During our first statement, we had each told officer Simms we watched the fireworks together. He never had any reason to doubt us. The others had assumed we were among the crowd. The truth is, we never actually caught up with each other until afterwards. At the time of the original investigation, Gary and I were trying to cover our asses. Neither of us wanted Sherry to know what had happened. And no one had ever questioned us beyond July 5th. We told Sherry and everyone else, we were among the crowd and they believed us.
Gary and I were out of breath from racing back to the celebration in time for the big finale. We jumped up and sat on a brick wall that overlooked the entire park. We were both fairly winded by the time we got there. I don’t remember either of us discussing what had just happened between us, a definite sign of our immaturity.
The tail end of the pyrotechnic show was outstanding. The sky was ablaze with a giant sized ’76. To this day, it is still the most exceptional demonstration I had ever seen…what little I saw.
Afterwards, Gary and I loitered on the brick barricade surrounding the parking lot, casually poking innocent fun at the passersby. We had a decent view to find our friends from where we sat. It wasn’t long before a distinct voice yelled, “Peppa! Peppa!” Sherry had spotted us first. I looked at Gary and insisted he not say anything. He squeezed my hand, “Not a word,” he whispered.
“Where have you guys been?” Gabby asked as they reached the wall. She and Sean were holding hands and pecking each other on the lips in public. I took that to mean things were moving along for them. Normally, Gabby was more conservative because of her dad. Mr. Sanchez would have grounded her on the spot if he had ever seen her acting inappropriately with a boy. I wondered if she and Sean had taken things to the next level, but I didn’t ask her with everyone else around.
Gary fibbed with ease, “We told you guys we were heading over here,” he pointed his head towards Liz and Butch as if to place the blame on them, “you must have been too busy putting away those brewskies.” I followed Gary’s lead, “Yeah, you mustn’t have heard us.”
Sherry was very tipsy, though I sensed she knew there was more to what we were telling her or perhaps my guilt was in overdrive along with my hormones. Her speech was garbled, and I could smell her breath from three feet away. Danny was in the same shape. “How the hell are you, Pepper?” he slurred.
Inebriated, Danny wrapped one of his arms around my shoulder and the other around Gary, “and you, Gary. How da’ hell are ya’ buddy?” Gary handled it well.
“I’d better get you home,” Gary said, “before your parents see you like this.” He was right. We knew we were supposed to head home shortly after the finale. Although our parents would remain for clean-up, we didn’t want to risk breaking the generous curfew that had been extended to us, not to mention, the alcohol.
The crowd was rapidly thinning out, giving us a view of the beer tent where most of our fathers were tossing out the garbage and hauling kegs. “Yeah, I’ve got to go,” Liz said, as her eyes remained fixated on the tent.
I had almost forgotten what had happened earlier in the evening involving Sam and Mr. Townsend. It wasn’t until I spotted Mr. Townsend rolling an empty keg around the back of the tent that I remembered.
“Me too,” I said.
“Are you coming Gabby?” Liz asked. Gabby kissed Sean on the lips, again in public. “What about me?” Sherry practically drooled on Gary as she tugged his arm, “can you walk me home too?”
This was the moment of truth. I was afraid Gary would cave in and offer to take her home, so I stepped in. “We’ll get her home.” I offered and then nudged Sherry along.
Danny’s hiccups were getting louder. We tried to quiet him down before he drew any attention to us. “Shh!” Gary said.
“Sorry man, I can’t help it,” slurred Danny.
Gary picked up his duffel bag, walked over to the nearest dumpster, and looking over his shoulder he quietly emptied its content. “Okay guys let’s hit it,” Gary said, as he whipped the sack over his broad shoulder.
Sherry remembered she had left her brother’s duffel bag with all the beer cans in it back at McNurney’s Pond. “I have to bring home Seth’s bag or he’ll kill me. He’s got a game tomorrow and he’ll need it.”
“We’ll grab it on our way home,” I told her.
Since Danny lived a block away from Executive Blvd, the guys decided to go home another way. Our street was behind the other end of McNurney’s Pond just beyond the trees. We would go back to the water, get the gym bag and head out through the path behind McNurney’s.
