Segments: Psychological Suspense Short Fiction By V.S. Kemanis
V.S. Kemanis, author of Segments, has published five collections of short fiction, the latest of which, Your Pick: Selected Stories, received the Eric Hoffer Award for best story collection. She is a board member of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Maybe I want to impress them. I’m in the Mustang convertible, my summer car. In the lot, closing the top, I see Niki heading for the restaurant door. Her hair is shorter, a close cushion of tight curls, but there’s no mistaking her. The slim hips, the muscular walk, a defensive toughness she acquired after moving here, junior year of high school. Protection. She was an alien beauty, different, not easily understood.
I press my key fob for the chirp and follow her in. She doesn’t notice me. Turned her back long ago.
Inside, my pupils shrink and readjust to the dimness. “Pupil” was one of my better episodes on Segments.
It’s a Friday in June, summer’s eve. Vanna chose this venue, our former hangout, The Cobblestone, where we once gorged on hamburgers, milk shakes, and fries. Teenagers, bottomless pits. Today we’ll be drinking, not eating. Vanna emailed that she’d get us a booth in the barroom.
Inside, my pupils shrink and readjust to the dimness. “Pupil” was one of my better episodes on Segments. Two million hits, all platforms combined, short and long versions. On the podcast, I interviewed an ophthalmologist and played a slam poetry reading. On the visual, I layered our voices over closeups of shrinking and enlarging pupils. Dozens, my own included. Darkness and light, a plunge into the depths of perception.
Monetization for “Pupil” came in at 400K.
The Cobblestone is crowded. The dark décor is shabbier with age but otherwise unchanged. Even in the low light, Vanna can’t be missed, second booth in. She’s a vibrating beacon in white, her face shiny as a new penny, eager for us. Twenty pounds heavier, she’s piled into a clingy summer dress and still displays her trademark pink. Lipstick and nails.
She greets Niki with a little “Eek!” and a superficial hug with two air kisses, right cheek and left. There’s a quieter “Eek” for me, but I turn to Niki first. What the hell. Eyes averted, I pull Niki in for a tight, full frontal, and she gives it back. A good pretender. Then Vanna gives me a cushiony side-embrace with an air kiss. One.
“Can you believe it?” Vanna bubbles. “Here we are. Three old ladies!” It’s a joke of course, but maybe Vanna feels old at 33. Her main asset, the cuteness, was packaged better in her teens.
Briefly, we eye each other with dopey little smiles. Such close friends, once upon a time.
“Raphaella,” Niki says, very proper. Her sharp, direct look takes my breath away.
“Nicole,” I mimic, but can’t meet her eyes. I turn and say, “Vanessa.” No problem there.
Vanna’s giggle breaks the spell, and we burst out laughing. Here we are, indeed, The Trio, Niki, Vanna, and Ralph. Under the laughter we feel the truth of our past. We’ll have a few drinks and make small talk, just to prove that we’re good people. After that, I can blow off the reunion in good conscience. Saturday afternoon, a family picnic. Saturday evening, a formal dinner at the country club. Sunday noon, a champagne brunch. Our class is large and successful, portending a big turnout. Two days of plastic smiles, elevator summaries, polite laughter, hidden anguish. Maybe a few denied misdemeanors.
I haven’t seen my besties from Stone Ridge High for fifteen years, although I’ve gleaned the vague outlines of their lives from social media. After getting her B.A. at Rutgers, Vanna returned here to our hometown, while Niki stayed in D.C. after graduating from Howard University. Everyone knows what I do, and I’m not up for playacting humility at a family picnic or country club dinner. Tomorrow morning, maybe, I’ll head back to the city in my Mustang.
We recover from our nervous laughter and slide into the booth, Vanna behind her glass of rosé, and Niki opposite her. I choose the seat next to Niki, where I can avoid her eyes. Looking at Vanna across the table is comparatively easy. No crushing regret or loss of breath. If my thigh happens to touch Niki’s in the cramped booth, I won’t mind that either.
