Thursday afternoon, Briar was in a grey house with a black roof and far too many people inside for the size.
The moment she stepped through the door, a little girl with two little puffs of hair tied up on top of her head went barreling past, missing Briar by centimeters. Jackson closed the door behind her, “Sorry, that’s my cousin Rey, my aunt and uncle are over for a couple of days to celebrate my other uncle’s, the one I live with, promotion.”
“It’s alright,” Briar counted three additional people in her line of sight, with the sound of running water around the corner in what she assumed to be the kitchen implying a fourth. That made six people, plus Briar. There were also seven potential exists if the need for them occurred.
“Uh, you can just follow me I guess,” he said as he led her down the two steps from the landing to the dining room, where she was immediately accosted by introductions. Each name and face was committed to memory, but all of the seemingly random stories and idle conversations were only held on to for the night.
Sometime in the middle of the whirlwind she and Jackson managed to sit down to compare notes of the last three days of development on the Wenton murder. With laptops illuminating their faces from the front and the setting sun through sheer white curtains shining softly on them from behind, they sat cross-legged on the living room's plush carpet and reviewed everything they learned.
He had been found alone in his office with three gunshot wounds total, one to the knee, one to the midsection, and a final one to the head.
Briar knew what the reports didn’t say. He was found alone in his office, was what she should know. She made a new slide.
There had been a trail of his blood leading all the way to his office where his blood was embedded in the cracks of his keyboard. All she knew was there had been signs of a struggle.
The security footage had been tampered with, every file of the event was wiped from the ground floor security office.
The security cameras were disabled during the attack, the article told her with the confidence of a thousand college professors. She and Jackson exchanged a nod and began work on the next point in their presentation.
The keyboard had been wiped down, and the attacker used one of the two abandoned glasses of water on the desk. A coat of clear nail polish over the pads of the fingers and palms prevented the leaving of a finger or palmprint, but the DNA evidence inside the cup would have taken too long to dispose of for the attackers, who ran a tight schedule.
DNA was recovered at the scene. The results are still pending. A click and they were on the second to last slide.
There were two attackers, both five foot one and moderately skilled fighters, and one of them liked to attack from atop chairs, desks, and overhead air vents whenever possible. Neither of them had personal motives.
It is believed that there was a single attacker with personal ties to the victim due to the brutality of the murder. Injuries suggest the attacker was taller than the victim, who measured five foot nine. They finished with one more slide for the conclusion summary. Two laptops closed and the sounds of the rest of the family chatting and the smell of food registered to the exhausted students.
Jackson and Briar, leaving their supplies in dual stacks on the coffee table, followed their ears and noses to the meal. They found everyone buzzing about the kitchen and dining room, setting the table and laying out dishes buffet-style along the counter.
As soon as they rounded the corner Jackson’s visiting aunt June waved them over, “Jackie, you can help get the silverware, I’ll take care of your guest.”
June led Briar to a spot at the already-crowded table and instructed her to grab a plate, “You can just go ‘en dish yourself up over there in a minute,” she said with a kindly smile. Briar nodded.
A minute later, everyone was dished up and in the midst of a ruckus discussion about the occurrences at the year before-s family reunion. The way it was told gave Briar the distinct impression that she was there when grandpa Noris toppled off the edge of the dock while reaching for Rey’s dropped stuffed pig, or when nana Jan started a camp-wide water fight. Listening to these tales was like being reminded of a memory that wasn’t quite there anymore, like a damp spot where an ice cube once sat.
“So, how ‘bout you, hm?” asked the owner of the house, uncle Dan, “you got any crazy family stories?”
Briar remembered that one time Queenie shoved her out a window for borrowing her favorite gun without permission. It had been the first time she’d broken a bone.
“No.” they waited for her to elaborate and, as usual, she didn’t.
“Your girlfriend ‘ain't so talkative, is she Jackie?” teased aunt Sophie, Dan’s sister. Jackson was about to stammer something about the falsehood of that statement when Sophie’s husband, Mark, interrupted.
“So, Dan, what about that promotion? Any troublesome new employees?” he smiled jokingly and took a bite of his chicken leg.
“It’s pretty good, I’ve got this huge office and such. You know I actually met Carlson Ringly?” Dan said, more like and interesting fact than a gloat.
“Oh yeah,” the wrinkled old woman with the big ribbed red and green sweater, nana Jan, said in her croaking voice, like she had spent the last couple hours singing christmas carols at the top of her lungs, “what’s he like? Is he one of ‘em eccentric-billionaire types?”
Briar tried not to show how intently she was paying attention as she picked at her food, eating a morsel here and there to not seem rude. She silently prayed he didn’t say something she would have to report.
Dan thought for a second, “...He’s more...stiff, than anything. Or maybe that’s just his ‘business model’. I do know that he checks up on his kids a lot. At the start and end of every meeting he would text one of his daughters-”
As if on cue, Briar’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She opened it up and sure enough, it was the very topic of this conversation.
“Will you be home for dinner?” the message read.
“I’ll be back after six,” she replied.
“Is that your parents hon?” asked Lois.
“Yes, my father wanted to know if I’d be home for dinner, I told him I wouldn’t,” she answered the implied question for once.
“Do you have a ride home sweety, I forgot to ask?” Lois said it more like an apology than a question.
“Yes,” she lied. Her house was walking distance from here, but saying that would place her in either this neighborhood or the grouping of mansions inhabited by the insanely wealthy no more than a mile away.
The topic of conversations shifted and Briar focused on eating. At least, she tried to. It worked for about thirty seconds before there was a little tug on one of her twin bunches of hair that Queenie would jokingly call ‘pigtails’ until she realized that commenting on it wouldn’t get any more of arise out of her than anything else she did to Briar.
“Pretty,” Rey said, wide brown eyes staring up at Briar. Sophie was about to apologize for her daughter when Briar gave her a little smile and tugged out the bands keeping that side in place. The newly freed hair tumbled halfway down her back with an odd bend where the bands had been restricting it.
Rey giggled and reached up to mess with Briar’s hair while her mother looked on with a few too many emotions for Briar to read properly.
“You’re sure you want her doing that, you’re going to have quite the mess to sort out when she’s done?” Sophie asked, laughing a little.
“It’s fine,” Briar responded, watching the six-year-old twist her hair into little braids.
She was distracted by this for a little while before she noticed the look Jackson was giving her. She couldn’t really tell if he was blushing through his dark complection, but it certainly seemed so.
She looked at her hands, wishing that that was really just dirt stuck under her nails.
Briar got home that evening feeling every possible kind of conflicted. She’d never had a friend before. She’d never met a friend’s family before. She’d never wanted to. She went upstairs and pulled out her sketchbook. This time, maybe for the first time, the drawing she added was of something of undenyable positivity. On that page, after so many pieces of paper marked by her hand with the images of people whose souls had left this world, literally and metaphorically, she drew a picture of everyone she’d met this afternoon. They sat at a table, their names still all jumbled in her head, laughing and chatting and eating and living in that way that had shocked her so.
After a shower she went to bed. The last thing she noticed before she closed her eyes was how the last bits of dried blood has washed away in the water. She fell asleep smiling.