As we were about to say good-bye, I heard this disgusting noise followed by vomiting. Danny began tossing his cookies over the brick wall. “Gross!” Butch yelled as it splattered on the concrete below. Gary tried to help Danny but his vomiting increased.
The parking lot was almost completely vacant except for Officer Simms’ patrol cars and a handful of other vehicles. We could see him standing between the bake sale area and the Rosen’s vending booth. It looked like our mothers had wrapped up a care package for him. His hands were filled with baked goods and pastries stacked up to his chest. He turned towards our direction.
“Come on, Danny. Shake it off,” Gary begged, “Simms is coming this way.” Danny picked himself up and without a proper good-bye, they walked towards town.
I was crushed and felt ripped off. I expected more after what had just happened between us, maybe a proper good-bye. But what did I know about relationships? I would have to wait till tomorrow to see what would transpire between Gary and me.
“Yeah, Danny chucked several times on the way home that night,” recalled Gary. “Once, behind the funeral home and again on his front porch,” Butch added.
“We no sooner made it to the steps and his mother pulled in the driveway.”
“Didn’t we tell his mother it was the sausage and peppers that made him sick?” Laughed Butch, forgetting momentarily he was in the middle of an investigation.
“Something like that,” Gary acknowledged.
Mrs. Townsend reentered the living room. Gabby had gone in and talked to her while I finished telling Butch the rest of our story. No one said anything to Mrs. T directly but she did go and sit next to Liz and affectionately reached for her daughter’s hand. I figured Gabby must have been counseling Maggie because whatever happened between them had some kind of influence on Maggie.
“I’m sorry, honey, I’m so sorry.” Mrs. Townsend told her daughter as she wept. They embraced and for several moments did nothing but cry. Even Sherry was moved by their connection.
“Do you want to finish this tomorrow, Liz?” Butch asked.
“Mom, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to finish it now.”
“You’ve waited far too long to tell your story…the real story. Don’t let me stop you.” I asked Mrs. Townsend if she was prepared for what she would hear. She nodded.
For us, our evening was about to take a drastic turn. We were deep in the trees and brush, on the south side of McNurney’s. It was difficult to see the trail since the fireworks no longer lit up the sky. Aside from the moon’s glow, there was very little light, and we were having trouble relocating where Sherry had left the duffel bag. The smell of burnt fireworks lingered in the air, and we could no longer hear the repetitious crashing of metal tables and chairs from the bicentennial site. We knew tear down was almost over and our parents would be home shortly.
“I think I left it down by the water. Who wants to go get it?” Sherry asked as she stumbled over her own two feet.
“Not me,” Liz said shifting her weight from one leg to another, “I’ve got to pee so bad.” We could barely see four feet in front us beneath the thick of trees. Sherry had the hiccups, and I was growing concerned she may begin to vomit like Danny had. No one wanted to go down and get the bag alone, so I offered to retrieve it.
“I’ll go with you, Pepper,” Gabby said, “wait up.”
“I can’t hold it anymore,” Liz told Sherry.
“Just go pop a squat before you blow!” Sherry told her.
Liz walked only a few feet in the other direction to relieve herself while Gabby and I headed towards the water. As we neared the pond, the moon’s reflection helped light our way.
I was dying to tell Gabby what had happened with Gary and me, but I knew I didn’t have enough time before we would have to meet up with Liz and Sherry. This was a bombshell, and I couldn’t drop it on her unfairly.
“Look near the water!” Sherry yelled from several feet away. We couldn’t see her, but we could hear her voice.
“I found it, Pepper.” Gabby said, as she threw it over her shoulder. Gabby grabbed my forearm. “Pepper,” she whispered softly, “I did it with Sean tonight.”
I couldn’t believe what she had just told me. My jaw was somewhere down by my feet. I knew they had been working towards it, but I just never thought Gabby would let it happen. I was apprehensive about telling her my exciting news, and instead, she floored me with hers.
In the background, I could faintly hear Sherry rushing Liz along, “Come on Liz, before the great big boogieman comes up and bites you on the ass!”
At first, Liz didn’t answer. Then Sherry heard some ruffling in the shrubs and assumed it was Liz finishing up her task.