Vanna’s cheery face reminds me of the “bling” that announced her email, cc to Nicole, five minutes after I received the Evite from the reunion committee. When I opened her email, I imagined a shimmering hologram, the ponytailed, perfumed, and pink-lipped cheerleader, mouthing an irresistible invitation: “We should get together!” Always an exclamation point. Did I want to see them? Not Vanna particularly, but Niki, yes, the girl I was never able to impress. In the intended way. The desired way.
I didn’t respond for a few days. Maybe a week. The emails kept popping up with little hints that the social media influencer must be “very, very busy.” True. I’m forever immersed in my current project. Each week, Segments honors a different part of a woman’s body. Not the obvious or cliché parts, but discrete, tiny bits, enigmatic collections of cells. An eyelash, an earlobe, a pinky toenail, a single dimple at the back of a knee. There are many segments yet to explore, but Vanna managed to hook me. I said yes, wondering if it was a mistake.
Glass to lips, Vanna’s eyes dart to Niki before landing on me. She puts the glass down. “We’re thrilled you could make it, Ralph. You’re such a mystery woman. We thought you might not want to be seen. Your whole self, anyway!” She giggles.
“Didn’t everyone think that Ralph was a man?” A low, husky voice. Niki’s question and blasé tone reveal that she hasn’t been following me. Virtually.
“I’ve been made,” I correct her. “Over a year now.” The gimmick with the name couldn’t last forever, even though I’ve never revealed more than tiny bits of myself on Segments. “The paparazzi got to me. Candid photos are all over the Web. But no big surprise. Many people here suspected it was me.”
“I saw some of your early work and didn’t suspect you at all. Could’ve been a man.” As Niki speaks, my eyes are on her hand on the tabletop. That lovely bump in her slender wrist suggests a new Segments piece—the tip of the ulna.
Or a sliver of midriff, below a belly shirt. The server’s. I look up at her and order a dry martini with a twist. Vanna covers her half-full wineglass and shakes her head. Niki orders a whisky sour.
“We sure have a lot to catch up on.”
“Tell me about you, Vanna. How’s your life been?”
She seems flattered by my interest. “Not as exciting as yours, I bet! I’ve put my career on hold. I’m having too much fun being a momma!”
I haven’t a clue what her interrupted career entails or who the offspring, singular or plural, might be. “How old…?”
“Jessica is three. She’s an angel—a handful, of course! But a pure delight. And guess what, gals. It’s time again! We’re trying for another.” The glistening mouth curls sensuously and caresses the rim of her glass. She takes a bold sip of the blush wine.
“Jessica. How nice.” A catchy sibilance in Vanna’s family, Jessica and Vanessa. The distinct peaks on Vanna’s full upper lip, enhanced by precision pink, shape her speech nicely. Lips are too big for Segments. I’ve done a corner of a mouth and half a cupid’s bow, the two episodes bringing in about 900K.
“You’ll see her at the picnic. And Mickey too. He’s such a great dad. You’re coming tomorrow, aren’t you?” Vanna’s creamy brow knits prettily over her needful eyes. She’s so invested in this.
“Of course,” Niki says.
I change my almost-plan of blowing off the reunion. I’m here, I’m a good person, and Vanna deserves to show off her kid. “I’ll be there. It’ll be good to see Mickey again.” Vanna’s high school sweetheart. At my side, I feel the heat rising from Niki’s body, and with it, my stubborn hope rekindles. Mickey and Vanna are the success story. Other high school matches didn’t progress beyond unrequited longings. Impossible pairings, two anguished loves, ending in one big fat tragedy.
The server brings our drinks. As we sip, Vanna glances around the barroom. “I’ll bet some classmates from Stone Ridge are here.” A darting glance at Niki, and her eyes resume their roaming. Her gaze halts midway down the bar. Out the side of her mouth, she says, “Is that…? I can’t think of her name. That woman by herself.”
