Eve Fisher

Janet Olson and Willa Carlson Heppler lived next door to each other in Laskin, South Dakota, for years. They didn’t get along very well at first. Willa didn’t approve of divorced women who tried to act like they were still in their twenties, smoking, drinking, and staying out late at night. Janet had no use for mousy, overweight women who practiced inane cheerfulness while the alcoholic husband was out chasing skirt every night. Willa’s life revolved around home and family: her son, Cody, her mother-in-law (who lived with them), husband (when he was around), and any other family members she could gather. Janet’s family was all dead, and she had ruthlessly cut all contact with her husband’s family, as well she should have. Willa was the kind of woman who took in stray cats. Janet brought home the occasional two-legged animal. There was no fence between their houses, which made both of them nervous.

They achieved détente over Cody. Janet was the school librarian, with a knack for children, and Cody raved about her. The two women began talking over the back fence, and moved on to the occasional coffee on Saturday mornings, where Willa filled Janet in on “The Young and the Restless” and Janet urged Willa to either divorce or kill Jack. Willa generally stalked home, offended, but she sent Cody to Janet’s whenever Jack was especially violent.
Jack Heppler finally managed to drink himself to death when Cody was fourteen. Now that Willa and Cody were free of chaos, violence, and infidelity, Janet urged Willa to enlarge her horizons. Willa had never lived outside of Laskin, never been further away than Sioux Falls. With the insurance money, social security for Cody, and selling the house, they could move almost anywhere, do almost anything.

Willa stayed put. Jack’s mother was old and frail, and Willa couldn’t abandon her now. Willa had a job at the Fancy Fixings gift shop that she loved. Later, after Mrs. Heppler died, Willa’s Uncle Arnt – who had retired from the merchant marine - moved in with them, temporarily, until he figured out what to do with himself. All in all, Willa was happy.
Cody wasn’t. Grandma Heppler had been frail and difficult towards the end, but she’d lived with them all of Cody’s life, and he both loved her and was used to her. Uncle Arnt was a total stranger, a proud, loud, and bad-tempered old man who had no affection for this noisy, clumsy, inconsiderate, judgmental, emotionally turbulent teenager. Cody drove him crazy, and he let him know it.

The result was that Cody practically moved in with Janet. They watched movies together over pizza, popcorn, and pop. Janet took him to doctor and dentist appointments, tutored and coached him, listened to him. They took walks together, and long drives in the country. Willa didn’t seem to mind. Uncle Arnt had some kind of liver trouble – he’d been a drinker too – and required a lot of care. And she was dating Eric Neilson, pastor at the little Congregational Church out near Herman.

Pastor Neilson was older than Willa, solemn, of uncompromising rectitude. Janet said his courtship of Willa was his way of providing himself long-term care. They didn’t take to each other. It was Pastor Neilson who first hinted that it would be nice of Cody to do some chores and help around Willa’s house rather than Janet’s. That Janet spoiled Cody. That it was… odd for a woman of Janet’s age to give a young boy that much attention. And when Cody was seventeen and got arrested for underage possession, Neilson pointed out to everyone who had had the greatest influence on Cody of late – and it wasn’t his mother.

The two women sat in the courtroom side by side, not looking at each other, not speaking, while the boy they’d both raised, looking strangely adult and very handsome, with his hair slicked back and wearing his first suit, got probation and a stern warning. Then they all went back to Willa’s, where Pastor Neilson spoke decisively about the perils of drink, youth, heredity, and sin, and Uncle Arnt rode Cody hard about turning out like his old man. Cody’s head lowered more and more, like a horse getting ready to buck. Janet was about to take him away when the door opened, and Kim Olson bounced in.

Janet felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. She’d seen Kim skim into the courtroom and sit in front of them on the other side. Kim was petite, pretty, popular. She had shining brown hair that reached just down to her butt. Both switched provocatively when she walked. Janet would have thought that, by Willa’s standards, she dressed like a slut and wore the makeup to prove it. But Willa was smiling, welcoming. And Cody’s face told her he was looking at an angel.

“Isn’t she a lovely girl?” Willa sighed, after the two young ones left. “And she comes from such a nice family.”

“Yes, her grandfather’s a pastor up in Sisseton,” Pastor Neilson replied.

“How nice,” Janet managed.

Back home, Janet thought about Cody’s dropping grades and scanted attention. She told herself that she wouldn’t have minded if he’d found a nicer girl, and it might have been true. But Kim had been getting into trouble since she was fourteen and been arrested at a kegger with a fake ID and a twenty year old. Probation, grounding, and various other punishments had failed to tame her. Her family literally had no control over her at all, except that her father had told her if she got a tattoo he’d peel the backside off her. Janet had heard that Kim was saving to get ‘F--- You’, fully spelled out, tattooed just above her hips, so that if he ever did, that’s what he’d see. And so that whenever she wanted to, she could bend over and tell the world what she thought of it. Her grades were barely passing, but she thought she was brilliant. She had no idea what Cody was capable of, only what she wanted of Cody.

