What we saw at night, p.18
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       What We Saw at Night, p.18

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  “Are those the observations you want to present here today in this interview?” she concluded.

  “More or less,” I said.

  “Which is it?” she asked. “More or less?”

  I felt like Alice in Wonderland. “It’s accurate!” I said, too loudly.

  She glanced at Tabor, who nodded. “I have a statement I’ve prepared too, with my lawyer,” he said, pulling an envelope from his inside jacket pocket. “I’ve detailed the chronology of my relationship with Juliet Sirocco as her athletic coach, and later as a friend and mentor in whom she confided. Juliet was a spirited young woman and the kind of competitor any coach values. But she was also deeply troubled.”

  Troubled. I sneered. The same BS he’d tried on Gideon. “She was deeply troubled because you got your hands on her,” I said.

  “Please, Miss Kim,” said the deputy chief. “Would you like your mother?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t need her to call him on his lies.”

  “I’d be happy to take a lie-detector test,” Garrett Tabor concluded. “I want this all cleared up.”

  They made a date.

  I ran back out to the waiting room and hugged my mother.

  Later I heard he passed with honors. Sociopaths recognize when people like them. They believe that people like them. And people really do like them. That sole truth turns every other twisted lie into a truth that sociopaths can live with, and that they believe, too. Everything else is just smoke from a distant fire.

  WHEN WE GOT home, at exactly midnight, Rob called and breathlessly told us to turn on the evening news. Mom and I sat in horror with Mrs. Staples, who’d babysat sleeping Angie. The three of us found ourselves watching shaky footage of what at first looked like a snuffed-out campfire. I squinted at burned remnants of some dark clothing and the soles of barefoot track shoes. Then the reporter spoke. “Empty of cash or credit cards was a wallet with a driver’s license issued the previous year to Juliet Lee Sirocco.…”

  I tuned out his voice after that, but the information seeped through. There was no trace of her. But everything in the charred pile had belonged to Juliet, including horribly, two of her eight ringlethingles.

  “The Tabor family is offering a fifty thousand dollar reward to anyone who finds her,” the reporter concluded.

  The pieces of the puzzle slid into place. They did not fit precisely, but just enough. Juliet had known what Tabor could do, what he would do if he didn’t get what he wanted. I knew he’d tried begging. I knew he’d tried bribery. I would bet he’d finally tried threats. That night at the bridge, all those final things she said, they made sense.

  Juliet had given Garrett Tabor what he wanted most of all—herself—in exchange for something she loved dearly.

  Me.

  The letter, addressed to Sherriff Thomas Sirocco, arrived four days into the search. He insisted on bringing it to me that night at 1 A.M. Not too late for a Daytimer, but right on track for the XP community. I knew he wasn’t acting as a cop, but as a father. That’s all he could ever be to Juliet, even now.

  At our door, Tommy still looked like the dead version of himself. He hadn’t even bothered to dress in his Sherriff’s uniform. He wore loose-fitting jeans, a hat, and an overcoat. It was only 28 degrees out. He gave my mother and me a quick hug and then sat at our kitchen table. My eyes narrowed as he slipped on plastic gloves to remove the letter from his pocket. The envelope was postmarked Illinois. “O’Hare Airport zip code,” he muttered. “International flight hub.”

  He flattened the paper on the table. I glanced at my mother.

  “Should I touch it?” I said.

  “It just means your fingerprints will be on it,” he said. “You’re no longer a person of interest with Juliet, but we are. The parents always are. You know that.”

  I nodded and squinted at the piece of stationery.

  Dearest Dad,

  I want you to know that I’m okay. I realize how much this is hurting you. You know that causing you pain isn’t at all what I intend. I’ve told you for years that this was a possibility. Now it is a reality. Don’t bother to look for me. Don’t send police to any of those old hotels. I won’t be there.

  But I am okay.

  I am taking care of myself and I am staying out of dangerous situations. I’m not alone and I’m very happy to see how the other half lives, if you know what I mean.

  I love you and miss you and Mom terribly. I always will. I will stay in touch with you, as long as no one tries to find me. If someone tries to find me, I will disappear.

