If the witness lied, p.8

If the Witness Lied, page 8

 

If the Witness Lied
 


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  But Jack is there.

  Of course he is.

  Jack lifts his big hands—hands that ought to be at football practice—as a net for his little brother. They both see her. Jack might be smiling. She pretends he’s smiling. She waves, even though she’s not sure Tris will know her at all, let alone from this distance. Tris waves back.

  Waving is one of Tris’s favorite activities, maybe his earliest. Talking comes late, and when Tris does start talking, he’s comically adult. At two, Tris doesn’t say “Me do it.” Tris says, “I do it also.” Tris loves the word “also.” I eat a cookie also. I throw the ball also. I drive the Jeep also.

  The media loved that sentence. “You do, Tris?” they baited him. “You drive the Jeep also?”

  Tris would nod, eager to demonstrate.

  Now Madison thinks, Why was Tris available to the media? Because every time there was a camera, Cheryl put him in front of it.

  * * *

  The train seems to brake for miles before the actual station, wasting precious seconds when Smithy could be home. Smithy can hardly wait to get off the train. It seems that a friend of Cheryl’s is visiting. He’ll pick Smithy up at the train station and bring her home. His name is Angus. “I showed him your picture,” confides Cheryl. “The really pretty one, when you were home over the summer and we went out for Sunday brunch. He’s driving a blue BMW. I’m so glad you’re coming home, Smithy! We’ve missed you so. This is simply wonderful!”

  Aunt Cheryl has never written to Smithy. Never e-mailed. Never phoned. But who cares? All along, the family wanted her. Even Aunt Cheryl wanted her.

  At last, the train stops and Smithy steps off.

  It’s one-thirty on the afternoon of November sixth, and her new life, or maybe her old one, is here.

  A high wind sweeps away clouds and rain. The sky is clear and blue and immense. It feels like God. Are her mother and father somehow up there, in some space or sphere called heaven?

  I’m sorry, she tells God. My baby brother needed love and I turned my back. I have the love. I just didn’t use it. Help me go home. Let me love all of them. Let them love me.

  The passengers head for a covered pedestrian overpass that leads to the parking lot. The stair is so high it’s funny. Lighthouses have this many steps. Smithy is in the best shape of her life because boarding school is crazy for athletic activity. It feels good to run up, because this time she’s running in the right direction. She dances across the walkway as the train below her roars out of the station, and then skitters down the other side.

  A handsome man, with beautifully white hair and wonderfully blue eyes, is waving at her. His hair isn’t old-age white; it’s sun-bleached blond. What a great smile he has! This is Cheryl’s friend? Smithy would have said Cheryl didn’t have any friends, never mind a great-looking one like this. But Smithy has an attitude. She’ll have to get rid of it. That’s the point of coming home. Down with attitude. Up with affection.

  “Your aunt Cheryl talks about you so much,” he says, “I feel as if we’re already friends. And don’t worry about the whole school runaway thing. That can be solved with a few phone calls. How was the train trip?”

  “Good.” Smithy is so excited she’s out of vocabulary. It’s a neat feeling, as if she’s all heart and soul. She’s vaguely aware of somebody with a monster camera filming the station. Probably a promotional thing. Not that November is a great advertisement for tourism in Connecticut.

  The blue BMW Cheryl mentioned is idling in the tow-away zone. Smithy darts over, and has to wait forever until Angus reaches his car. When he leaves the parking lot, there’s an annoying intersection to negotiate where he’ll turn left onto the Post Road and from there onto the thruway. Angus leans forward, studying traffic. He turns right.

  Smithy feels a bit of unease. The Post Road has red lights for miles. It’s slow. Nobody would choose it over I-95.

  Before she can tell Angus to turn around, he smiles at her. It’s too big a smile. Smithy’s unease deepens. Could he be Cheryl’s boyfriend? Has he moved in? Will her welcome home be diluted by this man and his huge smile? What if he’s become a stepfather to Jack? What if Tris calls him Daddy?

  Smithy will be the outsider. The classic nightmare: everybody knows something she doesn’t know. Everybody has alliances she doesn’t have.