“Wow, Gabby!” I struggled to find the right words. She was elated as though she had instantly become a woman. She was grinning from ear to ear.
“I wasn’t sure if you were going to let things get that far,” I hinted.
Then she started mumbling something about a bet Gary and Danny had, hoping to get lucky tonight. She added how glad she was that Sean really liked her and wouldn’t use her.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Gary and Danny told Sean they made a bet on which one would get lucky tonight- no matter what it took.” Gabby patted me on the back, “Be glad you dumped Danny when you did. He was only out to score.”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
I was at a loss for words. These terrific emotions I had felt earlier had turned sour in an instant. Gary knew I liked him all along. Did he set me up? How could he have used me like that? My euphoria turned to soul crushing disbelief.
Our conversation ended as rapidly as it had begun when we heard a loud scream. Then we heard it again, but this time it sounded muffled. We ran towards it.
“Sherry!” I screamed back. Then I realized it couldn’t have been Sherry because I could hear her yelling for Liz.
“Liz! Aw’ you okay?” Sherry screamed.
Gabby and I ran together towards the path where we had left Sherry and Liz just moments before. It took less than a minute for us to get there, but Sherry had gone deeper into the woods.
We followed the noise, and I could hear a man’s voice, though I couldn’t identify it. Just as Gabby and I got there, I heard Sherry yelling.
“Get off her you son-of- a-bitch!” Sherry reached for a loose branch, and freeing it from the ground; she raised it above her head. The rest happened so quickly.
Liz lay on the ground with her clothing tousled. Standing above her was Mr. Townsend. Even though I had seen it with my own eyes, I could hardly believe it. It was the most repulsive sight I had ever seen.
His trousers were unzipped and the button undone. Sherry’s scream must have startled him and not a moment too soon.
Without hesitation, Sherry swung the branch striking him on the nape of his neck. He staggered for only a second. Sherry cocked the branch a second time.
“Stop!” I screamed. Seconds later, he fell to the ground.
Gabby immediately ran to Liz’s side. She was visibly shaken, her nose bleeding from the struggle.
Sherry’s eyes were filled with hatred. Mr. Townsend lie motionless. “Is he…alive?” Liz immediately inquired, her teeth chattering from fear.
I knelt down next to him and placed my index and middle fingers on his carotid artery as I had been taught in health class. I could feel a sensation in my fingers but couldn’t be completely sure it wasn’t my own pulse.
“I think so.”
“See if he’s breathing,” Gabby begged.
I hesitantly leaned over his chest to listen for breathing sounds. We jumped when an after-hours firecracker caught us off guard. “Yeah.”
I looked over to Liz. Her face was streaked with dirt, and her nose was still bleeding. She had twigs and debris lodged in her hair, obvious signs of a struggle. “Are you okay, Liz?” She didn’t answer me right away. I think she was in some state of shock.
“He grabbed me from behind… when I was walking back.” She imitated how he had done it by taking her own hands and clenching them around her mouth and neck.
“It happened so fast. Then he mumbled, ‘What did I tell the guy from the beer tent?’ I didn’t know it was my dad until he mentioned that.”
Liz was weeping so loudly it was difficult to understand her. “Now what do we do?” Gabby asked as she chipped away at her nails.
“We go to the police,” I demanded.
“Are you crazy, Pepper? Then everyone in Liberty will know,” argued Liz.
“Pepper’s right. You’ve got to tell Officer Simms,” Gabby added.
We were trying to convince Liz she had to come forward with this ordeal. Then a noise from the brush about twenty feet away startled us again.
“What’s that?” Gabby whispered. I put my finger up to my mouth to quiet the others, “Shh.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Sherry said between hiccups.
“What about him?” I reminded Sherry.
“He’s been drinking. I could smell it on his breath,” Liz told us. “He passes out when he drinks too much at home.”
I had never seen Mr. Townsend drunk. I knew he drank at social functions but passing out, that was also a surprise to me. “He’ll probably sleep it off,” she said, as she wiped her bloody nose with her hand, “maybe he won’t remember what happened to him.”
“He’ll have an aching headache to remind him, but I don’t think he saw me from behind,” Sherry added.
Another sound came from the bushes, only several feet away, causing us to freeze in silence. I thought maybe it was an animal or possibly Gary coming back to walk me home.
