The townsfolk knew the Russell sisters as kind, amiable spinsters. They attended church every Sunday and offered a genial hello to everyone who walked into their used bookstore. Shock spread through the town like the Asian flu the day Thelma killed her sister, Ruth. Thelma told me it was just like every other day until the phone rang.
“I’ll get it,” Ruth said.
Thelma continued shelving the books Elwood Pratt had exchanged for credit that morning. She assumed she’d finish the task alone. Ruth, who always answered the phone, could talk the paint off a barn. Thelma looked over just as Ruth hung up, surprised to see tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” Ruth replied. “A voice said my name, and then there was silence. The next thing I know, I’m bawling my eyes out.” Ruth removed her glasses and used the sleeve of her rose-patterned dress to wipe first her right eye and then the left.
“Damn that Robert Johnson,” Thelma said.
“Robert? Isn’t he that nice gentleman who took you to dinner a couple of times?”
“Yes.” Thelma hesitated, but decided it was time to tell Ruth what had happened. “He seemed nice enough until he unzipped my dress. Good Lord, we were on the front porch. What was he thinking?” Thelma’s face reddened as she remembered her excitement at the touch of his fingers creeping down her bare skin until they reached the hooks on her bra. “I slapped his face and stormed into the house.”
“I remember that night. I came out of the kitchen to ask how dinner was, but you were already upstairs. When you snapped at me the next morning, I knew it hadn’t gone well.”
“Well, now you know.” Thelma turned her back to Ruth until she felt her face return to normal.
“He’s crazy, you know.”
“He is?” Ruth perked up. She loved good gossip, not that she’d ever tell anyone what she heard. The store was her confessional, and she reserved the same right of confidentiality for her customers’ comments that a priest did for his congregation.
“He’s working on some kind of mind control something-or-other he read about on the Internet,” Thelma said with a wave as she bent to retrieve the next book from the box. “He tried to explain how you can transfer brain waves from one person to another, but you know how much I detest anything to do with science.”
“Thelma, you need to get over throwing up all over that poor frog in biology lab.” Ruth couldn’t keep the snort from exiting her lips.
“It’s not funny, Ruth.”
“I’ll get it.” Ruth said when the phone rang.
Of course, Thelma thought. She purged the vomit-covered frog and Robert from her mind and started reading the back cover of a David Baldacci thriller when she heard Ruth laugh uncontrollably.
“That must’ve been a good one,” Thelma said without looking at Ruth.
“It was like the last call,” Ruth said through a series of giggles. “I heard my name and then silence. Next thing I know I’m laughing so hard tears are cascading down my face.” She used the opposite sleeve to dry off this time.
“I’ll get it,” Ruth said when the phone rang once more.
“No, it’s time to put an end to this nonsense.”
Thelma grabbed the phone from its cradle and stopped mid-rant. After a few seconds, she hung up and stiffly walked toward Ruth with a look in her eyes never seen by her sister before. Thelma reached out and placed both hands on her sister’s throat. Unable to control herself, Thelma felt the pressure of her grip increase until Ruth’s body wilted like a week-old rose.
The patrolman’s attention was on a pair of teen boys harassing a young girl and wouldn’t have noticed what was going on inside the sisters’ store if he hadn’t heard Thelma yell,” Damn you, Robert,” as Ruth fell to her knees.
This being my first murder case, I did my best to explain to the jury that Robert, not my client, should be charged with Ruth’s murder as he was the one who implanted the idea into Thelma’s brain; and that Thelma never would have done such a heinous thing without Robert’s voodooistic trickery. Besides, wasn’t it obvious that my client was the intended victim? Her sister was the one who always answered the phone.
I hoped I’d done enough to plant a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Thelma was a nice person and no more harmful to society than a firefly. I began to pray, not a regular happening in my life, as Thelma and I stood to hear the foreperson read the verdict.