Our eyes follow Vanna’s. Milling bodies partially obscure a woman of about our age, sitting alone, sandwiched between two couples. She wears an Oxford shirt and fitted slacks, like she’s just come from work, and sips from a tall glass of soda. Waiting for someone?
“I don’t know her,” Niki says.
“You’re probably thinking of Heather Dennison.” In high school, I kept track of everyone in our class, mentally categorizing their supposed attributes like colored marbles on a gameboard. “That woman looks like Heather, but it isn’t her. She isn’t anyone we know.” I’m the authority, so they don’t question me and change the subject.
Vanna touches Niki’s hand and says, in a voice heavy with subtext, “How are you doing these days?”
“Better, thank you.”
“Sorry! I didn’t know if you wanted to talk about it.” Vanna’s eyes brush mine. I’m the interloper in a continued friendship between two-thirds of The Trio.
“It’s okay,” Niki assures her. “It’s been a few months. I’m almost used to the idea he’s gone.”
They let it drop. Did they think I wouldn’t notice? “Who’s the ‘he’ and where did he go?”
“My boyfriend of about five years. Damon. There were problems… We fought bitterly, said some nasty things. He left me and hasn’t been back. Won’t return my calls or texts. I’ve given up. It’s clear he doesn’t want to see me.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I say. This man Damon is obviously a fool, no better than the boys at Stone Ridge, back in the day. Something about Niki poses a threat to delicate male egos. Her intellect? Her beauty? Niki defies labels or slots on the gameboard. Boys kept their distance from her and gravitated to me. The popular Ralph attracted anthills of admirers, toppling each other to get close. I kept a cache of boyfriends on public display, never contradicting their boasts and lies, skillfully avoiding a reputation known by that sexist moniker, “The Tease.”
“Thanks,” Niki says. “Soon enough, I’ll be too busy to think about him. In August, I start Georgetown Law. My problems with Damon made me rethink my goals in life.”
“Congratulations. You’ll be a great lawyer.” I’m sincere, but somehow, my tone sounds facetious. I turn to the bar and catch a flurry of movement. The Oxford-shirt woman is suddenly interested in rattling her ice cubes.
At my back, Niki says, “How about you, Ralph? Do you have a significant other?” An interesting way to phrase it.
“Not at the moment.” Or ever, I fail to add. “I get a lot of come-ons from obsessed followers, people I need to avoid. I do get a few legitimate offers from nice people. Just don’t have the time.”
Speaking of come-ons, the woman at the bar dares to flash me a low-lidded inspection. The distraction nearly causes me to miss the innuendo in Niki’s next comment. “So little time, right? Why bother at all, especially when you have no use for…them.” The hesitation gives her away. She means “men” instead of “them.” Or maybe “him.” No use for him. Isaac Lamb.
RIP, Isaac. I’ve whispered it a million times in the last fifteen years, along with a prayer that the sudden blast of wind in his face pushed everything out of his mind. Give me a sign. Tell me that you forgot, in the moment before the end.
On the tail of Niki’s innuendo, Vanna sputters gleefully, “No use for the P-P-P’s!” Huge pink lips stretch wide over brilliant teeth.
The betrayal stuns me. Vanna was always on the fringe of this. When did Niki tell her that detail? Back then, or today, just before our little meeting?
Pathetic puny prick.
Vanna covers her mouth with a hand and giggles. “Gosh, I haven’t had a whole glass of wine in ages!” She lifts her empty glass. I drain mine now.
Niki comes to my rescue. “Cut it out, Vanna. All that’s behind us.”
“Sorry, Ralph,” Vanna says. “Don’t know what got into me.” But she snags me with a tiny hook in those river blue eyes.
