention, I was caught right in the middle of the media storm, especially since no one from the press was allowed access to either of my brothers. They doggedly asked me questions to which I had no answers, anyway, so I figured my best course of action was to just keep my mouth shut.
I even had one annoyingly persistent reporter follow me into the restroom of the outpatient clinic when I went to have my stitches removed. It was a two-stall bathroom/lounge and as I was relieving my bladder, she attempted to interrogate me from the, shall we say, 'seat' next door. The only thing I remembered saying was, "You've got to be kidding me," while I finished my business, leaving my stall and trapping her in hers by shoving a heavy chair against the door, piling a coffee table and two full trash cans on top of that. I had thought about dumping the contents of one of the garbage containers over the wall of the stall and on her head but I had already run the risk of re-injuring my shoulder just by the lifting I had already done. When I left the restroom, I went to the desk and asked if they had an 'out of order' sign, explaining that both toilets seemed to have a plumbing issue. The very polite but way too busy receptionist hurriedly whipped out her black marker and wrote 'Out of Order, Use Other Bathroom By Entrance' on a white sheet of paper, put tape on it and asked me to post it on the door. Then, as she answered another ringing phone, she handed me a heavy keychain and asked me if I minded locking the ladies' room so that no one would use it out of desperation and make it worse. She shouted after me to make sure it was empty first before I secured it.
Funny...but somehow the washroom key found its way off the overcrowded key ring and ended up in my pocket that afternoon when I left the clinic. And, for some reason, since then, neither the reporter nor her newspaper bothered me.
I had stopped watching the news or reading the paper by then anyway because I'd already had my fill of the reporters taking little tidbits of truth and distorting it beyond recognition and interviewing neighbors and co-workers of my brothers who knew less than I did about the incident. Speculation quickly became gospel and suddenly anyone with the last name of Roberge got dragged through the mud just by association. And it was honestly too upsetting to watch Heather Cushing's friends and family's relief that my brothers had finally got caught and would now get the punishment they so righteously deserved. I didn't blame them for feeling that way, I was pretty sure I would be the same way if I had to deal with what they did for all those years but that didn't make it any less painful for me to have to listen to them.
I strangely found comfort in Orion, and spent hours just stroking her mink-like fur while she curled up on my lap and passively tolerated my ministrations. The insistence of her being bequeathed to me was still a mystery. My guess was that my mother knew the cat viewed me as a clawing post and an object on which to sharpen her teeth and tossed Orion into my inheritance to add insult to injury. If she could have guessed the cat would save my life (and the life of my lover), I have no doubt she would have made different arrangements for the sly Abyssinian's care after her death. If I had been told a month ago that I would be grateful to own this cat, I would have laughed myself sick. If I had been told a month ago that both my brothers would be in jail awaiting trial for a twelve-year-old homicide they both covered up, that my mother kept that secret from the moment she discovered it and that I would meet my soulmate in the time that I spent here, I would have responded by telling the bearer of this news that they were more insane than my loony relatives.
When Dane found out that I had actually seen and spoken with Sam, he refused to see me. I don't know why he chose to throw a tantrum about that. I wanted to hear Dane's side of the story but then, when it came to my younger brother and his regularly narcissistic logic, there usually was no other side of a story. My guess was Dane figured that after speaking with Sam, tradition and experience would have prompted me to not want to believe Dane. He could not have been more wrong. Even if his memory of the incident had been different than Sam's, I really wanted to hear how everything went down from Dane's perspective and how closely his recollection aligned with Sam's. Unfortunately, all I heard from Dane was what his attorney said at the press conferences of which Lisa had been keeping track and that was "The truth will come out at trial."
A trial which never materialized. Dane was asking for immunity to testify against Sam until Sam pled out, confessing to the voluntary manslaughter of Heather Cushing, basically meaning that her actions provoked him to kill her in a heat of passion, causing him to act impulsively and without reflection. The specifics of the plea agreement were never provided to me and all of the details were worked out by Sam's and the Cushings' attorneys. What Lisa could find out for me was that Sam would be sent to serve twenty years at a maximum security facility in Virginia and would be reviewed for possible parole in fifteen years. I found out much later that one part of that deal was that he was never to return to the state of Vermont to live when he was released.
