If the witness lied, p.2

If the Witness Lied, page 2


If the Witness Lied

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  “And of course we’ll want to film the older brother for several days. I love the way he’s standing firm and being loyal. We’ll follow him in school.”

  Jack is “the older brother.”

  Followed? For several days? In school? Where he can still find safety in science and math? Where people have almost forgotten what happened?

  Can they do this without Jack’s permission?

  The voice is really into it now. “The sisters are the real drama. I love how they refuse to be under the same roof. Wonderful theater.”

  Theater. Where you pay money to stare.

  “We’ll get a huge audience. Advertisers will sign up in a heartbeat. I see it as a three- or four-part docudrama.”

  There’s a new sound. Jack hasn’t heard it often, but he recognizes it. Aunt Cheryl is giggling with delight.

  She has sold Tris to television.

  MADISON FOUNTAIN HAS SKIPPED SCHOOL AND IS FAKING ILLNESS so she can spend Friday on the Emmers’ sofa, watching television. She’s alone, of course, because Mr. and Mrs. Emmer are at work and Henry and Kimmy are at school. Madison rotates through every channel the Emmers get, which is a lot. She wants something to take her mind off yesterday. She tries weather, sports, a soap opera, cartoons and music videos, but she can’t stay on anything. She finds herself clicking madly at the remote, as if an Up or a Down will blot out her thoughts.

  Madison is tightly wrapped in a blanket. Back Before, Madison’s mother knit all the time, churning out socks and sweaters, blankets and afghans. Laura Fountain loved to knit. She’d have knit furniture if she could’ve figured out how. But when Madison moved in with the Emmers, she did not bring a single thing knit by her mother. She holds her mother responsible. It isn’t fair, but she can’t dislodge the belief.

  Deep inside the blanket, Madison lets herself think about yesterday. Not just any Thursday, although only three people know this, and Madison chose not to contact the other two.

  Mrs. Emmer always takes Thursday afternoons off, because she works on Saturdays. Yesterday, she picked the three children up after school and headed to the mall. Kimmy needed dance shoes and Henry needed a long-sleeved white shirt with a collar and cuffs for the chorus concert.

  Madison sat there like baggage. The Emmers are sick of her. At first it was You poor baby, crushed by fate. Why don’t you stay with us until things settle down?

  And now it’s like—She’s still here? She hasn’t left yet?

  Of course they don’t say it out loud. They’re nice people. That’s why they’re her godparents.

  Back Before, Madison’s mother liked to watch films of her children. There’s a nice one of Madison at eight weeks, beautiful in a lacy white gown with pink satin ribbons, sleeping through her christening. Off to the side stand the Emmers, watching a ceremony that means nothing to them, because they don’t go to church. But they love the concept of being godparents. They’re all dressed up and promising before God and the congregation to rear baby Madison in the Christian faith.

  In fact, the Emmers are relieved that Madison hasn’t done anything difficult like mention church. They’re off the hook, godparent-wise. They can give her supper and a bedroom and they’re done.

  Madison knows she’s being mean.

  Mr. and Mrs. Emmer are wonderful. Henry and Kimmy are fun and cheerful. Madison fits right into her new school, and if anybody in this town has heard of the Fountain family, they don’t say so. Madison escapes notice. Hers is a popular name, and among so many other Madisons, she blends into the crowd.

  When she moved to the Emmer house, Madison didn’t even bring photographs. If she needs to see what her real family looks like—looked like—she can go online to the site where her parents stored their photographs. She never does. Month after month, Madison Fountain holds herself still, not remembering her parents and not thinking about her sister and brothers.

  But on Thursday there was no blocking out memory. November fifth was her father’s birthday. On the way to the mall, Madison slid into last year, when her father turned forty. She could almost taste the birthday cake. It was chocolate, of course; Dad loved chocolate. They had ordered the largest sheet cake and specified white icing, because writing shows up best against white. They took turns printing with little gel tubes. Last year it had been Smithy’s turn to write first. First was a bad position, because everybody wrote on top of you. But Smithy got to choose the best color. She went with red, and wrote I LV U DAD.

  Madison thought about that a lot. Smithy abbreviated “love.”