I want to disappear. I study my fingers, playing with the stem of my empty martini glass. “We’re different people now. There isn’t a single cell in our bodies left over from senior year.” My sweet half-truth doesn’t account for cell memory, cloning, bad seeds spawning others. I suspect the worst, a persistent segment deep inside me—a cluster of cruel cells—volatile, molten, eternal.
But Niki takes me by surprise. She places her smooth, brown fingers on my forearm. “Exactly,” she says. “We’ve changed. We are who we are, today.”
She lifts her hand from my arm, and the moment passes.
We all order a second round.
At eight o’clock, I pull crookedly into the driveway of my childhood home. I’m a little drunk. It’s still light outside, a slowly descending dusk. Tomorrow will be the longest day of the year. If I go. I promised Vanna I would. Do I care enough to keep my promises?
Sleep on it. My teenage bedroom anchors the vast emptiness of this house, a huge vacuum sucking out my thoughts. Mom and Dad, in their Golden Years, are off touring Europe. Not sure which country right now, but I could check their itinerary. I found it on the kitchen counter this afternoon, with a handwritten note of sweet regret at having missed my visit. “Enjoy the house, sweetheart,” Mom wrote. “Invite your friends over.” My mother lives in a fantasy world.
The house sits on two acres, fronting on a view of the Hudson River. Trees shield the neighbors on either side. I drop into a rocker on the front porch to ride out the sunset.
In our final hour at The Cobblestone, we kept it superficial. Laughed a lot. Had a third round of drinks. The good time almost made up for their little slips, tinged with loathing, revealing their voracious appetites for laying blame. Still. We parted with big hugs, and I whispered something in Niki’s ear. Did I really say that? The martinis were talking. It was true, what I said, and I refuse to be ashamed.
I’ve been rocking no more than five minutes when a car turns into the driveway. A sage-colored sedan. It creeps in stealthily and comes to a halt next to my gleaming Mustang. The driver steps out.
Unbelievable. The Oxford-shirt lady. I jump to my feet and our eyes catch as she starts up the path. Recognition. “What is this? You followed me?” My arms are crossed in defiant protection of my turf.
She strides forward in military posture. The shirt and slacks are crisp, clean, and shaped to her body. At the bottom of the porch steps, she flashes a badge with ID card. “Detective Leslie Spector, Metropolitan Police, District of Columbia. I did follow you, but only to make sure you didn’t invite your friends here. I need to ask you a few questions about one of them.”
The out-of-towner soft pedals into my shocked silence. “I don’t have to come in. We can sit on the porch, if you like.”
“I thought you were a stalker or paparazzi. I get a lot of those.”
“Understood.” She looks like the type to understand a lot.
I point to a chair. Detective Spector comes up the three steps, and we sit.
“What’s this about?”
“I’m investigating the death of Damon Masterson.”
“Damon… Nicole’s ex-boyfriend? He’s dead?”
She looks at me askance and hesitates. “Yes.” A single word that says, everyone knows this but you.
“The coroner ruled it a suicide, but that was before new evidence came to light. The case is reopened as a possible homicide. Anyone with ties to the decedent is a person of interest.”
“Anyone, meaning Nicole.”
Spector raises her eyebrows.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “The man left her a couple of months ago.”
“On the day he died.” She lets that one sink in, her eyes searching mine. I’m reacting, no doubt. “So,” the detective goes on, “is that what she told you? That he left her?”
“Yes. They had a fight. They broke up. He hasn’t been back.”
Spector levels a penetrating gaze. Her eyes are strangely luminous in the falling light, the gray irises kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing. “I see,” she says, and turns toward the horizon. I wonder if my martini breath stinks. On the other side of the river, a huge orange ball balances on the treetops. She talks to it. “Did you get any other details from her? Did she tell you where they had the fight?” She turns back to me, her face on fire in the golden light.
“No. Just that it was a bad fight. Why don’t you ask her?”
“A fellow officer did, actually. Two months ago, when it looked like suicide.”
