Authors: Sheila Connolly
Gail leaned forward. “Can I ask you a question?”
Aaron nodded. “Ask away.”
“Why were you at the Historical Society? I mean, why there? Why not the church or the store?”
Aaron sat back in his chair, weighing his response, Meg guessed. Finally he said, “You all know my history, right?” His eyes swept the small group; everyone nodded. “I don't think I did it. And there may be something at the Historical Society that can prove it.”
Aaron's quiet statement brought a stunned silence to the table.
Finally Meg spoke. “Aaron, you were tried and convicted, and you've served your sentence. Was there something wrong about the trial?”
Aaron sighed. “Look, I know that a heck of a lot of people in jail claim they're innocent, and what's worse, most of them believe it. I've heard plenty of storiesÂ .Â .Â . well, never mind. You don't have to believe me, and I know nothing is going to change what's happened. I'd just like to have the chance to tell my side. And maybe have someone listen to me.”
“Then I'll ask again,” Meg persisted, “what didn't come out at the trial that could have made a difference?”
Aaron looked at the others around the table, and Meg knew that he was aware that he'd seized their attention. But was this a con? Or was he sincere?
Before Aaron could speak, Seth said, “The official story says that you were heavily into drugs when this happened. And that you were found passed out, outside the house, with no evidence that you'd been anywhere near the fireâno burns, no singed clothes, no smoke in your lungs. Have I got that right?”
“Yes,” Aaron said. “I was what you might call a recreational drug user. I was not an addict. But I kind of liked to push the envelope, and I experimented with a lot of crap.”
“So you were out cold on the lawn. Why did you get arrested? On what evidence?” Seth demanded. He paused for a moment before adding, “Was the fire due to arson?”
Aaron nodded. “That's what I was told. The fire started in the basement and spread through the house.”
Seth countered, “There are plenty of ways a fire could start: bad wiring, a bunch of greasy rags burst into flames, a gas leak and a spark. Why did they look at you at all, other than the fact you were the only one to get out?”
“They found drug gear in the basement. I was playing around with making meth, which was pretty new back then, and the investigators thought that was the cause. The fire burned up, mainly, so it wasn't destroyed. That and the fact that I survived more or less nailed me, in their eyes.” Aaron met Seth's gaze. “I could say, âbecause they had nobody else to pin it on.' I mean, Mom and Dad and Gramma died in the fire, and I don't think any of them planned to commit suicide. My sister and brother were away at school. I don't think the police looked too hard. I was convenient. I was the bad kid, and everybody knew I didn't get along with my family. The police wanted to arrest someone and close the case, and I was handy.”
“Come on,” Seth said, sounding disgusted. “I never heard anyone say that Chief Burchard cut corners just to clear his
desk. And since there were deaths involved, the state police must have been involved, and the state fire marshal. You're saying all of them conspired to pin this on you?”
Aaron shrugged. “I'm not saying anything, because I don't know how it happened. That's the only reason I'm here.”
That answer didn't make Seth look any happier. “All right, then, let's look at this from another direction,” Seth went on. “You said at the trial that you had no memory of the fire or of any of the events leading up to it?”
“Yes, that's what I said.”
“Were you lying then? Or have you uncovered any buried memories, or whatever you want to call them? Have you received psychiatric counseling in prison? Did you try hypnosis?” Seth continued relentlessly. Meg wasn't sure whether she should step in: she had never seen him this confrontational. And Aaron was a guest in their home, even if he had kind of invited himself.
But Aaron did not back down. “You're right to be skeptical, Seth. No, I haven't tried to go digging up any memories of that night, but I have thought about what happened. I've had plenty of time to think. And, no, there hasn't been some big âaha!' moment, where it all came back to me. I don't remember much about the trial, either. I'm not saying my attorney was incompetent, or that the prosecutor did anything wrong, but I think there was more to the story than came out then. Can I tell this from the beginning? It might make more sense that way.”
