If the witness lied, p.3

If the Witness Lied, page 3


If the Witness Lied

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  Tris scrambled into Smithy’s lap and settled in to read his album to her. “And this is the trip to Missouri to Nonny and Poppy’s,” he said. “I’m not born yet. Here’s where Daddy drives over the Mississippi River.” He mangled the word “Mississippi” and Jack helped him. “Everybody gets out! Here’s Mommy! Here’s Smithy! It’s you, Smithy!”

  How unfamiliar his weight was in her lap.

  How amazing that he could be comfortable there.

  When it happened, Smithy had raced back into the house for the spare keys, fumbling through kitchen drawers. It took a night-marishly long time to find them. A neighbor snatched the keys from her hand, unlocked the Jeep and drove it off Dad, while Smithy lifted Tris from the front seat, where he was sobbing. Only then did Smithy make out the words Cheryl was screaming: “He did it! Tris did it! Tris released the brake! Tris killed his own father!”

  Smithy set Tris down. She never picked him up again.

  That week in August, Tris couldn’t get enough of this exciting big sister. He tagged along after her with the dedication of an undercover cop.

  Madison came over for a few meals, and once for the whole day, but mostly she stayed with the Emmers, using her old home as a storage closet.

  Madison, Jack and Smithy didn’t talk. They just waited it out.

  When Smithy had left last winter, Aunt Cheryl was still using the downstairs guest room, but by August, she’d moved into the master bedroom upstairs. It was okay for Cheryl to use Mom’s dishes, but it was not okay for her to use Mom’s closet. Smithy kept wondering about the stuff. Who cleaned it out? Where was it now? A thrift shop? The dump? A tag sale? She could not bring herself to ask. She didn’t want to hear Jack say that he had handled it, and his sisters should have been here to help.

  The week in August was slow and airless. At last, it was time for Madison to drive Smithy to the train station. In Boston, the school van would pick her up.

  “Bye!” cried Tris, waving happily. He is the only Fountain child who does not know that some good-byes are forever.

  “Good-bye,” said Jack politely. He looked confused, as if he could not remember where they had met.

  Aunt Cheryl was watching television. She didn’t come out to say good-bye and Smithy didn’t go in. Cheryl seemed more like furniture than an aunt.

  On the way to the station, the sisters didn’t talk of important things. They’re the ones who left. They’re glad and they’re horrified. Instead Madison talked about her car, a mildly sporty four-year-old silver Celica.

  There’s a trust fund for the children, from their parents’ life insurance and investments. A trustee named Wade handles this. Wade pays for Smithy’s boarding school and shells out for Madison’s used car. Smithy had almost forgotten about cars. At a boarding school, you walk.

  The drive to the train station was swift. Smithy wanted to cry, Let’s just keep going, Madison! Let’s drive away! Let’s start over!

  But she has started over. In another state. In another world, actually.

  When the train came in, Madison hugged her younger sister. “I love you, Smithy. Somehow …”

  Somehow what? It’ll be all right? It won’t be all right, and they know it.

  Smithy was grateful for the train that took her away. A boarding school is designed to keep students too busy to get homesick. Smithy hadn’t given her family a thought until yesterday. Dad’s birthday.

  Thinking about Dad is the hardest thing in the whole world. Except for thinking about Mom. And now Dr. Dresser brings up the tough months: the months with Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving for home; Christmas for love. The two things Smithy has abandoned.

  Kate talks of Thanksgiving food. Of mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

  I have to go home, thinks Smithy.

  And then, rushing over her, strong as tides or gales, is miraculous knowledge. She wants to go home.

  * * *

  Jack cannot feel a heartbeat in his own chest. His lungs are not inflating. His eyes are not blinking.

  On the other side of the wall, the television still murmuring beside her, Aunt Cheryl’s voice rises with excitement. “When do we start?”

  “The anniversaries are coming up. We have to capitalize on that.”

  So the media never even knew about Dad’s birthday. All Jack’s anxiety yesterday was pointless. This man means the day Laura Fountain died for her child and the day Reed Fountain died because of that child. They are both winter days, cold days that get dark early.

