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Plea of insanity, p.28
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       Plea of Insanity, p.28

           Jilliane Hoffman

  ‘Poor kid,’ one said.

  ‘That sucks.’

  ‘Are they dead, Officer?’

  ‘Poor thing.’

  ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!’

  ‘Is the news here? Will this be on the news?’

  ‘Are they both dead, Officer?’

  ‘What the hell happened in there?’

  ‘Poor Julia.’

  She wanted to crawl into a ball right there on the lawn, bury herself into a black hole and cry. Just cry and cry and cry until the earth swallowed her and she simply disappeared. Strange, fragmented thoughts flew through her head.

  What did he do to them? Why was there so much blood? They can’t be dead. My parents can’t be dead. Please Lord, no. Where will I go if they’re dead? I have a Spanish test on Monday. Why didn’t I stay home tonight? What would have happened if I did stay home? Why was there so much blood? Where is Andrew going? Will he be back? Do I have to get him out of jail? Who should I call? Who will take care of me? They can’t be dead. I have a track meet on Friday. Why the hell was there so much blood?

  Then an instantly sobering, chilling thought …

  Maybe they’re still alive.

  She pulled herself up quick, before the voyeurs could even gasp, and she ran as fast as her feet could take her. Faster than she’d ever run before. She heard Detective Potter again yell for her to stop, but she just kept going. Across the brown, snow-patched lawn and past the blue coats smoking cigarettes on the broken walk and the EMTs chatting it up in the driveway.

  Up the front steps and back into the decaying old house she’d once called home.

  She slammed on the brakes with a deafening screech, and the Honda fish-tailed, skidding to a stop on 195, missing the Lexus in front of her by only an inch or two. She blew out a breath and waved apologetically at the guy who was now angrily shaking both his head and his fist at her in his rear-view. Drivers and passengers alike stared at her out their car windows in the stop-and-go early-afternoon rush-hour Miami traffic. With trembling hands, she reached over and picked up her briefcase, purse and pack of cigarettes from the passenger floorboard where they’d landed after flying off the front seat.

  She sat up with a start.

  The folder from Lat lay on the floorboard. She hadn’t opened it yet. Peeking out a corner was a black and white booking photo. She knew the face in an instant, the soft dollop of curls, the wide brown eyes.

  She leaned her head against the steering wheel and closed her eyes. The memories kept coming at her now, popping into her head like a screensaver the second she stopped concentrating on something else. Each time they were a bit clearer, though. A little brighter. More in focus. She lit a cigarette with trembling fingers.

  The picture was almost complete.


  She deliberately put the folder down on the kitchen table, along with her briefcase and purse. She took an attention-craved Moose for a walk and fed him. Instead of going for a long run on the boardwalk, she popped two Tylenol, lit a cigarette, poured herself a large glass of wine and sat down in the living room to wade through her thoughts.

  Like smoking, alcohol was another indulgence that had taken her a couple of tries to quit once. A rough patch with a rough boyfriend in college had made her drink a little more than she should have, a little more often than she should. The counselor at Rutgers had called it ‘problem-drinking’ – drinking as a means to forget or cope with a problem, something she was advised to never do again. Of course her counselor could never have imagined the scope or magnitude of problems she was dealing with at this very moment. If he had, she was sure he’d buy the bottle for her himself. And it was still only wine, she told herself. And it was almost nightfall.

  I saved them, Ju-Ju … I had to. It had to be done.

  She put her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. Andrew. Her big brother. She saw him there on the front lawn – as if he were beside her this very second – standing barefoot in the snow, with their house all ablaze in Christmas lights behind him. His handcuffed, butchered hands dangling in front of him like he was holding fistfuls of chop meat, dripping bright red blood on piles of melting white snow like in some crazy horror movie. Smiling sadly, as if he knew it would be the last time they would ever see each other …

  ‘In the matter of the petition for adoption of J.C., a minor, by Nora Clair Valenciano and her husband, James Anthony Valenciano. The parties are all present for a final hearing,’ said the clerk.

