FROM THE BEGINNING…

From Birth Until 1997

Love and Hate. It’s one of the longest running arguments. Are they opposites or are they one in the same? I am a strong believer in the latter. I hated Dani Harris with all my heart, yet I loved her more than anyone I knew. When people asked why I put up with her crap all I could say was “She’s my best friend.” It’s the story of all great childhood friendships.

Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to just end it. Walk away. But there were too many good moments that I’d have to flush from my memory, moments that still tickle the back of my mind. From elementary school, to high school, and then college. We were like one. The truth is I can’t remember who I was before I met her.

Dani was there when I bought my first pack of pocket journals. She put one in her pocket to make sure that it fit. I was too afraid that the Staples guy would think that I was stealing.

Dani was the reason I bought my first bra. Though I couldn’t quite fit into one yet, we wanted to be able to proclaim Dani Harris and Meredith Williams, best friends forever, were the first girls in school to wear bras.

Dani was also the first person to publicly embarrass me, when she read my journal out loud to our 8th grade Math class. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t read the entry about my crush on the quarterback who happened to be sitting right next to me.

Dani made sure that everyone knew that I only bought a bra because she did. That I definitely didn’t have the boobs to fill it like she did. She always made sure to point out that she was the cool one and I was merely her dedicated follower.

Dani was jealous that I got into University of Virginia before her, but I waited to accept their offer until I was sure that Dani would be joining me. Everyone warned us that being college roommates would ruin us, but we survived.

It was after college, young adulthood, that killed us.

Well…killed her.

The Years Leading up to 1997

We grew up in a small town. A really small town. We had to share our football stadium with the two neighboring towns. Everyone’s parents had gone to school together. We even all had the same doctor – Dr. Popish was certified in family practice, which included pediatrics, geriatrics, and everything in between. The whole town knew Frannie Jacobs was knocked up before she even left Dr. Popish’s parking lot.

My aunt Liza owned the local hangout – Liza’s Pizza. “Liza Rhymes with Pizza” was her slogan, but the occasional goon adapted it to, “Liza Rhymes with Miz-uh.” During our High School years, it was easy to get booze from Aunt Li’s place and if we left our cars in the visitor lot & travelled home by foot, everyone knew we’d had a rough night. We could never get too drunk, though, because the polic station was directly across the street.

Nobody new ever came to town, but several people left after going away to college, after discovering the world outside our bubble.

Dani & I came back – and we brought Caleb Mitchell with us. He was from Maryland. He didn’t have any relatives in town & and he didn’t know anything about anyone. Even worse, Dr. Popish wasn’t present for Caleb’s birth, teething, puberty, growth spurts, or flu seasons. But Dani & I wouldn’t have brought Caleb around if he wasn’t a decent person.

The town was just too small for him, some people justified. He got cabin fever & lost his marbles.

About a discussion on Friday, September 9, 1997

We didn’t have murders in town, except for the time that Crazy Cathy shot her husband with his hunting rifle, but that was a pretty open and close case.

Brant Garrison was the Sheriff’s boy. He was a patrol officer at the local station, the one across from Liza’s Pizza. When Dani went missing he was automatically appointed as Detective, seeing as there were no detectives at his station. Brant was 2 years older than Dani & I, but he’d been our buddy since we came up to the High School. Dani’s case was more than just a job boost for him.

His brother, Joseph Garrison, took over Caleb’s defense shortly after the initial sentencing. Back in 1997, he was merely a law school student who shared a carpool & internship cubicle with Caleb. The two men were also new to fatherhood – Allie Mitchell & Scottie Garrison were both 2 years old when Dani died. Joseph Garrison was the only person in town that had anything in common with Caleb. Except for Dani & I, of course.
Dani told me everything. She always did…

From
I’m-accidentally-wearing-my-underwear-sideways
to
I-made-out-with-a-rando-right-before-my-first-date-with-Caleb
to
my-mom-doesn’t-know-my-dad-had-a-minor-heart-attack.

…but she never told me about the fight that she’d had with Caleb the day she left town. Caleb, on the other hand, felt the need to vent to Joseph Garrison.

Joseph & I have been over the conversation multiple times & still can’t get past its ambiguous implications.

“He told me he forbid her to leave,” Joseph said. “That she was immature, she was slowly losing her mind, & that he refused to put up with it anymore. She had wanted to take Allie with her & he said ‘like hell you will.’ He told me that if she was gone when he got home…”

“He’d what?” I asked. “What was the rest of that sentence?”

