If the witness lied, p.1

If the Witness Lied, page 1

 

If the Witness Lied


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If the Witness Lied


  OTHER BOOKS BY CAROLINE B. COONEY

  Diamonds in the Shadow

  A Friend at Midnight

  Hit the Road

  Code Orange

  The Girl Who Invented Romance

  Family Reunion

  Goddess of Yesterday

  For All Time

  The Ransom of Mercy Carter

  What Janie Found

  Tune In Anytime

  Burning Up

  What Child Is This?

  The Face on the Milk Carton

  Whatever Happened to Janie?

  The Voice on the Radio

  Both Sidles of Time

  Out of Time Prisoner of Time

  Driver’s Ed

  Twenty Pageants Later

  Among Friends

  For my mother,

  Martha Willerton Bruce

  THE GOOD THING ABOUT FRIDAY IS—IT’S NOT THURSDAY. JACK Fountain lived through Thursday, and nothing bad happened: no cameras, no microphones.

  Of course, nothing good happened either. Jack did not hear from either of his sisters.

  Their father’s birthday—and Jack and Madison and Smithy pretended it wasn’t there; that November fifth was just another day.

  And in fact, thinks Jack, walking into the high school cafeteria, it was just another day. Dead people don’t have birthdays.

  Around him, hundreds of kids are buying lunch, skipping lunch or finding lunch partners. His goal is to be normal, although the Fountain family stopped being normal a long time ago. Jack is considering his options when Diana Murray walks past. “We need to talk,” she murmurs.

  This seems odd. How would Diana know about Dad’s birthday?

  But Diana does not pause beside Jack. She keeps walking, moving casually out of the cafeteria and into the hall.

  If Diana doesn’t want anybody to overhear their conversation, then this is not about a birthday. This is about Jack’s baby brother, Tris. Something else has gone wrong; something Jack hasn’t planned for. Diana is on the Tris protection team. It’s a small group. Usually a two-year-old has parents to protect him, but Tris is not that lucky. He has only his big brother and his babysitter.

  Jack returns his brown plastic tray to the clean pile and strolls away, as if merely leaving the hot line for the salad and sandwich line. Then he drifts out of the cafeteria and down the hall, where Diana is leaning over the watercooler.

  Because of Tris, Diana knows more about Jack than he wants her to. But then, the world knows more about Jack than he wants it to. His friends love to display their lives on video sites, but they get to choose what’s out there. Jack doesn’t.

  The last few students with first lunch hurry past. Jack stands behind Diana, pretending to wait his turn for a drink of water. He braces himself for a Tris nightmare. He’s trapped in his failure-to-breathe mode: a clenched, solid feeling, as if he’s a different species, and will now function without oxygen.

  Diana speaks so quietly that Jack has to bend down to hear. He’s grown almost six inches this year, making him the tallest sophomore, as well as the best known. Jack is popular. It’s partly because he is the one who stays, the one who gives up everything, including varsity, to take care of Tris. But mostly, it’s because he’s been on television.

  Television hung out in his yard, focused on his face and attended the funerals. Of all his classmates, only Diana grasps that television is a force in destroying his family, and even Diana tells Jack how adorable he is in that shot where he lifts up his baby brother and carries him home.

  Jack’s cheek touches the thick, curly black hair Diana never seems to brush or trim or even know about. Diana’s voice barely makes it through her hair. “Tris was playing outside this morning, before your aunt Cheryl took him to day care. When he saw me, he raced over to say hi.”

  Jack imagines his brother’s little legs pumping as he hurries over two front yards to the Murray house. It’s a true escape, because Aunt Cheryl usually takes Tris straight from the breakfast table to the car seat.

  “Your aunt Cheryl was looking really annoyed, so I hauled him back and put him in his car seat for her.”

  Why do girls have to give so much data? Jack manages to breathe a little, slow and stealthy, as though he’s keeping his lungs a secret. A pinpoint headache sparkles behind his eyes, like a tiny firecracker going off.

  “I distracted your aunt Cheryl by asking about her plans for the day. She starts talking in this hysterical voice about closets and clutter. She’s going to clean out your bedroom and paint it, Jack. She knows you’ll never say yes, so she’s doing it before you can stop her.”

