Seven Minutes in Heaven

Page 21


“I believe this is the part of your prank where everyone jumps out and says ‘Gotcha,’ Miss Paxton.”
She turned to stare at him, and saw that he was smiling again. “The cat’s out of the bag. Everyone in town is about to find out about the lies you’ve been telling—and that includes the Mercers. This game you’ve been playing, it’s over.” He opened the door to the interrogation room and bowed her out into the hall.
I would have been almost touched by Quinlan’s determination to bring my killer to justice, if he hadn’t been acting like such a total moron. It was bad enough that I was dead. Now the cops were going to go after the wrong person on top of that.
Emma didn’t know how she’d made it to the front desk a few minutes later. All the fury had leached out of her, and her limbs felt like they were made of stone, so heavy and stiff she couldn’t believe she was able to move them at all. She stood in a fog while a receptionist with purple acrylic nails paged an officer to take her home. Finally, a tall cop with buzz-cut auburn hair seemed to appear out of nowhere. His name badge said CORCORAN. “Emma Paxton?”
She nodded silently. He gestured for her to follow him, and together they walked through the double glass doors. The sun had set. Beyond the parking lot, rush-hour traffic crawled past, brake lights glinting red in the gloom.
Corcoran didn’t talk much as he drove Emma to the Mercers’. As they glided past shops and salons decorated in green and red for the holidays, she stared out the window, half listening to the crackle of chatter from the cop’s radio. “. . . report of vandalism at the Snack ’n’ Shack on Valencia,” a muffled female voice was saying. “Unit fifty-three, please report.”
“So did you do it?”
She turned to look at the officer, giving him an are-you-serious grimace. Did he think she was going to offhandedly confess to a beat cop—if she had done it—after Quinlan had already interrogated her? But he was staring straight ahead at the road with an earnest frown, like some part of the situation just didn’t add up.
“I was a foster kid, too,” he said matter-of-factly. “Here in Tucson.”
She nodded mutely, unsure what he was getting at.
“I don’t know why it is, but people don’t trust you if you don’t have family. Even if it isn’t your fault.” He shrugged. “You become a scapegoat for everything that happens, just because you don’t fit into the natural order.”
Emma swallowed hard. She looked back out the window, not trusting herself to speak. Were they trying to good-cop her now, trying to get her to confess just because some cute guy, close to her own age, was acting like he understood what she was going through? But Corcoran had fallen silent, like he’d said his piece and that was all he had to say.
When they turned the corner onto the Mercers’ street, Emma’s jaw dropped. The place was swarming with reporters. The whole street was lit up like a ballpark, a dozen vans lining either side of the road. Reporters checked their makeup in the side mirrors on cars and ran through their lines, beard-stubbled men with giant cameras hoisted on their shoulders trailing in their wake. It looked like the Mercers’ neighbor, Mr. Paulson, was being interviewed in his driveway by a man with his hair plastered in a Ken-doll coif. Other reporters seemed to be mid-broadcast, using the Mercers’ house as a backdrop.
I’d always dreamed of being famous, of having paparazzi follow me home and beg me for interviews. But this definitely wasn’t what I had in mind.
“Stay where you are,” Corcoran said to Emma, putting the car in park in the middle of the street. He opened his car door. The moment he did, the cacophony of dozens of voices filled the squad car.
“Are you Emma Paxton, or Sutton Mercer?”
“Emma, why’d you do it?”
“Did anyone help you kill your sister?”
Corcoran didn’t even look at them. He walked around to the passenger-side door and opened it, standing protectively in front of Emma to keep the shouting reporters at a slight distance.
She met the officer’s eyes. They were calm, clear blue, and while she couldn’t tell if he believed her story or not, she could see a stubborn conviction there. This guy wanted her to be treated fairly, she realized. Whether or not she was innocent, whether or not she had lied, he wanted her to have a fair shake.
“Ready?” he asked. She nodded, suddenly feeling a little stronger. He might not be her ally—but for the moment, he was close enough.
He helped her to her feet, then guided her quickly through the crowd.
“Emma! Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
“Do you think your mom’s mental illness is genetic?”
“Did Sutton put up a fight?”
Corcoran stood at the edge of the yard, his arms crossed over his chest. “Go on, then,” he said. “I’ll stay here ’til you get inside.”
She nodded, staring longingly at the Mercers’ front door. All she wanted was to be inside, to sit down with her family and tell them everything, as they’d already done with her. As she walked up the driveway, she could hear the manic clicking of the photographers’ cameras all around her. A man in a dark red blazer tried to launch himself past Corcoran, microphone stretched out toward her—but the officer grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and jerked him back.
Emma reached the porch and stood in front of the oak door with its lion-shaped knocker. She pulled out her keys, then fumbled and dropped them with a resounding clatter on the porch. Cheeks burning, she bent to pick them up.