  Mrs. Emmer pulled into the vast mall parking lot. Madison just wanted to be alone with the rare treat of memories and light a mental candle for Dad. “I’ll stay in the car and do homework,” she said.

  The sun was shining, and with the temperature in the fifties, the interior of the car would get toasty. Madison couldn’t wait for the Emmers to go, and they must have felt the same, because they vaulted out. “Give me an hour!” cried Madison, turning her head so she wouldn’t see how glad they were to be a real family, without the interloper. Her eyes swung over a horizon of parked cars.

  Her father’s Jeep was one of them.

  * * *

  Every Friday morning at Smith Fountain’s boarding school, there is an eight-thirty assembly before classes begin.

  On this Friday morning, Dr. Dresser, the headmistress, is less dull than usual. She is explaining the mechanics of getting four hundred kids home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Almost everyone loves boarding school. It’s so much fun—always busy and demanding and special. But it isn’t home, and now home looks like a treat—a present with ribbons—and everybody gets one.

  Everybody except Smithy.

  Last winter, Smithy applied on her own to a boarding school she located online, and this initiative worked in her favor; the school was impressed. Not many fourteen-year-old girls pull off applications without parents. Smithy was accepted for the second semester of freshman year—the only student among four hundred who is truly without parents. In fact, many kids have multiple parents, from remarriages and ex-stepparents who stay in touch. There is a boy in Smithy’s biology class who has seven active parents.

  Her classmates come from all over the United States. They do not ask about her family situation because it does not occur to them that she has one. They are, however, interested in her first name.

  Before she got married, my mother’s last name was Smith, she explains. Boring and ordinary for a last name, but interesting for a first name.

  Smithy’s roommate is envious because her name is Kate, and she even looks like some of the other Kates and Katies in the school, whereas nobody else is named Smith.

  Kate has never met an orphan. It’s so romantic! Not having parents—how exciting! It reminds Kate of her favorite childhood book, Anne of Green Gables. Kate seems to visualize life for orphans as a series of sunny adventures. She’s eager to bring Smithy home and show her off.

  Smithy is eager to go. What a bonus—she doesn’t even have to show up at her real home for vacations.

  Smithy gets used to dorm life among eighty girls, half of whom she likes. The girls share rooms, snacks, homework, conversation and shampoo. As if living in a tiny castle in the Middle Ages, they have no privacy at any time. With so many girls, so much talk, and the constant schedule of activities, Smithy can pretend that Back Before doesn’t exist.

  She now has a life without shopping and, in fact, without a town: the school is in the middle of nowhere. A life with mandatory study hours six evenings a week, and mandatory sports, so she will have a healthy body as well as a healthy mind. A life that after ten p.m. is one long slumber party, as long as they don’t wake the dorm proctor.

  It occurs to Smithy, as she sits not listening to Dr. Dresser, that her escape from home worked because she pulled it off during easy months. February, March, April, May—who cares? Nothing happens then anyway. As for last summer, she spent ten days with Kate’s family and then returned to boarding school f
or summer session, much more fun than it sounds. Hot, sweaty weeks full of classes and picnics, softball and ballroom dancing, storytelling competitions and a build-your-own-radio contest.

  One weekend her grandparents showed up. Dad’s parents, her Fountain grandparents. Smithy was almost angry at Nonny and Poppy for reminding her that she had a family out there whether she liked it or not. She managed to be exceptionally busy. Her grandparents ended up talking mostly to Kate.

  Because of the assembly, Smithy can be sure it’s Friday, and that means she can be sure Thursday is over. Dad’s birthday. Gone.

  I didn’t call Jack, thinks Smithy. I didn’t call Madison. I didn’t treat Daddy’s birthday differently from any other day.

  Their father would have been forty-one. Last year Smithy was the first cake writer. Tris went second, and chose blue, and they steered his little fist so he wouldn’t totally mess up the frosting. Jack wrote GO DAD in yellow, and ran out of gel before he finished LOVE JACK. Madison got to go last. She printed HAPPY BDAY in green and had enough left to finish JACK.

