It was two days before the big celebration, and our entire town was fine-tuning the plans for the Bicentennial. Mom and Mrs. Townsend were in charge of the food tents and vendors. Dad and Mr. Sanchez and most of the other men were responsible for table set-up and the beer tents. The Rosens and the funeral home uptown were the largest contributors to the fireworks display. Everybody who was anybody would be present. They were expecting over twenty- five thousand people to attend from all over the county. It would be Liberty’s largest gathering.
By now, Sherry and Gary were seeing each other regularly. She always liked to tell us details of their time together. Of course, being the inquiring type, we all took notes. I was getting closer with Danny since we were paired up during our games, but secretly I still had a huge crush on Gary. Gabby and Sean were becoming an item but not Liz and Butch. Well, let’s just say, size required that they be paired together. They really enjoyed each other’s company. Butch was actually quite funny. He was quick witted and was just easy to be around. Many times, he and Liz went for walks instead of participating in our escapades.
On July 2nd, Sherry and I collected Gabby and went to Liz’s house. It was mid-morning and a day which started like any other. As we neared the house, Liz’s dad was backing out of the driveway like a bat out of hell. We waved, but I don’t think he saw us since he didn’t return the gesture.
We tapped our signature knock at the screen door which never really closed fully on its own unless we pulled it tightly and walked right in as we had done so many times before.
Usually Mrs. Townsend was always in the kitchen when she was home. Today she wasn’t but a sweet smell of fresh rolls still lingered in the air. We turned the corner and walked down the narrow hall that led to the bedrooms. Liz’s door was the second one. As we got closer we heard sniffling. For whatever reason, we stopped in unison. I put my fingers up to my lips to quiet Gabby and Sherry.
To this day, it remains the saddest sight I’d ever seen. Liz was sitting scrunched in a fetal position on her bed. She was unclothed and sobbing hysterically. None of us had ever seen her without clothes on, even in our strip poker games she was always the last one to ever reveal anything, and she’d normally quit before things got too risky. At first, inexperience overcame me. We approached her slowly as she hastily grabbed the end of her comforter and covered herself.
“Liz, what happened?” Gabby innocently asked.
Liz’s body trembled as I sat down beside her on the bed. She continued to cry as if we weren’t even in the room. I reached my arm around her shoulders to console her but she rebuffed my touch.
“Liz, what’s wrong?” Gabby asked.
“Is your mother okay?” I asked, remembering how quickly Mr. Townsend bolted from the driveway. I just assumed she received horrible news. I thought possibly she might have been in an accident or something. Liz wiped her eyes and shook her head from side to side. I remember thinking how callous Sherry was in not consoling Liz; instead Sherry just glared at her. Gabby attempted to leave the room, “I’ll go find your mother.”
“No!” Liz shouted.
Those were the first words Liz said to us. Gabby reached for some clothes from Liz’s closet and brought them to her.
”Are you sick, Liz?” Gabby asked this time.
Why didn’t I see it? I was the oldest. I should have recognized the immediate signs. But my innocence kept me from knowing. But as always, Sherry figured it out.
“How long has he been doing this?” Sherry asked.
I was stupefied. Who was he? Liz lifted her head and her eyes met with Sherry’s.
“How long, Liz?” Sherry repeated.
Gabby just looked at me as if I had the answer. “What is she talking about Pepper?” But instead, I looked to Sherry.
“It’s not your fault, Liz. He’s sick. He’s the one who is fucked up, that son-of a bitch!” I hated when Sherry used foul words. She thought it sounded cool and she used it when she wanted to make her point.
Liz hadn’t answered Sherry, nor did she deny anything. “You’ve got to tell your mom,” urged Sherry. It took me a few seconds to appreciate where this conversation was leading. Then, I had remembered seeing a PBS afternoon school special about this and suddenly it hit me.
Liz reached for her clothing. “I can’t,” she wiped her forearm across her nose, “she’d never believe me. She thinks he’s Mr. Perfect.” She had a spiteful sarcasm in her voice as she spoke of her mother.
The man, the teacher, the father we had thought was so wonderful was hurting his daughter in the most heinous way. Liberty's Man of the year! Gabby still didn’t comprehend yet, though, now wasn’t the time to educate her.
“Please, Liz, talk to my mom, she’ll listen,” I begged.
