Where there’s a will, there’s a bunch of jealous relatives all vying for said will. Opal had read that in a History textbook when she was 12. Or maybe it was a parody textbook, considering how the whole book just made fun of the Medieval Kings of England. Either way, it was right! Here Opal sat, in court—if it could even be called that, considering that there was no formal process or organization at all—with every other adult "witness" from the Norwalk Street block, all recounting what they saw on the eve of Lorraine Staff’s dinner-time death.
“Murder,” Tom Leary, the resident watchman and retired “naval associate”—see commercial cruise-ship driver, but he liked to pretend it was a lot more intense then that—insisted. “It’s got to be murder.”
“I think it’s suicide,” his daughter Rosalind insisted, and when Tom argued that suicide was not a “real cause of death,” Rosalind smacked him with her handbag for being politically incorrect.
Valerie Cross argued that it was a completely accidental death, like a carbon monoxide leak or a washer-and-dryer-fire. Elizabeth Horowitz argued that Lorraine Staff had fallen over in the bathtub and cracked her skull open, even though the police report showed that she had last been in the kitchen. Bobby Newman, still a college student and the youngest witness called to the court, tried to blame it on an aneurysm, but everybody figured he was just trying to show off all the medical terminology his recently-acquired degree had equipped him with.
A few asked Opal how she thought Lorraine Staff had died. Opal told them that they probably shouldn’t be discussing this in front of Lorraine’s young and very understandably distraught children—really, though, she wanted to keep her theories to herself, because she had tons, but all involved dramatic affairs and tax evasion and even a surprise visit from a Mongolian noble but she figured that those types of highly un-plausible situations were not acceptable to talk about in court, especially with a lack of evidence. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a critic, and Lorraine Staff’s two out-of-town sisters—one older and one younger—accused Opal’s silence of “interrupting the grieving process.” But they accused nearly everybody of “interrupting the grieving process.” There was no way to please them.
Now, for instance, they were arguing over what to do with Lorraine Staff’s Turkish rug she had put in her laundry-room. It was not a real Turkish rug. It was from the dollar store and the plasticky-fibers were already poking out from being so old and cheaply-made. Somehow the sisters insisted that that’s what gave it “authentic Turkish character,” and the older one wanted to keep it for herself while the younger wanted to give it to the kids. Opal personally did not know what a group of kids about to be tossed into their elderly grandfather’s home—the man was riddled with arthritis and crotchety from Alzheimer’s but Opal wasn’t about to tell the court how their decision stunk—would do with a Turkish rug they seemed to hold no attachment to, but, you know, “interrupting the grieving process.” Opal let them fight.
The judge initially let them fight as well, until he banged the mallet-thing on his desk and shouted for order. His name was Harrison Arnold and he was from New York City, which meant that he talked quickly and shouted loudly and had clearly dealt with enough dead cases that he could speak of an autopsy with no squeamishness or sorrow. That put off some of the older street-members—see Tom—who remembered the old judge, Daniel White, who talked softly and basically didn’t do any actual judging, which meant court cases took forever but proceeded rather pleasantly. Judge Arnold didn’t have time for pleasantries. He banged that mallet like mallets were going out of style and turned to the witness—for the first time in the three-day trial, because the first two were solely reserved for wills and childcare and you didn’t need witnesses for those—and asked for all the witnesses to recount their testimonies.
“I saw a man sneak into Lorraine Staff’s house right at dinner time!” Tom announced, not waiting for anybody to introduce him but nobody dared scold the town watchman, except Rosalind, apparently.
“The only one sneaking into Lorraine’s house was her depressed spirit that was refused treatment time and time again!” Rosalind burst out passionately. The court collectively ignored her plea for better mental-health and Psychology treatment for all eligible in the town.
“Perhaps we should not discuss this in front of the children?” Opal thought. “This can’t be benefiting their mental health.”
“The only thing we need to plead for is more rigorous home-inspection measures!” Valerie countered. “It’s an abomination that so many others could die from easily preventable measures, like properly-installed fixtures!”
“Vallie, you think you know everything because you’re running to be a Congress-person, but you know nothing about the mechanical field.” Elizabeth was very jealous creature after her divorce, which Opal was not technically supposed to know about but had eavesdropped once at the library. And now she could add that Valerie was running for Congress to her internal library.