  Laughter bursts out where panic has been building. This isn’t about Tris. It’s about one of Aunt Cheryl’s silly TV shows. She lives for programs where people paint their walls. When she turns on the TV—actually, she never turns it off—she isn’t hoping for a good movie with a car chase. She wants to see the lid pried off a paint can. She wants to gaze upon the sewing of window treatments. Her life’s dream is to be a guest on such a show. Or any show.

  Jack straightens up, grinning and breathing normally. His headache vanishes as fast as a change in the weather. “So who are you, then?” he teases. “Diana Murray, secret agent for remodeling plans?”

  Diana looks up soberly. “The afghan your mother knit you? Your aunt Cheryl doesn’t like the colors. The tickets from when you and your dad went to the World Series? Your aunt Cheryl doesn’t like the frame. Your closet? Stuffed with junk? Your aunt Cheryl wants to chuck it.”

  Aunt Cheryl will throw anything out, so Jack habitually checks the trash cans. But it has not occurred to him that she might invade his very own closet. He cannot let this happen. His most precious possessions are on the floor of that closet.

  The headache comes back so savagely Jack feels as if his brain is being dragged on the pavement, like a broken muffler scraping under a car.

  Back when it happened, Jack believed everything would be okay. After all, the ambulance came quickly; the police gathered. These were professionals in his driveway. Jack was reassured. When they agreed to let Jack go along to the hospital, he walked over to his father’s Jeep, reached through the open door, and got the sunglasses and cell phone, lying as usual in the little well next to the parking brake. Dad will need these, Jack thought. He never travels without them.

  But it turned out that Dad was traveling to another world, where he would not, in fact, need them. And since he wouldn’t need his watch or wallet, either, the hospital turned these over to Jack as well.

  Jack cannot bear to touch or even look at them. But neither can he bear to lose them. They’re inside Dad’s steel-toed work boots, stowed in the back of the closet, where they’re safe but he won’t have to think about them. (After it happened, not thinking became a family specialty. It’s hard to say whether Jack or Smithy or Madison is best at it.)

  It’s eleven-twenty.

  If Aunt Cheryl has started her project, she could already have taken a carload to the dump. Actually, there is no dump anymore. There’s a transfer station, which is worse. At a dump, Jack could poke around and retrieve things. But at the transfer station, belowground, where open metal containers guarded by a sanitation crew are eventually hooked up to trucks and driven away, nobody’s going to let Jack jump down inside to hunt for old boots.

  He can’t wait until school ends at three o’clock. But if he leaves now, he’ll miss trig and maybe chemistry as well before he can get back. Jack never skips. Study is holding him together this year. You can count on study. It doesn’t die on you.

  However, if Aunt Cheryl is remodeling, it’s not just the boots at risk, or those four little possessions that mattered so much when Dad was alive and not at all once he was dead. There are other
traces of Dad. Like the shelves he built for Jack. Dad was impatient. He didn’t measure carefully. The shelves are askew. Jack uses them for stuff that doesn’t slide, like sweaters. Aunt Cheryl will have a carpenter rip out the nails Dad hammered in and throw away the wood he cut and stained.

  “Thanks,” Jack says to Diana, although he wants to scream, “Why did you wait so long? Aunt Cheryl could have the second coat of paint on!” But he cannot yell at Diana. So many females in his life and each one beyond his reach.

  Jack checks the amount of adult supervision out here in the hall. None.

  He trots to the door that kids prop open when they go outside to eat. Like most high school doors, it’s exit only—it shuts behind you, and locks. Then you have to circle the entire building and come in at the front. Totally annoying. But under these circumstances, maybe coming back doesn’t matter. He lets the door slam behind him. It’s not that chilly, but it’s drizzling, so nobody is outside. He rounds the gymnasium wing at a run. It has few windows, so there is little chance that he will be observed. Observing Jack is something of a school hobby, although lately it’s cooled down. He cannot do anything that might heat it up again.

