Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
I must have dosed off because the next thing I knew it was half past three in the morning and I was lying on the couch. I yawned and blinked myself awake. The television was on with the sound down; some infomercial for an electronic belt that guaranteed to tighten my abs.
The last thing I remembered watching was a replay of Nancy Grace sometime around midnight. She was giving it to me hard and heavy in that annoying southern twang of hers. As she said my name she glared into the camera and flared her nostrils as if she could smell me watching.
“Who is Matthew Cruze and why is he so obsessed with Dr. Adrian Zoebel? Allen Grumman, legal counsel for Dr. Zoebel will join us to shed some light on that question. Also in the program, Mark Furman, lead investigator on the Nicole Brown Simpson murder case, celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, and defense attorney Jose Baez, who successfully defended alleged child murderer Casey Anthony. I’m not sure even he could get Cruze out of the mess he’s in. Y’all stay tuned.”
I must have passed out before the break was over because I had no memory of hearing Furman, Allred, and Baez argue my fate. Or maybe there was no argument. Maybe the consensus was that I should be nailed to the courthouse wall for my horrible crimes. I’m sure that was the gist of Allen Grumman’s comments.
I lay back on the couch for a minute, rubbing my eyes and licking my lips. They were bone dry. My head was pounding, my stomach churning. There were four empty beer bottles on the coffee table that told the tale. I was an easy drunk. Four beers and I’m out like a light.
I rolled off the couch and stumbled toward the kitchen. I needed water and aspirin, quick. I took a bottle of water from the fridge and the aspirin bottle from the cupboard and made my way back to the couch. I paused to look out the front window. No news vans or paparazzi that I could see. Then I noticed a car parked in front of the house across the street. Under the streetlight I could tell it was a blue Camry with a dented bumper. I slipped on my shoes and quietly went out the front door.
Susan Harris offered a cautious smile when she saw me coming down the drive. She rolled down the window and said, “I’m sorry. I hope I’m not disturbing you. We really need to talk. I was trying to get up the courage to knock on your door.”
I leaned down to the window and smiled. In the dim light, she looked even more gaunt and pale than the last time I’d seen her. There were dark circles under her eyes and the skin was drawn tight at the corners of her mouth. She had the same purple scarf tied around her head. Still, hers was the friendliest face I’d seen all day.
I asked, “How long have you been sitting out here?”
“Not long,” she said, mustering a smile. “Can I come in?”
“Of course. Pull into the driveway. My neighbors get nervous when they see strange cars parked on the street.”
She pulled up the drive with me following along behind. When she got out of the car she surprised me with a friendly hug. She was so tiny, so frail in my arms. It was like hugging a starving child rather than a grown woman.
“I’ve been watching the news,” she said. “I hate what they’re doing to you.”
I shrugged it off and rolled my eyes. “Actually, I think I did most of it to myself.”
She was wearing a bulky sweater over a pair of green scrubs, in spite of the warm night. She tugged the sweater around herself and nodded toward the house. “Can we go inside? It’s chilly out here.”
“You bet,” I said, taking her hand. It felt like ice. “Come on.”
I directed her to the living room while I went to wash my face and brush my teeth. I smoothed my hair down and picked crud from the corner of my eye. When I came back to the living room she was sitting Indian-style on the couch rolling a joint.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she finished the roll and lit the tip. She held the smoke deep in her lungs before letting it go. She held it out to me, but I waved her away. I wouldn’t feel right, smoking her medicinal pot. She leaned back on the cushions and closed her eyes. She said, “The nausea and fatigue are really wearing me down these days.”
“Can I get you something to drink?”
She pointed at the bottle of water I’d left on the coffee table. “One of those would be great.” She held up the joint. “And an ashtray.”
“No problem.” I ran into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of water and a saucer for her ashes.
“I don’t have an ashtray,” I said. “Just use this.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s a nasty habit, I know. I’ll be giving it up soon.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, sitting sideways beside her on the couch. “I mean, why didn’t you call me? I would have driven up to see you.”
“Because your phone is going straight to voicemail and I thought a road trip might do me good.”