“It was very clearly a cardiac arrest,” Bobby Newman interrupted. Lorraine Staff’s children shuddered at the long synonym for death.
“I thought it was an aneurysm?” Rosalind prompted.
“No, probably liver failure.” Okay so Bobby Newman clearly had no idea what it really was and was just spewing long words.
“I agree!” Elizabeth jumped up uselessly. “Bobby knows what’s up. Cracked skull from falling in the shower!”
Opal tried her best not to be arrogant, but she often figured that she was considerably smarter than a lot of the people in her community. What was the logical connection between liver failure and a cracked skull? Opal tuned out Elizabeth and Bobby and Valerie and Rosalind and Tom and even Judge Arnold, who was questioning how anybody there was a witness if they weren’t even in the house and Tom shot back that it was tradition to have a load of witness testimonies, and focused on the court room. That was literally what it was. A room. It used to be the mayor’s house until the mayor decided to move out to a shore-house and conduct all his business via-email, so the living room was whitewashed over the fading buttercup-wallpaper and the windows were fit with metal bars so nobody could break them open. The whole thing looked like a jail made to appear friendly. There were no benches, only plastic folding-chairs, and overhead flickering lightbulbs made everybody’s skin appear waxy, and Judge Arnold’s fancy mahogany mallet was a great contrast to the repurposed coffee table he presided behind.
A curious scent lingered under Opal’s nose, tickling her nostrils. She perked her head up and scanned the room. Tom waved one hand in acknowledgement and held up a protein bar.
“I hope you’re not allergic to almonds!” he explained, and Opal nodded absent-mindedly.
Almonds. She hated almonds when she was little. Scratch that, she used to love almonds when she was little. She loved their perfect elliptical shape and their hearty brown color and how they were smooth and polished—not bumpy and weird like walnuts—and she even loved the smell. Her mother had a little vial of almond-liquid up on a shelf next to her bleach and cleaners and mousetraps. The bottle was opaque, stained black like a shadow or a void, and said in loud red letters “Cyanide” at the top. Opal would taste it sometimes, and it tasted like concentrated almonds, better than the almond extract next to the much-more-accessible oven, and one time dumped it into a mug to mix with hot-chocolate until her mother grabbed it away and smacked Opal firmly on the cheeks and instructed her to never, ever, by any means touch the Cyanide again.
When Opal grew into a teenager and had unrestricted access to a computer she would often come close to looking up Cyanide, seeing why it was so bad, next to the bleach and the cleaners and the mousetraps but something always stopped her, like a primal instinct stopping a rat from darting in front of a snake.
Once Opal had a brief stint with a boyfriend. She made him explain to her that Cyanide was poison and would kill her, and why did her mother even keep that in her kitchen? The boyfriend ended up leaving her because he thought she was dangerous, what with all her looking-around-and-not-talking and when she did, it was about poisonous substances. The fact that Opal didn’t cry at their break-up only solidified his decision, but Opal knew it was because she had fallen out of love months ago.
“Excuse me, your…judginess,” Opal felt her mouth moving before her brain could step into restrictions, “but what was Lorraine Staff doing at the time of her death?”
“You’re the witness,” Judge Arnold shrugged. The room’s eyes moved to Lorraine’s sisters, just above the children, darting to them but never asking for a contribution. Though it would be the most accurate, nobody would ever ask a child to recount their mother’s exact whereabouts before death.
“She was eating,” the older sister quipped. “We’ve gone through this already. She was eating dinner.”
“And did she…” Opal was trying to be casual and actually somewhat succeeding, “I don’t know, drink wine or champagne or tea or something specific with dinner?”
“Coffee,” the younger sister piped up. “She would drink coffee.”
“Made how?” The rest of the witnesses had thankfully decided that the coffee discussion was boring and moved on to their own speculations.
“A tablespoon of almond creamer,” the younger added. She rubbed the Lorraine Staff’s oldest daughter Emily’s shoulders. “And Em was learning how to make it for her.” Emily buried her face into the sister’s stomach, her shoulder shaking with sobs at the memory.
Opal nodded. Yep, the people in this town were not very intelligent. She had a pretty clear idea of how Lorraine had died and who had killed her. But of course she wouldn’t say so. No sane person would ever tell a child that she had murdered her mother.