Elise. April 1983.

It started with an accident. I was trying to be funny—was always trying to be funny, to make the other girls like me—and was imitating this skit I’d seen on Saturday Night Live a couple of nights before. We were in music class and were supposed to be practicing our solo pieces for an upcoming state strings competition. But Mrs. Vandeburg was busy helping Greg, who was the best violin player in our junior high. And when Mrs. V. focused on Greg, she didn’t pay any attention to the rest of us. So, we did what most fourteen-year-olds would do. Goof off.

“The skit’s called Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” I said, “and Eddie Murphy is playing Mr. Robinson, who’s just like Mr. Rogers—you know, the ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ guy—except he’s an ex-con and he’s showing off this bag of groceries—”

“We get it.” Kirstin rolled her eyes. She was the head of our crew, pretty and curvy in ways I didn’t think I’d ever be. She excelled at everything, and she always knew the right thing to say. We all wanted to be her best friend, including me, even though I knew that would probably never happen because she often seemed annoyed with me. Like now.

“But wait,” I said. “The funny part is—”

“We know,” Kirstin said.

I hated how she cut me off. She did that a lot. If I could just get her—get all the girls—to listen, to let me get to the best part, I knew they’d find it as funny as I did.

“No, wait,” I said. “So he’s talking about how much better it is to get steak instead of turkey, and he reaches behind his back and pulls out this frozen steak that he’d stuck in his pants.”

It had been hilarious when Eddie Murphy did it. I imitated him, swinging my arm behind me. I was laughing and smiling. I had all their attention. Then the side of my hand slammed into something hard. I twirled around to see a music stand pitching sideways, a bow flying, and a violin that had been hanging on the stand falling. It felt like a slow-motion race as I lunged for the instrument, with it falling, falling, falling and me struggling to reach it as if I were straining forward against a gusting wind. Then they hit the floor—the violin and stand—simultaneously, with clanging and cracking, the violin’s bridge collapsing, the noise so loud that everyone in the room stopped talking and practicing. When I looked up, everyone was staring at me.

“You idiot,” Kirstin yelled, her voice so loud, so strident, kids must have heard her in every room throughout the school. “You broke my violin.”

Oh no. Kirstin’s  violin. Why did it have to be hers? My luck always went that way.

“I’m sorry.” I picked up the violin and cradled it. “It was an accident.”

Mrs. Vandeburg marched toward me, her chubby cheeks flushed, her eyes narrowed into slits. I’d never been her favorite student. No matter how much I practiced my bowing or plucked my fingers raw, I rarely improved. Mrs. V. often seemed frustrated with me, but now she was furious.

“How many times have I told you not to horse around in here?” she said.

I couldn’t recall her ever saying that. She pulled the violin from my arms, examining it, shaking her head.

“Can you fix it?” Kirstin asked. She held the first seat in the second section of violins in our orchestra, an honor reserved for the best player in eighth grade. I’d never thought she cared much about violin. It was just something she did well, like everything else, but now her lower lip wobbled.

“I don’t think so, honey,” Mrs. V. said, her voice soft and kind. Then she turned to me. “I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

My eyes watered. I understood why she was mad at me, but it had been an accident.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. And then I had an idea. A way to fix things. “You can have my violin, Kirstin. I’ll skip the state competition so you can go.”

“She can’t just switch instruments like that,” Mrs. V. snapped. “A player gets used to one. Yours would feel different in her arms. Sound different. You’ve pretty much ruined her chances at this year’s competition, where she, at least, had a prospect of winning.”

My heart sank into my stomach.

“Kirstin, let me see if I can find someone who can try to repair it,” Mrs. V. said. “In the meanwhile, I guess we’ll need to find you an alternate one to play, even though it won’t be the same.” Those last words had a bite to them and were clearly aimed at me. “I’ll examine the extras we have in storage and bring some to our next class.”

Mrs. V. gave me another dirty look and stalked off. I was left standing there with everyone else still staring at me. No, scowling was more like it. Then the bell rang, and we all scattered to our next classes, saving me from the awkwardness.

* * * *

Ninety minutes later I walked into the cafeteria and headed to our usual lunch table. I spotted an empty seat next to my friend Lila and hurried over. I’d just come from English, where we’d been discussing the meaning of courage in To Kill a Mockingbird. We had a test coming up, and I hoped Lila could help me understand the book better since she took honors English.

