The doorbell awakened me; I turned over and snagged Diane’s pillow to cover my ears, since she was away at band camp for the month. I could hear mom and dad talking and several other men's voices. I didn’t recognize them. Then, Mom let out a bellowing gasp. For a moment, I thought maybe something had happened to Diane. I pushed my door open an inch to eavesdrop.
Mom was sitting on the chair with her hands cupped over her mouth. Dad’s arm was rested on her shoulder. I recognized Officer Simms our police chief. The other man had a small, spiral tablet in his hand; I couldn’t identify him. He definitely wasn’t from Liberty.
“Were any of your children at the celebration last night?”
“My oldest daughter is away at band camp… and Jack. He’s four…you can’t possibly think he could give you any information.”
“What about,” he looked down at his notebook, “Pepper?”
“Patricia, what would you need her for?”
“It’s a homicide investigation, Mam, we need to question as many people who were at the celebration as we can.”
“It’s just routine procedure, Beth,” assured Officer Simms.
My heart began fluttering at a rapid pace. I carefully pushed the door closed again, leaped across my bed, and dove for the phone to call Sherry. But just as I reached for the receiver, it rang. I pounced on it.
“Pepper, is that you?” a faint voice asked. It was Sherry.
I whispered so no one would hear me. “Yes…the police are at my house.”
“I know. They were just hea’. He’s dead.” Sherry told me.
“What? Oh my God! I heard them say it’s an investigation, a murder.” I could hardly catch my breath. This couldn’t be happening.
“Calm down, Peppa’! Did you talk to them?”
“Not yet, they’re asking for me. My parents think I’m sleeping.”
“If they ask you if we were out at the pond, just say yes. We were having a few beers. Nothing more.”
“What? I can’t say that; my parents will kill me!”
Mom called me from the other room, and then I could hear her footsteps as she got closer.
“Coming mom!” I yelled back.
“I’ve got to go, Sherry.”
“Don’t say anything about what time we were out thea’ or how long. Do you hea’ me Peppa’?”
I hung the phone up without answering Sherry. I was frantic. I couldn’t think straight. How could she be so cool? And why would she admit to drinking?
As I walked out to the living room, Mom was standing there. “Pepper,” she reached for my hand in a matronly manor, and began delivering the news to me. I don’t know what came over me, but I asked if Diane was okay, maybe that would throw them off. “She’s fine, honey, but there has been a terrible tragedy.”
It was actually Dad who told me Mr. Townsend was dead. Again, I played the drama queen. “Did he have a heart attack?” I guessed.
“He was killed,” Officer Simms responded.
“Killed…how?” I asked innocently.
The man standing with Officer Simms immediately asked me where I was last night. I was vague. “At the bicentennial.”
“All night?” he persisted.
“No.” I got nervous with his assertiveness. He began running his fingers through his tiny notebook again. He’d look at me, then his pad, and back to me. I was sure he could see liar written across my forehead in capital letters.
“We know you were with Sherry Rosen, the Sanchez girl and Liz Townsend.” The tone of his voice changed when he mentioned Liz’s name.
“And you were out at McNurney’s Pond?” I looked at Mom. Her eyebrows were scrunched. I couldn’t even make eye contact with Dad, knowing the disappointment he would feel when he learned the truth.
The officer flipped through several more pages before stopping at a tab.
“Ah, here it is…we found several beer cans near the water and Seth Rosen’s gym bag. Sherry admitted you and a few boys were drinking.”
“What?” shrieked Dad.
I put my head down, too afraid to look up. I studied the wavy pattern of the carpeting waiting for Dad to explode. What was Sherry thinking? Why would she offer such information? My parents would never condone this.
“From the look of things, you must have been out there for a long time. Perhaps you saw or heard something?” the man pried.
My dad looked at me with disillusionment. There was no getting past the drinking; these were the police for goodness sake. “I’ll deal with you later, Patricia, but for now if you heard anything, you’d better tell the officers.”
