Authors: Delia Owens
Kya stood in the middle of her cell. Here she was in jail. If those she’d loved, including Jodie and Tate, hadn’t left her, she wouldn’t be here. Leaning on someone leaves you on the ground.
Before being arrested, she’d caught glimpses of a path back to Tate: an opening of her heart. Love lingering closer to the surface. But when he’d come to visit her in jail on several occasions, she had refused to see him. She wasn’t sure why jail had closed her heart even tighter. Why she hadn’t embraced the comfort he could give her in this place. It seemed that now, Kya being more vulnerable than ever, was reason to trust others even less. Standing in the most fragile place of her life, she turned to the only net she knew—herself.
Being thrown behind bars with no bail made clear how alone she was. The sheriff’s offer of a phone call starkly reminded her: there was no one to call. The only phone number she knew in the world was Jodie’s, and how could she call her brother and say she was in jail accused of murder? After all those years, how could she bother him with her troubles? And maybe shame played a part.
They had abandoned her to survive and defend herself. So here she was, by herself.
Once more she lifted the wondrous shell book Tom Milton had given her, by far her most treasured volume. Some biology texts were stacked on the floor, which the guard said Tate had brought, but she couldn’t hold the words in place. Sentences wandered off in several directions, circling back to the beginning. Shell pictures were easier.
Footsteps clanked on the cheap tile floor and Jacob, a small black man who served as guard, appeared in front of her door. He held a large brown-paper package. “Sorry to bother ya, Miz Clark, but ya got a viz’tor. Ya gotta come with me.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s yo’ lawya, Mr. Milton.” Metal-to-metal
sounded, as Jacob unlocked her door and handed her the package. “An’ this here’s from Jumpin’.” She laid the parcel on the bed and followed Jacob down the hall and into a room—even smaller than her cell. Tom Milton rose from his chair as she entered. Kya nodded at him and then looked out the window, where an enormous cumulus cloud with peach-colored cheeks puffed itself up.
“Good evening, Kya.”
“Kya, please call me Tom. And what’s wrong with your arm? Have you hurt yourself?”
She jerked her hand, covering the webs she’d scratched on her arms. “Just mosquito bites, I think.”
“I’ll talk to the sheriff; you shouldn’t have mosquitoes in your— room.”
Head down, she said, “Please, no, it’s okay. I’m not worried about insects.”
“All right, of course, I won’t do anything you don’t want. Kya, I came to talk about your options.”
“I’ll explain. It’s hard to know at this point how the jury is leaning. The prosecution has a good case. It’s not solid by any means, but considering how people in this town are prejudiced, you have to be prepared that it won’t be easy for us to win. But there’s the option of a plea bargain. Do you know what I’m referring to?”
“You have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. If we lose, you lose big: life in prison or, as you know, they are seeking the death penalty. Your option is to plead guilty to a lesser charge, say, manslaughter. If you were willing to say, yes, you did go to the tower that night, you did meet Chase there, you had a disagreement, and in a horrible accident he stepped backward through the grate, the trial might end immediately, you wouldn’t have to go through any more of this drama, and we could negotiate with the prosecution over a sentence. Since you’ve never been charged with anything before, they’d probably sentence you to ten years, and you could be out in, say, six years. I know that sounds bad, but it’s better than spending life in prison or the other.”
“No, I won’t say anything that implies guilt. I will not go to prison.”
“Kya, I understand, but please take some time to think about it. You don’t want to live your entire life in jail, nor do you want—the other.”
Kya looked out the window again. “I don’t need to think about it. I won’t stay in jail.”
“Well, we don’t have to decide now. We have some time. Let’s see how it goes. Before I leave, is there anything you want to discuss with me?”
“Please get me out of here. One way or—the other.”
“I’ll do my best to get you out, Kya. But don’t give up. And please help me. Like I’ve mentioned before, you need to be engaged, look at the jurors now and then . . .”
