If the witness lied, p.6

If the Witness Lied, page 6


If the Witness Lied

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  Now they will look at Smithy differently. She bailed on her own family. Okay, fine, she’s home again. But is she marked, just as Tris is marked?

  * * *

  Angus Nicolson continues to beam at Madison. “We were on our way to the day care to get little Tristan, but we can do that later. Let’s sit down together, in your beautiful living room, with all the lovely colors your aunt chose. Gosh, what a warm and homey place this is. Of course I know you miss your poor mother so much. Come tell me about it.”

  A cameraman opens the door without knocking and shoulders his way in.

  “And of course, we’re counting on you, the big sister,” says Angus, “to lead the way.”

  Madison hears her mother: “You can handle this, darling. I’m counting on you. You’re the big sister.”

  This is what has killed Madison all these months. She may be the big sister, but she’s not the one anybody counts on.

  “It’s the anniversary, you see,” Angus says, as if Madison could have forgotten any of those terrible dates. She wants to scream, “You go near my little brother and I will rip your pathetic little smile right off your pathetic little plastic-surgeried face!” She remembers in time that there are cameras here. Great footage—the sister who runs out on her family spitting about the baby brother, as if she actually loves Tris and has a right to opinions.

  I do love Tris, thinks Madison.

  This is huge.

  The knowledge envelops the hallway and the people standing there. It inflates Madison’s lungs and softens her heart. She does love Tris.

  It’s why she’s home. She needs to tell her brothers she’s sorry, that she loves them. Will they give her another chance? She needs Mom and Dad to be listening—and maybe they are, because Madison cannot believe that they’re just so much road-kill; they have to be somewhere, waiting for Madison to come home.

  First, the home needs to be emptied of strangers. “Cheryl, did you invite these people here?”

  “Madison, you are not part of this household anymore. I make the decisions.”

  “What decision did you make?”

  “I feel it can only help us, Maddy, in our divided situation, to air things in front of a psychiatrist and begin to feel our way forward into healing.”

  “In other words, you called a TV station and asked them to do some sort of program.”

  “Not some sort of program,” says Angus Nicolson warmly. He is still smiling. The smile is a separate creature that lives on his face and has nothing to do with his words. “An in-depth look, Madison. It will be cleansing. It will bring out the facts. It will showcase you and your sister and brother as the beautiful people you are, and your aunt as the fine woman you are so fortunate to have.”

  Madison must not do anything that could merit recording such as bare her teeth and snarl. She walks into the kitchen as if there’s nothing on her mind but a good snack. She stops dead.

  There is not one trace of Laura Fountain left in her own kitchen. Mom’s sunny yellow paint is now beige. Her shelves of cookbooks have been replaced by rows of collectible snow babies. The tiny oil paintings of red-hot zinnias are gone. The front of the refrigerator displays no children’s art. The wooden platter of lemons and limes is not there. Even the dish towels are not Mom’s.

  Angus is breathing on her hair, a creepy little breeze. “You and I, Madison, we’ll start getting acquainted today. Lay the groundwork.”

  Madison wants to kick holes in walls and dents in shins. Instead, she detours around Angus and takes the stairs. “I don’t have time for chitchat. I’m just here to pick up a few things in my room.”

  She doesn’t think even a television producer will have the nerve to follow her, but she’s wrong. Angus trots right up. “I’m going to the bathroom,” says Madison. She stands motionless, midstairs, until he yields and goes back down.

  Madison slides gratefully into the sanctuary of her room. The quilt Mom made out of Madison’s summer camp T-shirts is not in evidence. Not one poster, book jacket or CD cover is still taped to the wall.

  In the middle of a bare desk—in her whole life, Madison has never had a bare desk—lies a stack of postcards. She doesn’t have to read them. Love you. Love, Nonny, they say. Madison’s eyes prickle. Her grandmother has kept writing, every week, putting that stamp on, going to the post office, the way she has since the day Madison learned to read. It doesn’t seem like Cheryl to save the postcards. It must be Jack.

  Madison doesn’t communicate with anybody if she can avoid it. And still the postcards come. Love you. Love, Nonny.

