Mrs. Townsend was in the kitchen while Gary and the others were in the living room, awaiting Butch’s arrival. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee entered the room as Mrs. Townsend brought in a steaming carafe. She placed a tray of assorted cookies in a rainbow of flavors on the coffee table in front of us. As we thanked her, I heard a car pull up in the driveway. Mrs. Townsend peeked through her curtains and made a comment about Butch arriving in his police car.
“Honestly, does he have to bring that car?”
Since Liz’s arrest, the buzz in Liberty was causing Maggie Townsend to worry about her reputation. Even after Mr. Townsend had passed away, she kept up her image. She continued as head of the PTA and remained on every church committee at St. Ann’s. To her, image was everything.
I wished she could have been more involved in Liz’s life the way she was in the community. Mrs. Townsend almost seemed to pretend as if Liz weren’t in serious trouble.
Butch rapped at the screen door and since I was closest, I opened it. “Ladies,” he said tilting his head. The tension in the room grew upon his entrance, and somehow the role of mediator fell upon my shoulders.
“Have a seat, Butch,” I moved my hand to the one chair that was intentionally left vacant for him.
Gary reached over for Liz’s hand and gently lifted it, “You ready, Liz?”
Shamefully, Liz kept her head down, avoiding all eye contact with Butch. “What’s so important that I’m giving up my night with my little girl?” Butch asked. Sherry laughed when she heard him make mention of a child, “You’re married?”
“Close your jaw, Sherry! Even we blundering boobs can get married.” He reached for a cookie and fighting the temptation, placed it back down, “I’m divorced.”
“Ah…you just can’t manage to keep one,” Sherry mumbled.
I laughed to myself, as if that weren’t the pot calling the kettle black. She and Saul had barely made it past their second anniversary before they inked the divorce papers.
“Excuse me?” he posed.
“Sorry,” Sherry sighed, “so you have a daughta’?”
Sherry’s sudden interest in Butch was almost comical. The girl who teased Butch every chance she got in her youth was finding herself attracted to him now, despite the fact, he was responsible for arresting Liz. Only Sherry could pull that off.
Liz cleared her throat, “Ah-em.” Both Gabby and I rolled our eyes at Sherry’s attempt to get her claws into Butch. She was so transparent.
“As I said on the phone, Butch, I think we have some information that may give you reason to look elsewhere.” Butch looked around the table at each of us. His eyes stopped at Sherry. She had one thigh crossed over the other, flirtatiously bouncing her top leg over the lower one. I noticed since Butch announced his bachelorhood, Sherry had unfastened the top two buttons on her blouse, exposing her cleavage. I snickered when I caught Butch checking her out. He pretended not to be bothered by it. But this was Sherry, a woman who had a gift when it came to getting what she wanted and getting noticed.
Gary began to tell Butch what we had earlier told Gary. “Remember the stranger who had a confrontation with John Townsend at the beer tent?” Butch’s brow creased and he nodded, “Sure do, but Officer Simms said he was a sloppy drunk who got out of control. Simms and other investigators figured it was him, but there was never any definite proof.” Liz’s eyes widened when she heard Butch concede to this.
“But,” Butch added, “the DNA puts Liz’s blood near the crime scene.”
His persistence bothered me. The blood could have gotten there any number of ways. We had already told Officer Simms we hung out there, and Butch was part of the crowd that went to McNurney’s. Maybe he had something to prove; maybe this was his way of becoming a legacy in Liberty. The good- for- nothing- but- laughs Butcheviwietz was trying to make a name for himself.
I started to tell Butch the story and left nothing uncovered. “The stranger’s name was Sam.”
“What? You knew him?” Butch gasped.
“Not… exactly,” a lump in my throat caused me to stutter, we only knew his first name, and we don’t even know if he was being truthful.”
“Back it up Pepper,” he pressed his palms against his forehead, “you talked to him… this Sam?”
Gabby and Sherry quickly affirmed it by nodding. “Why didn’t any of you say anything? What the hell were you thinking?” His voice deepened as his face tensed.
“We’re saying something now. Aren’t we?” Sherry added.