But then Willa was much the same, except her desires were economic. Willa constantly worried about the family finances: Jack’s insurance money had gone to paying the mortgage off, so they were really living on her part-time income, rent from Uncle Arnt, and Cody’s social security check, which would stop when he turned eighteen. And even if Willa and Pastor Neilson did marry, he wasn’t getting a big income out of that little church on the prairie. Willa wanted Cody to get a full-time job right out of high school. College was out of the question: there wasn’t any money for that, even if Cody was that smart, and everyone knew he wasn’t.

Except that he was. Cody was gifted in math. According to Mr. Millard at the high school, he could become an engineer, go into physics, do anything he wanted to. He had potential. But between his mother and his girlfriend, he was going to end up using that mind for nothing more than taking fast food orders or spreading asphalt. Not that Willa would necessarily see a penny of it. Kim wasn’t the type to leave Cody a contributing member of the tribe: she would take him away, to some ratty apartment downtown or a trailer out by the by-pass, and whatever income he made would go to their love-nest. Janet wondered if Willa – or was it Pastor Neilson? - had thought of that.

The next day Janet registered Cody for the ACT exam in October and paid the fee, which meant that, as a good Norwegian boy, he had to take it. It took a month to get the results, and whenever she saw him, Janet talked about college and careers, until a little flame that had nothing to do with Kim leaped into his eyes. “How do you find out about places?” he finally asked.

“Internet. Guidance counselor.”

“She’s useless.”

“Well, there’s always me. I’ll do the research for you.”

He nodded. Janet moved on to Willa.

“College? For Cody? We don’t have that kind of money.”

“But Cody could get a scholarship, maybe a full ride.”

Willa looked at Janet with tender pity. “You have such faith in him.”

“Willa, Cody made a 25 on the ACTs. And his math and science scores were through the roof. He can get into almost any school he wants for math or engineering. And when he graduates, he can make serious money. Fifty thousand a year to start and someday maybe a six figure income.”
Willa’s jaw had dropped open. Now she closed it and Janet could see the wheels turning. “I’ll fill out all the paperwork. All you’ll have to do is sign it. It won’t cost you a cent.” She didn’t mention application fees: she already planned to pay those herself.

Janet was putting up a Thanksgiving garland on her front door when Pastor Neilson came up to her and said, “I just wanted you to know that I agree with you completely about sending Cody to college. This is a wonderful opportunity for him, and I will support it with all my heart.” He took her hand and said, looking into her eyes, “Your sacrifice is appreciated.”

“It’s not a sacrifice,” Janet snarled, snatching her hand away.

Kim was not as sold. She came by the school library and said, “You’re trying to break us up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Janet said. “I just want Cody to have a future.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do if he goes to college?”

“You could go, too. Surely there’s something you’re interested in.”

Kim looked Janet up and down until Janet blushed. “Yeah. Same as you.” Then she turned on her heel and walked out, her butt twitching all the way.

November passed. Janet was terrified that Kim would get pregnant, and gave Cody condoms whenever she saw him. There was a huge scandal when one of the Nordstrom’s auto salesmen killed Don Nordstrom out hunting. Uncle Arnt died. For a while, Kim talked loudly about going to Vegas – “I mean, if he’s such a whiz at math, he should go to Vegas and cash in. Some place where they use real cards, you know? Not computers, because those are all rigged, I know that. But I’ve been watching on TV. Blackjack, Texas Hold ‘Em – Cody could make a fortune.”

“I may kill that girl yet,” Janet said to Willa.

December came. Pastor Neilson finally proposed to Willa, who accepted. They were going to be married on New Year’s Eve. Jennie Nolan, the town vamp, and Jim Mackenzie were also getting married that day, but at a different church. Lorie Voelker, the owner of Fancy Fixings, got hit by a car when she was out jogging along the by-pass one morning. She was in a coma for a week, and after that required so much therapy that she couldn’t work. Willa ran the store for her, and Bev Holleman, the part-time help, was bumped to full-time. Willa even had Cody in to help out, but he banged, dropped, and broke too much to be any use.

“Kim would have been much more help, but she seems to have disappeared,” Willa said one day to Janet, who’d brought by some college applications to sign. “Did she and Cody have a spat?”

“She’s up at Rochester with Lorie. Helping her with her speech therapy.” Willa looked blank.

“Didn’t you know? Kim’s her godchild and… second cousin? Maybe third. I don’t know. I was amazed when I heard it.”

