I ran into the ominous outside, my chest heaving. The night was quiet, perhaps shocked into silence that a mere mortal dare walk so willingly into its grasp. I hurried along, checking over my shoulder for followers, and the blackness surrounding me engulfed me in shadow. Fear clutched at my soul and I stumbled, sending my heart into a frantic frenzy as I regained my balance. I nearly yelped as I narrowly missed colliding with a tree (which surely would’ve ended this ill-fated adventure with a trip to the emergency room) and despaired for lack of hope in finding a way through the ever-present darkness.
Once I had gotten far enough away that I was sure the electric blue glow my phone screen wouldn’t attract any attention, I got it out, the sharp square edges a familiar constant in my palm. I hit the first number in Recents. “It’s me,” I say, not bothering to say hello. “Did you get it?” I heard the eager voice on the other end ask, and I started walking again, taking pains to keep my voice low. “Yeah. You’ll be there?”
“There and waiting.”
I hang up, fake formalities the furthest thought from my mind. I unconsciously check my bag to make sure the five thousand in cash is still there, and curse myself for getting into this mess.
I hadn’t meant to. I was just walking home from school that blighted day, when I saw a girl and a young man conversing quietly in a tucked-away corner of a surprisingly clean alley. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but I had seen the quiet terror in the girl’s eyes and the way the man had his arm around her—not protectively, like one might shield a small child from danger, but aggressively, as if forcing her his way when she was so obviously uncomfortable. So I paused and watched them, alone in the alley. They didn’t see me; the girl was too possessed with fright to do anything but nod at the man, and the man was too busy actively scaring her.
As I watched, the man released the girl, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, and as she reached in her bag to get something, I saw her alarmed eyes harden. She pulled it out and gave it to the man, and I saw green bills rolled together, then a flash of silver—
And the girl gripped the knife and thrust it into the man, then gasped as blood blossomed from his chest. She yanked it out and stared in horror as he fell to the ground, a grotesque black darkening his bosom. She turned her head away from the body, her squeezed eyes releasing hot tears, and was sick for a minute. I just stood there, rooted to the ground, in shock. I opened my mouth and probably made some sort of noise of disbelief, because the girl whipped her head over to me.
The girl’s spiraling, honey-colored hair was pleasant to look at, a warm, healthy color, and it danced around small shoulders. Her eyes were an agreeable pale blue, but the flash of green that sliced through them gave them a defiance and boldness that characterized her strength masked by a kindness obvious from the tilt of her head. Her cheekbones were high, like a model’s, but the cheery plumpness of her cheeks destroyed her otherwise flawless heart-shaped visage.
But right then all pleasantness was gone from her face, and that look of quiet, haunted terror had come back as she stared at me like her world had just ended, like every carefully thought-out detail that she stacked into a house of cards quivered as a tremor passed through it—a tremor named Rowena Carpenter—and collapsed. I stared back, in shock. I didn’t quite know what to do.
The girl dropped the knife, and I winced at the painfully loud clatter it made as it hit the cement. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, wide-eyed. “You have to understand—no, please—”
I swallowed. “Um . . .”
“No!” she had yelled, those intriguing eyes betraying desperation. “You don’t get it! That man—” she took a shuddering breath, pointing at the collapsed gentleman—“that man has been blackmailing me for two months. He . . .” She had looked down then, and for some reason I felt my heartstrings being strummed. Get a hold of yourself, I had told myself sternly, She’s a killer. But I couldn’t stop the pity from radiating out to her.
The girl continued, calming a little once she saw I wasn’t going to do anything rash—my feet were too stubbornly planted on the relentless concrete—her voice full of bitter hatred and a pain too deeply rooted to ever truly fade. “I was goofing off with a friend of mine. Her name’s—” The girl was half-sobbing now, and I had found it hard to hear her, but I was hanging on to her every word. “Her name was Annie, and she was the sweetest girl you’d ever know. She lived down the street from me, and would always want to play with me. She was eight years old.” She swallowed. “We were practicing gymnastics, and I taught her how to do a double flip. But when she tried it—when she tried it—” The girl put her face in her hands and a sob escaped. I wanted to comfort her, but I couldn’t—I just couldn’t—not with the cooling body of the man she stabbed lying just a few feet away. So I tightened my jaw and did nothing, and she had gone on. “She fell down and cracked her head open. There was nothing I could do. She was dead in a minute, and I had killed her. That’s when he came in.” The girl looked contemptuously over at the dead man, a raging hatred in that flash of green in her eyes. “He said that I could be brought up on manslaughter charges, and he was a witness. But he said he wouldn’t if I paid him five thousand dollars each month. So I had to! I had to . . .” She looked at me desperately. “Don’t you see?”
I said nothing but, “What’s your name?”
The girl had replied, with a steely glint in her eye, “Camira. I’m not going to tell you my last name.”
