I flick my tongue across each individual tooth to busy my mouth with something other than talk. I am rooted to the spot in the backyard―once my yard, now Kate’s―and also rooted to something else. The soft whisper of a time not so long ago, when Kate was younger and more vulnerable, and I stood right here and I handled it.
I saved her.
The urge to say it is like a cavity that draws the tongue.
I am fifty-five. A widow. I cannot spend the rest of my days in orange in a dirty ten-by-ten cell after thirty years in this sprawling tri-story at the woodsy edge of the suburbs. Can you imagine? I’d wither away. I’d kill myself, I’m sure. And I don’t deserve that.
I saved her.
“There’s the outline of the old one,” Kate says, running her foot along a bit of rubber hidden in the overgrown ivy. “We used to swim every day, all summer long.”
“And the leaves weren’t a problem?” My son-in-law’s skepticism is a gentle breeze in the stagnant air. His gaze—careful and vigilant in a way that shows better than a badge that he dons the blue—traces the outline of the trees that hug the yard like a personal privacy forest. In the dimming light, their branches are grotesque arms with hundreds of hands trembling in the breeze. Waving. Pointing.
You did it. You. Me. I did.
“Problem?” I say, also with my eyes on the leaves. “Not if you don’t mind fishing them out a few times an hour. And don’t get me started on the mosquitoes, up against the woods as we are―”
I meet Kate’s eyes. Her rebuke is muted―still, five years later. That boy’s poison lingers inside her, making her doubt her own voice. Arguing with her mother over a pool she wants, a pool she can rightly afford, and me with no call to interfere. Her hesitation lights a familiar flame in my chest in a place that first ached when she was born.
Let them find the body, that part says. And I’ll tell them why, too.
Officer Woodrow chuckles. He’s a good man, and a good son-in-law. He tells me to call him Tim. I do, now, when I say his name at all if only to avoid further entreaties to do so. I have a number of ways to escape saying the name without being rude. I speak to him and never about him. Or I wait for someone else to bring him up and tack on my comments with an inconspicuous ‘he.’ Then I can remind myself that uniformed or otherwise, he is an officer of the law. I must remind myself―particularly on days like today when the breeze is just right and the truth is a hovering specter slipping in and out of my mouth with each breath.
I killed him, I could say. Would you like me to tell you how?
“I―” Here it is, dancing from my tongue to my lips. I swallow the words.
They mistake me at once. Officer Woodrow offers his arm. Kate plucks a chair from the fire ring in case I need to sit down. I am not so frail as that, but I do have a tendency to stammer, and I do have a history of faintness. The excuse is there.
It should have been poison, I think as I am guided into the chair. Then Kate could have her pool.
Officer Woodrow draws two more chairs up to form a nice little circle, and Kate follows right along. They are in sync like William and I were before his heart gave way. That’s what life should be―that right there. Acting, together, without having to say a word. A team of two.
I saved her.
“Having a pool could be nice,” I allow.
It’s pure mischief on my part. I don’t mean it, and I do. How freeing it could be, after these years of silence, to look at whomever I please and admit to the whole thing. To sleep a night through for once. Tell the story. Repeat it. Relish it openly, consequences be damned.
“But why did you fill it in?” Officer Woodrow says. “Kate didn’t elaborate.”
“Ha!” I say. “Well, if you think leaves are a concern, just you wait until the storms. A tree fell―and mind you, it wasn’t the first―three holes right through the bottom. After insurance―you’ll want great insurance if you go this way, mind you―it would’ve been over five thousand to repair. William says―William says, ‘Margaret, I’m not paying a dime ‘cept for the dirt to fill it in.’ And you know, by then, I’d spent enough summers of my life fishing leaves out of that filter. I says, ‘William, you do exactly that.’ And Kate wailed, and the other kids did too, but don’t you know the next summer every last one of them walked all two blocks to the city pool just about every day, and it was the most peaceful summer I think I’ve ever spent in this house.”