  It’s important for me that I have this time on my own. It may be the only time in my life I have to really live my life normally. Live once!

  So try not to worry. I’m sorry I didn’t get to tell you before I left.

  Please tell Alexis not to worry, either. Tell her I’m thinking about her.

  Love,

  Juliet

  I frowned and looked up. “This isn’t real.”

  “What makes you say that?” he demanded. I could tell he wanted it to be real. He wanted it to be an answer. If Juliet was alive somewhere, and if he and his wife had enough patience, they would see her again. Piercing the fragile bubble of hope, the only place he could breathe, was almost more than I could bear. Parenting really is a paper doll chain. And Juliet had set it on fire a long time ago.

  “You know, don’t you?” I asked.

  “I think some things about it are hinky.”

  “Which things?” I pressed. I wanted him to answer, more than I’d even known.

  “You tell me, just for argument’s sake,” he said.

  I turned back to the paper. The old familiar golf ball appeared in my throat, making it difficult to speak. “The only people who call me ‘Alexis’ are my mother when she’s mad, and people who don’t know me. You know, like school administrators. Everybody in the hospital calls me Allie. I bet even Nicola didn’t know my real first name. My email address is Allie-dot-Kim.”

  He nodded. “Go on.”

  “But it’s not that. The biggest thing is that she didn’t mention Rob once. Rob is a part of us. If this was a real letter, she’d tell you to tell Rob everything she told me, and to tell you that she was thinking of him, too.”

  My mom began to cry. Tommy glanced at her, then at me. He swallowed several times, staring at the ceiling. He was fighting hard not to cry himself.

  “Allie, I’ve never said this … but I’m so grateful that she has real friends like you,” he managed, his voice thick. “I mean it. I thank God for you and Rob. You drive me crazy with your stunts. But you love.…” He paused. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

  My eyes moistened. “Of course we will.”

  “We won’t know anything until the lab looks at it,” Tommy said. His voice hardened. He shoved the letter back into the envelope and stood. “I’ll call you.”

  ROB SHOWED UP about ten minutes after Tommy left. My mother had given up any pretext of setting limits on Rob and I being together. She knew I didn’t want to be alone, ever, anymore, and she didn’t want me alone, either. For the first few hours, my mother allowed us some privacy. Not that we were in the mood for anything more than clinging to each other in my bed. Rob rested his head against Penguin, his arm around me. For some reason, that set me off. I cried for a good long time.

  “Allie-Stair?” he finally whispered.

  “Yeah?”

  “I think I get now why you’re going to John Jay.”

  I buried my head against his chest. “You do? Good. Please tell me. Because I’m not even sure I want to go anymore.”

  “That’s not true. You do want to go. You want to go because you’ve always been trapped in this little room, this prison cell. You’ve been trapped with me, and Juliet, and XP. I mean, sometimes the room is bigger, sometimes it’s the whole night, but it’s still a prison cell with a door that’s gonna open at a set time. And someone will come in and say, ‘Time’s up.’ John Jay is your furlough. And that is aw
esome.”

  I chewed my lip, not wanting to cry again. That was when I saw it: the Rob I’d loved from toddlerhood, the doomed-boy-who-could-have-been-a-jock, the late-night record producer, the de-facto therapist—the countless Robs, wondrous and magical—all forced to live inside a single head their whole lives, never able to do what they wanted, but never mean or bitter about it. The United Rob.

  “What?” he asked.

  “Since when did you get so smart?” I said.

  “It’s from hanging out with you and Juliet.”

  “Rob.…”

  “I know you. There are a thousand Juliets. But there’s only one Allie Kim. And from now on, I hope there’s only one Rob Dorn.” He drew in a trembling breath. “We owe that to Juliet, no matter what happens.”

  I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the pain. I kissed his neck. “She never believed in the prison cell, did she?”

  “Why the hell do you think she was able to convince us to do Parkour?”

  I WAS JUST drifting off when the prison cell door flew open. “You have to eat more and sleep more,” Mom said, apropos nothing. “Well, eat more. Hi, Rob.”

  He laughed.

