If the witness lied, p.16

If the Witness Lied, page 16

 

If the Witness Lied
 


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  Tris is fading. Fading. And he’s out.

  What is it about a sleeping child that breaks your heart?

  Now that Tris is utterly limp, in that complete way of sleeping children, Diana wants to weep for everyone. For Laura Fountain and Reed Fountain. For sisters who needed help to stay and didn’t get it and somehow weren’t tough enough to hang on without it. For a brother who soldiered on. For a baby who still knows nothing.

  The Tris protection team has doubled in size now that Madison and Smithy are home. But the danger to Tris has doubled too.

  In fact, Diana may be in danger. She’s definitely on shaky ground. She doesn’t have Jack’s permission to invade a bank account, let alone Cheryl’s permission. And when Cheryl gets home and sees the desecration of her precious room and wardrobe, she’ll go crazy.

  Diana opens her phone and positions it on the desk. If she needs to call 911, she wants it right there waiting for her.

  The cameraman, who filmed her taking a briefcase and a laptop, had a good idea. A person should be able to prove when and where she’s doing something. If Diana films herself, her phone will record the day, hour and minute. If this ends up in court (where else can it end?), Diana may want proof that she’s part of the Jack/Madison/Smithy team, not just some passing babysitter vandal.

  Cheryl has four accounts. Two checking, a savings and a money market account. Diana brings up the last ninety days of checks and debit card transactions in the first account. Household money, because the electric bill and the maid get paid from this account. A big round number is being deposited each month, probably the household allowance from Mr. Wade. Anything that’s left—and there’s a lot left—is transferred to the other checking account, which receives a monthly deposit of its own. Most debits on this second account are to women’s clothing stores. So that one is Cheryl’s personal checking, in which her salary is automatically deposited, and into which she shifts money from the household account.

  Is Cheryl taking money meant for the children? Diana can’t tell, but Mr. Wade could. She glances at the savings account—very nice. And the money market—impressive.

  Perhaps Cheryl arrived with this much money. Perhaps she’s selling things, such as Tris, in order to get it.

  Diana locates Mr. Wade in Cheryl’s computer address book. She’s met him. Mr. Wade drags himself over now and then, trying not to look at Tris, whose mere presence horrifies him. Mr. Wade gives the house a cursory glance, tells Cheryl how lucky the children are to have her and hurries away. He’s visibly grieving for his friend Reed, and wishing he were not involved.

  You’re involved, Diana thinks. She downloads everything to Mr. Wade.

  * * *

  Madison slides off the barstool. She may need to use it like a lion tamer, to keep Cheryl at bay. Or Jack.

  Smithy guards the back door. They don’t want Cheryl going out that way. She has to leave by the garage, taking her car with her.

  Jack keeps the kitchen island between himself and Cheryl. He grips the edges as if planning to wrench it off.

  Cheryl takes one step into the kitchen. Her long strong fingers with their dead red polish are still on the light switch when she realizes that Madison, Smithy and Jack Fountain are standing there, staring at her. She is motionless. Madison is reminded of nature films. Prey have two choices—freeze or run. She and Jack and Smithy are stalking; Cheryl is freezing.

  We’ve got her, thinks Madison. Jack was right. We can scare her.

  But Madison is mistaken.

  Theatrically, Cheryl puts her hand over her heart. “What are you doing, hanging around in the dark? You’re such funny children. I hope you’re going to be nicer to Angus than you were today,” she adds; lightly scolding, half smiling. “Jack, there was no soccer game. I called the school. The constant lies make me so unhappy. I’ve been telling Angus what a burden it is, dealing with you. Angus has promised to interview your guidance counselors and teachers, so we can get to the bottom of your behavior. Well, we can think about that later. Have you had dinner? What would you like to have?”

  She’s posturing, thinks Madison. Practicing for when Angus is here recording, when the person she wants to impress is listening.

  “Look at these photographs, Cheryl,” says Jack, more calmly than Madison expected.

  Cheryl pays no attention. She turns her back, establishing that she is not even slightly concerned, and opens the refrigerator to study the contents. Then she opens the side-by-side freezer. She removes a pack of frozen hamburger patties and a sack of frozen rolls. They clunk like rocks against the counter.