“Butch, if you’d let Pepper explain,” Gary intervened.
Butch took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. Nervously, I finished telling him.
“We paid him,” I said, careful not to use the word bribe, “to rough up Mr. Townsend.”
Sherry blurted out, “He was a scumbag Butch - the worst kind!”
“What?” interrupted Mrs. Townsend.
“Mr. Townsend? He was Man of the Year, for Chrissake, and an awesome teacher. Everybody loved ’em.” Defended Butch.
It was no surprise to hear Butch protect Mr. T’s character. We had once believed the same thing.
Gabby and I both reached for Liz’s hand in unison to reassure her and give the necessary strength she needed. Before I could speak, she uttered those horrible words.
“He molested me.”
The silence in the room was profound. I could hear my own heartbeat. Mrs. Townsend immediately yelled, “Lizzie!”
“It’s true mom. I tried to tell you before but…”
“How could you?” she yelled.
Mrs. Townsend stormed over to Liz and smacked her across the cheek, “How dare you speak of your father that way! He loved you!”
Shocked, Liz clutched her face, “He was sick, Mom. He was sick!” she screamed, barely able to keep her composure.
I embraced Liz and tried to calm her down. Her body trembled frantically. Liz and her mother began thrashing words at one another. It was difficult to hear what was being exchanged.
“Please, Mrs. Townsend,” I said softly, “it’s true.” She looked at me astonished.
“You don’t believe her, Pepper?” Mrs. Townsend cried.
“We almost walked in on it once. We have no reason not to believe her.”
Gabby wrapped her arm around Mrs. Townsend, “It’s okay Mrs. Townsend. This is a normal reaction.”
“We,” Mrs. Townsend repeated, “you all knew?” Each of us nodded, but Gary assured her he had only recently found out. Mrs. Townsend marched out of the living room with her hands cupped over her face.
“I told you, Pepper, she wouldn’t believe me.”
“Give her time, Liz. He was her husband. She doesn’t want to believe you. Can’t you understand what that would mean to her? She let it happen under her own nose,” explained Gabby.
She assured us this was a temporary reaction to a long overdue crisis. “Your mother feels just as guilty for allowing it to have happened,” explained Gabby. Then she followed Mrs. Townsend into the other room. I was grateful for Gabby’s expertise. I wondered how she could have dealt with this sort of thing on a daily basis. It was too emotionally draining.
In their absence, I urged Liz to continue talking to Butch. “I told you,” she murmured again, “he molested me as a child.” Tears cloaked Liz’s eyes, yet this time she fought to hold them back.
“While your dad was teaching you how to play ball and helping you with homework, mine was taking my innocence from me!”
Twenty years of suppressing Liz’s secret was too much for my emotions. My eyes opened like waterfalls when she said that. We had never before heard explicit details of Liz’s encounter with her father nor did we ever want to. Liz was finally pouring her heart out and we had no choice. We listened in an almost paralyzed state.
“He used to tell me good little girls did those kinds of things, and if I ever told anyone ‘our little secret’ mommy would go to heaven and never come back.” Butch shook his head in disbelief. This was as overwhelming to him as it had been to us more than two decades ago.
Liz continued, “He had stopped for a long time and the next time he tried… was the morning my friends found me.” Sobbing, she reached for a tissue. “I was older and my sense of right and wrong was different. When he tried that last time, I just forced him off me.” Liz wept uncontrollably. “I didn’t let him.”
Gary patted her on the knee, telling her everything would be okay.
“Did you pay Sam to kill your dad, Liz?” Butch asked. Liz snapped her head upright. “Of course not! I didn’t kill him. I just wanted him to stop. I wanted a normal father like everyone else. He was my father,” she sobbed, “he was my father!” Liz excused herself and went to the bathroom where she just needed to compose herself.
“I had no idea,” Butch whispered rubbing his hand over his brow.
“Neither did we,” I answered softly, “not until we walked in and found her naked on her bed, tears streaming down her cheeks.”
I motioned to Sherry to go and check on Liz. When she did, I began to plead with Butch. I had always known him to be an honest and decent person. He was part of our crowd twenty years ago; surely, he knew we couldn’t murder anyone.