“You don’t understand, Pepper, he’s my father. I don’t want anyone to know.”
“He’ll end up in jail where he belongs,” I added.
“He belongs six feet unda’!” snapped Sherry.
“Shut up, Sherry!” I demanded.
“No, you shut up, Peppa’! He’s molesting his daughta’ for Chrissake and you think he deserves jail time?”
“Oh my God!” Gabby gasped, “your dad, Liz?”
Sherry tried to control the situation as she did with everything and everyone in her life. “If you tell your mother, she’ll have to leave him,” insisted Sherry. Then Liz began to explain how she had tried to go to her mom.
“When I was little, I told her once.”
“When you were little,” Gabby stuttered with disbelief, “he did this to you when you were small?”
“Shh, Gabby not now! What happened?” I pressed for more answers.
“She confronted my dad about it, and he brushed it off as my overactive imagination, bad dreams and all, like it wasn’t really happening. My mother believed him.”
“How long as he been…” Gabby found it difficult to finish her question.
“It was the first time in a long time. Sometimes when he gets really drunk. This time I threatened him.” I asked her what she had meant by that.
“I told him I’d tell mom again, and if that didn’t work, I’d go to the police and then his school, anyone who’d listen,” her voice filled with anger, “and if that didn’t work, I’d kill him in his sleep.” Her eyes were cold when she said it.
“Did he… touch you now?” Sherry inquired.
“I didn’t let him, I was coming out of the shower when he tried to…” she cleared her throat, “but I pushed him away and told him you were on your way down. But I didn’t really know you were actually coming over. And he left pissed off!”
I had forgotten why we were actually going to Liz’s house that morning. It may have been to rehearse for the talent competition. Whatever the reason for our visit, we were glad to have been there for her. How long could she have hidden this secret from us? She was fourteen. As close as we were - why didn’t we know? She was our best friend.
Liz told us that she had killed him dozens of times in her head. She hated him for what he had done to her. But then he had moments of being a wonderful father and times when her life felt normal. So, she justified and compartmentalized his actions and her deep hurt.
“It’ll be okay,” Gabby told Liz.
Sarcastically, Sherry added, “Oh shua’ everything is hunky-dory now that wea’ hea’. That’s bullshit and you know it, Gabby!”
I could see in Sherry’s eyes she was plotting something. “We can go with you to the police Liz and when you tell your mother.” Liz just shook her head again. “I don’t want anyone to know. No one, ever! It’s sick and... embarrassing.”
“That perverted jerk needs to be punished, Liz!” Sherry demanded.
“Sherry’s right,” I added.
“I don’t think he’s going to lay a hand on me anymore. He knows I won’t let him. Never again!” Liz threatened.
I think Liz was trying to convince herself but none of us was completely satisfied with her answer. How could she just brush it behind her and sit at the dinner table with him each night? It was so wrong. He needed to be punished.
“You’ve got to tell someone,” I pushed again.
“What happens, Pepper, when they don’t believe me? It’s my word against his - Liberty’s Man of the Year for Chrissake!”
“You can’t let him get away Scot-free.”
Sherry suggested something unconventional. From her I expected it, but what stunned me more was Liz’s reaction to it.
“Let’s make ’em pay for it,” Sherry said, looking us directly in the eyes one at a time “just put a sca’ into him that he’ll neva’ f’get.” Liz asked her to clarify what she meant by putting a scare into him.
“We’ll threaten him. Tell him we know everything, and if he eva’ lays his perverted hands on you again we’ll go to the police.”
“He’s so good at lying, Sherry. Besides how could we threaten him?”
“We tell him we saw him trying to force himself on you. We can lie if we have to. He’s not going to take a chance on ruining his reputation.”
“But she still has to live with him even if he does stop,” said Gabby. "It's going to be awkward seeing him now as it is."
I’ll figya’ something out. Just give me some time.” Sherry assured us.
Just then we heard something rattle in the kitchen. We feared it might be her dad until a quick peek through her window proved otherwise. Mrs. Townsend’s car was in the driveway.
I hushed everyone and looked down the hallway towards the kitchen. I caught the tail end of Mrs. Townsend walking out the garage door. It looked like she had some documents in her hand.
“I don’t think she even knows we’re here. She seemed to be in a hurry.” I told the others.