  ‘Have the minor brought forward,’ called the judge with a wave of his hand as he read over his docket with a frown and sipped a can of Diet Dr Pepper.

  A dozen people bustled about the small courtroom. The building was so old that a permanent smoky, yellow haze clung to windows that hadn’t been washed in years, and fat dust particles danced in the stagnant air. Boxes were literally stacked to the ceiling in one corner, and papers cluttered every inch of the clerk’s metal desk.

  ‘Mary Ellen Kelly appearing as guardian ad litem on behalf of the minor child,’ said the chubby woman with gray hair that went down to her butt. Julia had met her once when she came to Aunt Nora’s. ‘We have no objection to the petition.’

  ‘What is the relationship between the minor,’ the judge said hesi-tating, then looked down at the file to read her name, ‘Julia Anne Cirto,’ he said slowly, ‘and the petitioners?’ Only he said it as Cur-toe, instead of Sir-toe. He looked at Julia for the first time. ‘She’s how old?’

  ‘Julia will be fifteen at the end of the month,’ answered Mr Singh, Aunt Nora’s attorney. ‘She’s the petitioners’ niece, Judge. She’s the daughter of Mrs Valenciano’s deceased sister, Irene Cirto.’

  ‘Where is the father?’

  ‘Dead as well.’

  ‘There’s no other family?’

  Ms Kelly shook her head. ‘No, Your Honor,’ she said into the microphone then cleared her throat. ‘There’s no one else. Everyone’s gone. Her aunt and uncle are all this girl has left in the world now.’

  Was it possible to hate someone in an instant? Someone who you loved with all your being just seconds before? Could you turn it all off in a heartbeat? In the blink of an eye? Could one horrific memory change the meaning of so many good ones? Should it? That night, as she sat in the cold, gray interview room of the police precinct, her sleeping bag wrapped around her shoulders, she remembered it was Andy she still wanted. It was her big brother she needed to hold her hand and hug her and tell her it would be alright, that this was all a crazy mistake. An accident. Because it had to be.

  This bastard needs to fry for what he’s done. Did you see the pictures?… Did you see what he did to them?… You ask me what we want to see done? We want him dead! That’s justice.

  ‘No, no, no …’ she whispered out loud to an empty room, trying to shake the images out of her head. She pulled the picture that had fallen out of Lat’s file from her pocket and unfolded it.


  Even in black and white, she could still see the faint dark streaks on his smooth cheeks, the sweat that matted charcoal-colored curls to his forehead, the pure fear in his almond-shaped eyes. The only pictures of Andrew that had survived these past fifteen years were the select few that remained in her mind. This was not one of them.

  It was too much. Her brain threatened to shut down like an ATM that’s been fed the wrong password too many times. Everything was going white, nothing was making sense anymore. But it couldn’t, now could it? How could any of this ever make sense? Maybe that’s why her mind had chosen to forget. Selective memory retention – the brain takes on only what it can handle and nothing more. Julia looked back now at the dark kitchen, where the final secrets lay, stashed away in complicated computer printouts and court files. The answers she had been seeking were right there, only steps away, and yet she couldn’t move.

  So she checked her mail, changed her clothes, listened to her messa
ges – everything and anything tedious she could think of to stall for time. Finally, there was nothing left to hide behind. She walked into the kitchen and flipped on the light.

  She sat down at the table, her empty wine glass in hand, her heart pounding, watching the folder as if it were a sleeping alligator, ready to snap her arm off at the first sudden movement. Once she opened it, once her worst suspicions were confirmed, she knew there would be no turning back. That was what frightened her the most.

  Leave the past in the past. For all of us. Please.

  Maybe it was a minute. Maybe it was five. Maybe it was longer that she sat at that table, hearing the tick-tick-tock of the kitchen clock above her. Slowly, she flipped open the manila folder.