“Well. Doesn’t that show what a sweetheart she is?”

“Nonsense. She’s a selfish little witch whose only asset is a body ripe for…” Janet paused, and Willa and Bev both held their breath until Janet continued, “plucking. This is the first time I’ve heard of her helping anyone or anything but herself –”

“But Cody –”

“I don’t call that help.” Willa blushed. “It’s classic teenage romance. All heat, no reality. I just don’t want it to ruin Cody’s life. Sign here.”

“Boy, she really has it in for that girl, doesn’t she?” Bev asked after Janet left.

“Yes,” Willa sighed. “But I suppose it’s understandable.”

January came, and Willa and Eric Neilson were married. They went on their honeymoon (three days in the Twin Cities), leaving Cody in charge of the house. Kim was due to return that Saturday, the day after they left, which had Willa worried. Even she knew what would happen with two teenagers alone in the house.

“Actually,” Janet told her when she returned, “I think they had a fight. She hasn’t been around.” She didn’t tell Willa that Cody had showed up at her place late Saturday night, drunk, and thrown up all over her back steps before she could get him inside, where he’d passed out on the couch.

“What about?”

“No idea.” The next morning Cody had been too embarrassed to talk. “I’m just happy they’re not speaking. Of course, it’s too good to last.”

But it seemed permanent. Cody holed himself up in his room at home, not even leaving to go to Janet’s. Willa wondered, but she didn’t have time to look into it because her new husband had come back from the Twin Cities with food poisoning. Or it could be a virus. (Unlike Willa, most people were highly unsanitary.)

And then Kim was found floating in the broken ice of Lake Howard, dead.

When Janet saw the sheriff’s car pull into Willa’s driveway, she bounded next door, via the back way, and met Cody as he came down the back stairs. Her eyes locked into Cody’s; his flickered away. He went on by her into the living room, where Willa was staring at Sheriff Hanson as if he were dumping cow manure on her carpet. Hanson, Willa, and Janet, all started, “Cody –”

Cody interrupted them. “It was an accident. Kim… she said something and I got mad. We were having a fight anyway, but this really pissed me off, and I slapped her. Hard. And she went… backwards. She fell. Hard. She hit her head on something. I tried to get her to get up, but she wouldn’t. She was dead. And I got scared and ran off.” He added, plaintively, “It was an accident.”

Hanson nodded. “I’m going to have to take you in.” He reached for his handcuffs as Janet moaned, “No!”, and Willa grabbed Cody’s arm. He shrugged her off without looking at her, and she was trying again when Pastor Neilson projectile vomited across the living room. The sound and the smell made everyone turn towards him as he collapsed into a chair, soaked in sweat, his skin yellow grey.

Officer Johnson called 911, then laid him down on the floor and undid his tie and collar. After asking if he was going to be all right – maybe - and if there was anything she could do to help – no - Willa got a bucket and started cleaning up the mess. Then she went and packed an overnight bag, because she knew a heart attack when she saw one and knew they were going to end up in Sioux Falls. Cody sat in a corner, ignoring everything and everyone until after the ambulance came. Then he got up and went with Johnson out to the police car.

After everyone had gone, Janet locked up Willa’s house and went home. She called attorney Jim Barnes, and arranged for him to go down and be with Cody while he was being interrogated. Then she had a stiff drink. She poured another: this time the liquor stuck in her throat. She kept seeing Kim, hands on hips: “I gotta talk to you.” Kim, bouncing away. Cody, looking like a ghost. She tried to cry, but her chest was tight and hard and she couldn’t. Maybe she was having a heart attack: but she’d never be that lucky.

The next morning Cody pleaded not guilty to murder – Ward Powell, the State’s Attorney, freely admitted he was starting high, so he could haggle down later - and was awarded bail of a hundred thousand dollars, which meant he wasn’t getting out before trial. This did not please Kim’s family. Kim’s father wanted Cody out so he could beat him to a pulp. Cody didn’t seem to care. He kept his eyes on the floor as he walked back to his cell. No visitors would be allowed until Thursday. Janet put on her coat and drove to Sioux Falls to see the Neilsons.

Willa was almost hyper-active from disaster and fatigue. “He’s doing real good. They’ve got him stabilized. A little problem with his liver functions, and his blood pressure was sky high, but overall, it’s looking good. Now if he can just get rid of that virus, maybe we can get home. And see Cody. I can’t believe he really killed her. But why would he say such a thing? No. It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t believe it.”

“Neither can I. But why would he lie?”

“The only reason he’d ever lie would be to protect someone. Someone he loved.”

Janet felt a knife suddenly run under her breastbone. “The only person he loved was Kim. And you, of course.”

“Oh, he cares about you, too.”