  “Anyone not going home for the holidays must come to me for alternative arrangements,” says Dr. Dresser.

  Only Smithy and the kids from distant countries like Japan or India will need alternative arrangements.


  Her two brothers still live there. One brother is a saint, and the other—well, what do you call Tris?

  And does it matter?

  * * *

  Madison cannot distract herself with television. Her mind reenters Thursday in the parking lot. She’s getting out of the Emmers’ car, walking unsteadily toward the Jeep. It’s over one row, but far to the rear of the lot, alone on the flat pavement. She’s afraid of it.

  A drum set begins playing in her head. Wooden sticks snap against her skull. It’s the tuneless headache she gets whenever she thinks of this moment.

  After it happened, Dad’s car got towed, but where to? Who kept it? Madison never asked. She certainly didn’t want to see it again. Almost certainly, she isn’t seeing it now, either. Jeeps are popular. Just because this is the same model, year and color as Dad’s does not make it Dad’s.

  The Jeep isn’t locked. Jeep owners are not big on locking.

  Madison wrenches her eyes from the steering wheel, in case she hallucinates that her father is sitting there for the last time. She detours around the Jeep to peer through the passenger door instead.

  Dad had a habit shared by nobody. He carved his initials on everything. He carved RF onto the wood surfaces of his desk and the picnic table, into the leather of his beloved work boots. (Dad had an office job, so he liked to get down and dirty on weekends.) He carved RF + LF into the maple tree that shades the backyard.

  He scratched RF into the dashboard of his Jeep.

  That will ruin its resale value, people used to say, disapproving.

  “I have four children to support,” Dad would answer, laughing. “I’ll be driving this until my kids are out of college.”

  No, thinks Madison. You won’t.

  Even with her nose against the window, she can’t see if anything’s carved on the dash.

  Do people still have birthdays when they’re dead? While the Emmers are in the department store, should Madison run into the card shop to buy a card? A funny one, because Daddy liked to laugh. Last year they were laughing over the cake until Madison finished JACK and they realized that Mom would not be adding her own I LOVE YOU in the final, least desirable color. They piled onto the old sofa, weeping for Mom.

  Except Tris. For Tris, Mommy is a photograph.

  Madison finds herself opening the passenger door of the Jeep. Automatically she does what people do when they open a car door: she gets in and sits down. What if the owner comes? Oh, sorry, just replaying my father’s death.

  In the cup holders and the little well where Dad always left his cell phone, sunglasses and loose change, the stranger keeps garbage: an empty coffee cup, a crumpled napkin.

  Glare from the sunlight makes it difficult to see the dashboard. Madison leans forward to search for initials, steadying herself on the parking brake.

  The driver has set the brake. Reflex, probably, since no brake is needed on a flat parking lot. The Fountain driveway, on the other hand, slopes. A car left in Madison’s driveway must be in gear, and the parking brake must be on, or the car will roll backward.

  After all this time of not letting herself remember, not letting herself picture this, not letting herself go there in any way, Madison is here. She is here so completely that her hand is actually on the very brake that ended it all.

  Tris would have been in his car seat, which was so big it barely fit in the back. Tris had to cooperate when it was time to be strapped in, holding his arms just right, although he’d rather have done everything by himself. He had only just turned two, and was not strong enough to latch the belts.

  A funny coldness wafts through Madison’s head.

  Tris wasn’t strong enough to fasten the plastic snaps of his own little restraint system. Then how could he be strong enough—

  She shakes herself. What Tris did was unfasten his restraints. Always easier.

  Dad got out of the Jeep to check something. They’ll never know what. He left the motor running, put the Jeep in neutral and yanked up the parking brake. He planned to get right back in.

  Tris probably wanted to see what Daddy was doing. He was probably proud of himself, wiggling out from under the webs and straps, climbing up front. He loved the front. All those gadgets and dials. All the important stuff. And of course, Daddy sat in front. Tris always wanted to be with Daddy.

