If the witness lied, p.12

If the Witness Lied, page 12


If the Witness Lied

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  “You be the big boy,” Jack tells Tris, loud enough for the counterpeople to pick up their cue and smile. “You order the donuts, okay? I’ll find the seats.”

  Tris is excited by this responsibility. He lets Jack have his plastic bag with the Cheetos and the toy cars so that he can carry the donuts.

  Jack is already finding speed dial, already sliding into a chair.

  The woman at the counter leans way over to see Tris. “Hi,” she says. “What’s your name?”

  Nobody ever figures this out, because Tristan is a rare name. This conversation is good for a whole minute, especially because the woman has a heavy accent—Spanish is Jack’s guess—and she is going to have trouble with Tris’s speech under any circumstances.

  Jack is lucky.

  Diana answers immediately.

  * * *

  Madison turns down Kensington. There’s Smithy, at the far end of the long block.

  Smithy and I came home because of Dad’s birthday. Because we failed to celebrate it. In the end, there’s only one celebration Dad would want—for us to be a family again.

  Madison has always felt that without parents there is no family.

  Now, she thinks, we’ll always be orphans. But we can still be a family.

  Madison stops the car, steps out and embraces the pale, thin, muddy girl who is her sister. “It’s okay,” she says, kissing Smithy’s cold cheek. Unlike Madison and Jack, Smithy has grown no taller this year. She feels little in Madison’s arms. Needy and scared. “It’s going to be okay,” Madison repeats.

  Smithy lifts a tear-streaked face. “You think so?”

  Madison’s heart soars. She is the big sister again. “I do. Now get in the car, quick, before those TV people drive around the block.”

  “I’m muddy. What about your upholstery?”

  “My upholstery is dying for evidence that my sister is sitting on it. Anyway, I threw an overnight bag into the backseat when I left the Emmers’. We’re going to meet Jack and Tris at Dunkin’ Donuts so we can talk. You can change into my clothes in the bathroom. Don’t cry. It’s okay. We’re together.”

  “It’s not okay, Madison. The TV people are right there in our driveway, and I made it worse. This man Angus—”

  “I met him. He’s a piece of work.”

  “Well, he’s furious with me now and he’ll be against us, and against Tris, and now the docudrama will really be horrible, and where are we going to go after we have a donut? Even Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t let you spend the night.”

  “They haven’t gotten us yet, Smithy. They haven’t gotten Tris, either. We’re still ahead.”

  Smithy takes a hunk of tissues from a little box balancing precariously between the front seats. She flips open the mirror behind the visor to inspect the mud damage, and moans.

  “So listen up,” says Madison. “There’s been a development.”

  * * *

  Diana is in her last class. The final class on a Friday is often a dud, but not today. It’s political science, and in early November, with elections only hours off, the class has a lot to contribute. When Diana’s cell rings, everybody else is irked, because they remembered to turn theirs off.

  Diana gives the teacher a snarky fake smile, and stage-whispers, “Have to go to the bathroom.” This is an obvious—in fact, audible—lie, because everybody heard her phone ring. But at the tail end of the school day, the teacher is tired of the whole cell phone war. She waves Diana out into the hall as if swatting a mosquito.

  It’s so close to the end of class she might as well head for her car. “Jack?”

  “Diana, I need you to do something for me. Please. I’ve gotten Cheryl out of the house. She’s going to Valley because she thinks Tris and I are at a soccer game there. While her side of the garage is empty, I need you to pull down the attic stairs and go up and get Dad’s laptop and briefcase. If her car’s there, you can’t get the stairs down, so you won’t be able to do it. I don’t want Cheryl to know the stairs exist, never mind that the laptop and briefcase exist. Can you do it? Right now? There isn’t much time.”

  Diana is attracted to this. It sounds both criminal and adventurous, but with nothing bad actually happening. However, Diana is a careful person—the perfect babysitter; probably the perfect future assistant principal. “What’s the rush? She’ll go shopping the minute you and Tris get home anyway. She’ll be out of the house and you can get it yourself.”

  There’s silence. Is Jack deciding whether to confide in her? If Jack doesn’t trust Diana, he doesn’t trust anybody, because only Diana stood by him and Tris all these months.

