I was trying to hide the fact that I had been crying and was on the verge of starting again.
The policeman in front of me was watching me steadily, staring right at me but remaining silent. I looked down at the table and rubbed my arms. The air conditioner above me was blasting cold air right down the back of my shirt. The tarnished metal door to the interview room opened and a second policeman came in slowly, looking at the papers in his hand. He sat next to his partner and looked up at me.
“So, Thomas, do you want to tell us where you were last Thursday?” he said.
“I already told you.” I muttered. “I was at home. You came to my house to tell me that Max was…,” my voice caught, and I had to stop talking.
“Ah, yes,” the policeman said, looking at the papers. “Ok. then, what were you doing at home?”
“Revising, I’ve got exams in a few weeks,” I said.
“All night?” the other policeman said. “Exams aren’t until next month, seems odd for someone to be revising so hard already.”
“I want to pass,” I said, still looking down. The policeman grunted but said nothing else.
“All right, tell me then, if you were at home revising how was your car involved in an accident?” the second policeman said. “An accident that killed three people and put two others in a hospital?”
“I already told you, I lent my car to Max,” I said.
“It’s very trusting of you to lend your car out,” the policeman said.
“I did it a lot, Max was on the insurance,” I said. “He always borrowed it, he was a good driver.”
“Why did Max want your car that night?”
“He was taking Emily out; she was getting stressed out with revision, so he wanted to give her a break. They were going to see a film.” I looked up, both policemen were leaning forward, I pushed my chair back a little.
“Yes, Emily,” the second policeman said, looking at the papers again. “She was beautiful, don’t you think?”
“What?” I said.
“Emily, she was a pretty girl,” the policeman said. “Don’t you agree?”
“I guess, she’s been our friend for years, since we were kids, I didn’t really notice. Why are you asking that?”
“Calm down Thomas, it’s just a question,” the first policeman smiled at me. “You and Max… did you ever argue much? Argue about Emily, maybe?”
“What?” I said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, Max was popular, everyone we’ve spoken to seems to think he’s the bee’s knees. Popular, funny, pretty girlfriend. We’re just trying to see where you fit into Max’s life.”
“We’ve been friends since we were five years old,” I said, frowning. “We went to the same schools, same college and now the same university. We grew up practically next door. We’ve always been together.”
“But you’re not popular, or funny, or dating anyone,” the policeman said almost offhand. He didn’t look at me when he spoke, but the other one watched me like a hawk.
“What?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Well everyone knows Max, but when we mentioned you, no one seemed to know who you were. Now if I’d been living in someone’s shadow for as long as you have, I’d be resentful. If I saw Max coasting through life, getting all the friends, the girls, the success, I’d be jealous.”
“But Max isn’t like that, he’s failing his classes. He was really worried about it. You make him sound like some made for TV movie jock, but he isn’t like that at all.” I said. “He’s a nice guy.”
“So why’d you tamper with the brakes then?” the policeman asked. I choked on my breath. My throat closed up, and my eyes watered. It took me a minute to stop coughing, and when I did, I looked up.
“What?” I managed, my voice raw.
“If Max was such a nice guy, why did you try to kill him?” the second policeman asked. “Did you think maybe Emily would be sad, so sad she’d turn to you for comfort?”
“Or maybe you didn’t want Emily at all; maybe it was Max you wanted. If he was such a great guy, maybe it was Emily you wanted rid of. Is that it, Thomas? Did you want Max all to yourself, like the good old days?”
“Someone tampered with the brakes?” I breathed. “But… but it was an accident.”
“That’s not what forensics says,” the policeman said. “Report here says deliberate tampering.”
“Someone tried to kill Max?” I said, a cold sensation crept up from my feet, spreading through my legs into my stomach where it turned into a solid ball of ice and kept going up. My chest went tight.
“It’s not the most sophisticated job either, it was immediately obvious apparently.” The first policeman said. “A novice could have spotted it.”
“Why would anyone…” I said, shaking.
“That’s what we want to know, and you’re the only person we can see who would want Max dead.”
“You think I killed Max?” I felt bile rise from the ice block in my stomach. “No!”
“It’ll go easier on you if you admit it,” the second policeman said. “You can cut a deal…”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “You can’t have any evidence that I did this.”
“Whys that?” the policeman said.
“Because I didn’t do it. I wouldn’t even know how to. I take my car to the garage every time the damn tires need changing, I couldn’t even change the bulb in the headlights. Max had to top up the oil, and even Emily had to fill up the window wiper fluid. I couldn’t have done this.”
