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It was nearing midnight when the sound of footsteps penetrated the night air, startling to consciousness a haggard old woman who had formerly been asleep on a bench. Snow fell around her in such thick sheets that she could hardly make out the approaching figures. They walked, bent against the wind that echoed off the cobblestone ground and decrepit buildings, their hands shoved deeply into their pockets. They were making considerable progress towards her, and the woman shrank back into herself, unable to judge the danger these new threats posed. As they neared, she could see they were rather young, and all three of them had the same dark brown hair and piercing blue eyes. They had evidently noticed her, as they stopped mere feet away from where she was huddled.
“Are you cold?” One of them, who seemed to be the eldest, asked. She shook her head, but a sudden shiver overtook her body so harshly that her response was immediately dismissed. The young man quickly removed the jacket from his shoulders, and handed it to her, smiling as he did so.
“I don’t need it. We’re almost home anyways.” He explained, though she took the jacket without protest. She nodded, drawing her eyes up to meet his. For a moment they were silent until she, feeling that it was her turn to speak, said,
“Where are you coming from so late?” The young man squinted at her. He didn’t say anything at first, and she was worried she had offended him. The other two boys stood behind him, shifting from foot to foot, one glancing nervously at the other. For several seconds the woman allowed herself to be distracted by these two - they obviously were uncomfortable. While she watched them, she noticed the one nudge the other, and gesture towards the jacket. The recipient of the shove nodded slightly, keeping his eyes on the eldest. The woman too jerked her attention back to him, as he opened his mouth to speak.
“We’ve just been with a friend, ma’am.” He said, and his grin seemed to be frozen on his face, the cold politeness seeping into his tone like an illness. She nodded.
“Best be going then,” muttered the boy, motioning at his companions to follow him, “have- well… have a good rest, then.” As the boys made their way into the night, she watched them go. The jacket was warm against her thin shoulders, and she nuzzled deeper into it. As she situated herself for another long restless night, she was suddenly aware that the left pocket was significantly heavier than the right. Now this woman was not an expert on weaponry, but as she closed her fingers around cold, hard metal, she was reasonably certain that the object inside was a loaded gun.
“What the h*** did you do that for?” I hissed, as my two older brothers and I hastened away from an old homeless woman. My eldest brother, Owen, didn’t respond, merely turned back to wave at the woman.
“Shut up, Zach,” Matt said rather calmly, considering, “Just act normal.” I stopped dead in my tracks. A black cat darted across the road in front of us, causing my two brothers to stop too.
“Act normal,” I repeated, feeling my voice rise higher and higher as I leapt closer and closer to hysteria. The wind rose with it, practically howling a path for itself through the trees. “Act normal? In case you guys don’t realize, Owen just shot someone. In a freaking alleyway. And then gave the gun to an innocent old homeless woman. Act normal. Ha. Are you s****ing me?” I felt the gravity of my words threaten to drag me under, and swallowed heavily to pull myself to the surface. Someone was dead. Someone was dead because of a stupid little crush I’d had on my best friend for the past ten years. Someone was dead because I couldn’t hold my tongue after some guy I barely knew had slept with her. Someone was dead, essentially, because of me.
Matt was staring at me as if I were an uninteresting inconvenience; a fly on his windshield, an unnecessary detour on the way to work. Owen, however, had exchanged the calm, collected front he had earlier presented to the woman, for something drastically different. Now, he was fuming.
“We,” He corrected me, his voice shaking; “We just shot someone. In case you don’t remember, Zach, the whole reason we were talking to Liam in the first place was because of you. Because of you and Fiona of all people. Fiona. Who doesn’t give a d*** about any of us, and who none of us give a d*** about. None of us except you, that is. You and your silly little fantasy. God, Zach, a girl like her would never look to a guy like you for anything more than friendship. And you had to go out there to- to what? Defend her honor? This is just as much your fault as it is mine.” He held my gaze, until I glanced at the ground. The wind continued to howl in the trees, and my voice came out as a nearly inaudible whisper.
“There’s no need to bring Fiona into this.” My attempt at chivalry was just as weak as it had been two hours ago when I had confronted Liam in the alleyway between Pete’s Pub and Barry’s Bar. Merely asking someone politely if they had slept with someone else usually does not send fear shooting throughout every inch of their body. Especially when the young lady in question is not even your girlfriend/ sister/ cousin/ mother/ anything that would have constituted this sort of a question. However, when your older brothers show up outside, after aforementioned (drunk) Liam starts pushing you around with some of his armed gang buddies, things can get serious fast. I wasn’t even sure how Owen got a hold of the gun in the first place, but after it went off people had scattered pretty quickly. It wasn’t difficult to escape in the chaos.
Owen shook his head at me, some of the anger leaving his expression, while Matt stared ahead at the empty street in front of us, comment-less as always. The silence that I had long thought of as comforting, quickly became infuriating as I willed Matt to say something- anything- to assure me that I was not alone in the possession of a conscience. He ignored me, however, and continued to resolutely stare ahead, expressionless.
“Let’s just go home.” Owen muttered, and resumed his trudging pace down the road. Barely even acknowledging my presence beside him, Matt fell into step. I was left with no choice but to follow.