  Smithy hates Angus now, which is embarrassing. Having just told God that she is all love, perfect love, she finds that her first thought is of hate. She laughs. “How do you happen to know Cheryl?”

  “Cheryl and I plan to embark on a project together.”

  This doesn’t sound like romance. What project would interest Cheryl, who is certainly not involved in civic affairs or studying for a degree?

  “I’m a television producer,” he says. “I have wonderful opportunities in life. Every month is an adventure. Cheryl and I have an adventure planned.”

  Cheryl? Adventures?

  “What shows do you watch on television?” he asks Smithy.

  Boarding school is a holdout against television. Study hours are enforced from Sunday through Thursday night, seven to nine-thirty P.M. Bedroom doors have to be open, and every student must be doing classwork. Computers, yes. Computer games or videos, no. Smithy can only tell Angus what she used to watch.

  But he has moved on. He names several reality shows—a family with skillions of children, a family whose children have disabilities, even a family with morbidly obese children. “Tons of fun to produce. So much drama.”

  “Wow,” she says, bored. She has never seen any of these. Smithy prefers cops, arrests and chases. It occurs to her that she can watch TV again, like a regular person. This is a nice bonus to coming home.

  “I see a McDonald’s!” cries Angus, as if he sees the skyline of Paris. “I’m starving. Let’s hit the drive-thru. What can I get you?”

  “Oh, nothing, thanks. I just want to get home.”

  “Smithy, I’d really love to get acquainted before there’s a big press of people around.”

  What does that mean? The only people who will press around are her family.

  He turns into McDonald’s. “Smithy, I want to do a documentary on the brave and beautiful Fountain children. Madison was just over at the house a few minutes ago, discussing it, and your aunt Cheryl is on her way to pick up Jack. It’ll be a portrait of courage and determination.”

  A documentary? On her? On Madison and Jack?

  It seems extraordinary that Madison and Jack would agree. Jack even shut down his Facebook page last year, as if he could close off all evidence of being a Fountain. If only Smithy had been home for the discussion. She’s missed so much. Thank goodness she’s here now. She won’t miss all of it.

  She sees herself lifting Tris for a hug. This time, the cameras will capture Smithy as a good sister instead of a rotten one. Maybe she’ll bake cookies, like Mom, and pour milk, and be the sister who keeps a home, not the one who abandons it. She sees Madison and Jack smiling gently in the background.

  She thinks, I didn’t bring any makeup.

  “THAT’S MADISON,” EXPLAINS JACK. “GO SAY HI.”

  “Madison?” repeats Tris, his interest piqued.

  What does her name mean to him? How much memory does an almost-three-year-old have? Does he recall her fleeting visits? Does he wonder why she didn’t stay?

  “Hi, Madison!” he shouts, running toward her. He allows Madison to hug him but quickly squirms away. Tris has always been an efficient hugger: squeeze and leave. He doesn’t leave this time. “You’re crying,” he says, worried.

  She’s not exactly crying. She loves him so much she’s soaked in tears. “The wind is in my eyes,” she fibs.

  Tris is wearing a baseball cap. Baseball was their father’s favorite sport. He’d have loved seeing Tris in that cap. Tris takes it off and gives it to Madison. “There. Now the wind can’t get in your eyes.”

  He’s going to be like Dad. Dad loved to give stuff away. She perches the cap on her head. “Than
k you, Tris.” Then she glares at Jack. “He’s soaking wet, Jack. All the playground equipment is wet. It’s too cold for him to be out here in that thin jacket. I don’t suppose you have a change of clothes for him.”

  He glares right back. “The first thing you do is nag? Drive away if that’s your best effort.”

  “Let’s go in the library, where it’s warm and his clothes will dry out.” She’s sorry to begin rudely, but she’s right. This has been the case all their lives. Madison is right more than anybody.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” says Jack, “and you are not right a higher percent of the time than I am.”

  “Feel his clothes.”

  “Okay, so they’re wet. So you’re right this time.”

  They’re laughing.

  “I’m not going inside again,” says Tris. “I don’t care if I’m wet.”

  “Last time you and I were here,” says Madison, “you were too little to climb the library tree house.”