“You expect us to believe a smart kid like you couldn’t figure this out?” the policeman snorted.
“There’s no evidence,” I said. “There can’t be.”
“You already said that,” the first policeman looked smug. “We’re continuing our investigations. But it will be easier for you if you just admit it now.”
“Am I under arrest?” I said.
“Not yet,” the first policeman growled.
“Well then, I’d like to leave,” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. The policemen stood up, one held the door open and gestured for me to go.
“Off you go, but don’t skip town,” he said firmly.
“I’ve no intention to,” I said, and all but ran out of the door.
I stopped to catch my breath in the reception area and sat down when my legs shook. They really thought I might have done this? That I would try to hurt Max? I glanced at the coffee table covered in old magazines, today’s paper sat in pride of place on top of the pile, I picked it up. The accident wasn’t front page news anymore; they had moved it to page six. “Three dead and two injured in Accident.” the faces of three people stared at me from directly under the headline. A middle-aged man and a toddler I didn’t know, the newspaper called them Jerry and George Baker. Emily’s high school graduation picture stared at me from next to them. She had died instantly. A little further down the page was a picture of a middle-aged woman, Sandra Baker, and next to her was Max, full name Maximillian Jones. They’d used Max’s high school graduation picture. He grinned up at me, looking for the entire world like the perfect kid. All smiles and untapped potential. I closed the paper and stood up, blinking rapidly to clear my eyes.
I walked out to the car park and over to my mum’s car. I slid into the passenger seat and let out a long breath.
“More questions?” mum said. “You should have let me come in with you.”
“I’m not a minor, mum they would have made you wait in the waiting room. At least it’s warm in the car.”
“More of the same questions?” she said, I shook my head. “They’re worse than the insurance company I swear.”
“It wasn’t more of the same,” I said, feeling sick.
“When will they learn?” she continued as if I had said nothing.
“Mum,” I interrupted her. “They said it looked like someone tampered with the brakes.” She fell silent.
“What?” she said.
“They don’t think it was an accident, they’re trying to get evidence or something.”
“Someone tampered with your brakes?” mum said, her voice going up an octave.
“They think I did it,” I whispered. Mum said nothing but her eyes went wide. “They were trying to spin some story about Max being this crazy popular Jock and me being the weedy nerd who wants revenge.”
“But Thomas,” mum said. I shook my head.
“It’s fine, they’re just doing their jobs, but they were being real assholes about it.” I sniffed and closed my eyes, feeling them fill with even more tears.
“It’s not fine if they’re accusing you!” mum snapped.
“They won’t find any evidence; I told them I can’t tell an engine from an elephant. They gave me some bullshit about coming clean, but I have done nothing.”
“Thomas, sweetheart,” mum’s hand closed on my shoulder, I lifted my hand to cover hers.
“I’m fine,” I said and opened my eyes. “I hope they find something, if someone cut Max’s breaks then… then,”
“Your brakes,” Mum said. “Someone tampered with your brakes.” I stopped cold for a moment, I hadn’t even thought of it that way. It was my car, anyone messes around with it had just as much chance of me driving it as Max. What if Max hadn’t been the target?
“No,” I said firmly. “No one would do that; the police must be mistaken. No one even really knows me and no one who’s met Max hates him, he’s too nice a guy.”
“Saint Max,” Mum sighed. I smiled. “It’s no wonder people thought you two were… well, when you were younger.”
“Yeah,” I snorted. “The police tried that one, gave me the whole spiel about me trying to off Emily so I could have Max.” Mum started the car and pulled out of the car park onto the road.
“What about your housemates, are they getting called in?” mum said.
“No,” I said. “They both went home last week, talking about getting work done away from the temptations of the student life.” We approached a junction, left to home, right to the hospital. Mum turned right.
“So, their parents called them home so they would pass their exams,” mum said.
“Something like that,” I nodded. “Your bag in the boot?”
“Yes,” mum said. “I’m so sorry it took me so long to get down here.”
“It’s fine,” I said, “it’s hardly a family emergency, I wasn’t in the accident.”
“Max is like family,” mum said, she reached over and patted my knee. “I should have just come, screw work and their ‘we can let you have next week’,”
“It’s fine mum, you’re here now, that’s what counts.” I said. “Um, you’ll be sleeping in my room, I will steal Henry’s.”