“She must have forgotten something for her church meeting,” Liz said with a bit of cynicism.
It hit me that both Liz’s parents were always so busy and kept themselves in the public eye. I began to understand why Liz sounded sarcastic when it came to her mom. How could she not believe her own daughter? I couldn’t believe how Mrs. Townsend could have allowed this to happen right under her nose. I used to think she was great because she never asked Liz any questions and didn’t need to know where she was all the time. But maybe if she had, maybe if Maggie Townsend were more involved, this wouldn’t have happened.
Mom never would have neglected it. She was right to be leery of people - you never can tell.
Liz pulled me from my thoughts by grabbing my shoulder. She begged each of us to keep her secret. “Promise me,” as she took each of our hands. We linked our pinkies together. Gabby’s to Sherry’s, hers to Liz’s and Liz’s to mine. “Promise me, you guys?”
“Promise!”And we did. We pinkie swore we would never tell anyone about Liz’s dad - ever.
The phone rang causing me to jump. Mrs. Townsend answered it. “Pepper, it was your mother. She said Sherry just returned your call, and she’ll try you again in five minutes.”
I thanked Mrs. Townsend for the coffee and the chat and quickly tossed the last morsel of cinnamon bun into my mouth. As I walked away, I caught a closer glimpse of neatly arranged photos on the piano and a few on the end tables, many from our childhood. One in particular jumped out at me - all four of us donning our red, white and blue Bicentennial shirts. We wore them that night to be in the talent show. Someone at the radio station had given them to my dad for publicity. The front of the shirt had 1776-1976 and was trimmed in red around the sleeves and displayed a fireworks scene above the Liberty bell. On the back were the words – Liberty and Freedom.
I stopped at the photo and picked it up. “You were so happy that night,” Mrs. Townsend said, as she witnessed my interest in the picture. I simply smiled and nodded. I placed it back in its place, shadowed by a dusty coating. Next to it was a similar snapshot of Liz and her mom. Mrs. Townsend had smudges of flour on her cheeks and apron. I set it back down and left to go back home.
Mom was already on the phone and from the look on her face; I could tell she was speaking with Sherry. “Well, she just walked in, Honey... nice talking to you too. Say hello to your father.” Mom handed me the phone.
“Now thea’s a blast from my past,” she uttered.
I looked to my mom, “Please, Mom,” suggesting some privacy. I waited until I saw her go outside on the deck.
“Thanks for calling me back.”
“My secretary told me youa’ pants were on fiya’ so I called right away.” Her accent had become thicker.
“Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”
She briefly informed me of her and Saul’s divorce, blaming it mostly on him, of course. She never even asked about my life with Collin and the boys. None of it probably interested her. Sherry did make mention several times of her position in an aggressive law firm practice. She made a few catty remarks about how she could never have been content without her career. I found myself needing to defend my choice to place my career on hold but what was the point? Who was Sherry in the big scheme of life? She was self-centered, so driven and power hungry that she could never fathom the responsibility I had with my sons and husband. But still, a part of me wanted to be back on TV anchoring the evening news in Massachusetts. It did gratify me, and I was sure someday I would return to it.
“I called you for another reason,” I cautiously hinted, “I guess you haven’t heard about Liz.”
“Wow! Did the Twinkie queen eva’ get married?” she asked.
“No.” I knew Sherry was acting as though she had forgotten all about July 4th. She was good at ignoring certain topics.
“I called you because…well…she’s been arrested.”
I waited but Sherry didn’t say anything.
“Sherry, they think she did it,” I repeated.
I explained that Liberty got a new police chief after Officer Simms had passed away. I didn’t mention who it was, only that he was reopening the investigation. “I thought you might come and be there for her,” I hinted.
“Why? I haven’t seen her in years. Did she ask me to defend her?”
“No,” I paused, “for moral support.”
Sherry just didn’t get it. Liz needed us. It wasn’t about hiring Sherry as Liz’s defense attorney - it was about the pact we had made with each other two decades ago. Liz was in trouble.