  “The tree house!” he says scornfully. “I can get up that in a minute!”

  “Wow. Show me.”

  “Okay.” He races on ahead.

  Jack and Madison take up conversation as if they’ve never been separated; as if they last argued walking to the school bus this morning. “I need to apologize to Tris,” says Madison.

  “Don’t. He doesn’t know you did anything. He doesn’t know there is anything. It’s one reason I’m so mad at Cheryl about this television concept. There’s a chance—not a good one, but a chance—for Tris to escape what happened. And here she is, setting it up so there’s no escape. He’ll crash into that accident all his life. When he’s five and starting kindergarten. Eight and playing Little League. Out come the headlines. Each time it’s going to kick him in the face. Somebody is going to step away from him. ‘You’re that kid?’ they’ll say.”

  Tris is pushing himself against the heavy back door to the children’s room, but it won’t open. He isn’t strong enough. And what about the Jeep? Was he strong enough then? Could Cheryl—would Cheryl—really lie about such a thing? What kind of person would implicate a toddler?

  Madison opens the door for Tris. He charges in. Also just like Dad. All forward motion, all the time.

  The library is full of soft noise: terminals hum, librarians chat, pages turn, printers click. Tris does not pause at the temperature control panel placed too low or the adult computer terminal left on but not occupied. Even though Tris is the button master, he has a mission: to prove he can climb the tree house.

  “I’ve been thinking about what you said about the brake,” murmurs Jack. “But Mad, the thing is, if it wasn’t Tris, then it was Cheryl. And she couldn’t accidentally release a parking brake by accidentally reaching inside somebody else’s car, accidentally brushing against it and then accidentally locking the car after herself.”

  “I agree. And if somebody causes the death of somebody else, and it’s not an accident, then it’s a murder.”

  The sentence comes rather casually out of her mouth. But her own word—“murder”—assaults Madison, rolling down on her with the weight of a vehicle.

  When she walked away last winter, did she abandon her two brothers into the care of a murderer?

  * * *

  Angus Nicolson enters the drive-thru lane. Smithy just wants to get home, but she doesn’t want to offend him. He’s the producer. It’s only a ten-minute delay, she comforts herself.

  “What’s your favorite photograph of your mother?” asks Angus.

  Easy. The photo she uses as wallpaper for her cell phone.

  In this photograph, Tris is a week old. Mom is in bed, of course. Dad is sitting next to her, leaning on the headboard, holding Tris. Smithy and Madison are also sitting on the bed, smiling at the camera. Mom has lived through it. She’s fine, the baby is fine, everybody’s going to live happily ever after.

  Jack is standing beside the bed, and behind his sisters. He is elfin. Over the next few years, he’ll shoot up a foot and turn into a completely different person.

  Baby Tris is asleep. He’s a sleepy newborn. He opens his eyes, checks you out, has his bottle, goes back to sleep. Such a good boy! everybody exclaims.

  They don’t say it now.

  Smithy doesn’t show Angus this photograph. She’s never even been okay when Kate asks about the photograph.

  Kate!

  Smithy has forgotten that Kate exists. The world of boarding school—Smithy’s universe since February—vanished from her mind. Kate, with whom she had breakfast twice this very morning, seems as remote as her grandparents in Missouri.

  Angus puts his window down because it’s almost his turn to place an order. A gust of cold wet wind envelops Smithy. “What’ll you have?” Angus asks. He smiles his huge toothy smile.

  She is suddenly, massively, creeped out. What is she doing in a car with a total stranger—a man who could be anybody, a man who refuses to take her home? A man driving the long way instead of the short way?

  All of a sudden, he’s not just a stranger—he’s strange. This whole thing is strange.

  A feature on the Fountain family won’t showcase Mom the heroine or Dad the solid, steady great guy. It’ll showcase Tris, baby destroyer of families. It won’t be about beautiful people. It will be about raw pain. Hers. Jack’s. Madison’s.

  It will destroy Tris.