“You know her Butch, she was your friend,” I begged with desperation, “I know she didn’t do it… please.”
He grew irritated and confused, glancing back and forth between Gary and me. The uncertainty must have been eating at him. Tiny beads of perspiration formed on his forehead and along his temples just as it did when he was young.
Once Liz regained her composure, she joined us again. She guzzled a glass of water, which Gary had poured for her and placed it down. I was hoping my brief moment alone with Butch had given him a chance to rethink the investigation. Instead, he probed Liz some more.
Butch asked Liz to explain why she hadn’t confronted her mother afterwards about what her father had done to her later. Why not come forward now? There was no way he could hurt her mother. It seemed a legitimate question, one I often pondered.
“You even said yourself, as you got older your sense of right and wrong got better -why not tell her then, after he was dead?” Butch persisted.
That same question had taunted me for years. I never could figure out why Liz wouldn’t tell her mom or any adult especially after he was dead. But I was her friend, and it wasn’t my place to speculate why she reacted the way she did. I could never put myself in her shoes, nor did I want to try. I was just so happy she had finally told her mother and Butch.
“After he was killed, a huge burden was lifted from me. There was no need for me to worry again. It was as though it never happened, and somehow, I subconsciously buried it. Believe me, I was bitter with my mother for a long time. Our relationship became even more strained in high school.” Liz explained to Butch.
Butch agreed to hear the rest of what had transpired on July 4, 1976, so I began to tell him. “We had convinced Sam to get lost and not a moment too soon just as Officer Simms happened upon us.”
“You girls didn’t see the young guy who got into the brawl with Liz’s father, did you?” Simms asked us. We shook our heads so hard I thought my ears would fall off. “If you do, don’t bother with him, come find me.”
“Sure thing, Officer Simms,” I said.
It was only seconds ago that we had watched Sam enter his rig and pull away. If officer Simms had looked towards the entrance of the gravel parking lot, he would have seen the tail end of Sam’s truck. The nasty fumes still lingered behind. That was the last we ever saw Sam.
Once he was gone, we had felt pretty good about what we had done, as though Liz had not a care in the world. I don’t know what we had hoped would happen between Liz and her dad, but I just figured he wouldn’t hurt her anymore. We all did.
We never did get an answer from Sam as to what he said during their scuffle, but Liz figured one of two things would happen in the morning: Her father would either confront her about what Sam had said, or Mr. Townsend would never bother Liz again and go on pretending to be the All- American dad everyone thought him to be.
For now, we had more important things, like our first night of drinking beer with the boys. We were already running late so we raced through the festival, hoping not to run into any of our parents.
When we finally arrived at McNurney’s Pond, Sherry retrieved her brother’s old duffel bag from where she had stashed it earlier. We could hear Danny, Gary, Sean and Butch goofing off near the water. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realized they had started the party without us. Several crushed beer cans were scattered across the outlying base of the pond’s edge.
Sherry wasted no time. She ran up to meet Gary, whipped her shirt over her head, exposing her hot pink string bikini and jumped into the pond. We each wore our swimsuits under our clothes that night, knowing where we would be heading later that evening.
Sherry practically threw herself at Gary. There was nothing unusual about her behavior, but I just couldn’t see what Gary liked about her other than her reputation as a sure thing. The rest of us gathered under the aged Weeping Willow, near where Butch had fallen off the rope.
We paired up as we usually did: Gary and Sherry, Sean with Gabby, Butch and Liz and Danny with me. Gary had brought enough beers for the guys, and Sherry’s brother, Seth, provided us with ours. We were nervous about drinking and the repercussions that could possibly follow if we got caught. But as usual, Sherry assured us our late curfew would work to our benefit. Our parents would remain at the Bicentennial after hours for clean-up. We would make sure to beat them home.