  She reaches her locker, gets her coat, stocks her book bag and feels for her car keys.

  At last Jack speaks. “Painting my bedroom is just icing on Cheryl’s cake. Her actual plan is a TV special about Tris. She’s sold him to television. They want to do a multipart docudrama about how my mother died to give Tris life, making him a killer once, and how my father died because of Tris, making him a killer twice. She wants the house perfect for TV. That’s what the paint job is about. She’s got a producer at the house right now.”

  I’ll kill her, thinks Diana. I’ll entice her into the garage and—oh, what a shame, how could those attic stairs drop on her skull?

  Jack isn’t finished. “Madison and Smithy came home today. It’s good because we’ve got a bigger team, but it’s bad because we’re the exact cast that TV wants to expose.”

  Madison and Smithy are home! Diana is laughing and thrilled. She trots toward her car. This is the best!

  “Diana, when you told me Cheryl wanted to clear out my closet, there were things I had to get home and save. Dad’s wallet and sunglasses and watch and cell phone. They matter to me, but at the same time, I never really thought about them. I recharged Dad’s cell phone. There are photographs on it. Tris wasn’t playing with the brake in the front seat, he was playing with Dad’s phone. He photographed Cheryl as she released that parking brake.”

  Diana halts. She cannot both walk and grasp this information.

  “Tris didn’t do it, Diana. Cheryl did. There is a killer. It isn’t Tris. I have proof.”

  This vision is so grotesque that Diana can’t use an ordinary voice. “Call the police, Jack,” she whispers.

  “No! Diana, do not call the police! We are going to keep Tris off the news, not in the news. Promise me.”

  Diana doesn’t make promises without consideration. She needs to weigh the pros and cons, consult with her parents, study the situation from various angles. But Jack has already broken the connection, and if she’s going to get the laptop and briefcase for him, it must be now, while Cheryl is hurrying to the wrong location.

  Diana reaches her car. She has to sit for a minute before she can actually drive. She just got away with skipping class. Has Cheryl Rand gotten away with murder?

  * * *

  Jack swallows bile. Saying out loud what Cheryl did has turned his insides to acid. He’s shaken to find his little brother standing right there. How much of this did Tris hear?

  But Tris is used to a brother who is constantly on the phone; he isn’t wondering what Jack’s talking about. He’s swaggering with importance. “What kind of donut do you want? We have to tell Raquelle. She doesn’t pick it out for us.” Tris hauls on Jack’s hand. “Jack, lift me up! I want to see the donuts too.”

  Jack cannot eat a donut. His guts will dissolve. He cannot be patient either. In spite of the fact that he’s doing all this for Tris, it would be a lot easier without him.

  God, he thinks.

  It isn’t a prayer, it’s just a syllable, but maybe God thinks of it as a prayer, because immediately Jack has patience. He flips his brother in an airborne circle, which causes Tris to shriek in delight, and holds him up over the donut counter like a trophy. The donut selection is too great. Tris can decide between two things, but not fifteen. “You like chocolate icing,” Jack reminds him. “How about chocolate icing with sprinkles?” Tris likes to pick these o
ff one by one, using up lots of time and spreading chocolate over most of his body.

  It occurs to Jack that the producer may still be at his house even if Cheryl isn’t. TV shows love neighbors, they’re always interviewing neighbors. They’ll rush right over to film the adorable black-haired, blue-eyed neighbor stealing from the attic stash.

  He almost smiles. Diana is one member of the Tris protection team who will never buckle.

  “Raquelle, I like that donut right there,” says Tris. “Please? No. Not that one. The one next to it. The fat one.”

  Raquelle puts the exact right donut in a little bag for Tris, who loves to carry bags. He loves to open them, peer inside them, take things in and out of them. In a few weeks he will be three. Who will organize his birthday party? Angus Nicolson, giving him a terrible fame? Or Jack and Smithy and Madison, giving him armloads of gift bags to open and enjoy?

  Jack is unable to picture this birthday party, or where it would be, or who would come.

