Some decisions you live with forever. Many people learn that ugly lesson without truly knowing what it means, but eventually I ceased to be one of those people. When the decision to lie came, it came easily. Following through was a little harder, considering the venue-a Catholic church called St. Edward’s that commanded a sublime vista of sea and sky-but under the circumstances I still managed to blaspheme a little. Besides, it was the second time in three months that I’d been dragged into one of God’s houses by a pretty girl, and no one makes smart choices when they’re cornered like that. Especially since a police team broke open the wall on Aliso Peak earlier that morning and found a body. I knew that because Miguel Arroyo said so, almost as an afterthought, while he sat down in the pew’s remaining aisle seat and blocked me in.
“So Roy, is there anything else you want to tell me?”
He was remarkably calm for someone who would be laying their sister to rest. Lisa Arroyo’s overdose and death had shaken everyone in her family, but it had so traumatized her previously agnostic father Jorge that he insisted, in a stubborn fit of piety, on a full-blown Catholic funeral mass. Olivia equated my attendance at this with her continued sanity in the wake of tragedy, so I’d taken cues from her the whole time-saying whatever she did, standing and sitting with her during the ceremony. Even so, she hadn’t heard her brother immediately jump on me in that cold, professionally predatorial way that was beginning to suit his meteoric rise through the ranks of OC law enforcement.
“Well? Come on, anything helps. Remember what Detective Kelley said.” Miguel spoke quietly from the side of his mouth, but faced the front with an icy stare for the priest. I stole a glance at Olivia, but her eyes were closed as she mouthed a reqiuem that she did not believe, for the sake of her sister’s soul.
“No. No, I told you everything,” I whispered. “Told you everything I know, back at the hospital.” That had been four days ago. Four days of “how could she’s” and “Madre de Dioses” and “what have we done’s.” An eternity stuck on the periphery of mad scrambling and somber introductions to distant relatives who’d surely never remember me, not to mention a million other awkward moments that would be hilariously melodramatic under any other circumstances.
There was a dead body in the mix now, though, and it had to be Derek. Fucking hell. Detective Kelley had humored me during a second interrogation-after Lisa lost her battle with narcotics, I’d gone straight from the hospital room to the police station. Somehow I stammered out a story coherent enough for Miguel to register, in his suddenly and understandably traumatized state, but that didn’t end it. The detective hadn’t seemed too eager at the time to entertain my semi-repentant ravings-skeletal arms reaching out of stucco obviously tipped the freak scale in his mind-even when I said my ex-girlfriend could corroborate it. Who knows, maybe they talked to Nadia after all. The past few days had been such a fluid blur that anything could have happened.
“Everything? You’re absolutely sure?” Officer Miguel Arroyo was almost twenty-six, seven years my senior, and he was not a stupid man. Two solid years as Kelley’s protegé had purged him of any patience for bullshit.
“Y-yeah. Everything.” I could feel his scrutiny sift through me inch by inch. Then Olivia took my hand again, probably without thinking, because she’d still heard nothing.
“I see.” Miguel faced the pulpit again, unable to hide his contemptuous frustration. “Okay then, Roy.” He let that one hang there, battered by the congregation’s dull reverb that fell down all around us.
“‘Okay then’ what?” My whisper carried, and some people raised eyebrows or looked around annoyed. Liv squeezed my hand sharply, but when I caught her eye again she wasn’t exasperated-she was looking from me to Miguel and back again. Worried.
“‘Okay then, we can’t make any arrests,’ that’s what,” hissed Miguel, but before I could reply he put a finger to his lips for silence.
None of us said anything for a good while after that, and the mass dragged on in a profound torpor. I peered around the packed pews and had no fucking clue what I was doing here-maybe Liv needed support, sure, but from me? Every trawl for reason came up empty, but when my lazy scanning passed over three newly-buzzed bleach-blonde heads a few rows up, I shuddered involuntarily. Justin, Christian, and Kyle Addison were all here-along with the rest of their family-trying and failing to appear as unobtrusive as possible. We’d avoided them the whole time.
“Not so smug now, are they?” Miguel must have noticed me squinting confusedly at the Addisons, because he spoke again, low enough for only me to hear, allowing himself a satisfying little sneer. “Not so funny when Daddy’s biggest development ends up on top of a burial ground, ¿que no?”
“I guess not.” I sensed him losing interest in me, but I didn’t want to take anything for granted. The service would be over soon enough, and the pressure would let up as soon as Miguel joined everyone else in walking up to have a final moment with Lisa before she went in the ground. I wasn’t looking forward to that part of today at all. I’d never been to an open casket funeral before-my mom had been cremated-so when Miguel finally began to make his way up the aisle with the crowd, I was secretly relieved when Olivia grabbed my arm again and kept me from following him.
“Let’s not do that, okay?” She looked anxious, like she wanted to be anywhere else but in that line.
“Yeah, all right-but how come?”
“Because that’s not my sister in the box up there.” Liv looked exhausted, but her face was set. It had been a very long day. “She’s not there anymore. She’s-she’s somewhere else.”
So we turned around and muddled through the opposing tide of mourners and made for the outside world of sun and air and life. It was slow going, but when she said “Hurry up,” I looked back and saw three blonde heads swimming up the same stream as we were. I pulled Liv up alongside me to make more forceful headway, and tried hard to speak so that only she could hear.
“What the hell are they doing?”
