If the witness lied, p.9

If the Witness Lied, page 9


If the Witness Lied

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  “He was rescuing a stray cat?” suggests Madison. “Getting the newspaper? Or he dropped something? Or Cheryl did and Dad had to squat down and reach under the Jeep to get it?”

  “But then Cheryl would know why Dad got out of the Jeep, and she’s always said she doesn’t.”

  “But if she could be a murderer, then she could be a liar, too.”

  They try to think of a reason for Cheryl Rand to lose every bit of control and decency. Why destroy the very person giving her a home and salary?

  Before Cheryl showed up, by far the most difficult part of life was just getting to stuff. Every sport, club, group, play, activity and friendship required a car and a driver. The Fountain kids walked, biked, begged for rides, took late buses and were generally a pain in the neck to coaches, teachers and other parents. Dad hired housekeepers. None of these women worked out. They didn’t stay or couldn’t be counted on or did the wrong things. And they didn’t chauffeur. Dad cut back his workday, but even so he could barely drop Tris off at day care and still pick him up within the time allowed. The baby spent half his life in a car seat, while Dad kept track of Madison, Jack and Smithy on his cell phone and drove all over town dropping one kid off, grabbing take-out dinners, eating on the run, picking up the next kid.

  Call me Aunt Cheryl! cried this long-lost semi-relative, appearing out of nowhere.

  Nobody was actually fond of Cheryl Rand. In fact, they were glad Tris was in day care, spending his time with people who were crazy about kids. Cheryl was crazy about the house. She had a great place to live and a good salary. If she wanted more money, she could have asked for a raise or found another job. She wouldn’t have had to kill.

  And if she’d been planning to kill, she wouldn’t have chosen a method as iffy as a moving car. What are the odds you could even bruise somebody that way, let alone kill them? The chances are much better that the victim would just jump out of the way.

  Madison slides into a daydream—not for the first time—in which Dad jumps out of the way.

  “Maybe Dad decided to fire her,” guesses Jack. “He told Cheryl he appreciated all she’d done, here’s a good-bye check, hit the road.”

  Madison can imagine Cheryl having been upset if she’d gotten fired. But upset enough to kill? “There has to be more to it. Maybe Dad found out that Cheryl was buying herself shoes with the money Dad gave her for the house. Or she locked Tris in his room so she could watch TV in peace.”

  Tris can tell they’re talking about something interesting. He climbs down from the tree house. All interesting discussion comes to a halt. Tris looks at them suspiciously.

  “Guess what I have in my backpack,” says Jack.

  Instantly Tris is excited. “What?”

  “The fire truck!”

  Madison even knows what fire truck it is. Nonny and Poppy brought it when they visited last summer—that awful failed visit when nobody made an attempt to talk to their grandparents because nobody knew what to say. The truck pops, sirens, squeals and grunts. It has red and yellow blinking lights. It needs four batteries. One is always dead.

  Jack shrugs out of his backpack and Tris joyfully gets to work on the Velcro closure. Tris doesn’t seem to mind how hard it is, he just keeps at it. Is this evidence that he did move the brake? Kept shoving and pulling until he got it to work?

  Jack does not help with the Velcro. Madison would have helped from the start. In fact, she would have done it herself. At last Tris succeeds in separating the layers and looks up, face shining with satisfaction. Then he reaches inside. “It’s not my fire truck, Jack,” he says in disappointment. “It’s a shoe.”

  “Oh, right.” Jack pulls out two boots. Now Tris finds the fire truck at the bottom. “Go see if the batteries are working,” Jack orders. “See if the truck can go all the way to the windows and back.”

  Tris sets off.

  Jack rotates the right boot until the carved initials are facing him.

  Madison catches her breath. “Are those Dad’s work boots? You carry them around?”

  He tells her about Diana’s warning, how Cheryl was going to declutter his room. How he raced home to save the boots, or actually their contents, and overheard the docudrama discussion.