  The time had come for her to face what destroyed her family fifteen years ago tonight.


  The yellow sticky note in Lat’s handwriting was stuck to the top sheet of the NCIC. She sucked in a sharp breath and sat back hard in her chair, as if someone had shoved her into it.

  He’s alive. Jesus Christ, he’s alive …

  Lat had highlighted the criminal history for her. It was out of New York. The date of arrest was December 22, 1990. The charge was two counts of first-degree murder. Her eyes searched the printout as they had millions of times before in court, skipping past entries that detailed every court hearing – from arraignment to case status – to find the final case disposition. Lat had highlighted that, too, for her, on page four.


  Judge: R. Deverna

  Disp: Adjudicated not responsible mental disease/defect

  She stared at the words on the paper – relieved to know he was still alive, and yet sick to her stomach at the same time. She hung her head between her legs but it wasn’t enough. A minute later, she ran to the bathroom and threw up the wine, along with whatever remained of breakfast.

  Sitting on the bathroom floor, up against the cold tiled wall, the tears rushed out like a broken water main. Her whole body shook and she tried to catch her breath. Counting to ten or thirty or a million was no longer going to ward off the bad memories – memories she’d long ago packed away and buried for dead. Some were happy, some were sad. Some were bittersweet.

  ‘You know, you don’t have to call me Mom or anything like that,’ Aunt Nora said quietly as they stepped inside the courthouse elevator that stunk of coffee and body odor. Uncle Jimmy had gone ahead to get the car out of the parking garage. ‘This,’ she said, shaking the rolled-up stack of legal papers in her hand, ‘this is just, you know, to protect you and other nonsense.’ The small elevator lurched with a loud creak and then started down. ‘It’s what your mother would have wanted,’ she added when Julia still hadn’t said anything.

  Her aunt must have aged a dozen years since just the morning car ride to the courthouse. Today was the final chapter in a bad book that they both knew there would never, could never, really be a happy ending to. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she didn’t wipe them away. She just stoically looked at the elevator doors in front of her, tapping the rolled-up legal papers against her leg.

  ‘The legal name of the minor child shall be changed to Julia Anne Valenciano. Best of luck to all of you,’ the judge had said before moving on to the next case on his docket. With a swift level of the gavel and an official stamp from the clerk’s office, the past had been officially erased.

  ‘Where is Andrew?’ Julia asked suddenly.

  Nora looked at her, her wet eyes instantly filled with hate, and Julia wished she’d never asked the question. The forbidden question, even years later. ‘He’s in hell,’ Aunt Nora said flatly just as the doors opened onto the lobby. ‘Where he belongs.’

  He was supposed to be dead. Dead and gone from her life and her memories. But he never really was, was he? Maybe it was just easier all these years to assume Andy was dead than to deal with the responsibility of knowing he wasn’t. Maybe not looking was the same as not seeing. But now she knew the truth. And there was no more running, no more hiding from it. So why was it suddenly so crippling to imagine her brother as mentally ill?

  It’s this night. It always gets to you. It’s the worst night of the year, Julia.

  Moose nudged her hand with his wet nose, trying to get her to pet him. He whined and circled when she didn’t, finally settling his head down on her lap. After a second she picked him up and hugged him close, burying her face in his fur as he licked her hand, trying, in his own way, to bring her back.