“Hey,” I said, sliding onto the bench. Without even saying hi, Lila shifted her back to me, talking with the girl on her other side. Feeling unsettled, I smiled at Allie, who was sitting across from me. She stared daggers my way, walked to the other end of the table, and squeezed in next to Kirstin. What had I done to her? I cast a questioning look at the remaining girls sitting across from me. They all turned away.

Uh oh. Something was really wrong. I tapped Lila’s shoulder. She ignored me. I tapped again and leaned close to her ear. “Lila, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Her shoulders rose and fell, as if she’d taken a deep breath, and she curled around. “What do you want?”

She said it with disdain, as if I were her annoying little brother, not the girl who’d been her best friend for most of elementary school. I could hardly believe it. Sure, we hadn’t done much together in the past year. She’d been so busy with Kirstin and the other popular girls, but she’d always been friendly.

“Can I talk to you in private?” I whispered. I needed to find out what was going on and get Lila’s help to fix it.

Lila laughed. “No. I don’t want to talk to you in private.” She said it loudly, cruelly. “After what you did to Kirstin, you think anyone wants to talk to you?”

Oh, God. Was this about the violin? All the girls at our table were staring at me now, their tweezed eyebrows narrowed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.” How had word spread so fast?

“Yeah, right,” Lila said. “You knocked over Kirstin’s violin on purpose. You were angry because she didn’t want to hear your boring story about Saturday Night Live, like anyone cares about that lame show.”

“That’s not true.” I’d merely gotten overexcited. It’s something I’d repeatedly gotten dinged for on elementary-school report cards. “Elise needs to work on practicing self-control.”  How could Lila think I’d hurt anyone on purpose? She knew me. “Besides,” I said, my anger rising, “it’s not my fault that Kirstin hung her violin on the stand like that. Mrs. V. told us a million times not to do it because a violin could easily get knocked off. So don’t blame me now that it’s happened.”

Everyone volleyed their heads toward Kirstin, whose glare made me feel a foot tall. No one ever spoke to her like that. She tilted her blond head toward Lila, sending a signal, it seemed. Lila twisted back to me.

“First you break Kirstin’s violin, and now you try to make it her fault,” Lila said. “You’re pathetic, Elise. Go find somewhere else to eat. You’re not welcome here.”

And in unison, as if they were controlled by the same puppeteer, my friends all turned away from me.

Stunned, I rose. I don’t even know how I got to the bathroom or what I did with my lunch. I just remember standing there, gripping the chipped sink, when the bell rang forty minutes later. A girl washing her hands beside me said, “Why are you just standing there? Aren’t you going to class?”

She was the last person who spoke to me at school that day—the last kid who spoke to me for the rest of eighth grade. Everyone ignored me, not only my former friends but even kids I didn’t know well. No one would cross Kirstin or Lila, who became Kirstin’s new BF after doing her dirty work. BF—before BFFs became a thing. It had been the ultimate power play by mean girls, long before that term was in vogue too, and it left me cowardly, with anxiety and trust issues for years to come.

* * * *

Connor. February 2015.

It started with a promise. I was eleven, and my mom was dying, and I promised her I would protect the weird girl who moved in next door two summers ago.

Zoey was a year younger than me. Short and uncoordinated, she laughed too loud and sucked on her long brown hair and sang songs to herself on the school bus. Not popular songs either. Everyone avoided her—except me. I felt bad for her. It couldn’t have been easy starting at a new school when you were that odd, especially when you didn’t have any brothers or sisters to hang out with. So, I talked to her on the bus, and sometimes I invited her over to play video games.

After my mom got sick, real sick, she asked me about Zoey. “Tell me the truth,” Mom said, lying in her bed, gaunt and pale, her voice thin as tissue paper. “Tell me how the kids treat her.”

So I did. Tears welled in Mom’s eyes, and she told me about these mean girls who dropped her when she was fourteen. For months she had no friends. No one to eat lunch with or hang out with or anything. I couldn’t believe anyone would do something like that, especially to my mom, who was always super nice to everyone. That’s when she begged me to protect Zoey, to be in her corner no matter what.

That’s when I made the Promise.

* * * *

Connor. April 2019.