But Kya had turned to leave.
ACOB LED HER BACK
to the cell, where she picked up the package from Jumpin’—unwrapped by the warden and taped up haphazardly again. She opened it, saving and folding the paper. Inside was a basket with some tiny vials of paint, a brush, paper, and a paper bag of Mabel’s corn muffins. The basket was lined with a nest of pine straw, some oak leaves, a few shells, and long strands of cattails. Kya sniffed deeply. Pinched her lips. Jumpin’. Mabel.
The sun had set; no dust motes to follow.
Later Jacob cleared away her supper tray. “I declare, Miz Clark, ya didn’t eat much a’tall. Them poke chops and greens as good as dey git.” She smiled lightly at him, then listened as his steps clomped to the end of the hall. She waited to hear the thick metal door shut with heavy finality.
Then something moved on the hall floor, just outside the bars. Her eyes swung there. Sunday Justice sat on his haunches staring at her dark eyes with his green ones.
Her heart raced. Locked up alone all these weeks, and now this creature could step wizardlike between the bars. Be with her. Sunday Justice broke the stare and looked down the hall, toward the inmates’ talk. Kya was terrified that he would leave her and walk to them. But he looked back at her, blinked in obligatory boredom, and squeezed easily between the bars. Inside.
Kya breathed out. Whispered, “Please stay.”
Taking his time, he sniffed his way around the cell, researching the
damp cement walls, the exposed pipes, and the sink, all the while compelled to ignore her. A small crack in the wall was the most interesting to him. She knew because he flicked his thoughts on his tail. He ended his tour next to the small bed. Then, just like that, he jumped onto her lap and circled, his large white paws finding soft purchase on her thighs. Kya sat frozen, her arms slightly raised, so as not to interfere with his maneuvering. Finally, he settled as though he had nested here every night of his life. He looked at her. Gently she touched his head, then scratched his neck. A loud purr erupted like a current. She closed her eyes at such easy acceptance. A deep pause in a lifetime of longing.
Afraid to move, she sat stiff until her leg cramped, then shifted slightly to stretch her muscles. Sunday Justice, without opening his eyes, slid off her lap and curled up next to her side. She lay down fully clothed, and they both nestled in. She watched him sleep, then followed. Not falling toward a jolt, but a drifting, finally, into an empty calm.
Once during the night, she opened her eyes and watched him sleeping on his back, forepaws stretched one way, hind paws the other. But when she awoke at dawn, he was gone. A moan struggled against the strength of her throat.
Later, Jacob stood outside her cell, holding the breakfast tray with one hand, unlocking the door with the other. “Gotcha yo’ oatmeal, Miz Clark.”
She took the tray, saying, “Jacob, the black and white cat that sleeps in the courtroom. He was here last night.”
“Oh, sorry as can be. That’s Sundee Justice. Sometimes he slips in wif me and I don’t see ’im ’cause of carryin’ the suppa trays. I end up closin’ ’im in with y’all.” Kind enough not to say
“It’s fine. I liked having him here. Please, will you let him in whenever you see him after supper? Or anytime.”
He looked at her with soft eyes. “’Course I can. I’ll do that, Miz Clark; I sho’ will. Can see he’d be mighty good comp’ny.”
“Thank you, Jacob.”
That evening, Jacob returned. “Here’s yo’ food now, Miz Clark. Fried chicken, mashed taters wif gravy from the diner. Hope ya can eat sump’m tonight, now.”
Kya stood, looking around his feet. She took the tray. “Thank you, Jacob. Have you seen the cat?”
“Nome. Not a’tall. But I’ll keep an eye out.”
Kya nodded. She sat on the bed, the only place to sit, and stared at the plate. Here in jail was better food than she had seen all her life. She poked around the chicken, pushed the butter beans. Having found food, her stomach was lost.
Then, the sound of the lock turning, the heavy metal door swinging.