“I don’t remember. It was one of those conversations you didn’t think you’d have to remember. I was busy filing client invoices.”

“Yet, you told the police & the court that he said, ‘If she’s gone when I get home, I’ll kill her’.”

“That could very well have been what he said. I just don’t…Honestly, Mer, at the time nothing stuck out as unusual. Even if he did say that, I just took it as a euphemism. How many times have any of us thrown around that phrase? Yet, in light of everything else that surfaced, Caleb was inadvertently laying the groundwork for his arrest. Whether or not he killed her, I couldn’t just sit on that information. I wanted to find her just as much as Brant did.”

Joseph had a crush on Dani for a month in High School. It was one of those minor anecdotes that slip into the back of your mind until something jars it into consciousness. He wrote her one of those notes – I like you, do you like me, circle yes or no. It wasn’t creepy or lame like if one of the band kids had written it. It was cute.

He even added a clause, “You better not write maybe & circle it.” Dani wrote “possibly” & circled it. Then, Joseph never followed up. Though I swear his cheeks rouged at the mention of her name, or even the name Danny for that matter.

Sometimes I think they might have done pretty well if they’d actually gotten together. I see an alternate world where Allie and Scottie are siblings. Twins even. But then I guess they would’ve been different children, different genes. And what would have happened to Caleb? If Dani had gone to college in a serious relationship, who would Caleb have dated? Is it weird to think that he could have ended up with me? Of course, I don’t think of Caleb like that, but he’s an admirable guy and he’s better than the Nobody I’m with now. Can you imagine if that one little detail were different, it could have changed all of our trajectories. If Dani had just circled “yes” on that love note, we could all have different lives today. And maybe Dani would still be alive.

Even on that particular Friday, Joseph had no way of knowing that while he was filing invoices & listening to Caleb’s babble, I’d be saying goodbye to Dani for the last time.

Friday, September 4, 1997 – Tuesday, September 10, 1997

The last time I saw Dani, she greeted me by thrusting diapers into my arms.

She was wearing a football T-shirt – Brant’s favorite team. If she had been on her way to a BBQ at Brant’s place, she would have been celebrating Caleb’s team. It was an almost poetic, icing on the two-tier cake of Brant and Caleb’s friendship – the fact they the rooted for rival teams – Washington vs. Dallas! The funny thing was that Dani hated football & here she was wearing a Dallas shirt – not because it was comfy, but because she liked to jostle with the boys.

In fact, this whole weekend was a controversy. Dani insisted on going up to Northern Virginia for some convention – she paraded around all of those conventions selling homemade beauty products, putting her business Bachelor’s degree to good use, striving to someday recruit her own Avon ladies. Caleb wanted her to go on a weekend when he wasn’t working on his dissertation. The argument resulted in me standing there, holding a pack of diapers.

“So, you’re potty-training my daughter this weekend,” she said as she sipped on a straw attached to a chocolate milk jug.

“Darling, you’re hilarious.”

She jammed the straw into the jug, threw the cap on, and placed the milk back in the fridge.

“That’s gross,” I said.

“Her germs are my germs,” Dani said. “Believe it or not, that beautiful baby came out of this tiny body.” She did a little spin.

“Junk food and all.”

“I will smack you. You know that,” she said. “But seriously – you, Allie, potty-seat.” She had mastered the subject change when she herself was in diapers.

“Sounds like a riveting weekend.”

“Just think – less diapers for you to change. Everybody wins. Now – hug sweetie, I gotta go,” Dani said and squeezed her arms around me. “She’s napping in the new bed. I’d wait for her to wake before taking her to your place.”

“Good luck,” I said.

She blew me a kiss, “Sunday night, Mer, thanks again.”

By 6pm on Tuesday I began to worry. This was the time before cell phones and Dani didn’t like to carry around spare change; she preferred to keep it in a jar behind the front door next to the shoe basket. If her car had broken down, she wouldn’t have the coins to use a payphone. That was the reasoning I used into the early hours of Monday morning.

Between lunchtime and supper I convinced myself that she had said, “Monday night, Mer.”

During the daylight hours of Tuesday, I told myself that my anxious pacing was due to cabin fever and was not a sign of worry.

At 6pm on Tuesday night I remembered the altercation. The memory popped into my mind like the Bing of a toaster oven. I wrestled Allie into a onesie, sans diaper, and rushed over to see Brant at the precinct.