Feeling a surge of confidence, we passed around the Black Label cans. I put the frothy liquor to my lips and nearly gagged as the bitter taste stuttered down my throat. The lower quadrant of my stomach felt a slight tingling sensation. The fizz alone was enough to make my eyes tear, but I guzzled quickly until each swig got easier. It seemed awkward just sitting there drinking, one mouthful after the other. We talked and laughed as the boys mimicked our singing from the competition. The guys had loosened up quicker than the rest of us. They had a head start, and I was fairly certain they had done this before. I know for Gabby, Liz and myself it was another first.
Danny had moved in closer toward me and wrapped his arm around my waist. I didn’t particularly like him as much more than a friend and faking it was getting old. It was such a forced feeling but hurting with him honesty felt rude. I didn’t want to send him the wrong message either. Just because we kissed a few times playing some stupid game didn’t mean we were an item. It always seemed too forced with him. He would never be Gary.
Sherry was practically sitting on Gary’s lap. I noticed he didn’t look enthralled by Sherry’s aggressiveness. For the past few days, it was as though he was less interested in her. But according to Sherry, things were still hot and heavy.
Sean and Gabby were to my right. Next to them, sat Butch and Liz who acted more like brother and sister. Butch had emptied several cans, and I noticed Liz had put away two before I had even downed my first. She had every right to celebrate.
After an hour had passed, Sean and Gabby went for a walk. I knew Gabby had been fond of Sean, but I never thought she would let things go any further than heavy petting especially because of how controlling her father was. She had just turned 15 she was too young to understand or appreciate the repercussions involving a sexual relationship.
Gabby winked at me as she left, “I’ll meet you at the fireworks, Pepper.”
“Are you forgetting he was there for all of this,” Sherry reminded me.
“I know but you said not to leave anything out.” Gary looked at me with his brow raised, “maybe you ought to just stick to the part that relates to Mr. Townsend and Liz.” I knew what Gary was hoping to avoid but since we were being honest, I figured every detail had relevance. “Just skip the part when we were drinking. We were there; we know what happened,” snarled Sherry. I think she was hoping to save herself the embarrassment of what happened next.
“See you later,” I said to Gabby and then gave her a thumbs-up. Butch and Liz were sitting near the water's edge skipping stones, one after another. He was trying to teach Liz the proper technique to make the pebble hop three or four times before sinking. He’d guide her hand and gently snap her wrist. Completely harmless and by all means platonic.
Danny’s hands were beginning to wander again. I pushed them down back around my waist. I didn’t understand what he was hoping would happen, especially right in front of Sherry and Gary. “Don’t,” I whispered in his ear. He listened but not before blurting out some rude remark.
Sherry had at least three or four beers and was acting sloppy and more forward than usual. Her words were slurred and she’d occasionally spit on Gary when she spoke. Then she stood up again and ran towards the water trying to coax Gary to join her. She jumped in again and was so inebriated she even began being flirtatious with Butch, by splashing water and toying with him.
I made eye contact with Gary for a split second, and he rolled his eyes at her obnoxious behavior. “Come on in and join me Gar!” she yelled splashing the water in our direction. Gary glanced at me again, but this time I could tell he was embarrassed by her antics. Something told me; things with he and Sherry were about to end.
Gary called her to come out of the water. Instead, she started teasing Butch again. “Come on Herman Oswald… come in and keep me warm! All that blubber ought to do the trick!” Butch’s eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store but he never left Liz’s side. He knew Sherry’s type. She could be obnoxious... add alcohol and we had an instant asshole.
Gary walked to the water’s edge, “Let’s go, Sherry. You’re wasted!”
“Am not, Gary. Come in with me,” she teased.
As she splashed the water’s surface, Gary paced back and forth waiting for her to come out. Growing impatient, he walked up and joined Butch and Liz beneath the Willow tree where he began tidying up the mess, placing the empties back into the duffel bag.
By this time Danny’s advances were irritating me. I threw his arms off me. “Danny, I don’t like you like that! Now please stop it!”
“Jesus, Pepper but I thought we were …”
“Well, you thought wrong!”
“No problem!” he said, as he stormed away.
He took two beers with him and ran into the water, bringing one for Sherry. I wasn’t shocked. He was a fifteen-year-old boy who was hoping to get lucky. I just didn’t like him in that way.