I nodded. “My name’s Rowena. I’m not telling my last name, either.”
Camira nodded, not looking eager to say anything. So I had said, “Where’d you get the money?”
Her head tilted to the ground. “I took it out of my college fund, in the bank. My sister’s boyfriend works there, and I told him I needed it to buy a car—he’s a sucker for all things mechanic—and I promised to return it in two months, and my time is nearly up.” Camira sighed. “Then he goes to his boss.”
I had bitten my lip. “You took how much?”
“Ten thousand. Five thousand is here—” she picked up the abandoned roll of cash, then splattered with sickening red splotches, and sighed again. “And this sick bastard has the rest.”
“How are you going to get it back?”
Camira shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” She leaned against the brick wall, all the fight gone out of her as suddenly as air leaves a popped balloon. She had put her head in her hands and sobbed. “What am I going to do?”
Then I did find it in my heart to comfort her, put my hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know, Camira. But I’ll help.”
Her head whipped up, just as it had when her eyes first locked with mine, and I immediately regretted my words. “You would do that?” Her voice was dripping with incredulity and disbelief. “I just killed a man!”
I know! screamed a tiny, selfish part of my brain. Why should I help her? She’s a murderer and I don’t need a criminal record!
Yes, I know, another, more Melanie-Wilkes-like part of my brain replied. But what are you going to do? Leave a haunted, terrified victim of circumstance to face this alone, without a single person to trust? And she’s not really a murderer—
Yes, she is! the selfish side shouted, glaring down on the kind side ominously. And you are going to be an accomplice to premeditated murder if you don’t watch out! And what are you going to do then? How will you be able to get into college, get a job, raise a family? You can’t live with a murder record! You have no part in this. Why help her? What will you get out of this?!
“Of course I’ll help,” I heard myself say.
And now here I am, running out of a dead man’s house with five thousand dollars in my bag to go meet a murderer.
I had broken the window like Camira instructed, and there was no burglar alarm. I had just slipped in, as silent and stealthy as a cat, and searched the house, but there was no need for secrecy. The place was deserted, and the cops must not have identified the body yet; we only knew where he lived because Camira stole his wallet and his phone, and that told us everything.
But we had also found a loaded nine millimeter pistol in his pocket, inches away from his hand. We had left that there.
I had found the money, after a solid half hour of looking, shoved under a mattress with about twenty thousand dollars extra; Camira wasn’t the only one on his blackmail list.
His name was Damien Rudfern, and he was about twenty-five. He didn’t have any family in town, judging from his contacts, and the only numbers on his Recents were to Camira and two other cell phone numbers. We didn’t dare call them.
I ran through the woods, squinting and cursing my nearsightedness. It could’ve only be me to break in—if Camira accidentally did something that put her at the scene of the crime, she had too many connections with him, that could be too easily traced; like phone records, for instance, or the money she removed from her college fund, and that could lead directly to the homicide. We both agreed that I should be the one to break in, as I had couldn’t be be blamed for the murder; no motive, means, or opportunity. I even had an alibi—I ran home right after getting Camira’s number and loudly proclaimed the time to my mother the second I got in the house.
Camira’s waiting for me in her mother’s car, a blue 1990 Mustang. I hurl myself in and she puts the car in gear. I’m still breathing hard, and it finally hits me what I’ve just done. I put my face in my hands, gasping.
Camira is quiet. “I really appreciate what you’ve sacrificed,” she says softly, her high voice twanging. I try to smile and can’t, so settle for a slight nod. Camira drives in silence, looking straight ahead.
She drops me off next to the alley. The body’s gone and the blood scrubbed, and my stomach twists in anticipation. What if they found out, what if they linked it back to you, what if, what if, what if, the selfish side of my brain hummed.
I got out and slammed the door, but through the window I see Camira giving me the sweetest smile anyone ever saw. Then she sped off, leaving me in the dust. My eyes stay her way for a long time after her car turned out of view.
I look around the horrifyingly clean alley, and suddenly cold reality has me in its hand, and I keel over.
What have I done? How could I trust her? How could I have been such a fool? It was obvious to me now that beyond her kindness, beyond the simple smiles she wore and the gratefulness she portrayed, she was just a sick murderer. I’ve been conned, I thought, nausea making a valiant effort to sicken me. This was the first time I’ve ever misread someone’s eyes.
But I was so sure! I started walking, my feet finding their way home aimlessly, my mind not caring where I went.
Well, I thought with awful finality. There’s nothing to be done now.
When I tromped downstairs the next morning, praying the bags under my eyes from lack of sleep weren’t too visible, my mom was up, making breakfast and watching the news, just like she does every Saturday morning, a glass of orange juice already set out on the table for me. My mood is instantly lifted at the sight of an omelet half-way through its procedure and sizzling bacon. With all this confusion, it’s nice to have some predictability in life.