  “Who cares about that? You have Dad’s cell phone? Jackster, that’s great! You know how many photographs he kept. I bet there are photos from the night before, when we went to that Japanese restaurant and Tris was so excited by the hibachis, especially when the chef set the oil on fire.”

  Their father adored his cell phones. He had a slew of them, always ready to try another model with another cool gimmick. He played games, surfed, texted, kept his date book and above all, sent pictures. When he was out of town—which was a lot, before Mom got sick—he sent pictures of the view from his hotel room, even if it was a brick wall; the headlines of the local paper; the building where his conference was; the restaurant where they did lunch; the gym where he worked out as a guest.

  In return, he expected the family to send him pictures. Mom actually kept him posted on the progress of the sweater she was knitting for him—see how the sleeve is two inches longer? She sent pictures of the dinner he missed and the annoying school board meeting he was lucky to have skipped. Madison, Smithy and Jack flooded him with pictures. If somebody was in a game, the other two were there to send pictures. They took pictures of their library books and their homework, the friends who came over and the mess they made fixing snacks.

  Their father’s cell phone hasn’t been used in months. It’s run down.

  Madison has the same brand and therefore the correct charger. She takes it out of her purse, plugs it into the wall and into Dad’s phone. Tris drives his fire truck over her legs and she remembers the TV van and the BMW.

  Madison suddenly realizes where they are going. To the railroad station to pick up Smithy. Who wants to be on television. Who is cooperating.

  THE WIDE GRASSY EXPANSE BETWEEN McDONALD’S AND THE HIGH school feels so familiar to Smithy. She can’t remember ever being at Saybrook High. Probably it feels familiar because schools are often brick and grass is often green. Then she realizes: it’s not the school—it’s the running. It’s her theme song. Things get bad? Run. Things get worse? Run again.

  Her little brother is about to be damaged, and is Smith Fountain providing damage control? No. She’s on the run again.

  Smithy is falling apart. Her skin is gone, her joints dissolve. She’ll be a pile of legs and arms, her separated heart beating by itself on the grass.

  The high school kids hurry because they have a schedule—places to go and papers to write. And what is Smithy’s schedule? Does she plan to hide out in a bathroom in the school building? For how long? And then what?

  When her cell phone rings, she’s filled with fear, as if this will be some sort of retribution. And it is: it’s Kate. Smithy has more or less kicked dirt in Kate’s face. After all Kate did for her—all Kate’s parents did for her!—Smithy can’t even be bothered to tell her roommate what’s up.

  She answers because she has to, and out spill words she cannot control. “Hi, Kate. Don’t be mad. I’m sorry about all this. I was rotten. Oh, Kate, things are worse. I thought they were perfect. I thought coming home would be perfect. It was my father’s birthday and I was thinking of candles and cake icing, and even though I was late, I didn’t think I was too late. But Kate, something’s happening. I don’t even know what. I can’t even ask Jack or Madison. I don’t even know them anymore.”

  * * *

  A boarding school has few secrets.

  Smithy is wrong that her background is a secret. She doesn’t face questions only because every other freshman is also new; they’re all away from home for the first time, learning to be roommates and to act independently; learning to live in the middle of a perpetual slumber party and yet study far more than they would back home.

  Roommates are knit together. It hurts Kate that Smithy did not confide. Yet Smithy hid less than she thought. Kate knows
about the photograph on the cell phone and the larger one in its silver frame under the stack of sweaters. She knows that this Aunt Cheryl has not once phoned, written or visited. She knows that the distant grandparents never fail to phone and write, and that Smithy always lies and claims to be busy. She knows that the few times Smithy initiates calls to her brother Jack or her sister, Madison, they have nothing to say to each other, and yet they’re not angry; they’re just unable to talk. They can stay afloat when they are apart, and the thought of coming together makes them sink.

  Kate has no parallel.

  The only time she and her roommate do not get along is when Kate dresses for church. Smithy has taken the stance that if there were a God, he wouldn’t have let these things happen. So there’s not a God. But even though Smithy insists there’s not a God, she’s furious with him. She says bitingly on Sunday mornings, “You’re going to church? To practice some stupid superstition? Waste your time as if some Great Power in the Sky cares about you? He doesn’t care, Kate.”

