The Closer He Gets

By: Janice Kay Johnson


BRAN MURPHY WOULD have said he wasn’t given to self-reflection. He made one major exception, however. Something like every six months he would feel the pull and next thing he knew he’d be driving slowly by his childhood home instead of parking in his assigned spot at his condo.

This was one of those times, and he had an idea what had provided the impetus today. A couple of months ago he’d decided the time had come to find a wife and start a family. Three weeks ago he’d asked Paige to marry him and she’d agreed. They’d just taken a vacation together to Hawaii. Last night, after they flew into SeaTac, he had dropped her at her place, carrying her suitcase in for her and then gone home alone. He hadn’t slept well and had found himself feeling edgy this morning.

What if his desire for a family and the logical way he’d gone about it had started him on a trajectory that would end in a crash landing like the one that had destroyed the not-so-happy family that had lived here in this house?

Maybe every life had a Before and After. Divorce. A death. Another kind of loss that created a divide. His own happened to be a little more violent than most.

Today he sat brooding in his car, remembering a time when his family had been whole. There were signs the family who lived in the house now might be. A kid’s bike lay on the lawn, and the barbecue and lawn mower under cover of the carport made him think all-American.

As tense as if he was about to kick in a door to arrest a violent offender, he got out and followed the sidewalk to the corner, turning and going far enough to be able to glimpse the backyard, possible because none of the houses on this block had fences. The neighborhood was holding its own—not upscale but not run-down, either.

He’d put some work into this place before he’d sold it after Dad died. Sometimes he still had trouble believing his father had stayed in this house when he knew the local cops and plenty of the neighbors thought he had killed his own daughter.

And Bran had stayed with him until he’d graduated from high school, using his fists on any kid who dared say anything about Dad or Sheila.

People forgot, of course. The tragedy that fractured his family irrevocably had taken place twenty-four years and eight months ago. Probably he was the only one who ever thought about it.

No, wherever his brother was, he wouldn’t be able to help remembering, either. He’d made a different choice than Bran but would have suffered the same wounds.

Today, seeing how little the house had changed unsettled Bran. As a teenager he’d convinced his father to paint it a pale gray with white and black trim instead of the white it had always been. Wouldn’t you know the latest homeowners had gone back to white. Nothing had changed the basic lines of the house. Seeing it today was like stepping through a time warp.

God, he thought, what makes me think I’m capable of being a husband and father?

The basics wouldn’t have changed inside, either. Two bedrooms downstairs and one up, that one tucked under the eaves with a single window in the small dormer that looked over the front porch. He and his brother had shared it.

From here he could see some boards still clinging drunkenly to a Y high up in the maple that filled the backyard and shed a bounty of leaves every fall. Dad had helped his boys build the tree fort. Bran didn’t remember ever going up in it again after Sheila died. He didn’t think Zach had, either.

From the tree fort they would have been looking right down at where her body had been found.

What am I doing here?

It was a compulsion. Unresolved issues. He snorted at the thought, however accurate it might be. Open questions ate at him. If Sheila’s killer was ever arrested, Bran doubted he’d feel the need to turn down this street again.

A police detective, he knew how to find answers. He’d even worked cold cases.

There were any numbers of problems to prevent him from pursuing this one, however.

To start with, this house—where his little sister had been killed—wasn’t in his jurisdiction. The small city of Clear Creek had its own police force, which consisted of a police chief and twenty officers. He worked for the county sheriff’s department.

The general ineptitude of the Clear Creek PD back then was problem number two. Unless he’d missed a whole lot, the investigation hadn’t gone anywhere. He knew more than his parents ever would have guessed, having eavesdropped on police interviews and even Mom and Dad’s whispered arguments in bed. Would evidence even have been saved? If so, carefully enough to allow DNA to be run?

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