I looked around. I didn’t even know where my phone was. “Sorry about that. I must have turned it off, lots of calls from people I didn’t want to talk to. I’m famous, you know.”
“Infamous is more like it,” she said with a wink. “And what a nice mugshot you have. Your mom must be so proud.”
I smiled back. I didn’t tell her my mother was gone. Nor did I mention that she would be spinning in her grave if she knew one of her fine china saucers was being used as an ashtray for a joint.
I asked, “So how’d you find me?”
She took a long hit off the joint and let the smoke drift slowly from her lips. “I called our mutual friend, Detective Morales. He was gracious enough to give me your address. He didn’t think you’d mind.”
That seemed fitting, since Rueben had given me her location in Santa Rosa. “I’m glad he did. So why are you here?”
She studied my face for a moment. Being stared at made me uncomfortable. She made me uncomfortable. She said, “I remember how it feels, being the target of these people. I hate what they’re doing to you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve supposedly done, they shouldn’t be trying to ruin your life.”
I shrugged. “It wasn’t that great of a life to begin with.”
She reached out, put her hand on mine and gave it a squeeze. “They are doing to you exactly what they did to me. That awful lawyer holding press conferences, accusing you of things you didn’t do, trying to ruin your reputation, doing everything he can to discredit you personally and professionally.”
I put on a brave face. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m a big boy, Susan. I’ll get through this.”
“I know you’ll get through it,” she said. “But the damage they can do in the meantime can be irreparable. They don’t have to prove you did anything. All they have to do is get on television and say that you did. The press will do the rest. Their word is enough to turn the public against you. Their claims are enough to get the sharks feeding off you. You’ve already lost your job, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but that’s okay. I was thinking about finding a better one anyway. Maybe I’ll blog…”
“You have a silver lining for every cloud, don’t you?” She smiled and took her hand away from mine. She set the joint in the saucer and handed me the water bottle. “Open this for me.” I twisted the top loose and handed it back to her. She took a long drink and wiped her lips on her sleeve.
“They won’t leave you alone,” she said. She reached for my hand again. Her fingers were not warming. “They will hound you till the day you die.”
Her mood darkened. Her grip tightened. She seemed to age before my eyes. The skin drew tight over the bones in her cheeks. Her lips grew white. Her touch was as cold as ice. The air between us smelled like pot and some kind of medicine.
“They won’t stop,” she said. “Grumman, Cronenburg, even Adrian; they will do whatever it takes to make sure you’re never a threat to them again.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “They will bury you, Matthew. I just can’t bear to see that happen.”
I scooted in closer and put my arm around her. “Susan, it’s okay. I’m not afraid of these people. The press will have fun with this for a few days and it will blow over and I’ll be fine. My life will go on.”
But hers wouldn’t… I immediately regretted saying it and started to apologize. She said it was okay, but began to cry harder. After a moment her tears turned to sobs. My arms went tight around her. Her arms went around me. She pulled her body into mine, buried her face in my shirt. Her frail body jerked with every sob. She clutched my shirt as if she was afraid something unseen might pull her away. I held her tighter. There was nothing romantic about it. I knew she was not coming on to me, nor was I coming on to her. She was trying to hang on to whatever life she had left and at that moment I was her only connection.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said, releasing her grip a bit, but staying close. She rested her head on my chest. “This is so hard. I’ve watched so many people die over the years, but I never understood what they were going through until now.”
I rested my chin on her head. “I know. It’s okay.”
I didn’t know and it wouldn’t be okay, but I said it anyway. I had to say something.
“They ruined my life,” she said, pushing herself away from me. She searched through the sweater pockets until she found a wad of tissue. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose into it.
“I’m sorry, Susan,” I said, my hand on her shoulder. “I know it’s been hard on you. And I know it’s their fault. You didn’t deserve what they did to you and if I could go back in time and change things, I would. I promise you, I won’t stop until they get what they deserve. They can’t play with people’s lives and get away with it. I’ll…”
She put a finger to my lips. She gave me a sad smile. She turned to look directly into my eyes and said, “Don’t you worry. I won’t let them do to you what they did to me.”