At the end of the hall she heard Jacob say, “Thar ya go, then, Mista Sundee Justice.”
Without breathing, Kya stared at the floor outside her cell and within a few seconds Sunday Justice stepped into view. His markings were surprisingly stark and soft at the same time. No hesitation this time, he stepped into her cell and walked up to her. She put the plate on the floor and he ate the chicken—pulled the drumstick right onto the floor—then lapped up the gravy. Skipped the butter beans. She smiled through it all, then wiped the floor clean with tissue.
He jumped on her bed, and a sweet sleep wrapped them together.
ACOB STOOD OUTSIDE
her door the next day. “Miz Clark, ya got anotha viz’ter.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s Mr. Tate again. He’s done come sev’ral times now, Miz Clark,
either brings sump’m or asks to see ya. Won’t ya see him today, Miz Clark? It’s Saderdee, no court, nothin’ to do in here the livelong day.”
“All right, Jacob.”
Jacob led her to the same dingy room where she had met Tom Milton. As she stepped through the door, Tate rose from his chair and walked quickly toward her. He smiled lightly, but his eyes revealed the sadness from seeing her here.
“Kya, you look good. I’ve been so worried. Thank you for seeing me. Sit down.” They sat opposite each other while Jacob stood in the corner reading a newspaper with considerate concentration.
“Hello, Tate. Thanks for the books you brought.” She acted calm, but her heart pulled into pieces.
“What else can I do for you?”
“Maybe you could feed the gulls if you’re out my way.”
He smiled. “Yes, I’ve been feeding them. Every other day or so.” He made it sound easygoing but had driven or boated to her place every dawn and dusk to feed them.
“I was in court, Kya, sitting right behind you. You never turned around, so I didn’t know if you knew that. But I’ll be there every day.”
She looked out of the window.
“Tom Milton’s very good, Kya. Probably the best lawyer in this part of the state. He’ll get you out of here. Just hang on.”
When again she didn’t speak, he continued. “And as soon as you’re out of here, we’ll get back to exploring lagoons like in the old days.”
“Tate, please, you have to forget me.”
“I have never and will never forget you, Kya.”
“You know I’m different. I don’t fit with other people. I cannot be part of your world. Please, can’t you understand, I’m afraid to be close with anybody ever again. I can’t.”
“I don’t blame you, Kya, but . . .”
“Tate, listen to me. For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed. Not you or one member of my family. Now I’ve finally learned how to deal with that and how to protect myself. But I can’t talk about this now. I appreciate your coming to see me in here, I do. And maybe someday we can be friends, but I can’t think about what comes next. Not in here.”
“Okay. I understand. Really, I do.”
After a short silence, he continued. “The great horns are already calling.”
She nodded, almost smiled.
“Oh, and yesterday when I was at your place, you won’t believe it, but a male Cooper’s hawk landed right on your front steps.”
Finally a smile as she thought of the Coop. One of her many private memories. “Yes, I believe it.”
Ten minutes later, Jacob said their time was up and Tate had to leave. Kya thanked him again for coming.
“I’ll keep feeding the gulls, Kya. And I’ll bring you some books.”
She shook her head and followed Jacob.
On Monday morning, after Tate’s visit, when Kya was led into the courtroom by the bailiff, she kept her eyes away from the spectators, as she had before, and looked deep into the shadowy trees outside. But she heard a familiar sound, maybe a soft cough, and turned her head. There in the first row of seats, sitting with Tate, were Jumpin’ and Mabel, who wore her church bonnet decked out with silk roses. Folks had made a stir when they walked in with Tate and sat downstairs in the “white area.” But when the bailiff reported this to Judge Sims, still in his chambers, the judge told him to announce that anybody of any color or creed could sit anywhere they wanted in his courtroom, and if somebody didn’t like it, they were free to leave. In fact, he’d make sure they did.
On seeing Jumpin’ and Mabel, Kya felt a smidge of strength, and her back straightened slightly.