  “Did your mother believe in God?”

  “Yes, and look where it got her.”

  “Maybe it got her to a good place.”

  “Oh, shut up already! What’s good about it? Her baby needed her. I needed her. Dad needed her. Madison and Jack needed her. God didn’t need her!”

  Kate is one of only four students in the entire school who goes to church. In previous centuries, the boarding school was affiliated with a church, and students had chapel daily. Now the chapel is just a quaint building they don’t use but aren’t quite ready to dismantle. Kate attends church in the nearby village. This annoys the school because church presents a scheduling problem. Sports and daytrips take place Sunday mornings. Rather often, the faculty speaks disparagingly to Kate about organized religion.

  Every Sunday morning, no matter what the sermon is about, no matter what the verses of the hymns claim, Kate puzzles over the tragedy of Smith Fountain’s family. What can it mean? What was God thinking?

  But no matter that Kate is Christian, and believes in love, compassion and forgiveness, she is not phoning to see if Smithy is all right. She’s going to yell at Smithy. Call her names. Demand an explanation for this betrayal of roommate rules. Make it clear that the whole free-ride vacation scenario is over. Kate is not going to be Smithy’s alternative arrangement ever again.

  “I’m practically a criminal,” Smithy is saying. “I disbanded my own family. And I don’t know how to get back in.”

  Kate tries to climb into this incoherent conversation. “Are they barring the door? Will they talk to you?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t even know who they’re talking to. I think they’ve agreed to it. But I’m not going along with it.” Suddenly Smithy’s voice is calmer. “I can’t talk anymore, Kate. I have to get back to that car. I can’t let them know that I’m on to them.”

  Kate has no idea what Smithy is talking about. “I called to say I love you,” she says, a total lie five minutes ago and a total truth now. “What can I do, Smithy?”

  Smithy’s voice cracks. “Pray for Tris.”

  Kate is one of the few kids on campus this Friday wearing a good thick jacket even this early in the season. Inside her jacket she freezes up. Pray for Tris. This is a commandment from Smith Fountain?

  Kate knows where the key to the little chapel is. They all know. It’s interesting that there’s been no vandalism to the chapel. Kate opens the building and walks in. It’s dusty and very cold. It smells abandoned. Kate takes a pew, pulls out the kneeler. A bit of sun comes through dirty stained glass, like distant jewels. When she bows her head, the room feels full of long-gone prayer and song. Is it only Kate who feels this way, or is that why nobody has spray-painted graffiti or snapped off a carving?

  God, she thinks, Smithy really needs you. I think they all need you. Especially Tris needs you.

  Immediately she knows what to do. People who find church comical like to tell Kate she isn’t “getting an answer” from God; she’s just focused her own mind. If she comes up with a solution, it’s hers, not his.

  Kate walks out into the meager November sun. Stick with me, she tells God.

  She makes a phone call.

  * * *

  Diana is in chemistry.

  She and Jack are both in this accelerated science class. Jack is absent.

  Jack loves chemistry. He’s got a love affair with all his classes, and the energy he used to throw into sports now goes into study. Jack has been an amazing big brother. Diana stands in awe of him. He has rearranged his entire life so that he won’t lose the final member of his family. But since Tris is fine in day care, Jack wouldn’t miss chemistry to take him out early. So something is going down. But what? And since Jack is lying about going to a soccer game, where has he taken Tris?

  Not a mall or a store. Jack does not understand the joys of shopping. And Tris is a nightmare in a store—grabbing everything, wanting everything, cranky about everything. If Tris were a purchase, you’d exchange him.

  The only friend’s house Jack might approach is her own, and Jack would not interrupt her mother at work except in an emergency. Her mother wouldn’t let Jack skip the rest of the school day, either.

  Which leaves only the playgrounds or the library. It’s drizzling, so Jack’s at the library. Diana has her car. She can drive over. But if Jack wants her, he’ll let her know.

