If the Witness Lied, page 5
Smithy steps into the aisle. Walks forward. Now she’s next to the driver. She’s on the top step.
The teachers move toward the museum entrance.
Smithy tugs her tangerine hood over her hair, steps off the bus, goes the other way around it and crosses the street in the middle of the block. When she gauges that the bulk of the bus is between her and the museum entrance, she glances back.
Nobody is looking.
She flies down the sidewalk, galloping to the corner. Safely around the bend, she flags a taxi. “Back Bay Station, please.” Smithy sinks down in the seat as if enemy agents are after her.
She has no idea what the train schedule is, but she’s in luck. There’s a train at eleven-forty. She buys the ticket with her rarely used ATM card and decides to get a hundred dollars cash back. The twenty-dollar bills are so exciting to a person who leads a shopping-free life. She has a vision of hitting the malls with her sister, and Madison saying, Why would I want your company? You didn’t want ours.
Smithy gets a blueberry muffin, an orange juice and a fashion magazine and finds a seat. She can’t eat, drink or turn the pages. The art teachers may not realize they are down one student, but some kid will say, “Where’s Smithy?” and panic will set in. The field trip will be ruined and the teachers will be in trouble.
Smithy needs to notify the school. She’ll wait until the train leaves the station and they can’t get her back. Then she’ll text, that wonderful method of communication where you aren’t available for questioning.
They can’t arrest me for going home, she tells herself. Aunt Cheryl can’t ship me back, either. I’m too old and tall for shipping.
Suddenly she is wildly happy.
* * *
Mrs. Griz pats her hair and straightens her blouse. “Your aunt Cheryl is on her way over here with a friend of hers,” she tells Jack. “A producer! He’s looking into doing a television special.”
How well Jack remembers this tone of voice. The hot, thick anticipation of somebody who might get on TV.
After they gave him Dad’s wallet and watch, a friendly cop drove him home from the hospital. His sisters were told by phone that Dad hadn’t made it. (That was what the adults said: “Your father didn’t make it.” As if it were Dad’s fault.)
Somehow Jack got out of that police car. The door felt exceptionally heavy. His body seemed equally heavy, and hard to maneuver.
In spite of the cold, everybody was still outside.
Madison and Smithy were near the Jeep, staring at nothing. They looked very thin and young. They were not wearing jackets. They were shivering.
Aunt Cheryl was out on the faded grass, reciting her story to a garden of microphones, which stuck up like metal flowers in her face. Tris, no longer crying, sat on the bottom step of the front porch, absorbed by a favorite toy—a heavy-duty picture book with magnetized cardboard cars to drive around the illustrations. He had a cylinder of Oreo cookies that one of his sisters must have brought to keep him quiet.
Tris was weirdly alone: no aunt and no sister near him. Only television cameras. When Tris saw Jack, he broke into his beautiful smile and offered his brother a cookie. Unusually for a two-year-old, Tris loved to share. Jack made it over to his baby brother and lifted him up—Oreos, picture book, magnets and all.
Into Jack’s face was thrust a microphone held by a pretty blond woman Jack recognized from the local news. She was always pacing down the main street of some area town, asking how people felt about the weather or the price of gasoline. She leaned toward Jack. “How do you feel?” she said lovingly.
Jack’s eyes didn’t focus. That was how he felt.
He took a step toward his house, and she took one too, moving the microphone even closer. “Your baby brother killed your mother by being born. Now the same little brother has killed your father. How do you feel toward him?”
Jack dropped the toys, but not his brother, planning to smash the woman’s mouth and the terrible question she’d shoved at him. The officer blocked him, fast enough to stop Jack’s fist from connecting but not fast enough to camouflage the attempt. This moment was one of the most-watched videos on the Internet that week.
Now, at the exit to her day-care center, Mrs. Griz stands as close to Jack as that microphone was. “It’s so exciting,” she whispers. “TV crews right here!”
