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Sister, where have you gone?
I've been back in Tupelo for a week now. I came in the day after my sister, Lorraine, had called to tell me that our oldest sister, Martha, had been found dead in her bed. According to the coroner, whose as old as the day is long, Martha's death was suicide. However, I knew from the moment that Lorraine picked me up from the airport that Martha hadn't killed herself.
On the car ride home Lorraine and I discussed the possibilities. Lorraine and I have always been close, and we knew that our conversation would never leave the car. We both came to the conclusion that if anyone would have killed Martha, it would have been her stepson, David. He was a punk kid who relied on daddy's money to get him out of everything. Apparently he was very close to his mom when she died from cancer. He was never happy when his dad, Stan, remarried Martha a year after Stan's first wife had died. David wore all black to Martha and Stan's wedding; he said he was "in mourning." Lorraine and I had both thought that in the past year David and Martha's relationship had gotten better, but I guess we were wrong. The hardest part is that Martha died a day before Stan and Martha's three year wedding anniversary.
When we got to Martha and Stan's house it looked the same; a gorgeous plantation style home that sits on a hill surrounded by huge, blooming magnolias. However, there was a weird air that mixed with the warm, sticky air of that Mississippi July. It was a sad air; it was a heavy air. When we walked in the door I went to Stan first. I humbly embraced him, and it wasn't until after I let him go that I realized I had started crying. Stan had been so good for Martha. He was there for her throughout mama and daddy's funeral process. They were killed by a drunk driver a few weeks after Martha and Stan got engaged. Martha was devastated that they wouldn't be there for the wedding.
After speaking with Stan I walked through the foyer, and into the kitchen where I saw David. Before I even had time to get a word out he hugged me. It was a strangely comforting hug that was hard to explain. This punk kid who barely spoke at family gatherings was hugging me and crying. My first obvious thought was that this kid was playing the innocent card pretty well, until he started speaking,
"Hazel, I'm so sorry there was nothing I could do, I walked in to ask her if she had walked the dog yet, and she wasn't breathing. I wish I would have gotten close to her sooner. I feel like such an ass. I probably made her so depressed."
I couldn't even process what was being said to me. I replied quickly, almost robotically, "No David, don't think that way. Martha loved you and was happy to have you as a son."
The day continued with family conversation, which I enjoyed. Since I was off at school in Tennessee for most of the year, I didn't get to see my family often. I just hated that our well deserved visit together was under such grim circumstances.
That night I stayed at Lorraine's house. The funeral was the next day, and Lorraine had always had a way with hair and makeup that I was never blessed to acquire. Her husband, Rhett, put the baby to sleep so that Lorraine and I could catch up and discuss the day. During the night we sat in Lorraine's king sized bed and talked about our favorite childhood memories, mainly ones involving Martha. We laughed when we talked about the time Martha had performed in the Tupelo fair talent show and fell on her face. Of course we cried when we talked about sitting in Martha's bed after mama and daddy died, but we were sobbing when we talked about the time that Martha came to us the day before I left for Tennessee, saying that she didn't know what to do about David. She said she had tried all she could to be a good mom for him, but nothing was working. I told Lorraine about what David had told me earlier that day in the kitchen. She was in just as much shock as I had been in.
"Maybe it wasn't him," she said in that thick southern accent that we all shared. "Maybe they had gotten closer, but I still think that Martha wouldn't have killed herself."
I agreed. Martha was such a positive person and a great woman of faith, as any good southern woman should be. She was in such a good place in her life; there would be no reason for her to off herself. I checked the time. It was midnight. We had to be up at the baptist church bright and early the next morning, and Lord knows it would be a long day.
"Hey Lorraine," I said right after she had turned off the lamp. "What if tomorrow after the service and reception we went down to the sheriff's office. I wanna see what kind of evidence they have about the case."
"Ok, I'd like to see that too," she replied.
That morning was a blur. I just remember crying, and Stan holding onto me, as I held onto Lorraine, and as she held onto Rhett, who was holding the baby. It was like my family was missing yet another part of our fence. If you were to think of my family as a chain link fence, mama and daddy would have been the metal posts. They held us all together, and kept us strong and steady. The rest of us would have been the chain links, but Martha was the pad lock. She kept us calm, secure, and safe. Now that our posts and pad lock were gone we were just a collection of chain links trying not to get rusted by all the hot Mississippi rain.