August 1997

It was about 2 weeks prior to Dani’s disappearance. I’d come over one evening for Scrabble and wine, but by the end of the night I surrendered my car keys & crashed in the guest room. The next morning, I descended the stairs, ready to raid Dani’s supply of eggs and bacon.I paused at the top of the staircase when I heard Dani’s voice. I could see her backside in the front door frame & only a sliver of the man who stood on the stoop.

“I gave you the Adderall, I don’t know what else you want,” she said.

“You promised me coke.”

“I didn’t promise you anything. I did what I could.”

“If you did what you could,” he said, “I’d have a baggie of fresh powder in my hand right now. Instead I have your tiny little wrist in my hand; your weak little pulse in my grasp.”

“Listen I don’t know where you got your information,” she said evenly, “but I don’t sell the hard stuff. If you want Adderall, I can get you that – For an excellent price, I may add. But if you want coke, you’re going to have to go somewhere else.” I heard a clunk & a gasp as, I imagine, one of her limbs collided with one of his body parts, then she continued, “And if you ever touch me again, I’ll make sure the only drugs you take are fed to you through hospital tubes.”

She slammed the door and I heard his strained voice holler through the door, “I’ll be back. And in the meantime you better get your s*** together because I need that coke.”

Dani turned back into the foyer and I ducked down. What would I have said? How could I even begin to confront her? Instead, I crawled over to the window that overlooked the driveway. A man slivered down the driveway & before he disappeared out of my view, he turned & looked back at the house. He didn’t catch my eye & I didn’t catch his, but that glimpse was enough to memorize some basic facial features.

Fast forward to that Tuesday in September when Dani had been MIA for 3 days – As I stood in the doorway of Brant’s office, holding the car seat, I didn’t want to detail what I had witnessed at her house. If I didn’t say it out loud, it would be as if it never happened. But I had to tell him. I needed his help. “Brant,” I said. “I think Dani’s in trouble.”

From High School to 1997

I always thought Brant Garrison and I were going to get married. Not the way that everyone knew that Dani and Caleb were sure to wed. I just had this feeling that Brant was the one. Of course, he spent most of his time coming up with reasons why it would never work out, but I was sure that one day he would embrace his true feelings.

I’ll never forget my first high school dance. I’d met Brant that summer down at the pool. Dani had decided that we needed to develop friendships with the older boys since we were going to be big bad high schoolers. I was smitten from the moment I laid eyes on him. I told Dani right away that I wanted him and I talked about him constantly to the point she called me pathetic. But despite my swooning, she insisted on setting me up with everyone except for Brant – well not everyone, just all the ones that no one else wanted. I was convinced that Brant didn’t even know my name – I was just the girl who hung around with Danielle Harris.

But then on that September night, he asked me to slow dance and I about screamed. It was the last song, too – Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” – the long slow song. And at the end he gave me a quick kiss on the lips and said, “Goodnight Meredith.” Of course, Dani missed it because she was too busy losing her virginity to Curtis Sanders in the girl’s locker room (Except she made swear to tell people that she only let him get to second and that she didn’t lose her virginity until she met Caleb). At first I didn’t tell her. It was the only secret I kept from Danny, and I made it almost until summer. I just wanted some happy moment that she couldn’t ruin with her perfect logic – which, of course, she did when I finally told her – saying me that he was only dancing with me to make another girl jealous. Sometimes, though, I still think it may have meant something more than that.

Brant was the one that suggested I become a writer. He said I had to put my elaborate storytelling to good use. Of course, the day he found my journal and teased me for keeping a diary, he hadn’t the faintest memory of suggesting that career path.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the journal though. Caleb said I should write down interesting things that I saw, pulling my characters and plots from people and places that I knew. Dani said if I made a character out of her she’d have to be super fabulous; that if I portrayed her in a negative light she’d sue me for defamation. Caleb said she wouldn’t be able to sue me because I’d have changed the name and the character would only be loosely based on her. Then Dani said I should write a negative character based on her, so she could sue me and prove Caleb wrong. I’m sure she would even want him as the lawyer on the opposing side.

Caleb said if I wanted to some raw material, I should people watch. I tried a stake-out at Liza’s Pizza, but those patrons were just boring folks who couldn’t even branch out to new pizza toppings. And then I had the brilliant idea of camping out at the police station, soaking up the juicy lives of our town’s delinquents. In exchange for my presence, I brought Brant 2 slices every day for lunch. That’s how his free lunches started. Some people say it’s pathetic. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it is.