Four years later, on a warm spring Saturday night my sophomore year of high school, I ended up down the block at Dereck’s house. He was throwing another rager. Kids were everywhere, smoking cigarettes and weed and other stuff I didn’t want to know about. Someone had smuggled in a keg, and someone else had made Jell-O shots. Music was pumping, and I was glad to be there. Glad to be out of my tomb of a house, where the lights were always dim and it was always quiet and my dad was always reading in his study. He’d retreated there after my mom died and pretty much hadn’t left. Books were his escape, he once said. I understood. But sometimes I needed to let loose.

I grabbed a cup of beer and made the rounds, laughing with my best pal, Brian, and cheering on Dereck to chug, chug, chug. Last time he drank that much, he spewed all over the front lawn. But here he was, at it again. Anything for an audience.

It amazed me that Dereck got away with throwing these huge parties all the time. His parents were big on showing that they “trusted him,” so every few months they went away for the weekend and left Dereck home alone. The kid was seventeen, just a couple years older than me. It was a recipe for disaster. But somehow the cops never showed up, and his folks never found out. Or maybe they knew but just didn’t care. We lived in an upscale neighborhood where kids could get away with murder if they smiled and pretended to be nice.

I was on my second beer, feeling good and buzzed, when I spotted Zoey across the room, by the stairs. What was she doing here? Freshmen usually didn’t go to seniors’ parties. Plus, this was so not her crowd. In the past year she’d finally found a group of girls to hang with. They wore all black with too much eye makeup and were into emo music. Not my scene, but Zoey seemed happy, so I was happy for her. But I didn’t see any of those girls here. Just Zoey, by herself, looking around.

“Zoey,” I yelled, but she couldn’t hear me over the music. I started edging her way, pushing through the thick crowd, craning my neck, trying to keep her in sight. Then something splashed against my chest.

“Oops,” my friend Nicole said, giggling. “My bad.”

She stood in front of me, holding an empty cup and grinning so wide that dimples popped on her cheeks. I was covered in her beer.

“If I had a napkin,” Nicole said, her words slurring, “I would dry you off with it. But I don’t.” Then she glanced down and back up at me, her blue eyes suddenly bright. “I’ve got it!”

She lifted the edge of her shirt and started blotting mine with it, showing off her flat stomach, raising her tee higher and higher as she patted my chest, until she was revealing way more than she surely ever would if she were sober. I grabbed her hand and lowered her shirt.

She leaned into me. “What do I have to do to get you to notice me?”

And then she kissed me. It was soft and sloppy and wonderful. I’d thought Nicole had been flirting with me over the previous few weeks, but since I had no experience in this area, I hadn’t known what to do. But now here it was. My first real kiss. It was one of those milestone moments my mom used to talk about, something that would be seared into my brain forever, so I figured I should go all in. I clutched Nicole’s wrist and pulled her to a corner, and we made out. For a while. Eventually she pulled away and poked my chest.

“You … are a good kisser, Connor.”

Thank God.  “Right back at ya.” I was smiling like a fool, but I didn’t care.

“Yep,” she repeated, pronouncing each word forcefully. “You are a good kisser, and I am a thirsty girl.”

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

Fingers entwined, we headed toward the keg, Nicole stumbling, me leading the way, winding through the hallway, past the stairs. Stairs … why did that ring a bell? And I remembered. Zoey. She’d been standing by the stairs when I last saw her. God, when was that? A half hour ago? Longer?

I looked around, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.

Nicole pulled my hand. “C’mon, Connor.”

We went farther down the hall. Still no Zoey. But I spotted Brian.

“Yo,” I called. He maneuvered toward us. “Have you seen Zoey?”

He tilted his head toward mine, smirking. “Is Nicole not enough for you? Nice going, bro.”

“Ha-ha,” I said, hoping Nicole hadn’t heard him. “Zoey?”

“Yeah, I saw her wander down that hallway.” He nodded behind me.

“When?”

He shrugged. Great. I hated leaving Nicole, but I had to find Zoey, make sure she was all right. A freshman at a senior’s party could go all kinds of wrong, especially someone out of her element.

“I need to hit the head,” I told Nicole. “I’ll find you later?”

“You better.” She turned to Brian. “More beer?”

“Hell yeah,” he said.