After the funeral we all drove to Martha's house for a reception. All of the old women from the church made food. Which we probably wouldn't be able to get rid of for the next month. We practically knew everyone in Tupelo. However, there was one couple there that I hadn't seen before, but somehow they looked strangely familiar. I walked over to my new found friend, David, to ask who they were.
"Dad's best friend James, and his wife Stella," he responded.
That's when I had remembered that James had been Stan's best man at the wedding. The couple looked very upset, but strangely the man looked more distressed than the woman. It was as if Stella was being the strong one.
Everyone had left, except for the family. It was about four in the afternoon and Lorraine and I said that we needed to go home to put the baby to sleep. "Putting the baby to sleep" of course meant us going to find out more information at the Sheriff's office, but we weren't about to let everyone know that. We were almost out the door when Stan told us that they were about to open Martha's will. I told him that we should wait till the distant relatives left to make it more intimate. Looking back I'm so glad that I said it.
After all had left except for Stan, David, Lorraine, Rhett, and I, we walked into the kitchen and sat around the table.
Stan began to read out the will, "This is the will of Martha Mae McCanan Westfield. To my loving husband, Stan Westfield, I leave my estate."
It was kind of shocking that she didn't leave everything to Stan, I thought.
Stan continued reading, "To my lover, James Walker, I leave 200,000 dollars."
Stan stopped reading and started crying. He really said what I thought he had said. I think we all were in such shock that no one said a word. Stan tried to continue reading, but he was crying too much. I stopped him, and took the will and finished reading it.
I cleared my throat, "I leave the rest of my money and belongings to my two wonderful sisters, Lorraine Olivia McCanan Smith and Hazel Marie McCanan."
That was it. That was all she wrote, but when I flipped the will over I saw a small note written in the beautiful, scrolling handwriting that could have only been my sister's. I read it, but not aloud. It said:
My sweet, sweet Stan, I am so very sorry for what I have done to you. I can only imagine what pain you must have gone through in reading this. Please know that I didn't intend for it to happen, it just did, and I would be lying if I said I wish it wouldn't have.
All I did was point to the note as I gave it to Stan to read. I did not speak as I gave it to him. I couldn't believe it. All Martha had given Stan was her house, that's it. My sister, the strong, reliable one, who always had seemed so put together had had an affair. No one discussed the matter as we left the house.
I was going to stay in the guest room at Lorraine and Rhett's that night, but Rhett, being so understanding, let me sleep with Lorraine again. We talked for hours again that night. No matter how much shock the both of us were in, we both agreed that someone had to tell James about the will, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be Stan. That next morning, we were going to go to the police station and then to James' house. I'm pretty sure that Lorraine and I both said a prayer that night that Stella wouldn't be at that house the next morning.
I woke up and put on the blue sun dress mama had bought for me the winter before the accident. Lorraine and I were pretty quiet on the car ride to the Sheriff's office. When we walked in we went straight back to the Sheriff's desk. Sheriff Taylor had been a long time family friend of ours. He was almost like a second dad to us after daddy passed. Lorraine and I told him we wanted to see the evidence. After looking at the pills that Martha had apparently overdosed on, I blatantly said that I thought someone had killed Martha. Looking back, I now regret making that statement. Sheriff Taylor got up and closed his door quickly, then sat back down.
"I didn't think your sister had a reason to kill herself either, but the toxicology reports don't lie," he said.
There was nothing left to say, and I didn't feel like arguing. Lorraine and I thanked him for his time and walked out to the car. If I thought talking to Sheriff Taylor was hard, talking to James, a man who I barely knew, was going to be a hundred times harder.
Lorraine and I pulled up to the house. We only saw one car in the driveway, and I was silently hoping that it was James'. We went to the front door and knocked. James slowly opened the large, oak wood door.
"Hello," he said, a little surprised.
"Hello," I said. "I'm Hazel, and this is Lorraine, we're Martha Westfield's sisters."
"I know who y'all are," he responded. In a little more relaxed voice he said, "Please, come in."
We went through the marble foyer, and sat on a couch in the spacious sitting room. Lorraine spoke first.
"We're hear to discuss Martha's will," she said. You could tell he was a little confused.