  Madison wants her parents so fiercely she’s afraid she’ll bawl. The sound of sobs will bring the TV crew running. She feels her way down the hall to her parents’ room as if she’s gone blind.

  The worst has happened. Cheryl Rand’s jewelry is strewn on Mom’s dresser. Cheryl Rand’s makeup collection covers both Mom’s and Dad’s side of the bathroom counter. This is no longer the house of Reed and Laura Fountain.

  Then it hits her.

  These people—this Angus, this bad hair woman, that camera crew—are on their way to get Tris at the day care. They don’t mean to pick him up. They mean to get him on film.

  * * *

  Dr. Dresser summons Kate to the administration building.

  Kate is terrified. Either somebody she loves has been in a car accident or she’s failed some crucial test of knowledge or moral character. But when she bursts into Dr. Dresser’s office, the woman simply looks annoyed. “It seems that Smith Fountain stowed away on the art class bus trip to Boston. Did she discuss her plans with you?”

  Kate is astonished. Why on earth would anybody stow away on a bus trip to the Museum of Fine Arts? Especially Smithy?

  “Smith texted me,” says Dr. Dresser. “She claims to be on the train, going home. I called her aunt. Mrs. Rand is thrilled. Clapping, in fact. She says the timing is just right. What timing, Kate? What is going on? Is Smithy really on the train?”

  Smithy finds time to text Dr. Dresser but not Kate? On a train, where there’s nothing but time? Her own roommate! Her best friend on campus! The one Kate’s never interrogated in spite of the thousand questions she has. This roommate runs away and Kate is the last to know? “She didn’t say anything,” says Kate casually.

  Dr. Dresser glares at her, clearly believing Kate knows every detail. After some pointless arguing, Dr. Dresser lets her go.

  Kate leaves the administration building. The empty campus looks alien. She is not in the mood for class. She storms back to their room. Her room, now that Smithy’s abandoned it.

  When four hundred kids find out that Smith Fountain hasn’t even bothered to let her roommate know she’s running away from boarding school—a thing Kate has never even heard of, because if you want to leave, you just call your family and they come!—Kate will have to lie and tell everybody she knew all along.

  She’s too angry to cry. After all she’s done for Smithy!

  When Smithy arrived last February, the only new kid for second semester, Dr. Dresser gave Kate a brief outline of Smithy’s situation and told her to be understanding. Kate mostly understood that she wanted to get on the Internet and do a little research. The results of that research were so shocking, Kate figured this girl Smithy would cry herself to sleep every night.

  But Smithy, thanks to Kate, adjusted perfectly. They are good roommates and best friends, and Smithy is a welcome houseguest over many long weekends and every vacation.

  Kate finds a pack of cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers, flings herself backward on her mattress and rips open the cellophane. Too bad she can’t rip Smithy as easily.

  What a traitor.

  * * *

  A phone is ringing. Madison pays no attention. For months, she has lived where any phone call is for the Emmers, and any call for Madison is to her cell. She can hear Cheryl answering downstairs in the front hall, where there’s a fat old telephone on a small table below a large mirror. Mom used to love that phone; she said it m
ade her feel like an actress in a 1960s movie.

  Madison shuts the door to Mom and Dad’s bedroom so she can think. She is the oldest. She has to behave like it for a change.

  Step one. Don’t let these people near Tris.

  At Dad’s desk, now Cheryl’s, Madison flips through the phone book, finds the number for Tris’s day care, and calls on her cell phone. Madison tries to remember the woman’s real name. She does not want to use that silly nickname, Griz.

  “Cradle Care,” a voice answers.

  It comes to her. “May I please speak to Mrs. Grisjevsky?” Madison moves Cheryl’s mouse pad. Underneath are the carved initials RF. Madison traces them with her finger.

  “This is Mrs. Griz.”

  Deep breath. “This is Madison Fountain, Tris Fountain’s sister. I understand from Mrs. Rand, my mother’s former stepsister, that there is a plan to film my brother during the hours he is entrusted to your care. You know that it would not be good for a little boy to suffer even more, and I know you’d never agree to allow your wonderful school to be invaded by people who don’t care what happens to Tris. So I’m calling to reinforce your decision not to allow it. Mrs. Rand has her heart set on a TV documentary. But I know you’ll put Tris first, as you always have, thinking only of what’s best for him.” Madison’s hands are sweaty.