  “In this photograph, which Tris took on Dad’s cell phone, just before Dad died,” says Jack, “you are standing outside Dad’s Jeep. You’re wearing a ring.”

  Cheryl turns slowly. Her eyes do not rest on the photograph. They fasten on Jack. Madison is suddenly deeply afraid. This is not a woman they can scare. This is a woman to be scared of.

  Cheryl turns her back again, without bothering to glance at the photograph Jack holds up. She slams the frozen meat against the counter to break the patties apart.

  Jack opens the jewelry box. Cheryl whips around to see the source of the sweet tinkling tune. The ballerina circles gracefully. “You’ve been in my room,” whispers Cheryl.

  “This is our mother’s jewelry box. You took the engagement ring Dad engraved for her. You were wearing it the day you murdered our father.”

  Cheryl freezes a second time. Then she giggles, sounding eerily like the tinkling music box. “Nonsense. Madison, do the Emmers know you’re here or are they worrying about you?”

  “They know I’m here.”

  Jack holds up another photograph. “Tris’s fingers. Proof that he’s holding the cell phone and taking the pictures.”

  “You’re pretending the cell phone play of a baby might mean something?”

  Jack holds up the next photograph. “Your hand, Cheryl. It’s around the parking brake. Those are your fingers, your nail polish color. But no ring, Cheryl. You’ve thrown it away by the time you murder our father.”

  Cheryl smiles kindly. “Of course you wish that Tris could be innocent. But he isn’t. Madison, put these in the microwave and thaw them.”

  Madison tries to be the one giving orders. “Cheryl, it’s time for you to leave. We’ve packed your things. They’re in your car. You need to start driving.”

  “You touched my things?” The smiling lips shudder and spread in an odd reptilian way.

  How lucky that Tris was so demanding, energetic, sometimes cranky and bratty. How lucky that Cheryl handed him off to day care or Jack.

  Cheryl has set her handbag on the island. Jack takes her key ring, removes the house key and puts the car keys back. “Time to go, Cheryl. All we want is to get you out of our lives. We’re not calling the police, even though these photographs are proof. They’re dated, right to the minute. There was never an accident. There was a murder. But all you have to do is get in the car and drive away.”

  “Nonsense,” she says. “It’s a shame Angus isn’t here to record this. He’s never found a more dysfunctional family. It will make quite a portrait when you start talking like that. But go on practicing. Angus will think it’s great theater. And as for the keys? I have another set, of course.”

  They can’t make her go. Even if they can herd her into the garage, they can’t make her drive away.

  In the weight of the silent moment, the refrigerator hums. Freshly made ice cubes drop down. The furnace cycles.

  A rhythmic whooshing sound begins. It’s upstairs. It’s easy to identify. It is a printer, churning out pages. The only printer in this house is on Dad’s desk—now Cheryl’s. Up in Dad and Mom’s room—now Cheryl’s.

  For a moment all four of them are puzzled. What’s printing? They don’t have a fax, so there is no situation where something can print by itself.

  “Who is up there?” says Cheryl, in a low fierce voice. “Who is touching my computer?” She bolts from the kitchen and w
ith unexpected speed races up the stairs.

  They have allowed to happen the one thing they agreed must never happen: Cheryl will be near Tris.

  Smithy flies after Cheryl, Jack on her heels.

  At the top of the stairs, Cheryl is howling.

  Madison has the horrifying sense that they have arrived, finally, at the place where they will fight it out.

  She must not let Jack hurt Cheryl, nor Cheryl hurt Tris. She must do whatever it takes to stop one brother and save the other, even if it destroys her. She has a glimpse of what her mother went through: you do what it takes, even if you go down doing it. She is awestruck by her mother’s guts.

  Cheryl is flying into Mom and Dad’s room. Smithy, Jack and Madison fly after her. The bedroom lights are not on. Only the computer screen gives off a sickly glow.

  Diana sits in front of it. The printer on her left is spewing copies. Tris is in her lap.

  Cheryl Rand launches herself at Diana.

