If the witness lied, p.4

If the Witness Lied, page 4


If the Witness Lied

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  Madison gets into her Celica. She loves to drive it, wash it, vacuum it and use the cup holders. It used to be her life’s dream to have her own car. It took a few weeks for her to realize: it’s only a car. The real dream, the one that won’t come true, is to have a family, with a mother and father.

  Madison backs out of the Emmers’ driveway.

  Like the Jeep, the Celica does not have automatic transmission. When Madison first got it, she had trouble finding reverse. But now she’s got the gears down and she loves shifting. The engine’s crescendo is so satisfying.

  Madison takes the turnpike. She loves speed, too. If she gets there fast, she won’t have time to think about this act of intentionally going home to see if she can stand it there and learn to love her family again. Her whole family. The dead ones and the guilty ones and even herself.

  She’s trembling, as if she’s been living in Australia or China for decades and now, at last, home is in sight.

  * * *

  Jack prays to the God who has not yet answered his prayers. This time! Jack prays. You can’t let me down this time, God. It’s for Tris! You owe Tris one.

  He has to have divine intervention. On his own, Jack has no power. Not in court, not with the media, not with the family lawyer, not with his sisters. “God!” he yells.

  He reaches Route One. Nobody calls it that. It’s called the Post Road. South of the Post Road, a narrow strip of land is packed tight with houses, and then come the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. North of the Post Road are railroad tracks and the turnpike. West stretches the rest of America.

  Jack doesn’t slow down at intersections, let alone stop. He feels as if he has insect eyes, with extra eyeballs on stalks. He can see through things and under things. Another mile and he shoots into the day-care parking lot. No BMW—Jack feels reasonably sure the TV guy will not travel in Aunt Cheryl’s heavy gray Lincoln with the car seat in the back—but they could be here any second. Chances are, they already phoned.

  He imagines Aunt Cheryl giving instructions to Tris’s teacher, Brianna. “I want Tris to look really cute. If he’s dirty, change him into his extra set of clothing. Brush his hair. Wash his face. He’s going to be on TV! We’re all going to be on TV! Yay!”

  Jack takes a deep breath to subdue his heaving lungs. He doesn’t want to look panicky. He often picks Tris up, so they’re used to him here. But they’ll know that on a Friday at noon, Jack should be in school.

  The entrance is locked. No easy access to a day care. Jack presses the bell and the director says on the intercom, “Who is it?” which is annoying, because she can see him just fine; there’s a camera. He smiles at the camera. “Jack Fountain. I’m here for Tris.”

  She buzzes him in.

  Jack forces himself to stroll past the infant room, the art room and the kiddie computer room, all windowed into the hall, so every teacher can see everything. Teacher eyes follow Jack’s progress.

  In Tris’s classroom a riot of balloons is painted over the walls and ceiling. The door is open, but a gate keeps the kids in. Tris is playing with a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. The best thing Tris has going for him is this place, where he’s happy and busy, and they don’t seem to care about an accident involving a little guy who didn’t know what was happening. Tris’s original day care refused to take him back, a decision that still twists Jack’s gut.

  Brianna is changing a little girl’s diaper. Jack likes Brianna. He has never seen her treat Tris differently from the other kids. “Hi, Brianna.”

  She looks over her shoulder, surprised. “Jack! What’s up? How come you’re here?”

  “Half day.”

  Brianna’s only a few years out of high school. She knows the meaning of the lovely phrase “half day.” She grins.

  Jack steps over the gate and into the room. His little brother races over. “We had finger painting, Jack! Mine is blue! It isn’t dry yet!”

  “We’ll leave it here till it dries,” Jack says. “Because you and I are headed out.” Jack is skin-crawly with nerves. Does he hear a car engine? Will the producer arrive, complete with cameras? Will Jack’s attempt to snatch his brother from the jaws of reality TV end up on film?

  He swings Tris up to sit on his hip. Tris isn’t big. He’s still easy to hold toddler style. “Have a nice weekend, Brianna. Say bye-bye, Tris.” Jack steps back over the gate.