  He unlocks his bike from the rack and straps on his helmet, which he left hanging on the handlebars and is lucky nobody stole. On the other hand, everybody knows which bike is Jack’s: the one with the child seat. Celebrities get a pass.

  The quickest route home is a shortcut over the soggy playing fields. His tires sink. It’s slow going. A low chain-link fence divides the playing fields from the houses and streets beyond. Jack lifts his bike over the fence. Using a post as a pivot point, he vaults over with room to spare. It’s a good feeling, as if he’ll be able to vault over anything else in his path.

  Probably not.

  Now that he’s on pavement, he can pedal fast. He’s not sure what he plans to achieve once he gets home, other than rescuing the boots. The best plan is probably to slip in and out without Aunt Cheryl detecting him, which may be easy, since she will be in her usual position in front of the television and won’t hear him. If they do meet, he’s got to hang on to his temper.

  Aunt Cheryl likes to tell people that Jack is so tall now, he’s threatening; Jack looms over her; she cannot predict his behavior. Jack believes Cheryl Rand is preparing a case to present to the judge. Aunt Cheryl loves having Madison and Smithy out of the house. If she can arrange things so that Jack is gone too, how nice that will be. Once (only once, but it’s tattooed on his heart) Tris had a classic meltdown, the kind of tantrum where you remind yourself not to have children of your own, and Cheryl said casually that Tris ought to be in foster care.

  Foster care. Strangers bringing up his brother. Authorities taking Tris to some address they won’t even tell Jack.

  It would kill his mother. She planned so carefully how things would go.

  Every day—certainly today—Jack yearns to yell at Cheryl. Throw something at her, preferably something with sharp edges. At least do a little swearing. But that would give her ammunition.

  Jack takes another shortcut through a neighbor’s deep property. The neighbor hates this, but the neighbor is at work. There is no fence between Jack’s backyard on Chesmore and this one on Kensington. Instead, the backyards are divided by a seasonal brook, whose banks are thick with trees and brush. Jack follows the path he and his father created in another life. He passes the tiny dam he and Tris built, and the tiny pond where he takes Tris “fishing.”

  Bit by bit, Aunt Cheryl has been removing every trace of Jack’s mother and father from the house. Jack stores his rescues in the garage attic, a space reached by unfolding a heavy wooden staircase. Aunt Cheryl might not even know that there is an attic. For a woman consumed by how a house looks, she is amazingly unaware of how a house works. Jack removed the cord used to pull the stairs down and replaced it with an almost invisible knob. In the poor lighting of the garage, now that the telltale cord is gone, it’s unlikely she will ever realize there’s storage up there.

  Jack decides to transfer the boots to the garage attic. Once they’re safely hidden, he can tackle Aunt Cheryl about leaving his bedroom alone.

  Emerging from the little woods, Jack can make out a car in his driveway. It isn’t Aunt Cheryl’s. She keeps hers in the garage. She hates weather. Hot or cold, sunny or snowing, she doesn’t want to be out in it. Jack has never known her to exercise. Her only walk is from the kitchen through the breezeway and into the garage. Once in her car, she uses the automatic garage door opener. She has no use for fresh air. It’s an ongoing problem, because Tris, if trapped inside on a nice day, spends his time drumming on locked doors, or maybe kicking them, trying to break out.

  Jack approaches his house at an angle so that the garage blocks anybody indoors from seeing him. Leaning his bike against the back of the garage, he lets himself into the breezeway, a funny little glass room with closets and recycling bins at one end and the kitchen door at the other. When his mother was alive, this space was thick with geraniums, and you walked through a moist jungle of green and red.

  The visitor’s car, an indigo-blue BMW convertible, is parked right on the other side of the glass. Nice car if the sun shines. Not what Jack pictures for a housepainter. Do decorators make that much money? Or does Aunt Cheryl have guests? Jack would have said that Cheryl Rand had no friends, but for all he knows, she’s president of the Newcomers Club and drivers of spiffy new BMWs drop in all the time.

  The good news is she’ll be busy with the guest. And they will be near the TV, because Aunt Cheryl is always near the TV. She doesn’t turn it off for anybody.

  Quietly, he opens the door to the kitchen and eases inside.