 

 
Wednesday, September 10, 1997

That day was a Wednesday. I had brought an extra slice of pizza in hopes to trade for information on the Dani Investigation. I wanted to know what Brant had dug up on the drug plot. He told me he hadn’t even considered my theory and then he ate all 3 slices.

The baby was with me that morning and after the pizza fail, I took her back home. Wednesday afternoons were Caleb’s free time from classes and the internship. Just like Brant, he wasn’t worried about Dani’s lack of presence. He told me she was just messing around, proving a point.

After leaving the Mitchell house, I went back to the police station to demand action from Brant.

I didn’t even make it past the front door.

Aunt Liza was there, standing in the middle of the precinct. Brant’s hand was on her shoulder. Someone had put a chair down next to her, in hopes that she would sit, breath.

“Aunt Liza?” I asked.

She turned to me, “You didn’t tell me she was missing, Merry. I would have said something sooner.”

“What are you talking about, Li?” Before getting an answer, I addressed Brant, “What is she talking about?”

“We found Dani’s car,” he said. “Outside Liza’s Pizza.”

I sat in the chair, put my elbows on my knees and my face in my hands.

“I thought she was just sleeping it off,” Liza continued. “I thought she would come get the car. I thought it would be gone today.”

“How long has it been there?” I asked, staring at my shoes. I remember thinking I was glad they were flip-flops because when I collapsed in my bed, balling, I could just flick them off.

“Since Monday morning,” Brant said. I imagined three pairs of eyes on my shoes now.

“Uh Brant,” came a voice from behind me. It was one of his minions – that’s what Caleb & I called the department rookies who worshiped Brant. The boy’s department-issued shoe bounced on the floor next to my flip-flop. “Sir, we found something in the car.”

With that, my eyes popped up to meet his face.

Minny – short for Minion – avoided my eye contact, knowing I’d demand answers, knowing he wouldn’t be able to avoid my prying.

“Gloves, Genuis,” Brant snapped at him. “You want your fingerprints all over this evidence?”

Minny recited a prompt, “Sorry, sir.”

“Why are you apologizing to me?”

“Sor – yes – sir.”

Brant chuckled at his power, then his face went somber as he glanced at the envelope in Minny’s hand, remembering why they were here. “Come with me, son.”

* * *

Back then, Brant kept the door to his office cracked so people could hear pieces of his conversations, so they would know that he was doing something important. It pumped his ego. And he spoke in a hushed voice with his partner, so those listening to the sound that resonated from behind the door would know he was talking about something they were not important enough to know.

That day, though, his volume ignored all boundaries, “What was that? I can’t hear you.”

Minny’s voice creeped up to his level, “They’re pictures of Danielle. Mrs. Mitchell, sir. I – I think she’s dead.”

Silence.

Followed by Brant, “She’s not dead.”

“Sir?”

I heard a thump on the desk, Minny’s chair squeaked and I pictured him leaning forward. Then more silence before, “Why would anyone do that?”

“I guess someone wants us to find her.”

I didn’t care about protocol. I didn’t care about chain of custody. At that moment, all I cared about was the truth. I brushed into the office, across the room, and grabbed the photos with both hands.

I saw her face, covered in blood, and I looked up quickly. “Brant!”

I only glanced at the photo for half a second, but it’s still stapled to my membrane. Dani’s hair stuck to the edges of her face as if she’d slathered it with paint. Her left eye, once vibrant and blue, looked like a purple Brussels sprout. Teeth shattered like a November Jack-o-latern. Dried brown blood mixed with red new blood covering her entire surface.

On the desk in front of Brat was a sticky note. Two words scrawled onto the yellow with permanent marker – SHE’S ALIVE.

Wednesday, September 10, 1997
Early Evening

Have you ever heard high-schoolers complain that the football players never get in trouble? Well, imagine going to school with the Sheriff’s sons. Mr. Garrison never used threats or brides, he used persuasion. “My boy didn’t fail that test because he’s a dummy, he failed it because he’s not applying himself. Make him work. Make him take that test over and over again until the information is engraved in his brain. Make it so that he’s haunted by that test, so he never wants to take another test more than once again.” Or how bout, “Excuse me Deputy, I admire your intentions, trying to punish my boys for drinking and all, but do you really think a night in the drunk tank is going to enlighten them? They grew up at the station, they’ve seen all this. Instead, why don’t you crack down on the people putting alcohol into our children’s hands. They can’t drink if they can’t access it. Go be proactive, it’ll get you places.”