Meg glanced quickly at Gail, who gave her a small nod; she was going to stay. When nobody objected, Aaron began, “I'm sure you all know the basics. Nice old New England family, living in nice old New England house for a couple of centuries. Dad does something in financeâI never did
figure out what, exactlyâand Mom does good works. She was a real throwback. Two-point-four white-bread kidsâI was the point-four. Kids all went to Dad's alma mater, not far from here. Sister Lori graduated and went to Mount Holyoke. Older brother Kevin was in his last year. Younger brotherâthat would be meâgot kicked out of school for various crimes and misdemeanors. I ended up at the high school in Granford, where I did exactly what my father expected: hung out with the wrong crowd and got into drugs. My grades went to hell. Mom and Dad stopped speaking to me, and Dad cut off my allowance, thinking I couldn't buy drugs if he did. Dumb move: I just started stealing small stuff from the house and dealing drugs to my high school buddies. It's a wonder I didn't get caught, because I was high most of the time, and not real careful. But it was just small stuff. What was the name of that police chief then? Seth, you remember?”
“Eben Burchard. He retired maybe nine years ago, and that's when Art Preston took over.”
“What did you think of this Burchard guy?” Aaron asked, his tone carefully neutral.
Seth took his time answering. “I can't say I knew him well. I'd describe him as old-school, and he knew he had an easy niche in Granford. Heck, we didn't have any crimeâmaybe a fender bender now and then, a few Saturday-night DUIs, some cows getting out of a field. Easy to handle. But when the whole drug thing blossomed, he wasn't prepared to deal with it. He ignored it for as long as he could, but after a couple of underage kids OD'd, he knew he couldn't do that anymore. That's when he started talking retirement.”
Aaron looked down at his place. “Can you tell me how tuned in he would have been when I was in school here?”
Again Seth considered carefully. “Are you asking if he
would have recognized what state you were in when you were picked up the night of the fire?”
“Yes.” The two men held each other's gaze for several seconds.
Finally Seth said, “I don't know. I'm guessing it was late, and dark, and the fire was out of control, and he probably just wanted to get you out of there. Did he arrest you on the spot?”
“I don't think so. You're asking if he decided I did it then and there? Because he didn't go all soft and mushy and say how awful it must be that my parents were getting fried? Or maybe he assumed they'd gotten out of the building, or they were off skiing or partying somewhere.”
Meg flinched at the harsh way Aaron referred to his family. Was he deliberately trying to antagonize Seth and her? But why would he do that? He didn't even know them.
“Were they supposed to be away from home?” Seth asked.
“Hell, I don't remember. I just kept my head down and talked to them as little as possible. And I'm pretty sure their date book burned in the fire, so I can't prove anything.”
“So what did the police chief do with you, then, that night?”
“He had the paramedics check me outâor at least, that's what I'm told, because I really don't rememberâand then he had me sit in the back of a police car, with a cop keeping an eye on me. And when it was pretty clear the house was past saving and nobody else was coming out, he had me taken down to the station to talk to me. I understand that I just kept saying, âlawyer,' which I think pissed him off.”
“Did you get a lawyer?”
“Hell, I didn't know any lawyersâI was seventeen. I didn't know if I could even pay a lawyer, so I guess they handed me over to a public defender, who was kind of a jerk.”
“When were you charged?”
“Not until after the lawyer showed up, the next morning. I was about halfway back to sober by then. You ever come down from cocaine?” He looked at Seth and Meg, then shook his head. “Stupid question. Anyway, the high is great, but the low after really sucks. That's what I woke up to. They told me my parents were both dead, and Gramma, in case I'd forgotten, and I had no place to live, and, oh, by the way, did I set that fire? And all I could say was, âI don't remember.' Which was true.”
“And you're telling us you got railroaded?” Seth demanded. Meg thought he sounded angry. Why?
Aaron glared at him. “What the hell are you, an attorney?”
“No, I'm a plumber, and a builder, and a town selectman. You came here, remember? I didn't go looking for you.”
“I came to thank Meg, not butt heads with you. You want me to leave, just say the word.” Aaron was actually showing some emotion, which was a first since his arrival.