From her pocket she took the Tic Tac case that held her joints and pried the lid off it. She tipped the case over in her hand and a blue memory stick fell into her palm. The letters MC were written on it. She blew away the pot dust and pressed it into my hand and closed my fingers around it.
“I haven’t been totally honest with you,” she said. She wrapped both her hands around my closed fist and shook it. She looked deep into my eyes. “This is the proof you need. This will take them all down.”
She released my hand and fell back on the couch as if she were exhausted. I opened my hand and stared at the memory stick for a moment. I said, “I don’t understand. What is this?”
“Photographs, medical records, a video of me telling the truth about what happened to all those people.” She lit the joint and pulled her legs up to sit sideways on the couch. “I want you to give this to Detective Morales. It will prove his case for him, going back to the twelve who died in the hospital and the three others who died at home.”
I blinked at her. “Wait, what three others who died at home?”
“There were three more patients who died in their homes,” she said. “No one ever asked me about them and I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh my God,” I said. My fingers tightened around the memory stick. “I can’t believe you have this.”
“I have one request,” she said quietly. She wrapped her hands around my fist again and pulled it to her chest. I could feel her heart beating against my fingers. “You can look at what’s on it now, but you can’t give it to the police or publish anything until after I’m gone.”
The request hit me like a brick to the face. I didn’t want to think about her dying, but knowing that I had evidence that would verify everything I’d ever written about Zoebel was almost overwhelming. How could I wait to use this?
“You have to promise me, Matthew.” She held my fist to her lips and peered at me over it. She said, “I can’t be involved in what will happen after Morales gets this information. I won’t be hounded by reporters. I won’t talk to the police. I would never testify against Adrian. I just want to die quietly, on my own terms, in my little room at the Santa Rosa center surrounded by people who love me.”
“Matthew, please, it won’t be long, I promise. I’ll make sure someone contacts you once I’m gone, then you can go to Morales, you can write a book, you can do whatever you want to do.”
Now it was my turn to cry. I covered my eyes with my free hand and let my chin sink to my chest. She stroked the back of my head and told me it would be all right.
“It’s okay,” she said softly, leaning her head into mine. Her voice was like a warm blanket. She pulled herself into me and my arms went back around her. She tugged at my shirt. “I’m ready to go. It’s my time.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” I said. She felt so frail in my arms. I was afraid to squeeze her too tightly. “You might be prepared for it, but I’m not.”
“You’re sweet,” she said. “But it’s going to happen. Neither of us can change it. We just have to be grateful for the time we have left.”
She put her hand on my cheek and pulled my face down to hers. Our lips met softly, carefully. It was a simple, sweet kiss not meant to lead to other things. But it did.
* * *
Dawn was breaking by the time Susan left my house. I stood at the end of the driveway with tears in my eyes watching her tail lights disappear in the distance. I knew it would be the last time I would see her alive and that fact broke my heart.
I sat on the curb and stared down the street. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside, not yet, not while there was still a chance she might turn around and come see me again. It was stupid, I know. I knew she wasn’t coming back, but I sat there for a long time just the same.
I had walked her to her car and begged her not to go. She just said it was time and kissed my cheek. We embraced like lovers being torn apart by war. Or maybe more like old friends who knew it would be a very long time before they’d see each other again.
I was sad to see her go, sadder than I had been in a very long time. I felt a deep sense of personal loss – selfish, I know – that this wonderful woman would be dead soon and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but wait for the call telling me she was gone.
The only solace was that she would control the time and method of her death. She told me she wouldn’t let the cancer take her. She wouldn’t be alone. She would die by her own hand at the center with her true friends close by. That was her plan. At the end of her life she was finally the one in charge. She wanted no funeral, no obituary, no gathering of relatives to memorialize her life. She wanted no fuss made over her. She would be cremated and her ashes disposed of by her friend, the administrator of the assisted living center.
I would get a call from the administrator with the news that Susan was gone and that would be that. I dreaded that call’s coming. I only hoped I was alone when it came because I knew I would blubber like a baby.
I ran into the house and found my cellphone scotched between two couch cushions.
I turned it on and let the waiting begin.