As I walked down the hallway of the Sheriff’s station, I heard Brant’s voice echoing from behind Sheriff Garrison’s cracked door.

“Who put the photos in the car?” Sheriff Garrison asked his son.

“I don’t know,” Brant said. “What do I do?”

“You find her. You be the hero that this town knows you are.”

“What if she’s already dead?”

“Jesus Brant,” Sheriff Garrison paused before continuing, “Then you bring her killer in.” I heard Brant’s footsteps approaching the door and I quickly sat on the bench next to me, so as not to hover. “And Brant,” Sheriff Garrison added, “She has a daughter. A rambunctious, intelligent 2-year-old. So you do what you gotta do, but you keep telling yourself – she has a daughter.”

Brant rarely slumped. I knew so many tall guys who had zero confidence. Their posture was horrible, so they appeared to be a much shorter than they actually were. Brant, however, held his body high and proud. It was one of the many things that I was attracted to. That day though, his head and shoulders pointed towards the floor. He noticed my shoes and scaled his gaze upwards until his grimace met my face. “What are you doing here, Mer?” he asked.

“I thought it’d be best to get all the help we can.”

“It’s my case, not my dad’s case.”

“I’m not trying to argue. I don’t want to step on your toes. I just want to make sure that we’re not missing anything.”

“So do I, babe. Trust me. I’ll make this right. Just have patience.” With this he began to walk down the hallway and beckoned for me to come with him. I remember thinking – What could Sheriff Garrison really do anyways? Brant knew more about investigations than I did.

And then, Sheriff Garrison called out from his office, “Meredith, dear, are you coming in or not?”

Brant didn’t want me to go in. He put his arm around my waist in that kind of ownership manner that always made my heart tingle. But even Brant couldn’t expect me to disobey the Sheriff. If the Sheriff wanted to talk in his office, then I must oblige.

I’ve been called naïve, and I’m that sure some of that characteristic was demonstrated through my actions that week, but my trust in Sheriff Garrison was not one of those times. He conveyed a type of unreadable expression as he listened to my theory about the drug plot and the man at Dani’s door. It was impossible for me to know his true intentions.

“Meredith, I suggest you stop whining about Brant’s refusal to take you seriously. This is a dynamic that has been plaguing the two of you since grade school. Instead, why don’t you take matters into your own hands. If you think there’s another suspect out there, then go find him. Of course, I must advise that you stay at a safe distance so as not to end up like Danielle, God forbid. In the meantime, I’ll talk to my son.”

He was enlisting me as his private eye, making sure that I collected the clues that his son refused to acknowledge. He wanted to have access to every aspect of the investigation so when the time came, he could do what was necessary to protect his family.

Wednesday, September 10, 1997 – Night

I never bit my nails. Sometimes I pressed them up against my lips, but I never bit them. Caleb had been calling me out on it since Freshman year of college. That night, as Allie and I cuddled on the couch, watching a video, Caleb looked over from his armchair, “Why are you biting your nails Merry?”

“I’m not biting them,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “So what’s bothering you?”

“Nothing.” I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell him that I’d seen bloodied pictures of his wife. I couldn’t tell him that she’d been selling her Adderall.

“You upset because Brant’s refusing your advances again?” he joked.

“Shut up, asshole.”

“Watch it,” he said. “There’s a toddler in the room.” I looked down at Allie – so peaceful, so unaware of her mother’s current condition. As I brushed her hair out of her face, the doorbell rang. Caleb rose and peaked out the window as he walked down the foyer. “Your boyfriend’s here.”

Brant was there for the official notification. Caleb Mitchell, we have reason to believe that your wife has been kidnapped and brutally tortured.

“Just wait a minute, fellas. Just…” Caleb turned towards the TV room. “Merry, take Allie upstairs.”

As I scooped up Allie, I eyed the foyer cautiously. I didn’t like the idea of them being alone together.