The next witness for the prosecution, Dr. Steward Cone, the coroner, had graying hair cut very short and wore glasses that sat too far down his nose, a habit that forced him to tilt his head back to see
through the lenses. As he answered Eric’s questions, Kya’s mind wandered to the gulls. These long months in jail, she had pined for them, yet all along, Tate had been feeding them. They had not been abandoned. She thought of Big Red, how he always walked across her toes when she threw crumbs to them.
The coroner tossed his head back to adjust his glasses, the gesture bringing Kya back to the courtroom.
“So to recap, you’ve testified that Chase Andrews died between midnight and two o’clock on the night of October 29 or the morning of the thirtieth, 1969. The cause of death was extensive injuries to the brain and spinal cord due to a fall through an open grate of the fire tower, sixty-three feet to the ground. As he fell, he hit the back of his head on a support beam, a fact confirmed by blood and hair samples taken from the beam. Is all that correct according to your expert opinion?”
“Now, Dr. Cone, why would an intelligent and fit young man like Chase Andrews step through an open grate and fall to his death? To rule out one possibility, was there alcohol or any other substance in his blood that could have impaired his judgment?”
“No, there was not.”
“Evidence presented previously demonstrates that Chase Andrews hit the back of his head on that support beam, not his forehead.” Eric stood in front of the jury and took a large step. “But when I step forward, my head ends up slightly ahead of my body. Were I to step into a hole here in front of me, the momentum and the weight of my head would pitch me forward. Correct? Chase Andrews would have hit his forehead on the beam, not the back of his skull, if he was stepping forward. So isn’t it true, Dr. Cone, that the evidence suggests that Chase was going backward when he fell?”
“Yes, the evidence would support that conclusion.”
“So we can also conclude that if Chase Andrews was standing with his back to the opened grate and was pushed by someone, he would have fallen backward, not forward?” Before Tom could object, Eric said very quickly, “I’m not asking you to state that this is conclusive evidence that Chase was pushed backward to his death. I am simply making it clear that if someone pushed Chase backward through the hole, the wounds to his head from the beam would have coincided with those actually found. Is that correct?”
“All right. Dr. Cone, when you examined Chase Andrews in the clinic, the morning of October 30, was he wearing a shell necklace?”
To suppress the rising nausea, Kya focused on Sunday Justice grooming himself on a windowsill. Pretzeled into an impossible position, one leg straight in the air, he licked the inside tip of his tail. His own bath seemed to absorb and entertain him entirely.
A few minutes later, the prosecutor was asking, “Is it correct that Chase Andrews wore a denim jacket the night he died?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“And according to your official report, Dr. Cone, did you not find red wool fibers on his jacket? Fibers that were not from any piece of clothing he was wearing?”
Eric held up a clear plastic bag containing bits of red wool. “Are these the red fibers that were found on Chase Andrews’s jacket?”
Eric lifted a larger bag from his desk. “And isn’t it true that the red wool fibers found on Chase’s jacket matched those on this red cap?” He handed it to the witness.
“Yes. These are my labeled samples, and the fibers from the cap and jacket matched exactly.”
“Where was this cap found?”
“The sheriff found the cap in Miss Clark’s residence.” This was not generally known, and murmurs rippled through the crowd.
“Was there any evidence that she had ever worn the cap?”
“Yes. Strands of Miss Clark’s hair were found in the cap.”
Watching Sunday Justice in court got Kya thinking about how her family had never had a pet. Not one dog or cat. The only thing close was the female skunk—a silky, slinky, and sassy creature—who lived under the shack. Ma called her Chanel.
After a few near misses, they’d all gotten to know one another, and Chanel became very polite, only flashing her armament when the kids got too rowdy. She’d come and go, sometimes within feet of whoever was coming up or down the brick ’n’ boards.
Every spring she’d escort her little kits on forays into the oak woods and along the slipstreams. Them scurrying behind, running into and over one another in black-and-white confusions.