  Jack’s body has begun to tremble, like one of those old, old people with thin white hair and spots on the back of their hands who sit silently shuddering to themselves.

  “We should start filming immediately. And there’s the nice coincidence of Tris’s third birthday. Are you planning a big party? Do you have a theme?” The man chuckles. “Patricide?” he says. “No, no, just kidding.”

  But he is not kidding.

  Tris will be frozen in time. Frozen, with his crime in his little hand. There will be no escape. Not now. Not next year. Not when Tris is a teenager or a grown-up. He will be a piece of television, dragged out whenever they need a shocking example.

  Back when Mom made her fatal decision, the world grabbed hold of it. Jack never figured out how that happened. Overnight she was the flashpoint of a controversy. There were networks and media all over the place. They parked in the yard, they rapped on the door, they phoned, they filmed. Against their will, the Fountain family was on national television and in national magazines, the subject of blogs and editorials and talk shows.

  At school, Jack was regarded with envy. His classmates saw glamour and the possibility of fame.

  Jack struggles to breathe. Thinking this through will require oxygen.

  The producer in his living room will love it if Jack charges in, protesting and yelling. The guy probably travels with a mini-cam so he can snatch up chance encounters and add them to his arsenal.

  Because this is war. A battle waged against a three-year-old.

  And the Tris protection team is small and weak.

  KATE DANCES ALONGSIDE SMITHY. KATE’S BODY IS ALWAYS BUSY. She taps, leaps, turns, whirls. She’s the ballerina inside the jewelry box, always wound up.

  Kate and Smithy are a good pair, the way Smithy once was with Diana Murray. Madison is the sister who is Diana’s age, but Smithy is the sister who became Diana’s best friend. Smithy spent her life racing across yards, pounding up the wooden steps of the Murrays’ back deck and in the back door, shouting hello to Mrs. Murray, eternally at her computer, and racing up to Diana’s room.

  Smithy has never mentioned Diana to Kate.

  “Second breakfast?” asks her roommate. Kate is as thin as a bookmark, but always consumes a double breakfast. At her first breakfast, she has a glass of orange juice and toast with peanut butter. Now she will have cold cereal. She will spend an amazing amount of time studying the cereal choices.

  Smithy finds herself stranded in front of shiny many-slice toasters in which she is not toasting anything, because she can’t remember how toast happens.

  The thought of Christmas brings music, carols that chime in her heart. “Joy to the world.” Oh, sure, Smithy laughs and tells jokes and is good company for Kate. But joy? No.

  How vividly Smithy remembers Christmas Eve, when being in the dorky children’s choir is finally worth it—the long robes, the procession down the aisle with a real candle, the flame shivering in its glass cup, the organ pipes making the pews tremble with the huge D-major chords of “Joy to the World.”

  Smithy has spent a long time being mad. Mad at cancer, gravity, Tris, Mom, Dad and God. She often tells God what a loser he is for killing her parents and destroying her life. Smithy still can’t believe it. This is not the Dark Ages, where your parents go and get the Black Death and you’re orphaned.

  Somehow Smithy is having an English muffin with butter and thick plum jam.

  “I’m off to algebra!” cries Kate. “See you later!” She
dances away, slender and shiny as a twirling baton.

  Smithy sets the muffin down. She understands at last. She isn’t mad at Mom or Dad. She isn’t mad at Tris or God. She’s mad at herself.

  Whatever else Tristan Reed Fountain is, he is Smithy’s brother. Smithy’s mother gave her life for this baby, and Smithy promised to honor that.

  She didn’t.

  Smithy would have said that hers is the most complex situation in the whole wide world. But that isn’t so. Her situation is simple. To have her family back, to have Thanksgiving and Christmas back, to do something right for a change, all she has to do is go home.

  * * *

  Jack is immobilized on the stairs. He feels tacked there, like the carpet he’s sitting on.

  “We’ll want the sisters here for Tris’s birthday party,” says the rolling voice. “Film them in their own house, where it happened. Where they have to admit the truth. So first let’s get the sisters home.”