“I didn’t dad. I swear. How was he killed?” I asked again.
“We found trauma to the back of his head,” the man responded.
I gasped, knowing Sherry had hit him, yet I was sure I felt his pulse. I wondered if it was enough of a blow to kill him.
The man looked at me and followed up by adding, “But the coroner doesn’t think it was enough to cause death…we also found… strangulation marks around his neck. We'll have to wait for the coroner's report for sure.”
“Good God!” Dad said wiping his brow.
“Officers, I think she’s heard enough,” Mom added and gently nudged me away.
I was more confused than ever. None of this made any sense. I knew I had to excuse myself. “Can I go now Officer Simms?” I figured I had a better chance with him than the other man. Officer Simms looked at the other guy, “They’re good kids, Stan. I’ve known the O’Neils my whole life. If they had any information, they’d tell you.”
“Okay then, but if you think of anything just let us know.” The man handed Dad a small white business card.
I later found out he was a regional FBI agent who was expedited to Liberty. Officer Simms had never investigated a homicide before. The last one was in the forties, a domestic dispute that got ugly.
Mom told the agent about the confrontation Mr. Townsend had at the beer tent that night. “We’re already looking into that. It seems to be our strongest lead. You wouldn’t have happened to have overheard what that was about?” he asked dad.
“Sorry officers. I was busy hauling kegs back and forth,” dad massaged his lower back, “paying for it today.”
I raced to my bedroom hoping Dad would somehow overlook the drinking incident. Why would Sherry have admitted to the drinking? I dialed her number and it was busy. I heard the front door close and Dad blasted through my bedroom door in anger which was out of character for him.
“Put that damn phone down, Patricia!”
I knew he meant business and there was no getting around this. “I know what goes on Pepper…your mother and I were young once too. But I’ll be damned if my little girl is going to get a reputation for hanging out after hours drinking with the boys. Mr. Townsend was killed last night. It could have been any one of you girls!”
That was it - simple and direct. I was expecting to get grounded, some kind of consequences. “In light of everything that happened, I’m going to let this pass. But I’m telling you, Patricia, this had better not happen again.”
“It won’t, Dad. I promise.” He reached over and consoled me, knowing I was shaken by Mr. Townsend’s death. After all, one of my best friends just lost her father.
I called Sherry back. She answered.
“Sherry, it’s me.”
“What in the hell happened?” she asked.
“Why did you tell them we were drinking?”
“When I opened my front door Officer Simms had Seth’s duffel bag in his hand and was looking for Seth. I couldn’t let him get in trouble for something he didn’t do. Besides we missed a couple of cans. We’d be screwed later if we didn’t fess up initially. This way we look like were being honest, they’ll never think we had anything to do with it” she explained. Her assiduous thinking as a teenager amazed me.
“Shouldn’t we have at least told them what we did?”
“Hell no! Then we’d be suspects.”
“Suspects?” I whispered, “He was strangled. Somebody had to come out there after us.” I added.
“And somebody did… but it wasn’t any of us. For all we know, Sam could have done it.” Sherry was so convincing and as always - I listened.
Sherry had already called Gabby and Liz to go over our story. I told Sherry the police had already been to the Sanchez home because I overheard Mr. Simms tell my parents.
“It’s Saturday morning. They’re not home.” Sherry remembered that each Saturday morning. Mrs. Sanchez would take her girls to the church to clean. They had been doing this for months.
We knew it would be days before the police got to talk to everyone, but it would be only hours before they got to those of us who were at the pond. And they had probably had spoken to Liz first.
“What didn’t the police know, Pepper?” Gary asked. I looked at Liz who had barely saved enough brownies for the rest of us –a few residual crumbs clung to her lower lip. I wanted her to tell Gary everything. We were her only defense. John Townsend was dead now. He couldn’t hurt her anymore, and it was her word against his.
Liz’s eyes were fixated on the kitchen, scanning for her mother. “Tell him, Liz,” I begged.
Gabby and Sherry started pleading with her too. Liz again drew attention to the kitchen where her mother was.