But when she went to unlock the door, the key wouldn’t fit.
Her heart tightened in the half second before she consciously understood. The locks had been changed. She wasn’t welcome.
I stared down at the keys in my sister’s hand. My house key had purple nail polish painted across the top, so I could always differentiate it from the others. How many times had I used it without ever realizing how lucky I was to have a home to go to? How many times had I let myself in, never realizing what a privilege it was?
Her hand trembling, Emma rang the doorbell. Inside she could hear Drake barking, deep and hoarse. The blinds were all drawn tight, but it looked like every light in the house was blazing—blades of yellow cut through the slats.
Something rustled behind the door. She waited. Behind her, the reporters were yelling questions, drowning each other out so they generated a loud, indeterminate roar. Corcoran stood at the curb with his arms crossed over his chest, staring stoically out at the crowd.
Suddenly a voice came from behind the door. “You can’t stay here.” Mrs. Mercer’s voice was nasal and stuffy. It was obvious she’d been crying.
“Please, Mrs. Mercer, I just want to explain.” She didn’t want to plead her case here on the doorstep, with the press watching and taking pictures. She leaned toward the door, hoping to hide her face from their cameras. “Please just give me a chance to explain.”
The door jerked open without warning.
My heart wrenched at the sight of my mother standing in the light-filled entryway, her face blotchy with tears. A frenzied, wild expression contorted her features, grief and rage twisting together. She still wore her work clothes, gray tweed slacks and a pink shell top, but she was barefoot and disheveled. She stared at Emma like she barely recognized her.
“I want you gone,” she said shrilly, her eyes blazing.
“Mrs. Mercer, please . . .”
“You’re just like your mother,” hissed the older woman. Emma took an involuntary step back. “You’re both liars. You’re both insane. You don’t care who you hurt, as long as you get your way.”
“I’m not like Becky!” Emma gasped. A sense of desperation clawed at her chest. She had to make her grandmother understand. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m so sorry, but I had no choice!”
Mrs. Mercer gave a strangled sob, tears collecting at the corners of her eyes. “You had a choice, and you made it.”
A dark shape moved at the back of the hallway, like someone was around the corner listening. Emma craned her neck to see who it was. “Where’s Da— Where’s Mr. Mercer? Can I talk to him?”
Her grandmother shook her head violently. “No, you can’t. He doesn’t want to speak with you. Not after what you’ve done to us.”
“But if you’ll listen for just . . .”
Mrs. Mercer’s breath was fast and shuddering. She moved quickly, lunging toward Emma. Emma flinched, almost anticipating a blow. But instead of striking her, Mrs. Mercer wrestled the Kate Spade hobo bag off Emma’s shoulder.
“This is my daughter’s purse,” she sobbed, tears flooding down her cheeks. Then she grabbed Emma’s jacket in her fists, pulling it out of her arms. “And her coat. Not yours.”
Emma stood motionless, her lip trembling. She didn’t struggle. She didn’t have the heart to. Mrs. Mercer was right. None of this belonged to her. Not the clothes, not the house—and not the family. She had nothing of her own.
“Now get the hell off my property,” Mrs. Mercer spat.
I’d never heard my mother curse before, not even when she was at her most frustrated. The sound of it now filled me with fear. She was acting like a different person. It was like the old Mom, the one I’d loved so much, who had taken me for ice cream the day I got my first period and who’d watched old romantic comedies with me on rainy, lazy Sundays, was gone. All that was left was this bitter, angry shell of a woman. Suddenly I realized that this was what my death would mean to my family—that this wasn’t some adolescent fantasy where I’d get to hear everyone say nice things about me at my funeral and then ride a cloud to heaven. My mother had just realized that she’d lost me, and it was destroying her. This was my murderer’s—Garrett’s—legacy.
Mrs. Mercer started to close the door in Emma’s face, but before she shut it all the way she paused. “Tell me one thing.” Her voice was lower now, very soft.
“Anything,” Emma whispered.
Her grandmother’s eyes flitted over Emma’s face, searching for something. Emma wasn’t sure what.
“Did you do it? What they say you did?”
Emma took a deep, shuddering breath. “No.”
Mrs. Mercer stared at her silently, her blue eyes, so much like Emma’s own, suddenly soft. Emma wanted to say more, but she couldn’t figure out where to start. She wanted to tell Mrs. Mercer how badly she had wanted to meet Sutton. How sorry she was, how scared she’d been, how desperately she’d wanted to tell the truth all this time. More than anything, she wanted to tell her how the last few months had felt like someone else’s dream—that she had never had family like this, and that it’d meant more to her than anything. But before she could speak, Mrs. Mercer’s expression hardened once more, and she gave a strangled cry.
“I just don’t know how I can believe you.” She gave Emma a long, searching look, her eyes wounded. Then she slammed the door. The lock clicked shut.