Officer Woodrow meets Kate’s eye in that way they have. Crinkles ‘round the corners. I can see the pool isn’t his way of thinking, and I can see just as plainly he’ll defer to her if she wants her childhood home back the way it was.
Jake had not an ounce of that in him. No give. The bastard wouldn’t let Kate choose her seat at the dinner table. Jake, Jake, Jake. I trace his name on the roof of my mouth. Kate thought she’d never get past it when he up and left. For a while, I wondered. It wasn’t that she thought he’d been a great man, she confided that summer―four years ago―when the life had just started coming back to her eyes. She said the pain wasn’t for him―it was for the way he did it. Left. Not a word. Not a note. Nothing. Like she was nothing.
I felt that right in my gut. Jake tore her down―but that part of the pain was my doing.
Jake! I want to shout it. I did once, in the supermarket. Just said it right out loud to a package of strawberries. The produce boy looked askance, but he didn’t say a word. Just some feeble-minded old lady, I’ll bet he thought. I said it again in aisle six, whispered it to the sushi knives. Just some feeble old lady, is it?
“How about a fire?” Officer Woodrow says.
The sun is just low enough that pink tinges the horizon. Shadows dapple the vines and leaves that sprawl over the space where the pool used to be. Grass has never grown properly here. I stare at an overripe strawberry, near bursting with juices, and I remember when I used to bite into their flesh and taste the bittersweet fruit in the twilight. I haven’t since. I couldn’t.
“A fire would be lovely,” I say.
I am overstaying courtesy, but not my welcome. The difference is important.
Officer Woodrow sets to work gathering the wood, and Kate goes off for kindling. She comes back with a fire starter―a ‘cheater log’ we call them―and a shoebox.
“I keep forgetting this,” she says. “You left it in the closet.”
The shoebox is weathered, barely together in the corners. Decorative lines criss-cross in a pattern on the side. Memories,it reads.
“I didn’t want to open it without your permission. Are there pictures?”
Kate. My sweet Kate. Of course, she didn’t open it. Her brother would have combed through the lot and tossed it. Her sister would have claimed it for her own. But Kate held onto it, didn’t even peek.
I remove the lid.
There are pictures. Christmases, and birthdays―that sort of thing. But there’s also William. Kate accepts my action as an invitation. She digs through the other prizes while I stare at William, frozen in our era―an era that has passed. When the ground was dirt and the sky was heaven, and he and I existed in a bubble apart from others.
“What’s this?” Kate says.
A book dangles from Kate’s fingers. The light of my era fizzles into photographic scraps. There are many ways to answer her question. It is a diary. It is among minuscule percentage of bound journals, collected on a whim from a stand by the bookstore checkout, that is used in its entirety. It begins in William’s hand―the letter he wrote me before our first date when he gifted the diary to me. In it, he expresses his intent to marry, and confesses to all he can think might stop me from accepting. It continues for thirty years, bouncing back and forth between us, years of love, challenge, and pain. It ends where you would expect it to end.
I killed Jake. I killed Jake Turner.
Kate holds my confession in her small, soft hands.
Read it, I should say.
I used to leave the diary out when I thought I might be ready to end it. To wash my hands of the secret. The empty house―children grown and gone―encouraged me. I was selfish. But I confess, I did it more than once. I’d leave it on the table―right there in plain sight. I’d sit in the bath and picture Kate, the broken lamb returned home, lapsing from her timidity to snoop into her mother’s business. I imagined her cry echoing through the colorless walls―walls drained of life and meaning with each child who left, left nothing more than planet stickers on the ceiling and perhaps a set or two of initials carved in the woodwork―but somehow, Kate’s cry would fill it back up, if only for a moment. I imagined her flying to the yard, digging with her fingers in disbelief.
Instead, she was silent. Barely there. The ghost he turned her into.
Kate’s phone vibrates and lights up her jeans pocket.
“Sorry…I need to take this,” she says. “Work.”
Doesn’t seem to matter what time of the day or night it is. That’s just how jobs are now if you listen to Kate. Freelance, she calls it. Avoidance, if you ask me. The year after Jake went away (ha!), she lived on coffee and whatever I left on the counter. I don’t think either of us really knew when she moved back in. Perhaps when she brought home a cat, and the home she brought it to was this one and not the apartment she had across town. That was the most concrete indication.