I swiveled and hurried down the hallway Brian had pointed out. I came upon two doors almost opposite each other. I knocked on the one on the right. “Go away,” two kids yelled at once. Neither sounded like Zoey. I knocked on the other door. No response. I pulled it open. The empty garage. I headed on. At the end of the hall was one more door, partially open with light spilling out.

I was about to knock when I got a bad feeling. I crept inside, easing the door closed behind me to block out the music. It was a home gym. At the far side a girl was lying on a couch, her left arm pressing up against someone’s chest while she said “don’t.” As soon as I noticed her bracelets—black beads with little skulls between them—I knew it was Zoey. And that tool Ian Bowicki was leaning over her, unbuttoning his jeans.

I crossed the room in a run, as Zoey kept trying to push him off, sounding sick. Her shirt was tugged up, her jeans pulled down. And Ian was pushing her legs apart with his knee.

Averting my eyes, I yanked Ian off her and spun him around. “What the hell is wrong with you? She’s just a kid.”

“Looks all woman to me.”

He laughed, the same vile laugh I remembered from English class last year, when we talked about To Kill a Mockingbird. Already riled up by the racism discussion, a girl lost it when we talked about the dog shot in the book. Her own dog had recently died. I’d felt so bad for her. But Ian hadn’t. He’d thought her tears were a hilarious overreaction. “Jeez, get a grip,” he’d said. “Life goes on.” And now here he was, showing his dark side to another girl.

“Grab a seat, Connor,” he said. “You’ll be able to back me up when I tell everyone I nailed Goth Girl. I bet I’ll get extra points since she’s so weird.” He laughed again. “When I’m done, you can get in on the action if you want.”

Rage boiled up in me. I hadn’t felt that angry since my mom died. I squeezed my fist and was about to pummel all the laughter right out of him when Ian fell against me, and I heard Zoey say, “Go to hell, you rapist son of a bitch.”

I shoved Ian off. He collapsed onto the couch with his eyes closed, mouth open, and a frigging dent in the side of his head.

Holy shit.

“Oh my God,” Zoey said. “He looks dead. Is he dead?”

She’d gotten off the couch and pulled up her jeans. Her eyes were rimmed with smeared black makeup. And in her hand she held a dumbbell. One of those small ones that weigh five pounds.

“I … I don’t know.” I reached over, felt for a pulse. Nothing.

He was dead. Ian was dead. Jesus freaking Christ.

I stared at Zoey, and she stared at me, both our eyes wide with disbelief. When my mom died, at least I knew it was coming. But this. I had no idea how to even process it.

Zoey dropped the dumbbell and bit her lower lip so hard the skin turned white. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. I swear! He was hurting me. Forcing me. I just wanted to …”

I nodded, then closed my eyes for a moment, trying to pull myself together and will away her pain. I should have found her sooner.

“Are you OK?” I finally said. It was so little to ask and way too late, but what else could I do?

“Yeah. I guess.” Tears rolled down Zoey’s cheek, and as she wiped them away, she swayed. “Ugh. I shouldn’t have let him give me all those Jell-O shots.”

“Why did you?” I looked at Ian, lying there so still. How could I hate and pity someone so much at the same time? “Why’d you even come here, Zo?”

She laughed, one of those boy, I’m an idiot  laughs. “I thought he liked me. He’s been smiling at me at school for weeks. Then he mentioned this party. I thought, maybe this was my chance. My chance to fit in with the cool kids. I love my friends, but all these years I’ve been this outsider looking in, and I just wanted to know what it felt like … to be normal.”

Now I laughed at the absurdity of it all. “Normal is completely overrated. Normal is jerks like Ian.” And then I winced because, jeez, the guy was dead.

“Yeah, I get that now,” she said, pulling her phone from her pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling my parents.” She paused. “What should I tell them? How do I explain this? Or should we call the police?”

That is what we’d always learned. If something bad happens, call your parents. And if it’s really bad, if it’s dangerous, call the cops. But no one ever said what to do if your friend accidentally-on-purpose kills someone. I guessed calling the cops was what we should do. The right thing. But what was right and what was right weren’t always the same thing. Ian was a rich kid. A normal kid, as Zoey would say. She was still a weirdo in most people’s eyes, with her all-black clothes, dyed black hair, and skull bracelets. The cops would have her in handcuffs before she sobered up. Heck, they’d use the alcohol against her. Even if I told them what Ian had been doing, what he’d said, in the end it would be a dead rich white boy killed by a drunk weird goth girl. Even in this #MeToo era, I knew Zoey wouldn’t stand a chance.