  Angus hasn’t asked yet about her favorite photograph of Tris. She’s got it on her phone too, and sometimes she can stand to look at it. Dad took it when Tris was learning to walk, a skill that consumed all of Tris’s time and attention. He woke up in the morning desperate to be lifted from the crib, hardly able to have breakfast, eager to start. He circled the coffee table a million times back when he still had to hold on, and as soon as he achieved unassisted walking, his goal was the stairs.

  For a toddler, stairs are enticing architecture. Smithy was the one willing to go up and down with him all day long. Tris didn’t know that turning around was treacherous, that his little feet would not stick to the stair. Smithy was his main catcher.

  Dad took a great shot of Smithy helping Tris down.

  In no time, stairs were history. Tris ran, crayoned, wore little blue jeans with stitching on the seams. Smithy turned up the cuffs so he’d be fashionable. He had little baseball shirts and little train engineer overalls. When he began talking, he was such fun, Smithy could hardly stand it.

  But to get Tris, they lost Mom.

  Smithy thinks of this every day, sometimes every hour.

  And every day, sometimes every hour, she thinks of her mother’s final assignment: you and Madison be the best big sisters on earth.

  Angus will want me to discuss that on television, she thinks now. That’s the point. Crawl inside their little hearts and souls, scrounge around, leave them stripped and sobbing in front of the world.

  “I have to hit the girls’ room,” she says casually, releasing her seat belt before Angus can end his smile. “Meet you in the parking lot.” She’s out, slamming the door behind her. Cars move forward and Angus has to drive up one. He cannot see her now and he cannot get out of line.

  Also caught in the take-out line is a TV van. Probably even vampires like French fries.

  Smithy darts in to find McDonald’s packed with teenagers—not surprising, since Saybrook High is next door. She peels off her jacket, turns it inside out so only the white fleece shows and walks out with a high school group. It happens so quickly that Angus probably hasn’t moved up a car length.

  The teenagers don’t notice her. They’re laughing hysterically at nothing much, crashing into each other on purpose and high-fiving. She walks faster than they do, using them as a screen.

  * * *

  Tris proves how quickly he can climb, while Madison and Jack take a position behind the beanbag chairs. They are not invisible to the librarian—the library is arranged so that there is no such thing—but the staff pays no attention. They think nothing of two teenagers and a toddler early one Friday
afternoon; home-schooled kids are here all the time.

  “Say you’re right,” says Jack. “Say Cheryl did it. Why? What would make her do that?”

  A TV cop show requires a complex, gruesome murder within the first minute. But this is life, where murder doesn’t happen. Only breakfast happens, and then school, and you outgrow your clothes and watch a little TV, and your friends come over.

  Madison has a hard time squashing a spider. She can’t watch Animal Planet because some poor dog gets hit by a car or some little meerkat roasts in the Kalahari sun. And she and her brother are actually discussing the possibility that their very own father, the one they need so much and can never replace, was killed by another person?

  Madison cannot think of a reason to kill anybody, never mind Dad. Furthermore, she isn’t just postulating that Cheryl killed Dad. She’s saying Cheryl blamed a two-year-old for it, thereby taking a second life—Tris’s. And now, Cheryl plans to chop it up, burn it and make a TV show out of it.

  “If we accused her, Cheryl would get a lawyer,” says Jack. “The lawyer will point out that individual vehicles behave individually. Some Jeep in a parking lot has nothing to do with Dad’s Jeep a year ago. I don’t think the police ever investigated, you know. Nobody ever asked for Dad’s stuff, not even his laptop and his briefcase. I have them in the attic over the garage. A real investigation includes fingerprints. If Aunt Cheryl had ever been questioned or fingerprinted, we’d know. She’d have whined for months.”

  No police investigation?

  It occurs to Madison that in letting go, the police might have been trying to help Tris. Maybe the cops had little boys of their own and just couldn’t go there. It’s a little kid, they probably thought, wincing. Make this nightmare longer and deeper? Nah, let’s drop it.

  “Or Cheryl could shrug and say Dad goofed up,” says Jack. “Didn’t quite get the car in neutral. Didn’t pull up the brake hard enough. Tris only had to touch it or fall against it. I wish we knew why Dad got out of the Jeep to start with.”

 
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