  When it happened, Madison was the first one out of the house. Well, except for Aunt Cheryl. The loudest noise came from Cheryl, but Tris was also screaming. Tris was standing on this very seat. In his little hands, he clasped Dad’s cell phone. (Tris got his hands on somebody’s phone and was totally happy. From the time he was twelve months old, Tris thumbed a phone exactly the way his father did, holding it up to his face at the same angle, squinching his eyebrows before he answered, just like Daddy, and most of all, taking pictures, just like Daddy.)

  In his hands? thinks Madison now. Both hands? But then—how did he—?

  Tris must have released the parking brake first and then picked up the phone. And because Tris had somehow locked himself in, Cheryl had started beating on the car door and screaming at him. No wonder Tris panicked.

  Yet how odd that with Dad’s cell phone, sunglasses and change sitting right there—Dad always left them right there—Tris played with the brake at all. It’s just a stick, whereas cell phones are joy, sunglasses are grown-up and coins are fun.

  A queer, cold thought is surfacing in Madison’s mind, like a predator coming out of the water. She tugs the stranger’s parking brake. It does not release.

  She shifts her weight and tries a second time. It does not release.

  When it happened, Tris was two and he weighed twenty-five pounds. If Madison is having trouble, and she’s nearly seventeen and a hundred and ten pounds, then …?

  Madison puts a little muscle into it. The brake releases.

  The Jeep, of course, does not move, because the parking lot has no tilt. Madison is almost fainting, but she remembers to check the dash. No initials. Of course there aren’t initials. She’s invading somebody else’s car. She resets the brake, opens the door and gets out.

  A possibility is filling her head. The thought swells until it pushes against her eyes and she bulges with it.

  She backs away, as if the stranger’s Jeep will attack.

  But it is knowledge—or at least a good guess—that is attacking Madison Fountain.

  Don’t be silly, she tells herself. Any given Jeep is bound to be different from the next one. Just because this one has a stiff brake doesn’t mean Dad’s did.

  Madison makes it to the Emmers’ car. Falls in. Tries to warm herself in the bottled sun.

  “Look what I got!” shrieks Kimmy Emmer.

  Madison almost has a heart attack. She manages to exclaim over the wisdom and style of Kimmy’s purchase. She participates in conversation. It is decided that they will have Chinese takeout for dinner.

  All the way back to the Emmers’ on Thursday, Madison reminds herself that there was a witness to the accident. They know what happened: the witness told them.

  Now, Friday morning, in the stuffy dark of the blanket, Madison allows the swollen thought to come all the way out.

  If Tris would not release the brake … but the brake was released … then somebody else released it.

  The witness lied.

  * * *

  Dr. Dresser dismisses the assembly. Kate bubbles with excitement. “We usually have about twenty people for Thanksgiving,” she tells Smithy. “Grandma and Grandpa fly in from Michigan, and then my cousins, the ones in Pennsylvania.”

  Smithy will share the cousins, because Kate will be Smithy’s “alternative arrangements.”

  Thanks to Kate and summer school, the only stretch during which Smithy had to live in her own house was a week last summer, just before fall semester began. All those August days dripped with anxiety as well as sweat.

  Nothing was what she had pictured.

  Tris, who’d barely talked when Smithy left in February, now rattled off whole paragraphs. He had opinions on television cartoons, demanded to be driven over to check the progress at his favorite construction site, bragged about his swimming technique and refused to eat ice cream in a cup. “I’m big now! I can have a cone!”

  Tris had to be told who Smithy is. “You’re in my scrapbook!” he said excitedly, hurrying to get the precious album, so carefully put together by their mother: a biography of Mom; Dad; Madison, the oldest; Jack, the middle; and Smithy, the youngest; right up to the birth of Tris.

  Smithy was unnerved by the welcome her baby brother had given her. “He’s glad to see me,” she said to Jack.

  Her brother shrugged. “I tell him how much you miss him.”

  So Jack was not just a good guy. He was a good enough guy to make up for his sisters.

  (After that, Smithy could hardly even look at Jack. But because her older brother had grown almost half a foot, she was aware of him every moment. She imagined him going weekly to the mall for larger clothing. She wanted to talk about school but couldn’t. Although Jack is a year older, they’re in the same grade. When he was entering first, Jack tested so poorly, he was kept back. It’s a family joke, because Jack has turned out to be by far the smartest.)

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