“Thank you, dear,” mum smiled. “It’s bad enough sleeping in a 20-year-old boy’s room without it being a strange 20-year-old boy’s room.” The hospital loomed in front of us, well lit and boringly square. It reminded me of the old housing towers back home. Dank, grey and so very ominous.
Once parked we stepped out of the car and mum followed me to the main entrance muttering about the cost of parking. The hospital was even brighter inside and the sharp acidic smell almost knocked me down. Mum coughed next to me and I offered a sympathetic smile. I led her through the hospital to the intensive care unit; I pushed the buzzer to be let in and waited for the nurse, absently rubbing the hand sanitizer onto my hands.
“You look nervous,” mum said.
“I’m o.k.,” I said watching the nurses through the glass; they were looking at mum and me and talking.
“Don’t lie to me,” mum said. I let out a long breath.
“Do you think the police called ahead? What if they told the hospital that I’m a suspect?” I said as one nurse walked towards the door. She opened it and smiled at me.
“Hi, Thomas, come on in.” I tried to hide the relief I felt. I smiled back and walked in leading mum to Max’s bed halfway down the ward.
“Oh, Max,” mum said when she saw him, her voice cracked. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder as she started crying.
Max was hardly visible on the bed underneath all the bandages, tubes and machines. What parts of him you could see was covered in scabs, or dark purple with bruising. He didn’t look like Max anymore; he didn’t even look like a person.
The first time I had seen him like this the room had spun and I’d found myself on my knees before I’d realised I had fallen. The nurses had sat me down and had me put my head between my knees. Mum seemed to take it better than I was. She was crying quietly. We stood together for a few long moments before mum pulled back from me and wiped her eyes, smearing her mascara.
“I’m just going to pop to the loo,” she said.
“Take a left at the door; it’s just down the hall. Push the buzzer to come back in,” I said. Mum nodded and sniffed.
“We can’t stay late, we need to get you some dinner,” mum said, turning to walk away.
“Ok.,” I wasn’t hungry, but I knew mum well enough to know that when she was worried, she took care of people, feeding me would help her and I hadn’t eaten all day. I sat next to the bed and looked for Max’s hand. It was attached to wires, I wanted to take it but was nervous that touching the wires would damage them or hurt Max. “This place sucks, mate,” I said. Listening to the rhythmic beeping of the machines. “I’ll bring you your I-pod tomorrow, so you don’t have to listen to these machines. Not much I can do about the smell. How bout flowers?”
“Oh,” a woman’s voice startled me. “I didn’t think anyone would be here this late.” She was middle-aged with fading brown hair and dark shadows under her bloodshot eyes.
“Um, hi my name’s Thomas,” I said standing.
“I know,” she said, looking around. She held a bunch of flowers in her right hand.
“Um … You are?” I said.
“Oh, I’m a friend of the family; I brought these for … for him.” She gestured to Max. I frowned, I had never seen her before, she didn’t look remotely familiar to me. She walked to Max and took his hand heedless of the wires and leant forward. I heard her whisper something to him but didn’t catch what she said. When she looked up at me, she didn’t look upset anymore. She glared at me. “You should not be here,” she said firmly. “You have no reason to be here, you of all people.” I took a step back and walked into mum.
“Oh,” mum put her hands on my back as I turned.
“Um, let’s go,” I said. Mum frowned at the lady behind me but then looked at me and nodded.
“Ok., I saw a McDonald’s on my way into town earlier,” she smiled and turned. I followed her out of the hospital. Back in the car, mum said nothing. We drove in silence to the McDonald’s on the edge of town. Mum didn’t ask me what I wanted, knowing full well what I would say. She handed me a strawberry milkshake and a bag of food. I sat it on my lap, feeling it warm my legs on the ride home.
Mum made an unhappy sound when I opened the front door and let her into the house Max and I shared with Henry and Michael.
“This place is … nice,” she said.
“Sorry about the shoes,” I said absently kicking pairs of trainers against the walls. “Um we don’t really want to track mud in when the guys get back from the field.”
“Sure you don’t,” mum smiled at me and nudged me forwards. I headed into the kitchen, regretting not cleaning up before mum arrived. The kitchen looked like we never washed up, plates stacked three deep around the sink. The bin was piled high, way past the lid. Bin Jenga was something we engaged in often. No one ever wanted to take the bag out.
“Um, let me get plates,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” mum said. “We can eat out of the bags tonight and tomorrow I’ll make a start on this place.”
“I didn’t ask you down for you to play maid,” I muttered. Mum smirked at me and handed me my cheeseburger.
