Joey exhaled explosively, then inhaled with a shudder. "It's my brother. He killed her."
THERE WERE RATS IN THE CHURCH. TWO FAT ONES SCUTTLED ALONG THE back of the sanctuary, squeaking, briefly casting elongated shadows, vanishing into a hole in the wall.
"Your brother? P.J.?" Celeste said in disbelief.
Although she had been five years behind P.J. in school, she knew who he was. Everyone in Asherville and all the surrounding villages had known P.J. Shannon even before he'd become a world-famous author. As a sophomore at County High, he had become the youngest quarterback in the history of the football team, a star player who had led his teammates to the divisional championship—and then he had done it twice again, in his junior and senior years. He was a straight-A student, valedictorian of his graduating class, humble in spite of his natural gifts and achievements, a real people-loving guy, handsome, charming, funny.
And the most difficult thing to reconcile with the body in the trunk: P.J. was kind. He gave a lot of time to charitable activities at Our Lady of Sorrows. When a friend was ill, P.J. was always first in attendance with a small gift and get-well wishes. If a friend was in trouble, P.J. was at his side to provide whatever help he could. Unlike many other jocks, P.J. wasn't cliquish—he was as likely to be found hanging out with the skinny, myopic president of the chess club as with members of the varsity team, and he had no tolerance for the nerd baiting and other cruelties in which popular, good-looking kids sometimes indulged.
P.J. had been the best brother in the world.
But he was also a brutal killer.
Joey couldn't reconcile those two facts. It would've been easy to go mad trying.
Remaining on his knees on the top altar step, Joey released the dead woman's cold wrist. From the touch of her flesh, in a manner almost mystical, he'd received a dreadful and shattering revelation. He could have been no more profoundly affected if he had, instead, just now seen a Eucharist transformed from a wafer of unleavened bread into the sacred flesh of God.
"P.J. was home on a visit from New York City that weekend," he told Celeste. "After college he'd landed a job as an editorial assistant at a major publishing house, figuring to work there until he could get a foot in the door of the film business. We'd had a lot of fun together on Saturday, the whole family. But after Mass on Sunday morning, P.J. was out all day, seeing old friends from high school to talk about the glory days, and driving around a little to enjoy the fall foliage. 'Taking a long, lazy nostalgia bath,' he called it. At least that was what he said he'd been doing."
Celeste turned her back to the altar platform and stood facing the nave, either because she could no longer tolerate the sight of the dead woman or because she feared that P.J. would creep back into the church and take them unaware.
"We usually had Sunday supper at five o'clock, but Mom held it up for him, and he didn't get home till six," Joey said, "well after dark. He apologized, shamefaced, said he'd been having so much fun with his old friends, he'd lost track of time. All through dinner he was so on, spinning out jokes, full of energy, as if being in his old stomping grounds had given him a big kick and revitalized him."
Joey folded the loose flap of the plastic tarp over the dead woman's bare arm. There was something obscene about her punctured hand being exposed on the altar, even if St. Thomas's had been deconsecrated.
Celeste waited silently for him to continue.
"Looking back on it," he said, "maybe there was a weird manic quality about him that evening ... a dark energy. Right after dinner, he rushed down to his room in the basement to finish packing, then brought up his suitcases and put them by the back door. He was eager to get going, because the weather was bad and he had a long drive back to New York, wasn't likely to get there until two in the morning at the earliest. But Dad didn't want to see him leave. God, he loved P.J. so much. Dad brought out his scrapbooks about all those high-school and college football triumphs, wanted to reminisce. And P.J. gives me this wink, like to say, Hell, what's another half hour matter if it makes him happy? He and Dad went into the living room to sit on the sofa and look through the scrapbooks, and I decided I could save P.J. some time later by putting his suitcases in the trunk of his car. His keys were right there on the kitchen counter."
Celeste said, "I'm so sorry, Joey. I'm so, so sorry."
He hadn't become desensitized to the sight of the murdered woman in the bloodstained plastic tarp. The thought of what she'd suffered was enough to make him sick to his stomach, weigh down his heart with anguish, and thicken his voice with grief, even though he didn't know who she was. But he could not get up and turn his back on her. For the moment he felt that his rightful place was on his knees at her side, that she deserved no less than his attention and his tears. Tonight, he needed to be the witness for her that he had failed to be twenty years ago.