Tris loves words. He repeats anything Jack says, so if Jack is studying chemistry, and Tris sits with him, the next day he’ll hear Tris murmur, “Covalent. pH scale.” Jack cannot repeat anything Mrs. Griz says or Tris will pick it up. “Pretty neat, huh?” says Jack. “Be sure to get all the details ironed out,” he adds, going out the door. “I have a half day in school, so Tris and I are headed for a soccer game. Have a nice weekend.”
Outside, Jack lowers Tris into the child seat on the back of his bike. It takes forever to strap Tris in and get his helmet fastened, because Jack’s fingers have thickened and he fumbles. Tris wants to know what’s in Jack’s backpack, but Jack doesn’t feel like discussing it. Tris moves on to the secret adventure. “Smithy plays soccer. Are we going to see Smithy?”
When it all went down, Smithy enrolled herself in boarding school. Fourteen years old and she figured out how. Jack is still amazed. He never figured out anything. After the funeral, after Nonny and Poppy flew back to Missouri, Jack was possessed by the fear that he would somehow lose another member of his family. He didn’t go out for sports. When each school day was over, he rushed home to do a head count.
He was right to be afraid. In a matter of weeks, both his sisters left.
Tris mainly knows Smithy from the scrapbook. Jack can see Mom now, sitting up in bed, choosing photographs, writing captions, ensuring that her fourth baby would have something to remember her by. Tris sleeps with it, as if it’s a bunny or a blankie. The most-requested bedtime story is for Jack to go through the album. “And this is Daddy,” Jack will say, pointing. “And this is Mommy. Here’s Madison playing tennis. Here’s Smithy playing soccer. And here is baby Tris.”
“We aren’t going to see Smithy today,” he tells Tris. Or ever, as far as Jack knows. Sometimes he misses his sisters so much he goes into his failure-to-breathe mode. Other times he can’t even remember what they look like.
Jack has no choice of roads. He has to leave the day care by the same route he came in. He checks traffic. No BMW. No Lincoln. He crosses the Post Road, turns down a side street that won’t take Cheryl to the day care, so it’s probably safe, and now he is approaching the railroad station.
They are on the Boston to New York track, but no through trains stop here. This is a local commuter station. The city of New Haven is its only destination; people continuing to New York have to change trains. But even if Jack and Tris could hop on a train and get out of here, then what? You have to have supper wherever you’re going. You have to sleep somewhere. Take a shower in the morning. Have breakfast. Jack literally doesn’t have a dime, but even if he had a thousand dollars, how could he run with a three-year-old?
Jack’s only reliable rescuer is Diana. But this isn’t babysitting for an hour. This is Tris’s life—weeks and months and years in which Jack has to protect his little brother, because that’s what he promised.
“You be the best big brother there is, okay?” said his mother. She was too weak to sit up, but she was smiling because the baby was healthy. “He’s going to have a good life,” she told Jack. “Now you help Daddy. He’s going to need you and this is hard for him.”
“I’ll help Daddy,” he promised. He was twelve. He didn’t know how bad it was going to get. But neither did Mom.
How is Jack to give Tris this good life Mom had in mind? Being featured as a monster and a parent killer on national TV is not going to launch Tris on a good life. One good thing, Jack realizes: Cheryl won’t stick Tris in foster care when she’s portraying herself as the Good Aunt, the Only Hope, the woman these children are So Lucky to have.
And now Jack has to call the girls, which he hates doing. He gets cau
Jack reconsiders flight.
If he takes off with Tris, Aunt Cheryl will call the police. She’ll love calling the police. Any attention is good attention. Jack running away would just add more scope. And bringing in the police could help Cheryl. Aside from creating a nice scene in a docudrama, if Jack runs away from home with a three-year-old and no money in cold weather on a bike, Cheryl can probably put Jack in foster care.
So there’s nowhere to run.
But if he takes Tris home, they walk into the arms of the producer.
Tris is chattering about nothing, strings of marvelous words and miscellaneous thoughts. He reaches up under Jack’s jacket and latches his fingers on to the belt loops of Jack’s jeans.