Gary dropped his gym bag down and joined me. It made a clinking noise when it hit the ground.
“Are you okay?” he inquired.
“I’ll be fine.”
“She can be a real ass, can’t she?” I giggled when he said it and I nodded.
“Danny’s not much better,” I mumbled.
“I thought you really liked him.”
“Not like that.” I said.
“That’s not what Sherry told him.”
“Oh really. Is that what she said?” I scoffed.
Occasionally, we could hear a deafening blast. They must have been testing the fireworks even though we couldn’t see anything yet. For the next 30 minutes Gary and I talked about everything imaginable. It was the most time I had ever spent with him alone. He was very easy to talk to. I thought Sherry would have come out to check on us, but she and Danny were still goofing around in the pond. She’d climb on his shoulders and then dive off. I continued glancing in her direction, hoping she wasn’t interested in what Gary was doing.
I held back my urge to lean over and kiss Gary. The beer I had been nursing all night was causing me to feel this urge. “I’m sorry Gary, but I have to…you know,” I hinted, “go the bathroom.”
“Do you want me to walk you into the woods?”
“If you don’t mind,” I said smiling, “but don’t look!”
“I wouldn’t dare,” he grimaced.
No one even noticed us disappear. Liz had mastered the technique of skipping stones, and now Butch was teaching her how to tie a knot in a blade of grass by using his teeth. It was hard to tell what Danny and Sherry were doing in the water. We heard voices and laughter but unless they were directly under the moonlight, they could no longer be seen nor could we.
“You stay here,” I directed Gary. I carefully placed my feet hoping to avoid a branch or twig from flying up and scratching me. The clamors from the Bicentennial were getting closer. I even saw a few sparks high in the sky.
I made it to my secluded spot with little time to spare. Afterwards, I called for Gary. “Are you there, Gary?” When he didn’t answer back, I got nervous. I quickly pulled my shorts up, cautiously stepped around the soaked area and started back through the path I had made for myself. “Gary!” I called a little louder.
My edginess turned to panic when he didn’t answer me the second time. I hoped he wasn’t planning on playing a trick on me. I was almost back to the place where I had left him when an arm reached out and pulled me off my feet, the other hand was clenched around my mouth. I was pushed to the ground in an instant. Impulsively, I thought it was Sam back for revenge. I kicked him in the shins with every ounce of energy I had and clumsily fell on top of him.
“Ouch!” he whimpered.
“Shh, Pepper, it’s me!” He turned me toward him. In the moonlight I could see a silhouette of his face, a perfectly chiseled jaw and stunning looks. “Shh,” he whispered again, “They’re looking for us.”
He continued holding me, one arm wrapped around my waist and the other he slid away from my mouth and placed it on my shoulder. His thumb rested just over my clavicle, against my breastbone. My mind instantly filled with teenage desires.
“It’s Sherry and Danny, they’re looking for us.”
“Pepper! Gary!” We heard them calling in the distance. I would have answered them but instead followed Gary’s lead. And besides, I was in Gary Angeli’s arms, alone in the woods.
Their voices grew distant and the crunching sound from their feet more remote. “They’re probably heading back for the fireworks,” I whispered to him.
I picked myself up and brushed my legs off. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
He was rubbing his shin. Although I couldn’t see it, I reached to touch it. He had a huge welt.
“Who did you think I was? I told you I’d be waiting right here.”
“Too many scary movies I guess.”
It was Gary who suggested we walk back to the pond to make sure the others remembered to gather all the cans. It was a good thing we did. There were cans still scattered around the embankment. Gary favored his leg as we collected as many empties as we could spot but the dimly lit sky made the task difficult.
“Maybe we should go get you some ice,” I suggested.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
We heard a rattle of pops and the sky began to light up with an array of colors. I had been looking forward to the fireworks. Liberty had been planning this celebration for nearly a year. It was supposed to be the largest display in the area. However, I was alone with Gary Angeli – the one boy whose very presence made me melt. I sensed he was feeling something for me as well, but I didn’t dare step onto Sherry’s playing field, or did I? “Lean your leg against this,” I said pointing to the cooler inside his duffel bag, “it’s still cold.”
