Surveying the drab, muted room Poppy felt a peal of hysterical laughter rippling upwards like bubbles fighting their way to the surface of a lake. She clamped her hand over her mouth to fight the urge, fingernails digging crescent moons into her palms. You cannot laugh right now, she told herself. Keep it together, Poppy.
A bell clanged over an intercom, harsh and metallic, and on the other side of the glass men in orange jumpsuits began streaming into the narrow space. Most of them were middle aged, although there were the outliers. A man with a snow white beard who could have passed for a mall Santa Claus, if it hadn’t been for the teardrop tattoos under his left eye. A couple of men in their twenties, one of whom settled into the seat across from Poppy.
For a long minute, they merely stared at one another, neither willing to be the first to make contact. Voices crescendoed and fell around the room, arguments and accusations, conversational tones and urgent ones, and she was still locked into this staring contest.
Poppy’s leg bounced up and down restlessly, and she tightened her grip on the armrests of her chair. She couldn’t tell if she wanted more space or less, to flee the prison or throw herself at the barrier and scream obscenities.
Even in jail, her brother looked well. No tell tale bruises or black eyes marked him, as she had feared (or maybe hoped) there would be. He didn’t have the broken, beaten down posture of a convicted felon, and his clear blue eyes still had the same unconcerned look to them they’d always had. Unconsciously, Poppy found herself comparing his face to the photographs the lawyers had shown at the trial.
Victim one had a black eye, blood streaked across her face in a violent spray.
Victim two had had a broken nose and a raw red handprint encircling her neck. The light had gone out of her eyes, leaving a glassy, broken stare even through the photograph.
Poppy hadn’t been able to look at victim three, knowing that unlike her predecessors, this picture had been taken post-mortem.
By comparison, Richard’s face was perfect. Unblemished, unharmed, unemotional. Finally, Richard picked up his phone, and gestured for her to do the same. His nails had been bitten to the quick, a nervous habit of his he’d had as a boy. Poppy bit her lip, then cradled the phone to her ear. She had never been much for phone calls. If she had a dollar for every time her parents had complained how little she called home compared to Richard, she could probably pay for her phone bill. How trivial that seemed now.
“Hey Pops,” Richard said, a trace of a smile in his voice. “I didn’t think you would come.”
Poppy cleared her throat nervously. “I didn’t either.”
They lapsed into an awkward silence again. Poppy didn’t know what to say. How do you ask your older brother why he beats women? He had never laid a hand on her in their childhood together. She’d known, from eavesdropping on conversations she was shooed away from by her parents, that Richard had gotten into fights at school, but she could have never imagined it would escalate into this. Things like that, back then and now, were swept under the rug, in an attempt to maintain the facade that they were the picture perfect family.
Instead, Poppy gleaned the sordid details from her friends with older siblings, and from Richard’s red raw knuckles. Richard had beaten up Bobby Nelson for telling a teacher he’d cheated on his math midterm. Then rumours had gone around the school that the real reason Michele, Richard’s girlfriend at the time, was wearing sunglasses indoors was because of Richard. At the time, she’d defended him blindly, unable to believe Richard could have done such a thing. Poppy found herself glancing at Richard’s hands now, grimly observing that it looked like he’d been fighting. This was a detail she filed away but would never tell her parents. It simply wasn’t something they’d want to hear.
Her mother had been the same way during the trial, dressing up to impress in her pearls and her good heels like she was at a PTA function. Poppy had made the point of sitting in a different row, not wanting people to know they were related. The shrieking her mother had made when Richard was sentenced as guilty still rang in Poppy’s ears, and she had cringed knowing that this production was certainly, on some level, for show.
Poppy had only felt relief at the sentencing. It was far from black and white for her, but she knew Richard deserved to be in prison.
“So, did you drive all this way just to say nothing?” Richard joked, but his eyes had a hardness Poppy had never seen before. Or maybe she had, and hadn’t recognized it for what it was.
“Why, Richard. Why would you do that?” Poppy whispered.
Richard studied his hands, refusing to make eye contact with her. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said curtly. “Besides, you were at the trial, weren’t you? There’s your answer, if you were paying attention.”
“I want to hear your side of things,” Poppy said. She wondered if now was the moment to do that cheesy move you always saw on television where the one party would press their hand to the glass, waiting for their convicted loved one to reach out as well. Richard would press his palm back, and tell her he felt ashamed of what he had done, that he had changed. Prison had made him see the error of his ways.
“Bullshit,” Richard scoffed. “You want an apology, an explanation that will make you feel better. You didn’t come here for me.” He slammed his hand on the counter at this, and Poppy flinched. A predatory smile flickered on Richard’s face, and she felt a chill. So this was the Richard who assaulted his girlfriends, who had killed Stacy.
Richard leaned forward, holding her gaze in his without blinking. “Is that what you want? For me to say that I would go back and change the past if I could, or some other nonsense I don’t really mean? Angela, Carly, Stacey, they all wanted it.”
Poppy began to argue with him, and Richard cut her off, raising his voice over the phone line. “I know you’re a feminist, or whatever, but if it was really that bad, why didn’t they leave me after the first punch?” He smiled openly at that, and Poppy felt her stomach turn. “Or the second? No, they always stayed. So really, it can’t have been that bad. Surely they didn’t have to lock me up for so long.”
“What about Stacy,” Poppy said accusingly. “She wanted to die, did she?”
“Oh, that.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “It was an accident. I swear. Nothing to get that worked up about.”
Poppy’s jaw clenched, and she felt her pulse quicken, a bird trapped in the ribcage desperately trying to escape. Last Christmas, Richard had brought Stacy to the family party, and she had been so lively and charming. It was only with hindsight that Poppy remembered the heavily applied foundation, masking god knows what kind of injury her brother had inflicted on her, the way she would startle when Richard would come up behind her to encircle her in his arms. Small signs, but signs nonetheless.
“You know, until now I wasn’t sure why I came. Now I know. I can’t have you in my life anymore. I will never be able to forgive you for what you did, and I don’t trust you anymore.” Poppy paused, exhaled, and forced herself to continue. “I sincerely hope that you’ll see what you do did was wrong. Worse than wrong. Evil. But if you don’t, I hope you’ll die in that cell like a dog. I don’t ever want to talk to you again.”
Richard’s face was inscrutable. She couldn’t tell if he cared, if he was hiding some emotion, or if it was all just meaningless to him.
“Goodbye Richard.’ She let the phone drop without bothering to put it back, avoiding Richard’s heated words into the empty line. Stalking out of the room, she didn’t look back. She couldn’t let him see her cry; he wasn’t worth the tears.