“Then why do you need to talk to me? I don’t know anything about it.” But my mind is racing. Why didn’t Niki say anything about Damon’s death? Did the investigator question her without revealing his suicide?
“It’s a delicate matter. Under the circumstances, she’s more likely to be candid with a friend than with the police.” Implying, maybe, that Niki was caught in a lie. My perfect girl, a liar? She’s always been virtuous and ethical, on a higher plane, where she looks down on the blameworthy.
“Well, she hasn’t told me any more than what I just said. I think you’re wasting your time. If it’s homicide, Nicole couldn’t possibly be involved. She was crazy about that guy.”
“All the more reason you should try to draw her out. Tomorrow. Ask her what happened the last time she saw Damon. You might learn something that will eliminate her…as a person of interest.”
Tomorrow. “Draw her out? You want me to trick her into running her mouth?”
“Not that. Just a chat between friends. No deception.”
“That’s what it sounds like to me.”
“Then the best thing would be for you to record the conversation. To protect yourself.”
“You’re kidding. Make an illegal recording?”
“It’s perfectly legal in D.C. In New York too, for that matter. These are single-party consent jurisdictions.”
“It’s the law in most states. Think about it. Anyone can be subpoenaed to testify about a conversation they’ve had, whether it’s recorded or not.”
“Not if it’s evidence of state of mind. Let’s say you’re called into court to testify what Nicole said at The Cobblestone today.” A threat? “You might forget a few things or rephrase a few others. You’re open to claims of distortion, or even perjury. But if it’s recorded, no one can lie about what was said. You’re protected. It’s fair to you both.”
Said like that, the law makes perfect sense. Natural and good, like the earthy scent rising from Spector’s body. I’m drawn in. She has the smell of a clean person on a sunny day.
Invisible suction. Quick. I stand up to break it. Leaning on the porch rail, I think hard. My secret segment is loving this exciting possibility. Drawing Niki out, even recording it. Could the detective be on the right track? Niki, a person of interest. How ironic. How perfect. A power shift, a way to get something on the woman who’s had something on me for fifteen years, the thing that ruined us.
But really. How could this work? She’ll confess that she lied to the police and killed her boyfriend. Laughable. Niki is purity itself.
“Why would I do this for you?” I ask the sunset.
“You say she’s blameless.” At my back, Spector’s voice is calm and confident. “This is a way to prove it. The cleanest, easiest way. You see,” she pauses, “we have evidence. Ambiguous evidence. We need clarity.”
I swing around to face her. “But how did he die? You haven’t said.”
Her face closes down, lips tightly pressed, brow knitted. She doesn’t want to say.
“Okay. I get it. You don’t want me to give anything away. Niki would pick it up and use it. Possibly change her story.”
A wry smile twists the detective’s lips. “You are good, aren’t you? You’re right. It has to come from her or it’s useless. She needs to tell us about her relationship with Damon, their final argument, what they said and where they said it.”
What and where. Again. This must be important. “But if I go in blind, I won’t know if she’s opening up or handing me a line. I won’t know how far to press her. You say it’s a homicide that looks like a suicide. How does that even happen?”
Spector is unfazed. She stands and takes a step toward me. The orange light has turned to gray. “Let’s just say this. A suicide may do the ultimate act that causes his own death—he may, for example, jump off a bridge. But another person can lead the suicide to that point so compellingly or irresistibly that the other person is the one to blame. The other person pushed him. Figuratively. The law, in some cases, recognizes this and punishes it.”
A bridge. A jump. Let’s just say this… An allegory to make a point. Or did they really argue on a bridge, sending Damon over the side?
My heart is hammering. Leslie Spector is standing close to me, our eyes level. Chesty and erect, she’s been advancing as she speaks. “Do you see now?” she asks. “We have a witness who saw something from a distance. Two people, arguing. We need to know if it was her. We need to know what she was saying.”
