This is the final part of a fiction serial, in 995 words.
If I had thought Tommy wouldn’t be talking that day at the hospital, I was wrong. Although he made the attendant stand by the door, he spoke loud enough for us both to hear what he was saying.
When I got into the room he was smiling, animated, more like the old Tommy I remembered, and I had hardly sat down before he started to speak.
“So, that Renton cop finally got to you, Clay? You come to get me out of here? ‘Bout time”. I shook my head. “Don’t know what you’re going on about, Tommy. I’m just here to see how you are”.
He leaned forward in the chair, and I could see some uncertainty in his expression.
“But I told him. Told him I saw you. Told him it was you killed the girls, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Told him how you chased me through the brush, said you would kill me. Thought you’d be in jail by now”. The attendant was chuckling, as if Tommy had just told a good joke. “Me, Tommy? How do you figure that? All this time you have sat in here, never said nothing. Now you come up with the crazy idea it was me all along”. He sat back and folded his arms.
“I saw you, Clay. The girls were swimming. Donna had teased Duke, and he stomped off. Freddie tried to smooch with Donna after, and she told him to come back when he had growed up. He didn’t like that, said he was going home. I was upset the way Donna was acting, and walked over into the brush. Reckon those girls were growing up faster than us, and thought we were too young for them. That’s what I was thinking. Then you showed up. You must have crossed the river after we left, and walked along the bank on the Henderson side. Duke must have seen you, as he headed home that way.
You couldn’t see me, behind the bushes”.
The attendant was grinning now, and I grinned too.
“Tommy, I was at the usual spot. Remember you came back all crazy, and cut up by the thorns? You wouldn’t say what had happened, and I went for help”. Tommy raised his voice now, and the attendant took a step forward. “That just ain’t true, Clay, and you know it! You lay down on the bank with Donna, kissing and stuff. Mel was really pissed at you, I could tell. Then Donna pushed you away, and started shouting something. Next thing I know, you are holding her in the water, and she ain’t wearing no swimsuit. Mel screamed and ran off down the track to the barn. Then you turned and ran after her. Donna floated off down the river, and I followed you to the barn. I didn’t go inside, but when you came out all dirty and sweaty, that’s when you saw me hiding and came after me. I got all cut up running through the brush, but you didn’t catch me”.
I put a hand up to stop him talking.
“Then why didn’t you help them, Tommy? If what you say is true, you could have run back to the river to stop me hurting Donna, or gone after Mel and protected her. You were the same age and build as me back then, you could have stopped me. Why didn’t you?” He seemed to have no answer, and sat thinking a while. “Reckon I was too scared. Makes me ashamed to think about it. Then everyone thought it was me, including my folks. Nobody ever suspected you, good old Clay. Then once Henderson was arrested, my Dad told me to say nothing. That’s why I stayed here. Couldn’t face myself, ‘spose. But I told that detective, so now he knows and will get the evidence to arrest you. You better watch out, Clay”.
I leaned forward, my tone sympathetic. “That detective got himself shot dead in a robbery, Tommy. There’s not gonna be any arrests, no new evidence. Certainly not based on what you have to say after being in a Mental Ward for most of your life. You have to get over it, Tommy. It was Old Man Henderson. He got charged and convicted. I never thought he had done it, but if it wasn’t him, it must have been you. So I let it go, to protect you”. Tommy started crying, and I turned to the attendant. He raised his eyebrows at me and slowly shook his head. I waited for Tommy to get himself together.
“So you reckon I killed the girls, then took their swimsuits and left them in the old oil drum behind Henderson’s? What about Detective Doherty? I presume you think I killed him too? Maybe I knocked on his motel room door, cold-cocked him with a club, then shot him with his own gun? Then I drove home, had a shower, and went to sleep. Is that your idea too, Tommy? What else are you going to come up with, I wonder?” Tommy looked shaken. He hadn’t known about Doherty, obviously. With the detective gone, it was once again just the word of a crazy man who hadn’t spoken for decades until recently.
The attendant walked back to the table. “You want to go back to your room now, Tommy? You’re getting yourself all agitated, and we know that’s not good”. Tommy nodded, his body slumped, and his eyes looking at his shoes. The attendant turned to me. “Sorry about that, Sheriff. Since he started talking again, it’s mostly nonsense”. He opened the door for me, and I turned to Tommy as I left. “I’ll say goodbye then, Tommy. I’m retiring soon, moving away. You won’t see me again”.
Driving back to Riverdale, I wondered if plush had been the right choice for the upholstery in the Winnebago.
Corduroy would have been more hard-wearing.