Jack’s emotions suck the strength out of him. He’s barely pedaling. The bike is coming to a stop.
* * *
The rear of the TV van in Madison’s driveway opens up and people climb out, as if they’re appliance deliverymen. Madison is running as fast as she can. She circles the van and almost smashes into a little blue car. Leaping up the steps, she rips open the front door, and plows to a halt.
Cheryl is standing right there, badly startled by Madison’s sudden entrance, which is reasonable, because Madison hasn’t walked through this door since Labor Day.
Beside her is a middle-aged man.
Cheryl is well dressed, as if she’s off to a bridge game and luncheon at a fine restaurant. She’s a heavy woman who carries her weight well. Her hair is dyed ash-blond and around her throat a scarf is pinned at a jaunty angle. She’s just had a manicure in her favorite dark vermilion polish, a sort of dead red. Cheryl’s fingers are long and attractive and she’s proud of them. She does not seem frightened or worried, so maybe nothing’s happening. But then what’s up with the television van?
Cheryl’s amazement gives way to a smug little smile. “Madison. Darling. What a treat.” She rests her fingers lightly on Madison’s shoulders and gives her air kisses.
Madison is not a treat. Madison has consistently been the rude kid in the family, the one who never calls this woman Aunt, because she isn’t one.
Mom’s mother, Grandma Smith, died when Madison was little. Poor Grandpa Smith, in a moment of loneliness, remarried a woman with an adult daughter named Cheryl. The second marriage was not just a mistake—it was a disaster. It was over almost before it began. There was an embarrassing divorce. When Grandpa had a heart attack a few years later, neither the ex-wife nor the ex-stepdaughter came to his funeral, which was fine, because hardly anybody remembered that they existed.
Mom had been dead more than a year when Cheryl Rand appeared at their door. Such a tragedy! she cried. I just heard! I’m going through a career change, taking time off to find myself. Please let me pitch in and help my dear dead sister’s family.
In what way, Madison wanted to know, were Laura Fountain and Cheryl Rand dear to each other? Laura Fountain—sender of Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween and Valentine’s Day cards—did not have Cheryl in her address book. Laura Fountain—happy keeper of a thick birthday diary—did not have Cheryl’s birthday listed either.
Dad let Cheryl have the guest room for a day or two because he couldn’t think of a nice way to say no. Cheryl was a huge help. From groceries on the shelf to laundry in the drawers, from driving the older children to their circuit of games and rehearsals and orthodontic appointments and friends’ houses, to returning videos on time and being home for the furnace repairman, Cheryl smoothed out their chaotic household.
Cheryl loved the house itself, not the family. She did not take care of Tris, who continued to attend day care, dropped off and picked up by Dad. Dad frequently muttered something about “sending Cheryl packing,” but instead he paid her a salary. He tried to treat her like an employee and not a pretend aunt, but Cheryl wasn’t having it. If Dad introduced her as Ms. Rand, she’d say, “I’m the children’s aunt Cheryl.”
What has it been like for Jack living with this woman all these months?
Madison’s gut shudders at the extent to which she has abandoned her brothers.
Next to Cheryl, in Madison’s front hall, stands a middle-aged man Madison has never seen before. A smile inches across his face and gets a good grip. He extends his hand for Madison to shake. Bringing his other hand forward, he clasps hers in both of his.
He’s staring at her way too intently. What has she stepped into? Is Cheryl dating this man? When he abandons her hand, Madison feels in her pocket, checking for her cell phone, in case she needs to call 911.
“Madison, a joy to meet you. I’m Angus Nicolson. I’m a television producer. You’ve come at just the right time. Your aunt and I have wonderful news. You’re going to be on television!” he proclaims, clearly expecting Madison to jump up and down with joy. “We’re setting up a beautiful, gentle program, in which we’ll follow the tragic circumstances of your beautiful family. Your case is so unusual, so heartrending.”
Madison has picked the absolute worst minute to come home. A media minute.
