|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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This is the darkest story that I have ever heard. And all my life I have labored not to tell it.
It goes with gray clouds and heavy rain, and when I remember it, I see her feet running over sodden ground. But actually the sun was full and bright the day it happened, and the kudzu vines they found tangled around her legs were thick and green at the end of a long spring growth. In fact, the vegetation had become so thick on the mountainside by then that even from a short distance it would have been hard to hear all that went on that afternoon, all that was said and done.
And yet there are times when I do hear certain things very distinctly: her body plunging through the undergrowth, birds fluttering from their nests, a frantic scurrying through the leaves and shrubs as small landbound creatures rush away, panicked by the same alarm that has disturbed the birds.
From time to time, though rarely, I actually hear her voice. It is faint, but persistent. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question: Why are you doing this to me?
Since then there have been many summers as beautiful as that one more than thirty years ago, and yet there is none I can recall as vividly. I remember the way the azaleas had flowered in a fiery brilliance, their red and white blooms like small explosions just above the ground, how delicate pink fluffs had hung from the mimosas, how even the great magnolias appeared to strain beneath their burden of unscented blooms. More than anything, I remember how the violets had overflowed every garden wall and window box, flooding the town with a torrent of purple flowers and filling the air with their powdery, sweet smell.
Many times during the years that have passed since then, my friend Luke Duchamp has commented on how exquisite the world seemed that afternoon. He means the flowers, of course, but there has always been an edgy tension, a sense of unanswered questions, couched within his description of that resplendent summer day.
He last mentioned it only a few days ago, and as he did so, I once again felt the truth approach me like a dark figure, grim, threatening, determined to do me harm. We'd just come from one of the many funerals that punctuate small-town life, though this one had been more significant than most, since it was Kelli's mother who had died. We had attended it together, then returned to my house to have a glass of tea, the two of us sitting on my front porch as the sun slowly lowered over the distant range of mountains.
Luke took a quick sip from the glass, then let it drift down toward his lap. He looked thoughtful, but agitated as well, his mind no doubt recalling what he'd seen so long ago. "It's still hard to believe that someone could do something like that," he said.
He meant to Kelli Troy, of course, and so I answered with my stock reply. "Yes, it is."
His eyes were fixed on the high wall of the mountain, as if clinging to it for support, and his face took on that odd stillness that always comes over it when he begins to think about it all again. "Hard to believe," he repeated after a moment.
I nodded silently, unable to add anything further, unable, despite all these many years, to relieve the burden of his doubt, offer him that truth which is said to set us free.
"An awful thing for a teenage boy to see," he added quietly.
In my mind I saw Kelli's body as Luke had seen it, lying facedown on the forest floor, her long, curly hair splayed out around her head, a single arm reaching up toward the crest of the slope. I could hear Mr. Bailey's voice ring out as he'd displayed the last photograph to the jury. This is what was done to her.
And as I recalled it all, I felt that Luke was right, that it was hard to believe that such a thing could have happened, that she could have ended up in such disarray, with her white dress soiled and her hair littered with debris, her right arm stretched out, palm down, fingers curled, as if she were still crawling desperately up the slope.
"I still can't imagine why," Luke said softly, though not exactly to himself. His eyes shot over to me. "Can you, Ben?"
His eyes were motionless as they stared at me, and I knew that I had to answer quickly in order to deflect all those other questions that have taunted him through the years, colored his view of life, darkening its atmosphere.
"Hate," I said.
It was the same answer Mr. Bailey had given so many years before, and I could easily remember the way he'd held the photograph up before the jury, his words washing over them, high and passionate, filled with his righteous anger. This is what was done to her. Only hate can do a thing like this.