I’m outside again.
I know it’s June and I know I’m supposed to be feeling the Central Maryland humidity encompass my blood-covered body even at night, but I’m numb. From behind my father I gaze down at my feet, my daily, worn-out, now red-splattered sneakers are replaced by my old gym shoes from the school year. Before hauling me out here to the closed river docks, Dad tossed my original pair in the washing machine to clash in the soap, water, and dump of what seemed like a pound of baking soda with the clothes I wore today, hopefully erasing all that damn blood.
I trip on the gravel, guided only by the streetlights and an occasional gleaming bulb in neighbors’ windows. Dressed in a clean t-shirt and shorts, I scan my arms and legs again. Because he’s lying. He must be. Of course he is.
I clutch my uncomfortably wide iPhone in my cold, clammy hand
shaped like a gun?
and stumble along the glistening blackness of the recently paved road, feeling my knees collapse inward in a weak limp. I’m tired. Lord knows I’m exhausted and I keep wailing that claim to my father, but all it does is accelerate his march instead of slow him down. He keeps mumbling under his breath, panic seeping through his tone in the most subtle way possible, but I notice it because panic never touches him.
“Dammit Hayden. Goddamn it. He got to you. He got to Hayden. He got to my daughter. That son of a bitch. How could you let this happen?”
Then he clears his throat, convincing me that he never said anything at all. That I’m dreaming and I shouldn’t worry about it. His expression is stone-cold. He’s a robot. All that was, well, it was a glitch. I’ll understand in the morning. I just need to sleep.
He’s lying. Of course he’s lying.
Just burn in hell, burn in hell and don’t come back
The streetlights glow out of the corner of my eye, connecting the dots, connecting the houses, connecting the neighborhoods, connecting the miles, connecting the city to King and King to the woods and the woods to the dead body that I am responsible for and that I will die for and that I will be damned for.
“Go to hell.”
“See you there.”
I will. I’ll see them all there.
And then I wonder if I made a mistake. If I really shot Darius Blecker, if the fire of the gun actually came from the gun my hands. If Violet shot me instead. Maybe the hesitation lasted too long, and I’m dead, and my dad is leading me through the emptiness of hell. Maybe the street lights that burn above me are really fireballs that will begin to rain upon me any second now so I could crumple to ashes and drip through the tiny cracks of the blacktop and dissolve into nothing. Nothing at all….
Hell is the feeling of nothing. Hell is this.
And then there’s the damp grass perking up from beneath pebbles under my feet by the river. The pebbles blanket the ground surrounding the dock, sizing up as they spread closer to the water that flutters to the surface, brightly reflecting moonlight. Against the night sky on the other side of the water is the chunky, inked-out figure of the woods.
On that side is the man I turned to stone.
My phone is a heavy weight, but I grasp it as if the light breeze will knock it out of my hands and it will fly away.
Dad turns around, his toes dancing on the dock. “We need to get rid of it.”
“What?” I ask..
Blood. So much blood. Too much blood.
Violet would handle it, that’s what she said
My father closes his eyes, standing steady in his jeans and t-shirt, an outfit I almost never had the privilege to see him in anymore. “Your phone. We need to get rid of it. We both know it contains proof you went out tonight.”
I squint past him. “‘Get rid of it’? What do you mean? I just got this last year.”
god I need to SLEEP.
“I need you to do this. Throw it in or I will. The current’s strong--it’ll sink and be close to bay by morning. Destroyed. Throw it in.”
I rub my eyes, waiting to wake up. “Are you aware of how much this costs?”
“Hayden, stay with me. Throw it in the river.”
A sick giggle, feeling every one of the few texts Violet Wren has ever sent me tingling in the palm of my hand like light electricity. Proposing I sneak out. Proposing a murder.
Ah, what the hell. It’ll be next to me on my nightstand when I wake up. Great thing about dreams: you get away with murder and then chuck seven-hundred dollars in a river right on your neighborhood! Nice!
“You’re out of your damn mind.” And then I fling the phone from my hands aiming for the middle of the current, and it plops into the water and sinks instantly like a person with pockets full of stones.