  “Where are you going?” asks Brianna, not to rat on him, but so that next Monday, she can ask Tris about his big adventure.

  Jack does not have the slightest idea where they are going. Plan A is to get Tris before Aunt Cheryl can. Plan B, and for that matter, Plans C through Z, haven’t come to him yet. “Secret,” whispers Jack loudly, so Tris is in on it.

  Brianna is smiling. People love it that Jack stayed with Tris. It’s weird to be popular just because he lives in his own house. Of course, his sisters partly bailed because of Aunt Cheryl, but the world doesn’t know that. And they partly bailed because people made offers—you can stay with us; you can live here. Nobody made such an offer to Jack.

  He gallops to the front door, but not fast enough. The day-care director is hurrying toward him. “Hey, Mrs. Griz,” he says, aiming for casual. Her last name has more syllables, but nobody uses them.

  Mrs. Griz bobs down the hall. “Your aunt just called!”

  * * *

  Smithy has no way to get home from this isolated boarding school. It’s about an hour and a half to Boston, where she could get a train or a plane. There are no taxis in the nearby village, and hitchhiking is against the law. She doesn’t have a car. No student has a car. No teacher will give her a ride. They’ll give her counseling.

  More counseling—can you imagine? “Have you come to terms with the accident?” they like to say.

  Smithy no longer cares about the accident. She cares about going home.

  She could ask Mrs. Murray to drive up and get her. But Diana’s mother would probably say “Finish the semester, dear, and then come home.”

  Smith Fountain has finished the semester. She’s finished mourning. She’s finished being furious.

  It’s time.

  She leaves the cafeteria and enters the big front hall, where her coat hangs on a hook, her book bag under it. Most of the school year in the hills of Massachusetts is during cold weather. Taking off and putting on coats, hats, scarves, mittens and boots are constants. Some kids deal by wearing nothing. They race from building to building in shirtsleeves, taunting the cold. Others wrap themselves like packages, blocking out every wisp of wind. This morning is very chilly, but nobody’s in full winter gear yet. Smithy is wearing jeans, a long-sleeved white cotton shirt and a tangerine zip-up sweatjacket with a hood. She bought the jacket when she was staying with Kate and Kate’s mother took them to the mall. Smithy loves using her own credit card. The card has a limit, but this person Wade just pays the bill, so it doesn’t feel like a limit.

  Idling on the pavement in front of her is a yellow school bus, like the one Smithy and Jack and Madison used to take back home. Smithy is calling it home again. Is it? Can she walk back in that door and be home? What will Jack and Madison say? Will they still like her?

  Around her swarm kids who are in a great mood. It seems that two art classes are taking this bus to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There’s nothing like a field trip to make kids laugh. Smithy bathes in their exuberance, as if she could rub it in like lotion.

  The art teachers talk so intently to one another they could be plotting a murder. They climb onto the bus, leave their purses on the double front seat close to the driver and hop back out. One has a clipboard on which she checks off names.

  There are not enough kids to fill the bus. Most kids prefer the back. Those seats fill immediately. Others scatter according to whatever friendships or lack of friendships they have in art class.

  Smithy hangs her book bag back up. She fishes out her little purse, slides her cell phone into her jeans pocket and pulls the hood of her sweatshirt over her head. Not tha
t tangerine is camouflage.

  One teacher returns to the building for a last stop in the ladies’ room. The other teacher and the driver stand on the sidewalk, studying a map.

  Smithy boards the bus.

  * * *

  Madison turns left on Chesmore Road.

  Connecticut is tree-covered. There are no long views. Even in fall, when the bare branches of maples are like ink drawings against the sky, the thick green hemlocks and pines keep each house a secret from the next.

  She can’t see her house yet. She isn’t ready to see it, either. Her gut clutches.

  She stops several houses short of her own. She hasn’t mastered parallel parking. But she likes pulling over as if she could parallel park. Madison gets close to the curb and turns off the engine.

  Cheryl is probably at home. What is Madison going to say about being gone all this time and now being back?