It had always been this way, I realized, as I dragged myself through the next several days of school. Owen was the oldest, and- however stereotypical it was- the most strong willed. He was like a minefield: the softest footstep could set him off, and people tread carefully around him, afraid of the explosion. It made for tentative living most of the time, but coupled with his intense loyalty, it deemed him as the protector of the family. Matt was unwaveringly steady. The only time I ever saw him get emotional over anything was when the two old people died at the end of The Notebook. Even then the only betrayal was a slight quivering of his lip, which he promptly denied when confronted. Me, I was the follower. The only one still in High School, I was destined to graduate and work at the same bar that my two brothers worked at, that my father owned. When we were younger and Matt and Owen would play football in the park, I would run behind them, making sporadic and unfounded tackles, desperate to be included in their games. I wasn’t so sure about this new game, however. Murder and football seemed to be separated by much too big of a chasm- a chasm filled with skeletons and transgressions that I had never even dreamt of. Fiona’s endless questions didn’t help either, and they continued relentlessly throughout the week.
“What happened Friday night? Why hasn’t Liam called me back? I thought he would call, Zach. Why hasn’t he called?” The best answer I could muster:
“I told you Fiona, he’s not really the type to call a girl back”, brought a nearly unbearable look of hurt to her face, wiping out any consolation that this was more or less true regardless. The rest of my time was spent watching the news, obsessively looking for any uncovered bodies, or screening calls from my two brothers, who left long threatening messages after the beep anyways.
The murder mystery that the Clayton police were involved in came to an apparent close on Friday morning, while I was engrossed in a pancake breakfast. Struggling to view the television over my mother’s busy silhouette, I nearly choked as a picture of Liam was flashed across the screen. My mother barely looked up.
“19 year old Liam Smith’s body was found in a trash barrel on East 5th street Wednesday morning,” There he was, right on screen. The picture must have been some sort of school shot from a few years ago, because it looked almost nothing like him. Still, there were the same dark eyes, the same white-blonde hair. He smiled at me as if he were a ghost come back to haunt me through my television set. I immediately cursed myself for skipping the news Wednesday morning, in exchange for a lengthy discussion with my mother regarding the plummet of my Calculus grade.
The reporter continued, obviously unaffected by my train of thought and I pulled myself back to concentration.
“Police have narrowed their search down to one suspect, who was found in possession of the weapon used in the killing - a Mrs. Helen Hamilton,” A new photograph flashed Liam’s away. The anchor’s words faded to a dull murmur at the back of my mind as the old homeless woman’s face appeared on the screen. I abruptly dropped my knife, causing my mother to sharply look over at me.
“What’s wrong, honey?” She asked nearly simultaneous to the ringing of the telephone. Ignoring her question, I grabbed the phone off the receiver, and bounded up the stairs to my bedroom. As an afterthought I turned and yelled over my shoulder,
“I’ll get it!”
When I made sure that the door to my bedroom was securely locked, I hesitated, my thumb hovering over the button. Closing my eyes, holding my breath, biting my lip, I pushed it.
“Hello?” My voice came out high and shaky, and I immediately regretted not calming myself first. If this was the authorities calling to question my innocence, they had their answer.
“Hey it’s me.”
“Oh, thank God, thank GOD it’s you Owen. I thought it was the FBI or something. I‘m pretty sure that they‘re sitting outside our house. Actually, oh my Gosh. I‘m positive they‘re sitting right out- oh wait. That‘s just Mrs. Fields.” I waved at Mrs. Fields through my cracked blinds, so as not to seem suspicious.
“They don’t get the FBI involved in this kind of thing, Zach.” Owen’s tone was impatient: he didn’t have time for his little brother’s naïveté.
“Oh. Right.” I said, attempting to correct my shortcoming, “I knew that.”
“So, I’m just confirming that you’re still not going to rat us out.” His tone was
curt, business-like, as if confirming the time for an interview, or a dentist appointment.
I took a deep breath, delaying my response. Thinking back to that night a week ago, I found I could still remember everything about that old lady’s face. The relief she showed as Owen placed the coat around her shoulders. How her cheek bones stuck disturbingly far. How she looked at me confusedly while waiting for Owen’s response. How she smiled at us gratefully when we left. That lady had a family somewhere. Maybe they didn’t know her that well, or talk to her that often- she had been sleeping on an old bench in the middle of winter- but someone had given birth to her, someone had given her the name Helen, someone had surely loved her once. Immediately I thought of my own family- of Owen and Matt, of what would happen to them. Of what would happen to me. Of what Fiona would think, of what my parents would think, of what the whole town would think. Was it worth it? Was saving a woman- a stranger- from a jail sentence she didn’t deserve really worth all that? I glanced in the mirror, then at the crucifix hanging from the indent in the framing.
“Zach? Your still going to keep quiet, right?... I did it for you! I was trying to protect you!”
“I never asked you to- I didn’t want-“ I cut my own voice off as I couldn’t come up with the ends of those sentences.
“You know what will happen if you don’t, don’t you? I could go to prison for life. This woman- she’s willing to take the blame, probably realizes it’s a better alternative to her life now. Let her, Zach. Keep our family together. Think about Mom and Dad.”
I did. I thought about Mom on Sunday morning at church, at how earnestly she would close her eyes and bow her head as the minister prayed. I thought about Dad making a living for himself out of almost nothing. Teaching us not to cheat our way through life, not to take away from others to get more for ourselves. I sucked my breath in sharply, knowing suddenly and certainly, what I needed to do.
“Owen, I’m going to need to call you back.”