“No te preocupes,” she whispered back. “They can’t hurt us, Roy. If anything, they should be scared shitless right now.”
“Really?” The door was ten feet away.
“Of course. Justin’s not stupid-he knows that we all have secrets to keep. He knows any of us could turn each other in only at the risk of exposing everyone, so he won’t do jack, and the other two will follow his lead.” She stepped over the threshold into the fading afternoon sun.
“Why?” The implications hadn’t really set in yet. I was still, a week later, digesting the unbelievable reality that I’d been the ultimate reason Derek’s body ended up in a cement wall.
“Use your head. They can’t admit to anything that puts them on the hill that night. Even Justin couldn’t think up an alibi clever enough to explain why you and poor Derek were up there with them.”
“Oh. But…but what about you? You were there too. You saw everything. You saw me-”
“Shhh!” Olivia replied, but then her voice shrank to its faintest. “I also accidentally burned down all of Aliso Canyon, Roy. I didn’t stay at my birthday party like a good girl, did I? People noticed.”
“So-so nothing happens?” This was insane. I wasn’t expecting a lie to actually pay off, but then I looked behind us, and saw the three brothers emerge from the church.
“Nothing happens if we’re lucky. There’s no real middle ground in mutually assured destruction, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.” She looked back too, and shuddered in the dry summer air. I noticed Miguel’s police cruiser nestled among the other cars in the parking lot, and veered in that direction.
“But we’ll still know.” The weight of eternity began pressing against my skull.
“Yes, we will. We’ll know, but this is just one of those things that we’ll never be able to tell anyone. Ever. I’m serious, Roy. Can you keep a secret for the rest of your life? No matter what? No matter who asks?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, glancing back again to see Justin, Christian, and Kyle gaining. We were coming up alongside the police car, but it was empty. “I mean, what if your cousins still decide to fuck with us?”
Olivia shook her head. “I told you, they won’t. They have to know how close they got to ruining everything their family stands for.” She allowed herself a little smile. “I’m just sorry I’ll never get to rub it in their fucking faces, and-” Her voice died suddenly when none other than Detective James Kelley strode out from behind the squad car, right into our path of doomed escape-and it didn’t matter. No, because like a fucking gift from heaven, every drop of panic evaporated and I knew exactly how to handle it. Olivia was frozen in her tracks, but I stuck out my hand for Kelley. “Hello, sir. We missed you inside.”
He shook it, but with a grim expression that made me doubt myself until I realized he wasn’t looking at me, or Olivia. I turned around to follow Kelley’s gaze and saw a miraculous thing: the Addison brothers also standing in cement, their mouths hanging open in surprise, their blue eyes flickering with fright. Behind them, the full congregation began trickling out of the church, Miguel Arroyo in the lead.
The detective spoke only briefly. He had some bad news, he said, and somewhere after that, my mind began to blur in and out of focus, and the weight slumped back on my shoulders, stinking like a dying vulture. I only heard snatches of his voice-“…probably not the best time…some bad news…your friend Derek…”-and Olivia began whimpering beside me, finally at her breaking point. Then Kelley finished and, just as suddenly as he appeared, left us there by the car. He dashed off toward his deputy, who was shouting at the Addisons, while Olivia and I just stood still, waiting for everybody else to leave and life to resolve itself.
The rest of that day is a blank, just like always-just like the day it all began-with queasy voids of nothingness where life should have been, horrible chasms filled with nothing but absolute dread. That feeling was the only thing Olivia and I really shared for the next few months, unmoved by each favorable tidbit of the case that trickled out through Miguel every week or so. The Addison brothers certainly kept quiet, but their family spontaneously paid Derek’s mother a massive settlement-this horrible thing had happened on their property, after all-and so she subsequently declined to press charges in any form, against the advice of both her legal counsel and private psychiatrist…who just happened to be my stepfather.
For some reason however, that and several other things were ignored-Derek’s car was never located, for one-and the investigation ground to a halt. Influence was apparently applied. Discretion was evidently exercised. The serenity of summer in Southern California was not to be further disturbed by ugly allegations and vicious rumors…but none of that made either of us feel any better. I said as much to Liv over the phone one night, before she was to leave the next day for her first semester at WSU, and a few weeks before I was due back at UCSB.
“I told you, we’ll have to live with it,” she said. “We’ve done terrible things, and they’ll hang around our necks forever, and we’ll just have to deal. We’ll deal or go fucking crazy.”
“I won’t be able to. Not ‘forever,’ anyway. Sooner or later it’ll be overwhelming and I’ll have to scream it to the world.”
“Maybe you will, Roy, but not yet.” Liv’s voice sounded like she was stuck in a tar pit. Mine was probably much worse.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’ll wait for the right time. Some time when it will be fair to punish all of us. When none of us-you, me, or them-will be able to avoid it.” She stifled a sniff. “You’re a deliberate guy, so maybe you’ll wait years. Maybe even decades. It’ll kill you inside a little bit every day, but you’ll will yourself to stay alive for one reason if nothing else.”
“The feeling of pure release when you finally tell someone the truth. The freedom of it. That’s why they call it ‘confession,’ Roy.”
She was right, because that’s exactly what I did-today, this morning-almost thirteen years later. It wasn’t easy, of course, but the details don’t really matter. What matters is that easy decisions may have interminable half-lives, but they always have consequences. And I was finally ready to face them, and the release was every bit as ecstatic as promised.
The only problem is that no one seems to believe me.