  It’s my house. I don’t need to give an explanation.

  Her mouth is dry.

  She thinks of Tris. Against all odds, Madison loves the tiny brother who entered their lives at such high cost. She was the best at getting baby Tris to fall asleep. She rocked, sang, swaddled and walked the floor. Tris was always exactly the right weight in her arms. She loved his scent after a bath, the amazed expression on his little face when he started noticing the world, the belly laugh when Madison nibbled his bare toes.

  I’ve missed Daddy’s birthday. But I haven’t missed Tris’s. I’m home in time for his third birthday.

  She locks the Celica, even though this may be the lowest-crime zip code in the nation, and walks toward her house. The jutting garage will prevent Cheryl from seeing Madison approach. First, she’ll peek in the garage window to see if Cheryl’s big Lincoln is sitting there. Then she’ll decide.

  A van passes Madison. It’s white. Medium-sized. No windows except for the front seats. It sports a television station logo. On the roof is a tower of antennae, to let you know this isn’t a repair vehicle. It’s the camera crew.

  Madison never knew how the camera crews of last year arrived in the driveway so fast. Who called them? How had they known that Dad’s death was a story they’d want to follow for days? The TV van parked on Chesmore Road had induced strangers to stop and neighbors to call. Everybody wanted to be in on it. Television sucked them forward, like incredibly strong lips sucking on a straw, slurping every drop of the Fountain children’s lives.

  Madison slows her pace, waiting for the TV van to leave Chesmore.

  But it does not leave. It turns into a driveway.

  Madison’s heart falls while her body rockets forward. No! It can’t be her driveway!

  But it is.

  Something is wrong. What’s left to go wrong? Anything that can go wrong already has!

  Oh, Tris! Oh, Jack! Please be all right! I’m not back yet!

  Madison races to her front door.

  THE BUS IS HALFWAY TO BOSTON. NOBODY HAS ASKED SMITHY why she’s on the trip, probably because there are two classes and everybody figures she’s in the other one. She’s sitting alone, and maybe they figure she wants to be alone, although who ever does? But they’re not interfering.

  Smithy is lying down, curled up on the two-person bench so the teachers won’t turn around and spot her. Her skull is pressed against the armrest and her feet are twisted as if somebody is trying to pull them off.

  I left my postcards in my room, she thinks.

  Nothing else, not a single possession or piece of clothing, matters to her now. How strange. Because Smithy resented the postcards when they came.

  Every week Nonny sent a postcard to each grandchild. Over the years, she’d sent hundreds of them. Nonny wrote exactly the same message to every grandchild every time. Love you. Love, Nonny. When Nonny and Poppy visited the boarding school, Nonny bought a stack of postcards, and Smithy got card after card featuring her own location.

  Love you. Love, Nonny.

  Nonny and Poppy live far away. They are mainly loved because Mom and Dad said to love them. In fact, they are strangers who work hard in ordinary jobs, fifty weeks a year, and cannot easily visit. The few times they were able to come east, Dad bought their plane tickets. Nonny is a waitress. Poppy works in an office supply store. They enjoy their work. Their activities—gardening, church choir, softball league, line dancing, driving for Meals On Wheels—do not interest Smithy.

  Mainly the children know their grandparents by video connection. Once a week, at a prearranged time, Mom and Dad used to prime the children with topics to discuss: a school project, a ballet step, a sleepover. When they no longer had parents to set this up, it didn’t happen. Smithy and Madison couldn’t stand sitting in front of that screen, pretending to be happy, chatting with grandparents who were also pretending to be happy.

  Last summer, Nonny and Poppy took all their precious vacation time and traveled out east. They tried to collect the children for a reunion. Smithy was in summer school, but they drove up to see her. She lied and maneuvered to spend as little time with them as possible. Her grandparents, who love her.

  And yet it is with Nonny that Smithy has had the most profound conversation of her life.

  Tris wasn’t born yet. Smithy was eleven. She and Nonny were sitting on the tired old sofa pushed against the wall in the big kitchen/family room, tucked under one of Mom’s knit blankets. Mom liked color. No soft denim blue or vanilla lace. It was a wallop-you-in-the-eyes combination of orange and red.

