The Blue House
I'm leaving the court house, now. There are people all around, lights flashing, things like that. It's strange. With everything that's happened in the last few weeks, all I can think about is how newspaper cameras still have flashes that could blind you from a hundred yards. That's all I can think of, along with thinking about how that's all I can think of. I feel a bit light-headed, like I'm drunk. There's someone behind me, pushing me through the crowd and down the cement steps. I can barely keep my balance.
Somewhere, way in the back of my mind, I'm aware of the fact that the mob around me is shouting questions. They're not all directed at me, but some are. There are lawyers behind me, pushing, pushing. I can hear their voices, droning on with 'No comment, no comment.' Jim's voice isn't among them, but that's not surprising. Part of his job is to deal with the mob on days like this. I wonder what he's saying.
I wonder if he's telling them that he thinks I'm a bad person for what I've done. I doubt he is.
I wonder if he's thinking it.
Down ahead is a car. It's a nicer car than anything I could ever afford, but that's where I'm headed.
There are police keeping the crowd away from the car, letting us get to it. Every now and then the roar of the scene leaks through the cotton that seems to be stuffed deep into my ears, and it's overwhelming. But then I'm shoved forward again, tipped off balance, and I'm underwater once more.
I look up, past the car, and I see people. The people gathered behind the car are the real ones. Not reporters or lawyers or police, but normal people, without a job to do here, or a professional agenda to carry out. Jim had told me about them, these people who gather outside courts to see scenes like this. He had talked about them as though they were rodents or insects; pests. But I understand them, a bit. Their faces are mixed, one big blur of approval, disapproval, sympathy and malice. Some think I'm a bad person, some think I'm a wonderful person. Some don't care, they just want to see me walk out. That's fine, I suppose.
A voice floats up from the crowd. 'He's irredeemable! Kill him! He's irredeemable!'
Irredeemable. The word shakes me, almost jolting me out of the strange fog I'm in.
Then, suddenly I am at the car, and someone is pushing my head down to get me inside. I feel like a criminal being loaded into the back of a police cruiser.
The door slams shut. I reflect on the fact that doors on expensive cars have a more pleasant slamming sound than doors on cheap cars.
Out the window, I can see people milling about. They can't see me through the tinted glass, and they're already beginning to lose interest. By the time the car starts to move away, they'll have their bags hooked over their shoulders and begin glancing at their friends. They've seen what they came for.
'So, it's finally over, huh?'
It takes me a moment to realize that it's not me who has spoken. Someone is in the seat beside me. It's one of the less senior lawyers, one whose name I had never bothered to learn.
'Happy?' He's smiling at me kindly. I spend a few moments thinking about this, staring at him. His smile evaporates. 'Sorry. No, yeah, no of course you're not. I just meant… you know.'
This man is very tiring and I don't want to look at him any more. His button up suit and blue tie suffocate me at a distance. I wonder how he can breathe.
Out the window, buildings are going by quickly. Their colors are muted, tinted brown. Looking out the front of the car, through the windshield, the world looks too vivid.
A while into the drive, I rest my head against the darkened glass, the vibration slowly killing brain cells I can doubtless do without, and I fall asleep.
*I was sixteen years old when all this started, when my mother was killed.
At sixteen, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I still do. Every night I dreamt of swimming through schools of colorful fish, of cautiously approaching sharks, of exploring the one true wilderness left to us on this planet. I suppose this makes me a fairly normal kid; I knew what I wanted, and had no idea that I probably wasn't going to get it.
The day my mother was killed, I was out in the back yard. My friends and I were playing some ridiculous variation on football while the babysitter, my mother's best friend, was inside watching television. I resented having a babysitter at sixteen, but Wanda was a nice lady, and one hell of a cook.
She came out crying and hugging the cordless phone to her chest. I don't think I've ever quite forgiven her for that. I myself didn't cry for days. Anyone who bursts into tears the very moment they're told about a death, is acting. Pure and simple. Still, Wanda loved my mother about as much as anyone in the world, so I try not to hold a grudge.
Wanda took almost an hour to tell me, stuttering through the story and interrupting herself to ask me all sorts of tangential questions. But by the time she was half way through, I knew exactly what had happened.
Walking down the street, my mother had been threatened with a knife and told to give up her purse. Unsurprising to anyone who knew her, she didn't hesitate before clutching the bag tighter than ever and screaming bloody murder as she turned to race off down the street. The attacker had panicked. The knife had entered her about midway down her back, severed her spinal cord, and punctured a bunch of important internal machinery.