Pa, of course, was always threatening to get rid of her, but Jodie, showing maturity far beyond his father’s, deadpanned, “Another one’ll just move in, and I always reckoned it’s better the skunk ya know than the skunk ya don’t know.” She smiled now, thinking of Jodie. Then caught herself.
“So, Dr. Cone, on the night Chase Andrews died, the night he fell backward through an open grate—a posture consistent with being pushed by someone—fibers on his jacket came from a red cap found at Miss Clark’s residence. And there were strands of Miss Clark’s hair in the cap.”
“Thank you, Dr. Cone. I have no further questions.”
Tom Milton looked briefly at Kya, who watched the sky. The room leaned physically toward the prosecution as though the floor tipped, and it didn’t help that Kya sat rigid and detached—carved from ice. He flicked his white hair from his forehead and approached the coroner for the cross-examination.
“Good morning, Dr. Cone.”
“Dr. Cone, you testified that the wound on the back of Chase Andrews’s head was consistent with him going backward through the open hole. Isn’t it true that if he stepped backward on his own and fell through the hole by accident, the results of hitting the back of his head would have been exactly the same?”
“Were there any bruises on his chest or arms that would coincide with him being pushed or shoved?”
“No. There was, of course, heavy bruising over his entire body from the fall. Mostly on the back of his body and legs. There were none that could be identified specifically as developing from a push or shove.”
“In fact, isn’t it true that there is no evidence whatsoever that Chase Andrews was pushed into the hole?”
“That is true. There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that Chase Andrews was pushed.”
“So, Dr. Cone, there is no evidence from your professional examination of Chase Andrews’s body that proves this was a murder and not an accident?”
Tom took his time, letting this answer sink into the jury, then continued. “Now, let’s talk about those red wool fibers found on Chase’s
jacket. Is there any way to determine how long the fibers had been on the jacket?”
“No. We can say where they came from, but not when.”
“In other words, those fibers could have been on that jacket for a year, even four years?”
“Even if the jacket had been washed?”
“So there’s no evidence that those fibers became attached to that jacket the night Chase died?”
“There has been testimony that the defendant knew Chase Andrews for four years prior to his death. So you’re saying that anytime during those four years, when they met wearing those items of clothing, it’s possible the fibers were transferred from the cap to the jacket.”
“From what I have seen, yes.”
“So the red fibers do not prove that Miss Clark was with Chase Andrews the night he died. Was there any evidence at all that Miss Clark was in close proximity to Chase Andrews that night? For example, her skin fragments on his body, under his fingernails, or her fingerprints on the buttons or snaps of his jacket? Strands of her hair on his clothes or body?”
“So, in fact, since the red fibers could have been on his jacket for as long as four years, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Miss Catherine Clark was near Chase Andrews the night of his death?”
“From my examination that is correct.”
“Thank you. No more questions.”
Judge Sims declared an early lunch recess.
Tom touched Kya’s elbow gently and whispered that it had been a
good cross-examination. She nodded slightly as people stood and stretched. Almost all stayed long enough to watch Kya being handcuffed and led from the room.
As Jacob’s steps echoed down the hall after leaving her in her cell, Kya sat hard on her bed. When she was first incarcerated, they hadn’t allowed her to bring her knapsack into the cell but let her take some of its contents with her in a brown paper bag. She reached into the bag then and pulled out the scrap of paper with Jodie’s phone number and address. Since being there, she’d looked at it almost every day and thought of phoning her brother, asking him to come be with her. She knew he would, and Jacob had said she could use the phone to call him. But she had not. How would she say the words:
Please come; I’m in jail, charged with murder.
Carefully, she put the paper back into the bag and lifted out the World War I compass Tate had given her. She let the needle swing north and watched it settle true. She held it against her heart. Where else would one need a compass more than in this place?
Then she whispered Emily Dickinson’s words:
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again