“I know, but I need to keep busy, we can’t sit at the hospital 24/7, and this will give me something to do.”
“I would show you round the town,” I said.
“You need to keep revising, Max would be angry if you failed your exams because of this,” mum said.
“I will fail nothing,” I said, mum raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m not, I just … I just put in the work because I wanted to pass well.”
“And so you should, you’re a smart boy Thomas, if you put in the work there’s no reason you shouldn’t do well,” Mum said. I didn’t answer. “We’ll visit twice a day,” mum said. “Max isn’t going anywhere, and he’ll be up and about before you know where you are.”
“That not what the doctors say,” I said. Mum frowned at me. “I heard them talking to Greg, they were telling him they don’t know when Max will wake up.”
“Well, I’m sure it will be soon,” mum said. “Come on, you’re not eating your burger.” It was lukewarm now, but I finished it all to make sure mum wouldn’t worry.
“Thanks mum,” I said. “Come on, I’ll show you which room is mine.” I lead her to my room next to the kitchen.
“Trust you to be near the food,” mum smirked. I opened the door, and she smiled. “At least it’s clean in here. You always were fastidious, unlike your dad.”
“I get it from you,” I said. “Bathrooms on the other side of the kitchen, if you need anything I’ll be upstairs, first door as you reach the top. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen.”
“Thank you,” mum said, “but I think I’ll wait.”
“Um there’s a load of DVDs and whatnot, but there’s a living room upstairs with the big TV if you want to watch a film on a better telly than the one I’ve got.”
“Your dad and I paid good money for that TV,” mum said, then leant up and kissed my cheek. “Go to bed, I’ll be fine.” I nodded, and she closed the door. I headed up to Henry’s room and settled down on his bed. I’d already brought my laptop upstairs earlier, and I booted it up while getting undressed. I loaded up YouTube and turning the lights off started up my ‘Watch later’ playlist. I doubted I would sleep and had set up enough videos to keep me going until the early morning. I passed out after an hour and woke up with the playlist still running and sunlight streaming in the windows. Sitting up, I heard my neck click and winced, I’d fallen asleep sitting up.
“Thomas, did you hear me?.” mum called up from the kitchen. She must have shouted earlier.
“Hey,” I called back. “I’ll be down in a minute.” I hoisted myself up off the bed and stretched again. I pulled off the clothes I’d fallen asleep in and picked up some clean ones I’d brought up yesterday afternoon. Dressed, I stumbled downstairs and winced when I heard the blender going.
“I hope you cleaned that well before you used it, Michael keeps using it for weird stuff,” I said.
“Weird stuff?” mum said handing me a fruit smoothly.
“Mince was the last thing I saw him churn up,” I said. “Where did you get this?”
“The corner shop sells fruit and sausage rolls and coke,” mum said. “Michael blends mince?”
“Meat smoothie,” I smirked. “Just kidding, he made some kind of Pâté; it was still grim, though.”
“No worries, I washed it. Although had I known that I might have washed it twice,” mum said. “You look like you slept at least.”
“I didn’t think I would sleep. But yeah, I slept ok.,” I said.
“Not too worried about what the police said?” mum said.
“I’m trying not to dwell on it, to be honest,” I said. “I know the police won’t find anything, there’s nothing to find.”
“Maybe you should think about talking to a solicitor,” mum said. “I was thinking about it last night, it might not be a bad idea.”
“Mum, I don’t want to talk to a solicitor,” I said. “It will make me feel like I need to be defended and I don’t, I have done nothing.”
“I know that,” mum said. “But it wouldn’t hurt to talk to one.”
“Maybe, but can it wait until after,” I said. “I’m going to head up to the library today. I need to keep things as normal as possible. I’m sure the police will notice their mistake.”
“You hope,” mum said.
“No one messed with the brakes, no one had any reason to,” I said.
“Some people don’t need a reason,” mum said.
“I know, but still, I’m sure it’s all some kind of misunderstanding,” I said standing up. “I’m going to head into the library for a couple hours; can we head to the hospital around lunch?”
“No problem,” mum said, “do you want a lift?”
“No, I’ll walk, I need the air,” I said. “I’ll be back by one-ish.” I nipped upstairs and grabbed my bag and books and came back down. Mum was making a start on the mountain of dishes.
“See you in a bit,” I called. Mum waved pink rubber gloves at me; I had no idea where she found them.
“Don’t you want to shower first?” mum called.
“I’ll get one later,” I called and shut the front door.
TO BE CONTINUED