“You can’t call the cops,” I said. “Things won’t go well for you. You see that, right?”

“OK, then I’ll call my parents.”

“So they can call the cops? It’s not like it was an accident, Zo. You hit him on purpose.”

She held out her arms in a bewildered gesture. “So, what do we do?”

“We have to get rid of Ian.”

I heard myself saying the words, but it felt like an out-of-body experience, like watching a movie, that point where you know the guy is making a huge mistake, that it will come back to bite him, but really, what other choice did he have?

“We?” Zoey said. “No, Connor. I can’t let you help me like that. This is all on me. I’m the one who hit him.”

True, but I was the one who’d told Mom I’d always protect Zoey. I’d made the Promise. It had been easy up till now, standing up for her when kids were mean. But doing the right thing meant doing it when things were hard. That’s what Mom taught me. She’d been the same age Zoey was now when she’d had that terrible experience at school, and it messed her up bad. This thing with Ian would be a gazillion times worse for Zoey if anyone found out what she did. I had to help her.

“We’re in this together,” I said.

“No.” She shook her head. “If we get caught, you’ll be screwed, just like me.”

She was right about that. If we called the cops now and I told them what happened, I’d be safe. A mere witness. But if I helped Zoey hide Ian’s body and we got caught, I’d be all in. An accomplice. And that was what would probably happen. We’d get caught. After all, what did I know about getting rid of a dead body? People got caught all the time trying to cover up things like this. I knew that.

But sometimes they didn’t. I knew that too.

“I’m not leaving you to fend for yourself.” I had to live up to my promise. Be the person I’d swore I’d be. I had to stand in Zoey’s corner, no matter the risk or the odds against us. It’s what Mom would have wanted. It’s what I wanted. “And if we get caught, I’ll take the heat. I can handle it, Zoey. Trust me.”

“No. Let’s leave him here. Go back to the party. Act like nothing happened. Let someone else find him.”

“Are you kidding? The cops’ll take one look at his head and start searching for who did it. People saw you doing those shots with him, right?”

“Yeah, I guess. There were lots of kids around.”

“And some of them might have seen you walking off with him. Brian saw you heading this way. The cops’ll find the dumbbell with your fingerprints on it, and you’ll be screwed. You have a better chance of getting away if they never find him and that dumbbell. If he just disappears. Then people might wonder what happened. Wonder if you were involved. But without the body, they won’t be able to prove anything.”

I noticed a sliding glass door that led to the backyard. Zoey and I could carry Ian to my house. We’d just have to cross three backyards and pray we wouldn’t trigger any automatic lights. That no one would see us. We could bury him in my mom’s old flower garden behind my house. No one ever went back there anymore, so no one would know.

It would work. It had to.

I picked up the small dumbbell and wedged it into my pants pocket as I told her my plan. “C’mon. We’re in this together.” Then I grabbed Ian’s arms and pulled him halfway up, waiting for Zoey to lift his legs.

And she did.

* * * *

Malcolm. Later that night, April 2019.

It started with a mistake. A mistake made with the best of intentions. My cancer-stricken wife had been despondent that she wouldn’t be here to see our boy grow up, to help shape the man he’d become. So she gave him all kinds of advice. Wonderful advice. But she also asked him to make a promise without foreseeing the consequences, without considering that kids don’t understand there are limits when you give your word, that there’s a difference between standing up to bullies and burying dead bodies. And then she died, leaving me to clean up the mess.

I was sitting in my study with the window cracked open—just wide enough to enjoy the delicate scent of blooming flowers floating on the breeze, reminders of Elise, gone four years now. The hoots and howls coming from a party down the street were faint, a party that someone should call the police about, but no one would. None of the parents on my block ever called the police about the parties the Moss boy threw. We’d all chosen this neighborhood—this school district—because of its free-range reputation. No helicopter parents here. We believed in letting children have the same freedoms we had as kids so they could make mistakes and learn independence and responsibility. At least that’s what we used to say at the occasional block party, back when I attended.