In a polite way he suggested to Mrs. Townsend, “maybe it would be best if you gave us a little time.” Moments later, she excused herself, “I’ll be back in an hour. I’m going to say a quick hello to your mother, Pepper.” And she left.
“Now somebody had better tell me what this is all about…what did you ladies do that you were afraid to tell the police?”
We sat like deer in oncoming traffic. We said nothing. It was Liz’s secret to tell. I could only imagine how uncomfortable she must have felt telling Gary - one of the old neighborhood boys. He would continue to live in Liberty, knowing Liz’s secret. It would be hard not to view her differently. I could recall looking at her with delicacy after we first learned of her secret.
Disgusted, Gary folded his papers and stuffed them into his briefcase. His eyes were deep and dark, but in them I could see an honest man who wanted to get to the truth as much as I did. He wanted to believe Liz. He was at the pond that night too. “I can’t help you Liz when you don’t trust me.” He stood up to leave. My eyes popped with surprise.
“Wait Gary!” demanded Sherry. Liz’s lower lip quivered.
“Sherry!” Liz snapped trying to silence her.
“It was twenty years ago, Liz…twenty God damned years, and you’re worried what people are going to think! He's your attorney, just tell him!”
Gary sat back down. Gabby agreed with Sherry, “Liz, she’s right. You’ve got to tell him.”
“Please don’t tell me you did it,” Gary softened his voice. Liz shook her head from side to side. I was glad Sherry had pressured Liz to open up to Gary. The rest of us just weren’t able to persuade her like Sherry could.
“We planned to scare my father...you know, shake him up a little,” Liz confessed. “What?” Gary’s voice cracked.
“Why?” he persisted.
Gary was baffled. The wrinkles on his forehead began to layer, making his widow’s peak even more prominent.
I walked over and squeezed myself between Liz and the arm of the couch. “It’s okay Liz. It’s okay. He can’t hurt you anymore.” Gabby frantically paced the floor. I thought she would wear away what little color remained on the aged rug. “Pepper’s right Liz, it’s time.” I held Liz’s hand for support.
Sherry was getting uptight and lit into Gabby.
“Would you sit your ass down already …you’re making me dizzy!” Like a beagle, Gabby sat on command.
“Whatever you say to me, Liz…stays with me,” Gary reminded Liz about their privileged conversations.
Liz lifted her head; the whites of her eyes had pink stripes running through them like a road map. Her lip still trembled and she clenched my hand with force.
“When I was younger…,” her voice was shaky and she avoided eye contact with him, “he used to do things to me.” She looked up at me, possibly for reassurance.
“Go ahead,” I whispered.
“He hurt me.”
“Physically?” he delicately asked.
I could see Sherry’s eyes studying Gary’s as Liz delivered her next statement. Liz shook her head from side to side, “Sexually,” she shamefully admitted. I was moved when he stretched his hand across the coffee table and reached for Liz’s hand. This once, tough guy, the boy who turned all the girls’ heads was now a sensitive man. And although I was content in my marriage, secretly, it made me want him again, if only briefly. His compassion was astounding.
“I’m so sorry, Liz…I had no idea.”
“That’s just it,” Sherry added, “no one did.”
“What did your mother say?” he questioned.
“She didn’t believe me when I was young.”
“What?” Gary said in disbelief.
Liz looked at me again. “My dad told her I was making it up. An overactive imagination.”
“Why didn’t you go to a teacher or someone else?”
“I was ashamed.”
I wasn’t sure if Gary was playing devil’s advocate or rationalizing Liz’s decision to stay mute. But it was his job to question her, not ours.
In the mid-seventies, child molestation, incestuous relationships or any perverse crime was very stigmatized, so much so, that people seldom brought accusations forward. But it was the nineties now, and Mr. Townsend had been dead for two decades.
“I told my friends. But I made them promise not to tell anyone…ever.”