When Caleb moved to town, Dani had planned to introduce the boys at Brant’s barbeque, but they all ran into each other at Dave’s Donuts the morning before. When Dave gave Brant “the regular,” Caleb asked, “So Brant, when you have donuts for breakfast every morning, do you think you’re feeding off the cliché or do you think you’re the basis of the cliché?”
It was the first thing Caleb said to Brant and he managed to acquire an enemy before the let’s-all-be-friends barbeque even happened. Brant didn’t realize though that Caleb didn’t mean any harm. Caleb was just perceptive. He didn’t have any concept of his words hurting anyone’s feelings. That’s just how he was.
The barbeque itself wasn’t much better. Dani sat down and popped open a dark beer, Brant teased that she was too good for his Bud Light, and Caleb chimed in, “We’re not in High School anymore Brant, her tastes have rightfully changed.” If Caleb had grown up with us, I’m sure they would have been buds.
It was always Brant who hated Caleb, which fueled Caleb’s attitude towards Brant. Caleb was never one of those people who needed everyone to like him. I think he really enjoyed having a rival. He knew all the right things to say to piss Brant off – and he could do it without ever making a direct hit at Brant. It was always interesting to see whose side Dani would take – she switched constantly. She loved inviting Brant over so she could see her boys battle it out. She would sit at the head of the table – and you better believe she played instigator every time.

When I came back downstairs they were in the middle of the preliminary questioning.

“She went up to NorVa. You know that,” Caleb said.

“I’m just following protocol,” Brant said.

“You were the last one to see her. You know more about it than I do. So why don’t you stop wasting both of our time and go do your job elsewhere.”

“Why didn’t you report your wife missing?” Brant asked.

“Because she’s not missing,” Caleb said. “I know exactly where she is.”

“And where would that be?”

“That’s none of your damn business,” Caleb said.

“You’ve been in contact with her?” Brant asked.

“No.”

“When was the last time you spoke to your wife?”

“The morning that she left.” Caleb crossed his arms.

“Nearly a week ago.” Brant deducted.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“I think we’re done here, Caleb. If you feel like cooperating, in bringing your wife home safely, you know where to find me.”

I still don’t know if they showed Caleb the photos while I was upstairs with Allie. Did he know the pertinence of the situation? Regardless, he refused to cooperate with Brant. “He’s no good, Merry. He’s just going to trash anything I say,” Caleb said. “She’ll be home soon anyways.”

She didn’t come home though.

Thursday, September 11, 1997

I was sleeping when I remembered the accent. It’d been 4 days since I’d been able to sleep and finally, with the help of some bourbon, I’d dozed off. When I woke up, the first thing I thought was: The guy who tried to buy drugs from Dani had a funny accent.

I knew the perfect person to turn to with this information. Not only did Aunt Li own the local hangout, but she was also the town’s Gossip. She knew everything about everyone and if there was a guy from out of town hanging around, she’d know about it.

“Sure Merry,” she told me. “I remember that guy. He asked me for some ‘cawfee.’ And there’s only one place where people speak like that.” New York. Dani was trying to sell Adderall to a guy from New York. And if there was a “Damn Yankee” in town, other people must have noticed him, too.

“Was this man at the shop on Sunday night?”

“No Merry…”

“There’s a but in your voice-”

“Meredith, this is not the time to be inappropriate.”

“I wasn’t. I – that came out wrong. I just meant – it looked like you were holding back, there was something else you wanted to say, maybe?”

“I wasn’t working that night…”

“But…”

“But one of my servers…She says Caleb Mitchell was here Sunday night.”

“That doesn’t – that’s not…”

“I know he’s your friend, Merry, but you’ve known him – what? – six years? In the big picture, that’s not very long.”

“Did she tell anyone? You server?” I asked.

“You know how it is, they’ve been coming around, asking if anyone knows anything.”

“How credible is she?”

“I’m friends with with her mother. I’ve known her since she was in diapers…Which is more than any one of us can say about Caleb Mitchell.”

And just like that, the townspeople had begun their case against Caleb Mitchell.

Thursday, September 11,1997

“The witnesses have implicated Caleb Mitchell as a supect-” Brant was in the middle of telling his father.

“He’s from New York. The guy who tried to buy drugs from Dani. You can go on that, right? Wait Caleb? What witnesses?”

Brant and Sheriff Garrison both stared at me as they clasped their hands and strummed their fingers.

“I’m sorry Mer, I can’t discuss this case with you,” Brant said.

“Ok, then why don’t I go sit in the hallway and listen from there. And Sheriff, you should probably come with me, seeing as this isn’t your case so Brant isn’t able to discuss it with you either.”

Sheriff Garrison merely chuckled before saying, “You can stay, Meredith. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

“Pop-” Brant started.

“Consider her a consultant,” Sherrif Garrison said.

“She’s Dani’s best friend. She’s a conflict of interest,” Brant argued.

“And you aren’t?” I snapped.

The Sherrif put his hand on Brant’s shoulder. “What did Dani’s co-workers say Brant?”