In truth, I’d talked Elise into this neighborhood for more personal reasons. I’d feared she’d overprotect Connor after what she’d endured as a kid. I thought being surrounded by laid-back parents would be good for us. We wouldn’t have to worry about parental peer pressure. But over the years I figured out that no one judged each other here—at least not out loud—not only because we wanted to be cool parents, but because we all knew that pointing out someone else’s bad parenting might bring our own into the spotlight.

It certainly was true for me. Connor was probably at that party tonight. I say probably because I had no idea where he was. He’d said he was going to hang out with friends. I should have asked who and where, but as usual, I hadn’t. And it wasn’t because I believed in giving him space. After all, a good parent asks some questions. My neighbors surely knew where their kids were tonight. But I hadn’t been a good parent in years.

After Elise died, I couldn’t handle the world. Everyone always wanting to know how I was. To make me feel better. All they really did was remind me of my loss. I didn’t need any reminders. I saw Elise every day in Connor’s smile. I carried memories of our happier days—and her brittle final ones—like a heavy backpack I could never unload. The outside world, so well-intentioned, only made things worse. So, I’d retreated. Began working from home. Stopped chatting with fellow parents and Connor’s teachers and coaches. I’d adopted a hands-off parenting style way beyond what my neighbors practiced. A lot of parents may dream of being admirable, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’d become Boo Radley, hiding in my house, except Boo was a far better person than me.

I’d been re-reading that book tonight, so immersed in the characters that I hadn’t realized that the sounds I’d been hearing for a while weren’t the whoops and wails of teenagers blowing off steam. They weren’t voices at all. Instead, I heard scraping followed by a thud. Over and over.

Scrape. Thud. Scrape. Thud.

What the heck was that? I couldn’t imagine, but I could tell the noise was coming from close by, maybe even my own backyard. Slipping my cell phone into my pocket, I hurried down to the kitchen, out the back door, and across the grass to investigate. Perhaps I should have been afraid, should have grabbed a weapon or called the police. But I lived in a good neighborhood. Nothing bad ever happened here—except your wife dying of cancer.

For a few moments I was soothed by croaking frogs and rustling leaves, the pleasant melodies of nighttime, but as the noise I’d come to investigate grew louder, my concern grew too. The sound was coming from the far side of the yard, near our shed, where Elise used to garden. Scrape. Thud. Scrape. Thud. Digging, I realized now. Someone was digging.

When I passed the large oak, the sound stopped, replaced by whispers I couldn’t make out. But I could see shadows in the sliver of moonlight peeking through the clouds. Was that Connor? Why would he be digging in the yard at this hour? Or even at all? I clicked on my phone’s flashlight.

What I saw suddenly took on a jerky quality, like the light reflecting off one of those old twirling disco balls. That, I realized, was because my arm was shaking. I was trying to comprehend why my son would be standing there with the girl from next door, hovering at the edge of a hole in the ground, beside what appeared to be a dead body.

* * * *

A few hours later, the only noises I could hear were a repetitive thud, thud, thud as I shoveled dirt back into the hole in Elise’s flower garden, dirt on top of a boy I’d never met before, dirt on a boy someone loved, a boy someone would be looking for soon. Someone my son had killed.

Tears and vomit had tried to come several times, but I’d fought them off. I had to be strong for Connor. To finish this horrific task as fast as possible before anyone noticed this boy was missing and began searching for him. Later I could question the disastrous decisions that had led to this moment. How everything had gone so wrong.

But now I had to keep repacking the earth so it would appear undisturbed.

“He was attacking Zoey, Dad. At Dereck’s party.” Connor’s voice had quivered when he explained what I’d walked up on. “I had to protect her, so I hit him with a dumbbell.”

“No,” Zoey said.

“OK, fine,” Connor said. “I didn’t just hit him. I … I killed him. I didn’t mean to, Dad, but I did.”

He looked at Zoey, who deflated like a balloon with a fast leak.

I longed to reach out to her, to hug her or stroke her hair, to give her some comfort. But I knew that might make things worse. I knew another girl once, an assault survivor, and I’d seen her flinch when someone touched her. Instead, I tried to help Zoey with words. “Are you all right, honey?”

She nodded. But the hollow sadness in her eyes told another story.