  Jack gets a jelly donut, too. These will keep Tris going for a long time. Then Tris will be sick from all that sugar, but hopefully he won’t throw up until they’re outside.

  * * *

  Diana drives past the Fountain house. No cars in the driveway. No way to see if Cheryl’s car is in or out of the garage. Diana doesn’t want her own mother to see her, because Mom’s favorite moment of the day is when Diana gets home from school and they have a snack and Diana tells her everything and Mom goes back to work all cheerful and restored. Diana wouldn’t normally show up till three-thirty or even four, so her mother isn’t keeping an eye out yet.

  Diana doesn’t want to tell her mother about the cell phone photos until she’s seen them herself. She’s already skeptical. There must have been a police investigation. They would have looked at every possibility. And when Diana does tells her mother, her mother will call her father, and the two of them will hash it out. They are practical people. They will call the police no matter what Jack wants.

  Diana’s hope in life is to be less practical than her parents. Maybe that’s why she’s going into the attic for Jack. There’s a certain romance to it. Girl next door—actually, two doors—searches dusty attic for handsome boy.

  Diana parks in her own driveway. Mom’s office is in the back, so as long as Diana doesn’t go in, Mom won’t know she’s here.

  Diana walks down the sidewalk and past the Fountain house. If Cheryl is still home, and if she looks out the front window and sees her, Diana will explain that she’s located Jack and Tris; they’re at Valley, in desperate need of a ride. Better hurry.

  She circles the garage and peeks in the side window.

  Laura Fountain’s Chevy Suburban, rarely used since Cheryl rarely has more than two passengers, sits in its half of the garage. Cheryl’s space is empty.

  Diana has a key to the front door because she so often babysits, but first she circles the garage. The breezeway door is open. Jack probably lets himself in and doesn’t lock up again, and Cheryl doesn’t think to check. From the breezeway, Diana enters the garage.

  Usually there’d be a long cord dangling here for pulling the stairs down. But Jack has removed the cord so that Cheryl will have no clue as to the existence of the stairs. Diana brings over an aluminum stepladder that’s leaning against the side wall and positions it below the stairs. She climbs up and grips the little handle Jack has screwed into the stair panel. But the stepladder is now in the way, just as the car would have been. There’s no space to lower the stairs.

  She basks down and repositions the stepladder. Now she’s too far away to reach the knob.

  On a workbench along the back wall, Diana finds a short bungee cord, probably for fastening luggage. She repositions the ladder, hooks the bungee cord around the knob, backs down while hanging on to the cord, kicks the stepladder out of the way and hauls on the cord. The stairs are spring-loaded and don’t want to descend. Diana finally gets them low enough that she can stretch up and grip the rim with her fingertips. She breaks a nail.

  She is not in a good mood. When she pokes her head into the attic, it’s pitch-dark, and although she fumbles in all the logical places, she doesn’t find a light switch.

  Sweaty, dusty and irritated, she descends and scours the workbench for a flashlight. No surprise: the batteries are dead. She opens drawers until she finds a pack, replaces the batteries and stomps back up.

  Illuminated by the narrow swath of light are dozens and dozens of cardboard boxes, which Jack has labeled in a thick dark marker. Mom’s unfinished sweater. Dad’s geodes. Mom’s dessert cookbooks. Dad’s ski jackets.

  Jack has rescued everything Cheryl threw in the garbage, as if he believes his mother and father will one day show up and need something to wear and stuff to do.

  * * *

  Jack opens a little plastic bottle of chocolate milk for Tris, who immediately knocks it over. Chocolate milk floods the table, Tris’s lap and the floor.

  It’s too much. Jack cannot deal with yet another situation.

  Before either Tris or Jack can cry, Raquelle is beside them. She stands Tris on his chair, mops him up with a little white towel and dries him off, chatting in Spanish, and Tris is laughing, as if he understands her.

  Jack, too, feels better, because Raquelle is offering comfort—a universal language, although one that Cheryl Rand does not speak.

  * * *

  Cheryl Rand is halfway to Valley Regional High when she has second thoughts. She telephones the school office and asks for information about the soccer game.