“Did you at least bring me any pizza?” Brant asked.

“Brant.” Sherrif Garrison warned.

Brant sighed, “The co-workers said that Dani constantly had unexplainable injuries and absences. They assumed that her husband was beating her. Similarly, the neighbors said that she was gone a lot, but she never took Allie with her. They believe that she was trying to leave him, but she was trying not to screw over her custody rights.”

Brant couldn’t be serious. He knew – we all knew – that Dani was a klutz. I can’t even keep track of how many times she went to the emergency room as a child. When she was 2, she tried to jump from the toilet to the bathtub – 5 stitches. When she was 10 she ran into a tree while playing an out-of-water version of Marco Polo – broken nose. When she was 14 she busted open her knee while dusting the fireplace – 3 stitches. When she was 16 she spilt an entire catering tin of black beans on her hand – 3rd degree burn.

So was I surprised that she constantly showed up at work with mysteriously acquired injuries? Hell no. She probably told them that the red scar on her neck was from trying to pop her shirt collar with a hair straightener and they assumed she was covering for Caleb’s abusiveness.

And frequent tardiness? Dani had 3 alarm clocks in college and I still had to wake her up every morning. One time, Freshman year, she slept over at some one-night-stand’s house the night before the finals and I had to go over there and make sure she woke up in time.

Walk of shame? By the time Dani rose on Saturdays, her bed buddy was already heading back out to the bars so he might as well drive her there with him. Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit – that only happened once.

“Why didn’t you question me, huh?” I asked. “I could have told you that you were wasting your time because this wife-beater theory is bullshit.”

“You’d rather us believe she was selling drugs?” Brant challenged. “You know her so well, huh? Would the Dani you know have gotten caught up in something like that?”

“I don’t know but-“

“Exactly my point.”

“-But I do know that there is a guy from New York that threatened Dani two weeks ago. And if you don’t go out there and find him then I will,” I said. Sheriff Garrison had resorted to leaning against the bookshelf, watching us, letting us duel it out ourselves. I imagine he found this whole exchange rather amusing.

“What do you mean you’re going out there?” Brant demanded. “You sound like you’re going out into the jungle or something. There’s no here and there.”

“I know there’s a gray area,” I told him. I wasn’t stupid.

“Gray area? It’s all one big gray area,” he said. “You ever been to L.A., Mer? You know why it’s so drug-ridden? It’s not because there’s a bunch of thugs forcing drugs onto you. It’s all the pretty people, the people that you think are right here with you, that are pressuring you into doing drugs. You’re there before you even realize you left here.”

“Geez, Brant,” I said. “I wasn’t looking for a lecture. I was looking for your help.”

“No, you’re trying to help me find Dani, but I’m doing just fine without all of your theories.”

“Oh yeah, then where is she?” I asked.

“We’re still working on it,” he said.

“Well, good luck with that. Let’s see who can find her first.” I stormed out of the office.

Thursday, September 11,1997

Mr. Garrison stepped into the hallway. “I always knew there was a feistiness hiding behind that turtle shell,” he said, then lowered his voice. “If you really want to help, you can search the house. Bring me the clues that Brant may have missed.”

The next day, I brought Sheriff Garrison a storage key that I had found in Caleb’s grass-stained tennis shoes. The ones that he used when mowing the lawn. Dani refused to mow the lawn. She claimed that her parents never taught her how.

“Mr. Garrison,” I asked him, as I placed the brass key in his open palm. “Don’t you think this kidnapping theory’s a little far-fetched? Like isn’t there some statistic that most kidnappings occur outside of the home? If Caleb were going to kill his own wife, why would he need to kidnap her first? They share a bed for crying out loud.”

“Perhaps, Meredith, he was trying to make it look like it occurred outside of the home. That it was completely unrelated to him,” Pop answered. “Yet, sometimes even the smartest killers don’t cover all their tracks and there will be evidence that leads back to them despite their elaborate planning. And you do know, my dear, that if, God forbid, Caleb were responsible and he did put all of that time and energy into planning his wife’s kidnapping, he’d be guilty of premeditated murder.”

I should have tracked down the storage space, taken a look at what laid behind those doors, but instead I put my faith, and the only valuable clue, into Sheriff Garrison’s hands.

I didn’t know until years later that he gave the key to Joseph and told him to hide it.

“What is it?” Joseph had asked.

“That’s not important,” his father said. “You hear me? Just keep it safe.”