This man is standing here as if he owns the place, because he thinks he does. That’s what it is to be television.
The Fountains have faced the media three times: Mom’s decision, then Mom’s death, then Dad’s death. To the media, this is not a grieving family. It’s a story. It’s public property. More precisely, it’s their property.
“Let’s all sit down for a little chat,” says Angus Nicolson, his arm encircling her. “Madison, you are just a beautiful young woman. I can’t wait to do a screen test on you.”
Cheryl can barely restrain herself. She presses her fingertips together, jouncing them, a sort of clapping prayer position.
Behind Angus Nicolson stands a short, squat woman with no makeup, her hair falling out of a casual ponytail, her sweatshirt baggy and her jeans old. She has a notebook in her hand and a camera on a strap. It isn’t an impressive movie camera—not the big, sturdy kind that takes a strong shoulder. But it will film.
The children had to wade through the media to attend their own mother’s funeral. As for Dad’s, when it became clear that gawkers, reporters and distant acquaintances would fill the pews, the minister suggested a private funeral; the following day, he’d hold a memorial service open to the public, which the children need not attend.
Cheryl had been opposed to anything private. People kept asking her what she’d seen of the accident, and she kept telling them. She loved telling them. She wept well in public.
The children were unable to argue and the minister lost the argument with Cheryl.
Don’t look at the cameras, Reverend Phillips advised the children. And don’t use the reporters’ names. A name lets them creep into your life.
Angus Nicolson and the woman with bad hair are not creeping. They are staking a claim, and Cheryl is glad.
SMITHY HAS A FEELING THE HEADMISTRESS WON’T LIKE SLANG OR abbreviations. Carefully she texts:
Dear Dr. Dresser, Sorry to worry you. Going home
for good by train. Thanks for everything. Smith Fountain.
There. The boarding-school stage of Smithy’s life is over.
She stares out the window as the New York—bound train whips past little Massachusetts stations. Normal towns, where normal commuters park in normal lots, have normal jobs and go home to normal families.
When it happened—when Smithy’s family was forever separated from “normal”—Smithy was in her bedroom. She wasn’t paying attention to anything or anybody. She was online, happily seeing what various friends had posted. The scream alerted her. Who had screamed—Cheryl in horror, Dad
The scream pitched Smithy out of her chair and out of her house. There at the edge of the driveway stood Aunt Cheryl. Her hands were over her mouth and strange bleating sounds were coming out. The Jeep was halfway down the driveway. Madison was bending over something.
When the long day had finally ended, something was wrong in Smithy’s brain. She could no longer see in color. Television was blurry, leaping nonsense, so she stopped watching. She couldn’t hear well either. Music was racket. She stopped listening. She seemed to swim in slow motion through a black-and-white movie filled with strangers.
Nonny and Poppy flew in. Smithy had trouble recognizing them. They were desperately sad: they had outlived their only child. They stood, or swayed, or sat with no more idea what to do next than the children.
In the street, strangers gathered. Cars slowed down. Reporters flocked. A tabloid newspaper fell in love with the tragedy. “Baby Boy Kills Dad” was one day’s headline. “Toddler Who Caused Mother’s Death Now Causes Father’s” was another.
“What can we do to help?” their grandparents asked Cheryl.
“Everything’s under control. You just sit on the sofa,” said Cheryl, scurrying to give another interview.
Nonny took Tris into the spacious kitchen, where the old couch was tight against the wall. Tris rode his toddler trike over the vinyl floor, around the kitchen island and up to the sofa, where he chatted with anybody sitting there.
One day a reporter took photographs right through the kitchen window. Nonny called the police. Then she pulled the little curtains so nobody could see in. Nobody could see out, either. The room, like their hearts, was dark.
Nobody knew what to do with Tris. He just went on being Tris. He was two. He didn’t know anything. Every now and then he asked for Daddy. “Daddy come home now?”
Because he was cute and smart and always surrounded by an adoring family, Tris expected everybody to look at him. He had no idea that they were looking at him differently.
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