Thinking back, I can't really remember where or when I made the transition from being numb to being sad, or angry, or any of it. A lot happened that day, after Wanda sent my friends home and took me to her house, and I don't remember much of it. Some man wanted me to identify the body, but Wanda yelled at him until he relented and let her do it. Wanda's husband, Greg, had started crying as well. That was the first time I had ever seen a grown man cry, and it had made me uncomfortable. I remember, though, that it was by the next morning that I had made the full transition from numbness to anger. I suppose that's a fairly quick turnaround, but I don't know the exact moment it happened.
The psychiatrists later told me that anger is a normal thing to feel when a loved one is killed. Especially in my situation, they said.
My father had left us before I was born. Apparently he moved across the country; I never asked specifics. Growing up without a father wasn't really as bad as all that. The worst part was just that there was never very much money. Seeing that, and seeing how hard my mother worked to provide what she did, that was what made us so close, I think. It was that special bond that can only form between a single mother and her only child; the one that's almost as much battlefield camaraderie as anything else. The harder times got, the closer we became, in a way. I remember how, growing up, I had been amazed at how lazy other people's parents were, how complacent. Unlike those parents, who could only talk down to their children, my mother had treated me as a real human being, as quickly as possible. I had an equal responsibility to help support the two of us, so she gave me an equal amount of respect. Perhaps it was her youth that made the difference because, even when I was very young, I understood my mother. At heart, she was a sincerely practical woman.
When she was killed, it didn't seem right to cry, not that I felt like crying anyway. My mother had been a pragmatic woman, and it seemed much more pragmatic to hate. So that is what I did. I remember that by the morning after her death, I had constructed a highly detailed facial image of the killer, and that I woke up several times that week screaming, my hands wrapped around his imaginary neck.
It really didn't take all that long for the dreams to start bleeding over from night to day. I would find my mind wandering, and settle on a vision of this man, whose face was purely my creation, lying in a pool of his own blood. His face was contorted with the agony I'd inflicted on him, his lips still wrapped around his dying screams and his eyes still bulging at the sight of the horrors I had visited on his body.
I didn't tell the psychiatrists about those. None of their business, really.
Everything after that was just hectic. The killer, a man with the innocuous name of Archibald Horner, had been caught less than a block away from my mother's corpse, still holding the knife, with her blood all over his hands, shirt, even his face. He had been taken in quickly, and charged cleanly. People nodded with moronic satisfaction about that.
For a number of months I went through the motions of grieving, but I have an idea that grieving requires some sort of closure, and no such thing came. All I saw when I went to sleep was the fictional form of Archibald Horner.
My dreams were now of watching myself sneak stealthily into his cushy prison cell, illuminated only by the silent procession of black and white images across the television, and sliding a knife between the fifth and sixth ribs in his back, slicing his spine in two and piercing his liver. Yet even as the dreams got steadily more violent and vivid, I was slowly beginning to figure out how to fool the psychiatrists. I began to realize what quacks these state-paid listeners were. Before long, I was free of them.
After that, it wasn't so bad. Like a man with chronic arthritis, I just learned to get on with it, get on with whatever I was doing. There was always an awareness of him, of Archibald Horner, as he lurked in the depths of my mind, but that awareness began to dominate my waking mind less and less. I had grown accustomed to it.
Then Archibald Horner pleaded innocent. The defense was going to try to get him off on insanity, they said. People – everyone from cops to lawyers to mailmen - told me not to worry, that it was a ridiculous case which would be over before it had begun. I didn't believe any of them. As it turns out, I was right to have been cautious.
The case became quite high profile. Archibald Horner, as it turns out, was not a nobody.
He had been a bit of a local celebrity, for a time, having become known for running a simple but effective scam to separate elderly people from their retirement money. When it became known that this man whom the locals loved to hate was going on trial for a murder he'd committed only days after having been released for his earlier crime, the furor rose loud. And so, given a case with guaranteed publicity, defense attorneys flocked to his aid. One by one they took up the high-moral banner of judicial defense, ranting about the need for a fair trial for all and congratulating themselves for working his case for next to nothing. One by one, they began to build a case. And, one by one, they gave up.
The reality was that while the timetable was fluid, the evidence was not; the case was unwinnable. As soon as that fact pierced their first-percentile genius, the righteous defense lawyers suddenly became much more practical. Every time the defense switched teams of lawyers, lawyers who were working for publicity only, another few months would go by as the case was reshuffled down the pile, to allow the new team to properly analyze the evidence.
To this day, I still don't know why Archibald Horner continued to doggedly plead innocent. Perhaps he had vowed 'never to go back,' like in the movies. Regardless, team after team of lawyers tried and failed to change his plea. Insanity was what he wanted.
By the time the first day of the trial came around, I was nineteen years old.