“Enough!” Meg said loudly. “Both of you, shut up.” Luckily for her they did, because she had no idea where she was going with this. “Aaron, I appreciate that you came here to thank me. I'm glad I found you alive, because I don't want to think about the alternative. But I'm not sure how we ended up arguing about this, or what you think we're supposed to do now.”
“Nothing,” Aaron said. “Not one damn thing. You go back to your lives, and I'll try to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing with mine now.”
“Aaron, do you believe you were responsible for the fire?” Meg said softly.
He gave her a long look. “I'll admit I did some stupid things when I was a kid, but I never wanted to hurt anybody. I never wanted to kill anyone or anything. Hell, I'd take
spiders outside and let them go. I never kicked a dog in my life. I want to believe that under all the tough-guy stuff I was a pretty decent kid, and I probably would have straightened myself out, if I'd had enough time. Am I wrong to want to believe that?”
“I don't think so. I don't know you well enough to judge whether it's true. When you got out, why did you come to Granford? What were you hoping for?”
“I don't know. I thought maybe being in the place might jog my memory. Or maybe I should say a final good-bye and put the town behind meâI never had a chance to do that, after the fire. The town looks pretty much the same, but there's nothing left of the house, just a field with a bunch of shiny new houses on it. And like I said, I went to the cemetery. I wasn't in any shape to go to the funerals after the fire, so I needed closure, I guess. To make sure it was real. That they're gone.”
“You aren't on some sort of crusade to prove that you're innocent?” Seth asked, but at least his voice was calmer.
“If I am, it's only for myself. Nobody else cares. I'm not looking to sue anybody, or get lots of publicity. I'd just like to know what really happened that night. If I did what they say I did, I'm prepared to live with that, and I've already paid the price. If I didn't, then somebody's guilty and they got away with it. But it's not your problem.”
Meg and Seth exchanged rueful glances. Ifâa very large “if”âthey decided to help Aaron Eastman, it wouldn't be the first time they'd been sucked into someone else's problems, Meg thought. And Granford had seemed such a peaceful townâuntil she had scratched the surface. She was not as naÃ¯ve as she had been when she arrived, but what did they owe Aaron? They didn't know him. But wasn't there some kind of weird popular myth that if you saved someone's life,
you were responsible for them forever after? Who'd made that one up? She did not feel responsible for Aaron's well-being, mental state, future employment, or anything else. She had fed him, and she might offer him a place to sleep for one night, or maybe two. And that would be the end of it.
Gail, quiet until now, spoke suddenly, startling Meg, who had all but forgotten she was there. “Aaron, you never explained what you were doing at the Historical Society. Why were you there? What were you looking for?”
Aaron leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face with both hands. He looked tired, which wasn't surprising. “A loose end that's been bugging me from the start.” He leaned forward again, forearms on the table. “You know that my grandmotherâmy mother's motherâdied in the fire, right? She was the person I was closest to. She wasn't a pushover, and she gave me grief when I went off the rails, but she always made it clear that she loved me, and I know that I loved her. Well, she'd moved in with Mom and Dad, maybe a year before the fire. Her mind was sharp, but she couldn't handle stairs, and she needed help doing other things. The house was big enough that Dad could set off a kind of in-law apartment for herâconnected to the house, but private, you know? She had an aide who came in half days, but Gramma ate her meals with us, and I'd spend time hanging out with her.”
“Aaron, what's this got to do with anything?” Meg asked.
“I'm getting there. When Gramma moved out of her house, I helped her clean it out. You can probably guess what the place was like: she'd lived there ever since she married, and she wasn't great about throwing stuff away. Not like a hoarder or anything, but there was a lot. I'd go over there, and we'd work together. I'd haul the boxes down from the attic, and we'd go through them, and she'd decide what to keep and what to toss. Gail, some of it was old family papers,
and she wanted those to go to the Historical Society; Dad wasn't interested in keeping them. I was the one who delivered them, to whoever was running the place back then. I was going to ask if you'd kept them and where they were.”