“A local man has been found dead late last night, police reports say,” the Channel 3 News lady says dramatically. “He was stabbed in an alley just off of Penskins Way—”
I choke on my juice, and my mom looks at me, her eyebrows laden with concern. I wave off her worries and swallow some more orange juice to help it go down.
So they found him. I try to anxiously listen to the TV without looking too interested.
“At his house, police say they think it had been searched recently and a window was found broken. Whether the crook found what he was looking for, it is unclear at this time.”
I bite my lip and take some of the bacon my mom set out before me. “Gosh,” I say, trying to sound light. “That’s near here.”
“Yes,” my mom replied with a worried tone, and she turns up the TV, to my eternal gratitude.
“The SBPD say they have a man in custody, and will soon have enough evidence to bring him to court.”
For the second time that morning, I choked, this time on bacon. Now, however, my mother was too interested in what the overly-solemn reporter was saying to be perturbed, but my mind was whirling.
A man in custody? Possibly to go to jail for his whole life? For something we did? My brain was fighting that eternal battle with itself, and this time I couldn’t block out the words whipping around my head. Everything else dimmed around me, and I couldn’t seem to see anything.
Murder . . . and robbery. Would that be enough for the death sentence? Oh, God, I thought, and could feel that orange juice churning uncomfortably in my stomach.
A young police officer was being interviewed on the screen, and I forced myself to pay attention to his nervous words. “We checked the phone records, and Mr. Rudfern had made numerous calls to our suspect. We have reason to believe he was blackmailing our suspect, and he was killed for it.”
“Oh, he’s definitely the guy,” the chief of police was now boasting, but I could hardly hear it. I can’t do this, I thought, I can’t let an innocent man go to jail.
I walk up to my room, hardly hearing what I said to my mother, and whip out my phone almost before the door slams shut. I hit Camira’s number, shocked at what I’m going to do.
She picks up on the first ring. “What is it?” she says worriedly. “Did something go wrong?”
“Yes, something did go wrong,” I snap, pacing the room, my cheerful yellow wall annoying me in my dark mood. “They arrested someone else.”
Silence. I stop in my tracks and hear my voice tighten. “But I suppose that was your plan,wasn’t it?”
“What?” Now it’s surprise and confusion mixed, topped with incredulity. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you, tricking me.” I’m pacing again, my heavy shoes making deep indents in the carpet as I circled the room. “It was a brilliant plan—”
“I don’t even understand what you’re talking about,” Camira said, and I can imagine her head shaking like a bobble head. I could hear a rustling noise in the background. “But I’m going to the police. I have to turn myself in.”
“No!” The intensity of my voice surprises even me, but the world is rushing around me again, and I feel a grim sort of triumph, and something like relief. I was right all along. Camira was telling the truth.
“You can’t do that, Cam!” I shout into the phone. “You’ll go away for murder and manslaughter, and I’ll go away for breaking and entering—”
“I’ll keep you out of this,” she says, her voice soft, “I’ll say the robbery’s completely unrelated—”
“No,” I say again, but this time my voice is calm, and I feel a relieving sense of tranquility settle over me. “I’m coming, too. I’m in this as deep as you are. I’ll turn myself in also.”
“Rowena!” Camira’s sharp voice cut through my warm fog. “You can’t do that!”
“I can if you can.”
When we got down to the police station, they put us in separate interrogation rooms and asked us questions for hours. We answered openly, honestly; we had nothing to hide anymore.
Finally, they brought me into Camira’s interrogation room and the Chief of Police who was so proud on the television was there, greeting me with a smile. He was a short, robust man with a retreating hairline and squinty eyes.
“Well, girls, it seems we have finally gotten the full story.” He didn’t look particularly happy about that; but then again, neither did we. “And . . . it seems . . .” He hesitated. “Well, from what I can gather, we can excuse Miss Sinclair from any involvement in the . . . um, accident that happened with Annie Harper.” He looked at Camira kindly, if not patronizingly, which must’ve been difficult because she was three inches taller than he was. “It wasn’t your fault she hit her head, dear.”
There were tears in Cam’s eyes, and I bit my lip unhappily.
“And,” the Chief continued, “we may be able to plead self-defense for the murder of Damien Rudfern, seeing as he had a gun.”
Camira’s head whipped up, and the angry flash of green in her eyes that always seemed present softened into a wonderment. “Really?”
The police officer smiled. “Really.”
I was happy for Camira; honest. But I couldn’t help feeling a little indignant.
Really? Camira had gotten me into this mess, and now she gets a free ride out when I’m being shipped off to some Juvenile Court somewhere? I was literally quivering with rage.
“Oh, and, Miss Carpenter,” the Chief said, turning to me purely as an afterthought, “I talked to a judge. He’s willing to let you off with a warning.”
For the first time since this whole horrible quandary started, I felt my rusty lips slowly, but surely, begin to upturn.