  (Where is that blanket now? Where is anything now? The old saggy couch was the first thing Cheryl got rid of, when she was in charge at last.)

  On that day, Nonny and Smithy were alone. Mom was napping, Dad at work, Madison at a friend’s house, Jack at a ball game.

  Outside, the picketers chanted. The picketers weren’t early risers, which meant that Smithy and Jack and Madison could get to school without running into them. It was coming home that was tricky. Dad rented Nonny and Poppy a car with tinted windows so nobody could see in, and they picked the kids up at school, drove into the garage and waited for the automatic door to close behind them before anybody got out.

  “Do you think Mom is doing the right thing?” Smithy dared to ask her grandmother.

  “I don’t know if it’s right. But it is extraordinary. Your mother is brave. Any mother would lay down her life for her baby after it’s born. But your mother is laying down her life for her baby before it’s born.”

  A fifty percent chance, the doctor said, when he told Mom about her cancer. But only if she started chemo immediately.

  “I’m going to have a baby, though,” said their mother. “Chemo would damage my baby.”

  The doctor wasn’t interested. “Get rid of it,” he said, shrugging.

  At dinner, Mom repeated this conversation to her husband and her three children, who thought they would talk about dessert or the possibility of quitting piano lessons. “What do you get rid of?” demanded Laura Fountain. “Broken toys. Stained shirts. Not your baby.”

  Smithy was not paying attention to the baby part. She was paying attention to the cancer part. Her mother had a fifty percent chance of dying?

  “This baby,” announced their mother, and she was smiling—Smithy always remembers that smile—“is your brother or sister. I want him. Or her. Because our fourth baby will be wonderful, just like you.”

  A few days later, an ultrasound established that it was a boy. Mom was beaming. “He’s healthy,” she said excitedly.

  “You’re not,” pointed out the doctor. “You have to start chemo.”

  “No. I can make it,” said Mom confidently. “I’m tough. It’s only five more months. I’ll start chemo after the baby’s here.”

  “You’ll be dead before then. This cancer is invasive. You have to have chemo. We don’t have other weapons,” said the doctor brutally.

  Mom shrugged. She’d be the weapon. Her own determination would save her. She carefully prepared her children for what the doctors insisted would happen, but she always added
a disclaimer: “I’ll whip it.” Did she believe this? Or was it a gift to her children? Smithy never knew, because the end came so swiftly, there was no time for questions or answers.

  But on that day, on that sofa, Smithy buried her face against her grandmother, and Nonny said, “When I was a girl, decades ago, we said the baby always comes first. Now people say the mother always comes first. We say women have the right to make a choice, but we don’t mean it. We believe they have to make a particular choice. Here we are in your own house with the curtains pulled and the shades down so that strangers who accuse your mother of suicide and want to force her to have chemo can’t see in. Your mother isn’t paying attention. She’s made her choice and she’s ready.”

  “I’m not ready,” whispered Smithy.

  “Neither am I. But you know what, Smithy? You and your brother and sister have strong names. Smith. Jack. Madison. Those aren’t wimpy, weak, washout names. Those are names for people who lift their chins and keep going and wake up smiling. That’s what your mother is counting on. And so am I.”

  Lying on the bench in the school bus in the fetal position, Smithy admits at last why she doesn’t answer her grandparents’ e-mails, or send postcards of her own, or hang out with them when they visit.

  Smithy didn’t lift her chin and keep going. She cannot be counted on.

  The bus hits a bump and flings Smithy half off the seat. She struggles to a sitting position, rubbing her eyes to make it look as if she’d been sleeping, rather than weeping.

  They have not hit a bump. They are here. The teachers are already off the bus. Kids gather their stuff and exit single file.

  Smithy isn’t ready. She needs more time before she makes her decision. After all, she loves boarding school. It tells you what to do. It’s the most organized, well-packed box of life out there. If Smithy runs from boarding school, she’s smashing this life, too.

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