“Oh, I feel like crap,” Sherry said, reaching for her stomach.
“Let’s get out of here.” Liz begged.
“You should sleep at my house.” I insisted.
It was Sherry who made the ultimate decision to leave Mr. Townsend. She assured us he wouldn’t be running to the police any time soon to tell his version of what had happened. And if he did…we were prepared. Sherry pushed one of us and we started through the path toward Rosen’s property.
We were almost half way home when Sherry asked us to stop. She was feeling sick from the beer and the quick clip at which we were running. I asked her if she could make it the rest of the way home, but she needed to take a break.
Once we stopped, I noticed clutched in her hand was the branch. I looked at it, “What are you doing with that?” Sherry’s eyes volleyed from the branch to me.
“I didn’t even realize I had it,” she mumbled. It was gripped so tightly her fingers were turning yellow. I took it from her, and noticed a thick coating on the end of it. I assumed it was blood from Mr. Townsend’s head. I whipped the limb as far as I could in the opposite. It got caught up against the other foliage, making crackling noises as it fell and rested naturally against the base of a tree.
The color slowly filtered back into Sherry’s fingers. Her palms had signs of scratch marks, nothing that couldn’t be explained.
I could see the bright lights coming from Justice Drive and the back of Sherry’s house so we finally slowed our pace.
“Oh, I’m definitely gonna be sick.” Sherry held her hand over her mouth. I told her I would help her get into bed, but before we made it to the back of her deck, a light came on causing us to jump. The screen door opened. It was Seth. “Hey twits,” as he often referred to us, “like the fireworks?” I think we just nodded.
Sherry was rocking from side to side. She reeked of beer, and I was sure Seth could smell it on her. “Where’s my bag?’ he asked.
During the excitement Gabby must have dropped it, but I took the blame for it.
“Sorry Seth, we left it by the water… and it’s getting late. I can get it for you first thing it the morning.”
“I have an away game at noon, have it to me before that.” I knew he had gotten the beer for us, and I could tell he was ticked by how inebriated Sherry was.
“No problem, by noon.”
Sherry made a grotesque noise and began a violent bout of vomiting. We each backed up as it hit the wooden planks below, hoping not to be sprayed. Then she did it a second time.
Seth quickly grabbed the garden hose and started spraying it through the floorboards and to the ground below. The smell was atrocious.
“How much did she have?” he asked me.
The truth was, I wasn’t really sure. She and Danny had put away the majority.
“Quite a few,” I said.
Car headlights glared across the adjacent side of the house and then along Sherry’s driveway. Seth knew it was his parents. “Quick, get inside Sherry! I’ll take care of this,” he said to us. Sherry staggered in without acknowledging us.
The three of us were dumbfounded for a few seconds, unsure of what to do next. She had just knocked a man unconscious, and we had no plan of what to do if Mr. Townsend confronted us the next morning.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s get out of here! I knew Gabby and Liz would expect me to know what to do. But I didn’t have the faintest idea.
We walked down the deck, across the side patio and to the front of the house. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen’s hands were filled with extra edibles that didn’t sell. “Hi girls,” they said. We chatted with them, stalling for Seth and Sherry. Hopefully it was enough time for him to clean her up and put her to bed.
The Rosens were really nice, friendly as always. When I saw the light in Sherry’s room go out, I said, “Well, we’d better go, we told our parents we’ll be in just after fireworks.”
“They were leaving just behind us,” Mr. Rosen confirmed, “ought to be home any minute.”
We raced across the street to my house. We still had no idea what we would do or say the next morning. What if Mr. Townsend retaliated in some way?
At the bottom of Justice Drive we saw headlights make the turn, soon after, a second set followed. “What are we going to do, Pepper?” Liz asked me. I was afraid Mr. Townsend would wake up soon, possibly come home irate, and God knows what would happen to Liz. I just didn’t have the answer. “Maybe you should stay here just in case,” I pleaded with Liz.
“I’m still going to have to ask my mother when she gets in, and what if he answers? I’m better off being there in the morning when he wakes up so he can’t make up any excuse. Sherry’s probably right. He’ll be too afraid to do anything. He knows I told someone now. And I’m not letting him scare me anymore.”