How strange that he had repressed all memory of her for two decades—yet now, in this replay of that worst night of his life, she had been dead only a few hours.
Whether by twenty years or by a few hours, however, he was too late to save her.
"The rain had let up a little," he continued, "so I didn't even bother to put on my hooded windbreaker. Just snatched the keys off the counter, grabbed both suitcases, and took them out to his car. It was parked behind mine at the end of the driveway, in back of the house. I guess maybe Mom must've said something to P.J., I don't know, but somehow he realized what was happening, what I was doing, and he left Dad with the scrapbooks to come after me, stop me. But he didn't get to me in time."
... a thin but bitterly cold rain, the blood-filtered light from the trunk bulbs and P.J. standing there as if the whole world hasn't just fallen apart, and Joey saying again, "I only wanted to help."
P.J. is wide-eyed, and for an instant Joey wants desperately to believe that his brother is also seeing the woman in the trunk for the first time, that he is shocked and has no idea how she got in there. But P.J. says, "Joey, listen, it isn't what you think. I know it looks bad, but it isn't what you think."
"Oh, Jesus, P.J. Oh, God!"
P.J. glances toward the house, which is only fifty or sixty feet away, to be sure that neither of their parents has come out onto the back porch. "I can explain this, Joey. Give me a chance here, don't go bugshit on me, give me a chance."
"She's dead, she's dead."
"All cut up."
"Easy, easy. It's okay."
"What've you done? Mother of God, P.J., what've you done?"
P.J. crowds close, corners him against the back of the car. "I haven't done anything. Not anything I should rot in jail for."
"Why, P.J. ? No. Don't even try. You can't ... there can't be a why, there can't be a reason that makes any sense. She's dead in there, dead and all bloody in there."
"Keep your voice down, kid. Get hold of yourself." P.J. grips his brother by the shoulders, and amazingly Joey isn't repelled by the contact. "I didn't do it. I didn't touch her."
"She's there, P.J., you can't say she isn't there."
Joey is crying. The cold rain beats on his face and conceals his tears, but he is crying nonetheless.
P.J. shakes him lightly by the shoulders. "Who do you think I am, Joey? For Christ's sake, who do you think I am? I'm your big brother, aren't I? Still your big brother, aren't I? You think I went away to New York City and changed into someone else, something else, some monster?"
"She's in there," is all Joey can say.
"Yeah, all right, she's in there, and I put her in there, but I didn't do it to her, didn't hurt her."
Joey tries to pull away.
P.J. grips him tightly, presses him against the rear bumper, nearly forcing him backward into the open trunk with the dead woman. "Don't go off halfcocked, kid. Don't ruin everything, everything for all of us. Am I your big brother? Don't you know me any more? Haven't I always been there for you? I've always been there for you, and now I need you to be there for me, just this once."
Half sobbing, Joey says, "Not this, P.J. I can't be there for this. Are you crazy?"
P.J. speaks urgently, with a passion that rivets Joey: "I've always taken care of you, always loved you, my little brother, the two of us against the world. You hear me? I love you, Joey. Don't you know I love you?" He lets go of Joey's shoulders and grabs his head. P.J.'s hands are like the jaws of a vise, one pressed against each of Joey's temples. His eyes seem to be full of pain more than fear. He kisses Joey on the forehead. The fierce power with which P.J. speaks and the repetition of what he says are hypnotic, and Joey feels as though he's half in a trance, so deeply in P.J.'s thrall that he can't move. He's having difficulty thinking clearly. "Joey, listen, Joey, Joey, you're my brother—my brother!—and that means everything to me, you're my blood, you're a part of me. Don't you know I love you? Don't you know? Don't you know I love you? Don't you love me?"
"We love each other, we're brothers."
Joey is sobbing now. "That's what makes it so hard."