  He can hear the television, which is good. She’s occupied. He walks carefully to the carpeted center hall. No signs of decorating. No drop cloths, ladders, or shifted furniture. No smell of paint. He’s a little vulnerable here because a wide archway opens into the living room, but the sofa and chairs are at the far end, facing the TV, which is wall-mounted above the fireplace. Aunt Cheryl lives on that side of the room. Jack goes up the stairs in a flash, tiptoeing past his sisters’ rooms.

  When their father died, Jack was left with two priorities: take care of Tris; do well in school. All else fell away. Whenever he lets himself think about the day when everything went dark, pain takes over. It has overtaken his sister Smithy. It has overtaken his sister Madison. Jack cannot let it happen to him. He is Tris’s only hope.

  He steps into his own bedroom. Untouched. The relief is huge.

  In his closet, Jack silently moves sneakers, sandals and miscellaneous junk until he reaches Dad’s work boots. He thrusts a hand inside each one and feels around. Sunglasses and wallet still in the left boot, cell phone and watch safe in the right boot.

  It dawns on him that since Aunt Cheryl is home, her car is parked beneath the folding stair. He has no access to the garage attic. He’ll have to take the boots to Diana’s. Mrs. Murray is always home, sitting at her computer. She books moving vans, sending full and partial loads all over the country. Whenever Jack comes over, she hops up and fixes him a hot snack. Mrs. Murray disapproves of cold food. It isn’t filling, she says, frowning. Her specialty is a ham and cheese sandwich where she butters the bread on the outside and then squashes the sandwich in a special waffle iron. It comes out crusted and toasty, drippy with cheese.

  Jack’s mother loved to bake. Mainly cookies, but sometimes she surprised them with a chocolate cream pie or a jelly roll.

  Aunt Cheryl watches cooking shows and has favorite chefs, but she does not cook. She heats. Jack and Tris are fed like pets left behind while the owners go on vacation—enough kibble to graze on and a bowl of water.

  It’s one of a thousand ways in which Jack envies his sisters. Real food.

  Madison and Smithy communicate now and then, usually by e-mail: stuff they could write to anybody. Jack feels like an army private in a war zone, desperate to be told that his sacrifice matters—but the only mail he gets is
from kindly strangers addressed to Dear Soldier.

  They don’t phone each other. If they hear each other’s voices, they are out of things to say before they start.

  If only Mrs. Murray had agreed to take Smithy in! His younger sister would be two houses away. They could have worked things out. They—

  But Jack has a rule. Never consider what could have, would have, should have happened. Because it didn’t.

  Jack grabs an old backpack, slides the boots in, buckles it closed, but cannot get it on. He’s much wider in the shoulders since he last wore it. Opening the straps as far as possible, he wriggles his arms into them and heads for the stairs.

  The TV seems louder than usual. A rich rolling voice fills the lower floor. A public voice, proud of itself.

  Jack pauses on the fourth step from the bottom. It isn’t the TV. It’s live. It’s the visitor.

  “You are absolutely right, Cheryl,” booms the voice, deep and masculine. “We’re so glad you called us. The situation in this house is riveting. Perfect for television.”

  Has Aunt Cheryl’s dream come true? A room in this house will be featured on some TV decorating show? Aunt Cheryl would definitely babble hysterically to Diana if that was about to happen.

  “So much tragedy and emotion!” cries the man, as if he lives for tragedy and emotion.

  Jack sits on the stair. He doesn’t mean to. His knees stop holding him. There is no tragedy and no emotion in wall color. This is not about painting bedrooms. This is about Tris.

  Now, when Jack needs stealthy breathing, his lungs wheeze. The sparkly headache evolves, as if he’s going to have seizures.

  The speaker is pumped. “I love it, Cheryl! We’ll line up the neighbors. We’ll film little Tristan in day care. We’ll interview his little classmates and their parents.”

  Jack has dealt with television. It’s not a friend. It has a job: to provide entertainment. It has chosen Tris before. He’s photogenic. Last year when they filmed Tris, they found him so adorable. Such a little angel, they cried, and look what he did.

 
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