The intervening years were odd, and mostly devoid of interesting milestones. I graduated high school with marks fit for university, but couldn't think of anything that I wanted to take. I worked occasionally, and lazily. Besides that, all I really did was watch my life slide past. It was a bi-annual event, it seemed, for some local columnist to recount the latest false-starting lawyers in the case, and use it as evidence as they bemoaned the state of the system. Every time I read them, I got a flash of the face of Archibald Horner, terrified, dead. Beyond that, not much seemed to draw out too much emotion. Except maybe sex. Like any young man, I was a little bit obsessed with sex.
I had had a girlfriend for a few days, but she soon found out that I was not a problem that she could fix, and lost interest. I've found that about girls; they love a guy with a troubled past. They just don't want the trouble.
In all the time since my mother's death, there are only a few fleeting moments I can think of which I think made an impact on me. Losing my virginity had certainly been an embarrassing moment. The girl had mercifully returned to the main party without explaining the tear-stains on her shirt. Still, it was weeks before I could look a woman in the eyes again.
But the most standout moment, I think, was something which, at the time, had barely even registered with my conscious mind.
I had been walking down the street, back home from work. My boss had just been yelling at me for not working quickly enough, while I had stood passively and waited for him to wind down. When he'd finished, I'd checked my schedule for the coming week, and left without a word. Walking down the street, I was replaying the scene in my mind. I didn't notice the crowd until I was almost right on top of it.
They weren't loud any more, but I could tell that they had been, at one point. Their voices had the inflection of yells, just not the volume. They were chanting about murder and atrocity and abortion. Surprised, I looked to see that they were in front of the local clinic.
I'd never been there, had never really gotten sick since moving in with Wanda. It just said 'West Street Clinic' on the outside, and looked just like any other building on the street. I had never known that it was an abortion clinic.
Such protests had never held much interest for me. If you'd asked me, I might have said that I was against abortion, but I might have said I was for it. It would have depended on my particular mood that day. As I walked past the small mob of sign-wavers, all I knew about the issue was that I didn't want to be bothered by it.
Uncooperatively, one of them saw me walking by and stepped out of their tight oval march. He was an unbelievably skinny guy, maybe ten years older than me. Late twenties. He had on a black jacket and light brown corduroys pants. His face was slightly weaselish. I doubted he was here because of genuine moral outrage. He seemed boring.
'Hey, you live around here?' he called out as he trotted towards me.
I nodded without looking at him.
'Hey, you should be with us, man! This is your neighborhood. This is your fight. Do you want these motherfuckers to keep doing this in your own back yard?'
I was surprised by his use of language, as little as I cared about swearing in general. I was slightly annoyed that he assumed I wouldn't mind swearing, even though I didn't.
'Hey, you hear me? I'm talking about murder, every single day, for just a few hundred dollars.' He pointed back at the unassuming structure. 'Right there.'
I nodded. Hopefully the man would just go away soon.
He didn't. The more I ignored him, the more agitated he seemed to become.
'Hey, I'm talking to you. Don't you hear what I'm saying? This is murder! You don't just kill people. These are babies, man. You don't just kill people. What did these babies ever do to anyone?'
I stopped and looked at him. I don't think I looked angry, or threatening, but I know he got the impression, the correct one, that if he persisted in badgering me he would regret it.
'Fucking baby killer,' he said. 'If you're not part of the solution, right? You might as well be handing out coat-hangers.' He walked back to his little troupe. I continued home.
It was a long time before I thought about that day again.
Jim was the lead prosecuting attorney, and quite capable. Not that he had to be, as he said on many occasions, but he was quite capable. Throughout the course of the trial, I never saw him anything but calm and in control. He had graduated from 'Yale, by God!' and had an air of extreme competence about him. He was a large man in every way; his voice, intellect, personality and body were all oversized, blown up. He was large and fit and had an ability to instantly calm any room he entered. People became more reasonable when he was around. I quickly learned that he did not waste words. When he spoke, I listened.
So when the subject of sentencing came up, I put down my fork, and gave him my full attention. We were in an expensive restaurant, having dinner. It was the sort of place that only lawyers and businessmen came to, and it was filled with the low buzz of hushed and self-important conversation. Jim had made a habit of taking me here, to give me updates on how the trial was progressing.
'It's become popular,' he had said, with absolutely no lead-in, 'with cases that are borderline for execution, to allow the victim's family to decide whether or not the death penalty should be applied.'
This was a surprise. 'I could decide what happened to him?'
Jim had hesitated, a rare occurrence, and then nodded. 'You're the only blood relative she has, and you're of age now. If he's sentenced that harshly, you may be able to decide between giving him life in prison and, well, death in prison.'