P .J. still holds him by the head, eye to eye with him in the cold rain, their noses almost touching. "So if you love me, kid, if you really love your big brother, just listen. Just listen and understand how it was, Joey. Okay? Okay? Here's how it was. Here's what happened. I was driving out on Pine Ridge, the old back road, cruising like we used to cruise in high school, going nowhere for no reason. You know the old road, how it winds all over, one damn twist and turn after another, so I'm coming around a turn, and there she is, there she is, running out of the woods, down a little weedy slope, onto the road. I hit the brakes, but there's no time. Even if it hadn't been rainy, there wouldn't have been time to stop. She's right in front of me, and I hit her, she goes down, goes under the car, and I drive right over her before I get stopped."
"She's naked, P .J. I saw her, part of her, in the trunk there, and she's naked."
"That's what I'm telling you, if you'll listen. She's na*ed when she comes out of the woods, na*ed as the day she was born, and this guy is chasing her."
"I don't know who he was. Never saw him before. But the reason she doesn't see the car, Joey, the reason is because just then she's glancing back at this guy, running for all she's worth and glancing back to see how close he is, and she runs right in front of the car, looks up and screams just as I hit her. Jesus, it was awful. It was the worst thing I hope I ever see, ever happens to me my whole life. Hit her so hard I knew I must've killed her."
"Where's this guy that was chasing her?"
"He stops when I hit her, and he's stunned, standing there on the slope. When I get out of the car, he turns and runs back to the trees, into the trees, and I realize I gotta try to nail the bastard, so I go after him, but he knows the woods around there and I don't. He's gone by the time I make it up the slope and into the trees. I go in after him, ten yards, maybe twenty, along this deer trail, but then the trail branches off, becomes three paths, and he could've followed any of them, no way for me to know which. With the storm, the light was bad, and in the woods it's like dusk. With the rain and the wind, I can't hear him running, can't follow him by sound. So I go back to the road, and she's dead, just like I knew she'd be." P.J. shudders at the memory and closes his eyes. He presses his forehead to Joey's. "Oh, Jesus, it was terrible, Joey, it was terrible what the car did to her and what he'd done to her before I ever came along. I was sick, threw up in the road, puked my guts out."
"What's she doing in the trunk?"
"I had the tarp. I couldn't leave her there."
"You should've gone for the sheriff."
"I couldn't leave her there alone on the road. I was scared, Joey, confused and scared. Even your big brother can get scared." P.J. raises his head from Joey's, lets go of him, gives him a little space for the first time. Looking worriedly toward the house, P.J. says, "Dad's at the window, watching us. We stand here like this much longer, he's going to come out to see what's wrong."
"So maybe you couldn't leave her there on the road, but after you put her in the trunk and came back to town, why didn't you go to the sheriff's office?"
"I'll explain it all, tell you the whole thing," P.J. promises. "Let's just get in the car. It looks strange, us standing here in the rain so long. We get in the car, turn on the engine, the radio, then he'll think we're just having a private chat, a brother thing."
He puts one suitcase in the trunk with the dead woman. Then the other. He slams the trunk lid.
Joey can't stop shaking. He wants to run. Not to the house. Into the night. He wants to sprint into the night, through Asherville and across the whole county, on to places he's never been, to towns where no one knows him, on and on into the night. But he loves P.J., and P.J. has always been there for him, so he's obligated at least to listen. And maybe it'll all make sense. Maybe it isn't as bad as it looks. Maybe there's hope for a good brother who will take the time to listen. He's only being asked for time, to listen.
P.J. locks the trunk and takes the keys out of it. He puts his hand against the back of Joey's neck and squeezes lightly, partly as a gesture of affection, partly to urge him to move. "Come on, kid. Let me tell you about it, all about it, and then we'll try to figure out what's the right thing to do. Come on, in the car. It's just me, just me, and I need you, Joey."
So they get in the car.
Joey takes the passenger seat.
The car is cold, and the air is damp.
P.J. starts the engine. Turns on the heater.
The rain begins to fall harder than before, a real downpour, and the world dissolves beyond the windows. The interior of the car seems to shrink around them, humid and intimate. They are in a steel cocoon, waiting to metamorphose into new people and be reborn into an unguessable future.
P.J. tunes the radio until he finds a station that is coming in clear and strong.
Bruce Springsteen. Singing about loss and the difficulty of redemption.
P.J. turns down the volume, but the music and the words are as melancholy when played softly as they are when played louder.