I began to explain, "She left some money for you in her will." He was still confused. Lorraine tried to yet again clear the confusion, "Listen James, we know that you and Martha were having an affair. You meant a lot to her. She left you 200,000 dollars." She always had that way of sounding demanding, yet sincere. James began to cry.
"I had no intentions of hurting anyone," he said. "I loved Martha so much. I still feel awful about the circumstances in which we fell in love."
"We're all still trying to fully understand." I responded. I looked to Lorraine hoping she would take on the task of asking if he knew anything about Martha's death. Luckily she did. "Listen, we realize this is a very tough time for you. You probably feel as much loss as we do." I was again amazed by Lorraine's compassion, even to our sister's lover. She continued, "But I'm sure you understand that we have several questions." He nodded, he was crying a little too hard to make room for a response. Lorraine looked to me. She initiated the conversation, it was my turn to ask the big question.
I took a deep breath and spoke, "Lorraine and I don't think that Martha's death was a suicide. We know, and I'm sure you do too, that she was completely content with life. We just don't see a reason for her death." I paused, hoping he would understand where I was going with this, but I don't think he did. I continued, "We just want to know if you know anything about Martha's death." His light brown eyes widened and be cleared his throat.
He began, "No! Absolutely not. I loved your sister so very much. We were planning on leaving our spouses and running away together." This was a new shock, as if there weren't already so many. Martha, my oldest sister, the one who held down the fort, was going to run away with her husband's best friend.
Lorraine filled the silence, "We're sorry. We didn't mean to accuse you in anyway. We just want to know the truth. Is there anyone you know of who could've wanted to hurt Martha?" He shook his head, he had began crying again. Then a thought popped into my head that I hadn't thought of until that moment.
"Is it possible that your wife could have found out?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," he answered. "I didn't think so, but then some of my letters from Martha went missing a few weeks ago. But even if Stella would have known, I don't think she would have hurt Martha."
My curiosity got the best of me, "How long will your wife be gone?" It was a blunt question, but I was getting nosy.
"She's at work. She'll be gone till 3:00pm," James answered. I looked at my watch. It was already noon.
"We have three hours to find those missing letters," I said. Lorraine and James nodded at me in agreement.
James led us through the marble foyer into a long hallway, and turned into the third room on the left. It was Stella's home office.
"I think that if Stella wanted to hide anything from me she would hide it here. I've never had a need to come into her office. Well until now I guess," James said.
We started looking through drawers, file cabinets, and computer files. Making sure to put everything back into its original place. Apparently, Stella was anal about organization and the perfection of her life. When I went to her main desk I saw that the biggest, bottom drawer was locked. James said that when they had the locks installed into the desk, they had it matched with the house key. He pulled out the house key from his back pocket and unlocked the drawer. Nothing, the drawer had absolutely nothing in it. I was furious at this point, another dead end. All of a sudden I had an impulse to tear apart the whole room, but I held it in. I crawled under the desk and found a hidden locked compartment. I pointed it out to James.
"I totally forgot about that," he said.
He gave me the key, and I unlocked it. In the compartment were the missing letters, and a pill bottle that had Stella's name on it. The label said it was pain killers, but inside it were the daily women's vitamins that Martha had taken since she was a teenager. I was in shock, but then filled with excitement knowing that we had found Martha's killer.
"I know exactly what that b**** did," Lorraine said. "Somehow Stella put her pain killers in Martha's vitamin bottle." The sorrow that had been on James' face the whole day had turned into fury.
"The day before Martha died Stella had gone over to drop off a book Martha had wanted to borrow. She must've done it then," James said.
Lorraine and I thanked James for his time and told him we would be in touch. We walked mechanically to the car. It was an unspoken agreement that we couldn't tell anyone what had happened. Then, Lorraine drove to the police station. When we walked back into Sheriff Taylor's office he looked a little flustered.
"Girls, I'm very busy today. Is it possible y'all could come back tomorrow?" Sheriff Taylor said.
Lorraine responded, "You don't understand we have proof now as to why Martha's death was a murder."
We explained to him what we had found. I felt kind of guilty letting him in on our new found family secret, but he was kind of like family.
He exhaled heavily, then spoke, "This is interesting, but do y'all have the evidence?" We shook our heads.
He continued, "Girls, I agree that she wouldn't have killed herself, but it could have been an accident. I also can't reopen a case on just spoken evidence. I need it here in the station."