“Good idea,” he said smiling. Gary’s suntanned skin made a beautiful backdrop for his perfectly aligned teeth.
I remember July 4th 1976 vividly but not for the same reason many historians may. My body trembled as he sat next to me. I pretended it was from holding the cooler against his shin, though I knew it to be something else. I was unable to control the quivering sensation in my inner thighs. I grew anxious with the thought of what might happen next.
Secretly, I rationalized what I was about to do. This was one of my best friend’s boyfriends. However, in fairness to myself, I introduced him to Sherry. Surely, I had known him longer. That must count for something. I kept telling myself this again and again until I justified it in my mind.
The sky was glowing with red, white and blue sparkles, the soft scent of burnt fire lingered in the air and Gary was sitting under my favorite Weeping Willow at McNurney’s Pond.
It was the most monumental evening in my adolescent life. He took my hand off his shin and turned my chin gently in his direction. My eyes met with his and instead of waiting for him to kiss me, I quickly leaned in and kissed him first. His lips were firmer than I had imagined but well worth the wait. I was the first to pull away. “Why did you stop?” he asked. I shook my head. “I can’t do this to Sherry.”
“She’s just drunk Gary…I’m sure tomorrow you’ll feel different.”
“She’s too pushy. She’s not my type.” I couldn't tell if he sounded honest or desperate. He had spent the past several months with her.
I gave him one of those looks, the one you get from your parent when they don’t believe your story.
“Honest, Pepper, I used to ask her about you all the time.”
He smiled again and whatever he said to me after that could have been plagiarized from a book and I wouldn’t have cared. I had it bad for Gary and these sensations were driving me crazy.
“She told me you really liked Danny,” he said reaching for the last beer in the cooler.
“Oh, did she?” I stopped myself before saying what I was really thinking.
“Sherry and I… never…you know,” he confessed.
“What?” I gasped.
Those stories she had told us, nothing but tales. I couldn’t believe it. Sherry had entertained us all spring and summer about their little trysts. We lived to hear each juicy tidbit. Why would she lie?
“We kissed, nothing more,” he admitted.
My night was about to get even better. I reached over and took a swig from his can. What did I care? I hoped it would give me the liquid courage I needed for what I expected we were about to do. He reached over and we kissed again. He pressed his body next to me and I could feel his chest beat in sync with mine. It was the first time I had kissed with my tongue, and I could taste the beer from his mouth, an unpleasant tang.
“Oh, muy, Goad! I didn’t know that!” Sherry divulged. Hearing this for the first time had obviously stunned her, though I suspect she knew I had feelings for him soon after she moved to Liberty.
“Be quiet, Sherry! I want to hear the rest,” Gabby told her.
I glanced at Gary’s blushing face. He probably had no inkling how colossal that night was for me.
“So, the two of you weren’t at the fireworks display after all?” Butch asked.
“Not exactly,” I admitted.
Sherry probably never expected I could do that to her. As far as I was concerned, it happened twenty years ago. I didn’t tell her then because I didn’t want to hurt her. Truth be told, I was even disappointed in myself for having given in to my feelings and betraying my friend. And I never told her later because there was never any reason. Gary and I never amounted to anything.
“We were teenagers - nothing more than crazy teenagers,” Gary defended me, albeit; calling us crazy didn’t make me feel any better. That night was anything but crazy for me. “Besides,” Gary added, “you were digging your hooks into Danny if memory serves me correctly.”
“Whateva’,” Sherry murmured.
“Help me out, Pepper,” Butch interrupted, “You never heard or saw anything out of the ordinary?” There was no point in telling Butch I was too busy losing my virginity to notice anything as important as a murder. I wanted to spare both Gary and I any more embarrassment so I didn't share that detail.
“Nope, not a thing,” I said.
“Nothing,” confirmed Gary.
Somehow, I managed to get myself out that sticky situation without any of them knowing Gary was my first. And remembering how clumsy and inept our love-making was, I’m fairly sure, I was Gary’s first as well.