“Did anyone see what happened?” I asked.

“No,” Connor said. “We were alone in the home gym.”

“Did anyone see either of you go in there?”

“No,” they both said, looking nervous. Great. They weren’t sure.

The smart thing would have been for them to call me immediately and then the police, but that time had passed. They’d brought the body here and dug a hole. The cops would never believe the truth now. They’d call it murder. Say Connor acted out of revenge. Assume he must have been sweet on Zoey. Or maybe not. Maybe they’d believe the kids’ story, that they panicked. But I couldn’t count on it. The risk was too great. So I had to go along with this plan and help my son, no matter what.

I sent the kids inside to wash up, get all the dirt off. Then I sent Zoey home—she’d been through more than enough—and I told Connor to go back to that party. “Act normal. Pretend you never left. Smile. Laugh. This is the performance of your life.”

He nodded repeatedly, his nerves showing. I hugged him hard, and I prayed he could pull it off.

“As soon as enough people have seen you, say you need to go home and sleep it off. You’ve clearly had more than enough to drink so your friends should buy it.” He reeked from beer and sweat.

And the kids had gone, leaving me with the shovel. And the body.

* * * *

Later that night, as Connor was asleep in his room—at least I hoped he was sleeping—I was awake in mine, pacing, worrying, waiting. Waiting for the knock on our door that I hoped wouldn’t come. I hadn’t felt this anxious since before Elise died, wanting to make every second with her last an eternity, dreading what was to come, but secretly, unspeakably, almost looking forward to it. I’d wanted the end to arrive already, not only so she’d be out of pain but also because the horrible waiting would be over. It was these feelings I’d been most ashamed of. And now they were back with a vengeance.

I wished I could sleep because things might seem different with a clear head. Connor and I would always have to deal with what we’d done, with the fear that at any minute we could be caught. But maybe there would be a way through this, a way to salvage our lives.

You want to salvage your life when that dead boy has lost his? The only way to salvage anything is to tell the truth. Give his family some peace. Better to know what happened to him than to always wonder.

I shook my head, literally, like a wet dog, trying to shake off my conscience. That boy back there was a predator. His parents had raised a predator. And Connor hadn’t meant to kill him. Was I going to let my son ruin his life because he’d made bad choices for the right reasons? Choices that were the end of a long path his mother had set him on in her zeal to ensure he’d become a good man—and to help a little girl who’d reminded Elise so much of herself.

That’s what had started all of this, Elise’s good intentions. But I enabled it, essentially leaving Connor to raise himself. I should have explained to him long ago that there were limits to promises, even one made to his dying mom. But I’d never imagined Connor would take things so far, that he’d make such terrible choices with the best of intentions.

These were the thoughts swimming through my mind when I saw a police car drive past the house at three a.m. with its light bar flashing.

These were the thoughts I had when I saw officers with flashlights combing the sidewalk and front lawns in the dark of night, calling out Ian’s name—that was the boy’s name, Ian; why hadn’t I asked that before?—after his parents must have reported him missing.

These were the thoughts I had shortly before eight, when the morning sky was pink with promise and an officer rang my bell. With a warrant. A police dog had tracked Ian’s scent to my backyard, he said. And I knew then that the spotlight had finally turned on me and my choices, and I would never be able to hide away in my house again.

* * * *

Zoey. August 2019.

It started with a lie. Connor lied to his dad to protect me. Then his dad lied to the police to protect Connor. And I’d been lying to everyone, including myself, thinking I could let them sacrifice themselves for me.

The police didn’t even know I was involved in Ian’s death. With his dad’s prodding, Connor told them that he and Ian had been horsing around, and when Ian moved unexpectedly, Connor accidentally hit Ian with the dumbbell. Connor said he ran home in a panic, and his dad rushed back with him to Dereck’s house. Then his dad told the police that he decided what to do after that. He carried the body back to his house. He dug the hole and buried Ian, fearing the police wouldn’t believe it had been an accident. He—he told the judge on the day they accepted his plea bargain—was the only one to blame.

There was a lot of talk at school. People said it must be murder, not an accident. But since Connor and Ian had no bad history, the police took Connor and his dad at their word. Or at least it seemed like they did. “Easier to do that,” I overheard my mom say, “than ruin the life of a boy with so much promise.”