  “But they’re on their way,” says Mrs. Griz wistfully.

  Television. It’s like some sort of god. People yearn to bow in front of it, to please it, to be part of it. Madison tries again. “They can’t get inside unless you buzz them in.”

  Mrs. Griz says nothing.

  Madison has no more arguments, so she closes the conversation briskly and cheerfully. “Thanks, Mrs. Griz. I knew Tris could depend on you.” Tris knew he could depend on his big sister Madison, too, and look where it got him.

  Mrs. Griz speaks quickly. “Since Jack picked Tris up early, of course they won’t be recording today. We’ll just discuss details today. I’m sure there’s a way to please everybody.” In other words, she’s totally on board with the TV plan.

  Madison disconnects without saying good-bye. Nice mature behavior, she compliments herself sarcastically.

  Jack has already picked Tris up? That sounds like him, sacrificing all for his little brother. But Friday during school? Do they have a half day or something?

  He’ll tell her when they talk. Luckily these people don’t know about her car—well, Cheryl knows, but Cheryl is way too excited to ask herself how Madison got here.

  Madison cannot summon the courage to phone Jack, who once again is doing the right thing—saving Tris—as opposed to Madison, who drove up by accident, stumbled into a situation and can’t even call off the day-care part. Madison takes the coward’s way out and texts Jack.

  * * *

  The headmistress studies her paper folder on Elizabeth Smith Fountain. Smithy is a great kid, but then, Dr. Dresser thinks most of her students are great kids. What Smithy mainly is, is stranded. And like a beached sea creature, she’s hard to help.

  Dr. Dresser thinks of the stepaunt who has never, not once, driven up to visit. The stepaunt who was laughing, maybe even snickering, at the idea of Smithy heading home.

  Dr. Dresser picks up the phone.

  * * *

  Jack has to buy himself some time.

  Normally Cheryl couldn’t care less when Jack takes Tris. But this is different: it interferes with Cheryl’s plans to get on television. She is never without her cell phone, so he texts.

  Tris + I at soccer game. Home 4 supper.

  This too presents problems. It’s now twelve-fifteen. What’s he going to do for the next five or six hours? No three-year-old boy—and for that matter, no fifteen-year-old boy—can just sit around that long.

  Jack can’t believe he’s still fifteen. He feels as if he’s been fifteen for years. The Fountain family dates pile up in winter—Dad and Tris with November birthdays, Jack and Madison in January, Smithy in February. Oh, to be sixteen.

  Even the slowest pedaling eventually moves a bike to the next block. Jack is now approaching the library. The pretty little central dome is what’s left of the original library from 1888. Wings have been added every twenty or thirty years. The children’s room, extending out the back, is the newest.

  Jack locks his bike to the rack, in full view of every arriving vehicle. Not that Cheryl reads, uses the library or would think of coming here. Still.

  “Where’s the soccer game?” asks Tris.

  “It starts later,” says Jack, which isn’t wholly a lie. If there were a soccer game and they were going, it would start later.

  Tris is fine with that because he loves the library. Freed from his bicycle seat, he races on ahead. “I’m going to climb the tree!” he shouts, because the children’s room features a tree house to read in. “And drive the boat!” because there’s a real dinghy filled with pillows. “And then build castles!” because the fat red cardboard bricks are such fun to pile up and knock down.

  The picture-book side of the children’s wing is filled with bins, low tilted shelves and regular library shelves. Jack takes an armchair, but this isn’t good enough for Tris, who races from one tree house window to the next. “Watch me, Jack!” he shouts. Jack circles below him, saying, “I see you!”

  Jack often wonders what Tris thinks about. Tris lives in the present, as far as Jack can tell. At least, he hopes so, because the past is grim and the future is iffy.

  His cell phone rings. Dreading Cheryl’s response, Jack looks at his phone through slitted eyelids.