“I was thinking you could come back to Liberty this weekend. She needs us, Sherry. Liz needs us now more than she did then.” Again, an awkward silence, but I could hear papers ruffling in the background. “For Chrissake Peppa’…you expect me just to pick up and roll. I’ve got a practice… court… obligations.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Sherry, my boys don’t need me and Collin jumped for joy when I told him I was going to be away indefinitely. This isn’t about you, Sherry,” my tone grew grizzly with each additional word. “For once in your God damn life can you think about somebody other than yourself!” I was so pissed off I hung up the phone in anger. I hated taking the Lord's name but anger had a way of me saying things I wouldn't normally say.
About 15 minutes later it rang again. Sherry’s rough, raspy voice was at the other end. “I’m on the first flight out of hea’ in the morning.”
“Thank you, Sherry.” Then she began inquiring about the old hotel across the river from Liberty, but I insisted she stay with me at my parents’ house. I told her Gabby was also planning on arriving in the morning. We exchanged pertinent flight information before ending the call.
I was anxious about our reunion. Could it help clear Liz? Would the real killer ever be found? What would it be like to be with them again, twenty years later?
For two decades this murder had gone unsolved. Liberty Police had always assumed the out-of-town drunk might have been responsible but it was never proven. Many people had witnessed the altercation between Mr. Townsend and the stranger. The investigation was haphazard at best until the leads finally ran dry. It was sad how the search just ended, probably typical of small-town investigations. What Liberty never did find out is that we knew the stranger. And his name was Sam.
I went into my bedroom to unpack my belongings. Most of my childhood figurines remained untouched. In the far corner, under my window was my stuffed animal collection, faded from years of sun exposure. On the adjacent wall was Diane’s old porcelain doll collection, warily resting on the aged shelf. Poor mom, she must have been yearning for granddaughters to delight in this little dream house of a room. My sister also had two teenage boys and Jack was a newlywed. For now, the room would remain a soothing haven for my blissful youth.
I dropped my bags on the floor and sprawled across the bed. My head sunk into the pillows, and I recalled tossing the billowy cushions in my friends’ faces. A few feathers flew from the casing. I began to stare at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, remembering how many times before I had done the same in an effort to fall asleep or talk about boys with my friends. The four of us would stretch out horizontally across my down comforter so we could all fit.
“Are you going to let him?” Gabby asked me.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I said back.
“I let Gary,” bragged Sherry.
“Let him what?” Gabby asked.
“Get past second base,” boasted Sherry.
Gabby chuckled but Liz remained silent. Sherry loved singing her own praises about her relationship with Gary. It killed me to listen to what she and Gary did, but Gabby was all ears when it came to Sherry’s detailed accounts. Sherry propped herself up on the bed, and we huddled around her as though she were a coach showing us the game winning play. Even Liz seemed interested, but this was before she had told us her secret.
In the background we could hear the hum of the vacuum in the living room. We knew if the noise got louder mom might press an ear to the door, after all isn’t that what mothers were supposed to do.
“We were at McNurney’s Pond… kissing,” Sherry began using her hands to describe it, “then he reached around for my brar’.” Sherry reached over and used me as a prop. Gabby and Liz were in stitches.
“I had to help him with it…he was all over me.”
“What happened next?” Gabby asked.
“We were makin’ out and his hands were roaming, and we were just about to let things go further when…”
The three of us were on the edge of our knees waiting for her to reveal the juicy details. “Nothing,” she conceded, “His little brotha’ came looking for him.” I tried to pretend to be interested, but I was thrilled when she said nothing happened. The other two were disappointed when Sherry’s story didn’t quite end as they anticipated. Truth be told, we all wanted to know if they had done it.
I know Gabby was becoming more interested because she was tempted to let things go farther with Sean. She shared this with me in private. There were still some things we didn’t tell Sherry. I was way more cautious. Danny was cute and definitely convenient, but our relationship was always choreographed by the games we played. I just didn’t feel for him what I did for Gary. There was no way I could picture myself half naked with him, maybe with Gary, but Sherry’s razor claws were in deep, and she wasn’t about to let go.
The hum of the vacuum got closer and my door suddenly opened, causing us to jump. “Excuse me girls,” mom yelled over the sweeper, “I just needed to get under the door.” Mom had impeccable timing when it came to dropping in on our discussions. She had a knack for knowing when we were about to become mischievous. Mrs. Townsend and Mrs. Rosen always knocked before entering their girls’ rooms. I remember wishing at times mom could be more like them and promising myself I would be different if I had a daughter one day.