  “I eat all the time,” I muttered groggily, extricating myself.

  “You eat grapes. You were already thin. Now you look ghastly.”

  “Now I can be a model.”

  “You’re angry and you’re grieving, but this helps nothing,” Jackie said. “No one likes to believe what she doesn’t want to believe.”

  “Gee, Mom, did you just make that up?”

  “No need to take it out on me, Allie.” She folded her arms across her chest and arched her eyebrow at Rob, hoping to enlist him as an ally the same way she enlisted Angie. Oh, God, I thought. Now we’re like some loser married couple who lives at home. Maybe it’s time to move into that cabin at Ghost Lake.

  “See?” I said. “You’re mad and you’re not even calling me Alexis.” I was furious at the seeming willingness of people in charge to fall for the dumbest excuse for a solution. “I know Juliet better than anyone, Mom.”

  “In some ways. In other ways, you don’t know her at all.”

  I glanced at Rob. He shrugged. No wonder Mom wanted to enlist him as an ally. They both spoke the truth. I struggled to a sitting position.

  “I want to know if they checked for Garrett Tabor’s fingerprints,” I stated. “You know, at Lost Warrior.”

  “Why would Garrett Tabor have fingerprints in a criminal system?” Rob asked.

  “When you work with kids, you have to pass background checks.” I glanced at my mom. “Right, Mom?”

  “Ah,” Rob said. “But he’s smarter than that, Allie-Stair. He doesn’t leave traces.” Kind of raised that way, I thought, shivering.

  Rob wrapped his arm around me. “Do you think there’s a chance it’s real?”

  “There’s always a chance,” Mom put in. “Your father up and vanished, too, Alexis. It was convenient. Maybe this way out was convenient for her. Maybe Juliet was the one who left no traces.”

  The next day, the $50,000 reward offered by the Tabor Clinic was withdrawn. A new bulletin listed Juliet as a “Missing Person.” Suddenly, she was nobody’s little girl.

  THE NEXT NIGHT, as I was heading out to meet Rob up at the cabin at Ghost Lake, I found my mom in the kitchen, crying.

  My heart seized. It was the six o’clock news. I caught a glimpse of the river, under floodlights, of the newscaster, his face grim.

  “They don’t know,” Jackie finally said. “They don’t know if it’s her.” There were still streaks of light in the sky. My mother got up and pulled the shades. “The body they found doesn’t fit Juliet’s description. And it’s much … well, let’s wait and see, Allie.”

  “Go ahead and say it, Mom. I can take it. It’s what I want to do with my life—”

  “Not when it comes to your best friend.”

  “Please say it. I’ll think worse.”

  My mom nodded, blinking rapidly. “You can sit with me and watch. I’m sure they’ll go over it again. The state of the body isn’t quite compatible with Juliet. This person would have died more recently. And while she might resemble Juliet superficially, there was damage to the face and hands from aquatic life.…” Fish had nibbled her. Crabs had plucked at her beautiful lips. “But also perhaps from trauma.”

  “From rocks and being in the water,” I said.

  “Maybe.”

  “From being hurt by someone else?” I had promised that it was okay for my mother to say these things, but now my body betrayed my rational mind and I began to over-breathe, a kaleidoscope of sparkling confetti before my eyes. “What about her clothes? The black bodysuit with the blue stars on it?”

  Jack-Jack looked at me with a fierce animal protectiveness, and I knew that there had been no clothes. Involuntarily, I heard myself make the kind of sound a person would make if she were gut-punched without warning.

  “Allie, Allie. I’m sorry.”

  “Dental records will show right away,” I croaked. Juliet’s teeth were perfect, and one was a perfect fake, an implant, a permanent tooth placed when one could not be surgically re-rooted after she literally knocked it out with a ski pole.

  My mother said, “There was damage there, too. That won’t be definitive.” Quickly, she added that the girl who had been pulled from the river had short dark hair, which was dyed, and was much thinner and less well developed in terms of musculature than Juliet. “So it really may not be her at all, Allie. People drown all the time. No one knows if this girl has water in her lungs. No one knows how she died.”