  * * *

  Diana hears them coming. Who couldn’t hear four sets of feet pounding on the stairs? Cheryl is screaming, “Who is that?” Jack is screaming, “Get back here!” Smithy is just screaming.

  Impossible to hide, so Diana doesn’t try.

  In spite of her momentary terror in the garage, Diana is not expecting an actual attack from Cheryl. But the big woman throws herself across the room as if to crush her. Diana swivels the chair, offering the strong molded back to Cheryl, and sticks out one hand to make a quick cell phone adjustment, hunching over Tris to keep him safe.

  The force of Cheryl’s body flings the wheeled swivel chair forward. Cheryl smashes to the floor, while Diana is ejected from the seat. Diana plays volleyball, field hockey, softball and tennis. She’s strong. She simply steps up and out of the chair as it spins forward, so gracefully that Tris does not stir from his sleep. She circles the floundering Cheryl, who has hit her face against the desk edge and is bleeding. Diana gets her cell phone and moves behind Jack.

  One thing Diana can be sure of: there is stuff in this computer that matters, whether or not it’s the stuff she forwarded to Mr. Wade.

  Cheryl hauls herself to her feet. A queer jumbled expression is on her face, a messy laugh coming out of her mouth. “I’m calling the police. You hurt me. I can prove you are dangerous. I’ll get rid of all of you at one time.”

  She fumbles for the house phone by her bed. She does not seem to notice that the bed no longer has sheets or blankets.

  “Not yet, Cheryl,” says Diana. “I filmed you.” She forwards the tiny movie to her mother’s phone for safekeeping and then passes the phone around, so that everybody has a turn. Cheryl’s turn is last. In the short video, Cheryl Rand bears down on a sleeping child, sharp red fingernails extended, lips pulled back from her teeth. She looks like some ancient hideous Medusa, taking revenge or going insane. She looks like a killer who uses her bare hands.

  Downstairs, musical and soft in the front hall, the doorbell rings.

  * * *

  Cheryl’s face smooths out. Her posture returns to normal. She smiles. “It’s Angus. He had a little errand to run and he’s coming back with papers for me to sign.”

  She walks through them and heads for the stairs as if nothing else exists. Only the possibility of television exists.

  CHERYL IS ACTUALLY SINGING A SORT OF TRA-LA OF TRIUMPH AS she dances down the stairs.

  Madison races to get between Jack and Cheryl. There’s no time for a conference and Jack is tipping over the edge. Down the stairs is where they want Cheryl. Close to her car. Away from Tris.

  But what to do about Angus?

  Madison doesn’t want Angus in the house. But she doesn’t want a shoving match with Cheryl either, and Cheryl will reach the door first.

  * * *

  Diana retreats to Tris’s bedroom. She plans to lower him slowly and carefully into his crib, but once she’s in the room and has shut the door behind her, she can’t bring herself to set Tris down. What if they have to run? What if Cheryl and Angus come up here?

  Tris’s damp hair curls against his cheek. His little mouth is open, and his even breathing is soft and sweet.

  How innocent he is. He did nothing; he knows nothing.

  But things have gone sour.

  Cheryl’s wound makes it worse. Cheryl will win. Television will capture this little boy forever in a cold, convincing film.

  She can’t even call her parents. Cheryl has her phone.

  Diana feels amputated.

  * * *

  Cheryl throws the front door open.

  Nonny and Poppy walk in.

  They take no more notice of Cheryl Rand than of the nearest maple tree. Smithy hurtles toward them, elbowing past Madison and Jack. When Nonny holds out her arms, Smithy dives into her embrace. “Oh, Nonny, you came! I wasn’t even nice. I didn’t even talk to you when you visited my school last summer. Here you are anyway.”

  Cheryl comes to an uncertain stop in the doorway. She wavers, staring at the dark yard, sure that Angus must be out there somewhere.

  “Of course we’re here, darling. Your school phoned this morning. Your headmistress was concerned, Smithy. And her phone call with Cheryl was disturbing. There’s something radically wrong, Dr. Dresser told us. Get on a plane. So we did.”

  Jack comes to a halt on the very step where he stood this morning, listening to the plans of Angus and Cheryl. Everything violent dissipates. That is his grandfather smiling up at him. That is his grandmother holding Smithy.