He looked at each of us. Gabby was biting her nails, Sherry was stone faced, and I was still holding Liz’s hand, proud of her for finally telling her story. “Don’t you feel better now, getting that out in the open?” I asked. She squeezed my hand.
Sherry leaned over to see what Gary was penciling down on paper. His silence gave Sherry a reason to question him.
“What’s wrong, Gary?”
“I appreciate your honesty,” he motioned towards Liz, “…and what you’ve been through, but…”
“But what?” Liz said.
Gabby started pacing again. And Sherry slipped into her lawyer mode, “What he’s trying to say is - you’ve just strengthened your motive.”
“My motive?” Liz questioned.
“What I mean is…” Gary interrupted Sherry, letting her know this was his case, and she was here for moral support only. “All they had before was a teenager expressing her anger at her father, through her diary. It’s weak, but they could use it because the blood strengthens their case.”
He told us since Mr. Townsend was molesting his daughter, it gave Liz stronger reason for wanting him dead.
“I did want him dead; I hated him for what he had done to me.” Liz wiped her eyes and Gabby handed her a tissue. “But I didn’t do it!”
“I believe you,” Gary assured her, “but I’ve got to prove it, in a court of law, beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Can we do that, without bringing up what happened to me?”
“I think it’s going to need to come out and any jury would be on your side. I’ll do my best but no more secrets…none!”
“What about if we steered them in another direction, another suspect perhaps,” suggested Sherry.
“It’s a possibility but the only other suspect they looked at was,” he looked down at his papers for reference, “the out-of-towner.” We still had not mentioned our relationship with Sam.
“What about your mother Liz? Haven’t you ever spoken about it now that you’re an adult?” Sarcastically, Sherry snapped back. “Why? Betty Freakin Crocka wouldn’t believe her anyway. She didn’t then and she won’t now.” It was a spot on comparison; the woman lived in the kitchen.
“Gary’s right, Liz, you need to talk about it…for closure,” suggested Gabby.
“I know this is going to sound odd and maybe unbelievable,” Liz hesitated, “but I blocked it out somehow. I didn’t think about much of it until a few months ago when the investigation was reopened.”
Gabby explained to us that this wasn’t so extraordinary. A victim of child molestation or incest often suppressed his or her memory. Gabby was warm and her wisdom comforted Liz. “I deal with this at work. Many of the women who have been beaten by their husbands were also victims of abuse when they were children.” Gabby continued sharing her knowledge not only with battered wives, but also with the children who were victimized by a trusting male. Gabby shared some horrifying stories.
Gary began feeling stronger about the case once Gabby gave it a clinical term. Battered Women’s Syndrome is what she called it. Even though it was technically the same kind of abuse it was still a controlling, manipulating relationship. Gary could now use the abuse as a defense.
I could see Gary growing uneasy with Liz’s personal ordeal. It wasn’t his job to rehabilitate her.
He would need to show Liz was blameless. “You say you had a plan,” looking at Sherry, “did you intend to hurt him?”
“We planned to scare him,” Sherry admitted.
“It was twenty years ago. I put it behind me; we were kids for Chrissake,” Sherry alleged.
“Well, you had better start talking, Sherry. I certainly don’t have to tell you about evidence and motive! If anyone else knew about Liz’s past…”
“I never told anyone. We’ve been through this already!” argued Liz.
“I know, but these things have a way of surfacing.” He said.
Gary wanted to get to the bottom of it, though he detected Sherry wanted to distance herself as far from Liberty as she could. We were her past and anything or anyone who was a part of that history needed to stay there.
“I’ll tell you, Gary,” I whispered quietly. And I began to recollect my thoughts and tell Gary everything.
“The day Liz told us about what her father had done to her; we were going to sleep over at my house. I think we spent most of our day reassuring Liz she would be okay. No matter how we pleaded with her, she was adamant; she wasn’t telling anyone. It was as if she felt dirty because of it. Like I said before, we were young, we had no idea how far things would go.