'Life in prison, or death in prison.' The phrase struck me as highly succinct. His face flashed in my mind, his actual face now, memorized from the court appearances. It was, as usual, contorted in agony. I could make it happen, now. I could make it happen.
Fucking baby killer. The voice of that lonely man, protesting something he likely had no actual experience with, blared in my head like a siren. I hadn't thought of him since he had gone out of sight behind me, more than a year before. I sat in my chair, a forkful of ravioli halfway to my mouth. Fucking baby killer. You might as well be handing out coat-hangers.
'I'm not saying it will happen.' I barely heard him. Fucking baby killer. What did these babies ever do to anyone? 'But if it does, it's good to be prepared.' He handed me a small bundle of papers and stood up. I heard him paying the bill, for both of us, and then I was alone again in the crowded restaurant. Dazed, I flipped the first, blank page.
Inside was, quite simply, Archibald Horner.
From death to birth, these eight paper-clipped pages showed me how his entire life had progressed. I spent a few moments getting a general feel for it.
His father had left his mother and him at an early age. Well, he'd get no sympathy from me, on that count. From fourteen onward he had spent most of his life in various kinds of prisons. No details on the whereabouts of his mother, now. It was all there, though to this day I've never really looked through it thoroughly. The final line of the final page, was Archibald Horner's last known address.
Even at the time, I knew that it didn't make a whole lot of sense to go there. He had been at the house for barely more than a week, staying there after having skipped out on his parole. Still, I did it. I had no interest in his life story, no interest in the plot. It was meaningless to me. I flagged down a cab, and headed for his last known address.
For lack of anything better to do, I flipped through the docket again. They say that people back in the medieval days used to live their whole lives, and eventually die, all within sight of the place they were born; looking through Archibald Horner's life, I found that he seemed much the same way. He had lived in no fewer than twelve different homes, most of which from before he was fifteen, and they were all within a few blocks' radius of each other. He had literally lived in half the houses on the tiny General Lane.
I wondered why he would have come back to that area after skipping out on his parole. He knew that he was a wanted man, yet he rented a house - in cash paid upfront - less than a mile from where the police were sure to look first. Was he simply an idiot? That question, and the non-specific things the action implied, kept me occupied for the rest of the cab ride.
As the cab eased to a halt at a seemingly random section of sidewalk, I looked up from the papers. Deep city housing surrounded me, and directly across the street was the house I'd been looking for.
Now, I'm not sure what I expected out of his house. I didn't expect a big scary haunted mansion, nor did I really expect a beaten up old shack. I guess I really thought it would be a normal house.
It was blue. The house was a ridiculous, vibrant, mind-numbing blue, the sort of blue that small children use to represent the sky, when the real sky could never be nearly so bright. But it was brighter than that. As I got out of the car, I literally fell back a step. It was a surprising thing.
All the houses stretching down the street in either direction were brown or beige or off-whites. Yet this one was so bright that it was the center of your attention even if you could only see it out of the corner of your eye. It wormed its way into your consciousness.
I'm not sure what it was about it that unsettled me so much, but I really did consider getting back into the cab and going home. It wasn't because the house was ominous in any way. In fact, it was so cheerful and inviting it set my teeth on edge.
Regardless, the decision was made for me when the cab pulled away from the curb and took off down the road.
I knocked. I waited there a few moments, allowing the door to fill my field of view, because it was brown and manageable. It creaked open slowly and I looked up to see a young woman framed behind the screen door, maybe three years older than me. She had long, mussed brown hair and was wearing a robe that had been hastily drawn shut. She looked as though she'd just jumped out of the shower and, more than that, she looked damned attractive.
Again, it was not what I had expected, and again I spent a few moments immobile. I'm convinced that I should never join the military.
'Uh, hi. I don't mean to disturb you, but do you have a minute?'
She frowned prettily. 'Not really. I was just on my way out.'
'Please, it'll only take a minute. Can I come in?'
Stone face. 'No, you can't. What do you want?'
And so, I stood on the stoop like an idiot. In spite of myself, I found the confidence of her flat refusal endearing. 'Alright. Did Archibald Horner live here at any point?'
She slammed the door.
My nose was less than an inch from it when it finally slammed into its latch, and I stood there for a moment.
Then I began to laugh. I'm sure it wasn't the first time I'd laughed since my mother's death, but it's certainly the first time I can remember. I leaned my head against the door and I laughed until my cheeks were wet with tears. It was the kind of laugh where you imagine what you must have looked like to a third party, watching, and you laugh at that and you laugh at the fact that you're laughing at it. My stomach began to hurt. I don't know how long I would have gone on laughing, but I stopped pretty quickly when the door opened again.