  “What about her tattoo?”

  Mom shook her head.

  “You got all this from the news?” I finally yelled. My throat clogged.

  “I called Tommy.…” She turned back to the television.

  Because I’d already lost Juliet, I almost prayed that it was her. I almost willed her long lonely voyage to be over. If someone had starved her and beaten her, there must have come a moment when she’d won before she succumbed to defeated agony by letting life go. I almost prayed that she thought of herself as a hero, having saved me, having taken the devil’s bargain. I almost prayed for all that. But I couldn’t. Because even if there were a chance that Juliet was still out there, running from Tabor, it meant some other father and mother’s child had died. It meant the paper doll chain had been set ablaze once more. Juliet, come back, I pleaded. Come back. Help me fight him.

  “I want a second opinion,” I told my mother.

  “What?”

  “I want Dr. Stephen to have someone else do the autopsy.”

  “Allie, you’re beyond the point of rational. I understand—”

  “Is there a way to request that legally?” I interrupted. “Can her parents request that legally? To replace Dr. Stephen just this one time?”

  “Only if they have some reason to believe he’s incompetent,” my mother said. She choked over the words. “And his brother has cared for Juliet all her life. He has samples of Juliet’s blood and tissue, and her fingerprints as part of the research study.”

  “Exactly! The research study. That’s why. I think he may be too … close to it. And he’s coming all the way back from South America. He’ll be exhausted.”

  “It’s because Garrett gives you the creeps. That’s why. But Stephen is the nicest guy in the world. He’s crushed over this. They all are, baby.”

  “Mom, please, just ask someone, okay?”

  In the end, it was Dr. Stephen who asked for assistance, from an FBI pathologist. Juliet was still a minor when she died, and foul play or kidnapping was a possibility.

  ROB ENDED UP coming over. Angela woke up around two o’clock and got into bed with Rob and me, curling into my body like an oversized shrimp. My mother had told her that a girl had died, but that we were hoping it wasn’t Juliet, and that we would have to wait for the doctors to tell us. Angie knew about Nicola’s death, although she hadn’t known Nicola other than
to say hi. What we both knew as the daughters of a nurse was that in the medical world, good news travels fast. The morning lasted forever.

  The phone rang at six. The three of us sat upright in bed.

  Mom said softly, with an almost religious hush, “Thank you. I will tell her.”

  But she didn’t have to.

  At Ghost Lake, a cordon of Iron Harbor cops blocked the road so that no one could intrude on what was a private family ceremony, with only a few close friends included. Reporters were still on the prowl. Citizens of the town placed cards and wreaths for the Siroccos in their mailbox, as they’d done at Nicola’s grave.

  No one’s funeral is ever held at ten o’clock at night, so this was my first. It was Rob’s first, too. The Siroccos insisted on including us. Juliet wasn’t even going to be buried at Torch Mountain Cemetery. Her ashes were going to be scattered over the water at one of the places she loved the most, by those she loved the most.

  Only as I took a step out on the old pier did the reality of the past two days sink in. It had been a flurry of anger and disbelief and sleeplessness. But there was no argument to be made anymore.

  DNA tests had proved that the body found in the river was Juliet’s. And Dr. Stephen’s report was supported by the FBI medical examiner. Even a Tabor couldn’t have bribed the federal government. The report pointed out the coldness of the water as a factor in how well-preserved the body still was, and the loss of teeth possibly accidental, as a result of gum damage due to rapid weight loss. She had died by accident shortly after cutting her hair in a punk crop and dyeing it. No one could explain any of the physical anomalies, other than to suggest that starving herself for a week was a reliable way to dramatically change her appearance quickly, as part of some kind of plan to escape.

  The FBI physician was also a criminalogist. She suggested that undetected neurological damage might have prompted Juliet’s abrupt mood swings. The blaze that had consumed Juliet’s belongings could have been phony, a deliberate diorama meant to suggest that someone was shedding her past. But if true, then why up on the back side of Torch Mountain, among old mine shafts that pitted the slopes? The likelihood of that doused fire being lost forever was far greater than the slim chance someone would stumble upon it.…

 
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