I stand there like an idiot.
He’s gotten to me. He wins.
His head tilts to the side and he peers at me like his brain no longer categorizes me as someone he recognizes. His expression breaks so that for once he isn’t studying mine. “What?”
I don’t remember him ever looking at me that way. I don’t remember his voice ever rocking as much as it is. He never cared whether or not I went to jail, he just loved settling his lies to seep into my blood like venom. “You didn’t...know?”
“I…” His soft eyes remain puzzled, selecting his words carefully. He flicks a glimpse through the screen window, Violet’s tiny size five flats aligned flawlessly against the staircase. “I didn’t know that...she had a hand in his homicide. I should have, though. I should’ve known she had a reason to…. You’d think I wouldn’t have been so careless.” His lips collapse into an ugly frown as I flinch at the complexity of the word “homicide,” and he presses his hands together. “I’m so sorry, Hayden.”
I draw back from him, appalled. “So what did you think?” I accuse, “I killed him because I went crazy after Samara died?”
“Please lower your voice,” my father orders faintly, eyes flashing again through the screen door.
“No!” I gaze at the front lawn, where pieces of my client file dance across the radiantly green grass. “You knew, Dad. You knew because you were the one I called that night! I was covered in blood; I killed somebody, don’t you get it?! I am a--”
I still can’t say it out loud.
I can’t say it out loud.
I CAN’T SAY IT OUT LOUD.
I rush past him, leaning over the front porch, and the wooden railing rams into my stomach. I blink and see him again, Darius Blecker, dead, stone, lifeless, frozen dust on the floor against his kitchen counter. His golden-brown skin transformed into a vile, dull shade of sand.
And the blood.
Oh God, the blood.
I’m going to throw up. I am going to throw up.
But all I can do is gasp, gripping the white-painted railing in front of me. Gasp, gasp, never breathe.
“Hayden, please. Hayden, inhale. Inhale, exhale.” Pain ripples across his face as he hurries to his feet and cautiously reaches across the porch to stroke my shoulder. “I have something to tell you. I’m asking you to listen.”
His words drift into my throat, creating a lump. My expression hardens.
“I knew Darius Blecker had raped and killed Dana Farr when I agreed to be his lawyer. I knew about his social media scam, he had confessed to it all during our first meeting. As you know, the law firm offered his case to me because of the attention it was receiving and I was the best they had. Lawyers aren’t supposed to hide criminals. We’re supposed to do the opposite. I broke my oath for the money and I take responsibility for abusing the power that I was given in the opportunity to defend him. I proved him innocent knowing he was guilty. I lied to the court.”
I grip the wood, panting as I gaze at the front lawn, out into the quiet street. A neighbor stands over her tiny mulched garden on the side of her yard from the across the street, completely oblivious that she’s been sleeping across from a murderer over the past two months.
I want more than anything to apologize to Samara.
“It’s all my fault,” he whispers.
God, what is wrong with me.
He wipes his eyes. “I’m the one who made you into a target.”
I’m. So. Stupid.
“I know what Violet was thinking. And I’m the reason she thought of it in the first place.”
I need to turn myself in. Right. Now.
“Look, the truth is I don’t know for sure if he killed Samara…”
...can’t stay here.
“...but if he did, if he did anything at all, it’s because of me. He should’ve been behind bars three years ago.”
I need to leave.
“You don’t understand. When I was first working on his case and trying to find ways to hide his fake profile online, I was overwhelmed by the desire to be labelled as the best of the best. I tampered with things I wasn’t supposed to, and some of the public suspected that. Darius was declared innocent but with numerous gaps in the case that were never filled because the evidence was gone. No one was officially held responsible for Dana Farr’s death, even though it was obvious in her autopsy that she’d been killed in a very...wicked way with attempted rape. It’s because of me.”
I blink and eye our neighbor in her yard and peek at him over my shoulder without a word. My father has never taken responsibility for anything in his life and I was lending my guilt to him. I wanted this. I’ve wanted to break him ever since I pulled the trigger. I’ve wanted to break everyone and everything since I pulled the trigger.
