-by Sarah Mutombo
Photo by Jack Beck
She stood out from the crowd because she intended not to. She walked like royalty, with an infuriating authority and condescension. She had traded her vibrant fabrics and designer clothes for more muted tones, yet her outfit still possesses the glimmer of newness, like she bought the ensemble simply for this occasion: an excursion across the tracks. Even in her pitiful disguise, it was clear she didn’t belong in this part of town. She pulled her baseball cap lower and clutched her purse to her chest.
With the children at school and most adults at work, the neighborhood was quieter. Faint gospel music leaked out of an open apartment window, and the wind whipped the pages of my book. The usual shrill laughter was replaced with a soft chatter of a lazy Friday afternoon. The elderly and unemployed turned in question as Susan approaches me.
“Well, if it isn’t the Atwood Axe Murder,” I say referring to headlines in the newspaper.
“Please keep your voice down, Karen,” She hisses, pulling her cap down lower, “I know you don’t believe that malarkey.”
“They say you slit your husband’s throat while he laid asleep beside you. You can’t make that up, Susan.”
“The whole article is false,” she pleads, “Why would I hurt Richard?”
I smirk, “Angry housewife murders husband after discovering his affair? Not a creative narrative, but believable.”
She gasps, shocked by my harsh tone, “Karen—”
“It’s Carinne,” A few people look over, and Susan pulls her cap impossibly lower, “What do you want, Susan?”
Her face is flushed in embarrassment and anger, and she bites her lip, “I need your help. Can we go inside?”
“Why? So you can knife me like you did Richard?” She gives me a flat look. I roll my eyes, “The air is broken. It’s like a sauna in there.”
She nods and joins me on the steps, “As I assume you’ve gathered, Richard was murdered, but I didn’t kill him. I need you to be my alibi.”
“But I haven’t seen you in almost a year,” I say confused and for a moment, frightened.
The air is filled with a tenseness that puts me on edge,and I feel like I am falling. She sighs and bites her lip, “Tuesday night, I took my grandson William down to the ice cream parlor where you work. I was wearing a pink dress. You took my order: 2 chocolate sundaes with caramel and extra whipped cream.”
I frown, “Susan, I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered seeing you, but we have cameras. Do you need the footage? Can’t the cops or your lawyers take care of that?”
Hardening her tone, she whispers, “I am willing to provide compensation in return for your compliance.”
A sickening feeling overtakes me as I realize what she is asking me. The streets have cleared, and the soft gospel music no longer plays. In disgust and confusion, I shake my head and stand, “No.”
Nearly frantic, she sputters, “Karen, please hear me out. If you can just put your pride aside—”
“It’s Carrine!” I shout, “And it’s not my pride, it’s my integrity.”
“It would be a significant sum of money,” she adds gingerly, “And I’m sure your mother would have wanted this.”
Heat rushes through my body upon hearing her words. My hands clench, and my heart beats like a drum. My conscience begs me not to explode.
My mother spent her days black and blue from the hands of the one she loved the most. Long hours made him thirsty for something strong, and the alcohol turned him into a beast. My mother covered her bruises well, until she reached the point of no return, and no amount of concealer would help.
Susan notices my anger and softens her tone, “Your mother was a great woman and friend.”
“She wasn’t your friend,” I bite, “She worked for you.”
There was no doubt the neighbors knew, and I’m beyond certain Susan was aware. Countless times, my mother limped to clean the Atwood’s home, wearing long sleeves even in the summertime. Susan wasn’t a fool; however, she would rather lounge in her ivory tower than be bothered by her housemaid’s affairs.
Richard Atwood was on the board of a private college a town over, and when I applied to said college, my mother asked Susan if Richard could put in a good word. Susan fired my mother over her request, said she was unprofessional. I still carry the heavy feeling of guilt, knowing my mother blamed me for the loss of her job and what followed.
My mother tried desperately to keep the news of her unemployment from my father. She figured she could find work within 3 weeks, and she would dip into the little savings she had to cover her weekly expenses. Of course, father found out, and he was furious. He unleashed his rage and beat her with the wall clock.
Consumed by fear, rage, and maybe guilt, I called the police. They bust down the door, and took my father into custody. When asked, the neighbors said they hadn’t heard a thing, and he might’ve gone free if the evidence wasn’t clearly written on my mother’s face. She her bloodied, battered eyes conveyed a deep sadness instead if the relief I had expected. As awful as my father was, we couldn’t survive without him. Right after I graduated, my mother died, and I was alone.
“Honey,” Susan whispers, “I’m sorry about your mother.”
“You could have stopped it,” I whisper, “You knew. I know you did. I understand why the neighbors wouldn’t talk, but you had the law and money is on your side. You were untouchable.”
When I was in highschool, I went behind my mother’s back and bought blue colored contacts. I had assumed she was furious because I wasted money meant for my school lunch, but now I realized she spent her whole day answering to the eyes of the ice queen and would now be haunted by them in her own home.
Susan narrowed her pale blue eyes, “You have a lot of anger and pain, but it’s not directed towards me. No, you’re angry at the world, something I finally understand. It wasn’t my place to talk about your mother’s scars and bruises. That’s the way the world works, but I’m asking as a friend of your mother’s for your help change this world, and I know she would want you to help me. ”
Susan was right. This conversation probably has my mother turning in her grave. That was the way my mother worked. No matter how many punches you threw at her, she would give you all her love and then some.
But I’m not my mother.
Heartbreak turned me cold, unforgiving. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, trying to make sure I’m ahead of the game only to make realize I’m a few steps behind. I’m tired of feeling like the only one being screwed over in this sick, twisted world.
“I think you murdered your husband.”
Her eyes widen in shock, and she sputtered back to her previous response “I can provide-”
“Then why do you need me to be your fake alibi?” I pester. “Why don’t you use your real alibi?”
“It would ruin my reputation,” she states calmly.
“More than being known as the Atwood Axe Murderer?!” I laugh.
“Whatever you want,” I she pleads, “I have money. I have connections. I can probably still get you into that school. I can get your father out early.”
“Why would I want my father out?” I shriek, “And if you have so many connections, why don’t you use them to help yourself out?”
“They only go so far,” she whispers.
“Let me guess,” I rub my chin, “Most of them depend on proving your innocence?”
A bus rolls down the street, windows down. Shrill laughter pours through the street. Parents are starting to return home, and the neighborhood starts to come alive again.
“Listen, Carinne,” she pleaded, “If you don’t help me, I will go to jail. My life will be over.”
“Sorry, Susan, but it’s not my place,” I grab my forgotten book and stand, “I hoped you locked your car.”