Dane still wanted to hold out for court but his attorney advised him that with Sam making the deal he did, criminal proceedings would be a mistake and finding an impartial jury for a fair trial anywhere near Otter Falls would be damned near impossible. Dane was reminded that helping to commit a felony usually carried the same penalty as the felony itself and that voluntary manslaughter was a first degree offence. The attorney told Dane they better start looking for a deal, too, because if Dane risked a trial, he might be facing life in prison. Finally pleading out, Dane received fifteen years with no possibility of parole for accessory, conspiracy and impeding an investigation. My youngest brother would serve his time on a medium security farm facility near the Vermont-Canadian border. He also agreed to establish a Heather Cushing Memorial Scholarship Fund which would be presented to an Otter Falls High School senior each year, helping out with the first year of college.
Since my mother's home was not the scene of the murder, it didn't hold the stigma it might have under other, more extreme circumstances and the real estate agent (which wasn't my mother's choice, Todd Jardine - he wanted nothing to do with me or the house), surprisingly had a lot of people lined up, wanting to buy the damned place. Either it was morbid curiosity or that the price had been lowered considerably which made it a hot property. I didn't have to worry about profiting from the sale of the house because whatever money that would be made and any inheritance that anyone would have received from my mother's modest estate would now be legally tied up in a wrongful death suit by the family of Heather Cushing. Regardless of Heather's provocative behavior that night, the Cushings did not deserve to lose their daughter and even though her death was accidental, the financial gain from the sale of the house was going to go toward restitution.
Trina put her and Sam's house into the hands of an attorney and moved to St. Johnsbury with her mother. She began immediate divorce proceedings against Sam and only saw me once more before she left town. She asked me not to keep in touch, that anything to do with me would be too heartbreaking for her. I respected her wishes and bid her a good life starting over, once she shed her married name. I could not imagine what she was going through and she chose not to share it with me.
My aunt and my cousins rallied around me. Even though they were stunned at Sam's involvement and, despite Dane's usually out-of-bounds behavior, a little more than mildly shocked at his participation, too. They knew I was an innocent bystander and my Aunt Cissy was like a mother bear protecting her cub whenever anyone spoke ill of me around her. She, her children and her grandchildren risked constant ostracism yet they remained loyal to my integrity, doing their best to maintain my honor. When my fellow Otter Fallsians exhausted their insults about my brothers to no avail, then they would start attacking my sexual orientation. How my aunt didn't end up in jail on an assault charge, I will never know.
I stayed with Lisa at her place throughout the ordeal and we hung around Otter Falls long enough for her to find new legal representation for her clients, close her practice and sell her house. Her parents and her sister did not renounce her as they had initially threatened but things were somewhat thorny, especially when I was around. Lesley refused to speak to me or even look in my direction, which was fine with me. I had lived over half my life without her in it, I think I could manage. I just felt badly for Lisa, although she insisted it wasn't that big of a deal for her, either. She told me that if Lesley was going to behave like a horse's ass then she could certainly be treated like one. Mr. and Mrs. Riordan promised Lisa that they would visit her once she got settled but I wasn't going to hold my breath, considering that Lisa and I were now a package deal.
We hired a moving company to haul across country a combination of whatever personal belongings we agreed to keep, to be delivered to my apartment. It would be a temporary arrangement until we found a house to buy. We purchased a used, forty-five foot Recreation Vehicle, packed up Orion, Oz and Deke and began our journey to California, where we would embark on a new life together. I wasn't exactly sure what would happen once we reached our destination but I knew, if I chose to, I would finally be rid of any ghosts that haunted my past and be free to start a future with and love this extraordinary woman seated next to me who, at my insistence, was highlighting tomorrow's route on the map. She just wanted to close her eyes, place her finger on the map and chart a course from there. She wanted to go wherever the road would take us.
I think that was going to be the metaphor for our new life.