The door clicks. Kate is gone, inside, immersed in distraction.
And I am alone with Officer Woodrow.
Did you know Jake? I could say.I hold my breath.
“This is a great place,” Officer Woodrow observes. “We can’t thank you enough…”
The talk is too small, and the night is too heavy. The sun has given way fully to dark. And here we are. The trees press in all around. The vines grip and tickle my ankles, Jake reaching up to remind me that he will never not be here. I look up at the house, towering three stories high, as it only does from behind. From the front, it looks like a usual sort of place, but it’s set against a hill that descends in the back and exposes the bottom floor—invisible from the street, like Jake. It’s all lit up, so I can see into Kate’s old room on the lowest floor, into mine and William’s on the top, into the kitchen between where Kate stands now. Safe.
“Did you know Jake Turner?” I say.
My god. I’ve said it.
Officer Woodrow’s breath ceases. Caught off guard.
“I know of him,” he says, and it’s the coldest tone I’ve ever heard from my son-in-law.
Kate paces above, lit up in the picture window on the second floor, oblivious or immune to the darkness below.
I touch the corner of the faded blue book.
I killed him. I killed him. I killed him.
“He was a monster,” I say.
“I’m sure he still is,” Officer Woodrow offers.
I crush a strawberry with the tip of my shoe. It collapses satisfyingly into the dirt in a mash of red juice. I feel full, and right.
“Was,” I correct.
“Pardon?” There’s that polite upturn at the corners of his mouth.
The tree frogs trill, deafening, yards away. The longer I am silent, the less his eyes smile. He is uncertain. So am I.
“I killed him,” I say. I say it very clearly.
Officer Woodrow is willing to allow that perhaps when I say I killed Jake, I mean I put an end to that affair. I can see that calculation unfolding. People have trouble hearing things like this without rationalizing them away. And as far as anyone knows, the bastard went back to Texas. No one there ever called after him. Why should they?
I can still save this. I can.
But I don’t.
“It was sushi night.” I unravel. Kate is still in the window, smiling into her phone because work is her refuge—one Jake forced her to find. “Kate was in Boston, but Jake thought―well, it was all about him, wasn’t it? He thought she’d lied about Boston. Showed up here red-faced and scruffy and, I’d wager, just a bit drunk. And William says to be off, and Jake doesn’t like that all. And I says, well now, you just sit down here for a moment and I’ll get Kate. Now, I don’t know what was in my mind then, because Kate was in Boston. But he sat himself down at the head of our table, bold as you please, and I brought the sushi tray in and he says, he says, ‘I thought you were getting Kate.’ And I slid that knife across his throat quick as a snap. And you know, William―he didn’t so much as blink. He says, he says, ‘Poison would have made less a mess, Margaret.’ And, God love the man, he fetched his shovel and―see, the dirt in the pool never got quite so hard as the rest, and William didn’t mind the work. He dug straight to the bottom of the deep end.”
I pause for breath. The night air seeps into me, twilit, peaceful. The itch that plagues my every moment is mercifully silent. I said it. I said it all.
Kate appears on the middle balcony, framed angelic in the kitchen light.
“Sorry about that,” she says, dangling her phone over the edge. “I’ll be right down.”
The yard spins. The relief evaporates. I see Kate’s face, twisted in horror, I see grim men digging out the bones as she watches, alone, from her old bedroom.
I didn’t do this to her. I can’t have.
What will she say? How will she reconcile?
I turn to Officer Woodrow, breathless, with a request I can’t form gumming up my tongue. His face is a frozen emotionless mask.
What have I done?
Kate’s footsteps on the stairs inside draw closer. I can’t actually hear them from this distance, but I feel each one. Each second, drawing her to the revelation it is no longer in my power to prevent.
I suck in a breath.
I look at Officer Woodrow.
I saved her, I want to say.
“So then,” he says. “No pool.”