35.

35.

In November, a deposition was scheduled in Manchester, where our insurance company’s lawyer had his office.  My father and I were required to attend.  Marc drove me home, taking time from his classes to be with me for what we both expected would be a difficult day.

We drove in silence for a while, before he asked me if I’d seen Celeste.  I hadn’t told him about the appearance of Lizzie’s ghost in the library, but he knew that the dream was still bothering me.

“I saw her the other day,” I answered.  There was no inflection in my voice, no invitation to ask any questions or to continue the discussion.

But he did, anyway.

“How was that?”

“Oh, horrible.”

“Is she okay?”

“No.  Not really.”

He made a face.  “It’ll take time, I guess.”

“It’ll take more than that,” I said, a note of defiance in my voice.

He raised an eyebrow.  “Did you tell her about your dream?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“She wouldn’t confirm or deny,” I said, my voice and expression distant.  I gazed out the window, remembering my promise to Celeste.  I couldn’t say anything about our conversation.  At least not now.  But it was hard to keep it to myself.  I wanted to tell him.  I wanted to share it.  It was a burden, and together with the loss of my friend I was having trouble shouldering it on my own.  I was having trouble understanding how I was just coming upon something so important, so devastating, now.  After her death.  After months without her. Just learning about it now.

But no, I couldn’t tell Marc yet.  I wouldn’t be able to face Celeste again if I did.

“Hmm,” he said, turning the car left to follow another route.  “Well, you’ll be seeing Mr. Verdano soon.  Maybe you can ask him.”  His sarcasm wasn’t lost on me, but I didn’t make an answer.  I was too numb to be pithy or sarcastic.  Too numb to talk around the truth.

Because it would just come out in a stream.

What Celeste had said.

Yes.

Yes, he did it.

She admitted it.

My father and I arrived at the lawyer’s office the next morning early.  We found two lawyers, a stenographer, some other men wearing suits who presumably represented the insurance company, the Verdanos, and ourselves.  All together, we filled a very long, very impressive-looking table completely.  In fact, the stenographer barely fit into the room with her equipment.

Wow, I thought.  What a crowd.  All there to listen to me and Dad talk.  A lot of money riding on our memories and the words we were about to utter.   I sat down nervously.  Dad sat next to me, businesslike, his expression wary.  He was flexing the muscles in his jaw.

The sight of Mr. Verdano was a jolt.  I kept remembering him in my dream, his pants around his legs.  It was hard to look at him.  But it was also hard not to.  It wasn’t the first time I noticed he was a very handsome man.  This I realized grudgingly and with annoyance.  He was very handsome and had a certain magnetism to him that was undeniable.  He was tall and dark, the possessor of a very penetrating gaze, which, at that moment, he turned and fastened on me.

Realizing we were staring at each other, I looked away, going red, despite myself.  My heart was thumping in my chest.  So strange, the effect he could have on people.  I didn’t want to risk catching anyone else’s gaze, so I looked at the table.  It was shiny dark wood covered with glass.  There were no comfort items present.  No flowers.  Not even dusty fake flowers.  No little bowls of candy.  No glasses of water.  No food.  In fact, it smelled suspiciously devoid of foodstuff there.  Even coffee.  I couldn’t smell coffee.  I thought that was strange.  Didn’t these people eat or drink?  Perhaps only outside of the office.  Or maybe they didn’t have feelings, didn’t get hungry.

The art on the walls was all repro pastel landscapes and cityscapes.  No character, no impact to it.  Just something to break up a wall papered in beige textured paper.  I imagined the office administrative assistant had gone to a local discount department store at lunch one day to buy them.

A woman dressed in a skirted suit and sensible low-heeled pumps came in with some files, and gave them to one of the lawyers.  He didn’t thank her.  Her navy suit was unattractive, and I thought, looking at her, that I’d sooner die than become like her after I finished college.   Boring, permed hairstyle.  Pantyhose.  Content to work in an office where they didn’t have coffee and she had to wear ugly, low heeled pumps.

She left.

I was sorry.  That meant the only other woman in the room, other than the stenographer, was Mrs. Verdano.  I was surrounded by older men, and it made me feel vulnerable and awkward.  I felt they would try to use my words for their own ends and this was frightening to me.

I peered toward the other end of the room.

The table was at least twelve feet long.  The lawyers at the other end sat next to the Verdanos.  They wore dark suits over soft, overweight bodies, were cleanly shaven, had hair that was cut short and combed back.  They were looking through legal-size files, pulling out pens briskly, talking quietly.

I wondered what Lizzie, the Lizzie I’d known in life, would say about this whole thing.  My brain tried to recall her, make her present here with me.  Imagine some clever remark she might make, or even just conjure her smile.  But in this serious, sterile setting she seemed a million miles away and I could not summon a memory to comfort me.  I did not want to think of the ghost or wonder if she could hear the proceedings.  Not now.

I cleared my throat loudly.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?” I asked.

It was as if a gunshot had sounded in the room.  Everyone looked at me, startled.  I needed to get out of the seat they’d assigned me.  The lawyer who apparently presided over the office looked annoyed.  He nodded, waving his hand toward the door and got up to show me out.  I felt clumsy following him, but satisfied that I had aggravated him.

“Dad, would you like a glass of water?” I asked, looking at my father.

He nodded, saying “Yes, thank you Rowan.”

Dad watched us leave, jaw still flexing.  I could hear his breathing.  Deep, steady breaths.  Measured.  His hands were folded in front of him on the table.

His tension made me nervous.  I wanted to reassure him; but of course, I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.  And I didn’t want any of the suits to hear me say anything personal to my father.

When I sat back down with my water, I summoned the courage to look at the Verdanos again.

Mrs. Verdano was sitting demurely, her eyes averted from the other people at the table.  Her blonde hair was tastefully pulled back and fastened against the nape of her neck.  She wore champagne colored eye shadow under her eyebrows which made her eyes look bright and attractive.  A flat gold choker-style necklace under a very flattering champagne colored suit accentuated her slim, attractive figure.  I gazed at her for a moment, letting everything I’d learned about her from Celeste sink in, blend with the woman that sat at the other end of the table from me.  Briefly, my mind went to a memory I had of her visiting Lizzie during a work shift one day at the beach early last summer.  I’d had the day off and was lounging near Lizzie’s lifeguard station when Mrs. Verdano appeared on the sand wearing a business suit and pantyhose, anxious to speak privately with Lizzie.  Her skin looked pale and humid.  Puffy.  Like risen dough on a warm day.  She spoke in a hushed voice to Lizzie, her expression anxious and tearful.  I was out of earshot, but I could see that Lizzie’s response was impatient.  After a few minutes Mrs. Verdano seemed satisfied and checked her watch. She came by the spot I was occupying to say hello politely before leaving the beach, her shoes in her hands, sand no doubt working its way into the fabric of her pantyhose and between her toes.

The memory made a sharp contrast to the picture of composure she presented there in the lawyer’s office the day of the deposition.

After Mrs. Verdano left the beach I asked Lizzie if everything was alright.  She’d hesitated noticeably before telling me that everything was fine.  That her mom had a nervous condition that sometimes required treatment.  I hadn’t thought much of it then, but I wondered who was responsible for treating her condition?  Her husband?

Seated comfortably next to his wife, Mr. Verdano was at ease, dressed in a white shirt and tie, his dark hair neatly combed back, cufflinks shining on his shirt cuffs.  His attention was fixed on one of the uninteresting pictures on the wall.  That was fascinating to me, since Lizzie had often told me her father liked to collect art, frequently attending estate auctions and art openings.  Surely most anything else in the room would have been a more interesting object for his attention.  I looked at his hands, folded together, resting on the table in front of him.  He wore a gold wedding band, and I noticed for the first time how carefully cared-for his hands were.  His nails looked as if they had been manicured, buffed.  I stared.  I’d never seen hands like that before.

“Well, I think we can get started, now,” one of the lawyers said.  He motioned to the stenographer, who nodded.  “We’re here taking depositions from Mr. Thomson and his daughter Rowan this morning, on November first, nineteen ninety,” he said.  The stenographer began to click click click at her machine.

The lawyer looked at my father, his hands resting on the table before him.  “Mr. Thomson, we’ll start with you.  I’m going to ask some questions.  Some of them may seem repetitive.  Try to bear with me.  We want to be as precise as we can.”

My father nodded.

“We’ll start with how the car arrived on your property.  Could you please tell us what happened?”

My father cleared his throat.  “Yes.  Our daughter Rowan was frequently in Lizzie’s car.  Often, Lizzie drove them to school in the morning.  At that time, I asked her if she was maintaining the car properly because it was an old model with over a hundred thousand miles on it.  Naturally I was concerned for their safety,” he paused there, taking a sip of his water.

“So when she told me she had never changed the oil in the car, I was concerned.  I offered to do that for her, since I do the same for all of our family’s cars.  It’s always been a hobby of mine to work on cars,” he added.  “She brought the car over and I changed the oil for her.”

It is our understanding that you agreed to do work on the car for Ms. Verdano,” the lawyer said.  “What, exactly, did you do to the car?”

I didn’t like the tone of that question.  His use of the word “to” suggested my father had damaged the car.  I glared at him.

“I didn’t do anything to the car, sir,” my father’s voice was steady.  “I simply changed the oil in the car and changed the brake pads.”  He took a deep breath, regarding the lawyer with his steely blue-gray eyes.

“Thank you,” the lawyer said shortly.  The rest of the questioning continued that way, detailing the extent of my father’s access to her car, which in the end was just to change the oil and brake pads once.  We established that no less than four times.  A half hour later the lawyers seemed satisfied that my father had changed the oil and the brake pads once, with Ms. Verdano’s full permission and knowledge.

We further established that I had been in the car with Lizzie both before and after my father had done the work.  This fact was established three times that I counted.              Fascinating, I thought sarcastically.

By the time they were finished questioning my father my annoyance level was matched only by my boredom.  What a waste of a day.

The lawyers finally turned to me after an hour and a half of asking my father the same questions fifty different ways.

“Are you going to ask me the same questions over and over again, as well?” I asked, disdain evident in my voice.

The lawyer smiled.  “No, Rowan.  We’ll try to keep our questions to you succinct and to the point.”

Phew.  That was a relief.

“Are you ready to begin?  Would you like another glass of water?”

“Yes, please,” I answered, anxious to get up.

I went out into the office and pushed the little blue cold water tab down.  I waited, taking deep breaths and trying to relax.  I disliked that lawyer.  I disliked his questions, his tone, all of it.  I disliked his charcoal gray pinstripe suit and the dandruff that I noticed was collecting on his shoulders.

When I reentered the room everyone sat waiting in the same positions they’d been in when I left.  Was this what happened as people got older?  Did they fossilize?  Or was it just lawyers?

Not everyone in the group was suspended like that.  The Verdanos stood out despite their subdued presentation.  Mr. Verdano leaned toward his wife, his manner languid, the subtlest expression of pleasure there.  He said something to her that I could see pleased her.  The trace of a smile visited her lips and she blushed slightly, looking down at her lap.  Had he said something amusing?  Something suggestive?

My hate for Mr. Verdano rose up into my throat and spilled, sour, into the back of my mouth.   The feeling I had was like nothing I’d ever felt.  A visceral, animal hate for him.  I hated his self-confidence, his devastating good looks, his self-possession.  I knew he was cruel.  I hated him for disguising it.  I wanted to lunge across the table onto him, strangle him, stab him, bite him.  Destroy him.  The intensity of it made me dizzy.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to control myself.

When I opened my eyes, nothing had changed.  I hated the idea of having to say anything, share a single memory, a single exchange, in front of the Verdanos.

“So, Rowan, we’re going to begin.” The lawyer nodded to the stenographer, who began to click away.  “We’re speaking with Rowan Thomson, November first, nineteen ninety.”

A pause.  “Rowan, what time did Lizzie leave your house?”

“She usually left around 9:30,” I answered non-committally, glaring at him.

“You think that Lizzie left your house at 9:30?”

“About that,” I answered.

“And where was she going?”

I could have sworn the table started to shake then. The whole room started to shake.  I looked at my glass of water.  Still.  Maybe I was shaking.

“She said she was going to work,” I said, resenting his questions.  Resenting the Verdanos.  Resenting the beige room and shiny table.  Pissed off, actually, and getting angrier by the moment.

I looked at the Verdanos, sitting placidly at the end of the table.  Well fuck them, I thought.

“She said she’d had an argument with her mother,” I added in an aggressive tone of voice.  I glared at Mrs. Verdano.  She looked surprised, hurt.  I wondered if she looked that way because I’d said something damaging or because I’d brought up a painful memory.

“Okay.  Well let’s stick with where Lizzie was going.  She was going to work.  Anywhere else?  Any stops on the way?”

“Not that she talked about.  Her shift at the lake would have been starting within a half hour, so I don’t know where else she would’ve gone other than to a gas station or convenience store,” I said.  “You know, the accident took place on her way to the lake, right?  So why are you asking me these—forgive me—stupid questions?”  I was letting my anger spill over into my voice, onto the table, into the air, and it was getting the best of me.

Carrying me away in a stream of poison.

This was probably a bad idea.

But it was too late, and nobody had given me the choice.  The lawyer didn’t call the house and say “Do you think Rowan would mind talking to us?  Giving a deposition?  Would she be comfortable with that?  Do you think she’d like to give us her version of the day’s events privately?  Would that be easier?”  I smiled at the ridiculous nature of my fantasy.  The thought of these lawyers respecting my feelings was ridiculous.

This added fuel to the fire that was threatening to blow the room up.

I leaned forward.  “You know, she wanted to be a nurse,” I said, glaring at the lawyer.

Dad touched my arm, took a sharp breath in.

Too late.

“A nurse!” I added, a laugh escaping.  “Imagine that.  She wanted to help people, even with a father that abused her.”

There.  I’d said it.

No going back now.  I glared at Mr. Verdano.  “Sexually abused her, as a matter of fact.”  I added, a laugh that sounded both spiteful and hysterical erupting.

Out of control.

I wanted to make him react.  But he sat there composed, cold, a trace of a smile there on his handsome face.  He looked at me, held me there with his eyes like a rag doll.  Looking almost as if he was amused with my outburst, but certainly not rising to my accusation.  I glared vainly.  Ineffectually.  Bored, he dropped me with his eyes and turned his gaze on the lawyers, his expression indicating he didn’t have any idea where I could have gotten such an absurd idea.

The lawyer cleared his throat.

I looked at Mrs. Verdano.  She was white.

“Rowan, I understand this is difficult for you, but please, let’s try to stick with the events of that day, okay?”

“Difficult?” I asked, my voice rising.  “Difficult?  You understand this has been difficult for me?  I don’t think you understand anything.”

I knew I sounded juvenile and out of control but I couldn’t help it.  I had to say these things.

The lawyers exchanged looks, eyebrows twitched.  Suited rear ends shifted in their seats.  Glasses were adjusted.  I looked at Dad, who was regarding me with something like interest, cautious fascination, even.

“Okay.”  The lawyer kept a calm exterior but I could see he was becoming upset.  By my impertinence?

It was too much to hope that my accusation had upset any of the cadavers at the table.  If they had responses to what I’d said, nothing was evident on their faces.  Except for Mrs. Verdano’s.  She looked like she was about to faint.

“Rowan, can we continue?” the lawyer asked, his annoyance seeping out now.

“Sure.  Fire away,” I said, getting comfortable with the tone I’d adopted and pleased to be punishing Mrs. Verdano in whatever small way I could.

My voice in the deposition would reflect the truth of my situation.  If they didn’t like it, they could spend some more money and reschedule their precious deposition.

“So Lizzie was going to work at the lake,” he parroted again.  “And when she drove away, did you notice anything unusual about the car?”

“Yeah, the wheel was wobbling wildly.  I yelled ‘Hey, Lizzie!  I think your wheel’s come loose!’  She said, ‘No worries, Rowan, I’m going to have that fixed this afternoon!’”  I finished, my voice alternating between a strained attempt to keep from crying and hysterical laughter.

I was trying, but I couldn’t control my voice or my expressions.  Looking at Mr. Verdano only made it worse, made me feel more desperate in my hate and desire to expose him.

The lawyer put his pen down and sat back in his chair, bringing his arms up to the back of his head.  The other lawyers looked at him.  “Ms. Thomson, this is a serious matter.  Jokes are not appropriate here.  If you can’t answer the questions then we will simply reschedule the deposition for a time that is more,” he paused, clearing his throat, “conducive to a productive outcome,” he finished.

“Sure thing.  Whatever works for you guys,” I said, the pitch in my voice continuing to rise, my expression a tight attempt to keep my laughter in check.

“I’m all about productive outcomes.  Rowan Productive Outcome Thomson.  See?  My middle name.”

Now Dad’s concern registered on his face.

“And while you’re at it, why don’t you depose Mr. Verdano?  Ask him how many underage nurses it takes to blow a sick psychiatrist?”

Dad went white.  But he didn’t say anything.  He just flexed his jaw, his eyes roaming from my face to the faces of the lawyers and back again.

“Let’s take a break,” the lawyer said, getting up and walking out.

I put my head down on the shiny table.

It was cold.

Everyone stood and walked past me.  I could feel them looking at the back of my head as they passed by me on their way out of the room.  I was embarrassed, self-conscious.  And I felt sorry for my father, who was undoubtedly embarrassed by my bizarre display.  I kept my head down, not daring to look at him.

Dad sat there beside me, drumming his fingers on the table.

“Honey, you’re scaring me,” he said after a few minutes.  “Do you think maybe you should talk to someone?  A psychiatrist, maybe?”

I raised my head, leaving tears on my arm and the table.  “Sure.  Why don’t we institutionalize me?  Then we could dispense with the bad jokes and hysterical behavior.” I didn’t look at him when I said that, because I knew he wanted to help me and didn’t deserve to be talked to that way.

But it was really my best answer.  I didn’t have any other response to that question in that moment.  The irony that he’d suggested I go to a psychiatrist — the very thing that Mr. Verdano did for a living — was not lost on me.

We sat silently there, together.

Finally the lawyers all filed back into the room.  Followed by the Verdanos.  Haggard now, I looked at my nemesis.  He returned my gaze comfortably, an eyebrow raised, a gesture of greeting on his face.

Red.  A veil of red descended on the room.  I nearly went wild with frustration at the sight of his face, digging my nails into the flesh of my palms to keep from screaming.

The lawyer that had been questioning me did not pick up his pen when he took his seat.  He still had dandruff on his shoulders and his suit looked rumpled.  Didn’t he have a secretary to tell him he was snowing on his shoulder?  I thought cruelly.  I contemplated pointing it out to him, feeling vicious.

He sat down, leaning on the table.  “We think, perhaps, we can do without any further testimony from Rowan,” he said, sounding tired.  “We realize this has been very traumatic for you,” he said, looking at me, “and we believe that we can settle this matter with the information we have.  Would that be acceptable to everyone?” he asked, looking around the table.

I nodded, relieved to be released.

Neither of the Verdanos gestured in any way, but the lawyers all nodded their agreement.

We were free to go.

When we stepped outside, the year’s first dusting of snow had fallen.  The lawyer’s office was on a hill.  We stood on his brick stoop and looked over the calm white quiet magic of the snow.  Powdery, swirling in some places.

We stood looking.

Dad buttoned his coat, pulled his lapels up against the cold and put his hands in his pockets.

“First snow,” he said.

I looked at our feet, side by side on the stoop.  No other footprints leading in or out of the office.  We would be the first footprints in the snow.

“Yup.  Pretty.” I sniffed.

He looked at me.  “Are you okay, Rowan?”

“Yup.”  Nope.

He put his hand on my back in a gesture of help and reassurance and we stepped off of the stoop together into the snow.

Dad did not ask me about what I had said.  I didn’t know why.  And I didn’t bring it up again.  That night at dinner we all tried to make light conversation.  Kori was quiet, and Billy tried to make a joke.

“How many Texas Aggies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” he asked.

I groaned.

Mom grinned.

Dad answered.  “Four, son.  One to hold it and three to spin him around.”

Billy smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

Inevitably, though, the conversation turned to the day’s main event: the deposition and its possible outcome.

Kori asked the question.  “Will Mr. Verdano get a lot of money?”

“Possibly,” Dad said, chewing.  “He could get the extent of our homeowner’s policy, which is about a half a million dollars.”

I thought that over.  In light of what I had learned about Mr. Verdano and his family it seemed beyond criminal.  The thought made my throat start to tighten again.  I pushed myself back from the table, feeling sick.

Everyone was watching me.  I couldn’t hold back my tears.  They came in a river.  It was too much for me to hold onto.  “It’s wrong, so wrong,” I said, my chest heaving up and down with the effort of controlling myself.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Mom got up and came around the table to hold me.

“No.  You don’t know what happened.  You don’t understand.” I said, the tears blurring my vision and what I was trying to say.  I felt like an erupting volcano, anger oozing everywhere.  I couldn’t articulate.

They were silent, watching and listening.

“He … ” I burst into a fit of crying that completely obscured my words.  I burbled a bit, trying to speak, and couldn’t.

They waited.

“He was abusing her.” I finally spat, shaking my head and clenching my fists.

“You said that today,” My father said, putting his fork down and folding his hands calmly.  “Where do you get the idea that Mr. Verdano was abusing Lizzie?”

Taking deep breaths to regain myself, I glared at Dad.  It wasn’t that I was directing my anger at him, but it was spilling out.  Everyone sat silently staring at me.  Billy’s food was on his fork in mid-air, suspended there.

“I had a dream about it.  I went to see Celeste, to see if it was true.” I said, trying to affect some calm, through clenched teeth. My nose was running, and there were little paths where the tears were making their way over my cheeks.

“She said it was.  True.”

Everyone’s jaws hung open, stunned.

“Oh, God,” my father said, leaning back in his chair to rest his head against the wall behind him. From there he looked at me, his expression registering a mix of disgust and pain.

In a flash, the image of Lizzie’s ghost came back.  The grip of the vision jolted me, a realization slamming into me.  At the launch.  He.  Look what he did to me.  He, he, he. Could it be?

I jumped up and ran from the room, pursued by the ghost.

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