Spector’s face floats and blurs in shadow. In a blink, she’s rendered in sharp detail. The porchlight. Dad’s timer. We’re thrown out of dreamland, fully revealed under artificial light.
We conduct our business, seal the deal. Her fingertips linger on mine as she slides her business card into my hand. Tomorrow, after the picnic, she will return. I like the idea of seeing her again.
For now, her intrusion plays out in reverse. The official vehicle backs out of the driveway. I watch, clutching her business card in one hand. In the other rests a miniature recording device and transmitter, no bigger than a quarter.
The first day of summer gives us perfect weather for the family picnic. The reunion committee chose the site well. A huge county park on the river. Shade and sun, carpet of green, sparkling water.
I walk past the tables laden with potato salad, fruit, cookies, and soda. My stomach lurches at the aroma of roasting hot dogs. I’m mildly hungover and wear a summer blouse with breast pockets, chosen for my mission. The device is in the pocket over my right breast.
Ten minutes in, I’ve already given left-sided hugs to three former classmates. The throbbing in my head isn’t helped by the near pandemonium. Hundreds of Stone Ridge alums, all 32 or 33, have spawned large numbers of offspring, ages zero to five years.
I spy a smiling Niki on the other side of the park, making her own circuit. She’s wearing a turquoise halter top and white shorts. Our paths, if we keep to them, will land us in the middle, near Vanna.
I arrive first. Mickey says, “Hi, Ralph!” and runs after an escaping toddler, presumably Jessica. He catches her as I’m giving Vanna a left-sided hug. “Always a challenge,” she chirps, “trying to get her to sit still for two seconds!”
Mickey, who’s far more buff than I remember, walks over with Jessica on his hip. “This one’s a little rascal.” He playfully bops the top of her pigtailed head. The girl wiggles and cries to get down.
Over the wailing, I say what’s expected. “She’s adorable.”
“Thank you,” says Vanna. She rubs her husband’s broad back. Later, they will be “trying” for another. Vanna and Mickey exude a sexiness that could embarrass anyone.
Niki walks up and I give her a left-sided hug. Vanna gets Niki’s full frontal this time. After five minutes of impossible chitchat with parents running after a three-year-old, we say goodbye and walk off to a quiet part of the lawn, away from the crowd.
Turns out we have a perfect opener for the talk we’re meant to have: We don’t belong here.
“When they said, ‘family picnic,’ they meant family picnic,” I say.
“It’s nice to see all the kids.”
“Yeah, well. You and I don’t seem to fit in.”
“I wanted all that. To have kids with Damon.”
“He’s a fool for letting you go.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“Come on, Niki. I don’t buy that.”
“We had our problems. Then everything fell apart over a murder case he was working on.”
“He’s a cop?”
“No. He’s a lawyer. A prosecutor. He’s the reason I’m going to law school. I always admired his work, and he encouraged me to apply.”
A prosecutor who commits suicide—is driven to suicide by his girlfriend. An improbable scenario. “What’s the murder case about?”
Niki hesitates, eyes me obliquely. “Two high school girls cyberbullied another girl, smeared her reputation all over social media. The girl killed herself. Damon is prosecuting the bullies for manslaughter. I didn’t know such a case was possible. When Damon told me about it, I fell into a dark place. Everything with Isaac came back. I realized I’ve never gotten over it.”
“Don’t tell me Damon is jealous of a kid you loved in high school.”
“Of course not. I told Damon everything that happened. I shouldn’t have been so honest. We’d been arguing about a lot of things, and this was the final straw. It cost me his respect. He couldn’t understand why I did nothing.”
Back then, my teenage brain understood why. Loyalty is a good thing between friends, isn’t it? I’m shamed by the memory of my juvenile voice and Niki’s acquiescence, her innocent, liquid eyes. There’s nothing we can do. Now, there’s nothing I can say.