The car’s headlights grew brighter as they approached us. The first vehicle pulled in Gabby’s drive. It was her parents. The second one tooted lightly, so it didn’t disturb the neighbors as it pulled in my driveway. I quickly handed Gabby and Liz a few Tic-Tac’s from my pocket, then I chewed the few that remained.
Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez got out of their first car. “Hi,” we yelled over. Mrs. Sanchez nodded as she carried in one of Gabby’s little sisters who had fallen asleep. Mr. Sanchez, reached in the back seat for the other but never said hello. Instead he bellowed, “Gabrielle, I said after the fireworks, and I meant it!” Gabby snapped to attention and quickly hugged us.
“Call me in the morning,” she whispered as she ran next door, “coming Dad!”
Mr. Sanchez ran that place like a drill sergeant. Poor Gabby wasn’t even allowed to sit on my porch and talk after hours. Curfew was curfew.
Dad got out of his car and kissed me on the cheek, “Did you girls have fun?” We just nodded and tried to keep distance between us, fearing he would smell the alcohol. “Where’s Mom?” I asked.
“She’s with Maggie, and they’re bringing home lots of goodies.”
“My dad still there?” Liz inquired, though I wasn’t sure why she was asking, maybe to get a feel for whether or not Mr. Townsend went back to the celebration.
“No, he left twenty minutes before us,” he looked down the street to Liz’s house which appeared to be dark, “probably sleeping by now.”
“Probably,” Liz mumbled.
“I’m going to walk Liz home dad.”
“It’s late enough. You go in, and I’ll make sure Liz gets in okay,” he insisted.
We said goodnight and as I hugged her, I whispered in her ear. “Lock your bedroom door, and I’ll call you first thing in the morning.”
I went inside and watched from Jack’s bedroom. I could see Liz and my dad beneath the streetlight until they disappeared behind the far end of Gabby’s house. And that was pretty much it. Each of us went our separate ways without a follow-up plan to our plan.
“Why didn’t you just say something when Officer Simms interviewed you?” Butch questioned, his voice was heightened and confused. We each knew the answer to that was simple. Sherry Rosen had somehow convinced us; we’d be implicated in his death.
We each looked at one another; Sherry found it difficult to make eye contact with me, maybe she was sore with me for finding out about Gary after all these years.
“We wanted to,” I conceded, “but we were afraid.”
“I swore them to secrecy, Butch. I begged them not to tell anyone,” Liz explained. “We were young and frightened,” Sherry added.
I had a feeling Butch believed us or at least wanted to. I watched as Gary took Butch aside. I tried my best to inconspicuously eavesdrop on their conversation. Gabby, Liz and Sherry were squabbling among themselves, making it difficult for me to pay close attention to Gary and Butch.
I believed without a doubt in Liz’s innocence. This was the girl I shared my dreams with, the friend who entrusted us with her deepest secret. Surely, I would know if she had killed her own father. A small voice in my head, much like Mom’s, echoed like a bad dream - you never can tell a book by its cover. But there was no way I could be wrong about Liz. I could never bring myself to think her capable of murder. Murder was an act for the out of control, the most heinous of behaviors in desperate measures, certainly not for a teenager who enjoyed skipping stones and singing in talent shows.
When Butch and Gary rejoined us, Butch wiped the perspiration from his brow with his handkerchief. “I’ll tell you what…call me crazy, but I do believe you. Even though the evidence suggests otherwise.” Together, we exhaled a deep sigh of relief.
Gary explained to us why Butch decided to make this decision. Other than Sherry, none of us completely understood the logistics. Nonetheless, we were elated with the outcome. Most of what Gary had said from that point on fell on deaf ears. We openly rejoiced in Butch’s decision to clear Liz, yet, he quickly reminded us a murder had been committed, and the perpetrator must be brought to justice.
“And you ladies are going to help me.”
We each agreed to assist Butch in any way we could. We assumed his primary suspect would become Sam, which kind of had us feeling partially responsible since we had hired him in the first place.
Gabby, Sherry and I went back to my house where Gary and Butch would later meet us. They had a few loose ends to tie up at the police station with Liz and her mother.