I’m not so sure.
Dad continues, pushing his hands behind his back. “You and Tyler don’t know this, but preparing for the trial almost destroyed your mother’s and my marriage. She didn’t want me to take the case despite the promise of an impressive paycheck. Baltimore doesn’t have as many opportunities in law as cities like Los Angeles, New York or Washington D.C. You know I lived in D.C. for a while after law school, and was still struggling to get a real job as an attorney, granted my lack of experience. The job opportunity for the law firm for which I work in Baltimore came up shortly after your mother and I got engaged, and it paid well compared to the internships I worked in D.C., so we settled here for a mediocre salary compared to what I could’ve gotten if I’d waited a couple of years. Your mother had no difficulty finding a job in Baltimore, so I followed her.
“I quickly became the highest paid attorney in Baltimore after a few years of defending. But in 2013, Darius Blecker’s case had to have been the most intriguing case seen by my law firm in over a decade. Being offered the case was an enormous opportunity for me, and winning it guaranteed stable retirement almost immediately after you’d graduate, and if I decided otherwise, your mother and I could even move to New York or Washington as experienced lawyers if we so decided. Or we could travel. Or move to a more rural area and unwind. But no matter how much I tried to explain the great possibilities the case offered, she refused to see it my way.
“She knew how much the locals passed judgement on Blecker. He didn’t have the best background. He was raised in an abusive household up until drug use eventually killed both his parents by the time he was fourteen, and dropped out of high school mid-sophomore year. He sacrificed it all to follow in his parents’ footsteps, had a criminal history of multiple drug deals and sexual assaults committed in his mid-twenties. Paid minimum jail time due to weak cases--around fifteen years in prison combined for the crimes. Once released, he stuck around Baltimore to reconnect with his grandparents. To what seemed like everyone both your mother and I knew, it was obvious that Darius had killed Dana Farr, and it was preposterous that I would throw everything away for him.
“After a few weeks passed, I agreed to the case anyway. At first, I didn’t even tell her, knowing that she would label me as a villain if she found out, but I did tell her eventually. For the sake of you and your brother, we kept our quarrels private. You were just finishing elementary school and Tyler was starting high school. Our disagreements weren’t fatal, but we didn’t want to confuse you. After a few family members discovered who I was defending, however, your mom began discussing the possibility of divorce. It crushed me. Desperate to save our marriage, I began digging around like a madman to find loopholes for Darius’ innocence. For attorneys, ‘loopholes’ can be some of the biggest risks ever taken in a career. Either smooth out the edges perfectly and give the court gaps to fill, or have gaps on your end and destroy your career. I couldn’t frame someone with evidence of attempted rape and murder, but I could create a clean slate for my client. With my marriage in mind, that’s what I did.
“I had gone out to a bar in Baltimore one night after meeting with Darius and met some early-thirties man who should’ve been behind bars instead of buying me a beer. I don’t even remember his name, but he was a genius computer hacker. He knew how to completely wipe a bank account without a trace, get ahold of someone else’s bills or social security, or entirely shut down the purpose of a computer all together. With the knowledge of Darius’s Facebook profile on which he disguised himself and talked to Dana, I hired the hacker for an outrageous amount of my own money to erase the history of that profile completely, as well as fake evidence that Darius did not go out the night Dana was killed at all. Darius was a smart killer--he left no trace of DNA anywhere on the crime scene. I guess he must’ve been covered head to toe or wiped down the entire place. The evidence held against him appeared very weak.
“When I won the trial, our marriage slowly healed. Your mother is still very sensitive to the topic.”
The grass below me sways in the light breeze as I remember how Mom wrecked my computer over an article on Darius Blecker just days ago.
From inside, our wall phone chirps loudly, snatching our attentions. With a sickening dent in my stomach, I turn around and follow Dad into the house when he spends seconds conversing dully with the caller, then turns to me with a vacantness in his eyes that I can’t identify.
“That was Ms. Zhao. She’s received word that Vincent Galen committed suicide last night. Romano and the others have reason to believe that it was him who killed Darius Blecker. Your investigation has been postponed.”