As if having his dad go to prison wouldn’t ruin Connor’s life too.

This is what I just finished telling the district attorney. It was the morning of Connor’s dad’s sentencing. I’d spent yesterday afternoon telling my parents everything, and then we spent hours with an attorney—my attorney now—before we all came here first thing this morning to set things right before it was too late.

“Why should we believe you?” the district attorney asked me, her arms crossed over her chest, a coffee stain nearly the same color as her hair peeking out from the cuff of her blouse.

“Why would she lie?” my mom snapped. “She’s incriminating herself.”

My parents were furious at me for my choices that night, but I think they were angrier at Connor because he’d talked me out of calling them. They didn’t care that Connor had been trying to help me. Mom had gone from calling him a boy with promise to one who was “stupid and immature” and other words Connor didn’t deserve. Still, as angry as my parents were—and frightened too—they’d ultimately backed me when I said I needed to confess, that I couldn’t let Connor’s dad go to prison for my mistake. It was a decision I should have made long before yesterday, but I’d let my fear hold me back. It was only after Connor finally told me why he’d lied to his dad about what happened, and about his promise to his mom, about what she went through, how she wanted to protect me—it was only then that I found the courage to tell the truth.

“Mom, it’s all right,” I said, squeezing her hand, taking comfort from her warmth. Breathing deep for strength, I turned back to the DA. “I’m here because my parents raised me to have courage. Real courage. I haven’t been so brave the last few months. I’m fixing that now.”

“Nice words,” the DA said, kindly yet firmly, “but that’s all they are.”

“You’re wrong.” I shook my head, amazed she was ready to believe the lies over the truth. I struggled for how to make her understand. “We read To Kill a Mockingbird in school last spring, and lately I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. In class we focused on the town’s racism and the man unjustly convicted of rape. But in the end, the story was also about another man, one who who did something wrong and the good people who covered it up for the right reasons. That’s what happened here. Ian tried to rape me”—I said these words slowly, forcefully, owning it, because it was his shame, not mine—“and I killed him. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but it did. And then Connor tried to protect me by burying Ian’s body and lying about it. And his dad tried to protect Connor by taking the blame. He doesn’t even know what really happened.” Tears filled my eyes. “I can’t live with it.”

As my voice broke, the DA let out a low, sad sigh. “I’m sorry you had that terrible experience. But even if I believed you and everything you’ve said is true, Malcolm Elsberg still committed a crime by burying that boy. He’d still get prison time.”

“But less, right? Less than what he’s getting now? So he and Connor could be together again sooner?”

“Maybe. Though Connor would have charges of his own to face.”

I nodded. I would too.

“But I can’t just take your word for it,” the DA said. “There has to be proof. And you have none.”

I glanced down at my outfit. At my attorney’s suggestion I was wearing a long-sleeved blouse and a navy skirt that nearly reached my knees. I looked more straightlaced than usual, but the clothes were closer to what I typically wore these days—pale blue jeans and a plain white tee—than the all-black look I used to favor. After that night at Dereck’s house, everything was different, so I needed to be different too.

“Before we carried Ian to Connor’s backyard, Connor said that if things went south, he would take the blame. I couldn’t let that happen. When he wasn’t looking, while he was digging that hole, I made sure there would be proof I was there.”

The DA tilted her head questioningly, her tawny hair slipping from behind her ear.

“I followed this case in the news,” I said. “Read every online article. Watched every TV report. I know you never told anyone that when the police dug Ian up, he had something in his pocket.” I raised my arm and pulled back my sleeve. “It’s a match to this one. They came as a pair.”

Everyone’s eyes in the room settled on the bracelet encircling my wrist, black beads surrounded by little white skulls. I caught the DA’s eye, and I knew she believed me now.

Yes, this had all started with a lie. Well, first an accident, then a promise, then a mistake, then a lie. A train wreck set in motion by a sweet lady who wanted to make sure I’d be OK, that I’d have a happier life than she did. But for better—and worse—I was finally ending it all, with the truth.

The next few years might not be easy, but at least I had the courage to face them.

Real Courage

by Barb Goffman

originally published in issue 14 of

Black Cat Mystery Magazine

October 2023
This story is a finalist for the Anthony Award and was a finalist for the Agatha.

Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer