Bella discovered Susan’s body on the Saturday before Memorial Day. She’d been outside cleaning the barbecue. Lonely, she peered through the slats in the pinewood fence between her backyard and Susan and Jay’s, hoping to see Susan there, like she often did, sometimes in a straw hat, her face hidden under its brim.
“Susan?” Bella said. “Are you there?”
While not best friends, Bella and Susan had hit it off quickly. Bella, usually watching her toddler, had been happy to have adult conversations. Bella had friends in the neighborhood – most notably Charlotte and Dolores – but still felt like she was a newcomer, not quite accepted, having moved in a year earlier. Susan was often in her backyard and willing to linger and talk, especially about the extensive garden she and her husband, Jay, had cultivated. Together, Bella and Susan had removed the poison ivy that creeped from one yard to the other, both ending up with rashes that for weeks refused to disappear.
“Susan?” Bella felt a chill even though it was mild and clear outside, no wind, blue sky, perfect day for a barbecue.
Bella didn’t know whether to call out for Jay. Her relationship with him was tentative. In her walks through the neighborhood with Charlotte and Dolores, the other women agreed repeatedly that Jay was an odd choice of a husband for Susan. He barely nodded hello. He was a scruffy unshaven shadow of a man, Charlotte said. Dolores, whose husband was a retired Air Force pilot, thought Susan could have done much better than Jay. But in April, Jay had asked through the fence which vegetables Bella liked and why, and, she had answered, kale.
“Nobody says kale.” Jay had laughed, a full throttle laugh, and Bella wondered if Jay was an acquired taste, like kale or most vegetables, really.
Something felt wrong.
Puddles, Susan and Jay’s chihuahua mix, was pressed against their living room bay window, scratching the glass and barking.
Bella peeked through the slats again. There, just beyond the asparagus, was a body: head, torso, arms, legs, drenched in blood.
Bella dropped the phone twice before her fingers managed to press 911.
* * *
Across the street, Charlotte heard the sirens.
At first she thought they came from the television; from the show she was watching about an unsolved axe murder in California. But the sirens grew louder and more urgent. She headed towards the front of the house, saw the red lights dancing across her dining room walls, and knew something exciting was happening.
Charlotte opened the front door to a series of ambulances and police cars speeding into the cul-de-sac. One-two-three-four. She stepped outside to her stoop, closing the door behind her. Five-six-seven.
Charlotte counted seven police cars and three ambulances crowded into the cul-de-sac, and, more specifically, around Jay and Susan’s house. There had been only a handful of times that Charlotte wished her husband hadn’t left her. This counted as one. He would have pulled out the high-powered binoculars he used for bird watching. He would have joined her in speculation about what was happening. He would have enjoyed the drama of the moment.
Susan’s car was in the driveway, but Jay’s wasn’t. Charlotte wondered where he was on a Saturday afternoon. She knew their comings-and-goings well enough. They usually both stayed at home on Saturday, their errands assigned to Sunday afternoons.
The other neighbors began appearing on their doorsteps, then lining the curbs as they came from other streets. The paramedics and police, some of them crouched, some of them with their weapons drawn, surrounded the house. One police officer motioned for the neighbors to back away. Charlotte moved closer instead, down her driveway for a better view.
Dolores, a cup of coffee in one hand, a bag of potato chips in the other, appeared from her house two streets over, her teenage son lagging behind her, Dolores’ German shepherd in tow. Charlie was barking. Dolores’ son had to hold him by the collar.
“What do you know?” Dolores said. She ate a potato chip. Took a gulp of coffee.
“Guns,” said Charlotte. “Maybe a hostage situation? Jay’s car is gone.”
“Maybe someone stole the car? Maybe it’s a burglary, and they took the car while Jay and Susan were out?”
“Maybe.” Charlotte thought her own scenario was more likely. Or someone was dead. Had she heard a gunshot? When she got back into her house, she could listen to the police dispatches on her cell phone through the scanner app she’d installed.
Charlotte took a potato chip from Dolores. Chewed. Swallowed.
“Those are spicy.” Charlotte coughed. “What are they?”
“They have jalapeno salt in them.”
Jay’s car, a grey Volvo, appeared, turned into the cul-de-sac, stopped suddenly. He climbed out of the car holding a bag. The neighbors watched in silence, waiting to see what happened next. Jay dropped the bag. He ran up to the house, where a police officer stopped him at the front path.
“I didn’t know jalapeno salt was a thing,” Charlotte said.
The officer was holding onto Jay, who was fighting him. The officer pinned Jay to the ground.
“I don’t think this is going to end well,” Charlotte said.
* * *
Bella stayed inside her house, cuddling her daughter on their leather three-part sectional, her husband in the kitchen making Bella a cup of ginger citrus tea to “calm her down.”
There was a knock at the door. Bella, her hands trembling, wanted to ignore it, but the knocks came again, more insistent.
Bella untangled herself from her child, then opened the door. Two officers with tight, serious faces looked at her.
“You’re the one who discovered the body?”
“We need to ask you some questions.”
She let them in, the idea of tea abandoned.
“You don’t have to answer their questions,” her husband said.
“Of course, I will.” She gave him a dismissive wave. Her husband took their daughter upstairs.
The officers sat down with Bella on the couch. They started out politely enough, then became more insistent, almost begging, asking her over and over, “Did you hear anything?” “Are you sure you didn’t hear anything?” “Maybe earlier in the day you heard something?”
Bella buried her face in her hands.
Bella lifted her head up. She looked in their faces. They seemed so desperate for something from her. She thought about the morning. Her husband had been gone. She’d been with her daughter, first watching cartoons, then having a picnic in the backyard.
“Perhaps, this morning sometime,” she said. “I heard Susan scream, ‘Stop.’”
“’Stop, Jay,’ maybe?”
“Yes, ‘Stop, Jay.’”
Bella didn’t know where her memory split from reality. It sounded right. Stop. Stop, Jay.
The police officers nodded their heads.
* * *
Dolores left Charlotte’s driveway an hour after Susan’s body was removed from the backyard. She’d seen all there was to see. The sheet over the body. Jay being taken to the police station.
Dolores felt something twisty in her stomach. She told her son and husband they were on their own for dinner, texted back and forth with Charlotte and other friends in the neighborhood as they tried to figure out what happened. Charlotte wrote that two TV news trucks had already shown up, and reporters were doing live shots outside her window.
“They’re saying it’s a homicide,” Charlotte wrote. “A stabbing.”
Dolores posted on Facebook: “Heartbroken. My dear, dear friend Susan is dead. Murdered. Please keep her and us in your prayers.” She got 67 care emojis and 54 sad emojis within an hour.
“Hon?” she called to her husband. “I think I’m going to head out for a little again.”
She thought the reporters might as well have someone to interview, someone who knew both Susan and the neighborhood. She put on a dress and pearls.
When she arrived, she saw a reporter already interviewing Charlotte, who was wearing bright red lipstick that Dolores had never seen her wear before.
“The whole neighborhood is grieving,” Charlotte was saying. “We loved Susan. And now we have the possibility of a murderer on the loose. Maybe a serial killer.”
Dolores waited for her turn, but by the time Charlotte was done, the reporters had gotten what they needed.
* * *
Dolores brought the first dish: a throwback, tuna casserole. Jay remembered Dolores from walking Puddles through the neighborhood, Dolores’ girthy German shepherd always straining at its leash, seemingly ready to pummel Puddles. The dog was not with her. Puddles growled at Dolores anyway.
Susan had called Dolores a “kind of friendy friend.” Dolores, in a belted blue dress, stood fidgeting at the door.
“We just want you to know we all care about you,” Dolores said. “Your neighborhood is here for you.”
Dolores handed Jay a tin foil-covered stoneware pan.
“You can return the pan when you get a chance,” Dolores said. “Just bring it back, you know, whenever.”
Dolores was gone before Jay could comment that he might not remember to return her pan ever, meaning at all, because, after all, his wife had just died so he was a bit preoccupied.
After Dolores, there were other visitors, mostly women, some with names and faces Jay knew from parties at the community pool or impromptu gatherings in the cul-de-sac. They mumbled their sympathies and brought more food than he could fit in either the fridge or the freezer.
Charlotte arrived with chocolate cookies in disposable Tupperware. She patted him on the arm and told him how much everyone loved Susan.
“Such a terrible way to go,” Charlotte said.
Jay was confused about how to respond. Susan was always so much better with people. He liked tangible things – his computer, gaming, fixing the house, and weeding the garden.
“Yes it was. Terrible. Of course.”
Charlotte looked past Jay to the hallway behind him.
“So,” Charlotte said. “The police are all done here then?”
The police were not, in fact, all done. True, the yellow tape was gone. Officers were no longer swarming through the house, poring over Susan’s toothpaste or whisking off both of their computers. The police had stopped asking him questions. They had stopped circling the house late at night. But they had warned him, in specific, slowly enunciated words, that they would be back for him, that he should not think, even for a second, that he’d gotten away with it.
“Yes,” Jay said. “The police are all done.”
After Charlotte left, Jay went back inside to the master bedroom, with Puddles at his feet. He climbed into the king-sized bed he’d shared with Susan, briefly burying his face in her pillow and what was left of her peony scent.
* * *
Almost everyone from the neighborhood went to Susan’s funeral at Trinity Church. Although Susan and Jay had lived in their house for seven years, they had only been to the church a handful of times, so the minister didn’t know them. Dolores, however, was a regular. She helped the minister write his sermon, sitting with him in a pew, and providing him details about Susan. When the minister asked her questions about Susan, Dolores texted Bella if she didn’t know the answer.
“What were Susan’s hobbies?” the minister asked.
“What were Susan’s hobbies?” Dolores texted Bella.
“Gardening. Reading mysteries. Exercise. Flower arranging,” Bella wrote.
“She loved gardening and reading mysteries. She went to the gym. She was into flower arranging,” Dolores said.
The general consensus was that the funeral was well done, and it was all very sad indeed. Jay sat with Susan’s family. He seemed withdrawn; Dolores noticed. Bella too seemed out of sorts. Dolores cried during the service, but Bella, sobbing, left the room, her high heels clicking against the floor, reverberating throughout the quiet sanctuary.
Jay didn’t cry.
“The police are here,” Charlotte whispered to Dolores, pointing to a row of officers in the back pew.
“Good,” Dolores said. “We won’t be able to sleep until they arrest someone.”
* * *
“Do you think our neighborhood will ever get over this unfortunate incident?” Dolores said to Charlotte and Bella as the three power-walked through the neighborhood in the morning light. “Or will we always be traumatized?”
They walked together, side-by-side-by-side, Bella and Charlotte barely fitting on the sidewalk, Dolores and Charlie relegated to the grass. They passed neighbors they knew by sight: the man who put up skeleton decorations whether it was Halloween or not, the latest State Department family renting the house with the blue door, the old man who sat on the stoop playing the harmonica, yet occasionally switching it out for the tuba. The familiar markers of their Northern Virginia suburbs – boring, a little strange, but above all, safe.
Bella looked over at Dolores. Bella hadn’t slept the last few nights. She kept replaying it all in her head – finding Susan’s body, talking to the police, what she had said. Her friend, gone. What did Dolores know about trauma?
“I mean, Dolores?” Bella said, after a beat. “I’m the one who actually found Susan. You don’t seem affected in quite the same way.”
“Bella that’s a really narrow way of understanding trauma,” Dolores said, pumping her arms. Dolores hated how the fat on the underside of the arms wiggled. It really was an ugly sight. Susan had had such muscular arms. Susan had worked out at one of the gyms nearby. Dolores thought again about how she should join a gym. “My therapist is concerned about me, how this affecting my joints.”
“Did you even know Susan?” Bella said, feeling herself flush. She remembered that it was only at Bella’s insistence that Susan had been allowed to join Bella, Dolores, and Charlotte briefly on their walks through the neighborhood. But Dolores had then said that Susan’s pace was too fast for them, too athletic, a little much. Charlotte had then suggested that they should keep their walks to three people, not four.
“Of course, I knew Susan,” Dolores said. “You don’t have the monotony on grief.”
“That’s the wrong word, I think,” Charlotte said.
“No that’s the right word.”
“No.” Charlotte said, pulling out her phone as if to Google it. “It’s not.”
“Fine. You knew what I meant.” Dolores said, her voice clipped. Bella clenched her teeth. For the first time, she wondered what would happen if she just left the other two, stopped walking with them, said she had better things to do.
“I went over to the house for a look-see,” Charlotte said. “Jay doesn’t seem right.”
Nobody asked what right looked like, exactly.
“And I did a little asking around,” Charlotte said. “Fannie says that Dave says that the police found old bruises on Susan’s body. And somebody told the police they were always having fights late at night. It’s just like on TV. It’s always the husband.”
Bella took a large gulp of air.
They turned the corner to approach Charlotte’s house, then faced Jay and Susan’s home, with its red brick steps and extended stoop, the American flag, the border forsythia that Susan and Jay had planted the first year they lived in the neighborhood, back when Jay and Susan would sometimes sit out in their driveway on bright blue lawn chairs drinking white wine, Susan waving at anyone who passed.
“What if Susan was always in trouble, and she just hid it really well?” Charlotte said.
A trash truck rumbled down the street.
“You know,” Dolores said, her voice dripping with disappointment. “Jay still hasn’t returned my baking dish.”
* * *
A few days after the funeral, the police brought Jay into the interrogation room in the police station for questioning again. At first, they asked him the same questions they’d asked him before. What was his job? (Technician.) What was their favorite TV show? (Ted Lasso.) How much did Susan make and was Jay annoyed that she earned more than him? ($140 grand. No.) Where were you when your wife was murdered? (Picking up lightbulbs from Bob’s Supplies.)
Then they launched into new questions. Had they had a bad relationship? (No.) How many knives did they own? (Three? Seven? I don’t know.) Did they have money problems? Did he hit Susan on a regular basis? Did he attack her in the backyard and had she yelled, “Stop, Jay”? Didn’t he kill her, didn’t he?
The room got smaller and smaller. Jay thought about Susan’s family, how they had told them they believed he had nothing to do with her death, but also how they kept their bodies tilted away from him; their eyes shielded from meeting his.
The lead investigator showed him the photos again of Susan’s mangled body, the knife slices on her stomach, the deep wounds in her chest and back. Jay shoved the photos back across the desk at them.
Jay looked down at his hands, the bony knuckles with slight brown hairs. He folded his hands and waited for whatever was going to happen next.
* * *
Bella told Charlotte she remembered something. She remembered that Susan had once joked about how, if Jay had to choose between his computer and her, he would not choose her.
“Is that a little weird?” Bella said.
“Definitely,” Charlotte said. “Maybe he was watching porn.”
“Should I tell the police?”
“Definitely,” Charlotte said. “I think there’s something called snuff porn, where they kill people. Maybe he was watching that.”
“She didn’t say anything about that.”
“Well, she wouldn’t know, would she?” Charlotte said.
Bella shook her head, thought about what she had already told the police, wondered if Jay would get arrested because of her. She decided she would not say anything more to the police, but she kept that from Charlotte. There was something about her friend’s eagerness that was starting to anger her. Jay had such a nice laugh. And Susan? Bella held back her tears until Charlotte left.
* * *
Charlotte set up a Facebook group: “Justice for Susan.” Charlotte, Bella, and Dolores were administrators, monitoring the discussions, urging people to remember what they could about the day Susan was murdered. Did anyone see any strange vehicles, for example? Did anyone hear something different than normal on the day of her murder? Had anyone notice her under stress in the weeks or months before her murder?
When Jay asked for permission to join the group, Charlotte and Dolores voted no. Bella voted yes.
They were in Bella’s kitchen, sitting at her grey-and-blue granite-covered island, drinking cappuccinos from her Nespresso machine. Bella’s husband had taken their daughter to the community pool.
“What’s the matter with you, Bella?” Charlotte said. “Jay’s the most likely suspect. We can’t have him in the group.”
Bella took her coffee cup to the sink. She turned around and walked back to her friends. Bella stopped on the opposite side of the island, the counter separating her from Charlotte and Dolores. She kept the distance between them.
“Innocent until proven guilty?” Bella said. “Isn’t that still a thing?”
“There’s also such a thing as being deliberately ignorant,” Charlotte said.
“Yeah,” Dolores said.
Bella took their coffee cups from them.
“Maybe it’s time for us to go,” said Charlotte.
“Maybe it is,” said Bella.
Bella was dropped as an administrator of the Facebook group. Charlotte and Dolores decided to ignore Jay’s request, pending more information about the police investigation.
Charlotte and Dolores started taking daily walks without Bella, who joined a yoga studio.
* * *
The police found a bloody knife buried in a trash bin two miles from Jay and Susan’s home, four blocks from Bob’s Supplies. It was wrapped in a plastic dog poop bag.
The local TV station got word that the knife had been found. They reported that Jay was a person of interest. The next day, the reporter said Jay was a suspect, possibly the only suspect. The reporter said that Jay and Susan had a series of fights, that Susan had been heard screaming, “Stop, Jay, oh please stop,” on the morning of her murder. The reporter said that Jay had hired a lawyer.
“He’s always been just this quiet guy,” Charlotte told the reporter, looking straight into the camera. “But I always suspected something was wrong with him.”
The Justice for Susan Facebook page got livelier, with bets over when Jay would be arrested. Neighbors began recalling strange behavior.
“Do you remember that time Jay drank all the hot apple cider we were saving for the kids on Halloween?” Dolores said as she and Charlotte did another sweep for clues in the park behind Charlotte’s house. Who knew what a murderer could have dropped there? They found a vape pen, a blanket, and five used condoms.