We knew Mr. Townsend had a great reputation and the year prior he had won Liberty’s Man of the Year award. He was an active member at St. Ann’s and he was in a bowling league. If Liz’s mother had doubts, convincing the community would be an even greater chore.
Sherry just wasn’t able to let it rest. She plotted all day. At my house, we popped popcorn and stayed up late talking about how we could get some revenge. It was about eleven that night when my parents came in to say goodnight.”
“Good night girls,” Dad said.
“Good night, Mr. O’Neil, night Mrs. O’Neil.”
They leaned over and kissed each one of us. They were friendly to all of my friends - outwardly affectionate and very loving. Liz coiled a bit when Dad pecked her on the forehead. I don’t think he ever thought anything about it, nor would I have, if I hadn’t just found out about her father. After all, she had stayed over plenty of times before, but tonight I noticed.
I remembered thinking how fortunate I was. Dad was a terrific father in every way. I used to think Mr. Townsend was the same great guy. It brought to mind Mom’s favorite saying - you never can tell a book by its cover. She’d say things like don’t judge Fanny just because she’d tattled on you; she may be a warm person inside. And don’t be overly impressed with the high society types; they usually have the most insecurity. And boy was Mom right about that. Liz’s parents had all of Liberty fooled for sure.
After we were certain my parents were asleep, we started talking about it again. Out of nowhere, Sherry just came up with this idea. “What if we got somebody to shake him up a bit,” she suggested.
“What do you mean?” Liz inquired.
“We get somebody to rough him up, you know, let him know that someone other than Liz is aware of what he’s been doing, and if he ever tries to touch her again, he’s dead!”
“Dead?” Gabby gulped.
“No!” exclaimed Sherry.
“Well, what do you mean?” I asked.
“Let’s just call his bluff,” she explained calmly.
“But how?” pushed Gabby.
Sherry told us a story that had happened at her old school in New York. Some intimidating girl was picking on one of Sherry’s friends, so they paid a senior to jump this girl when she came out of the bathroom. It worked - she was never bullied again. It seemed simple enough, but could it work with Mr. Townsend?
For a few moments we thought the plan would not come to fruition since we couldn’t come up with anybody to do it. “We can’t ask Butch or Danny or any of those guys,” determined Liz.
“No way! They’d ask too many questions.” Sherry confirmed.
I guess it was me who thought a stranger would be the perfect solution, but it was Sherry who orchestrated the whole thing.
Meekly, Gabby asked, “But how? We can’t just find a stranger off the street.”
“Someone from Liberty is too risky,” Liz added.
“You’re right,” Sherry conceded, “but how many people is Liberty expecting on Friday night?”
“At the bicentennial?” I guessed.
My mind was beginning to think like Sherry. I wasn’t particularly proud for having helped concoct it, but at the time, we were all about friendship. It was all for one and one for all. And through the eyes of a teenager our plan seemed brilliant. We never did consider repercussions if it failed. What would her father do to her if he were to find out we were behind it? Fortunately for us, it would never come to matter.
Concerned, Gabby spoke up, “We can’t expect a total stranger to help us…we’re just kids.What’s in it for him?”
“She’s right, Sherry. What if it gets back to my parents?” worried Liz.
“We’ve got to find the right kind of person, a wanderer, someone who has no ties to Liberty at all.”
“You think he’s going to help us just like that,” snapped Liz.
Sherry turned to me, “How much money do you have?”
I didn’t hesitate when Sherry asked. I walked over to my picture frame where I had kept my money hidden from Diane. She liked to help herself to it, as if it were her right as the bigger sister.
As I pried it open, Sherry asked the others how much they had. “Fifty at home,” Liz answered, “but I can’t touch what I have in the bank.”
I had twenty-eight dollars and change. Sherry had fifty at her house. “What about you Gabby,” Sherry asked. I could see Gabby’s face blush. “None,” she answered humbly.
“Don’t worry, Gabby. We’ll have enough.” And that was the plan. We’d payoff some stranger to shake up Mr. Townsend for $128. Only, it didn’t quite work as we had hoped.