When she spoke, her voice had an accusatory edge to it. 'How did you find this place? How do you people find our house?'
I wondered about the phrase 'you people' but didn't comment. Still chuckling, I said 'Well, it's a bit hard to miss.'
She did not smile, and if anything, seemed to become even more hostile. A sore spot, perhaps. I couldn't imagine a young person willingly painting their home this sort of color. 'If you don't get out of here I'm going to call the cops.'
I sobered up. 'Why?' I said.
'Because you're trespassing. You're a reporter, right? Shit, look at you, you're probably just a student. We've already had enough questions.'
'I'm not a reporter. I'm… I'm involved with the trial. I just want to ask you a question or two.'
'I told you, we've answered enough questions.'
'Please, come on. I know you're sick of all the questions, but I just need a minute. I'm not a reporter.' She looked at me expectantly.
Strangely, I felt compelled to lie. Telling this pretty young woman that I was at the last residence of my mother's killer would be simply too dramatic to say aloud, I felt. It would have been strangely embarrassing. Still, nothing else came to mind.
I told her who I was and my connection to Archibald Horner. I thought about telling her why I had come, but found that I couldn't explain it to myself, let alone put it into words. I spoke in a matter of fact way, with little emotion, as though it were someone else's mother who had died. In the back of my mind, I knew that I was sabotaging my chances of having my story believed at all, but somehow the truth, the emotional truth of the whole thing, would have been too much to say. I would have been too embarrassed.
Still, as I rambled lamely to a halt, I saw that her stony face had once again become pretty, and her hand was no longer poised to slam the door.
'I was very sorry to hear about your mother. We had our problems with him, but they seem pretty stupid, with you standing here.' She paused awkwardly. 'Why are you here?'
I smiled. 'Not sure. This is the address I asked the cab to go to. I think that's the best I've got.'
She looked at me strangely. I sighed.
'Can you please tell me about Archibald Horner?'
It took two more weeks for sentencing to come up. In the grand scheme of life, that's nothing. But when there's something to look forward to – or dread – it seems like forever. In the end, I couldn't stand the interminable formalities, and the trial ended without me. I hadn't been there when the defense had suddenly run out of money to pay psychology experts for their opinions; following a trial can be a full time job. I hadn't even been there for the conviction. The jury had come back in less than an hour.
Jim and I met at the restaurant again, after that.
'It's going to be up to you, I'm almost certain.' I nodded. He looked at me with an intensity that was unsettling. 'Did he… did you find anything good about him?' I looked at him, startled, and he smiled grimly. 'You did go around asking about him didn't you?'
'You wanted me to?'
'Sure. In a lot of ways, you're still just a kid. If that sort of decision is going to be dumped on you, you deserve all the help you can get. You'll be living with this decision the rest of your life, no matter which was you jump.' I looked at him, trying to figure him out, but gave up quickly.
'He was a terrible tenant and the girl couldn't say enough bad about him. He was only there eight days, but he brought home at least five prostitutes in that time. He propositioned her, her mother, and two of her friends. He punched her boyfriend. They think he stole their good china.'
We ate in silence for a number of minutes. I was having ravioli. 'He picked the house because it was blue, though.'
Jim raised an eyebrow. 'What?'
'Yeah, it was blue. She said they used reflective paint to make it so bright. You should see it, it's terrible. It's funny, he went back to his home town even though he was on the run. And when he got there, there were no less than eight houses in the area with a space to rent. Apparently he chose that one because it was blue. He liked it.'
Jim nodded and studied the table. 'The Judge will pass sentence in a few days. He'll tell you that you need to make a decision. He'll ask you if you're ready, but you've got pretty much all the time you need. Just say that you need time to decide.'
Fucking baby killer. 'No, I'm ready whenever he asks.'
'Yes. I've made up my mind.'
Jim paused in his eating, but didn't look up. After a moment, he resumed munching.
He didn't ask.
The car goes over a bump of some kind. I come awake as my head bounces lightly off the reinforced glass. It takes me a few moments to put together just where I am, but I eventually manage it. I realize that I don't actually know where we're driving to. The nameless lawyer is still sitting beside me.
He smiles at me kindly, again.
'Have a nice dream?'
I feel more clearheaded than before, so I think about it. 'Yeah.'
'That's good. What was it about?'
That stops me. What had I been dreaming about? I had dreamt about the day my mother died, and about the trial, and my trip into the city, but that's not really a dream. Had I actually dreamt? Then I remember.
'I dreamt about fishes.'
The lawyer looks at me strangely, then smiles again. 'That sounds alright.'