  “Smith is at boarding school, so she’s easy,” says Aunt Cheryl. “I’ll call the administration and feed them a line. I’m sure they’ll agree with, say, court-ordered family therapy. As for Madison, she’s living with friends of her father’s, a dozen miles from here. They’ll bring Madison right over. They’ve been talking to the trustee anyhow about how to get Madison out of their house.”

  “Excellent. We’ll bring in a psychiatrist. I know just the person. We’ve worked with him before, and he’s good at coaxing out hidden emotions.”

  Jack is dragged now and then to a school counselor who likes to say that Jack has lost touch with his emotions. She’s nuts. Jack has so many emotions they gallop around night and day. They’ve made ruts in his brain. He sees his emotions coming and he ducks.

  “The best footage,” says the man, “will be at the day-care center, filming this little boy who looks so normal as he plays among children who really are normal. A voice-over will explain that this child, in fact, killed both his mother and his father.”

  Cancer killed Mom, Jack wants to explain. An accident killed Dad.

  But what’s the fun in that? TV has to entertain. It can’t be bothered with details.

  Aunt Cheryl is so excited she’s clapping. “I haven’t talked to the day-care director yet. Maybe you should call her. I’m sure you’d do it better. After all, an associate producer? It’s so official. Especially if we show up with a camera crew. Is the crew on the way? And the parents of the other children—do they have to sign off, or whatever?”

  “Every parent wants their kid on television. I’m not worried about that. Any chance we can drop in on the day care today?”

  This man is about to start filming and Jack is hanging out on the stairs, tugging at carpet shreds? Worrying about whether he’s breathing too loudly?

  Jack is on his feet. He tiptoes, yet flies, through the hall, into the kitchen, out the breezeway, onto the grass. He’s on his bike, bumping over the curb, pedaling hard. The backpack confuses him. He doesn’t often wear one.

  The day-care center is a few miles west. Jack takes a shortcut he rarely uses, because the yard is home to an unfriendly Lab. Usually there’s no such thing, but this dog is a biter. Jack knows how the dog feels. He would love to sink his teeth into the trespasser at his house. He goes through the dog’s yard so fast he figures a cheetah couldn’t catch him.

  They can film all the day care they want.

  But they are not filming Tris.

  * * *

  Madison flings off the blanket and gets down to the business of finding some decent TV. Grimly, she pauses at every channel.

  She is startled to find her former church on the local-access cable channel. The banner explains that each Sunday service is broadcast three times the following week. Who knew?

  The camera is positioned high in the second-floor gallery, at the rear. Even from behind, Madison recognizes some of the congregation: parents of her old friends or friends of her parents. The Fountains used to sit on the left, halfway back. After Mom died, Dad couldn’t seem to organize himself to get everybody to church. There’s something about Sunday morning that just takes more time, especially if you have to dress a baby. Church slipped away.

  On television, little kids scurry forward to sit on the chancel steps for the children’s sermon. When she was little, Madison used to feel so important up there. She used to love church. An hour in which to think of good things. But this year good things are hard to find in the Fountain family.

  Aunt Cheryl isn’t interested in church, so it’s no surprise that Tris isn’t among the children. Jack probably doesn’t go on his own. Who wants to go alone? Madison certainly doesn’t.

  The children sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

  A few months before Tris was born, when Mom could still sing (at the end, she didn’t have enough breath), she made a CD. She recorded game songs like “I’m a little teapot, short and stout,” and children’s hymns, including “Jesus Loves Me,” and read favorite picture books, so that her fourth child would hear his mother’s voice. Every night, Dad played that CD for Tris to fall asleep to. Madison couldn’t stand the CD. Her mother’s voice but not her presence? It was like an endless broken promise. She never asked Dad how he felt. There are a thousand things it’s too late to ask now.

  “Today in Sunday school,” says the minister—it’s Reverend Phillips, who christened Madison—“you’ll learn about Ruth. Ruth has her own book in the Bible. It’s only four pages long. How many pages long are the books you read?”