  Every step of Laura Fountain’s saga took place when Diana and Smithy were still best friends. Diana always knew everything within five minutes of Smithy’s knowing it.

  Laura Fountain was having a fourth child. She and her husband adored children and wanted lots of them. How nice that just as the older three became teenagers, a baby would be joining the family. But there was something wrong, and it turned out not to be the pregnancy. Laura Fountain had liver cancer.

  The poisons of chemotherapy would destroy the baby. But if Laura Fountain chose not to have chemo, the cancer would kill her before the baby was ready to be born. For most women, it’s an easy decision: don’t have the baby. Take the chemo. Live for your other three children. For Laura Fountain, it was also an easy decision, but her decision was: Don’t take the chemo. Give the baby life.

  You can’t do that! came the cry. You’re young. You have your life ahead of you. Your three children need you! Take the chemo!

  Laura pointed out that the baby inside her was even younger and also had his life in front of him. And yes, her three children did need her, but even more they needed to honor the life of the little brother to come.

  It got on the news.

  Laura was beautiful. She got sick in a very becoming way, growing pale while her hair still gleamed. If Laura was in pain or afraid, it didn’t show.

  What would you do? Diana asked her own mother.

  Take the chemo. I wouldn’t think about it once, never mind twice, her mother had said.

  Laura had to do some serious doctor-shopping to find somebody sympathetic, and the doctor she did find was only slightly sympathetic.

  In school, kids brought up on talk shows believed that everything was their business. They actually said to Smithy and Madison (but not to Jack, who would have slugged them), “Your mother really isn’t going to have an abortion?” “Is it true your mother will die because she’s having your brother instead of chemo?” “Has she changed her mind yet?” “Are you making funeral plans?” “Do you really want a baby that’s killing your mother?”

  Stay away from it, advised Diana’s mother.

  But how? After school, the neighborhood kids always gathered in the Fountains’ kitchen, where Mrs. Fountain served cookies straight off the cookie sheet and then played board games or video games with anybody. On weekends, Mr. Fountain could always be relied on for a ball game. If there weren’t enough people for a real game, he invented one. He was never tired and always had time.

  Now he has eternity.

  Chemistry class seems just as long.

  * * *

n knows she’ll cry once she sees photographs of the very last night they were still a family of five. She does not want to cry in front of Tris. The pictures have waited all these months; they can wait a few minutes more. Tris hands a library book to Jack, but when Madison says, “I’ll read it to you, Tris,” he has to think it over. What does he see when he studies her? Does he see a total stranger? Does he see a sister? Does he know what a sister is?

  Does Madison know?

  Tris makes up his mind. Carefully, he lowers himself into her lap. His pant legs are damp, but he’s still a warm comfy bundle. This is why Mom wanted another baby, thinks Madison. To hold him in her lap like this.

  “Don’t turn the pages for me,” Tris warns. “I turn them. You just say when. Keep your finger on the right word, Madison, so I can read too.”

  “Okay. This is the word we’re on.”

  “No, it isn’t. You already said that word.”

  “Can he read?” Madison asks Jack.

  “No. He has that book by memory. He always chooses the same ones.”

  * * *

  While Madison negotiates over page turns, Jack gets a small foil package of Goldfish crackers from the vending machines in the front lobby. He tucks a Goldfish here and there around the upper level and windows of the tree house. He waits till the last page is read and waves the bag at Tris. “I hid six Goldfish. Can you find them?”

  “Can I eat the ones I find?”


  Tris races away, caroming off a picture-book cart but not noticing, slamming into the corner of a bookcase but not noticing. Like Dad, thinks Jack. Don’t waste time measuring. Just go!

  “Tris is happy,” says Madison.

  Jack is annoyed. She doesn’t have to sound so amazed. What does she think Jack’s been doing all these months? Keeping Tris miserable?

  But he doesn’t yell at her. He needs her. “Little kids aren’t subtle. They don’t pick up on stuff the way you would. They have enough hugs and snacks, and you read enough books, and play enough ball, and they’re fine. They’re too busy to think about what’s going on.”

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