Circa College

I never felt like a third wheel with Dani and Caleb. Not in college anyways. One time, I got a hickey from the guy in my Shakespeare class and Caleb thought it’d be funny to give Dani a matching hickey. Caleb never wanted anyone to feel left out.

Caleb always did the cooking back then. Even in the dorm hall kitchenettes, Caleb could whip up some dish whose name we couldn’t pronounce. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’d come home from class, slip on my pajamas and be at the coffee table just in time for the serving. Caleb insisted that I was never interrupting – it was always the three of us.

Then we moved back home and they started playing house. They were a family, with a child. I could still come over for dinner on sporadic occasions – I just had to be properly clothed. Some nights, I’d drink too much wine so I could crash on their couch and it’d be almost just like college.

I spent a good portion of college searching for a fourth wheel to balance out the group, but all of them turned out to be duds. Caleb played a better matchmaker than Dani – pulling strings with the guys that I was actually interested in. When the guy we called Really Tan Swimmer turned down my invitation to the Homecoming bash, Caleb talked him into reconsidering. When the same guy tried to Roofie me, Caleb took care of me and called the cops. While Caleb was on the phone, Dani punched Really Tan Swimmer in the face. Caleb had to pull her away. He told her he didn’t want her to end up in lockup for something that this asshole had started.

That’s why I knew that Caleb was innocent. He didn’t even punch people when they deserved it. He wasn’t this murderous monster that everyone has made him out to be. He was my friend.

Friday, September 12, 1997

I tried to get Allie out of the house as much as possible that week. On this particular day, we’d gone to the local petting zoo. She was obsessed with the llamas. When we pulled into her driveway, Allie hollered from her car seat, “Scottie!”

Joseph Garrison stood on the porch. His toddler, Scottie, sat in the grass, giggling to himself. As Allie ran over to her buddy, I approached the porch where Joseph and Caleb were yelling.

“Caleb, please,” Joseph said, “I was just trying to do the right thing.”

“The right thing? By branding me as a suspect? I was fucking venting to you. Venting.”

“I know! But on the off chance that…I mean, you know…what if…”

“What if I killed my wife?” Caleb asked. “Is that what you were going for? Really?”

“Caleb, I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

“Right. I got that part.”

Caleb noticed me standing behind Joseph, but didn’t say anything. “What happened?” I asked.

“What happened?” Caleb snorted. “I just got back from the station. This jackass took something out of context and blabbed to his brother. And now, apparently I killed my wife because she was fed up with my physical abuse and was trying to leave me.”

“We don’t know that she’s dead,” Joseph interjected.

“Get the f— off my porch,” Caleb said.

Saturday, September 13, 1997

His name was Sean Messina. We will get back to his identity later. I’d taken up a spot in the Liza’s Pizza window, staking out the police station, waiting for developments in the case.

“That’s him, Merry, that’s the Yankee,” Aunt Liza said as she reached over me to wipe down the counter. I scooted off my stool and ran across the street. Brant’s office was empty. The interrogation room doors were closed. I paced the hallway for 30 minutes.

Finally, the door opened. Brant and Sean Messina shook hands and then Sean squirmed down the hallway.

“Brant!” I called out. He walked towards me and I lowered my voice. “Brant, that’s him! That’s the guy who threatened Dani.”

“He’s not our guy, Mer,” Brant said.

“He’s lying!” I screamed. Brant inched his hand around my waste, but I shoved it off and ran out of the building.

Sean Messina left the station on foot. Obviously, he’d parked in the surrounding neighborhood. That way we couldn’t jot down his license plate while he recited lies in the interrogation room. I made sure to put exactly a block between us as I followed him down the street.

Brant should have been helping me. I shouldn’t have been chasing after a kidnapper while he chomped down on cold pizza. I should have waited and talked Brant into going after Sean. But then we would have lost him. Finding him once was luck – making sure we didn’t lose him was now my sole responsibility.

As we reached the parking lot behind Liza’s Pizza, Sean turned down Cherry Street. Once he got to his car, he’d have to come back up this way to get out of town. The surrounding roads were a maze of dead-ends. I sidetracked over to my own car, which was parked behind the Pizza Shoppe. I waited in the lot until he got to the light so that I could tail him. Sitting in my car, I looked up and saw Aunt Liza windexing the back door window. I mouthed “thanks” to her, then pulled out behind Sean Messina’s Geo Prism.

It was definitely time to call Brant, but all I could do was wait to see if the place Sean was leading me to had a payphone. What in the hell had I done?

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