  “I read chapter books now!” shouts a little girl.

  “I can’t read yet,” says a little boy, worried.

  “But we all love books,” says Reverend Phillips. “Ruth’s story is about loyalty. Does anybody know what that word means? If you’re loyal, what kind of things do you do?”

  If there is anybody who has failed the loyalty test, it is Madison Fountain. She turns off the television before she has to hear more about Ruth, who probably does everything right, as opposed to Madison herself, who has definitely done everything wrong. Madison, the one who runs when the going gets tough.

  Madison is no longer faking it. She really is sick. In the kitchen she considers the can of chunky chicken rice soup Mrs. Emmer has left on the counter. Her own mother did not give her soup when she was sick. Laura Fountain’s theory was, who ever wanted chicken broth? Here. Have a cookie, hot from the oven. And Mom was never sick herself, so she had little sympathy for people who were. She’d yell, “Go to bed! Sleep it off! If you’re going to throw up, don’t miss the toilet!”

  Madison still cannot fathom how her mother got cancer. Laura Fountain always seems like the wrong person to have died young. All that energy and noise and song. All those projects and laughter. How did cancer get past those defenses?

  It’s almost lunchtime. Madison is still in her pajamas. Even when Mom was dying and things were awful and promised to get more awful, no matter what, Mom got up, got dressed, fixed her hair, or had somebody else fix it when she was too weak, and put on makeup. “Always be ready to face the world,” said Laura Fountain. “Never stay in bed whimpering.”

  All these months, has Madison essentially stayed in bed whimpering?

  The feel of that parking brake is still in the palm of Madison’s hand. Her fingers curl around it. Her thumb finds the tip.

  What really happened that day in the Jeep?

  Madison is disgusted with herself. Is she going to be one of those pathetic creatures who sees a conspiracy in everything? The police must have tested Dad’s Jeep. They must have towed it to their lab, fingerprinted it, run tests and concluded that it was an accident. They must have questioned the one and only witness and decided she was telling the truth.

  No. Madison cannot barrel into her old house and accuse Cheryl Rand of murder.

  It’s because of Daddy’s birthday, she tells herself. I got all emotional and sentimental on Thursday. I wanted a way out. Well, there isn’t one.

  In the room she shares with Kimmy Em
mer, Madison dresses carefully, like her mother, taking into consideration weather, fabric, color, fashion and utility.

  Now she is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  Maybe she’ll drive over to her house anyway.

  For once, the road home is not blocked by rage or despair. In fact, today looks pretty safe. All four Emmers are at work or at school. Jack is at school. Tris is at day care.

  Cheryl is a woman of few interests: she will be watching TV or she’ll be out shopping.

  “Cheryl” is a soft, round, pleasant name. “Cheryl” sounds like a person who listens to classic rock, irons aprons and plays bunko. In fact, she’s not an aunt at all. She’s a glorified housekeeper.

  In Aunt Cheryl’s case, that word is literal: she wants the house and she wants to keep it. Once she’s in charge, she inches through the rooms, gaining control of a corner here and a bit of wall space there, making it her own. Madison figures that by now Jack is down to a few square feet of old carpet.

  What will Jack think if Madison shoulders her way back into his life? Jack has a great heart. The few times they’ve talked on the phone, he hasn’t sounded angry. He’s never said how hard it is for him. On the other hand, he’s never asked her to come back.

  Reminding herself that she can change her mind, she packs a bag. It’s just pajamas, a toothbrush and a change of clothing; it doesn’t mean anything. She’ll toss it on the floor in the back of her car where nobody can see it. She doesn’t have to act on it.

  Madison leaves the house, setting the alarm and locking up behind herself. Their own house has an alarm system that Dad disabled, because he and Mom and her brother and sister came and went so much, it made everybody crazy. Cheryl likes to set the alarm, not realizing it doesn’t work. Nobody tells her, and she doesn’t seem to notice that she’s never billed for it. Maybe she thinks it comes with the house, like the garbage disposal in the sink.

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