That shut me up. He told me about Peter’s car at the bottom of the cliff on Deacon Street, the scene I had passed earlier, and about how it seemed to be a suicide. Worst of all, he told me that the parents, and a lot of community members, blamed me for failing him and “ruining his high school career.” They say he was under a lot of stress lately and that’s what pushed him over the edge.
I knew it wasn’t my fault—I knew it… And yet… I fought the urge to be sick on the Haddenfeld’s lawn. Roy quickly reached out and touched my shoulder, which would usually be awkward, but at that moment, it didn’t feel that way at all. I may have just caused the death of a seventeen year-old high school boy. I needed my big brother. “No. No. I was on my way to…” I gasped, still doubled over and starting to sweat now. “It’s not true—Peter, he… he…”
It wasn’t rational. I hardly knew the kid. He’d called me a dick the last time I saw him. Why did I feel so awful? Roy left me to sit on the porch as he talked to Mr. and Mrs. Haddenfeld. Policemen also showed up to talk to Chief Blackwell; it was all so official. I sat on the Haddenfeld’s porch for an hour and a half. Finally, the policemen left and Roy told me to go on home and eat something. “Obviously we’ll save the café for another time. Just try to relax, okay?”
I nodded— the shock had left me, but my stomach was still in knots. Seeing my sullen expression, Roy took my shoulder again, his face softening. “I’m going to find out what happened, Randall. Trust me.” I didn’t even ask what he meant. I drove home in silence.
I endured poisonous glares and murmured curses in the hallways. The ones I recognized as Peter’s friends stopped attending my class, even though I saw them around the school otherwise. The teachers seemed to have sympathy for me, but tried not to show their kindness too much lest they get on the bad side of the student body as well. On Wednesday, I walked by Alice Fair, whom I could only assume was Peter’s former sweetheart, on my way to the offices. I tried to give her a smile and ask if she was alright because she hadn’t been to school the last few days, but she merely gave me a startled stare and then stalked in the other direction. My decision to move to Janisville was shaping up to be the worst thing I could’ve done with my life. … And Peter’s.
Eventually, all the flak from the students and pressure from the community members, led by Mildred Haddenfeld who headed the Education Commission Board for Janisville, caused legal action to take place in regards to my teaching license and competency as an educator. Now I was under investigation. When Roy found out, he was livid. I suppose in a town as small and interconnected as this one, these things actually happen.
That’s when the vandalism started. On Thursday I walked out to my car only to find it covered in eggs, shaving cream, and other, more unspeakable, substances. When I walked into class Friday morning, someone had written “FAIL ME AND JUST SEE WHAT HAPPENS” on the whiteboard in red marker. That evening, I called my brother. He agreed to meet at Johnson’s Coffee the next morning.
Roy still wasn’t there by 9:57am, almost an hour after our arranged time. I passed the minutes by tracing the latte art in my third mug of non-fat vanilla latte with a stir stick and reading blog posts on my smartphone, trying to convince myself not to buy a chocolate muffin to go along with it. Unsuccessfully. When Roy finally arrived, I expected him to look serious, sympathetic, like he’d always been. Instead, he practically embraced me and with a grin on his face he said, “The car was in neutral.” It took me the time to chew and swallow my bite of muffin before I realized what he was talking about. “Did you hear me, Randall? Neutral! Who drives off a cliff in neutral?” He seemed borderline hysterical; up close, I noticed the bags under his eyes and the fact that he hadn’t shaved yet. Had he been up all night? I was so confused.
“Sooo… What? That doesn’t really prove anything…” I tried to fight the sensation of relief beginning to swell inside of me. I just didn’t want to get my hopes up without being sure—sure I hadn’t led Peter to commit suicide. If it wasn’t a suicide… “Then what really happened?”
Roy met my transparently hopeful look with confidence. “Come with me.”
We were back at the Haddenfeld’s: Mildred and Gary, Roy, a few of his people from the force, and me. Roy had explained everything to me and now it finally made sense. Each piece of the puzzle was falling into place—all but one last… The doorbell rang. When Alice Fair entered the house, she caught sight of us and all color drained from her face. “Mrs. Haddenfeld—you said you wanted—you wanted—”
“We had her call you over here,” said Roy, gently beckoning Alice to sit down. Once all were gathered, Roy went into his presentation of evidence. “Alice.” She flinched as if he had struck her. He kept going. “Peter’s car was found to be in neutral drive at the scene of the accident. On top of that, several small scrapes and dents were found on his vehicle that were determined to not have been caused by the fall down the cliff. I have a witness that says she saw your car here the night Peter died. Did you talk with him that night?” Alice clenched her skirt and nodded. “And what was it that you two discussed? Did it have anything to do with his grades? Or maybe football? You can tell us,” he coaxed with a small smile. My brother was one kind-hearted soul, even in this situation, I’ll give him that much.