“And that’s the thing I haven’t gotten over, Ralph. About myself. Why I told no one about what you did. The way you couldn’t stand how much I loved Isaac. Couldn’t stand it so much you were driven to hurt him. You used his feelings for you and mocked him in the cruelest way. And I told no one.”
The screaming is getting louder. Toddlers and infants, way over there. “What happened to ‘all that’s behind us’? Yesterday. We’re supposed to move on.”
“Vanna was acting ridiculous.”
Maybe the screaming is in my head. My temples throb and I’m lightheaded. With a shock, I realize I’ve forgotten my mission and need to salvage it. “Damon’s a small man to react like that. Breaking up with you about something that happened in high school? I don’t believe it. What did you really argue about?”
Niki doesn’t seem to hear the question. She looks down at her feet, and when she lifts her head, her eyes are glistening, ready for tears. “It was so hard to make friends when I moved here. Vanna was the first. She’s just so open and loves everyone. Then there was you. There was something about you, Ralph. I came under your spell. Isaac was under your spell too. You had a kind of charisma and control.”
This is the first I’ve heard of it, although I remember fooling myself into believing that Niki was drawn to me in the way I liked to imagine.
She goes on. “It didn’t even dawn on me to take this to the police. I should have had the sense to do it. Damon is shocked that I didn’t.” Angrily, she wipes away a tear. “I tried to explain. Tried to describe you. Tried to justify it. Isaac was gone and nothing would bring him back. Your feelings for me… How much was my fault? Why punish you for something you couldn’t help? Isaac’s death was punishment enough. Maybe it’s enough for a normal person, Damon said. But you, Raphaella. You are not normal. Damon called me an abettor, a facilitator of sickness and evil.”
“That’s twisted.” In all this fresh air, I’m finding it hard to breathe.
“Damon reconsidered, for about two minutes. He asked if you’d done anything to show remorse or to make amends. I said the only thing you’ve done is to try and disappear. You hide in a cave behind your screens with anonymous little bits and pieces of flesh. Damon despises you, says you got away with a crime, and finally, he couldn’t stomach me either. Called me the worst things and left me.”
My crime. What about her crime? What about Spector’s theory of a girlfriend taunting a man to off himself? Nothing fits. “Where’s Damon now?”
“What does it matter? He’s not coming back, but he gave me the courage to fix this. I can do it on my own. I have the evidence, Ralph.”
“Is this a threat? You have nothing.”
“I remember everything you told me. You were so proud of yourself, flaunting your cruelty to the boy who loved you and didn’t love me.”
“Words. Only words.” What did the detective say? You’re open to claims of distortion, even perjury. “Something I said fifteen years ago isn’t evidence. I’ll just say you made it up.”
“Oh, I have much more than that.”
I dare to meet her eyes, hard and cold. Breathtakingly beautiful. I meant what I whispered in her ear last night. I’ve always loved you, Niki. “What could you possibly have?”
She pulls a cell phone from her shorts pocket, taps it a few times, and shows me the screen.
My heart drops like a stone. “Where did you get that?” She’s showing me something that no longer exists, even the memory of it, lost forever. These are the words ripped from Isaac’s mind, erased by a blast of wind as he flew over the ledge into oblivion. A single handwritten letter. There were many, many others.
“I see that you recognize this letter. Your handwriting will be very easy to prove.”
A sick ball swells in my gut. The world slips into a spin, green trees, blue water, brown and turquoise Niki.
A black veil rises, and I drop into a squat, head between knees.
When the blood and air return, I get up and stagger away, not looking back.
At the house, I change into a T-shirt and jeans and start a string of Internet searches. Consent to record. Cyberbullying. Suicide. Criminal liability. The tenuous thread of causation.
Where did Niki get that letter? Doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t prove a crime. There was no public shaming. Ralph, the devil incarnate, sent private messages to Isaac, a fragile soul. Who wants you, pathetic puny prick? End your miserable life. Much more and worse, repeatedly. Words of a sick and evil mind, Damon would say. Purportedly.
It’s time to dress for the country club affair. I won’t be attending. At six, Detective Spector pulls into the driveway. I stand on the porch in my ratty clothes, clutching the tiny recording device as she strides up the front walk.
“Here.” I hold out my hand. “Take this back. Erase any recording you made.”
She ascends the steps and takes it. “You gave your consent.”
“I withdraw my consent. Besides, no court will say it’s valid. You tricked me.”
She gives me those eyes, no longer mesmerizing. A sound redirects our attention. Two cars are pulling into the driveway.
Do I understand this? Did I see it coming? Everything falls into place.
Each car expels an elegant couple, dressed to the nines for the country club dinner. Successful people, intelligent, good looking, the whole world at their feet.
Vanna is all grown up tonight, red lipstick and nails, voluptuous in a lacy cocktail dress. She walks confidently in three-inch heels, on the arm of her granite man, the wonderful husband and daddy.
Niki, a fresh-skinned natural beauty, radiates in a strappy, silk jumpsuit. Her escort is a tall, distinguished man. Easy enough to guess who he is.
Detective Spector—or whoever she is—steps toward me to make room for them. I back away, but there’s nowhere to go. The porch is suddenly very crowded.
“Hi, Leslie,” Niki greets the alluring out-of-towner. They exchange knowing looks.
“Who the hell are you?”
Niki answers my question. “Let me introduce my good friend, Leslie, a top-notch private investigator.”
“This is sick.”
Niki looks at me like I’m the sick one. “You remember I used to take that shortcut behind the high school on my way home? The day Isaac died, I saw him sitting under a tree on the path, holding your letter. He’d been crying. I stopped and tried to comfort him, but I think it only made him more ashamed. He showed me the letter and said there were many others. I said I would speak to you, but I only made things worse. I failed him. He dropped the paper and ran. The next morning, we found out he’d jumped.”
Niki looks away.
My eyes jump from one solemn face to another. “I never said I wrote that. Today, on the recording. And you can’t use it anyway. My consent is invalid.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Niki says, facing me again. “I gave my consent.”
I turn to the fake detective and receive her familiar lift of the eyebrows. Damon gives me a smug look. Is this man really a prosecutor in D.C.? Or is that a lie too? “Even if you prove I wrote this, you don’t have a case.”
Damon squares his shoulders. “It’s enough to level charges. But it’s not up to me. I’d have to refer it to the D.A. here.”
I’m dizzy with rage. “One letter and fading memories. Who would believe that Isaac killed himself because of something I wrote or said?”
Vanna, smarter than ever, says, “Shall we ask your fans what they think? Maybe they’ll believe it.” Steely blue, all grown up. Mickey glares at me and puts a protective arm around Vanna’s waist. He’s been pumping iron in preparation for a moment like this.
Niki and Vanna exchange a twinkling look. “That’s a pretty thought,” Niki says, “but we don’t want Ralph to lose her fans.”
Or my dark cave, surrounded by comforting bits that add up to nobody. And now I see it. “This isn’t about criminal charges, is it?”
Niki shakes her pretty head. “It would be cruel to put Isaac’s family through that, especially if you end up walking. This is about remembering and atoning.”
Don’t they know that I’ve never forgotten Isaac? That I’ve…
Leslie takes a folded piece of paper out of the breast pocket of her Oxford shirt. Niki explains. “We have a short list of organizations. Bullying and suicide prevention. Leslie will work out the details with you.”
A grave silence traps us until Damon says, “Shall we?” He touches Niki’s arm with reverential tenderness.
The beautiful people turn to go. Cocktail hour awaits, followed by salmon, chicken, or prime rib.
“Now,” Leslie says, stepping closer, showing me the list. “Maybe two of these, your choice. We’re thinking about a million to each. Just to start…”
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