  It’s Madison. He’s astonished. Madison, calling Friday during school? Madison, calling ever?

  “No cell phones!” calls the distant librarian in a friendly voice.

  Jack nods and waves. He reads the text.

  am home. cheryl plans tv show 4 tris. Where r u?

  must talk.

  Jack is sick. Cheryl already has Madison lined up. Madison’s job is to bring Jack around.

  He’s been thinking of his sisters as allies. Unavailable, but allies. Of course this isn’t true. They are so completely not allies that they don’t even stay home and pretend.

  At first, when Madison’s godparents took her for the weekend, Jack figured she’d be home on Monday. But she was gone all the next week, as if there were no such thing as school. Then he found out Madison had enrolled in another school! The Emmers’ school district! She came home for clothes and Jack tried to ask her about it, but he couldn’t form a sentence.

  His younger sister had no convenient godparents. Mom and Dad didn’t get around to booking people for that duty with Smithy or Jack. What Smithy had was a set of beloved mystery books where the heroine lives at boarding school. Smithy went online, did a little research, presented a convincing argument to their trustee, Wade, and in a few weeks, she too left home.

  Where r u? must talk.

  Madison is right about that. Jack has to make her see how lousy this is. He can’t call from here, not with the librarian eyeing him. He can’t have Tris listening, either. And now that Tris is happy up in the tree house, he won’t want to leave. Jack will have to drag him out, and Tris will grab table legs and computer wires to prevent it from happening. Jack doesn’t have the time or energy for a scene. “Do you have to go potty?” he whispers up to Tris. “Want to go out in the woods with me and spray a tree? Like beagles?”

  Tris is thrilled. He opens his mouth to shout “Yes!” but Jack puts up a finger. “Ssshhh. It’s a secret. Librarians don’t like it. We have to tiptoe.”

  Tris lets Jack swing him down from the tree house and together they sneak out of the library to return Madison’s message and piss on a few trees. Jack can think of a few people he’d like to piss on.

  * * *

  Smithy stares out the window. The route is low on scenery—the backs of warehouses and a gravel pit. But the road home is always beautiful. Even when you’re scared of home.

  Smithy holds her cell phone like a pet, stroking it, so
othed by it. Maybe she’ll text her brother and sister. During the next passing period between classes, they’ll check for messages. Then they’ll know she’s on her way. They’ll have time to think about it, get ready for it. And maybe be glad about it.

  The train crosses Rhode Island. In a minute, Smithy will be in Connecticut.

  The train does not stop at her own town. She can get off in Saybrook, which comes first, or ride past her town and get off in New Haven. Either way means a fifteen- or twenty-minute drive to her house. She’ll need a ride. She has to call Cheryl.

  The train is now in Connecticut. Smithy is breathing hard, as if approaching a finish line where there will be a ribbon to break.

  We can be a normal family, she tells herself. Well, okay, we can be a family.

  She’s smiling when the phone rings.

  It’s Cheryl.

  MADISON STEELS HERSELF TO WADE THROUGH THE CROWD OF staring strangers at the bottom of the stairs. In their midst, Cheryl is bursting with delight. “Guess what, Madison! Smithy’s on her way home! I talked to the headmistress and just got off the phone with Smithy herself. Smithy’s on the train! She is so happy. She agrees that we’re ready for a breakthrough. She can’t wait to get here and be part of this wonderful forward motion.”

  You would think that the two deserting sisters would have stayed in touch. But what they’ve done is so wrong, they can’t admit it to anyone—each other least of all. Madison, home at last, admits she’s been looking for an excuse to come back. Dad’s birthday and a stranger’s Jeep sent the message she’d been wanting—go home. Of course Smithy feels the same.

  But this excuse? All four children in front of cameras? Recording every sad, angry, mixed-up thought? Betraying their mother and father? Admitting how they feel (how do they feel?) about their baby brother?

  She imagines Cheryl emceeing. Making sure her new wall colors are presented in the best light. Going to the mall, shopping for the clothing in which she will parade Tristan Fountain.

  Madison wants to question Cheryl, preferably using instruments of torture. Are they paying you? Or is this so much fun that you’re paying them?

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