“Not that much.” She got up. “Is there anything you’d like me to bring you?”

“No. I’ve got everything I need. Just, if you wouldn’t mind putting out some cat food for that orange cat that’s been hanging around lately? I call him Rusty.”


Thursday came, and Janet went down to the jail to see Cody. He wouldn’t see her. Janet went back the next week, and was signing in when Sheriff Hanson came up to her.

“Can I talk to you?”

Janet was only surprised that it had taken him this long. She knew that Laskin gossip had been hard at work. Various definitions of Janet’s relationship with Cody. Janet’s hostility to Kim. The mystery of what Cody and Kim had argued about. Someone would have mentioned that Kim had tried to talk to Janet down by the library two days before she died.

“Was Kim pregnant?” she asked.

It was impossible to tell whether the emphasis was on the first or the last word. “Did you think she was?”

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Janet said. “I was too busy trying to get to the bank to talk to her. I wish I had now. Maybe…” Janet shook her head. “I just can’t believe Cody did it.”

“Mm. You’ve been living next to Willa for how long?”

“Almost ten years.”

“How close are she and Cody?”

“They’re mother and son,” Janet began, but the look in Hanson’s eyes made her stop. “Not very. For various reasons, Cody’s spent more time with me over the last four years.”

He nodded. “That may be for the best.” He straightened out a paperclip, and threw it down on the desk. In a formal, almost sing-song tone, he said, “Thanks to information we received, and subsequent investigation, Willa Heppler Neilson was arrested this morning in Sioux Falls.”

“What? Why? That’s im-”

“Lorie Voelker contacted my office last week to inform us that the hit and run driver who ran her down was Willa Heppler. She also informed us that she had found Mrs. Heppler repeatedly researching poisons on line. She asked Mrs. Heppler about it, and became suspicious that Mrs. Heppler was planning to put her new-found information to practical use. She also said that she told Kim Davison, when the young lady was up at Rochester visiting her.” Sheriff Hanson stopped and looked at Janet’s shocked face. “Do you think Kim was capable of blackmail?”

Janet swallowed. “Maybe.”

“Two days before she died, she opened up a bank account with five thousand dollars in it. It didn’t come from her family, and it didn’t come from you.” He smiled, slightly. “We checked your bank transactions.” Janet nodded. “It came from Willa Heppler. I mean, Neilson.”

“Willa! But she’s broke –”

“No. We talked with the doctors at the hospital. They’d been wondering why Pastor Neilson wasn’t getting better, and they ran a toxicology screen. The results showed near toxic levels of arsenic in his system. We’ve exhumed Arnt Carlson’s body for testing, and we’re considering exhuming Bridget Heppler and Jack Heppler as well. Can you think of anyone else who’s died around Willa since you’ve known her?” Janet managed to close her mouth and shook her head. “Well, if you do, let us know.” He got up and opened his office door. Janet got up, stunned.
“In the meantime, if you could be there for Cody… It’s going to be hard on him.”

“What about the charges against him?”

“That depends on a lot of things.” But his face was reassuring.

Willa denied everything, vehemently. She said that Lorie Voelker was brain damaged, an unreliable witness, who hated her and had set her up. Then she said that Pastor Neilson had been working with lawn chemicals, then that there was arsenic in the Laskin drinking water. Then that Neilson and Uncle Arnt had both poisoned themselves. Then that Grandma Heppler had poisoned Jack and killed herself in a fit of remorse. Then that Kim had poisoned Uncle Arnt, Pastor Neilson, and was trying to kill her, Willa, in an attempt to make Cody the sole heir… It was embarrassing, horrifying, futile.

Willa Carlson Heppler Neilson was tried and convicted of attempted murder (Pastor Neilson and Lorie Voelker) and murder (Uncle Arnt and Grandma Heppler). Charges were dropped regarding Kim Davison, because it would be too hard to prove. And as for Jack Heppler, well, alcohol poisoning can mess up a toxicology report, so the state didn’t bother with an exhumation.

Cody retracted his confession and was released, and stayed with Janet’s for the next six months. Then he went to college. It turned out that the insurance money from the three family deaths had been considerable, and Willa had touched hardly any of it. Cody didn’t have to worry about tuition, scholarships, although he got some, or living expenses.

“You can do anything you want to do,” Janet said at the airport, holding back tears. “And if you have any sense, you’ll do it somewhere else.”


“Somewhere else, nobody will ever have heard of –”

“My mom, the serial killer. It’s okay. I can handle it. You going to be okay?”

She nodded, and glanced at the clock. “You’d better get going. You’ve still got to go through security.”

He set down his carry-on bag, and put his arms around her. They held each other tightly for what seemed a very long time. Then Cody leaned his face into her hair and whispered, “Thank you. You did the right thing.” And left.