“Once we’ve solved Susan’s murder, we need to get the drug users out of the park,” Charlotte said.
“It’s probably just teenagers,” Dolores said, thinking about her son.
“Nevertheless,” Charlotte said.
* * *
The TV news reported that Jay would be arrested any day and charged with first-degree murder. Bella, who hadn’t yet visited Jay, told her husband that she needed to stop by his house.
“Why now?” her husband said, as made dinner for their daughter. “I don’t want you to go.”
Bella left the house without saying another word to him. She moved hesitantly towards Jay and Susan’s front door. She looked down at the front door mat: “Dogs are Better than People.” Susan had told her that she bought the mat for Jay for his birthday.
“I don’t think that’s true, that dogs are better than people, but maybe sometimes Jay does,” Susan had said. “If you think about it, dogs aren’t cruel like people can be.”
“Dogs are certainly more loyal than people,” Bella had agreed.
Bella knocked on the door. Silence, then Puddles barking. She could hear the click as Jay unlocked the door. He opened it. His eyes were puffy. Puddles jumped on her in greeting.
“I thought you might be the police,” Jay said.
“I just wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Bella said.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “Is it?”
Bella thought that maybe it was, in part, her fault that he was going to be arrested, that maybe what she had said to the police, was part of the timing, the rush, the insistence that he killed his wife. She wanted to say that she was sorry that everyone had turned against him so quickly.
Bella said nothing. Jay looked everywhere but at her.
“Well, thank you?” he said. “Can you do me a favor?”
Bella came home with Puddles, his leash, and a bag of his food.
“We’re taking his dog?” her husband asked, outraged.
“We are,” Bella said firmly, while their daughter squealed happily and pulled at Puddles’ ear.
* * *
The police arrested Jay the following day. Jay’s lawyer went with him to the arraignment. She told him to lift up his head and take his hands out of his pockets, to look not proud, but confident, and yet a little humble still.
To get inside, they walked through a press throng and cameras thrust close to Jay’s face. Reporters shouted questions at him, predictable, loud: “Did you kill your wife?” Early in their marriage, Susan had gone with him to buy the suit he was wearing. Even the tie she had picked out, placing it up against him, saying, “this blue, it’s the best blue.” Moving through the crowd, going through the court security, raising his arms up high to show he was unarmed, Jay felt Susan with him, over him, whispering, “I believe in you” just like she had when they were first in love, their legs wrapped around each other in bed, ankle against ankle. He remembered the moment he’d married Susan and lifted up her veil to reveal her perfect celestial nose.
Jay turned around briefly to see a crowd of neighbors and then Bella, sitting up front, her straight brown hair parted, her head down.
Jay stood up, back straight, when the judge came into the courtroom.
* * *
Bella sat by herself, as far away as possible from Charlotte and Dolores.
She didn’t think Jay looked like a murderer. He looked thin and crumpled. He looked lost. Bella thought about how the police and the push for justice had led to this moment, this courtroom.
Bella remembered Jay and Susan dancing in the backyard to no music, Bella spying through the fence as Susan pressed her head against Jay’s chest.
Bella had almost forgotten about her husband’s fury when he’d caught her peering at her neighbors, and later him asking her over and over, “Why are you so obsessed with them?” And then, “Should I be jealous? Should I go over there and kill him right now?” Her smiling and shrugging, blowing it off as him just overreacting. Him still angry, stalking away from her.
* * *
Charlotte and Dolores sat in the third row crowded against other neighbors. Charlotte gripped her purse. She saw the top of Jay’s head when he sat down, noticing for the first time that Jay was balding.
“Why?” Dolores whispered. “Why did he do it?”
“Anger. Heat of passion,” Charlotte whispered back. “Some deeply buried resentment or childhood trauma?”
“I’ll be glad when this is over,” Dolores said. “And we can go back to normal.”
“Yes, but normal is also boring.”
In front of them, Jay stood up.
“I’m hungry,” Dolores whispered.
“Oh, me too,” Charlotte said. “There are a lot of good restaurants by the courthouse.”
“Not guilty,” Jay said.
“I’m in the mood for something crunchy,” Dolores said.
Jay sat down.
“Let’s go to Angler’s Inn,” Charlotte said. “It’s only a block away.”
Jay sat in his chair, unmoving.
“Oh, that’s perfect,” Dolores said. “They have the best calamari.”
* * *