  After her parents’ funeral, they’d never spoken of her brother again in Nora’s house. Ever. Mention of even Andrew’s name was strictly forbidden. Uncle Jimmy stopped getting the paper for maybe six months, maybe even longer, and the news was never permitted to be on – so how could she have known what had happened to him, right? For fifteen years she’d rationalized her own ignorance. Her own indifference. She was only thirteen, after all. A kid, right? There was no one else – no other family, no friends – she could’ve confided in or gotten information from, or a ride down to the courthouse or jail or prison, or wherever he might have been held. The day after the murders, she’d moved away physically from her home, while everyone she knew moved away from her emotionally. And they didn’t just gradually move on – they ran. Carly included. So Jimmy and Nora and Great Kills became her world. In her heart she knew Nora only did what she thought was best, but she also knew that her aunt would never, could never, get past her own anger at losing her only sister and best friend. There was no such thing as therapy or counseling – Jimmy would never allow that. It was not what ‘good families’ did. They solved their own problems. As the years passed, Julia learned to deal with the pain and isolation in the only way she knew how – by simply pushing it all out of her mind, like Nora had taught her. But now the responsibility was all hers, and she knew it. She couldn’t blame her aunt or uncle any longer, or excuse herself because she was thirteen and naïve and without a mode of transportation or access to a newspaper. For better or for worse, Pandora had opened the box, and the answers were right there, spread out on the kitchen table.

  She wasn’t sure how long she sat on the floor for, holding Moose close and crying. Finally, she pulled herself up, splashed cold water on her face, brushed her teeth, and headed back into the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water and followed it with a warm shot of Stoli from the bottle she kept in the kitchen cupboard. With the NCIC in front of her, she turned on her laptop and with shaking fingers typed words in Google’s search box.

  Kirby Ward’s Island New York

  In 0.40 seconds, she had 673, 000 hits. The very first one was headed ‘Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center’. She clicked on the site. She could hear her heart beating in her head, feel it pulse in her temples.

  …maximum-security hospital … provides secure treatment … forensic patients and courts of New York City and Long Island …

  Julia leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. She knew exactly what Kirby was. It was the state hospital in New York for the criminally insane.

  And her big brother was still a patient there.


  Julia stood outside apartment 1052, her hand poised over the bell for a few seconds while she tried to gather her thoughts. Before she could actually hit it, the door opened.

  ‘What’s this?’ Nora demanded with a big smile that quickly melted into a concerned frown. ‘A Friday afternoon? You didn’t get fired, did you?’

  Julia smiled back softly. ‘No, I didn’t get fired. I wanted to talk to you and Uncle Jimmy.’

  Her aunt raised an eyebrow. ‘You just wanted to talk to us? Hmmm … that doesn’t sound good.’ She reached out and took Julia’s hand and brought her inside, giving her a big kiss on the cheek. ‘Come in, come in. Jimmy’s at the track, though.’ She looked behind Julia into the hall. Where’s the pooch?’

  ‘I left Moose at home.’

  ‘Oh,’ her aunt shrugged and then started for the kitchen. ‘I bought him some new chewies, is all. So, what time yo
u want to come over on Sunday? I’m gonna make a turkey this year, and of course lasagne. Do you want me to make a panettone?’

  ‘If you want.’

  ‘Is this about that man you’re dating? You’re not engaged, are you? He better know to see Jimmy first,’ Nora called out behind her as Julia followed her into the kitchen.

  ‘I don’t think you need to be worrying about that just yet.’

  Nora turned to face her. ‘Pregnant?’

  ‘Aunt Nora …’

  ‘Just checking,’ she replied with a smile. ‘You know, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. Not that I’m pushing, but you’re not getting any younger and I want some grandchildren.’ She flipped on the kitchen light. ‘Come. Have something to eat before we talk about a subject serious enough to take you away from your criminals.’

  For two days, all Julia could think about was how to have this conversation. She’d rehearsed her thoughts again and again in her head, reducing them to carefully constructed sentences, like she would an opening statement, but somewhere between the elevator ride up and the walk down the hall to the door, she’d forgotten them all. She wished Uncle Jimmy were here to keep things calm, like he always did, but she just couldn’t wait any longer. ‘I’ve been doing research on my murder case,’ she began.

  ‘I saw you on the news. Why didn’t you call to tell me you’d be on? Deb Casalli had to tell me.’ She turned her face away, pretending to wipe invisible crumbs off the counter, but Julia heard the warning in her voice. The subtle signal to stop right there.

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