We understood. We should've taken the evidence from the house, but James insisted that Stella would know, and I don't think he was just quite ready to confront her about the situation.
"Thank you, we understand." I said as we left. We got back in the car.
"Damn it, Hazel, I knew we should've taken the bottle and letters," Lorraine said.
I responded, "I know, I'll go back to the house tomorrow and get them."
I picked up my phone and called James. I told him that we needed the evidence. He told me I could go by the house tomorrow. The both of them would be at work, but he said he's the last one to leave the house so he would leave the back door open for me.
That night I slept in the guest room. After I got out of the shower I noticed a missed call from David. When I called him back he said that Stan was still extremely upset. David said that he kind of had an idea that James and Martha had been having an affair, but didn't want to say anything. David said he figured since him and Martha hadn't gotten along for the first couple of years that if he told Stan, he probably would have thought that he was lying. I probably would have thought he was lying too. I got off the phone and laid on the bed. It was a full size bed with the same comforter Lorraine had had in high school.
The next morning Lorraine said that she was going to go check on Stan and David. We left at the same time, and I told her that I would meet her at Stan's after I was done. I drove down the gravel road to James and Stella's house. I walked through the back door. It was unlocked just as James had promised. I walked straight through the kitchen, into the marble foyer, and down the hall to the third door on the left. Once I entered the room I could immediately feel an eery air, that engulfed me as I walked in. I lifted up the small potted plant on Stella's desk, where James said he would leave me the key. It wasn't there. Had he forgotten? Or had it been moved? I began to feel a little frantic. I crawled under the desk and pulled the handle to the compartment. It opened. James had already unlocked it for me. My anxiety slowly began to fade. I grabbed the bottle and the letters and quickly left the room. Stopping to double check that I left everything the way it had been. As I walked back through the marble foyer, I stopped in shock and panic. Stella was standing there in the kitchen, her back to me. Before I had time to process where to go, she spoke.
The words flowing off her tongue like they had been planned for weeks, "What do you think you're doing?"
I stuttered as I tried to respond, "I, um, I, I know that you had something to do with Martha's death. I just want to know why."
She gave me a look like she could have attacked me at any moment.
She spoke again, "Are you freaking kidding me? You wonder why I had something to do with your sister's death? Maybe it's because she's been cheating on her husband with my husband for the past year."
I had no idea it had been going on for that long, and I didn't know what to say in response, so she continued. "I knew about six months in. I read all the letters. I never thought it was that serious until I read the letter that said that they were going to runaway together. Do you know how embarrassing that would be for Stan and I?" I tried to respond but she interjected, "Don't try to rationalize it, you'll never understand what it's like for the man you love to try to leave you for another woman."
I finally got in a chance to speak, "Stella, I just don't understand why you had to kill her. Couldn't you have just confronted James and Martha?"
"Are you kidding me do you really think that would stop them? They claimed that they were in love," she said in a mocking voice.
I retaliated quickly in the same mocking voice she spoke in, "Maybe he wanted to leave you because you're a psychopath."
Right after the "th" in psychopath left my lips she jumped on top of me, knocking me up against the kitchen cabinets, and tried to strangle me. Unrecognizable screams came from Stella's mouth, but then I noticed that she was also crying. I screamed for her to get off of me. She hollered back a response, but all I could hear from it was "kill" and "you." In an impulse, I grabbed a knife off the floor that had fallen when she knocked me into the cabinets. At first she tried to get it out of my hands, but somehow I stabbed her. I stabbed her once through the chest. I couldn't tell if she was dead or if she had just passed out. I called 911 and went to pick up the pill bottle and letters that had fallen out of my hands when she knocked me over. The cops came, a little too quickly. When Sheriff Taylor walked through the door I explained what had happened. I showed him the evidence, and of course I showed him Stella.
When Sheriff Taylor spoke I realized that I had been shaking since he walked through that huge, oak door, "Oh Hazel, honey, what have you done? I'm so sorry, but without hearing from other people about the evidence and since Stella's dead, I'm going to have to arrest you for murder."
He handcuffed me, and with tears in his eyes he read me my Miranda rights. Then in the hot Mississippi air he walked me to the cop car. Now with yet another part of my family gone, what would become of my family's chain-link fence now?