  Nonny wipes away Smithy’s tears. “Is it that bad?”

  “Not now that you’re here. How did you get here so fast?”

  “Darling, this isn’t the eighteenth century. We got a three-hour direct flight. We were just boarding when we got a second call. It was from your roommate, Kate. Get on a plane, she said, there’s something wrong. Smithy’s afraid for Tris.”

  Jack reaches the last step. He is taller than his grandfather. But oh, the wonder of it—his grandfather is a grown-up. He will be in charge. He will handle Cheryl.

  “I didn’t even answer Poppy’s e-mails or your postcards, Nonny,” says Smithy.

  Their grandfather’s voice is so much like Dad’s that Jack’s heart clutches. “All the more reason to come. Everything was wrong, and there we were in another state, wringing our hands because our feelings were hurt. How stupid is that? If everything is wrong, the grandparents should at least wring their hands in the same house as the grandchildren.”

  It has never occurred to Jack that the feelings of grandparents could be hurt. He could have made an effort. But he was all efforted out.

  Madison makes it into her grandparents’ circling arms. “Cheryl told us you were too old and ill to help.”

  “Nonsense. We’re middle-aged and slow to understand. It’s late in the day. But we got here.”

  “I think you made very good time,” protests Smithy.

  “On the plane, yes. But over the whole year, no. When we came last summer, and you children were scattered, we should have rounded you up like lambs in the pasture and brought you home. But we didn’t. Somehow we couldn’t get to know you.” Their grandfather smiles. “We will this time.” He and Jack have reached each other. His grandfather grips Jack’s forearm and shoulder. For a moment Jack feels as young as Tris.

  He pulls himself together. “There are problems,” he tells his grandfather. “The first is television. Cheryl sold Tris to TV. She’s got a producer to do a docudrama portraying Tris as a monster. It’s scheduled. We don’t know how to stop it. The second thing is that after all this time I looked in Dad’s cell phone. You know how he always took pictures. What we didn’t know is that Tris took pictures too. Tris took the very last pictures. It’s proof that—” Jack cannot quite say out loud to Dad’s father how Dad actually died.

  “We haven’t seen those pictures,” says his grandfather, “but we’ve been on the phone with Mr. Wade since we picked up our rental car at the airport, so we’ve heard all about them. You
sent them to him, remember. It took him a while to figure out the significance. It wasn’t until he studied the date and the hour that he understood. He’s at the police department as we speak.”

  Jack’s heart stops. The police? Everything he dreaded is going to happen? More attention on Tris? More publicity?

  “Trust us,” says Poppy gently. “We’ll handle it. Tris will be all right.”

  Jack is seized by a curious joy. It isn’t happiness. Jack is not happy. It’s deeper and more extraordinary. All this time, through all this suffering, all he had to do was call his grandparents.

  I’m the kid again, thinks Jack. The grown-ups decide. I don’t have to shoulder it anymore. People Dad and Mom loved will decide. Even if it goes in a direction I don’t want, I get to be fifteen.

  Jack feels weirdly lightweight, as if he’s entered a different wrestling category.

  And he has.

  Kids play sports. He can be on a team. Of course, he’s grown so much. His arms stick out farther than the last time he competed in anything, his legs are longer, he’s out of practice, he’ll be useless—but these are just things to work on.

  “Your dad would be so proud of you, Jack,” says his grandfather.

  “I don’t know if he would. I don’t know if I handled things very well.”

  “You never let go of your brother’s hand. Now, where’s Tris? Nonny and I want to reassure ourselves that all is well.”

  They jump at a sudden rumbling metallic sound.

  “It’s the garage door,” says Smithy. “Cheryl is leaving, just the way we planned.”

  Poppy shakes his head. “She’s not going anywhere. I parked the rental car up against the garage door.”

  * * *

  Tris’s grandmother bends tenderly over the sleeping child in Diana’s arms and tucks the towel back from his chin.

  Diana tries to explain. “There wasn’t time to get him into pajamas.”

  “This is perfect,” says Nonny. “And so are you, dear. Let’s put him down in the crib. We don’t have to keep guard.”

 
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