  EVERY SENTENCE MADISON DELIVERS IS LIKE A BLOW FROM A BOXING glove. Smithy actually ducks. “Cheryl did that?” Smithy wanted to think about home. About beautiful things like Thanksgiving and Christmas. She expected to find them here, like packages on the doorstep. Instead, she finds that her very own father was killed on purpose—by Cheryl?

  “I was just there, Madison. Cheryl touched me. Right here, on my cheek. I’ve got her perfume on my skin. Madison, I have to take a shower.”

  “You’ll have to settle for the change of clothes I brought.”

  “They’ll be too big. You’re much taller than I am. I hope you didn’t choose your old retro baggy stuff.”

  “You’ll live,” snaps Madison.

  They try to giggle about their quick return to bickering. Instead, they touch fingertips between the seats. “Did you keep your postcards, Mad?” Smithy asks.

  “Jack kept them for me.”

  “I left mine at school.”

  “You can read mine. I’m sure they’re the same.”

  The same is good, because now Smithy knows why Nonny writes the same four words every week. Because every week Love you is all that matters.

  I’m home because of love, thinks Smithy. I was on the way home before I knew that Tris is innocent. I loved Tris again when the evidence was still against him. I can say, and it will be true, that I love my brother no matter what.

  She weeps not for the evil that’s been done to them, but for the light she has seen.

  Jack consents to a replacement chocolate milk but draws the line at another donut. “No more sugar, Tris.”

  It’s so weird to be the person deciding what’s nutritious, because every food Jack likes isn’t. So far Jack has never said “Now eat your vegetables,” but he can feel it coming.

  A silver Celica pulls into the parking lot. His sisters get out.

  Madison strides in, wearing her take-charge look, the one that annoys Jack. She’s wearing a twill jacket with still lapels, as if coming from an office job. She looks very mature. Since they no longer attend the same high school, and he doesn’t see her, it has not sunk in: Madison is a senior. She must be applying to colleges. She must be doing it alone, or with the Emmers.

  It’s such an awful thought—Mom and Dad not here to take their oldest child on a college tour. Jack can’t even manage a smile of greeting.

  Smithy approaches slowly. Jack recognizes that look. It’s a cafeteria look. A the-tables-are
-all-full look. A do-they-really-want-me-here? look.

  For Tris, sisters are rare. They show up once or twice a year, not once or twice a day. “Hi, Madison,” he shouts. “We’re over here!” Then Tris recognizes his other sister. “Smithy?” he asks, looking at Jack for confirmation. Jack nods. “Hi, Smithy! Are we going to your soccer game? Did you already play? Did you win? Did you fall in the mud?”

  * * *

  Smithy recognizes the denim-blue cotton sweater Tris is wearing. It’s Jack’s, knit by Mom.

  When Tris was a few days old, Mom had Smithy go through the boxes in which Jack’s baby clothing was stored. She wrote a list of what must still be purchased for baby Tris. Her hand shook. Weeks later, when they got to a store, they couldn’t read the list.

  When Mom was actually doing all that knitting, Smithy was irritated. Other moms were accountants and shop owners, doctors and UPS drivers. Mom just knit, baked, chaired a few committees and knit some more.

  The other thing Mom did a lot of was church. For Mom, God was a distant second. She loved church for her friends, her committees and choir and the Christmas fair for which she knit so many pairs of mittens. When Mom got cancer, she added prayer to her life. Not for herself, she prayed for the baby.

  Smithy detests the whole concept of prayer.

  Tris’s face and sweater are smeared with chocolate. He squirms down from his seat to come greet her, his sister who abandoned him. Prayer leaps in Smithy like sunrise. Thank you, God, for Tris.

  She has the privilege of wrapping her arms around a baby brother who is glad to see her. Tris wriggles free and hurries back to give Jack a full report.

  Smithy sits opposite Jack. It’s all she can do to get a single syllable out. “Jack,” she manages.

  He nods.

  Smithy slides her hand across the sticky table toward her older brother. Jack takes it. Then he tilts her hand sharply upward and they arm wrestle. Jack is so big now, it’s like wrestling with Dad. Jack even has a shadow of a beard, like Dad. Smithy loses, but not really, because Jack is smiling at her and she is smiling back.

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