That only seemed to make Alice more upset as tears began to well up and she bit her bottom lip. I wondered if she was going to draw blood when she suddenly burst out, “He hit me..! He wasn’t supposed to die—!” Tears were falling in full forced now and Alice choked words through hiccupping sobs. “I was just trying to comfort him—what Blackwell did devastated him! Football was all he knew, he just wanted to make his parents—make me—proud… and you took that away from him…” Her eyes burned into mine, but I held her hateful gaze until she again stared at the floor. “It wasn’t his fault, but… he was so mad… he hit me in the face and I—I couldn’t think, didn’t think—I was so hurt…” The room was so quiet save for her crying. Mildred and Gary drank in every word of Alice’s confession with pained expressions, each one’s lips pressed together, holding each other’s hands. “I took the bat and I… He had his back turned, he didn’t even see me. Then I panicked. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard—” She raised her hand to her mouth as a fresh wave of choke-sobs came on. Roy sat patiently, never taking his eyes off her. After a minute, she recovered somewhat and continued. “I dragged him to his car and put him in the driver’s seat… I was so afraid someone would see me… Then I set the car in neutral and I… I pushed it down the hill until—until it—”
“That’s enough.” Roy looked at me in surprise as I stood and then knelt in front of Alice. “What he did to you was unforgivable. And I know you didn’t mean to hurt him.” She regarded me with caution and red puffy eyes. “He wasn’t a good guy to be around; he used you, but you didn’t want to leave him because he loved you, right?” Alice stared at me with a curious expression, seeming to hang on my words now. “When you’re young, love feels untouchable, desperate, perfect, dangerous, and devastating all at once. I know, I’ve been there. Peter was that thing that gave you purpose, you felt loved when it came to him. It didn’t matter that he emotionally abused you and took you for granted. You felt loved.” I could hear the mocking in my own voice as I uttered the word ‘loved.’ I just stared at Alice. “The fact of the matter is, you robbed this young man of the rest of his life and any chance he had to redeem himself. The only possible consolation you have left is that he died with fewer regrets than you’ll ever have.” Without another word, I left the premises, leaving my brother and his team to do their work.
Two months later…
“You sure about this? Any chance I could bribe you with a gift card to Johnson’s or a Netflix Premier package?”
“Not a chance,” I laughed out loud. With the phone squeezed between my cheek and shoulder, I taped up a box labeled “1st EDITION FICTION BOOKS” on the kitchen table.
The Peter Haddenfield case had calmed down considerably, and once the full tragic story had come out, I was no longer under legal investigation nor general abhorrence by the public. I was actually starting to get used to the teaching gig, I hadn’t even spilled my coffee the last two weeks. Nevertheless, I decided that Janisville would never be my home. “I know things haven’t exactly been ideal for you since you got here,” came Roy’s voice, still trying to convince me otherwise. “But I really think you should reconsider.”
“Roy, I’ve already told the school to start looking for a new teacher—I leave at the end of the semester, I’ve been looking at Seattle apartments—it’s a done deal, I’m sorry.” I raised my hands in a sheepish gesture forgetting that that’s not how phones worked. After a long pause, I assured him that my decision had nothing to do with wanting to get away from him, in fact, I was glad that I spent so much time with my bro. Maybe under a few complicated circumstances, but still. “Also, remind me never to call you ‘bro’ again.” Roy laughed, encouraged by my promise to call often and my request to keep me updated on his family and job. We met regularly at the café until term ended.
Despite all that had happened, I didn’t hate Janisville. Who knew that a po-dunk high school in the middle of nowhere Utah would be the place I learned more about myself and my family than I ever did in all my 26 years. To me, J-ville became a place of urban legend where spiteful murders took place and where love and hate were sometimes two sides of the same coin. It was just a little too much excitement for me to handle.
*All Utah pics are from Google images